1

Back in the lair, Antroz sat in his now perpetual darkness and listened. Someone – probably Chirox, from the weight of his footsteps – was storming around the cave, smashing Tridax pods on the ground and then grinding the pieces to dust under his clawed foot. For a being who was more scientist than warrior, Chirox took any setback in battle extremely hard. Antroz, on the other hand, knew that any encounter where you learn something about your foe is a partial victory.

“Calm yourself,” he said sharply. “We were told this day would come.”

“We were told,” Chirox repeated, hurling another pod against the wall. “Like we were told what would happen if we were too close to the Mask of Life when it went off? How come Makuta Teridax left that little bit of information out?”

Antroz had to admit he had wondered the same thing. Teridax was the leader of the Brotherhood of Makuta, assigned long ago to the region including Metru Nui. It was he who had conceived the plan to strike down the Great Spirit Mata Nui and seize control of the universe. On the face of it, it seemed a simple scheme: send Mata Nui into an unending sleep and then take over the city of Metru Nui and its Matoran. With that crucial site in Brotherhood hands, the Great Spirit would never awaken.

But nothing was ever simple with Teridax. The running joke was he had a backup plan in place even for his breakfast. His ultimate plot spanned thousands of years and relied on precise timing – and even the unwitting help of Toa! Antroz hadn’t seen the point – why not just kill the Toa and enslave the Matoran and be done with it? But after seeing what happened to the other Brotherhood members who spoke out against “the Plan,” he wisely decided to go along.

Unfortunately, Makuta Teridax only had one virtue – persistence – and apparently hadn’t even told his allies the whole truth. When Karda Nui was discovered by Vultraz a week ago, the Brotherhood followed standing orders to invade. They knew the Mask of Life would have to be brought there, but not that its use would blind them. They also knew six Toa Nuva would eventually show up, but not when. The hope had been that all of Karda Nui would be conquered before the heroes arrived.

And it would have been, thought Antroz, with more than a trace of bitterness. Conquest is easy. A little destruction… a little chaos…. some Matoran ending their lives in memorably gruesome ways… and the rest of the population falls right in line. It’s always worked before.

But not here. Makuta Teridax didn’t want the Av-Matoran killed. “They will be of far more use to us alive,” he had predicted.

“And far more trouble to us, as well,” muttered Antroz.

He heard the distinctive scraping of Vamprah’s claws on the stone floor. The fact that his partners could no longer see had not inspired Vamprah to start speaking again. In fact, of all of them, Vamprah was the only one who did not seem fazed by the accident. It just made his hunts a bit more of a challenge.

Antroz reached out and found Vamprah’s arm. “I need you to find our twisted genius and his mad little assistant,” said Antroz. “I want to make a welcome gift for our Toa visitors… one they will never forget.”

The Toa Nuva followed Tanma down into the shelter. It had been hewn out of a fallen stalactite long ago, intended for use as storage. Now it was a sanctuary for those Matoran who had not yet been corrupted.

But the Toa were paying no attention to their surroundings. Pohatu’s words had awakened memories in all of them. The realization that they had been in Karda Nui before, and hadn’t remembered, had shaken them.

“I know our minds were shatter-scattered when we got to the island of Mata Nui,” said Lewa Nuva. “But this is ridiculous.”

“My earliest memory is training on Daxia,” said Kopaka. “Then… then we were sent here. There were Matoran working, and we were needed to protect them from… something.”

“Energy,” said Tahu. “Energy spikes were affecting the Rahi here… We had to contain them…”

Pohatu nodded. “Right. Then the Matoran left, and we… we… What did we do?”

The Toa of Stone looked at each of his partners in turn, but all he saw were blank expressions and shrugs. Whatever had damaged their memories had done an effective job.

Suddenly, Lewa brightened. “Kirop… there was a Matoran named Kirop, I think!” He turned to Tanma. “Is he here?”

“Yes,” Tanma replied, his voice tired and harsh. “You fought him out there five minutes ago. Could we maybe stop with the happy memories and concentrate on now?”

“One more question, if you please,” said Onua. “What happened to this place? It’s not how I remember it.”

“Later,” said Tanma. “The battle isn’t over, just interrupted.”

