Hours later, the Toa Mahri regrouped at the sunken city. Jaller and Kongu seemed a little the worse for wear after their experience with the squid. Hahli was absent, something that had all her partners worried.
Mahri Nui was on full alert. Matoran aqua hunters had reported that the sea had gone mad. Sharks were at war with eels, keras crabs and squid were mysteriously absent from the waters, and there were unconfirmed reports of attacks by rays on anything that moved. Any creatures unlucky enough to get caught in the middle of one of the battles were killed by the combatants and then ignored. The “safe hour,” that period of time when no predators stalked the seas, was no more.
“What have you done?” demanded Defilak. “We have ever-lost two of our herders and half a dozen hydruka in the last six hours! The battles come closer to the borders of Mahri Nui every moment. Is this how you protect us?”
Hewkii shrugged. “Turning them against each other seemed like a good idea. Who knew they would be so good at destroying each other?”
“It was a good idea,” said Jaller. “Remember, we still need to find the mask. If the Barraki’s armies tear each other to pieces, that buys us time to search.”
“Is this what we’ve become?” asked Kongu. “Sacrificing Matoran lives, Rahi lives, just so we can quick-finish our mission? Hahli could be dead, for all we know, and all you care about –”
“Don’t, just… don’t,” said Matoro. “If we fail at this, there won’t be any more Matoran, or Rahi, or Hahli… or any of us. None of us are happy about what’s been done,” he added, glancing at Maxilos. “But I think we are going to have to do far worse before this is over.”
A Ga-Matoran swam up to Defilak and said something quietly. Defilak nodded and turned to the Toa. “It’s now a fact,” he said. “The rays are on the move, heading straight for Mahri Nui. And they are being led by your Toa Hahli!”
Nocturn had been walking for how long? Hours? Days? Ehlek was not in any of his usual places, nor were his eels. Every time Nocturn tried to get a sea creature to stop and give him an idea of where to look, the creature died at his touch.
He stopped and looked down at the mask he was carrying. It was still glowing, though not as brightly as before. He wished it would just stop. The last thing one wanted in the depths of the ocean was to carry a great big light, since that would attract every predator for kios around. Why was he hauling it around again? Oh, yes, Pridak had insisted. He hated Pridak.
Maybe this is something he needs, thought Nocturn. Maybe if I get rid of it, he will get into some kind of bad trouble. Maybe someone will even take his arm off like he took mine.
Nocturn paused, fumbled with the mask, and started to put it down on the sand. Then he hesitated. Pridak would know he had gotten rid of it and be enraged. He would take his anger out on Nocturn, like he said, and Pridak didn’t make idle threats. Nocturn had once seen him go after another prisoner of the Pit. Pridak hadn’t killed the Skakdi he was fighting, no, but just wounded his leg enough to hobble him. Then Pridak had left, knowing that the hunters of the sea would swiftly zero in on anything not able to get away. The outcome had been predictable… and messy.
Better hang on to it, Nocturn decided. He turned north and resumed walking when something struck his tentacle, something sharp, and made him drop the Mask of Life. He glanced down to see that there was a dagger embedded in his appendage. Annoyed, he yanked it out and turned to see who would be stupid enough to attack him.
Hydraxon hovered in the water, wrist dagger poised to throw, Cordak revolving blaster aimed right at Nocturn. “Far enough, runner,” he said. “Drop the mask and surrender.”
Nocturn was very confused. “You’re Hydraxon?” he said. “Back when the earthquake hit and we all escaped into the black water, Takadox killed you. I saw it. You’re dead.”
“I got better,” Hydraxon replied. “And you’re going back where you belong.”
“But where we were isn’t there anymore. Don’t you remember? The ground shaking, the walls falling, the water flooding in…”
Hydraxon listened to Nocturn ramble on, but the words meant nothing to him. No such quake had ever happened, and he certainly hadn’t been killed by a Barraki. Had he been the real Hydraxon, all those memories would have been too painful and real. But he was the jailer of the Pit recreated by the Mask of Life from a Po-Matoran, and made to have no doubts, no fears, no frightening recollections. All that mattered was his job.
He realized with a start that he had better get his mind back on his task. Nocturn had fired a sea squid at him and he doubted it was to provide him with a loving pet. Hydraxon hurled a razor-edged boomerang and sheared the monstrous creature in half. Even then, its tentacles still crawled across the sea floor, trying to reach him.
Before Nocturn could react, Hydraxon drew and hurled one of his back-mounted blades, knocking the squid launcher from his enemy’s hand. Nocturn lashed out with his tentacle, wrapping it around Hydraxon’s waist and drawing the jailer toward him. Hydraxon aimed his Cordak blaster at a nearby rock and fired, blasting it to rubble.
“Next time, it’s your arm,” he said coldly.
Nocturn smiled. He suddenly remembered something about his old jailer. Letting Hydraxon go, he scooped up two rocks and slammed them together as hard as he could. The sharp crack was incredibly loud, and to Hydraxon’s sensitive hearing, painful. The jailer took a few steps back, trying to clear his head. Nocturn took advantage and slammed into him, knocking the blaster from his right hand and pinning his left to the sea floor. He snaked his tentacle around Hydraxon’s throat.
“I’m using my arm right now, sorry,” Nocturn said. “But thanks for all the weapons – I’ll take them off your body when you’re dead again.”
“Start with this one,” said Hydraxon, mentally triggering his other back blade. It arced up into the water and came down, pinning Nocturn’s tentacle to the ocean floor. Hydraxon seized the moment to bring a leg up and kick Nocturn off of him. Then the jailer drew back his arm, ready to hurl a wrist blade right at Nocturn.
