The tunnel widened as the Toa Metru marched on. The air grew warmer and more humid, which only seemed to quicken Vakama’s pace. It was only when he reached what resembled a Matoran-made archway that he stopped.
Here the tunnel ceased to be enclosed for a distance, becoming instead a stone bridge over a chasm. Down below, scores of Rahi scuttled among the rocks, so many that it was almost impossible to see the ground beneath them.
“Scorpions,” Vakama said to Nuju. “Thousands of them. I never imagined there were so many different species.”
“And some of them are quite… unique,” said the Toa of Ice. “The red-gold one on the far right ledge has three stingers. The black one fighting off his companions to the left has no legs. Many of them are dead, though I can see no signs of violence on their bodies.”
“I always forget about that telescopic lens in your mask,” Vakama replied.
“I never do. Being able to see clearly is so important, don’t you agree?”
Before Vakama could answer, Nuju was using his Mask of Telekinesis to lift a small specimen of the dead Rahi into the air. He deposited it on the bridge and knelt to examine it, while Vakama watched impatiently.
“I was right,” Nuju said. “This creature didn’t die in combat. It suffocated. It has no lungs, it has gills.”
“You mean it’s a sea creature? Then how…?”
“I am not sure what it is, or what the rest of those beasts are,” the Toa of Ice said, using his powers to lower the scorpion gently to a ledge. “And that troubles me.”
Matau grimaced as he watched Vakama and Nuju inspecting a bug. After all the hurry-rush, now they are blocking the path with an Onu-Matoran science project. Well, Mata Nui take this, I want to keep moving.
The Toa of Air took off, flying over the heads of his two comrades and farther into the tunnels. He could hear Vakama behind him calling for him to come back, but ignored it. The fire-spitter is getting a little too good at giving orders, he said to himself.
It wasn’t easy flying through a tunnel network. Worse, the twists and turns were coming much faster now. What had started out as a fairly straight course was rapidly turning into a maze, made navigable only by the presence of lightstones embedded in the stone walls. Matau landed to get his bearings. The last thing he wanted was to get lost a second time.
A wet sound came from his right, as if something was slithering across the ground. Matau unhooked his aero slicers from his back and set himself. He waited, still and silent, for the intruder to show itself.
When it did, the Toa of Air leapt backwards as if scalded. Coiling before him was a serpent perhaps twenty feet long, with bright reddish skin and the head of a Rahkshi. Long, sharp horns curved up from the Rahi’s brow. Behind it came other creatures, some crawling, some walking on two legs, others staggering as if about to drop from exhaustion.
The Rahkshi serpent hissed. Matau slowly backed away. He had no doubt he could win a fight against this beast, probably even most of its companions. But there were more coming up the tunnel every moment, with no end in sight, and Matau did not feel like battling an entire wing of the Archives.
He reached back to feel for the tunnel opening. The serpent’s eyes caught the aero-slicer blade reflecting in the light. It reared back, energy crackling along the length of its horns and flowing from their tips to meet above the creature’s head. A bolt flew from where the two streams joined, slamming Matau into the tunnel wall. Millions of volts surged through his body as he was forced back into the rock. Unconsciousness, when it came, was a mercy.
Nuju spotted the flash of light. “I believe Matau has found something.”
“Or something has found him,” said Onewa. “Do you think all Toa of Air blunder into things, or is it just him?”
“Let’s find him,” Vakama muttered, “so he can live and learn.”
The five Toa broke into a run through the winding tunnel, Onewa in the lead. The Toa of Stone took a corner at high speed, only to smash into a Rahi Muaka coming the other way. The great cat barely took notice of the figure that struck it, which flew backwards from the impact. It simply growled a warning to anyone else that might be foolish enough to do the same thing that Onewa did.
None of the other Toa Metru were in a hurry to repeat Onewa’s mistake. None of them had ever seen a Muaka quite like this in any Archives exhibit. It wasn’t just the extra sets of fangs or even the armor plating on its back and sides. No, it was more the hard protodermis thorns growing out of its legs, the ones gouging chunks out of the tunnel walls as it moved.
“Do you think Matau encountered this beast?” Nokama asked.
“If he did,” replied Nuju, “I believe we may be short one Toa.”
The Muaka lumbered forward, still ignoring the unconscious Onewa. It snarled at the Toa, but made no threatening moves. Vakama raised his hand, saying, “A burst of flame should confuse it, Nuju, and then you can ice it over.”
“Wait a moment,” broke in Nokama. “You may be the leader of this team, Vakama, but it is still a team.”
“Is this really the time for a debate?”
“No,” said the Toa of Water, taking a step toward the Rahi. “But it is a time for discussion.”
Looking into the beast’s eyes, Nokama gave a soft growl. The Muaka’s eyes narrowed. It sniffed the air, then let out a deafening bellow. Nokama was unfazed, responding with a series of growls and snarls. Completely puzzled by this little creature speaking its language, the Muaka roared.
“He’s in pain,” Nokama said, not taking her eyes from the Rahi. “I can’t… I can’t get it clear, but I don’t think he expected to find us. And I don’t think he means us harm.”
“Tell that to my head,” said Onewa, slowly stirring. “How do we know he didn’t hurt Matau? What are you suggesting, Nokama, that we pat him on the head and send him on his way?”
