1

One Month Ago…

“You had better be right about this, Hakann,” growled Avak, rowing through the waters of the silver sea. “Our lives depend on it.”

“Then nothing of any great value is at stake,” said Zaktan.

Hakann glared at the self-appointed leader of the expedition. It had been his idea to go but Zaktan who had arranged for transport and who had insisted that only the six of them – Hakann, Zaktan, Avak, Thok, Reidak, and Vezok – be informed about it. Leaving the Shadowed One’s island without authorization was punishable by death. All six had come to the conclusion that such a fate was preferable to continuing as slaves to the Dark Hunter leader.

“It’s worth it,” said Hakann. “Trust me.”

Avak smiled. Thok chuckled. Reidak burst out laughing, followed by Vezok. “Trust you?” said Reidak, having a hard time getting the words out. “That’s like a Visorak saying ‘pet me.’”

“Hakann, how are we supposed to trust you?” laughed Vezok “After all – we know you.”

“Quiet!” snapped Zaktan. “If you cannot take this mission seriously, I will go on alone.”

“No, you won’t,” Avak shot back. “Who would you have to order around? Yourself?” Then, noting the way the mass of protodites that made up Zaktan’s body were in constant movement, he added, “Sorry. Yourselves?”

Zaktan chose to ignore the insult. “Hakann, tell us again what you heard. Leave nothing out.”

“I heard from someone who heard from someone that the Matoran are returning to Metru Nui,” Hakann answered. “They are led by a group of Toa and they are planning to reclaim the city.”

“Ridiculous,” said Thok. “Everyone knows their Makuta drove them out of that city and won’t let them return.”

“I already told you,” Hakann replied, smiling. “Makuta is dead and buried under a ton of rubble.”

“I don’t believe it,” Avak said, shaking his head. “Hundreds of Dark Hunters have tried to kill him… not to mention the Toa Hagah, rebellious Visorak, and probably members of his own Brotherhood. And you’re saying some handful of Toa managed to do it?”

“Well, I did leave one thing out of the story. One of the Toa was a Toa of Light.”

The other Dark Hunters lapsed into shocked silence. The idea of a Toa of Light had been dismissed for centuries as just another Matoran fable. The Brotherhood of Makuta had firmly stated that there was no such Toa and there never would be. These six, of course, knew differently – they had seen the Mask of Light and they knew its whereabouts had been a mystery for well over a thousand years. But the notion that it now belonged to a Toa was still an unpleasant surprise. Only Zaktan smiled inwardly, for this meant the prophecies from the fortress chamber were coming true.

“That… changes things,” said Vezok.

“A new player has been added to the game,” agreed Zaktan. “The Brotherhood will be panicked. This could mean the end of them… and an opportunity for us.”

“Us?” asked Thok. “You mean the Dark Hunters?”

“No,” said Zaktan. “I mean us – the six of us – a new force in the universe. We will loot Makuta’s lair, and using his weapons and power, we will carve out an empire for ourselves.”

“We’re not Dark Hunters anymore,” Vezok added. “We’re what Ancient called us seven thousand years ago – we’re Piraka.”

“Well, whatever we are – we’re here,” said Avak.

The other five looked to where Avak was pointing. Just above the waterline was a stone terrace. Beyond that was an ancient gateway, now clogged with stone. If Hakann’s information was correct, then past that gateway would be the remains of one of Makuta’s lairs.

Avak lashed the boat to the terrace and looked around. “I don’t get it. If there were Toa here, then where are they now? How did they get back out when the gate is blocked with rubble?”

“They have been on an island above,” Zaktan reminded him. “There must be other ways to reach there from here. They simply used one of them.”

The six Piraka climbed on to the terrace and began to clear away the rubble from the gate. It was hard work. Zaktan wanted to investigate the lair by slipping through the cracks in the rubble, but the other Piraka argued against it. Every pair of hands was needed to clear the way.

It soon became obvious that they were not just digging through random rock, but rather the shattered pieces of a huge stone door. “I don’t even want to know who lifted this and then let it drop,” said Avak.

“Oh, this probably wasn’t that heavy,” scoffed Reidak. “Wouldn’t be to me, anyway.”

Irritated, Thok walked over and dropped the piece of rubble he was carrying on Reidak’s head. The block of stone split in two even as Reidak let out a yell of pain.

“Sorry,” said Thok, smiling. “I didn’t think it would be that heavy.”

After a good hour of digging, Vezok said, “I found something!” The other Piraka crowded around and helped to clear away the rock. What they found stunned even such hardened, veteran Dark Hunters.

