"Sally Acorn, a member of the coalition and the leader of the revolution that overthrew Ivo Robotnik several years ago, was admitted to the hospital today after a rescue attempt was made on the desert laboratory. She is currently in critical condition, although doctors are optimistic about her chance of recovery. An inside source claimed that her more serious injuries were due to the rescue attempt itself rather than any torture. However, the Orre Police stipulate that the circumstances were unusual and collateral damage was inevitable. We'll report more on this story as more details come to light. Back to you, Ty."
-Gabrielle 'Gabby' Horst
The news report was somewhat less than pleasing, but Sofia decided to withhold her judgment on the assignment until she had more details. She knew Arbiter could be touchy, for lack of a better word, when his actions as leader were questioned. Especially when they were questioned by someone who hadn't even been at the scene. And something in the back of her mind told her that this particular assignment had more complications than expected.
With no-one around to complain (except for the Hunters, which Sofia doubted could smell) Sofia lit up her cigarette as she waited by the docking platform for the submarine. The communiqué she had received had claimed that the Master Chiefwas in need of engine repair, and the operatives would have to arrive in a submarine. They were running a little late.
Sofia could tell Link was pacing about in the room nearby. He seemed very tense when she had spoken to him earlier regarding his past. He hadn't told her much, but the psychiatrist was able to discern a few key things about Link. He had a difficulty with interpersonal relationships and conversation, which seemed a little strange considering he had a pathological need to help others. From what Sofia had heard, he had no problem casting off his former life and running into danger the minute someone he only peripherally knew was in trouble. That was why he had gotten a reputation as a wandering hero in Hyrule. That was why he had accepted an invitation to the League.
That was why he was so tense right now. He had watched several of his comrades leave into a dangerous situation while he had stayed behind in relative safety. They were risking their lives and he could do nothing. Now he had heard that something had happened and their return would be delayed, and again he could do nothing. Truth be told, he had been doing very little when he arrived. He needed to be useful, but his outdated weaponry seemed to cripple that. Sofia wondered if another assignment would help.
The ruler of Rapture was jarred out of her thoughts by the sound of a submersible arriving at the docks. The League had returned. That was a relief, at least. Still, Sofia did her best to maintain a stoic face as the submersible docked and the airlock lifted.
While Sofia was pleased that there was no loss of operatives, she couldn't help but notice that everyone was in a less than pleasant mood. She wasn't expecting professional soldiers to return in a jovial style, of course. Still, the ashamed and disgusted expressions on the operative's faces were less than heartening. She hadn't seen the operatives this depressed since the Mercer assignment.
Casey stormed out, her head down and arms crossed over her pet. Before Sofia could request it, the audio diary was shoved into her hands and the Chronicler had walked off. Link tried to say hello, but Casey ignored him and vanished into the Rapture hallways. She was in no mood for conversation right now.
Sofia blinked, and glanced at the tape the girl had handed her. She'd have to talk to her later. Right now, she had to confer with Arbiter about the mission. There was something she was missing, and she intended to find out what it was.
"Thel has been hesitant to speak to me recently. These assignments in Hyrule and Orre seem to trouble him for some reason. I wonder why. Is it because conventional tactics, the kind of warfare he is used to, was not much use in those places? He was muttering about 'magic' when he returned from Hyrule. But what is different about the Cipher Lab assignment? I am not sure."
Arbiter was in a frustrated temper when he returned to Mercury Suites. He tried to maintain a calm demeanor for whoever chanced to see him on his way back to his room. Still, his sullen expression and rather rushed and hard footsteps couldn't be camouflaged.
The worst of it was, he didn't understand why exactly he was frustrated. The mission was a success. No operatives or soldiers had been lost. The target had been recollected…rescued. Sally was still alive. Why was he so upset?
Casey's insubordination? She had defied orders and talked back to him. But when he had tried to disciple her, she had pointed out that if she HADN'T done what she'd done, Sally would've been killed by the alleged 'rescuers'. In fact, if she had moved earlier, Sally could've been extracted with less damage. Besides, he could hardly fault her for trying to rescue a comrade. All those factors had contributed to her side of the argument, and his disciplining of the Chronicler had more or less fallen flat.
Aven's actions? He was the one who endangered the target, even though he knew that she was inside that mecha. The minor elite may have been acting to prevent Arbiter from being killed, but he still ignored critical information about the situation and was ultimately responsible for Sally's condition. Arbiter had disciplined him by putting him back on guard duty, much to the elite's silent frustration. Still, something in the back of the commander's head claimed that the punishment wasn't entirely justified.
The bizarre circumstances of the last few missions?
Maybe that was it.
