One of the six swam a little way forward and peered at the Toa. He was slightly bent, with small, piercing eyes and mandibles that snapped open and shut repulsively. “Ah, me, what have we here?” he rasped. “Five little Toa who have lost their way? We would have been here sooner to greet you, but you know, it’s never wise to go swimming too soon after a meal.”
A larger brute with two crablike claws spoke up next. “I don’t like it. What are they doing here now? Something smells.”
“That would be you, Carapar,” said the first. “Comes from eating those bio-long blood snails…”
“Quiet,” said a white being, this one resembling a Toa-size shark. At first, the heroes thought he might have lost an arm in combat. Then they realized he was just keeping one hand behind his back. “I am Pridak. We are the Barraki, and this is our realm. Tell us why you are here, and perhaps you will live to see another tide.”
The bent being leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. “Better listen to Takadox, masked ones. Pridak was… not himself… or rather, too much himself, a little while ago. I did a little trick of mine to calm him down – otherwise, he might kill you first and then ask questions of your corpses. This way works much better, you see.”
“Answer,” said Pridak. “What did you do to be exiled here?”
“Exiled?” said Hewkii. “We’re not –”
“– In the habit of explaining ourselves to every bait fish that comes along,” Hahli interrupted. “By what right do you and your pathetic schools of minnows interfere with us?”
Kalmah surged forward. “By right of conquest!” he said, reaching with his tentacle to try and grab Hahli. The Toa of Water grabbed the appendage and yanked hard, hauling Kalmah off his feet and hurtling through the water toward her. He slammed face-first into her open hand and dropped to the ocean floor, sputtering and cursing. She cast his tentacle aside like it was a piece of flotsam that had drifted by.
“Do you have any other answer to give?” said Hahli. “Or are you content to tread water and bluster like toothless Takea sharks?”
“You have heard of the Barraki before?” asked Pridak.
“Yes,” said Hahli. “Their name has come down the millennia… a relic used to frighten pathetic Matoran and keep them in their beds at night.”
The other Barraki looked at Pridak, fully expecting him to fly into a rage and rend this insolent Toa. Instead, he smiled, revealing row upon row of daggerlike teeth. “Perhaps,” he said. “Our day was long ago. But a new era is about to begin… and it starts with this.”
Pridak brought his hand from behind his back. The Toa couldn’t help but gasp, for in his claw he held the Mask of Life. “You recognize it?” he said. “Interesting. So few have seen this mask and lived.”
“I do,” said Hahli. “And I have. Aren’t you worried about its legendary curse?”
“Curse?” Pridak repeated. Then he roared. “Look at me… look at where I dwell… look at my companions, once rulers, now monstrosities, and tell me – how much more cursed could we be?”
“Relax, Pridak,” said Takadox. “Stay in control.”
“I thought you said there were six of them,” Carapar said to Takadox. “I only count five.”
“It counts?” said Hahli, in mock surprise. “Amazing. To answer your dull-witted question, we were six – but profits go farther shared among five, if you catch my current.”
“Bring them along,” said Pridak. “We have a long journey ahead of us, and disgraced Toa might prove useful.”
“As allies?” whispered Kalmah.
Pridak shook his head. “It’s always best, when traveling, to make sure you bring lunch along.”
Kalmah, Carapar, and a third, spindly being covered with sharp spines, moved behind the Toa. Pridak, Takadox, and their other companion, Mantax, turned and began to swim away. The unspoken intention was that the Toa follow behind, which they did, flanked by armies of sea creatures.
Jaller turned to Hahli and said softly, “So. When did you become ‘Hahli the Barbarian’?”
“Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” the Toa of Water answered. Then she smiled, adding, “Besides, it’s sort of fun.”
Matoro stood just outside one of the large air bubbles that dotted Mahri Nui. Defilak stood on the other side of the bubble’s skin, flanked by two armed Ta-Matoran.
“This has been a disastrous day,” Defilak said quietly. “Dekar is missing… Sarda is dead… and who knows how many other Matoran heroes were injured.”
“I’m sorry,” said Matoro. “I wish we had gotten here sooner. But time is running out and we need that mask.”
