There were no carvings to point the way to Makuta’s lair, no signs warning the Toa to go back if they valued their lives. Only darkness greeted them as they descended ever deeper – darkness and the incessant whisper of the Karzahni, speaking through the plant growth on the tunnel walls.
“Now, Toa,” it said urgently. “You draw closer to my birthplace. Already you can feel your spirits grow cold and your minds rebel. This place is alive with memories, twisted memories of madness. Tread carefully, my allies.”
“Allies,” muttered Vakama. “I would sooner team with Makuta himself.”
“Makuta is not here,” whispered the Karzahni. “And I am. It is truly a circumstance ripe with possibilities.”
The argument was ended by Whenua, who stood before a dead end in the tunnel. “I think we have found it, Vakama. But I can feel something in the ground… a power… movement. Something is in there, I’m sure of it.”
“Then let’s not keep it waiting,” said Vakama. Placing his hand on the metallic gateway, he melted a hole through its substance. Then he stepped aside to allow Whenua to reach inside and grab hold. With a great heave, the Toa of Earth tore the door from its hinges.
The smell of smoke, rot, and molten protodermis struck the Toa Metru like a fist. They half expected to see the winged, armored shape of their nemesis emerge from the darkness within, but nothing moved beyond the entryway. Hesitantly, the Toa stepped into the chamber, every sense alert for danger.
Massive stone pillars stood in the four corners of the lair, carved with symbols so ancient even Nokama’s Mask of Translation proved useless. The walls were lined with large stasis tubes, much like the ones used in the Archives. Some were shattered, others still housed Rahi, most of them dead. The creatures were altered beyond all recognition, and in some cases, it seemed impossible that they could ever have existed.
The dominant feature of the chamber was a huge, silvery pool of energized protodermis in the center of the floor. Its surface was so calm that Nuju almost thought it might be a sheet of ice. The Toa Metru gathered around the circular pit that held the object of Karzahni’s desire.
“Imagine,” Matau said. “If this can do what Nuju speak-says…”
“The power to create, and to destroy,” Nuju whispered. “What could be greater? With this, one could be elevated to heights undreamed of.”
“Or be doomed to the darkness below,” said Vakama. “Let’s not forget that the Morbuzakh, the Karzahni, and a legion of monsters were spawned in this place, born of Makuta’s madness and power like this.”
The Toa of Fire took the vial from Whenua and knelt down to take a sample from the pool. “The sooner we have what we seek and get away from here, the better I will like it.”
At the slightest touch of the vial, the energized protodermis began to boil. Matau pulled Vakama away from the edge as the liquid grew more agitated, as if building to an explosion. Then, before the startled eyes of the Toa Metru, something rose from the pool.
At first, they thought it was simply a wave of protodermis that would engulf them. But the liquid hung suspended and then began to reshape itself, forming a head and two arms. Features began to appear on the face and hands to grow from the ends of the limbs. Yet, through it all, the substance never changed, only the shape, as it took on the semblance of the Toa Metru. When all was done, what hovered above the pool was a living entity made entirely of energized protodermis.
“I am the guardian of this place,” it said. Though its tone was calm and emotionless, its voice rumbled like thunder in the chamber. “You have come to take that which is forbidden. It is not to be.”
“Who are you to deny us?” asked Vakama boldly. “We are Toa Metru from the city of legends, seeking only a small portion of what you protect for a vital mission.”
“Do you seek to create, or to undo creation?” asked the protodermis being.
“Neither,” said Nuju. “We are attempting to buy safe passage to Metru Nui from the Karzahni, with hopes of saving the Matoran trapped in eternal sleep in that place.”
A ripple ran through the being as it pondered Nuju’s words. Then it fixed its eyes upon the Toa of Ice and said, “The Karzahni is known to me, for I was there at its birth… a pretender to the throne of shadows, it was, from its first moment of existence. I have no love for it, yet still you may not have what you seek.”
“But the Matoran –”
“What are the Matoran to me?” snapped the entity. “They are but the living. I am life. Behold.”
The being raised an arm and a stream of energized protodermis flowed from its hand. It struck a tiny buzzing insect that flew near the ceiling. The Toa watched in awe as the insect metamorphosized, growing to a thousand times its original size, its wingspan easily 200 feet across, its stinger replaced by a jaw filled with metallic teeth. It dove at the assembled Toa Metru.
“Scatter!” shouted Vakama. “Together we are too easy a target!”
Nuju aimed an ice bolt at the flying monstrosity. The creature responded by flapping its wings so fast they became a blur. The ice projectile stopped just short of the beast and rebounded toward Nuju, striking the Toa of Ice squarely and knocking him off his feet.
