“Gukko birds?” asked Matau, hopefully.
“No,” replied Whenua. He was focusing the power of his mask on the wall of the archway, seeing through the metal to the crowd of strange creatures up above.
“Stone rats? Ussal crabs? Really big protodites?”
“No, no, and what are you thinking?”
“Then what are they?” demanded Vakama. “Why are they up there, watching this place?”
Whenua turned to the Toa of Fire, but then looked away, as if he could not meet his friend’s eyes. “Vakama… they are Visorak. They are sitting on the webs they created, waiting, knowing we have to come out sometime.”
“Visorak?” Vakama repeated. “Wait, Onewa used that term on our journey back to the city, when his mind was controlled by that strange parasite. If you knew the name, why didn’t you say so then?”
“I… I didn’t make the connection,” Whenua said quietly. “It’s an obscure reference. I saw a portion of a carving once, long ago, that contained the name. It took actually seeing them and their webs to make me remember.”
“You’re an archivist!” Vakama exploded. “You are supposed to be able to identify the Rahi we run up against! Otherwise, what good are you?”
The others stared at the Toa of Fire, shocked at the outburst. Whenua, stunned and hurt, said nothing. It was Onewa who jumped to his friend’s defense. “If we had turned back when the storm started, or sent a scouting party, like I suggested, we wouldn’t be in this mess. But you were in such a hurry to get back here so we could leave again that –”
“I am in a hurry to save the Matoran, as you should be,” Vakama shot back. “I made a promise to Toa Lhikan, and I intend to keep it.”
“Did you make that promise when you let him get captured, or when he died saving your mask?” the Toa of Stone said, turning away. “I am starting to think it is not very healthy to be your friend.”
“Far healthier than being my enemy,’’ Vakama answered, a nimbus of flames surrounding his hands. “If you have a problem with me or my leadership, carver, let’s hear it.”
Onewa spun on his heel, took three long strides forward, and thrust his mask right up to Vakama’s. “I have a problem with you, your leadership, your attitude, and your akilini-headed idea that only you have to live up to the legacy of Lhikan. We all do! We all have friends lying in Makuta-sleep under the Coliseum, and we all want to save them! We all know the price of failure! So get down off your Toa statue before I knock you down!”
Nokama stepped in between them, only to have Onewa take a step back and unlimber his proto pitons. “I will fight alongside anyone – Toa, Rahi, Vahki, even the Dark Hunters themselves – to save the Matoran,” said the Toa of Stone. “But Makuta take me if I will be a sidekick to a fire-spitter who couldn’t find his way out of a forge!”
Matau’s aero-slicer flew through the air and plunged into the ground between Vakama and Onewa. “Stop the loud-shouting! Now! The enemy is out there, not in here. And we cannot win a Toa-victory if we are traveling in six different chutes – someone has to lead.”
Nuju glanced at his fellow Toa. This was very bad. How could they save the Matoran, let alone build a new life on Mata Nui, if they persisted in behaving like squabbling ice bats? He made a mental note that, if they survived to see the island again, he would impress upon his Matoran the virtue of self-reliance. Other beings are just… annoying, he decided. Never before has so much been spoken and so little of worth said. It makes one question the point of having a language at all.
“All right,” said Onewa, slowly lowering his tools. “This is a bad time for an election. We have a mission to perform, so let’s just do it. If you’re going to lead, Vakama, then lead, but do it without treating us like we’re your little fire drones. If you can’t do that, get out of the way.”
“And you, Onewa – if you are going to follow, then do it without constant argument,” Vakama replied. “Otherwise, stay here. We will come back for you.”
“You two are forgetting that we may all be staying here, for a very long time,” said Nuju.
“No. No, we won’t,” Nokama replied, already heading down the corridor. The other Toa followed. “You have all forgotten that there is another way out of this building. If we cannot go up, we will go –”
“Down,” Whenua finished for her, “and through the Archives.”
“Then let’s go,” said Vakama. “And I want to hear more about these Visorak on the way.”
There was little for Whenua to share. The carving he had seen had been indescribably ancient and far from intact. It described a “poisonous scourge” that ravaged entire domains, imprisoning living beings in its webs. The lucky ones stayed wrapped in the cocoons forever. Those less fortunate emerged from the webs mutated into monsters beyond all imagining.
“Why have we never heard of these things before? If they were in Metru Nui, surely the Vahki would have caught one or two.”
“That’s just it,” said Whenua. He peeled back a section of flooring, opening a shaft for the Toa to climb down. “They shouldn’t be here. Remember, before the earthquake, Turaga Dume ordered all the gateways to other lands sealed off. At least, we thought it was Dume… we could not know Makuta had replaced him.”
“He sent Toa to close the passages,” Vakama said grimly. “None ever returned.”
“They must not have closed them all,” said the Toa of Earth. “Visorak do not come from our region. If they are here now, they had to have migrated from elsewhere.”
Nuju, lost in thought, had to be reminded by Nokama to start climbing. Their destination was the lower level vehicle assembly plant, from which the Archives could be accessed via floor hatches. But the Toa of Ice could not stop thinking about the image of a horde of dangerous creatures sweeping toward Metru Nui, overrunning everything in their path, or…
“Driving them to Metru Nui,” he whispered.
Nuju stopped climbing. “It all makes sense now. All of those Rahi we encountered on our way back to the city, the ones who were fleeing in terror from the city. They were running away from the Visorak.”
“Isn’t that a little hard to think-believe?” asked Matau. “So many creatures, big and small, afraid of these… well, whatever they are.”
Vakama was having no trouble believing it to be true. “Whenua, how many of the Rahi in the Archives are native to Metru Nui?”
