“Hailing from the deepest and darkest corners of the Okoto jungle, it’s the rookie of the year, so close to winning his first ever championship! You all know him, you all love him. Give it up for… Gresh, the Gladiator of Jungle!”
As the announcer’s booming, echoing voice faded away beneath the cheering audience, Gresh stepped forward through the gate. At first, he shielded his eyes as his vision adjusted to the bright sunlight, a stark contrast to the dark armory that he had just left. Then, as he looked around the arena, he allowed himself a well-deserved moment to fully take in his surroundings.
Even now, after so many games, the arena still took his breath away. The unorthodox angular stone architecture that reached up towards the heavens… the statues modeled in the likeness of past champions… a massive carving of the Protectors’ mask that marked the entrance to the arena, which surely must have taken years to complete, even for the Stone Tribe’s greatest carvers.
The stands were completely filled; he had never seen such a large audience gathered before. Then again, this was the first time he had ever attended the final championship game. Okotans from all across the island were in attendance, but most wore the green or red-hued armor of the Regions of Jungle or Fire, respectively.
The Okotans of the Jungle Tribe cheered as they saw their Gladiator. With a laugh, Gresh flexed his muscular arms, twice as thick as any normal arm should be. The villagers roared with excitement, and some of the female Okotans even swooned.
One particular Okotan in the front row caught Gresh’s eye. He was a familiar young lad named Tamaru, and he had attended every single one of Gresh’s games. Although he nursed a crippling fear of heights, he watched the arena matches with his innocent wide eyes, always so full of wonder and curiosity. Gresh had hoped that the courage displayed in the arena would inspire Tamaru to overcome his phobia.
“You’ll win today, right?” asked Tamaru.
Gresh grinned. “You bet, I will!” he replied, winking to the young villager.
Gresh took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. While he lived in the Region of Jungle, he thought of this arena as his true home. So long as he had a long life and full career ahead of him, it would always be his home. It was where he belonged, and where he was destined to be. He knew that without a doubt.
A flash of lightning streaked across the sky. The arena, along with the entire City of the Mask Makers, was blanketed in perpetual night. The ancient architecture was overgrown with vines as nature fought to reclaim what it once held as its own. Many of the statues had collapsed and crumbled into pieces, with the remaining few looking as though they might topple at the lightest breeze. The stands were empty. There was not a living soul in sight. It was as quiet and still as the grave.
Gresh blinked and shook his head. What was that? A vision? Or was it just a dream? Rubbing his eyes, he grumbled, “I haven’t rested enough, recently.”
In his moment of distraction, Gresh hardly even noticed that the announcer had revealed his opponent in today’s game. Malum, the Gladiator of Fire, stepped through the gate on the opposite side of the arena. This powerful warrior clad in red armor had chosen to arm himself with a pair of large Flame Claws. He was a tough and resilient foe who was known for not giving up, even when the odds were stacked against him.
Gresh tightened his grip on his Hook Blades, a popular choice of Gladiator weapon in the arena. He knew that the match would not be an easy victory against Malum, who had years of experience on his side. Still, perhaps a breath of fresh air was just what this arena needed.
Ekimu and Makuta, the great Mask Makers, stood in the balcony above the stands. Gresh faced them and raised his weapons in salute. He could hardly contain the thrilling excitement that rushed through him. The Mask Makers! They were here to see him!
Ekimu lifted his Hammer of Power to the sky, single-handedly silencing the crowd. “Play well,” he announced, “and may the virtues guide you to victory!”
Makuta lifted his Hammer of Control as well. “Let the tournament… begin!” he proclaimed.
Gresh felt the arena shake as the ancient machinery came to life. The entire floor was comprised of a hexagonal grid, which rose and fall like the waves upon the beach. Gladiators had to be light on their feet to able to cross the “sea of stone.” If that was all, then it would be easy.
Of course, that was not all. A large hole opened up in the center of the arena, unveiling an artificial tornado. Sand flew through the air as it was sucked into the all-consuming vortex.
“Well,” Gresh murmured to himself, “this is certainly new.” He had seen plenty of arena hazards during the tournament, everything from flamethrowers to water geysers, but this whirlwind of sand was unexpected. In a matter of moments, the tiny rock particles stung his eyes, coated the insides of his lungs, and made every movement feel sluggish.
He was smothered. It had latched onto his face and bored its sharp claws into the back of his skull. He tried to pull it off, but he just felt so weak… as though all of his muscle was stripped away, leaving him bare to the metallic bone. He could hardly breathe with this thing covering his mouth… as he tried to scream for help, all that he could manage were ragged gasps that eerily sounded almost like maniacal giggling. He could not see… not with his own eyes, which felt as though they were stabbed with knives. Instead, he was forced to see the world through this other creature’s eyes, as it prodded his cranium and moved him like a puppet without free will.
