The crimson-armored Piraka named Hakann was trying to think. When in a dangerous situation, he knew, it was important to clearly and logically consider events and plan your next steps. And it would have been much easier to do if someone weren’t screaming.
It took a few moments for Hakann to realize the screams were coming from his own mouth.
Stop it! Hakann yelled at himself. Stop behaving like some pathetic Matoran, and act like the murderous, treacherous Piraka that you are!
What had happened? How had he gone from being in control to being a total, horror-stricken wreck, sitting on a staircase with his armor melting off him?
He made a mental leap to grab a shred of reality still floating around in his brain. Yes, now he remembered. The six Piraka had discovered the hidden entrance to a huge stone stairway. The stairs, they had been told, led down to a Chamber of Life where the powerful Kanohi Ignika was hidden. The Ignika, or Mask of Life, was the prize they had come to Voya Nui to find and steal.
There were complications, of course. After demolishing a team of Toa Nuva, the Piraka had encountered a second team of Toa on the island. These Toa Inika wielded lightning along with their other powers and actually proved to be a challenge. But the Piraka had still managed to get a head start down the staircase.
Hakann was in the lead. He knew it was potentially fatal to turn his back on his partners. But the one who made it to the chamber first would get his claws on the mask first. He decided that was worth the risk.
He had made his way down a few dozen stairs, navigating by the glow of lightstones embedded in the walls, when he came to a fork in the staircase. The left passage was blocked with stone, but the right was open, so he went right. Suddenly, something flew at him from out of the darkness, too fast for him to dodge. As it struck him, he realized it looked like a zamor sphere. Had one of the other Piraka somehow gotten ahead of him to stage an ambush?
No, that wasn’t it, he realized. Zamor spheres didn’t make you feel like this. Hakann felt like the world was rushing by him and he was standing still. He felt dizzy and sick and warm… then searingly hot… as if the flame power he commanded had been unleashed inside him. He staggered backward, already seeing his armor starting to soften and run like rock in a lava pool. The pain was agonizing. Some little voice in his head was saying that this made no sense, because his organic tissue wasn’t near enough to his armor to be affected. The rest of him was too busy yelling in shock and pain.
Now something was lumbering up the stairs toward him. It was impossibly big and broad and the light glinted off its golden head and spine.
Golden spine…? That would mean… no, that’s just a myth!
But it was no fable approaching, teeth bared in a savage smile, claws ready to rip and tear. It was the nightmare of every member of Hakann’s species – a legendary denizen of the darkness who lived to destroy. It was a creature of myth that had never existed… but it lived here and now, and Hakann couldn’t help but scream its name.
The Piraka turned and fled then, melted armor dripping on the stairs as he ran. He stumbled before he reached the top of the stairs. He could hear Irnakk coming up behind him. Desperate, Hakann tried to huddle in a corner. Maybe it won’t see me, he reasoned, as he shut his eyes tight. Maybe… maybe it will be content just to kill the others.
And the sound of footsteps came closer, and closer, and closer…
“What happened to him?” asked Thok, looking down at the terrified Hakann. “Is this some trick?”
“Hakann!” Zaktan snapped. “Stop screaming and tell us what happened!”
Reidak tapped Zaktan on the shoulder and pointed down the stairs. “I think that happened.”
The monstrous being called Irnakk appeared. Its laugh tore at the Piraka’s sanity.
“No…” breathed Avak.
“Impossible,” said Zaktan.
Irnakk bellowed. The sound stabbed at the Piraka’s minds like a sword of fire. If they didn’t believe in it before, they had to accept the reality of this monster now.
“How can this be?” asked Thok, preparing for combat even as raw fear clutched at his heart. “Everyone knows there’s no such thing as Irnakk!”
“Tell it that,” snarled Avak. “Maybe you can get it to agree it doesn’t exist.”
