"Just when I thought you could not be any more foolish..." Zelcin said, almost too quiet for Rehan to hear. The aged Protector of the fire tribe closed the stone door to his home, ensuring that he and the villager would have some privacy.
"Me?" Rehan said incredulously. "Forgive me for trying to recover the body of our people's long lost savior!"
"Your passion is admirable, but it is not your place to do this."
"Why not? Who in all of Okoto is better suited for the task than me?"
Zelcin sighed, leaning on his staff. "None. But that is not the problem."
"So what is?"
Zelcin looked Rehan dead in the eye. "Those for whom this task is meant have not yet arrived."
Rehan looked confused, then realized what the elder was saying. "You speak of the Prophecy of Heroes. You still believe it is true." He smiled, almost mockingly.
Zelcin did not waver. "I do. Somewhere, there are six heroes, each more powerful than you or I could ever be. It is their destiny to bring back Ekimu, not ours."
"I see," Rehan said, leaning back in his chair. "And where have these heroes been for the last thousand years?"
"I... I don't know."
"Will you wait another thousand years for their arrival?"
Zelcin looked down.
"When all the villager of Okoto are dead, every building torn down, every Mask shattered, will you still wait to act!?"
Zelcin sighed. "Perhaps not. But if I did act, it would not be like this. What you do is suicide. You are not prepared for what awaits you in the city."
"How would you know? You're just an old man, a Protector whose prime is long past. You are weak, and you have always been weak."
The Protector stood his ground, refusing to follow through on his urge to throw the villager to the ground. He breathed deep. "I have seen more than you know," Zelcin said truthfully. "I was a boy when the Shattering occurred. My grandfather was the Protector of Fire at the time. My father was meant to succeed him, but he died in the quakes. The position was left to me, a boy of a mere 93 years..."
Rehan's expression softened. "While I am sorry for what happened to you, it doesn't change our current situation. Okoto is still in grave danger, and you sit idly by and wait for imaginary heroes to save you." He stood. "I will wait no longer. Live or die, succeed or fail, I will enter that city with all those who will follow me. We return as conquerors, or we die as heroes. Real heroes."
"We are past discussing this, Zelcin." Rehan moved for the door. "You are still welcome to come with us."
Rehan left. As the door clicked shut behind him, Zelcin's eyes closed. This expedition into the ruined City of the Mask Makers would not end well, that he knew. He wanted to save the villagers who go in, not knowing how dangerous the city truly was, but who was he to stop them? It was not his place to dictate the lives of his fellows. He could only advise them, and pray that they listened.
Spirits help them, he thought. Perhaps, they may yet change their minds...
Rehan's mind was set.
He marched at the head of a group of villagers, feeling ready for anything. After hours of walking, they had finally reached the massive bridge leading to the City of the Mask Makers. He stopped, gazing up at it. Magnificent indeed... He turned back to his followers, raised his red-tinted broadsword, and gave a rallying shout. They all shouted back, their enthusiasm nearly matching his own.
This was it. They would enter the city, fight the evil beings inside, find Ekimu's resting place, and return him to life! Rehan would go down in the Annals as a great hero, perhaps the greatest Okoto would ever known. They would all be grateful to him for doing what needed to be done. Zelcin would see...
He turned to the bridge once more. "Together, we march to the city!" Another cry from behind. He strode forward, purposeful pride filling his every step. When he reached the great door, he shoved against its bulk. Others joined him, pressing their weight against the massive thing. Slowly, the doors swung open, revealing a long pathway with decrepit buildings on either side. Rehan stepped in, eyeing the ancient destruction. Aways across, another gate stood. This must have been useful during the wars, he thought. As soon as the enemy breached one gate, they would be immediately stopped by another.
The rest of the adventurous villagers piled into the square. They gazed at the ruins of the once great city with reverence. Rehan thought he could see bones in one of the buildings, armor still present.
Well, this couldn't get any creepier. "No time to dawdle!" he called. "Forward!" A few muffled replies came. He moved for the gate on the opposite side of the square. At least we don't have to force this one open...
