Author's notes: Okay, this one needs a little bit of explanation, really. This is basically expanding on the ideas from "Masquerade" and "Compass" -- namely Link sharing headspace with his masks. But while those were not long after the game, this story is several years later; he's roughly nineteen here. I felt like playing with the idea of Link growing up sharing his mind with the masks; he's alone, yet he's never alone.
Warnings: This fic includes graphic violence and potentially disturbing imagery, namely a lot of bloodshed.
Den of Thieves
Just after sunset, and the tavern is already nearly full. He's used to this -- just as he's used to the suspicious glances the usual patrons give any newcomer and the fact that there is most always someone with far more crystal than he should have. The barkeep just accepts this, both because he needs the business and because he values his life.
Some of them are only thieves -- if he dares phrase it like it's such a harmless thing -- but he has no doubt that some of the men in here right now could kill in cold blood. He doesn't know how many actually have, nor does he want to. So he serves up alcohol to anyone who can pay for it and keeps the bar clean and generally just stays out of everyone's business, just like he does every night.
But tonight isn't any other night. Tonight is the end of this.
It all begins when the door opens and a stranger walks in. It's a young man, barely old enough to be in a tavern, golden hair gleaming in the light from all the lamps. He stops by the weapons rack and eyes the various blades and other makeshift weapons resting on it, and then he reaches under the long, loose, brown cloak he wears and pulls out a shield. It's a beautiful thing, large and smooth and reflective; lamplight lights up his face as he smiles down at it and places it gently on the rack. He then reaches under the cloak again and pulls out a long sword. The sheath is rather simple, but the ornate hilt, polished with use, betrays the elegance of the weapon. He places it beside his shield.
They're both exceptional pieces of gear -- the barkeep can tell this from all the way across the room -- and every eye in the tavern is on their owner. The blond-haired young man walks casually up to the bar, seemingly unaware that he is surrounded by thieves and cutthroats. But the barkeep sees the strong grace to the young man's every move; whoever this man may be, he is quite the warrior, despite his young age. That odd combination only deepens the mystery of who he is and why he is here at a lonely tavern hidden in the woods.
He sits calmly on one of the stools, his cloak falling against his back and the large pack he wears, and then orders the strongest drink the tavern has. The barkeep can't help but think it'll be too strong for him, as the man hardly looks that tough, but he never turns down a paying customer. The man takes the mug and thanks him with a warm, friendly smile that is entirely out of place here before taking a long drink. It's a very strong drink, but he doesn't even flinch, much to the barkeep's surprise. Instead, he seems to almost relish the taste.
After a few long minutes, the tavern gets back to as normal as it ever gets, and amid the usual tavern chatter, the barkeep's curiosity gets the better of him.
"You a traveler, son?"
The man's eyes -- vivid blue, warm and kind and yet, somehow, piercing -- meet his. "You could say that."
"Where're you from?"
"Somewhere very far from here," the man says with a broad grin. "Very, very far."
The barkeep believes it; the blond has a noticeable accent, though it's not one he's ever heard before. "So, are you here on business, or are you just passing through?" He's pretty sure he knows the answer, he thinks, wiping the bar down to give himself something to do other than stare. No one stops at this tavern except for thieves. And the young warrior doesn't strike him as a thief.
The warrior takes another long, slow drink from his mug and then laughs, his voice like music. "A little of both. I'm looking for someone. Four people, really."
Interesting. Has he come for revenge? The barkeep doesn't let his interest show -- he's good at that, after all -- and glances around. Several nearby patrons are clearly listening in, and someone is standing at the weapons rack. It seems the whole crowd is as interested in this stranger as he is.
"Who are you looking for?"
"Four people I have been sent to find," the man says simply, producing a dagger from somewhere and idly cleaning under his nails with it. "That's what I do."
"Track people down?" someone nearby asks. Strange; when did the tavern get so quiet?
The barkeep clears his throat. "Are you with the guard, son?"
