It was to be a two-pronged attack.
Nuparu and a squad of Boxor-mounted Matoran would challenge the Nuhvok, the Bohrok of Earth, in the plains outside Le-Wahi. Their plan would remove the advantage the Nuhvok maintained by fighting in enclosed spaces, like the dense jungle. Onepu would lead a second squad into the jungle and attempt to drive the Lehvak out of Le-Koro itself.
Taipu felt safer being a part of Onepu's three-man squad. He didn't know the third member of their group very well, but Onepu trusted Kaj and that was enough for him.
Taipu was on high alert. The heavy footsteps of the three Boxors sounded like pickaxes striking metal but he could still make out the sounds of distant rahi fleeing through the underbrush. Despite not being a member of the Onu-Koro Ussalry, he had been given a Boxor to pilot on Onepu's order - Taipu had not only helped build the prototype Boxor, but he was also one of only a handful of Onu-Matoran familiar with the Le-Wahi jungle. Taipu felt honored to be chosen to be a member of the Ussalry Captain's team - even if they were best friends.
They marched between a dozen enormous trees that had fallen, the earth beneath their roots eroding away. The destruction of the beautiful jungle caused Taipu's heartlight to ache. The vivid flowers of Le-Wahi had once filled him with joy. Now they were trampled into the ground, their petals gone and their color faded.
Their group climbed over a hilltop, only to witness more devastation. Below them, a dank swamp slowly ate away at a tree. A single leaf fluttered into the swamp. It shriveled, sizzled and in moments, was gone.
"This is the doing of Lehvak," said Onepu grimly. "They are surely nearby. Be on the lookout for them."
Taipu felt a chill run down his spine. The Lehvak were said to be the most dangerous of the Bohrok types, and he was hardly a proper warrior. Taipu longed to return to the safe, comfortable mines of Onu-Koro. But they weren't safe nor comfortable anymore, they were caved in and flooded.
Taipu looked to his leader. Onepu was ahead of him, bravely heading on to protect the Matoran despite the danger. Taipu forced his fears down. He would be brave like Onepu as well.
They continued on, leaving the acrid smells of the pool behind as it consumed the foliage.
Onepu held out an arm, motioning them to stop. "Quiet!" he hissed, stopping in his tracks.
Taipu listened, only hearing the insistent flapping of kahu bird wings. He focused harder, trying to detect whatever had caught Onepu's attention. There! The pitter-patters of metal on earth could just barely be heard, too light and fast to be the result of Bohrok.
"Matoran?" asked Kaj.
"It must be," whispered Onepu. "If they are being controlled by the Krana, we should strike swiftly and free as many as we can."
Soon they might be fighting against their own kind. "What if we hurt them?" Taipu asked.
Onepu clenched his fist for a moment. "They will be better off sore and free than controlled by the Krana."
Taipu took a deep breath of the thick jungle air, soothing his nerves. Onepu always knew just what to say.
"Kaj," commanded Onepu. "If we get into a scuffle, you move to the right and I'll circle to the left. Taipu, you will face them head-on. This way, we can hem them in for a sound victory."
Onepu led them further on, seemingly unphased by the potential danger. Within moments they came to a small group of Le-Matoran scuttling through bushes and cutting into enormous trees.
These Matoran did not wear the beautifully crafted protodermis masks that Taipu had come to expect. Instead, their faces were covered by Krana, masks made of flesh instead of metal. Taipu had heard that wearing the Krana made a Matoran enslaved to it, in much the same way that Makuta's infected masks allowed him to control Rahi.
Taipu swallowed hard as Onepu boldly strode forward in his heavy Boxor.
"Fine villagers of Le-Koro!" Onepu shouted. "I know you can still hear me! End this ceaseless destruction now! Remove your Krana and take up arms against the Lehvak who order you to defile your homes!"
The Le-Matoran turned to face them, their eyes narrowed and determined. One stepped forward. "Greetings, brothers," he said in a calm, yet commanding tone. "We wish for you to join us. Step down from your machines and help us clean this land of impurities."
Behind half-burnt bushes stirred a half-dozen emerald-green Lehvak, moving to investigate the disturbance. When they noticed the trio of Matoran not wearing Krana, they raised their claws in anticipation of a struggle.
"The Great Spirit would not want to see his paradise destroyed like this!" shouted Taipu, hoping that he might get through to the Matoran before the Lehvak attacked. "This is madness!"
"'Madness' would be trying to prevent the Bohrok from completing our task," said the Krana-Matoran. "Why do you insist on preventing us from completing our duty?"
Taipu noticed two Lehvak rolling to his right. Three more moved to block any escape to the left. Taipu checked to see if Onepu had noticed, but the Captain showed no sign that he had.
"This wanton destruction cannot possibly be your duty," insisted Onepu. "Remove the Krana from your faces, or we will do it for you."
Hissing, two Lehvak suddenly lurched forward, the scissor-like shields on their arms snapping open and closed. Taipu stepped forward to meet the closest one, ready to take the attack head on and anticipating the range of powers the Bohrok had at their disposal. In melee combat, he had the advantage of the Boxor's long reach, but between the Boxor's slow movements and the way it left the pilot undefended from frontal attacks, Taipu felt terribly vulnerable. Taipu's hand trembled at the controls, but he forced himself to wait for the right moment.
