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“You have to be joking,” said Gar, shaking his head.

“I hope not, cause you’re not happy-laughing,” Defilak replied. “My jokes are usually better than that.”

“When did you get permission to build this thing?”

“Remember, about a year ago, that Po-Matoran was running the Council – I don’t easy-remember his name. You know, the one who was always cracking rocks between his fingers? Anyway, everyone knows Po-Matoran ever-hate the water and anything to do with it, but they’re nuts about geology. Give them a boulder to chop-carve and they’re happy as hydruka on an air spree.”

“Is there a point buried here somewhere?” asked Gar.

“Well, I told him I could build something that would let him go search for rocks to his heartlight’s content, without ever having to get his feet wet. And here it is!”

Defilak pointed to his creation with pride. It was a slim, completely enclosed undersea vehicle made from metallic protodermis and crystalline protodermis. He had obviously used the Takea shark as a model, for his design had the same general shape and fin structure. The cockpit was large enough to seat four, and two large windows afforded a view of the outside. A claw grabber was mounted on the front and two launchers were on either side, designed to fire prototype spheres of solid air. Short protodermis stakes were attached to a gear on the back.

One of the volunteers, a Ta-Matoran named Sarda, looked over the craft. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “And I sort of hope I never will again. What does it do?”

“It can go down into the black water, explore, and then rise back up to Mahri Nui. You turn a handle inside to make the gear go circle-round and make the ship move, and –”

“Wait a minute,” said Gar. “What about the Matoran you built this for? Did he ever use it?”

“Um, well, you see,” Defilak replied. “He kind of had second thoughts after he got a look at it. But I promise you it will work!”

“So you’ve tested it?”

“No.”

“You’ve seen something similar work?”

“Well… no.”

“Then how can you be so sure?”

Defilak threw his shoulders back proudly and said, “I have enormous trust-faith in my own talent.”

Gar frowned. “I think maybe I’ll do something safer with my day, like hand-feed hungry sharks.”

By the time safe hour came again, Defilak had managed to recruit one more crew member, a Ga-Matoran named Idris. Together they carried Defilak’s craft to the edge of a tidal pool within one of the smaller shelters. They gently placed it in the center of the pool and one by one climbed inside. The interior was cramped and the air smelled stale, but at least it was dry.

Once everyone was in place, Defilak pulled a lever. Water flooded into the empty space between the inner and outer hulls and the craft began to sink underwater. All four Matoran fought down a surge of fear. They were descending into the unknown in a vehicle they felt sure would not be able to withstand an attack by the enemy. But no one suggested turning back.

While Gar turned the crank, Defilak maneuvered the craft through the narrow tunnel and into the open sea. They were perhaps a hundred feet below the edge of the fields of air, and still descending. No Matoran had ever willingly gone any deeper than this.

The world viewed through the crystalline protodermis windows was wondrous. Lightstones mounted on the outside of the craft revealed schools of tiny fish darting about. Strange vegetation coiled around rocks, strands waving gently in the current. Creatures no Matoran had ever even imagined, let alone seen, swam near the craft, then backed off when they realized it was not just some new type of marine life. It was simultaneously stunningly beautiful and incredibly eerie, leaving the Matoran unsure of just how to react to what they saw.

“How far down do you think we’ll have to go?” asked Sarda.

“No way to know,” said Defilak. “Maybe we will deep-dive all the way to the very bottom of the ocean.”

“What if the stories are true?” asked Idris. “You know, the tales about evil beings haunting the seafloor, banished from the light for all time? No one knows if they’re dead or alive, and –”

“And no one knows if you’re crazy or you just like scaring us all to death,” said Sarda. “They’re stories, just stories… and nothing in a story can hurt you. Right?”

No one chose to answer.

By the time Kyrehx made it to the Council chamber, no one was there. She thought furiously, Who would be the best being to tell about this mask? She was excited about what she had found but also a little fearful, and a growing part of her wanted nothing more than to hand it off to someone else.

Then it hit her. One of her instructors on sea life had made a hobby of carving replicas of Kanohi masks out of stone. If anyone might know just what mask this was, it was he. Kyrehx tucked the mask under her arm and started for the school.

She made it only a few feet before something snagged her foot. Looking down, she saw that a strand of seaweed growing from between two cracks in the rock had wound around her ankle. With a determined yank, she pulled free.

Passing through the Council chamber’s air bubble, she began to swim toward her destination. It was slow going. The work crew whose job it was to keep swimways clear of vegetation had evidently not been very diligent, for the path was choked with greenery. She had to push it aside as she went, not easy when she had only one hand free.