Something clicked under foot.
The gate ahead began to slide shut. Once its doors met, several mechanisms rotated and locked them together. Rehan looked back to the first gate, hoping for a route to escape if necessary, only to find it firmly sealed as well.
Villagers began to panic. "We're doomed!" one cried. "We should never have come!"
"Quiet!" Rehan called, trying to regain some order. "We're not dead yet! We'll find a way out of here. Everyone spread out and search for a new route!" Hesitantly, they did as he said. The group of terrified villagers fanned out through the square, searching every building and crevice they came across.
Rehan searched as well. He entered a small stone hut, pulling out a lightstone to see. He scanned the one-room house and tried to ignore the corpse that lay huddled in the corner. On a table that looked ready to crumble, he spied a dust-covered Mask. He picked it up, inspecting its design. Mask of levitation, he thought. Could be useful. He placed the Mask in his pack.
He exited the house and saw a fellow Fire Tribe member, Yinoka, heading toward a house to his left. "How goes the search, Yinoka?" Rehan asked.
"Not too good," Yinoka replied. "No one has found any way to get us out of here yet." He entered the house.
"Don't worry," Rehan said, approaching the house. "I have faith in you and the others. We'll find a way. What do you see in there?"
"Yinoka?" Rehan called. He stepped closer. He could hear the villager moving inside. Quiet scuffles, even a grunt or two.
That was Yinoka, right?
Rehan rushed to the door of the house. Yinoka stood against the wall, one hand on his face. Rehan thought all was normal, until he realized that the Mask on the villager's face was not what it should be. Yinoka's usual Mask of speed lay on the floor, looking drained of color. Rehan looked warily to Yinoka. What madness...?
Yinoka turned around, both hands now clawing at his face. Rehan recoiled as he saw that it was not a Mask that covered his friend's face, but a creature. It appeared to be some sort of spider, its legs wrapped around Yinoka's face and its mandibles gripping his chin.
Yinoka screamed, a sound that chilled Rehan to the bone, muffled as it was. Rehan could not force himself to move. He could only watch in horror as the thing plunged its mandibles into Yinoka's open mouth. The villager’s eyes rolled up into his head, and he became still, hands falling to his sides.
"Yinoka?" Rehan questioned. "What is happening to you…?"
Yinoka's covered head turned toward Rehan, empty eyes staring forward. He gave no answer.
Then he lunged for Rehan's throat.
Rehan caught the hand and shoved Yinoka—or whatever this thing was—to the side. He wasn't sure what had just happened, but his friend was gone. Something else controlled him now. It must be that creature on his face...
Of course, if there was one here, there must be others.
Rehan rushed out of the house. "Gather in the center!" he shouted as loudly as he could. "Stay away from the houses! Dangerous creatures wait within!"
The thing that was once Yinoka stumbled out of the house behind him. Rehan grew angry, seeing the awkward way it walked. It clearly wasn't used to controlling a body with only two legs. The creature on Yinoka's face seemed to have four of them.
"You cannot have him, creature!" Rehan cried. He drew his sword and surged forward. The thing grabbed for him again, but he deftly dodged under its grip. He moved around to the back and put the thing in a choke hold. Trying to hold the head still, he raised his sword to the front of the face and sliced upward. The spider-creature's top half fell to the ground. Rehan quickly ripped off the bottom part, prying the legs free of his friend's head.
Yinoka's body dropped. Rehan tried to catch it. "Yinoka, wake up!" he said. "The thing is gone. Wake up!" He shook the body gently. The eyes remained closed.
"No!" Rehan cried. How could this have happened already!? The expedition had barely jsut begun, and already they'd suffered a casualty!
The others... must check on the others...
Rehan stood, numb. He heard shouts, cries of pain and sorrow. There had to be more of these creatures out there, taking others. "To arms!" he cried. "They turn our brothers against us!" He ran into the center of the square to find several groups of villagers fighting each other. Many had spiders on their faces, true Masks discarded. He watched in horror as villager fought against villagers. If what he’d seen earlier was any indication, all those who had been taken were beyond saving.
