The Toa of Stone caught up to Whenua sometime later. “Any plan for what we do when we find this thing?”
“No,” Whenua answered.
“Ever had to get a shape-shifter like this into the Archives before?”
The Toa of Earth seemed to puzzle over that question for a long time, before he finally said, “How would we know if we had?”
The path narrowed, and then widened again. Although their lightstones were still working well, the gloom seemed heavier here and the shadows harder to drive away. Eventually, despite the bright glow of the stones, the darkness became impossible to pierce and the Toa Metru were forced to halt.
“This cannot be natural,” said Nokama quietly. “This blackness feels almost… alive.”
“I think you are imagining things,” said Nuju. “Darkness is just the absence of light. It cannot be a living thing.”
“Let’s keep going,” said Onewa. “Follow my voice, this way. No, wait, I think that’s the way we came. Maybe we had better go the other way. I –”
The Toa of Stone’s voice cut off abruptly. Nokama called his name, but he did not answer. The other Toa Metru stood perfectly still, but could not hear their friend – or anything else – moving.
Finally, Whenua said, “This way,” and the others moved toward the sound. They walked single file, the Toa of Earth in the lead, followed by Nokama, Nuju, Matau, and Vakama. If Onewa was trailing along behind, he gave no sign. Every now and then, one of the Toa would glance over their shoulder, but no one could see anything through the shadows.
Vakama was troubled. Onewa might not be the easiest Toa to work with, but he was no coward. He wouldn’t have just run off and abandoned his friends.
Something happened to him, and if we’re not careful, the same thing will happen to us, he said to himself.
Even as the words raced through Vakama’s mind, something snaked through the darkness to wrap around his legs, arms, and mask. For a moment, he thought perhaps the Morbuzakh vines had returned, but this felt different. Then lack of air cut off his thoughts and he blacked out. The mysterious thing that had grabbed Vakama now dragged him away.
“Vakama, perhaps your fire could brighten the way,” Nokama said. “Do you have enough power left to try?”
But the Toa of Fire did not answer. Nokama stopped short, and Nuju walked into her. “Why are you stopping?” asked the Toa of Ice.
“I think Vakama is gone, too!” she answered. “Something is in this darkness with us, Nuju. How do we fight what we can’t see?”
She reached out to find Nuju. But her hand instead encountered what felt like an energy field. A tingle ran up her arm and she pulled back violently as her limb began to grow dead. “Nuju! I felt something!”
When Nokama extended her arm a second time, the field was gone… and so was the Toa of Ice.
“Whenua! Matau! Are you there?”
“Ground-walking right behind you,” said Matau. “What’s happened to the others?”
“They found side passages?” suggested Whenua.
Nokama was surprised that the Toa of Earth did not sound more concerned. But then he knew better than any of them how easy it was to get lost down here.
“I think we should link hands,” Nokama said.
“Great idea!” Matau replied. “But maybe Whenua should scout ahead, and we two can stay hand-linked back here.”
“Very funny, Matau.”
Nokama took hold of Whenua’s hand. But when she reached for Matau’s, the Toa of Air was gone. It took every bit of her willpower not to panic. If the other Toa were in danger, only she and Whenua were left to save them.
Now Whenua was tugging her forward so hard that she almost left her feet. The darkness was breaking up around her now and she could see flashes of stone walls. The next moment, the oppressive shadow was gone completely and Nokama blinked as she adjusted to the sudden light.
She and Whenua were standing in a cavern, alone. There was no sign of the other Toa or what had taken them. The Toa of Earth looked around and said, “I warned them this would be dangerous. We should have turned back.”
“It’s too late for that now,” snapped Nokama. “We have to find them. I’m not leaving these tunnels without the others.”
“Well, that’s half right,” muttered Whenua. “Going back will just get us trapped. We should go forward. If they are lost… I doubt they will ever be found.”
Nokama whirled to look at the Toa of Earth. Whenua had made those comments as if he were talking about a misplaced tool. “You’re right, Whenua. It is very dangerous down here, isn’t it? But the Toa of Earth volunteered to guide us through the tunnels of his metru. That way, we could avoid the most perilous spots – or could we?”
