Velika stood before the doorway to a narrow passage leading downward. He looked puzzled. “The mountain can be shaped by rain and wind… but can the mountain shape itself by drive and will?”
“Will someone please tell him to stop that?” muttered Kazi.
Balta went to stand beside the Po-Matoran. “No, he’s found something. Remember, Velika oversaw the team of Matoran who built this fortress for the Piraka. He knows every corner of it. If he says this wasn’t there before, then it wasn’t. The Piraka must have carved out a lower level.”
The Matoran rushed down the passage, heedless of any traps that might be waiting. If the Toa Nuva were still alive, every moment that passed could place them in terrible danger.
“Down here!” Balta shouted. He had found a chamber sealed by a door made of stone three feet thick. An iron ring served as a handle, but it would take someone with the strength of Reidak to open it.
Garan turned to Kazi. “We’ll work together. The rest of you, back off.”
The Onu-Matoran and the Ko-Matoran prepared themselves for their task. Then both raised their weapons and fired, Garan launching a pulse bolt and Kazi a blast of sonics. Despite its strength, the chamber door could not stand up to this double bombardment. With a sound like thunder, it shattered into rubble.
Balta did not even wait for the dust to clear before scrambling over the stone. He could make out six figures, maskless, chained to the wall. Elemental energies flowed from their hands into a bottomless well in the center of the room. They looked drained and exhausted, and their eyes glowed with a faint red gleam.
“Incredible,” Balta said. “They must have been enslaved by the virus and imprisoned here. Whoever did it ordered them to pour their elemental energies out until there was no more, and then go beyond that point.”
Piruk and Velika set to work breaking the chains. The Toa Nuva did not respond, seeming to take no notice of the fact that anyone had come into the chamber.
“Even if they fought off the effects of the virus, they would have had no power left to escape,” said Garan. “And who knows what else might have happened? The constant drain might even have killed them over time.”
All six Toa Nuva were free – physically, at least. Now the Matoran had to free them from mental enslavement as well. Each loaded his launcher with one of the same zamor spheres the Toa Inika had used to free the Matoran population of the island.
“Fire!” said Garan.
The spheres struck their targets. All six Toa Nuva immediately slumped to the ground, as if struck dead. Dalu rushed to Tahu Nuva, only to find he was still alive, just badly weakened.
“Wake up!” she urged. “The Toa Inika need you!”
“Your tools are here. We can take you to your masks,” Balta said, helping Kopaka Nuva to rise. “I just hope it is not already too late.”
“Toa… Inika?” asked Onua Nuva. “What… what are you talking about?”
“It’s a long story,” said Garan. “We’ll tell you on the way.”
Hakann looked up at the burning bars of flame, now not so very far overhead. “So how do we like our Piraka,” he asked, “baked or boiled?”
“Be quiet,” said Zaktan. “I’m thinking.”
“Oh, then I’ll alert a Chronicler,” the crimson-armored Piraka said sarcastically. “Your thinking is what brought us here. As I recall, you thought looting Makuta’s corpse would be a grand idea.”
Zaktan ignored him. “We can’t go forward, back, or up. That leaves down. Vezok, dive deep and see what you can find.”
Grateful to get away from the awful heat, Vezok complied. As he went farther down, the water cooled to a more comfortable temperature. The whole thing seemed like a Matoran’s errand to him, though, since it was so dark at the pool’s bottom, he could not see a thing. Determined to find a way out, he began feeling his way along the floor, looking for some kind of a gap.
There! He had chanced upon a narrow opening between two rocks. A few quick blows widened it a little, just enough for someone his size to fit through. Then he went back to get the others, so that no matter what might be waiting in the tunnel, Reidak would be going first.
Moments later, all six Piraka were swimming through the gap. Beyond it was a winding tunnel that went down, then up, then veered sharply down again, then settled into a long, gentle ascent. There was barely enough room to move, let alone fight back if anything attacked.
Bringing up the rear, Hakann was the one who noticed that stone slabs were falling into place behind them as they swam. There would be no going back if they didn’t like their destination.
