Tahu, Gali, and Onua picked their way carefully through the swamp. The Makuta had left a trail a blind Archives mole could have followed. It was obviously a trap, but the Toa Nuva had no choice but to walk into it. They had still found no sign of the Mask of Life, and there was always the chance the Makuta already had it or knew where it was.
“What’s the plan when we find them?” Gali whispered.
“Do you remember the one we used when we cleaned out that Nui-Jaga nest on Mata Nui?” Tahu replied.
Gali paused, trying to recall. Then she said, “Wait a second, we didn’t have a plan then. You and Kopaka were having one of your arguments. You hurled a fireball, missed, and set the brush on fire. The smoke drove the Nui-Jaga out, and we had to fight them all.”
“That’s the plan,” said Tahu.
“Then it’s too bad Kopaka isn’t here,” Onua said. “You two haven’t butted masks in days.”
“Onua, you’re not helping,” said Gali. Turning back to the Toa of Fire, she said, “Tahu, please tell me we actually have some idea of how we are going to deal with three Makuta.”
Tahu stopped walking and looked at Gali with a smile. “Watch this – little trick I learned from Pohatu.” He looked away from her, concentrating on a spot in the empty air. After a moment, he relaxed again.
“Um… nothing happened,” Gali pointed out.
“Wait for it,” said Tahu.
An instant later, a small ball of fire appeared in midair, right in the spot Tahu had been looking at. It shot down to the ground, starting a miniscule fire. Onua helpfully stamped it out.
“Pohatu and Onua would be best at it, but we all can do it,” said Tahu. “At least, I think so.”
“Do what?” asked Gali, growing exasperated.
“Let me try to explain,” Tahu said, keeping his voice low. “As a Toa of Fire, I control flame… I also control heat, without which you can’t have any flame. If I start the process of combustion in a spot, I can time when it actually happens. Then, once it does, I can make the resulting fireball go where I need it to go the same way I would any flame.”
Gali looked down at the still-smoldering patch of earth. “So you’re saying you can plan a fireball for later?”
“Exactly, the same way Pohatu can set a stone to crumbling inside without it actually collapsing until later. Maybe it’s a Nuva ability, I don’t know. But I do know we can use this to our advantage and here’s how we’re going to do it.”
Following Onua’s directions, the three Toa approached Krika’s haven, taking care to keep as quiet as possible. As Tahu had hoped, all three Makuta were there. Better still, they seemed to be hiding some artifact in a hastily dug pit. The Toa Nuva hoped that might be the Mask of Life.
“Spread out, and be careful,” Tahu whispered. “We think with our heads, not our fists, and we’ll get what we came for.”
Gali tried unsuccessfully to hide a smile. This was a far cry from the Tahu who used to charge into Bohrok nests at the drop of a mask. I guess we’ve all grown up in the last year, she thought.
The three Toa scattered. Tahu took a position to the north of Krika’s camp, Onua to the east, Gali to the west. As soon as they were in position, they each put their elemental power to work. Tahu started the process of crafting a huge fireball, Gali a high-pressure jet of water, and Onua a violent quake.
Tahu’s creation appeared first, and he used his control over fire to send it hurtling into the Makuta settlement. As soon as it was on its way, Tahu was on the move. He glanced back to see Gorast coming to investigate.
Next came Gali’s water stream, which she was able to steer right into Bitil. Furious, the Makuta charged out of the camp looking for the source of the attack, but Gali was already gone.
That left Krika alone and wary. But nothing he could do could guard him against the earthquake Onua unleashed. Once he recovered his balance, Krika used his mask to repel the ground itself, sending him into the air to search for the Toa Nuva of Earth.
It would take the Makuta only seconds to realize their attackers were nowhere to be found. But that was time enough for Tahu, Gali, and Onua to have circled around and entered the camp from behind. Onua dug up the pit while Gali and Tahu searched the rest of the area.
“Nothing,” Gali reported. “No mask.”
“Or here,” said Tahu, disappointed.
“I’ve got something,” Onua said. “It’s not a mask, but potentially useful nonetheless.”
The Toa of Fire and Water turned to see that Onua held in his hand a keystone. That made three they had found. If the other Toa had been as fortunate, they had all six. It was a small victory, even if the Kanohi Ignika continued to elude them.
“We had better get out of here,” said Tahu. “The Makuta won’t be fooled for long.”
“Or at all,” said Krika. He was standing on the edge of the camp, flanked by Gorast and Bitil. All three looked amused. “Did you really believe we would fall for that transparent ruse? We simply wanted you in one place so we could take care of all three of you at once.”
The Makuta fired their ghost blasters as one, but Tahu was too fast for them. His mask power threw a shield up around himself and his team, deflecting the Makuta’s attack.
“It’s no good, you know,” said Krika. “How long can you maintain that shield? An hour? A day? And when it falls, we will take control of your bodies and make you battle each other for our entertainment. Who knows, if one of you survives, maybe we will permit him or her to serve as a permanent slave of the Brotherhood.”
“I say we batter the shield down now,” snarled Gorast, “and kill them where they stand.”
Krika chuckled. “Please excuse my sister – she has always been lightthirsty, even before the swamp changed her. She has a point, though. Time spent here is time wasted in our search for the Mask of Life.”
Tahu flashed a grim smile. Even in their desperate situation, it was good to know the Makuta hadn’t gotten their claws on the mask yet. With a little luck, maybe they never would.