The foremost Lehvak finally came into range, and Taipu jammed the left lever forward and the Boxor's hooked claw swung out, catching behind the Lehvak's faceplate perfectly. Taipu pulled back on the lever and ripped the faceplate open. The Lehvak stopped moving as its Krana fell helplessly to the ground, the Lehvak dropping a moment later.
Taipu turned to find another target just in time to see another Lehvak slipping out of Kaj's reach, too focused on its opponent to be aware of its surroundings. Taipu pressed forward, ready to rip the Bohrok away even as he heard the sound of another Bohrok plate being ripped open nearby.
Something fell on top of him, and two hands clawed at Taipu's face. Taipu yelled in shock as he clutched his mask, holding it firmly in place. A pair of angry Matoran eyes behind a Krana squinted back at him. The Matoran's grabbing hands tried to pry his mask free but they were no match for Taipu's strength.
With one hand still holding his mask in place, Taipu snatched at the bright crimson Krana, but fumbled and missed. The Matoran moved to pin one of his arms against the cockpit of the Boxor. Taipu pushed against the attempt, grabbed ahold of the Krana-Matoran, and threw him to the ground. The Matoran scrambled back to his feet, backing away. Taipu moved to chase after him and –
"Taipu, watch your left!" Onepu's voice shattered his focus.
Taipu turned as he heard the slurp of acid being launched. The acid splashed over his mask, sizzling as it touched metal. Taipu coughed from the fumes as he pulled the mask free, feeling his fingers begin to tingle. He threw his mask to the ground. His hands felt like they were on fire, and he wiped them clean of the acid against the Boxor controls.
He began to feel tired, his energy escaping without his mask. He glanced to where he had thrown it. The mask was already eroding, the eyeholes widening, giving it a sad, misshapen appearance. He barely had time to notice the Lehvak rushing him and it was all he could do to push his control forward to throw a punch from the Boxor. The Lehvak slipped to his left, reared up and prepared to launch its Krana at him.
A Boxor claw appeared out of nowhere, striking the Lehvak to the side. Onepu marched forward, sending out a flurry of strikes aimed to quickly rip the Bohrok's Krana out.
Taipu felt someone's arms unstrap him from the machine, but his vision was blurring and it was becoming difficult to keep his eyes on.
"I've got you," came Kaj's voice, but Taipu found himself drifting away.
"My mask…" he muttered as the world went dark.
"My mask… my mask…"
Taipu blinked the sleep out of his eyes. His hands moved groggily to check his mask. It was there. Of course it was there, he wouldn't have woken up if it wasn't. He relaxed for a moment, brushing his hand over it. Something about it didn't feel quite right. It felt bigger, it came down further beyond his chin, and in the corners of his eyes he could see it was tinted green and not black.
"What happened to my mask?"
"It was lost," came Onepu's voice. "Do not worry! I have procured you a replacement."
Taipu pulled himself up. The sun was now high overhead, the brightness forcing him to squint. The Lehvak were lying in the mud, helpless and inactive, and there was a faint smoky scent in the air.
There were no more masks on Mata Nui, not that Taipu knew of. The Toa had collected their Masks of Power, and every powerless mask left belonged to a Matoran. "Where did this one come from?"
Onepu grimaced for a moment, his eyes sliding towards a bubbling lake nearby. "Best you put it out of your mind. Are you ready to continue?"
Taipu pushed himself up from the dirt, and kicked his legs out to test them. "I feel good, I think." In truth, he felt awful and he couldn't stop touching the mask that wasn't quite right, but they were deep in Lehvak territory now and he wasn't about to let Onepu down.
"I am glad to hear it. Mount your Boxor, we shall move out at once."
The thought of the Le-Koronans remaining under the control of the Krana spurred Taipu on. As soon as he was back in control of his machine, they once again set off towards Le-Koro. Nearby, birds he didn't know the name of sang sweet songs. He hoped their homes wouldn't be destroyed like his had been.
He reached a hand up to touch the edge of the strange mask, wondering where it had come from. Perhaps Onepu had taken it from a Le-Matoran's hut. Taipu had heard of villages that handed out trophy masks to particularly skilled athletes, and he remembered the ceremonial golden mask that Lewa had been granted when he and Onua had rescued the Le-Koronans from the Nui-Rama swarm. The more he thought about it, the more Taipu was convinced that it must be some sort of ceremonial mask the Le-Koronans used. Perhaps someday he would be able to return this mask to its rightful owner.
"What happened to the Matoran we fought?" he asked.
"They fled like cowards before we could liberate them from the Krana," answered Onepu. "Once they saw that we were defeating their Bohrok, they knew they stood no chance against our might."
Taipu heard a stifled laugh from Kaj, and wondered for a moment what he could find so funny.
"Thank you for saving me." He stroked his new mask one more time. "A Pakari?"
"The Pakari - the Mask of Strength," answered Onepu. "Now our masks match, and you look just as strong and brave as I do!"
If Taipu had to wear a new mask, he was glad it was this one. In Onu-Koro, Masks of Strength were a symbol of bravery, and were worn by both Onua, the Toa of Earth, and Onepu, the High Commander of the Ussalry. As such, the mask carried a lot of prestige. Of course, this mask only bore the shape of the Pakari - it held no real power, and a Matoran wouldn't be able to harness the abilities of a Mask of Power even if they wore one.
Taipu still felt a pang of regret for the loss of his Ruru.
As they got closer to Le-Koro, the chirping of birds disappeared, and the stench of burning and decay grew stronger. When they finally reached Lake Kanae, spread out below the village of Le-Koro, Taipu saw a dozen Matoran lying maskless in the dirt, moaning uselessly. A squad of Boxors furiously traded blows with a group of Lehvak while Matoran wearing Kanohi grappled with Matoran wearing Krana.