Reidak suddenly stopped swimming and pointed upward. Then he vanished into the ceiling. It was only when Hakann got a little closer that he realized there was another tunnel branching off this one and heading straight up. He followed his partners into it, hoping it led somewhere with breathable air.
To his great relief, it did. The Piraka emerged on a vast plain of hardened magma. At the far edge, a huge stone bridge spanned a river of lava. The far tower of the bridge featured a small gateway at the bottom. Instinctively, the Piraka knew they had almost reached their goal. So excited were they that none of them noticed the subtle, minute changes already happening to them due to their exposure to the water. But there would be time enough to realize, and tremble, later.
“Let’s go,” said Thok. “The mask must be close now.”
“Wait,” ordered Zaktan. The Piraka looked back at him in surprise. “I want the Mask of Life as well, but I don’t want to have to fight my way past six Toa to escape with it. They may be close behind – it will cost us nothing to set a trap for them here, and then take the mask at our leisure.”
Hakann frowned. Zaktan had been the one pushing hardest to find the mask from the beginning, and now he wanted to wait? Then again, if the other five Piraka and the Toa Inika destroyed each other in battle, Zaktan could claim the mask for himself with no opposition.
Regardless, the Piraka leader was right. If the Toa surprised them in a confined space when they had to worry about protecting the mask, they would be demolished. Better to choose the battle site themselves.
“Then let’s get to work,” said Hakann. “There’s nothing like an ambush to brighten up your day.”
At the moment, fighting the Piraka was the furthest thing from the Toa’s minds. They had come to yet another chamber along the stairway’s path, this one lit by dark red lightstones. Although there were no enemies visible, something about the room felt wrong. The Toa advanced with caution.
“Welcome, travelers,” a voice boomed from every side. The Toa’s eyes scanned the chamber but saw no one. “You seek the Chamber of Life… but first you must pass through the Chamber of Death, for truly both are intertwined.”
“Come out where we can see you!” shouted Jaller.
The voice ignored him. “For millennia beyond count, the Mask of Life has been hidden in this place, waiting for destiny’s call. It is a Kanohi both wonderful and terrible in its might. And the price to wield its power of life… is death.”
“Well, that is happy-cheerful,” muttered Kongu. “You take us to the nicest places, Jaller, old friend.”
“Six of you stand ready,” the voice continued. “If you wish to pass through this chamber, one of you must die. Decide – now.”
“And what if we choose not to abide by your rules?” said Hahli. “What if we fight?”
Again, the voice ignored all argument, merely repeating its last statement. The Toa’s response was to charge for the exit on the other side of the chamber, only to find themselves blocked by an invisible barrier. It reminded Jaller of the one that had cut him off from Toa Takanuva on the journey to Voya Nui, but there was no time to consider the implications of that.
“We go back,” said the Toa Inika of Fire. “We’ll find another way down, or make one.”
He turned around, just in time to see a massive stone slab come down, cutting off their exit. It proved to be impervious to his fire, as well as Matoro’s ice and even Hewkii’s power over rock. The Toa were trapped.
The voice spoke again. “Two choices have you – renounce your pursuit of the Mask of Life, and you may leave as you came, never to return. Or choose one of your number to die, so that the rest may pass. There are no other pathways open to your tread.”
Jaller considered. He had no idea where the Piraka were or whether they might already have found the mask. There seemed no way out of this chamber, and renouncing the quest would result in who knows what – maybe even some kind of sudden transport back to Metru Nui and utter failure. No, there really was no choice. He was the leader of the Toa Inika, so if someone had to be sacrificed, it should be him.
He started to speak, but somehow the words caught in his throat. He had a sudden flash of memory of the day he died at the claws of the Rahkshi. The recollection was so vivid that it froze Jaller for a split second. It was the sound of another voice that freed him from his paralysis.
“I volunteer,” said Matoro, stepping forward. “If someone has to die, let it be me.”
“Matoro! No!” cried Hahli.
“Absolutely not,” said Jaller, taken completely by surprise. He addressed the mysterious voice, saying, “Whoever you are, this is not our choice!”
“Yes, we have gotten ever-used to frosty here,” added Kongu.
