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Tahu Nuva rocketed down toward the Karda Nui swamp. Usually, he would have been planning strategy during the journey, trying to guess what threats might be waiting and how to deal with them. Today, though, just one thought dominated his mind:

It’s really a long way down.

He flashed back to just how he and his teammates had gotten here. Over 1,000 years ago, the evil Brotherhood of Makuta had attacked the Great Spirit Mata Nui, plunging that powerful entity into an unending sleep. His absence gave the Makuta the opportunity to seize power in various lands and spread their darkness throughout the universe.

The mission of the Toa Nuva was to rescue Mata Nui from his coma and restore order to the universe. So far, it hadn’t been an easy one. The Brotherhood had thrown monsters and menaces against them, battling every step of the way. Now the quest had led to Karda Nui, the very core of the universe, the site of what would be the final battle.

The team had arrived only to discover the Brotherhood was already here. The Makuta had been mounting attacks on the Matoran of Light who lived in this place and were close to succeeding at conquering the region. After their hard-fought battle, the Toa Nuva realized they had to split up. Half the team stayed above to fight the Makuta, while Tahu, Gali Nuva, and Onua Nuva headed for the swamp.

Now that he thought about it, it wasn’t a plan that Tahu was too thrilled about. It went against his nature to run from a fight. But there was good reason to believe that the powerful Mask of Life was at the bottom of the swamp. If the Makuta found it first, they could wipe out every living thing in the blink of an eye.

So here we are, flying through mist so thick even I couldn’t burn it away, heading for a mud pool, he said to himself. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if this place didn’t feel so… wrong.

Some time ago, on another island far away, Tahu had visited a site the Matoran called the “place of shadow.” It had felt corrupt and unnatural, as if the fabric of the universe was just slightly off. Although he never admitted it at the time, he had found the spot highly disturbing. He had hoped never to experience such a place again, but as he approached the swamp, he knew he had not gotten his wish.

It was hard to see much of anything about the marsh at first, so shrouded was it in mist and fog. As the three Toa Nuva flew closer, they could see clumps of land of varying sizes dotting the murky water, most of them consisting of mud and moss. Thick foliage grew from the bottom of the swamp, but most of the plant life seemed strangely twisted and warped.

The most prominent features were the stalactites which had impaled themselves in the floor of the swamp during what the Matoran called “the Fall.” Normally, these sorts of formations would grow from the top of a cavern down, narrowing to sharp points. But having broken off the cave ceiling long before, it was their fragile tips that now served as foundations and their wider ends that were home to Matoran villages far above. Onua Nuva frowned at the sight. He knew enough about stalactites to realize how easily these could collapse under their own weight, sending the villages plummeting into the swamp.

Gali Nuva was paying no attention to that. As Toa of Water, her concern was the mix of liquid protodermis and seawater that made up the swamp. The first thing she noticed was that it was hot, even boiling in some places. Even more surprising was that, despite the heat, it supported life. More than once, she spotted fins or tentacles breaking the slimy surface. She had seen many a creature of the sea in her time, and fought her share, but she was not at all sure she wanted to run into anything that thrived in such a place.

“This place has all the charm of a Makuta lair,” she said. Onua hovered in the air, eyeing the swamp with distaste. “So,” he said finally. “Who’s up for a swim?”

Gali landed on a patch of mud. Her armored feet immediately sank partway into the mire. “I can’t say I look forward to it, but…”

“If the Mask of Life is below the surface, what choice do we have?” asked Tahu. “The Makuta would go down there to search for it.”

“But would they ever come back up?” asked Onua.

“It may not even be down there,” said Gali. “All we know is that it fell here. It could have landed among the vegetation, or sunk in the mud on one of these little islets.” She looked around the vast swamp, which stretched for miles in every direction. “It could be… anywhere.”

“We’ll split up and search from the air,” Tahu decided. “Pick a direction. If you spot anything, use your elemental power to alert the rest of us. If anything spots you… be careful. It’s too much to hope the Makuta aren’t already here.”

Onua Nuva flew slowly, every sense alert. He had a reputation for being among the wisest of Toa, and his brains told him Tahu was right. The Makuta were somewhere in the swamp, they had to be. They were out to conquer Karda Nui, and the Brotherhood never did things by half-measures. Before they attacked the villages high above, they would want to make sure that the Matoran had no avenue of escape.

