This article was written by BobTheDoctor27. Please do not add to it without the writer's permission.
- "Six Toa searching for one legendary mask of power. When has that ever ended badly?"
- ―Lewa, Endgame.
|Setting||Okoto: Region of Jungle|
|Date set||Present Day|
|Previous||The Things We Bury|
|Next||Journey To One|
Endgame is a story serial set in the Region of Jungle. It takes place within the Second Generation continuum.
For untold generations, the inhabitants of Hornfell had enjoyed peaceful lives.
The jungle could be a fruitful and generous place to live out one’s life, bringing forth all manner of abundance and splendor. The rising sun had turned the leaves on the trees a deep ginger. The summer breezes had meandered their way through the foliage to greet the wandering villagers. It was the type of place that existed perpetually on the lazy last day of summer.
But things had changed over the course of recent years. When the Great Quake had rocked the island of Okoto so many centuries ago, the island had fallen into a state of calamity. While the islanders had rebuilt their crumpled civilization and dragged it back from the brink of fragmentation, the scars of the conflict had remained. They loomed ever-present, riding in the wind and tainting the soil.
When the Skull Spiders began their invasion, the villagers had adopted a hardier way of life, driving the creatures from their settlements like vermin. The infestation had seen the fall of many a colony across the island, even the abandonment of the ancient City of the Mask Makers. Fortresses had fallen and barriers had been breached under the weight of a thousand spider carcasses.
And yet Hornfell, with its wooden fences and pitchforks, had remained standing.
Toa Gali, Mistress of Water, could do little but remark the fortune of the village as she swung her Elemental Trident, batting a plump beast of a Skull Spider aside. It squirmed then rolled in a tangle of limbs, dazed.
In recent weeks, she and her five brother-Toa had been scouring the wilderness of Okoto, picking off any remaining clusters of Skull Spiders and Skull Creatures left lingering. They had met no organized resistance, aside from a couple of lone Skull Warriors prowling the terrain. United, they had all but cleared the Regions of Earth and Fire in a matter of days one settlement at a time.
Beside her, Toa Tahu, Master of Fire, let rip a thunderous bellow before driving his Fire Blades into the ground, scorching the mossy undergrowth. When he was satisfied that his weapons were adequately charged with elemental energy, he swung them up again, slicing his way through a small group of the pests. Their singed shells and shrieks filled the air around him.
“We’re making good progress,” announced the Toa of Fire, hefting one of his swords up and resting it on his shoulder. “At this rate, the jungle villages should be clear by nightfall.”
On the other side of the village square, Toa Onua, Master of Earth, flexed his mighty muscles then balled his left hand into a fist. At his command, an earthen hand erupted from the ground, slamming down around a vicious sapphire Skull Spider as it advanced towards one of the villagers. Buried beneath the misshapen clump of Earth, the creature stopped squirming.
“Careful not to start anymore forest fires, brother,” cautioned the wise Toa of Earth, his voice as deep as a cavern yet as soft as clay.
Tahu glanced his teammate up and down before nodding humbly. Onua was one of the few Toa whose advice he respected. The rumbling giant spoke rarely, but when he did speak he usually imparted words of wisdom.
Closer to the center of the village, Toa Kopaka, Master of Ice, regarded his teammates coldly. With a flick of his wrist, he twirled his Ice Spear, striking an advancing Skull Spider and sending it flying forwards whilst looking in the other direction. If only for a fraction of a second, Gali could have sworn that a sly smile rested upon his lips. He turned his head before she could get too close a look.
Off to the side, Toa Pohatu, Master of Stone stood alone, passively observing as a pair of Skull Spiders skirted around him, unsure whether or not to attack. He was, after all, out of his element here in the jungle. With the bedrock too deep beneath the soil to manipulate and with no sand this far from the coast, his Elemental Powers were all but useless. For a moment, she considered coming to her brother’s aid.
Then, with a swiftness Gali had never herself known, she watched as Pohatu delivered a solid, sweeping kick at the nearest Skull Spider. The contact of metal striking shell echoed across the clearing and the unfortunate creature rocketed across the village. Its partner hesitated to watch it sail out of view, then turned back only to find the jagged tip of Pohatu’s Stormerang brought down hard on its shell, burying itself deep and piercing the cranium. The Toa of Stone grunted then pried its carcass from his weapon.
The Mistress of Water twirled her Elemental Trident in her hands. Beside her, she spotted a small gathering of four Skull Spiders that had assembled near her. They seemed to be converging around her, identifying her perhaps as an easier target than her brethren. She was about to prove them sorely mistaken.
Gali raised her trident decisively, calling forth her own Elemental Powers. A jet of water emerged from the tip of the weapon, driving back the creatures. Half-drowned by the spray, two of their number crumpled away. The remaining two wobbled around drunkenly only to be dispatched moments later by another twirl of her mighty weapon.
Nearer the entrance to Hornfell, Toa Lewa, Master of Jungle, was busy slicing at the straggling Skull Spiders that chose to retreat into the wilderness. While his Golden Mask was usually alive with youthful vivacity, it was now stricken with a tangible burden. This was, after all, his region. He would fight the hardest to preserve it, just as Tahu and Onua had done before him. Even as a series of vines shot up from the ground, tangling and crushing the escaping Skull Spiders, Gali could feel naught but empathy for her brother-Toa.
It was a unique sensation and a true sight to behold. Days like this in which the Toa worked together in such glorious unison were few and far between. Gradually, the emerald villagers began cheering with every crushed shell and winced with every hole that was torn in a hut or blade that accidentally slashed through a wooden fence. They stopped yelling in fear and began whooping in joy. As the Toa worked their way through to the final dozen Skull Spiders, Gali could feel her heavy heart beginning to rise in her chest.
Observing the Toa from a distance, Vizuna, Protector of Jungle, lowered his Air Elemental Flame Bow, letting slip a broad smile of his own. He had barely needed to fire his weapon in this village. Already he could feel the Toa beginning to fill their armor and work together as an effective force against the Skull Spiders. Whatever doubts he and his fellow Protectors shared over their abilities after their defeat at the hands of the Skull Grinder were quickly eroding. The Toa who stood before him now were not the same Toa that had crash-landed on Okoto four weeks prior.
Vizuna allowed his sensor tail to latch around a nearby tree trunk. Movement around the village had decreased exponentially with no more than five Skull Spiders having escaped the outer bounds of Hornfell. As he watched Toa Onua bury his Turbo Shovelers into the ground and tear out a chunk of earth larger than his hut, the Protector put to rest any lingering concerns he had. With one final, heavy thump, he sensed that the battle was over.
For the most part, the exercise had been an unparalleled success. Admittedly, it had been an idea of Nilkuu’s conception so he was reluctant to dispense praise that was undue, but having the Toa tour the various regions to drive out the remaining Skull Spiders had been all-around advantageous. At the very least, the Toa seemed to have benefitted from it tremendously. Nearly a week had passed since Tahu and Kopaka had last clashed horns over leadership of the team which was, in of itself, a major victory. With the pointless rivalry out of the way, the Toa had flourished in the company of each other. Their elemental capabilities had grown too and they had regained at least some of their former expertise, almost as if everything that being a Toa meant could be condensed into muscle memory.
“How goes the day, Vizuna?”
The Protector of Jungle had sensed the familiar approach several seconds ago. It had been some time since someone had managed to sneak up on him, even with his back turned. Smiling, he faced the speaker.
“It goes well, Kivoda,” he said.
The Protector of Water nodded with a cheerful grin, his Elemental Torpedo Blaster fixed upon his back. The two Protectors clanked fists in greeting.
“You’re early. You weren’t meant to arrive until tomorrow morning to escort them to your region.”
“I set off intending to see them in action,” murmured the Protector of Water, gazing affectionately towards the Toa as the villagers of Hornfell crowded around them. “Have you many more settlements to liberate?”
The Protector of Jungle waved his hand curtly. “Two small villages dotted along the eastern coast. I figured I’d give them the night off. Then they’re all yours.”
“That is good,” nodded Kivoda solemnly, reaching into his pack.
“What do you mean?”
The sapphire-armored Protector produced a piece of parchment. He placed it in Vizuna’s hand.
“A message attached to a Cliff Vulture,” he explained. “Intercepted by a lighthouse that I passed on the way here. I understand it is a matter of some urgency.”
The Protector of Jungle regarded his friend quizzically, as if waiting for more information. When none came he fumbled the already-torn parchment open once more and began to read.
The villagers were quick to celebrate the victory. As soon as she drove her Elemental Trident into a soft patch of earth, Gali could hear the sweet melody of drums beating from within the village square. A crown of daisies had been thrown around Onua’s brow and a rain of flower petals descended from the canopy above them, accompanied by a melody of cheers. Her fellow Toa grinned at each other before dropping their weapons and joining the festival.
Glancing over her shoulder, the Mistress of Water could do naught but look at Pohatu. The silent Master of Stone stood on the outskirts of the village, on the fringe of the festivities, his gaze distant and his eyes cloudy.
Stealing another peek at the villagers cheering her fellow Toa, Gali decided to accompany her brother beside the wooden fence that encircled the settlement. Of all her teammates, Pohatu seemed the most reserved. There was a deeper mystery about his countenance, one that she hoped he would reveal in time. She supposed that was true of all her brothers, for they were all without memories.
Yet, if she didn’t know better, Gali would think him a figure weighed down by the weight of past experience. Pohatu seemed a champion without a quest, choosing instead to walk a solitary path with no companions or goals for himself. He was a hero in search of definition. A warrior without a cause.
“Brother,” she announced with a warm smile. “Do you not wish to join in the festivities?”
The Master of Stone tilted his gaze to observe her coldly. His brow was stooped and his eyes narrow with suspicion.
“I just can’t shake this feeling,” murmured the Master of Stone.” Something about this place feels dishonest.”
His eyeline had been trained upon two figures in the distance. It took Gali a moment to recognize Protectors Vizuna and Kivoda from so far away. They seemed pre-occupied by a scroll of parchment, their expressions grave.
“You doubt the Protectors?”
The Toa of Stone nodded.
“Too many secrets. Too many conversations behind closed doors.”
“I’m sure they have our best interests at heart, brother,” mused the Mistress of Water. “Does it bother you?”
Pohatu’s gaze lingered on the Protectors for a moment longer. Finally he turned to face his sister-Toa.
“They don’t sit well with me, I suppose. They are correct, uptight, slightly timid characters, somewhat out of their depth now and therefore relying on somewhat undefined muscle to cover their backsides. So why the continued secrecy? Why not just arm us with the knowledge we need to combat the Makuta instead of tip-toeing around?”
“They are the village elders, Pohatu. If they choose not to tell us things then I’m sure their reasons are virtuous. We must afford them that courtesy.”
“Or, more likely, they haven’t decided on how much they can tell us.”
“I... I don’t know what to say to that, brother.”
“Let me put it this way then.” The Toa of Stone twirled one of his Stormerangs between his fingers then clipped it to his back. “Why did we choose the side of the Protectors?”
“You know the answer to that as well as I do,” answered Gali with a frown. “Because they were innocent villager chieftains ravaged by Skull Spiders.”
Pohatu shook his head.
“Because they were the first to greet us. They told us their story and rewarded us with moderately well-hidden Golden Masks to make us champions of a cause that is not our own. We could just have easily landed amidst the Skull Raider ranks or in isolation.”
“Are you saying we should have sided with the Skull Spiders and oppressed the inhabitants of this land?”
Pohatu pulled a face.
“The last guy we fought actually called himself Skull Grinder. There’s no question that we’re on the right side. I just don’t think the Protectors’ cause is as righteous as they claim. Things are rarely so black and white.”
Gali stole another glance at Vizuna and Kivoda only to see they had started moving, wading their way into the crowd of dancing villagers to address the Toa.
“What I am saying, sister, is that we perhaps should not be so trusting of these elders. Maybe it’s time we started deciding what is right and what is wrong for ourselves.”
The Mistress of Water looked Pohatu up and down then nodded. Together, they started making their way back towards the crowd.
“Takua, you say?” murmured Kopaka. “I have heard tales of his mischief. They stretch as far as the Region of Ice. He has quite the reputation for himself.”
“And this Jaller,” said Onua, his head rising in vague recognition. “I have heard mention of him in my own region. A Captain of some sort, is he not? His name is synonymous with valor.”
The Protector of Water nodded then tilted his head, gesturing for Vizuna to take over.
“They are high-valued targets,” explained the emerald Protector, taking a step closer. “Two days ago, they embarked on a quest of some sort, leaving their homes in the Fire Region in search of ancient treasure hidden deep in the Great Jungle.”
“If they hail from my region then they will be a hardy sort,” grunted Tahu, planting his Lavaboard into the soft ground. “We fire-types are resilient if nothing else.”
“Prideful too,” quipped Kopaka.
“Stubborn, as well,” added Lewa.
The Master of Fire shot a glare at his two teammates then huffed. Their humor was in the spirit of jest.
“How about we get back on track?” asked Gali frostily, eying her fellow Toa disinterestedly. “What exactly did the message say?”
“It detailed that they had found shelter in the ruins of an old fortress in the Jungle Region,” continued Vizuna. “Deserted many generations ago, I scouted the area in my youth, thinking I would find the Golden Mask of Jungle there. I enjoyed no such luck. In the years since, the marsh has grown considerably less welcoming.”
“Sounds simple enough,” snorted Tahu, placing a hand on his hip and rolling his head. “We find the ruins, we find the missing villagers. What else have we to fear?”
Vizuna and Kivoda exchanged glances.
“There is a local legend,” muttered the Protector of Water. “Many centuries ago, the region housed a great fortress, beneath which Makuta sealed one of his earliest Masks of Power. It is possible that this mask is the treasure Takua seeks.”
The Protector of Jungle reached into his pack and produced a weathered scroll of parchment, then handed it to Gali.
“This is a map of the Jungle Region, gifted to me by my mother, the previous Protector to hold my title. It will guide you to the ruins.”
The Mistress of Water raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Protector, you’re not coming?”
The emerald islander shrugged. “You have no need of my guidance so long as you have the map. Consider this a teambuilding exercise.”
An uneasy moment passed in which the Toa exchanged glances. The last time the Protectors had entrusted them to work without guidance things had not ended well for them. While their trials had indeed seen the restoration of Ekimu, it was no secret that the ancient crafter had secured their victory in the City of Mask Makers, a battle that had cost them both their Golden Masks and their dignity. They were understandably hesitant.
“Very well,” announced Kopaka, unclipping his Frost Shield from his back. “We shall seek out both the missing villagers and this Mask of Power, wherever they may be.”
“Of that, we have no doubt,” beamed Kivoda. “But, Takua and Jaller are your charge. Their safety is paramount. They must come above all else.”
“Indeed,” added Vizuna with a nod. “This is, after all, a mask crafted at Makuta’s hand. Perhaps it is for the best that it remains beyond our reach.”
Lewa tilted his head, a winning smile upon his Golden Mask.
“Six Toa searching for one legendary mask of power. When has that ever ended badly?”
Heeding the Master of Jungle’s quip but not indulging it with a single short grin between them, the Toa began to crowd around Gali’s map. After they had established the location both of the abandoned ruins and their current position in Hornfell, they began plotting an improvised route. Then, once both Tahu and Kopaka had reached a compromise, they turned to embark upon their journey.
“Remember, Toa,” chided Vizuna, “the jungle is home to more than just Skull Spiders. Things are not always as they appear.”
Only Gali and Onua turned their heads to properly acknowledge his words, falling behind the team instantly. Tahu, Kopaka, Lewa, and Pohatu continued walking, leaving a trail of footprints in the moss.
“I wasn’t expecting you to send them off alone, much less to give them your map,” muttered Kivoda once the heroes were out of earshot.
Vizuna shook his head.
“They won’t deviate from their quest. Not with lives hanging in the balance.”
“I hope you didn’t have anything sensitive marked on that thing.”
“I trust them enough to let them make their own mistakes.”
The Protector of Water shot his ally a warning look only to be met by a flat expression.
“Vizuna, we discussed this. We can’t tell them everything, no matter how much we might want to.”
“Don’t give me that,” snapped the Protector of Jungle with uncharacteristic ire. “I’ve had just about enough of Narmoto’s politics.”
“I’m hardly his biggest advocate either, but going around undermining him like this helps nobody.”
Vizuna grunted dismissively.
Already the Toa had disappeared beyond the tree line. The villagers of Hornfell continued their festivities, though the celebration was twinned with a noticeable tedium now that their saviors had left.
“Let’s agree to disagree.”
Nilkuu was considered the lowest of the Protectors on the totem pole, which he felt to be richly ironic.
He knew a little about totem poles, and Okotan culture in general. He knew a little about a lot of things, but in a random, unstructured sort of way that had served him no good. He wasn’t quite as wise as Narmoto or as insightful as Izotor; at least not yet. Wisdom did not come as freely to him as it did to his cohorts, but it came nonetheless, borne from his share of bad experiences and mishaps.
In the two weeks that had elapsed since the City of the Mask Makers had been restored, the Protectors had taken it upon themselves to relocate within the New Capital’s confines. Nilkuu himself kept one foot in the city, and another in his homeland, flitting back and forth every day. They guarded the villagers and continued to govern, often accompanying the Toa on their travels across their respective regions. But the Protectors had another shared duty, one that wasn’t quite so glamorous.
Ever since the escape of Kulta the Skull Grinder from the enchanted catacombs beneath Ekimu’s Forge, the Protectors had decided to step in and oversee patrols of the remaining prisoner’s cell. Left behind during his cohort’s breakout, the Skull Basher spent his time slumped against the chamber wall, his features sullen and dark. Even as Kulta’s most trusted lieutenant, he had been forgotten. Nilkuu imagined he had a lot to think about.
So here he was equipped with his father’s Sandstone Blaster and assigned today’s shift supervising both the guards and the remaining prisoner. He was the youngest of the Protectors and still the most uncomfortable around their captive. If anything went wrong, it would be on his head. Hence, the low guy on the totem pole, with a lot of weight to carry.
Except calling a new guy the weakest part of the totem pole was completely backwards. Totem poles were twenty, maybe even thirty feet high. The ancient Okotans weren’t dumb. They put the most important guy at the bottom. At eye level. What important guy wanted to be thirty feet off the ground, where nobody could see him? Like in market stalls. The eye-level shelf was reserved for the best produce. The high-margin items. Eye level was what it was all about. Being far off the ground didn’t make a person any more important, in a manner of speaking. It was a common misperception. Nilkuu didn’t know how it had come about.
Patrolling the dungeon was something of an easy job. Upgrades had been made since Kulta’s escape. The enchantments were still in place to pacify any prisoners the angrier they got, but now the cell had been moved deeper underground, with a dedicated team of villagers constantly sweeping the tunnels and observing their captive.