She crossed her hydro blades in front of her and took a step back, now battle ready. “The six Toa Metru could triumph over any foe. But if one of us was not one of us, treachery would win the day. That is what you counted on, wasn’t it, Krahka?”
Before Nokama’s eyes, “Whenua” morphed into the exact image of Vakama. “I wondered when you would figure it out, Toa. You would not leave my domain, even when one of your own suggested it… and now you will never leave.”
“So some of what you said was the truth,” Nokama answered. “You can look like any one of us. And you were the Rahkshi I encountered, weren’t you?”
Another shift and now Nokama was facing the orange Rahkshi. Then she turned back to Vakama. “Yes. No real Rahkshi would be fooled, but their senses are more acute than yours.”
“Why go to all this trouble?” Nokama said, circling to get the best defensive position. “Why not just appear as Turaga Dume and order us out of the tunnels?”
“I can only take the form of those I have encountered,” said the Krahka, quickly shapeshifting from Vakama to Nuju to Onewa. “And it took me time to learn your language. When I first met Vakama, in your shape, I could only repeat back words he had said to me.”
Now the Krahka cycled through all six Toa Metru, ending up as Whenua again. “Now I have learned. I have adapted. It is too late for all of you.”
“Where’s the real Whenua? What have you done to him?”
“No more than I did to the rest of the Toa,” the Krahka said in Whenua’s booming voice. “These tunnels are a haven for Rahkshi. Rahkshi who can coil their elastic bodies around you… or teleport you away… or trap you in a stasis field… or simply cloak you in silence so no one can hear you scream.”
Nokama kept moving, staying out of reach of the Krahka. She knew that the longer the Rahi talked, the more time her elemental powers would have to strengthen. “Why not just let us leave? We mean no harm to you.”
For just a split second, the Krahka took on the hideous form of a half Rahkshi, half Toa. Then she changed to Matau. “Because you would not leave. Top-dwellers never do. But this is my place. Here you are the invaders. You are not welcome.”
Nokama started to reply, then stopped short. The Krahka’s words could have just as easily been said by the Toa to the Morbuzakh plant when it threatened Metru Nui. Was this creature really doing nothing more than defending her home? Still, Nokama had to save her friends. If the Krahka was determined to get in the way, then a clash was inevitable.
“You realize if we don’t return, more ‘top-dwellers’ will come down here,” said the Toa of Water. “They will search for us. Your home will be torn apart. Is that really what you want?”
“If they search for you, they will find you,” said the Krahka, shifting to Vakama’s form. Then in the voice of the Toa of Fire, she said, “The Toa Metru have discovered a danger to the city lurking far underground. We are going to stay here until the danger is ended.”
Nokama’s mind reeled. She had never even considered… but it made sense. The Krahka could fool everyone into thinking the Toa safe and on a mission. For that matter, other than Nuparu, who even knew they were down here? Who would go looking for them?
Three shapes emerged from the tunnels and into the cave. They were Rahkshi, one silver, one black-white, one tan-blue. “I sensed great power in you, Nokama, more than you realize,” said the Krahka. “It is a shame you will never live up to your potential.”
Vakama/Krahka slipped away as the three Rahkshi moved in. They seemed to shy away from the Krahka, perhaps disturbed by the conflict between what they scented and what they saw. But they had no such reluctance about pursuing Nokama.
The three spread out, surrounding Nokama. She feinted right and then dove for the legs of the tan-blue Rahkshi. But when she reached the spot, the creature faded away as if it had never been there. Then it reappeared a short distance away.
Teleportation? Nokama wondered as she scrambled to her feet. No… illusion. I see it where it’s not.
She did not have much time to think about that. The silver Rahkshi hurled a lightning bolt in her direction. She managed to dodge the full impact, but enough of the energy brushed her that she was thrown across the room. Nokama never struck the ground, though. Instead, she found herself whirled about in a cyclone created by the black-white Rahkshi.
