Jaller hefted the launcher in his left hand, appreciating the lightweight feel and the efficiency of design. Velika had handed them out to all the Toa Inika before they departed the Matoran refuge. He had made some comment about flames being the surest way to stop a fire, which made no sense to Jaller at all.
The Toa and Matoran resisters had split into three teams. Jaller, Hahli, Dalu, and Piruk were headed for the northern face of the volcano. Velika had assured them that the ammunition in the launchers would be able to free the enslaved Matoran workers.
“What are these things loaded with?” Jaller asked as they walked.
“Keep quiet and keep moving,” Dalu replied. Hahli’s eyes widened at her tone.
“Don’t mind her,” Piruk said quietly. “She’s just edgy. Anyway, that building we were in is an old fortress built long before Voya Nui floated where it is now. We were securing underground entrances to it when Velika found this silvery pool. None of us knew what it was, but he insists it will free our friends from the effects of the zamor spheres. I snuck into the Piraka stronghold, stole some spheres, and Velika filled them up with the stuff. Who knows if they’ll work… but even death would be better than being slaves to the Piraka, I guess.”
“Maybe you two would like to take a rest and discuss the history of Voya Nui?” Dalu snapped. “I’m sure Toa Hahli and I can manage this mission without you.”
“Dalu!” Hahli exclaimed. “We’re all on the same team here. Let’s not fight among ourselves. In Metru Nui –”
“Right,” said Dalu. “I’m sure where you come from, Ga-Matoran are all gentle peace-makers who never raise their voices. That’s what they… we… were like where I came from too. But I have news for you, sister – this isn’t Metru Nui. We don’t have time to be polite. It’s fight, or end up like them.”
Dalu was pointing up at the slope of Mount Valmai. A small group of Matoran were digging into the side of the volcano, moving slowly and mechanically. An unhealthy glow radiated from their eyes.
The Ga-Matoran crouched down. “We’re in luck. No Piraka around. But if any of the workers spot us, they’ll shout out an alarm and we’ll have a fight on our hands. So aim true.”
“You expect us to launch these spheres at them?” Hahli asked in disbelief. “When we don’t know what effects they might have?”
“Well, we could go ask them nicely to stop being worker drones for the Piraka, but somehow I don’t think that will work,” Dalu replied acidly. “If Velika says we use these things, then we use them.”
“She’s right,” said Jaller, already taking aim. “Maybe it’s not what the Toa Nuva or the Turaga would do, but they’re not here… and like she said, this isn’t Metru Nui.”
Jaller triggered the launcher. The sphere flew straight and true, striking one of the Matoran in the chest and passing harmlessly through his body. For a few moments, nothing happened. Then the sickly glow faded and the Matoran looked around as if he had just awakened from a long sleep.
The other Matoran workers noticed immediately that something was not right. They picked up their tools and started toward the now-freed member of their group.
Hahli recalled a tale she had once heard. Toa Nokama had been very ill and she’d had to consume an herb to be healed. These spheres, she decided, were like that herb – the only hope for a cure. With that in mind, she started using her launcher.
She was no Hewkii when it came to aim, but she had not been a Kolhii champion without learning something about accuracy. Between them, she and Jaller managed to hit and heal each of the Matoran before the alarm could be raised.
Dalu rushed out to greet her friends. “Piruk will take you to a place of safety, but you have to move fast,” she said to the confused Matoran. “He’ll explain what’s been happening on the way. Once you have rested, you’ll have your chance to fight. Understand?”
The villagers nodded and followed the Le-Matoran down the slope. Dalu turned to Jaller and Hahli, saying, “Next time, launch faster.” Then she resumed walking, saying quietly over her shoulder, “And thanks.”
“Tell me again where we’re going,” said Toa Matoro. He, Toa Hewkii, Balta, and Kazi had been hiking for what felt like days, and they were still only halfway up the mountain pass.
“Just trust me,” Kazi replied.
Matoro glanced at Hewkii, and both clenched their Toa weapons a little bit tighter. After all, the Toa Nuva had come here and obviously something bad had happened to them. Who was to say they weren’t betrayed by the very beings they were trying to help?