It was a black suit of armor, large and powerful-looking despite being badly damaged. The chestplate was crushed, the arm and leg armor cracked in several places, and in some places it was little more than flattened metal. The only part that seemed to have escaped damage was the Kanohi mask fitted on the headpiece. It was the Kraahkan, the legendary Mask of Shadows worn by Makuta.

“Do you think… do you think he’s still alive in there?” Avak whispered.

“If he is, he soon won’t be,” said Zaktan. Before anyone could stop him, he reached down and pulled off the Mask of Shadows.

To his shock, there was nothing behind it but the hollow shell of the armored headpiece. He sent his protodites in through the cracks in the armor, searching for some sign of organic tissue. He found nothing. The armor was empty.

“I don’t understand,” said Vezok. “Something had to make the armor move – muscle tissue – and he had to have lungs to let him breathe, and other organs. How can the armor be here, but none of that?”

The six Piraka considered the problem, each coming up with a more ghoulish theory than the last. It was Thok who finally said, “Maybe it was never there. Maybe… maybe he was just armor and energy – no organics, not anymore.”

Hakann wanted to say that idea was ridiculous and impossible, but deep down, he knew it was neither. Even after a millennium of warring with them, what did any Dark Hunter really know about the members of the Brotherhood of Makuta? They were ancient, they were powerful, but beyond that, they were a mystery. Who was to say they were beings like the Piraka, the Toa, or the Matoran? Maybe they had left the need for organic tissue far behind them.

“Mask’s mine,” said Reidak, reaching for the Kraahkan. As soon as he touched it, the mask flared to life. A pulse of dark energy struck the Piraka, hurling him against the stone wall.

“For a mask, it has excellent taste,” commented Thok.

Reidak wasn’t about to give up. He grabbed the mask with both hands and held on even as it pummeled him with energy bursts. Finally, unable to withstand the pain any longer, he flung the mask off the terrace and into the sea. It disappeared beneath the waves.

“If the rest of this expedition goes that well… it will have gone really badly,” said Thok. “I thought we were here to loot, not feed the fish of Metru Nui?”

Reidak cursed and the rest of the Piraka went back to work, grumbling about a potentially valuable treasure being tossed aside. None of them noticed the wisps of green vapor that hovered near the ceiling or the smoky tendrils drifting down toward them.

When the last of the rock was cleared away, they stepped into the lair itself. The place looked as if a storm had blown through it. Rahkshi cylinders were shattered and kraata were slithering all around. Chamber doors had been blasted open. Walls were scorched from both light and shadow energy bolts. Avak scouted down a corridor and reported that an entire wall at the other end had been breached, though there was no sign of what had done the job.

“Think someone got here before us?” asked Reidak.

“We will see,” Zaktan replied. He pointed to the pool of energized protodermis in the center of the chamber. “Be careful not to step in that. You’ll never be able to scrape it off your feet… assuming you still have feet afterward.”

The initial search of the lair proved frustrating. There were notes on various Rahi experiments, half-finished pieces of equipment, and a few things that defied characterization (worse, some of them were alive). It was Hakann who made the first potentially useful discovery in a back section of the armory. He emerged carrying a wicked-looking spear.

“What do you think?” he asked Vezok. “The Brotherhood isn’t big on close combat, so this must do something else. How do you think it works?”

“Try pointing it at someone else while you figure it out, okay?”

“What’s the matter?” Hakann said, smiling. “Afraid I’ll get rid of you so there’s one less to share the loot with? Actually, come to think of it, that’s not a bad –”

A bolt of energy shot from the point of the spear, striking Vezok. Startled, Hakann dropped the weapon. Vezok screamed. His body felt like it was being torn in two, reassembled, and then ripped apart again. He fell to the floor in agony. The other Piraka stood and watched, not sure what to do or whether they wanted to be bothered to help.

In the time it takes a heartlight to flash once, it was over. Vezok lay on the ground, groaning. And beside him, another being was rising to its feet. He had not been there a second ago, but now he stood and looked down at Vezok with contempt.

“Get up,” he said. “If I can, you can – after all, I am you and you are me, and won’t that be interesting? Of course, it would be easier if there were just one of us… maybe I should die? No, no, I have that wrong – maybe you should die.”

Before anyone could stop him, the newcomer snatched up the spear. He was about to use it on Vezok when he stopped. “No, no, bad idea. That will just make another of him… of me… or else something worse.”

