Maxilos hadn’t expected it to be this easy. A mere five minutes into the battle, and already all but two of the Barraki were stretched out unconscious on the sea floor. Either they were not as formidable as he had believed, or else he had simply forgotten just how powerful he could be in battle.
Now only Pridak and Takadox remained. Pridak was battered but still standing, hatred burning in his eyes. Takadox was off cowering somewhere. “Wasn’t it enough?” said Pridak, his voice ragged. “You smashed our rebellion all those years ago… then stood there as we were dragged off to spend eternity in a cell. Now, when we have another chance at freedom, you stand in our way again! Why?”
“You flatter yourself, Pridak,” laughed Maxilos. “Do you think I give a protodite’s sigh about you, your ambitions, your freedom? Do you think the leader of the Brotherhood of Makuta traveled all this way simply to stop your freakish band from returning to the land?”
“Then why?” repeated Pridak.
“Because the Mask of Life matters to me,” said Maxilos, “and so, by extension, the Toa Mahri matter to me. You, on the other hand, are an inconvenience, like Rahi making noise in the night when your betters wish to slumber. You must be put down.”
Takadox suddenly burst out of hiding. In his hand he held the stone tablet of transit. “Makuta! Makuta!” he cried. “Look! See? I hold the Brotherhood of Makuta tablet. This proves I have been loyal! Under Brotherhood law, I must be spared.”
Maxilos reached out his hand for the tablet. Takadox dutifully put it in the robot’s armored palm. Maxilos regarded it quizzically for a few moments, then glanced up at the eager Takadox. As the Barraki watched, Maxilos closed his fist, crushing the tablet to dust.
“Under Brotherhood law? I am Brotherhood law!” said Maxilos. “But since you so obviously want your freedom, Takadox… allow me.”
Reaching out with his mind, Maxilos enveloped Takadox in his illusion power. Suddenly, the Barraki no longer saw himself as a mutant in the bottom of the watery Pit. Instead, he was in his original form, back on dry land again. He was standing in a castle tower, looking down at his loyal armies. The other five Barraki were there, too, in chains, begging him for mercy.
Any doubts Takadox might have had about this being reality were rapidly dispelled. The sights, the sounds, the smells were so real, down to every detail, how could he help but believe it? Who knew what a Makuta could accomplish, after all?
He gazed out over his realm and his people. All six kingdoms belonged to him now. Oh, he would be a benevolent ruler. He would protect the Matoran in his domain – and they would need protection, since his first act would be the elimination of all Toa within his borders. As for Pridak and the others, he would spare their lives, of course. He would even restore them to positions of importance. After all, the job of keeping the dungeons clean was a vital one in any kingdom.
There was a stirring among the outer ranks of his army. Soldiers were moving aside in a hurry, as if to let someone of importance through. Takadox couldn’t see anyone approaching, but the army continued to scatter as whatever it was drew closer and closer to the fortress. Puzzled, Takadox leaned over the parapet to try and catch a glimpse of his visitor. What he saw made him even more confused, and a little worried.
“Why does the ground… move?” he said to no one in particular.
Then he saw why. The land before his fortress was covered by a swarm of insects, all headed straight for the walls. But not just one species, no, multiple different kinds of things that crawled and flew and even slithered – and even stranger, all of them were creatures of the sea. None of the creatures now on the march should have been able to survive more than a few seconds on dry land.
“Oh, no,” muttered Takadox. It was his army from the Pit. When he had dwelled below the water, he had commanded legions of undersea insect life. Now he had returned to the land and they had followed. In his heart, he knew they weren’t here because they missed him. They were out for revenge.
“Stop them, you idiots!” he yelled at his land-dwelling forces. “What do I pay you for?”
But his army had melted away. The horde of insects had begun to climb the walls now. Takadox turned and flung open the tower door. He was three steps down the staircase before he noticed the stairs were moving as well. That was when he started to scream.
Down in the Pit, Pridak looked with disgust at the screaming Takadox, huddled on the ground with his arms over his head as if to ward off an attack. “What is he seeing?” the Barraki asked Maxilos.
“Something I faced long ago,” Maxilos answered. “His destiny. We all have one, you know.”
“For good or evil?”
“Nothing quite so antiquated as that,” Maxilos chuckled. “For creation or destruction… and is creation always good? Is destruction always evil? Suppose I create a weapon capable of ending all life in the universe? Its purpose is destruction, but it was born from creation.”
“Yes, I know all about destiny,” said Pridak. “Mine was interfered with so you could achieve your ends. It’s time I returned the favor.”
Maxilos glanced around. Ehlek, Kalmah, Mantax, and Carapar were back on their feet. Their armies had silently assembled all around, with Nocturn swimming at the head of Ehlek’s legions. Maxilos was now outnumbered 100,000 to one, at least.
“I see,” was all he said. “Your Barraki were not as badly injured as I was led to believe.”
“You’re not the only talented liar under the sea,” said Kalmah. “We were buying time for our armies to arrive. Now we are going to make bait out of you.”
