When Whenua first went to work in the Onu-Metru Archives, he made a classic beginner’s mistake: He got lost. He had been sent to the fourth sublevel to check on an ash bear exhibit, but lost count and wound up two levels down. Unknown to him, this area had been used by Mavrah for an experiment with Kinloka rodents some time back, but the rodents had broken free and the level had been quarantined. Over time, the Kinloka had eaten the barriers and the lightstones and it was only their instinctive fear of the Nui-Rama on the level above that kept them from rampaging throughout the Archives.
Even now, he could remember walking through the dark and deserted wing, hearing the Kinloka skittering all around him. Now and then, one or two would rush up and snap at him, then dash away. It had been bad when he wasn’t sure what was down there with him – and worse when he realized, because everyone knew Kinloka would eat anything that didn’t eat them first. Every instinct in Whenua told him to run as fast as he could, but his mind told him that was the best way to end up lost forever.
Walking through the south tunnel brought back those memories in full force. As unscientific as it seemed to a veteran archivist, the atmosphere of these tunnels felt evil. Even if he ignored the carvings of bizarre Rahi and the twisted creatures that crawled and flew past him, he could not escape the fact that monstrous things had been done in this place. The sooner they were away from here and back in Metru Nui, the happier he would be. After all, even quake-damaged, the city had to be better than this.
Vakama was directly behind Whenua, but kept stopping to pick up the Kanoka disks that littered the passage. Their appearance here had been a mystery until he spotted a broken vault containing a few disks and carvings of Kanohi masks unlike any he had seen before. Evidently, Makuta had been dabbling in mask making, but with what success it was impossible to tell.
Onewa had the hard job on the journey. Using his connection to stone, he was attempting to sense hollow spaces in the walls that might house the vault they were looking for. Nokama was sticking close to him, if only to escape Matau, who had been hovering over her since her return to consciousness.
“Are you getting anything?” she asked, for the fourth time in as many minutes.
“I’m not sure. There’s something just ahead here, but it doesn’t feel like… wait.” Onewa ran his hands slowly over a section of the wall. “Behind here. I don’t know what’s inside, but it’s definitely a compartment of some kind.”
The other Toa crowded around. Whenua offered to use his drills to open the vault, but Onewa turned him down. “This way is more fun,” he said, rearing back to punch a hole in the wall.
Toa fist met stone, and stone lost. The heroes struggled to see the contents of the chamber through the cloud of rock dust. Impatient, Onewa leaned forward. “I think I spotted something.”
A shape shot from the inside of the chamber, so fast it was just a blur. Then Onewa staggered backwards, hands to his mask, screaming, “Get it off!”
Nokama rushed to him. There was something clinging to his Kanohi, but she had never seen its like before. It had the ridged features of Bohrok krana she had seen in the Archives, and the longer, serpentine shape of a Rahkshi kraata. But there was no time to analyze it, for she could already see the effect it was having on the Toa of Stone.
Onewa’s arms had dropped to his sides. When he spoke, his voice had become mechanical, the way Nokama imagined a Vahki might speak if its programming allowed it to do so. “They… they… they…,” he repeated, again and again.
Whenua moved to tear the creature off of Onewa’s Kanohi, but Nuju blocked him. “Wait. Let him talk,” said the Toa of Ice. “We may learn something of value. Onewa, ‘they’ who? Who are you talking about?”
The Toa of Stone turned slowly to look at Nuju. His eyes were vacant. “They… too late… too late for anything… all must end. Visorak. Visorak.” Onewa began to tremble violently. “Visorak! The end! They wait. They watch. They know. They… they know…”
“Nuju, stop this!” cried Nokama.
Vakama stepped forward. “To blazes with knowledge, this is one of us,” he said, launching a firebolt. The flames consumed the creature, reducing it to foul-smelling ash. So precise was Vakama’s control that Onewa’s mask was not even singed. The Toa of Stone staggered backwards, reaching back to the wall to keep from falling.
“Are you all right?” asked Nokama.
“Yes… I will be…” he replied, badly shaken. “But… I would not wish that experience on anyone else.”
“What did you see? What are Visorak?” Nuju pressed.
Onewa shook his head, confused. “I don’t know. Those were not my words, not my thoughts. I remember… something… something horrible, everywhere… stealers of life… but I cannot see more. Vakama? Is this what your visions are like?”
The Toa of Fire shrugged, uncomfortable at the question. He had never grown used to his erratic visions of the future. “I suppose so. Sometimes.”
“Then I pity you, brother,” Onewa said softly. “I truly do.”
Whenua had turned his attention back to the vault. If anyone had asked, he was simply searching for the vial they were here to find. But secretly, he half-hoped there might be a second one of those creatures inside. What a Rahi for study, he thought. A hybrid, perhaps, and a symbiote… I would stake my reputation on it. Nuju was right, we could have learned so much – but not at the risk of Onewa’s sanity.
To his disappointment, there was nothing else alive in the vault. But nestled in the back there was a vial made of a peculiar, black metallic substance. Whenua grabbed it and turned to the other Toa, “We have begun. Now we only need the energized protodermis.”
Matau smiled. “Librarian, that is like saying we ‘only’ need to clean-polish a Muaka’s teeth… from the inside.”
After all they had been through on the journey thus far, the Toa Metru hoped for an uneventful passage to Makuta’s lair. They were badly disappointed. The closer they came to their destination, the thicker and faster came the Rahi, both creatures they were familiar with and mutants not even a mad Matoran could have dreamed of. Some fled, and some fought, but the Toa found no glory in the battles. Even Nuju, who had never encouraged any connection between himself and the natural world, could sense that these beasts attacked out of desperation, not evil. The realization chilled even the Toa of Ice.
It might have been after their tenth victory, or their hundredth, that Nuju gave voice to his thoughts. They had all lost count of how many Rahi they had defeated, and dreaded the new waves that were sure to come. Matau had looked around at the scene of the struggle, saying, “Even trapped, Makuta has many guard-fighters. He must need his alone-time when he is making monsters.”
“They aren’t guards,” Nuju said. “Maybe they were at one time, but they aren’t trying to stop us from reaching our destination.”
“Then why all the slash and roar?”
“It’s not so strange, Matau. How would you react if you were trying to escape someplace, and others blocked your way?”
Nuju’s words stopped Vakama in his tracks. He grasped their implications immediately, and wished he could just dismiss the Toa of Ice’s theories as nothing more than dark fantasies springing from this terrible place. The only problem was Nuju had a nasty habit of being right.
“Think about it,” the Toa of Ice continued. “The Nui-Jaga who ran to its death… the Muaka whose pain Nokama sensed… and the strange creatures we have encountered all along this journey. We have grown so used to battle that we see enemies even when there are none, brothers and sister. These beasts are not charging toward us – they are running away from something.”
“Do you remember the stone rat plague?” asked Whenua. “You know, when they swarmed up out of the streets of Ta-Metru and devastated the district for weeks? Everyone thought it was hunger and instinct that drove them to the surface… until we discovered the Nui-Rama swarm loose in the maintenance tunnels, preying on the rats’ nests.”
Vakama’s memories of that terrible time were all too vivid. Even Toa Lhikan, who had defeated the mightiest Rahi, almost found himself helpless before an assault by some of the smallest. “They hadn’t mounted an attack on the metru,” he remembered aloud. “They were just trying to get away from something worse than themselves.”
The Toa stood in silence, thinking about the scores of monstrosities they had faced since entering this maze of shadows. And the same question echoed in all their minds: What could possibly be more terrible than what we have seen?