Under normal circumstances, Mantax would have enjoyed watching Hahli struggle for her life. After all, what good was having the ability to paralyze your prey if you couldn’t watch its last moments, as it sank to the sea bottom gasping for breath?
Unfortunately, he had no time for that pleasure now. The Mask of Life was still missing, and if the Toa didn’t have it, he would have to face the possibility that one of the other Barraki had claimed it. Mantax hoped that was not the case. After thousands of years allied with them in the League of Six Kingdoms, and many thousands more as prisoners of the Pit, it would have been a shame if he and his army of rays had to lay waste to everything the others had built.
It wasn’t here. He had retraced her route, checked every possible hiding place along the way, but without success. There was nothing left to do but return to the Toa’s corpse and plan his next course of action. Maybe this water Toa had passed the mask on to one of her allies? He should have thought to ask her before killing her.
The next thing Mantax knew, he had been pulled off his feet and was flying headlong through the water. He came to an abrupt stop, slamming into a rock wall. Then he was being yanked the other way, only to crash into another slab of stone. The two blows were enough to scramble his senses, but not so much he couldn’t make out the Toa he had defeated swimming toward him.
“Riptide,” said Toa Hahli. “You really should watch out for those.”
“Impossible,” hissed Mantax. “Riptides only happen near the shore. We are nowhere near land.”
“Nothing is impossible,” said Hahli. “I learned the ways of water from Turaga Nokama and Toa Gali Nuva. The ocean shelters me, heals me… and obeys me.”
Mantax felt another current taking hold of him. This time, he dug his pincer into the rock so he could not be moved. “Then speak, Toa. A Barraki knows when to fight and when to listen.”
“Why did you attack me?”
“How did you survive?”
“There are beasts of the sea immune to any venom, and I am as well, if I choose,” Hahli answered. She added a silent thanks to her Kanohi mask, whose ability to grant her the powers of various ocean creatures had saved her.
“I want the Mask of Life,” said Mantax. “I thought you had it.”
“And I thought you did,” said Hahli. “While we’re fighting, whoever does have it will be escaping with it.”
“No,” Hahli said, shaking her head. “Yours.”
Mantax regarded her coldly. As a rule, he had no use for Toa. They were too conscience-bound to be ruthless, and always so quick to oppose the plans of their betters. But one thing about them he believed to be true: Toa were not liars. And if this water Toa was telling the truth…
“I have no friends,” said Mantax. “Only enemies I haven’t killed yet.”
“Nuparu! Wake up!”
“Go away,” muttered the Toa of Earth. “I don’t want to go to work today. There’s a spare Boxor vehicle over there, if you want one.”
“Nuparu, you kolhii-head – you’re dreaming!” said Hewkii, smacking his fellow Toa in the mask. “And if you don’t wake up quick, you might not wake up at all.”
Nuparu’s eyes flashed to life. He looked around to see he was lying at the bottom of an underwater trench. Hewkii was crouched over him. The Toa of Earth adjusted his mask and said, irritated, “What did you hit me for? You know we can get out of here whenever we like.”
“Good. Then tell them,” Hewkii replied, gesturing over his shoulder.
Nuparu sat up and saw what his friend was talking about. The sides of the trench were riddled with holes, each one housing a large, eyeless breed of eel. The mouth of each one was filled with more than a thousand needle-like teeth. They jutted out of their holes, craning their bodies to snap at any fish that went by. He saw one stretch almost the entire width of the trench to catch a tiny red darter, then slowly withdraw into its nest.
“Okay, climbing is out,” said the Toa of Earth. “What about your mask power?”
“We won’t rise fast enough,” said Hewkii. “I could make them heavier, but there’s an awful lot of them. I tried blocking their holes with elemental stone, but the mud’s so soft, the rocks just fell down to the bottom of the trench. Before I tried anything that could get us permanently dead, I figured I’d better wake you up.”
“I know a way out,” said Nuparu. “But I’ll need your help to make it work.”
“Does it involve levers, pulleys, bits and pieces of Bohrok, or gears bigger than I am?” asked Hewkii.
“No. It involves explosions. Lots and lots of explosions.”
Hewkii smiled. “Then I’m your Toa.”
A few moments later, the two Toa Mahri stood back to back. Hewkii shouted, “Go!” Nuparu called on his elemental power to form a column of earth beneath their feet, lifting them toward the top of the trench. As he did so, Hewkii fired his Cordak blaster at any eel that appeared, while using his stone power against the rest. His attack blew large holes in the trench, sending some of the creatures tumbling toward the bottom.
