1

Three days ago…

Metru Nui

Turaga Nuju sat in his observatory high atop a Knowledge Tower in Ko-Metru. It was not a chamber he expected to be using for much longer. Its purpose was the study of the stars above Metru Nui, but there were precious few still burning. Those that remained were rapidly fading. When the last of them was extinguished, the universe would be on its final countdown to destruction.

More than anything, it was the feeling of helplessness that was driving him mad. The Toa Nuva had left some time ago to try to save the Great Spirit Mata Nui and the universe, but never returned. Jaller had led a team of Matoran to find the Toa Nuva, and they had never returned either. What kind of dangers were they facing? What was taking so long? What sort of lunatic would want to oppose them, knowing that the fate of all existence hinged on their success?

They must find the Mask of Life and use it to save Mata Nui, thought Nuju. And they must find it soon or a sky full of dead stars will be the least of our worries.

The depths of the Pit, not far from Mahri Nui.

Hydraxon aimed his Cordak blaster at the Mask of Life and fired.

As jailer of the Pit, he knew it was his job to recapture any escaped inmates and prevent them from getting their hands on dangerous weapons. So when he stumbled on the brutish ex-prisoner named Nocturn carrying the Kanohi Ignika, he carried out his duty: He subdued the runner, seized the glowing mask, and prepared to destroy it. It would be better for all concerned if a mask this powerful was in pieces and couldn’t be used by the wrong beings.

A mini-rocket from the blaster sped on its way to the mask. Then something strange happened – a powerful current slammed into the rocket, throwing it off course. It plowed into a nearby boulder and exploded, sending debris flying through the water.

Before the jailer could wonder about the freak current, another one hit him, hurling him far away from the Mask of Life. This time, he spotted the source. It was a Toa of Water leading an army of rays and flanked by one of the escaped Barraki prisoners – Mantax, if he recalled correctly.

“Back off!” shouted the Toa. “Keep away from that mask!”

Hydraxon’s answer was to launch multiple rockets, and then dive for cover as the explosions went off. As he hoped, the blasts stunned the Toa, Mantax, and Nocturn. He vaulted out from behind a rock and went for the mask. His hand was almost upon it when a claw slashed down and pinned his wrist to the ocean floor. It belonged to the Toa, who was reaching for the mask herself. Hydraxon aimed his blaster at it again, but she managed to knock it aside. The explosive charge hit in front of the Kanohi Ignika, sending it spiraling through the water –

And right into the claws of Mantax.

Toa Hahli and Hydraxon, their fight forgotten, moved as one after the Barraki. But as soon as they came within a hundred yards, weakness seized them. At 50 yards, they were too tired to keep swimming and sank to the bottom. Mantax, on the other hand, looked stronger than ever.

“The Mask of Life is mine now,” the Barraki hissed. “And it will stay mine. Tell Pridak and the others to meet me at the Razor Whale’s Teeth in one day – unarmed, no armies – where I will dictate my terms. Any tricks and the mask will be destroyed.”

“I don’t make deals with runners,” snarled Hydraxon. “You want to shatter that headgear? Go right ahead.”

“Shut up!” Hahli whispered harshly to the jailer. “I need that mask – the universe needs it – try anything, and I will personally show you the meaning of ‘dead in the water.’”

Surrounded by his rays, Mantax swam off with the mask. As soon as he was gone, Hahli and Hydraxon felt their strength returning. The jailer immediately turned to look for Nocturn, only to find that his prisoner was gone. He whirled around and glared at Hahli.

“Now see what your interference has caused!” Hydraxon said. “A few seconds more and that mask would have been dust. Instead, it’s in the hands of a Barraki.”

“A few seconds more and we all would have been dust,” Hahli replied. “And who in blazes are you, anyway?”

Hydraxon started to snap off the obvious answer that he was himself, an Order of Mata Nui member, jailer of the Pit, but something stopped him. Flashes of memory kept intruding of a life that couldn’t have been his – a life as a Po-Matoran in an undersea city. He saw this Matoran, whose name was Dekar, swimming through night-dark waters and battling sea creatures who threatened his home. But what did any of this matter to Hydraxon? This had no connection to his past or identity… did it?

“Who I am is my business,” he said finally. “Staying out of my way is yours.”

By the time the other Toa Mahri tracked her down, Hahli was alone. Hydraxon had departed, despite her efforts to talk him out of it. An attempt to make him stay by force had also failed, but a little more painfully.

She was a little surprised to see the robotic Maxilos, former guard of the Pit, and his pet Spinax sticking so close to Toa Matoro. But there would be time to question her comrade later about his choice of traveling companions. For now, she gave Jaller and the rest a rapid briefing on Mantax and the Mask of Life.

“And I have no doubt Hydraxon is going after him, even if he did swim off in the opposite direction,” Hahli finished.

“Someone needs to follow him,” said Jaller, “while the rest of us make sure Mantax gets his wish for a meeting.”

“Let’s send Maxilos,” suggested Matoro. “Spinax here is supposed to be able to track a protodite across a planet, so finding one well-armed lunatic shouldn’t be a problem. And I’m sure Maxilos would be happy to help out… wouldn’t you, robot?”

Inside, Matoro was smiling. He knew what none of the others did: that the shell of Maxilos was inhabited by the spirit of the evil Makuta. He also knew Makuta didn’t want the other Toa Mahri to have that knowledge. That left “Maxilos” no choice but to go along with the Toa of Ice’s suggestion.

Without a word, the crimson robot turned and left, followed closely by Spinax. Matoro couldn’t help but feel relieved to watch him go.

