The sound of tearing metal signaled the beginning of the end. It was followed by the sight of water gushing into the small craft from a gap in the side. The Takea sharks were no longer content just to pummel the Matoran’s vehicle – now they were trying to devour it.
Defilak didn’t hesitate. “Idris, throw that lever!”
The sharks struck again, this time ripping huge holes in the craft’s hull. Idris pulled the lever that should have sent the vehicle shooting back up toward Mahri Nui. An explosion of air sent the water hurtling out of the space between the inner and outer hull, but there was already so much water leaking in that the craft couldn’t rise. In fact, it was doing the opposite.
“We’re sinking!” Gar shouted.
“We’re snacks,” Sarda replied, pointing to the Takea sharks.
“Get ready to fast-swim,” said Defilak. “Make sure your launchers are loaded. If you make it back to the city, let them know what we found. There’s something dark-strange about all this.”
“We won’t stand a chance!” Sarda answered. “Those Takea sharks will rip us to pieces in seconds!”
As if in agreement, the sharks tore more holes in the sides of the craft. The Matoran were now hip-deep in water and it was rising fast. Defilak didn’t bother answering Sarda, because the Ta-Matoran was right. None of them was going to make it out of this. But sharks didn’t accept surrenders, so they were going to have to try.
Another attack tore open a gap big enough for a Matoran to slip through. “Go!” Defilak shouted. The four shot out of the hole and into a sea teeming with Takea sharks. Expecting at any moment to feel jaws clamping on their legs, they swam furiously up toward the city.
Amazingly, the sharks did not attack. Instead, they moved aside, creating a path for the Matoran. The swimmers made it a few yards unscathed. They almost started to hope that they might make it to Mahri Nui after all.
Then the hunters of the sea closed in. Defilak looked around to see that he and his friends were surrounded. Still, none of the sharks were attacking. It seemed as if they just wanted to cut off the Matoran’s flight.
Defilak glanced below. The craft had been fatally breached. As he watched, it sank down into the black water and was gone from sight.
The ring of sharks tightened. Then the creatures formed a line and began to herd the Matoran down into the depths. And all the while, the strange shark-like being watched, predatory eyes fixed on his captives.
The four Matoran were taken to an undersea cave and forced inside a small bubble of air. The school of sharks then withdrew, although a few remained visible swimming back and forth in front of the cave mouth. Only the shark-like being stayed in the cave with the Matoran. He looked them over one by one. Defilak wasn’t sure if he was sizing them up as foes or as possible future meals. Then again, maybe it’s both, the Matoran thought.
Then, to the Matoran’s shock, the strange creature spoke. “I am Pridak,” he said. “I bid you welcome to my domain.”
“You have an ever-odd way of sending an invitation,” Defilak answered.
Pridak smiled, revealing rows of vicious teeth. “You invaded my world, Matoran. By right, I could have had you killed. Instead, I offer you my hospitality.” When the Matoran did not respond, he added, “The proper words are ‘thank you.’”
“Does your hospitality usually include tearing watercraft to bits?” Defilak snapped.
“My pets get enthusiastic,” Pridak replied coldly. “Beware, Matoran, or you may find out firsthand just how enthusiastic they can be.”
“Enough,” said Defilak. “You must want something, Pridak. Why not tell us what it is? We went below seeking peace, not war.”
“Peace?” Pridak spat. “You and your kind are weaker than even I believed. But very well – as you have no doubt noticed, the air in your bubble is growing thinner by the moment, so we will waste no more time. I want the mask. It wasn’t in your absurd craft. Where is it?”
The four Matoran looked at each other, confused. Then Sarda said, “We don’t know what you’re talking about. What mask?”
Pridak moved with impossible speed. Before the Matoran could even think of resistance, he reached in and yanked Sarda out of the bubble. Then he swam a few yards toward the cave mouth and hurled the protesting Matoran out of the cave and into the open ocean. Defilak could see the Takea sharks reacting to the new presence in their midst. The whole incident had happened in a matter of seconds.
“Will he live?” Pridak asked. “Will he die? Do I care? Not at all. But you do, Matoran. You have one minute to tell me what I want to know. Then the Ga-Matoran joins her friend.”