"Onward!" shouted Onepu. "We must defeat the last remnants of the Lehvak and free the Le-Koronans!" He rushed forward, showing no sign of fear.
Taipu's heartlight swelled at Onepu's bravery. He pushed his Boxor forward, following behind him into the furious melee.
The battle was soon over. Taipu climbed out of his Boxor to help the defeated Matoran. Without their masks, the villagers were helpless. Taipu walked past the empty hull of a Bohrok to pick up yet another mask half-buried in the dirt, abandoned like so many others when the Bohrok used their Krana to control the minds of the villagers.
No-one looked at the mask that he had borrowed, nor asked for it back.
"Sir!" someone shouted, trying to get the attention of a captain. "Sir!"
A hand grasped his arm, and it was then that Taipu realized that it was him the Matoran was shouting at. The Onu-Koronan looked at the mask Taipu was carrying.
"Sir, there's a Matoran here who could use that mask!" Still clutching Taipu's arm, the Onu-Koronan led him into thick ferns.
"I'm not a captain," Taipu said feebly as he pushed the leaves out of his face. "You don't need to call me 'sir'."
"Oh. Sorry, I just assumed with the mask. You know what it's like."
Taipu hadn't thought about it much, but he knew some Matoran would make assumptions about other Matoran based on the mask that they wore. A Mask of Strength didn't just signify that a Matoran was physically strong - it was common to assume that a wearer of the Pakari would be courageous as well. In Onu-Koro, Matoran with Pakari were often members of the Ussalry. Maybe that was the same for Le-Koronans as well. He wondered what the original owner of the mask was like - perhaps he was a heroic Kewa flier who had been knocked out of the sky. If that was the case, had Taipu really earned the right to wear this mask? He was no hero. Not really. What had he actually done, after all?
He hadn't even tried to help fight the Bohrok invading his home. He hadn't been able to save Onu-Koro. No, real warriors joined the Ussalry, and his penchant for exploration didn't translate much to fighting. A real warrior wouldn't have walked face-first into a burst of acid.
Did Nuparu have to deal with people assuming he was in the Ussalry too?
A moment later, Taipu was shown a fallen villager struggling to stand, and Taipu placed the mask on his face. The Onu-Koronan nodded to him. "Stay here until he gets up," he suggested before running off, perhaps in search of more Matoran who needed help.
While Taipu waited for the glow of the villager's eyes to appear, he caught sight of the ugly flash of a red Krana nearby. He walked over to pick it up.
It was disgusting. Soft. Like muscle, but muscle without armor. Spongy too, and flexible. Not like leaves or flowers, which might show off their beauty as they swayed in the breeze. It wasn't natural for flesh to be exposed like this. A thought came into his mind, that he should take off his mask and put this one on, and he wondered how such a horrible idea could have come from him.
"What are you doing?" Onepu's voice came from behind him. "That's still dangerous! Throw it on the ground, I will deal with it."
"I just wanted to look at it." Taipu dropped the Krana anyway.
Onepu grabbed his throwing disc and slammed the edge it into the flesh-thing three times. The Krana faded from an angry red to a gross-looking gray as a strange type of liquid began to leak out. "There. If a rahi accidentally got caught in that, it might have caused trouble. Don't you fret, I won't let the Krana hurt anyone else."
Taipu supposed it was for the best. "Have you found any more Kanohi masks?"
"The Le-Koronans have been finding lost masks in the treetops, so it shouldn't be long before we find a mask for everyone." Onepu watched with smile in his eyes as two Le-Koronans dropped out of a tree carrying three masks, and vaulted over a log to each place one on a maskless Matoran's face. "We've done great work here. We saved the Le-Koronans! Just look at all the villagers we've rescued."
"What about the mask I'm wearing? Doesn't it belong to one of them?"
Onepu's eyes drooped. "I told you not to worry about that. Wherever he is, it's probably far away from here."
"Do you think Nuparu will have found him?"
"Perhaps." Onepu's voice was commanding, but he didn't look at Taipu as he spoke. "I expect he's found another mask of his own. You don't need to worry about him anymore, that mask is yours now."
They watched as more Le-Koronans slowly converged nearby, one wailing over the destruction of their home by their own hands.
"But where will we go now?" asked Taipu. "Onu-Koro is flooded, Le-Koro is destroyed, and the Bohrok will return."
"There are other villages," answered Onepu. "Surely they will take us in."
"Ta-Koro," said Turaga Whenua. "It is heavily fortified, maintains a militant defense force, and most importantly, is nearby. Vakama will welcome us all into his protection. Onepu, Taipu, please gather the Matoran so that we can soon march to Ta-Wahi."
Taipu nodded in agreement. "Of course, Turaga."
They stood on the plains of Le-Wahi, where Nuparu had led a squad of Boxors against the Nuhvok. Even now, Nuparu was hard at work directing some helpers to build a new Boxor from the remains of their enemies. Two villages worth of Matoran filled the field.
"Whenua, I would like to take Nuparu to Ga-Koro." Takua spoke to the Turaga with a familiarity that most outsiders wouldn't be comfortable with. "We haven't heard from the Ga-Koronans since the Bohrok emerged. They might be able to make use of a Boxor if they're in trouble."