“Mask! Mask!” Defilak snapped. “There is no mask! I have never heard of any –”
“The fields of air are free again!” The shout came from Idris, a Ga-Matoran. She swam up to Defilak, barely able to contain her excitement. “The keras crabs have withdrawn. We can harvest the air again!”
Toa Matoro smiled. His friends had done their job and proven that they were true heroes. Now they could get on to the vital work of reclaiming the Mask of Life. “I told you,” he said. “I knew the others wouldn’t let you down.”
“The others?” said Idris, puzzled. “Do you mean the five who look like you? I saw them talking with the Barraki, and then they left with them.”
“They’re prisoners?” asked Matoro.
“No,” said Idris. “Looked more like partners to me.”
Defilak turned to Matoro, suspicion in his eyes. The Toa realized he would have to make a break for it, no matter how bad it looked, and go find the others. Something strange was going on down here and he had to find out what.
Before the Matoran could train their solid-air launchers on him, Matoro turned the water in front of them to ice. Then he wheeled around and swam for the fields of air. He had gone only a few yards when something flew past him and exploded. The shockwave sent him tumbling through the water, head ringing.
When Matoro finally came to a stop, he was lying at the feet of a figure in pitch-black armor. He was armed with wicked blades and a multishot blaster, and he regarded Matoro as if the Toa were something he had just stepped in.
“Welcome to the Pit, runner,” the figure said. “My name is Hydraxon. You have the right to remain jailed.”
The five Toa had been escorted back to a desolate area, and each was invited to occupy a sea cave. Although Pridak insisted they were “guests,” the sharks and squid hovering outside the entrances made it very clear that they weren’t meant to leave.
Nuparu waited until the Barraki had all departed. Then he triggered his mask power. He hoped that its power of stealth would be enough to let him escape.
Glancing down, Nuparu saw his hand had become almost ghostly in appearance. Anyone looking at him would barely see an outline of his form, and probably mistake it for a trick of the water. He slipped out of the cave entrance, attracting no notice from the giant squid on guard, and made his way to where Hahli was being held.
“Hahli!” he whispered. She took no notice. Nuparu swam behind her and turned off the mask, so he could return to full visibility. “Hahli!”
She turned, saw him, and jumped from her rock. “Nuparu!” she said, quietly but forcefully. “Makuta’s bones, you scared ten thousand years off me! What are you doing here?”
“You told Jaller you knew something,” said Nuparu. “I figured it was time for share and tell.”
Hahli nodded. As quickly and quietly as she could, she recounted how Turaga Whenua had once toured her through the shattered remnants of the Metru Nui Archives. She had spent time rummaging among some old tablets, trying to decipher them. One particularly old carving told the story of the League of Six Kingdoms.
“At the height of their power, the six members of the League – Pridak, Takadox, Carapar, Ehlek, Mantax, and Kalmah – dominated most of the known universe. When they tried to combine their armies and rebel against the Great Spirit Mata Nui, they were crushed by the Brotherhood of Makuta. The records are sketchy after that, saying only that they were condemned for their crimes and taken away for punishment.”
“Then what are they doing down here?”
“I don’t know, but maybe… what if they were imprisoned somewhere… and when the Great Cataclysm struck our home, it hit other places, too? A massive earthquake could have shattered their cells and set them free. But, mutated as they are now, they can’t reclaim their kingdoms… unless somehow the power of the Mask of Life can make them what they once were.”
Nuparu didn’t need to hear any more. “Our only advantage is they think we’re as bad as they are and were condemned here as well. We need to break out and get the mask before they can use it.”
“It’s worse than that,” said Hahli. “I overheard Takadox and Kalmah talking. The mask is cracking and crumbling; its power is leaking out. If we don’t act soon… there won’t be any Mask of Life left to save.”
Matoro was thrown roughly into a cave. A barred door was slammed shut behind him.
“You could probably break out of here, runner, if you really wanted to,” said Hydraxon. “Let me show you why you don’t want to.”
The armored figure beckoned to someone out of sight. A few moments later, a powerful-looking crimson mechanoid stepped into view. And a vicious, wolflike Rahi strained against the leash it held.
