A formless wisp of greenish-black smoke slipped silently through a tunnel made of stone. To anyone watching, it might have seemed like a cloud of oddly coloured dust, and no more. But if they could have sensed the malevolent intelligence that drove its seemingly random movements, they would have fled in horror.

The Matoran villagers of the island of Voya Nui had known this hated substance by the name “antidermis”. The evil Piraka who had seized control of their island had used it to enslave most of the population, before finally being defeated by a team of heroic Toa. The crystal vat that contained the antidermis was smashed in battle, and the substance was scattered into the air.

But this was not the end. The tremendous willpower behind the antidermis forced its molecules to come back together. Now it was again whole – yet far from complete.

Once, in another place and time, the antidermis had been known by another name. Then it was housed inside black armor, its essence concealed by an infamous mask of power. Just as now, it was the intellect, the memories, the twisted ambitions, and the very life force of a legendary being.

He was called Makuta.

Hungry for power and worship, he had led his Brotherhood in a rebellion against the Great Spirit Mata Nui and actually defeated that mighty entity. But his plans extended far beyond just one victory. His continued pursuit of his goals led to an encounter with a Toa of Light, during which his armor was shattered. The armor was no longer able to contain his energies, causing them to leak out into the atmosphere.

Frustrated, but not defeated, Makuta had influenced the Piraka to seek out the object of power he needed: the Mask of Life. For a time, it looked like his pawns would succeed, until Toa once again interfered.

First the Rahi beasts of Mata Nui, then the Bohrok swarms, Makuta thought as his essence drifted through the tunnels. Now the Piraka. When will I learn to stop working my will through others? All other beings are weak and pathetic fools who cannot begin to comprehend my plans. I, and I alone, must take matters in hand if my grand design is to succeed. There are obstacles, of course – there always are. The Mask of Life is not a prize easily won. But this game I play now is different from all others… and this time I cannot lose, for my longtime enemies will be my unwitting champions.

A soft sound touched the minds of those who fought in the tunnels, so gently that they dismissed it as a trick of the senses. It was the sound of Makuta’s laughter.

The Toa will get the Mask of Life for me… and doom their own kind in the process, thought the master of shadows. And what a perfect revenge that will be.

* * *

From the pages of Gali Nuva’s journal…

Entry 1:

Since we have no Chronicler accompanying us on this, our most vital mission, I am taking the time to record events for posterity. Tahu thinks this is a foolish waste of time, and I am sure Kopaka agrees with him (so rare to see those two agreeing!). But Onua understands, so does Pohatu. Maybe it’s because fire and ice are both elements that are here one moment, gone the next, and rock and earth last on… but Pohatu and Onua seem to have more respect for history.

After our rescue by the Matoran resistance on Voya Nui, I thought we would surely join the Toa Inika in seeking the Mask of Life. But Axonn and Botar took us aside and told us that the time had come to prepare the universe for the awakening of Mata Nui. If the Inika succeed in their mission, and save the Great Spirit’s life, the time will be ripe for us to fulfill our mission – to awaken Mata Nui and restore light to the universe.

To do that, we had to first return to Metru Nui, at least according to Axonn. The Great Temple, he said, hid information on what we had to do to make ready for Mata Nui’s return. We had to find that information and carry out whatever tasks are required, and get it done before it is our time to act. We could not tell anyone, not even the Inika what we were going to do – for if the Brotherhood of Makuta were to find out, they would surely try to destroy us. (I am surprised they have not done that already…)

At last, after so long and so many battles, we have begun the mission we exist to do. If we succeed, we will have helped save a universe from evil. If we fail… well, it may be that not even the Great Beings can save us if we fail.

* * *

Toa Inika Kongu dove out of the way as a wickedly curved dagger flew overhead. Looking up, he saw the blade had buried itself in the rock, about where his head had been a moment before.

“Just once – just once! – I’d like to take a trip-walk without someone trying to kill me!” he said.

Toa Inika Jaller ran past, stopped, turned, and fired a blast of fire from his sword. He aimed over the head of his scale-skinned pursuers, hoping to scare them off. It didn’t work. It would have failed even if he had aimed to burn them down. Driven by hatred and a need for vengeance, nothing was going to stop these Zyglak.

The battle was one more nightmare in a journey that had been filled with them. The Toa Inika had come to the island of Voya Nui in search of six other heroes, the Toa Nuva, who had disappeared there. They found themselves in a battle with villains who had seized control of the island and were seeking the powerful Kanohi Mask of Life which was hidden there.

