Hiding the six Toa stones took a good part of the rest of the day. Most of the Toa Metru used it as an excuse to do more exploring. Matau, who had already had quite enough of trees, vines, and swamps, grumbled that after all this it would probably be some curious Matoran who stumbled on them by accident. “No heart of a true Toa-hero needed,” he muttered. “Just feet that want to wander.”
After he had found a suitable place to stash the stone, Matau scrambled to the top of a tree and launched himself into the sky. His destination was Po-Wahi, the barren, stony area Onewa had claimed as his own. From high above, he could see the other Toa making their way to the same spot, each in their own way. For a moment, he considered challenging Nuju to a race, ice slide versus glider wings. Then he suddenly realized that would involve asking the Toa of Ice to do something fun.
This place is making me thought-crazy, he said to himself.
Onewa was standing at the opening of a cave when the other Toa arrived. Knowing they would ask, he hurriedly explained about the dead Nui-Jaga at the bottom of the slope. “If a Rahi could get up here from Metru Nui, it stands to reason that we can get back the same way,” he concluded. “And I think we should get started, before more start showing up.”
As usual, Whenua was put out front for the journey, since his Mask of Night Vision could light the way. He paused for a moment at the cave’s mouth, gloomily surveying the rock walls within. “Tunnels. Why does it always have to be tunnels?”
“Tell you what,” said Matau, smiling. “I will wear the torch-mask and explore the tunnels from now on, and you can live in the mud-swamp. What do you say?”
“I say there’s nothing like a good tunnel,” Whenua replied, leading the way inside.
They had been journeying only a short while when Whenua called for a halt. “There’s a cavern up ahead, and I thought I saw…”
The Toa of Earth’s voice trailed off as the light from his mask played across the cave. Arrayed against the walls were hundreds of cylinders, each containing a sleeping Bohrok. Whenua had seen the creatures before in the Metru Nui Archives, but only Onu-Matoran miners had ever seen them in their nest. The sight managed to be fascinating and deeply disturbing at the same time.
“I never liked those things,” Matau shuddered. “Let’s move quick-fast and not wake them up.”
Recovered from his surprise, Whenua walked up to one of the cylinders and slammed his earthshock drill against it. The resulting clang echoed throughout the tunnels, but that was the only effect. The Bohrok inside never stirred.
“I don’t think they can awaken, at least not in the sense you mean,” said the Toa of Earth. “Miners have transported them up several levels to the Archives and they have never flickered to life.”
“So they are dead?” asked Nokama, keeping her distance from the nest.
“Sleeping,” corrected Nuju. “Waiting for the day they will be needed, though I cannot imagine what crisis would require their services.”
“It’s funny,” said Vakama, approaching one of the cylinders. “These remind me of the spheres the Matoran are trapped in down below, sleeping their dreamless sleep. Do you think that perhaps –”
The rest of his question was never voiced. No sooner had his hand brushed the cylinder than a vision exploded in his head. He saw hundreds, thousands of Bohrok rampaging across the island above, destroying forests, mountains and rivers. Natural features that had stood for ages were swept away in an instant. When the swarms were done, they left behind a ravaged land.
“No… no…,” Vakama moaned. “It must not be…”
“What is it?” Nokama asked urgently. “Speak to us.”
“The Bohrok. One day, they will awaken and Mata Nui will fall before them… I saw it!”
“These things?” said Onewa, laughing. “They do nothing but sleep! What are they going to do, snore Mata Nui to death?”
“Vakama’s visions have been correct before,” Nokama reminded him.
“Vakama’s visions should be carved onto a tablet and titled, ‘Tales to Frighten Matoran’,” Onewa shot back. “Just because he accurately guessed that a rampaging plant might be a bad thing in Metru Nui doesn’t mean – owww!”
Onewa jumped back. He had been struck by a drop of liquid that had fallen from the ceiling. Now it sizzled on the surface of his armor. “Makuta’s eyes, what was that?”