Reidak slammed into the new arrival and pinned him against the wall. “What are you? Some new trick of Makuta’s? What happened to Vezok?”

“This happened,” said the being calmly, hefting the spear.

Thok approached and looked at the weapon. Carved into the side of the shaft were the words Spear of Fusion.

“Hakann, you imbecile,” he snapped. “You used it in reverse. Instead of fusing Vezok with something else, you split him into two beings! This thing is a vezon.”

“A vezon?” repeated the newly created being. “Oh, yes, the Matoran word for ‘double.’ Yes, that does make sense. I will go by that name, then. Of course, first I will have to eliminate all of you so no one else knows I am only half a being. You don’t mind, do you?”

Vezok’s eyes flared to life. Thok met them and saw immediately that his fellow Piraka had changed. Gone was the cold intelligence that had kept Vezok alive all these years, replaced by white-hot anger. Vezok roared and threw himself at Vezon, wrestling with him for the spear. When Reidak tried to intervene, Vezok lashed out and knocked the Piraka to the ground.

Zaktan dissolved his body into a flying swarm of protodites. He flew in between the two combatants, blinding them and cutting off their air. Both backed off, choking, but Vezon still held on to the spear.

Zaktan would later recall that this was the moment all had become clear to him. He didn’t know how or why, but suddenly he realized that they had come to this place for a reason. There was something they had to find, but it wasn’t here. It was elsewhere, on an island far to the south, and hidden in a place of fire. It was powerful, old beyond even the universe itself, and it was waiting for them.

“The Mask of Life,” he said softly. A thrill went through him, for he knew this was the moment he had been waiting for. A doorway into the Brotherhood’s plan had suddenly opened and he was going to step inside.

“The Mask of –” Thok began. Then he stopped, startled that Zaktan had evidently read his thoughts.

“Think what we could do with that,” said Avak. “Think what it must be worth!”

Hakann said nothing. He was calculating how many Piraka would be needed to retrieve such a mask, and how quickly he could eliminate them once it was in their possession.

Even Vezok forgot his rage for a moment. The image of the mask filled his mind. It was no mere Kanohi. It was a key in the same way that the Makoki stone had been a key – but a key to all of existence.

“Find it. We have to find it,” he muttered.

“I agree,” said Vezon.

All six turned to look at him. The fury was already returning to Vezok’s eyes. This time, Reidak succeeded in getting between them. “Let him help,” he said to Vezok in a harsh whisper. “And if he dies in the process… so what? No big loss. He shouldn’t be alive in the first place.”

“No,” said Zaktan. “We have no room for a seventh, especially one with such a strange origin.”

“You should talk,” said Reidak. “Vezok knows better than to betray his partners. I’m betting Vezon does, too. Now, do you want to spend who knows how long trying to get that spear away from him, or do you want to invite him along?”

“He’s right, for once,” said Thok. “A battle might leave none of us in any shape to hunt for the mask.”

Reluctantly, Zaktan agreed. It was urgent they find the Mask of Life. He knew that as surely as he knew his own name. There was no time for arguments.

“We are done here,” he said. “We must head to the island home of the mask immediately.”

“I know you’re right,” said Avak. “But… isn’t there more we should take from here? The mask has been hidden for thousands of years… why do we have to rush?”

No one had an answer for him. They just knew they had to make best speed to the island of Voya Nui. If any thought it strange that they now knew the name of an island none had ever heard of before, no one chose to say so aloud.

“You know, there’s only one thing bothering me,” said Reidak, looking around. “All this stuff – a Makuta lair, of all places – and there’s no one and nothing here on guard. Doesn’t that seem kind of weird?”

Reidak’s answer was an explosion that threw all seven Piraka against the far wall. When the smoke cleared, they could see that an entire section of the lair was gone, disintegrated with one blast. Something moved in the shadows… something huge.

“Makuta?” said Hakann, already planning his escape route.

“Don’t be stupid,” hissed Avak. “Makuta’s dead. At worst, it’s some Toa with more power than sense, and –”

The shape emerged from the shadows. It was massive. Eyes perched high in a red and yellow head regarded the Piraka with total disdain, as if they were insects infesting this being’s home. Its body was rectangular and blocky in shape, with two powerful arms and thick legs that ended in a solid band of armor. At both ends of the band were treads that rolled over the rubble with ease.

“Mana Ko,” whispered Zaktan, stunned.

“Huh?” said Reidak.

“The Brotherhood uses crablike creatures called Manas as guardians,” Zaktan explained hurriedly. “I once saw them wipe out a dozen Dark Hunters in a matter of minutes. The Brotherhood always said they were just a sample – that the real power was the Mana Ko. This matches the description.”