In the end, the Inika had won the fight, found the mask, and the Toa Nuva had been rescued. But a last blow struck by their enemies cost them their grip on the mask, and it plunged beneath the ocean waves. Their only hope of retrieving it was to journey through a labyrinth of stone tunnels that extended from Voya Nui down to the ocean depths. Once there, they would have to find some way to locate the mask and get it back, not easy when some of them were poor swimmers and none could breathe underwater.

Of course, first they had to get there. As they moved through the twisted and narrow tunnels, the Toa quickly discovered they weren’t alone. The labyrinth was home to a race of warriors with a murderous grudge against Toa, Matoran, and anyone else associated with the Great Spirit Mata Nui. The running battle that followed had been violent and frightening, and had revealed things about the Toa themselves that they might have preferred not to face.

Right now, though, the Toa were just hoping to still have all their parts intact when this was over. More Zyglak were emerging from every side tunnel, their knives and spears flying through the air like angry swamp hornets. Worse, everything their blades struck was instantly destroyed.

“I hear water up ahead!” Toa Inika Hahli shouted. She was barely able to keep moving, having been wounded badly in an earlier battle.

The six Toa Inika rounded a bend in the tunnel and then stopped dead. There was a large gap in the stone wall, through which ocean water flooded in. The passages up ahead were already underwater.

“Anybody have a Toa canister in their pack?” asked Toa Inika Hewkii. “I didn’t think so. We might have stronger lungs than most, but that’s a lot of water out there.”

A hail of spears clattered against the stone wall just behind the Toa, eating holes in the rock. “And that’s a lot of Zyglak back there,” said Toa Inika Nuparu. “Looks like the last one in the pool is skewered meat.”

A violent tremor suddenly shook the tunnels. Cracks appeared in the walls, and fragments of stone fell from the ceiling. It seemed as if something was trying to crush the entire labyrinth from the outside, and doing a great job of it, too.

The Zyglak looked around frantically as their world threatened to collapse. For the moment, the Toa were forgotten.

“Let’s move!” said Jaller. “We’ll take our chances in the ocean.”

“Hold on,” said Hewkii. “I like a challenge as much as the next Toa, but – Toa of Stone, remember? Even with a few lessons in my Matoran days, I still swim like a stone.”

The tunnels shook again, worse this time, as if they were being wrenched from side to side. Now the Zyglak were fleeing in sheer terror.

“Whatever’s out there can’t be worse than what’s in here,” Jaller replied. “I’ll light up my sword – if it burns hot enough, it’ll stay lit underwater. Follow my light – maybe we can find an air pocket.”

Jaller took a deep breath and dove through the gap in the wall. The other Toa Inika followed. Hahli sensed immediately something was not right about the water. It wasn’t the kind found around the island of Mata Nui, or the smooth liquid protodermis that surrounded the island of Metru Nui. Water, by its nature, was a force of life and healing – but this liquid felt foul and destructive, like it had somehow been corrupted.

There wasn’t time to puzzle it out now. Jaller’s burning swords had revealed the source of the tremors in the tunnels: a massive undersea creature wrapped around the stone cord that led from Voya Nui down here. It was trying to crush the cord, and the tunnels inside it, in its coils. Then its huge, serpentine head looked in the Toa’s direction. It had spotted Jaller’s flames.

Light! The creature knew that light meant living things, and living things meant a meal. It uncoiled its 300-foot-long body from the cord and started for the source of the illumination.

Jaller and the other Toa saw the monster’s shadowy form heading for them. They braced for an attack, knowing the battle would probably use up the air in their lungs and doom them. But the huge serpent was not going to give them any choice in the matter.

Then the world went white. Blindingly, overwhelmingly white, a blazing illumination that seared the eyes and tore at the mind and body. The Toa screamed from shock and pain, even though it meant water would fill their straining lungs. The creature above them reeled as waves of energy ripped through the water.

In the midst of the agony, the Toa heard a voice. It wasn’t speaking words so much as conveying a primal emotion, but somehow they all knew who was “speaking.” It was the Kanohi Mask of Life, the artifact they sought, and it was calling for help.

We can’t even help ourselves, thought Jaller, as he doubled over in pain. If the mask is doing this to us… why? Why would it ask for our help and attack us at the same time?

Then – as suddenly as it had begun – it was over. The light was gone, along with the waves of energy. The incredible pain had ceased. The Toa floated in the water, still and quiet. Any sea predator who had approached just then would have kept on going, for there would be no sport in hunting the dead.

* * *

Far to the north, six other heroes were facing troubles of their own.

At one time, these six Toa were known as Toa Mata, named for the Great Spirit Mata Nui, whose welfare was their primary mission. Now they were Toa Nuva, transformed by fate into more powerful heroes. Right now, they were very confused heroes as well.

