Tahu Nuva skimmed just above the swamp waters of Karda Nui, every sense on alert. He had been locked in aerial combat with Makuta Vamprah, until that bat-winged hunter vanished into the mists. Now it was a lethal game of hide-and-seek as he waited for the inevitable attack.
He found himself almost envying Pohatu, Kopaka, and Lewa, who had appeared from above with Matoran riding on their backs. A second set of eyes would have been welcome right about now.
There was a quick flash of shadow on the muddy water. Tahu rolled in midair and unleashed a stream of fireballs above and behind him. But there was no sign of an enemy, just empty sky.
Take it easy, Tahu told himself. This is no worse than walking blindfolded through a Bohrok nest.
He could hear the sounds of battle from far ahead. The other Toa Nuva were fighting with Vamprah’s fellow Makuta, with most of the action centered around a spherical structure in the swamp called the Codrex. The Toa had been told that they had to get in there, for it held their “beginning and probable ending.” The heroes possessed all six pieces of the keystone that would allow them access, but so far, had not been able to fight their way past the Makuta and get inside.
Tahu heard a soft whistle, as if something was falling nearby, followed by a harsh click. He had come to hate that noise. It was the sound of a Tridax pod opening up to unleash its cargo of shadow leeches. One leech could drain the light out of a Toa, Matoran, or any other being, leaving them a dark and corrupted pawn of the Makuta.
He glanced up. The four creatures were falling fast and right at him. It was too late to dodge, but not too late to trigger the power of his Hau Nuva mask. The Mask of Shielding threw a field of energy around him that kept the leeches from striking him. Amazingly, they attached themselves to the shield itself! Tahu shuddered at the sight of the disgusting beasts trying in vain to feed off the mask’s energies.
Diving as close to the swamp water as he dared, he abruptly shut the field off. The leeches tumbled into the water, which began to froth. Toa Onua had been the first to discover that the water was mutagenic, able to transform anything exposed to it. That was why the Toa avoided it at all costs. Now the shadow leeches were being changed… probably into something worse than what they were before. Tahu had no wish to hang around and see what that would be.
He caught a glimpse of Lewa, Onua, and Kopaka on a patch of ground up ahead, pinned down by shadow bolts fired by the Makuta. Gali and Pohatu were caught up in their own battles, so any help was going to have to come from him.
So it’s time to take care of my Makuta problem, he decided. Good thing I love the smell of burnt bat in the morning…
“You know,” said Lewa Nuva, Toa of Air, “this reminds me of a story.”
He, Kopaka Nuva, and Onua Nuva had their backs to a stand of trees in the swamp of Karda Nui. They were alternating firing their weapons and hurling elemental power at the attacking Makuta.
“Dare I hope it’s one that doesn’t end with six dead Toa Nuva?” joked Onua.
“Please tell me it’s not the one about the three Matoran, the Manas crab, and the bucket,” said Kopaka. “Last time you told me that, it took me a week to get the picture out of my head.”
“No, no,” Lewa replied, using a mini-cyclone to send four shadow leeches flying in opposite directions. “It’s the one about the three Matoran, the Nui-Rama swarm, and the carry-basket of bula berries.”
Onua glanced at Kopaka, even as a shadow bolt splintered the tree behind him. “I don’t think I know that one.”
Kopaka shook his head. “I am sure I am going to regret this, but neither do I.”
“Once, there were three Matoran,” Lewa began.
Kopaka cut him off. “Is this really the time?”
“Once, there were three Matoran,” Lewa repeated, more firmly. “They had gone out for a quick-walk to gather bula berries for dinner. Suddenly, they were attacked by a swarm of Nui-Rama. They were outnumbered and certain-doomed!”
“I don’t need to hear this story,” grumbled Kopaka. “I’m living it.”
“But notice the Makuta are keeping their distance,” chuckled Onua. “They must have heard Lewa tell a story before.”
“As I was speak-saying,” continued Lewa. “The Matoran were trapped, with no way out. Finally one of them said, ‘I think they want the bula berries. Let’s just give the berries to them.’ Well, everyone thought this was an ever-fine idea – better to be hungry than dead.”
“I am still waiting for the part where heroic Toa Lewa saves the day,” said Kopaka, battering a flight of shadow Matoran with an ice storm.