“Snap out of it!” Gresh told himself, shaking his head again. This was no time for daydreaming. He had to concentrate on the game. After all, just one wrong move, and-
Gresh was knocked to the ground, dropping his weapons as he fell. Through the sandstorm, he could see the shape of Malum standing over him. The Gladiator of Fire scowled upon him, and then raised his Flame Claws in preparation for the final blow.
“Malum, wait!” Gresh called out. “I’m disarmed! The rules, you can’t-”
Malum gritted his teeth. “I don’t care!” he spat. “I have not come this far just to lose to a rookie like you! We’re not heroes, Gresh… we’re just warriors, without a war to fight, forced fight for money and fame. We’re not heroes, and we never will be.”
Instinct kicked in and guided Gresh’s movements as he rolled out of the way of Malum’s Flame Claws. As soon as he was back on his feet, he grabbed one of the spare weapons strapped to his back: a long chain with a pair of hooks on the end. It was not a Gladiator weapon he typically used, since he preferred the Hook Blades, but for some reason he decided to try something different today.
As Malum charged at him, Gresh jumped onto a rising hexagonal pillar, giving himself the high ground over his opponent. He whipped the chain forward and latched the claws onto Malum’s mask. Then, with a flick of his wrist, the red mask was sent flying off of his opponent’s face. Weakened, the Gladiator of Fire fell forward.
He watched as his unmasked opponent hit the ground and lay there, unmoving. Oh, yes! It just felt so satisfying to watch the once-mighty warrior, now even more weakened and lifeless than himself. Now, they would know how it felt to be him. He could hear more coming. With his defeated foe’s mask in his hand, he scurried away as quickly as he could. This was his home, and he’d make them regret intruding upon his territory.
Gresh blinked again. “Why does this keep happening?” he wondered aloud. But, now was not the time for such questions. His long-coveted victory was within his grasp.
He jumped from pillar to pillar before leaping directly into the sand vortex. In the center of the tornado - the eye of the storm - was the lever that would end the match. With a mighty swing of his Hook Blade, he activated the mechanism.
At once, the “sea of stone” settled as the hexagonal grid coalesced back into a smooth flat surface. The sand whirlwind dissipated, and once again Gresh could clearly see the audience. They cheered for him, celebrating his victory.
Gresh had accomplished his dream: he was finally an arena champion. With a hearty laugh, he lifted his weapons to the sky and took it all in, closing his eyes and letting the wonderful sounds of praise ring in his ears.
After his celebration, Gresh ascended a flight of stairs leading up to the balcony, where he met Ekimu and Makuta. He knelt before them, bowing his head respectfully. “My victory is dedicated to you. Without your unity to guide us, Okoto would be lost.”
“Congratulations on winning the tournament, Gresh!” said Makuta. “With your power, you’ve come a long way for a rookie.”
“You have shown great honor and courage in the arena,” proclaimed Ekimu. “For that, we award you with the ceremonial Copper Mask of Victory!” Then, the Mask Makers revealed the bronze mask, resting upon a decorated pedestal.
The Copper Mask was beautiful, combining Makuta’s fine craftsmanship and Ekimu’s ornate detail. Gresh could see his own image reflected upon its shining surface, which gleamed in the sunlight. It had no power, but it was a symbol of great respect that would only be awarded to the greatest champions.
He looked down upon the shining mask he held in his hands. Something compelled him to put it on. He clawed at the thing on his face, but it would still not let go. Determined not to let this deter him, he instead placed the coveted mask over the facehugger. Instantly, energy surged through him as it was drained from the mask. This was more than any being, other than the legendary Toa, should have handled, but now it was his. Unhinged laughter escaped from his lips as he felt more life than he had in millennia. He… could… feel… the… POWER!
Gresh gasped as he snapped back to reality. Chaos had unfolded around him while he had blacked out. Okotans screamed and ran as a dozen powerful warriors barged into the arena, spreading fear and panic in their wake.
The invaders were all shapes and sizes. One of them was a hulking titan able to demolish rock with his fists. Another was shorter than most Okotans but made up for his diminutive stature by riding upon a vicious reptilian mount. One thing united them all: they were the Hunters, a band of thieves and mercenaries whose loyalties belonged to the highest bidders.
With a start, Gresh realized that the Copper Mask of Victory was missing from its pedestal. He ran through the arena, looking for the Hunter that had taken it. At last, he spotted the gleaming mask in the hands of someone he recognized all too well: a fellow warrior hailing from the Jungle Tribe, clad in green and silver armor, and wielding a large Jungle Scythe.
“Nidhiki!” shouted Gresh. “Hand over the mask!”
Nidhiki turned around slowly and smiled. “Gresh,” he murmured. “Hello again, my old friend. It’s good to see you again.”
