A lone figure stood before an ancient fortress. His journey had been a long and treacherous one. Now it seemed as if it had come to a sudden, and very frustrating, end.
The structure in front of him had no visible doors or windows. There was no sign that anyone lived inside or had for years. However, the fresh footprints of an Agori nearby said this might be the place. The answers he sought were inside, he was certain of it, but far less sure of how to reach them.
His name was Mata Nui. Once, only mere months before, he could have reached down from the heavens and torn the roof from the building. A complex array of sensors could have located the Agori or any other person or object he sought from a world away. One stride could have carried him many kios across the land.
That felt like a lifetime ago. Then, his mind and spirit lived inside a miracle of engineering, towering some 40 million feet in the air. But he had been driven from that body and exiled to the desert world of Bara Magna. If not for the power of the Mask of Life he wore, he wouldn’t even have a body now. As it was, he was only a little over seven feet tall, vulnerable to pain and hunger and thirst, and far removed from the power to shake worlds.
Seven feet tall, thought Mata Nui. I really hate being short.
Bara Magna had been a revelation to Mata Nui in many ways. He had found friends among the Glatorian and Agori who lived here. He had been drawn into their struggle against the marauding Skrall and Bone Hunters. He had even found proof that the Great Beings, his creators, had once walked these sands.
Part of that evidence had been a coin found by an Agori scavenger named Berix. Made of a metal said to have been mined to the north, the design on the coin’s face matched that of the one on the Skrall shields. At first, it looked like just a bunch of interconnected lines. But as Mata Nui learned more about this planet, particularly about the Great Beings and their works, he realized the design was far more than decorative. It was not just artwork or a symbol of some abstract concept. It was a map.
But, he wondered, a map of what?
That answer came courtesy of an Agori named Crotesius, who told him that he had been part of a failed expedition to the north in search of the “Valley of the Maze.” He had returned without finding it, but one of his companions, Tarduk, had left again to resume the search. Mata Nui resolved to seek the valley and find out what might lie at the heart of the maze.
Now that mission had brought him here, to a fortress with no doors in the center of a vast stone maze. After weeks of traveling and many dangers, here he was, confronted by yet another mystery with no easy solution.
“By the Great Beings, I have had enough of this,” Mata Nui growled. His voice echoed off the peaks all around.
Amazingly, there came an answer. The words came from the fortress, though there was no sign of anyone to speak them. They floated through the air on a whisper so soft he almost missed it over the sound of the breeze.
“What do you seek?”
Mata Nui took two quick strides forward and stared up at the fortress. “Entrance,” he said.
There was a long silence. Then the voice repeated, “What do you seek?”
“I wish to enter,” Mata Nui replied, more loudly. “But I see no way to do so.”
This time, the voice did not hesitate to respond. When it did, there was a trace of iron in its tone, as if the speaker were losing patience.
“What do you seek? What is your burden? What brings you life, and death?”
So it’s not asking questions, thought Mata Nui. It’s posing riddles. This fortress, and the maze that surrounds it, were designed to keep out anyone who might use the power of the Great Beings for selfish reasons. So if I don’t give the right answers here…
He allowed himself to wonder if Tarduk had made it this far, and if so, had he given the wrong answers? What, then? Had the Great Beings rigged traps to destroy potential intruders? Were his creators really that ruthless?
What do I seek? It’s a very good question, he admitted. When I first came to Bara Magna, all I wanted was to escape and save my people from the evil of my enemy, Makuta. I didn’t know then that this place was tied to my origins. I didn’t know I might find answers here to questions I had never asked.
Mata Nui sat down on the ground and stared at the stone walls of the fortress. He was going to have to give this answer a lot of thought.
“Where is he?” Kiina asked. She was standing amid the dunes of the Bara Magna desert, her eyes fixed on the northern mountains. “He should be back by now.”
Beside her, Ackar nodded. “Perhaps. But we’ve got no idea how far he had to travel, or what he might have found.”
“Or what might have found him,” Kiina added, grimly. “We should have stayed with him, no matter what he said.”
The two were warriors and Mata Nui’s closest friends. He had helped them free their villages from the threat of the Skrall, but not stayed around for thanks. Shortly after the villages had agreed to unite into one mega-city, Mata Nui had departed to track down the meaning of Berix’s coin. Ackar and Kiina, accompanied by another warrior, Gresh, and Berix had gone with him.
The way had been fraught with danger and the battles had been fierce. After Berix was badly wounded, Mata Nui had insisted that the others turn back and return to the desert. Ackar had argued that it was too perilous for Mata Nui to go on alone, but Mata Nui remained adamant.