“This is nuts,” said Pohatu Nuva. “The action is back with Matoro and the rest, fighting to save Mata Nui’s life. And where are we? Trekking back to our old stomping grounds because some kook with an axe says we should.”

“Worse than that,” added Kopaka Nuva, Toa of Ice, “is what he wants us to do when we get there. How do we know we can trust this Axonn character? What if this is all a trick?”

Tahu Nuva, leader of the team, wished there was not so much truth in what Kopaka said. After being freed from their imprisonment on the island of Voya Nui, the Toa Nuva had fully intended to join with the Toa Inika in their quest for the Mask of Life. Instead, they had run into two strange beings – one called Axonn, the other Botar – who informed them that a number of dangerous quests required their attention. They were the only ones who could do them, it was part of their destiny, but they had to leave now. And the first of these meant returning to the city of Metru Nui. Faced with the urgency of the situation, they had taken Toa transport canisters back to the outskirts of that island metropolis. Now they moved quietly through darkened streets, trying to avoid being seen.

“It makes no sense to me, either,” Tahu Nuva said finally. “But Axonn helped the Matoran and the Toa Inika on that island, and he claims to know the will of Mata Nui. We will take him at his word, until we have reason to do otherwise.”

“Right,” Pohatu said sarcastically. “The Great Beings know Toa are never deceived.”

“We’re taking a risk, maybe a big one,” Tahu replied. “And if it turns out we’ve been misled, then we have the power to deal with that… and with Axonn, too.”

Their argument had brought them to their destination, the recently rebuilt Great Temple in the Ga-Metru district. Destroyed by quake and fire 1,000 years before, it had largely been restored by the hard work of the Ga-Matoran. It was filled with some of the most ancient and valuable artifacts known to the villagers, kept there (or hidden there) for safekeeping. Tonight would test whether one such artifact was safe from the Toa.

“Can’t we just go to the Turaga and ask for what we need?” said Gali Nuva. “Is this mission so important it must turn us into thieves?”

“You know what would result, Gali – endless debate,” said Onua, Toa Nuva of Earth. “And in the end, unless we tell them how we know what we know, they will never agree. Makuta bones, we’re the ones doing this, and we don’t even agree on it!”

Lewa Nuva slashed his hand through the air. “Enough dark-talk, unless we want the Matoran to hear. We’re close enough now.”

“Then do it, Lewa,” said Tahu.

The Toa Nuva of Air nodded and triggered the power of his Kanohi Mask of Speed. Being a Nuva mask, its power could be shared with other beings in the vicinity. In a split second, all six Toa Nuva were now gifted with amazing speed. They took off at a run, flashing past the Ga-Matoran guards, too fast to be seen. Nor did they pause to open the temple gate, but simply vibrated their atoms so they could pass right through the massive door. They did not slow down until they were inside.

“From Toa to sneak thief, in one easy lesson,” Pohatu grumbled. “Maybe when this is over we should see if the Dark Hunters have any openings.”

“This way,” said Gali, leading them through the corridors and into a large, empty chamber.

“There’s nothing here,” said Kopaka. “We have been misled. This Axonn simply wanted us off Voya Nui for his own purposes.”

“You’ve grown too used to wearing a Mask of Vision, brother,” Gali chided. “You insist on seeing with your eyes. If our information is correct, there is more to this room than is plainly visible.”

She took three strides toward the center of the room, one to the left, two more forward, and then two to the right. “Here, Pohatu. This block of stone requires your attention.”

The Toa of Stone joined Gali. Bending over, Pohatu grabbed the part of the floor she pointed to, sinking his powerful fingers into the rock. Then he effortlessly pulled the block free.

All six Toa gathered around to see what was there. After a moment’s stunned silence, Gali reached in and retrieved the unfamiliar object. It consisted of two short, round staffs made of wood, and rolled around them was a thin white sheet of a substance none of the Toa had seen before.

“Odd,” said Kopaka. “What do you think it is?”

“Axonn said we would find a vital message,” Tahu said. “I expected a carving of some sort.”

Gali shifted the object in her hands, and it suddenly unrolled. Now all six Toa Nuva could see that there was Matoran writing on the sheet, just like the language found carved into stone tablets all over Metru Nui. But this was not carved, rather it was painted onto the sheet in some way.

“Well, that’s dumb,” said Pohatu. “Why use this when there are perfectly good rocks everywhere you look?”

“We can worry about their choice of stationery later,” said Kopaka. “I am still trying to digest what this says. Is it some kind of monstrous joke?”

“Do you hear anyone laughing?” Tahu replied. “It says these actions must be taken to wake the Great Spirit. But some of what it asks… how can we be expected to do such things?”

