Matoro swam for his life, and for the lives of every being in the universe.

He clutched the glowing Kanohi Ignika in his hands. It almost seemed like the mask was pulling him along, as if it were being drawn by the same force that was drawing Voya Nui home.

Matoro glanced behind. His fellow Toa were struggling to keep up, but even Hahli was beginning to fall behind after hours of swimming. Coming up fast behind them were the Barraki and their armies, thousands of sea creatures moving like a violent storm through the ocean depths. For just a moment, Matoro’s spirit fell – how could six Toa hope to hold off such a mob? And even if they could, would that leave any time to save the life of the Great Spirit Mata Nui?

He pushed those doubts away as best he could. Doubt would be like chains on his feet, slowing his movement and dragging him down. This wasn’t the time to question fate – this was the time to face it square, whatever might come.

Up ahead, the land mass of Voya Nui whirled rapidly as it tore through the water, shedding portions of itself as it went. Matoro could only hope Axonn had succeeded in getting all of the Matoran to safety before the stone cord that held Voya Nui in place was destroyed. If not, they were long since dead – and maybe they will have only beaten the rest of us to it by a few minutes, he thought grimly.

The mask flared more brightly, illuminating the ocean far ahead. Matoro could dimly make out a massive, ragged hole in the seabed in the distance. Was this where Voya Nui was headed? He knew a huge earthquake more than 1,000 years before had wrenched Voya Nui loose from its continent and sent it shooting upwards through the roof of its underground dome. Could that hole be where it had emerged?

The possibility gave Matoro new energy. He was certain wherever Voya Nui was headed was where the Mask of Life needed to be used. If the Great Spirit could just cling to life for a few moments more…

The keen eyes of the Barraki spotted the breach in the ocean floor as well and came to the same conclusion as Matoro. The race was almost at an end.

“Faster!” snarled Pridak. “We have to overtake them! Lose now, and we lose everything!”

Matoro kept on, although his lungs ached and his legs ached and his hands burned where they touched the mask. He had not accomplished a lot in his life prior to becoming a Toa – he had been a watcher, not a doer – but now he had the opportunity to truly matter. He would not go down in history as the Toa who wasn’t fast enough, strong enough, or determined enough to save everyone he cared for.

Only a little further, he told himself. Keep going!

Voya Nui began to spiral in a downward arc, heading right for the gap in the seabed. The Mask of Life flared brighter than before, almost blinding Matoro with its intense glare. And then… it suddenly went dark.

Matoro stopped so abruptly he almost dropped the mask. He felt as if something had been ripped out of his body. Even as a Toa of Ice, he had never truly known what cold was, not until this moment, when all hope was gone.

He knew. How, he couldn’t say, but he knew, with the terrible clarity of someone who sees the end coming and cannot move, or scream, or stop the inevitable from happening.

It was over – all of it, over.

The Great Spirit Mata Nui was dead.

Far from the scene, the shattered body of Maxilos dragged itself upright. The Barraki had put up a good fight and it suited him to let them have their moment of victory. The point had been to delay, not destroy them, and if the effort had proved more painful than anticipated, so be it.

Suddenly, the dark presence within the shell of Maxilos felt the universe abruptly shift. At first, Maxilos could hardly believe it. It had really, truly happened at last. His hated “brother,” Mata Nui, had perished! After over 100,000 years of his insufferable concern for the Matoran, his unfailing support of the Toa, and his insistence on light and truth and order, the Great Spirit was no more.

“Mata Nui is dead,” he muttered to himself. “Long live Mata Nui.”

He could imagine how the Toa Mahri were reacting. Shock… disbelief… anger… maybe even resignation. Time had run out for them and the universe. Toa had been defeated before over the course of history, it was true, but no defeat mattered more than this one. If things stayed as they were, the Mahri would go down in legend as failures – for the few days left in which legends could be created.

But things cannot stay as they are, he said to himself. The universe, my universe, cannot be allowed to end like this. Mata Nui’s weakness will not alter my plans. All of existence ends when I say it ends, not before.

He was too far away, and his new body too battered, to affect matters directly… and there wasn’t time. Makuta had no choice but to count on the Toa Mahri to overcome their emotions and press on. Everything depended on them doing what Toa had always done – persisting long past the point any sane being would give up. They had to save the life of Mata Nui.

