Disassembly

The shadow of the Kanohi Dragon passed over the eleven Toa as it flew overhead, deciding whether to continue being a pest or to eliminate the pests below. While it made up its mind, Toa Hagah and Toa Mahri alike were sweating it out in the fiery inferno which raged in the surrounding plains, gripping their tools tightly. Far to the north, a path of destruction loomed in the dragon’s wake, as it used its fiery breath on the land. The Toa were determined to stop the destruction right here, but the battle had been a shaky one—the Kanohi Dragon was a more formidable beast than any Rahi any of them had ever faced, and they wondered if there was any hope of taking it down.

“Behemoth creatures with loads of armor,” Pouks grumbled. “Why did the Great Beings always have a fascination with behemoth creatures with loads of armor?”

“Maybe that can play into our benefit,” Nuparu piped. “We could overheat its systems, perhaps?”

“The dragon thrives on heat,” Norik reminded him. “And under each of those mask scales the Rahi has a ventilation system. Too many vents to try and plug.”

“Whatever we do, we just have to keep it from using its fire,” Hewkii growled as he summoned a boulder to throw the dragon’s way.

“And we can’t let it reach the villages south,” Gaaki reminded them.

“It came from the Great Volcano,” Jaller said. “How are batteries like us supposed to have enough power to suppress something a power plant couldn’t satisfy?”

“Precision,” Kualus answered, firing the tri-bladed staff he carried as the Kanohi Dragon dove towards them. What was intended as a strong stream of frost aimed at the dragon’s underbelly resulted in a thick coating of ice which adhered to its underside, the staff amplifying the Toa of Ice’s elemental abilities. Kualus continued his offense, bombarding the Rahi with ice colder than his Sub-Zero Spear could ever manage. The dragon’s maw opened wide as it roared in pain, fire beginning to conjure in its throat.

The conjuring was short lived, however, as a growing Toa of Earth rose up to tackle the dragon. It lashed out with its double bladed tail, catching Bomonga in the back. He grimaced, but he did not falter. Instead he reached back to grab the behemoth by its tail, ripping the creature out of the sky. Bomonga grappled with the dragon, distracting it as the two Toa of Water created moisture for Kualus to freeze.

Feeling weak at the sense of the cold, the dragon let itself drop to the ground, slamming into the earth with the force of an earthquake. It wriggled furiously against the Toa of Earth, trying to escape from his grip. The remaining Toa of Earth and Stone rushed to assist their brother, willing the ground of Spherus Magna to help their enlarged brother pin the gargantuan. In the meantime, Jaller and Norik rushed to either side of the beast, using their control of fire to suppress any flame the dragon tried to shoot, whilst Iruini and Kongu used their elemental powers to suffocate the ravening infernos spreading along the plains.

Spherus Magnans who saw the fight claimed it was nothing they’d seen since the Core War, while historians from the Matoran Universe recalled the fight the dragon had given another group of eleven Toa millennia before. The beast both times had been a ravager of the land, but perhaps this time it would be put down for good. To the mountains of Iconox it would be shipped, where the cold would inhibit its power. The Toa had originally let the beast go, and it had been peaceful. But apparently it would never be content to leave the Matoran and their new Agori peers alone.

***

The eleven Toa watched the sun set to the west, sweat of the battle turning cold under their armor in the arriving evening. At the bottom of the hill where they stood, the Kanohi Dragon was being loaded onto a platform by hundreds of black armored denizens, of which half the group looked skeptically upon.

“Do we trust the Vortixx to take the dragon?” Kualus asked. “The last time they had it they—“

“The only place it can go is the northern reaches of Iconox,” Jaller nodded, understanding the Toa Hagah’s concerns. “We have to trust them with the dragon.”

“But if they do anything like they tried to do last time…” Iruini said, uneasy.

“My mask shows me nothing of the dragon’s future,” Gaaki said. “I think it will be alright with them, this time.”

“They don’t have access to all of the technology they had on Xia,” Nuparu pointed out. “The disassembly of the robot made them leave a few things. And since Roodaka isn’t leading them this time, I think they’ll be on the right path.”

The Toa Hagah of Ice nodded, watching the silhouettes of the Vortixx rushing to finish the work before nightfall.

“Is everything alright, Kualus?” came the voice of Norik. The others had left, leaving only the two of them on the hill. The Toa of Ice shook his head.

“No brother,” he said, pointing his staff to the north, “There is somewhere you and I have to go.”

***

The hannah crab clacked its claws excitedly as it scuttled through the maze of furniture before it. Eagerly venturing through the closed quarters, it bumped on every possible chair leg it could come across, ricocheting onto the wall and back. Each collision made the Rahi more excited, looking for the way out of the absurd arrangement of furniture. There had to be a gap somewhere to duck out of this… after all, there was food outside of here.

The crab continued to crawl through the maze, nearly passing the exit in its furious search. It crashed into the wall as it tried to reverse direction, then managed to crawl backwards to the break in the furniture. It shot through the gap to a wide chamber, nearly scuttling into a pair of blue columns in the middle of the floor. It was only the swift sweep of a big red arm which prevented it from a painful collision.

“We come here every week, little one, yet you get lost back there every time,” Jaller chuckled as he nestled his pet in the crook of his arm. The crab began to coo as its legs came to a stop. It curled up in the Toa of Fire’s embrace. “It would also help if someone didn’t rearrange the furniture every time we visited,” he jabbed at the winged Toa standing in the middle of the room.

“You don’t have to come over for these healing treatments,” Hahli retorted, fluttering her wings. “Surely the Kanohi Dragon didn’t burn the Toa of Fire too bad.”

A knock on the door whisked his comeback away, and Jaller set his drink down as he went to answer it. His evening with Hahli was interrupted, and he wondered by whom at this time of night.

The door opened to reveal a gold and white Toa, standing behind a Ta-Matoran, and Jaller was curious as to which odd character led the pair. “Takua! Kapura!” He exclaimed. Kapura gave a courteous nod, but when the Toa only exchanged a solemn hello, it seemed strained, and Jaller saw that there was something painful in his old friend’s eyes. He pulled them in, asking what was wrong, but Takanuva could not answer.

“Nothing to be spoken of in doorways, Toa Jaller,” the Ta-Matoran responded for his companion.

***

Toa Jaller had seen his share of dead Rahi as a Matoran on the island of Mata Nui; there were plenty of casualties in the battles with the infected beasts of the Makuta. But what he saw now was another level of grotesque for him. The corpse of a Muaka tiger rested some ways from of Vulcanus, the gelatinous mass of organic material usually underneath its armor sitting exposed in the desert sun. The Rahi had only been dead a few days, but its hollowness made it seem as though it had been deceased for ages. Numerous parts were missing, more than when Kapura and Takua had initially found it.

“This has to be the fifth or sixth one we’ve found,” the Toa of Light informed his friend. “But this one is the freshest kill.” Only one half of its face remained, its clean skull showing huge gaps into its body. One eye looked darkly into the sand of its final resting place, where the other parts of its being were scattered. Jaller shuddered, unable to shake off the memories as a Matoran being stalked by this creature.

