Kongu paused, stretched his aching muscles, and gazed up at the summit in the distance. He, Jaller, and the others had been following a winding trail up a mountainside for what felt like days. More than once, they had believed they were near the top, only to reach a plateau and find the rock extended several hundred feet higher up.
“I don’t have any hope-faith that there is a peak to this mountain,” he muttered. “I think it just goes up and up until we are mask-to-mask with Mata Nui himself.”
“Then maybe we can talk to him about sleeping on the job,” Nuparu answered. “If I had the right materials, you know, I could make us some climbing gear. We’d be at the top in no time.”
Hewkii shook his head. “You miners and tree swingers are out of shape. In Po-Koro, we used to climb pebbles like this every day, just for the view.”
Kongu glanced at his companion in disbelief. Hewkii managed to hold a serious expression for only a few seconds before breaking into a grin.
“Only thing worse than a Po-Matoran carver is a Po-Matoran carver with a sense of humor,” said Nuparu, laughing.
A scuttling sound above and to the right brought the chatter and the laughter to an abrupt halt. Kongu bounded up the slope and looked around. Then he turned back to the others and shrugged. “I don’t see anything,” he whispered.
Matoro caught up to the others. He had obviously heard the sound as well. “Maybe we should head back down? Find another way to where we’re going?”
“There is no other way,” said Hewkii. “Kongu and I already looked. It’s up the mountain or nothing.”
Jaller and Hahli approached, talking in hushed tones. The Ta-Matoran was scanning the rocks with his keen eyes, searching for movement. He found none. “We’ll keep going, but carefully,” he decided. “What we all heard might just be some Rahi, or it might mean there is someone else here. Maybe even the same someone responsible for the Toa Nuva’s disappearance.”
“So we walk into a trap?” asked Hahli, resuming the climb.
“No,” replied Jaller. “We just make sure we spring it ourselves.”
The next hour was spent hiking up the mountain with periodic stops for rest. The scuttling sounds had become more frequent as they climbed higher, until they became almost constant. They obviously came from something large, but it remained unseen, a fact that bothered Nuparu.
“It doesn’t make sense,” the Onu-Matoran said. “How can a creature so big stay out of sight?”
“Ever try to catch a dermis turtle when it doesn’t want to be caught?” said Hahli. “They’re slow, but they know their home territory – every rock, every patch of seaweed. They can hide for days while you swim over, around, and past them.”
“So we’re being stalked by a really big turtle?” asked Kongu.
The harsh, clattering sound of something scrambling across the rocks came again, this time almost on top of them. At about the same time, Jaller pointed to the rocks just above them. A lone Matoran was peering down at them, close enough for the party to get a good look. His mask, in the shape of a Kanohi Rau, was weathered and dented in numerous places. His armor was scratched and discolored. Most striking of all, his left arm was badly damaged and hung limply at his side.
“Who are you?” Hahli shouted to the Matoran. “Come down and maybe we can help you.”
The figure never moved, just stared at her with frightened eyes.
“If he’s not coming down, we’ll have to go up,” said Jaller. “Slowly, all, let’s try not to scare him off.”
Moving casually, the six Matoran made their way up the slope. Jaller held out his arms, palms up, to show he carried no weapons. Hahli forced herself to smile. None of it seemed to make any difference to their new companion.
“Do you think there is something wrong with him?” whispered Kongu.
“He lives here,” Hewkii replied. “So I’d say that’s a good guess.”
When they were within about five paces of the Matoran, the scuttling noises returned, this time from both sides. Jaller threw up his hand to halt the group just as the source of the sounds made themselves visible. Two monstrous crabs emerged from the rocks to flank the silent Matoran, followed by two more, and then two more. Although no one in Jaller’s party had ever seen such a thing before, they all knew what they were from tales told by the Toa.
“Manas,” Hahli said, shocked.
“This is impossible,” said Matoro. “The Toa said there were only two of them, and they were driven off. Toa Onua encountered one later on and survived to tell the story. How can there be six?”
Two more Manas appeared now, moving to stand by the others. The Matoran they crowded near appeared to take no notice of them.
“Eight,” said Hewkii. “And maybe Toa can’t count?”
“We need a plan,” said Matoro.
