Vezon yanked hard on the chain he held. In response, the head of the giant spider he rode jerked up. The creature bared its multiple vicious fangs and gave a savage hiss. It crawled a few paces toward the assembled Piraka, its red eyes glaring fiercely at them. There was something revolting about its every movement.
“You’re early,” said Vezon. “Or are you late? I never can keep those two straight… not that it matters very much, down here. Had a little problem with the Matoran, did we?”
“You were up there?” asked Thok, never taking his eyes off Vezon’s monstrous mount.
“I was down here,” Vezon corrected. “Way, way down here. But the mask knew you were coming… It knew, you see, and that’s why it wanted me. That’s why it introduced me to Fenrakk here, and told us to wait very quietly until you arrived.”
An evil gleam sprang to life in Vezon’s eyes. “So you see, whatever happens to you next, you brought on yourselves.”
Zaktan detached a small portion of the microscopic protodites that made up his body and sent them flying silently to scout the chamber. But his efforts did not go unnoticed. Vezon’s eyes darted in the direction of the motion. Energy poured from his spear, striking the protodites and fusing them together into a solid mass. The fused creatures hit the floor, dead.
“Pests,” Vezon said. “It’s so hard to keep an underground lava chamber free of pests.”
Avak had already had enough. He called upon his power and summoned a cage to surround Vezon and Fenrakk. It took only an instant for the two to be safely behind bars that could resist even their combined powers.
“Oh, very good,” said Vezon, smiling happily. “But you see, Avak, I am already in prison. You have just shown me the bars. And you can’t get what you want if I am in here.”
The deranged Piraka threw his head back and laughed. As he did so, Zaktan saw that a Kanohi mask was fused to the back of his skull. A glance at the empty pedestal in the rear of the chamber told him all he needed to know. “You’re wearing the Mask of Life,” the emerald-armored Piraka said.
“Wearing it, cursed by it, serving it, raging at it,” Vezon replied. “Not always in that order. Want it? Come try and take it. Please.”
Reidak took a step toward the cage. Fenrakk snapped at him, barely missing the Piraka’s hand. Slime oozed from the spider’s mouth. Every drop that hit the stone floor produced a sizzling sound and a wisp of smoke.
“Then it’s a stand-off,” said Zaktan.
“A stand-off,” Vezon repeated.
“We can’t get at the mask… and you can’t get at us.”
Vezon said nothing.
“We have to make some arrangement.”
“An arrangement,” Vezon agreed.
“What do you want for the mask?” asked Zaktan.
Fenrakk backed away from the bars, carrying Vezon back into the shadows. Only the mad Piraka’s crimson eyes were visible as he said, “What do I want? What do I need? I have so much – eternal life; the loyalty, devotion, and companionship of a monstrous killing machine; all the lava eels I can eat. What could you possibly offer? What service could you possibly perform?”
A pause. Then Vezon’s expression brightened. “Ah, I know! You could kill Vezok!”
“Let me in there!” Vezok shouted. “I’ll strangle that freak and shove that spear down his –”
Reidak grabbed his partner and flung him hard against the stone wall. Before Vezok could react, Thok’s ice weapon had covered him with a thick sheet of ice. Hakann followed that up with a mental blast that shattered Vezok’s thoughts into a million shards.
“A few more of those and he won’t be a problem for anyone anymore,” Hakann said to Vezon. “The Spear of Fusion, used in reverse, split you off from Vezok, and you don’t want to risk being joined back up with him… am I warm?”
“Searing,” Vezon replied.
“We do this, and we get the mask?”
“You do that,” Vezon answered, “and we’ll talk.”
Hakann turned back to Vezok. He was greeted by an explosion of ice. The next moment, both he and Reidak were being slammed by mental blasts, courtesy of Vezok’s ability to copy the powers of others. Hakann tried to scramble away. Vezok grabbed him by the spine, spun him around, and threw him at Zaktan. The Piraka leader naturally dodged, allowing Hakann to slam headfirst into a stone wall.