A powerful forearm that had been lined with armor and implants was completely bare, now nothing more than a tendril of lean muscle shriveled in the desert day. Even the toenails were stripped of its parts. A few wild birds had been pecking at the flesh, but they had flown off at the approach of the the Matoran and the four Toa. The five of them now looked over it, trying to comprehend what the dead Rahi meant.

“The first two we thought were random,” Takanuva said. “But once more were showing up…”

“How do we know that it wasn’t simply attacked by some larger Spherus Magnan animal?” Hahli asked her Av-Toa friend.

“It’s too cleanly done,” the Nuparu answered her. The Toa of Earth had met up with the group on Takanuva’s request, the Toa of Light hoping to use his engineering expertise to gain insight on the trail of corpses he and Kapura had found. eHe pointed to mechanical parts on the Rahi’s head which were still intact. “Look here. The skull is gone, but there are no actual ‘breaks’ in its parts. It’s as if the pistons were taken off very deliberately. Other than what the birds have taken, no predator has gone after this. The flesh looks otherwise left alone.”

“So are you saying… someone took the Rahi apart?” the Toa of Water inquired. Nuparu looked at her, an unsettling truth hanging silently in the air.

“It was not a natural death,” Kapura said. “I found it during a scouting mission, with a few others just outside of Vulcanus. There was a roar we heard, and I volunteered to investigate it. Staying hidden within sight, I crept over to see the Rahi already dead. There were a few parts missing, but not as many as there are now.”

“There aren’t claw marks or anything of the sort signifying an assault, and that’s the odd thing,” Nuparu added. He led Jaller to a bare shoulder. “Look at this. The armor over there is removed, not torn off. And none of the tendons are ripped particularly brutally. This happened after it died. I highly doubt that anything that was trying to feast would have pecked so evenly; a large predator would have made marks within the meat.”

“Why would someone want to… disassemble a Rahi?” Jaller asked, uncomfortable with the word. “And how did they kill a Muaka themselves?”

“Perhaps the answer is not in the dirt, but on the horizon,” Kapura said. They turned in confusion to see what he meant. The Ta-Matoran was pointing in the distance, where a dot was rapidly growing, and the four Masks of Power grew concerned. This was not an area on any trade routes, and the being was coming from the east, whereas Vulcanus was south of here. There were no villages east. Who could be coming out here, and why? Jaller wondered. His Arthron quickly scanned, and he did not like the returning signals. The three Toa armed themselves, cautious of who it could be.

A sole rock steed galloped into sight, the particularly nasty Bone Hunter known as Fero mounted atop, sword wielded. The Toa glared at him as he sneered from atop his ride. “What brings you out here Toa? Your kind are like statues, only present where you can be admired.”

“We could ask the same thing of you, Hunter,” Hahli growled. “This animal was found dead, hunted down. Was this or your clan’s doing? And what did you do with the parts?”

“A coincidence that I pass this spot,” he chuckled sinisterly. “But I have the native right to travel my own territory, without assault from other worlders,” he spat. “I know not how this robot died, but I can tell you that it is not the first that I have seen.” He then flashed his spurs, which held a piece of a Nui Rama stinger that Jaller knew was impossible to get without losing a hand. “Your beasts make good trophies, but I would not waste my time hunting your kind. Better to wait until you’re like this one here, rusting in the sands and prime for scavenging.” With that, the rock steed lunged forward, jaws bared.

“That’s evidence!” Jaller snarled, letting a warning burst of flame at the bandit and his mount.

“That’s Skirmix’s dinner,” Fero laughed. “But I will tell you where I got this, before I go on, for I have elsewhere to be. There is a market far from here, to the north, where someone of your stature wouldn’t go. That is where I got these, from a merchant. I know not of how he gets his products, but I those in the market have high demands. Expect more carcasses like this one as the demand increases.” He kicked the steed in its sides, and they went off into the distance. The five watched Fero depart for a long time before they turned back to the deceased.

“Bone Hunter scum,” Takanuva snarled, gripping his Toa tool. “Should have lit him up till he told us more.”

“He told us enough,” Hahli said, flexing her claw. “We move this body somewhere where we can investigate it better. Jaller, you can use your Arthron to find out more clues, and I’ll use my mask to see if any animals know where this market is. If what Fero mentioned was true, I can get us more information.”

“We’ll take what we can back to my workshop,” Nuparu suggested to the Toa of Fire. “And I can look at it more in depth there.”

“I’m going with Hahli,” Jaller said, shaking his head. But the Toa of Water aggressively shook her mask.

“You’re not coming with me. Two Toa sized travelers will give suspicion.”

***

Not far away, under the sand, a figure was watching the group investigate the Rahi, fear rising in him as he noted who they were. He had been on his way to retrieve more of the parts of the Muaka, but the arrival of the investigators forced him into hiding. This was bad. Jaller and Hahli could be fanatics about nature, that much he knew about them. If they investigated this and caught on to what he was doing, he would have to be especially careful about how he conducted his operations. They seemed to be leaving, but he would wait a while, and slip away under the cover of nightfall.

***

Ahkmou stood amongst the tables in front of his shop, a tarp overhead to protect his wares from the oncoming rain. Grey clouds were rolling in from beyond the Black Spike Mountains, shady and silent as they travelled across the sky. A few drops he could feel blowing in on the deathly quiet breeze, but the Po-Matoran did not retreat into the depths of the tent behind him; it would take a little more than water to hurt the Po-Matoran.

His gave a small smile as he silently observed the passing crowd. The slave caravan being marched through the market was a rich mix of roughened Spherus Magnans and Matoran Universe inhabitants, somberly marching through the market by their master for exhibition. Some merchants taunted them, offering their products to those who clearly could not afford them, but the Po-Matoran kept silent, instead letting his merchandise speak for him. Their master would beat them if they dared turned their heads, but Ahkmou could see a few  eyes lingering for more than a casual second before being rushed down the line. A number of customers required his attendance, and the afternoon wore on as Ahkmou sold his keep. The faceless and nameless customers came and went, only remembered by the piles of widgets they left.

They disappeared when the storm seemed to strengthen, scrambling for drier quarters, but the merchant remained outside. His pockets were full of money, but his curiosity was still to be satisfied, as he observed one customer who remained: a cloaked being stood across the way between shops, indifferent to the rain. Much taller than the Matoran, that much he could tell, but no more. Ahkmou cocked his head as he finally turned his attention to them, as they had been facing his booth all day. Knowing they had caught his attention, the being trudged towards Ahkmou’s booth, effortlessly trudging through the mud.

It was impossible discern a mask or helmet under the hood, no eyes even visible, and he simply waited for the being to speak. “Impressive wares you have,” they commented. “But…I hear you have more inside.” A large bag emerged from the stranger’s robes, landing on the table next to a Nui Rama shoulder bone with a number of clinks satisfying to Ahkmou’s ears.

“Right this way,” he offered, pulling the flap of his tent back to allow the stranger in.

