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Maxilos watched Jaller and Matoro swim away with the mask. Hydraxon had finally succeeded in ripping Spinax loose from him. Maxilos felled the jailer with a well-placed blow before he could harm the hound. After all, there was no reason to harm a dumb Rahi. Not when harming intelligent beings was so much more fun.

He could imagine the questions that were running through the Toa’s minds right now, especially Matoro’s. Why would Makuta, master of shadows, sworn enemy of Toa, allow two to escape with the ultimate prize – the Mask of Life? Was he afraid? Weakened? Or did he have some plan to steal it back later?

None of the above, thought Maxilos. Oh, I made a show of wanting the mask for myself… enlisting those foolish Piraka, as if those buffoons had a chance against even a team of novice Toa. True, they were lucky with the Toa Nuva, and I admit their alliance with Brutaka was a surprise – they came close to getting the mask. But I would have found a way to delay them, if need be.

Maxilos reached out and absently stroked Spinax’s head. The hound was still in the thrall of Makuta’s power to control animals. Toa are honest and straightforward as a rule. That makes them one-dimensional and completely unprepared to deal with a complex entity such as myself.

He reflected on his time in the Pit. When he had first encountered Matoro while wearing the shell of Maxilos, he had told the Toa of Ice, “I’m on your side.” It might have been the only true statement he had ever made to a Toa. He knew the Toa would not believe him, and also knew any efforts by him to claim the mask would serve to reinforce the idea he was just after the artifact. And the Toa would never realize his true purpose… not until it was too late.

They probably even think I want them dead, Makuta said to himself. Another mistake – why should I want their existences to end, when I can look forward to filling them with fear and pain for millennia to come?

Jaller and Matoro were indeed talking and asking questions during their journey, but not solely about Makuta. After Matoro’s confession that he had known all along Makuta was in the body of Maxilos, Jaller had at first been angry. Then, after a while, he realized the impossible spot the Toa of Ice had been in. If Jaller and the other Toa had known, they would have attacked Maxilos. Caught between him and the Barraki, they most likely would have been wiped out and the mission doomed.

“You know, Matoro, you don’t have to keep secrets anymore,” said the Toa of Fire.

“What?”

“Back when you were a Matoran, working for Turaga Nuju, you heard all sorts of things the Turaga didn’t want us to know. Sometimes it seems like they don’t want us to know anything. You were sworn to keep what you heard to yourself. For years, you knew all about Metru Nui and what had happened there and you kept it secret.”

“I had no choice,” said Matoro. “I did what the Turaga felt was best.”

“I know that,” Jaller said, softening his tone so Matoro would not think he was being attacked. “But doing that made you alone among the rest of us. Now the Mask of Life is doing the same thing and it can’t be helped. Still, you have to remember you are part of a team now – you don’t have to keep everything inside anymore.”

“What do you mean, ‘the Mask of Life is doing the same thing’?”

“Do you remember, back on Voya Nui, when Kongu insisted you be the one to take the mask away from Vezon? He didn’t explain why at the time. But he told me later that he had read the Ignika’s ‘mind,’ and it wanted you to be the one to carry it. You’re the only one who can touch the Mask of Life without being cursed by it. Kongu wasn’t sure whether to tell you or not. I told him I would.”

Matoro was silent, but his thoughts rallied. If he was meant to carry the mask, then did that mean if something happened to him, the mission would fail? And why him? Hahli was faster… Hewkii was stronger. Jaller and Kongu had way more experience as fighters… why would the mask pick him?

“We haven’t always been the best of friends,” said Jaller. “I guess it’s tradition – fire and ice rarely get along. But I wanted you to know… I think the Ignika made the right choice.”

“You do?” said Matoro, surprised. “Why?”

Jaller smiled. “Because anything you are asked to do – even if it’s hard, or painful, or you hate having to do it – you get done. Look, Matoro, back on Voya Nui you once questioned your worth to the team because you aren’t a warrior. But being a Toa isn’t about who’s strongest or toughest or has the best mask power. It’s about spirit. And by that measure, you are a great Toa.”

Now it was Matoro’s turn to smile. Maybe Jaller was right. Maybe he did have what it took to be a Toa. When this mission was over, perhaps he would turn down the chance to become Turaga Matoro and stay a Toa. Even if he couldn’t breathe air anymore, there was a whole ocean to explore.

“Thanks, Jaller,” said the Toa of Ice. “I mean it.”

“No problem,” Jaller replied. He chuckled. “Just hang on to that mask, okay? It’s been changing hands so fast down here it’s made me dizzy.”

“Don’t worry,” said Matoro, looking at the glowing Ignika in his hand. “This time, it’s not going anywhere.”

“No,” said Maxilos. “You’re not going anywhere.”

He was standing on the ocean floor, confronting the six Barraki. Behind them, their armies could be seen assembling. They were about to launch a final bid to seize the mask, and nothing was going to get in their way – or so they thought, at least.

“Listen to him,” snarled Carapar. “Bucket of bolts acting like he’s tough. How many pieces should I snap him into?”

“Be careful,” said Takadox softly. “He’s not what he seems.”

“Shut up, Takadox,” snapped Kalmah. Mantax had told the others about their fellow Barraki’s treachery. They had agreed to let him help get back the mask as a means of atonement for his crimes. But no one doubted he would be dying a painful death before all this was over.

“Carapar, you are an ignorant spawn of a Brakas monkey, and you always were,” said Maxilos coolly. “You couldn’t snap your fingers without help… if you had fingers.”