It only grew more difficult as she went on. The seaweed and ocean grass was up over her head now and she could barely see the city through the plant growth. Frustrated, she reached out and tore a stalk of ocean grass out of the ground. The action should have made her feel better, if only in a small way. Instead, she was struck dumb with fear when she heard the grass scream.

Suddenly, the vegetation around her was moving. Weeds were reaching out to grab her arms and legs. Another patch of ocean grass was already shooting up from the spot vacated by the stalk she had torn up. Furiously, she hacked at the growth with her blades, trying to ignore the yells that greeted each blow.

Then she saw a hand reaching for her. It was the armored hand of a Po-Matoran who was standing outside of the plant prison that caged her. She grabbed on and felt herself being pulled through the stubborn weeds. The plants pulled back, not wanting to relinquish their prize. But the strength of the Po-Matoran proved greater, and both Kyrehx and the Kanohi mask came flying out.

The Po-Matoran pointed to the wildly growing plants, puzzled. She signaled to him that he should not think, just swim. It was good advice, for the plants were already reaching for her again.

Together, the two Matoran raced for the nearest building. Once inside the structure’s air bubble, they ran inside the shelter and slammed the door behind them.

“What in Mata Nui’s name is going on?” demanded the Po-Matoran. “And what’s that mask you’re carrying?”

“I’m starting to think both questions might have the same answer,” Kyrehx answered.

The Po-Matoran, a waterhunter named Dekar, reached out and took the mask. He was no expert on Kanohi, but he could tell this particular mask was very old. At first, he thought it remarkable that something so ancient could be not only intact, but undamaged. Before he could comment on that, though, he noticed the tiniest of hairline cracks along the top edge of the mask.

“You didn’t put this on?” he asked.

“No,” Kyrehx answered. “And even if I had, you know Matoran can’t use mask powers.”

“Right. Of course we can’t,” he said, turning the mask over in his hands. “Where were you taking it?”

“To the school – I thought they would want to – I thought it would be best if it was with someone of learning. Then the plants went crazy, the whole world went crazy, and –”

Dekar walked to the window and looked out at the city. Kyrehx joined him. Everything looked normal. The plants she had fought her way through had receded and were back to their normal height. Nothing was trying to get at her. She breathed a long sigh of relief.

“That was so weird,” Kyrehx said, smiling. “Must have been some plant virus or something.”

“Must have been,” Dekar agreed. He held out the mask. “Here, this is yours. Take it where you need to.”

Instinctively, the Ga-Matoran backed away. Suddenly, the last thing she wanted was to be anywhere near that mask. “Tell you what,” she said. “You take it. You saved my life, so you should get the glory of finding a new artifact. Really, it’s okay.”

Dekar started to protest, but she was already out the door and swimming rapidly away. He watched her go, then looked back at the Kanohi. He couldn’t see any sense in her behavior. Then again, he had never understood Ga-Matoran very well anyway.

He tucked the artifact in his pack. There would be time enough to take it to the school later on. He had hunting to do.

After all, he reasoned, it’s just another mask. Not like one mask is going to change anything down here.

The squid swam swiftly through an underwater cavern. It passed many of its species, most of them busy feeding on marine life unwise enough to come too close. Unlike some similar Rahi species, this type of squid did not have to rely on beaked mouths to feed. The suckers on their tentacles drained the life force from any being they touched. Their speed and ruthless efficiency made them creatures to be dreaded by even the great sharks.

Feeding was the last thing on this creature’s mind right now, however. Its instinct led it right to the deepest part of the cave, where its master waited.

Three eyes gleamed in the back of the cavern, but only two darted toward the squid as it entered. The master’s third eye had been ruined in battle years ago. This would normally have meant he was vulnerable to attacks from his blind side, and in a place like this, that would quickly spell death. Fortunately, the small tentacles on the back of his head acted as a sensory apparatus and made up for the loss of the eye.

The master’s great tentacle reached out and brushed against the squid. In that instant, information was exchanged from being to being. All that the squid had seen now resided in its master’s memory as well.

A mask of such great power that this beast could sense its energies from far away… a mask active even when not being worn, thought the tentacled cave dweller. It could not be – and then again, why not? Perhaps the universe has followed us all into the abyss.

He broke contact with the squid and dismissed it. What would need to be done could not be accomplished by mere Rahi. It was time to seek out the others. It was time to hunt again.

Kalmah rose from his throne of bones and swam toward the cave mouth and the open sea beyond. After so many millennia in this place, salvation had arrived in the form of a Kanohi mask. And, like all sources of power, it would belong to those with the strength to seize it.

The empire of the Barraki was about to live again.

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