“These pieces, they’re… fascinating,” the being said, noting the horn of a Kikinalo. Ahkmou said nothing, but let the stranger wander around his assembly. They did not draw their hands from their sleeves, keeping their features hidden. Ahkmou was slightly disappointed, hoping to get some insight into this high paying client. “How does one get such a stock?”

“Now, a merchant can not tell the secrets of the supplier,” Ahkmou replied, admiring a claw on a table. “I am afraid, in good business, that I cannot reveal where I get these.”

“I’ll pay extra,” the figure insisted. Still entranced in the claw, the merchant shook his head.

“I cannot disclose where I get my product,” Ahkmou told them.

“Then maybe the price of your miserable life is enough to interest you,” the customer snarled. The Po-Matoran whirled to see the cloak on the ground, and Toa Hahli in his tent, tri-talon bared. “Treacherous slime merchant. Talk, or you’ll find your shares here will become…liquidated.”

“Toa Hahli, so nice to see you,” Ahkmou grinned. “I take it the Toa are learning of the new craze of fashion on Spherus Magna? Are you come to join in?”

“Who is giving you these pieces to sell?” Hahli demanded. “There was a Rahi found brutally murdered, and its parts were missing. Why are people poaching Rahi for parts?”

“Oh, Toa, always trying to find someone to bring to justice.” Ahkmou chuckled. “What’s a few Rahi gone from the universe? Think about it. People hunt animals all the time. Everyone did it on Mata Nui, I’m sure you Ga-Matoran were no exception. What are you trying to prove?”

“There is something not right about it, Ahkmou,” Hahli insisted. “Of course, someone like yourself wouldn’t understand, the matter being about other lives than your own.”

“Well, Hahli, there’s nothing that I can tell you,” Ahkmou shook his head. “It’s nothing more than friendly poaching and profit.”

“If it’s no serious loss then, you probably won’t mind if I flood this entire black market back to the endless seas,” the Toa of Water growled. Ahkmou began to notice the rain pattering on the top of his tent. It was coming down heavier. “Your supplier, Ahkmou. Who are they?”

“Where did you find the corpse?” he asked.

“Somewhere near where you aren’t welcome,” she snarled.

“Their hunting skills are pathetic,” the Po-Matoran laughed. “Whoever is helping me turn a profit, they are definitely more on the mechanical side. It takes someone with mechanical skill to acquire these parts,” Ahkmou smirked. “Whomever may giving me these parts, that’s one thing they do have.”

Hahli glared. It was not much, but she thought she sensed where he was leading her. Nodding, she draped her cloak over her, exiting the tent without another word. Ahkmou remained inside, waiting a long time for the rain to lighten up.

The entire market was a sinkhole a few hours later, ruined by Hahli’s powers. The Po-Matoran exited his tent to witness the damage, grimacing. Silently, he hoped nobody in the market would know an enraged Toa of Water had come through, or that it was because of him.

“The Toa of Water,” came a voice from the shadows. Ahkmou jumped, suddenly aware of another cloaked being. The figure was just as tall as Hahli, just as featureless, but this time, the Po-Matoran knew who they were. His supplier. “What did you tell her?”

“I sent her a clue, but it was down the wrong path,” he promised. “Nothing to allude to who you are.”

“You know what happens if you violate our deal,” the stranger said. He stepped aside to reveal a large sack that had not been there before. More merchandise, was Ahkmou’s thought as he unwrapped the bag eagerly. He turned to say more to the figure, but they were gone, disappearing as suddenly as they appeared. Shrugging, he went to cataloging the new inventory, only to stop in shock at the non-Rahi pieces he found within the loot.

***

Jaller and Hahli,

Have been looking into the Muaka specimen you gave me. Had to go consult Turaga Whenua in Tajun about it. Will find you when I return.

—Nuparu

Jaller read the note on Nuparu’s workbench in his Vulcanus home, irritated at the Toa of Earth’s disappearance. As much as the earth types were tied down to their projects— mining, history, inventing— they were extremely difficult to keep track of; once they were set on a project, they would go far and wide to find whatever they required.He would find Nuparu later then. Hopefully the Toa Mahri returned within the day.

A Matoran came up to Jaller as soon as he left Nuparu’s hut, scroll in hand. “Toa Jaller!” the villager cried. “I have been looking for you everywhere!”

“What for?” the Toa of Fire asked.

“Toa Norik asked me to give you this, said it was urgent,” the villager said. Jaller opened the note, which held a meeting place and time. Jaller thanked the Matoran. “Have you seen Toa Hahli? I was asked to pass on the same message to her.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll find her,” Jaller replied. “Thank you for this.”

***

Hahli was the last to arrive at the campsite, immediately launching into the news that she had found. Jaller and the two Toa Hagah across the fire listened intently, shaking their heads at what she had found.

“Of course the little vermin was selling parts,” Jaller spat after Hahli told him the tale. “Anything he could do to make a profit.”

Across the campfire, Toa Norik shook his head. “Never have I heard of a Matoran so far from virtue,” the Toa Hagah of Fire said. “From Makuta’s Turaga in Metru Nui to this?”

“He was working for Makuta long before we made our way back to Metru Nui,” Hahli told them. “But this is a new low for him.”

“He wouldn’t tell you the supplier?” Toa Kualus asked.

“No names, but what he gave was a small hint of where to look,” she said. “If it is true, then the eleven of us trusted the wrong people.”

“What did you two find though?” Jaller asked the two Toa Hagah, breaking an uncomfortable silence hanging over them.

Kualus looked at the two uncomfortably. “Something felt off about the Kanohi Dragon’s attack. Onua Nuva and I took a trip up there a few years ago, to check its status since leaving the old universe. There was no real reason which it would want to even come back down here. It seemed… at home.”

“So what changed?” Jaller asked.

Kualus shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “The Great Volcano was a mess last time I was there, but…” he shook his head in disbelief “There is nothing to describe it now.”

“The ‘volcano’ itself is in shambles,” Norik told the Toa Mahri. “There is no heat coming from the area whatsoever. The land is torn apart. Where the Rahi’s nest was is a bunch of chasms now.”

“An earthquake?” asked Hahli. “Or possibly a bigger beast from the Great Jungle?”

“Not both though,” Norik said.

“But we haven’t felt any seismic activity down here,” Jaller reminded them. “You’re not saying…”

“Something forced the Kanohi Dragon out,” Kualus finished.

“What could have the power to do that?” Hahli asked.

“There was… a lot of machinery when I went to the Vortixx’s facility in Iconox,” the Toa of Fire cursed. “I didn’t know what a lot of it was. Nuparu would.”

“Maybe he can accompany you to another trip there,” Hahli suggested. “But Norik, Kualus… are you saying the Vortixx could be responsible?”

“The Vortixx have operated unchecked— here and on Xia —for millennia,” Norik said, glaring into the fire. “They could want to ‘revisit’ old projects.”

“What reason would they have for wanting the Kanohi Dragon?” Hahli asked.

“Weaponry, at the very least,” Norik said. “They don’t know all the players of this world, but they may want to be prepared for the day another Barraki or one of those Element Lords seeks them out.”

“Nuparu did say they couldn’t bring all of their tech off of their homeland,” Jaller recalled. “But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t take a lot of it.”

