Pridak slammed the Mask of Life down on a stone pedestal. “Today, the reign of the Barraki begins again,” he announced. “With this mask, we can reclaim our empire.”
The other five Barraki were assembled in the huge sea cave which served as Pridak’s base. There were no cheers at his statement or vows of revenge on the world beyond the Pit. All five were rulers, veterans of a thousand campaigns, and not easily swayed by words. Nor did the sight of their sharklike ally and a crumbling Kanohi mask fill them with confidence.
Carapar was the first to speak. “How? Our old kingdoms are a long way away, Pridak, and on dry land – in case you hadn’t noticed, none of us are exactly built for the surface world anymore.”
In answer, Pridak snatched a tiny trill fish out of the water and held it up to one of the cracks in the mask. Before the Barraki’s startled eyes, the fish began to grow and mutate into something out of a Ga-Matoran’s nightmare. When it was almost too large to hold, Pridak squeezed hard and crushed the unfortunate creature to death.
“You have all the imagination of a lump of coral, Carapar,” said Pridak. “The mask is damaged, and its power is leaking out. All we have to do is wait for it to shatter and then bathe in its energies. We will be restored to what we once were, and the League of Six Kingdoms will live once more.”
“And in the meantime?” said Mantax, his cold blue eyes locked onto Pridak. “Where will we keep the mask?”
“Here,” Pridak replied.
A wave of unease passed through the Barraki. Pridak considered himself their leader, and they let him have that role rather than risk what his savage jaws could do to them. But if this mask was as powerful as he said, none felt comfortable with any one of them having it in his exclusive possession.
“How do we know you won’t change yourself and leave the rest of us as we are?” Ehlek muttered. Kalmah took a step away from the eel-like Barraki. He could smell ozone in the water, a sign that Ehlek was gathering electrical energy.
“How dare you suggest –?” Pridak said, charging forward. Ehlek turned, unleashing a blast of electricity from his spines. The voltage caught Pridak dead-on, sending his body into spasms.
Takadox stepped in between the two. “Stop it! We won’t get anywhere fighting over the mask. I say we put it in the Razor Whale’s Teeth.”
Pridak had regained control of his form. Kalmah and Carapar moved quickly to restrain him from tearing Ehlek apart. “Takadox is right,” said Kalmah. “We shared our victories… and we shared our punishment. So we will share this mask, too, until we see if it can do all you claim.”
“All right,” Pridak said, shrugging off the grip of the two Barraki. “I will take it there myself.”
“We’ll all take it there,” said Ehlek.
“All but me,” said Kalmah. “I am going to check on those Toa. Condemned to the Pit they may have been, but that doesn’t mean they can be trusted. I would sleep better if they were food for the sea squid.”
Takadox snatched the mask up in his claw and the Barraki went their separate ways, four heading for the depths of the Pit, while Kalmah and Carapar swam for the sea caves. None of them felt the eyes of Hydraxon upon them, or even dreamt that their long-dead jailer lived again. But he was there, watching their every movement, noting exactly what type of weapon would be needed to bring each one down.
By the time they were gone, his scouting mission was done. Now it was time for the hunt.
The Razor Whale’s Teeth was a nickname given by the Barraki to a collection of triangular, dangerously sharp stones that jutted out of the ocean floor in a roughly circular pattern. The area was a favorite hunting ground of razor whales and their smaller cousins, the razorfish. The presence of amphibious proto drakes in the area served to keep Takea sharks away, as the drakes were one of the few sea creatures that fed on sharks.
The Barraki were still several yards away from the rocks when they spotted the presence of something else as well. A hulking, tentacled creature had made a camp right in the middle of the “teeth” and was busily devouring a giant squid. He had four arms, bulbous red eyes, and a spiked head that glowed in the dark waters. His frame was lean, but all muscle, and the sharp blades he carried were keen enough to slice through the tough hide of his dinner.
His identity was known, of course. He was a fellow escapee from the Pit named Nocturn, famous for being one of the few to be immune to the effects of the black water. Nocturn had not been mutated into what the Barraki saw before them – he had always been that ugly. In his calmer and more lucid moments, he served Ehlek well as a lieutenant. This was not one of those moments.
“Not that lummox,” muttered Mantax. “Leave the mask here and he will probably eat it. Why is he in the Pit in the first place?”