“So they left the basket of bula berries and backed away,” Lewa continued, ignoring Kopaka. “And the Nui-Rama quick-flew down to it. But the next second, they started fighting among themselves over who would get the juicy berries. Before too long, there were no Nui-Rama left! So the three Matoran came out of hiding, took their berries, and went home.”
“And the moral of the story is…?” asked Onua.
“Travel with berries,” said Kopaka.
Lewa sighed. “No, no… the key to beating the Nui-Rama was figuring out what they wanted. What do the Makuta want here?”
“I’ve been asking myself the same question,” admitted Onua.
“It’s obvious,” said Kopaka. “They want the six keystones that can be used to open the Codrex.”
The Toa of Ice pointed to the large structure a few hundred yards away. It was protected by a field of energy so strong that even touching it sent one flying halfway across the swamp.
“Doesn’t make sense,” said Onua, summoning a wall of earth to block a Makuta lightning bolt. “The Brotherhood was here for days before we were, and they knew about the keystones. If they wanted in, they could have gotten in before we arrived. No, they have something else in mind, and I can prove it.”
“How?” asked Lewa.
Onua pointed to the six Makuta in the air, each possessed of incredible power far outclassing any Toa. “Simple – we’re not dead yet.”
High above, Makuta Krika surveyed the battle raging all around him. It was a seesaw contest, with the Makuta driving the Toa back, and then the Toa mounting a spirited counterattack. An outsider viewing the conflict might think it could go on forever, but Krika knew it would not.
And that is what worries me, he thought. Not whether we will win or lose here in this pesthole, but what happens when the battle is over. What kind of universe will remain? Would we be doing the Toa a favor by sparing their lives here, or committing the worst possible crime against them?
A powerful jet of water passed through Krika’s intangible form, doing him no harm. He turned to see Toa Gali flying toward him, her ghost blaster ready to fire. If the Toa expected cries of rage or shouts of defiance from Krika, though, she was disappointed.
“Must we dance this dance, Toa?” asked the Makuta. “You may not know how it must end, but I do.”
“Then let me in on the secret,” Gali said, firing her blaster. Bars of energy appeared from thin air around the Makuta.
“There is an old saying on the island of Zakaz,” Krika replied. “Only a fool fights in a burning forest. While you waste your time battling us, your universe is burning to the ground, little Toa.”
Krika suddenly passed through the bars and shot forward. Before Gali could react, he had turned solid and grabbed her, draining some of her energy in the process. “Come with me,” said the Makuta, steering her flight away from the battle, “and I will tell a tale that will freeze your heart and turn your hopes to ashes.”
Pohatu saw Gali being carried off, but was in no position to help. He had been slugging it out with Makuta Gorast for what seemed like an eternity. So far, she had plowed her way through a hail of light spheres, shrugged off boulders, and survived direct hits by uprooted trees. He had even flown around her at super-speed, delivering a thousand blows in a second, and done little more than shake her up.
“Fall down already,” the Toa of Stone grumbled. “You’re making me all frustrated.”
Gorast’s response was an amused hiss, followed by a crushing blow that sent Pohatu and his Matoran companion, Photok, flying toward the Codrex. When they struck the energy field, they were hurled in the opposite direction, right toward Gorast. She met them with another blow. They crashed down into the mud and lay there, barely moving.
“Toa of Stone,” Gorast laughed. “Toa of Clay would seem more accurate. Did you truly think you could stand against a warrior who has ground armies beneath her heel?”
Pohatu painfully raised his head out of the mire and wiped mud from his mask. “Well, it seemed like – ow! – a good idea at the time.”
“You Toa Nuva will die here,” Gorast continued, floating closer to the fallen pair. “And the Matoran will join with us in darkness. The Plan will go forward. You cannot stop it.”
Pohatu made it to his hands and knees. Beside him, Photok was stirring. “Wouldn’t dream of it. But maybe you should tell me what this big Plan is, so I can make sure I don’t get in its way.”
Gorast smiled. “I have a better idea,” she said, reaching out to touch Pohatu’s armor and triggering her Mask of Disruption at the same time.
Instantly, the Toa felt his elemental power building up inside of him. Then it was being released against his will, flowing out of him and creating stone all around. Within moments, he and Photok were buried by a ton of rock, then two tons, then three, with no end in sight. The sheer weight carried them down into the swamp inside a shell of stone, the product of a Toa’s power gone wild.
“You Toa truly are remarkable,” Gorast said, watching as the rock vanished from view beneath the mud. “It is not every being who can create their own tomb.”