Matoro turned to his friends. “Please. This is the logical choice. I’m not a warrior, like you, Jaller, or you, Kongu – or an athlete, or an inventor, or even a Chronicler. I am just a translator for a Turaga, and not even that anymore. I won’t save the universe with my fists or my wits, but maybe I can do it this way.”
“Matoro, you don’t have to –” Jaller began.
“The choice has been made,” the voice said, cutting off the Toa leader. “The price will be paid.”
Before any of the Toa could protest, a beam of light shone down on Matoro. In a millisecond, his body had dissolved, leaving only his mask hovering in the shaft of illumination. Then that too faded away.
For a moment, there was silence, broken only by the muffled sobbing of Toa Hahli. Then something akin to dust began to swirl inside the light. It rotated faster and faster, until it began to take on definite form. A moment later, that form became recognizable as Matoro’s Kanohi mask.
Now more and more sparkling particles appeared, twisting and melding together inside the beam. None of the Toa dared speak lest they disturb the stunning event they were witnessing. Before their eyes, Matoro’s body was reforming, whole and undamaged, as if it had never been gone at all.
When the process was complete, the light disappeared. Toa Matoro looked around in confusion, but what he felt could not begin to equal the emotions in the hearts of his friends.
“It is done,” said the voice. “This one has died and been reborn, and so the price is paid… the debt is settled. For it is not the cold fact of death that matters, but the willingness to die for one’s cause. This one had the courage to accept destruction so that his comrades could live, so final death will not be his this day.”
The stone slab that blocked the staircase behind the Toa was gone. A shimmer in the air told them the force barrier had vanished as well.
“You are free to pass on,” said the voice.
The Toa did not hesitate. They proceeded through the exit and down the stairs – and as they resumed their journey, it was not lost on Jaller that Matoro had taken the lead.
The next several minutes of the journey were quiet ones, giving each Toa Inika some time to reflect. There were still so many questions to be answered. What had happened to the Toa Nuva? Assuming those veteran heroes were safe, what then? Would they want the Inika to return to Metru Nui and watch over the city with Takanuva? After so much action and adventure, what would it be like to have to settle for simple guard duty?
Their pondering was interrupted by a sound from farther down the staircase, one that resembled the scream of a Muaka mixed with the angry buzzing of a very large Nui-Rama.
“Oh, good,” said Kongu. “We haven’t had to hard-fight for our lives in at least two minutes.”
They moved on cautiously, scanning the walls for any niches or caverns from which the sound might have emanated. They didn’t see anything suspicious until they reached a wider chamber – and then they saw nothing at all, as all the lightstones embedded in the walls exploded simultaneously. Jaller activated his flame sword in time to see clawed figures dropping down from the ceiling.
“Watch out!” he shouted. As the first creature dropped near him, the light of his flame revealed it to be a two-headed beast with a lizard-like tail. It stood on two legs, and its forelegs ended in razor-sharp talons. Jaller swung his sword and struck the monster. To his amazement, it did not go down, but rather split into two beings, both just as big and powerful as the original. The other Toa were making the same discovery, as their six attackers had now multiplied into twelve.
The Toa backed up the stairs, with Hewkii using his powers to create a wall of rock between them and their foes. It provided temporary protection but also kept the Toa from advancing any farther toward the Mask of Life.
Without bothering to wait for Jaller to ask, Kongu used his Mask of Telepathy to probe the creatures’ minds. There wasn’t much there that was coherent, but enough that he could say, “They’re not intelligent beings. They’re… Jaller, they’re protodites!”
“That’s crazy,” said Hewkii. “Protodites are microscopic in size. These things are bigger than we are!”
“The Mask of Life,” replied Hahli. “Do you think its power could have –”
Her question was interrupted by the shattering of Hewkii’s wall. The creatures charged, and Hewkii and Nuparu lashed out by reflex. The next thing anyone knew, there were sixteen of the ravenous beasts.
“Remember that time I was hanging upside down in a swamp hole, just above some hungry mud crawlers,” said Nuparu. “You know, the ones with the acidic tongues and the breath that smells like Tarakava that’s been out in the sun too long?”
“Sure, what about it?” answered Kongu.
Nuparu sighed. “Those were the good old days, huh?”