The tunnels were dimly illuminated by glowing weeds – Light Vines. They did not flourish in the Region of Stone but apparently grew in abundance beneath the Region of Earth, which explained why most of the staff originated from that district. Still, Nilkuu’s eyes weren’t accustomed to the darkness, so he had to rely on a burning torch to perform his rounds. Sometimes he was painfully aware that light acted as an early warning for guards to get back into position.
Turning a corner, the Protector of Stone found himself in the lower east wing of the facility. It was in this region that the Skull Basher was being kept while his Bull Skull Mask and tools were in the west wing. They were strategically harder to reach and locked up tight.
He climbed a short series of steps, then nodded at a steely-faced guard from the Region of Ice standing beside a clipboard mounted to the wall. He handed the sentry his torch and grabbed for the pen attached by a length of string. He pre-signed his name for the next tour, indicating that he had completed the sweep then took his torch back up and carried on.
In practice, he only had one responsibility, which was to monitor the Skull Basher for medical emergencies. He wasn’t too well-versed in Skull Raider physiology, but he had received some medicinal training in taught to him by one of his neighbors, a retired physician. Should the prisoner start foaming at the mouth or bang his horns against the wall, then it would be his responsibility to step in. Otherwise, the prisoner was not to be engaged.
Nilkuu’s monitoring process involved several tours of inspection, one every hour for as long as his shift lasted. He would duck in and out of the guard posts, interact with the sentries, then do a quick circuit past the cell, making sure everything was running smoothly. Each Protector had a different policy. Korgot, for example, ran a particularly tight ship whereas Izotor rewarded well-performing guards with local Ice Region delicacies prepared by his wife. They could allow for no weakness but they all had different methods.
The Protector detoured around a darkened corridor leading to the upper east wing. He walked a little faster than normal, eager to spring himself upon the final guard and catch him dodging work. The shadows of the catacomb walls moved as the flickering orange light of his torch passed over them.
But, as he rounded the final corner, Nilkuu spotted no sign of the guard in his usual post, further along the corridor. Instead he found the sentry at his feet, sprawled on the ground. The villager was spread out on his back, the final emotion that had surged through his brain frozen on his mask. It appeared to be a delicate combination of blind terror and unbridled fury.
Dead was dead, and this guy was very.
Tightening his jaw, the Protector of Stone considered drawing his Sandstone Blaster and advancing. Instead he chose to lower his torch and pluck the conch shell clipped to the dead sentry’s waist. Bringing it to his lips, he blew deeply, delivering a dull note of distress that reverberated off the catacomb walls. Within seconds the sound was matched by a handful of others and the alarm was carried across the entire dungeon.
The Skull Basher had escaped.
The Jungle Region was a difficult place to charter.
Even with Gali directing the group, the Toa had struggled to keep to the path detailed on Vizuna’s map. The road they traveled had grown damp and wild from neglect. Reeds and wildgrasses crept up their legs, obscuring the edges of the trail and making the journey difficult underfoot. Although she claimed to know roughly where they were, keeping track of their position demanded all of the Mistress of Water’s focus.
Lewa, in the spirit of the occasion, had taken to the treetops. He balanced nimbly on the branches, scooping up berries and occasionally flicking them at his teammates. Whenever the track became too dense with prickly undergrowth, he would swoop down and activate his Elemental Powers, clearing the foliage with all the unnecessary theatrics.
Light conversation had begun since the Toa left Hornfell, though the trickle of discussion had gradually begun to dry once Tahu and Kopaka had taken up the flank.
“This region agrees with me,” said Onua, taking in a deep lungful of air and flexing his chest. “I can feel the ground beneath us; all the earth and soil and mud. I’m in my element out here.”
“Whereas I can’t sense a rock for some distance,” griped Pohatu. “Unless we come across a structure of some kind, my Elemental Powers won’t be much use to us.”
“Fear not, brother,” chuckled Onua, slapping the Master of Stone on his back. “You have your dagger to protect us with.”
Pohatu narrowed his eyes then unsheathed his blade, twirling it over in his fingers. Onua was, of course, right to point out the peculiarity of the weapon. It seemed unspectacular when paired with his Stormarangs and did not channel his elemental capabilities. He had no memory of the tool and sometimes he wondered why he had donned it in the first place. But there was something elegant about the blade; something poetic about its rough simplicity.
“Looks like the path is about to incline,” announced Gali. “We just need to keep heading north then we should reach a clearing. We can stop for a break once we get there.”
“A break?” Tahu gazed at his sister-Toa in disbelief. “Already? But we’ve made no progress.”
The Toa of Water twirled her Elemental Trident and shrugged.
“A short break can’t hurt, Tahu. I know you fear for Takua and Jaller, but I need to gather my bearings, maybe pass the map-reading on to somebody else.”
But the Toa of Fire shook his head.
“We have a great distance still to travel and it’s already gone midday. If we want to reach the ruins before nightfall then we need to pick up the pace. I’m sure Pohatu will be happy to take over.”
Wordlessly, the Master of Stone stepped closer and craned his neck over Gali’s shoulder, examining the map.
“For now, Tahu is right,” murmured Pohatu gravely. “The villagers take precedence. We need to find them – quickly.”
The Master of Fire tightened his fist proudly then shot Kopaka a victorious pout.
“You see? Pohatu thought it was a good idea.”
“Congratulations,” chuckled the Master of Ice. “I suppose anything’s possible when you concentrate hard enough.”
The Toa of Fire regarded his teammate skeptically.
“I’m not sure if I like you more or less now…”
Gali had been true to her word. Sure enough, the gradient of the land swiftly began to steepen and the Toa were faced with an uphill trek. Lewa remained in the canopy, swinging from vines and grappling at branches, every so often sending down a flurry of leaves and twigs to remind his teammates that he was still there. Eventually, the Master of Jungle grew tired of the group’s sluggish progress and elected to scout ahead. Despite numerous voices of protest, the emerald Toa attached his X-gliders and took to the skies.
As the Toa progressed, they soon found that the incline wasn’t going to relent anytime soon. It continued to grow steeper and it became clear that the earthen clump was taking them to higher ground. There was no sign of a clearing.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” asked Tahu after a long leaden silence.
“This is the quickest route,” shrugged Pohatu. “Once we cross this plateau it’s a downhill stretch that leads directly to the basin of the marsh.”
But, as the Toa climbed further, the edges of the path began to narrow. There were earthen clumps on one side and a grassy slope littered with fallen branches and gingery leaves on the other. As the trail tapered further, Onua thumped Kopaka on the back.
“Don’t slip,” he said.
Kopaka stopped in his tracks and shot the Master of Earth a glare that could have frozen water. There were no words that could be strung together in response. Onua chuckled heartily.
“I don’t like this,” grumbled Tahu, picking flakes of soil from his shoulder armor. “This path was meant for villagers, not Toa. It’s getting too tight.”
“Perhaps it would be best to climb down and skirt around,” agreed Kopaka, eying the trail ahead.
Pohatu narrowed his eyes and stopped to re-examine the map. Onua regarded the edge of the overhang cautiously. In the end they both nodded and turned to Gali.
“Alright,” agreed the Mistress of Water. “But let us descend car—”
Before the words could escape her lips, Tahu and Kopaka had unsheathed their weapons and hurled themselves onto the slope. Magnetizing to their feet mid-air, their Lavaboard and Avalanche Skis impacted with the soft earth. Whooping with joy, the two Toa raced down the hillside, dodging trees and disappearing into a spray of fallen leaves and loose soil debris. An unspoken challenge had been issued. Gali sighed in frustration, massaging her temples.
“—carefully. I was going to say carefully.”
Warily, the three remaining Toa unclipped their weapons and stepped over the edge of the footpath, traversing the slope with caution. Their progress was slow-going and the ground was loose, but a path had been cleared by the tracks of their brother-Toa.
“Interesting,” murmured Pohatu, his eyes fixed upon the map. “There’s a Temple of Time nestled in the outskirts of this region.”
“Perhaps it’s a shrine dedicated to a Master of Time from a bygone era,” suggested Onua, his Earthquake Hammer resting on his shoulder. “I sometimes wonder if we’re the first Elemental Masters Okoto has seen.”
“What else is on that map?” asked Gali. “Anything juicy?”
“A couple of suspicious scribbles, a battlefield, and directions to something called a Suva,” answered the Master of Stone.
“That battlefield might be worth a look.”
“We can go exploring once Takua and Jaller are safe,” muttered Pohatu. Regardless, he took a mental note of the Temple’s coordinates, nestled in a rocky outcrop between the Jungle and Water regions. He would explore it one day, if his faith in the Protectors continued to falter.
Eventually, the tracks of unearthed vegetation grew fainter and the slope evened out. Having reached the base of the incline, the Toa scanned around them, searching for their teammates and drifting forwards. Gali’s keen eyes finally picked up the crimson form of Tahu standing amidst the trees, Kopaka beside him.
“Brothers, over here!” she exclaimed, advancing closer, Onua and Pohatu in tow. Both figures turned to face them, their expressions markedly grim. This confused Gali for a long moment before her eyes caught a glint of color amidst the foliage at their feet.
Lewa’s Golden Mask of Jungle.
The key is patience.
You wait and you watch, hour after hour if you have to. It’s perfection like that that you don’t find everywhere. But you are perfect, and you have to stay perfect. And you have to stay sure.
You move through the trees cautiously. You have scouted the area beforehand. You have trawled through topographical sketches of the region and its contours. You are unaccustomed to this environment but never out of your element. You can’t be. Not ever.
You disguise yourself; don a cloak, adopt the guise of a drifter. You roam before making your move, and when you eventually do, you strike with certainty and precision. You calculate variables. You leave nothing to chance. Success is not a mercy afforded to the fortunate.
Nimbly, you flit between the trees, drawing closer to the center of the continent. Although your intentions wicked, you grit your teeth and will yourself to endure. You are made of sterner stuff and unworthy of weakness. If it is sympathy you seek then there is none to be found. Not until your task is complete. Not until you have abandoned your morals. Not until you have committed the deed that compromises all your beliefs.
Until then, your doubts must be compartmentalized.
“Not again,” sighed Pohatu, moving to pluck the mask from the jungle floor. “Didn’t we just go through this?”
A cold wind rustled through the leaves of the canopy. For the first time on their quest, the jungle no longer seemed welcoming of their presence.
“Come now, brother,” said Gali with a shade of hopeful optimism. “We shouldn’t assume the worst. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this.”
“Looks like a bad one to me,” countered Pohatu bluntly, tossing the mask towards his sister-Toa.
“Well, in any case, it would seem our priorities have changed,” sighed Tahu pensively. “Now we need to find Lewa. An elemental Master takes priority over two missing villagers, even if they do hail from my region.”
“You’re making the hard call,” remarked Kopaka, bewildered. “I’m actually impressed.”
The Master of Fire nodded his head.
“A hard call, indeed. Can you imagine if the Protectors ever found out we let Lewa get abducted again? This is a matter of maintaining our professional dignity! We need to hide this under the rug, and quickly.”
“Ah,” muttered Kopaka, audibly disappointed. “In that case, forget I said anything.”
“Looks like there was a struggle of sorts,” mused Onua, kneeling down to inspect the jungle floor in the stretch of vegetation where the Golden Mask had been found. “I can feel it in the soil. It was recently parted, as though the roots have been torn up. Lewa must’ve used his Elemental Powers.”
Tahu glanced down, his eyes drawn to a nearby speck of silver among the shrubbery. Tangled in the weeds and undergrowth he could see the squirming form of a Skull Spider, too slow to escape Lewa’s wrath mere minutes before.
“Fantastic,” grumbled the Master of Stone, following his fellow Toa’s eyeline. “That’s not worrying at all.”
“They must have ambushed him from the treetops,” suggested Gali, examining the fissure in the forest-floor before her. “Caught him off-guard, sent him tumbling to the ground.”
Onua nodded. “Something heavy fell here. At an angle, too. Lewa was knocked off-balance in midair and crashed here.”
“And then there’s this.”
The Toa turned their heads to see Kopaka kneeling down beside a tree, picking his way through the lush undergrowth and reaching deep into the wildgrass. When he rose to his feet, he at first appeared to be holding a withered, gray tree branch. But, as the Toa leaned in closer, they soon recognized it as a severed, skeletal arm. He threw the scrawny limb to the ground, where the fingers twitched then lay terminally still.
“A Skull Warrior?” frowned Tahu. “Coordinating an attack with Skull Spiders?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen the two in league with each other,” murmured Gali.
“What has Lewa gotten himself into this time?” sighed Kopaka, eying the distant shrubbery guardedly. None of the Toa cared to respond.
“If we seek Lewa then perhaps it would be best for us to split up,” suggested Onua. “At least for a little while. He can’t have gotten far.”
“We would cover more ground that way,” nodded Gali uncertainly, fumbling the Golden Mask over in her hands and gazing into its empty eyeholes. “I can’t say I like it, but we don’t have a better option either.”
Kopaka glanced at the sullen Master of Stone, whose eyes were trained upon the ground.
“What say you, brother?” he asked calmly. “Fancy a walk in the woods?”
Pohatu stared blankly at him.
“I work alone,” he muttered, not a hint of interest present in his voice.
“So we’re all in agreement then?” asked Tahu boldly. “We split up, hope for the best, then head north towards the ruins?”
One by one, the Toa glanced at each other then nodded reluctantly. They were wary to splinter off alone in an unfamiliar region, but it had to be done. A necessary complication for Lewa’s sake. An unwilling challenge, but one they would rise to regardless.
Dividing apart, each Toa unclipped their weapons and embarked onwards, going in one of five directions, unsure what to expect at the end of their journey. Their task was not a glamorous one, but it was solemnly undertaken.
Traveling in what he assumed was a vaguely north-western direction, Toa Tahu continued to trek through the shrubbery, drawing closer and closer to the Region of Fire with every step. Already he could feel a shift in the humidity of the jungle, or perhaps he was just imagining it. Regardless, the warmth put a spring in his step.
He was able to bat aside the worst of the reeds and spurs that inhabited the jungle floor with his Fire Greatswords. In fact, the Master of Fire barely noticed the prickly undergrowth snagging his armored thighs. His thoughts were elsewhere.
Takua and Jaller. He had heard the names mentioned once or twice, mostly in conjunction with each other. Narmoto had expressed a fondness for both villagers, praising Jaller for his no-nonsense, earnest attitude and admiring Takua’s free-spirited passion for adventure with some hesitation. They seemed amicable enough from reputation, but the Toa of Fire carried his own reservations. As the guardian of their region, he knew he would be held to a higher standard than his cohorts. They all had a legend to live up to, but his was the legend that both villagers had presumably been taught of in their youth. His were the footsteps they had probably wished to follow in at some earlier point in their lives. Living up to such an expectation would be tricky.
More than that, he couldn’t seem to shift the weight of ultimate responsibility. Their well-being was his charge. Should something happen to either villager, the unspoken truth was that he would be judged harshly. He couldn’t afford a blunder in this instance. There was no room for error. This was a matter of integrity.
Gradually, the untamed wilderness began to thin out and Tahu found himself at the lip of a downwards slope. A series of solid rock fragments and earthen clumps jutted out of the ground, covered in a thick blanket of citrine moss. Amidst the varying leafy shades, the Master of Fire’s keen eyes detected a flash of a slickly, lighter emerald. Dropping his pace, the Toa adopted cautionary means, edging closer at a more measured pace.
Sure enough, his concern proved to be well-founded, for the green speck revealed itself to be a large Skull Spider, a more sickening shade than the moss it was surrounded with. The arachnid appeared to be snapping its jaws at a piece of fruit that had fallen from the trees above. The creature was almost undetectable in the undergrowth, but its scaly texture and peculiar color betrayed it. Although the breed wasn’t indigenous to this region, the sight of it filled the Toa with an unfamiliar cold fury. He had seen first-hand the damage that such Skull Spiders had dealt his region.
The Master of Fire narrowed his eyes and dropped into a crouching position, readying himself to pounce forward and deliver a fatal slash with his Greatswords. One good swipe and the creature would never terrorize another villager again. The Toa readied himself to deliver the blow.
But the opportunity never presented itself. Before Tahu even had the chance to spring forward, he felt something solid connect with his head, wedged deep behind his Golden Mask. Shuddering, he struggled against the metal only to receive a sharp tug that tore the mask clean off his face.
Instantly feeling the dizzying effects, Tahu yelped in surprise and toppled over, losing his balance. Fortunately, he managed to steady himself on one knee, staking one of his Greatswords into the ground. Already he could feel his elemental energies draining. The power was slipping through his fingers like sand, replaced by the lull of fatigue. He sagged, slunking to one side, as though deflated.
Above him, the slender, emaciated form of a Skull Warrior presented itself from amidst the bracken and furze, his Golden Mask wedged in the reanimated combatant’s Hook Spear. Before Tahu could so much as raise a hand in protest, his aggressor had donned the mask for itself.
Watching as the warm metal was pressed against the face of his adversary, the Master of Fire found himself powerless to intervene. The golden glimmer slowly ebbed away. A frosty, cobalt hue instead came to possess it.
“Now that’s just not fair,” he wheezed.
Toa Gali twirled her Elemental Trident, catching one of the Skull Warrior’s arrows with the flat of the weapon’s surface. She deflected the projectile with relative ease, delivering a solid uppercut with her other hand. Her enemy’s jaw made a satisfying crunch then hung limp, a garbled and indistinct groan emanating from deep within the throat.
Using the momentum of the punch, the Toa scythed her trident down at the ground, staking a particularly energetic Skull Spider. The razor-edge of the weapon tore through the creature’s hardy shell with unrivaled grace.
Hefting her tool back upright, the Mistress of Water took a step back, eyeing the pair of advancing Skull Spiders. Her attackers had sprung from the undergrowth in a flurry of moss and soil residue. An assault. It was most peculiar to witness the remnants of strategy amongst the creatures since the Lord of Skull Spider’s downfall. She seemed to have encountered the final vestiges of Skull Spider organization.
The Skull Warrior readied its bow, lining up another shot. Ducking down, the Toa of Water sprang forwards, ramming her shoulder into the marksman’s side. Her attacker crumpled to the ground, the shot flying wild amidst the canopy above. Intending to disarm the Skull Warrior, Gali delivered a solid kick, hoping to boot the Freeze Bow out of reach. Instead, she found her foot connecting with dried bone. The Skull Warrior’s fingers loosened and its lower arm crumpled from the impact, dropping the weapon. A single slash of Gali’s Elemental Trident across the chest dispatched the reanimated warrior entirely. It hit the forest ground with the weight of a fallen tree.
The two remaining Skull Spiders twitched apprehensively. It was not in their nature to retreat, but the bitter realization that they could not win this confrontation was beginning to dawn upon them. Still, they attempted to assail her, baring their vicious teeth and springing forward in unison.
The first Skull Spider, an outlandish green in color, angled itself for Gali’s ankle, intent on pinning her in place. The second, a rough metallic shade, fixed itself towards the Toa’s head.