“Well, we should be able to help with these,” Pohatu said, looking at the large, shoulder-mounted weapon he carried. It had appeared when his armor transformed upon arrival in Karda Nui. He wasn’t sure what it did, but it certainly looked formidable. While examining it, his finger accidentally brushed against some kind of control. A sphere of light flew out of the end of the weapon, hit a nearby wall, and punched a neat and smoking hole in it.

“Oh,” said the Toa Nuva of Stone. “That’s what it does.”

“Good,” said Tanma. “We’ll need weapons like that. We have to be ready when they come back again.”

“Who?” asked Tahu, fearing he already knew the answer.

“I’d think you would know,” said Photok, “if you are the Toa that Solek says you are. Those are Makuta out there trying to kill us all, with a little help from our friends.”

Makuta Mutran was annoyed. As a Rahi creator and virus master, it was important that he have a clean and orderly place to work. He had so far not achieved that ideal situation, and someone was going to pay for it.

“Vican!” he growled. “I told you to kick that last experiment over the ledge and into the swamp. I can’t have it screaming and melting all over the cave. I keep slipping in it.”

The Makuta’s bizarre Matoran assistant scurried into view and began kicking the subject of Mutran’s complaint across the floor of the hive. Due to its habit of dissolving into liquid when upset, this was a long and tedious process. But Vican kept at it, knowing from experience what it meant to disappoint his master. Finally, he succeeded in shoving the unfortunate creature over the ledge. He decided not to tell the Makuta that, as it turned out, this particular creation didn’t fall, but flew.

Fortunately, despite still having his sight, Mutran had not noticed. He was busy monitoring the condition of a new batch of shadow leeches. They were the third group to be specially bred in tanks with an eye toward giving them a longer lifespan. So far, the experiment had not been a success. The first batch had died instantly; the second had wound up carnivorous and almost made a meal of Vican.

“Look at them,” Mutran said softly, tapping on the crystal wall of the tank. “They begin their lives as kraata, nothing but the essence of a Makuta given solid form. But a bit of this… a bit of that… and they become ever-hungry stealers of light. Have you ever truly watched one feed? It is so repulsive as to be almost beautiful.”

Vican shuddered. When Mutran got like this, it reminded him of the days when he was just another Le-Matoran, seeking adventure. Being changed into something more powerful seemed like an exciting prospect – so when Makuta Mutran came to his village seeking subjects, he had volunteered. His memories after that were hazy, which was probably for the best. He had not come out on the other side as a Toa or a Makuta or even as a better Matoran. In fact, he really wasn’t sure what he was anymore, and soon decided it was better not to think about it.

A barely audible flutter of wings drew Vican’s attention to the hive entrance. Vamprah had opened it and now stood in the gateway. He glared in the direction of the Matoran, causing Vican to duck farther back into the shadows. Everyone knew that, to Vamprah, “Matoran” was just another word for “victim.”

Mutran spotted his visitor. He reached into the tank and gingerly lifted one of the shadow leeches. “See? Alive and thriving, even after three hours. Plus I expanded their capacity to consume – this little one could drain the light out of Mata Nui and still have room for a Toa or two.”

Vican tensed. Asking a blinded Makuta to “see” was like poking a Manas crab with a sharp stick.

Vamprah walked in the direction of Mutran’s voice. His senses told him where the leech was, and he bent as if to examine the squirming creature. Then he raised his claw and gently rapped the leech on the head. The creature shattered, little crystalline pieces of its form raining down on the floor.

Mutran watched the last of the fragments draining through his hand. Then, calmly and casually, he smashed the tank with his fist. The leeches disintegrated on impact. Mutran turned his back on the mess and pointed a clawed finger at Vican.

“Clean this up,” he said. “Now.”

Vamprah grabbed Mutran by the arm and started to drag him toward the hive entrance. Mutran shook himself loose, saying, “You know, I’ve discovered a way to force a being to shapeshift, and then lock him into just one form. Grab me again and you will spend eternity as a very angry frost beetle… with a broken arm.”