“He was exiled from his home island after he broke something,” said Takadox.
“What did he break?”
“The island.” Seeing the doubt on Mantax’s features, Takadox continued, “He was in a bad mood, the island wasn’t very big, and he hit it in just the right spot… shows what lots of sleep, clean living, and razor whales for breakfast every day will do for you.”
Pridak swam toward the rock formation, mask in one hand and one of Kalmah’s squid launchers in the other. As soon as he spotted the Barraki, Nocturn sprang up and began slashing the water with his blades. “My place! Go away!” he bellowed.
“No one wants to take your place,” said Pridak. “We brought you a pretty mask to keep. You stay here and keep it safe. Understand? If someone other than us comes for it… consider them a free meal.”
Nocturn took the Mask of Life and the launcher and looked from one to the other. He didn’t seem particularly interested in either one.
“Do you know who I am?” asked Pridak.
Nocturn nodded. “Pridak. The Shark.”
“Then you know what will happen if you don’t do what I ask?”
Nocturn winced. He still bore the scars of an earlier run-in with Pridak, which had cost him one of his arms. Fortunately, it had grown back, though minus its tentacle. “Rip, slash,” he said. “Pain. Hiding.”
“And next time, I won’t stop with your arm,” Pridak said darkly.
Toa Nuparu found getting out of Hahli’s cave to be just as easy as getting in had been. But the Toa of Water would not be able to just swim past the giant squid guarding her. She had told Nuparu he had no reason to worry. “It took some practice, but I finally know what this mask can do,” she assured him. “When you get out of the cave, don’t look my way, no matter what.”
Nuparu knew better than to argue with her. She was, after all, the Toa with the best knowledge of the sea. He obligingly turned away once he was clear of the cavern. Had he not done so, he would have seen Hahli standing completely still at the mouth of the cave. The squid noticed her and began to move toward her, reaching out with its powerful tentacles. Then it paused. Bands of color were traveling up and down Hahli’s body, shifting in intensity even as they moved faster. Puzzled, the squid watched intently, its huge eyes drawn to the bright colors and the pattern of their movement. In a matter of moments, the great sea beast was entranced.
The bands of color stopped moving and faded away. The squid did not react. Satisfied, Hahli swam right past it and joined Nuparu. “What happened?” asked the Toa of Earth.
“The mask,” Hahli answered. “It lets me mimic the powers of any sea creature. I remembered there was a hypnotic Rahi fish who could entrance prey, so I summoned that ability. The giant squid is unharmed, but when it awakens, we will be long gone.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Toa Hewkii, swimming toward them. “The problem with water is it’s so… wet.”
“How did you get past your guard?”
“I didn’t. Used my mask to cut off his gravity,” said Hewkii. “Too bad you missed it. You would believe a Takea shark can fly.”
“Use your mask!” said Jaller.
Toa Kongu shook his head. “I’d really rather not.”
Jaller floated in the water, feeling frustrated and helpless. His fire power had been enough to frighten off the venom eels that were guarding him, but the strain of using his elemental abilities underwater had exhausted him. On land, he was one of the most powerful Toa, but here he felt like one of the weakest. The best he could manage was a low, lukewarm flame from his sword, and that would not be enough to drive away the stingrays guarding Kongu.
He turned at a sound behind him. A large hahnah crab was scuttling toward him, apparently attracted by his fire. This far beneath the sea, heat and light were a rarity. Unlike most creatures, this one did not seem to fear the flames. It regarded the Toa of Fire curiously. Jaller wondered if he himself had worn the same expression when he was a Matoran villager, meeting Toa Tahu for the first time.
There wasn’t time to worry about that now. Kongu had unleashed an underwater cyclone and scattered the rays and was now heading for Jaller. By the time the two Toa heard the sound of a Barraki launcher being fired, it was too late. A slime-covered sea squid slammed into Kongu and latched itself onto his back with its tentacles. The Toa of Air struggled in vain to pull it free as the squid grafted itself onto his body. Once fully in place, the squid began draining the Toa’s life energies. Kongu spasmed and sank toward the sea floor.