They were almost at the top when one ambitious Rahi vaulted from its hole through the water and wrapped itself around Hewkii. Off balance, the Toa of Stone tumbled off the earthen column. Nuparu spotted him just in time and grabbed Hewkii’s arm, but the eel was going for its victim’s throat.
“Let go!” yelled the Toa of Stone. “I can’t shoot the blaster with you so close!”
“If you use it at such close range, you’ll blow your own head off!” Nuparu shouted back. He dropped his own blaster and grabbed the eel by the throat. It hissed and twisted, trying to sink its teeth into Nuparu’s arm.
Hewkii took advantage of the breather to bring the power of his mask to bear. He lowered the creature’s personal gravity, so that it floated up and off his body. Nuparu released his grip on the Rahi just as Hewkii used his mask again to raise and lower the gravity of the creature in specific spots, effectively tying it into a knot. Then he flung it back into the open sea.
Nuparu gave Hewkii a hand up. They had reached the top of the trench now. A welcoming committee was waiting for them: Ehlek and thirty or forty electric eels.
“All right, let’s take him apart,” growled Hewkii. “And when we’re done down here, I don’t want to see even a puddle of water ever again.”
“Got a better idea,” said Nuparu, smiling. “There are a few big sharks swimming way above where our friend is standing. What do you think would happen if they suddenly gained weight?”
Hewkii nodded. Once again, he used his mask, this time to increase gravity around the sharks Nuparu had spotted. Suddenly, the hunters of the sea were diving at high speed, smashing into the Barraki and the eels. The creatures responded with shocks to what they thought was an attack. Angered, the sharks attacked for real, savaging the Barraki’s force in a frenzy. The two Toa could hear Ehlek cursing Pridak as he withdrew.
“You know what?” said Nuparu. “I think we just ruined a friendship.”
“Yeah,” agreed Hewkii, smiling. “And I’m all broken up about it.”
With his strength fading, Jaller knew he had to take a desperate gamble. Reaching out blindly, he grabbed Kongu’s arm and sent a blast of searing heat through both their bodies. The squid attacking them shrieked in pain and detached themselves, fleeing for the open water.
The two Toa Mahri staggered to their feet. Kongu leaned on the cavern wall for support as he eyed the two Barraki. “You call yourselves warlords?” he spat. “Warlords don’t quick-hide behind Rahi beasts. They do their own killing.”
“We are also smart enough to tell when an enemy is trying to bait us,” said Kalmah. “In our time, entire nations bowed before us… cities fell… armies were destroyed. Do you really think a group of condemned Toa will prove more than a moment’s annoyance?”
Jaller stood up straight, showing none of the exhaustion he felt. “We weren’t condemned here,” he said. “You Barraki got it wrong.”
“Why else would you be here?” said Carapar. “Nobody comes here unless they have to.”
“We came from an island on the surface called Voya Nui,” Jaller replied. “We’re here for the Mask of Life. Help us get our hands on it, and we’ll show you the way out of this place.”
Kalmah laughed for a long time. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. “Escape to where? Look at us, Toa – we have been changed by this place. We can no longer live on the surface, and neither can you.”
Jaller smiled. “But the mask can change that – that’s what you think, isn’t it? That’s why you want it. We can make a deal… or we can fight, and risk the mask getting destroyed in the battle.”
“Since when do Toa make deals?” asked Carapar, snapping his claws angrily. “Don’t treat us like we’re Rahi – before we wound up here, your kind lived in fear of us. Everyone did.”
“Past days,” said Kongu. “Is that all you have?”
“We earned the right to rule,” said Kalmah quietly. “It is a right we never willingly surrendered. If we aid you now, it means going up against our allies…. What do you have to offer that is worth that?”
Jaller was silent for a moment. Then he said, “When the Mask of Life is back in our hands, Barraki, we’ll make sure you get all you have earned and everything you deserve. Oppose us – and I swear to you by Mata Nui, we will destroy the mask before you ever get your claws on it.”
The Toa of Fire waited for a response. He didn’t believe for a moment the two Barraki would truly honor any bargain made between them. But if it got him and Kongu out of this cave in one piece, he would worry about the inevitable betrayal later.
“Your offer is intriguing,” said Kalmah. “But promises and vows mean nothing beneath the waves. Even if we agreed, Pridak would never go along with aiding Toa. So you are going to do a favor for us in return for our assistance.”
“What favor?” asked Jaller.
“Kill Pridak. Then we’ll talk.”
Matoro swam in the midst of a nightmare. All around him, Takea sharks were locked in battle with their reanimated victims. The carnage was mind-numbing, overwhelming, and more than a little sickening. Pridak’s legions destroyed their foes, only to see them rise again through the power of the Toa’s mask. And each time it happened, Matoro felt as if he had lost another part of himself.