But their target was too quick. Raising an arm in defense and reshuffling her stance, Gali was able to catch the silver Skull Spider on her forearm, while the other plunged itself into her leg-mounted Fin Spikes, slicing itself. The green spider tumbled aside and unfurled in the rushes and mud beside her.
Its silver cohort, however, remained determined. Although latched to her forearm, it began to creep towards her Golden Mask. Shaking half-heartedly, Gali shrugged then swung her arm at a nearby tree trunk, squashing the spider against its hardened bark. Instantly it dropped.
Eyeing the fallen Skull Warrior, the Toa of Water found herself thinking back to Onua’s comment about other Elemental Masters roaming Okoto. In spite of their numerous encounters, she couldn’t say she knew much about the undead warriors that plagued the island of late. Decayed as they were, they seemed to have more in common with the Toa than the Skull Raiders. Anatomically speaking, they were roughly the same height and wore scraps of similar armor. It was entirely possible that they had once been alike at some point, before Kulta the Skull Grinder had accepted them into his ranks.
Reflecting back upon Pohatu’s earlier remarks, she now re-examined the corpse from a different perspective. Back in the City of the Mask Makers, Ekimu had explained that they were reanimated through nefarious means to further Makuta’s evil ambitions, and yet she felt a pang of sympathy for the severed body sprawled before her, for Gali had encountered a number of Toa-sized adversaries over the course of their time on Okoto. While Skull Grinder and Skull Basher were hardened champions of the Skull Raider cause, the exact origins of their other skeletal adversaries remained unclear.
Casting her mind back, the Toa of Water recalled the gates of the Great Forge, which had been high enough to accommodate even Onua, and the ancient arena, the exact purpose of which still eluded her. Who had fought there? Who had constructed the city? More importantly, who had lived there? Other Elemental Masters, perhaps? It wasn’t exactly beyond the realm of possibility, and wouldn’t be the strangest occurrence in the island’s long history.
Glancing at the topsoil, Gali considered digging a makeshift hole. Whoever her adversary had been in a past life, the Skull Warrior deserved a makeshift burial of some form. A basic dignity.
Calling upon her Elemental Powers, Gali squatted down and raised both her Elemental Trident and her spare hand. Concentrating, she willed the moisture in the ground to shift beneath her. She could feel sediment and earth swirling around at the tips of her watery tendrils. When she was sure she had enough moisture at her command, she directed it to rupture the surface. In a shower of soil, moss, and shrubbery, the waters obeyed her, revealing an oval-shaped fissure. Filling the hole back in would perhaps prove an arduous task, but Gali was resolute in her conviction that it was the right thing to do.
She would soon come to regret such generosity.
Something hard connected with the back of the Toa’s head, causing her to cry out and stumble forward. For one terrifying moment, her eyes crossed and all thought escaped her. The world beneath her feet disappeared and a primal terror gripped her. When she recovered, Gali could feel only the blind panic of an unsuspecting prey in the midst of an invisible predator.
Wheeling around, the Mistress of Water caught a glimpse of her attacker: a Skull Scorpio. Trampling over the broken bodies of Skull Spiders, the monstrous crustacean advanced towards her, a furious crimson in its otherwise empty eyes.
Sensing its target about to mount a defense, the Skull Scorpio’s pincer snapped forward. Gali barely had a chance to duck out of the way before the Hook Blades clamped shut inches above her mask. She must’ve missed the creature skulking through the undergrowth, camouflaged by its withered carapace.
Thinking back to her last encounter with Skull Scorpios in the City of the Mask Makers, Gali recalled how easily the creatures had conquered her fellow Toa. They were tactical beasts, not to be underestimated. Savage and defined in their movements; painfully so as she had experienced.
Clicking its crab-like claws together, the Skull Scorpio swiped at its target. Instinctively, the Mistress of Water plunged her Elemental Trident into the soft earth, using the flat of the weapon to parry the attack.
But the swipe was only deceptive. Gali realized this as soon as her weapon made contact. She had overcompensated, left herself vulnerable in other places. A well-placed strike at her midsection could have seriously injured her.
Instead, the attack was followed by a brutal snapping of the Skull Scorpio’s pincer. Aiming directly for the hilt of the Elemental Trident, the strike tore through the metal. The mechanism that locked her Fin Blades together was slashed and the tip of the ax toppled away, narrowly missing her foot.
With her trident damaged, Gali grimaced and twirled her remaining Power Harpoon upright. This tool was perhaps more fitting for the circumstance. Perhaps she would manage to match her adversary’s precise strikes with a few jabs of her own.
But no such opportunity presented itself. The second the Power Harpoon was clear of the ground, the Skull Scorpio struck with its pincer again, this time clamping its Hook Blades around Gali’s midsection. Hoisted off her feet, the Toa squirmed and struggled against the iron grip, clawing at the pincer as it slowly began to squeeze. Her Power Harpoon fell from her clutches as she pried her fingers into the Hook Blades, hoping desperately to separate them. But the Skull Scorpio would not relent. It pressed harder.
Just like the Skull Spiders she had confronted just minutes before, it slowly began to dawn upon the Toa of Water that she was facing a superior opponent.
'This island has a horrible taste… in irony' she thought to herself.
Standing amidst a field of broken and dismembered Skull Spiders, Toa Kopaka surveyed the scene before him with a somber, ireful glare. Swirling his shield around, he mounted the tool upon his back and began trudging forward once more, picking his way between the shell fragments and icicles that now littered the jungle floor.
He had tracked the creatures for some time. First he had seen signs of individual Skull Spiders, skulking about the foliage. Instantly he had considered launching an offensive maneuver and catching them by surprise. But then he had adjusted his telescopic lenses and decided to keep his distance, registering the larger swarm further ahead. With all the stealth of an arctic predator, he had trailed them, waiting for the terrain to shift to his advantage.
As it turned out, the swarm had changed direction and veered off into a patch of moist bogland. Once certain that his targets had entered the marsh, Kopaka unleashed a burst of Elemental Ice Energy, freezing the moisture on the forest floor and locking many of the Skull Spiders in place. They had struggled and screeched in dismay onto to find themselves locked in place. Calling upon the remaining vapor in the sodden earth, Kopaka had produced a cluster of needle-sharp icicles, impaling the creatures systematically.
There was no joy to be had in the experience and he still felt uncomfortable exterminating the creatures. But there was no rehabilitation waiting for the Skull Spiders. No cure to pacify their vengeful pursuit of the villagers and no means of containing them. And so, with some hesitation, he had slain them in the most civilized manner possible.
Although he had warmed to Okoto in recent weeks, the Master of Ice felt largely impartial to the local disputes. While the islanders seemed justified in their ongoing conflict with the Makuta and his vaguely-defined forces of darkness, Kopaka had adopted a policy of distance. He wanted to explore the various regions and uncover their historical wealth, not to get caught up in the politics of the Islanders.
Whereas the Protectors fought to protect their homes and families, the Toa enjoyed no such attachments, which made it especially difficult to share in their sentiments. While he was happy to fight on the islanders' behalf, he couldn’t shake the sensation of discomfort that came twinned with hunting Skull Spiders. It simply felt wrong on a deep, ethical level, like it compromised his moral code by participating in what could only be described as an island-wide genocide. He supposed his position was understandable, though he would think twice about bringing the subject up around his fellow Toa. He wasn’t in the habit of sharing anyway.
Scanning the distant treeline, the Master of Ice remarked a particularly shady patch beneath a thick layer of canopy. The branches were low-hanging. For a moment he considered stopping in the shade. The warm weather of the region was taking its toll upon him and a short break was hardly unreasonable. But then he recalled the nature of his quest: Lewa and the two missing villagers. With five other Toa roving the jungle he decided it would be best to hold off sitting down until he had located at least one of the missing Islanders, maybe even the Master of Jungle himself.
Gazing blankly into the depths of the jungle, Kopaka caught sight of a dark shape flitting across the emerald backdrop. It had lasted for a fraction of a second, but the sudden movement was enough to draw his attention. Freezing in his tracks, the Toa of Ice narrowed his eyes then slowly turned his head, eyes roving the ground before him. Tree trunks and shrubbery obscured his view, but the land was moist and flat enough to offer a far-reaching field of vision. Standing his ground, the Toa held his gaze. For a long and uncertain moment, he doubted whether or not he had seen anything. But the dark streak replayed in his memory. He had seen movement. Of that much he was certain.
Holding firm for a long minute, Kopaka’s patience was finally rewarded when a dark shape came into view. He registered it instantly as a cloaked figure, about half his height, its hooded face peeking around a distant tree trunk.
The stranger froze the second the Master of Ice’s eyes fell upon it. Kopaka could feel a gaze being returned. He gazed deep into the spectator’s hood, trying desperately to gain some glimmer of recognition and instead seeing only darkness.
“Wait,” he said aloud.
But the stranger had no cause for further hesitation. With his position compromised, he took flight, flitting between the trees and vanishing from view. The Toa had to retract his telescopic lenses to follow his target but, by the time they had adjusted, the cloak-clad figure had vanished entirely.
“Wonderful,” muttered the Toa to the empty space where the spectator had stood.
If there was one thing Onua understood in the world, it was soil.
He could tell a great deal from soil patterns, such as the topographical composition of the region or how deep it ran. He could determine the nutritional value of the earth and hazard a guess at what types of plants would thrive in it, or even what types of villagers trod over it. In fact, he reckoned that he could make a fairly accurate evaluation of a person based upon their impression in the topsoil.
The key was pressure. That was the first step in his equation. If a foot covered a large surface area, then the weight was more consistently distributed. The pin-point appendages of Skull Spiders covered a smaller area and, thus, dug deep into the ground whilst the larger feet of the Islanders left more diminutive marks.
Of course, no matter the size of the foot, weight was relative. A fundamentally muscular individual would typically leave deep footprints. A nimble, large-footed figure such as Lewa was statistically harder to trace along a forest floor.
There had been no tracks leading from the clearing, which had made things difficult. But Onua had soon happened upon a faint series of footprints in the moss, uncoordinated and heavy. Without his Golden Mask, his brother-Toa was likely stumbling around for shelter.
While the impressions in the ground dotted in and out of visibility at different points, it was a simple enough procedure to follow them. Whether he knew it or not, Lewa seemed to be traveling in a north-eastern direction, almost as though he were homing in on a target location.
Casting his mind back to the map he had seen earlier, Onua was vaguely aware of the jungle’s geography. The capital of the region was in a loosely southern position, bridged in the center of three smaller villages. While there were several communities further off-field, the ancient ruins had been the only feature marked on this part of the map; the innermost portion of the Jungle Region. Surely it was unusual that his brother-Toa seemed to be gravitating so faithfully towards-–
The Master of Earth stopped in his tracks. Something was not right.
There wasn’t much light beneath so thick a canopy as this, which made for the conditions in which Onua’s eyes worked best. Scanning the foliage before him, the Toa picked up an odd shape amidst the leaves: leaden and misshapen.
Edging closer, the Master of Earth examined the object intently. It was nestled between a bush of colorful rushes and a patch of long wildgrass, barely visible except to observers who swept the floor with keen eyes. Indeed, he had not been mistaken in exercising such furtive caution. Eyeing the metallic texture of his find, Onua could make out a series of blunt teeth. A trap of some kind, ready to clamp shut on a spring mechanism. Bending closer, the Toa of Earth began to wonder what manner of stranger might have set it so far afield from civilization. A hunter of some kind, perhaps. Maybe it had been installed to ward off dangerous predators. Neither option seemed likely to him. From what he had witnessed earlier, the denizens of this region were a goodly sort, possessing a respect for their livestock that he hadn’t come across in any other region of Okoto. A villager of this region had no business planting traps such as these. What manner of beast was even intended to spring it?
The device was camouflaged well into its surroundings, giving off little more than a dull glint. At its base there were a series of vine-like tendrils, with penetrated the soil beneath it, anchoring the trap in place as though they were roots.
Grabbing either end, the Toa locked his mighty fingers around the trap and yanked it from the ground. A spray of moss and sediment followed as the withering tendrils were uprooted. With a single grunt and a flex of his muscles, he felt the metal bend in his hands. Applying more pressure, the mechanism finally broke and the trap snapped in half with a brassy yet satisfying screech. Onua nodded to himself as he dropped the two broken halves of the trap to the ground then pressed them deep into the soil with his foot.
Whether it had been planted for noble or ill intent, no creatures of Okoto would be snared today.
Pohatu, Master of Stone continued to press onwards. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time. With his Stormarangs attached to his feet he could easily force his way through the prickly undergrowth. He could feel branches and twigs snapping beneath his makeshift feet additions. It was a satisfying sensation, but he never let it distract him from his goal of getting where he needed to be.
Contrary to popular belief, the Master of Stone did not like working alone. Although abrasive by nature, he could appreciate the value of teamwork and had grown fond of his comrades in recent weeks. Some of them would have made worthy traveling companions. Disregarding the futile conflict of ideology with Tahu, he actually had a lot in common with Kopaka. Aloof and tactical, the Master of Ice behaved as a true stoic at times. Over the course of his journey, he had wondered if it would have been best to confess his doubts to the Master of Ice rather than Gali. It was hardly beyond the realm of possibility that his brother-Toa harbored similar sentiments. They did, after all, have a lot in common. They would make a formidable double-act someday.
Pohatu continued walking.
The mission was straightforward enough: find the two target villagers, escort them to safety, then locate Makuta’s mask. Three boxes to tick off a mental checklist. A straightforward set of requirements that would undoubtedly face a series of unpredictable complications.
Any tactician worth his salt knew to allow for the unpredictable, which was why Pohatu had walked slowly when faced with the first obstacle. He had started off heading south, splitting from the group in search of Lewa. But it had soon become evident that finding the Master of Jungle was a hopeless endeavor, unless he had either taken flight back to Hornfell or the original clearing. There had been no tracks to follow but those of his fellow Toa, and the search had set him off in completely the wrong direction from the ancient ruins. Hoping that one of his teammates had enjoyed better luck, he had instead doubled back and started moving north.
A more strategic move, he thought. It was better to provide the other Toa with auxiliary support than to pick his way back uphill. Chances were that a maskless Lewa had traveled downwind, which would bring him north-west.
But that was exactly the issue. Pohatu had expected to be trailing after the others and yet, so far, had seen no indication that any of his teammates had traveled this way. No footprints. No broken Skull Spiders. No snapped twigs or bent branches. The flowers of the forest floor remained undisturbed, leaving sticky residue upon his armor as he brushed past.
This was worrying. Even without a compass, Pohatu had been able to orientate himself using the Twin Suns overhead. He was definitely travelling on a north-western trajectory. Since his path had not crossed with the path of one of his teammates, he knew it could only mean the other Toa had deviated somewhat.
One foot in front of the other.
One step at a time.
As he progressed, the land became more stable. Sodden patches of water-logged marshland gradually grew harder. The earthen puddles and sinkholes became fewer and further between until they eventually disappeared entirely, replaced instead by clumps of solid ground. As he journeyed onwards, Pohatu could tell that he was leaving the basin of the jungle behind.
The Toa of Stone pushed himself further, roving the terrain for features of interest. Every so often he remarked a small rock formation. Stones were in short commodity in this region. He was out of his element here, in a world of mud and moisture and vegetation. He hadn’t been able to sense anything larger than a pebble beneath the earth for some distance. It was best to keep stock of any rocks he encountered for the likely event he would need to manipulate them later.
Scanning the tree trunks, a small feature caught the Toa’s eye. Buried behind a thick layer of ivy, the Master of Stone identified the familiar pattern of dilapidated brickwork; the remains of a wall from a building that had long-since succumbed to the ravages of time. Around it laid the fallen rubble of rotten debris. Ragged weeds and saplings forced their way through.
It was an outpost of some kind. The whole structure appeared deserted and silent. Quieter than silent, in fact. It had the total absence of sound that was so often left behind when a busy place became abandoned. All natural sounds were long-gone. He strained his audio receptors but heard nothing at all. Not even the rustle of vegetation.
Unable to affect the material with his powers, Pohatu noted that this was the first marker of civilization he had encountered over the course of his trek. Maybe he was nearing the ruins after all.
Most curious. Surely if he had reached the ruins then he would first have encountered one of his teammates by now. The prospect concerned him.
One foot at a time, Pohatu continued, shrugging all doubts about the location of his cohorts to one side. He was sure to run into one of them sooner or later. Until then, it was no use fretting. Better to remain focused on his surroundings. Better to stay positive. After all, he couldn’t be the first to arrive, not with the added distance. Perhaps the others were already there. Yes, that would explain a lot. No doubt they were already assembling at the ruins, roving the grounds for the mystery Golden Mask and tending to the two missing adventurers. That would make a lot more sense, especially considering he’d traveled the furthest. That had to be it. The fates weren’t so cruel that they would doom Toa Pohatu as the first arrival on the scene. Surely not. Someone else would have the honor of meeting the adventurous youths before him. There was nothing to fear. He’d just take his time, walk slow and –
The Master of Stone froze in his tracks.
Jerkily, his head twitched to the right, where he regarded the form of a sprightly blue-and-red armored figure half his size, gazing up at him in wonder. Behind him stood the derelict ruins of a structure besieged with moss. Not another Toa in sight.
It was dangerous to make assumptions. Kopaka knew this much. So he had been trailing the robed forest-dweller in the hopes of finding answers. But, more than once, his mind had wondered and he had questioned who exactly the figure amidst the shrubbery had been.
A villager of some kind - that much he could assume. Perhaps a local from a nearby settlement or an itinerant wanderer stalking the undergrowth. Neither seemed particularly likely considering there were no nearby villages in this region of the marshland. If the stranger was a local then they were too far afield from home and if they were a traveler then they had no business here. No business watching him, at least.
Originally, he’d called out after the stranger, only to find his shouting to be a fruitless endeavor. It had soon dawned upon him that the villager perhaps didn’t want to be seen. So instead he’d resorted to sneaking around and trying to capture the wanderer. Once or twice he had come close, glimpsing outlines and shapes that he thought to be his target only for his clunky armor to reveal his location from afar and scare the figure off entirely. But, try as he might, Kopaka could not determine why the stranger might have cause to flee every time he drew near.
Up ahead, he could hear the rustle and bustle of foliage swaying gently in the afternoon breeze. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a black blur flit across the wilderness. He turned his head, telescopic lenses whirring into focus. This time he caught a glimpse of the panicked figure, huddled beneath its cloak.
For a moment, the Toa considered freezing the ground over and bringing the stranger to a halt. But frustration had gotten the better of him, and he instead elected to hurl his Ice Spear. He anticipated a similar effect as he flung his weapon into the air. But, instead of staking the ground in front of his target, the spear fell short, hurtling directly towards the robed figure instead.