The body of Maxilos shambled away, its occupant voicing a mental wish that the Great Spirit would survive. One might almost call his words a prayer, except that he was praying to himself.

The other Toa Mahri had caught up to the stunned Matoro. They had all felt the abrupt shift in the fabric of existence. Even if they had not, one look at Matoro would have told them what had happened.

The Barraki and their armies were still rushing headlong toward them. Mata Nui’s life or death meant nothing to them, if they even sensed it. All they cared about was escape from the Pit, even if there was nowhere left to which they could escape. In a minute, no more, the Toa would be engulfed by the oncoming force.

“We were too late,” said Matoro, in shocked tones. “He’s dead.”

“We will be too, pretty soon,” said Hewkii, looking over his shoulder. “The Barraki are desperate. Nothing’s going to stop them now.”

“Maybe… maybe we should destroy the mask,” said Kongu. “Make sure it doesn’t fall into their hands.”

“Even if it did… what would it matter now?” said Nuparu.

“No,” Matoro said quietly. “No, no, no.” He looked at Jaller. “It doesn’t end this way. Not without one last try.”

“Try? Try what?” said Kongu. “The Great Spirit’s dead.”

“I don’t know,” said Matoro. “All I do know is that I am holding a Mask of Life. That has to mean something. What if there’s some way to bring him back?”

At one time, Jaller would have dismissed Matoro’s words as insane. But it had not been so very long ago that he had been killed by a Rahkshi then revived through the power of a being called Takutanuva. Who could say what was impossible?

“We have to go, now,” said Matoro. “We have to try!”

Jaller looked at Matoro. Then he glanced at the massive armies of the Barraki closing in on them. In the next moment, he felt no doubt that he had been destined to be a leader of Toa.

“No,” he said to Matoro. “You have to go. You have to try. The rest of us will stay here and buy you time. Go!”

Toa of Ice looked at Toa of Fire. Traditionally, the avatars of these two elements had clashed, and it had been no different for these two. But Matoro knew what Jaller was saying – he and the other Mahri were prepared to die to give Mata Nui, and Matoro, a chance to live.

It was a moment that called for words and a moment that called for silence. Matoro reached out and shook Jaller’s hand, both of them knowing it would be for the last time.

“Make sure to tell the new Chronicler what happened here,” said Hewkii. “I’d hate to think we went through all this and don’t even get a legend out of it.”

“And make sure they pick a good Chronicler,” said Hahli, forcing a smile. “Maybe a Ko-Matoran, just to be different.”

Too choked with emotion to speak, Matoro turned and started swimming after the island of Voya Nui. Behind him, five Toa Mahri turned to face a wave of evil, prepared to meet their fate.

Exhausted and in pain, Matoro fought to keep moving. Up ahead, Voya Nui had shot down through the hole in the sea floor. The Toa of Ice followed an instant later. The first shock was that there was light down here, provided by scattered lightstones like those used in Metru Nui. The second was that there was another hole far below, one whose shape matched that of Voya Nui perfectly. The gap was in the center of a land mass of enormous size, larger than anything Matoro had ever seen. The third was that this area was not flooded – water was streaming down through the sea floor and down into the second gap, but so vast was the space that even after 1,000 years, it was still mostly dry.

The southern continent, Matoro thought, eyes fixed on the land below. The Matoran of Voya Nui said their island had once been part of a larger continent before it broke off. And that’s where it’s returning, but… what’s that down below?

The Toa’s attention had been drawn to the powerful light coming from the gap in the continent. He had never seen such pure white light before, except when Toa Takanuva was in action. Even though he could tell it was rapidly fading, it was still incredibly bright.

That’s where I have to go, he thought, suddenly sure of it. The light… the power… the energy… that has to be the core of this universe – and where else would the Mask of Life be used?

Voya Nui was mere moments from slamming back into place. Once it did so, there might be no way to access the core – at least, not quickly enough to do Mata Nui any good. Matoro’s only hope was to slip through the gap before the island sealed it off.

He never stopped to consider how he would make his way out once he was inside. All that mattered was saving Mata Nui. There was no room to care about anything beyond that.