“Ahkmou isn’t the only one who wouldn’t do anything for a little extra income,” Hahli remarked.

“What Jaller could have seen could have been anything,” the Toa of Ice said, annoyed with the conspiracy theories bouncing around. He used his ice powers to lower the height of the flame, the two Ta-Toa unintentionally feeding their power as they grew eager in their conversation. “We have no confirmations. We all have dislike for their society, but we cannot let prejudices push our suspicions.”

“Yes, but it never hurts to investigate further, if the Vortixx are up to anything.” Jaller reminded him.

***

Vohon closed the door to his shop, the sun beginning to dip past the western dunes on the outer reaches of Vulcanus. He watched the yellow orb of Solis Magna until it had sank behind the dune, and then turned to put his wares away. Selling was done for the day, and it was time to go home.

A feeling of eyes on his back as he cleaned his shop made Vohon wary, and he almost expected the click of his shop doorknob. The Ta-Matoran stood there, laying his hands flat on top of the table he was at. “I’m closed for the day,” he said as calmly as he could, knowing the words wouldn’t discourage the intruders. “Come back tomorrow.”

“We aren’t here to buy,” a voice chuckled, and Vohon turned to look at who had trespassed into his shop. A Vortixx and an Agori stood across his doorway, dropping their cloaks to the floor of the hut. The Agori took off his seemingly empty backpack, a grin coming from under the half mask that they wore. Vohon had thought they were wearing Kanohi at first, but the more he looked, the more he could see they were not Kanohi at all, or even Glatorian helmets. They were masks, but not even poorly crafted ones; they seemed much more warped than that. The thought crossed Vohon’s mind that he may not be dealing with simple thieves.

“Now wait just a second—“ Vohon started, whipping out a loaded Kanoka launcher from under his table. Aiming at the Vortixx, he pulled the trigger, and threw the launcher unexpectedly at the Agori as the disk flew. The pseudo mask on the taller figure was knocked off, but the disk was too weak to have any effect on him.

The Agori had dodged the launcher thrown at him, a grin growing on his face as he began to advance on the Matoran. Night was arriving in Vulcanus, darkness coming in the form of these two bandits.

Vohon raised his fists halfheartedly, thinking he knew what was about to come. 

***

“Still think we shouldn’t be accusing them?” Hahli asked Kualus the next morning. He said nothing, simply gazing in shock at the mess that was Vohon’s ruined shop. The Matoran in question sat with Norik, sporting a new mask and nursing his socket where his arm used to be. Another Matoran medic was there, studying the spot where the limb had detached. Hahli reread the scroll she carried with the Matoran’s account of what had happened. The only word with meaning on it was ‘Vortixx’, describing one of the assailants. Kualus frowned, upset with the tortured Matoran’s physique.

“We’re headed north as soon as this investigation is over,” the Toa assured her. “but not necessarily with Cordak launchers blazing.”

“The interrogation should be more hostile than the last visit,” Jaller’s voice reached the two. In his hand he held the deformed half mask Vohon had presented to them when they had arrived.

“I’ve never seen that kind of mask before,” Hahli said.

“That’s because it’s a scale,” Norik corrected. “A decoy mask from the dragon, meant to lure in unsuspecting Matoran to feed on when they were close enough.”

Kualus looked at his brother, disgusted. “The Vortixx are definitely doing more than keeping the dragon in stasis,” he said. “I’ll ask Ackar to borrow his Thornatus again,” he resolved.

“Did Vohon have anything to say other than what he told us?” Jaller asked Norik. The Hagah shook his head.

“No, but I told him we would personally see to it that he received a new arm,” Norik informed Jaller. The group of them nodded to Vohon and the medic, their work in the hut done. It was time to travel to Iconox again. “Before we leave, have Takanuva on double patrol tonight,” he asked the Toa Mahri.

The Vortixx at the gate of the Iconox facility were concerned when Jaller and Norik brought them the news. “But the dragon has been here since you entrusted it to us,” one of the guards said. “How could an incident with the dragon happen in Vulcanus, if it never reached there?”

“That’s why we’re worried as well,” Jaller said. “We want to take a look at the dragon. I just want to assure its well being. Norik here is an expert on reptiles, and he wanted to look as well. If you allow us just a few hours to observe, then we will be on our way.”

“We weren’t expecting visitors today,” one Vortixx commented. Norik’s mask did a double take, sarcastically incredulous.

“Toa Nuparu did tell you we would be checking in,” the Toa Hagah reminded the guards. Their brows darkened, and they nodded, letting the two Toa in.

Their bluff got them into the dragon’s chamber, where the behemoth lay in stasis. An icy Spherus Magnan substance covered the dragon, keeping it dormant; whatever was on the dragon frosted over the surface of its hide, and the Toa could barely make out the details of its armor. Bringing two Kanohi Akaku from their packs, they saw past the substance, and began scouring up and down the length of the creature. It had some damage from the wrestling match with Bomonga, but the majority of its armor was undamaged.

The Rahi’s midsection was where the Toa found something off. In the bulk of its body, where the Rahi’s ‘masks’ lined its hide, the stasis substance appeared patchy. Jaller and Norik crouched down to where they saw the disturbance. One section of the substance appeared patched— investigating further, the Toa could see no mask scales on the creature. The Toa looked at each other, eyebrows raised. While Norik glanced up to check on any spying Voritxx, Jaller used his powers to burn away the substance to investigate further.

Underneath the patch, it was as they suspected; a broken scale stuck out from the rest, the Kanohi-like appendage missing. Jaller looked at it grimly, while Norik’s eyes were raised. They said nothing, repairing the seal quietly before moving on. More patches were visible further down the hide, various spots here spread out to try and look random, but the Toa could distinguish a pattern. They were undetectable from the platforms surrounding the dragon, where Vortixx walked to and from different facilities within the place, but down here, the more they looked, the more the Toa could see the substance had been tapped into.

“Dozens of ‘masks’ missing,” Jaller said. “But why? A powerless Kanohi doesn’t hide that much. Vohon was clearly able to tell it was a Vortixx attacking him.”

“Perhaps they’re not using the masks as disguises,” Norik suggested as they walked further down the dragon’s side. “The question is, then, what else they could be using them for. And how does this relate to the deaths of Rahi you found in the desert?”

“They’re not just taking the masks,” Jaller realized as they came to the rear of the Rahi. Curled up behind the massive beast was its tail. Covered by the stasis substance, it was hidden, but with the aid of their Masks of Vision, they could see the raw muscle of the tail. Some of the armor from one of the Rahi’s greatest weapons had been removed. “They’re stripping the Rahi.”

“For weaponry?” Norik queried. “There are thousands, if not millions of other weapons on Spherus Magna. Why would they waste their time stripping a dragon of its parts for—“

A sudden rumble cut Norik off. Tremors began to shake through the cavern, dust descending from the ceiling high above. The Toa looked at each other, surprised. The shaking did not last long, but it came in and out. Next to them, the comatose dragon began to shake as well. The two Toa nodded that it was best for them to leave.

“What is going on?” Jaller demanded of their guide as they exited into a side tunnel.

