The Toa Metru did not encounter any more difficulties as they penetrated the outer edges of the maintenance tunnels. Now and then a small Rahi would skitter across their path, only to vanish down a hole or among the pipes. As they moved deeper into the maze, the air grew increasingly stale. Matau wondered aloud how Onu-Matoran could stand to work down here.
“Practice,” said Whenua. “Most Onu-Matoran start out as miners, digging for lightstones. You get used to the dark pretty quickly. If you’re lucky, you get the opportunity to become an archivist, but even then you are indoors and underground much of the time. These tunnels might be a little extreme, but nothing an Onu-Matoran can’t handle.”
Onewa looked around. “I don’t see any Matoran though.”
“Well… see… some of the ones who have come down here in the past sort of… haven’t come back.”
“You said that was a legend,” said Nokama.
“Evidently, Onu-Matoran legend has a basis in fact,” muttered Nuju.
“Anything else you forgot to tell us, Whenua?” asked Onewa.
Whenua raised his lightstone to give the Toa Metru a good look at what lay ahead. “Just that.”
The wide tunnel they were walking through came to an abrupt end at a stone wall a few paces away. Six narrow openings were visible in the wall, barely more than slits in the rock. “This is the start of the Fikou web,” said Whenua. “From here, it’s just narrow tunnels drilled into the rock, crisscrossing with each other, until we reach the main tunnel on the other side.”
“Do we split up?” asked Vakama.
Whenua nodded. “The major crack in the seawall is on the other side of the web, but there could be damage closer to us as well. Each of us should take a tunnel. We’ll see each other as we go, I’m sure, and then we can all meet up on the other side. Hang on to your lightstones. If you lose them, you might become a permanent resident down here.”
“That’s what I like about Onu-Matoran,” said Matau. “They are always so full of happy-cheer.”
Nokama chose the left-most tunnel. The passage was so narrow that it would have been impossible for two Toa to walk abreast. For one used to the freedom of the protodermis canals and the open sea, this space was far too cramped to be comfortable. She could well believe Matoran could go mad from too much time down here.
Not for the first time, she wondered if becoming a Toa Metru had been such a good thing. So far, she did not seem to get along very well with any of her comrades. They were certainly not the five she would have chosen as companions. Only Vakama had struck her as possessing real wisdom behind his shy front, and now she had fought with him, too. She knew he had it in him to be a leader. Why wouldn’t he recognize it?
Nokama forced herself to get back to the job at hand. Using the lightstone, she examined every bit of the walls on either side, looking for cracks or leaks. One of these tunnels could flood in an instant, and while she could probably survive that, she wasn’t so sure about the other Toa Metru. She hoped they were being careful.
The tunnel wound around and around like the body of a serpent. Smaller passages broke off to the left and right, usually dead-ending rapidly. Still, each of them had to be examined. She wondered how Whenua could even have considered doing this job on his own – it would have taken forever!
After a while, Nokama started to grow bored. One tunnel looked just like the other, and none of them showed any signs of damage. She wondered if this might be just a wild Rahi chase. Some Matoran thought he saw something, panicked, and ran for the nearest Toa. Back when she was teaching in Ga-Metru, she made a point of telling her students to always make sure of their facts before they spread a tale.
She rounded a corner, expecting to see the same dull stone walls she had seen a hundred times before. Instead, she froze at the sight of the orange Rahkshi standing in the middle of the corridor. Its armored head was open, but no sound came from the creature.
Nokama readied her hydro blades. The Rahkshi simply stared at her. Neither seemed to want to make the first move.
The Toa of Water considered her options. If she advanced, she would surely have to challenge the Rahkshi and might or might not win. If she retreated, the Rahkshi might see it as a sign of weakness and pursue.
While Nokama was making up her mind, the Rahkshi raised its staff and pointed it at her. A swarm of fireflyers appeared from the darkness and flew straight for her. Even as she braced for their stings, Nokama wondered why the Rahkshi looked so surprised at the display of its own power. The creature was actually backing away, as if afraid of what it had unleashed.