Sometimes, having so much knowledge was a curse. Onua knew all too well the history of the Brotherhood and Toa battles with them, thanks to studies he had made on Metru Nui. There had been a few legitimate victories by Toa over individual Makuta, but nothing truly final – the Makuta always managed to vanish into the shadows they loved. Other battles were less clear-cut. He had long suspected that his team’s wins over Makuta had somehow been fixed, with the intent of throwing the heroes off the trail of something much bigger.

Perhaps that is what bothers me most, he thought, the sense that something is not right in all this. The Brotherhood came close to killing the Great Spirit Mata Nui – but why? His death would have meant theirs, too, along with everything else in this universe. Now they concentrate their forces in Karda Nui, yet seem more interested in attacking Matoran villages than anything else.

On the face of it, it made no sense. If Karda Nui truly was the most important site to someday awakening Mata Nui – and if the Brotherhood wanted to stop that from happening – why not just destroy the place? They had the power. Why leave it intact for the Toa Nuva to find?

Unless… they wanted us to find it. Unless they want Mata Nui awakened, even though they know his punishment for what they did would be terrible indeed. Or do they have reason to believe they will escape having to pay for their crimes?

That thought, more than any other, disturbed Onua. As a being tied to the element of earth, he knew how the slightest shift of the soil in one place could lead to a landslide somewhere else. He had learned early on how to manipulate the earth to suit his own purposes. The Makuta had no interest in doing such a thing with earth or water, fire or ice, but they were masters at manipulating others. And if they were somehow pulling the strings now… if the Toa Nuva were doing exactly what the Brotherhood wanted done, without realizing it…

Then we may not be saving this universe, he realized. We may be dooming it forever.

He stopped to rest for a moment on a spit of mud in the center of the swamp. He had seen no trace of the Mask of Life or any Makuta. He had spotted a number of Rahi that would have sent even a Metru Nui archivist running to hide under the bed. The bizarre appearance of the wildlife was puzzling. Why would so many odd specimens be found in the same place?

A loud buzzing made him turn. A Nui-Kopen was darting toward him, on the attack. Onua had seen the large Rahi hornets before on the island of Mata Nui, but never one quite this size. He triggered the power of his Mask of Strength and swatted at the insect with an armored hand. The blow sent the Nui-Kopen spiraling through the air and into the swamp waters.

Expecting the creature to emerge again right away, Onua braced for another onslaught. Instead, he saw the insect flailing away in the muddy water, wings beating furiously. Then, to the Toa Nuva’s shock, the Nui-Kopen started to transform. Tentacles sprouted from its sides, its wingspan expanded, and its tail transformed into a wickedly sharp, barbed stinger. When it flew again, it was as a vastly different creature than it had been just moments before.

It’s something in the water, Onua realized, even as he uprooted a tree to use as a weapon. Some kind of a mutagen that affected the Nui-Kopen – which means the others have to be warned! If any of us end up in the swamp, anything might happen.

The new Nui-Kopen hovered in the air, waiting for the right moment to attack. Onua Nuva drew back the tree, ready to swing it when the enemy got close enough. Then something struck the Toa of Earth in the back – just a glancing, painless blow. The next moment, he had dropped the tree and was standing, arms at his sides, rigid.

Onua frantically tried to move. He could feel his organic muscles flexing, but his mechanical parts refused to budge. He was paralyzed.

Someone or something landed in the mud behind him, but Onua couldn’t make his head turn to look. A seemingly endless minute went by before the visitor moved into the Toa’s line of sight. It was a yellow-armored being with a hideous face and spikes running the length of his legs. He carried a longsword and a launcher of a kind Onua was not familiar with. He looked Onua up and down with narrow, evil eyes and laughed softly.

“I always wanted my own Toa,” said the newcomer. “Makuta Bitil’s personal ‘hero.’ Kneel, Toa.”

Against his will, Onua Nuva dropped to his knees. He wanted to ask how this Makuta was controlling his body, but couldn’t get his mouth to move.

“It’s this,” Bitil answered, as if sensing Onua’s question. He gestured to the launcher he carried. “A little invention of the Nynrah crafters of Xia. One shot and I control every mechanical part of your body. I could leave you here, on your knees, until you starve… or make you wade into the swamp water and drown… or even have you kill your friends.”

