Carapar looked back in time to see the horror dredged up from the sea floor locked in combat with the revived giant venom eel. It seemed like the sort of bad dream he usually had after feasting near Mantax’s reef. The Pit had always been a grim, nasty, and thoroughly revolting place to live, but now it was becoming downright unhealthy.
He and Kalmah made for the latter’s cave, passing the “squid farm” on the way. Carapar would never have admitted it, but he always found this place a bit disturbing. Kalmah had discovered the existence of the sea squid shortly after the Barraki’s escape from imprisonment. They were unlike any creature the warlords were familiar with. For one thing, they had no armor or mechanical parts; they were purely organic tissue. For another, they did not come into being in a normal way, but rather were hatched from spheres with a thin, white surface.
Kalmah found the creatures intriguing, particularly their habit of draining the life force directly out of their prey. He began to breed them, taking care to starve and abuse the young squid so that they grew up vicious and ravenous. This made them the perfect living weapons. With some reluctance, he shared the use of them with the other Barraki, but no one was under any illusions about the creatures. If Kalmah ever moved against his fellow Barraki, the vampiric sea squid would be part of his legion.
As they entered the cavern, both Barraki were surprised to see the other warlords waiting for them. Takadox and Mantax were in darkened corners, feasting on any squid too slow or weak to escape from them. Ehlek was on the cave floor, in obvious pain from a bad gash on the organic tissue of his shoulder. Pridak stood over him, teeth bared.
“For the last time, Ehlek – where is he? Where has he taken the mask?”
Ehlek shook his head. “I don’t know. Do you think I’m such a fool that I’d let Nocturn leave with the mask and not go with him?”
“I don’t know,” answered Pridak. “You are foolish enough to try my patience, so nothing is beyond your depths of idiocy.”
“What is this?” demanded Kalmah. He used his tentacle to yank first Takadox, and then Mantax, out into the center of the cave. Takadox just smiled in response, a lone squid arm still dangling from his mandibles. Seeing Kalmah’s gaze fixed on it, he said, “Snacks for later.”
“We left the Mask of Life with Nocturn,” said Mantax, in a tone that suggested no other explanation was necessary.
“And he’s walked off with it,” Kalmah guessed correctly. “Since he’s Ehlek’s lieutenant, Pridak decided an interrogation was needed… code for ‘Pridak hadn’t eaten in an hour.’”
“Actually, we thought perhaps you, Carapar, and those Toa might have persuaded Nocturn to hand it over, and then… eased him out of this life,” said Takadox. “But don’t worry, Kalmah. I told them you would never do such a thing.”
“Of course not,” said Kalmah.
“For one thing, you’re not that smart,” Takadox finished.
“I don’t have the mask, but I know where to look,” Kalmah said, ignoring the jibe. “The Toa – they’ve escaped. They must have found it and taken it.”
“Then we find them,” snarled Pridak. “And when we’re done, we scatter the remains to the sharks.”
Kalmah hauled Ehlek to his feet and the Barraki exited the cave, Takadox and Mantax lagging behind. “Always to the sharks,” said Takadox. “Ah, well, I almost feel sorry for that group of Toa, hunted and doomed as they are… and just when they thought it was safe to come into the Pit.”
Toa Hahli swam slowly through a massive coral reef, her eyes scanning the ocean floor. She had used the power of her mask to give her perfect vision in the dark waters, so that the Mask of Life would not escape her sight. The result was a view of ocean life beyond anything she had ever imagined. The myriad creatures who swam in and around the reef looked nothing like the fish she had so often caught off the island of Mata Nui. Some were hideously ugly, others stunningly beautiful, and all strange and different in some way. If her mission were not so desperate, she could easily have spent days just exploring this natural wonder.
I wish Matoro or Jaller could see this, she thought. They are both always so serious, especially Jaller. I wonder where it’s written that Toa of Fire are not allowed to smile?
A powerful pincer erupted out of the ground, grabbing her around the waist. Before she could react, she had been yanked down to the ocean floor hard enough to stun her. Hahli heard the sands shifting and the clicking of metallic mandibles. She swung her triple-bladed weapon blindly. It struck something hard and she heard a cry of pain. In that moment, the pincer’s grip on her weakened slightly. She kicked free and turned to see her attacker.
