Balta sank down to the floor of the cave. How long had he been in here? Hours? Days? He had lost track of time quickly after discovering that the Piraka had trapped him and left him to die.
He had been fleeing Thok and Vezok when he ducked inside the cavern. Finding a good hiding place, he waited, planning to ambush whichever Piraka came in looking for him. Vezok entered, did a quick search, and left before Balta could spring his trap. To the Matoran’s surprise, the Piraka had then rolled a huge boulder over the mouth of the cave, sealing him inside.
He knew I was in here. He just didn’t know where, and he wasn’t going to go exploring, Balta thought. There isn’t any other way out of here. Air’s already getting thin. I hope the others escaped, at least…
Balta closed his eyes and began to drift into unconsciousness. He wondered if Dalu and the others were searching for him. Even if they were, it wouldn’t matter. They would never be able to move that boulder. Balta doubted if even Garan’s pulse bolts could demolish it in time.
A sharp crack suddenly punctuated his thoughts. At first, he thought someone might be striking the boulder. Then he realized the sound hadn’t come from that direction, but rather from the cave wall. An instant later, there was another crack and the wall actually split in two. Balta caught a brief flash of what looked like a massive axe blade slicing through the stone.
Oh, I get it, he said to himself. I’ve lost my mind.
“Well, what are you waiting for, Naming Day?” said a deep, rumbling voice. “Get out of there!”
Balta got up and peered through the crevice. A tunnel extended well beyond it, but it showed no signs of having been dug. Instead, it looked as if the stone had been cleaved. A huge figure, axe in hand, was standing there waiting for him, but it was too dark to make out his features.
“Go and find a place to hide,” the figure said. “The Piraka are in complete control of the island. Next time they spot you, Balta, they won’t trap you… they will kill you.”
“Who are you?” asked the Matoran, stepping into the tunnel. “How do you know my name?”
“Let us just say I am a friend,” said the massive figure. “A friend who wishes he could do more to help right now, but even my powers are limited. Go. Get to your companions and tell them to stay out of the Piraka’s way.”
Balta did as he was bid, but shook his head as he ran. “I can do the first, but not the last,” he called back. “They have captured our home, and we will take it back!”
“Then at least stop them from making the terrible mistake they soon will make, Balta. Or else, I tell you truly, they will be cursed in the sight of Mata Nui for all time.”
The mighty figure watched the Matoran run off. The villagers would sacrifice everything for each other, even their lives, in an effort to free Voya Nui. Sadly, he reflected on a time when he, too, had had a friend for whom he would have given his life. But that was past now, or soon would be. All he had left was the cause he believed in.
And that I will never surrender, he thought grimly. Not so long as the Great Spirit Mata Nui lives.
Far from Voya Nui, Jaller had at last run out of patience.
“Takanuva! Takanuva!” he called into the dark tunnel mouth. Behind him, the other five Matoran watched uneasily.
“Maybe he’s hurt,” said Hahli. “We should go in after him.”
“Not unprotected,” said Nuparu. “Give me a few minutes and maybe I can put something together. I brought my tools with me.”
“We haven’t got a few minutes,” said Jaller. “Kongu, Hewkii, come with me. Hahli, Matoro, Nuparu, give us thirty seconds and then you follow. Make sure your lightstones are lit, and stay together.”
The three Matoran stepped into the shadows of the tunnel. Instantly, the glow of their lightstones vanished. Curious and concerned, Hahli took a few steps forward and extended her lightstone into the tunnel. As soon as it entered the mouth, its illumination disappeared. Then she withdrew it, only to find it still as bright as before.
“Now, that’s weird,” she said.
“Here,” said Nuparu, extending a length of cable to her. “I salvaged this from the ruins in Metru Nui. Loop the cable around your waist so we three are linked together. Once we’re inside, keep talking. If light doesn’t work in there, then we can follow the sound of your voice.”
Hahli turned and started inside the tunnel. Matoro’s words stopped her. “Hahli, before we go in… there’s something… Turaga Nuju said something.”
The Ga-Matoran turned. Matoro had been Nuju’s translator for centuries and was bound by an oath never to repeat anything he learned as a result of that position. For him to even consider breaking that oath, it had to be something serious.
Matoro took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Nuju said they sent the Toa to Voya Nui in canisters, like the ones they used to come to Mata Nui. He said there was no other safe way for them to make the journey. He said… he said the way to Voya Nui passes through a land of the dead.”
Hahli reached out to put a comforting hand on his arm. “Matoro, the Turaga speak in riddles sometimes. You know that. I’ve rowed through winding streams that were straighter than their words, most times. There is no ‘land of the dead,’ any more than there is some hidden paradise called Artakha. They are just legends, my friend. Now, let’s go.”
Matoro nodded and fell into step behind Nuparu. But he couldn’t help thinking how frequently the legends told by Turaga turned out to be all too painfully true.
As soon as he crossed the threshold into the tunnel, Matoro’s lightstone went out. The same had obviously happened to the others, as he was surrounded by complete darkness. Despite Nuparu’s advice, Hahli was staying silent, which Matoro found unnerving.