Is this the price the Mask of Life asks to save the Great Spirit Mata Nui? the Toa of Ice asked himself. Already, I’ve seen Matoran enslaved, Piraka driven mad, Brutaka betraying everything he ever believed in, all in the name of a cursed mask. And now more death and destruction, this time through my actions. Where does it end?
“It doesn’t, you fool,” said Maxilos/Makuta.
“So,” said Matoro. “You are still in that body. I thought you had fled at the first sign of danger.”
“It seemed like a good idea to remain silent,” the Master of Shadows replied. “The Barraki and I are… old friends. It is an acquaintance I prefer not to renew.”
“You may not have a choice. They show no sign of backing down.”
“There are always choices… some easier than others. The Barraki made theirs eighty thousand years ago when they decided to challenge Mata Nui. Now they are living with the consequences.”
“Just like you?”
Makuta laughed through the mouth of Maxilos. “Yes, I made my choices, too. But it is not I who will have to face the consequences of them – it’s you and your kind, Toa. You have not yet begun to pay the price demanded of you.”
There was a sudden movement on the right flank as a school of Takea sharks slammed into Matoro’s forces. His ranks were shattered by the ferocity of the attack, and the sharks shot forward before the Toa could reanimate his soldiers again. Pridak was no novice when it came to battle. He had studied Matoro’s tactics and realized the key to victory was shock and speed. The Toa of Ice used his elemental power to freeze as many of the attackers as he could, but more moved in to replace them.
“You could help!” Matoro snapped at Maxilos. “You keep saying you want me to win.”
“Choices, little Toa,” said Maxilos. “It all comes down to choices. Unless I am mistaken, the Barraki called Ehlek has made a very bad one for himself and a very good one for us.”
Now Matoro could see what Maxilos was referring to. Hundreds of thousands of eels were swimming toward the battle from the west. But when the creatures arrived, they didn’t join with the sharks to attack the Toa’s forces. Instead, they mobbed the Takea, overcoming the sharks with sheer numbers and scattering the schools. Within a matter of moments, the backbone of Pridak’s attack was broken, destroyed by his own ally’s army.
“What’s going on?” asked Matoro. “I thought all the Barraki were on the same side.”
“Throw a group of your enemies into the vilest prison imaginable and they will forge a stronger bond, for they are all sharing the same misery,” Maxilos replied. “But offer even the glimpse of a means of escape, and they will tear each other to shreds scrambling for the exit.”
Matoro said nothing. What was going on before his eyes was worse than anything he could imagine. It was the full fury of nature unleashed, yet it was not natural at all – these creatures were fighting and dying for no other reason than that two Barraki and a Toa wanted them to.
“Consider yourself lucky,” said Maxilos. “It’s not every day one gets to see a war begin.”
* * *
I stand amidst the bodies of my friends and teammates, not knowing whether they are alive or dead. Before me stands Makuta Icarax, Staff of Artakha in his claw. Only I, Gali Nuva, am left to stand between him and whatever nightmare is to come.
When we came to the realm of Karzahni in pursuit of Icarax, we found hundreds of Matoran, their spirits as crushed as their bodies were distorted. These victims of Karzahni had been inexplicably abandoned (for there was no sign of the realm’s ruler when we arrived, or the Manas he was said to command). With gentle words and a great deal of patience, Lewa and Onua were able to convince the Matoran to leave their prison and head north toward Metru Nui.
It turned out we had no need to search for Icarax – he struck at us from ambush. At first we thought he was the Makuta we had fought before, for he wore the Mask of Shadows. But he was, if anything, a more skilled and ferocious warrior, felling my teammates with swift, sure blows.
Now I must make a choice – do I do what I must to stop Icarax, risking my friends’ lives (if they still live)? Or do I let him escape? There really is no choice. Even as he gloats over his triumph, I am summoning every last bit of moisture from the air for hundreds of kio around. I am merging it together, bending it to my will, preparing to unleash all my elemental power in one single explosion of force.
And I do… and I hope to the Great Beings I never will again.
A wall of water two hundred bio high crashes into the realm of Karzahni, shattering buildings, leveling everything and everyone in its path. I strain to make the currents obey, but cannot snatch the Staff from Icarax’s hand. I do succeed in using my mask power to allow my friends to breathe water.
When the flood tide subsides, Icarax is gone and the Toa Nuva, somehow, survive. Of this realm, nothing is left… nothing but a Noble Hau floating on the water, one which once belonged to a hero. Tahu saves it from being lost, and that is good. I look around at the destruction I have caused, and wonder if too much has already been lost today.