Gresh grimaced. “You lost the right to call me ‘friend’ after what you did. You… you betrayed Okoto! You tried to sell us out to Kulta and the Skull Raiders!” He remembered that day. It was then that the young Gresh learned the hard way that not everyone was as idealistic or virtuous as himself.
Shrugging, Nidhiki said, “See, now that unforgiving attitude is exactly why I left the Jungle Tribe.”
“You were exiled,” Gresh pointed out.
“Same difference,” said Nidhiki, rolling his eyes. “Now, see, the Hunters welcomed me with open arms. They don’t care what you’ve done in the past; as long as you do honest work, you get paid. And now, I see you’ve chosen a similar profession, Gladiator of Jungle.”
“No,” insisted Gresh, shaking his head. “No. It’s not the same at all!”
Nidhiki laughed. “Of course it is! Neither of us are heroes, Gresh. It’s not about honor or virtue; it’s about making a living in a harsh world. You get paid to fight, and at the end of the day, you’re awarded with a shiny mask of if you did well enough.” He lifted the Copper Mask as a visual aid. “By the way, congratulations on your victory, kid, and I’m sorry to cut the celebration short for you. But, sooner or later, you’ll learn that being a Gladiator isn’t all fun and games. The crowd may love you now, but once you start growing old and losing your edge, they’ll turn on you and hate you. As you stop winning, they’ll throw you to the Skull Scorpios. Malum knows this well, and it’s only a matter of time before you do, too.”
“Enough!” snapped Gresh, unlimbering his chain and one Hook Blade. “Hand over the mask, or I’ll take it from you! It has no power or use to you!”
Nidhiki did not seem intimidated by his display. “A Copper Mask of Victory, crafted by Ekimu and Makuta themselves? No, I think it does have some use to me. It’ll fetch a high price on the aftermarket. You want it? Come and take it from me!”
Gresh charged at Nidhiki. He swung his chain, attempting to grab the Copper Mask out of Nidhiki’s hand. Instead, Nidhiki used his Jungle Scythe to intercept the claw, wrapping the chain around the shaft and yanking it to pull Gresh close. Then, with the scythe’s blade, the Hunter parried the Gladiator’s Hook Blade, sending sparks flying as the two metallic edges clashed.
“Face it, Gresh,” hissed Nidhiki. “You’re no match for me. I’ve been fighting tougher opponents since before you even conceived your first thought.”
Gresh chuckled. “Oh, Nidhiki. It’s such a shame you haven’t been here to see me in the arena, rooting for me and cheering me on to victory, like the rest of our tribe. Otherwise, you would’ve known from some of my previous games that I can do… this!”
He felt the gears in his torso turning, clinking as they interacted with one another. Then, each of his thick arms separated in two, revealing his true form as a four-armed being. With his two newly-freed hands, he reached for and unsheathed the two additional Hook Blades strapped to his back.
Gresh had caught Nidhiki off-guard. Spinning his arms rapidly, he forced the surprised Hunter to recoil. Gresh pressed his advantage and did not let up.
With this tactic, he was determined not let any of his opponents get close enough to take the mask away from him. One of them attempted to disarm him, throwing their own weapons to knock two Hook Blades out of his hands, but he kept fighting with his extra limbs. He whipped his chain, latching onto one warrior’s shield, and was ready to pull it away. However, even with the extra power granted to him by the mask, he was still too frail and weak compared to his prime, and his foe pulled the chain right out of his hands. Still, he grabbed one of the other intruders, who had dared to come within arm’s reach, and then used their body as a shield to block an incoming attack. As the champion of the arena, he refused to go down easily, not to these imposters.
“Make your choice, Gresh!”
Gresh cursed silently to himself. He needed to concentrate on the fight, and these visions kept interfering with ability to stay focused.
Gresh turned around and saw one of the other Hunters: a large bruiser who was clad in blue and white armor. The brute held an Okotan in one hand, and was strong enough to lift the villager in the air. Gresh gasped as he realized that the Okotan was none other than Tamaru, whose young innocent eyes were wide with terror.
“You can’t have it both ways, Gladiator!” declared Nidhiki. “Either you save the poor helpless villager and let me escape with the Copper Mask… or you try to stop me, and Krekka bashes the villager’s skull in. Let’s see if you really are the hero you claim to be!”
Gresh knew that the Copper Mask of Victory was one that he had coveted for years. As the Gladiator of Jungle, he fought each match in the arena with the dream of becoming champion. It was a priceless creation crafted by the greatest Mask Makers, and now it rightfully belonged to him.
There was no choice to be made.
Gresh charged at one of the two Hunters, bellowing a war cry as he did so. He swung his chain and used the claws to snatch his quarry right out of the Hunter’s hand. He spun his Hook Blades, swinging them down upon his foe. He did not stop until he was sure that his opponent was defeated.