Drawing on his very last bit of energy, Matoro raced to outdistance Voya Nui. The island had picked up speed as it got close to home. It was going to be close. If the Toa went fast, but not quite fast enough, he could easily wind up crushed between the island and the continent.

The muscle tissue that held his mechanical parts in place screamed in protest as he pushed himself to the breaking point. He was parallel to the island now, falling fast for the gap, and forcing himself to fall faster. Now he was just past it, its giant mass looming over him. The two strange competitors were almost at the gap, but Matoro was still too close to the island.

With one final, desperate burst of speed, the Toa of Ice overtook Voya Nui and shot through the gap. A micro-instant later, the island slammed into the continent, sending a massive tremor through the land mass as it locked into place. Matoro was trapped and in free fall, plummeting down and down through a seemingly endless space.

The Toa Mahri were fighting the good fight… and losing.

Spurred on by the maddened Barraki, their sea creature armies were attacking in never-ending waves, heedless of their own safety. The faster the Toa fought them off with weapons and elemental powers, the faster more appeared. The heroes had rapidly become surrounded. They hovered in the water in a circle, backs to each other, struggling to repel each attack as it came.

Toa Hewkii spotted a school of sharks break off from the rest and head off in pursuit of Matoro. Using his Mask of Gravity, he increased their mass until they slammed into and through the sea floor.

“They’re going around us!” shouted Hahli. “We can’t stop them all!”

“The Barraki know they just need to tie us down here,” Jaller replied, fending off a mob of venom eels. “And if enough of their creatures reach Matoro –”

Hearing the strain in his voice, Hahli glanced over her shoulder at Jaller. The Toa of Fire was glowing white-hot. “What are you doing?” she cried.

“If there’s no other chance… no other way… I am going nova,” Jaller answered. “If Matoro is far enough away, and his pursuers still in range… well, it may buy him a few more seconds.”

“You’ll kill us all,” said Hewkii. “You know that, right?”

“And all of them,” added Kongu. “Plus everything else for kio around.”

“If Matoro fails, we’re all dead anyway,” said Jaller. “But you four can go – try to get out of range – I will wait as long as I can. Don’t hesitate – go!”

Hahli shook her head. “We have fought together for over 1,000 years, Jaller. We’re not going to stop now. And we’ll die together if we have to.”

Pridak saw the glow around Jaller and knew instantly what was about to happen. “The Toa of Fire!” he shouted to the other Barraki and their assembled armies. “Destroy him – now!”

In the heart of a waterfall, Matoro fell.

The outside world was a blur of motion. He thought he caught glimpses of high mountains around him. It seemed there was a body of murky water down below, though he could not be sure. At one point, a dark, winged shape flew through the falls just below him, but he could not identify it.

Time was measured in micro-seconds now, flashes of sight and sensation as he plunged deep into the core of the universe. He realized that he had made this leap of faith with absolutely no idea what he was supposed to do with the Mask of Life once he got here. It almost made him laugh. His five best friends were giving their lives for him, and here he was, moments from disaster and still clueless about what it would take to be a hero this day.

Put on the mask.

“What –?” he said, startled. “Who said that?”

There was no answer. Had he really heard that, or was he losing his mind?

Put on the mask.

The Mask of Life – no one really knew the limits of its power. Maybe he was just hallucinating that he heard a voice, but the idea… what if the mask had to be, not just carried to the core, but donned for its power to be used? He remembered Takua, the adventurous Matoran who was hailed as the “herald” of a seventh Toa, meant to bring the Mask of Light to him wherever he might be. Little did anyone know Takua was destined to become that Toa, and the hero he had to find was the one who lived inside his own heart.

The universe is a riddle, thought Matoro. Turaga Nuju often said that. It hints at the path you are meant to walk, but never makes its message clear. You have to figure that out for yourself… and maybe I just did.

With a trembling hand, Matoro placed the Kanohi Ignika on top of his own mask. He expected to feel a surge of strength, or perhaps the opposite, a sudden, terrible weakness. But instead he felt… different. His body felt light and tingled as if a current of energy ran through it. He was falling still, but no longer tumbling out of control. His form was straight as an arrow and headed for a target still unknown.