“This is our chance to get the mask away from the Barraki,” said Toa Hewkii. “But it won’t be easy… or pretty. Things are bad enough down here now, but once we have the mask… well, the Barraki won’t stop at anything to get it back.”

“A lot of innocents could get hurt,” Hahli agreed.

“Then let’s see that they are ever-safe,” Kongu offered. “Who volunteers to deep-talk with Defilak?”

“First we make sure the trap is set,” said Jaller. “And then we’ll all talk to him. Maybe by then we can figure out how to tell a proud Matoran he has to run.”

Under stone markers of truce, the Toa Mahri were able to pass word to the Barraki about Mantax’s request. Only Ehlek refused to let a Toa approach, but he had already received the news from Nocturn. The reactions among the former allies ranged from intrigued – what price would Mantax want for the mask? – to annoyed and all the way up to murderous rage.

Grimly, they made their preparations. Armies were ordered to stay well away from the meeting site and weapons laid aside, at least the obvious ones. If each of them made sure a dagger or two was safely hidden somewhere near the Razor Whale’s Teeth, well, that was just Barraki being cautious, at least in most cases. But one of them had made up his mind to actually use the blades, Mask of Life at stake or not.

Mantax was busy getting ready for this meeting as well. He was not particularly fearful for his safety, for he had already deduced how the Mask of Life had “cursed” him. He had become a true parasite, draining the life energy from anyone or anything that came too close to him. It seemed to work in much the same way as the attacks of Kalmah’s squid, only Mantax did not have to be in physical contact as they did to grow stronger. Unfortunately, for the power to work, he had to be holding on to the mask. That meant leaving it behind, safely hidden, was no longer an option.

It didn’t matter. Once he showed the others the other little item he would be bringing with him, they would lose all interest in attacking him. They would be too busy tearing each other apart, and once they were done, Mantax would be the only one left standing.

Defilak had said nothing for a long time, and simply listened as the Toa Mahri explained. His memories of life before living underwater were fragmentary at best, as were those of the other Mahri Nui Matoran. To discover that there was an island far above on the surface of the sea that had once been their home was overwhelming.

“When Voya Nui broke off its continent and shot to the surface, you were there,” said Matoro. “You and your fellow Matoran. Over time, new land formed around the island, and Mahri Nui was built on that land. But the ground was unstable – it broke off and Mahri Nui sank down here. Until a few days ago, everyone on Voya Nui assumed you were all dead.”

“I said when we met there were friends who would want to meet you,” said Hahli softly. “They will welcome you back with joy.”

“Back?” asked Defilak. “How would we go back?”

“The cord,” said Jaller, pointing to the long stone “chain” that linked Mahri Nui to Voya Nui. “We came down it to get here – now you and your people will travel up to safety. It’s the only way.”

Defilak shook his head. “Even if what you say is true, we cannot fear-flee from our home. We cannot let the Barraki win.”

“They aren’t going to win,” Matoro replied. “It may be that no one is going to win. Maybe all anyone can hope for is to survive, and this is your best chance at that. Your sacrifice is needless, Defilak – fighting and dying is what we are here to do. Your job is to live and help your people to do the same.”

Defilak looked around at his city, his people manning the defenses, and the black water that surrounded Mahri Nui. He remembered the struggle to build an existence down here, all the triumphs and all the tragedies. He did not remember this Voya Nui or the Matoran the Toa insisted would be waiting above, but there was one thing the heroes were saying that he knew to be true: No Matoran belonged down here. This was not their world.

“What do we have to do?” he said finally.

As swiftly as possible, the Toa assembled all of the Mahri Nui Matoran and led them to the base of the cord. The maze of stone tunnels that connected the village to the island above had been heavily damaged by a monstrous Rahi’s attack, resulting in virtually the entire cord being flooded. With the six Toa in the lead, the strange procession entered an outer tunnel and began the long journey to the surface.

The heroes were watchful and wary. They had almost died on the journey down to Mahri Nui at the hands of a group calling themselves Zyglak. If they attacked again, scores of Matoran lives might be lost before they could be driven back.

Strangely, though, there was no sign of them. In a way, that was more disturbing than another battle would have been. If they were here, why were they hiding? And if they had fled, where had they gone – Voya Nui? Were the Toa Mahri leading the Matoran right into a trap?

It was Hahli who found part of the answer. Swimming ahead, her fins brushed against something floating up near the roof of the tunnel. She glanced up, saw a Zyglak, and instinctively aimed her Cordak blaster. But there was no need – the Zyglak was dead. So were all the others she ran across as she moved on, until the cord resembled a watery graveyard.

Hahli turned back to report to the others. Then something shot out of a side tunnel and slammed into her. At first, she thought the long, narrow form belonged to a sea snake of some kind. Then it wrapped around her and its face loomed out of the darkness… a horribly familiar face.

“Hakann!” she cried.

The crimson Piraka snarled and began to constrict, trying to squeeze the Toa to death. Hahli hurled herself at the tunnel wall, slamming her serpentine attacker against the stone. Stunned, Hakann loosened his grip and slipped away.

Hahli couldn’t believe her eyes as she looked at her old enemy. The Piraka’s body was gone. He was now just a long spine with a head attached, moving through the water like a hideous eel. Hakann closed in again, but Hahli slashed at him with her talons and drove him back.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

“We were racing to get the Mask of Life, and thanks to Reidak, wound up down in a pool of water,” Hakann hissed. “It… changed us… into freaks. We… slithered… down this cord before Axonn or the Voya Nui Matoran could stop us. And when these reptiles tried to get in our way…”

“You killed them,” Hahli finished. “Where are your friends, Piraka?”

“Right now?” Hakann asked, with a smile. “Attacking yours.”

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