The brown-armored Piraka reached out with his power to create a prison around the advancing Irnakk. Before it could take shape, one of the multiple zamor spheres mounted on Irnakk’s shoulders took flight. It struck Avak dead center. Just that quickly, Avak found he could not move or speak. He was trapped, and his own body was his prison cell.
“No such thing, says you?” lrnakk growled in a voice like bones cracking. “As real as pain and death, says I.”
Thok thought fast. What happened in the myths? How was lrnakk defeated? Then he realized that all the tales told by his species ended the same way – lrnakk slaughters everyone in sight and leaves only when there is no one left to demolish.
All right, if I can’t stop him, I’ll slow him down, the white-armored Piraka decided. He used his power on the tunnel walls, aiming to bring them to life and crush lrnakk between them.
Another zamor sphere fired from Irnakk’s body. When it struck, Thok could feel his power being blocked and reversed. The next moment, his own armor came to life and began to squeeze. He felt the breath being forced out of his lungs. Thok gasped, but couldn’t get any air. He was being crushed by his own power and couldn’t stop it.
“Back to the surface!” Zaktan yelled. “Let it have these three!”
Reidak and Vezok were already on the run, deserting their leader and their partners. Two more zamor spheres caught them in the back. Instantly, they turned and started battling each other. Vezok pummeled Reidak with a rock until the black-armored Piraka went down. But Reidak’s power to adapt would not let him stay defeated for long. He was back on his feet, slamming Vezok into the walls repeatedly until his enemy fell. Reidak smiled.
Then the smile disappeared. Battered and twisted, Vezok rose again. He had absorbed Reidak’s power to adapt after defeats and to fight anew. Reidak charged back into battle, already knowing this fight could never end.
Zaktan stopped in mid-flight. He could transform himself into a swarm of protodites and slip past the battling Vezok and Reidak, but now he knew there was no point. There would be no escape from lrnakk… not this way.
The leader of the Piraka turned to face the only thing he feared. Irnakk towered over him, eyes gleaming with satisfaction. “What are you?” asked Zaktan. “How did you escape from the world of legend to this desolate place?”
Irnakk’s answer was a burst of crimson light from his eyes that enveloped Zaktan. The power cascaded over the Piraka’s form, transforming him from physical matter to a being of pure thought. He no longer had any substance, but was just a fleeting wisp, like a half-remembered idea. An instant later, he felt a sensation of movement and he was suddenly somewhere else.
Picture the most complicated maze in existence, where slimy walls throbbed with life. Imagine a place that thundered with the sounds of madness, so loud the noise threatened to shatter the skull. Try to conceive of a place where the “air” was so heavy and thick that taking a step felt like walking underwater. Add all of this together and an image might form that was one-tenth of what Zaktan experienced in his new home.
I’m in Irnakk’s mind, the Piraka realized with horror. It turned me into a thought and… drew me into its mind.
An explosion rocked the walls, sending Zaktan flying. He felt like his head would burst from the sound. His lungs burned. At first, he thought perhaps someone had attacked lrnakk. Then the truth came to him – the convulsion in Irnakk’s mind had not been the result of an impact. That had been lrnakk conceiving an idea.
“Welcome, Zaktan.” Irnakk’s voice boomed throughout the caverns and tunnels of its brain. “Be grateful you are… on my mind, for now. If I should decide to think of something else… you won’t even exist as a thought.”
“What do you want?” Zaktan whispered – or screamed. He could no longer tell the difference. “What are you?”
A second explosion, more violent than the first, battered the Piraka. That was not an idea being born, that was a memory. Zaktan could feel new knowledge flooding his being. This portion of the stairway leading to the Mask of Life fed off of a traveler’s fears. Whatever filled them with the most horror would come to life, and true life, not mere illusion. For the Piraka, that was lrnakk.
The answer seemed easy. Stop being afraid of Irnakk and it would disappear. And I will do that, Zaktan thought, right after I stop breathing.
