1

The cord was chaos.

The five Piraka snakes had struck from both sides at the rear of the procession, tearing through the ranks of the Matoran. Jaller’s Mask of Sonar had given him a moment’s warning, long enough to ensure there were Toa ready to fight off the assault. But even they were stunned by the identity of their enemies.

“Didn’t we already beat these guys?” Hewkii asked as he whipped his chain around Vezok and slammed him onto the ground.

“Not well enough, I guess,” Kongu answered, dodging a laser blast from Zaktan. “Or else they’re just stubborn.”

“Your fault!” screamed Avak, his snake-like form encircling Nuparu’s arm. “If you had just let us have the Mask of Life, this would never have happened!”

The Toa Mahri of Earth grabbed his foe by the throat, keeping the Piraka’s sharp teeth at bay. Kongu called on the power of his Mask of Summoning, bringing a swarm of undersea insect life out of the walls of the cord. The tiny creatures affixed themselves to the Piraka’s spines, stinging them again and again.

“What’s the point of this, Zaktan?” Jaller asked, trying in vain to hit the Piraka with flame bursts. “You want the Mask of Life, and we don’t have it. Fighting us accomplishes nothing.”

Zaktan coiled the end of his spine around a Matoran’s throat and began to squeeze. “Wrong. It brings you pain. And we want to go on bringing you pain, Toa. Now lay down your weapons and surrender, or this Matoran dies – along with many more. You know how many we can kill before you can stop us.”

Jaller’s eyes met those of Zaktan’s captive, a Ga-Matoran named Idris. There was a question in her gaze. The Toa nodded, and a split second later, Idris triggered her electro-blade and thrust it up toward Zaktan. There was a bright flash and the Piraka screamed, uncoiling at the same time. Idris leapt to the side as Jaller’s flames brought molten rock raining down on the Piraka leader.

Suddenly, the Toa Mahri were cut off from the Matoran. Walls had appeared on either end of the tunnel, boxing them in, and the water was being rapidly drained out of this new chamber. No longer able to breathe air, the Toa’s senses began to swim in the now dry environment. On the other side of the wall, Avak smiled. His power to create the perfect prison for any enemy was still intact, even if his body was not.

“Fish out of water,” he chuckled. “Gasp for breath in your last moments, Toa, but don’t worry – we’ll take care of your Matoran friends once you’re gone.”

Jaller heard a loud humming in his ears. He guessed it was one more sign of approaching death from suffocation. Instead, it was the herald of a powerful jolt of electricity that shot through the tunnel, shocking Toa, Piraka, and Matoran into unconsciousness.

The Toa Mahri of Fire awoke with a start. He was lying face down in a pool of water. Below him, he could see the other Toa Mahri reviving, but no sign of the Piraka or the Matoran.

Flipping over, he peered up through the water. He now realized he was near the top of the cord, almost to the point where it emerged on Voya Nui. Crouching near the water’s edge was Axonn, the last remaining guardian of that island. Beyond him, Jaller could see the Matoran of Voya Nui embracing their brothers and sisters from Mahri Nui.

“You and the Piraka took the brunt of the blast,” said Axonn. “I am glad to see you survived.”

“Me, too,” said Jaller. “Where are the Piraka?”

“They have been… taken care of,” said Axonn, his tone making it clear he had no intention of explaining further. “You have been through a war, I see.”

Jaller glanced down. His armor was damaged, as were his weapons, the result of ongoing battles with the Barraki and their armies. “And it’s still going on,” he replied.

Matoro swam up beside Jaller. “Meaning it’s time for you to stop being so mysterious, Axonn. I was told by… someone… that we have to shatter the cord linking Mahri Nui and Voya Nui to complete our mission, and that will result in the destruction of both islands. Is that true?”

Axonn nodded. “It is and it is not. You must destroy the cord, yes, for it holds Voya Nui here. And yes, Mahri Nui will be destroyed. But Voya Nui will return to its home and you must go with it. That is where the Mask of Life must be used if the universe is to survive.”

“All right, then we use the Cordak blasters and blow it now,” said Jaller.

“No!” Axonn answered. “You must not! First, you must have the Mask of Life in your hands – for once the cord is shattered, you will have no time to retrieve it. And second, you must give me time to get the Matoran to safety. There are chambers underground where they can stay until Voya Nui is back where it belongs. The alternative is they will be swept away by the incredible forces you are about to unleash.”