“Onewa has a point,” offered Whenua. “If we let this Rahi pass, who is to say it will not take up residence on our new island home?”
Vakama frowned. Whenua was right, but a fight against this beast in a confined space would waste time, and that was assuming the Toa would win. If this Rahi made it to the island… well, that could be dealt with later.
“We let it go,” he said. “Stand aside, brothers.”
“What?” cried Onewa. “This thing flattens me, and we’re just going to –”
The Muaka turned its head to look back at Onewa and gave a long, low growl. “I don’t think he likes your attitude,” Nokama chuckled.
The Rahi took a step forward, eyeing the Toa warily. When no one moved to stop his progress, he kept going, giving a final snarl as he went. All eyes turned to Nokama.
“What did he say?” asked Nuju.
“Two words,” Nokama replied. “Turn back.”
Vakama joined Whenua in the front of the group, using his flames to light the way so the Toa of Earth could take a rest. Nokama had helped Onewa to his feet, but the Toa of Stone insisted he needed no assistance to walk. Nuju brought up the rear, wondering if letting the Muaka pass was a decision they would regret in the future. Perhaps it truly represented no danger to the Toa, but who could know the mind of a Rahi?
They worked their way through the narrow, winding tunnels as swiftly as they dared. Whenua sensed no movement in the earth, but all that meant was that enemies could be waiting in ambush up ahead. Vakama was ready to hurl a spread of fireballs in a split second if an attacker appeared.
The Toa of Fire turned a corner and stopped, stunned. At first, he thought he had stumbled on some strange carving in the tunnel wall. But a closer examination revealed that this was no ancient work of art – it was the living form of Matau, somehow fused with the rock wall. The Toa of Air could not speak, but his eyes reached out to Vakama, pleading to be set free.
The other Toa were equally shocked. Matau had become part of the stone, with only a few inches of one aero-slicer blade and one hand still protruding from the wall. “Can’t we just pull him out, somehow?” Nokama asked.
Onewa shook his head. “He is of the rock, and the rock is of him now. Pull him out by physical force and you would bring down the entire tunnel. No, this requires a more delicate approach. Vakama?”
The Toa of Fire focused his flames into as narrow a jet as possible. Then, slowly and carefully, he sliced through the rock around Matau. Whenua caught the slab as it came loose and gently lowered it to the ground.
Onewa knelt down and concentrated. In his time as a Toa Metru, he had used his elemental powers to achieve some amazing things. But never had the task been so difficult or the stakes been so high: a single slip, the slightest distraction, and it would mean Matau’s life.
With unrelenting force of will, Onewa commanded the stone to reject that which did not belong. He could sense that the rock had interwoven with the substance of Matau and there would be no way to rip the Toa free. The rock would have to set him free. Painfully, inch by inch, he felt the stone retreat. Driven back by the power of the Toa Metru, it released its hold at last on Matau.
The Toa of Air gasped and scrambled to his feet. His mind reeled from the memories of being something else – not quite Toa, not quite stone, but some immobile hybrid of the two. He decided that he never again wanted to be anything but himself.
“What happened?” asked Onewa. “Who did this to you?”
“I will do better than speak-say,” answered Matau. “I will show you while I make it pay.”
It didn’t take the Toa long to pick up the trail of the Rahi. Whenua could feel them moving along the tunnels. They had evidently turned the wrong way after attacking Matau and were headed deeper into the maze rather than toward the surface.
Nokama felt torn about the action they were about to undertake. True, the Rahi might have killed Matau. But she was convinced from talking with the Muaka that the beasts were acting out of panic, not rage. It might be that they needed the help of the Toa Metru.
Her foot caught on something and she almost stumbled. She looked down to see a clump of moss growing out of a crack in the floor. Now that she noticed it, there was moss all along the walls of this tunnel. She could not recall seeing any elsewhere on their journey. As a Matoran, she would have dismissed this as inconsequential. As a Toa, she had seen far too much to ignore anything out of the ordinary.
The tunnel forked. Whenua crouched down and tried to get a sense of which direction the Rahi had gone. He sensed traces of movement both to the right and the left, but nothing substantial.
“We go right,” said Matau.
“Because I remember what happened the last time we went left,” Matau replied.
They stumbled across the first dead Rahi about a quarter mile down the tunnel. It was a winged centipede about six feet long. Whenua didn’t remember seeing anything like it in the Archives. A little more walking turned up a Rahkshi, a dozen ice bats, a lava eel that inexplicably had six legs, and a Kane-Ra bull that had none, all of them deceased.
Nuju and Whenua examined the bodies one by one. Just as with the scorpion, there were no marks of violence. But unlike Nuju’s past find, there was no obvious reason why these creatures should be dead.
“It almost seems as if they just… turned off,” the Toa of Ice muttered. “But that makes no sense.”
“Nothing else does,” said Onewa. “Why should this be any different? Let’s just hope whatever ‘turned them off’ doesn’t decide to do the same to us.”
Vakama signaled for the Toa to keep moving. They stepped carefully around the corpses, doing their best to stay focused on the task at hand. Perhaps that was why none of them noticed a portion of the slate gray tunnel wall detach, uncoil itself to its full length, and shift colors to the bright red of the Rahi serpent.
With the pale, dead eyes of a born hunter, it slithered after the Toa Metru.