When the winds abruptly died down, Nokama landed hard on the cavern floor. Staggering, she had to make a real effort to draw herself up to her hands and knees. The three Rahkshi stood their ground, not coming close enough for her to grab. She tried to stand up, but a jagged bolt of lightning just above her head killed that idea.
Strangely enough, the Rahkshi’s actions made her feel less fearful. If they had been convinced they could defeat her, they would have closed in already. Instead, they maintained their distance and tried to keep her off balance.
They don’t know what to make of me, she realized. Maybe they have never seen a Toa before. That means they have no idea how powerful I might be.
“I appreciate the rest. All that walking was tiring,” she said, trying to sound confident. “You do not believe a mere three of you can stop a Toa, though, do you?”
The Rahkshi stirred. They didn’t understand the words, but they sensed that the tone was not that of a defeated foe. Nokama was trying to decide what to do next when she heard a welcome sound – the dripping of liquid protodermis through a minute crack in the wall. The leak was only a short distance away, to her left, but the black-white Rahkshi was between her and the slowly forming puddle.
Just where I want him, she thought.
“Compared to what I just faced up above, you three aren’t even worth wasting my Toa power on. Oh, maybe you scare all the little Rahi that skitter around down here, but up above we laugh at things like you,” she continued.
Nokama kept talking to distract the Rahkshi from what she was really doing – extending her power to draw a stream of liquid protodermis from the site of the leak right to her. Conveniently, the stream passed right beneath the feet of the black-white Rahkshi.
“Actually, you are fortunate to have run into me,” she said, mockingly. “Vakama or Nuju, they might really hurt you.”
The thin line of liquid had almost reached her. The black-white Rahkshi’s attention was focused on her. It had never noticed what she had done. Now it was time to see if her plan was going to work.
She locked her gaze on the silver Rahkshi and snarled, “I have had enough of this. Get out of my way.” Then she lunged forward as if about to spring.
The Rahkshi reacted with a bolt of chain lightning, but Nokama wasn’t sitting and waiting for it. Instead of springing, she rolled to her left. The bolt struck where she had been, hitting the stream of protodermis and traveling along it right back to the black-white Rahkshi. The current slammed into the creature and sent him flying.
Nokama swung her hydro blades hard and cleaved open the wall at the site of the leak. Liquid protodermis gushed through the gap, rapidly filling the cave. Both Rahkshi’s faceplates opened to reveal very disturbed kraata, screeching their rage.
Then she noticed an unexpected benefit of the flood. The liquid was disturbed a few feet to the right of the tan-blue Rahkshi. That was where the true creature stood, well away from the illusion. She mustered her energy and sent a mini-tidal wave toward the spot. When it struck, the illusion vanished and the real Rahkshi appeared, knocked off its feet.
One out of the fight, one stunned, she said to herself. And one to go.
She had half hoped the silver Rahkshi would back off. But if anything, all she had succeeded in doing was making it angry. Wary, too – having seen what happened to its brother, it wasn’t going to be hurling any more lightning bolts around. Still, it advanced toward Nokama through the waist-deep liquid, claws outstretched.
The Toa of Water nodded. She knew the best she could hope for was to slow down these creatures and buy time for escape. So far, she had been lucky. But now the silver Rahkshi had taken her measure and was prepared for her moves. All but one, she reminded herself.
Without warning, she dove beneath the surface of the protodermis and rocketed toward the Rahkshi. At the last moment, she veered off and began circling it at enormous speed. By the time the creature grasped what was happening, it was too late. The Rahkshi was caught inside a powerful waterspout, heading for the ceiling.
Nokama kept swimming, faster and faster, until she heard the sharp crack of Rahkshi armor striking stone high above. Then she abruptly stopped and let the spout dissipate. The Rahkshi crashed into the liquid and then floated to the surface, lying on its back. Its faceplate was open and the leechlike kraata inside was trying to squirm out.
Nokama decided there would never be a better time to leave.