* * *
“How do we know?” asked Sarda abruptly.
“How do we know what?” Defilak replied.
“How do we know there’s anything down here but fish? All we know is something has been attacking our people for centuries. What makes you think it’s down here in the black water?”
“Well, this area has never been explored, for one thing.”
Idris laughed softly. “You could say that about a lot of places, Defilak. The pillars of salt… the high mountains… most of the area around the city is still a mystery, you know.”
“Not surprising,” said Defilak. “Remember the history. Some trouble-bad happened, and we and our city wound up beneath the sea. If the impact hadn’t disturbed the fields of air, setting free scores of small bubbles, we would all have suffocated. Then everyone started to quick-change… it was only staying inside the air bubbles that stopped that.”
Gar remembered. Dozens and dozens of Matoran had died when Mahri Nui sank. They still didn’t know why the disaster had happened or even exactly where they had been before. But Defilak was right – if they had not discovered the products of the fields of air within moments after sinking, they would have died, or mutated, or maybe something worse.
There’s something evil about these waters, he thought. It’s like the sea here is not just filled with living things but is a living thing itself… living, and hungry.
The craft lurched to the left. Then it did so a second time, more violently, this time clearly from an impact. “Watch the rocks,” Gar said.
“I am close-watching them!” snapped Defilak. “We’re not hitting anything. Something’s hitting us!”
“I saw it!” cried Idris. “Just for a second… something flashed by.”
Gar pressed his mask against the crystalline windows of the cockpit. The placid schools of fish were gone. They knew by instinct when it was time to hide again because predators were on the prowl. It was by watching them that the Matoran of Mahri Nui had learned there was a safe hour. It began when the prey fish came out in great numbers, and ended when they fled back to their hiding places in reefs and between rocks.
Now today’s safe hour was over. The hunters were back, and one of them was hunting the Matoran’s vehicle.
“Sarda, quick-work that crank,” Defilak ordered. “We need more speed. Idris, hands on the lever. Be ready to throw it and send us back up.”
Something struck the craft on the right side, then on the left. Then the impact came from behind, sending the fragile vehicle rocketing forward. After that, all the jarring came from the rear of the craft being struck, almost as if it was being shoved toward some unknown destination.
“What’s doing this?” said Idris, panic in her voice. “Why doesn’t it show itself?”
“They don’t want us to clear-see them,” said Defilak. “They’re trying to scare us.”
“It’s working,” muttered Sarda.
The impacts stopped. The four Matoran sat very still, listening for any sound, watching for any glimpse of their attacker through the crystal. Sarda started to speak, but Defilak raised a finger to his mask to order silence. Then he gestured for Sarda to stop turning the crank that kept the vessel moving forward.
The craft began to slowly sink toward the bottom of the sea. Both Idris and Sarda looked at Defilak, wondering what he had in mind. The truth was that the Le-Matoran was not certain himself. He was gambling that perhaps whatever was stalking them relied on hearing more than sight, so a lack of sound might frustrate its pursuit.
There was another impact, more severe than any before, this time on the bottom of the craft. Whatever was out there didn’t want them to go any lower. It was trying to nudge them back up.
A silver scale flashed past the cockpit windows. The craft shook from another impact, then six, then ten, rocking it every which way. Now the attackers were visible, circling the vehicle, getting ready for the kill.
They were Takea sharks, dozens of them, dead eyes fixed on the craft and sharp teeth ready to savage the metal to get at their prey. But what was really disturbing was the figure that hovered beyond them – the one with the Takea shark’s fin and features and dagger-like teeth… and two arms, and two legs, and weapons no marine Rahi could have forged.
Defilak suddenly had the sickening feeling that they had found what they came down looking for. Now they just had to survive their success.
For as many years as he could remember clearly, Dekar had loved to hunt. It was a chance to get away from the stifling confines of Mahri Nui and see a little bit of the watery world that surrounded the city. Although he was doing important work, bringing in prey fish and keeping predators away from the borders, this was also his private time. It was Dekar’s chance to be alone with his thoughts.
Today his thoughts were centered on the Kanohi mask he carried in his pack. Where had it come from? What was its power? Was there really some connection between it and what had happened to that Ga-Matoran Kyrehx, as she seemed to suggest? Or had nature simply gone a little crazy for a while?
Well, one thing he was certain of – he did not feel any different since taking the mask. No vegetation had reached out to grab him, and the fish were certainly not swimming for his net. She had probably just been on sentry duty for too long, or maybe she let her personal air bubble get a little too thin.
A movement caught Dekar’s eye. He directed his lightstone toward the motion, revealing what looked like a ribbon of darkness in the water. It traveled in a strange, sidewinding manner characteristic of only one sea creature he knew of: a venom eel.
Venom eels were distant relations of the lava eels that were usually found near volcanoes on the surface. But while lava eels’ most dangerous talent was increasing their outer temperature to metal-melting levels, venom eels relied on a quick-acting poison delivered through their sharp fangs. Unlike most sea creatures, they did not rely on their sense of smell but primarily on their eyesight and, to a lesser extent, their hearing. They were attracted to any bit of light or motion.