“Minor tremors, we have them every so often,” the guide explained, a collection of tablets and scrolls piled into a satchel he carried. “Nothing severe enough to awaken the dragon, but as a safety precaution we must ask you to leave.”

“What is causing said tremors?” Norik answered. The Vortixx shook his head, saying something they could not hear in the rumbling. He turned to lead them toward the exit, and stumbled as another tremor hit them. The Vortixx tripped, his open bag spilling onto the ground. The Toa went to help him collect everything, but the Vortixx scrambled on his hands and knees, picking everything up as fast as he could. Jaller went to help him, and Norik could not help but notice the dark expression on his mask as they continued to the exit.

“Are you ok?” The Toa Hagah asked when they met the fresh air of the mountains.

“Keep walking,” Jaller responded, eyes forward on the path.

Hahli and Kualus waited some ways away from the entrance to the facility, keeping hidden amongst the snowbanks. They immediately descended back to the path when they saw their comrades, equally as puzzled by Jaller’s silence as Norik was.

The three of them watched the Toa Mahri fall to his knees. His fingers became a whirl in the dirt, tracing something that only he could see. Any attempts to get an answer from what he was doing were met with only silence for a few moments.

He stood up, brushing his hands off to the side, and the other three gathered to see what he had drawn. A depiction of the north, but there were paths between here and the Great Volcano that none of them recognized.

“What is it?” Kualus asked.

“Our host let something slip,” Jaller began. “When we were leaving, I happened to get glimpse of this on one of the tablets he dropped. I used my Arthron to memorize it as best as I could— the mask isn’t too precise. But there is something out here—“ he indicated a section in the Black Spikes, midway between Roxtus and Iconox. “and where we are. We need to continue north to check that out.”

Using her power, Hahli sent water into the ruts the Toa had carved, allowing Kualus to freeze them into a sheet of ice. They pried it from the ground, smearing the original drawing Jaller had rendered as a precaution. When they were finished, they rose to see Norik gazing up at the slopes, troubled.

“Is something wrong?” Hahli asked him.

“The path is clear,” Norik said to Jaller. “I would’ve thought otherwise.”

“Why shouldn’t it be?” asked Kualus.

“I just would’ve thought… that the tremors inside would’ve shook the snow loose and down to here,” Norik responded. The Toa of Ice and Water looked at him quizzically.

“What tremors?” Hahli asked. The Toa of Fire met eyes, Norik cursing. Another of the Vortixx’s tricks, they realized.

“We need to get going,” Jaller said, leading the way.

The makeshift map showed them paths that were definitely not known to any travelers, they realized after a day of hiking. The four of them had crossed from Iconox’s icy slopes to deep within the Black Spikes, now walking single file along a path entrenched between two mountains. On either side of the path, black slopes reached high toward the sky. There were no sign of any animals, let alone other travelers, which kept Jaller on edge. Though he led the way, scouting with his Arthron, he was so focused on interpreting the returning signals that he continually tripped on cracks in front of his face.

“How much more of this?” Norik asked, picking up Jaller for the umpteenth time.

“The path ascends soon,” Kualus said, using one of their Akakus to spy a trail on the mountain not so far away. “Wherever the map leads… its close.”

“It better be,” Jaller said, crushing a rock with his power sword. “Because I’m sick of—“ A loud crack cut him off. To their side, a rumble sounded, and the Toa stiffened, knowing the sound of an oncoming rockslide.

Tripping and tumbling over one another, the Toa began to sprint down the alley that was their path. Out of the corner of their Kanohi, they could see tons of rock coming closer with each stride they took. “Go! Go!” Kualus urged them. As far as they could run in the short time they had, Jaller thought, they were not going to get clear of the rubble. Wielding his sword with both hands, Jaller turned and sent waves of intense heat at the rocks, trying to split the stone before it toppled onto them.

A figure on the mountain stood satisfied when he saw the rocks settle, the Toa buried far beneath them. He breathed a sigh of relief. The Toa were close, but they were not going to get any closer to uncovering his operations. That he was certain of. Satisfied with his work, he unlatched the door that would lead him into the mountain.

Though the sounds of muffled agony could be heard several boulders down, but Jaller’s power sword still carved toward the surface. The rock above him exploded in a molten mess, and he emerged gasping into fresh air. His chestplate had been dented, and he set his sword down to fix it, before beginning to carve to where he heard the sound.

Clearing the rubble, he found Norik trapped, a larger slab of rock pinning his leg. The sounds of yelling had come down, but the expression of pain on his mask remained intense. The armor on his leg had twisted under the impact and weight of the rock, and now the Toa laid amongst the rubble, fighting blacking out from the pain.

Kualus freed himself and made his way over to the pair, freezing the rock and shattering it, but it did no help. In an extremely short period, the injury had turned gruesome. They could not remove it, Hahli noted—the weight of the rock had caused the injury, but now it kept it all together. Whatever Kualus did to the rock, it would have further hurt his comrade. Hahli bent down to him when she freed herself, sending healing water powers into the Toa Hagah’s injury.

“You have to go on without me,” Norik said to Jaller and Hahli. The combination of the two Toa’s healing powers had done all it could now. “I’m of no use to you like this now.”

“We can’t leave you,” Jaller said firmly, but Kualus’s look said otherwise.

“It’s your mission,” Kualus reminded Jaller. “We are merely here to help. Go find out what the map led to; if we can catch up to you and serve as backup, we will.” The Toa of Fire opened his mouth to argue, but Hahli’s claw on his shoulder shut him up. Exchanging goodbyes with a fist bump, the two Toa Mahri made their way toward the mountain path.

Hahli was unsettled with how calmly she was breathing in the crisp air as they walked up the path. It wasn’t leaving the Toa Hagah behind that bothered her; only Mata Nui could possibly fathom what they were walking into now, and it might’ve been best to have back up or someone else to tell that they had gone missing. No, it was nothing about the injuries Norik had sustained; it was the quiet surrounding her and Jaller. Even without her Mask of Kindred, she could sense something looming in the nature ahead of them.

“I don’t like this,” she said to Jaller. “We shouldn’t have left them down there.”

“You’re the one who agreed with them to do it,” Jaller reminded her, a little surprised at her sudden change of heart. “But the rockslide was too convenient. We can’t let a few tricks from a species of tech geniuses scare us away. Whatever the Vortixx are hiding, they’re really desperate to keep hidden from us. We need to keep going at all costs.” The Toa of Water gave a small smile; Jaller’s sense of justice, though strict, was somewhat comforting in the face of her building anxiety.

Her fears returned and intensified when they saw the door. It stood against the face of the mountain, locked by a large gear. Hahli could feel its coolness with her protosteel claw, a chill running up her spine as her fears began to take on a solid form. Jaller grabbed its handles and cranked it open to find a dark, featureless tunnel. There were no signs of anything as far as they could see, but Hahli knew there had to be something deep in the tunnel. A door this well hidden had to be there for reasons she didn’t want to think about.

