"Attention. There has been a major rupture in the main hot water pipe. The source of the leak has been located. However, the hot water will be temporarily shut off until further notice."
Sofia's announcement over the P.A. woke Link up. The wolf groggily opened his eyes to see the searing waterfall had stopped. Not wanting to be present when the plumber arrived, Link painfully got up to his feet and began limping off in a vague direction.
"Nothing is to be gained from floundering about at random."
That voice again! Link suddenly became alert, his ears listening for that mocking meritone as he growled threateningly.
The purring voice laughed again. "Well, you have met Alice and faced against Tweedledee. And survived, I must add. You have my … acknowledgment. Perhaps it is time we spoke face to face."
A door behind Link creaked open as the voice spoke, and the sound of an old music box emanated into the hall. "Only a few find the way. Some don't recognize it when they do. Some don't ever WANT to. Aheheheh.
Come into my parlor, little hero. There is one last thing to discuss."
The door that had opened led into a dark hallway, no light illuminating the area. The music box sang an eerie melody to nothing in particular, the sound coming from far in the distance, much like the voice.
With nowhere else to go, the weary wolf trudged into the dark hall. He was only a few steps in when the door clicked shut behind him, blocking the way back. The wolf let out a groan before hobbling forward in the darkness. With no visible path to follow, Link had to use his keen ears to follow the music box, which grew steadily louder with each twist and turn.
He was walking for a while on the checkered floor when the voice began again. "Masks, hero. Do you remember my riddle? The question I gave you to ponder?"
Link began to growl in the almost imperceptible darkness.
"I'll take that as a yes. Like many riddles, there is more than one correct answer. A thief uses a mask to hide – from himself and the world. You are no thief, are you?"
The wolf's piercing eyes roved the darkness. "Where are you?" he growled.
"No, I suppose not. We can't all be thieves, and yet we all wear masks. You, me, the League, and its adversaries. Why is that?"
"SHOW YOURSELF!" Link demanded.
And then the lights went on. The sudden brightness blinded Link for a moment, but after a few seconds of blinking, he managed to get a good look at the place.
At some point this had been the home of someone who couldn't afford to live in Mercury Suites and wouldn't degrade himself to live in the Sinclair Deluxe. Now it was the dwelling place of a mad creature. Beautiful but disturbing paintings covered the walls…no, the WALLS themselves were a painting. The music box that guided Link here was placed on a large table, depicting a girl with a blue dress and a knife. Flowerpots containing mushrooms Link had never seen before were placed along the walls. Link trod on sharp red jacks littering the floor, wincing in pain.
"I'm up HERE!"
The voice, louder and closer than before, prompted Link to whirl around and look up.
Dangling on the ceiling was a light, a large saucer that shone on the room. On top of the saucer was…something. Out of the light, it was difficult to see the form of the creature who had spoken. Two piercing feline eyes peered down at Link, almost glowing in the dark. Then a smile, wide and filled with sharp teeth, appeared under those eyes.
And then the thing on the light vanished. It was no quick escape or trick of the eye…one moment it was there and the next it simply was not. Link blinked in puzzlement just as he heard a scraping on the table.
Unseen claws raked lines across the wooden table. A purring laugh emanated from an invisible mouth. Seeing that he was being toyed with, Link let out a sharp bark. The creature made itself visible.
It was a cat. A thin grey coat of fur covered a frame so emaciated Link could see his ribcage and spine. Astral tattoos decorated the creature's face and large paws, which carried unconcealed sharp claws. A gold hoop earring dangled from one of the pointed ears. Wise eyes were perched over an insane grin, an expression that never seemed to change.
"Are you satisfied?" The cat spoke in a teasing tone, a voice deep as a well.
Link only growled in response.
"Now, now. Let's not be beastly. Those two I had you meet. They will be important later. Keep that in mind, hero." The head crooked for a moment in thought. "Hero…yes, that's correct. Link, the hero of Twilight, the one chosen to liberate his home from the darkness. And has done so."
Link did a double take. How did this cat know?
"I know a lot of things." The grinning cat answered the unspoken question. "I also know that you will be returning there soon. When you do, remember this well." The sharp smile drew closer to Link's face. "The thing you seek only serves to hide the thing of true value."
Link was about to demand an explanation, but then the cat vanished again, his smile lingering for a brief second. He did not reappear in the room.
Link was incensed. He had been transformed, knocked out, shot at, attacked, set aflame, thrown into a wall, blasted through boiling water, for THAT?! A cat's bizarre message and nothing more? Not even a way to turn back to normal? Link let out a snort of frustration and stormed around…
To find the grinning cat right in front of his face. Before he could react, the cat had grabbed the sides of his head with his paws.
"Oh, and another thing…"
The cat began to pull and Link felt his face coming off.
"Many forget that masks can be removed as well as placed."
Before Link could stop him or even scream, the cat had ripped his face off.
