Toa Vakama was about to die.
His flight pack was so badly damaged that it would not even function as a Kanoka disk launcher anymore. He was spiraling out of control, headed for the pile of rubble that used to be the Ta-Metru Great Furnace. There wasn’t so much as a puddle of water down below that he could aim for. His only consolation was that the Mask of Time would be smashed beyond repair by the fall.
He was just realizing why that would be a very bad thing – even worse than his dying – when the ground started to shift underneath him. All of a sudden, it did not look like pavement and stone below, but more like a nest of snakes that had been disturbed. No, that wasn’t right either – those things writhing below him weren’t greenish black serpents – they were vines!
This is impossible, Vakama thought. Another of Makuta’s tricks. The Morbuzakh plant is gone. We killed it in the Great Furnace!
Then there was no more time for questions. He crashed to the ground, but without the shattering impact he expected. Instead, the vines had formed a bed of sorts underneath him. As he struggled to recover his senses, they wrapped around him and dragged him down below the street.
Vakama’s eyes were taking too long to adjust to the darkness. He summoned a small jet of flame from his hand to light the surrounding area, only to have the vine around his wrist yank hard.
“No fire,” a voice whispered. Vakama knew that voice, laden as it was with the feeling of death and decay. It was a voice he had never thought to hear again.
“Karzahni…,” he breathed.
The vines released him and slithered away. Now he could see the dark mass in the corner, looking like a monstrous, half-dead tree. The Karzahni had been Makuta’s first attempt to create a plant creature, but the result had been a being too willful and stubborn to serve Makuta’s ends. The master of shadows had exiled it from Metru Nui, and the Toa Metru first encountered it some time later. The Karzahni had blackmailed the Toa into retrieving a vial of energized protodermis for itself, and then died when that substance caused the plant to burn up from within. Later, the Toa used parts of the plant creature to keep their boat buoyant on the return trip to Metru Nui.
“You’re dead,” said Vakama. “This is another illusion. I have had enough of Makuta’s madness.”
“As have I,” the Karzahni whispered. “But I am very much alive. I am of the earth and the green, Vakama – I do not die as flesh dies.”
“I don’t understand.”
“When you submerged parts of my former self in the liquid protodermis of the sea, a tiny shoot grew from within. In time, that tiny piece of plant matter grew into a new Karzahni, with the memories and intelligence of the old. I am reborn.”
The Karzahni obviously expected some momentous emotional reaction from Vakama. But the Toa had been through so much the last few days, all he could manage was a flat, “Good for you. What are you doing here?”
“Not everything you saw before was an illusion,” the Karzahni replied. “Makuta and I achieved a truce and I agreed to play at being the Morbuzakh to make his false world more convincing. But now he is coming for you, Toa, and you have not the power to defeat him. You need an ally.”
“Thanks anyway,” Vakama replied acidly. “I’ve had one ally too many this trip. Unless you have some awesome Toa tool hidden in all that foliage, I don’t see-”
“I have the ultimate weapon against Makuta,” the Karzahni said, vines rustling and slithering about the chamber. “The truth.”
One of the vines reached up and tore a chunk of rubble loose. Vakama looked up and saw the sky above Metru Nui ablaze with stars.
“You cannot fight him, Vakama, because you believe you were not meant to be a Toa,” the Karzahni continued. “Makuta looked up at the stars and saw that Nuhrii, Ahkmou, and the rest were to be Toa Metru, and so he convinced Toa Lhikan to empower six other Matoran. He wanted you and your contentious friends to be the new Toa. That is what you have been told, is it not?”
“And it is all the truth,” the Karzahni said. “It happened just like that. Still, someone did lie, Toa, and that lie brought you into being.”
“Who?” asked Vakama, intrigued in spite of himself. “Makuta? Lhikan?”
Another vine moved, winding its way slowly upward. Vakama watched it as it pointed up to the sky. “The stars,” Karzahni said softly. “The stars lied. They told Makuta that Ahkmou should be Toa of Stone, Vhisola Toa of Water, and so on, and he believed them. In an attempt to alter destiny, he planted your name and the names of your friends in Lhikan’s mind so you would become Toa Metru. But have you never wondered, Vakama… who planted your names in Makuta’s mind?”
Vakama’s head was spinning. If what the Karzahni said was true, then Nuhrii, Ahkmou, and the others had never been meant to be Toa – the message in the stars had been false. It had all been a trick played on Makuta. But who would have the power to alter the path of the stars, except –
“Mata Nui?” Vakama said, stunned.