Vamprah turned, his cold, unseeing eyes fixed on Mutran’s for a very long time. To his credit, Mutran met his stare and held it, at least for a few moments. Then Mutran abruptly broke away and leaped out of the hive, his gray wings carrying him toward the main lair of the Makuta. Vamprah silently followed, a grim smile on his face.

The Toa Nuva had barely had time to digest the news that the Brotherhood of Makuta was making an all-out attack on Karda Nui when they got a second shock. This one came from Tanma, who told them of seeing a falling figure in white armor carrying a glowing Kanohi mask. “This was right before the explosion of light,” the Matoran said. “And then we all just… knew, somehow… that the Great Spirit Mata Nui had returned to life.”

The Nuva looked at each other. They knew, of course, that Mata Nui lived again, but they didn’t know how it had been achieved. From Tanma’s description, one of their fellow Toa – Matoro, from the sound of it – had sacrificed himself to save the universe. There was a leaden silence that lasted a long time. Then Kopaka suddenly seemed to remember something.

“The mask this Toa was carrying,” he asked Tanma. “Where is it? What happened to it?”

The Av-Matoran shrugged. “I don’t know. If it was caught in that explosion, it was probably destroyed.”

“Say it wasn’t,” said Pohatu. “Where would it be?”

“In the swamp,” said Photok. “That’s all that’s down below.”

“It’s the Mask of Life. It has to be,” said Tahu Nuva. “And we need to find that mask before the Makuta do… if they haven’t already.”

“Agreed,” said Kopaka. “But we also need to defend these Matoran and stop whatever the Makuta have planned.”

“Then we split up,” said Lewa. “I’ll stay here, since I am the only Toa-hero good at flying. Kopaka, you should jump-dive into the swamp, I think.”

“Why?” asked the Toa Nuva of Ice.

Lewa smiled. “’Cause I ever-always end up on your team, and you’re not exactly a Matoran sack of laughs.”

The sides were quickly chosen. Lewa, Kopaka, and Pohatu would remain with the Av-Matoran and fight the Makuta in the sky. Gali, Tahu, and Onua would travel down to the swamp and search for the missing Mask of Life.

Prior to the departure of Tahu’s team, Tanma and Photok sat with all six Toa Nuva to share information. “We don’t know much about what’s below,” said Photok. “We only went down there long enough to grab vines and head back up. So you’re pretty much on your own.”

“There may be shadow leeches down there, too, we don’t know,” Tanma continued. “The Makuta make them somehow, but we don’t know how or where. The walls of Karda Nui are honeycombed with caverns, many shrouded in mist, so it’s impossible to tell just where they come from. But we know what they can do all too well. Even a Toa would not be immune to the leech’s power, so beware – otherwise, you may wind up the first known Toa of Shadow.”

Good-byes were short and subdued. These six Toa had been through the worst this universe had to offer and come out the other side. All of them realized that this fight in Karda Nui might be their last, so there was no need to put that into words. They knocked fists together in the traditional salute, then the Toa Nuva of Fire, Water, and Earth dove from the edge of the fallen stalactite toward the swamp far below.

“What do you think they’ll find down there?” asked Pohatu.

“Their destiny,” Kopaka replied. “And quite possibly ours.”

* * *

Takanuva’s vision of the past continues…

Gali hit the ground hard, and not for the first time. By now, her muscles ached, her armor was cracked in a few places, and her Mask of Power had already been knocked off half a dozen times. She was tired, she was irritated, and she still couldn’t see the point of any of this.

“I’m a Toa of Water,” she grumbled as she got to her feet. “So what am I doing here?”

Her trainer, Hydraxon, shook his head. “You’re a Toa of Water. That’s true. So naturally your foes will be sure to attack you only when there’s plenty of water around… that’s false.”

Faster than her eye could follow, he whipped a boomerang at her. It swooped low and struck her in the legs, knocking her off her feet again.

Hydraxon gestured at the landscape around them. It was barren desert for as far as the eye could see. The humidity in the air was close to zero. “If you want water, you’re going to have to make it yourself,” he said. “Provided I don’t carve you up before you get the chance.”

Gali sprang up this time and charged Hydraxon, swinging the hooked tools she carried. He caught one on his armored wrist, grabbed her arm with his free hand, and tossed her over his hip. She landed flat on her back.