“Interesting,” murmured the protodermis entity. “Its defense mechanisms have been enhanced, so that wing vibration generates a field capable of reflecting back force hurled against it.”
“This isn’t some experiment!” Whenua shouted, narrowly avoiding another pass by the mutated insect. “This is real!”
“As real as the Metru Nui Archives?” replied the entity. “Did you worry about the feelings of the lesser beings you caged and studied and gawked at? No, Toa. I am as far beyond you as you are from the lowliest Rahi. You are all insects to me.”
Onewa backflipped out of the way of the monster’s snapping jaws. “Great. We’re getting battered and he’s giving lectures.”
As the other Toa fought a holding action against the entity’s creation, Nokama stood to the side and studied its movements. Although now far more dangerous, the beast’s instincts had not changed, and nor had its strategies. Instead of charging and demolishing its foes, it persisted in diving and then retreating, as a small insect would. She saw an opening, and knew that there was no one better to take advantage of it than her – after all, her hours were numbered regardless.
When the creature dove again, she jumped on its back. It immediately climbed toward the ceiling, but she hung on, inching her way up toward its head. Positioned as she was, the beast could not turn to snap at her, but it swooped and dove in an effort to shake her off.
Nokama readied her hydro blade. Before the beast could react, she had slipped the tool across its neck and then grabbed it with her other hand. Then she pulled hard on the blade, back and to the right. Faced with the prospect of turning or choking, the creature veered to the right.
“What is that crazy teacher doing?” asked Onewa.
“Steering,” replied Nuju.
“I wonder if that would work with Gukko birds?” wondered Matau.
High above, Nokama was engaged in a war of wills with the creature. Every time it tried to dive toward the Toa Metru, she yanked hard and forced it back up. It made a noise that was a combination of a buzz and a screech. Using the Mask of Translation, Nokama replied, “I am not letting go. You can crash into a wall and kill us both, or you can work with me.”
Nokama’s fellow Toa watched as the creature slowly went from flying wildly and erratically to circling near the cavern ceiling. Even having previously seen Nokama engage in conversation with a Kikanalo herd chief, they found it hard to believe she could tame such a beast. The protodermis entity had watched her efforts with interest as well, but the expression on his liquid features indicated he had lost patience with the display.
“What I begin,” he said, raising his arm, “I can also end.” A jet of energized protodermis flew from him to strike the airborne creature. It writhed at the touch of the fluid and plummeted to the ground. Nokama leapt from its back and used blasts of water to slow her descent until Matau could safely catch her.
The Rahi hit the ground and lay still, before finally dissolving into nothingness again. “It was not this creature’s destiny to transform a second time,” said the entity. “And so its time is done. Learn from the example, Toa.”
Vakama loaded a weakness disk into his launcher and took aim. “The only thing we have learned is that you are as coldhearted as Makuta your master,” he snarled, sending the Kanoka disk toward its target.
The entity watched the Kanoka’s approach impassively. The disk struck him head-on and immediately disintegrated. “Master? I have no master. Can anyone hope to master a force of the universe? Take your foolish beliefs and begone, Toa. Do not tempt my wrath.”
The entity punctuated his words with another jet of energized protodermis, this one aimed at Matau. Whenua tackled the Toa of Air just before the liquid would have struck. “Get down!”
“But I might have been – ouch! – transformed,” said Matau as he hit the ground. “I could have become a new-power Toa.”
Whenua glanced up at where the protodermis had struck the wall, eating it away. “You know, brother, sometimes I think you have all the common sense of that wall,” he muttered, “and are at least twice as thick.”
In rapid succession, the entity mutated worms, microbes, a dozen different creatures who in their natural form were no threat. But touched by the power of energized protodermis, they became monstrous versions of their former selves, each one strong enough to defeat a Toa.
The Toa Metru defended themselves, with elemental and mask powers against the creations of the protodermis entity. At first, it seemed like they would be brought low by sheer numbers. But when Whenua’s Mask of Night Vision succeeded in blinding a rock worm and driving it back below the surface, the others took heart. Inch by inch, they advanced on the creatures until the horrors had all fallen or fled.
With that conflict done, Vakama signaled for the Toa to spread out and surround the pool. He, Nuju, Onewa, and Nokama each took up a position in front of one of the chamber’s four pillars. The entity made no effort to stop them.
“The wrath of a puddle,” said Nuju. “That might be amusing. Show us, creature, just how angry a pail of water can become.”
The entity hurled its substance forth again, but not at Nuju, past him. It struck the far wall, but this time it did not dissolve the stone. Instead, a bipedal creature of rock detached itself from the wall and lumbered toward the Toa of Ice.