In his arms, he cradled the small delicate shape that he had taken from the Hunter. “Don’t worry,” Gresh whispered. “I’ve got you now. You’re safe… Tamaru.”
Tamaru looked up at him and wrapped his arms around the Gladiator’s torso, hugging his savior. “Thank you, Gresh!” said the young Okotan.
Suddenly, Gresh felt a sharp pain in his spine as a blade sliced through his armor. Gasping, he collapsed to the ground next to Krekka’s fallen form. He felt his energy slip away and was helpless to do anything about it. The only good fortune was that his body cushioned the fall for Tamaru, who was uninjured but very scared.
Nidhiki stood over them, having stabbed Gresh in the back with his Jungle Scythe. He bent in close and murmured, “And now, you know what happens to heroes. Goodbye, Gresh.” The Hunter’s voice did not sound happy or proud of his victory, but was instead solemn. Perhaps he did not wish to mortally wound his old friend after all, but he had determined that the decisions leading to this point had led him to this path.
With that, Nidhiki and the Hunters departed, taking the Copper Mask of Victory with them.
His skill in the arena was not enough to save him. One of the warriors had gotten past his guard and taken the mask away from him for good, stripping away his newfound power. Another had bested him in his own element, bringing a mighty hammer down upon the lever. The games were finally over.
Gresh took ragged breaths. He no longer had the strength left to even sit up. Instead, he laid upon the floor of the arena, curled up in a fetal position.
Tamaru was still held close in his arms. The scared younger villager shook Gresh as he pleaded, “Get up! Please, Gresh! You have to get up!”
Gresh knew that he could not get up. His destiny was clear now. But he could not leave Tamaru scared and alone. Instead, he lifted a trembling hand to gently caress Tamaru’s mask, hoping to comfort the young Okotan. “It’s… okay…” he whispered, struggling to speak when every word felt like a knife in his chest. “You… have to… be… strong, now… I… have to… go…”
“I… I don’t understand!” cried Tamaru. “Where are you going? Why can’t you stay?”
Summoning his remaining strength, Gresh turned his head and looked towards the sky. “Remember… the legends…? My spirit… will… ascend… to the… stars… to join… the… heroes…”
Teary-eyed, Tamaru looked upward. “The stars?” he repeated. “You mean the… the legends of the red stars?”
Gresh smiled. “Yes… and when… you see… the… stars… at night… think of me… and… I’ll be… watching…”
Slowly, Tamaru nodded. “I… I will think of you! I’ll always remember you, Gresh! We’ll tell stories and sing songs about you!”
As Gresh’s eyelids slowly shut, he whispered, “Now… I must… rest… peacefully…”
Gresh’s eyes shot open. No, that couldn’t be right. He needed to rest. He should have been resting. Why wasn’t he resting?
Something kept him awake. Something wrong. What was it?
Dreams. Was that it? The visions that had plagued him all day. Every time he blacked out. What did they mean? They couldn’t have meant much. They could not have been the past; he had no memory of the events that unfolded before his eyes. They could not have been visions of the future, since he never known such a power in his whole life. No, he was just a simple Gladiator of Jungle who lived an honorable life as a beloved champion of the arena. That’s who he was.
A thought took hold of Gresh. A terrible thought. A thought that chilled him straight to the bone.
He did not want to think about it. But, like an itch, it would not go away. It took hold of him and he could not think about anything else.
The dreams and visions… were his present reality.
Fighting in the arena… becoming the champion… battling the Hunters… saving Tamaru… dying at Nidhiki’s hands… that was all just a dream. Or, more accurately, memories. Of a past life. One that he no longer had, because he had died.
He was dead, and had been so for millennia. But, something had recently interrupted his peaceful rest. And now, against his will, he was forced to keep fighting in the arena, despite wishing that he could still rest. And he was fighting… Toa! But… no, that can’t be right. The Toa were heroes, according to legend. Why was he fighting them? Why did he oppose them?
The bone-chilling answer was like a twisted knife to his heart.
I’m not the hero, realized Gresh. I’m… I’m the villain.
That was the last thing Skull Slicer thought before he plummeted into the abyss.
I was not planning on entering the Legend Continues contest, but last night I suddenly had an idea for a story. I just thought that the backstory of this particular Gen 2 character was very interesting and was disappointed that, canonically, it was never relevant to the plot. Of course, writing and editing the story in less than a day so I can submit it before the deadline by the skin of my teeth... well, that means that this is not one of my better-written or more-polished works, and therefore I'm willing to bet that this will not be the winning entry. Still, it was fun to write, and I hope you enjoyed reading it.
Comments are appreciated. Constructive criticism is welcome.