Not far away, another Ga-Matoran had troubles of her own.
Kyrehx had been brought to a sea cave, but there was no air bubble waiting there for her. Worse, her personal supply of air was rapidly dwindling. The crab-like being, who said his name was Carapar, dragged her down a long tunnel that looked as if it might once have belonged to undersea worms. At the other end of it waited another strange creature.
At first, Kyrehx thought the bizarre being might be dead. He sat motionless in the cave, red eyes staring straight ahead, looking for all the world like he had never moved in the last year. In comparison to Carapar, he seemed physically weak, but there was a sense of menace about him that sent a chill through the Ga-Matoran.
Suddenly, he moved. The action startled Kyrehx and she screamed – and immediately regretted it, for it used up more of her air. The creature in the cave regarded her as he would a not very appetizing meal. Then he glanced at the crablike being who had brought her here.
“Very well, Carapar, you are finished.”
Carapar shook his head, as if he were awakening from a nap. He looked around the cave in confusion. Then his eyes settled on the cavern’s resident and comprehension dawned on his features.
“Takadox!” he bellowed. “I thought I told you not to do that anymore! I ought to feed you to the keras crabs and be done with it!”
Takadox smiled. “Calm yourself, Carapar. You don’t want to get so excited.”
“Calm… myself,” Carapar repeated, slowly. “I don’t want to… don’t… no!” The crab being threw up one of his claws to block his eyes. “Not again, Takadox. I won’t warn you again.”
The hideous creature laughed at Carapar’s discomfort. Then he turned his attention to Kyrehx. “Little Matoran, lost and alone,” he crooned softly. “So far away from home. But we will be your friends now, Carapar and I.”
Kyrehx felt Takadox’s eyes boring into hers. She was terrified initially, but then the fear eased. What he was saying made sense. She was lost and she had no idea how to get back to Mahri Nui… Wasn’t she lucky she had landed among such good friends? She felt warm and open, as if she had known Takadox and Carapar all her life.
“Friends have no secrets from each other, do they?” Takadox continued, half speaking and half singing. “You wouldn’t want to keep any secrets from us, would you?”
“No…” Kyrehx replied, and it was true. She couldn’t even conceive of hiding anything from her two good friends.
Takadox glanced at Carapar. “You see? It’s so much more effective than your bludgeoning approach to things. As soon as she looked into my eyes, the poor Matoran was lost. Now she will tell us whatever she knows.”
Carapar looked at the Ga-Matoran. Yes, she was in a trance, similar to the ones he had seen Takadox induce in so many others. Millennia before, Takadox had boasted of having the most loyal of all the six armies, for each and every one of his soldiers had been hypnotized into complete obedience. He was right; it was an effective tool for interrogation. But the idea still made Carapar a little sick. “Just get on with it,” he muttered.
Takadox nodded and turned back to Kyrehx. “Now, little one, why don’t you tell us all about that mask you found?”
In halting tones, the Ga-Matoran related everything that had happened since she had spotted the mask floating in the water. Takadox made her go back and describe how it looked in great detail. When she was done, he gave a low whistle.
“Then the legends are true,” he said, in a voice so soft Carapar had to strain to hear. “There is a Mask of Life. It’s the key to our prison – and all that stands between us and freedom is a band of puny little Matoran.”
Takadox turned to his partner, who by reflex covered his eyes. “As much as it may grieve me to admit this, the others have to know what we have learned. We began this journey together, and we must end it the same way.”
“Why?” asked Carapar. There was no sarcasm or bitterness in his voice. It was just a simple question from a being that excelled at them. And Takadox, for the life of him, could not think of a good answer, so he chose to ignore the question.
“Gather the others. We must make contact with the Matoran and convince them to give us the mask.”
Carapar chuckled, a sound like fish bones being ground between shark teeth. “A little late for that – Ehlek and his venom eels are ‘making contact’ right now. Before another safe hour rolls around, there won’t be anything left alive in that city.”
“No!” Takadox shouted, actually rising to his feet for the first time in ages. “The mask will be lost… or worse! Go to the city now, Carapar, and stop his ridiculous attack before he ruins everything!”