Matoro reached up and clasped Axonn’s hand. “You do what you have to do, then,” said the Toa of Ice. “We will get the mask. I promise you that.”

Jaller glanced at Matoro, wondering just who this grim, determined Toa was – it certainly was not the Matoro he had set out from Metru Nui with, so many days ago.

“Time is of the essence,” said Axonn. “Follow me.” The guardian took a deep breath, dove into the flooded cord and began to swim. The Toa Mahri followed. Not far down, Axonn turned into a side chamber. He paused, treaded water, and pointed.

Inside the chamber was a monstrous, insectoid Rahi. Its head turned slowly to observe the newcomers even as its multiple legs swayed in the current in what looked like a bizarre dance. Even stranger was that the beast was outfitted with mechanical add-ons and weaponry, making it look more like a living vehicle than a creature. A large chain around its midsection kept it from leaving the chamber.

Hahli looked at Axonn with an expression of distaste on her features. As a Toa of Water, it disturbed her to see a Rahi confined or altered in this way. Axonn ignored her. Instead, he aimed his axe at the wall and fired a blast of energy. When he was done, a message had been carved into the stone: “Get in.”

With varying degrees of reluctance, the Toa Mahri climbed through the creature’s armor plating and crowded into the inside of the Rahi. Hewkii immediately made for the exit, not at all liking being confined inside a living thing. Jaller put a restraining hand on him and gestured for the Toa of Stone to relax.

Outside, Axonn swung his axe and shattered the chain that held the Rahi in place. The creature immediately began to move, drawing its legs in and darting out of the chamber entrance. It made instinctively for its home, the waters around Mahri Nui, twisting and turning through the winding tunnels of the cord.

Before the Toa Mahri could even grow used to the abrupt changes in direction, small techno-organic appendages sprang out of the walls and seized them. The “hands” pulled at their armor, stripping it off them, then grabbed their masks and weapons as well. It happened so quickly the Toa couldn’t prevent the theft, and by the time they acted, their property had been pulled into the walls of the creature’s body. An instant later, the items were back, but with a difference: All the battle damage had been repaired.

Hewkii examined his armor and weapons closely, then shook his head. “A few more of these Rahi and all of Ta-Metru would be out of work.”

“Let’s worry about our own jobs,” said Hahli, adjusting her mask. “We still have a mask to get and a cord to shatter.”

“If someone doesn’t beat us to it,” Matoro said, thinking of Maxilos, Hydraxon, and the six Barraki.

The Toa of Ice had never been much interested in competitive sports like kolhii, or in wagering on the outcome (something that was frowned on by the Turaga anyway). Nor did he like hypothetical questions like “If Tahu and Kopaka fought, who would win?” He knew there were always variables, unpredictable circumstances that could affect the outcome of a contest. Victory did not always go to the strongest or to the righteous or to those who deserved to win – if it did, Makuta would have been ashes long ago. He would never have gambled on the outcome of the Toa Mahri’s mission, either. But in this case, it wasn’t because logic said there was no way to predict the result, or because he felt wagering was wrong.

He just didn’t like the odds.

One of those unpredictable circumstances was waiting down below. For most of its life, the creature called Gadunka had been a tiny, inoffensive bottom-dweller. Although gifted with row upon row of sharp teeth, it was too small to be any real threat to anything bigger than an inch or so. Of course, that was before it took refuge under what it thought was a strangely glowing rock and began to change.

That “rock” was the Mask of Life. A minute portion of its power rapidly changed Gadunka from an inoffensive meal for bigger fish to a monstrosity with a mouth big enough to swallow a Takea shark whole.

However, its intelligence had not grown along with its body. Gadunka was still governed by the same drives it had always been: eat and survive. Now it was simply much better at doing both. Being a territorial creature by nature, it was used to ruling a fragment of a reef or a bit of rock, fighting off all competition for that space. In its new form, it saw potential for claiming a domain a great deal bigger for itself.

There was, as always, a problem. Other beings were within the bounds of the area it wanted for itself. It could see six of them, all obvious predators, but none as big or as dangerous as Gadunka knew itself to be. They would be easy to get rid of.

Gadunka’s eyes narrowed. One of the six was carrying the glowing rock. That wasn’t right. The rock belonged to Gadunka. When they were driven off, that would be left behind, it decided.

The creature opened its cavernous mouth and bellowed, the noise scattering prey fish for hundreds of yards around. Gadunka had power, and now it had purpose as well. It began the long swim toward its six targets, eager for the thrill of battle.

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