Mantax was half in and half out of the sand. Her blow had struck him below his armored shoulder plates, damaging the muscle. He looked at Hahli with pure hatred and surged up toward her, trying to jab her with his head spikes. She dodged his thrust, then fired her cordak blaster at the sea bottom. The resulting explosion of sand blinded Mantax. He whirled this way, then that, but by the time he could see again, Hahli was gone.
The Barraki knew the Toa had not gone far. She was stalking him, as he was her. He made preparations, and then slipped back underground at the main junction of the reef. There he waited, his spikes and his blue eyes barely visible above the sand. Eventually, she would swim by again and he would have her.
Not very far away, Hahli was swimming slowly through the narrow passages of the reef. She had used her mask power to give her a chameleon ability, so that her body blended in with her surroundings. She knew the outcome of her skirmish with the Barraki was an exception to the rule. Under the sea, whoever struck first usually won the battle, and Hahli was determined it would be her.
There! She spotted Mantax’s telltale spikes jutting out of the sand just ahead. The Barraki was keeping watch in the other direction. He would never see her attack coming until it was too late. Hahli struck, firing her blaster even as she unleashed her elemental water power.
Suddenly, something jabbed into the muscles of her right leg. She turned her head to see Mantax behind her, using his head spikes to inject paralyzing venom. Confused, she looked back and saw that her blast had unearthed a pile of sea creature bones, no doubt placed there by the Barraki as a decoy. Already, she could feel her limbs going numb as the venom spread. In a few moments, the paralysis would reach her lungs and she would die here, in the depths of the Pit.
Jaller waited for Kongu to say something. He could see that the Toa of Air was just itching to make a comment about being underwater and having to search cave after cave instead of being under an open sky and soaring on the wind.
“All right, say it,” said the Toa of Fire.
“You know what,” said Jaller. “Some tree-speak complaint about being cold and wet, bumping your head on cave ceilings, and already being tired of smelling like fish… just say it and let’s get it over with, so we can keep searching.”
“No, I don’t deep-think I will.”
“I don’t have to,” said Kongu. “You already speak-said it. By the way, is this cave number four hundred or five hundred? I lost count.”
Jaller sighed. “Do you ever stop joking? You didn’t act like this when you commanded the Gukko bird force in Le-Koro, did you?”
Kongu shrugged. “I wasn’t one of six Toa deciding the fate of the universe then, either. Sure, I was grim and serious a lot of the time running the force – but Toa Lewa Nuva taught me that sometimes a little humor helps everyone relax and keep things in perspective. Besides, Jaller,” he added, with a smile, “between you and Hewkii, ‘grim and serious’ is already covered on this team.”
Jaller nodded. Not for the first time, he reminded himself that Kongu could have done just as good a job leading the team as he had. Matoro and Hahli, on the other hand, didn’t have experience leading Matoran into battle. Yet somehow the Toa of Ice seemed to want to take charge, and Hahli had insisted on exploring on her own despite his warnings. Before this crisis is over, he thought, this team is going to have to come together behind one leader – whether it’s me or someone else.
The two Toa swam into the cavern. Kongu did have another good point – they had been searching hours and found nothing, and it was beginning to look like the Barraki had found a better hiding place for the mask than a cave. But they wouldn’t know until they had searched them all.
“Hey,” said Kongu. “What are those?”
Jaller glanced to his right. The base of the cave wall was lined with white spheres. He moved closer for a better look. They weren’t rocks or some kind of natural deposit. Their surface was smooth, but seemed fragile, and he was amazed none had broken, stacked on top of each other as they were. Jaller reached out to touch one and his eyes widened.
“There’s something alive in there!” he said. “I can feel it moving!”
Kongu pointed back toward the cavern entrance. “There are more back there, and the shells are cracking. Do you think this is some kind of home-nest for really short Bohrok?”
“Or that thing that attacked you before… Be prepared for anything.”
“Oh,” said Kongu. “I could prepare a lot better from outside… way outside, even.”
Before the startled eyes of the two Toa Mahri, the shells cracked. Tentacles of varying colors slithered between the cracks, forcing the openings wider. A cylindrical body and head appeared next, cold eyes regarding the Toa. Then the sea squid launched themselves at the heroes, hungry for their first meal. Dozens of the creatures swarmed over the two Toa, latching on with their tentacles and draining the life energies of their prey. Before Jaller or Kongu could defend themselves, they felt their strength deserting them.