Whenua turned to look. The light from his mask revealed a rivulet of silver liquid flowing from the tunnel ceiling down to a small pool at the base of the wall. At first, he thought it was simply liquid protodermis, but the color and texture seemed slightly off. He leaned down to touch the substance, but Nuju stopped him.
“Not a good idea, librarian,” the Toa of Ice said. “If that is what I think it is, touching it is the last thing you want to do.”
Nuju knelt down to examine the pool. The other Toa crowded around him. “Nokama, you know, don’t you? The labs in Ga-Metru were trying to produce this based on ancient records in the Knowledge Towers.”
“Energized protodermis,” Nokama said, awe in her voice. “Yes, some were trying to reproduce it, but with no success. I never thought I would see the real thing.”
“What is it?” asked Vakama. “An acid?”
“More than that,” Nuju replied. “If the tablets are to be believed, energized protodermis can produce mutations of the most bizarre kinds. Under the right circumstances, a being exposed to it could be physically changed, granted new powers, or possibly turned into some sort of monster. There’s no way to predict its effects.”
Matau smiled. “So if I took a quick-swim, I could come out as a new kind of Toa?”
“If it was your destiny,” said Nuju. “If not…”
A stone rat scurried across the tunnel floor. It paused for an instant at the sight of the Toa, then darted around them and right into the pool. There was a horrible hissing sound. The small creature struggled to free itself from the liquid, but the protodermis clung to it like a second skin. Then the rat spasmed, smoke rising from its body. Before the horrified eyes of the Toa, the small creature dissolved, leaving no trace it had ever been there.
“The secret of energized protodermis,” Nuju said quietly. “What it doesn’t transform… it destroys.”
No one spoke for a long time.
Nokama walked beside Vakama. The Toa of Fire’s expression was grim. He had already prevented Whenua from investigating two new species of Rahi, and snapped at Matau for lagging behind. Nokama had never seen him act quite this way.
“Is anything the matter?” she asked gently.
“We are not making this trip for pleasure,” he replied. “But it seems some of us don’t realize that. The longer it takes us to reach the city, the greater the chance that some new danger will threaten the Matoran.”
“You mean Makuta might free himself?” The Toa Metru had left their nemesis trapped in solid protodermis marked with a Toa seal. In theory, only the powers of the six Toa could release him.
“He might,” Vakama acknowledged. “Or there might be worse things than Makuta. I don’t know. But it seems obvious we will never get there without someone acting as leader.”
“You always said you didn’t want that role.”
“I didn’t want to see my friends and my Turaga trapped, or my city wrecked, either,” he answered, never taking his eyes from the path ahead. “But I did.”
Yes, you did, Nokama thought. And it has changed you. But for the better… or for the worse?
Matau had caught up to Whenua. Bored, the Toa of Air was using his Mask of Power to shapeshift into whatever came to mind, much to his friend’s annoyance.
“So how did you like the island?” Matau asked while in the shape of a Kikanalo beast.
“Good, deep soil and rock,” Whenua answered. “Perfect for digging.”
“Yes, that’s what I look for in a home, too,” Matau answered, wondering if perhaps Onu-Matoran had something wrong behind their masks. Why would anyone want to live underground when they could have the sky?
“How about you?”
Matau shrugged, shifting to a copy of the late Dark Hunter named Krekka. “Mud-swamp. Thorn-vines. Too much mud for riding, too many trees for flying. It needs work.”
“I am sure the Le-Matoran will manage,” Whenua answered. “If you can’t build chutes, you can always swing from the vines.”
“Right,” snorted Matau. “Good happy-joke.”
Whenua’s foot slipped. He stuck a hand out barely in time to keep from falling. He looked down at his feet, the beam from his mask illuminating a coating of fine-grained sand on the tunnel floor.
“That’s odd. We are a long way from any beach. How did sand get here?”
There was a blur of motion. The sand whipped itself into a storm in the narrow passage. For a moment, Matau thought he spotted a shape in the center of the cyclone. Then both he and Whenua were sent flying by hammerlike blows.