“I think this is the part where we ‘lesser beings’ are supposed to scream and run away,” said Onewa. “You know what we do with rock in Po-Metru, friend?”
The Toa of Stone sent his elemental powers against the entity’s creation. Instantly, the legs crumbled beneath the rock monster. “We smash it.”
Another wave of power and the arms detached neatly and fell to the floor. “We carve it.”
A final burst of energy and the rock creature crumbled to dust. “And sometimes we just give up…” Onewa said. Concentrating, he drew the rock dust and shattered pieces back together to form a boulder. “And start over again.”
Onewa folded his arms and looked at the protodermis entity. “But then, we’re not on your level, are we?”
Something in Onewa’s tone sparked anger in the entity. It hurled another blast of protodermis. Onewa dodged and it struck the pillar, devouring the stone. Vakama saw this and smiled.
“I would have thought a superior being would have better aim,” he shouted. “Or do you only fight through pawns?”
The entity whirled and sent forth another blast, missing again and melting another pillar. Then it, too, smiled. “Ah. I see what you are doing. You would have me destroy all four pillars and bury us all.”
“Well, bury you,” said Matau. “Us, we are not much for rock-blankets.”
“You’re right,” said Vakama. “You are wiser than we are, so there is no point in trying to trick you. And no one of us could ever hope to defeat you…”
The Toa Metru had come a long way together since defeating the Morbuzakh in Metru Nui. They had survived betrayal, stopped Makuta, and fought their way to a new island home and now back. So all knew Vakama’s statement was not just mere words, but a call to action.
The Toa of Fire was first, triggering his rocket pack and heading for the ceiling. Onewa and Whenua were next, using their powers to call forth walls of earth and stone around the pool. As the entity brought them down, it found itself confronted by more barriers of rock and ice. High above, Matau and Nokama combined their powers to form a violent storm inside the cave. Forked lightning bolts struck near the pool, charring the stone floor.
The protodermis entity turned this way and that, unsure where to strike first. It could easily end the existence of any of these Toa, but where to concentrate its powers? Targeting one would leave it vulnerable to the efforts of the others, and though they could not harm him, they might somehow damage the pool.
Matau shot past, using his aero-slicer blades and power over wind to propel him through the air. The entity tracked him and launched a blast of protodermis at a point in front of the Toa of Air. Matau chuckled and made a 180-degree turn straight up, avoiding the stream, which instead hit the third pillar. The entity cried out in rage at the sight.
Vakama signaled the others to halt their actions. He descended to the ground, standing face to face with the entity, mere inches away. “One pillar left,” said the Toa of Fire. “We could never have brought down four before you stopped us, but one? That we can do.”
“Go ahead,” sneered the entity. “Rain a thousand tons of rock upon me. I will burn my way through it and still repay your defiance.”
Nuju walked over to join Vakama. “Perhaps. Or perhaps another of Makuta’s interesting little projects is up above… a creature that eats energized protodermis would seem to suit his warped ends. Maybe you would like to study that specimen?”
Onewa leaned casually against the fine pillar. “Sounds interesting. Let’s not keep the two of them apart.”
“You are speaking without knowledge,” said the entity. It did not sound as if it believed its own words.
“Then Onewa can bring down the rock and we can all find out,” said Vakama. “Or we can make a trade. We get our vial of protodermis and walk out, unharmed, and no further damage gets done to your chamber.”
The entity paused in thought. Then it bowed its head slightly, and said, “Very well. As a superior being, I can afford to be… generous.”
Vakama dipped the vial into the pool, emerging with a small amount of the precious liquid. Then he backed slowly away, never taking his eyes off the entity. When he and the other Toa were near the entrance, they turned and headed for the tunnel.
Nokama was the first to hear the rushing sound, as if a wall of water was heading toward them. She turned to see that the entity had formed itself into a tidal wave and was bearing down upon them. She shouted a warning, but by then the other Toa had sighted the danger as well. Onewa lashed out with his elemental energies and shattered the last pillar, bringing the stone ceiling crashing down.
The entity’s substance hung suspended for only a moment, as if in shock. Then an avalanche of rock plummeted down upon it, the great weight breaking through the floor beneath. Safe in the tunnel, the Toa Metru watched as the entire chamber collapsed into the darkness.
“That’s the problem with superior beings,” said Onewa. “They lie a lot.”
“Such a waste,” Nokama said, shaking her head sadly. “Makuta, the Karzahni, and now this… so much power, so much knowledge, but no spirit – only the drive to destroy.”
The Toa turned as one and walked quickly, leaving the chamber far behind them.