"No. I'm not." The man meets his gaze again, and the barkeep can't hold back a shiver. Those blue eyes are suddenly predatory and hungry enough to make his skin crawl. "I hunt monsters, including those in human skin."
"You seem a bit young for that," someone else says.
"I hear that a lot," he says with a chuckle, taking another long drink. "I'm older than I look. Stronger, too." Those last two words have a strange edge to them.
This one young man unnerves him more than the rest of the tavern combined, the barkeep realizes. Still, he says calmly, "I'm afraid there aren't any monsters here. You'd think a monster in human skin would be pretty easy to tell apart."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Are they that skilled at masquerading as normal humans, or are you all just so blinded by your own needs and desires that you don't notice?" He turns on his stool, leaning back against the bar and surveying the room.
"Does it matter? If we don't know," someone's saying from the corner, "we don't know. What makes you so sure there are monsters here, anyway?"
He grins; one of the patrons closest to him moves back with a start, and the barkeep is very thankful he can only see part of the man's face. "I tracked them here. It isn't difficult at all when you know --"
He scowls then, and his arm moves; there's a yelp from across the room. Next anyone knows, his dagger is embedded almost to its hilt in the weapons rack right beside his sword. The man by the rack is holding his hand and staring towards the bar in shock.
"Hands off," the young man snarls.
The barkeep shakes his head. He knew it was only a matter of time before someone went for that gear, but... the young man is stronger than he looks, as well as fast and very perceptive. That thought doesn't make him feel any better about this situation.
"Hey now," he says. "I don't want any trouble in here."
"Nor do I," the young man replies. "I'm looking for four people. I have reason to believe they were either here earlier or are here now, so I thought I would come in here and ask around."
"Who are you working for?"
"I was hired by the elders in the village. It seems they have been having some... difficulties as of late."
"And just what did these monsters do, huh? Shouldn't the village be burned to the ground?"
"Yeah!" someone else adds. "And how'd the village find enough money to hire you, anyway?"
"Money?" The young man chuckles as he climbs to his feet and starts towards the weapons rack; the crowd parts to let him pass. "I don't take money. The only payment I ask for is a couple of nights in a bed and some simple supplies. My real payment is knowing that the monsters are dead."
He pulls his dagger free of the wood in a single smooth motion and makes his way back to his stool. "The monsters I seek have killed many people in the name of money. No matter how much or how little they had, no matter how unable they were to defend themselves, no matter how many children watched them die... the monsters had no mercy. Too many are dead and too many more have lost their innocence. I cannot erase their pain, but I can at least ensure that the monsters can hurt no one else.
"And that is why I am here." He picks up his mug and drains it before slamming it down on the bar. "Show yourselves, and I may yet show you mercy."
"Are you threatening us, boy?" someone snaps.
The young man holds up one fingerless-glove-clad hand, fingers splayed and thumb against his palm. Four fingers. "I am threatening exactly four of you. I have no quarrel with the rest of you, unless you choose to start one. I don't attack humans except to defend myself."
"What? Did you think you could just walk in here and demand your monsters jump up to be killed, just like that?"
"Not really," the young man says, sliding off his cloak. Underneath he's dressed in black -- high-collared shirt and breeches -- with a tunic the color of the forest over it. The green is a strange sight, totally foreign, inside the tavern.
"After all, very little goes down without a fight. That's the way it should be, really. At least in battle," his voice has that edge again, "both sides get a fighting chance."
That sets the crowd to murmuring, and a couple of men head towards the rack, no doubt going for their weapons.
He just sighs and slides off his pack, kneeling to place it between his stool and the bar. Something white on his left hip sways with the motion, grabbing the barkeep's attention. It's a mask, hanging from a leather strap attached to the man's belt. It's a rather odd choice for an item worn ready on the belt, but the barkeep already knows he is dealing with a very strange young man.
"Rather not have to kill them all..." the young man murmurs, as if speaking to himself. He is silent for a few heartbeats, then: "I suppose so... but they aren't all monsters." He sighs. "True."
The barkeep tries to focus elsewhere, but the young man gets his attention by putting a hand on his head. It isn't threatening, oddly. It's more like the shorter man is patting him on the head.