“I’m here to bring you back,” Hydraxon said. “It really makes no difference to me if some of your parts don’t make the trip.”
Nocturn’s shoulders slumped. Keeping an eye on his captive, Hydraxon stepped around him and picked up the glowing Kanohi mask. The part of him that was the jailer of the Pit knew this mask must be important if the Barraki wanted it, and it should probably be kept safe and away from them. But a smaller part of him, the remnants of Dekar’s consciousness, remembered this mask as something dangerous and destructive. In the wrong hands, the Mask of Life was a potentially devastating weapon. One glance at it showed it was already in the process of destroying itself. The best way to ensure it would never pose a threat would be to help it on its way.
Hydraxon gently placed the Mask of Life on the ocean floor. Then he took careful aim with his Cordak blaster, and fired.
“What if we can’t find the Mask of Life in time?” Matoro said. He was swimming alongside Maxilos/Makuta, heading for the last reported sighting of Mantax’s army and Toa Hahli. The other Toa Mahri were spread out around them, too far away to hear.
“Ah, if only all Toa had words like ‘can’t’ in their vocabulary,” said Maxilos. “My path in life would have been much easier. I thought your kind thrived on being optimistic to the point of insanity?”
“I just asked a question,” Matoro snapped.
“To which you know the answer – if Mata Nui dies, the universe that you, and I, and all your little Matoran friends know will be no more. Jaller will lose his chance to live up to the legacy of Lhikan, Vakama, Tahu, and all those other lukewarm Toa of Fire… Hewkii will never see his friend Macku again… and you? You will know that in Turaga Nuju’s last moments, he branded you a failure.”
When Matoro did not reply, Maxilos continued. “When this is all over, I really must retrieve my Kanohi Mask of Shadows. Those idiot Piraka let it fall into the sea near Metru Nui. Most think it just allows me to spread physical darkness, or breed a little rage here and there, but it’s much more than that. My Kanohi lets me see the darkness inside everyone, all the nasty little things they hide in the shadows of their spirit. I miss that… of course, I hardly need it with you, Matoro. Yours are practically written on your mask.”
Matoro looked over his shoulder at Maxilos. “Let me tell you something – if the universe ends, if everyone and everything is going to die… I’m going to make sure you die first.”
Maxilos laughed. “You wouldn’t want that. After all, if anything happens to me, you will never know what to do with the Mask of Life when you get it – ‘when,’ Toa, not ‘if.’ I have no intention of letting you fail.”
He’s bluffing, thought Matoro. He doesn’t have any more idea what to do with that mask than we do. He just wants to make sure I don’t try freezing him solid from the inside out.
“If you know so much, then tell me – if we get the Mask of Life from the Barraki, then what?” asked the Toa of Ice.
“I would think it would be obvious,” Maxilos said impatiently. “All must be as it was for Mata Nui to be healed. That means Voya Nui cannot remain floating above us like some discarded Matoran tool. Once the mask is in your hands, you will need to destroy the stone cord linking Voya Nui to Mahri Nui, the cord you passed through to reach this place.”
“Pessimistic and dense – you truly set a new standard for Toa,” Maxilos replied sharply. “Then Voya Nui will return to where it came from. Of course, anyone living on it will be killed in the process… and Mahri Nui will be completely destroyed, along with its occupants. Acceptable losses to save the universe, wouldn’t you agree?”
Seeing Matoro’s grim expression, the master of shadows patted him on the back. “Cheer up, little Toa. When all is said and done, and two islands’ worth of Matoran are dead, your name will live in history – right alongside mine.”
* * *
My fellow Toa and I stood in a small chamber, waiting for the one who would lead us to our next, and supposedly most dangerous, task. In the meantime, we checked our weapons and armor for any damage and got caught up on each others’ adventures. It was a good way to hide any worries we might have.
“It was a golden crystal,” Onua was saying. “About as big as Pohatu’s head, and suspended in midair – don’t ask me how. We’d been told not to let it touch the ground, and it was a good thing we listened.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Heart of the Visorak, they call it,” answered Pohatu. “Ever wonder how the Makuta get the horde assembled? Put this crystal in the ground and they all come, no matter where they might be, no matter how far away. I guess our hosts don’t want the Brotherhood able to gather them quite so easily next time.”
“What about you, Lewa?” I said to the Toa of Air. “Where did Tahu send you?”
“No place,” shrugged Lewa Nuva. “Some weird voice sent me up to Mata Nui – I must have been and gone just before you arrived, Gali – to deep-dig up a sundial, of all things, and bring it to Metru Nui.”
“And do what with it?” asked Tahu, never looking up from his scorched armor. Kopaka looked even worse after their struggle to cap erupting volcanoes.
“Got me,” said Lewa. “I was told to leave it in the Archives, so that’s what I did. By the way, after quick-seeing our old island, never hire the Bohrok as decorators.”
“It’s time to go.” The words, spoken softly, came from a Matoran who stood in the doorway. “We have a journey to make and little time in which to make it.”
“A long journey where?” asked Kopaka. “I am getting a little tired of running around like a hungry stone rat with no idea why.”
The Matoran just smiled. “You are being given a great honor – to set foot on the island of Artakha. Once we are there, my master will speak with you… or not… depending on his whim. He may open his fortress for the first time in millennia and welcome you in – or he may banish you forever without a second thought.”
“Sounds like a party,” said Pohatu. “When do we leave?”
The world suddenly blurred around the us. When my vision cleared again, we were standing with the Matoran on a desolate beach. “Leave?” said the villager. “Why, you have already arrived. Good fortune to you, Toa… may you live to leave Artakha once more.”