1

Far from Metru Nui, in a place never before seen by Matoran eyes, a lone being sat and brooded. His true name had not been spoken by anyone in more than two millennia. It was doubtful anyone even remembered it, or, if they did, that they would presume to be so familiar as to use it. Those who dared to address him called him the Shadowed One.

In the corridors outside his chamber, servants scurried to and fro as quietly as possible, lest they make a noise and disturb his meditations. Even the Dark Hunters training below his tower did so in unnerving silence. The last member of that order to shatter the peace with a shout had been moved into a new career as a practice dummy.

All who had seen the Shadowed One on this day knew it was a particularly bad time to risk his wrath. The reason was no secret: A short time before, he had dispatched two Dark Hunters, Nidhiki and Krekka, to the city of Metru Nui at the request of Makuta. Neither had returned, nor had Makuta been heard from. He was confronted with the very real possibility that his two operatives were dead.

He would not shed any tears for either. Nidhiki was a traitorous ex-Toa who had attempted to betray Metru Nui to the Dark Hunters ages ago and then fled the city when his attempt failed. Krekka was an idiot, worthwhile only for his brawn and his infantile sense of loyalty. No, losing those particular individuals was not the problem – what infuriated him was that anyone would dare to harm a Dark Hunter at all.

In all the centuries since the order had been founded, certain rules had remained unchanged. Dark Hunters would take on any employment if the reward were sufficient, regardless of the risk to themselves or others. Hiring a Dark Hunter without good reason or refusing to pay after the task was completed would bring immediate punishment. Slaying a Dark Hunter would bring the full force of the order down upon the offender. And now someone had dared to erase not one, but two, from existence.

The Shadowed One lightly tapped a crystal that hung suspended by his throne. In response, the dark, twisted creature that served as his Recorder crawled into the chamber and took up a position beside his master. It was the Recorder’s job to preserve the wisdom of the Shadowed One for the ages, as well as to keep an account of the Dark Hunters’ successes.

“I have pondered,” the Shadowed One began, “and I have decided. The deaths of two Dark Hunters cannot go unpunished. Those responsible must be struck down as an example to others who might contemplate such action.”

“Have you discovered who these offenders might be?” asked the Recorder, furiously scratching his master’s thoughts onto a tablet.

The Shadowed One nodded. “There is only one group of beings who would be so foolish as to do such a thing: Toa. I do not yet know if it was Lhikan or some other of his kind in Metru Nui who committed this act, but whoever they are, they will pay. Sentrakh and I will travel there ourselves to see to this.”

The Recorder paused in his writing, surprised. “You will go? You will not merely send more Dark Hunters?”

“Those who did this have obviously lost their fear of the order,” the Shadowed One replied. “Respect is born from fear… obedience as well. And so fear must be restored in the hearts of those who would stand against us.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” the Recorder said. If he wasn’t fully convinced of the wisdom of the plan, he certainly wasn’t going admit it. “After all, what Toa could successfully oppose you? Your power is second only to that of great Makuta himself.”

The words had barely been spoken before the Recorder realized the error he had made. Slowly, he started to back out of the room, even as the Shadowed One’s eyes blazed with anger.

“Second to –?” the leader of the Dark Hunters hissed, springing from his throne to grab the Recorder by the neck. “Understand this, scribbler – I am second to no one! Least of all that scheming, arrogant, walking scrap of shadow…”

The Recorder would have apologized profusely had he been able to breathe. To his great relief, the Shadowed One decided he was not worth killing, and simply threw him the length of the room. The jarring impact was almost welcome compared to what the alternative would have been.

“Get out of my sight,” ordered the Shadowed One. “Tell Sentrakh we depart immediately.”

The Recorder scurried out of the chamber. After he was gone, the Shadowed One returned to his throne and remembered Metru Nui. For far too long, that city had been a thorn in his side. Perhaps, when its Toa had been reduced to helplessness, it would be time to remove that thorn once and for all.

The Shadowed One walked down a winding stone staircase that led to the training chamber. No one was scheduled to be using it at this time, but from the sounds of combat emanating from below, it was obvious that someone was. He had no doubt it would be the Dark Hunter he was seeking.

The Shadowed One paused in the doorway. Lariska was there, moving with the grace and agility of a Rahi panther as she spun, leaped, and plunged her twin daggers into wooden targets. Without breaking stride, she went into a roll, then sprang up to throw her dagger between the eyes of a mounted Muaka head.

“I thought you preferred live practice targets,” the Shadowed One remarked.