“Okay, so it’s a Rahi,” Reidak shrugged. “A really big Rahi… okay, a gigantic Rahi… that can blow away walls. Let’s just get in our boat and leave.”

As if it understood what the Piraka was saying, the Mana Ko aimed a second blast at the stone terrace. It crumbled and fell into the sea, right on top of where the Piraka’s boat had been moored.

“Then again, why leave when it’s just getting exciting?” said Reidak.

“We will have to fight,” said Zaktan. “Vezon, you distract the monster, and we will – where’s Vezon?”

The other Piraka looked around. Their newest “ally” had disappeared, taking the spear with him.

“He got Vezok’s brains all right,” Avak muttered. “And Hakann’s courage, from the look of it.”

“Split up,” Zaktan ordered. “Otherwise, one blast kills us all.”

“Yes,” said Thok, already on the move. “By all means, let’s make it fire at least six times.”

“Imprison that thing, Avak,” Zaktan ordered.

Avak concentrated. A prison that appeared to be made of clear glass materialized around the Mana Ko. When the beast unleashed another blast, it reflected off the walls and ricocheted all over the inside of the cage. One such experience was enough for the monstrous Rahi, which responded with a keening wail.

“Keep it caged until we are on our way out of here,” said Zaktan. “The rest of you, find us a way out of here – and find Vezon!”

The Piraka had barely begun to grumble about who should be giving orders and who should be taking them when the wall behind them exploded inward. A flying piece of masonry slammed into Avak, knocking him flat. In an instant, the prison around the Mana Ko dissolved.

Thok didn’t want to look and see the source of the second explosion. He really didn’t. He knew that, whatever it was, he wasn’t going to want to see it. In fact, it might well ruin what was turning out to be the last day of his life.

He looked anyway. A second Mana Ko was coming from behind them. The Piraka were trapped between the two Rahi.

I cannot believe this, thought Thok. Yesterday, I was a Dark Hunter – respected, hated, and feared. Today I am about to be destroyed by angry seafood.

“How come there’s never a Toa around when you need one?” asked Reidak.

“What, to save us?” asked Thok.

“No, to die first,” Reidak replied. “We might as well get some fun out of this trip.”

Both Mana Ko had stopped dead, as if waiting to see what the Piraka would do. Hakann stuck his head up over the rubble and waved his arm. One of the Mana Ko responded with a blast that blew a large hole in a side wall.

“They react to movement,” he reported. “So all we have to do is stay still and do absolutely nothing. In other words, have a normal day for Thok.”

“We have two choices – fight or run,” said Zaktan.

“You forgot the third option – die horribly,” said Thok.

“Movement, huh?” said Vezok. “Okay, on the count of three, we make for that hole they just blew in the wall. One… two…”

The blue-armored Piraka suddenly grabbed Hakann and threw him out into the open. Both Mana Ko turned in Hakann’s direction.

“Three!” shouted Vezok, leading the dash for the gap, followed closely by all of the others except Hakann.

Both Mana Ko blasted at the crimson-armored Piraka at the same time. He ducked, dove, and rolled, trying to avoid being shattered into more pieces than Zaktan. Between explosions, he looked up to see the receding backs of his partners. He made a vow to get even with Vezok. He wasn’t so much angry at what Vezok had done as he was at himself for not thinking of it first.

Something was sticking out of the rubble just ahead. He grabbed it and pulled it free, finding it was a broken piece of Makuta’s armor. Giving a yell, he hurled it behind him. When the two Mana Ko reacted by attacking the moving object, Hakann scrambled for the hole his partners had gone through.

They hadn’t made it very far. The chamber the Piraka had found themselves in was a dead end.

“Now what?” growled Reidak. “Can’t go forward, can’t go back.”

Thok frowned. “Well, I think we should –”

“Watch out!”

All five turned to see Hakann running toward them, the Mana Ko right behind.

“Idiot!” snapped Zaktan. “You were supposed to stay in there and keep them occupied.”

“I did,” yelled Hakann. “And it was so much fun, I want you all to have a turn!”

“This could be a good thing,” said Thok. “Everybody hit the ground! Now!”

All six Piraka dove to the stone floor. The Mana Ko hurled lethal blasts of energy, blowing apart the back wall.

“Now run!” shouted Thok.