“This is Maxilos,” said Hydraxon. “Being completely mechanical, he is the perfect guard, for he cannot be bribed or deceived. His reflexes are faster than any living being. Watch.”
Hydraxon picked up a rock and hurled it into Matoro’s cell. It had barely passed through the bars before Maxilos fired an electric bolt from its sword, shattering the rock to dust.
“The pet is Spinax,” Hydraxon continued. “Once it has your scent, it will follow you to the edge of the universe and beyond for however many centuries it takes. So I suggest you make yourself comfortable, runner. You’re going to be here a long time.”
Matoro watched Hydraxon go, leaving Maxilos behind to guard him. He began calculating the odds. Since Maxilos wasn’t a living being, he wouldn’t have to hold back. A few quick ice darts into the mechanoid’s inner workings would take care of it, and some ice chains would hold the Rahi for a while.
He readied himself. Maxilos was standing completely still, just staring at Matoro. Then, apparently satisfied the Toa was no threat, the mechanoid turned its back.
Now! thought Matoro. He took aim, prepared to hurl ice at his guard. But then he suddenly grew confused. What was he doing here? How could he trigger his powers? His body felt weak and slow and all he wanted to do was sleep. His mind was awhirl with emotions, rage one moment, fear the next.
Maxilos turned around, but the mechanoid was very different from how it had been a moment before. Gone was the blank expression of a purely mechanical being, replaced by a sinister smile that was all too familiar.
“We meet again, Matoro,” said Maxilos. “The last time, our positions were reversed… I was the vanquished, while you stood with the victors. But you were always wiser than Jaller, Hewkii, and the rest of those spineless, self-important fools. You knew I wasn’t gone for good.”
Matoro felt colder than any ice could ever be. “You can’t be here…” he breathed.
“And why not? This is a perfectly good, if stiff and ungainly, body. And you must admit, it is better than life as a green and black cloud stuffed inside a crystal vat.”
“Makuta…” Matoro could still hardly believe it. He knew all too well the master of shadows had survived repeated brushes with destruction, but it was still horrifying to come mask to mask with him again. “Are you here to kill me, then?”
“Call me Maxilos,” was the reply. “Everyone else here does. I prefer to keep my true identity to myself for now. As for your question… kill you, Matoro? No, I’m here to free you. But first…”
The right arm of Maxilos pointed at Matoro. The next instant, the Toa of Ice was rocked by a sonic blast, bolts of chain lightning, and shattering force. Any lesser being would have been dead three times over, but Matoro still lived… even if he wasn’t very happy about it at the moment.
“Now we understand each other,” said Maxilos/Makuta. “I’m on your side in this, Matoro. You would be wise to see that I stay there.”
* * *
It should be understood that it goes against a Toa’s nature to sneak. Toa, by tradition, operate in broad daylight, so that the Matoran we protect can see us defending them and trust in us. So it was a little uncomfortable for some of us to be sneaking onto the shoreline of the island of Odina.
Not that we had much choice. Odina is the home base of the Dark Hunters, heavily defended and notoriously difficult to invade. Even six Toa Nuva could not count on victory on these shores.
We had approached from the north, intending to go over the mountains and attack the fortress by surprise. There were fewer guards in this region, since the natural barriers made it difficult to pass. A formidable blue and white Dark Hunter that Tahu recognized as Minion was the only sentry visible. Before we could decide how best to handle this, Kopaka Nuva had flash frozen him in mid-step.
“Now we’re on a deadline,” joked Onua. “We have to finish our mission before the spring thaw.”
Pohatu lead the way as we climbed into the mountains. None of us spoke. Our minds were on the job up ahead – invading a fortress filled with enemies to retrieve the Staff of Artakha.
Lewa climbed up a rock, leapt off and used his Mask of Levitation to hover in the air and scout. I was about to warn him about being spotted when an energy web dropped from the sky and entangled him. It was rapidly followed by a stream of acid that just barely missed the falling Toa.
I glanced up. A winged creature was swooping down toward us, more energy webs already flying from his chest-mounted launcher. Tahu threw a shield around us and the web bounced off. Kopaka iced the creature’s wings and Onua threw his Mask of Strength behind a blow that knocked him out.
“Two down,” smiled Lewa. “And only 200 to go!”