"You're a good man," the young man says with a warm smile. "Just doing what you have to, right? I'm sorry about the trouble I'm causing, but I have to --" His eyes go wide with pain for an instant and then narrow, the friendliness replaced with that disturbingly predatory hunger.
The young man turns back to the crowd -- there's a dagger sticking out of his back. The barkeep flinches. For a moment, he had thought the young man would be able to leave without any further disturbance, but now... The man pulls the dagger free and holds it up, seemingly mesmerized by the blood gleaming on the blade. He looks up and out over the crowd -- it's smaller than before; some people must have sense enough to run while they can -- and a few of the closest people jump back. The barkeep again finds himself thankful he can't see the man's face.
"Whose is it?" the man asks; his voice sends a chill down the barkeep's spine -- he sounds ready to kill.
There's motion to one side as someone lunges, but he turns almost impossibly fast, catching the would-be assailant right under the jaw and lifting him up by his neck.
"I think I've found one of the monsters!" the young man says, sounding like a kid taunting about a secret and a man ready to murder someone at the same time. The barkeep shudders again, shrinking back from the bar and wishing there was a way out that didn't involve going near the young man.
"Let me go! I'm no monster!"
"You're not?" The young man holds his attacker higher, looking up and snarling. "Then why do you smell like blood? Namely..." he sounds far too pleased with himself for the barkeep's liking, "human blood.
"Did you have fun killing them?" He laughs, wild and barely controlled. "What kind of monster are you inside? A Moblin? A Stalfos? Or maybe..." he raises the dagger and presses the flat of it against the man's chest, "something bigger? There's only one way to find out.
"I'll just have to cut you open and see."
The barkeep ducks behind the bar, then; he doesn't want to see! The scream of fear and agony and the sickening sound of a blade ripping through flesh are bad enough. The scent of blood fills the air, and he nearly gags.
He hears yelling and screaming and the sounds of a struggle, and above it all, loud, hungry, happy laughter. He doesn't move until all of the noise stops, and then he slowly, carefully raises his head high enough to see over the bar.
The tavern is a slaughterhouse now. The men have all been hacked or torn to pieces, blood and organs and tissue and bone scattered across the entire expanse of the floor; the walls and even the ceiling are crimson with fresh blood. There's so much blood in the air that he can taste it, and he falls back to his knees with a strangled cry and vomits.
"So you are still awake over there," the young man says, oddly satisfied. "I thought you'd passed out."
The barkeep decides to chance looking again, this time not looking at the floor. The young man sits on one of the tables, covered head to toe in blood, sorting through several pouches. The barkeep stumbles to his feet. From where he stands now, he can see the young man's reflection in that strange mirror shield... but it isn't just the young man in the mirror.
No, there are two men in the mirror. One is the young man, bloody yet relaxed. The other man is taller, broader, more dangerous looking. His form is wrapped in jet-black armor, his hair as white as snow. He, too, is sitting calmly on the table, watching the young man. And, somehow, the white-haired man is every bit as bloodstained as the other.
The barkeep glances back and forth between the one man on the table and the two in the mirror. "Wh-what is this?"
Both of the men look up, meeting his gaze through the mirror. The young man's eyes are wide and wild, and is it just a trick of the light, or are they glowing? The barkeep looks away, meeting the taller man's gaze. He immediately wishes he hadn't. The white-haired man doesn't have normal eyes; his are nothing more than faintly glowing white voids surrounded by harsh black.
"What is what?" the young man asks, his voice calm. He sounds so faraway.
"I -- I -- the mirror --" the barkeep stammers, his hands gripping the edge of his bar for support.
The young man sets his pouches on the table and stands up easily, seeming to almost flow up to his feet. He looks over at the barkeep -- his eyes are glowing, a vivid and brilliant blue -- and grins broadly.
"What did you see in the mirror, hmm?" he asks softly. The barkeep hears a second voice, deeper and more menacing, speaking along with him.