They stepped inside the yawning entrance, and Hahli pulled the lever to close the doors, the view of the mountains disappearing as she did so. Where the Toa of Water before could see blue skies and mountaintops, was now solid stone and metal, the crack in the two halves of the door impenetrable. She didn’t like the feeling of confinement overcoming her, but she turned to Jaller, calm and collected.

Neither torch nor lightstone illuminated the tunnel, and Jaller used his Arthron to guide them. The Toa of Fire was only visible by the glow of his eyes, but somehow her hand found his, and she let him lead the way.

While he concentrated on his mask power for ‘sight’, Hahli relied on her other senses to keep alert. As the Toa of Water walked blindly, her thoughts drifted to her hearing, and she listened to their footsteps. Though they walked quietly, their armored feet resounded far down the tunnel, giving her the slightest idea on how large the tunnel was. Something was not right about the way they echoed, and Hahli listened more intently, the nerves on her neck suddenly sensitive. Jaller squeezed his partner’s hand as he felt her pace pick up, but she did not reciprocate while she concentrated. Something was not right about the way their footsteps echoed, but she could not discern exactly what it was. There was the pair of footsteps coming back to them, but something was off about the way they sounded. Hahli suddenly realized what it was as she stopped, her hand jerking Jaller and bringing him to a stop as well.

But the sound of footsteps kept resounding behind them, and Hahli’s worries were confirmed.

There was a third person in the tunnel with them.

She whirled, slashing her tri-claw at the darkness. “Who is there?” she cried, her question repeating itself down the tunnel. Jaller directed his Arthron behind them, ‘listening’ for any response, but  the footsteps had stopped. After a few eternal moments of silence, they continued onward again.

Hahli continued to listen, but all she heard was two pairs of footsteps.

The shadows seemed to soften, but it took Hahli a while to realize she could see again. She and Jaller walked through shafts of grey light now, a soft glow coming from somewhere ahead to dispel the shadows. Hahli glanced over her shoulder to see a wall of absolute black, and looked forward again. Yes, there definitely was a difference now, not just her imagination playing tricks on her. Jaller slowed to a stop, putting a hand on her shoulder to caution the fellow Toa. “There’s movement up ahead”, he told her, his voice troubled, “but I can’t discern any details. Be prepared for anything.” Hahli nodded, and cocking their Cordak blasters, they slowly advanced.

Their path narrowed into a catwalk that wound around a chamber, where an assembly of machinery criss crossed into an elaborate factory line. Lightstones mounted high above cast a cerulean glow on a series of eerily still conveyor belts, mechanical arms paused over the shells of Rahi resting on them.  A few Vortixx wantered the machinery, hauling boxes of pieces to another room. The Toa looked at each other as they glimpsed the Rahi there, as well as a ladder that would take them to the floor. As quietly as they could manage, they snuck down the ladder, keeping hidden from the Vortixx as best as they could.

On the belts the Rahi lay still and dark, devoid of any sign of life. Gone was any organic tissue that had been inside of their frames, the beasts appearing as haunted skeletons of what they once were. The eye of one Muaka tiger was dark, gazing blankly into the strange facility but not seeing the doom that it brought the beholder. As the two Toa walked further along the belts, they stuck to the shadows, precariously trying to keep hidden from the Vortixx workers. The two looked further along to see more Rahi, dozens of species and samples in various stages of disassembly. One belt contained multiple Rahi with their limbs detached— A Nivhawk with its wings removed, a Phase dragon with its limbs disconnected from its torso— whereas another belt had a Nui-Jaga completely taken apart, each piece laid out in a frighteningly precise manner.

Following the belts led them to a hefty workbench in the middle of the factory, the stools surrounding it strewn about as though they were thrown in frustration.

Scrolls and tablets were scattered along the tabletop, which the Toa began to sift through, until Jaller pulled up one of a diagram of the robot that had housed the Matoran universe. Some of the writing was Agori, but it was the few notes on it in Matoran that the Toa of Fire did not understand.

Setting that scroll down, he dug through the pile he had plucked that one from. Hahli took that tablet as Jaller sifted more, reading notes about the giant robot, which from the context had to have been written by the Great Beings. There were some notations of Mata Nui and his mission, as well as the reformation of Spherus Magna, but it did not stop there; something that trailed off into Agori about the shutdown of the Mata Nui intelligence system, as well as reorganization of the materials within the robot… Hahli took a hard swallow as she looked around the factory, and then back at the text.

“What is this place?” she asked aloud.

“The place of our beginning… as well as our end.”

The Toa looked up, the voice coming from the other side of the workbench. Barely peeking over the surface, a Matoran grinned at them. He hobbled his way around to Hahli, smiling as he took the scroll from her. The two Toa looked at him, mouths agape with shock. They had forgotten about him, in their wild journey though Voya Nui and Mahri Nui, and the mask he now wore was one from the hide of the Kanohi Dragon. One of his arms seemed new… and they realized in horror that it was the arm of Vohon, hastily latched onto his shoulder blade. The body was familiar, but the sound of his voice instantly sent them back to their time as confused Matoran in a twisted world. The Matoran whom had helped them escape the realm of Karzahni stood before them, staring wide eyed and cheery in this dark and mysterious factory.

“You?” Jaller asked. “What are you doing here?”

“A lot of people… forget,” the Matoran giggled. “But I… I remembered. You’ve forgotten me in your adventures, Metruan. But I forgive you, just as the Great Spirit forgave his playthings.”

“Playthings?” Hahli asked nervously. She and Jaller looked at each other, and then to this decrepit Matoran. They were the able bodied ones, but somehow she felt this Matoran was the one with more power right now.

“The Vortixx, the Skakdi, those who weren’t Matoran…” He answered, nodding. “All… playthings. And the Rahi too!” He gestured to the cluttered workbench. “While we worked, the Great Spirit, he played. But he never cleaned up. That was our job. My job.”

Jaller shook his head. He was not following. “What is this place?”

“It is my factory,” he replied. Hahli raised her eyebrows. This Matoran, own or be in charge of a factory? As incredulous as it sounded, it made sense to her worried mind. “It’s where the first of us was built by the Great Beings, and where the last of us will be taken apart.”

“Taken apart… like the Rahi?” Jaller asked.

Exactly like the Rahi!” the Matoran said, excited his guests were starting to follow. “We were never meant to be here this long, it’s a wonder we’ve lasted in Paradise for the time that we have. The Great Beings never had a clue things would stray so far from the way they were supposed to.”

“So you’re the one taking apart the Rahi?” Jaller demanded.

“No… I am.”

The two whirled at the sound of the raspy voice behind them, weapons drawn at a Vortixx they had thought snuck up on them. With a chuckle, however, the figure stepped into the faint light, revealing himself to be anything but one of the denizens working the factory. The Toa Mahri gasped. Strange silver additions to the being’s upper body gave an awkward bulkiness to him. He bore wicked looking claws, his left hand hidden by a shield strapped to his forearm. An orange glow seeped from under all of the armor, that, to which Hahli and Jaller could only assume were his bones given some sort of translucence. The being’s body looked almost unfamiliar, almost like a Vortixx, but the mask… there was no mistaking the Kanohi Volitak, or the sad smile that he looked at the two with.

