Whenua looked down at the still form of Nokama. The spark of life was barely present in her. He had no doubt it was only her strong will that was keeping her clinging to existence. “We have to turn back,” he said. “If we return to the island, we can at least make her comfortable before…”
“He’s right,” said Onewa. “These tunnels are full of dangers. We can’t risk further harm to her.”
Matau scooped up Nokama in his arms. Onewa and Whenua had already started walking back the way they had come and now Matau fell in line behind them. They didn’t look back, assuming that Vakama and Nuju would be following.
“We’re not going back,” said Vakama. “Neither are you. We keep on for Metru Nui, all of us.”
Shocked, Onewa whirled on Vakama. He was even more surprised to see Nuju standing with the Toa of Fire, his silence saying he agreed with this ridiculous statement. What was wrong with them?
“And then what?” demanded Onewa. “Even if we make it back, even if Nokama doesn’t die on the way, there is no one there to help her! The city is in ruins. The Matoran are locked in Makuta sleep.”
“Exactly,” replied Vakama. “Hundreds of Matoran have had their lives stolen from them. They are depending on us to save them. That has to be more important than any one life, even Nokama’s. I’m sorry.”
Onewa unlimbered his proto pitons and started for Vakama. “Not as sorry as you’re going to be, fire-spitter!”
Nuju stepped in between the two Toa. The look in his eyes said it would not be wise to challenge him. “Stop it now. It is an insult to Nokama for us to stand here arguing while her life slips away. Onewa, returning to the island is condemning her to death, for there is nothing there that can cure her.”
The Toa of Ice turned to Vakama. “And you should remember that there are better reasons to return to Metru Nui than just our mission. There may be ancient lore in the Knowledge Towers that could save Nokama.”
“If we are going down-side, we had better go,” said Matau. “She is growing worse.”
The Toa headed out of the cave in an uncomfortable silence. Whenua offered to carry Nokama, but Matau shook him off. “I will keep my Toa-friend safe,” he vowed.
They moved at a much faster pace now, ignoring carvings on the walls or side tunnels. Onewa stayed close to Matau, as if he thought his proximity might somehow keep Nokama’s heartlight flashing that much longer.
The tunnels grew narrower as they descended and the moss covering the stone seemed to be everywhere. Onewa’s shoulder brushed against a clump and it clung to his armor. He brushed it off, disgusted, saying, “What is this stuff?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it in the mines,” Whenua answered, reaching out to examine some. To his surprise, it moved to avoid his touch. “Now that’s strange.”
“Can we not think-worry about plants?” snapped Matau. “Our Toa-sister needs us.”
The Toa of Air went to take another step, only to find that his foot would not move. He looked down and saw that hundreds of tiny vines had sprung from the stone floor and wrapped themselves around his ankles. All of the other Toa were similarly afflicted. Vakama sent a narrow stream of fire to burn off the vines. As soon as flame touched his bindings, a thicker, thorned vine shot out from the wall and wrapped itself around his throat, choking him.
Vakama seized hold of the vine, struggling to get it off him. But it took the help of Nuju to overcome its strength and tear it loose. Vakama gasped, filled with dread at the thought that an old enemy might have returned.
“Morbuzakh…” he whispered.
The voice that answered him came from everywhere at once, sounding like the snapping of dead branches. It was not the sibilant hiss of the Morbuzakh, but was heavy with the same feeling of corruption and decay.
“No,” it said. “I am what the Morbuzakh wished it could be.”
Nuju unleashed his ice power, covering one wall of moss in a thick frost. Harsh laughter filled the tunnel. An instant later the ice shattered like glass. “I am not that weakling, Nuju. Oh, yes, I know who you are. I know all my enemies.”
Onewa succeeded in wrenching one leg free. “Enemies? We have never encountered you before. And before you set yourself against us, you might want to think about how the Morbuzakh wound up: ash in the wind.”
Vines like tentacles snaked down the tunnel toward them. One by one, they wrapped themselves around the Toa Metru, pulling them free and dragging them deeper into the darkness. Matau protested as a vine grabbed Nokama out of his arms and carried her unconscious form away.
“Come to me,” said the voice. “Come and learn why I hate you beyond all other beings, save one. Come and learn how you have wronged me, and how you shall pay.”
Matoran legend speaks of a time long, long before the founding of Metru Nui, perhaps even before the coming of the Great Spirit Mata Nui himself. In those ancient times, Matoran labored ceaselessly and in darkness, little knowing the reasons for the work they did. Those Matoran who did their jobs well would be rewarded by being allowed to journey to a place called Artakha, where they could work in the light and with no fears about their future. In time, Artakha became known in myth as the “Great Refuge” where all Matoran would be safe from harm.
But life was very different for those Matoran who worked poorly. They were consigned to a place that made the Ta-Metru Great Furnace look like a minor heat source. No one knew what happened there, but it was said that no Matoran who went to that place ever returned. This frightening location never had a name of its own, but was instead referred to by the name of the being who ruled it:
“Karzahni,” a voice whispered.
Vakama was startled to hear that dreaded name spoken by the plant creature that held him prisoner. But he had to admit that the cavern to which he had been brought might well have been a home to that figure of myth. While there were no flames to be seen, the cave was littered with mutant Rahi, some dying, some very much alive. But he sensed it was not death that ruled here – it was fear, so overwhelming as to be almost toxic.
The plant itself looked little like the Morbuzakh. It was less a creature of vines than of twisted trunk and branches, resembling a warped, mangled version of one of the trees on the island above. Its substance was interlaced with the rock of the cave, even more so than the Morbuzakh’s had been with the Great Furnace.