The room spun around Link who howled in surprise…and then he realized he wasn't feeling any pain. Just a change…impossible to describe. He felt his body being rearranged and the world around him become strangely different. Lights dimmed and noises grew quieter. When everything had stopped spinning long enough for Link to get his bearings, he found the cat had vanished once again, and looked down at his hands.
Link had to look again to make sure he wasn't seeing things. Sure enough, the paws he had walked on had been replaced by his gloved, fingered hands. Link got to his feet, feeling normal again…
Except for the pain. It sang in his leg as he stood up. He was still battered from all that had happened.
He rechecked. There was a mirror handy in the cat's room. Sure enough, staring back at him was a human dressed in a green tunic. Bruised, cut, burned and battered, but very much human. Link breathed a whoop of relief. It was over…
Link looked down at where the cat had been standing last. On the floor was a mask…a wolf mask. Link picked it up cautiously, as if he was handling a dangerous thing. The face was identical to his wolf form. He had felt something thrust onto his face…and all that talk about masks…
Masks…could it really have been so simple? A mask, a wolf mask that could be removed and put back on again had he known. A thing that could transform him with the simple act of wearing and removing. The sheer ridiculousness of it all nearly made him laugh…
Just as the commlink in his ear crackled to life. "Link? Link?!"
"Are you alright?" Sofia Lamb's voice inquired.
"I'm fine." That was all he could say.
"Your signal suddenly vanished, and I was unable to contact you. I was becoming concerned …what happened? And what are you doing over there? You're on the other side of Rapture from when your signal disappeared hours ago."
Sofia sighed. "Well, as long as you are alright. I'll have to speak to you about this strange business later…it appears Arbiter and his operatives have returned from their campaign. I suggest you return to your quarters."
Link winced as he stepped on his wounded leg. He still carried the injuries he had sustained as a wolf. How on earth would he explain this to Lamb? He decided that was a worry for another day.
Right now, the priority was getting back to his room. He had a supply of potion that would likely make him feel better in his bag. The cat was considerate enough to leave a map with a marked 'You are here' on the table. Link limped out of room, tucking his new mask into his pocket, and headed towards the bathysphere station.
This was very eventful day, and he was looking forward to getting some real rest.
"McCloud told me about Slippy…Unbelievable. We knew each other almost from our training academy days. Not the best pilot, but a good comrade and a real…He didn't deserve to killed by that freak. Not to mention the whole crew of the Johnson…brother, you think you're all invincible and then something like this happens. And we don't even have anything to bury! How is McCloud gonna tell his dad? I hope that Zeus Mercer monster bought it when he fell into the sea."
Because of the gaping hole in the side of the Master Chief, the crew had to dock at the 'oil rig' in order to return to Rapture. McCloud was dry-eyed and silent the entire time. Arbiter knew to keep silent around someone like this. So did everyone else. The ride to Rapture was a quiet one.
Waiting for them were Sofia, her hunters, Casey with a recorder ready and Aven, who had received an unusual dent in his armor. Sofia cleared her throat and motioned to Casey. "What news do you have? Are you certain Alex Mercer…Zeus has been terminated?" Casey started the recording.
"As certain as we can be with no corpse." Arbiter sighed. He then briefly explained the events of that assignment. "I ordered the city to dredge the ocean for that monstrosity, and the city remains under heavy guard."
"An entire ship, boss? Heavy." Casey commented quietly, the recorder whirring in her hand.
Arbiter gave her an odd look. "Boss?"
"A title of respect." Sofia interjected quickly. Casey grinned sheepishly as Arbiter turned back to Sofia.
"And what has happened here?"
"A leak." Aven answered flatly. "And some sort of altercation at the Farmer's Market. I investigated and got this dent in my armor."
Arbiter gave Aven a hard look. "You were not asked."
Aven let out a low growl as Sofia explained. "No casualties of our own. However, an explosion managed to break a water pipe, and there was some sort of splicer war in the farmer's market. Aven investigated, as he said. And…one of our operatives vanished off the radar for a few hours. Nothing else of concern."
"Uh, boss? Before this tape runs out, how many did you lose? I just need a number."
"Boss." Arbiter muttered before thinking for a moment. "Roughly 30 from the Johnson…33."
"34 with Slippy." McCloud added airily.
"Slippy?" Aven snorted. "You mean that clumsy fool therianth who cannot pilot a ship to save his soul? I am not surprised he…"
Aven got not farther as McCloud landed a solid punch on his mandibles. The elite stumbled back for a moment, clutching his jaws in pain. His eyes opened with a blazing fury, and he moved to counterattack…
Aven was reminded that his superiors were right there. Clutching his fist in frustration, Aven Nterru stormed off, muttering darkly. "A cut from a tiny swordsman, bullets from ancient robots, a charge from a hulking mutant and a punch from a therianth, and I am not even on assignments! Am I a soldier or a target dummy?"
Aven's ranting faded into the hallways, and Sofia turned to the red-eyed McCloud. "I recommend you get some rest." Sofia turned to the Arbiter. "That recommendation extends to the rest of your force."
No-one argued with Sofia Lamb. It had been a very eventful day, and everyone was looking forward to some real respite.