Just before the world went black, Jaller looked up to see Kalmah and Carapar standing at the mouth of the cave. “Feed, my little ones,” Kalmah said. “But leave something for your master as well.”
“Can I ask you something?” said Nuparu to Hewkii. The two were making their way through a deep trench in the ocean floor, searching for some sign of the Mask of Life.
“Do you ever miss home? I mean, Metru Nui?”
“Sure, I do,” Hewkii shrugged. “Don’t you?”
“All the time,” said Nuparu. “I guess it’s just… you were always so popular, you had a lot of friends. You have a lot to miss, but you don’t talk about home very much.”
Hewkii floated down to a rocky outcropping and looked at Nuparu. “Listen, just because I don’t sit around complaining about how much I miss my home and my friends, that doesn’t mean I don’t think about them. But we have a job to do, Nuparu, and I figure the sooner we get it done, the sooner I can see home again. Feeling sad about what I miss is a luxury I don’t have time for right now.”
“I understand,” Nuparu said. “Hey, what’s that?”
The Toa of Earth was pointing to a large mass in the center of the trench, just barely in their range of vision. As they moved closer, Hewkii saw it was a huge tree stump buried in the sand, roots up. The tangled roots sticking in all directions gave the stump the appearance of a large head with serpents for hair. It was only when they got right on top of it that the two Toa realized that in this case, appearances were not deceiving.
Nuparu’s eyes, adjusted to seeing in darkness, spotted them first. “Eels!” he shouted.
Now Hewkii saw them. They were everywhere, their sleek, black bodies twisted around the roots. Sensing intruders, they slithered free and headed for the Toa.
“Oh, no, you’re not,” said Hewkii. Using his mask, he increased the pull of gravity on the nearest eels, slamming them into the ground. At the same time, Nuparu caused the sea floor to open, swallowing the eels’ nest whole. Hewkii followed that up with a solid slab of stone that sealed off the opening. Startled, the rest of the creatures fled.
“Hahli would be proud,” Nuparu chuckled. “Earth and stone, victors under the sea! Right, Hewkii?”
When he got no answer, Nuparu turned around. Hewkii was nowhere to be seen.
“Hewkii? Where are you?” the Toa of Earth said, activating his Mask of Stealth as he did so, not knowing it was already too late. His presence had been detected by a natural predator attuned to the movements of the water. Every move Nuparu made sent a tiny ripple through the ocean that pointed to his location.
He was getting nervous. Nothing could take Hewkii without a fight, but there was no sign of the Toa of Stone. Blaster at the ready, Nuparu swam back the way they had come, searching for his friend.
He didn’t see the huge metallic claw until it was too late. The instant after he was seized in its grip, a powerful electric shock jolted him into unconsciousness. Thus Nuparu was spared the unpleasant feeling of being carried to the edge of an undersea chasm and dumped in, drifting down to rest beside Hewkii. Their captor turned from the watery would-be grave and walked away, having already forgotten about the two Toa.
Back when Toa Matoro had been just another villager on the island of Mata Nui, he had sat down to discuss with Kopaka Nuva what life as a Toa was like. The Toa Nuva of Ice had listened politely to his questions, and then said, “Half of being a Toa, Matoro, is being prepared for the unexpected. The other half is being smart enough to know that you really can’t ever prepare for that which you don’t expect.”
“Then what do you do?” Matoro had asked.
“You improvise, translator,” Kopaka Nuva replied. “And you try not to let your enemies find out you’re doing it.”
The words of the Toa Nuva of Ice came back to Matoro as he hovered in the water beside Maxilos. They were confronted by more than two hundred Takea sharks and an assortment of other sea creatures so revolting he didn’t even care to look at them. If ever there was a time for improvising, this was it.
“All right, here’s what we do,” he said to his “partner.” But Maxilos did not respond, simply looked straight ahead with a cold, robotic stare. There was no sign of Makuta’s presence inside the armored form. Great, thought Matoro. When he’s not wanted – which is virtually all the time – you can’t get rid of him. When you do want him, he’s back to being a puff of smoke someplace.