Five Barraki and their armies charged, in the greatest attack on a single being in the history of the universe. Maxilos never flinched, never dodged, and never even thought about running as the might of an entire ocean surged toward him. Victory or defeat, he would face his destiny as a Makuta.
The Toa Mahri were in the fight of their lives.
Jaller’s battle plan had called for Hewkii to use his Mask of Gravity to take the venom eel out of the fight. But a sudden, violent attack by Gadunka had left the Toa of Stone momentarily stunned. A single blow from the undersea behemoth called forth by Kongu had flattened Jaller and Matoro, and only quick thinking by Nuparu had blocked Gadunka from seizing the Mask of Life.
“You summoned that thing,” Hahli said to Kongu. “Can’t you make it go away?”
“The mask doesn’t work that way,” Kongu answered, even as he sent waterspouts slamming into their foes. “But I can summon something else to fight them.” Before Hahli could stop him, Kongu called on the power of his Mask of Summoning. He expected some massive prehistoric sea creature to make an appearance for an underwater brawl. Instead, he got a school of tiny, glowing fish, each no bigger than his finger. The Toa of Air looked at them, disappointed.
“Stupid mask,” he muttered. “What good are they?”
“No, wait, look,” Hahli said. The small fish, their natural light flashing on and off, had darted away from the two Toa. As they shot past the whale creature Kongu had summoned before, the beast shot out a slimy appendage and grabbed the entire school. In an instant, it had shoved them into its mouth.
“Well, that’s helpful,” said Kongu. “I ordered him lunch.”
“You did more than that,” Hahli replied. “Keep your blaster ready. I have an idea.”
The Toa of Water called on the power of her Mask of Kindred, which allowed her to adopt the powers of other sea creatures. This time, she made her body glow with bio-luminescence, as the tiny fish had done. Then she swam toward the whale creature. As soon as it saw her, it thought “meal” and lumbered in pursuit. Hahli dove and dodged as it tried to grab her. Kongu tracked her with his Cordak blaster, waiting for the right moment.
Finally, Hahli darted beneath a huge outcropping of rock, with the massive sea beast following along behind. Just before it passed under the stone formation, Kongu fired his blaster. The projectile struck the rock and exploded, bringing a hail of giant boulders down on the creature. Neither Toa thought it would be enough to kill the beast, but hopefully the avalanche would stun it long enough to take it out of the fight.
Not far away, Hewkii had recovered in time to spot the venom eel bearing down on him, its jaws open wide. A quick use of the Mask of Gravity shut them hard. The Toa of Stone was tempted to use his power to tie the eel into a knot and leave it here, but then he glanced at the cord the Toa were there to destroy. This wasn’t going to be the healthiest place to be around pretty soon. It wasn’t the eel’s fault it was a menace and maybe somewhere else it wouldn’t be. And if the Toa Mahri failed in their mission, would any of it matter anyway?
As the eel came around again, Hewkii used his power to lighten its personal gravity just enough to make it unable to fight the current. It was swept rapidly away to the south, struggling in vain to halt its progress. Once outside of the range of the mask’s power, it would go back to normal. Hopefully, there would still be a universe for it to live in.
“Okay, forty-five seconds,” Hewkii said, as he watched it go.
Elsewhere, Nuparu was having his own problems. He had planted himself between Gadunka and the semi-conscious form of Matoro to stop the creature from getting its claws on the Mask of Life. Using his own mask’s stealth power had enabled him to confuse the beast, but Gadunka’s eyes rarely strayed from its goal. When Nuparu faded away and then reappeared and his foe took no notice, the Toa knew it was time to try something else.
Nuparu picked up a boulder and threw it with all his strength. Gadunka shrugged and casually bit the rock in half.
Okay. New plan, thought Nuparu.
Unleashing his elemental control over earth, Nuparu ripped a chasm in the ground beneath Gadunka’s feet. Startled, the creature tumbled in and was lost from view. Nuparu waited a moment, but there was no further sign of his opponent.
“Glad that’s over,” Nuparu said, as he turned back to Jaller and Matoro. Both were starting to come around. With all three enemies taken care of, they could get on to their mission here as soon as all six Toa Mahri were assembled.
A pincer tore out of the ground and grabbed Nuparu around the waist. He was lifted off his feet and slammed down on the ground once, twice, three times. Dazed, he turned his head to see he was in the grip of Gadunka. The monster opened its huge jaws and brought Nuparu toward them, intending to make the Toa a meal.
Then something caught the creature’s eye. The Mask of Life had flared a little more brightly in Matoro’s grasp. Gadunka tossed Nuparu aside, the Toa of Earth already forgotten by its dim brain. Two quick strides took it to its goal. It reached out and grabbed the Mask of Life away from the fallen Matoro.
Had Gadunka’s circumstances been different, it might have heard in the past about the unique properties of the Kanohi Ignika. It might have known that those who touch the mask when they are not destined to do so are cursed by it. But Gadunka had not been privileged to have that information, nor would it have known what to do with the knowledge if it had. So it would have to find out the hard way.
