Whenua watched, puzzled, as Nuju and Nokama practiced complicated tactical maneuvers on the deck. Using both tools and elemental powers, they engaged in mock battle with the same intensity as if they were challenging a Vahki. Nokama hurled water blasts and Nuju froze them; Nuju tried to trip her up with his crystal spikes, only to be felled himself by her hydro blades.
“Is this really necessary?” asked the Toa of Earth. “What is in Metru Nui that we can’t handle?”
“It never hurts to be fully prepared,” Nuju answered, narrowly evading a blow from Nokama’s tool.
“Nuju saw Rahkshi – lots of them – on the rooftops,” Nokama said, parrying strikes from the Toa of Ice. “If they have emerged from the tunnels, it must mean the Vahki are either shut down or else too busy to challenge them. Either way, it means things could be worse there than we thought.”
“I wish I could have seen more,” Nuju continued. “But the mist makes it difficult, and there was something more… something I couldn’t make out. It was everywhere, obscuring the buildings and spires of the city. I fear for Metru Nui.”
Vakama’s reaction to the news had been to urge Matau to increase their speed. The Toa of Air was never one to turn down a chance to make a vehicle go faster, but the choppy seas were beginning to make even him nervous.
“The skies are gray-dark,” he said. “Lots of lightning, too. Might not be the best time to cross.”
“We keep going,” answered Vakama.
“And then there is what Nuju spotted,” said Onewa. “We should send one or two of us ahead as a scouting party. I would volunteer. Make sure we know what we are walking into.”
Vakama shook his head. “We can’t afford the delay. I don’t want the Matoran trapped in those sleep pods any longer than they absolutely have to be.”
“If we end up Rahi bones on the shore, they will be sleeping a good long time,” Matau muttered. “Vahki transports are built for calm seas, not storm-tossed.”
A wave washed over the deck of the transport. Vakama and Onewa held onto the railing to keep from being swept overboard. But the sea’s argument made no more difference to the Toa of Fire than did Matau’s.
“Waiting increases the risk that Rahkshi or something else will break into the Coliseum and harm the Matoran,” he said firmly. “So we go on. If we wanted smooth seas and safety, we should never have become Toa.”
Matau watched the Toa of Fire walk away, and said to himself, “Or one of us shouldn’t have, anyway.”
Ga-Matoran in Metru Nui had a special fondness for boat racing. In their off-time, they would often gather at the canals with miniature replicas of Ga-Metru vessels and sail them against each other to see which was the fastest. The truly daring would wait for those times when the channels were opened to the sea and huge tides of liquid protodermis would sweep through the canals. More than one little boat was swept up by the current in those races and smashed to shards against the walls.
Nokama was beginning to get an idea of how those vessels felt. Twin storms had converged on the Lhikan II, hurling it this way and that. Tidal waves threatened to swamp or sink the boat. Vakama had ordered Nuju, Whenua, and Onewa below to lessen the chance they would be swept overboard. He remained near the cockpit, keeping watch as Matau struggled to keep the transport on course for Metru Nui. For her part, Nokama was straining her elemental powers to try to calm the raging seas.
“It’s no use!” she cried. “The storm is too strong for me to control! We need to turn back!”
“Nowhere to turn back to now!” shouted Matau. “It stretches all the way to the Great Barrier. Forward-sail or backward-sail, the end is the same.”
“If we can’t outrun it, we will just have to plow through it,” said Vakama. “Keep on course.”
“I never knew Ta-Matoran were such ever-smart sailors,” snapped the Toa of Air. “What do you think I’m trying to do?”
The ocean ended the argument. A massive swell lifted the vessel high into the air. At the apex, a lightning bolt slammed into the bow, shearing off a large chunk of the hull. Then the wave pitched the ship forward, sending it plunging at high speed toward the shoreline of Metru Nui.
“Hang on!” shouted Vakama.
Like one of those miniature Ga-Metru toy boats, the Lhikan II slammed into the sea and disintegrated on impact. The tide swept the shattered pieces of the transport and the Karzahni cuttings in every direction, but of the Toa there was no sign.
A small Rahi reptile skittered across the rubble-strewn shores of Le-Metru. Now and then, small fish would work their way this close to the city’s edge and become trapped among the rocks, making them easy prey. The larger animals stayed away from the water, especially in a storm, so it was a safe place to find a meal.