Kopaka swiftly realized the error of his action and hollered out a wordless warning from deep within his throat. The traveler hesitated only to jump to the side at the last moment, the Ice Spear staking the ground beside him.
Whole-heartedly ready to apologize, the Master of Ice began making his way over to the figure, already shouting his regret. The stranger turned to leave hurriedly once more, only to be stopped in his tracks. His robe had been caught beneath the Ice Spear and was pinned to the ground. He tugged at it helplessly as the Toa drew closer.
But, taking another step forward, the Master of Ice found his foot connecting with what he assumed to be a low-hanging branch. In the space of a split-second, he soon realized that it was a fallen tree trunk and that it would not budge. To his dismay, he found himself tilting forward, then crumpling to the ground with a solid thump. The Toa grumbled as he picked himself up, wiping the dirt from his armor.
Taking his tumble as an opportunity, the cloaked villager tugged at his robe, tearing the fabric off then making a break for the treeline once more. Kopaka raised a hand in protest.
“Stop!” he hollered into the distance.
But the stranger paid him no heed, scurrying away like a woodland creature evading the snapping jaws of a predator. The Master of Ice was left to gaze upon the empty scene as the silent watcher slipped into the shrubbery.
Sighing in frustration, the Master of Ice massaged his temples with his free hand then edged closer to his Ice Spear. Now his mysterious stalker had been spooked and there was no hope of catching him up. It irked him somewhat that he would never discern the identity of the stranger amid the shrubbery.
Plucking his weapon from the ground, the Master of Ice remarked the piece of cloth that was staked under it. While it had at first appeared a dark ebony hue, the other side of the cloth seemed to be adorned with an elaborate golden pattern. It glimmered with a solitary twinkle. Fine material, too. The robe would most likely have fetched a hefty price in marketplace. Surely only true fear of being captured by some manner of adversary could have prompted such a frantic retreat.
Kopaka scanned the scene one final time, wondering what could have possessed someone to take flight with such desperation. After all: only the guilty flee.
“Toa Pohatu?” repeated the Islander, this time more insistent. “Spirit of Stone?”
“My reputation precedes me,” muttered the Toa begrudgingly. Small talk. Awkward. He hated unnecessary interactions. “Jaller, I presume?”
The figure shook his head, glancing over his shoulder at the structure behind him. His helmet was crafted in the shape of Onua’s Mask of Earth, only it was blue in color and a size too large.
“I am Takua,” he announced simply, a youthful twinkle in his tone.
“The adventurer,” mused Pohatu dismissively. “You’re a long way from the Fire Region, aren’t you?”
“Not as far as the Stone Region,” replied Takua defensively.
The Toa raised an eyebrow but resolved to let the comment slide. He got the impression that travel between regions didn’t happen all too often, here on Okoto. Until the arrival of the Toa, the borders between the regions had been far harder to traverse. Takua had probably gone his whole life chastised for being in the wrong place. It was no small wonder he was a little guarded about it.
“I guess you received our message then?”
The Toa grunted to the affirmative.
“Wouldn’t be here otherwise. Where’s your friend?”
Again, Takua glanced over his shoulder, this time gesturing towards the center of the crumbling structure. Irritatingly, it was fashioned from the same material as the sentry post Pohatu had encountered earlier. His Elemental Powers would remain useless for the foreseeable future.
“He got hurt,” grimaced the Islander, taking a step towards the building. “Not my fault at all, I should probably point out.”
The Master of Stone unclipped his Stormarangs from his feet and holstered them upon his back before picking his way through the rubble, Takua following close behind.
“I don’t know. It was east of here. We’d just left a footpath, following a map, not really looking in fron—”
“No. Where on his body? What kind of injury?”
Takua shut his mouth and pulled an expression as though he had tasted an overripe fruit.
“His leg. He wandered into a trap of some kind. It was hidden on the forest floor.”
Turning towards the ruins, Pohatu remarked the courtyard before him. The jagged remnants could be seen for some distance, and the clearing was sizable enough to indicate they were standing in the debris of a small fortress. A faded and scuffed marble mosaic adorned the central enclosure. Nothing had endured beyond a single tier, though a crumpled staircase off to the side indicated that the remaining walls had stood something more than the test of time. This was the site of a raid.
Ducking beneath a small archway, Pohatu entered a chamber. It was the only feature left untouched by the decay of the structure. A small hole decorated the roof, allowing a burst of sunlight to illuminate the otherwise gloomy contents. Broken chunks of rubble and lichen peppered the ground, which was moist from ancient rainwater. In the corner, propped up low against the far wall, he could see the outline of a villager. Advancing closer, the Master of Stone soon realized that was not the case.
The figure lay fatally still, overcome with centuries of grime. A resident of the Jungle Region. From the original fortress, he assumed. Probably killed in a raid and left for dead amongst the wreckage. The organic components had long-since rotted away, leaving only a mess of circuits and brittle armor. Plating that had once been emerald in color was now a sickly turquoise, rusted and sullied by decades of neglect. A thick layer of moss had come to inhabit the folds of the figure’s armor, giving him a crusty texture.
“On your left,” came a voice from behind him.
Pohatu whirled on his feet to see a second figure concealed from a vantage point next to the door. From this angle he could see clearly enough that there was a divide between the archway and the wall. A crumpled crimson figure lay in the corner, a makeshift splint attached to his right leg. Jaller. Just like Takua he too wore an unusual mask, this one crafted in the shape of Tahu’s Mask of Fire.
“Toa Pohatu,” he mused in something close to wonder. “The Master of Stone…”
The Toa nodded curtly then knelt down to examine the wounded villager. The gash upon Jaller’s leg could honestly have been a lot worse. Given how high up his leg the lesion was, it was clear that the trap had been set for a larger prey. It should easily have fractured the bone tissue and crushed his leg, but his thigh armor appeared to have obstructed the full force of the mechanism.
“It was an animal trap of some kind,” explained Takua, ducking his mask around the corner of the archway.
Roving his eyes lower, Pohatu found his attention being pulled towards the splint. It consisted of two long tree branches scavenged from the forest floor. The longest of the two was sodden with rainfall. The other was a good, sturdy length. They were roped together with thin pieces of cloth.
“Do either of you have medical training?”
Takua glanced blankly at his friend. Jaller nodded.
“My training was basic,” he muttered. “The Protector of Fire taught me how to treat broken bones and puncture wounds.”
“Very good,” grunted the Master of Stone, not sure where he himself had learnt such skills. “I take it there’s no sign of my fellow Toa then?”
“The other Toa are coming!?” Takua’s eyes widened in delight only for his features to visibly freeze. “Oh… the other Toa are coming… I guess it’s serious.”
Pohatu nodded, wordlessly.
“How did you spring the trap?” he asked warily, eyeing Jaller’s leg.
Takua opened his mouth as if to speak then hesitated, shutting it again, glancing at Jaller instead. The wounded Okotan shook his head then straightened himself upright.
“With my hunting knife.”
Pohatu considered the words carefully then turned to face the doorway. Judging by the estimated size of the trap it would’ve had to be a large hunting knife made of durable metal. Blunt force would be needed to pry it apart. A crowbar would be better-suited, or a smaller tool might even have been able to dismantle the mechanism. It was hard to picture a blade of any sort prizing open metal without breaking. Something seemed amiss about Jaller’s account.
“This marshland…” he murmured. “I heard there was a local myth.”
Now it was Takua’s turn to nod.
“A Golden Mask was hidden here, or at least according to the legends,” he announced. “I haven’t had a chance to search the grounds for it yet. Didn’t want to leave Jaller alone.”
The Master of Stone turned to re-examine the splint then stared into the eyes of both villagers. Neither could hold his gaze for long. There were words unspoken. The villagers hadn’t told him the whole story. Something about the scene didn’t ring true. He could feel it.
“We’re safe now, right?”
The question broke Pohatu’s train of thought. He glanced up.
“Help is on the way, right?” asked Jaller, elaborating. “The Protectors know we are here, so a medic won’t be far behind?”
The Master of Stone hesitated, glancing at the open doorway, wondering once more what could have happened to his teammates.
“Sure,” he grunted. “Help is on the way.”
Onua, Master of Earth, progressed with furtive caution. His fingers were wrapped tight around the shaft of his Earthquake Hammer, his keen eyes scanning the marshy depths. This region of the forest was darker. The canopy overhead was dense and light was in short commodity this close to the ground. That suited Onua just fine. He was accustomed to the darkness. His vision operated better in this environment.
Trekking onwards, the Toa of Earth turned his mind towards his missing teammate. He cared deeply for the young Master of Jungle, in the same way he cared for all his fellow Toa. But Lewa in particular had proven to be somewhat accident-prone. The loss of his Golden Mask at the hands of the Skull Slicer had been a stifling blow to the young Toa’s dignity, from which he hadn’t fully recovered. To make things worse, it had only been a matter of days since he had lost his mask a second time whilst searching for two lost Okotan brothers in the Region of Stone. Suffice it to say, chasing after Lewa was becoming something of a recurring habit.
The water-logged ground made footprints all the more pronounced. Onua followed a series of markings until he encountered evidence of a particularly bad slip. The sodden marshland had sucked in the foot of a previous traveler, who had scrambled to be free of its watery grip before the tracks disappeared entirely. His quarry must have taken to the trees.
Mud and marsh and mayhem. Onua himself had traversed the terrain with relative ease. His feet were, after all, suited to such a terrain.
But still he could not shake an uncomfortable pang of tension seated deep in his gut. The environment remained entirely unwelcoming and the air was thick with a moist stiffness. It felt as though his travels were bringing him closer to the earliest, primordial history of Okoto. He wondered if this area of the marsh had even seen an Okotan villager since the time of the Mask Makers so many centuries before.
A flash of crimson.
The Master of Earth stopped dead in his tracks and flinched, his reaction almost instantaneous. His knuckles whitened upon his Earthquake Hammer as he drew it back and prepared to swing. Before he could bring it crashing down, however, it dawned upon him that the he was observing a forest critter of some sort scurrying across the ground. It ogled him with reptilian eyes then scampered away, disappearing from view - spooked.
The Toa breathed a sigh of relief.
But his respite was short-lived. No sooner had Onua lowered his Earthquake Hammer, the ground beneath him erupted with a wall of mossy tendrils. Caught off-guard, the Toa yelped. In his startled state, vines and roots snared his arms and yanked him back. His weapon fell to the ground with a heavy thump.
Feeling his wrists being bound, the Master of Earth struggled against his confines, searching the shades for his attacker. Skulking amid the undergrowth, he caught a glimpse of a shadowy silhouette. Sleek, emerald armor.
“L… Lewa?” he mumbled in confusion.
As his brother-Toa stepped out of the shadows, Onua noticed something was very wrong with him.
It rested upon the Master of Jungle’s face. A particularly fat specimen, bloated up like an overindulgent leech. Its forelegs twitched down his chest while its hindlegs knotted around his head. In what little light penetrated the canopy, he could see its cloying, oily shell.
“Toa… Onua…” grated Lewa in a voice that was not his own. Only a trace of recognition was present.
The Master of Earth turned his gaze and flared his nostrils. He hadn’t known any of his teammates for long, but he had reason to feel protective of them all; Lewa perhaps more than the others. Seeing him in this state, twisted and gaunt under the sway of another, inspired a blazing fury within.
Flexing his muscles, the Toa of Earth roared and yanked on the plant tendrils that bound him. With a single mighty tug, he managed to tear himself free of their grip. He took a decisive step forward, snatching up his Earthquake Hammer in one hand and eyeing his adversary from beneath ireful brows.
“Release my brother, creature,” he bristled with uncharacteristic menace. “Else I shall strike you from his face with a force that will put Ekimu and his mighty hammer to shame.”
The Skull Spider’s mouth creased and twisted as it knitted to Lewa’s grinning face. Its outlandish sapphire was simply unnatural. A sinister smile.
With an almighty roar, the Master of Earth raised his Earthquake Hammer and took charge, ready to smite the parasite with a thunderous wrath.
Over the course of recent weeks, Tahu had removed his mask several times. Typically, it was to don a new one, usually gold in variety. He’d gone through several of late, feeling a fresh burst of elemental energy each time. The sheer power that the masks housed made them a force to be truly reckoned with, as well as an invaluable commodity to have in his arsenal.
For this reason, it was especially distressing to find his Golden Mask of Fire now adorning the face of a Skull Warrior.
Worse still, the longer he remained without a mask, the weaker he became. Already he could feel something more than his Elemental Powers leaving him. All energy was draining from his fingertips. Wave upon wave of weariness bombarded him, pressing him down lower and lower each time.
His aching arms began to sag, as though they were burdened by blocks of lead. Dark, swirling shapes were flooding his vision as he fought to stay conscious. His mechanical parts were at war with the organic. His body was tearing itself apart.
And then it finally came. That familiar sensation of mellowness. He had felt it once before, shortly before blacking out in Ekimu’s Forge but already it felt as though he were greeting an old friend. It soothed his senses and eased his tender muscles. Tahu could feel himself retreating further inside his own skull, ready to power-down and sleep.
He enjoyed sleeping. Sleep was good. Sleeping was his favorite activity. He’d spent an approximate half of his life doing it, after all. Sleep kept him focused and alert. It made him balanced and motivated. It allowed him to escape into a realm of temperateness and ecstasy, where he could unwind amidst soft, natural fields and long, imagined expanses. Sleep introduced him to a world of shifting, semi-solid shapes and colors. He wished he could be asleep right now, as the last remnants of strength deserting him. Surely it would be alright. He could sleep. All he had to do was gently close his eyes and surrender to the darkness that threatened to engulf him.
He had to fight the lethargy that besieged his senses. He had to stay awake. For Takua. For Jaller. For Lewa. For his own sake. He couldn’t slip away at the jaws of defeat with a lone Skull Warrior above him. Not like this. This was no ending for the mighty Tahu, Master of Fire.
Within him, a rebellious flame began to flicker. As the breath seeped from his lips it sparked furiously, scorching into molten adrenaline. Fighting every wild spasm his body could throw at him, the Toa struggled to his knees, a burning fury now seated in his breast. His maskless face creased into a snarl as he locked eyes upon the Skull Warrior.
Calling upon every last vestige of energy, the Toa managed to grip his Fire Greatswords once more, slamming them together to form his Lavaboard. The Skull Warrior registered the clank of metal and drew its Freeze Bow, raining a flurry of frozen projectiles at him.
But the Lavaboard held strong, blocking all four shots and preserving the Toa behind it. Frustrated, the Skull Warrior jabbed at it with the edges of its Freeze Bow, only for Tahu to ram the Lavaboard directly into its midsection, knocking his attacker backwards.
The Toa of Fire groaned, nearly falling to the ground once more. He had overreached. Now all his joints were burning with the fury of a crimson rage. He struggled to balance, fumbling about with his Lavaboard as he veered too far forward, but it slipped through his fingers, too heavy to hold in his current state. After a moment of struggle, he managed to right himself, engaging the Skull Warrior once more.
Drawing his Golden Swords instead, the Toa of Fire let slip a snarl before taking a shaky step forward. His growl slowly reverberated into a throaty roar as he stumbled onward, gathering momentum. He bellowed in red-hot rage as he charged into the startled Skull Warrior, planting his Golden Swords deep into his adversary’s chest and sending them both clattering to the ground.
The Skull Warrior opened its mouth, a gasp of air parting its lips as the blades pierced its ribcage. Seeing that fatal expression upon his Golden Mask was especially disturbing, but Tahu ignored it, tightening his grip upon the swords and pressing them in deeper, until he was sure they had pierced the Skull Warrior’s back and staked the ground beneath. Only then did his enemy stop twitching.
Having learnt a lesson, the Master of Fire reached straight for the Golden Mask and plucked it from the fallen Skull Warrior, clipping it back onto his own face. A reassuring magnetic clink relieved him of his fatigue and a wave of warmth soothed his troubled spirit. With his mask finally returned to him, the Toa breathed a sigh of relief then rolled over onto his back, gazing up at the sky and silently thanking whatever manner of great spirit watching over him that nobody had not been around to see the struggle.
“Rest in pieces,” he wheezed frostily.
Tighter and tighter.
Toa Gali struggled to pry the Skull Scorpio’s pincers apart. She kicked and thrashed and buckled and squirmed, as though she were fighting desperately to stay afloat. She frantically dug her way into the folds of the creature’s oily Hook Blades. There were almost impossible to latch onto, but still she struggled to free herself.
Feeling the claws of the Skull Scorpio snap shut around her ankles, it suddenly occurred to the Toa of Water what was happening. Her attacker had secured her center of mass in its mighty pincer and was now poised to tear her legs clean from their sockets. It would rip her apart, limb by limb.
Wrenching her forearm down, Gali jammed her elbow against one of the blades then fingered her way into the opposite pincer. A bad idea. One that she would instantly regret. Like thrusting her arm into a series of furiously grinding gears. All that was keeping the pincers from closing was the bone beneath, and whatever muscle she could muster through the blinding flashes of pain.
Locking her jaw, the Toa of Water flexed her free arm then swung back, grappling desperately for her pack. Sensing her movement, the Skull Scorpio stiffened its vice-like grip and pressed harder, constricting tighter still around her sides. Gali yelped in pain then recomposed herself through flared nostrils and gritted teeth. She bristled wordlessly then dug her fingers deeper, searching blindly for her quarry. When she finally latched onto it, she laughed a single, joyous syllable, then pried her arm free, holding up her prize in triumph.
Lewa’s Golden Mask of Jungle.
Knocking her own mask from its magnetic clamps, the Mistress of Water slammed her prize into place on her head. Instantly, she felt an unfamiliar surge of elemental energy overcome her senses. She could feel herself connecting to the world around her, but not as she had ever felt it before. Glancing around and seeing a potential weapon in every tree trunk, branch, bush and leaf, Gali tried not to dwell too deeply upon the fact that her lips were now pressed against the mouthpiece of her brother’s Golden Mask.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” she challenged, raising a fist into the air and feeling all manner of undergrowth heed her command. “And the jungle is no place for a scorpion!”
A tendrilled knot of matted roots and jagged thorns erupted from the soil, striking the underbelly of the Skull Scorpio. The creature hissed in reptilian fury, loosening its grip long enough for Gali to tear a foot free. Twisting her ankle inwards, the Mistress of Water kicked at her captor’s skull-mask with her Fin Spikes. She ended up missing the creature’s head entirely, but the leg-mounted blade pierced the exposed organics of her adversary’s shoulder. Finally relenting, the Skull Scorpio released the troublesome Toa from its clutches.
Landing on her side, Gali made a grab for one of her weapons. Snatching up the bladed head of her broken Elemental Trident, she tore her Shark Fin Blades free. The pain around her waist stung bitterly, but she disregarded the aching. It would subside in time.
Momentarily fazed, the Skull Scorpio locked eyes upon her once more, this time wary of its prey.