The barkeep shivers. He isn't looking at a human being. He doesn't know what he is looking at, but it's not a human being. "Nothing. I -- I didn't see anything."
"Nothing at all?" The young man walks up to the bar and leans in close, those glowing eyes burning into his own. Is the young man trying to see into his soul?! That's the impression he gets.
"N-no!" he forces out. "I was just -- just tending to the bar!"
"You were, hmm? Is that all?"
"Yes, that's all! I was just tending to my bar, like I do every night!"
The young man laughs and pulls back. "Very well, then." That second voice is speaking with his again. "I will leave you to your work." He puts his pack and cloak back on and then, pausing only long enough to claim his sword and shield from the rack, he leaves.
The barkeep just stares at the swinging door, and then he turns and starts wiping his bar down with a trembling hand. Just tend to the bar, he thinks. Tend to the bar and don't think about what just happened...
It's winter now. The ever-present snow makes it a bit difficult to pick out the narrow trail as it winds through the forest, but he manages. After all, he remembers -- at least a bit -- where it is that he's going. The tavern in the woods is in rougher shape than it was two seasons ago.
Travelers do still occasionally stop by the tavern, say the people in the village. But no one from the village goes there. Now just as then, they're too worried about what is inside the tavern to go in. Before, it was murderers. Now, they say it is ghosts, restless spirits still hungry for vengeance.
He pauses at the door long enough to knock the worst of the snow off his boots, and then he goes inside. There are a couple of people here, sitting together at one end of the bar. He decides that tonight, he'll let his cloak hide his gear, walking past the weapons rack and up to the bar. As he walks, he notices the faint rust-brown tint to the wooden floor and the faint, barely-there scent of blood in the air; it's faint enough that normal people probably don't notice it.
The barkeep doesn't notice him at first, seemingly distracted by something in an empty corner. He finally manages to get the barkeep's attention, and the older man turns towards him.
"Sorry 'bout that; it gets hectic in here sometimes. What can I get for you?"
"Your strongest drink."
The barkeep nods and, after a moment, sets a mug down on the counter, watching as he takes a long drink.
"You a traveler, son?"
"You could say that," he says, meeting the barkeep's gaze and smiling.
"So, are you here on business, or are you just passing through?"
"Just passing through. Are the roads north of here still passable?"
The barkeep wipes down his bar, shooting glances here and there across the empty tavern as he does. "They should be; haven't heard anything about them being blocked. You'll probably be fine once you get out of the woods, and the woods themselves shouldn't be too bad."
He nods and takes another long drink, looking around at the mostly-empty room and watching the barkeep act like he's serving a crowd.
Tending his bar, even now.
"The village hasn't had any complaints of thieves or murderers," he murmurs, reaching into his pouch and pulling out more than enough to cover the drink. He would hope not, not after what happened here several months prior. He tosses several rupees onto the bar and stands up, finishing his drink and setting the mug on the counter.
Leaving so soon?
"I'm not tired yet."
There's a chuckle deep in his mind. Very well, then.
"Leaving already?" the barkeep calls out.
He stops near the door, turning around and looking at the man standing alone at his bar before forcing a smile. "I just wanted to know about the road, is all. I should be going."
"Safe journey, traveler!"
He nods and walks outside, leaving the barkeep to his ghosts. The lonely man is more than enough of a warning to anyone who might dare move into these woods. The thieves are gone; he's certain of that now. So he has no reason to linger here any longer.
"We pushed too hard," he says softly. "I only wanted to scare him, not break him."
You of all people should know that different minds react in different ways. He sought out that which brings him comfort, and he trapped himself in a prison of his own making. Given the nature of those he served, it was only a matter of time before this happened.
The snow crunches beneath his well-worn boots as he walks. He still wonders what he could've done differently.
You could have killed him.
"His death serves nothing. I had no quarrel with him."
The only answer is a laugh echoing through his mind.
He just keeps walking. He doesn't know where he's going, but he'll find a town sooner or later. He always does. There's always evil to destroy.
And so he travels onward with his own ghost beside him.