Bitil smiled. “But first I want the others to see what I have done. We will go see Krika. All of us.”

As he said that, the mask the Makuta wore briefly flared to life. In the next instant, half a dozen more Bitils appeared, each as undeniably real as the first. Onua found himself forced to rise and jet into the air, surrounded by the duplicate Bitils.

“That’s it,” said the Makuta. “You know, I always wanted a pet…”

Gali Nuva skimmed low over the water, scanning for any sign of the Mask of Life. It had already been three hours with no trace, and she was beginning to despair of ever finding it. She also found it hard to concentrate on the search when she knew what might be happening to her friends who had remained behind with the Matoran.

It amazed her how a place could look so familiar and so strange at the same time. When they had first arrived in Karda Nui, all the Toa Nuva had suddenly realized they had been here before. It had been ages and ages ago, when they were still so inexperienced. But it hadn’t looked like this, far from it. Then again, that had been so long ago.

Not for the first time, she wondered just how many millennia she and her teammates had spent locked in canisters, waiting for the day they might be needed. They had been clear from the start about the importance of their mission. It was their job to someday awaken Mata Nui should the Great Spirit ever succumb to injury or attack. What none of them had realized at the start was that, because their role was so vital, it would be decided they had to be shut away until it came time to play their part.

Would we have agreed, had we known? Maybe. We were still so innocent then, she thought. But I wonder how much good we might have done in all those years if we had been free to act?

Gali flew on, wrapped up in her still-fragmented memories. Perhaps if she had been more alert, she might have heard something rising out of the swamp as she passed overhead. Then again, in close to 100,000 years, no one had ever spotted Makuta Gorast until it was much too late.

Tahu Nuva was the first of the team to spot something unusual, although it wasn’t the Mask of Life. He wasn’t quite sure what it was, though something in the back of his mind told him he should recognize it.

It was a solid sphere with no visible opening, embedded into the stone of one of the fallen stalactites. The structure stood out because it was obviously artificial – made of metal, not rock – and designed by intelligent beings. Tahu doubted it was a Matoran construction, since they spent as little time as possible in the swamp.

If it belongs to the Makuta, it’s a threat, he thought. And if it was created by someone else, it may hold answers. Either way, it’s worth checking out.

Tahu flew toward the sphere, wary of a possible ambush, but still eager to investigate. This was the sort of thing he had hoped for in his first moments as a Toa: exploring the unknown, solving mysteries, and doing it all in the service of justice. His methods might not always have sat well with his teammates, but no one could question his dedication.

He circled the structure, giving it a wide berth. There were no signs of any hostile beings near it, not even any Rahi beasts. There was no visible weaponry either. But Tahu hadn’t survived this long by being stupid. He activated his Mask of Shielding, throwing an energy field around himself, then moved in to investigate.

An instant later – impact! Tahu collided with a barrier he could not see. There was a flash of pure power, and the next thing he knew, he was being flung back across the swamp. Stunned, he just barely managed to keep his shield up. It was all that saved him as he crashed into a grove of trees with what would otherwise have been armor-shattering impact.

Tahu tumbled down into the mud and lay there, unconscious. All was still and silent. Swamp birds glanced down from the branches at this strange sight, while insects buzzed around his prone body. Suddenly, the Rahi scattered as the temperature abruptly dropped. A moment later, a pale, white form drifted up through the mud like a ghost. The being hovered for a moment, then turned solid, coming to rest on four long legs lined with jagged claws. Bending low over Tahu, the newcomer prepared to feed.

* * *

Takanuva’s vision of the past continues…

Pohatu could honestly say he had never seen anything like this “Karda Nui” place before. Of course, he hadn’t seen much of anything in his short existence, but that didn’t alter the fact that this place was incredible.

Karda Nui was vast, almost a world within the world. Vast stalactites hung from a ceiling that was so high, it was almost impossible to even see them without the aid of the telescopic eyepiece on Kopaka’s mask. A huge, sandy plain stretched out seemingly forever – even with his Mask of Speed to help, it would have taken Pohatu a while to explore the whole place.

Pohatu turned to Lewa and pointed toward the sky. “Did you try making it all the way up yet?”

Lewa shook his head. “I need a little more practice with this Mask of Levitation first. I wouldn’t want to get distracted halfway up, and then get dead, you know? Besides, our fearless leader says there’s work to be done down here first.”