Arbiter was trained in the art of war from a very early age. Before he became the Arbiter, he was a ship captain and a troop leader. There was always a military strategy for every problem, nothing that couldn't be resolved with the right weapon or tactic. Even with the arrival of the Flood and the defection to the humans, his training had never let him down. He could work through those situations like a proper military commander, and it would get to the point where absolutely nothing surprised.
Lately though, as the commander of the league, the rules seemed to be constantly changing. New tactics. Different soldiers. Things that could not be solved with his military training. Vanishing informants with motives all their own. Creatures that could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be rationalized with the science he understood. Complications thrust onto him that a normal commander could never accept.
Teammates that were anything but professional soldiers. Walking manifestations of fallen soldiers that couldn't be attributed to the parasite. A rock that could allegedly resurrect the dead – with a cult leader apparently killed by that risen man. An inhuman monster that could shapeshift and consume nearly anything. A young soldier with outdated weaponry being made to fight the ghost of his ancestor. A burglar who seemed compelled to retool their weaponry and help them. A mechanical genius who could turn a rescue attempt into an assassination, using nothing more than scrap metal and cheap technology.
And something told Arbiter that it would only get stranger from here. A nagging fear that simply wouldn't go away told him that all his training, all his understanding, all his strength would be useless in this bizarre world.
The Sangheili shook it off. That was ridiculous. He was a good commander who led his troops to victory…no matter what his troops were. Still…
"You seem tense, brother."
Arbiter snapped out of his funk to see Rtas Vadum standing nearby in the hallway. Lost in his thoughts, Arbiter wasn't even aware of where exactly he was walking. The elite sighed as Rtas joined his walk.
Arbiter took a deep breath and answered. "More has changed than I would like."
"Warfare. Assignments. Allies. Enemies."
Rtas nodded, understanding somewhat. The two elites rounded a corner and walked the hallway down to Arbiter's quarters. On the way, they passed by Link's room. Arbiter took a second to glance at the room of the operative who seemed years out of date and yet was more skilled than many of his soldiers. In many ways he seemed to embody what was unusual about this new arrangement.
Arbiter and Rtas continued to walk and converse. "You should not concern yourself so much. You are still a good leader."
"Yes. I just wonder if I can lead if matters become more unusual."
Rtas shook his head. "You remained strong during the parasite invasion and the civil war. Those were considered unusual and impossible back then. You will be strong when things become 'unusual' in this duty. You are simply letting this last mission trouble you. You will be fine."
"I suppose." Arbiter agreed. They had reached the commander's room, and Arbiter calmly unlocked the door. "I suppose I will feel better after a rest…"
The elites blinked to make sure they weren't imagining it. Lying in the middle of the room, right where they could see it, was a large, waterlogged box covered in kelp and sea moss. The thing looked bulky and heavy, with a sophisticated lock mechanism under the mess that somehow managed to stay intact.
"I thought Mario had sealed all the vents in the bedrooms." Rtas remarked.
"He did. What is that? How did that get into my room?" Arbiter tapped his commlink. "Gordon, come to Mercury Suites. There is something I want you to look at."
"I took the head of the Hatter mecha. McCloud was giving it bad looks on the ride back, but I honestly think there is something else we can get from this thing. The huge hat covers a sort of computer, probably holding the programming and 'memories' of this machine. We might learn something useful if Gordon can analyze it, something about the maniac who escaped the facility. I dropped it off at his lab a few hours ago. Still haven't heard from him…then again, that's perfectly normal."
A few minutes later, Gordon was inspecting the box in his lab at Optimized Eugenics. From where Arbiter was standing, 'inspecting' it looked a lot like walking around the thing with thick glasses and occasionally prodding with some tool, but he supposed the scientist could see things he couldn't.
With the kelp cleaned off, the box looked like a metal crate specifically designed to withstand underwater pressure. It was drab grey, almost completely unremarkable. In another environment, it would've been overlooked. Right now though, the box presented a very puzzling mystery.
Rtas came up to Arbiter. "I have spoken with Sofia. She inspected the video camera feed for your room…"
"She notes something strange. The camera in your dorm seemed to cut out for a few minutes, along with all surrounding cameras. She cannot find who delivered this crate to you."
"Hmph." Arbiter seemed less than pleased at the response. "Perhaps it was that burglar from the armory. Another gift."
"Doubtful." Rtas remarked, glancing at the heavy-looking crate. Gordon was now opening it, and rifling his hands through whatever was inside. There was a sound of shuffling that signified something was in the box.
Eventually the doctor turned around and nodded at the two elites, motioning them to come closer with his finger. Satisfied that there was no bomb or poison, Arbiter and Rtas did so. Reaching into the metal crate, Dr. Freeman pulled out several large papers and an audio diary. All of these things had somehow stayed waterproof inside the box.