Pridak suddenly appeared in the midst of the sharks, flanked by Takadox. The latter eyed Matoro as if the Toa were a potential meal, and then said, “Tell us, Toa – where is the Mask of Life?”
Matoro saw Pridak snarl at his fellow Barraki. He couldn’t hear what was said, but he could guess. They’ve lost the mask – probably think we took it, he thought. But just in case we didn’t, Pridak didn’t want us to know it was missing. Too late now.
“Sorry, I never discuss such important matters in the middle of an aquarium,” the Toa of Ice said. “Tell the sharks to take a walk – or a swim – and we can have a talk.”
Pridak smiled. The sharks moved in closer, restless for the hunt. “Do you know where you are, Toa? This is a Takea shark hunting ground. The sea floor underneath you is littered with the bodies of creatures that weren’t fast enough to get away. Do you think you’re fast enough?”
“I don’t have to be,” Matoro answered. “Not as long as I’m strong enough to fight back.”
Triggering his elemental power, he froze the water around Pridak and Takadox into a solid block. It sank like a stone out of sight. He was just about to congratulate himself on an easy victory when he heard an explosion from down below and saw shards of ice flying through the water. They were followed by Pridak and Takadox, still scraping super-cold ice fragments off their limbs.
“Is that the best you can do, Toa?” said Pridak.
“I don’t know. Are you worthy of my best?”
The Toa of Ice called upon his Kanohi mask power, throwing more willpower into the act than he ever had before. Far below, long-dead sea creatures began to stir as artificial life flooded their bodies. Heavy-lidded eyes snapped open as limbs shook off the sleep of ages. One by one, the vanquished rose, vengeance in their hearts. Scattered groups began to swim toward Matoro, gathering behind him in an undead legion. Some looked almost as powerful and formidable as they had the day they died. Others had obviously suffered the tender mercies of the Takea shark. Together, they were enough to make even a Barraki hesitate.
Across the span of black water, two armies stared into each other’s cold eyes – one living, one an imitation of life. Pridak’s gaze was fixed on Toa Matoro, searching for some sign of weakness. He saw none.
“We appear to be evenly matched,” said the Barraki finally.
“Not so,” Matoro replied, flashing a cold smile as he gestured to his reanimated army. “My side has nothing left to lose.”
* * *
As it turned out, Lewa Nuva did not have to go all the way back to Metru Nui to find who Tahu had sent him to find. The six Rahaga had heard about the events on Xia and, amazingly enough, were on their way to help the Vortixx. (I hope someday to be as generous as they are).
Now, for the first time in over 1000 years, they were face to face with Roodaka, the being who had transformed them from Toa into their current bestial forms.
“Your island is being destroyed by the Tahtorak and the Kanohi Dragon,” Kopaka said to her. “And the Dark Hunters want you dead – odds are the Brotherhood of Makuta does too, or soon will. Help us and maybe we can help you.”
“We want nothing from her,” spat Rahaga Norik. “Let her meet the fate she so richly deserves.”
But Roodaka was smart enough to know when she was in an impossible situation. Making no effort to disguise her contempt for us, she nevertheless raised her Rhotuka launcher and fired at the Rahaga. The spinners struck all six of them, and before our eyes, a miracle happened – six twisted, mutated Rahaga transformed into six tall, strong, and powerful Toa Hagah!
“This is… amazing,” said Toa Gaaki, looking with wonder at her reborn Toa armor. “Norik, it’s over – we are heroes again!”
“You were always heroes,” said Tahu, smiling. “Now you just look the part.”
Our celebration was cut short by the arrival of Onua Nuva. He had been sent to retrieve the Staff of Artakha from a store room deep underground. But he carried no staff and looked as if he had been beaten to within an inch of his life.
“A Makuta… named Icarax… he was already there… stole the staff,” the Toa of Earth gasped. “He was wearing the Mask of Shadows… said the Brotherhood was his now… and soon the realm of Karzahni will be too…”
Toa Hagah Bomonga spoke up. “It sounds like you have urgent matters to deal with, Toa Nuva. We will stay and deal with the situation here.” He gave Roodaka a long, hard look. “We know how to deal with the likes of her.”
Tahu Nuva nodded his thanks, then turned to us. “We need that staff, and we’re going to have it – even if we have to tear it from a Makuta’s dead hands. Let’s go.”