As Merror drifted back into consciousness, the first thing he became aware of was that everything hurt. It was as though he’d been used as a giant’s Koli ball. The side of his head was particularly sore.
What had happened? Where was he? He hadn’t yet managed to open his eyes. He racked his foggy mind for memories of the last few hours. There was something important, he was sure of it...something that had happened? Something he still had to do? Someone he had to —
Vault. Abettor. Echelon.
His eyes sprang open and he struggled to heave himself up. There was soil and leaf mould beneath his hands, a tree root poking into his leg. He managed to raise his torso off the ground, and looked around with groggy urgency. Trees surrounded him, stretching up to a star-dotted sky. No sign of the Fe-Toa.
With further effort he rose to his feet. He gave his injuries a quick once-over: nothing serious, it appeared, just bruises and the occasional shallow cut. Reaching a hand over his shoulder revealed that one of his swords was missing. The other remained safely in its sheath. Good enough.
“Dorian!” he shouted into the darkling forest.
No reply but the rustle of a soft evening wind among the leaves.
He began to move, searching the trees for some sign of the young man he’d come so far to help.
“Alriiiiight, alright,” came the sluggish reply. “I said don’t start cryin’ over me. Yeesh.”
He found Dorian on his feet, but only just; the Toa of Iron had inched himself up a tree, with the slow, deliberate pace of a survivor trying to find his footing. There was already a cigarette in his mouth, but it hung unlit from a split bottom lip. His prosthetic Protosteel fingers were clicking uselessly at the battered lighter that had once belonged to Joske Nimil. The digits had none of their usual fluid grace.
It only took a few steps until his eyes adjusted in the pale moonlight, and saw the truth of Dorian’s wounds. What had been serious within the heart of the Vault only minutes previously had turned grievous after their rough journey. The wound on his midriff had opened up considerably, and the pulses of blood were starting to slow between intervals. Dor’s eyes were feverish, but even through the shocked haze of Echelon’s death and Makuta’s return, there was a glimmer of something, hidden under the waves of callow cerulean, that Merror had never seen before.
Relief. Wonder. Peace.
“Alright,” he whispered, bending his head down to the lighter. The cigarette finally caught, and he sucked on it hard for a second, hissing onyx smoke through his teeth. “You caught me. It’s not...oxblood. All this excitement, guess I...might be a season...behind.”
His legs spasmed under him, knees almost buckling; his back scraped the tree before the usually-limber Toa of Iron caught his balance.
Merror darted forward instinctively as Dorian shuddered. As he stabilised, the Ta-Toa approached more slowly.
“Dor…” In the back of his mind, it occurred to Merror that he’d never called him that before. “This isn’t good. We have to get you to a healer.”
He offered the battered young Fe-Toa a supporting hand.
Dorian looked at the hand for a long time, and his playful grin grew softer, more serene at the edges. His expression was almost pitying. Once again, the assassin was acting as if he had been let in on some secret, some private magic trick with a prestige that would wow everyone but him. Or like he had already accepted something that had not even entered Merror’s mind.
“A healer…” he laughed quietly. His eyes drifted up to the sky above them. The day had passed them by while navigating Mangaia; by now it was midnight, an apt time for the horror they had just unwittingly awakened. But Makuta’s reach had not yet extended to the heavens - the moon was still out, shining a spotlight on Dorian Shaddix, and the stars were in his eyes.
“I shouldn’t have kissed her. Tell her sorry for me.”
Was he delirious? The Fe-Toa had most likely lost a lot of blood. Merror would have to take charge.
He stepped forward, and slipped the proffered arm around Dorian’s back, supporting his shoulders.
“You’re going to be all right, lad. I think Kini-Nui’s been resettled; they’ll have someone who can help. Maybe a Sana-user. We’ll get you patched up.”
Dorian was still staring up into the sky, and he weakly tried to shrug away Merror’s arm from behind him. He had always been strong; strong and fast, and Merror could not understand why the Toa of Iron wasn’t fighting him more forcefully. Dorian had always hated being dragged around like this.
“Listen to you,” he kept giggling, blood flowing from his busted lip, from his rent open core, from the teeth biting down on the edge of his smile. “So full...so full of #####. You and Jos.”
His hand brushed his empty revolver, trembled slightly.
“Why...didn’t he tell me?” Dor finished the rhetorical question with a curse. “Useless. Frickin’ useless. We...would have pranked his stupid ##### out of Bad Company. Or...led him into a tree when Xa-Koro blew. Told...Told him there were kittens to save up there.” He coughed. “He didn’t...tell me. Left...before me. I tried to…”
Dor managed to climb to his own feet again, and shrugged Merror’s arm away from him. The blood was pouring out of him, but what little was left was still the blood of the Mark Bearers. He could stand.
“Temple...of Peace. I buried him there. Facing the morning...sun. Couldn't...tell. Tell her. Kay?”
Merror froze. He felt something drop in his stomach.
“Dorian...you’re not saying…”
“...what happened?” he asked softly, returning to his slow stride. They had to keep moving.
Dor turned to glare at him. His eyes rolled back into his head for a second - partially out of exertion, but partially…
“I took care...of it...”
Merror looked at him for a moment, uncomprehending. Then it clicked.
“Echelon…” he breathed.
Merror closed his eyes, hung his head as they trudged onward.
It had happened again. One more good person, taken by that madman. One more person he couldn’t save. Even dead, snuffed out by his own dark master, he had still managed to remove another friend from Merror’s life. First it had been his team: young, naive, so sure they could take on the world. He had watched them die before his eyes. A lifetime later, Tamaru, plummeting from the Le-Koro treetops; catching him mid-fall, only for him to breathe his last on the lakeshore. Taipu too. Utu, that poor broken shell of a man, just another failed experiment to the Dark Toa. And now Joske too, the fiery young champion he’d seen transformed into a Toa, who he’d travelled with and tried to impart with what little wisdom he could offer. So young...all of them, so young.
“Hmmm,” Dor hummed softly, peacefully.
And now Dorian, Merror thought with a start, wrenching himself back out of that pit of sorrow. If he did not focus now, keep forging ahead with what strength the two of them could still muster, Dorian would join them. He would not — could not let that happen. He could not lose one more.
“They’re pretty tonight,” the Fe-Toa said quietly, staring up into the stars. The stars glinted off his eyes, and Merror was shocked to see part of the light inside them was actually tears, shimmering in his eyes. By now, the gunslinger’s feet were dragging more than stepping; he tucked against Merror’s side, cigarette bobbing in his mouth as he swallowed hard.
The cinders fell to earth from the stars.
“How many are up there, Merror?” Dor asked, another rhetorical question posed only a hair above a whisker. “How many thousands? ...I did more things wrong...than there are stars in that sky tonight. P-Pew.”
The Toa of Iron’s eyes closed tightly, to smother the threat of tears. He plucked the cigarette out of his mouth with what strength remained in his fingers - his real fingers - and crushed the embers out on a thumb.
“I just...I just. Really...thought...I did this one right.”
Dorian Shaddix’s breath left him in half a laugh and half a sniffle. Quietly, he slumped against Merror’s collarbone.