Whenua took a moment, as he always did when answering such questions. It was not his way to respond hastily. "I should have known you wouldn't return with us to your home, Chronicler. Take Damek with you as well. One Boxor may not be enough to make a difference, but two might - and Nuparu has already built enough for us to be able to spare a few!"
"Thank you, Whenua," answered Takua with a gleam in his eyes.
Their group soon headed off again. Onepu led the march with a group of Boxors, but Taipu had given his to one of the victims of the Bohrok attacks who had not entirely recovered from a splash of acid to his foot which made walking difficult.
Taipu didn't mind. He relished the opportunity to really appreciate a walk through the Le-Wahi forest. Although the lush greenery and thick air served to remind him that his underground home was gone, it comforted him to know that the curious creatures eating the fruit in the treetops still had a home in the jungle. The Toa would find a way to stop the Bohrok, but in the meantime he knew he would have to work to protect the island. It wasn't just home to the Onu-Matoran, or even the Matoran in general. Hundreds of species of wild rahi nested on this island.
At first, Taipu had marched alongside Onepu, but he soon fell back in the hopes that he might find someone who would recognize the mask he now wore. But all Taipu received from the normally chatty Le-Koronans were pained eyes staring back, their voices too weary from the loss of their homes to hold a conversation with a stranger.
Eventually, he spotted a pair of familiar eyes. "Tamaru!" He waved, shouting excitedly. "Tamaru! Hello!"
Tamaru glanced up and down at Taipu. "Hello, ground-walker," he answered. "Need help with something?"
"I just wanted to say 'hello' to you."
"Didn't know I was so far-famed," said Tamaru, sounding embarrassed. "Who are you?"
Taipu almost growled. "I'm Taipu!"
"Oh. Oh! Forgive but I knew not who you were! Fresh mask you have, wondered what earth-dweller wore such a color!"
Taipu crossed his arms, feeling his frustration rise. "Just because I'm wearing a new mask?"
"Never seen an earth-dweller wearing tree-bright colors," said Tamaru.
Taipu clenched a fist, but said nothing. Regardless, the two walked quietly together for some time. Taipu tried to not let his bitterness over not being recognized get the better of him, and before he knew it the jungle smells had put him at ease and his anger was forgotten. Even so, the endless weight of sadness pressed down upon him. Up ahead, Taipu could still see Onepu and the rest of his squad keeping a watchful eye out for any sign of Bohrok. So far they hadn't encountered any.
"Good to be long-walking with you again," said Tamaru.
"It is good!" answered Taipu, with an enthusiasm he didn't feel. His eyes drooped to the dirt path. After a moment, he mumbled, "Both our villages are gone."
"But Matoran long-live," said Tamaru. "Ground-walkers saved Le-Koronans, so Le-Koro lives on. Even in dark-time, Matoran have unity."
Tamaru's optimism was infectious, and Taipu nodded in agreement. "You're right. There is still hope for our island, so long as we can work together."
"Perhaps in peace-time Onu-Koro will be rebuilt."
"I think so. We have always been miners and diggers, and so we will mine and dig again." Taipu took care to climb over a fallen tree branch. "And Le-Koro, too, perhaps, will be rebuilt."
Tamaru's eyes lit up for a moment. "Jungle always grows. Many-years it takes, but Le-Koro is not ever-gone." He pointed to what looked like a clearing a touch to the right of their path. "Lake Pala coming up. Many-time been but not recently. Will show, if you allow it."
Tamaru darted off the path. Taipu followed, cutting off a Matoran riding an Ussal crab. He barely registered the angry shouts that followed after him as he tried to catch up to the much faster Le-Koronan. Tamaru was already sitting at the waterside when Taipu got there.
For a moment, Taipu thought he must be at the ocean. The lake seemed to go on and on forever, with trees only tiny little dots in the distance. Little birds drank from the lakeside and a strange creature with a mask covering its back slowly drifted across the surface of the lake. He thought there was enough water here to flood Onu-Koro a hundred times over.
The reflections of leaves and branches caught his attention and when Taipu looked down, he saw a Le-Matoran staring back at him from the water's surface. It took him only a moment to realize that it was his reflection. His mask looked so different from the way he was used to seeing it when he looked into the waters in the Cavern of Light.
If he didn't know who he was, then how would anyone else? He closed his eyes and wished that when he opened them that everything would go back to the way they were. His home drained of water, his mask back to normal.
When his eyes came back on, the Le-Matoran was still staring back at him.
Lush trees gave way to rocks and hillsides, revealing their destination. Ta-Wahi was all jagged edges and flat plains, and rising smoke marked where open flows of lava streaked down from the Mangai Volcano. However, despite the region's history, there was still greenery here. Groves of trees bore berries and fruits, and Taipu could hear the bleats of Mahi goats as they munched on grass.
They soon passed through what must once have been a thriving forest, now dead and desolate. Taipu knew about this place. Once this forest had provided an abundance of food to the Ta-Koronans, but the Ta-Koro Guard had set it aflame to stop Makuta's beasts from attacking the village. Would this happen to the rest of Mata Nui as well? If the Toa couldn't stop the Bohrok, what would?
Life on Mata Nui would end.
"Almost there," Tamaru panted as they marched up the slopes. In the distance, Taipu could make out the stone tops of a great fortress. "Oh, heat-dry Ta-Wahi is leaving me mouth-parched!"
Ta-Koronan guards with their bidents and shields shouted out a warning of the approaching Matoran. As they approached, Taipu could see the bubbling lava stream to his right. The glowing oranges reminded him of the magma in Onu-Koro - dangerous, yet beautiful. Perhaps this was a small part of his home that had survived.