Images flashed through Matoro’s mind. He saw the creation of the Ignika; its millennia of waiting for the proper time to be used and the destined wearer; he saw it taken from its resting place once before, to be used to heal the Great Spirit… and he saw what happened to the one who wore it then.

He didn’t cry out, or protest, or rush to tear the mask from his face. Nor did he waste a single moment in regret. He had never asked to become a Toa, or desired it, and the mantle of hero had never fit comfortably on his shoulders. But now, now he knew, and the knowledge brought peace.

Nuju was right. The universe is a riddle. And today, I am the answer.

His arms were thrust out in front of him. They were glowing now, little sparkles of light like the starfield above the island of Mata Nui. His whole body was changing now, patterns of light swirling, energies being unleashed, as the Mask of Life drew forth the essence of the being called Matoro.

Is this the end then? he wondered. Is this what it feels like?

Yes, he decided. This was death. This was the price the Ignika demanded for its use. He would no longer exist as Matoro, as a Toa, as a living being of organic muscle and mechanical parts… he would be far less than what he was, and far more.

The world was changing all around him, and it did not frighten the Toa of Ice. He knew the real change was in how he was viewing his surroundings – no longer with eyes, a mind, a spirit bound to the physical world. He was becoming pure energy, pure life… the force that would bring the Great Spirit back from death. Already, he could barely remember how it felt to be in battle, or to be lonely, or to feel the warmth of a fire on a cold night. Pleasure, pain, satisfaction, disappointment, these were all just words to him now. He was beyond all that, or almost.

But there was one emotion, one part of his former life, that he had not forgotten – one memory he refused to surrender. Jaller, Hahli, Hewkii, Kongu, Nuparu – his friends – his partners – who had fought beside him and laughed with him and made all the burdens bearable. They were out there now in the black water, about to die at the claws of the Barraki. No one on Metru Nui would ever know of their heroism or the sacrifices they were willing to make. They would never see their homes or those they cared about ever again.

His own death, he could accept – but theirs? No, that was too high a price to pay, even to buy the salvation of a universe.

He was Toa Matoro, at least for a few moments more, and he wore the Mask of Life. Or perhaps the Mask of Life now wore him. He didn’t know, or care. He knew his friends were willing to die for him and his destiny, and for that reason alone, they had to live.

Matoro pushed back against the power of the mask, fighting to hold on to his consciousness and his own existence for just another heartbeat. He wrestled with the power, pleaded with it, tried to bend it to his will. The Ignika, for reasons of its own, allowed this.

Once before, long ago, a Toa had donned the Ignika and lost his life to complete his mission. That Toa had tried to be brave, but there was fear in his heart and he met his end with grief and regret. The Ignika sensed none of this in Matoro – only a will and determination that rivaled even that of Mata Nui himself.

The Mask of Life, bound now to the energy of Matoro, granted him its power. Matoro seized upon it to perform his final act. It was not one of grand heroism, not a gesture that would shake the universe, but something more powerful and lasting than either one: a simple act of friendship.

With all that done, Matoro surrendered himself gratefully and completely to his destiny.

The merged energies of Toa and Kanohi mask exploded in the core of the universe, flooding it with light. Streams of golden power flowed into every part of this realm and then beyond it, until it had touched every place where the Great Spirit had once reigned. Just as countless beings had sensed the death of Mata Nui, so did they now feel life return to him. And in the sky above the city of Metru Nui, the stars shone brightly once more…

A few moments ago…

Jaller had made his decision. Kongu had already fallen to a treacherous attack by Carapar, and Nuparu had been captured by the forces of Kalmah. Hewkii and Hahli were fighting like wild beasts, but had no chance against the overwhelming numbers of the Barraki forces. There had been no sign of Matoro or that he had succeeded in his mission.

This has to end now, he thought. I have to make sure that if we’re defeated, the Barraki can’t stop Matoro or get their hands on the Mask of Life.

Pridak’s efforts to reach Jaller had so far been blocked by the other Toa and by the sheer, overwhelming heat the Toa of Fire was giving off. Now it was time for Jaller to unleash his full power for the first time in one devastating nova burst.

Mata Nui forgive me, he said to himself. He closed his eyes, relaxed his mental control of his fiery energies, and –

“Jaller, stop! Don’t! Stop!”