But the female Toa knew no such hesitation. With the unrivaled ferocity of an almighty tidal wave she advanced, crashing down on her undead adversary, slicing at its armor with her Shark Fin Blades and cleaving great chunks of metal and cartilage from its carapace. The Skull Scorpio hissed once more, moving into a defensive position.
Raising its stubby claws in defense, the Skull Scorpio struck with its Hook Blades, making a wild swipe for the Toa. But this time Gali was ready. Anticipating the attack, she swung one of her Shark Fin Blades down hard, wedging it deep within the exposed tendons of the creature’s tail.
A debilitating blow. The Skull Scorpio’s screech shot up an octave higher as one of the Hook Blades snapped from its pincer tail. Even now, the Mistress of Water would not relent. Raising her weapons into the air, she called forth a legion of tree branches and vines to restrain her challenger, binding her reanimated opponent just as it had bound her. The beast thrashed around wildly, its spindly legs cutting and jabbing at the vines as they stiffened. Finally, the Mistress of Water lowered her weapons and deactivated the Golden Mask of Jungle, confident that the vines would hold her defeated opponent.
Panting deep and triumphant lungfuls of air, the Toa examined the Skull Scorpio as it wriggled pathetically in its restraints, carefully considering what to do next. The creature was wounded and wild, with most of its armor torn clean off, without its natural defense, and positively livid. Should it ever pry itself free from its confines it could still present a problem for any wandering villagers.
Again, she found herself considering the origin of her enemy. Presumably, Skull Scorpios were not among the ranks of the Skull Raiders. Much the same as their Skull Warrior brethren, they were reanimated from organic matter and caught under the sway of Kulta and his undead army. They were capable of independent thought but were little more than husks, hollowed out and strung up to enact the will of Makuta.
Appealing to her better nature, Gali chose to impart mercy upon her aggressor. The loss of her Elemental Trident would not move her to take the Skull Scorpio’s life. She would leave it bound. Plucking up her Power Harpoon from the ground she nodded to herself, knowing it to be the right choice.
Feeling a pair of eyes upon her, the Mistress of Water tilted her head, remarking the familiar form of Kopaka standing before her. The Master of Ice gazed blankly at her, an eyebrow cocked.
“How long have you been standing there?” she asked, clipping her Power Harpoon to her back.
“Long enough to know this was your fight, sister,” he murmured. His telescopic lenses focused in on the battered outline of the Skull Scorpio.
“Any sign of Lewa?”
The Toa of Ice shook his head.
“Hopefully one of our brothers enjoyed more success,” he said guardedly.
Gali nodded grimly, picking her Golden Mask of Water off the ground and swapping it back into place.
“Then perhaps, Master of Ice, this is where two paths become one.”
Clipping Lewa’s Mask of Jungle to her hip whilst traipsing across the scraps of broken Skull Scorpio armor, she shot Kopaka a winning smile.
“Don’t slip,” she said sweetly.
The Toa of Ice stared after her then grimaced.
“I never should’ve told Pohatu about that,” he grumbled.
The desert was a solitary region. It suited Pohatu just fine, for he enjoyed the seclusion. During the quest to retrieve the Golden Mask of Stone, Nilkuu had respected his desire for privacy and left the Toa to wrestle with the weight of his own thoughts. For all intents and purposes, it had been a comfortable experience.
Having left the two villagers in their makeshift shelter, the Toa had taken the opportunity to explore the ancient ruins. They seemed decent enough individuals, but they had reminded him how much he enjoyed having his breathing space.
Jaller was something of a straight-arrow character. A young villager from a military upbringing, boasting a wealth of tactical knowledge. He possessed a deep passion for strategy and knew the value of silence, something familiar to Pohatu. Whilst he could feel the clawmarks of a deeper nature scratching beneath Jaller’s surface, he dared to say that he had a lot in common with the Okotan.
Takua, on the other hand, was something else entirely. How Jaller found the patience to withstand his whimsical jokes and air-headed tangents baffled the Master of Stone. He possessed no survival skills, no capacity for prolonged concentration, and no sense of conviction. He was erratic and far too easily swayed. If he was gullible enough to take flight from his home to pursue a local legend then it was nothing short of a wonder how he had convinced Jaller to accompany him.
The Toa of Stone paused. Why had Jaller joined this fruitless expedition, indeed? The young guard was otherwise a sane figure. While it was possible that he had come out of an obligation to protect his friend, it certainly hadn’t been the impression he’d gotten earlier when he inspected the splint. Jaller had his own agenda.
“Need a hand?”
The Master of Stone turned his head to remark the scarlet form of Takua, his azure mask popping up from behind a large slab of rubble.
“A hand doing what?”
The islander raised an eyebrow.
“You’re out here searching for the mask, aren’t you? Probably going to hide it so Jaller and I can’t get our hands on it, then give it to the Protectors when they arrive.”
“I’m just being cautious,” muttered the Toa, kicking over a pebble that had planted itself in a mossy patch.
Takua nodded. His features suddenly grew serious.
“For the record, it wasn’t the mask that drew me here. The thrill is in the chase, after all. I just enjoy the novelty of exploring this region and this island is cluttered with ancient treasures.”
Pohatu mulled the words over, entirely willing to accept them. Perhaps Jaller really did have an ulterior motive after all. Takua seemed indecisive enough as it was. He dreaded to think what trouble would ensue if the villager ever got his hands on a Golden Mask. Hopefully he possessed enough common sense not to seek one out for his own gain.
“Is something the matter, Toa?”
The Master of Stone shifted uncomfortably, examining the debris. He felt obligated to put up a façade, for he was a mighty Toa. He couldn’t show weakness in front of the locals. To do so would to be to concede his own vulnerability. But something had been on his mind for some time now. He had struggled to confess his doubts to Gali earlier, but the anxiety in the pit of his stomach had not subsided. Perhaps it was simply time to stop lying.
“I worry,” he grunted with suitable vagueness. “Keeps me focused.”
Takua paused, then lowered his head.
“I’d be foolish to think you were simply concerned with our safety,” he mumbled. “Which I suppose raises the question: what does a Toa fear?”
“We are far from fearless, little one,” mused the Master of Stone.
He regarded the debris around him with one final sweep before leaning in closer.
“What do you know of Ekimu, the Mask Maker?”
Takua blinked, his expressive brow stretching to accommodate his oversized eyebrows
“More than most people, I suppose. I’ve spent my life traveling across the island and have heard many different tales told around many different campfires.”
Pohatu narrowed his eyes.
“He was a crafter?”
“The best of his generation,” said Takua with a curt nod. “He carved the first masks, which allowed our ancestors to thrive. Okoto owes a great debt to his hammer.”
The Master of Stone stared back blankly, his inner cynic running rampant.
“Did he ever hold a position of political power?”
Takua shook his head.
“We’ve always looked to our Protectors for guidance, though the Mask Maker brothers were just as well-regarded.”
“And yet Ekimu is still celebrated to this day for feats of heroism and courage.”
Again Takua, shook his head, this time with visible discomfort.
“He is celebrated for his heroism because he defeated Makuta. Have you heard of him, Toa?”
The Master of Stone nodded to the affirmative.
“I know him simply as Ekimu’s jealous rival.”
“He was, at one point, a noble figure,” mused Takua. “An honest and goodly crafter seeking to provide for his people without sweat or endeavor. He was Ekimu’s prized disciple in fact; or at least until curiosity got the better of him. Despite warning, he began mixing elemental crystals to form dangerous combinations in the hopes that his masks would earn him the praise of our ancestors. But, like so many students that had gone before him, he tried to eclipse his master and labored to carve the most formidable mask in the land: the Mask of Ultimate Power.”
“Appropriately ominous,” quipped the Toa of Stone.
“All too often does over-ambition lead to corruption,” continued the villager. “That’s what Narmoto says, anyway. Makuta vied against the laws of nature and crafted a mask that combined all six elemental crystals, unveiling it at the Capital City in the Stone Region. Seduced by the mask’s influence, he lost all sense of himself, so determined was he to solve Okoto’s problems and prove himself the better craftsman.”
Pohatu looked at him blankly.
“I should very much like to visit this city. You said it was in the Stone Region?”
“You won’t find anything there, for the Capital City is now the Great Crater. I’ve been there myself looking to uncover more of the story. Found only scorched earth and barren soil.”
The Master of Stone grunted then raised his head. A dead-end.
“Nilkuu mentioned the Battle of the Mask Makers. The devastation was felt harder in the Stone Region than most other places. It sent shockwaves across the whole island, did it not?”
“Something like that; an energy discharged from the Mask of Ultimate Power. Some say it was the force of Ekimu’s hammer, others say the mask itself was leaking energy. Maybe it was a combination of the two. In any case, the blast scattered Ekimu’s other masks too. For thousands of years they were lost to us.”
Another discrepancy. Pohatu knew that his Golden Mask had been placed upon a pedestal in an open shrine. Nilkuu had guided him there. The location of Lewa’s Golden Mask of Jungle had also been marked on Vizuna’s map. The Protectors had known the positions of the masks for untold generations and yet they had awaited the arrival of the Toa before retrieving them.
“And what of Makuta’s masks? Were they scattered too?”
Takua glanced over his shoulder, examining the far wall of the ruins.
“They were crafted in secret and hidden across Okoto. Even in his madness, Makuta knew that his masks were too powerful to fall into the wrong hands. So he set about making traps to safe-guard his creations. Nobody knows how many there are.”
Pohatu gritted his teeth in frustration. Something else the Protectors had neglected to share. He remained patient but his tolerance came in short commodity.
“The Golden Mask of Skull Spiders is one such mask, I presume?”
Takua nodded then leaned in closer.
“The Protector of Jungle is particularly knowledgeable on the subject. From him I learnt that another of Makuta’s masks is hidden in the Region of Ice: the Golden Mask of Corruption. Forged from Ice and Earth crystals, the legends foretell that it has the power to weather and weaken objects from afar.”
Pohatu made a mental note. He would give the Region of Ice a visit sometime.
“And the mask that is hidden in these ruins?”
Again, the villager before him glanced uncomfortably at the surrounding structure.
“The Golden Mask of Reanimation,” he finally announced.
The Toa of Stone said nothing.
“A particularly gruesome mask, forged from elemental crystals unknown,” continued the crimson-armored islander. “According to Vizuna, it’s capable of reanimating withered corpses and bending them to the bearer’s will. More than that, however, the mask allows the user to glean residual life energy from those bodies. By far the most grisly of Makuta’s masks. Hey, where are you--?”
Pohatu was already halfway across the rubble-stricken courtyard, his expression deathly serious as he drew his Stormarangs and examined the foliage. So many questions were swirling around in his head. Perhaps it was best to deal only with what he knew for certain.
Fact: the other Toa should be here by now. More than enough time had passed since they parted in the clearing. One of his teammates was presumably dealing with Lewa, which left a total of three Toa roaming the jungle unaccounted for. Afternoon was beginning to set in. Somebody else should have arrived already. Something had gone wrong.
Fact: the Golden Mask of Reanimation was a highly-desirable mask. Not two weeks prior, the Toa had battled a multitude of skeletal-themed combatants in the City of the Mask Makers: a pair of Skull Raiders and their reanimated cohorts. Together, they had taken it upon themselves to destroy the Mask of Creation, presumably under the sway of Makuta. In their gnarled hands, the Golden Mask hidden within these crumbling walls was problematic. They could reanimate untold thousands of corpses. No grave on Okoto would be safe.
Fact: there was pronounced Skull Spider activity in the area. He’d passed enough of their carcasses earlier on to come to that conclusion himself. Back in the clearing, Kopaka had plucked up the mangled arm of a fallen Skull Warrior and presented it to the group. That should have been cause enough for concern. But, instead, he’d dismissed it. Days spent eradicating the vermin had made him rash and incautious.
Sure enough, as his eyes fell upon the outer treeline of the overgrown amphitheater, Pohatu spotted the oily carapaces of a Skull Spider legion, their beady eyes observing him with cold-blooded intent. Dotted between the tree trunks, he saw Skull Warriors assembled, bows at the ready, barely hidden from view. Behind them, itching to scuttle forward and attack, stood what could have been a dozen Skull Scorpios.
A targeted assault. The Skull-creatures had encircled the ruins, waiting patiently for a moment of opportunity. Perhaps they had even parted their cordon and allowed him entry in the first place. There was no way of determining exactly how long they had been in position.
Tensing, the Master of Stone flexed his grip upon his Stormarangs. He could hear Takua’s footfall as the villager ran to his side only to stop short when he too caught sight of the ambush waiting to happen.
“We’re surrounded,” muttered the islander in disbelief.
An audible silence hung in which the full, insurmountable weight of the situation began to dawn upon him. Pohatu assessed his attackers. They stared back with empty eyes. A couple of the Skull Warriors turned their heads, searching for a command. Their position had been compromised. Orders wouldn’t be far away.
“Get back inside, Takua,” he snapped in response.
Hesitantly, the Fire-villager took another glance at the Skull army, then nodded to himself and took flight back indoors. When he was sure the islander had reached a safe distance, Pohatu began to think in terms of strategy.
There were no generals amidst the ranks. At least not within view. Just foot soldiers and spiders. Uncoordinated combatants. Individually, they wouldn’t present much of a problem. United, their numbers were staggering. He didn’t expect to win this battle. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps it wasn’t even worth engaging.
If there was any favor left to be had that day, the Master of Stone knew he wasn’t getting any. The timely appearance of his fellow Toa seemed unlikely and the villagers would offer no support. He would have to defend them alone. Without so much as a pebble in sight.
But Pohatu had no patience for such doubt. There could be no room for error. He would hit hard. He would fight smart. No single combatant could best him. If he was to survive this encounter, he would have to be precise. Calculated. Every blow would count.
Flexing into a more practical stance, Pohatu cricked his neck and extended his weapons.
As if obeying an unspoken command, the armada began to advance forward, slowly advancing past the cover of the trees, the withered foot soldiers succeeded by scores of Skull Spiders.
With a single leap, the Toa propelled himself into action. It would be no use leaving the confines of the ruins. No use at all defending any one side and leaving the rear unguarded. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but the weathered courtyard would serve as a suitable enough vantage point.
Time to crack some skulls.
With one mighty swing of his Stormarang, Pohatu hooked the first of the advancing Skull Spiders. He barely heard the brittle snap of its shell before moving on to the next one, swiping at the sickly emerald creature with just as much ease.
Furtively, the creatures continued to advance forward; precursors of a greater swarm. They began to encompass him slowly, climbing over the walls and rubble and taking formation in a tight ring. They were cautious. Understandably so, perhaps. The Master of Stone wasted no time taking advantage.
No holding back.
Calling upon his elemental powers, the Toa hefted his Stormarangs above his head then slammed them into the ground. While elemental control of the concrete beneath his feet evaded him, the Toa could manipulate it to an extent. Shockwaves of elemental energy rippled through the terrain, catching the Skull Spiders in a violent tremor.
The Toa eyed the treeline, spying a Skull Scorpio amid the ranks of foot soldiers. Recalling his last encounter with two such specimens in the City of Mask Makers, Pohatu was in no hurry to relive the memory. He flung one of his weapons at a heavy trunk, cutting deep into the bark. It creaked then toppled forward, landing heavily upon the Skull Scorpio and pinning it to the ground. Not a fatal injury, but enough to keep it trapped in place for the short term.
Catching the Stormarang on the rebound, Pohatu turned to engage his next attacker: a Skull Warrior sporting matted, withered tribal braids. The Toa raised his weapons to parry the broad swing of his adversary’s Ice Spear. The metal clashed and his enemy staggered. Raising his foot, the Toa used the hydraulically enhanced muscles in his leg to deliver a solid kick to the Skull Warrior’s midsection. The blow landed successfully, causing the warrior to topple backwards, arcing its back across a slab of debris. There was a sharp crack before the Ice Spear fell from its hands and the foot soldier lay still.
Pohatu had already turned to engage a pair of Skull Warriors. Holstering his Stormarangs, the Master of Stone flung himself at the attackers, catching the nearest in a savage headlock. The startled combatant struggled only to be hoisted off the ground. Anticipating the flurry of projectiles, the Master of Stone repositioned his captive as a shield, catching the brunt of the pellets.
But he was being fired upon from more sides than just one. One of the bursts entirely evaded the flailing limbs of his Skull-Warrior-shield and caught the Toa directly in the shoulder. Reeling back, the Toa buckled to one knee, his right hand thumping against his shoulder and the unfortunate foot soldier slipping from his grasp.
The impact had been hard-felt. The pain was intense, as though his shoulder had been frozen to an icicle then torn off. Far from fatal, but a cold numbness engulfed him. His guard slipped and the Master of Stone was lost in the silent vacuum of total disorientation.
Fighting hard to stay firm on his feet, Pohatu clenched his fists and bore the pain. Sensing his injury, the Skull Warriors advanced, bows at the ready.
But the Toa of Stone had no such patience. Extending his Stormarangs, he conjured a burst of sand from their tips, spraying his aggressors with all the fury of a desert storm. Undead as they were, they still had need of their optics. One by one, the foot soldiers dropped their Freeze Bows and moved to shield their eyes.
Even with his Golden Mask, Pohatu couldn’t keep the maneuver going for long. In the end he had to stop and reaffirm his stance. Such reckless use of his elemental powers had weakened him, but he ignored the aching in his joints and pushed on. Another toss of his Stormarang and the arm of the closest Skull Warrior crumbled. Another flick of his wrist and the sand he had created formed a fluid wave, hurling a cluster of Skull Spiders into the treetops.
But his enemies continued to venture closer, untold legions of the reanimated warriors still skulking in the shrubs. He would be overwhelmed soon enough.
The moment of contemplation would cost him, for Pohatu suddenly felt something clamp around his forearm. A juicy, sapphire Skull Spider had latched upon his wrist, a straggler left from the wave he had swept away a moment earlier. Flexing his mechanical muscles, the Toa roared and swung his arm, slamming the Skull Spider’s shell into the face of another approaching foot soldier. The startled warrior’s skull mask shattered from the impact. It collapsed to the ground in a broken heap.
Taking advantage of his distraction, a Skull Scorpio advanced closer, its spindly legs creeping over the rubble with ease. It hesitated, intent on catching the Toa from behind. But Pohatu was by no means generous enough to give his undead attacker the upper hand.
Anticipating the snapping of the Scorpio’s pincer tail, he leapt into the air and grabbed at the Hook Blades. Dropping one of his Stormarangs, the Toa wrestled the wriggling appendage to the ground. The Scorpio screeched in protest, but Pohatu wrapped his leg around his quarry and stomped down. Calling upon every fiber of strength, he forced the tail back, relenting only when he heard it snap and the beast cry out.
But the Scorpio was an intelligent and formidable foe. Even with its tail damaged, it was not without defenses. Lashing out, the creature managed to clamp one of its claws around Pohatu’s wrist and heave him upright. Thrown, the Toa managed only a feeble series of wild kicks, none of which seemed to deter his captor. He was clamped.