They passed through a majestic stone building that would put the Po-Koronan carvers to shame, and Taipu laid his eyes on the familiar Lake of Fire that Ta-Koro rose out of. Four guards carried the husk of a defeated Pahrak over to the edge of the lake. In a coordinated movement, the guards hurled the Bohrok off the ledge to be consumed by the lava.
There was a shout from a nearby guard tower. A moment later, great stones began to rise from just above the lava. The air was sweltering - already he could see Tamaru panting - but the sight of the lake of fire filled him with a sense of awe. Taipu carefully placed a foot onto the stone bridge. Despite having just risen from the molten moat, it was surprisingly cool to the touch.
As the caravan reached the other side of the stone bridge Turaga Vakama, the leader of Ta-Koro, stepped out onto the platform to greet them. Taipu spotted his friend Kapura standing at Vakama's left hand. The refugees piled into the fortress. With so many Matoran in Ta-Koro's courtyard, some were forced to climb up on ramps and steps, while others gathered around Toa Tahu's Suva.
Turaga Whenua and Matau approached Vakama, and the three spoke in hushed tones that Taipu couldn't make out. Taipu remained silent, but murmurs began to spread throughout the group of survivors.
Suddenly, Vakama thrust the end of his fire staff into the ground, and raised his hand. "The Village of Fire welcomes its friends from the Villages of Earth and Air," he said. "Our dwellings may be limited in number, but as long as the Bohrok threaten your homes you will find safety within these walls."
Despite his enthusiasm, it took a long time for Vakama to organize shelter for everyone. Storage sheds had to be repurposed, and Ta-Koronans had to make room in their homes for the newcomers. Grumbling Matoran carried tools and furniture for the refugees as everyone tried to make room in a village in which the population had tripled in a single day.
Taipu slipped away from the long, tedious discussions. He walked back over the stone bridge, down the staircase carved into the stone itself and to the very edge of the lava flows. A Ta-Koro Guardsman watched as Taipu reached the edge of the river, but said nothing.
Taipu's throat was incredibly dry, and he had to work to hold back a cough. If it was hot inside the fortress, it was scorching down here. He reached down to pick up a pile of ash. His hand felt like it might burn, but he smeared it over his mask anyway, trying to turn it black. He couldn't be sure he had spread it evenly without a river to peer into, and he accidentally breathed in some of the ashes, coughing uncontrollably for a moment. His hands were covered in soot, but he grabbed for more ash despite his hands feeling like they were on fire.
"What are you doing?"
Taipu nearly fell over. He turned around to see Kapura watching him. "How did you get here?"
"I saw you leaving the village, so I followed. Ashes do not make for good paint - not unless they are mixed with water."
Taipu felt his face get even hotter. "I wanted to see what it would be like."
"You can buy paint in Ta-Koro, if you wish," answered Kapura.
"Will you take me there?" asked Taipu.
"I will, but we will have to be quick. I am to head to Ko-Koro to bring word of them to Vakama." Kapura squinted as he carefully looked over Taipu. "Who are you?"
Taipu almost couldn't believe his ears. He felt a sob catch in his throat as he realized his efforts were for naught. "It's me, Taipu!"
"Oh. New mask."
Taipu seethed as they walked back up towards Ta-Koro. Not just one, but two of his friends had failed to recognize him. His hands balled up into fists, and his palms throbbed with pain as he realized they were burnt. He drew a deep breath, and coughed from the ashes.
"I can't believe you didn't recognize me," complained Taipu. "Neither did Tamaru. No-one knows who I am anymore."
"You should put your old mask back on. Then we will know who you are."
"It's gone," Taipu uttered.
"Oh." Kapura finally made it to the top step, and they set back off under the gate.
Taipu followed, thinking of all the things he could do. Paint might help him feel a little bit more normal, but he really needed to get a Ruru. Although there were hundreds of Matoran in Ta-Koro, he worried that they would be too busy to trade masks. Who would want to bother about masks at a time like this?
"Taipu," said Kapura. "Would you like to come to Ko-Koro with me?"
Ko-Koro meant snow, something he had only ever seen a handful of times. It was lovely there, even if the Ko-Koronans didn't say much. "Oh, yes! I would love to!" His anger was forgotten, but Taipu still thought about it for a moment. "Can we paint my mask first?"
"Yes. You will have to be quick. I will pack supplies, and then we will head off."
His mask had dried, leaving it black and scaled. With a bamboo disk in his hand, Taipu prepared to set off. Kapura met him at the gate - along with Tamaru.
"I'm coming too!" exclaimed Tamaru. "With the three of us together again, it will be like when we ground-walked to Kini-Nui with Takua!"
"We do not have very far to go, but we should set off," said Kapura.
"Should we bring a Boxor?" asked Taipu.
Kapura shook his head. "We will be going by cable car. Vakama has asked Onepu to travel to Ko-Koro with two Boxors, but they will have to take the long way. We will reach Ko-Koro first."
"Cable car?" asked Tamaru.
"The most direct way to reach Ko-Koro is by the cable car that spans over the Tren Krom Break," explained Kapura. "The Bohrok have not yet reached it."
The guard at the cable car stepped aside as soon as he saw Kapura, but Kapura flashed his symbol anyway. One by one, the Matoran fastened themselves to the cable that spanned over the lava flows. Eyes wide, Tamaru shivered when he reached the opposite ledge, but Taipu helped him to his feet and the three adventurers set off again.
