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The Matoran stood in the heart of their settlement in the twilight. They had gathered here with the understanding that something momentous connected to the Toa was about to happen, and they would be privileged to witness it. Now, after a few minutes of standing and waiting, some began to fidget, others to pace, and still more to scan the surrounding cliffs for some sign of their heroes.

Torches were lit. Small groups began to converse. At first, the tone was puzzled and a bit worried. Where were the Toa? Had something happened to them? For that matter, where was Dezalk? This had been his idea. Angrier voices started to be heard.

“Was this supposed to be a joke?”

“The Toa are probably never coming. It was all a lie.”

“Wait until I see Dezalk again –”

Then, as if someone had thrown a switch, all talking ceased. One Matoran pointed up toward the south slope, indicating something that so far only he could spot. And then the waiting was over.

Six Piraka, each armed with a launcher, advanced toward the Matoran from six different directions. They said nothing, only smiled. The reflections of torchlight turned their armor red and gold, but they were not the pure, clean colors of a Toa of Fire – no, they were the fearsome hues of creatures from the pit. Shadows slithered like snakes over their faces and bodies, obscuring their expressions, with the exception of those ever-present, malevolent grins.

Before any of the villagers could cry out, Zaktan fired his launcher. The sphere flew rapidly through the air, struck a Ko-Matoran, and passed into his body. Now the others began to fire and the Matoran panicked, looking desperately for a place to flee. The high rock walls around the settlement had been meant to keep enemies out. On this terrible night, they served only to trap the Matoran inside with six monsters who lurched from the darkness, sowing fear and despair.

There was nowhere to run. Foolishly, the Matoran bunched together, making themselves easier targets. Those who were struck stood straight and still, waiting for orders. Hakann amused himself by sending some of the enslaved Matoran to capture and hold others long enough for his launcher to do its work.

A gust of wind swept through the village, extinguishing the flames of the torches. The settlement was plunged into darkness, punctuated only by the cries of the Matoran and the dull, awful sound of spheres being launched… and launched… and launched.

By the time Garan and the others reached the settlement, it was all over. The village was empty. By the light of their torches, the Matoran could see the smashed statuary, the damaged suva shrine, and other evidence of the panic that had preceded their arrival. Of their friends, there was no sign at all.

Piruk heard a moan. He turned to see Dezalk slowly getting to his feet. The Ta-Matoran shook his head as if trying to recover his bearings. Then without so much as a glance to left or right, he began to march out of the village. Balta immediately put himself in Dezalk’s path.

“Where are the others? What happened?” he yelled.

Dezalk’s dead, crimson eyes stared straight ahead. He kept trying to walk forward. When he finally realized someone was blocking his path, he snarled and tried to shove Balta aside. The two Ta-Matoran traded blows while the others watched, too stunned by events to move.

It was Garan who finally said, “Let him go.”

“Are you crazy?” asked Balta, struggling to keep his former friend from breaking away. “He may be the only one who knows what’s going on!”

“All the more reason to let him escape,” said Dalu. “He has some destination in mind. It’s probably where the others are, and whoever did… whatever… to them.”

“I don’t think it’s any secret who did this,” said Garan. “The question is, what do we do about it?”

Reluctantly, Balta stepped aside. Dezalk walked swiftly out of the settlement with the six Matoran trailing behind him. They made no effort to conceal themselves, and he seemed to take no notice that they were there. Dezalk traversed narrow rock ledges and made next-to-impossible leaps without any hesitation. Whatever had possessed him had removed any trace of caution or fear.

It was not a long journey; it ended at the base of the volcano. Flickering torches dotted the slopes, where hundreds of Matoran were hard at work. Most were swinging digging tools, carving out holes in the sides of the mountain for lava to flow through. The air was filled with the stench of burning rock and the sound of picks striking stone in unison. Dezalk walked calmly ahead, stepped over a lava flow, grabbed a tool of his own, and went to work.

Dalu started forward. Balta stopped her. “Wait,” he whispered. “Look.”

Then she saw them. The six beings who had called themselves Toa were standing on a slope nearby, watching the Matoran labor. Their smiles made her sick.

“Slaves,” growled Dalu. “They have made them slaves!”

“And all to drain lava from the mountain,” muttered Garan. “Why?”

“They’re collecting it,” said Kazi. “Maybe they are going to use the hot magma for some weapon?”

Garan shrugged. It seemed too obvious somehow. If all they had wanted was lava, there was plenty already present on the surface of the island. There was no need for hundreds of Matoran to dig it out.

He looked at Velika. The Po-Matoran had a way of looking at the world from his own strange viewpoint, sometimes seeing truths that the others missed. Velika was watching the activity with his head cocked slightly to one side, as if listening to a voice only he could hear. When he noticed Garan looking at him, he nodded and smiled.

“He who would empty a lake of fire must have a long spoon,” he said.