“You know the name,” the creature whispered. “Of course you do. It amused my creator to give me the name of a being so hated and feared by Matoran past… as if somehow that power to evoke dread would then live on in me.”
“What do you want of us?” asked Nuju.
“Want? I want nothing,” the Karzahni replied. “Petty desires are for lesser beings. But need? Ah, there is much that I need, and much that you can provide. And to start, a gift…”
The Toa’s eyes followed one of the vines, as it moved slowly toward a far wall. Pinned against the rock was a form Matau recognized all too well: the huge serpent that had attacked him in the tunnels.
“A friend of yours, I believe,” said the Karzahni. “I found him snaking through the passages, no doubt planning to strike at you again. The foolish creature thought he could escape my notice.”
The Karzahni’s voice dropped lower. Its tone suggested he was talking with trusted co-conspirators. “That is why his kind will not survive, Toa… and mine will rule.”
A half-rotted branch gestured toward the other Rahi that slithered, crawled, and staggered through the cave. “My needs are simple: power and revenge. Power I have, over such as these – failed experiments of my creator. But revenge… that you cheated me of, Toa Metru, and so my vengeance shall fall upon you.”
“What is he talking about?” Onewa whispered to Nuju.
“I don’t know,” replied the Toa of Ice. “But if there is one thing we learned from the Morbuzakh, it is that it is useless to argue with vegetation.”
“Wouldn’t your revenge be sweeter against all six of us?” Vakama asked their captor. “How can you take the full measure of satisfaction from it when one of our number is dying?”
“We are all dying here, Toa,” the Karzahni said, as calmly as if he were discussing the weather. “I simply intend to make sure that I die last.”
The vines released the six Toa, even laying Nokama gently on the cavern floor. Matau knelt to check her condition, but it had only grown worse in the time since their capture. “What trouble-harm have we caused you, monster, that you keep us from saving our friend?” demanded the Toa of Air.
“You have robbed from me, Matau,” came the answer. “You attacked my creator, imprisoned him in a place I cannot reach, and for that you must atone.”
Of course, thought Vakama. Why didn’t we see it before? “Makuta,” he breathed. “Makuta created you and we defeated him. Now you’re angry because you want to rescue your creator.”
“Rescue? Rescue?” The Karzahni’s laughter became a deafening shriek. “Fools! I want Makuta dead!”
The Toa stood in stunned silence, hardly able to believe what they had just heard. For a long time, no one spoke. Then Whenua’s curiosity could not be contained anymore. “If Makuta created you,” he began, “then why…?”
“Created me… and rejected me,” rumbled the Karzahni. “He made me too well. I am too powerful and too wise. I would not have been content to drive the inhabitants from the outskirts of the city, or even to rule Metru Nui. I would have brought down the places of the Matoran, all of them, and ended their reign! I did not want their obedience or their loyalty, as Makuta did – only their destruction.”
Vakama could think of nothing to say. All of this fit with theories he had formed during the journey to the island, but now it had all been confirmed. Makuta had created the Morbuzakh and unleashed it on Metru Nui, as a prelude to his plan to doom all the Matoran to centuries of sleep. The Karzahni had been his first attempt, but it was too powerful for Makuta’s purposes.
But where he failed to defeat us, thought the Toa of Fire, this thing just might succeed.
Nokama moaned. The Karzahni’s branches moved toward her, but Matau slapped them away with his aero slicers. For a moment, it seemed as if the branches would attack, but instead they slowly lowered to the ground.
“Your friend has little time left,” the Karzahni said. “And as Vakama suggested, I have need of all six of you, though for reasons he cannot suspect. I can heal her, temporarily. Then you will do a task for me. Succeed, and I might be persuaded to cure the Toa of Water’s affliction.”
Onewa glanced at Nuju, then at Vakama. It was obvious that none of them believed the Karzahni for a moment. But if Nokama were to be restored to health, even for a brief time, they would at least have a fighting chance. And that was all Toa ever needed.
One of the branches moved anew. Matau went to defend her again, but Vakama shook his head. The Toa of Air stepped aside, never taking his eyes off the arm of the plant. It hovered over Nokama and then twisted itself again and again, finally squeezing a few drops of thick, silvery liquid from itself. They fell into Nokama’s mouth. In a matter of moments, light returned to her eyes.
“Where am I? What…?” she said, sitting up.
Matau reached out to give her a hug. Nokama pushed him away, saying, “Have you gone crazy, brother? And what is that… that thing? Where is the great beast we were fighting?”
“Same day, different monster,” said the Toa of Air, helping her to her feet.
Vakama took a step forward. “And what is this task, then?”
“A simple one, for such brave heroes,” the Karzahni answered, mockingly. “You six will take the south passage from this cave. Along the way, you will find a vault set in the wall of the tunnel. From that you will take a black vial. You will use that vial to collect a sample of energized protodermis from one of Makuta’s many lairs and bring it back here to me.”
“If it’s so simple, why don’t you do it?” asked Onewa.
The Karzahni’s branches rustled in annoyance. “I am not built for mobility – this you would see, Toa of Stone, were your head not filled with rocks as well.”
Onewa ignored the insult and looked at the cave with a tactician’s eye. He had little doubt that the Toa Metru assembled could fight this creature and win. But then what? If it crumbled as the Morbuzakh had, then there would be no way to get more of the antidote for Nokama. Hard as it was for him to admit, they did not need a battle right now, they needed time to think.
Vakama evidently agreed, for he said, “All right, Karzahni. We will do your errand. But if you plan any treachery –”
“Oh, come now,” replied the Karzahni. “The false Turaga Dume… the Vahki… Ahkmou… even Makuta himself – you of all beings should understand, Vakama. What is life without a little treachery?”