"Do you think that Ko-Koro is still there?" asked Taipu, as they trekked through the snow.
Kapura's eyes drooped for a moment. "If Ko-Koro is unharmed, it will not be for long. Ko-Koro is well protected by Mount Ihu, but it has fewer guards than Onu-Koro or Le-Koro. That is why we are providing support."
"But then why are you the only one being sent?" asked Taipu. "Vakama could send an army!"
"Ta-Koro lost many members of the guard when we fought against the Makuta's beasts," explained Kapura. "Vakama has already allowed Jaller to travel to Ga-Koro. If more of the guard leave then there will be none left to protect Ta-Koro."
The path to Ko-Koro ran through numerous narrow passageways of ice and rock. Cold winds blew through the ridges. Kapura shivered, but sternly marched on at a steady pace.
Taipu marveled at the sights. Despite being so exposed to the wind and elements even as they walked by enormous outcroppings, he wasn't about to let the cold spoil his enjoyment. The snow glistened in the sunlight, painting Ko-Wahi with a white sheen.
They got closer and closer to Ko-Koro, beginning to pass by entire cliffs that looked as though they were carved out of the ice. Distracted by the beautiful peaks, Taipu forgot to take care with his footing until he felt his feet begin to slip. He overcompensated and fell, knocking his head on the frozen lake beneath him. It only stung a little, but as he pulled himself up, he saw his reflection in the ice.
The obsidian-colored mask looked less jarring than the bright green he last saw himself in, but he still cringed at the appearance of the Mask of Strength. He supposed it should fit him. He had often been praised by his fellow miners for his endless strength and stamina, and he had long admired Onepu and the Ussalry. Yet, despite having modeled himself after Onepu's bravery, he didn't really think he had earned the right to wear a mask of a warrior. He was only a miner, after all.
It was silly, he knew - Matoran wore masks that didn't match their personalities all the time, and very few ever chose to trade them. Still, each mask had a meaning behind it and Taipu couldn't help but think about how that reflected on himself. Those that wore the Ruru were thought to be like Turaga Whenua, offering wisdom and shining a light forward in the darkness. As Taipu was the Left Hand of Whenua, he had always tried to emulate those traits. He still had a long way to go, but he felt he had made some progress, and what he lacked in sagely advice he made up for in enthusiasm. Regardless, he was proud of wearing the same mask as the Turaga of Onu-Koro.
"Don't worry about ice-admiring," said Tamaru, holding a hand out to help him up. "Close to Ko-Koro now, let us hurry over-snow to reach it!"
Ko-Koro loomed in the distance. Taipu hurried on, trying to keep up with Tamaru and Kapura's pace until they passed through the crystal-like gates.
Chaos awaited them, the once peaceful village bursting with frenzied activity. A trio of warriors rushed up the stairs to the largest building, the Sanctum, where more shouts were echoing from. Two Matoran huddled near a hut carved out of ice, their whimpering loud enough to cut through the clanging from the soldiers' armor. A villager peered from a dwelling, before sneaking around the side, a knapsack bursting with trophies and tablets clutched in his hands.
Without breaking his stride, Kapura continued on into the Sanctum. Taipu and Tamaru exchanged glances, and hurried up behind him through the enormous archway.
To Taipu's surprise, the Sanctum was full of dozens of guards, each grasping a pickaxe. Lantern flames danced around the chamber, providing enough light to read the writing that covered every inch of the stone walls. To the left, guards ran in pairs into a tunnel had been bored into the wall of the Sanctum itself.
Turaga Nuju stood at the back of the Sanctum, his ice pick in one hand as he clicked and whistled in rapid succession. Matoro stood to Nuju's right, acting as a translator. "Do not let the Kohrak engage you in single combat!" Matoro shouted. "Hold them in the drifts! Remain in pairs and do not get separated from your partners!"
The last of the guards ducked into the tunnel. Nuju turned to Taipu and his friends before speaking again in his unintelligible language.
"Nuju asks if you have come to aid us," translated Matoro.
"We have," answered Kapura. "I am to help defend Ko-Koro and then bring word of your fate to Vakama."
Matoro nodded, before peering at the other two Matoran. "Are you all he sent?"
"Whenua has also sent three Ussalry members with Boxor machines to assist, however they are too heavy to come by cable car," Taipu explained.
Nuju clicked again. Matoro glanced back at him, before addressing them again. "Nuju doubts they will reach us in time. The Kohrak are here. We must go now to hold them back." Nuju turned to walk into the tunnel, and Matoro motioned for the group to follow.
It was colder in the tunnel, but better protected than the windy crevasses that lined the way into Ko-Koro. The tunnel was longer than Taipu expected, and for a minute he felt like he was back home, ready to pull a wheelbarrow's worth of protodermis out of the earth.
The illusion was shattered when he broke out into the light on the other side. The snow-covered field was filled with Kohrak, the ice breed of Bohrok, their buzzsaw-like shields forcing guards to fall back. Ten Ko-Koronan warriors swung pickaxes at Kohrak trying to enter the field from between two drifts, using the narrow pass to force the Kohrak to engage only a few at a time.
Taipu recognized his friend Kopeke, who was ineffectively swinging his weapon in front of one of the Kohrak before ducking out of the way of its buzzsaw shield. Kopeke's partner swiftly moved behind it, ready to smash his pickaxe into the Kohrak's eye. Before he could hit it, his body froze as he was surrounded by a rapidly forming block of ice. A second Kohrak stepped forward, chirping in a way that sounded eerily like laughter.