Not that its sudden show of regret did anything to help the Toa of Water. The insects were already swarming around her, stinging and then flying away, only to return and sting again. Nokama’s armored body was enough to blunt most of their stings, but enough got through to drive her to the ground. As soon as she was subdued, the fireflyers left, their orders fulfilled.
Only the Rahkshi remained, standing over the unconscious form of a Toa.
In another tunnel, Vakama was wrestling with his thoughts. Despite some of the things she had said, he felt sure Nokama was truly his friend. She even seemed to think he should be the leader of the Toa Metru. True, he had done a decent job at that during the confrontation with the Morbuzakh, but he wasn’t at all sure he would want the role permanently.
I might look like a Toa… even act like one sometimes… but at heart, I am still a mask-maker, he said to himself. His whole life had been spent working alone at his forge, crafting protodermis into Matoran masks and Masks of Power. It required patience, skill, and dedication, but it did not seem like the ideal job to prepare someone to lead Toa.
This has all happened too fast, he thought. I went from being an average Matoran to suddenly having all these new powers and responsibilities. Others look at me differently, expect more from me.
He paused to shine his lightstone on the wall. The rock was unmarred by any crack and looked like it had not changed in an eternity. So why did I have to change? he wondered. Am I still Vakama? Or am I only the Toa of Fire now?
He walked on, lost in thought. His eyes inspected the tunnel as he traveled, but his mind was back in Ta-Metru. For a moment, he wondered if it would ever be possible to go back to being a Matoran. But no, the legends said nothing about such a thing. A Toa was a Toa until he fulfilled his destiny, and then… what?
So caught up was he in his questions that at first he did not hear the footsteps ahead of him. When he finally did, he stopped… and so did they. When he resumed walking, the footsteps started again. Vakama wanted to call out and see if it was another Toa Metru, but then realized it might be a Rahkshi instead. No point in giving away his position if it wasn’t necessary.
He moved forward cautiously. The Toa had been caught by surprise a few times too often since their transformation. He was determined that it would not happen again.
Disk launcher primed and ready, Vakama took a deep breath and charged around the bend in the tunnel. Yes, there was a figure up ahead. Lean, powerful, carrying some kind of wickedly sharp tools, it moved silently through the shadows. Then it stepped out into the light to reveal –
“Nokama?” Vakama looked at the Toa of Water, stunned. They had just parted a short time ago. Had her tunnel crisscrossed with his so quickly? “Have you spotted anything, or not?”
The Toa of Water shook her head slowly. “Not.”
Vakama moved closer to her, only to see Nokama step back. “What’s the matter? It’s just me. No reason for you to be afraid.”
“Not afraid,” Nokama replied. “Have you spotted anything?”
“Well, some little Rahi, some cart tracks, and a few Matoran names scrawled on the walls,” said Vakama. “Nothing I would worry about.”
“Matoran,” Nokama repeated quietly, almost as if it were a curse. “Well, I would worry.”
Vakama walked up to Nokama. She looked troubled. “What is it? Did you –?”
The Toa of Fire stopped in mid-sentence. He was having another one of his visions, sudden flashes of the future like the one that had warned him about the Morbuzakh. He saw Toa Onewa lying on the ground, unconscious, and standing over him was… Vakama!
A blast of water shattered the vision into a thousand pieces as the Toa of Fire went flying down the tunnel. He crashed hard into the stone wall and hit the floor. Before he could gather his wits and get up again, Nokama had him pinned with the force of her water bursts. Even as his body struggled to get free, his mind struggled with questions. Why was she doing this? How had her elemental energies been restored to full power? Was Nokama planning to betray the other Toa Metru, and if so, for what purpose?
Vakama hoped to ask the Toa of Water these questions, if he was ever able to take another breath. But driven to the ground by the sheer, raw power of twin jets of water, it seemed more likely that he was about to become the first Toa to ever drown on dry land.