“Speak up!” he shouted. “Where are you?” At least, those are the words his mouth formed, but no sound emerged. He reached down and felt the cable around his waist – yes, it was still there, and still taut. The others had to be up ahead of him.
He stumbled forward in the darkness, once almost tripping on a rock. He stuck his arm out and could feel the stone wall to the side, but could not find Nuparu in front of him. If it had not been for the cable, he would have felt hopelessly lost, alone, desperate, and maybe even panicked. As it was, at least he didn’t feel alone.
He stumbled again, this time over something that felt alive. He reached down and felt someone grab his hand. Matoro smiled. It felt good to make physical contact with one of his friends, even if they couldn’t see each other or speak. He helped the prone figure to his feet and held tight to his hand, trying to lead him out of the darkness.
Matoro felt a tug on the cable, then another. He picked up the pace, still guiding his unseen friend. Around a corner, he spotted light – wonderful light, glorious light! There were Hahli, Nuparu, Takanuva, Jaller… and Hewkii… and Kongu… and…
And if they are all there… whose hand am I holding?
Matoro turned quickly even as he felt the hand in his slip away. There was no one to be seen. He turned back to his friends, looking down at his hand and trying not to show how shaken he felt.
“What is it? You look upset,” said Hahli.
“Just… missing someone,” he replied, not looking up at her. “Or some… thing.”
“What do you mean, you left the Toa on the slope?” Zaktan hissed. The emerald-armored leader of the Piraka looked from one member of his team to the other, his expression daring them to speak.
“What were we supposed to do?” Vezok finally growled. “Stand there and burn with them? The lava was heading right for them. By now they’re charred armor, and not much else.”
Zaktan’s eyes glowed red. Twin lasers shot from them and struck Vezok. The impact of the blow knocked the Piraka across the room and seared a hole in his shoulder armor.
“You were supposed to follow your orders,” said Zaktan in a deathly quiet tone. “Getting rid of those Toa Nuva was more important than your miserable lives. I would gladly have sacrificed the five of you to be rid of the six of them.”
“We like you, too,” muttered Avak.
“These are Toa,” Zaktan continued. “It was Toa who defeated the Dark Hunters when we attempted to conquer Metru Nui. It was Toa who engineered the war between us and the Brotherhood of Makuta that still rages today. Leaving a Toa, any Toa, alive is like keeping a doom viper for companionship.”
“Hey, we’ve all fought Toa before,” growled Reidak. “Some of us even look forward to it. But like Vezok said, they’re dead. Ashes. I’m sure of it.”
Zaktan allowed the microscopic protodites that made up his body to drift apart until he resembled a dark cloud hovering over the Piraka. When he spoke, his voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. “I remember the last time you were ‘sure,’ Reidak. Do you?”
The cloud drifted toward the vat of antidermis, the strange substance that had transformed Voya Nui’s Matoran into hollow-eyed slaves. “Once, we were seven, or have you forgotten?” Zaktan continued. “Our seventh member discovered the existence of the Mask of Life along with us, and the clues to where it was hidden. You were sure, Reidak, that he would not betray us. You were wrong.
“He came to this island on his own, in secret, determined to brave the fires of the volcano and steal the mask.” The protodites drifted together once more, forming a body for Zaktan. He grinned evilly. “And he never returned.”
“Perhaps he found the mask,” said Hakann. “Did you ever think of that?”
Zaktan stared off into space for a moment. When next he spoke, the multitude of voices that usually came from his lips had been joined by one other, a guttural growl none of the Piraka had ever heard before. “No,” he said. “If the Mask of Life had been found… I would know.”
None of the Piraka were sure whether they believed Zaktan. At the same time, none were foolish enough to openly disagree with him. After a few moments, he turned his attention back to them.
“How many Matoran died in the eruption?”
“Too many,” said Thok. “Work has stopped completely on some parts of the mountain. The lava is only being drained out of the volcano at half the rate of before.”
“Hakann, make them work harder,” ordered Zaktan. “Make an example of some of them if you believe it will pierce their dull brains. Avak, you remain here with me. The rest of you – find the Toa Nuva. Kill them. If there is a Toa still alive at sundown… you won’t be.”
Hakann, Thok, Vezok, and Reidak filed out of the chamber. Thok glanced over his shoulder and saw Zaktan already deep in conversation with Avak. “What do you think they’re talking about?”
“Doom. Destruction. The end of all existence,” said Hakann, sounding bored. “You know Zaktan, always great company.”
“Remind me,” said Vezok, nursing his wounded shoulder. “Was he always the hind-quarters of a Muaka, or is this something new?”
Reidak shook his head. “He’s worse now. Ever since we went to Metru Nui and found Makuta’s shattered armor, he’s been a little… on edge. He stopped caring about loot, or even grabbing a city for ourselves. All he wanted was the Mask of Life.”
Hakann chuckled. “Mask of Life for him,” he said. “But death, perhaps, for all of us?”