Toa Jaller raced to his aid, only to hear the launcher fire once more. He saw another squid hurtling toward him out of the darkness. He raised his sword and threw all his power into it, unleashing a blast of flame that incinerated the creature. There was no time to celebrate his victory. Two massive claws grabbed him from behind. Carapar lifted Jaller into the air and slammed him down hard onto the sea floor. Jaller rolled, scissored his legs onto the Barraki’s and knocked his foe off balance.
A tentacle suddenly wrapped around the Toa’s throat. It was Kalmah pulling Jaller toward him. Carapar regained his balance and grabbed Jaller’s legs, one in each claw. “Time to make a wish,” the crablike Barraki said.
Kongu could see all that was happening, but could not even help himself. Even concentrated air power could not tear the squid loose. With each moment, he was growing weaker. Once he passed out, both he and Jaller would be doomed.
Something struck him. Kongu managed to turn his head to see the hahnah crab, which was now attacking the squid. Unable to fight back with its tentacles stuck to Kongu, the squid was being torn apart by the crab’s claws. Mortally wounded, the squid finally released its hold and floated up toward the surface. Kongu felt his strength returning, but it wasn’t fast enough. He had no choice – he had to use the power of his mask.
Closing his eyes tightly, he triggered his Kanohi mask. His few attempts at using it before had convinced him its power was to summon creatures to Kongu’s side. But so far, each thing summoned had been worse or more bizarre than the last. He really didn’t want to see what was coming next.
As it turned out, shutting his eyes didn’t make things any better. He could feel the pounding beneath his feet, as if something was burrowing its way up from beneath the ocean floor. He could hear the sound of the ground being torn asunder nearby, the startled curses of the Barraki, and the panicked screech of the hahnah crab. Then he was tumbling through the water, struck by a massive undersea wave.
When he finally righted himself, Kongu opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was a grotesque sea creature, easily two hundred feet high, looking like a cross between a whale and the giant, clawed slime-worms Onu-Matoran miners had run into in the past. It was nothing that had ever lumbered through the seas of Metru Nui or anywhere Matoran dwelled. The creature was ancient when the world was new, a relic of a past age when it was probably dwarfed by its fellow creatures. It had slumbered for millennia until awakened by Kongu’s Mask of Summoning… and it woke up in a bad mood.
At first, the Barraki were too stunned to know how to react. Then Kalmah snapped his tentacle, sending Jaller flying toward the beast. Kongu took off after the Toa of Fire, swimming as fast as he could. With both Toa occupied, the two Barraki vanished into the black water.
The creature caught sight of Jaller just before the Toa was going to strike its body. It lashed out with a clawed appendage and batted the Toa away, sending him back toward the ocean floor. He slammed into the approaching Kongu and both hit the earth hard.
“What… what is that?” asked Jaller. “Where did it come from?”
“Well, I told you I didn’t want to use the mask,” Kongu replied.
* * *
Approaching the fortress of the Dark Hunters on Odina is much like sticking one’s face into a nest of fireflyers… hungry fireflyers… ANGRY, hungry fireflyers.
Although my fellow Toa Nuva and I had chosen the least guarded approach to the fortress, we still had to deal with our share of sentries and wandering Dark Hunters. The trick was to knock them out before they could raise an alarm – something that is much easier to do when you have Lewa along. A Toa of Air can create a quick vacuum around an enemy, and with no air, the sound of his shouts can’t travel.
After making our way as quickly as we dared to the fortress, we stood at the rear stone wall. Pohatu made a stone hand emerge from the blocks to grab the lone guard and squeeze him into unconsciousness. Then another use of his power opened a way for us to get inside.
The inside of the fortress was a maze. Worse, we had no real idea where the Staff of Artakha might be hidden. We might be searching for days. I whispered this to Tahu, and he shook his head.
“The staff is valuable,” he said quietly. “The Dark Hunters will keep it with their treasures, which means not far from the Shadowed One’s throne. We find him, we find the staff.”
“And find me you have,” a harsh voice said. It came from all around us, but there was no one else present. “Did you really think you could enter my fortress without my knowledge? Did you really think you could make it this far unless I wanted you here?”
All around us, the corridor walls began to shift. Before we could react, we were sealed off in a stone prison.
“Of course, I know six Toa Nuva could break out of this trap easily,” said the voice, which we all now realized must belong to the Shadowed One, leader of the Dark Hunters. “But I am hoping you will take the time to listen… I have an offer to make, and a secret to share.”