“The Great Spirit,” Karzahni replied. “The Great Spirit who had been struck down by Makuta’s treachery and knew that his only hope of recovery was to get the Matoran out of this city before it was too late. To do that, he needed Toa Metru, but he knew Makuta was watching the stars. The master of shadows would do anything to prevent those new Toa from coming into being.”
It was all becoming clear to Vakama now. “So Mata Nui deceived him. He made the stars name six other Matoran to be Toa, insuring Makuta would never allow them to be given power. And then he planted in Makuta’s mind the names of the six who truly were intended by destiny to be Toa.”
The Karzahni chuckled, a sickening sound. “Believing himself to be thwarting Mata Nui’s will, Makuta turned around and used his powers to influence Lhikan into making you and your friends Toa Metru – the very Matoran Mata Nui had wished to be heroes all along! The Great Spirit knew there was only one way to make sure the six destined for greatness would have the chance to be Toa Metru, and that was to trick Makuta into making it happen himself.”
Vakama sat down on the stone floor, still trying to accept what he had just learned. All his life he had heard of the glory of Mata Nui and how he was responsible for the sun that shone and the breezes that blew and all the gifts nature had given the Matoran. But in all that time, he had never heard of the Great Spirit intervening directly to make things right. Now, more than ever, he realized what a crime it had been that Makuta had cast Mata Nui into unending sleep.
“Wait,” said the Toa of Fire. “Wait a moment. I saw a Toa disk with Nuhrii’s mask on it. Nokama saw Kanohi mask niches with the names of the other six Matoran. How is all that possible, if they were not meant to be Toa?”
“Ah, Vakama – your fire burns so bright, yet you remain so blind,” Karzahni chided. “Makuta has his Brotherhood, the Shadowed One his Dark Hunters… has it never occurred to you that there are some in this vast universe who are sworn to the service of Mata Nui, and he alone? It was they who manufactured the evidence to help convince Makuta, and they did a masterful job, it seems.”
It made sense, and it was certainly easier to accept than the idea of Ahkmou as a Toa. But one question still remained unanswered. “How do you know all this, Karzahni?”
The plant-thing laughed as if at a private joke. “Oh, one of those servants of Mata Nui’s will happened to wander too close to one of my tunnels some time ago. He told me the whole story, all that I have just told you, before he died.”
A dozen more questions sprang to Vakama’s mind. What was this mysterious order whose members apparently knew the will of Mata Nui? How many were there, and how long had they been in Metru Nui? Lhikan had never spoken of them, nor had Turaga Dume – was it possible even they did not know this group existed?
He wasn’t going to get answers from the Karzahni. A bolt of shadow came from above and struck the plant-thing dead center. Darkness spread like a plague down its vines and branches, forming a chitinous shell that covered every inch of the plant. In a matter of moments it was completely trapped inside, cut off from all heat and light.
Vakama looked up. Makuta was above, staring down through the hole in the chamber ceiling. The breastplate of his armor was damaged and greenish black energy was leeching out of him. A faint wisp of shadow drifted from his open palm, the remnants of the power used to fell Karzahni.
“Come out, little Toa,” Makuta said. “If I have to come in after you, it will be most unpleasant.”
Vakama hurled a fireball, but not at Makuta. Instead, he threw it against the far wall, melting a hole in the stone. He jumped through the gap and found himself in an Archives tunnel, one of several that stretched beneath Ta-Metru. He ran then, while behind him an angry Makuta smashed down what remained of the wall.
Bolts of chain lightning flashed around Vakama as he hurtled through the narrow passages. He could hear Makuta’s heavy tread behind him, coming nearer all the time. At some point the master of shadows was going to catch up to him, and then what? As Karzahni had said, he alone did not have the power to defeat Makuta.
Then again, I’m not alone, he thought, looking at the Mask of Time he carried. If Makuta wants this mask so badly, maybe it’s time to let him have it.
Vakama climbed up the next access ladder he came to and emerged on a Ta-Metru street, near the Protodermis Reclamation Yard. That, he decided, would make a perfect setting for his confrontation with Makuta.
No allies, he told himself. No Keetongu, no other Toa, just me, Makuta, and this mask. Mata Nui altered the stars themselves to ensure that I would become a Toa – it’s time to show the Great Spirit he made the right decision.
Makuta climbed the ladder slowly. He would never have admitted it to anyone else, but the Shadowed One had wounded him far worse than any other being ever had. His Kanohi mask and armor held his dark energies in place. With his breastplate damaged, precious power was slipping away from him. But there was no time to make repairs, not with Vakama on the loose with the Mask of Time.