Then the creatures were upon them, clawing and scratching, while the Toa tried desperately to fight them off without striking and making more of them. Elemental powers proved some help in this, but even the most optimistic of the Toa could tell they were fighting a losing battle – and the darkness only made it worse.
A sudden flash of light temporarily blinded the Toa. They heard a rush of wind and then more bursts of light filled the stairway. The creatures screamed and scattered, their weak eyes unused to the bright glare. For just a moment, Jaller found himself hoping that Takanuva, the Toa of Light, had somehow made it to Voya Nui.
When his vision cleared, he discovered he could not have been more wrong. The yellow-armored being who stood on the stairs holding a wicked staff could not have been further from his friend. Jaller’s eyes were drawn to the figure’s feet, which featured rounded devices that looked something like gears. The Toa of Fire could not recall seeing anyone actually standing on their gears before, though. The figure regarded the assembled Toa with cold, empty eyes and then he was gone.
No, not gone, Jaller realized, as he felt something fly past him. Just moving too fast for the eye to see.
The Toa whirled, trying to catch a glimpse of their new foe. He was riding on the walls at an incredible rate of speed, leaping the gaps to circle the heroes. Toa Kongu raised his crossbow, only to have it shot out of his hand by a thin laser beam fired by the yellow blur crisscrossing the room.
“Slow him down,” Jaller said to Hewkii. The Toa Inika of Stone used his power to make sharp, angular rocks jut out from the walls. But the figure maneuvered around them with ease, never slowing long enough for anyone to have a clear target.
“I’ve had enough of this,” snapped Kongu, unleashing a lightning-laced tornado at the far wall. It was big enough to totally block the figure’s path and powerful enough to fling him the length of the chamber if he got caught in it.
The enemy’s speed slackened only a fraction as he approached the violently rotating column of air. Then he shot off the wall straight at Kongu, his momentum carrying him over the Toa. His wheeled feet clipped Kongu’s head, knocking the Toa of Air to the ground.
“That does it!” said Kongu, scrambling to his feet. “I’ve been beaten, sharp-clawed, stone-grabbed, and Piraka-pounded – but that does it! I hope this Rahi-breath has his memorial stone carved already, because he’s going to need it.”
The figure had skidded to a halt between the Toa and the chamber’s far exit. Its expression had not changed. When it spoke, its voice was as cold as a kraata’s heart. “I am Umbra. I guard the Mask of Life. You shall not pass.”
“This makes no sense,” Hahli said. “First you save us from those… things, and now you want to fight us. Why?”
“The protodax are violent beasts,” Umbra replied. “They do not kill with honor – they simply kill. I leave to them the simpleminded Rahi who accidentally wander down this far, but those with heart and spirit are mine to destroy.”
“Another threat,” said Hewkii. “Is there anyone on this crummy island who doesn’t make threats?”
“Insanity,” said Hahli. “How can a mere Kanohi mask be worth so many lives?”
“If you do not know its worth,” Umbra replied, “then why are you here?”
With that, Umbra rocketed forward again. In a millisecond, he had disarmed all six Toa and filled Hewkii with a hundred blows delivered between one breath and the next.
“Okay, if he’s doing all the race-running, why am I the one who’s deep-tired?” asked Kongu.
“And how come there’s never a Mask of Time around when you need one?” added Nuparu.
Matoro smiled. “We’re looking at this the wrong way. Forget about slowing him down – let’s speed him up.”
The Toa Inika of Ice concentrated, sending waves of cold throughout the chamber. The walls, ceiling and floor began to ice over. In a matter of moments, they were dangerously slick, a fact Umbra found out. Following the curve of the left-hand wall, he suddenly skidded out of control and crashed hard to the floor.
“Slam-bang,” said Kongu, cheerfully. “I like it.”
“He’s down. He’s not out,” warned Jaller. “It’s going to take more than a little ice to stop him.”
As if on cue, Umbra began to shift and change. Before the Toa’s startled eyes, he changed from a physical being to a concentrated beam of light. Jaller just managed to push Nuparu out of the way before the laser-like Umbra struck him. Their foe’s light form melted a hole in the back wall, then shot back toward the Toa.