“No one said being a Toa-hero would be a bowl of bula berries,” said Lewa. “Now let’s get out of here – it looks like we have a lot of unpleasant work to do.”

The first item on the scroll was, on the face of it, the easiest… and at the same time, one of the hardest for the heroes to bring themselves to do.

A journey of several hours had brought them to their destination, the site of their first major battle as Toa Nuva. Here in this rock-hewn chamber, they had battled enemies called Bohrok-Kal to keep even greater threats imprisoned. Now they were here to set two of their most powerful opponents free.

The Bahrag were still where the Toa had left them, imprisoned in a cage of solid protodermis. When they were free, they had led the Bohrok swarms who threatened to devastate the island of Mata Nui. For reasons that were never clear, the Bohrok were determined to destroy every mountain, forest, and river, and return the island to a barren state. But the Toa had beaten them and the Bahrag and saved Mata Nui and the Matoran from that fate.

“And now we’re just supposed to let them go?” demanded Pohatu Nuva. “Check that list again; maybe Makuta signed his name at the bottom.”

“Pohatu’s exaggerating… maybe,” said Gali Nuva. “But, Tahu, how can this be the right thing to do?”

“Axonn said everything was not how it seemed,” said the Toa Nuva of Fire. “If this will somehow help the Great Spirit to awaken, then we have to do it.”

“And if it doesn’t?” asked Lewa Nuva.

“Then we beat the swarms before, and we’ll beat them again,” Tahu replied. “Now join your powers with mine.”

Hesitantly, the six Toa Nuva pooled their energies and sent them out in a single beam. It shattered the Toa seal that kept the prison intact, and seconds later, the cage itself had collapsed. The Bahrag were free once more.

“Why have you released us?” asked one of the two monstrosities.

“Because someone we… trust… says it is the order of things,” Tahu Nuva replied. “The Bohrok were not meant to be on the island when they were, and so had to be beaten back. But now…”

Tahu stopped, remembering the whole-scale destruction of the last swarm attack. No, he couldn’t bring himself to say the words, even if Axonn was correct. He couldn’t believe the Great Spirit would want this.

“Now the signal will be given,” Onua Nuva said. Tahu turned to look at the Toa Nuva of Earth, but Onua’s eyes were focused on the Bahrag. “The Bohrok will be awakened, and they will carry out their task. Do you understand?”

“We do,” said the Bahrag in unison. “The island of Mata Nui shall be as it was in the before-time.”

“What have you done?” Pohatu Nuva said, mask-to-mask with Onua Nuva. “We have to cage those two up again – now!”

Onua Nuva shook his head. “I believe I’ve done what I had to do,” he said. “I’ve taken the first step toward the future. No one ever said the trip would be an easy one.”

The air was suddenly filled with a shrill sonic tone – and in countless nests, hundreds of thousands of Bohrok came to life, ready to resume their mission of destruction.

* * *

“We’re… alive?” muttered Kalmah. “What an… unexpected surprise.”

The tentacled being rose unsteadily to his feet. In his lifetime, Kalmah had been a conqueror, a ruler, and a prisoner. Most recently, his existence had been spent as a monstrous resident of the ocean’s depths. Never before had he experienced anything like what had just happened.

Even now, it was hard to recall the events and still keep his fragile hold on sanity. He and his fellow warlords, the Barraki, had journeyed to a network of undersea caverns in search of the fabled Mask of Life. They had found it, all right, along with a venom eel mysteriously grown to 300 feet in length and a Matoran determined to smash the mask to pieces. The eel found better things to do and left, and the Barraki managed to stop the Matoran from carrying out his mission. But the second a Barraki laid hands on the mask, there was an explosion of light and energy that seared both eyes and minds.

How much time had passed since then, Kalmah did not know. He got to his feet, wrapping a tentacle around a rock to steady himself, and looked around. Two of his allies, Carapar and Mantax, were half-buried in the sand – no doubt they had crawled there, trying to get relief from the intense light. A third, Ehlek, was flat against a rock wall, babbling like a lunatic. But Pridak – where was Pridak?

The self-proclaimed leader of the Barraki, sharklike Pridak had been the one to grab the Mask of Life. It was right after he had proclaimed that he intended to use the mask against all of the Barraki’s enemies that the blinding light had appeared all around. If that light came from the mask, then Pridak would have been the one closest to it. Kalmah had no great love for Pridak – he had, after all, lost an eye to “the Shark” long ago – but if anything had happened to him, it might have happened to the mask as well.

And we need that mask, he reminded himself. With it, we can shed these freakish forms, breathe air once more, and escape this undersea Pit. Then we can be again what we once were: absolute rulers of vast empires, masters of every land we walk upon.