He will give it to me willingly, or I will take it from his corpse, Makuta thought. In fact, I hope the fool tries to fight – it will make my victory that much sweeter. Perhaps I will send his remains to the other Toa Metru so that they may enjoy a few moments of fear before I destroy them, too.
He looked around, searching for signs of Vakama. He had no doubt the Toa was hiding somewhere nearby, making some feeble plan for an ambush. Perhaps he was even thinking of using the Mask of Time again, not that that would do anything but buy him a couple more minutes of life.
“Show yourself, Toa!” Makuta shouted. “Give me the Mask of Time and I will let you go on your way. I am sure your fellow ‘heroes’ are missing you by now.”
The only answer was silence. In a strange way, that enraged Makuta more than open defiance would have.
“Why do you persist?” the master of shadows continued. “You will gain nothing from this but death, Vakama, here, alone in this ruined city. There will be no one to mourn you here, no one to even notice your passing. You will not die a hero – just a pathetic Matoran playing at a role that was never meant for him. Why do you risk death? Why do you insist on opposing me?”
Vakama stepped out from an alleyway in the Protodermis Reclamation Yard, one hand hidden behind his back. “Because I’m a Toa,” he said, his voice strong and clear. “And battling monsters is what I do.”
Makuta’s smile was chilling. “I, a monster? For knowing my spirit brother, Mata Nui, required a good, long rest after his many labors? For offering my benevolent leadership to the Matoran in his absence? For saving Metru Nui from the threat of Nidhiki and Krekka?”
Vakama saw that Makuta was circling as he spoke, hoping to distract the Toa while he got into a position to strike. But he wasn’t dealing with a novice Toa Metru now. “Yes, Makuta,” said Vakama. “The Dark Hunters you brought and then murdered… just like you murdered Turaga Lhikan… and sentenced an entire city to a sleeping doom. Yes, I call you monster – and worse.”
Makuta eyed his enemy. Vakama was standing next to a stopped conveyor belt upon which rested a line of damaged Kanohi masks. He was startled to see that the Vahi, intact, was among them. And all that stood between him and one of the most powerful Kanohi masks in creation was one foolish Toa.
“Your words are like your powers, Vakama – fiery, but in the end, meaningless,” said the master of shadows. “Now I will take that mask you so jealously guard.”
Makuta took a step forward. Vakama took his hand from behind his back, revealing that he held a Ta-Matoran crafter’s hammer. With blinding speed, he lashed out and smashed one of the damaged masks to fragments.
“Not just yet,” said the Toa. “How much do you know about the Mask of Time? Do you know, for example, that it still works even when damaged? I found that out the day I retrieved it from the ocean floor.”
Vakama smashed a damaged Mask of Water Breathing.
“The merest crack and the power of time leaks out of it, affecting everything in the vicinity,” the Toa of Fire continued. “Isn’t that fascinating?”
He shattered another mask, and then another. There were only two more between his hammer and the Mask of Time.
“Stop this childishness,” Makuta hissed. “You wouldn’t destroy your greatest creation, maskmaker.”
“Yes, I suppose that would be hard to live with,” Vakama said, smashing yet another mask. The sound echoed through the empty streets of Ta-Metru. “But, then, if I were to shatter the Mask of Time, neither of us will be living, the way we think of living… and neither will anyone else.”
Makuta watched him carefully, calculating odds. A rapid burst of shadow energy would destroy the hammer, as well as stun Vakama. But if he should miss?
“Explain,” he said, edging closer to the Toa.
“Time, Makuta,” Vakama replied, as if speaking to a child. “The force of time is contained within that mask. Destroy it, and that power is unleashed upon the universe. Past, present, and future all existing at once – warps and rips and hours folding in upon each other – madness and chaos as no two moments ever follow one another… think of it.”
“I am,” said the armored figure. “It sounds glorious.”
“Really?” Vakama said, shattering another mask to splinters. “Imagine your body trapped between seconds, or half of you aging while the other half regresses. Does it still sound appealing to you? All your plans and schemes would come to an end, because no matter what you attempted, I could walk into the past and undo it. Kill me today, and I will be waiting for you in some tomorrow to avenge my death.”
Vakama’s hammer hovered over the Mask of Time, ready to strike. “Think of it – can you rule a future that is in the past? Or a present that is still a century away? Could you ever be sure what you have done and what you haven’t, when months and years have merged together?”