“Stupid,” he muttered in disgust.
Arching his back, Pohatu grabbed hold of the Scorpio’s wrist and tugged at the beast. Tendons tore and the creature hissed a final shriek of anguish before he brought his foot down hard on its spindly neck.
Without pausing for so much as a breath, the Master of Stone twirled on his feet, catching a pair of Skull Spiders with the tips of his Stormarangs, flicking them aside with pure, elemental fury. Their shells thumped and crashed against distant trees at intervals, smeared across the bark. Another swing of the weapon brought the jagged tip down, shattering the cranium of the nearest Skull Warrior.
Twirling once more, the Toa found himself unintentionally building momentum for his next swing. He was aware of a shape looming behind him. Another Skull Warrior, no doubt. Gripping the weapon tight, he readied himself to deliver a blow that would dent a mountain.
But the weapon would never find its mark. Metal clashed against the Stormarang, just inches above his fingertips. His swing veered off-course and tore through empty air.
Before Pohatu could so much as steady himself, he felt skeletal fingers of Skull Warrior assailants wrap around him. This time, he could do nothing to fend off the wave of attackers that swarmed him. Their Skull Spider compatriots converged upon him, clinging to his armor, weighing him in place and locking his joints. For a brief, terrifying moment, a sapphire mass covered his eyes, and the Toa feared his mask would be torn from his face. One of the spiders delivered a sharp bite to his shoulder that nearly caused him to lose grip of his remaining Stormarang.
The battle was over. The mighty Toa was struggling simply to stay upright. He could do little else but watch as hordes of the creatures revealed themselves from their positions, sprouting out from behind bushes and tree trunks. They slunk and scuttled forth from the foliage.
It was only then that Pohatu caught sight of a familiar face. A silhouetted form hung far back, amidst the ferns and figs, surveying the battle with the keen, cold eyes of a strategist. Only now did he reveal himself, when the struggle was assuredly won. Only now did he feel the need to step forth and make his presence known.
Desperately, he called once more upon the power of his Golden Mask of Stone. A gilded glow emanated from his hardened features and fresh adrenaline coursed through his circuits. He heaved a mighty shrug and dismounted the Skull Spiders. The golden rings of power sent them crashing to the ground as the Skull Warriors crumpled behind him.
The Toa was on his last legs, but he was far too stubborn to concede. His body would yield before his warrior-spirit, and even then Pohatu would keep fighting until somebody put him down. If this was to be his final stand then he would surely make the battle worthwhile.
Reaching deep within, the Master of Stone calmed his senses and focused. Calling upon the full fury of his Golden Mask, he extended his hands and turned his attention to the ground beneath his feet. He could sense murky clumps of soil and clay and roots and moisture. None of them dense enough to manipulate.
Closing his eyes, Pohatu felt contact deep beneath the ground. Ruled by his will, the ground began to quake. The Skull Warriors regarded him uncertainly only for the reality to dawn upon them an instant too late.
Ruled by his will, vaporous puffs of sediment and silt flooded the air while the ground tremored and shook. Legions of Skull Warriors dug their clawed feet into the moss only to be thrown aside as the very substance of the marshland detonated beneath them. Great megaliths of bedrock and substratum erupted from below, wrenching their way past the topsoil and bending to the Toa’s instruction.
Raising his knuckles, Pohatu commanded a mighty pillar to take shape, rocketing up towards the sky. The stalwart tower burst through the treetops, rising up higher and higher, like an earthen fist set to strike the heavens. One final burst of elemental wrath; an act of desperation. Surely one of his fellow Toa would catch sight of the construct and come to his aid.
Sensing the approach of more Skull Warriors in the corner of his eye, the Master of Stone petitioned to make one final swipe. He grabbed at his nearest attacker with one hand while he used the other to focus his elemental powers. The stone column bulged and groaned, stubbornly refusing to rise further without his full concentration. In what Pohatu knew to be his final moments of consciousness, he braced for the worst knowing it would have to do.
But no anticipation could prepare the Toa for the physical blow that followed. He was torn from his train of thought by an abrupt clout to the back of his head. A Skull Warrior’s Ice Spear had connected with his cranium. A broad strike from the flat end of the weapon, and decidedly not a lethal one. Even though he had anticipated the swing, the sheer force behind it sent him reeling.
He wavered, his concentration lapsing and his legendary stamina deserting him. Pohatu knew he was only moments for this world as the Skull Warrior closed in on him. As the hilt of the Ice Spear smashed into his face, the Toa was content. He crumpled to the ground knowing he had done all that he could.
He just hoped that it was enough.
Obscured from view, a crushed Skull Spider at his feet, the cloaked figure watched as the Master of Stone collapsed. He landed heavily on his back with a hefty thud, like he had fallen from a great height. The Toa known as Pohatu lay there – sprawled – his glistening armor soaked in defeat for the first time. A sorry spectacle indeed, but he could afford no such sentiments. Not if he was to succeed in his quest.
Swiftly, the remaining Skull Warriors repositioned themselves, aiming their bows at the structure and flooding past the fallen Toa. They swarmed into the chamber and encircled the ruins with practiced efficiency. Soon enough, they emerged with a villager in hand, clearly injured and yelling out in protest. A pang of sympathy rose in the observer's chest, but he could not afford such attachment. The mission must come first.
Once the foot soldiers had occupied the ancient fortress, a dark shape appeared beneath the canopy. It stood tall, swirling and sinister, basking in the shade of victory, clutching a wicked pair of weapons in its crooked fingers.
Emerging from the jungle with the likeness of a predator arising from its lair, Skull Basher stepped forth onto the scene. His presence was truly chilling as he advanced towards his soldiers. The horned warrior nodded then turned to examine the captive Master of Stone.
The stranger glanced over his shoulder once more. The Toa known as Kopaka had been trailing him for some distance, which was far from advantageous. Thankfully there was no sign of the Master of Ice anymore, so he could breathe easy for the moment.
No. There would be no occasion for pause. Not now. Not while he was so close and certainly not while his score remained unsettled. He would press on. He would endure. He would do what needed to be done and think not of the consequences. Morality ruled the honest, and he knew no such luxury.
And with that decision, the stranger turned his back on the fallen Toa and tried not to dwell upon the gruesome precursor of the fate that awaited the fallen champion.
Jaller sat in silence, his back pressed against the chamber wall, staring at the Skull Warrior guard as he acted out a reasonable imitation of sentry duty. Beside him lay the skeletal frame of the fallen Okotan soldier left remnant from the siege of the fortress, his armor brittle and hollow from untold centuries of decay.
He was coping well, all things considered. For roughly two hours he had been sat like this, vaguely aware of the dropping temperature and the fall of Toa Pohatu outside. Through the open doorframe he had witnessed the battle only to be dragged out of his hiding place and presented to the purple-clad leader of the Skull Army inspecting the scene. From that point on it had been abundantly clear that his role was that of a prisoner. As such, he had uttered only the briefest of words as his hunting knife was confiscated and enjoyed a miserable existence as a captive of the Skull Army, thrown back into the very dungeon he had been found in.
Any other villager in his place might have reason to panic, but Jaller had instead busied himself assessing and evaluating the situation from his shackles. Years of practice had granted the wounded explorer the mental resilience of a Desert Ox. He had spent years conditioning his mind and his body, training under Narmoto and honing himself to survive through sheer force of will.
'You'll be a Captain one day, Jaller,' his father had said one evening many years ago, whilst overseeing the village guard with the setting sun on his back. 'You'll be a great leader, and a fearsome warrior, for there is strength enough in your heart to balance the two.'
At the time, the words had meant little to him - more of the praise that came in abundance from simpler times. They had come to sculpt him. He had grown bold and chased his father into that fading sunset. He had come to believe those words with every fiber of his being, for they had been drilled into him over the years.
But, at the same time, he hadn't fully believed them. Part of his mind had always nurtured those seeds of doubt. 'You've just been lucky. Always lucky.' In the quieter times he would find himself just sitting, waiting for fortune to inevitably fail him. Even now, sat in chains on the stony ground with his back against the rotten wall he found himself asking, 'has my legendary luck finally run out?'
Such doubts tended not to get the better of him. It often helped to have a friend like Takua stepping in and out of his life, seeking refuge from an angry neighbor or asking him to accompany him on a great quest to the other side of the village. But Takua was, of course, nowhere to be seen. Toa Pohatu had instructed him to flee moments before the battle had started. Glancing once more at the doorway, combing the ruins for some sign of his crimson and azure-armored cohort, Jaller felt a familiar nagging sensation in the pit of his gut. For as long as he could remember, Takua had been getting himself into trouble. Together they would embark on wild adventures, searching for buried treasure and ancient relics, each pretending to be a different Toa on a heroic quest until he had eventually matured to a point where he lost interest. Once in a while, their expeditions would go awry and Takua would end up breaking the gate on the village’s herding pen or falling over and hurting himself on a lawn decoration. Every time something went wrong, Jaller had stepped in to cover for his friend.
'Where’s Takua?' he would ask himself constantly, readying to drop what he was doing and go bail his friend out of trouble.
Years down the line, it felt like a natural obligation to protect him, a practice drilled into him from long-forgotten childhood days. Sure, the repercussions could be severe, but the thrill of their adventures had outweighed any consequences. Even now, when he had a promising career ahead of him in the village guard, it was his burden, for Takua was the closest thing to a brother he had ever known. And so Jaller continued to cover for him, silently praying that his clumsy playmate had found a good hiding place.
Finding his thoughts drifting to Pohatu and the other Elemental Masters, Jaller pulled an uncomfortable expression. He had witnessed the arrival of Toa Tahu in the Fire Region. Like so many others around him that day, he had expected a rational and disciplined military leader – a heroic figure who had stepped straight out of the pages of Okotan mythology. But he had instead been greeted by an undisciplined and disorderly brute. Tahu had violently dispatched scores of Skull Spiders only to squabble with his teammates and prove himself to be a danger to trees all over the island. More than once he had burnt huts in fits of rage, damaging property all over Okoto. Even now the villagers had reason to fear his temper.
Except for Jaller, who was brave and experienced and logical and only had reason to be half terrified of him.
Were they really the heroes that the legends foretold?
What if they were imposters?
Could they be a trap set by Makuta?
Of course, Jaller had been quick to stow such thoughts away, but no ruse was too elaborate for the Master of Shadows.
Nevertheless, he had kept a close eye on the Elemental Masters. He had watched them dispatch Skull Scorpios in Mask Maker City and observed them at work razing the lingering Skull Spiders from the Fire Region just days prior. He was keen to see them in action, to see the Toa move and fight, to look for gaps in their strategy and pick out their weaknesses, like Kopaka’s blind spots and the inconsistencies in Lewa’s swordplay. He had even noticed how often Tahu failed to monitor his surroundings and how Onua’s might so often got the better of him.
For some time, Jaller had felt tormented by his suspicions. Makuta did, after all, have eyes and ears everywhere. To even speak his concerns aloud could invite catastrophe. He had confided his anxieties in Takua only once, but the eccentric blue-masked friend seemed all too eager to trust their newfound saviors. On his travels he had heard many stories and Jaller took great interest in his encyclopedic knowledge of the elemental champions.
The Skull Warrior perked its head and eyed Jaller frostily but the villager just stared back, his eyes empty. His expression unreadable.
"You fool, Onua,” chided the puppet-Toa, unsheathing the Battle Axes attached to Lewa’s back. “You speak directly to me, and yet you regard me as an insect.”
The Master of Earth recoiled at the sound of Lewa’s voice. As soon as he heard the words, he felt the fire within him simmer to cinders.
“L-Lewa? You’re in there?”
“I’m in full control,” shrugged the Master of Jungle, standing tall. “Master over myself for once.”
Swinging his weapons, Lewa conjured a gust of wind that ravaged Onua’s armor. Unable to adjust, the Master of Earth became unbalanced and had to stamp a foot behind him to steady himself.
Taking advantage, the Master of Air delivered a solid kick that caught his brother-Toa square in the chest. Winded, Onua fell to his knees and raised one of his mighty biceps in defense.
But Lewa was none too merciful. With another swing of his Battle Axe, he buried the tip of the blade into the armor of Onua’s shoulder. The Master of Earth cried out in surprise, a primal outburst emanating from deep within his throat as his once-ally tore the weapon free, cleaving the chunk of his damaged armor with it, revealing a deep cut in the muscle tissue beneath.
“Unity,” purred the Toa of Jungle. “This is the virtue that the Protectors spoke of. Embrace it.”
“I doubt this is what Vizuna had in mind,” retorted Onua.
Dropping his Earthquake Hammer to one side, the Master of Earth raised both his hands and snatched at his attacker, grabbing his forearms and wrestling him back. Rising to his feet, he slammed Lewa’s emerald form against the trunk of a tree and pressed down hard.
A sly grin curled from the monstrous lips of the sapphire Skull Spider. The Toa of Jungle flicked his wrists and angled the bladed hilts of his Battle Axes towards Onua. One good push and they would impale him: a struggle that he couldn’t afford to lose. Instead of tussling for such an unfavorable outcome, the Master of Earth cricked his neck and flung his crazed ally to the side. Lewa sailed through the air, a swirling tangle of limbs and weapons, only to compose himself at the last moment, landing in a crouch on the jungle floor.
“I don’t want to fight you, Lewa,” he murmured, glaring deep into the swirling crimson orbs that were his corrupted optics. “But I will if I must.”
Clasping his wounded shoulder, Onua activated his Golden Mask and called forth an earthen hand to rise from the marsh and snatch at Lewa’s feet. But the Skull Spider was too twitchy a combatant and his quarry evaded the fingers as they snapped shut.
“You always were slow, Toa of Dirt,” challenged his attacker.
Twirling in mid-air, the Master of Jungle extended his arms out and enacted a forward flip, bringing his armored heal down hard. Struggling to parry the swipe, Onua decided it was best to dismantle his Earthquake Hammer into something more easily maneuverable. Splitting the weapon in two, he raised both his Turbo Shovellers, using the flat undersides to shield him from the fury of Lewa’s blades.
“Kneel, Toa,” sneered the emerald-clad warrior. “I have always known you to be weak beneath all that armor."
His comrade was in there somewhere, that much was evident. The combatant he faced was a twisted combination of the Jungle-Toa’s precise strikes and the Skull Spider’s swift agility. They made for a more than formidable partnership. Bold and rapid but inherently unstable.
“And I know you to be stronger than this, brother,” puffed Onua, raising his weapons as a pair of makeshift shields and locking eyes with the Toa behind the Skull Spider.
Raising a Turbo Shoveller, the Toa of Earth parried yet another hack only for a counterswing to catch his midsection. Huffing in distress, he shifted his stance only to have one of his weapons to be torn clean from his grip. With one Shoveller remaining, it dawned upon the Toa that he would have to start fighting back.
“You’re in there somewhere, struggling every step of the way,” he wheezed desperately. “Don’t let this creature suppress you!”
But Lewa did not relent. Not even momentarily. He became a whirlwind of limbs and blades: slicing, kicking and jabbing. Onua could barely keep up with the rapid pace until one good swipe caught his knee, forcing him to the ground. Yelping in pain, he caught glimpse of doubt flicking across Lewa’s features. He hesitated before his expression tightening into a snarl once more.
“Don’t pretend to understand me,” he snapped. “You know nothing of the thoughts that swirl in my head! None of you Toa ever spent a moment in consideration of me!”
“That’s not true,” bristled Onua from the ground, glaring at the Skull Spider defiantly, knowing full-well that it was twisting his brother-Toa’s memories.
Staking his remaining Turbo Shoveller into the soil, he tore an earthen slab from the ground and hurled it at the creature. The fallen Toa staggered back, anxiously, but was unable to avoid the mass of roots and sediment as it hurtled through the air. It caught his left side and winded him. The Skull Spider wobbled upon his face but remained firmly attached, blinking back dirt.
“I know that you have doubts, Lewa. I know that you are unsure of yourself and I understand your pain. Just listen to me, brother!”
Lewa’s sapphire face twisted into an oily grin as the Skull Spider secured itself once more. But now there was a different quality about him. He appeared unhinged. Anger bubbled beneath the surface.
“Too little, too late,” he challenged, raising his Battle Axes and blasting the Toa of Earth with a ferocious gust of wind that sent him crashing into a tree trunk on the far side of the clearing. “I am done, listening.”
“Okay… I’ll start listening then,” winced Onua, willing himself back to his feet and staggering closer. “And I’ll listen for as long as you need me to. I won’t stop listening until I have my brother back.”
The Skull Spider’s brow knotted in frustration. Lewa shifted into a defensive position and glowered at the slowly advancing Master of Earth.
“I don’t want your sympathy,” he countered, icily. “I’m at peace now, and I have found new strength in this Skull Spider. All my doubts and insecurities, all my shortcomings and anguish, they don’t burn in the back of my head anymore! I am free to think. It has made me strong where I was weak!”
Onua shook his head softly and dropped his remaining weapon to the ground.
“You are not weak,” he retorted. “It’s easy to give in – to crumple beneath the weight on your shoulders. It would take a resolve of iron not to.”
The Master of Jungle’s knuckles tightened around his Battle Axes, yet he held his ground as Onua limped forward. His staggered movements were growing erratic.
“But you are so much stronger than that, Lewa. You’re the best of us and you know, deep down, that a Skull Spider is just going to repress you. It cares only for your feelings for as long as you serve its interests. You need to remedy your anxieties and make peace with yourself. That is a path you must walk alone, for only you can determine when it is traveled.”
A faint glimmer of recognition twinkling in Lewa’s eyes as he lowered his weapons.
“No…” he stammered unevenly. “I can’t… just… I can’t…”
A hand rested gently upon his shoulder and the world around the two Toa grinded to a halt.
“Lewa, please... just take it off.”
Peering out from his vantage point at the scene before him, Takua breathed a sigh of relief, remarking just how closely he had evaded capture. It was not in his nature to panic. Never had been. He was a calm individual and consequences tended not to befall him. But with the fortress now surrounded and with Jaller still wounded, he had been torn between two obligations: to unsuccessfully mount a daring rescue of his childhood friend or to escape the confines of the ancient ruins alone and seek help. It had been a tough decision, but in the end he had elected to do as he had been told and flee. It was hard to refuse an instruction given to him by the mighty Toa Pohatu but still it pained him to leave Jaller behind. He took some small comfort in that knowledge that there wasn't much sense in trying to accomplish both tasks though it continued to bother him that Jaller would likely have found a way to accomplish both objectives.
Hoping to encounter another of the Elemental Masters or stumble into a nearby settlement, the young Islander had lost all sense of direction as he made a break for it. To his surprise, he had found himself met with a steep incline, a feature typical of the craggy, mountainous terrain that bordered the six regions. Surprised to remark such a peculiarity so deep in the heart of the Great Marsh, Takua had ventured closer and scaled the earthen edifice. He had heard Jaller’s voice in his head, telling him to reach for higher ground. That had seemed sensible.