“You’re going to believe him?” Vezok bellowed, pointing at Vezon. “I can understand murderous… I can even deal with treacherous… but you five are just stupid!”
Vezon giggled. “You left out ‘highly entertaining,’ Vezok.”
“You couldn’t give us the mask if you wanted to, could you?” said Vezok.
Vezon shook his head. “You will have to pry it off my cold, dead head. That’s part of the curse. When I came down here… when I dared try to take the mask… it fused itself to me, just as it fused me to Fenrakk here.”
“Let him out of the cage,” Vezok said to Avak.
“Are you crazy?” Avak answered. “You may want to face that lunatic and his pet spider, but I don’t.”
Vezok turned, grabbed Avak, slammed him onto the stone floor, and pinned him there. “Let him… OUT… of the cage! I’ll tear the mask off him!” When Avak hesitated, Vezok used a borrowed mental blast to knock him unconscious. The cage around Vezon disappeared.
Vezok stalked toward his enemy. “Now, you misshapen mockery of a Piraka, we’ll settle things once and for all. Then I’ll rip the Spear of Fusion out of your claws and use it to put you back in me, where you belong!”
“The Spear of Fusion?” Vezon repeated, as if in a daze. Then he looked down at the weapon he held, muttering, “That’s right, I do have that, don’t I?” A beam of energy shot out from the tip of the spear, bathing Vezok and Reidak in its power. Instantly, the two of them were fused together into a lumbering, skull-faced giant.
Vezon looked at his creation and was satisfied. Gesturing dismissively at the other Piraka, he said, “Kill them.”
The newly formed creature moved to obey. Born from two Piraka, it was twice as eager to grind its enemies into dust and then blow the dust away.
“You know,” said Toa Hewkii, “I’m getting really tired of losing to those guys… even when it’s our own fault.”
Hahli sat on the ground, cradling her head in both hands. The proximity of the Mask of Life was making her head feel like it was going to split open.
“It is our own fault,” said Toa Jaller, standing up amidst the rubble. “We keep fighting like Matoran, trying to be honorable and merciful the way the Turaga and the Toa Nuva taught us.”
“Against the Piraka, we might as well be wearing signs that say, ‘Stomp us,’” Kongu muttered.
“Then let’s tear the signs off,” said Matoro. “I agree with Hewkii – I’m sick of winding up flat on my mask.”
“Let’s go,” said Jaller, marching toward the gate. “And when we find them, we fight hard and we fight dirty. The Piraka have a long history of beating Toa – well, it stops with us!”
Brutaka met Axonn’s charge with one of his own. Just before they were going to collide, Axonn sidestepped and hit Brutaka with the flat of his axe. His foe went sprawling.
Axonn had no time to enjoy his victory, though, for the dimensional vortex was still closing in. He grabbed his axe and swung it at the floating portal. Energy flashed from the weapon, driving the vortex back.
“Is this what we’ve come to?” Axonn said, fighting to get his breath back. “Clawing at each other like a pair of maddened Rahi?”
Brutaka fired a blast from his sword, knocking Axonn back toward the vortex. “Yes,” he answered. “Rahi beasts are all that we are – it’s all anyone is. And when we’re done, I will be the most powerful beast in the jungle.”
Axonn’s eyes narrowed. Despite all that had happened, all that Brutaka had done, he had never realized just how badly lost his old friend had become.
“I tried,” he said, sadness and anger mixing in his voice. “I hoped that I could still reach some part of you, Brutaka, some remnant of the hero you used to be. But that being is dead. Maybe he died when you met the Piraka, or the contents of that crystal vat… or maybe he was dead long before then, and I simply never noticed.”
Axonn started walking toward his former friend. Brutaka responded with another blast of energy. Axonn ignored the impact and the pain and kept going. “I deny you,” he said.
Brutaka fired again, this time with enough force to bring down a Kanohi Dragon. Again, impossibly, Axonn shrugged it off like it was a spring rain, saying only, “I renounce you.”