“No, my friends,” he had said. “You are needed there, with your people. I have to find a way back to mine.”
Now, weeks had passed with no sign of him. Ackar felt the same worries Kiina did, but saw no reason to make her feel worse.
“We have to believe Mata Nui knows what he’s doing. It’s not the first time he’s gone off on his own,” he reminded her. “Last time, it was to save your life.”
“Right,” said Kiina. “So I owe him… and I pay my debts. With or without you, I’m going after him.”
Ackar knew there were some things on Bara Magna that one couldn’t argue with: an enraged Skopio, a hungry swarm of scarabax beetles, and Kiina once she had her mind made up.
Besides, there came a point where being a true friend to Mata Nui meant not respecting his wishes on everything.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll get supplies. You find Gresh. He’s going to want to come too.”
Ackar started to turn away, but Kiina reached out to stop him. When he turned back to her, he saw real fear in her eyes.
“Do you think he’s okay?” she asked. “I mean, he couldn’t be… you know… could he?”
“If anyone can come back out of those mountains in one piece, it’s Mata Nui,” Ackar answered. “So let’s make sure we’re there to greet him.”
Mata Nui had been staring at the fortress for hours, rolling the questions around in his head. He had moved on from trying to divine the correct answer to the first, and focused on the second.
What is my burden?
That was easy. He had left behind a universe full of beings that depended on him, Toa and Matoran willing to sacrifice their own lives on his behalf. His carelessness had allowed evil to usurp rule over his home and placed all those lives in jeopardy. Now here he was on Bara Magna, with little clue how to make things right again, reduced to trying to figure out maddening riddles. It was beyond frustrating. He had a duty to save his people, and he was wasting time like –
Wait a minute, he thought. Duty… it’s duty that drives me on, the responsibility I feel for the people of my universe. Duty is my burden!
Everything suddenly made sense. The Great Beings had taught him about three “virtues,” which he and the Matoran he protected were to live by. They were unity, duty and destiny. If the answer to the second question was duty, then perhaps…
Mata Nui rose. “I seek… unity!” he shouted.
“What is your burden?” the mysterious voice asked.
“Duty,” answered Mata Nui.
“What brings you life, and death?”
The same thing that brings it for everyone else, thought Mata Nui. “Destiny,” he said.
Before his eyes, the stone blocks in the center of the fortress seemed to soften and melt together. A square gap about eight feet high appeared at the base of the building. Then the stone became stone again, with a doorway now in place.
Mata Nui glanced at Click, the scarabax beetle who he had befriended on his arrival on Bara Magna. It now rode on his shoulder, but did not look very happy about that fact just now.
“Looks like an invitation,” said Mata Nui. “What do you think?”
The beetle clicked its pincers together furiously, a clear sign of displeasure.
“That’s what I thought you’d say,” Mata Nui replied. “Well, sorry, old friend, we didn’t come all this way to stand outside.”
Mata Nui entered the tower. He half-expected another maze inside, but it was quite the opposite. A stairway leading down awaited him, but no other exit. Sword at the ready, he descended the stairs.
They seemed to go on for days, winding around and around with no end in sight. Then Mata Nui began to feel the heat, an overwhelming wave that almost staggered him. It grew worse the further down he went, but he pressed on. There was, after all, no other choice.
When he finally reached bottom, it took him a moment to take in the incredible scene. A large chamber stretched out before him, bare of any furniture. In the center of the floor was a pool of lava, boiling, churning, and glowing red hot.
And hanging suspended above it, upside down and bound in chains, was Tarduk.
* * *
Vezon had had better days. His newfound ability to travel to other dimensions had landed him on an alternate world called Spherus Magna, where Makuta, Toa, and some other race called Agori were happily living together. Well, mostly – a pretty good sized army of Skakdi, Vortixx, and Spherus Magna natives was headed right for the village in which Vezon stood.
It seemed a good time to leave. But Vezon had not yet achieved any mastery over the powers of the Kanohi Olmak that had been merged with him. It didn’t work just because he wanted it to, and right now, he was starting to wish he had never seen the miserable thing to start with.
For the sixth time in the last minute, he willed the Olmak’s power to take him away from this reality before the onrushing horde trampled him underfoot. This time, he felt the now familiar sensation of dizziness that preceded a dimension jump, and saw the world waver around him. But then something happened that had never happened before: everyone around him froze in place. When he tried to reach out and touch a Toa, his hand passed right through. Worst of all, he wasn’t “traveling” – he seemed to be stuck in a realm of statues.