The Mask of Life responded with fear and anger to being taken from Matoro. It lashed out, granting Gadunka the power to devolve virtually anything it touched into its original state. The effects were immediate. Before Nuparu’s startled eyes, the Rahi began to shrink. As if time had reversed itself, Gadunka rapidly returned to what it had been before the Mask of Life had evolved it mere days ago: a tiny aquatic creature, no threat to anything larger than a darter fish. Deprived of its newfound power and strength, Gadunka roared its frustration – but it was now too small to be heard.
Back on his feet, Matoro went to retrieve the mask. The voice of Hydraxon stopped him. “I wouldn’t,” said the jailer of the Pit. “That mask comes with me.”
Jaller brandished his power sword and Nuparu aimed his blaster at the newcomer. Matoro waved them both off and held the mask out to the battered Hydraxon. “You want this? Take it. Go ahead. Then the fate of the universe can be on your head, instead of mine. I never asked to be the one everything depends upon.”
Hydraxon, suspecting a trap, made no move for the mask. “What are you talking about?”
“Use your eyes!” snapped Matoro. “Look around! Strange sea creatures appearing out of nowhere, an entire city of Matoran abandoned, the Barraki and their armies running wild… is that normal? And it’s probably worse in places like Metru Nui, my home. The end is coming, Hydraxon, even as we stand here talking, and everything that lives can sense it. And now everything comes down to one mask and one Toa – me – and maybe I’m just not up to being a hero. So you take it. You save the universe.”
Hydraxon looked at the mask, then into Matoro’s eyes. His memories were filled with similar moments, when prisoners had pleaded with or threatened him or insisted on their innocence. No matter what came out of their mouths, their eyes never lied – just as Matoro’s were not lying now.
“Maybe I have seen a few strange things,” Hydraxon said. He was remembering Maxilos, the things his robot guard had said, and the powers he had displayed. “But that’s a pretty powerful mask. What are you planning to do with it?”
Matoro glanced at the glowing Ignika. “When I find out, I’ll let you know. So do we have to fight, Hydraxon, or will you let us pass?”
Part of Hydraxon still felt strongly that the lgnika should be destroyed. But a bigger part of him couldn’t deny that something felt fundamentally wrong about the universe, even about himself. Maybe these Toa and this mask were the cure for that. If they weren’t, there would always be time to bring them in later… wouldn’t there?
“I have runners to catch,” the jailer said. “You can keep your toy for now. But stay out of my way in the future, understand?”
Matoro shook his head. “Somehow, I don’t think that will be a problem.”
The Toa Mahri stood silently as Hydraxon swam away. Hahli couldn’t help but wonder about the sadness that seemed to hang over the jailer. “It’s like he’s looking for all these escapees,” she remarked, “but he’s the one who’s really lost.”
“Analyze him later. Our troubles aren’t over yet,” said Hewkii. “Look!”
A wall of darkness was headed straight for the Toa Mahri. It took their eyes a few seconds to process that the “wall” was made up of thousands upon thousands of sea creatures, led by the Barraki. Oddly, Takadox was unconscious and being dragged along by Carapar.
“Well, that’s not good,” said Hewkii.
“I expected them sooner,” said Jaller. “Let’s make their trip be for nothing.”
All six Toa Mahri wheeled as one, aimed, and unleashed the power of their Cordak blasters. The small projectiles flew rapidly through the water, all of them impacting the same spot on the cord. An instant later, a massive explosion ripped through the stone structure, tearing it in two.
“Move! Move!” Jaller yelled. The other Toa had already gotten the message. All six shot through the water as a great shadow loomed above.
On the surface, the island of Voya Nui shuddered. For centuries, the stone cord and Mahri Nui far below had acted as an anchor, preventing Voya Nui from being drawn back to the continent from which it sprang. Now that anchor had been severed. No power in the known universe could stop Voya Nui now.
The island submerged rapidly, water washing away all the structures built by the Matoran and the Piraka. Voya Nui picked up speed as it dove. Had there been a living being on the island, they would have seen the Toa Mahri, the Barraki, and their legions scattering to get out of the way. About midway to the bottom, the island slowly changed direction, curving in a graceful arc toward the south. The jagged outcroppings on the bottom of Voya Nui struck Mahri Nui as it went by, shattering the undersea island into rubble. Great chunks of stone rained down upon the Pit.
It was one of the most bizarre sights the Toa Mahri could ever remember seeing. A huge island, one they had once walked upon, now rocketing through the water toward an unknown destination as if being pulled on a string. It never slowed – in fact, if anything, it was getting faster – or wavered in its course. It was already halfway across the Pit and would be gone from view in seconds.
The Toa Mahri didn’t have time to ponder the insanity of their situation – swimming in pursuit of a runaway island – because they all knew what would happen if they lost this race. Behind them, the enraged Barraki and their legions had recovered from the shock of the explosion and were in pursuit of the Toa.
The last moments of the Great Spirit Mata Nui’s life were ticking away. The final countdown had begun.