The small tentacles on the back of Kalmah’s head detected sudden movement. He whirled in the water to see the Po-Matoran, the one who had tried to break the mask, swimming frantically away. For a moment, Kalmah considered grabbing the Matoran and squeezing until something cracked. Then he decided against it. After all, where could the little one go – back to his home city, Mahri Nui? There was no safety to be had there.

Kalmah probed the cave with his tentacle. When nothing grabbed, bit, or burned the limb, he felt it was safe to go in. It didn’t take long to find Pridak. The stark white Barraki was stretched out on the ground, a mask gripped fiercely in his claws. Kalmah could see a large crack running from the top edge of the mask all the way down one side.

“You’re going to shatter it,” he said, reaching down to pry the mask out of Pridak’s hands.

Pridak flashed his sharp jaws and lashed out at Kalmah, landing a kick that would have pulverized a lesser being. “Stay away! It’s mine!” he raged.

Kalmah backed away slowly. He could see the madness in Pridak’s eyes. If someone didn’t calm the white Barraki soon, the mask would wind up in pieces, along with all their hopes of escape.

Where’s Takadox and his hypnotic gaze when I need him? Kalmah thought. There’s nothing wrong with Pridak that a good will-sapping wouldn’t cure.

On the other side of the undersea mountain, Takadox was just waking up. His memory of just how he had wound up lying in a trench on the seafloor was jumbled. But one glance upward took care of that.

Ah, yes, he said to himself. The beast…

Takadox had spotted the massive venom eel and thought to use his hypnotic powers to bring it under his control. The eel had other ideas, slamming into the Barraki and sending him tumbling down into the depths. It was sheer luck Takadox had not wound up a shattered pile of parts.

“This is what I get for leaving my comfortable cave and trying to do my own dirty work,” he said to himself. “Next time, I will trance Carapar and he can play tag with that overgrown worm.”

Takadox shook his head and glanced up. Six forms were floating in the water far above him. At first, they were so still he thought they must be dead. Then fire flashed from the hand of one of them. Takadox knew then who they had to be, and braced for an attack, thinking they might have seen him.

As it turned out, he didn’t have to be concerned. The six figures had not noticed the Barraki down below. No, they had been noticed themselves, by the huge creature that had felled Takadox moments before.

For the moment, Takadox forgot his mysterious quarry. He settled himself on a flat rock to watch six Toa get eaten by a venom eel the size of a small mountain.

Oh, this is going to be good, he thought. Too bad there are no Matoran nearby – after all, what good is a show without snacks?

Dekar wasn’t ready to die.

He was swimming as quickly as he could for Mahri Nui, but knew he wasn’t going to make it. The air bubble that surrounded him was a split second away from disappearing completely. He could hold his breath, but not long enough to reach another source of air. He was going to perish here, in the black waters beneath his village, with the knowledge that he might have doomed his friends.

The Mask of Life had fallen into his hands, although he had not known then what it was. Just having it in his possession warped his existence, as he found himself unable to kill anything – even creatures threatening Mahri Nui. Every time he made a strike, the wound would heal instantly. Blaming the mask and believing it to be evil, he decided to destroy it. He took it to a sea cave and tried to smash it with a rock.

After that, things got a little unclear. He remembered a flash of energy and the appearance of a monstrous venom eel. Then five mysterious and dangerous beings calling themselves Barraki arrived, insisting he turn over the mask. When he refused, they attacked him and took it. There was an explosion of pure light, and the next thing he knew, the Barraki were scattered and he could escape.

Now it seemed certain the escape would fail. He would drown, his body slowly sinking to the ocean floor, and no one on Mahri Nui would know the danger they were in. The air bubble was completely gone now, only the breath in his lungs sustained him, and already he felt strange. The world around him kept blinking in and out of existence. One moment, he was swimming for his life. The next, he was taller, more powerful, standing guard over imprisoned Barraki and other evil beings. Then reality returned and he was still so far from Mahri Nui and so close to the end.

Everything went dark… then painfully bright… then black again. Is this what death feels like? Dekar wondered. A name began to echo through his mind, one he had never heard before. Hydraxon… Hydraxon…

In the space of a heartlight’s flash, he was dying… then already dead… and then reborn, full of life and strength. The crisis had passed. Now he knew he would not perish today.

But he was no longer Dekar. He was a black-armored being of power, a spirit of justice and vengeance, and his duty was clear. The Pit was a jail, all who lived there were prisoners, and he was here to slam the cell door shut.

Grimly, he turned toward Mahri Nui and began his journey again.

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