The Piraka were not amused.
Their journey had been brought to an abrupt halt in a most disturbing way. Six cylinders of stone had erupted from the staircase, trapping each of them in their own individual prison. The stone rapidly proved too smooth to climb and impervious to eyebeams, brute strength, or Piraka weaponry. Although the cylinders were open at the top, Zaktan’s attempt to fly out was met by a jolt of electricity sufficient to send him crashing back to earth.
All of the cylinders shared one feature in common. On the inside of each, at roughly waist level, was a stone latch. Just why it was there was a mystery, as there were no visible signs of a door.
“What’s next?” grumbled Thok. “The walls close in? Swarms of fireflyers attack? The Shadowed One sings?”
His answer didn’t come from any of the other Piraka, but from an aged voice that boomed from all around them. Although none of the captives knew it, the voice belonged to the Great Being who had crafted the route to the Mask of Life. The words had been spoken thousands of years before.
“Travelers, you now face another test,” the voice said. “Only two types of being can escape the cylinders in which you find yourselves – the completely selfless, and the completely selfish.
“Behold the latches in your prison cells. If all of you raise your latches at the same time, then the cylinders will open and you are free to proceed. All will be well, and all will have an equal chance to obtain the Mask of Life. But if one of you raises his latch before the others do, he and only he will be free to continue on his way, while all of his companions will be destroyed. You must decide.”
Zaktan immediately shouted, “No one touches their latch!”
Thok pulled his hand back from the piece of stone as if he had been burned. “All right, Zaktan, you don’t have to yell! We’re trapped, not deaf.”
“Avak, have you found another way out of these cylinders?” asked Zaktan.
“No, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s prison cells,” Avak replied. “It looks like the voice was telling the truth – it’s all of us… or only one of us.”
“Then I suppose we have to… work together,” Hakann said, the words obviously disgusting him.
“Exactly, and quickly,” Zaktan answered. He knew the more time his teammates had to think, the better the chance one of them would betray the rest. It had certainly crossed his mind, but going on alone would be madness. Partners are necessary so that future opponents will have someone to demolish while I escape, he reasoned.
“Then at the count of three, we all raise our latches at once,” said Avak. “Are we agreed?”
Each of the Piraka said yes. Zaktan wasn’t sure which worried him more – that Hakann was the first to answer or Vezok the last.
Suddenly, the floor opened up beneath all six Piraka. A powerful suction drew them down to a fate unknown. As they slid through narrow stone channels, Reidak could be heard shouting, “He lied! The voice lied!”
Their unexpected journey ended with a splash. The Piraka flew out the end of the passages and right into a large pool of liquid protodermis. They plunged far beneath it, but fortunately, its depth was great enough that they did not strike the bottom. When they broke the surface again, all of them were unharmed… at least, for the moment.
“Reidak!” Zaktan shouted in a rage. “You moron! Of course he lied! The whole thing was a trap for any team that could not trust each other. The second you raised that latch and tried to betray us, you doomed us all.”
“Don’t blame Reidak – maybe he wasn’t trying to cross us. Maybe he just can’t count,” commented Avak. He looked around. “And, hey, this isn’t bad, as dooms go.”
He had a point. The liquid protodermis was actually refreshing after the long climb down the stairs. Granted there didn’t seem to be any easy way to get out of it. The water filled the entire chamber and the only exits were the passages the Piraka had slid down, the entrances to which were on the ceiling high above. But the Piraka had escaped from worse traps in their time.
“We will discuss this later,” Zaktan said, in a tone that left no doubt the conversation would not be a pleasant one for Reidak. “Let’s get out of here.”
Zaktan dissolved his body into a free-floating mass of protodites and began to rise into the air. He had made it only a few feet above the water when slabs of stone started falling away from the walls all over the chamber. The Piraka dove under the water as the rocks struck, sending huge splashes into the air. When the hail of rock was done, there were dozens and dozens of recessed slots exposed in the walls.
There was a moment of uneasy silence. The Piraka returned to the surface, their eyes darting around to see what would happen next. They didn’t have long to wait. Jets of white-hot flame erupted from each slot, forming fiery “bars” above the water. Zaktan yelled in pain and dropped back into the pool.
Reidak squinted at the bright glow. The air above the water was now a mass of fire and the Piraka were caged just as surely as if they had been in a cell.
“Now what?” said Avak.
“Maybe they aren’t really there,” suggested Thok. “Like Irnakk.”
“Let’s throw Reidak up there and find out,” said Hakann.
“They are real enough,” hissed Zaktan. “I lost enough protodites to know that.”
“Okay, so we stay in the water,” said Vezok, “until the flame jets run out of power.”
Thok looked at his partner as if Vezok had just grown a second head. “What happens to water when it’s exposed to flame?”
In the old days, Vezok would have shot back the answer in an instant. Since he had been split into two beings – himself and Vezon – he had not been quite so swift. He paused for a moment, wondering if this might be a trick question, before saying, “It boils?”
“And so do we, if we stay here,” said Thok. “Or we could try climbing the walls to reach the exits and get fried. Take your pick.”
The only answer came from the flame jets, which suddenly increased in power. Soon, the Piraka knew, they would be forced under the water, which would add drowning to their list of possible fates.
“That settles it,” said Hakann. “Next time someone invites me to join a group, I’m saying no.”