The appearance of a venom eel in open water puzzled Dekar. The creatures generally remained camouflaged and waited for prey to come to them. To help themselves stay hidden, their metallic hide had no scales that might reflect a stray beam of light. Rather, it was solid black and covered in slime. Though certainly a threat to Matoran if annoyed or attacked, they rarely sought out Mahri Nui’s residents. This was good news, for their frightening appearance alone was enough to freeze most opponents.
Fighting a venom eel was not something Dekar looked forward to. But allowing one to venture too close to the city would put other waterhunters and sentries at risk. He swam toward the creature, determined to drive it off.
Right away, he knew something was wrong. The venom eel was even more aggressive than normal for its species. Twice it shot forward and tried to bite Dekar, narrowly missing both times. He thrust his spear at it, not really aiming to hurt but more to scare. The eel latched on to Dekar’s weapon with its jaws, trying to wrench it free from his grasp.
This was deadly serious. Dekar now believed the venom eel was sick, mad, or maybe both. Allowing such a creature free rein so close to Mahri Nui would be disastrous. The venom eel would have to be killed for the safety of all.
The eel turned, preparing to strike again, briefly exposing its flank. Dekar thrust with his spear, piercing the creature’s armor and reaching the soft tissue beneath. Convinced it was a fatal strike, he pulled the spear out and backed away from the creature.
But the venom eel was not mortally wounded. Before Dekar’s eyes, the wound made by the spear instantly healed.
Dekar tried again, and for a second time he managed to strike what should have been a final blow. Instead, the damage was erased in seconds. The Po-Matoran could practically see the creature’s muscle regenerating.
Dekar was a brave Matoran, one who had fought many sea Rahi over the centuries and valiantly defended his city. So, faced with a creature that apparently could not be killed, he could be forgiven if the impulse to flee overcame him. Dekar looked back only once as he swam for Mahri Nui, and what he saw made him race all the faster for a safe haven.
It resembled a black cloud moving rapidly through the water, headed straight for the city. Viewed a little closer, it might seem like a huge patch of vegetation that had somehow come detached from the seafloor and now floated through the ocean.
But the mass of writhing shapes was not made of smoke and dust, nor were the tendrils that slashed through the water with such purpose mere strands of seaweed. No, this bizarre sight was not some harmless underwater phenomenon.
It was venom eels – thousands of them – massed for an attack on Mahri Nui.
From her sentry post, Kyrehx saw them, too. She didn’t pause to wonder why or how the creatures were moving on the city. After what she had just been through, she wasn’t in the mood to question anything. She just grabbed the shell horn and blew into it, sounding the alarm signal.
Matoran poured out of their homes and workplaces, already loading their launchers with spheres of solidified air. These were an invention of an eccentric Le-Matoran scientist inspired by the hydruka’s means of defense. He originally intended them as a means of transport (the idea being that Matoran could actually ride on the bubbles at a much faster rate than even a Ga-Matoran could swim). Unfortunately, in his first test of the system, he had ridden one of the spheres straight into the powerful arms of a Tarakava and was never seen again. The concept of solid air spheres for transportation was scrapped and the invention was turned into a weapon.
The theory was simple. The air spheres were fired from a shoulder-mounted launcher. When they struck their target, they “shattered” and went back to being a gas. Though harmless against Matoran or other air-breathing species, the weapon was devastating to water breathers, for whom air was a toxic substance.
As the city’s defenders took their places, Kyrehx moved to her assigned position. She had one of the most important jobs, helping to guard the hydruka pens. If those beasts were lost, the Matoran would have no reliable way to harvest the fields of air.
A red hydruka skittered backward at her approach. “Relax, Thulox,” she said to the creature. “Everything will be all right. It’s just some Rahi who are headed in the wrong direction. Maybe an undersea storm confused them.”
Even as she said the words, she realized they couldn’t be true. A storm powerful enough to drive that many venom eels out of their lairs would have devastated Mahri Nui already. Something else was at work here.
She climbed onto some rocks overlooking the pens. In the distance, she could see the rest of her squad swimming to join her. They were waving and pointing, as if trying to tell her where they would take up position. She pointed to the left, indicating she would swing around to the far side of the rocks where she could better defend the outer fields.
She realized too late that her friends were not signaling her about strategy. They were trying to warn her about something looming behind her. Suddenly a huge claw snapped shut around her and she was being dragged through the water toward Mahri Rock. She kicked and flailed, but it did no good. Whatever had her was not letting go. By the time the rest of her squad reached the fields of air, she was nowhere to be seen.
Carapar glanced at the squirming Ga-Matoran in his grasp. It seemed hard to believe that such a weak little thing might have had her hands on any object powerful enough to matter. But Kalmah had sworn this one was seen with the mask, and if she didn’t have it, she would know where it was.
It was Carapar’s job to find out what she knew. And if she didn’t survive the experience… well, the sea was a harsh place, after all.