The vortex was drawing close again. Axonn ignored it. Brutaka tore a hunk of stone from the wall and threw it, hitting Axonn dead-on. Axonn ignored that, too. “You don’t exist, Brutaka. You are just a hollow shell without a spirit… a void.”
Brutaka took a step backward. He had seen this happen once before. Axonn had been so consumed by a towering rage that nothing would bring him down. If the vortex did not claim him, he would crush Brutaka no matter what the cost in his own pain.
Axonn kept coming. Brutaka’s eyes lit on the crystal vat. Zamor spheres filled with the virus in that vat had increased his strength in the past. Exposure to enough of it would make him vastly more powerful than Axonn. He took a few steps toward it.
The movement didn’t escape Axonn. He stopped, reared back, and hurled his mighty axe. Brutaka screamed in rage and frustration as he saw the weapon soar across the room and smash into the vat.
Razor-sharp shards of crystal flew everywhere. There was an explosion of darkness and sound as the virus was unleashed. The greenish-black cloud hovered for a moment near the ceiling before it began to dissipate, scattering to every corner of the fortress and beyond. Axonn could have sworn he heard a second scream then, one deeper and more guttural than Brutaka’s. But he could see no source for such a sound.
Axonn’s weapon was flying back toward him, but Brutaka knocked it to the ground with his sword. Then he advanced, slashing the air with his blade, determined to down his enemy. “Don’t you realize you’re fighting for a lost cause?” Brutaka snarled.
“Maybe,” Axonn replied. “But don’t you realize those are the only ones worth fighting for?”
Drawing on his last reserves of energy, Axonn unleashed a blast of pure power from his hands. It struck Brutaka like a tidal wave. For just a brief moment before he fell, the light of sanity seemed to return to Brutaka’s eyes. Then those eyes closed and he hit the ground.
Axonn checked him to make sure he was still breathing. Then he picked up his axe and swung hard at the dimensional vortex. As Brutaka had predicted, his defeat had not caused the rift to disappear. The best Axonn could do was drive it away temporarily.
He turned around, planning to drag Brutaka out of the chamber before the vortex went after its creator. To his surprise, Botar was already there. Although he had seen this particular Order of Mata Nui member before, his appearance – lean, strong body topped by a monstrous head with a tooth-filled maw – never failed to startle him.
“Is this necessary?” Axonn asked.
“What is the law?” Botar replied.
“He made a mistake,” said Axonn. “A bad one. But he doesn’t deserve –”
Botar grabbed Brutaka and slung the unconscious warrior over his shoulder. “He does. What is the law? The law is the will of Mata Nui. Break that law and only the Pit will welcome you. Will you let him go… or will you challenge the law and risk sharing his fate, axe-wielder?”
Axonn’s hand tightened on his weapon. He knew the miserable existence Brutaka now faced and it sickened him. But he also knew that in all of recorded history, no one had ever prevented Botar from doing his duty. Brutaka would be condemned to the Pit, with or without Axonn’s consent.
He followed Botar out of the chamber, stopping only for a glance at the dimensional vortex still swirling in the center of the room. Once outside the stronghold, Botar stopped.
“To darkness he turned, in darkness he will remain,” Botar said.
“Not forever,” Axonn replied. “Someday, I will find a way to free him.”
Botar laughed. Coming from his fearsome jaws, it was a horrible sound. Then the Order of Mata Nui’s gatherer of the fallen turned and walked away. Brutaka was on his way to the Pit, the home of those so vile that the Order could do nothing but banish them from the light forever.
Axonn could do nothing but follow; the dimensional vortex Brutaka created forgotten. He was not inside the chamber to see two figures emerge from within the vortex. One was Toa-sized, her form shifting constantly as she adjusted to her new surroundings. The other was a huge Rahi, so gigantic he filled practically the entire chamber.
“Well, we’re here,” said the smaller of the two, “wherever ‘here’ might be. Somehow, I don’t think we’re in Metru Nui anymore, Tahtorak.”