“This is better than being killed,” he said to himself. “Not much better, but better.”
His addled mind ran through all the possible scenarios. This wasn’t much help, as he knew next to nothing about Masks of Power or how to repair them. If something had gone wrong with the Olmak, he might well be stuck forever.
Would that be so bad? The voice was in his head – this wasn’t an unusual experience for Vezon, although normally the voices he heard were his own.
“If it doesn’t get any more entertaining than this, yes,” Vezon replied. “Who am I speaking to?”
My given name wouldn’t mean anything to you. The people of Spherus Magna would call me a “Great Being.”
“And what makes you so great?”
I do not speak to the beings of this world. They never see me, or hear me, and so it is left to their imaginations to conjure what I am like, how I think, and what I believe. The imagination has an infinite capacity to fill in the blanks with what it wants to be there.
“That’s nice,” said Vezon, impatiently. “Can you help me get out of this situation?”
Why would I? I got you into it. My people created the first Masks of Power. We certainly know how to shut one off. You don’t belong here… in fact, I strongly suspect you don’t belong anywhere. And so, now you are nowhere.
“Is this what Great Beings do all day? Stick their phantom noses into things that don’t concern them and get in the way of a perfectly good lunatic rampage through realities?” asked Vezon.
I am, perhaps, not a typical Great Being, the voice replied. Eons ago, I made the error of touching the Mask of Life. As a result, everything around me – furniture, equipment, rays of light – came to life. For their own safety, my fellow rulers imprisoned me. Now all I need fear are my living chains… living blocks of stone… and the screams of light as the darkness extinguishes it.
Vezon didn’t know anything about what pains a living light might feel, but he did know a light at the end of the tunnel when he saw one. “So you’re in prison, and so am I. Would you set me free… if I could set you free?”
The voice in Vezon’s head was silent for a long time.
Lewa stood stock still. Artakha had teleported him into a cavern, but he was not alone there. No, evidently he was sharing it with some being named Tren Krom… and something told Lewa he really didn’t want to get a look at his host.
Turn, Tren Krom said again. His telepathic “voice” reminded Lewa of a nest of slithering borer worms.
“I am ever-fine right here, thanks,” said Lewa. “Artakha said –”
I can guess why you have come, Toa, Tren Krom replied. I too heard the voice of Makuta Teridax coming from every corner of the universe. But what would you have me do? I have knowledge that could be used as a weapon against him, but knowledge without the experience to use it is less than useless. And I am bound to this island by the Great Beings, unable to venture forth.
“And if the Great Beings did it, I doubt I have the power to quick-free you,” said Lewa. “So this journey was another waste of time.”
Perhaps… and perhaps, said Tren Krom. There may be a way. But it would involve great risk… and success, for you, might be worse than failure.
“Everyone I care about is at risk,” Lewa answered. “Everything that matters to me has been poisoned by Makuta’s corruption. I’ll do whatever it takes to stop him.”
You may live to regret your choice, said Tren Krom. But the choice has been made just the same.
Lewa felt a tentacle wrap around his neck. His arms went up to tear it away, then stopped halfway there. The next instant, the world began to spin and he felt as if his insides were being yanked out a piece at a time. There was light and pain and impenetrable darkness. And when the shadows cleared away, Lewa was staring at… himself.
He looked down, for only a micro-second, long enough to see a huge tentacled mass grafted to stone. Instinctively, he knew that was Tren Krom’s body – and his mind was inside it.
“Freedom.” The word came from Lewa’s mouth, in Lewa’s voice, but it was spoken by Tren Krom. “After so long, I have a body again… a strong, powerful body that can take me from this wretched place… thanks to you.”
Lewa tried to speak and couldn’t. At first, he panicked. Then he recalled that Tren Krom had spoken to him telepathically. He concentrated and his words echoed in “Lewa’s” brain.
What have you done? I didn’t quick-agree to this!
“You said ‘whatever it takes,’” Tren Krom replied. “This is what it took. But do not fear – I will honor our bargain. I will use what I know to stop Teridax. All I ask in return is freedom. Is a life spent in exile here so high a price to pay for the safety of all you know and love?”
Before Lewa could form an answer, Tren Krom – in the body of the Toa Nuva of Air – had left the cave. Lewa tried to pursue, but the great bulk of this body was a part of the island itself. He could not move.
And if I don’t find a way to get my body back, he said to himself, I’m going to be ever-trapped here for good.