Arbiter looked over the papers. It was a series of maps and blueprints, describing the location of some sort of building. A mansion, judging by the sheer size. There was also a scrap of paper with longitude and latitude, and several pages from a book. For some reason, looking at the book pages sent a chill down Arbiter's spine.
Aven turned on the audio diary. A hushed, nervous voice spoke quickly out of the recorder.
"This is an important message for the League. I know who you are, but don't worry, your secrets are safe. For now. But that's not important. What's important is that you must act quickly. I recently came across the location of the Dark Prognosticus. No, I am not joking. It exists. I don't think I need to tell you about how important that is. I saved a few pages so you know I'm telling the truth. I was lucky to get to it…anyway, I've given you the location of the book. It's in Bowerstone Castle, in Albion. A powerful, dangerous magician named Dimentio is guarding it, and from what I've seen of him, it's imperative that you retrieve the book from him. It is heavily secured, so be ready. You must get the Prognosticus from him!"
The tape was replayed in the conference room, with Sofia and Casey present. The chronicler wasn't pleased about being dragged away from a much needed rest, but she kept quiet and recorded the conversation. Arbiter had no idea what the Prognosticus was, but from Sofia's expression when it's name was mentioned, he could tell it was very important. Come to think of it, he had never seen Sofia Lamb turn white before.
"Well, what do you think?" Arbiter asked.
Sofia swallowed back her nervousness. "The circumstances of this…message are suspicious, but if what he's saying is true…"
"I do not understand. What is this 'Progonosticus?'"
"The Dark Prognosticus is an ancient book. The coalition considers it a top priority, and any leads whatsoever regarding it must be followed." Sofia turned to Rtas. "May I see those pages?"
Rtas handed the sheets of dark paper to Sofia, suppressing a shiver as he did. The pages seemed to have a frightening aura to them, though no-one could understand why. It was just paper with strange symbols on it. What was so frightening about it?
Sofia glanced at the pages before placing them under a scanner. A sickening feeling in her gut was ignored as she read the scanner's response. Her eyes widened in shock as it finished. "This is legitimate…these are from the real book…"
"What? What is this Prognosticus?" Arbiter demanded, more than a little confused.
Sofia took a deep breath and answered. "To put it succinctly, it's a book detailing the end of the world, and how to bring it about."
"What?" Everyone asked at once.
"Allegedly, it's a prophetic tome written in a lost, ancient language. Several years ago, a man named Blumiere attempted to use it to wipe out reality itself. He was unsuccessful…"
"Clearly. But why would the coalition be interested in an old book?"
"I just told you…anyway, the book was lost, and several archeologists and researchers have been trying to locate it since. The Coalition fear what will happen if it fell into to wrong hands."
"Does it really pose a threat?" Arbiter asked dryly. "Even if it did detail the end, how could anyone translate this language today?"
"…Whether or not that is the case, it is important to get this book. We have to investigate this lead."
Arbiter shrugged and pulled out the rest of the crate's contents. "That will pose no difficulty. The blueprints and papers describe Bowerstone Castle to the meter. It should pose little difficulty for an army to get inside…"
Casey blinked. "Dimentio? I've heard of him. He's a performer at Venturas…"
Arbiter shot Casey a glare. "Chronicler, be quiet." Casey didn't say anything else.
Arbiter continued. "The rest of the papers describe the security. Very significant, but nothing unmanageable. I will need several of my best operatives, and Rtas' soldiers. If this 'Prognosticus' is as important as you claim, we must act quickly. I'll get the soldiers ready."
"Take Snake and Lara. They will offer much assistance."
"Understood." Arbiter nodded. "We will be ready to leave in a few hours." The two elites walked out of the room, leaving Sofia and Casey behind. The young chronicler sighed before shutting off the recording, and started to get up to go back to her room.
Sofia stopped her. "What were you saying about Dimentio?"
"I just saw a poster for his show the last time I was in Las Venturas." Casey sighed. "I miss that place…"
Sofia noted the look on the chroniclers face. "The last mission took a toll on you, did it not?"
"Yeah, but I can handle it. I just need a little rest." That was the end of the conversation, as Casey walked out of the room.
Sofia doubted that a 'little rest' would be enough. What else could she do? Another assignment in a foreign area would not be helpful…but what if the area was familiar?
The League Leader thought back to her casual comment about Dimentio. It was odd that the owner of an important item and a performer would have the same name… unless …no, it was ridiculous. Still…there was something odd about all this…perhaps…
Every possible lead must be investigated…