“You said you have an ally up here,” said Toa Hewkii. “If he’s so powerful and on your side, where has he been all this time? Why did he let the Piraka take over the island?”
Kazi started to say something, then stopped. It was Balta who answered, saying, “Sometimes you can’t do what your heart tells you to… sometimes you have a duty to something greater than yourself.”
The Ta-Matoran stopped and turned to look at the Toa. “This is important. In the battle to come, Matoran may die, Toa may die, and it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. The only thing that counts is keeping the Mask of Life out of the hands of the Piraka. If we all have to die and this island has to be blown to fragments to stop them, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Hewkii shook his head. “There has to be a better way than total destruction. What kind of a victory is that?”
Balta resumed his quick pace up the pass. “If you wanted nice, clean victories, Toa, you should have stayed on this Metru Nui you came from.”
Kazi suddenly darted off the path to the right and scrambled over the rocks. This is it, thought Hewkii. He disappears, and the trap is sprung.
But there was no sudden ambush. Instead, the rocks slid aside, as if moved by a giant hand, to reveal a cavern mouth. A light glowed from somewhere far within. Kazi leaped back down to stand beside the others.
“He’s in there,” said the Ko-Matoran.
“Axonn,” Kazi and Balta said simultaneously. Then the two looked at each other, startled. “I thought I was the only one who knew –” said Kazi.
“I met him not long ago. He saved my life,” said Balta. “How long have you known he was here? Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“I think we should save the questions,” Hewkii said, pointing into the cave.
An armored figure had staggered into view. His size and power were unmistakable, yet he could barely stay on his feet and the axe he dragged behind him seemed too much to carry. When he saw Kazi, he reached out a hand. Then he began to fall.
Toa Matoro acted quickly, using his ice power to create a soft bed of snow for the stranger to land on. Then the four of them rushed to Axonn’s side. His armor was battered and scorched, and some of the muscle tissue inside had been damaged as well. For a moment, Matoro wondered if they were in time only to watch him die.
“Kazi…” Axonn said weakly. “You and these Toa… you have to hurry…”
“What is it?” said the Ko-Matoran. “Who did this to you?”
“Brutaka,” the wounded figure replied. “Said he was going to tell the Piraka how to find the Mask of Life… then steal it from them. He doesn’t understand… what might happen… I tried to stop him, but…”
“Where was he headed?” asked Balta.
“The stronghold,” said Axonn. “I thought I could bring him back to the way of Mata Nui… but he is lost in the darkness. Stop him… stop him even if you have to kill him to do it.”
The light in Axonn’s eyes winked out then. Kazi knelt beside him and said, “He’s alive, just unconscious. I should stay and –”
“No. We need you,” said Balta. He looked up at Hewkii and Matoro. “And we need you, too. Brutaka is the one who beat your friends – maybe killed them – we don’t know. If he gets his hands on the Mask of Life, or the Piraka do, the universe dies screaming.”
Hewkii looked into the eyes of Balta. It was impossible to read their expression, cloaked in darkness as they were, but Hewkii knew they must contain the same steely resolve as Tahu Nuva’s orbs. He wondered for a split second how destiny chose who would be a Toa and who wouldn’t, for surely this Ta-Matoran had the heart of a hero.
“We’ll pick up the others on the way,” said the Toa of Stone. “And then I’ll show Brutaka how a kolhii ball feels when it’s kicked into orbit.”
Garan ducked as a concussive blast shattered a nearby boulder.
“It’s getting our range,” he said. “We need to withdraw.”
Toa Kongu dove and rolled across the rocky ground, blasts sizzling the air just above him. When he was behind cover again, he turned to Garan and Velika. “And do what? Come back later when it’s deep-asleep? It’s a machine!”
Garan peered around the rock. The nektann, robotic guardian of the Piraka stronghold, spotted him instantly and fired. Garan barely got out of the way in time. “I’m only suggesting that maybe your fears for your missing friends, the Toa Nuva, are blinding you to the real crisis on this island.”
