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Five years ago…

Mazeka forced himself to keep his eyes open as Vultraz brought the blade down toward his head. He wouldn’t give his enemy the satisfaction of seeing he was afraid.

The razor-sharp steel came closer, closer… Mazeka accepted that it would be his last sight in life…

And then the sword stopped, less than a quarter of an inch from Mazeka’s mask. When he looked beyond the blade, Mazeka could see that Vultraz was smiling.

“No, I don’t need to kill you now,” said the Ta-Matoran. “I’ve beaten you. Every breath you take from now on is only because I allow it. No matter where you go, who you fight, how many battles you win – you’ll know you’re only walking, talking, living because of me.” Vultraz laughed. “I just saved your life, Mazeka… I think that rates a thank you, don’t you?”

Mazeka said nothing, just glared with hate-filled eyes at his enemy.

“Of course, it’s a shame that I lost the little De-Matoran, but no worries – I’ll catch up to him later, and give him what I didn’t give you,” Vultraz continued. “As for you… live a long life, Mazeka. I want you around to remember this day.”

With that, the Ta-Matoran withdrew his sword and vanished into the jungle. Mazeka got to his feet, ready to pursue him and settle things once and for all. But an invisible hand restrained him.

“That’s not what we’re here for,” said Jerbraz. Mazeka could hear him clearly, though he could not see him. “We got what we came to get. Be satisfied with that.”

“But –” Mazeka began, angry and frustrated. Then he stopped. Jerbraz was right. If this Krakua was so important, getting him before Vultraz did was what mattered most… wasn’t it?

“Krakua is someplace safe,” said Jerbraz. “Now he can be trained. There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of Toa of Sonics around – they are vulnerable to their own power. One of the Great Beings’ little jokes, I guess. We’ll make sure he can use his power – all of it – when he becomes a Toa someday… because we’re going to need it.”

Mazeka was only half listening. His mind was on his fight with Vultraz – a fight he vowed wasn’t over. “Listen,” he said. “I did what you asked. Now I want a favor in return. I want training.”

“What kind?” asked Jerbraz.

“I want to learn how to fight,” said Mazeka, his tone grim. “I want to learn how to win clean… and win dirty. When I’m done, I want to be a master with a blade, with my fists, with any kind of weapon – and then I want you to get out of my way.”

“You’re going after that Ta-Matoran, I’m guessing?” said Jerbraz.

Mazeka walked away from the voice, deeper into the jungle. “We’re wasting time. You have a Matoran to deliver… and I have a hunt to get ready for.”

Now…

Mazeka walked into an inn in one of the nastier parts of Stelt. The whole island was in an uproar – something about a monstrous, reptilian thing tearing the roof off a building. He didn’t see any sign of any giant creatures, so he dismissed it as just another wild Steltian story.

He was here to see a Fe-Matoran whose name changed every few months. A rogue Nynrah crafter, the Matoran had a bad right arm, the result of an accident in a forge. Of course, any Nynrah worth his tools could have made a new mechanical part to replace the damaged one, but he hadn’t – story was he kept it as is as a reminder that even the best can make a mistake.

Two big, blue warriors stood at the bottom of the stairs leading to the second floor. They made it clear that no visitors were allowed. Mazeka nodded, turned as if to leave, then spun and delivered a devastating kick to the knee joint of the nearest. When the second went for his blade, Mazeka’s own dagger flashed. His disarmed the brute in one swift motion. The guard charged and Mazeka evaded, winding up behind his larger opponent. Before the guard could turn, Mazeka did a leap from a standing start, got one hand onto the big warrior’s shoulder, and then slammed both knees into his face. It didn’t do much more than daze the bruiser, but that was all Mazeka needed to do. He took advantage of the situation to race up the stairs.

The door to the Fe-Matoran’s workshop was locked. Mazeka brought it down with a kick. The Matoran of Iron grabbed for a weapon, but Mazeka’s dagger was already primed to throw. “I just want to talk,” said Mazeka.

“You’ve got a noisy way of saying hello,” the Fe-Matoran answered. “I’m open for business – all you had to do was knock.”

“I know all about your business,” said Mazeka. “Someone will be talking to you about it another day. Right now, I just have one question – where’s Vultraz?”

The Fe-Matoran did his best to look confused. “I don’t know any Vultraz.”

“You helped him modify his vehicle,” Mazeka replied. “And he used it to raid a village on an island not far from here. Two Matoran were killed, 12 more were hurt. You’re responsible for that.”

“Why me?” said the Fe-Matoran. “I didn’t do that! He did that!”

Mazeka twirled his dagger, then hurled it at the Nynrah crafter. It struck his mask, knocking it off. The Fe-Matoran staggered and reached for his lost mask, but Mazeka was there first and kicked it away. “Vultraz. Now.”

“I don’t know anything!” the Matoran sputtered. “Give me my mask back!”

Mazeka held his foot poised over the fallen mask. “Tell me what I want to know or I’ll shatter it. And then you and I can have a nice long chat until you pass out. So what’s it going to be?”