The pursuit that followed was a bizarre one, even for ex-Dark Hunters. As each corridor ended in a blank wall, the two Mana Ko would obligingly blast a new exit in their effort to destroy the Piraka. The path turned into a steep and narrow incline, forcing the Piraka to move faster. Bunched up as they were, one good blast would down them all. Then Zaktan noticed something extremely odd. The Mana Ko had stopped advancing. They were standing at the bottom of the incline, just watching. Victory was in their grasp, but it seemed like there was now some invisible barrier between them and the Piraka.

“Why aren’t they attacking?” asked Hakann. “We’re sitting Gukko here.”

“I don’t know. I don’t care,” answered Zaktan. “That wall up ahead – we’ll bring it down.”

The two Piraka joined with Vezok to strike at the wall with their vision powers. It took far longer than they expected to cut a hole through it, but when they did, they found themselves in another world.

Incredibly bright and hot sunlight poured down on them from an impossibly blue sky. A salty sea breeze set tropical trees to swaying, while brakas monkeys chased sea birds that flew too close to the branches. The air was alive with the sounds of Rahi and the crash of the distant surf against the rocks.

It was truly disgusting.

“Too bright!” griped Reidak, shading his eyes. “Who could live like this?”

“Smell the air,” Thok said, his face clenching like a fist. “It’s… vile.”

“I’d rather be back with the Mana Ko,” Avak muttered. “What kind of pesthole is this?”

Zaktan wasn’t listening. He was looking around, noting that the six Piraka were standing in what appeared to be a natural temple. A huge mountain towered over them. Carved into it was an image Zaktan recognized as being that of the legendary Mask of Light.

He dissolved into a swarm of protodites and drifted up into the sky. From that vantage point, he could see distant villages, all of them empty. The beach was littered with pieces of wood and a few half-finished boats. There was not a Matoran or a Toa to be seen anywhere.

Then the rumors were true, Zaktan said to himself. After the cataclysm, the Matoran of Metru Nui fled beyond the sky… and now they are returning to their home.

He remembered the sudden reluctance of the Mana Ko to pursue. They must have had orders from Makuta, he reasoned. If they had come to this island, not a Matoran would have been left alive. Makuta wanted to rule them, not kill them, so he kept his monsters on a leash.

As he descended to bring this news to his partners, Zaktan’s eyes spotted something else. Six large canisters rested on their ends in a row near the base of the mountain. They had obviously been placed there for a reason. Their condition showed that someone had been tasked with taking care of them.

It took only a short examination for him to determine that these were Toa transport canisters. He had no idea to whom they belonged, nor did it matter, as long as those Toa were nowhere around. With their boat destroyed by the Mana Ko, these would be a perfect solution to the problem of getting to Voya Nui.

Then an idea struck Zaktan. There would almost certainly be Matoran where the Piraka were going. And what Matoran would not hail the arrival of Toa canisters, and the Toa they inevitably brought? Traveling in these would give an invader a free pass to almost any island.

He smiled. Even if the Piraka could only fool the Matoran into thinking they were Toa for a brief time, those few hours or days might be all they would need to find the Mask of Life.

Within the hour, the Piraka had succeeded in hauling the canisters down to the beach. Avak had managed to figure out how they worked and chart a rough course to Voya Nui, with Zaktan’s help. Neither wasted time wondering how they knew just where the island was located. There was, after all, a mask to find.

“When we get there, remember – you are Toa,” Zaktan said. “Try to act like them… or at least not like your usual selves. The Matoran will welcome us as heroes, little suspecting our true natures.”

“That’s right,” laughed Reidak. “Hey, look at me! I’m Toa Reidak! Where’s my mask? Where’s my tool? Where’s my swelled head and stuck-up attitude?”

Zaktan frowned. “Perhaps, Reidak, it would be better if you stay in your canister and let the Matoran come to you. It might be more convincing.”

One by one, the Piraka climbed into their canisters. Hakann helped Vezok into his and watched as the hatch was sealed. When he was sure no one was looking, he used two quick bursts of his heat vision to puncture a tiny hole in the canister and weld the hatch shut.

I’m not sure if you can swim, Vezok, old friend, Hakann thought. But I’ll bet you can drown.

The six canisters moved away from the beach. Each Piraka knew now that there was no turning back. They had abandoned their lives as Dark Hunters and would, now, be actively hunted down as traitors by their former comrades. They were embarking on a new adventure – a chance to steal a mask coveted for ages by powerful factions throughout the universe. If they succeeded in their mission, they would be at war with the world. If they failed, they would be dead.

As their canisters rode the waves southward, none of the Piraka could picture a life better than this.

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