“That the Gukko birds of worry and care fly about your head, you cannot change,” Velika chimed in. “But that they build nests in your mask, you can prevent.”
“You’re worried about six Toa,” Garan continued, trying to be heard over the impacts of the blasts. “I have the whole Matoran population of this island to protect!”
“And you’ve been doing a real happy-cheer job of that, from what I’ve heard!” snapped Kongu. “First, we find the Toa Nuva. Then, we rescue the rest of your Matoran. Got it?”
“I thought Toa always put the interests of Matoran first,” Garan said.
“I thought Matoran were taller,” Kongu replied. “Just another of life’s little disappointments. Listen, I understand you want to help your friends. But without the Toa Nuva, none of my friends would be alive. I owe them.”
Nuparu shot by overhead, just barely avoiding the blasts of a second nektann. “You two want to stop arguing, and find a way to shut these things down?”
“You’re the Toa of Earth!” Kongu shouted back. “Throw dirt at them or something!”
“The bird soars through the sky,” Velika muttered. “But if I were a colossus, and the sky was beneath my feet, could it truly be said the bird flew underground?”
Before Kongu could ask just what the Po-Matoran was talking about, Garan was yelling at Nuparu. “Down! Go down!” the Matoran said.
Nuparu obligingly went into a dive, firing his blaster drill as he went. The power of the weapon bore a hole in the ground beneath him. The nektann tried in vain to target the flying Toa, but couldn’t compensate for his speed. An instant later, he had vanished underground.
“What just happened?” asked Kongu.
“Velika looks at things from a unique angle,” said Garan. “He was suggesting a flying Toa of Earth might be well served by doing the same thing.”
An explosion rocked the area, followed by another. Kongu peered over the boulder to see flames shooting up from both of the devastated nektann as the acrid smell of burning metal filled the air. The cause, a smiling Nuparu, emerged from the smoking wreckage a moment later.
“Armored all over,” he said, “except at the bottom. One shot from below, and boom. I should have figured that out myself.”
Velika smiled proudly and patted Toa Nuparu on the arm. For a moment, they weren’t a Toa and a Matoran, but simply two inventors sharing a moment of accomplishment.
“We may want to save the congratulations for later,” said Garan, pointing at the still-smoking wreckage. Some of the scattered pieces were beginning to move toward one another, as if drawn magnetically. Nuparu suddenly remembered tales of the Metru Nui Vahki reassembling themselves after defeats.
“Let’s get inside before they finish,” he said. “Round two might not go as smoothly.”
The two Toa and two Matoran sprinted for the gateway. The workers who had crafted the door had made it well, with inches-thick stone and solid locks. Nuparu took aim with his blaster drill. Kongu reached out and gently lowered the Toa of Earth’s weapon. “Too noisy. Let me,” he said.
The Toa of Air unlimbered his crossbow in one smooth motion and fired. A bolt of energy pierced the lock as if it weren’t there. The massive door swung open. Velika immediately began examining Kongu’s weapon, muttering to himself in wonderment. Garan finally had to pull the diminutive tinkerer away.
Despite the warmth of the outside air, the interior of the stronghold was deathly cold. The party moved silently through the dark corridors, alert for any sound or movement. Kongu used his crossbow on every locked door they came across, hoping each time to find the Toa Nuva behind one of them. Instead, they found empty rooms, chambers filled with scraps of equipment, and one whose walls were covered with crude carvings reading “Vezok” and “Vezon.”
“That makes no sense,” Toa Nuparu whispered. “Vezok’s a Piraka… but Vezon is the Matoran word for ‘double.’ I don’t see the connection.”
By reflex, everyone turned to look at Velika. But the Po-Matoran just shrugged his shoulders.