“Would screaming and running count?” asked Kongu. “Cause that seems like a really good plan right now.”
The silent Matoran took a step forward, gestured for the others to follow, then turned and began to walk up the slope. After a moment, the Manas turned and started after him. Jaller’s group stood for a moment, puzzled, before Hahli began to follow as well.
“What are you doing?” asked Nuparu. “You’re going in the direction of the Manas!”
“I’m the Chronicler,” she answered, not looking back. “Finding answers is part of my job.”
The six Matoran did not have to travel far. Their strange guide and the Manas led them into a bowl-shaped canyon. All around, they saw Matoran in various stages of disrepair, many of them vastly different in size and mask style from those Jaller was familiar with. They regarded the newcomers with hollow, haunted eyes. As the small party passed by, these wounded Matoran fell into step behind them, moving silently like an army of ghosts.
“What is this place?” asked Nuparu. “It looks like one of Makuta’s daydreams.”
“All of these Matoran look frightened,” said Jaller. “No, beyond frightened… resigned… like they lost hope long, long ago.”
“Can’t say I blame them,” remarked Hahli. “Look up ahead.”
The metal structure she pointed to might have once been a landmark to rival the Metru Nui Coliseum. Now it was a charred, twisted ruin whose towers reached up like claws eager to rend the sky. Dull fires burned within, but there was nothing welcoming about their glow.
An explosion suddenly rocked the canyon. Jaller and the others turned to see a small volcano erupting to the east. Amazingly, it spewed chunks of ice into the air that flew high and then landed with a crash. Matoro approached one of the frozen missiles and reached out to touch it, only to pull his hand back with a cry.
Jaller touched a fingertip to the ice and drew it back quickly. “He’s right. This ice is searing. But at such a temperature, it should melt… shouldn’t it?”
Hahli gave a shout. They turned to see her standing knee-deep in a pool of water, staring wide-eyed at a “waterfall” consisting completely of dust. It billowed over the rocks, an arid brown cloud, but where it came from, she could not tell.
“Why do I think that if we find a fire here, it will freeze us?” said Nuparu. “Or that the only thing that might fall from the clouds above is a hail of stones?”
“Let’s see if we can set a record for fastest to get out of this place,” said Matoro.
A violent flash of lightning ripped through the sky overhead, but no thunder accompanied it. A few moments later, a gentle breeze rippled the water of the pond, producing an earsplitting thunderclap.
“Okay, that does it,” said Jaller. “There has to be a way through or around this canyon and we’re finding it.”
The group turned to leave the way they had come, only to find a half dozen Manas blocking their way. More of the monstrous crabs were now lining the rim of the canyon as well, silently regarding the newcomers. The only way open to the Matoran was forward.
It was not an easy trek. At one point, they passed through what seemed like a statuary garden, with stone sculptures of Matoran everywhere. When they started to move on, they discovered that the rock beneath their feet screamed with each step. The sounds so unnerved the party that they stopped dead.
“Maybe we should just wait here until we wake up,” said Hahli. “Because this has to be a bad dream.”
“It is indeed a dream, little Matoran… and the last one you will ever know.”
The words came from a huge armored figure who blocked their path up ahead. Like the fortress from which he had emerged, he was battered and twisted and his mask looked as if it had been patched together from three or four different ones. His ebon and gold armor was studded with razor-sharp blades, and his gauntlets crackled with energy. In one hand he held a burning length of chain. His eyes were a deep, hollow black, and when he spoke, his voice was surprisingly quiet, as if he had not used it for a very long time.
“Who are you?” asked Hewkii. “What kind of crazy place is this?”
The powerful figure smiled. “This is my home… and now yours as well. It has been many, many centuries since any Matoran came here. You are most welcome. As for who I am, you may call me Karzahni.”
The name seemed familiar to the Matoran, but they could not place it at first. Then Hahli whispered, “I knew I had heard that name before. It was in one of Turaga Vakama’s tales. He said there was an ancient legend that Matoran who were poor workers were sent to a place of darkness ruled by a being called Karzahni… and none of them ever returned.”
Jaller nodded. “And later, Makuta named one of his plant creatures ‘Karzahni’ as his private joke. But the original tale was just a legend, I thought.”