Something stirred in the muck. The reptile paused, eyes wide, waiting to see if it was dinner or some marine predator driven to shore by the violent seas. When Toa Onewa’s head popped up out of the mud, the Rahi leapt in fright and raced off.
“Well, that… stunk,” said the Toa of Stone.
A second figure rose up, covered in mud and seaweed, looking like a creature even an archivist couldn’t love. Onewa let out an involuntary cry of surprise and struggled to free his proto pitons from the mud. The figure raised a muck-encrusted arm and scraped the mud from its face, revealing the familiar mask of the Toa of Ice.
“It would appear there was an error in our transport,” he said slowly. “Pilot error.”
Matau’s head and shoulders suddenly burst from a pile of rubble between the two Toa. He shot Nuju a look of annoyance. “Hey, I was only order-taking. Vakama was order-giving.”
“No need to be critical, Matau.”
The three Toa turned to see Nokama emerging from the water. “Regardless of how gracefully,” she continued, “we made it.”
“Yeah, well… whatever,” grumbled Matau. His attempt to shrug was foiled by the rock and mud that surrounded him. “Could somebody dig me out of here?”
Whenua approached and used his earth-shock drills to clear away some of the debris. Then he reached down, grabbed Matau’s hand, and pulled the Toa of Air loose.
“Thanks,” said Matau.
“It’s what I do,” replied Whenua. “Good to see we are all intact. But where is –?”
“Are we going to stand around all night?” yelled Vakama, emerging from the darkened streets of the city. “Or are we going to rescue Matoran?”
The little Rahi reptile ran as fast as its legs could carry it. It had seen many strange things since the great shadow fell on the city, but tall ones who spring from mud were something new and most unwelcome. So panicked was the tiny creature that it never stopped to think just where it was heading until it was too late.
It rounded a pile of shattered masonry at top speed and hit a thin, but strong, web head on. Its own struggles to free itself only entangled it more, until it hung helplessly waiting for its captor.
After a few moments, the weaver of the web appeared. The black spider-creature eyed its catch with disdain. It had hoped for one of the larger Rahi who were running wild through the city. Instead, here was this miniscule, jabbering thing, barely worth wasting a cocoon on.
The reptile was panicked. It knew far too well what this creature was – it had seen the like all over Le-Metru. Bigger Rahi ran in terror from the spiders, but they never made it very far. Most wound up wrapped in webs, not quite dead, not quite alive.
Thinking quickly, the little creature decided that if it explained its trespass, maybe the spider would let it go. It spoke rapidly, relating how it was simply looking for a meal when these larger beings with two faces chased it.
The spider paused. The beings described sounded suspiciously like the ones Roodaka had demanded the hordes watch out for. Perhaps there would be some use for this Rahi besides just the usual. Roodaka might even reward the messenger that brought such news.
The Visorak spider plucked the squirming reptile from the web with its mandibles and began the long journey to the Coliseum.
Roodaka tapped her claws on the arm of her throne, deep in thought.
Strictly speaking, of course, it was not her throne. It belonged to Sidorak, master of the Visorak hordes. But he was away, overseeing another hunt, which was fine with her. Sidorak was a skilled commander, and had his uses, but his company could be tiresome to say the least. She needed time to plan.
Her peace was disrupted by a Visorak called Oohnorak carrying a small Rahi in its jaws. The interruption irritated her, which did not bode well for her visitor. Visorak who annoyed Roodaka rarely lived to see another hunt.
“It is too small to be tribute,” she said, eyeing the struggling Rahi, “and too scrawny to be lunch. So I assume this sad, malodorous creature serves some other purpose? Some extremely important purpose?”
Oohnorak squeezed his mandibles a little tighter on the Rahi. His catch responded by babbling out the entire story again. Roodaka listened, bored at first, then gradually growing more interested when it became obvious who the little creature had encountered.
“So the Toa have returned, as I knew they would,” she said softly. “They conquered Makuta, but they left without their prize, those wretched little Matoran. No one can ignore the spoils of victory, not even heroes. It was only a matter of time.”
She gestured to the Rahi. “Set the puny beast free.”
The Visorak looked at her. Something about its attitude suggested it was actually considering questioning her order. Then, realizing what a fatal mistake that would be, it opened its jaws and let the reptile scamper away.
“Let it enjoy a few more hours of life,” Roodaka said. “This city is ours. Where can it go? As for the Toa…”
She rose, the dim light reflecting off her sleek, ebon form. “Find them. Now. And when they are found… you know what to do.”