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“Nuparu?” Hahli asked, almost hoping the being in front of her gave a different name. But the nod that he gave made her heart plummet. “What are you doing here?”

“I think I know the answer but I don’t think we’ll like it,” Jaller grumbled. “Now I know I saw you, when I first came check on the Dragon. I wasn’t sure at first. Nuparu, are you working with the Vortixx to take apart the Rahi?”

“It’s more along the lines of they are working with us,” the Toa of Earth grinned.

“Explain yourself,” Hahli demanded.

“It’s for the next step in the Great Being’s plan,” Nuparu quietly answered. “You’ve read some of these scrolls. All of the Great Beings’…research.”

“Most of what we think of them is our own delusional myth, did you know that?” the Matoran chimed.

And it looks like some of us are more delusional than others, Jaller thought, hand tight on his power sword.

“Mata Nui was never meant for anything more than reuniting the planet,” Nuparu continued. “Once Spherus Magna was fixed, the robot was supposed to return to the Valley of the Maze and be shut down, and then be taken apart for uses in further projects they had in mind. Building the robot took up so much of the planet’s resources— and they were going to build TWO!— that they wanted to try and fully restore the planet.”

“So were we supposed to be dismantled with the robot?” Hahli asked, incredulous at what she was hearing.

“None of this was ever supposed to be integrated into Spherus Magna in this form,” he confirmed, a slightly apologetic tone in his voice. “The Great Beings just thought it was too dangerous.”

“See, we’re all scheduled to be ‘disassembled’,” the Matoran said.

Hahli shook her head. “Nuparu, how can you be behind this? How can you stand with this Matoran?”

“I once saw a Spherus Magnan animal hunting in the desert,” he recalled. “It had come upon a recently deceased carcass of another animal, killed by some other predator but left otherwise untouched. The animal ate the spoils it found. But it later was hungry. It went and found another carcass, but the result was the same. The animal eventually died of starvation. When I looked at it, the animal had eaten the food, but there was no nutrition in it.

“I know, it seems trivial, but it stuck with me. The sound of that animal dying of malnutrition, it seemed wrong. It seemed cheated.”

“I’d gone wandering,” the Matoran said, sitting on top of the workbench and swinging his twisted leg. “And stumbled upon all of this. Nuparu eventually found me, and together we came and made this operation.”

“It all seemed logical. I would take apart Rahi, figure out how we biomechs absorbed food. Because I wanted to figure out something.” He shook his head. “But there’s no solution. It’s not possible to try and make it right.”

“And the Vortixx, they’re with you too?” Jaller asked.

“They were… convinced, with the gift of the dragon, after we took it down.” Nuparu explained, extending his claws toward the fellow Toa. They shied away, leaving Nuparu with a disappointed expression. “They thought the project was promising.”

“And there were Agori working with us, whom had some… feelings,” the Matoran said. “But they were willing to work with us. All in the name of the Great Being’s plan.”

“This is madness,” Jaller breathed. “Nuparu, you’ve gone too far.”

A noise made the three Toa Mahri looked around. A few Vortixx had arrived at the scene. Realizing Hahli and Jaller were unwanted guests/not allied with Nuparu, they began to brandish weapons. “No!” the Matoran screamed. Nuparu sent a column of earth forth at a Vortixx charging up their Rhotuka spinner. This was him nicely insisting they all back down. “They are my guests! They are mine to deal with!”

“Then I guess we have outstayed our welcome,” Hahli said, brandishing her tri-claw.

“Sorry Hahli, but I cannot let you leave,” Nuparu said. His whipped his shield forward, and Hahli braced for an attack. Instead, his claw reached under the shield, pressing a hidden button. Behind the Toa of Water, a mechanical crane came to life, grabbing Jaller. His power sword clattered to the floor where he stood. The crane lifted him into the air, throwing him around until it found a spot to pin him on a conveyor belt between two Rahi.“I know you think this is wrong, but this is what I feel is right.”

Hahli spun, ready to rush for her friend. “No! don’t worry about me!” Jaller barked. “I can get myself out of this! Stop him!” Hahli glowered under her mask visor at his words, turning to lunge at Nuparu.

She swung her claw downward, only to meet the face of his shield. Sparks flew. With a grunt, he pushed her away, slashing with his own set of claws. Catching them with hers, she threw his arm to the side, trying to open up his defense. Nuparu let her overextend herself, bashing the Toa of Water in the shoulder with his shield. She reeled from the blow, falling back with surprise from Nuparu’s strength. She didn’t expect the inventor could have been as strong as he was. Standing over her, the Toa of Earth pulled his fist back. When his fist came forward, it met her feet, as a kick sent him flying.

He fell on the workbench on his back, rolling to avoid a protosteel talon piercing his mask. Hahli had leapt to her feet in a rage, thrusting downward towards Nuparu in what would’ve been a lethal jab. As Nuparu rolled away, he threw tablets from the table at her, which she slashed into pieces before advancing to her combatant. The Toa of Earth hopped to the ground, raising his shield as the  Toa of Water slashed again. He slashed as well, and the two caught each other in mid air, claws locking into each other. Each of them struggled to gain the upper hand: Hahli had one claw and more ability to move, in addition to more strength, while Nuparu had more claws and more leverage.
Nuparu eventually was the one to pull away, sending a kick towards Hahli’s way. Dodging it, she slashed again. He caught her tri-claw and twisted her arm, again with surprising force, bashing the Toa into the side of a nearby machine. Using her free arm she thrusted an elbow back, knocking him in the side of the head. The Toa of Earth remained steady however, throwing Hahli at the metal with even more force.

As much as Jaller wanted to join the scramble, he was busy in his own fight, trying to avoid the mechanical arm Nuparu had set on him. The machine had strapped him down, readying him for some sort of deactivation process. His elemental powers did not seem to be effective; though he could feel the straps heating up, they would not succumb to the power of fire or his own strength. Another arm with a long needle of some sort hovered above him, and Jaller struggled against his straps, not curious to see what kind of surgery the needle could perform.

“Help me!” he demanded of the Vortixx standing nearby. They did not respond, only faithfully watching Nuparu until he would call for their help. “Vortixx!” he called. “You realize that he plans on taking all of us apart? Yourselves included?”

“Or maybe we have been paid royally enough that it will not matter, in the end.” A whisper came. Jaller’s eyes looked up to see the Vortixx that had been their host in the Dragon’s facility standing over him. “Or, we will get to chose our time of disassembly. We will be the last, and we will choose when.”

“He wants you to think that!” Jaller tried reasoning. He struggled more fervently as the Vortixx operated a lever, causing the needle to come down further and faster. The Vortixx chuckled, returning to the shadows as the needle made the final bit of its descent, boring itself into Jaller’s chest pistons. He screamed in agony as he could feel the screwdriver twist. Letting out a bellow of rage, a burst of magma flew from Jaller’s hand, hitting him square in the chest. “Choose to deal with that,” the Toa of Fire grunted through his own pain.