Taipu hurled his bamboo disk at one of the Kohrak. It hit the faceplate and bounced off into the snow harmlessly. He saw another disk fly past, but it was just as useless. Tamaru dashed past him, charging in to help the frozen Matoran. As the Kohrak was about to strike with its shield, Tamaru leaped high into the air, crashing into its faceplate.
There was no time to focus on that now, and Taipu marched forward between Kopeke and the Kohrak. He felt a frost begin to appear around his joints but he pressed forward, and as he moved the ice cracked before it could grab a hold of him. He spread his arms, grabbing his foe under its torso. Moving into a wide stance, he began to twist to one side. The Kohrak screeched and hissed but Taipu kept a firm grip and pushed as hard as he could.
The Kohrak stepped out, pushing back against Taipu. Taipu pulled his right leg back and followed through with his left, using the Kohrak's force against itself and dragging it to the ground. It hissed as it landed in the snow. He heard its buzzsaw start up but Taipu was already pinning the Kohrak's elbow, refusing to let it jam the spinning blade into him.
His muscles burned and his armor felt like it might freeze in the snow, but Taipu refused to give in. The Bohrok's cold eye inspected him with what Taipu could only think of as a hunger. If he could just reach up he might be able to rip the faceplate off, but would he be able to hold the Bohrok's saw away from him at the same time?
Something crunched, and the faceplate seemed to move by itself. The Bohrok went limp and the buzzsaw went quiet. Taipu looked up to see Kopeke's feet standing before him. In his hand was a Krana. Kopeke inspected it for a moment before dropping it on the ground and stabbing it with his pickaxe.
Kopeke's hand went out to help Taipu up.
"Thank you," said Taipu, looking at the fallen Kohrak. He was relieved to fill his lungs with the cold mountain air, reminding him that he was still in one piece. It was only because of his strength and determination that he had managed to avoid being cut in two. After a moment, he turned to scan the battlefield.
Tamaru had ripped the mask out of his foe, and Kapura was prying his bident out from the eye of yet another. In a few short moments they'd helped swing the tide of the battle. Guards everywhere swung pickaxes against their foes, and more and more Kohrak were being outnumbered by small groups of three or four Matoran.
"We did it!" Taipu exclaimed, and he did a little dance. "We've saved Ko-Koro!"
"Tahnok!" came a distant cry. "Tahnok are coming!"
Steam and smoke rose above the drifts and outcroppings, signifying the approach of the fire breed of Bohrok. Taipu's joy turned to gloom as he realized that the battle for Ko-Koro had only just begun.
"Hold them back!" came Matoro's answering shout, before he translated for Nuju. "Cut them off at the drifts!" Nuju's staff pointed towards the path that led between two rocky ridges.
As the last Kohrak fell to overwhelming numbers, the Sanctum Guard began to strengthen their defensive line at the pass. Tamaru had already joined their forces.
As Taipu peered between Matoran shoulders, he glimpsed flashes of crimson shells. Flames spewed out from the Tahnok shields as they systematically melted away the deep drifts, slowly advancing on the Matoran forces. Kapura had somehow made his way to the front, his shield held defensively in an attempt to protect the Sanctum Guard from the Tahnok flames.
"There is no way the Sanctum Guard will be able to hold up against Tahnok flames," Kopeke whispered into Taipu's ear. Kopeke glanced around and pointed. "See that?"
Taipu looked, but the only thing he could see was the tall snow-covered ledges. "All I see is rocks and snow."
"Climb up there with me."
Strapping his disc to his back, Taipu ran up to the ledge on his right and grabbed with both hands. It was solid rock, nice and firm - but his hands felt like they was going numb. He clenched his fist and climbed up anyway, grabbing onto the next freezing handhold. The ledge was pitted all over, making the climb easy. The only thing he had to worry about was his hands going so numb that he lost his grip.
When he was almost at the top, Kopeke helped pull him up. Taipu took a moment to look at the battle below. The Tahnok were already fanning flames over the Matoran, forcing them back. Tamaru had latched onto the faceplate of one, trying to pry it open. A burst of flame forced Tamaru to leap off into the snow, and a Guard pulled him out of the way before a Tahnok head smashed into the ground where he had stood.
Kapura lashed out with his bident, managing to snag the inside of a faceplate and pull it open. The Tahnok fell down lifeless, but another took its place and a third following close behind. Tahnok moved as a group, blasting scorching flames over the line of Guards and forcing the Matoran to fall back. Taipu began to feel dizzy as he looked down over the edge.
Kopeke pointed to an enormous snowdrift. "We can use the snow to cut the Tahnok off. Help me."
Taipu pressed up against the snowdrift and pushed with all his might. The snowdrift crumbled and fell onto the two closest Tahnok below. A nearby Tahnok began blasting flames over its fallen allies to rescue them.
"Can you push the boulders as well?" asked Kopeke. "I'll protect you from any Tahnok that try and climb up."
"Lifting stone is what I do best!" Taipu affirmed.
Taipu knelt down to grab a hold of a boulder, finding a good grip on the sides. He pushed with his legs with all his might, driving the boulder up and letting it land on his shoulders. He took a half dozen long strides, refusing to allow the weight of the stone to jolt him off balance. With a deep breath, he hurled the boulder off his back and onto the Tahnok below.