The group inspected another score of empty chambers before finally reaching one that looked like it had been used recently. Huge, and packed from floor to ceiling with items both familiar and bizarre, it appeared to be a combination trophy room/training room. In one corner, a cage hung from the ceiling. In another was a stack of artifacts of unknown value, probably plundered from other islands during the Pirakas’ past exploits. Two mechanisms occupied the center of the room, apparently designed to teach the user how to stay atop a wild animal. Their purpose was partially explained when Kongu found a carving that showed the Piraka riding what looked like the massive Tahtorak of Turaga Vakama’s tales.
“Glad I missed that,” the Toa of Air muttered.
“Kongu!” Toa Nuparu cried out. “Over here!”
Garan and Velika were already standing beside the Toa of Earth, looking up at the wall. The long shadows made it impossible for Kongu to see what they were reacting to until he got up close. Then he wished he had never looked.
Hanging from large, rusted nails were the masks of the six Toa Nuva. Their reason for being on display was unmistakable: they were trophies of conquest.
“Mata Nui, preserve us,” Nuparu whispered.
“It may already be too late for that,” Kongu replied, shock in his voice. “I don’t know what this means – whether they were simply brought to down-ground, or they’re dead – but I do know they have to be avenged.”
“Do we… do we take them with us?”
Kongu shook his head. “We have no way to easy-carry them and no suva to leave them on. We need our hands free for combat, Nuparu, especially now. They will be ever-safe here. Trust me, the Piraka won’t get the chance to touch these masks again.”
The two Toa and two Matoran departed the chamber. Silence hung over them the way that Visorak webs once shrouded Metru Nui. All along, Nuparu and Kongu had nursed the hope that they simply had to find the Toa Nuva, and then all would be right. Now they were faced with the very real possibility that there were no longer any Toa Nuva to find.
They continued their exploration of the stronghold with more urgency now. If their heroes were gone, there were still villains to find and punish. But all they found were deserted rooms, until finally a sharp turn led them into a massive central chamber that housed a huge vat of greenish-black virus. Garan winced as he remembered the defeat of the Toa Nuva and the Matoran resistance in this very room, not so long ago.
“The substance in that vat is what the Piraka used to enslave my people,” Garan said. “They must never be allowed to do such a thing to others. We must destroy the virus.”
“And what a terrible waste that would be,” hissed a voice behind them.
The Toa and Matoran whirled to see Zaktan and the other Piraka, as well as Brutaka, standing in the entryway.
“I might not be able to recreate it,” Zaktan continued. “And then I would lose the chance to make you and your Toa companions kneel before the Piraka. It would be a fitting final memory of Voya Nui.”
“Final, huh?” said Kongu, crossbow at the ready. “If you’re planning a quick-trip, we’ll be glad to help you get going.”
“When we leave this wretched rock, we will be stepping over your corpses,” snarled Brutaka.
“And with the Mask of Life in hand,” Hakann added. He exchanged quick glances with Avak, Reidak, and Thok, all of whom gave subtle nods in return.
“Now the only question is, how do we go about ending your miserable lives?” Zaktan asked, as the protodites that made up his body made a sickening hum. “We’ve killed Toa in so many ways over the centuries, and I hate to repeat myself.”
Further discussion was cut off by a massive explosion that blew the west wall to rubble. Toa Kongu glanced up in time to see a huge burst of fire, accompanied by a mountainous ball of ice. The blast was so violent that the crystal vat would have tipped over and shattered had Brutaka not raced over in time to save it.
Four powerful figures walked out of the cloud of smoke and dust. Toa Jaller, Toa Hahli, Toa Hewkii, and Toa Matoro surveyed the scene with grim determination and barely contained rage.
“Two choices,” Jaller said. “You can leave this island now, under your own power, or we can throw you off. Choose the first – get out, stay out, and go far from our sight – and you can lead long, if rotten, lives.” The Toa of Fire smiled. “Choose the second, and there won’t be enough of you left to feed a Makuta fish.”
Toa Nuparu and Toa Kongu moved to stand beside their comrades. All six unlimbered their weapons and summoned their elemental powers in preparation for battle.
“I’ll give you some time to consider surrendering. Oops, time’s up,” said the Toa of Fire. “Let’s do what we came here for, friends. Let’s take them down!”