With each step he took, grey dust swirled up from millennia of abandonment. What had once been the island's centre of culture and glory was now only home to plant-covered ruins and bones. How proud the Okotans had been, driving away Kulta and his people, and now their homes were nothing more than ashes.
The old shaman inhaled again. The soul he was seeking was nearby.
His dark master Makuta had been quite clear on the power of the Toa. He would need an army unlike anything the island had seen before to stop them. He had his pawns the Skull Warriors, his knights the Skull Scorpios, and his fortress the Skull Basher; but Kulta required one more piece.
To be sure, the Skull Basher was a mighty warrior, his closest ally and bodyguard, but Kulta was no fool. A combination of brains and brawn would be needed to win the day. He needed a lieutenant who could rely on cunning and surprise to outwit the Toa.
As his staff began to glow, Kulta smiled. He could sense a great intellect, athletic skill, and an unbreakable tie to this world. This spirit was clinging to its bones like a castaway clinging to a log. Just the sort of being worth reviving.
Drawing wide a circle in the ashy ground with his staff, Kulta began the dark incantation.
Mel kay tor nu sorga Makuta no mel kun.
Mel kay tor nu sorga Makuta no mel kun.
MEL KAY TOR NU SORGA MAKUTA NO MEL KUN!
The circle in the dirt began to glow green and the spirits of the dead swirled around him. Wailing such terrible things, dead Okotans reliving their final painful hours, cries that contained a lifetime of sorrow. Kulta ignored them and continued his chant.
The wind billowed and the ground shook until bones and armour slowly emerged from the grey soil. Kulta's voice began to grow hoarse, but he focused with all his might as the bones began to form a body: a figure with four arms.
Kulta stopped his chanting and the wind died down and the ground settled back to stillness. He surveyed the revenant as the creature stood completely still. Slowly, it began to move its limbs and flex its fingers. With green bones and silver armour adorning its four arms, the creature cut an imposing figure. After a few moments surveying its body, the revenant spoke.
"What... what happened? Where are they?"
"My dear friend," said Kulta unctuously. "Welcome back to the world of the living."
"I... was I dead?" asked the creature.
"For thousands of years, I'd say. I am the Skull Grinder, your new master. You will be a lieutenant in my Skull Army."
"Master? Skull Army? I don't have time for this. I have to find them!"
"I was afraid of this," sighed Kulta, Reaching into his pack, Kulta pulled out a writhing silver Skull Spider. "I don't know who you were in your former life, Revenant, and quite frankly I don't care. I didn't bring you back to put your soul to rest, I need you to serve me."
As he spoke, he idly plucked the legs off the now screeching Skull Spider. The revenant began to slowly back away, but Kulta was too quick for him. He jammed the legless Skull Spider on the creature's bony face and held it there firmly as it tried to fight him off. Soon the Skull Spider's will won out and the creature sank to the ground, kneeling before its new master.
"Rise, Skull Slicer, lieutenant of the Skull Army."
Who was I?
Who am I looking for?
How did I die?
With the Skull Spider on his face, the world appeared dark and fractured to him. Visions of the ruined city flashed before returning to the darkness. He felt like a prisoner in his own body. Fleetingly, he would regain control before being pushed aside by the will of the arachnid affixed to his face. So there was nothing to do but to collect his thoughts.
Another flash of vision, and he could see a hexagonal pattern of stone tiles.
Of course, the Hammer Flush arena. He had loved the arena. It had once been all he had lived for. The excitement, the thrill; his heart was already racing thinking about it. Yes, it was all coming back to him. He had not lived here -- he had thrived! As the Skull Spider led his bones through the ruined stadium, he could see a plaque honouring past champions.
"Yes, this was once me," he muttered, running a bony hand along the inscription. Clearing away the moss that had grown over, he could see a single word: Brelnar. "My... my name. I am Brelnar."
It was as if a dam broke and he was hit by a deluge of memory. He could see himself nimbly leaping through the arena, hammer aloft, opponents on every side, and loving every moment of it. Flames shot past him and he used his hammer to vault up to the next level, only to come face to face with a steely-looking Earth Okotan. The Earth Okotan swung his hammer at Brelnar, but Brelnar was too quick for him. Leaping in the air at the right moment, he landed on his foe's hammer, grabbed onto his shoulder armour, and flipped him onto his back.
"Shoulder armour is just going to slow you down, my friend," Brelnar laughed, resuming his climb to the top. It was not long before his hammer hit the lever at the top, signalling the end of the game.
The crowd cheered, confetti rained through the stadium, and medals were handed out. It was then, with all eyes on him, that he had proposed to Yanua.
"Yanua... my... my wife..." said the Skull Slicer, as a feeling of intense heartbreak tore him out of his reverie. Thousands of years had passed. Surely she was long gone by now.
As the sorrow spread through his heart, so too did the Skull Spider's will spread through his mind once more, returning him to the darkness.
More ruins. More cracked stones. More collapsed buildings. Suddenly something in the air. Something green.
Toa... hissed the Skull Spider in his mind.
The Skull Slicer's body leaped nimbly through the ruined city until it reached the entrance to the arena. He slipped into the shadows and waited. Soon enough, the green Toa flew in and proceeded to study the ruins.
Get me that mask... growled an even darker voice within his mind.