But the climb had been a more arduous endeavor than he had originally anticipated. His calves were burning with an intense fervor and he had been forced to stop and catch his breath before he had even reached a quarter of the way up.
From his new-found perch, Takua cast his mind back to the map of the Great Marsh he had studied before venturing out from the Fire Region. Topographical details of the ruins were scarce and the area had been all but untouched for generations. He wondered, perhaps, if it would be better to scale back down the cliff and circle around instead. After all, the Skull Army didn’t appear to be in pursuit. Most of their number seemed to be confined to the ruins, poking at debris and swarming about the grounds. At this height he could see them mingling through the treeline.
Gazing upon the mossy tufts of rubble that littered the marsh, Takua found himself wondering what manner of attack had besieged the fortress so many generations before. The debris was scattered, with most of the wreckage having either sunk underground or succumbed to the forces of erosion over the years. The masses were a great distance apart, only identified by their stark texture and dulled coloration amidst the emerald hues of suffocating vegetation.
While each of the dense, metallic clumps possessed an individual ecosystem of fungus and flora, there was one in particular that caught the young explorer’s attention. Located near the base of the hill, he had first remarked just how far away it was from the ruins. Surely, to propel rubble this far, the fortress would have to have been struck with tremendous destructive force.
But then the shaping of the formation had snared his wandering curiosity and it soon dawned on him that it was not a fragment of the conquered stronghold, but in fact something else entirely.
Checking once more that there were no Skull Warriors lurking in the shadows of the marsh, Takua decided that the feature warranted further investigation. Slinking down the hillside cautiously, he hazarded a closer look, all the while clinging to his pickaxe.
Upon closer examination, he came to recognize his find as a wooden fixture, buried deep under decades of sediment and vegetation. A series of rotten planks had been erected to board up a cavity which centuries of rainfall and landslips had all but covered. Or perhaps it was the other way around? Maybe the panels had been buried generations before only to be brought back to the surface and exposed by some manner of tectonic shifting?
A most curious discovery, the villager remarked, scratching his chin and kneeling closer. After a brief moment of consideration, he elected to investigate further, wedging his pickaxe deep into the cavity and prying one of the moldy planks aside. The board was so rotten from rainwater that his tool tore straight through it in a shower of damp splinters.
As he tore away at the ancient timber, he began to feel a deep uneasiness in the earth. It was only then that Takua noticed the ground beneath him start to creak, realizing too late that wooden beams ran deeper than he thought. The cavity began to open up as the earth fell away. Standing on unstable ground, the islander cried out a single syllable of frantic distress before tumbling underground.
The fall caught Takua off-guard, instantly plunged into total darkness of an underground cavern. For a brief but nonetheless terrifying moment, he felt a total absence of ground beneath his feet as the bottom of the cave rushed up to meet him. He tumbled through ancient air before landing unevenly on his backside then tumbled over once more, feeling his shoulder connect with the base of a grotto. In a clatter of rotten timbers and clumps of mud he lay sprawled, waiting for the dust to settle and for the world to stop spinning.
Just my luck, he thought.
Still tense from his unexpected tumble, Takua took a long moment to recompose himself. For some time he lay there, waiting for his night vision to build but it never came. He could smell a deep aroma of damp and decay wafting up from the hollow depths he now resided in. He could hear the silence vanishing deep into the ground, as though there were a long tunnel before him. At first he couldn’t quite tell how far he had fallen, but eventually his senses returned and he was able to estimate that the drop was about twice his height. It felt like he’d fallen further, as the aching pains that shot through his body now testified.
Calling forth the strength to rise, the adventurer returned to his feet, now watching his footing with furtive caution. It appeared he was in a subterranean passageway, the exact purpose of which was impossible to discern. Enjoying no success piercing the gloom, Takua reached into his satchel, which was cluttered as usual. He liked to prepare for his adventures with basic equipment, but all too often he seemed to accumulate trinkets and souvenirs that took up the space of bandages and climbing gear. After identifying the pointed tip of a gnomon, the shaft of his flute, and the leather-bound journal in which he recorded his expeditions, he finally latched a hand around his quarry. No sooner had he pulled it free, the Lightstone burst into life, projecting a warm and reassuring glow that quelled the darkness.
With his sight restored, the young Okotan began to carefully observe his surroundings. The passageway consisted of a single shaft, which receded deep into the distance. Glancing back up at the hole he had fallen through, Takua identified the nearby cliff face and used it to orientate himself. It came as little surprise to him that the direction of the tunnel seemed to be pointing back towards the fortress, the only artificial feature to be found this deep into the Jungle Region.
Which raised the question of what exactly the purpose of this passageway was. An escape route, maybe, should the fortress was ever come under siege. Perhaps somebody had tried to dig a tunnel across the island many centuries before. The answer alluded him for the moment.
Glancing back at the other end of the shaft, Takua wondered what might lie in the other direction. The underpass seemed to carry on deep beneath the cliff. It may very well lead into the crags and peaks that marked the border of the Great Marsh. There was no telling how far it went or how deep underground it might take him.
A dream come true.
Clipping his pickaxe to his back once more, Takua began hobbling forward, marveling at the passageway and daring to wonder what lay at the end of it.
A flurry of icy projectiles stung the small of Tahu’s back. Crying out in distress, the Master of Fire flung his arm out and angled his Lavaboard up in defense. Once he was sure the shield would hold another onslaught, he turned his attention back to the hunched Skull Warrior before him. Even with one hand it took him only seconds to disable the combatant, leaving his adversary to slunk heavily to the ground.
For the past couple of hours he’d been trailing Skull Warrior scouts with extreme prejudice. At first they had been lone stragglers, moving slowly and traipsing clumsily through the undergrowth - easy targets for the Toa to dispatch one by one. But soon enough their numbers had gradually increased, until he had stumbled upon an entire platoon of the foot soldiers.
Unsheathing one of the golden swords from his back, Tahu steadied his Lavaboard and ventured closer, all the while deflecting more of the frozen pellets. They pounded against the metal, sending solid vibrations up his arm with every impact.
As he drew nearer, the Master of Fire remarked the features of his attackers: three in total, all sporting similar scraps of shrunken armor and rotten organics. One of them looked worse for wear, with the lower jaw of his Skull Mask broken off and his mouth hanging open.
Arching his Lavaboard into a swing, the Toa made contact with the edge of the nearest Skull Warrior’s Freeze Bow, knocking it off-course, allowing him to drive the hilt of his blade deep into his adversary’s thigh, severing straight through the brittle femur. The foot soldier opened its mouth and groaned wordlessly, toppling forward.
Of course, the remaining two Skull Warriors continued to pepper his armored form with shots from their Freeze Bows. Raising his Lavaboard once more, Tahu winced from the searing pain all over his right-side. Angling his body further away, he readied himself for another jab of his golden sword.
But the Skull Warriors had other plans. While one continued to bombard him with pellets, the other extended its Ice Spear and skulked closer. Tahu’s eyes widened at the sight of the sinister weapon. It cast his mind back to his earlier encounter with a Skull Warrior, recalling how the sentry had sneaked up from behind and robbed him of his Golden Mask of Fire. While the mask seemed undamaged, his pride had borne the worst of the beating. There was something especially menacing about the weapon, its jagged, metallic texture broad yet sharp enough to cleave through all manner of armor.
Activating his Golden Mask, the Toa directed a fireball through his sword. Elemental energy burst from the tip in a blazing fury, catching the advancing Skull Warrior square in the side and leaving a smoldering crater in its rib-cage. The Ice Spear fell from its hands but the undead figure stubbornly refused to go down.
Reattaching the blade to its mount on his back, Tahu snatched at the barrel of the remaining Skull Warrior’s Freeze Bow. His fingers locked around the upper limb of the weapon. Aggressively, he pried it free and delivered a solid elbow to the undead archer’s throat. Staggering, the Skull Warrior sagged to its knees then toppled over into the jungle furze, its neck at a right angle to the rest of its body.
But Tahu had underestimated the remaining combatant. Even with the fissure burned into its chest, the Skull Warrior had managed to sneak closer and wrap its shrunken fingers around him. Chilled by the touch, the Master of Fire dropped his Lavaboard and wrestled to grip the scrawny wrists of his assailant. Together, they fell to the ground in a thrashing tangle of limbs, as though they were each trying to swim on dry land. Rotten fingers reached once more for Tahu’s mask.
“You want the power of my mask, creature?” he snarled, his hands beginning to glow. “Take it!”
Flames leapt from his fingertips, shooting up the Skull Warrior’s arms and igniting the scraps of matted cloth and rotten organics. His attacker flayed about but kept its grip firm, pinning the Toa down beneath its seething mass. It wasn’t long before smoke rose from the burning, skeletal figure. Even beneath the flames, it stung the Toa’s eyes and made every breath a labored effort. The pair grappled around some more, tussling either for dominance of oxygen. Forcing himself to endure, the Master of Fire clamped his mouth and stomached the fumes.
Eventually, the Skull Warrior’s bones began to blacken and its twisted organics compressed, all residual liveliness burning from its form. It wilted like a plant beneath its armor until finally it sagged, the Skull Mask slipping from its burning face and knocking against Tahu’s breast before sliding to the ground.
Shrugging his smoldering adversary aside, he breathed deep lungfuls of air. That had been too close for comfort. A stark and uncomfortable brush with defeat for the second time that day. Another instance in which sheer good fortune had dug him out of an unfortunate situation. How long, he wondered, until his legendary luck ran out?
Preferring not to dwell on such fragile subjects, Tahu brushing the flaking cinders from his gilded armor and rose to his feet, snatching up his Lavaboard and prying his two Greatswords apart, ready to venture onwards.
With no further Skull Warriors in sight and a clear trail of footprints to follow, the Toa found himself alone with his thoughts at long last. He wondered how his teammates had been faring, whether they had found Lewa or uncovered the missing villagers. The wilds of Okoto were no place to venture alone.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so eager to back Onua’s suggestion. While the Master of Earth was arguably the wisest of the Toa, Tahu knew in his gut that splintering apart wasn’t a sound strategy. He had hoped to run into at least one of his teammates by now, but they seemed to have each wandered too far.
Something had felt amiss about their parting of ways. Tahu himself had breathed a sigh of relief the second he was beyond the clearing. He imagined several of the others had as well. Things had been tense lately – suffocating, even. Perhaps the Toa had simply spent too much time around each other. Perhaps they all just needed the breathing space. Perhaps the golden honeymoon period was coming to an end.
There was no tension as such. There rarely ever was. Most of his teammates were wise enough to keep their best selves hidden. But something loomed constantly above the group: words left unspoken and silences that hung too long. Tahu had his suspicions but knew better than to voice them.
The Toa had come together out of obligation. They were charged with a common duty and shared a mysterious bond, the exact nature of which remained impossible to determine. But, beyond their interests in safe-guarding Okoto, the team was peopled by strangers. While his teammates seemed all too eager to address him as brother Tahu knew deep down that he considered none of his fellow Toa a friend. Their alliance was inherently forced and their cooperation felt as though it were little more than a necessary complication. With six radically different individuals comprising a directionless team on an island they didn’t know and coordinated by a group of secretive village elders, the Master of Fire couldn’t help but feel a pang of uncertainty seated in his stomach.
Side-stepping a series of thick buttress roots, the Toa of Fire came to a halt, catching sight of a Skull Scorpio in the distance, skulking idly beside a tree, almost camouflaged in the wildgrass. Narrowing his eyes, Tahu opened his fist and willed a fireball into the palm of his hand. If he could sneak up undetected then he could surely catch his target by surprise.
But a second glance gave the Toa cause for hesitation, for the Skull Scorpio was not alone. Dotted in the distance were the skeletal outlines of another Skull Warrior platoon. Roughly half a dozen that he could make out from this distance. Relying on his natural instinct, Tahu ducked lower behind his Lavaboard and ventured closer. As he closed the gap he picked up more of the foot soldiers and the vague, misshapen form of a structure in the distance.
Fighting the impulse to charge in and debilitate the sentry, the Master of Fire appealed to his more cautious nature and decided to hold back. Probably best to circle around, away from the Skull Scorpio and scope out the scene first. Kneeling down beside a thick tree trunk, the Toa found his eyes widening at the scene before him. He had made the right choice.
The derelict remnants of a fortress could be seen in the clearing, decorated in patches of moss and undulating shades of gray, crawling with all manner of Skull Warriors and Skull Spiders; as unsavory and repellent a spectacle as any.
But what caught Tahu’s eyes was a more recent addition to the fortress’ courtyard. A stone pillar protruded from the splintered debris and stood taller than any tree he had seen for miles around. At first glance he would have mistaken it for a particularly tall and distant turret. But the structure was solid and erected at an angle. Moreover it was a much darker hue than the material used to construct the fortress itself. It was solid rock.
The Toa of Fire searched the grounds of the fortress for any trace of his brother but enjoyed no reward. It appeared that the Master of Stone had arrived first, but there was still no sign of the others. The courtyard was, however, littered with the broken bodies of close to two score Skull Warriors. Their withered limbs jutted out from the debris, sprawled among the weeds and rubble.
An ambush had clearly taken place here, which presumably made the stone pillar some manner of distress beacon – a last-ditch effort to summon backup. Still seeing no sign of his brother, Tahu could only wish he had been closer at the time.
Fighting the impulse to charge his Fire Greatswords and unleash the full extent of his elemental powers on the structure, the Master of Fire elected instead to hold back. All too often he found himself rushing into battle without a proper strategy and rarely did it end well.
So he crouched patiently, with one eye on the fortress and another on the treeline, waiting for his fellow Toa to reveal themselves. Laying down his weapons and resting against a tree trunk, he prepared himself for a long stay.
Pohatu had been lying awake, eyes open, for several minutes before he realized it. The darkness was so absolute that he first mistook it for the darkness of a dream.
Groaning, he pulled himself upright and massaged the back of his head, remarking that his Golden Mask of Stone was still in place. Everything ached at first, but the Toa forced himself to straighten. After a while, the grogginess receded and he was able to function normally, with only a minimum of discomfort.
Craning his neck, Pohatu observed his surroundings, probing drunkenly around with his fingertips – reaching nothing but hard earth. The chamber was damp and musky, with a door on the other side, under which a thin beam of light crept. It was still bright outside, which he felt to be a promising sign.
Shuffling backwards and propping himself against the chamber wall, the Master of Stone allowed his thoughts to wander. So far as he could tell, this was a cell of some sort. Too small to be a dungeon. The walls were forged of the same metallic ore that the rest of the fortress had been hewn from. Impossible to manipulate, though he could still sense a series of vibrations through it. A ghost of an elemental affinity.
Jaller and Takua were nowhere to be seen. Since they weren't being held captive with him, Pohatu could only assume they were being confined elsewhere. Last he had seen either of them, they were getting ready to hole up inside the ruins and wait the battle out. There was no chance they could have slipped through the net that had closed fast around the fortress, so it seemed he had failed them both.
The Master of Stone sighed, thinking back to that frightful look in Takua's eye in the moment of the ambush. A crushing defeat had been dealt. While he was by nature as coarse and resilient as a desert cactus, he couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt in that moment. He was proving to be some legendary warrior.
There was a rattle of feet on shale outside. Then the footsteps halted outside the cell and the lock rattled from the outside. After much fumbling, the door creaked open and the Master of Stone turned to see six Skull Warriors standing in formation, the brightness on their backs burning his optics. They regarded him blankly, one of them shifting aside to let a seventh figure step forward. Narrowing his eyes and adjusting to the light, Pohatu made out the silhouette of an emerald-armored villager, a Skull Spider latched to his head. Presumably a local from one of the outlying villages, abducted to guide the Skull Creatures through his homeland.
“The Toa is ready,” announced the Jungle citizen. Judging by his voice, he didn’t seem much older than Takua, but there was an ancient rage burning in his eyes.
Obeying an unspoken command, the Skull Warriors bowed their heads and parted aside, clearing a path for their commander. A shadow loomed over the threshold as the lieutenant of the Skull Army revealed himself, the intensity of the afternoon sun obscuring his features but Pohatu recognized him instantly.
There was eeriness in the figure’s hollow eyes as they locked gazes. Pohatu recalled the last time they had clashed blades at the Forge of the Mask Makers. It had taken the combined efforts of all six Toa to subdue him, and even then this lone combatant had managed to dispatch the mighty Onua with a single head-butt. He was not someone to lock horns with.
The lieutenant stood still, staring at the Master of Stone silently. Eventually he turned and motioned for the foot soldiers to wait outside. Pohatu watched apprehensively. He felt heavy with fatigue but adrenaline was gnawing in his stomach. He remained seated, as though shackled. He didn't want to risk standing up just yet.
“I still have my mask,” he noted aloud.
The Skull Basher’s voice was worn with centuries of use. Sarcasm did not become it.
“Care to tell me why?”
“Simple,” shrugged the Skull Raider. “You are not a captive, Master of Stone.”
A leaden silence reigned in the chamber. Pohatu regarded the horned figure coolly.
“I visited your homeland,” he remarked aloud. “I know of the Skull Raiders and your alliance with Makuta. I know their intentions and they're far from noble. So why you I get the feeling you don’t share their aspirations?”
The Skull Basher shook his head. He folded his arms behind his back and began shifting across the chamber in a slow pace.
“I allied myself with Kulta the Skull Grinder because it suited my interests to do so. I do not share his devotion to the fallen Mask Maker, and that alliance has served its purpose. I now operate in the interests of my people.”
“Then you’re in a unique position,” mused the Master of Stone, stretching to pop one of the muscles in his back. “With the Skull Creatures under a more reasonable hand Okoto might finally know peace. I wouldn't have to worry about any blood-feuds or century-long rivalries. I could even retire early; kick back on a beach in the Water Region and catch some sun.”
The Skull Basher regarded his words coldly.
“Peace is my intention,” he finally muttered. “As I am sure you are aware, conflicts can be resolved and reparations paid but co-operation is a long-term goal. It will take many generations for the Okotans to forgive us our transgressions and many years for my brethren to return the sentiment. Such will be the charge of my predecessors. My aspirations are much more singular, and I would believe them noble if you would hear them.”
The Toa paused to consider these words. This was surprisingly reasonable logic and Pohatu wasn’t going to jump to the defense of the Okotans. It had taken him many years to learn that things were rarely so clearly defined as being either black or white. The reality often lay amidst shades of gray. It was best to keep an open mind. So he chose to entertain the Skull Basher’s argument.
“I take it you know who I am?”
The Skull Raider nodded.
“You are Toa Pohatu, Master of Stone, fabled champion of Okoto and, as far as I am concerned, a figure more qualified to broker peace than any Protector this island has spawned.”