Hahli heard his screams, adding a bellow of her own as she charged at the Toa of Earth, ready to take him down. However, he had other plans, digging his claws into her back. The protosteel of his claws immediately cut through her back armour, piercing the tissue within. Hahli seized on the ground in pain, unable to defend herself.

Hahli must have blacked out for a moment, but the next thing she recalled she was knocking her head against Nuparu’s. The Toa of Earth reeled back, and suddenly Hahli found she could breath easily. The pain in her back was still fresh, but it was easier to deal with now. Her mask must have activated on its own.. some Rahi with an extreme pain tolerance must be somewhere in this facility, she supposed. The Toa of Earth still reeling from the head blow, Hahli charged, pile driving the Toa of Earth towards the machine where Jaller was trapped.

Jaller screamed again as the machine buckled, Nuparu’s body crashing into it. The needle boring into his chest became askew, and he felt it go too deep. Hahli appeared on the field of his vision, and yanked the needle from his chest. Jaller gasped in pain. The Toa of Water cut the rest of him free, and then pulled Jaller to his feet. They had no time to converse, however, as Jaller tackled her back towards the workbench.

“No!” the Matoran wailed as he watched the another section of conveyor belts buckle under the flashes of the Toa’s strength and raging power. “Remember the factory, Nuparu! Preserve the Great Beings’ equipment! Preserve it!”

The projectile shot at them passed right by where they had stood, flying instead into another conveyor belt. Hundreds of Rahi parts could be seen flying through the air, raining down between the three combatants. A piece struck the Av-Matoran in the head, and he slumped on the workbench, out cold. Nuparu stood enraged, a shoulder mounted Cordak launcher reminiscent of his Inika form still smoking. His mask glowed for a moment, before he disappeared into his stealth mode.

“Nuparu!” Jaller yelled into the factory. “Think of what you’re doing! You’re a Toa! Think of what you stand for! All that we went through together… did Matoro sacrifice himself for the universe just for you to go slaughter your comrades and fellow biomechs?”

          

“There was a lot we did not know then!” came Nuparu’s reply.

“And what changed?” Hahli demanded. “What did you learn since then?”

The Toa of Earth emerged from the shadows, deactivating his Mask of Stealth as he backhanded Jaller with his arm shield. “I’ve always done this, Jaller, I’ve always been this way,” the Toa of Earth informed him. “I invented the Vahki, and the Krahli before them. Turaga Dume told me. And the Bohrok on Mata Nui— did you know they were once Av-Matoran? Toa Gali told me that one. Matoran! Our brothers and sisters! I took them apart! How is this much different? I told myself when I started this. How much further will I g—?”

Nuparu’s rant was cut short as Hahli had charged at him one last time, swinging a pipe that connected with the distraught Toa’s head. He crumpled at the blow, falling into a heap on the floor.

“Hahli,” Jaller breathed. The Toa of Water looked at her close friend, still wincing from the blow to the head. With Nuparu down for the moment, she leapt to aid her friend. “There’s no way we can win this,” he told her. “Nuparu may be down, but there are still who knows how many Vortixx around us. You have to get out of here, while you can.”

“That’s not the only option!” she snapped, knowing what her Toa brother was thinking. But he would not listen, his hands and body already heating up with raw power. “Just go!” he demanded her, closing his eyes as she felt his power build. He listened to her footsteps as she walked away. However, he felt his power shift slightly, and he opened his eyes. He was donning Nuparu’s mask, and Hahli was holding his Arthron. The Toa of Fire understood.

The Vortixx shot at her as she leapt into flight, but the heat of Jaller’s building Nova incinerated anything they threw her way. Gripping tightly onto the Arthron, she shot forward toward the tunnel they had come through. Darkness flew by as she raced to outpace the fire behind her, conjuring her powers to create a cushion of water around her.  She sent a tidal wave ahead of herself, crashing into the metal door leading out to the mountain. The skies beyond the mountain appeared as the wave did its work, and Hahli emerged into the air, surrounded by water, fire and air all at once.

***

Kualus and Norik looked up as the explosion rocked the canyon, watching in horror as the place they last saw Jaller and Hahli disappear to erupt in flames. Grabbing Norik tighter by the underarms, he tried picking up the pace in order to get away from another potential rockslide. The Toa of Fire tried shrugging him off, but Kualus’s grip won out.

“We have to go, Norik, there is no way they could have survived that…” the Toa of Ice insisted, carrying his brother away.

They were well clear of the path of destruction, it turned out. As the explosion settled, and debris stopped falling, Kualus looked to the sky. Something was flying up there he had not seen before, and he sent a string of clicks and whistles at it, but to no avail. The creature did not respond, and so he tried to use his Mask of Rahi Control. Whatever the thing was, it had to have some sort of knowledge of what had happened to the Toa Mahri.

Much to his surprise, the creature turned out to be a battered and scorched Hahli. Letting Norik down gently, he rushed to catch her, the Toa of Water’s strength no longer letting her protosteel wings flap. The Toa of Ice created an easy ice slope for her to land on, guiding her toward the ground. Once catching her, he could see the state she was in was bad; her armor charred, her heartlight flashed rapidly. She was more battered than a mismatched Matoran from Karzahni, he thought. His brow darkened as he noted stab wounds littering her back, more than likely deep in her muscle tissue. Whatever had attacked her he did not know, but it was no beast. The wounds were too precise.

“Where’s Jall—?” Kualus said, fearing the worst with the explosion he’d seen rock the mountain. He listened as Hahli recounted what had happened. The Toa of Ice, and the nearby Toa of Fire, they could not believe their ears. Their fears and doubts were confirmed.

“We have to get you…to a medic,” Norik insisted after she completed her story. Hahli shook her head, her Heartlight flashing slower.

“You need to… give this to Takanuva,” she said, handing Kualus Jaller’s Arthron. “And this,” she added, handing over her Faxon as well. “Tell Takanuva and Toa Tahu what happened, but noone else.”

***

Takanuva sat on his bed, head down in utter disbelief. In his hands he held the masks of his two best friends, empty eyeholes staring back at him. The voice of Kualus asking if he needed anything was distant. Takanuva had told him no, but some part of him wishes he had said otherwise.

He cursed the universe, thinking some force in it had betrayed him as he looked into the eyeholes of the mask that had been Jaller’s. The Toa Mahri of Fire had gone off into death defying situations before, and Takanuva had never feared for his friend’s life. He thought he’d gotten past that, after Jaller had died at the staff of Makuta’s Turahk on the island of Mata Nui. After using the power of Takutanuva to rejuvenate Jaller, he never thought he would have to look into the empty eyeholes of a mask Jaller had worn ever again. And Hahli… she’d been another version of him, he felt at times, wandering their tropical home island. They’d never been as thick as thieves, but they’d always looked upon each other with some sort of respect and recognition, as if knowing they were looking at some sort of alternate version of themselves.

There were more of them out there, the Toa Hagah had told Takanuva. More Agori, biomechs, whoever, in league with the Vortixx and the former Toa Mahri of Earth. He had no idea whom they could be, or what he would do if he found them. Right now, it was all too much.

Takanuva sat on the edge of his cot, holding the last two pieces of his best friends he had left. And he cried. ns-monogram1

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