“He said… he said he was going to get in good with a Makuta,” the Fe-Matoran said. “Said he was heading to the core… that’s all he said, I swear, the core… to bring something to somebody named Icarax.”

Mazeka nodded. That fit with other scraps of information he had picked up.

“Okay, thanks for the information,” he said. Almost casually, he brought his foot down and broke the mask to pieces. “Next time, don’t take so long to answer.”

Mazeka left the room, so lost in thought he almost didn’t notice the two guards waiting for him outside. He was distracted enough that it took him all of ten minutes to get away from them. On his way back to his swamp strider, he wondered – what was Vultraz up to now? And how could he stop him?

* * *

The five Toa Mahri stood in a semi-circle, staring at the base of the Coliseum. A few moments before, the Toa Hagah had vanished down a tunnel in the foundation, heading for Mata Nui knew what. Now it seemed there was nothing for the Mahri to do but wait.

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

“Pipes,” said Hewkii dismissively. “Dirt. Stone rats. Maybe an underground stream or two. There’s nothing down there.”

“How can you be so sure?” asked Jaller.

“Onu-Matoran have been all over beneath this city,” Hewkii replied. “If there was something down there, they would have found it by now.”

“Maybe,” said Nuparu, sounding not at all convinced.

“Let’s go,” said Hahli. “We’re not accomplishing anything standing here.”

The Toa Mahri of Water turned to head back to Ga-Metru. That was when she saw the golden crystal floating in the air. She reached out to touch it, and it moved away from her. “What is this?” she asked.

“Something you need.”

The Toa Mahri spun around to see an ebon-armored female standing just behind them. For a second, they thought she was a Vortixx, but a closer look revealed her to belong to a species they had never seen before. She carried a shield, but no weapon that they could see.

“They call it the Heart of the Visorak,” the figure continued. “It is active now and its power grows. Wherever it is, the Visorak will come, traveling from everywhere in the known universe to find it. You Toa must take it to the island of Artidax and plant it there. Draw the Visorak to that place, where they can be imprisoned forever.”

“Right,” said Jaller. “And who guards Metru Nui while we’re gone? You?”

“It will be protected, never fear,” said the woman. She produced a small stone tablet bearing a map to the island and handed it over. “Now you must take the Heart and go, before the Visorak descend on this city in search of it. Go now!”

Before the Toa could question her further, the armored woman’s body shattered into a million crystalline fragments. The fragments scattered on the breeze. In moments, they were gone.

“Well, that was… weird,” said Kongu.

“So what do we do?” asked Nuparu. “If she was telling the truth… this city isn’t ready for another full-scale infestation.”

“It’s a big ‘if,’” said Jaller. “So Kongu, Hewkii, you stay here. Hahli, Nuparu and I will go to this Artidax place.”

The three Toa Mahri departed by ship within the hour. Kongu and Hewkii watched them go, then spent some time agreeing on how best to split up their patrols of the city. Once that was done, they started back for the Coliseum.

Neither one noticed a cloud of crystal shards coalescing behind them into the form of their mysterious visitor. And once her shield struck them, knocking them both unconscious, they noticed nothing at all.

The trip to Artidax was long, but uneventful. Nuparu kept a careful watch out for Visorak, but saw none the first few days. As they got closer to the island, he would catch a glimpse of the spiders on the shores of islands that they passed. If their visitor was correct, the entire horde would be in pursuit of them now.

The first thing Jaller noticed when they reached the island was a set of recent tracks. A number of older ones had been partially obscured by the actions of wind and tide, but these looked like they had been just made. Nearby, various bits of wood floated in the water, apparently the wreckage of a ship or boat.

“Well, someone’s been here,” he said.

“And still is.” The voice belonged to a tall, blue biped, monstrous in appearance, wearing a water-filled helmet on his head. He held a crude stone dagger in his hand.

“Takadox!” said Jaller, in surprise. He and his team had fought Takadox, along with the other Barraki, in the Pit. “How did you escape? And where are your friends? Talk, you miserable insect.”

“I ‘escaped,’ as you put it, out of a desire to do my bit for Mata Nui,” Takadox answered, with a cold smile. “As for my fellow former rulers, they are no doubt rotting in cells by now, where they belong. But what brings you to this garden spot of the universe?”

“They do,” said Nuparu, pointing toward the ocean. It had become a sea of Boggarak, skating across the water’s surface, heading for the island. Behind them, floating on pieces of flotsam and jetsam of all types, were thousands more Visorak. All of them were coming right for Artidax.

“They’re after us,” Jaller said to Takadox. “But, don’t worry, we won’t be staying long… of course, they will be.”

“The entire horde?” said Takadox. “You’re carrying the Heart of the Visorak… I’ve heard of it, though never seen it, of course. And you’re leading them here… that explains a great deal.”

“Talk straight, Takadox,” said Hahli. “Or we’ll leave you here as company for the spiders.”

“Not at all a bad idea,” said Takadox. Summoning all his willpower, he focused his gaze first on Hahli, then on Jaller. When Nuparu tried to shield his eyes, his two allies grabbed him and forced him to meet Takadox’s stare. In moments, all three were in a hypnotic trance.

