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Takanuva and Jaller emerged from the tunnel to see the seven Turaga standing alone. There was no sign of the Toa Nuva, only six empty cradles where once the canisters had rested.

“Where?” asked Jaller.

“Someplace far too dangerous for any Matoran to go,” Turaga Dume answered. “This is a matter for Toa.”

Jaller threw his crafter’s tool on the ground in anger. “That’s not good enough!”

“Jaller!” Vakama exclaimed, shocked.

“We are not little Rahi that need to be looked after,” the Ta-Matoran said quietly. “We fought the Rahi, the Bohrok, and the Bohrok Va. We stood up to the Rahkshi – I died in that struggle! The Matoran need your guidance and your wisdom, but not to be coddled, protected… or lied to.”

An uncomfortable silence followed. Takanuva looked down at the floor. Vakama glanced at Dume, who looked furious. Jaller looked from one Turaga to another, waiting for one of them to start talking. When none of them did, he kicked his tool, sending it skidding across the stone to stop at Dume’s feet.

“All right. When you are ready to treat the Matoran with respect, let us know. Until then, no one is doing any more work. Metru Nui was in ruins for a thousand years… another thousand won’t hurt.”

Jaller turned and departed, leaving behind eight very disturbed figures.

“What is it?” Kazi asked.

Velika and Balta carefully examined the tool stolen from Avak. It was obviously meant to be carried or perhaps latched on to the arm. Balta had already identified what looked like a launching apparatus, but there did not seem to be anything to shoot.

“I don’t think this is for building, or to help us find water,” said Garan.

“What if they find out we took it?” Piruk asked, anxiously. He was in no hurry to run into Zaktan again.

“Dalu is outside watching the approach to the cave,” Balta assured him. “If she sees one of them coming, she will let us know.” He turned to Velika. “What do you think?”

“When the Kanohi dragon roars, do not look for the stone rat,” the Po-Matoran replied. The others waited for him to explain just what that saying meant, but Velika added nothing.

“I hate it when he does that,” said Kazi.

“It’s obvious,” said Garan impatiently. “If you hear one Rahi, don’t expect a different one to appear. If the signs all point one way, then don’t expect the truth to be something else.”

“Oh. That clears everything up,” Kazi said sarcastically.

“It’s not a tool, not like the kind we use,” Garan explained. “It’s a weapon. The question is: What do they need it for? Who is there here to fight?”

Balta hesitated a moment, before saying quietly, “Us?”

“But… but they’re Toa!” Piruk insisted.

“Are they?” asked Garan. “I’m not so sure. Not sure at all.”

Dalu spotted Avak heading for the cave. She crossed her tools and felt a surge of energy go through them. The next instant, Avak was rocketing forward at super-speed. Unprepared for the sudden acceleration, he stumbled and flew headlong into a pile of rocks.

Dalu separated the tools and took a deep breath. Each time she used her equipment to temporarily enhance someone else’s attributes, it drained some of her own energy. She knew what would result if she used the tools too often in a short span of time: unconsciousness and probably death. But she had already decided she would risk whatever she had to in order to keep Avak from finding the others.

Avak had shaken off the impact and gotten to his feet, leaning on a boulder for support. Dalu sent another jolt of power to him, this time aimed at enhancing his strength. The boulder suddenly crumbled to pieces before his might and Avak almost fell again. Frustrated, he kicked out at the rock pile, his blow turning a thousand pounds of rock into a cloud of dust.

Dalu fought the wave of dizziness that washed over her. She had one more thing to try – a more potent attack than the others, but its use almost guaranteed she would collapse from the power drain. Hopefully, it would be enough to convince Avak to turn back.

She crossed her tools for a third time. This jolt of power targeted Avak’s hearing, enhancing it well beyond normal levels. He stopped dead as his mind was suddenly assailed by every noise on the island. He could hear the breathing of every living thing, every rock being struck by a tool, every Rahi’s cry, the sizzle of lava, even every pebble that scraped against another. It was overwhelming, maddening.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. He staggered forward a few steps, then stopped and turned around. Someone or something was doing this to him, of that he had no doubt, but he was in no condition to search for it. Let Reidak do it, he thought. That’s what the big mass of muscle is for, after all.

He started back down the path, never knowing that his opponent was a Ga-Matoran who now lay among the rocks, as still as death.

“So, what do we do?” asked Kazi. “We’re Matoran. They’re To– whatever it is they are. Vezok bites boulders in half for fun. Hakann keeps turning Rahi into piles of ash. Reidak slipped and fell 200 bio, smashed into the ice ring headfirst, and all it did was make him irritable. I can’t say I like our chances.”

Garan nodded. “Maybe not. But we need to know what’s going on here. We need someone to get close to that stronghold they had us build. Avak and Vezok have been moving equipment in there for days. Someone has to go in there, someone they won’t look twice at…”

As one, they turned and looked at Piruk.