Matau struck the tunnel wall hard enough to rattle his mask. He decided the impact was making him see things. There couldn’t really be a Kranua, armor gleaming in the light of Whenua’s mask, blocking their path… could there?
Kranua were a special model of Vahki, built in secret by Nuparu and a select crew of Po-Matoran engineers. Their intended purpose was riot control, in particular containing mass Rahi breakouts from the Archives. Their designers had given them the ability to reduce their forms to a mass of sandy protodermis grains, and then reform at will. This allowed them to slip through tiny cracks, vanish through gratings, and then suddenly reappear when least expected. In practice, the Kranua were used against Matoran smuggling rings and other organized groups of lawbreakers, which always seemed to Matau like swatting a fireflyer with a two-ton rock.
Now the massive order enforcer was standing square in their way. It hadn’t moved forward to press its advantage, but it showed no signs of stepping aside either. Cautiously, Matau glanced over at Whenua. The Toa of Earth was still stunned. That left it up to him.
Slowly, carefully, Matau got to his feet. “Pleasant day for a slow-walk,” he began, taking a step forward. “My friends and I are just passing through. Is this your tunnel-home?”
Matau edged toward the Kranua’s left side. The elite Vahki’s head moved to track the Toa, its attention drawn away from Whenua. When he was sure he had the thing’s full attention, Matau leapt toward the tunnel ceiling as if making a break for it. The Kranua shifted its body to sand, not knowing it was falling into a trap.
The Toa of Air launched a wind blast at the Vahki, scattering its grains all over the tunnel. Matau grabbed Whenua and hauled him to his feet. “Come on, while the sand-thing is busy, we have to tell the others!”
They turned and ran back the way they had come, but made it only a few steps. A wall of sand as hard as stone suddenly loomed before them. Then it dissolved into a tidal wave, burying the two Toa and cutting off their air. Blinded and suffocating, Matau and Whenua lashed out, only to find there was nothing substantial to hit.
Desperate, Matau unleashed his power. His winds slammed into the Kranua, but instead of providing the Toa relief, all they did was transform their enemy into a sandstorm. Worse, it seemed that Matau and Whenua were caught in the cyclone as well, for they were lifted off the ground and sent flying.
The two Toa Metru crashed to earth at the feet of Nuju. “Travel by telekinesis – a new method even for you, Matau,” said the Toa of Ice.
“You need long-work on your landings,” groaned Matau.
Vakama and Onewa stood side by side, watching the Kranua coalesce. “I worked on one of those things,” said the Toa of Stone. “It’s slow, but a lot stronger than your average Vahki.”
“That’s all right,” said Vakama. “So are we. Give it something to think about, Onewa.”
Concentrating his power on the rock wall, Onewa tore a stone loose by force of mind and sent it hurtling at the Kranua. Spotting the danger, the complex machine transformed itself to soft sand to let the object pass through. As soon as it did, Vakama sent an intense blast of flame into the tunnel, so hot and bright it sent Onewa stumbling backwards.
When the Toa of Stone could see clearly again, an incredible sight greeted his eyes. The Kranua, caught in mid-transformation by Vakama’s fires, had been fused into a statue of glass. Now it stood, unmoving, looking like some sculptor’s nightmare. The other Toa moved in closely to examine it, but Vakama was already moving deeper into the tunnel.
“Leave it,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere.”
Whenua watched him go, muttering to no one in particular, “Ever wonder why he needs us?”
“Perhaps he no longer thinks he does,” answered Nuju. “We had best keep moving, before he saves the Matoran, builds the new koro, and awakens Mata Nui all by himself.”
One by one, the Toa walked past the crystalline form of the Kranua. Matau was the last in line, and he stopped to gaze at the machine that had almost killed him. “I will tell you a dark secret,” he whispered to the glass Vahki enforcer. “But only if you promise not to share.”
Matau took a step to follow the others, then turned around and gave the Kranua a gentle shove. It fell over and smashed into thousands of tiny fragments of crystal.
“Surrender and run aren’t the only choices anymore,” he said, walking away.