“Down!” Jaller yelled. This new attack was even worse than Umbra’s super-speed – at least before, he had a physical body and could be struck if one could catch up to him. How do we fight a beam of light?
The answer came as Umbra shot past overhead multiple times in a second. Jaller was only slightly annoyed to realize the key was Matoro.
“We need more ice,” he shouted. “Block the exits. And it needs to be like polished crystal!”
Without any urging, Hahli used her power to create more moisture for Matoro to work with. He rapidly covered the Toa and Umbra with a dome of freezing cold, crystalline ice. As soon as this was done, it was Nuparu’s turn. He triggered the power of his mask and flew toward the far wall, as if making a break for the iced-over exit leading to the location of the mask.
Umbra did just what Jaller expected: he flashed after Nuparu in light form. Just before reaching the wall, Nuparu cut off his mask’s energies and dropped to the stone floor. Umbra kept going, his light beam striking and then bouncing off the reflective ice. The ricochet carried him to another wall of ice, where he reflected again. Then he was flashing all over the chamber, bouncing back and forth by the mirror-bright ice. Finally, it was too much even for Umbra to take and he reappeared in physical, and unconscious, form on the floor.
The Toa Inika wasted no time. Jaller recovered his energized flame sword and used it to cut a hole in the ice covering the exit. Then he and the others rushed down another few dozen stairs and onto a volcanic plain.
After so long in the narrow stairway, broken up only by the occasional stone chamber, the vastness of the plain was disconcerting. Nuparu did a fast fly-over of the bridge in the distance and returned to report that the Piraka were already positioned there.
“How are you with bridges?” Kongu asked.
“Watch me,” Nuparu, Toa Inika of Earth, replied.
The earthquake that followed lasted only for a few seconds, but it was long enough to shake half the Piraka off their posts. Once their foes were off balance, the Toa charged. Zaktan, Hakann, and Thok rained zamor spheres down on them, and the Toa responded with bursts of elemental power.
Times like this, I could use a Mask of Shielding, thought Jaller. Before all is said and done, I am going to get my old mask back – the one Karzahni took from me – even if I have to go back there by myself. It dishonors Toa Lhikan’s memory to just let it be lost. Plus, I am really, really tired of dodging.
Despite his concerns, the battle was going the Toa’s way. Thok and Hakann had already abandoned their positions, and Hahli, Hewkii, and Nuparu were keeping three of the Piraka too busy to strike back. Only Zaktan was still manning a hastily constructed launcher and refusing all efforts to dislodge him.
That’s when Kongu got his idea. Zaktan was made out of billions of microscopic protodites – and little things tend not to like big winds. A well-placed cyclone might disperse the Piraka leader and clear the way for a Toa victory. For a fast mover like the Toa Inika of Air, thought was deed, and his cyclone was on its way. Unfortunately, the sound of rushing wind drowned out Jaller and Matoro’s calls for him to stop.
The funnel of air smashed into Zaktan, sending his protodites flying in multiple directions. But the bridge, already weakened by Nuparu’s earthquake, could not stand up to the punishing winds. It groaned, twisted, and collapsed, burying the Toa underneath it. The Piraka, having been driven away from the bridge before the collapse, fared better. They were already assembled when Zaktan managed to regain control of his component parts and get back on the ground.
“Let us hope the Toa have fallen for the last time,” Zaktan said. “Come, let’s go. The Mask of Life is waiting.”
The five Piraka followed him, broad grins on their faces as they contemplated the end of their quest. Those smiles might have been erased had they known that something else besides the mask – something powerful, evil, and quite mad – was waiting for them beyond the gateway.
The door at the base of the bridge opened onto a huge chamber bordered on three sides by lava channels. But that was not what left the Piraka gaping, openmouthed. Rather, it was the caped figure who dominated the room from atop a giant Rahi spider. His identity should not have been a surprise, yet somehow it was.
“Vezon,” Zaktan said softly.
“Vezon,” Vezok repeated, with barely contained rage.
“How convenient,” said the rider. “You know my name… and of course I know yours… and isn’t it only right that you should spend your last moments of life with an old, dear friend?”