Pohatu said nothing. He hesitated a moment before nodded wordlessly for the Skull Basher to begin his tale.
“Many thousands of years ago, my people migrated to Okoto from a hardier chain of islands in the south. We pillaged and plundered across continents until finally we settled in the mountains of this land. As was the Skull Raider custom, it was not long before the Islanders tasted our steel. We raided many of their settlements and burnt their huts.”
Pohatu narrowed his eyes.
“Of course, the Okotans were a progressive people, even then. They were civilized and self-sufficient, with their measurements, and industry, and promise of greater treasures. Over time, we studied their culture and learnt of their prophecies. We saw their Airships and weapons, their architecture and customs. But, most interesting of all, we saw their government.”
The Skull Basher’s features darkened.
“I hope you will appreciate, Toa, that it is easy to make broad, sweeping accusations,” shrugged the Skull Basher. “After all, Ekimu did a lot of good for Okoto. He brought the Islanders together in his city, promising them riches and splendor for their allegiance and trust. He inspired generations of crafters and allowed his people to thrive at a fundamentally developmental stage in their history. With his mighty hammer, he forged an imperial dynasty.”
Pohatu said nothing. He just sat in the dirt and processed the words.
“But, until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter. Believe it or not, the world does not revolve around Ekimu. Just like the groundwork of his ancient city, the Mask Maker’s empire of industry was built at the expense of his kin. For decades he whispered in the ears of early Protectors and crafting his way to prominence, all the while enacting a grand scheme and fulfilling his own sinister agenda. Even though the legends choose to remember him fondly, I know him to be a merciless and callous adversary. He profiteered off the misery and hardship of his own people, running smaller guilds and businesses into the ground and crushing his competition. I raided many a trading caravan driven by desperate crafters being run out of business by Ekimu.”
Pohatu stared at the Skull Basher’s eyes. It was like looking into a bright pair of crimson lights. For such a measured and calculated individual, the Toa wished only that the Skull Raider was less extreme in his beliefs.
“Much the same as my Skull Raider cohorts, he desired to control Okoto in days long-passed, to tame its Elemental Creatures and subjugate its inhabitants. It was, after all, by his hammer that my people and this island were decimated in one fell swoop.”
“The cataclysm trapped your people underground, did it not?”
The Skull Basher flexed his jaw and nodded, his arms still folded behind his back.
“Months prior, the Protectors had banded together and driven the Skull Raiders underground. The cataclysm barred our escape and collapsed the tunnels to the surface. The ensuing cave-ins devastated my people and starvation became us. With many of our women and young succumbing to hunger, we adopted more barbaric methods, all the while vowing to enact our revenge upon the Mask Maker who had damned us to such a miserable existence.”
Pohatu tore his gaze away and shrugged at the corner of the room. Said nothing.
“We are serious here,” continued the Skull Basher. “You may look at me and think I am a despot, or a martyr, or whatever the world would label me. But I am not. I am a good leader, maybe even an inspired leader. Call me intelligent and perceptive, I won’t argue with you. But I do not need to be. My people need little in the way of encouragement. They need guidance, and discipline. I am not coercing anybody. Do not make the mistake of underestimating their will. Don’t ignore their desire for a change for the better.”
Already the Toa knew that to defend Ekimu would be to fight a losing argument. Even he had doubts in the Mask Maker, many of his suspicions now realized. The golden-clad elder clearly had a lot to answer for and it was no use debating in ignorance. His words would not move the Skull Raider to overlook centuries of destitution allegedly at the hands of Ekimu, though they made him feel uncomfortable nonetheless.
“Rise, Toa,” instructed the horned figure, offering a hand.
Pohatu hesitated before ultimately accepting. His muscles still burnt and ached with searing pain, but he locked his jaw and struggled to his feet, instantly retracting his hand the moment he was upright. The Skull Basher nodded then pushed the door open. Two of the sentries clattered inside and stood before Pohatu, offering him support. The Master of Stone shrugged them off and looked to the Skull Basher, who was beckoning him through the door. Shaky on his feet, the Toa stepped out into the afternoon sun to face the other four Skull Warriors, all lined abreast, Freeze Bows at the ready. Off to the side stood the Jungle villager with a Skull Spider on his face. He swayed limply on his feet, squinting in the light.
In the distance he could see Skull Scorpios patrolling the jungle, their beady eyes and bony features protruding from the emerald undergrowth. Across the broken courtyard, all manner of Skull Warriors carefully scaled the broken tiles and shingle, not even glancing at the bedrock pillar that rose from the center, daring to reach for the heavens. The corpses of the sentries felled by his hands had been moved behind a low-hanging partition, presumably to give them some semblance of privacy in death. A platoon of Skull Warriors milled about in the outer regions of the fortress, hefting large slabs of concrete and wood, busying themselves rebuilding the walls of the fortress. Outside the confines of the structure, a pair of the foot soldiers were busy digging a large hole: a burial site for the fallen.
“These are not your people,” murmured the Toa, eyeing the thralls.
“They are not,” agreed the Skull Basher with a nod of his head. “At one point they lived their own lives and met their natural ends with the terminal sleep that awaits us all. As both a strategist and a leader I respect this, knowing that my will is more righteous than Makuta’s and committing them to the ground once their service is fulfilled.”
The Toa of Stone pursed his lips, regarding the stack of broken Skull Warriors again and feeling a briefest pang of regret.
“You may think my intentions ignoble, Toa,” continued the Skull Basher, “but I am no criminal. When a leader turns wicked it is the most virtuous of citizens who stand up in protest. Or would you think it better we should all act as cowards?”
Pohatu ventured another glace at him. Risked speaking.
“I have conducted a study of tyranny serving under the Skull Grinder,” he continued. “And how to combat it. The first rule is to make a firm decision: either to live free or to die in the shackles of ignorance. The spark of residence burns its embers within us all. It is only natural to stoke it.”
The Master of Stone glanced around the courtyard, scanning for any sign of Takua and Jaller. He enjoyed no reward.
“The second rule is to stand up and deny the enemy control. You study their system and you learn to hate it. And then you act. But how do you act? The brave soldier fights back. He retaliates, does he not?”
“Sure, I guess so.”
“The brave soldier retaliated,” repeated the Skull Basher. “But the soldier who is both brave and clever acts differently. He retaliates first. In advance. He strikes the first blows. He gives the enemy what he does not expect, when and where he doesn’t expect it. That is what I am doing here. I am retaliating first. I am claiming the Mask of Reanimation and striking the first blow against Ekimu.”
“You’re inciting a revolution.”
The Skull Basher shook his head and leaned closer, so that he locked his cold eyes with Pohatu’s.
“I am inciting change, though I suppose they are one and the same when you think about it. Regardless, war is not in my interests. War should always be avoided, wouldn’t you agree?”
The Skull Basher smiled, his lips pressing against the bony mouthpiece of his Bull Skull Mask.
“You are independent,” he murmured. “Not one of us. Not one of them. No ax to grind. A neutral party with no personal agenda. A Toa, no less. A precise and perceptive individual. So I humbly ask, what say you of my position? On whose shoulders does the weight of true villainy rest?”
The Toa’s gaze darkened.
A premeditated question; the type he hoped any great leader would ask himself, but also a loaded one. The Master of Stone carefully considered the words he had taken in. It was difficult to pass judgement, but it seemed his opinion carried some influence.
“Your concerns are valid, Skull Raider,” he mused. “And I agree that Ekimu is no paragon of virtue. But, in order to truly be justified in your endeavors, you must reject vengeance. So long as you seek retribution, your cause will march backwards.”
The Skull Basher mulled the words over then glanced at the courtyard himself.
“Live free or die, Pohatu. It is a noble aim. Always has been. You ask a great deal of me when I value my people above my own integrity. Perhaps I did not make clear the centuries of suffering and anguish endured by my kind – the lives lost and unjust exile.”
But the Toa only shook his head.
“You asked for my unique perspective. I have given it to you. I now present you with the opportunity to walk away without the conflict escalating further. Swallow your pride and play the long game for a more lasting solution.”
The Skull Basher narrowed his eyes in frustration.
“Your words drip with hostility, Toa. I wonder, perhaps, what has persuaded you from the Skull Raider cause. What makes us less deserving of justice in your eyes?”
“I want to trust you,” he confessed. “But… justice is exactly the reason I have to put you down.”
The Skull Basher blinked in surprise then held the Toa of Stone’s gaze for a long and uncomfortable moment. Behind him the reanimated foot soldiers stiffened. In the end he nodded and turned his back.
“Give the order,” he mumbled.
“Seize the Toa!” yelled the Jungle villager, pointing an accusatory finger at the Master of Stone.
Pohatu gritted his teeth and raised his hands. Withered fingers knotted around his biceps, restraining him. As the Skull Warriors tugged at him, he remained unsure whether or not to go quietly. In the end it dawned on him that his aching body could not take the toll of a second battle. Not in his present state and certainly not alone. Reluctantly, he slackened and allowed the Skull Warriors to drag him away, putting up no resistance.
Alone the Skull Basher stood by the broken wall of the dilapidated fortress, gazing out into the abyss of the clearing. His expression was cloudy and his eyes dark. Once he was sure the Toa had been returned to his cell, the Jungle villager ventured closer.
“Not the answer you were expecting, my liege?”
The Skull Raider tilted his head and considered his response.
“I had hoped to find a powerful ally in the Master of Stone. Converting a Toa to our cause would have been a fitting sentiment, after all. But, as any strategist will tell you, one must hope for the best and plan for the worst.”
The villager nodded, the Skull Spider on his face twitching in agreement.
“Did you learn anything from your negotiations with the Toa?”
“I learnt enough… enough to know that the other Masters cannot be so easily swayed from their cause. Ekimu’s lies have penetrated them simply too deep for words to move them from his side.”
“Then they must be crushed,” mused the villager, clasping his hand into a triumphant fist. “The Master of Jungle has already been brought under our sway. One by one the rest will fall beneath the might of the Skull Army!”
The Skull Basher pulled an unsavory expression.
“No,” he snapped. “If the Toa were meant to champion our cause then it would be through their own volition. Be soft, young one. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain move you to hatred as it has moved me. Afford it no such victory. Okoto will have need of villagers like you in generations to come.”
The child swallowed and shifted his stance in discomfort. Ultimately he conceded the Skull Basher’s words as a compliment and decided it best to do as he was told. After all, the Skull Basher knew what was best.
“So how do we stop them from unraveling everything?”
The sound of clawed footfall swayed the Jungle villager to turn his head. Behind him he caught sight of the Skull Warrior platoon, this time dragging the struggling outline of Jaller out of his cell for a second time. Roughly, they threw the wounded explorer down on the courtyard, where he struggled to sit upright and shot his captors an odious glare.
“By exploiting their one weakness,” shrugged the Skull Basher. “Compassion.”
“Is everything alright, brother?”
Kopaka grunted to the affirmative then turned his head again, dodging her gaze.
Gali regarded her fellow Toa carefully as the pair continued their journey. At first they had enjoyed light conversation, which had later trickled away into long periods of guarded muteness before talking had ceased entirely.
A leaden silence now hung over the pair, making the female Toa increasingly wary. While she had, at first, been willing to dismiss her concerns as the Master of Ice being his usual reserved self, she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was some other factor at play. He appeared more gaunt than usual, maybe paler, even beneath his hoary white armor.
Catching his foot on a stubborn root, the Master of Ice dug his weapons into the ground and stopped in his tracks, steadying himself. Gali stopped to offer her companion a hand only for him to mulishly refuse her assistance and carry on walking, avoiding eye contact the entire time.
A mysterious tension permeated the air, the exact cause of which she could not determine. Taking one look at her brother and another at the root he had refused to be felled by, the Mistress of Water planted his Power Harpoon into the soil and folded her arms.
“Kopaka… what’s wrong?” she asked steadily, keeping her tone in check but conveying enough iron to get her urgency across.
Grinding to a halt, the Master of Ice tilted his head and peeked over his shoulder at her, his telescopic lenses covering most of his expression.
“We all have our mountains to scale,” he grumbled frostily. “Allow me to climb mine alone.”
Gali shook her head.
“I have tried to afford you space, Kopaka,” she said firmly. “But I do so sparingly and within reason.”
The Master of Ice said nothing. He just continued to stare blankly into the treeline, his back turned to her.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she continued. “We all have our demons to quell and our own baggage to carry. You’re entitled to keep your anxieties a secret. It’s your right to do just that. But you don’t get to choose who cares for you. When the weight of your troubles means you can’t function – when your journey gets so arduous that you can’t even recognize me, or Pohatu, or Tahu as your friends – then perhaps it’s time to confide in someone else.”
Her teammate shifted his stance, discomfort written all over his features.
“I’d rather not forfeit my privacy,” he snapped, striding onwards.
But Gali remained rooted in place – resolute. Her fellow Toa made it several steps before it occurred to him that she was not following his lead. He wavered, knowing he had a split-second decision to make. To stop and wait was to confront her while carrying on would hopefully mean the end of the discussion for some time. Suddenly unsure of himself, he hesitated then stopped in his tracks and sighed, his defenses brought crashing down. This was a battle he could not win. Gali would uncover the truth no matter what.
“Right here? Right now?”
“This is as good a place as any,” shrugged the Mistress of Water, resting her chin against the hilt of her Power Harpoon. “What troubles you, Toa of Ice?”
Kopaka shot her a searing glare then lowered his head. Deep down he was grateful, but Gali knew he would never admit it.
“I am… struggling,” he finally confessed. “Struggling to understand what it means to be myself.”
The Mistress of Water said nothing, hoping her silence would prompt her fellow Toa to speak.
“As deeply as I crave the opposite to be true, I am ultimately a being ruled by my emotions,” continued Kopaka. “While I endeavor to enjoy the jubilations of life in all its varying forms, there exists also an opposite character – a side of me that is detached and isolated. I desire to lead this team but, at the same time, know that I wish to remain impartial. I am unsure if either side of myself is my truest identity and dissatisfied with this muddled settlement of self I have come to know. It is vexing, to say the least.”
Gali nodded. She scooped up her Power Harpoon and started walking once more. Now that she had cracked Kopaka’s tough exterior he would open up. She knew him well.
“You have been distant of late,” she murmured, side-stepping a patch of prickly undergrowth. “But, if there is one thing you cannot feign, it’s when you are broken inside. You say you find yourself caught between two natures?”
“They contend for ownership of my very being,” he murmured uncomfortably. “At times I feel as a stranger within my own skin. I retreat within myself and become abrasive.”
“I suppose so,” conceded the Toa of Ice. “I had hoped to keep this affair private, for the sake of my dignity. But I suppose no good could come of such inward torment.”
“There is little I can give in the way of advice, Kopaka,” mused Gali, pulling back a tree branch and clearing a path for her brother-Toa to follow. “I cannot pretend to know your pain, nor can I really say I have suffered as you have.”
The Master of Ice nodded.
“Perhaps I can offer a different perspective, though? You see these two sides of yourself as diametric opposites: one half outgoing and fearless, the other introverted and fragile. But is it really fair to say that either of them is your true self?”
Kopaka slowed his pace and narrowed his eyes, his telescopic lenses whirling in accordance.
“What do you mean, sister?”
“Identity is rarely so clear-cut as picking between two opposing natures,” continued Gali. “One is a glamorous aspiration, the other is an unattractive self-image, but they are both equal parts your character.”
“You think I should merge the two?”
“I think you should find a compromise that affords you some peace of mind. Find something that works for you.”
Eyeing a clearing ahead, the two Toa drew their weapons and advanced with caution. Sensing that the conversation had trickled to a close, they nodded to each other and fell silent.
There were a multitude of shapes jostling in the distance. At first it appeared to be a colony of brightly-armored Okotans. But, as the Toa gained more ground, they soon picked out the mangled limbs and skeletal features of a Skull Warrior battalion.
“We can continue this discussion another time then,” muttered the Toa of Water decisively.
“It would appear these are the ancient ruins Vizuna spoke of,” noted Kopaka, remarking the metallic slabs and broken debris that littered the surrounding undergrowth.
“Any sign of the villagers?”
Before the Master of Ice could respond, both Toa suddenly became aware of a rustling in the undergrowth behind them. A lone Skull Warrior stumbled into view, its empty eyes locking upon their perch. Raising his Ice Spear, Kopaka fired a razor-sharp icicle from the tip, catching the sentry square in the chest and puncturing a hole in its rusted armor.
The Skull Warrior, however, didn’t go straight down. It fought to remain on its feet, angling its Freeze Bow upright and taking aim. At such close quarters, one of its rounds might pierce armor.
Slashing out with her Shark Fin Blades, Gali sliced through the shaft of the Freeze Bow. The Skull Warrior’s arms buckled as the mechanism snapped and fell from its clutches. With its weapon damaged, the sentry’s jaw dropped open, a wordless shout on its lips, ready to summon the rest of the Skull Army and overwhelm the Toa.
But the warning never emanated from the Skull Warrior’s throat. There was a streak of crimson as something latched around the undead foot soldier’s neck. Realizing that there was somebody standing behind their adversary, Gali and Kopaka shared a momentary sigh of relief. Struggling beneath the weight of golden armor pressing deep into its Skull Mask, the sentry could do little else but watch passively while its neck was snapped. As the lifeless husk of the Skull Warrior fell to the ground, Tahu stood tall. He brushed dirt from the arm that he had used then winked a greeting at his fellow Toa.
“Reunited at last,” he chuckled quietly. “I was starting to think we’d never find each other.”
“Speaking of which,” murmured Kopaka, “isn’t this toolbox short a few blunt instruments?”
The Toa of Fire nodded, the features of his Golden Mask of Fire growing sullen.
“Pohatu’s gotten himself captured. No sign of Lewa or Onua. So far as I can tell, Takua and Jaller are inside the fortress.”
The Master of Ice raised an eyebrow.
“How do you know this?”
“I’ve been watching,” answered the Toa of Fire with an idle shrug before growing serious."Looks like Skull Basher’s alive and kicking, though."
“Fantastic,” grumbled Gali, craning her neck to get a better view.
Kopaka regarded his fellow Toa skeptically.
“You hung back?”
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
“No, it’s just… unlike you.”
“I felt it was best.”
The two Toa regarded each other coolly before turning to Gali. She was watching them both with a broad smile across her Golden Mask. She didn’t need to say what was on her mind.
“Come, brothers,” she crooned. “Let’s see if we can’t form a plan to rescue these villagers – together.”
To Be Released
To Be Released
To Be Released
To Be Written
- Skull Basher
- Bingzak - Unnamed
- Ekimu - Mentioned
- Makuta - Mentioned
- Skull Grinder - Mentioned
- Scheduled for release in mid-2016, Endgame will mark BobTheDoctor27's first and only fully-fledged story serial to take place within the Second Generation storyline.
- Endgame is the current thirtieth longest article on this wiki.