Lariska retrieved her dagger and went into another routine, never looking at her visitor. “I do. Finished all of them. They’re stacked outside.” She did a midair somersault and sliced off the head of a mannequin. “Better do something before they start to smell,” she added as she hit the ground.

“You are back sooner than I expected,” said the Shadowed One. “Unable to carry out the mission?”

Lariska laughed sharply. “You know better than that.” She jumped from a standing start into the rafters, executed a series of complicated gymnastic tricks, and then did a perfect dismount to land in front of her leader. The Shadowed One could not help but be a little amazed at her fluid skill, considering that her left arm was completely mechanical.

“Reporting,” she said, making no effort to hide her sarcasm.

“The Toa?”

“Dead.”

“The Turaga?”

“Fled.”

“The payment?”

“In the vault.”

All of it?” the Shadowed One asked pointedly.

Lariska glanced at her mechanical arm, then back at the ruler of the Dark Hunters. “All of it. I remember my lessons well, Shadowed One, especially the painful ones.”

The Shadowed One smiled. “I find it hard to believe even you could eliminate an experienced Toa so quickly. Tell me the tale.”

Lariska shrugged, already restless. She liked to be moving all the time. Standing around and talking was torture for her, which is precisely why the Shadowed One made her do it. “Usual routine. I scouted him for two weeks. He was a Toa of Gravity. His standard response to an attack was to dodge the first strike and then erase the gravity around an opponent and send them floating upward. I practiced fighting in zero gravity using levitation disks, so when he tried that, I was ready.”

A dark smile crept onto her lips. “And he wasn’t ready for my being ready.”

“I am leaving the island for a short while,” the Shadowed One said abruptly. It was better not to let his Dark Hunters dwell on their successes – it made them prideful and thus dangerous. “You will oversee things here in my absence.”

Lariska couldn’t take the idleness anymore. She did a backflip and executed a rapid series of feints with her daggers. The Shadowed One noticed that the blades were stained green, a sign that she had applied poison to them before the session.

“Why me?” she asked.

“Because the other Dark Hunters are afraid of you,” he replied. “And you are afraid of me.”

Lariska suddenly hurled a dagger in his direction. “Am I?”

The Shadowed One erupted into a blur of motion. He grabbed a dagger off of a table, threw it, and knocked hers out of the air. “If you are wise,” he said, “then yes, you are.”

“Where are you going?”

“That does not concern you.”

“When will you be back?”

“When I return. In the meantime, accept only those commissions that promise high reward. Keep the Recorder informed of all arrangements. And Triglax returned with only two pieces of equipment when the contract specified three. Have his quarters and usual hiding places searched, then teach him the error of his ways.”

“What curriculum?” Lariska asked, already looking forward to her confrontation with the obnoxious Triglax.

“I want him able to walk on his own,” the Shadowed One answered. “But unable to breathe without pain for, oh, six weeks. That should be sufficient.”

“Hands?”

“Intact,” he said. “I believe enough hands have been removed this year.”

He started to go, then stopped. “Tell me, Lariska. If I turned my back on you right now, would I find a dagger in it shortly after?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Then, before –”

“That was… play,” she answered, smiling. “I know you. You would never turn your back on anyone without guards in the shadows ready to cut them down if they made a move. So, no… the day I kill you, Shadowed One, you will see it coming. I want you to see it coming.”

The Shadowed One turned and walked away, confident that in his absence he was leaving the Dark Hunters in just the right pair of ruthless hands.

Vakama opened his eyes. The first thing he noticed was that he was not underwater. In fact, he was lying on a comfortable sleep pallet, staring up at a strangely familiar stone ceiling.

The second thing he noticed was that, for a Toa who had just been slammed into the Great Barrier, he felt great. His muscles didn’t ache and his lungs seemed fine despite his almost drowning. Still, something felt… wrong. Granted, Toa had great strength and resiliency, but he felt almost too good. Almost as if the waterspout and the impact with the rock wall had never happened.

He sat up, and suddenly everything made sense, and at the same time nothing did at all. His Toa armor was gone. His legs, arms, and torso were all shorter.

Vakama went numb with shock. How could this have happened? When? It shouldn’t have been possible but… I’m a Matoran again!

Now he knew where he was. This was his home in Ta-Metru, a home he knew had been leveled in the earthquake that followed Makuta’s efforts to seize power in the city. He had lived here for countless years, working first as a toolmaker and later as a maskmaker. His forge was only a short walk away, just past Takua’s dwelling. For a moment, he wondered how Takua was doing these days.

“No! No, no, no!” Vakama shouted. “Takua is gone. He’s with the other Matoran, asleep in the spheres and heading for the island above. My home is gone. My metru is fire, smoke, and rubble. And I… I am a Toa!”