The rock cracked and shattered as it landed on a Tahnok. Taipu took only a second to confirm that the Tahnok was indeed half buried and unmoving, its faceplate cracked. One of its comrades checked the rubble, perhaps to see if the crushed Tahnok was able to be helped. An icepick swung from a sanctum guard caught behind its faceplate and ripped it off.
Searing flames from an angry Tahnok burst up over the ridge, forcing Taipu to step back to escape the heat. There were still plenty more boulders on the ridge, and Taipu ran to grab another. He threw it - another crack, a flurry of cheers from the Guard, but he was already turning back for more.
Taipu threw another boulder and heard another crunch followed by the rapid sounds of weapons striking armor. He lobbed another boulder, and another, and another. Every time he looked down, more Tahnok had to climb over piles of stone and their fallen brethren to be able to pass through the cliffs into the battle. The Matoran fell back out of reach of their flames, forcing the Tahnok to jump down to reach them. Every time Taipu hurled another stone the Tahnok seemed to become more and more enraged, unable to coordinate themselves to effectively combat the Matoran lying in wait. Guards surrounded the Tahnok as they passed through, prying their faceplates open and stabbing their Krana.
As Taipu was preparing for his next attack, he heard a sizzling sound getting closer. He turned around to see a pair of Tahnok pull themselves up onto the ridge, melting handholds into the rock. Kopeke swung his pickaxe at one, but the other began rushing toward Taipu.
Taipu hurled the boulder at it. The Tahnok ducked to one side and the stone crashed uselessly into the snow. The Tahnok slammed its shields together, sending a burst of flame toward Taipu. Taipu scrambled back as the scorching heat melted snow and ice away and the air around him became arid and dry. He could barely see anything through the brightness of the flames, and he found himself forced back into the very rocks he had been using to fight the Tahnok.
Metal struck metal from somewhere beyond the flames.
The fire subsided, and Taipu forced his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light as quickly as he could. Tamaru ducked under Tahnok as it tried to pierce him with its flame shields.
Taipu charged. It seemed to take forever to reach them. The Tahnok lashed out with its arm, battering Tamaru to the side. Tamaru fell into the slush, and the Tahnok hissed as it prepared to strike with its head.
Taipu tackled the Tahnok to the side, and its head barely missed Tamaru. It screeched in frustration as Taipu punched up under its faceplate. The Krana fell to the ground harmlessly.
Kopeke finished ripping out the Krana of the Tahnok he had been facing. His armor was scorched, but he was otherwise unhurt.
Tamaru gasped, trying to get his wind back as he staggered to his feet. "Quick-defeated those Tahnok you did! Cannot believe your ever-strength!"
Taipu felt his cheeks get warmer all of a sudden. "I just did what I always do!"
"I don't think we could have held them off without you," admitted Kopeke.
Taipu began to climb down the side of the ridge. Kopeke followed him, but Tamaru jumped down and landed gracefully. As Taipu felt his feet land in the frigid snow, he heard a muted cheer.
Two Ko-Koronans greeted him as he turned around.
"That was amazing," said one.
"I thought you must have been using the power of the Mask of Strength, just like a Toa," said the other. "You must be the strongest Matoran that there ever was."
Taipu felt his knees go weak and he wasn't sure if it was due to exhaustion or embarrassment. Before he could collapse, the two Matoran caught him. Without another word, they carried him back toward the tunnel to Ko-Koro. Kopeke, Kapura and Tamaru followed behind him as they walked through the Sanctum.
A thought occurred to Taipu as he was carried through the warm stone walls. "Kopeke, how did you know it was me?"
"How could I forget you?" Kopeke said with an incredulous tone. "It has only been a short while since we fought against the rahi at Kini-Nui. I will always remember that day."
"But I'm wearing a different mask," explained Taipu. "No-one else has known who I was."
Kopeke pondered that for a moment. "I suppose I could tell by the way you walk."
Taipu felt his cheeks go warm with embarrassment, grateful that somebody had finally been able to tell who he was without his old mask.
After a few more steps, Kopeke muttered, "It looks good. Perhaps I need to trade masks as well."
As they left the building, Taipu caught a glimpse of himself reflected in the carved ice that made up the sanctum.
He looked a little like Onepu. He looked like a hero.
The strongest of the Matoran.
Taipu found himself awoken by a bustle and a roar outside his hut. He was back in his warm bed in Onu-Koro. The fighting was over, the Toa had returned and declared the Bohrok Queens defeated.
It had taken days of hard work, but Nuparu had used the Bohrok, now under his command, to begin to drain Onu-Koro. Taipu had been all too eager to finally leave the dreaded heat of Ta-Koro and return to his home. The damage was far from repaired, however, and today he would be kept busy by helping to rebuild the caved-in Le-Koro Highway.
Taipu left his hut to see another Matoran standing before him. His tan body looked familiar somehow, but Taipu couldn't stop looking away from the black Ruru he wore. It was almost like looking in a mirror - before he lost his old mask, at least. He wondered if the Matoran might trade masks with him, but after a moment, he decided he didn't need a new mask. He wore the Pakari now, and he didn't need to replace it with anything.
"What are you staring at?" the Matoran asked. "Is there something on my mask?"
Sheepishly, Taipu realized he had been lost in his thoughts. "Sorry, I don't think we've met before. I'm Taipu. I like your mask. What's your name?"
The Matoran's voice held a note of frustration. "Taipu, don't you recognize me? It's me, Hafu!"