“Kill them!” he shouted. “They cannot be saved!” He ran closer to the center of the square, where most of the fighting was taking place. He cut down spider-controlled foe after foe, leaving a trail of bodies behind him. He tried not to think about what he was actually doing, tried to forget that the blood that sprayed his armor was that of his friends’. He had to survive this, make sure the rest did…
The ranks on both sides had thinned. Most of the villagers had gathered in the square by now, and only a quarter remained under the possession of these creatures. Rehan managed to rally his remaining free villagers onto one side of the square, and now he stood at their head, facing the enemy. “Take them without mercy!” Rehan called. “We will survive this!” At the head of the group, Rehan charged the remaining spider-villagers, sword raised high.
A sharp pain blossomed in his right thigh. He stopped running and stumbled to the ground from the surprise and pain. He looked down to find a white arrow stuck in his leg, having soundly pierced his armor. Blue blood leaked steadily from the wound.
“What is that!?” someone cried from behind. Rehan looked up, searching for the source of the shot. As the possessed villagers walked past him, his eyes found a lone warrior standing atop the wall around the square. The figure had a thin, almost skeletal frame and held a blue longbow. Rehan tried to stand and raise his sword. It seemed… heavier than remembered. He stumbled, a wave of dizziness washing over him. Got to tie off that wound, he thought. Won't last long like this…
Rehan ignored the fact that several more warriors were appearing on the wall and turned around to look for his own fighters. He was just in time to see the last of them getting overwhelmed by a large group of spiders and taken villagers.
That's it then. We're finished.
I can't stop.
Leg’s still bleeding…
I can fight. I will fight.
Rehan hastily tore off a strip of his cloak and tied it around his wounded thigh. He gripped his red greatsword tightly in both hands, letting the tip rest on the ground. “So, you’ve taken them all?” he said to the unhearing things that were once his followers. “Well, I suppose I must return the favor.” Ignoring the pain in his leg and calling upon the power of his Mask of strength, Rehan charged.
The first swing took out two possessed villagers. The second brought down four more. With each powerful swing, Rehan claimed vengeance for his friends by removing their heads from their necks. More blue blood flecked his armor and Mask. Arrows fell around him, some glancing off his armor as he swung his blade among the ranks of the dead and gone. Bodies fell, creatures died.
An arrow took Rehan in the left shoulder. The impact forced him to the ground again. The remaining things pounced. He expected to have a spider shoved over his face as he struggled against the weight of what felt like a hundred fallen friends, but none came. They simply seemed intent on keeping on the ground.
The possessed let up just enough for him to lift his head. A massive figure was approaching. The being had to have been around nine feet tall, carried an enormous mace, and the parts that weren’t covered by bulky armor were incredibly.
As if there were nothing but… bone.
It did not speak as it approached Rehan. It knelt before him, allowing him to look into its red eyes. “I applaud your devotion, villager,” the thing said, its voice deep and rough. “However, you must understand that this City is mine. You and your kind are not welcome here. We have… business. Business that you are not to meddle with. But while you’re here, I may as well make use of you what I can.” It reached out a hand and grabbed Rehan’s Mask, pulling it from his face. Rehan gasped as what strength he had left fled his failing body. “A Mask of strength… A fine choice. Especially for a warrior such as yourself. It’s power will be welcome indeed.” Rehan was just able to see the warrior place the Mask over its face. Glowing red lines crept in from the Mask’s edges.
Rehan moaned. He felt something. Something different from the pain in his wounded body. It was like… a growing void, deep within him. Something was disappearing, slipping away, as if his very soul was being ripped from his body. Spirits, it’s awful…
“Farewell, Rehan.” The skull creature was walking away now. “You should have listened to your elders.”
The last thing Rehan saw was the bodies of his dead friends being dragged away, probably to be disposed of somehow. He couldn’t imagine they’d ever have the customary burials that each tribe held. Probably just get heaped in a pile somewhere and let to rot.
And I… I will suffer the same.
Hands gripped his shoulders and hauled him up. Mercifully, that was when he blacked out.