“Pridak won’t like that,” Carapar replied. “You know how ‘the shark’ feels about Matoran.”
“Let me deal with Pridak,” said Takadox. “You do what I asked.”
The crab being gestured toward the still entranced Ga-Matoran. “What about her?”
An expression of contempt flitted across Takadox’s features, giving Carapar hope that an exquisite death would be in the Matoran’s future. Then Takadox surprised him by saying, “Take her back to her city and set her free.”
“What?” Carapar shouted. “Have you gone soft-shelled?”
“Do you remember that small island on the western edge of your realm? The one that held out the longest against your armies?”
“Sure. What about it?”
“How did you finally conquer it?”
Carapar thought back. There had been so many conquests over the centuries, it was hard to keep them straight. “I… let me think… yes, I offered peace negotiations and presented them with a bounty of food as a gesture of friendship.”
“And the food was tainted, wasn’t it? The whole population was sick within hours and able to offer no resistance, isn’t that so?”
Carapar smiled broadly. Yes, that had been a glorious victory, although the condition of the enemy did cut way down on the joyful sound of screaming.
“Then you see my point,” Takadox finished. “Sometimes, the most effective first blow in a battle comes wrapped as a gift.”
The Ta-Matoran named Sarda had no doubt he was living his last moments. He and his friends had been captured by Pridak, leader of the Barraki, and imprisoned in a sea cave. When Pridak grew angry at their refusal to give him information, he grabbed Sarda and hurled him out of the cave, right into the middle of a school of hungry Takea sharks.
Sarda had no doubt what was going to happen next. He wouldn’t be able to hold off a hoard of sharks for more than a couple moments. He hoped the end would at least be quick.
Something darted toward him – but it wasn’t a Takea shark. It was a masked figure on a mechanical sea sled, wielding a sword. In a flash, the newcomer had slammed into the center of the school, scattering the sharks. Before they could reform, a waterspout pulled them in and whirled them far from the site.
Stunned, Sarda watched his rescuer approach. Was there something familiar about him? Sarda wasn’t sure. But it certainly seemed like the stranger knew the Matoran.
“Sarda?” he said. “Is it really you?”
“Of course it’s me,” Sarda replied. “And right now, I have friends back in that cave that need rescuing. If you’re any good with that sword, I could use your help.”
The newcomer looked at the cave mouth, then in the distance, where the sharks were already massing for an attack. Then he turned back to Sarda. “Somebody once told me that knowledge is a sharper weapon than a sword. Before I charge into a fight, I could use a little more of that.”
Something about the stranger’s words sparked a memory in Sarda. He peered closely at the unexpected arrival.
“Toa Lesovikk?” asked Sarda, almost afraid to hope he was right about the newcomer’s identity. “But… it can’t be… how could you be here?”
The Toa flashed a sad smile. “Yes… I am Lesovikk, though no one has called me Toa in a long time. As for how I got here… it’s a long story, my friend.”
Dekar was angrier than he had ever been. He had made it back to Mahri Nui barely ahead of his pursuers. The defenders had given him command of one of the largest air launchers. With perfect aim and amazing precision, he had fired air spheres at the approaching eels to drive them back – and it had done no good at all.
Each time, the spheres struck on target. The air turned from solid to gas. The eels faltered as the substance, so toxic to them, took effect. Then they would seem to shake it off and keep on coming toward the city. Dekar had never seen anything like it before, but he was pretty certain he understood why it was happening.
The mask, he thought grimly. I don’t know how or why, but it won’t let anything die. When I speared the eel, it healed the wound. When I try to poison them with air, it dispels the gas. Kyrehx was telling the truth – it must have been responsible for the plant growth, too. It’s the only answer that makes sense.
There was only one thing to do. If he gave the mask to another Matoran, it would just transfer its power to its new owner – and maybe do something worse than it had up to now. No, passing the problem on to someone else would just be cowardice.
Dekar took the Kanohi mask out of his pack. Sorry, whatever you are, but you’ve left me no choice, he thought. If I can’t get rid of you… I’ll have to destroy you.