“You’re too late,” the Toa of Fire said, trying his best to sound confident. “We already have the mask. It’s with Pohatu and the others. They’re using it to destroy your brothers even now.”
“Ridiculous!” snapped Bitil. “An obvious trick, one I can expose with ease.” He concentrated, sending a telepathic flash up to one of the Makuta who lurked in the skies far above. But the message he received back was obviously not what he had been expecting.
“Speak, Bitil,” said Krika, impatiently. “How stands the Brotherhood?”
“The Mask of Life…” Bitil said, stunned. “It’s there… it’s become a Toa warrior… and Icarax has already fallen before its power.”
Tahu glanced at Gali and Onua. Both looked just as surprised as the three Makuta. The Mask of Life was a Toa now? It was fighting? What was going on here?
“Time for us to go,” Tahu mouthed, no sound escaping his lips.
Gali nodded. She triggered her elemental power, adding more and more moisture to the air in the immediate area until a dense fog began to form. As soon as they were hidden from view, Onua rapidly dug a tunnel in the soft earth. The three Toa vanished into it and were gone by the time the fog dispersed.
“They’ve escaped!” yelled Gorast. “We must pursue!”
Krika sighed. “Of course we must. We don’t want this to be too easy for them now, do we? Bitil, stop worrying about Icarax – he was a miserable heap of Zivon spittle and no great loss.”
Bitil nodded and activated his mask power, plucking three past versions of himself out of the timeline. “Do we follow them?”
Krika shook his head. “Teridax told me once about a remarkable machine the Matoran of his region made called a Keerakh. From his tale, I learned that it is not necessary to chase your quarry – simply be waiting at their destination.”
With that said, Krika used his mask to repel the ground and launch into the air. He was followed by the four Bitils and Gorast. “They will be headed for the Codrex,” said Gorast. “Do you think the other Toa will join them there?”
Krika glanced skyward, his twisted mouth forming a cold smile. “One can only hope, sister.”
Tahu had been many things in his time as a Toa leader – decisive, arrogant, brave, contentious, noble, and almost ridiculously stubborn. One thing he had rarely been was stupid, and he didn’t intend to start now.
“Wait,” he said quietly to Onua. The Toa of Earth stopped digging as all three listened. They heard nothing.
“They aren’t following?” wondered Gali. “Perhaps we should emerge then and head for the Codrex. From what that Matoran said, it seems to be a place of importance.”
“Which is exactly why we’re not going there,” Tahu replied. “Onua, loop the tunnel around. We’re heading back where we came from.”
The Toa of Earth turned his head as best he could in the cramped space to look at Tahu. “Is that really wise?”
Tahu gave a soft laugh. “Come on, Onua – you’re the one who taught me that you never go wrong doing the unexpected.”
The Makuta circled the Codrex warily. The energy field around the structure was a challenge even for their powers. Only the six keystones could allow someone to pass through it unscathed. They saw no sign of the Toa Nuva, which suited Krika fine. It meant that they had succeeded in getting there before their prey.
“Take to the shadows,” he ordered. Then he added, more to himself than to the others, “They are, after all, the prisons we have chosen for ourselves.”
Each Makuta took up a position and waited, alone with their thoughts. Bitil banished his duplicates. He could always call them up if he needed them, but sometimes being around his past selves was annoying. They always seemed somehow naive compared to who he was now. Actually, the mask power as a whole was more a curse than a blessing. He would suddenly find himself with injuries and no knowledge of how he had acquired them, because some future version of himself had summoned his current self into battle. It was hard to be certain how much power he could call on at any given time, since he might have expended some in a fight he didn’t remember having.
He really didn’t care that much about Teridax’s grand Plan. Bitil’s focus was on himself and his place in the Brotherhood. If he died fighting the Toa Nuva, then that would be the end of him. But if Krika or Antroz died, then perhaps he would move up, with the potential to go still further. Krika had told him once that it was a Makuta’s fate to only be able to hold onto one dream – that of gaining more and more power. It was a dream Bitil embraced.
Gorast was just the opposite. Her eyes scanned the skies for the enemy, and as soon as she spotted them, they were hers to slay. It might seem odd to some that death was what she lived for, and in the end, it wasn’t wholly true – death in the service of the Plan was her passion. She considered herself a Makuta of vision, just like Teridax. She could imagine what the universe would be like if the Plan succeeded… hear the cries of the Matoran, smell the smoke from burning villages, see armies of Rahkshi rampaging throughout the universe… and it pleased her no end.
As for Krika? He believed in destiny. As far as he was concerned, the Brotherhood of Makuta had sealed its fate, for good or ill, the day they decided to follow Teridax in his plan to overthrow Mata Nui. That set events in motion that nothing could stop. All he, the other Makuta, the Toa, or the Matoran could do was play their parts. He had no illusions about what the future held, regardless of whether or not the Plan succeeded. One way or the other, he thought, this universe is heading for a very bad end.
From high above, Tahu Nuva eyed the three Makuta. He and his team had opted not to fly low over the swamp where they might be spotted, but instead to go straight up and hide in the upper reaches of the mist. Now they had circled above and behind their foes and were poised for the attack.
“Gali, you go right; Onua, left. I will target Krika,” said Tahu, steel in his voice. “Hit them hard, and remember – we get one shot at this. So make it count.”
Gali and Onua nodded. Then the three Toa Nuva went into power dives, screaming through the air toward a final clash with the Makuta.