With all the skill of a well-trained athlete, the Skull Slicer shot out his chain and grabbed the mask right off the green Toa's face. The Toa fell to the ground, unconscious, while the Skull Slicer examined his prize. Even in the dark city, the golden mask seemed to shine. Clutching it in his lower hands, the Skull Slicer could feel its power radiating through him. His hands felt like fertile soil, the energy of the mask stimulating growth and life in them. His heart felt like a kite caught in the breeze. Brelnar's memories began to surface once more...
Many years had passed since that championship, and as he gazed at his hearth he could see that he had won many more medals since then. Exotic jungle birds called from outside, as the smells of a berry pie baking in the oven filled the small cottage. A clatter at the door told him someone had arrived. He turned to see his wife, Yanua, and their... daughter. Yes, a daughter.
"Father!" she cried, rushing to hug him.
"Well if it isn't the birthday girl," laughed Brelnar, straightening out her mask. "Happy birthday, Tellena, my little rose."
"Mother tells me you were at the blacksmith today. Any particular reason why?" she asked, with a heavy tone of feigned ignorance.
"I'm sorry, dear," sighed Yanua. "I know you wanted it to be a surprise, but she's just so persistent!"
"Well, now that the spider is off its net, you might as well open it," said Brelnar, gesturing to a large wrapped present in the sitting room. "I hope you like it. It's not everyday a young woman turns fourteen."
Tellena tore open her gift and stared at it for a moment before laughing in disbelief. "Shoulder armour? What ever happened to mister 'shoulder armour slows you down'? How am I supposed to play Hammer Flush in this?"
Brelnar laughed wryly. "Yes, yes. We all remember my first championship, but this is something a bit more serious, little rose. There are whispers that our two mask makers no longer see eye to eye. If things should turn sour, if it should come to war, I want this family to be protected. For you, little rose, a set of armour with spikes -- thorns to keep you safe. For Yanua, I had them restore your grandfather's armour from the Region of Fire. It's a bit big, but it should keep you safe."
"Honestly, dear! Is all this really necessary?" said Yanua in exasperation.
"I have no idea," said Brelnar grimly. "I just want this family to be safe. I want us to be together."
With a painful jolt, the Skull Spider brought the Skull Slicer back to the present. While he had been holding the mask, the green Toa's allies had arrived. The Skull Spider cackled and directed his body into the arena.
Use the mask... growled the darker voice again. The Skull Spider screamed in his mind, but the Skull Slicer suddenly felt the darker voice give him the strength to tear the creature off his face and put on the green Toa's golden mask. Energy surged through his body, and his mind was once again transported to the past.
It was the tournament of champions. One Okotan from each region was competing for the glory of their homeland. An Earth Okotan ran right for him, before being trapped in the arena's shifting pillars. Suddenly the Skull Slicer found two of his arms pinned by a Stone Okotan's weapons while Okotans of Fire and Ice charged towards him. Knocking the Ice Okotan aside, he grabbed the Fire Okotan with his two remaining arms and...
No, this isn't right... I only had two arms...
A swift punch from the Ice Okotan knocked off his mask and he was jolted back to reality. These weren't Okotans at all, they were the Toa. Before he could react or call out to them, the big Toa with a hammer hit the lever, the floor vanished beneath him, and he fell.
When the arena had been maintained, there was a pool of water at the bottom to catch any losing athletes, but that pool had long since dried up. The Skull Slicer fell through the darkness for some time before clattering to the ground, instantly shattering his leg bones. It was not long until the rest of the arena collapsed on top of him, years of disrepair and neglect had taken their toll. He found himself covered in rubble, unable to move, and yet still alive.
He did not hunger, he did not breathe. He could not tell how long it had been since the Skull Grinder had resurrected him, but he did not recall having a meal. Perhaps he was unable to die. Perhaps he was condemned to this existence until the end of time. But what of his wife and daughter? What had become of them?
He thought back to his last memory, of Tellena's birthday. Why had he thought of that day when he had put the mask on? Had the mask been trying to show him something? It just ended with his daughter opening the shoulder armour he had gotten her.
What ever happened to mister 'shoulder armour slows you down'?
The words echoed through his mind.
I've never worn shoulder armour, he realized. Then the rest of the memory poured into his mind.
It was that same day. For her birthday, Tellena had requested that they go watch the rookie league play at the arena, hoping that she might get to meet one of the coaches to improve her chances in the tryouts next year. It was as they were watching the game that the cataclysm struck. A huge shockwave of energy from the north swept through the city, knocking down trees and buildings and causing all sorts of environmental disasters. Rivers flooded, fires raged, and blizzards whipped across the land despite the summer weather. An earthquake rocked the foundations of the arena and large pieces of the ceiling began falling.
"What's happening, father?" cried Tellena.
"It's the mask makers! It has to be!" Brelnar shouted back, ushering his family through the bleachers as chaos rained down upon them.
With a loud snap, the floor gave way beneath Tellena and Yanua, sending them falling two storeys to the ground. Seeing the roof above them about to collapse, Brelnar dove after them, but it was no use. The large slab of stone landed on the family, sealing all three in their grave.
So these arms.... it's them. Yanua, Tellena... If the Skull Slicer had been able to cry, he surely would have. This was where his memories came from. This was what he was searching for. This was why he was clinging to his bones.
And now that he had found them, he could finally let go.