Pridak regarded Maxilos, intrigued. “Takadox is a lying piece of sea slime, but he may be correct in this case. You certainly aren’t acting like the robotic guard we knew and loathed all those millennia. But I really don’t have the time or interest to ask why. Move aside, or die.”

“Do you remember when we first met, Pridak?” asked Maxilos. “Let me see… you were standing before me in chains. You talked about how you had once been a servant of the Brotherhood of Makuta, but were moving on to bigger things.” Maxilos glanced around at the watery world in which the Barraki dwelled. “When, exactly, are you planning to arrive?”

Pridak, staggered, said nothing at first. Then he was finally able to say the name. “Makuta…?”

The other Barraki stiffened with shock. It had been Makuta who had led the army that shattered their attempt at rebellion 80,000 years before. He was going to execute them, until Botar spirited them away to imprisonment in the Pit. They had nursed an abiding hatred for him and the Brotherhood for all this time.

“It can’t be,” said Carapar, genuinely confused.

“It obviously is, you dolt,” grumbled Kalmah. “What are you doing down here, Makuta? And why the disguise?”

“My reasons for being in this form are my business, not yours,” said Maxilos. “As for why I am here – I’ve come to finish the job I began 80 millennia ago: the destruction of the Barraki.”

The six warlords knew they should not waste time on this battle. The Mask of Life was in the hands of the Toa Mahri and they needed to get it back. But… the prospect of revenge on the one responsible for their being here was too delicious to pass up. Carapar charged first.

The body of Maxilos never moved so much as an inch as the crab-like Barraki barreled his way. Instead, he called upon one of his many powers to slow Carapar’s movement to a crawl. Then he stepped aside and undid his action, allowing the Barraki to resume his all-out attack at the spot where Maxilos once had been. Unable to stop in time, Carapar plowed into a rock wall.

“Hmmm,” said Maxilos. “You know, I had forgotten how much fun this is.”

“You don’t need to tell us,” snapped Kalmah, lashing out with his tentacle. “We know all about fighting.”

“Fighting? Who’s talking about fighting?” replied Maxilos. He unleashed a bolt of chain lightning, stunning all six Barraki at once. “I was talking about winning.”

Hahli, Hewkii, Kongu, and Nuparu caught up with their two partners on the outskirts of Mahri Nui. Now that it was abandoned, the village looked like the remains of some long-forgotten shipwreck. Lonely hydruka poked among the fields of air, as if expecting their masters to return at any moment to gather the precious bubbles from the airweed. In a few places around the city, the protective domes of air had weakened to the point that water had flooded in. As the Toa Mahri watched, the largest of the air bubbles collapsed and the sea claimed Mahri Nui.

“Spooky,” said Nuparu. “Almost like a giant memorial stone for an entire people.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t wind up being one for us, too,” muttered Kongu.

“The Barraki won’t be far behind us,” said Hahli. “Whatever we’re going to do, we better do quickly.”

“Hewkii, you’re the one with the dead aim,” said Jaller, retrieved Cordak blaster in hand. “What part of the stone cord linking this place to Voya Nui do we target?”

Hewkii’s eyes narrowed. Although he no longer wore the Mask of Accuracy he had as a Toa Inika, its power had always been just a supplement to his own natural skill. He was, after all, a former Po-Matoran crafter. He knew all about rock – where it was strongest, where it was weakest, and just how hard to hit to make it split in two.

“There,” he said finally, pointing to a narrow spot about 200 yards above the city. “All six of us fire everything we’ve got at that one point and we’ll shatter it. My question is – then what?”

“Axonn said Voya Nui would go back where it came from,” said Jaller. “How, I don’t know – or how fast. So we better be prepared for anything.” He looked around at the rest of the team. “Everyone ready?”

The other Toa Mahri nodded.

“Try hitting the target for a change, Hahli,” joked Hewkii.

“Excuse me?” the Toa of Water replied, smiling. “Who won all those kolhii matches?”

“I’ve never had an island fall-drop on my head before,” said Kongu. “This should be interesting.”

“New day, new experience,” Nuparu said brightly, earning himself a glare from the Toa of Air.

“Um, guys?” said Hahli, pointing behind them. “I just spotted an experience we could do without.”

The Toa Mahri turned to see a very angry Gadunka swimming toward them. If the Rahi had suffered any ill effects from his battle with Hewkii, he wasn’t showing them.

“It’s my old pal,” said the Toa of Stone. “Too bad we don’t have any of those explosive madu fruit like on our old island. I could teach him to play fetch.”

“Your ‘pal,’ huh?” said Kongu, eyeing the massive jaws of Gadunka. “Sometimes I wonder about your taste in friends, Hewkii.”

“So do I,” shot back the Toa of Stone. “Every time I look at you.”

“We don’t have time for this,” said Matoro. “Every minute we waste brings Mata Nui that much closer to dying.”

“Don’t worry,” answered Hewkii. He looked from his weapons to Gadunka, then back to his weapons, and then at Matoro. “Thirty seconds, tops.”

That was when the Toa Mahri got their second surprise. Gadunka wasn’t alone. Behind him came the 300-foot long venom eel created by the Mask of Life, and the massive sea behemoth summoned from beneath the ocean floor by Kongu’s mask during an earlier battle. Initially enemies, the two had apparently made up and befriended Gadunka as well. Now all three had their sights set on Mahri Nui and the Toa.

Hewkii glanced at Matoro. “Better make that forty seconds.”

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