“That is more like it,” said the Barraki. “A short time ago, two strange beings appeared on the beach in a flash of light. They did not notice me, and I chose to follow and watch. I saw them mounting something on the slope of the largest volcano on the island… and even I could tell what it was for: they were planning to trigger an eruption. And when it happens, this island and everything on it will be ashes.

“They disappeared as quickly as they came, leaving me with no way to escape the disaster… until you arrived. Now I will take your boat and leave this rock – again – while you three stand nice and still, waiting for the end. If you’re lucky… very lucky… that volcano will explode before the Visorak get their pincers on you.”

Chuckling, Takadox climbed on board the Toa’s boat. Raising the anchor and adjusting the sail, he started it moving away from the coastline of Artidax. Behind him, the three Toa Mahri stood like statues, helpless to stop his departure. And as Takadox’s ship vanished over the horizon, and the volcano moved closer and closer to eruption, the first Visorak set their claws on the sands of the island.

* * *

The Toa Empire universe…

Toa Takanuva had experienced many strange things since arriving in what he now knew had to be some kind of alternate universe. But nothing quite equaled what he was experiencing right at the moment: the sensation of flying under his own power over a vast stretch of ocean. Even stranger was the fact that he had a Makuta to thank for this ability. After telling him roughly where to look for the caravan that would be carrying the Mask of Time, Makuta Krika had commented that he would never be able to intercept them in time by sea, even if he managed to steal a boat and slip away from Metru Nui. Flight was the best choice. Before Takanuva could argue that he didn’t have the ability to fly, Krika had blown a fine powder into his face. The Toa of Light couldn’t help but breathe it in. With a laugh, Krika explained that he had just been exposed to a Makuta virus, which would, at least temporarily, give him the power of flight. If it had any other side effects, Krika chose not to say. Takanuva didn’t know whether to thank him, or hit him.

Still, his directions had been good. Up ahead, on the land, Takanuva spotted an Ussal crab-drawn cart driven by a Matoran, flanked by a Toa of Ice and a Toa of Earth mounted on Muaka tigers. Takanuva could only guess that both cart and Rahi had been loaded and unloaded from a ship, since part of the journey to Artakha had to be made by sea. Despite the Makuta’s warning that he would have to kill the Toa – and the Matoran with them, Jaller – Takanuva had another idea. He was a Toa, after all, in a world dominated by them. It was worth trying, anyway. He landed right in front of the cart, prompting Jaller to reign it to an abrupt halt. The two Toa raised their spears and shields and took a step forward.

“Who are you?” said the black-armored warrior. “Speak or face the power of my seismic spear.”

“What my grim friend is trying to say,” said the Toa of Ice, “is that we were not expecting visitors, not even multi-toned ones such as yourself. Surprises make us nervous, and when we are nervous, other beings sometimes… get hurt.”

“Lower your weapons,” said the Toa of Light. “My name is Takanuva. I am here on business of the Empire.”

“I am Toa Kualus,” said the white-armored Toa. “My surly friend is Toa Bomonga. And what might your business be, Takanuva?”

“I don’t trust him,” said Jaller. Takanuva barely recognized him in his red Kanohi Komau. “Kodan keeps a record of every Toa in the universe, and I’ve never seen his name before.”

Takanuva fired a thin beam of light at Jaller, shooting the reigns out of his hands. Pewku, the Ussal crab, reared up, startled.

“When I want your opinion, Matoran, I’ll ask for it,” Takanuva said, trying to sound like a Toa from this universe.

Kualus’ response was a blast of ice from his sub-zero spear, but Takanuva easily shattered it with another light beam. Bomonga made a move to attack, but the Toa of Light temporarily blinded him with a flare.

“If you’re done,” said Takanuva, “Tuyet has received word of a plan to steal the Mask of Time. She has decided that two Toa are not enough to guard it – particularly you two – so she has sent me to join you.”

“And just what makes you the right choice?” growled Bomonga.

The Toa of Light thought fast. “Have you ever heard of… Takutanuva?”

Both Toa shook their heads.

“How about Graalok the mighty ash bear?”

Again they shook their heads.

“And I suppose you haven’t heard of the beasts of Mount Ihu, or the flame serpents of the Tren Krom Break, or even…” he dropped his voice for effect, “…even the Kolhii creature of Ga-Wahi.”

“We haven’t heard of any of those things,” said Kualus.

Takanuva smiled, raised his lance high, and then plunged it into the sand in front of the two Toa. “There is a reason you haven’t heard of them, brothers… and if I could defeat them, I could surely handle a threat to the Vahi.”

Bomonga and Kualus glanced at each other, then Kualus shrugged. “Very well, brother, you may travel with us to Metru Nui. But since you are so powerful, why don’t you walk in front of us? That way you can meet any challenge head-on. Incidentally, who is it that plans to try to steal this mask from us?”

“A very powerful and evil being called Brutaka,” Takanuva replied.

This time, the two Toa obviously recognized the name. Bomonga even smiled.

“You know of him, then?” asked Takanuva.

“And well I should,” said Bomonga. He plunged his spear into the ground next to Takanuva’s lance. “After all, I killed him.”

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