There was a long silence as the archivist did some mental calculations. Then he said, “Hardly any. Do you mean to say –?”
“He does,” Nokama said quietly. “All of the Rahi who have attacked our city over time… the ones we built Vahki to defend ourselves against… they were all fleeing something worse than themselves. They ran from the Visorak until they could run no farther, and wound up here.”
“We won’t run,” said Vakama, an intensity in his voice that was almost frightening. “If the Visorak stand between us and the Matoran, it will be too bad for them.”
Nuju glanced upward. Something was blocking the top of the shaft. Then that same something was power diving toward the Toa, screaming as it flew. The sound of its cry tore through the ladder just above Nuju. Freed from the wall, the segment of ladder bent from the Toa’s weight, leaving Nuju hanging over empty space.
His attacker had already flown past, heading for the others. A sweep of its long tail knocked Matau and Onewa off the ladder. Vakama, Whenua, and Nokama flattened themselves against the wall to keep from being torn loose themselves.
The Rahi slowed as it reached the bottom, then turned and started another pass. Vakama hurled a fireball as much for the light as to ward off the creature. The bright flare revealed a beast far too familiar to the Toa Metru.
Matau, hovering in the air and hanging onto Onewa, was closest. “It’s a Lohrak!” The winged serpents had almost overwhelmed the Toa the last time the heroes were in Metru Nui. It had taken a combination of their Toa powers to seal up the colony.
A second look revealed that this was no ordinary Lohrak. The creatures were nasty, but not particularly large. This one was 10 feet from serpentine head to tip of tail, with a wingspan easily twice that. Only the narrow confines of the shaft were keeping it from flying rings around the Toa Metru.
The Lohrak screamed again, this time shattering the ladder below Vakama into dust. That, too, was new – Lohrak had always been more than happy just to squeeze the life out of prey. Sonic powers were not part of their natural tools.
Nuju had already guessed there was a connection between the sound creature that had assailed them above and the Lohrak’s new and more dangerous abilities. Before he could share his conclusion, he lost his grip on the ladder and plunged toward the ground below.
Twisting in midair, Nuju fired a blast of ice from his crystal spikes. The ice block cut off the Lohrak from the Toa, also forming a safe, if not comfortable landing for Nuju. The Toa of Ice landed hard and lay there stunned. Beneath him, the ice began to crack.
“Matau! Grab Nuju!” Vakama shouted.
“I can’t lift-carry two Toa!” Matau replied. “We’ll all hard-fall!”
“Then drop me!” said Onewa. “I’ll be all right.”
Nokama hesitated for only a few seconds before saying, “Do what he says. And Matau – I would guess that Lohrak has a hard time making friends. What do you think?”
The indistinct shape of the Lohrak drew closer and closer to the layer of ice. Matau wished for help from the Great Spirit. Then he dropped the Toa of Stone and flew as fast as possible toward where Nuju lay dazed.
Everything happened at once. Onewa hurled his proto piton, digging it into the wall and bringing his fall to a halt. Matau grabbed Nuju and strained to get altitude. The Lohrak screamed, smashing the ice block to pieces. A hail of jagged ice crystals temporarily blinded the creature, hindering its pursuit of Matau.
The Toa of Air put the delay to good use, using his Mask of Illusion to take on the appearance of the Lohrak. If Nokama was right, this thing had seen precious few others like it.
The Lohrak paused in mid-flight. Above it was what looked like another of its kind, with a squirming Toa clutched in its claws. But something was not quite right… the scent, the way the wings moved, conveyed a sense of something “other.”
Whenua peered at the creature, now close enough to him to touch. “Vakama, look,” he whispered. “Those little wounds on its side… they’re in the same positions as the barbs inside the cocoon. I think this thing came out of there.”
“But that cocoon was nowhere near this size.”
“Then the Lohrak grew,” said Whenua. “And it grew quickly.”
“Can we measure it later?” snapped Onewa. “Less archiving, more action, Whenua!”
“Oh, go chew on a rock,” the Toa of Earth muttered as he revved up his drills. “Vakama, I have an idea. Maybe if we –”
But the Toa of Fire wasn’t listening. He had already jumped from the ladder to grab the Lohrak’s tail. The Rahi screamed in protest, sending a devastating shock wave up the shaft. The sheer sonic force blew the Lohrak/Matau and Nuju back up through the hole.
When that did not produce the desired effect – Vakama was still hanging on – the Lohrak took a more direct approach. Whipping its tail back and forth, it slammed Vakama into the sides of the shaft.
Nokama reached out with the power of the Mask of Translation. She did her best to copy the Lohrak’s cry, asking what it wanted and why it was trying to hurt them. The creature’s answer was a cry of its own that blew a hole through the shaft and the exterior wall on the other side, sending Nokama hurtling out of the building.
“Guess it doesn’t want to chat,” said Onewa. “But I think it just made us an exit.”
“We can’t leave without the others,” replied Whenua.
“Who says we’re going to? Catch Vakama.”
“What? He’s not falling.”
Onewa concentrated. Pincers of stone grew from the sides of the shaft and grabbed the Lohrak’s tail, squeezing it hard. It swung its tail about violently, smashing Vakama into the wall. Stunned, the Toa of Fire let go and fell, right into the waiting grasp of Whenua.
“Looked like he was falling to me,” said Onewa. “Let’s go. We can grab Nokama and come back for the other two.”
Onewa, Whenua, and Vakama made it to the gap in the wall just as the Lohrak broke free of the pincers. Before them they could see the darkened city, mist hanging over it, Visorak webs everywhere, and six flying Vahki carrying Nokama. The squad was headed right back to where she had come from, on a straight line for the other Toa.
“Or maybe we can’t go that way,” said the Toa of Stone.