Well, of course, thought Garan. You couldn’t get too close, so you needed a tool that let you remain at distance – that is what the Matoran are, in this case. It only made sense if you wanted to empty –

“That’s it!” Garan said, keeping his voice down only with great effort. “It has to be.” He looked at the others. “Don’t you see? It’s not the lava they want. They are emptying the volcano! They are after something inside, hidden beneath the lava pool.”

“And the only way to get at it is to drain the pool,” Balta replied. “So we know ‘why,’ but not ‘what.’”

A Matoran working up near the crater suddenly stumbled on a rock and fell into the volcano. He never screamed. The only sound was the sizzle of molten lava from inside the mountain. None of the enslaved Matoran even looked up from their labors to mark his passing.

“Nothing could be worth this,” Garan said grimly. “Nothing.”

“It was all worth it,” exulted Hakann. “All the risks, all the hard work –”

“Funny,” muttered Vezok. “I don’t recall you doing much work.”

“This is not a time to bicker,” interjected Zaktan. He gestured toward the sea of Matoran, now laboring to advance the Piraka’s ambitions. “Not when you remember how far we have come.”

Vezok had to admit their leader, whatever his shortcomings, was right. It had not been so very long ago that they were just six more Dark Hunters, taking what missions they could and never seeing any of the rewards. Then Hakann got word of something happening up north, near the ruins of Metru Nui. The six of them made the journey on their own, without informing their superiors. They knew well that such an offense by a Dark Hunter was punishable by death.

By the time they reached the dead City of Legends, whatever had been going on was over with. The city looked no different, but Zaktan noticed a shattered gateway in the Great Barrier. It was he who found the remnants of Makuta’s armor, though there was no sign of any body. The others joined him in searching the area, but then something happened. Vezok was not sure what, but it seemed like all of them got the same idea at the same time. There was a Mask of Life out in the world somewhere – and they had to find it. Its energies would make them powerful beyond imagining. Intrigued by the possibilities, they decided then and there to abandon their lives as Dark Hunters. They would be independent and serve only themselves – they would be Piraka.

“The Mask of Life will soon be ours,” Zaktan continued. “With the Matoran subdued, there is no one on this island who can stop us.”

“Not now,” agreed Avak. “But the universe does not end on the shores of this island. There are Matoran here, and a Mask of Power – and where you have those two, can Toa be far behind?”

Lewa Nuva’s arrival on Voya Nui began with a pleasant surprise: He was still in one piece.

Back when he had first emerged from his canister on the island of Mata Nui, one arm and both legs had disconnected from his torso. Precious moments had to be spent on reassembling himself, an annoying and not altogether comfortable task. Turaga Vakama had assured the Toa Nuva that would not happen after this journey.

“From everything we have gathered, you spent many, many years floating in the ocean before coming to Mata Nui,” he had explained. “We believe that in that time your organic tissue began to decay. By fusing your mechanical components back together upon arrival, you grew new tissue to connect them. Assuming your canisters don’t malfunction, you won’t be traveling near long enough for that to happen again.”

Lewa twisted the handle and opened his canister. He crawled out onto an icy shore, got to his feet, and stretched out the kinks in his muscles. The others were emerging from their canisters as well. Onua Nuva was already scouting the area, taking advantage of being the only Toa who saw well in the dark.

“Nice place,” he said flatly. “If you’re a goat, that is. I see nothing but rock for kio around.”

Kopaka Nuva extended the telescopic lens in his mask. “East,” he said. “Torches. Matoran, I think, though they look different from the ones we know. And what appears to be an active volcano.”

“Then we start looking for the Mask of Life there,” Tahu Nuva announced.

“Why?” asked Gali.

“Don’t you know?” Tahu replied, chuckling. “True treasures are always found near lava. Look at me.”

Pohatu Nuva smiled. “Not to mention that all that hot air inflates their heads.”

Laughing gently, the six Toa Nuva began their long walk toward the volcano and what they hoped was the end of their quest.

“We have three choices,” said Garan, looking around at his five companions. “We can run and hope to find a way off this island, maybe find help somewhere else. We can hide in the western mountains, where no one ever goes. Or we can fight, and probably die… if we don’t wind up slaves like our friends.”

“The rest of you can do what you want,” said Dalu. “I’m fighting.”

“Me, too,” said Balta. “We haven’t survived here this long to just give up.”

“The movement of a single pebble can bring down a storm of rock,” Velika said, smiling.

Kazi nodded. “Even I get that one. And I’m with them.”

Garan looked at Piruk. “No one will think any less of you if you want to go for help, Piruk. What we are proposing here is suicidal, and there’s no reason you have to join us and die, too.”

Piruk scraped his shredder claws against each other, sharpening the blades. It was a nervous habit he’d had for years, but this time he seemed to be doing it for a purpose. When he looked up at Garan, there was steel in his gaze.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, there is a reason. You’re my friends, and this is my home. If those things are not worth fighting and dying for, then what is?”

“It’s settled then,” said Garan. “We may be doomed to fall, but before we do, we’ll give our enemies reason to regret the day they set foot here. Let’s show them you don’t have to be a Toa to be a hero.”

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