The Toa of Fire opened his eyes abruptly. He saw crystal towers, Ko-Matoran, the familiar sight of the Coliseum – he was back in Metru Nui! With a supreme effort of will, he forced down his nova power before it could devastate his home.

“We’re back,” he said. “We’re back. How is this possible?”

“More than that,” said Hewkii. “We’re standing on land and breathing air. Thought we couldn’t do that?”

Nuparu helped a reviving Kongu to his feet. “Wait a second,” said the Toa of Earth. “One of us is missing… where’s Matoro? If something sent us back here, why didn’t it send us all back?”

Then the five Toa Mahri heard a sound they could not recall ever hearing before. It was the voice of Turaga Nuju, speaking Matoran rather than his usual language of clicks and whistles. He was shouting from high atop one of the Knowledge Towers to all of Ko-Metru.

“Mata Nui lives! The Great Spirit lives!”

The Toa Mahri could hardly believe it – Mata Nui had returned to life! They had succeeded! And that meant –

The truth hit them like a blow, driving the smiles from their faces. “Oh, no,” whispered Hahli.

Something didn’t send us home,” said Hewkii. “Someone did.”

“Matoro,” said Jaller. “Then we have to go back. We have to find him. We owe him that.”

“We all owe him a great deal more than that.” The words came from Turaga Vakama, who was approaching with Nuju. If he seemed surprised by the appearance of the Toa Mahri, he did not show it. “I have seen Matoro’s fate… felt his thoughts… in a vision. There is nothing we can do now but grieve for him.”

“I can’t… believe it,” said Hahli.

“He never thought he was a true Toa-hero,” said Kongu. “He always said he wasn’t an athlete or a leader, ‘just a translator.’ He turned out to be the greatest of us all.”

“Come, my friends,” said Vakama. “Let us go and celebrate a Ko-Matoran who became a Toa… and a Toa who saved a universe.”

Turaga Nuju sat alone in the observatory of a Knowledge Tower. All the lightstones in the chamber had been doused. He watched the stars make their flight across the sky in silence. His exultation over Mata Nui’s revival had been replaced by grief over the Toa lost in the fight.

Many centuries ago, disaster had forced the Matoran of Metru Nui and their Toa to relocate to a wild, previously unknown island. That disaster had in part been caused by the pride and overconfidence of the Toa, of whom Nuju was one. After the Toa became the village elders called Turaga, they had tried to put the past behind them – all but Nuju. He adopted the language of flying Rahi birds in place of Matoran, only speaking the common language in emergencies. It was his way of reminding the others of what they had been through and the dangers of arrogance.

Of course, speaking another language meant Nuju needed a translator so others could understand him. He chose a Ko-Matoran named Matoro, a hunter/tracker with a real respect for the natural world. Matoro had seemed taken aback by the offer, but eventually agreed to be tutored in Nuju’s language.

Over the next 1,000 years, the Turaga and the Matoran would be almost constant companions. Matoro had shown himself to be efficient and trustworthy, keeping all that he heard in the Turaga’s councils to himself. Nuju came to rely on him, both for his skills and for his honesty. He was a reminder of the true nobility in every Matoran.

And now he was gone.

The cold, analytical side of Nuju told him this was an acceptable exchange – one Toa for the life of the universe. It was, in fact, a small price to pay for such a monumental event. Feeling regret or sadness was not logical. After all, what was the alternative – Matoro living, and the universe dying? Would that have been better?

For reasons he did not understand and never would, Nuju suddenly realized that the answer might just be yes.

What sort of Great Spirit required the death of a brave, noble hero for his survival? If a being as powerful as Mata Nui could not thrive without demanding such a sacrifice, then maybe existence needed to learn to get along without Mata Nui.

Nuju sighed. No, that wasn’t right. If Mata Nui was not worth saving, then Matoro had died for nothing. That he could not accept.

He looked down from the observatory to the streets below. Most of the Matoran residents of the city had not heard about Matoro yet, only that their world was not going to end after all. They were rejoicing. Nuju felt even more detached from them than usual, for in his Knowledge Tower there would be no celebration. There would be only memories of a good translator, an honest Matoran, and – Nuju finally admitted – a lost friend.

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