The six Toa Inika advanced cautiously down the first few steps, keeping an eye out for ambushes. They were sure the Piraka had beaten them here and might be lying in wait anywhere along the way.
“We have to quick-move,” said Kongu. “If they beat us to the mask –”
“Vakama led the Toa Metru into a trap,” Jaller replied. “Tahu Nuva charged ahead and got himself poisoned. I won’t continue that particular Toa of Fire tradition.”
“You don’t have to,” said Matoro. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
“Matoro! Wait!” Jaller yelled. But it was too late. The Toa of Ice’s body sagged and hit the ground. Matoro had once more used his mask power to unleash his spirit. “Makuta bones, what’s the matter with him?” Jaller grumbled. “What if there’s something down there he can’t just fly through?”
“You’ll have to trust he knows what he’s doing,” said Hahli.
“I know I am trying to be more open to my teammates’ ideas than maybe Tahu and Vakama were in the past,” Jaller shot back. “But the team has to have a leader. Toa can’t just go off on their own in the middle of a dangerous situation –”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Matoro, sitting up. “In the meantime, you might be interested to know that there’s a huge monster down below who seems to have beaten five Piraka. Zaktan’s nowhere to be seen.”
“One monster, instead of six Piraka?” said Hewkii. “Sounds like the odds have improved.”
“Hope someone tells the beast-monster that,” muttered Kongu.
Zaktan felt himself being hurled forward at high speed. The next thing he knew, he was standing in front of Irnakk again, once more a physical being.
“You taste stale,” said lrnakk. “I spat you out.”
“Now what?” asked Zaktan, struggling to regain his bearings. “Do you kill us?”
Irnakk laughed. “Where is the fun in that, says I? Alive, you can fill the air with the music of your screams. Dead, you are just silent meat.”
Zaktan nodded. “You exist because of our fear, don’t you? And if we stop fearing you, you stop living.”
“True,” Irnakk replied. “But you can never free yourself from your fear of me.”
“There is one thing that can free us all,” Zaktan said, looking up at the ceiling. “One blast of my eyebeams in the right place, and this whole ceiling comes crashing down. I and my partners die… and with us, our fear… and with our fear, you.”
lrnakk laughed. “A fine game you play. But if your horror of me does not stop you, your horror of death will. I have haunted the nightmares of your kind long enough to know that.”
Zaktan’s expression darkened with rage. “You think you know horror, Irnakk? Horror is looking into the eyes of the Shadowed One, knowing you are about to die… and then being forced to live. Horror is waking each day to see every part of your body moving on its own, a shifting mass of protodites where once was solid metal and living tissue. Horror is what is in the eyes of your partners when they look at you… and in the cries of your enemies when your swarm engulfs them. Don’t talk to me about fear, creature – I am fear!”
lrnakk hurled a zamor sphere at Zaktan, then another. The Piraka’s body formed openings to allow the spheres to fly straight through without doing any harm.
“No, no,” said Zaktan, moving closer to his enemy, eyes sizzling with power. “This nightmare is over now, one way or the other. Let us pass, lrnakk, or die.”
Even as he said the words, Zaktan knew Irnakk could stop him before he carried out his threat. But strangely, the monster was not acting. Instead, it almost looked satisfied.
“You use fear as a weapon, the same as I,” Irnakk said. “I make you fear life, and in return, you make me fear death. You have found your true being – your essence is darkness and the grave, Piraka. The pit yawns for you, and who am I to keep you and yours from it?”
Zaktan sensed the other five Piraka standing behind him, whole and as sane as they ever had been. The Mask of Life is testing us, he thought. This was only the first challenge, and it almost destroyed us.
Irnakk began to fade from view. Zaktan took no comfort in the victory, knowing the Piraka were still a long way from their goal.
On the other hand, he said to himself, the Toa will never even make it this far. The beings most likely to be destroyed by fear are those who won’t admit to having any.