Makuta pondered. If Vakama was telling the truth, destroying the Kanohi Vahi would bring the universe to a crashing halt. Still, he could not believe a Toa would willingly visit such a fate upon the Matoran he had sworn to protect.
“Believe it,” Vakama said, as if he had read his mind. “To save those I love from an eternity of your tyranny, I will end everything right now.”
Makuta looked into Vakama’s eyes. They were the eyes of a being who had been driven beyond madness, only to return. They had looked upon a darkness as deep as any Makuta had known, and yet somehow turned back to the light. They were not the eyes of a being who was bluffing.
“What do you want, Toa?” Makuta said finally.
“Safe passage from Metru Nui for myself and this mask,” Vakama said. “Your pledge not to harm Keetongu, Turaga Dume, or the Rahaga… and to leave the Matoran in peace.”
Makuta took two quick steps forward, propelled by anger. It was only the sight of Vakama swinging the hammer that brought him up short. “You ask me to sit in the darkness, doing nothing, affecting nothing!” the master of shadows snapped. “You sentence me to a living death, and I say no! Go ahead, destroy the mask, and we will watch time end together.” Vakama began to lower the hammer. “Wait!” Makuta cried. Vakama stopped, his hammer mere inches from the mask.
“Then what is your offer?” the Toa asked calmly. “And make it quick – my arm grows tired.”
The armored titan snarled. He was not used to negotiating with lesser beings, but there was one consolation. As long as the Mask of Time existed, it might still be his one day. “Very well,” he said. “I will respect your allies here, as long as they stay out of my way. I will even let you leave unharmed. And I will grant you one year of peace on the island above, and one year only. Then… you will hear from me again.”
Vakama considered. He knew the other Toa would never accept such a deal, simply because they would never believe Makuta would honor it. They would insist on battle, even Nokama, to end his threat here and now… despite the fact that such a battle would leave Metru Nui damaged beyond all hope of restoration.
“Do not try my patience,” Makuta growled. “Your possession of the Mask of Time may leave me inclined to stay my hand, but we both know there are a thousand ways I could destroy you right now. And 941 of them hurt.”
Vakama lowered his hammer and picked up the Mask of Time. “How do I know you’ll keep your word?”
Makuta smiled. “You don’t. But what is life without a little risk, Toa?”
Vakama was about to reply when the world vanished around him. The next moment, he was standing at the mouth of one of the tunnels that led to the island above. He still had the Mask of Time with him.
Makuta has expelled me from my city, he thought. But we will make a new home above, master of shadows, one we will defend against you to the death. And one day, when you have finally been defeated, we will return to the City of Legends. This I vow, in the name of all Toa and Matoran!
* * *
Makuta stood at the edge of a subterranean waterway. Once, this river had been the means of escape for six Toa Metru and six pods filled with sleeping Matoran. Here they had encountered ancient Rahi sea beasts and done great battle. They had won in the end and made it to the island above.
All of this Makuta had read in Vakama’s mind, plus one thing more: Not all the pods had made it to safety. One had been torn loose from the boat by a Rahi and now lay abandoned on the river bottom.
Makuta summoned the power of magnetism to raise the metallic sphere from its watery resting place. It broke the surface and floated in the air before finally coming to rest at the armored feet of the master of shadows.
The pressing of the latch opened the pod. Inside there slept a Po-Matoran named Ahkmou. Makuta smiled at the sight. This Matoran had already attempted to betray the Toa and his home city once before. He would be ideal for what Makuta had in mind.
An infinitesimal fraction of the Dark One’s power brought consciousness back to Ahkmou. The Matoran opened his eyes and looked around in panic. “Where am I? How did I get here? What is this place?”
Makuta had expected just this sort of reaction. The pods were designed to erase the memories of those inside, making them more easily influenced when they revived. He reached down and helped the Matoran out of the pod. “Yes, little one, your mind is filled with questions now. But I will provide you with answers, and in return, you will do something for me in the time to come.”
Together, the master of shadows and the Po-Matoran began a long journey into perpetual darkness.
“Let me tell you a tale,” said Makuta as they walked. “A tale of a city called Metru Nui and of a band of beings called Toa who conspired to keep greatness from you and then abandoned you to spend eternity at the bottom of this river. They feared you, as they do me, but now I have rescued you. Together, we will seek justice against them for their crimes.”
Ahkmou nodded. He did not remember how he had gotten into the pod or ended up in this awful place. But there was no question this heroic figure had saved his life. As he listened to the intricate web of lies spun by Makuta, Ahkmou vowed that one day he would have revenge on Toa, Turaga, and Matoran, wherever they might hide.