“You should know by now,” replied Kongu. “Matoran legends are usually true and always lethal.”
“Sad, but true,” added Hahli. “As Chronicler, I have written down my share, and it tends to be grim work.”
Karzahni spoke again. “Long ago… perhaps 100,000 years, perhaps more, I lose track… Matoran came here by the score. Some were damaged, others simply possessed a lack of dedication to their work. A small number found a new life here… and the rest found only what they had expected, which was nothing at all.”
“These Matoran don’t look like they are enjoying their ‘new life’ very much,” Hahli remarked.
Karzahni smiled. “I suppose they find it preferable to the alternative… as you will, too, no doubt, provided I give you the choice.”
“This is monstrous!” snapped Jaller. “I can’t believe that the Great Spirit Mata Nui would allow such a place to exist. Even Makuta would not –”
He stopped speaking when he realized Karzahni looked completely confused. “Mata Nui?” said the armored figure. “Makuta? Who are they? And what possible influence would they have here?”
A dozen of Karzahni’s Matoran closed in then, stripping the party of their tools and supplies. Then Karzahni stretched out his arms toward Jaller and the rest, prepared to receive the last and most important things they possessed.
“Your masks,” he said. “Take them off.”
Jaller shook his head. He had only recently learned that the mask he wore had once belonged to Turaga Lhikan, a great hero of Metru Nui. Lhikan had died to save the Matoran from Makuta. There was no way Jaller would simply surrender his mask to anyone.
“You can remove them, or I can have them removed,” Karzahni continued, his tone growing more menacing. “Decide.”
“Try it,” said Jaller. Energy flashed from Karzahni’s gauntlet. Jaller braced himself for a physical impact, but there was none. Instead, the world around him melted and shifted until he was back in a place he knew well, reliving a moment he could never forget.
It was Kini Nui, the most sacred site on all of the island of Mata Nui. He and his best friend, Takua, were battling monstrous Rahkshi alongside the Toa Nuva. The Rahkshi Turahk was advancing on Takua, and Jaller knew he had to save his comrade. He knew what was about to happen, for he had already experienced this months ago. He would sacrifice himself to save Takua, who would then don the Mask of Light and become a powerful Toa. The fact that he was eventually brought back to life did not lessen the importance of what Jaller had done that day.
Only now something was different. Jaller was telling himself to run, leap, block the Rahkshi from reaching Takua, but his body was not responding. As if it were happening in slow motion, he saw the Rahkshi blast Takua with concentrated fear energy. His friend screamed, staggered, and then fell dead from sheer fright.
Time shot forward. With Takua dead, the Toa of Light never came to be. The Rahkshi stole the Mask of Light so that there would never be any chance of such a Toa rising against him. Makuta created more and more Rahkshi to send against the island of Mata Nui, until eventually the Toa Nuva were overwhelmed and destroyed. Emboldened by his victory, Makuta himself led the next attack, capturing and imprisoning the Turaga and enslaving the Matoran. Any violation of Makuta’s law, or any hesitation in carrying out his orders, was punishable by death. It took only the loss of a few villagers for the rest to decide it made more sense to just obey.
The only glimmer of hope in the next thousand years came when Turaga Onewa led a breakout and it seemed like the village elders might escape. Instead, they ran into a patrol of Rahkshi. Jaller wished he could close his mind’s eye and not have to see what happened next. As it was, he was forced to watch every gruesome moment of the battle and its inevitable conclusion.
The final image was the worst of all. He and Hahli, once among the bravest of Matoran, were reduced to being personal servants to Makuta. The expressions on their faces looked far too much like those of Karzahni’s Matoran for comfort.
That realization snapped Jaller out of the illusion. He was back in this strange land, surrounded by his friends and confronting his tormentor. But the vision he had seen had done its work. He couldn’t easily shake the feelings of despair and hopelessness that it had sparked. He knew he had saved Takua in real life, but now he also knew what it would have been like if he had failed. What if he failed again? What if this time Hahli or Matoro died because he wasn’t fast enough? It might be better just not to try anything.
Eyes locked on the ground, as silent as the Matoran of Karzahni’s realm, Jaller reached up and took off his mask.