“I could do this all day,” Hydraxon said, smiling. “And if you keep thinking with your heart, not your head, I’ll probably have to.”

Gali scrambled to her feet, but this time she didn’t attack. Instead, she took a few steps backward, keeping her eyes trained on Hydraxon’s hands. If he was going to toss another blade or boomerang, this time she would be ready.

As it turned out, his hands never moved. Instead, he lashed out with a kick at a nearby dune, spraying a load of sand into her face. While she was blinded, he threw two knives, knocking both hooks from her hands.

“Now you’re disarmed, and you can’t see,” he said. “That means you have about half a second to live, and that’s if your enemy’s slow.”

Just keep talking, Gali thought. We’ll see who has how much time left.

Concentrating hard, she fired a jet of water from the palm of her hand. It hit Hydraxon with the force of a small explosion, knocking him to the ground. When her vision cleared, she saw him reaching for one of his weapons. She fired again, pinning him to the ground with her water blast.

“Give up?” she asked.

“Not even a little,” Hydraxon replied.

Gali heard movement behind her too late. A silver energy hound slammed into her from behind, putting her face-first in the sand. With her concentration shattered, her water blast was cut off. Hydraxon got up, grabbed her by the back of the neck, and hauled her to her feet.

“Meet Spinax,” he said, gesturing to the four-legged beast who still eyed her warily. “After I’m done training you would-be heroes, I have a new assignment, and he’s coming along. For now, though, he helps me prove a point – the danger isn’t always what you see. Often, it’s what you don’t see until it’s too late.”

Gali spat out sand. Somehow, she managed a smile. “I don’t envy the group working with you in your next job.”

To her surprise, Hydraxon’s face darkened. “You shouldn’t. Trust me, you shouldn’t envy them at all.”

Suddenly uncomfortable, Gali tried to change the subject. “So, lesson learned. Are we done for today?”

Hydraxon, who had been lost in thought, suddenly seemed to remember she was there. “Hmmm? No, no. You have a 15-minute head start. Then I send Spinax after you. They say he can track a wisp of energy across a planet and back… so I suggest you start running.”

“And what am I supposed to learn from that?” demanded Gali.

“It’s not training for you,” replied Hydraxon, smiling. “It’s training for him.”

By the time Gali made it back to the Toa’s shelter, she was exhausted and sore. “Mask of Water Breathing,” she sighed. “Big help when there’s no water anywhere around.”

Pohatu laughed. “I thought I’d be able to outrun the little beast with my mask, but darn thing never gives up. Ran so fast I fused some of the sand to glass, and Spinax still caught me the second I slowed down. Kopaka’s the only one who passed that test.”

Gali turned to the Toa of Ice. “What did you do?”

Kopaka shrugged. “I froze him.”

“You didn’t!”

“He did,” said Lewa. The Toa of Air was floating halfway off the floor. Determined to master his Mask of Levitation, his feet were almost never on the ground anymore.

“So what happened?” asked Gali.

“Nothing,” muttered Kopaka.

“Nothing?” Onua chuckled. “Hydraxon commended him on his original thinking.”

“And then knocked him flat,” Tahu added. “Was it six times or eight times in a row, brother?”

“I didn’t see you do any better, Toa of Ashes,” bristled Kopaka.

“I guess a Mask of Shielding doesn’t help much when the boomerangs keep hitting you from behind, huh, Tahu?” said Lewa.

Onua glanced at Tahu and Kopaka and saw neither one was laughing. “Well, we all need to do better,” said the Toa of Earth. “Someday, it won’t be a trainer we’ll be up against, but the real thing.

“That cannot be soon enough for me,” said Kopaka. “Perhaps then there will be less talking.”

Lewa drifted back down to the ground, landing beside Gali. “Friendly sort, isn’t he?” he whispered.

“He’s a loner, but one who’s smart enough to know he can’t succeed alone,” Gali replied. “It makes him angry, but he tries to keep it all frozen inside.”

“While Tahu keeps fanning the flames between them, like he’s trying to prove something,” said Lewa. “Maybe we better stick together, sister. Those two could get us killed.”

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