The plain was dotted with settlements inhabited by Matoran of Light. The villagers were toiling in various places in Karda Nui, often vanishing for days only to reappear, worn out from their labors.

A flash of light in the distance drew the Toa’s attention. “Uh oh,” said Pohatu. “Here we go again. Grab hold!”

Lewa took hold of Pohatu’s arm and let the Toa of Stone pull him along at super-speed toward the site of the sudden illumination. Onua and Tahu were already there and not faring very well. The Toa of Earth was on the ground, his chest plate scorched and still smoking, while Tahu’s walls of flame were proving to be no obstacle at all.

These were what the Matoran called “avohkah,” and the reason the Toa were there. At first, the villagers who labored in Karda Nui thought the place was just prone to violent lightning storms. But after more than a dozen Matoran were killed by lightning strikes, the rumor started that the bolts of energy were actually hostile and intelligent beings. The Toa’s first few encounters with the avohkah seemed to verify this. The lightning bolts avoided obvious traps and seemed to go out of their way to do harm.

“Where’s Gali?” asked Pohatu. “She’s the only one who has been able to slow these things down.”

“Off fighting another outbreak west of here with Kopaka,” said Tahu, hurling fireballs to try to divert the lightning strikes. “They’ll get here when they can. Meanwhile, it’s up to us.”

“Ah, this is the life,” said Lewa, nimbly dodging a bolt. “Wake up in the morning, have a little breakfast, and then spend all day trying to avoid being fried.”

“Look at it this way,” said Pohatu, as a lightning bolt shattered his hastily created rock wall. “If you don’t avoid it, you won’t have to worry about what to have for breakfast tomorrow. And – look out!”

A massive avohkah was headed right for where Tahu and Lewa were standing. Both Toa reacted at the same time. Lewa used his wind power to hurl a blanket of sand into the air to try to “blind” the creature, while Tahu launched a wave of super-hot fire. Neither really expected their hasty defense to work. Both braced for the painful outcome.

It turned out to be quite different from what they expected. The combination of sand and flame had resulted in a third substance, a hard, translucent, and extremely thick material that formed a wall between the two Toa and their foe. The bolt struck the wall of glass, but did not pierce it.

Lewa didn’t waste time being stunned. “What are we waiting for, flame-face?”

“We work together,” agreed Tahu, already adding his fire to the sand Lewa was stirring up. “And don’t call me that.”

“Oh, don’t be such an… ash,” Lewa replied, laughing.

When they were done, the lightning bolt was completely enclosed in a thick glass dome. It couldn’t get out, and its fellow avohkah weren’t having any luck freeing it. Puzzled by this, they withdrew, though no one doubted they would be attacking again soon, somewhere else.

Gali and Kopaka appeared soon after, both looking exhausted. “We drove them off,” reported the Toa of Water. “But I have to remember to use water bursts, not a stream. Otherwise, um… ouch.”

Lewa wasn’t paying attention. He had spotted a spherical structure on the horizon, this one not made by the Toa. “Hey, what’s that?”

Kopaka glanced at Tahu so swiftly that none of the others noticed it. Tahu shrugged in response. “It’s called the Codrex. It’s… not important right now.”

“Maybe not to you,” answered the Toa of Air. “Me, I’m kind of bored with busy Matoran, angry sparklers, and sand, sand, sand. I’m going to check it out.”

“No!” said Tahu, more harshly than he had intended. “You’re needed here. We can explore later.”

“If you don’t want to come, don’t come,” Lewa answered, already walking away. “Don’t pull all that ‘big leader’ stuff with me – I never voted for you.”

Kopaka fired a blast of ice from his sword, completely encasing Lewa from shoulders to knees. “Tahu’s team leader, and he said no. So it’s no.”

Later, Tahu approached Kopaka when they were out of earshot of the others. “Thanks,” said the Toa of Fire. “I could have handled it, but I appreciate your support.”

“Don’t thank me,” answered the Toa of Ice. “We should just tell them the truth about the Codrex, about all of it.”

“We need to keep them focused on the avohkah, not on what comes after,” Tahu argued. “There will be time enough for them to worry about that… all too much time, probably.”

Kopaka turned away, obviously unconvinced. “It’s your decision. But think about this – how would you feel if someone you trusted kept secrets from you?”

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