After several minutes of whispered argument, they convinced the Le-Matoran to take the job. Garan sent Balta out to find Dalu and tell her the meeting was over and that they were heading back to the settlement. When he returned, Balta’s expression was grim.

“You all better come,” he said. “I’ve never seen her this bad.”

Zaktan stood in the vast collection chamber. The vaulted room was bare save for a huge crystal sphere in the center. As the emerald-hued being watched, green and black smoke slowly began to fill the sphere. His eyes glowed as the smoke became denser and more viscous, bolts of electricity crackling in the midst of its substance.

The others believe all this equipment is just another tool to be used in obtaining the Mask of Life, Zaktan thought. They have no concept of what it is really for, nor will they until it is far too late.

“Soon,” he whispered in a multitude of voices. “When the gathering is complete and the mask has been found…”

In a heavily shadowed corner, Piruk listened, paralyzed with fear. Slipping into the building past Reidak had been bad enough. Finding this horror inside was enough to make him want to turn around and tell Garan to do his own information gathering.

“Life from death,” the armored figure breathed. “Death from life.”

And me a long way from here, Piruk decided, edging toward the exit. He had made it halfway there when the door suddenly burst open and Hakann and Avak marched into the room. Zaktan whirled at the unexpected interruption.

“You were not summoned!” he hissed.

“The Matoran are getting restless,” Hakann replied. “If you weren’t spending all your time in here, you would know that. Then again, if you were spending time with them, they would have skipped ‘restless’ and gone straight to ‘panic.’ You don’t exactly inspire warm feeling.”

“One of the zamor launchers was stolen,” Avak broke in. “When I tried to track it down, I was attacked by –”

“By a Matoran,” Hakann said, smiling. “Great and powerful Avak was beaten by a Matoran. What would our old friends among the Dark Hunters say about that?”

“They’re going to be reciting your eulogy if you don’t shut up,” Avak growled. “Zaktan, this plan is not going to work. And if they catch on, we will have hundreds of angry Matoran swarming all around like insects…”

Zaktan shot him an icy look. Avak immediately realized what he had said wrong. Zaktan’s body was an aggregate of trillions of microscopic creatures called protodites, each containing a portion of his consciousness. This gave him unusual powers, but it also created an aura so alien that not even his allies liked being around him. The protodites shifted position in waves, causing his body to be in constant motion, a sight that was nauseating if one looked long enough.

“The plan is not at fault,” said Zaktan. “The failure is yours. You were supposed to act like Toa so the Matoran would not suspect the truth.”

“Well, we’re not Toa!” Avak snapped. “We’re Piraka. Thieves, killers, and, once we have the Mask of Life, rulers. The Toa couldn’t stop us, the Dark Hunters couldn’t keep us in line, and maybe the days of taking orders from you are over, too.”

Piruk had to stifle a gasp. Garan had been right. The island was under the control of six brutal maniacs who thought of Matoran as insects. They were searching for this “Mask of Life,” whatever that might be, and somehow he doubted they would leave peacefully once they had it.

His worrying was interrupted by an angry hum that filled the chamber. Zaktan’s right arm had extended toward Avak, and a swarm of protodites now engulfed the brown Piraka. Normally, the creatures were too small to be seen by the naked eye, but in the trillions they made up a greenish mass that writhed like a tentacle. Avak hit the floor and rolled as the swarm flew into his eyes. Hakann made no move to help, just stood by and watched as if it were all staged for his entertainment.

Avak fought a growing sense of horror. The protodites didn’t sting, but their sheer numbers threatened to suffocate him. He opened his mouth to scream, only to have the tiny creatures swarm into it. A cloud of green threatened to be the last thing he would ever see.

Hakann glanced at Zaktan. “When you’re quite finished?”

Zaktan gave no sign he had heard, but withdrew the protodites back to him. They slowly coalesced back into his right arm, although Hakann guessed it was with some reluctance. These days, Zaktan so rarely let them out to play.

Avak remained on the floor, coughing. Zaktan walked over and nudged him with his foot. “Next time, I will not be so merciful,” the green Piraka said flatly.

“You can take your ‘mercy’ and –” Avak began, ready to spring to the attack.

Hakann stepped in between them before a fight could break out. “What Avak means is that he is grateful for your understanding. He spoke out of turn and deeply regrets it. Don’t you, Avak?”

When Avak didn’t answer, Hakann snapped his foot back and kicked the brown Piraka in the side. “Don’t you, Avak?” he repeated.

“Yes,” Avak spat. “I’m starting to regret a lot of things.”

Hakann turned his attention back to Zaktan. “The Matoran think they have reason to fear us. I suggest we give them something to really be afraid of.”

As Zaktan smiled his approval, Piruk slipped out of the chamber. The Matoran had to be warned that everything they had gone through up to now had been a game of slides and shadows compared to what was about to take place.

If only there were Toa here, he thought as he slipped past Reidak. Real Toa. But who am I kidding? Even if there were any coming, by the time they get here… they’ll only be in time to bury us.

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