Roodaka watched the Visorak depart to carry out her commands, and allowed herself a smile. Fate had delivered right into her claws – the only thing she needed to complete her plans. Now it was just a matter of time.
The Toa Metru walked through the quake-damaged Le-Metru. Their progress was slow. Most of the city’s lightstones had gone dark, and those that still worked produced only dim illumination. The streets were strewn with rubble and strange plants had overgrown entire blocks. This, combined with the absence of any Matoran, created the impression of a dead city. Worst of all were the webs, a combination of thick and thin strands with the strength of solid metal that hampered all forward movement.
Whenua was up ahead, using his Mask of Night Vision to try and light the way, accompanied by Matau. Vakama and Nokama stayed close behind, with Onewa and Nuju on their flanks.
“Where were you? I mean, after we crashed,” asked Nokama.
“Scouting,” the Toa of Fire replied. “I wanted to make sure there was no immediate danger.”
“You might have helped your brothers first. They could have been injured. I’m surprised you didn’t think of that.”
Vakama paused for a moment before replying. “I did. But if I went looking for them, and there was something lurking nearby, we might have been caught unaware. I made a decision to scout first, and seek later.”
Nokama said nothing. They walked on in an uncomfortable silence for a while before she turned back to him. “You don’t have to feel bad, you know.”
“The wreck. Even if we had turned back earlier, we might still have been swept up in the storm. It wasn’t your fault.”
Vakama glanced at her, as if surprised she had brought it up. “I don’t feel bad. We had to get back to Metru Nui. I wasn’t going to let a little rain get in our way.”
A little rain? Nokama shook her head. She had seen Vakama angry, frightened, confident, uncertain, and in a whole host of other moods, but this new attitude was beyond her. She wasn’t sure whether to be irritated or worried by his recklessness.
As if sensing that she did not approve of his actions, Vakama stopped and looked her in the eyes. “Listen, Toa Lhikan was captured by the Dark Hunters because I could not help him. He gave me a mission – save the heart of the city, the Matoran – and I failed. He died taking a blast meant for me, because I wasn’t good enough to stop Makuta before that.”
Vakama’s eyes blazed. “I won’t fail again. The Matoran will be saved, with the rest of you… or without you.”
“This is not Le-Metru,” Matau repeated for the fifth time. “It is a bad thought-dream.”
“I am sorry,” said Whenua. “But it is real. And I am sure the rest of the city looks just as bad.”
“Nothing could be as bad as this,” Matau replied. “So many chutes broken… streets buckled… green-growth everywhere… buildings shattered… if this is what happens when we win a fight, I hope we never lose one.”
“It could all be repaired,” Whenua said quietly. “But Vakama says we have to leave and start fresh on the island.”
“The thought of trying to fix all this does not bring happy-cheer,” said Matau. “But neither does trying to ride Ussal carts through that swamp in our new home.”
“What do you really think of his visions?”
Matau shrugged. “They have been right, so far.” He paused, before adding, “Often enough that we might follow one’s lead, even if he simply made it up.”
Whenua looked at Matau. Had the Toa of Air just suggested that the entire move to the island might be the result of a lie on the part of Vakama? Why? What could Vakama hope to gain by leading them to a strange new land?
The problem with questions, he decided, is that they are impossible to forget, once they have been asked. If you cannot forget them, then you have to find answers for them, even when you would rather not.
He was almost grateful for the noise that interrupted his thoughts. It had come from off to the right, site of some of the thicker vegetation that now choked the streets. Something was in there, most likely a Rahi. Whenua silently signaled for Matau to circle to the right and see if he could flush out the creature. Once it was out in the open, the Toa of Earth could use his Mask of Night Vision to blind it until it could be subdued.
Matau had gone perhaps four steps into the tall grass when he found himself tangled in web. Unlike some of the other ones that had been old and brittle, this one was fresh and stubbornly clung to him. He started to hack at it with his slicers before realizing that thrashing about would just draw the attention of the hidden Rahi.
He was half-right. His movements did attract unwanted notice, but not from Rahi. Instead, three Vahki Rorzakh rose out of the tangle of grass and vines. Their eyes flashed scarlet as they spotted Matau, now helplessly tangled in the web.
As one, the Vahki shifted from four-legged to two-legged mode. As one, they raised their stun staffs and aimed them at Matau. Even more shocking, as one – they spoke!
“Surrender, intruder… or perish.”