“What are you shouting about?”

Vakama glanced up to see Jala poking his mask into the doorway. He looked none the worse for wear for a Matoran who had been kidnapped by Vahki and forced into a coma. For just a second, Vakama forgot the impossibility of the entire situation and felt a surge of joy at seeing his friend again.

“Jala? Is that you?”

“Of course it’s me, akilini-head. Who else would it be? You better get up or you’ll be late for work.”

“Work?” Vakama repeated, as if he had never heard the word before.

“Yes, work,” Jala replied, exasperated. “You know, that thing you do all day? That thing Takua is apparently allergic to? Work. And if you’re not there on time, the Vahki Nuurakh will give you a wake-up call you won’t forget.”

Vakama hopped off the bed. “You mean the foundries are operating? The forges? When? How?”

“When have they ever stopped?” asked Jala. “Hey, are you all right? You look like someone stepped on your favorite lava eel. Were you on the wrong end of a Vahki stun staff or something?”

“I… no, I don’t think so,” Vakama said quietly. “But I’m not quite myself today. Maybe I shouldn’t go to work.”

Jala shrugged. “If you want to chance that, go ahead. But if Turaga Dume was expecting me to hand over the Mask of Time today, I think I would make a point of being at my forge.”

Vakama almost lost his balance. Turaga Dume? The Mask of Time? But the Dume who wanted that mask was Makuta in disguise… and the mask is… is…

He looked around the room. There was no sign of the Kanohi Vahi. Then he remembered the hulking brute who had taken it from him as he clung to the rocks. At least, he thought he remembered that. If there was any truth to the memory at all, Metru Nui was in deadly danger.

“The Toa!” he snapped at Jala. “Where are they?”

“Where they always are,” the Matoran responded, edging away from the door. “They are at the Coliseum with Turaga Dume and Turaga Lhikan. The Toa of Fire is discussing ways to defeat the Morbuzakh plant.”

“But I’m –” Vakama began. Then he caught himself. The world had gone crazy, and Jala obviously hadn’t noticed. Insisting he was a Toa wouldn’t do anything but convince his friend he was crazy. Still, that left one very important question he wished he didn’t have to ask.

“Jala… who is the Toa of Fire?”

“You are a few flames short of a fire, Vakama. Everyone knows the Toa of Fire!” Jala answered. “It’s Toa Nuhrii!”

At one time, so many stunning revelations one on top of the other would have overwhelmed Vakama. But that was before he became a Toa in more than just name. He had overcome his insecurities and his fears. He had confronted the darkest part of himself during the struggle with the Visorak and emerged stronger for it.

Or did I? Did any of that happen at all? Was I ever really a Toa, or did I just dream it all?

Too many things did not add up. He grabbed his maskmaking tool and a stone tablet and began to burn a list of them all into the rock:

  1. The Morbuzakh is still alive, when I know we destroyed it using the Great Disks.
  2. Lhikan is a Turaga. But he became a Turaga when he turned Nokama, Nuju, Onewa, Matau, Whenua, and me into Toa Metru. And he’s dead, killed in battle with Makuta.
  3. The city is undamaged. There has been no earthquake. The Vahki are still functioning. The Matoran are still working.
  4. Turaga Dume is running the city. But is it the real Dume, or Makuta in disguise?
  5. Nuhrii is the Toa of Fire.

That last one was the hardest to take. During the battle with the Visorak, Vakama and some of the other Toa had discovered evidence that Nuhrii, Ehrye, Ahkmou, Vhisola, Orkahm, and Tehutti had been destined to become Toa Metru. Makuta had subtly influenced Lhikan to choose Vakama and his team instead. By doing so, he had gone against destiny and the will of Mata Nui, which perhaps explained the number of disasters that had followed. More than once, Vakama had wondered if some of the terrible events might have been avoided if Lhikan had made the right choices.

Evidently, he did, Vakama thought. Somehow, everything that happened from before the time Lhikan helped us become Toa Metru has been wiped out. What could have the power to do that? The Vahi? But the legends of the Mask of Time said nothing about this sort of thing being possible.

There was, of course, another alternative, one Vakama preferred not to think about. It was possible nothing had been erased or rearranged. All of his experiences as a Toa Metru might have been nothing more than a dream or hallucination. Everything – Makuta’s betrayal of the Matoran, their capture, the Visorak, the Toa Hordika – might have been nothing but a delusion brought on by overwork.

Vakama shook his head. “No. I won’t accept that. It was real. I know it was real. And I know the Matoran who can help me prove it.”

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