Tonight was the night of the big masquerade ball.

For the occasion, Richard had put on his best suit and was adjusting his burgundy silk tie so it was on just right. He took a step back to admire his reflection. He completed his outfit with a black domino mask with rows of silver sequins embroidered under the eyes. The sequins dazzled in the pale light of the bathroom. Against the black mask, they looked like stars in a dark sky.

He walked out to his car. It was a cold, dark night, with ink-dark clouds blotting out the stars. He hummed a little tune under his breath as he climbed inside and turned the key in the ignition.

He drove down the empty road. The headlights were the only light on that stretch of lonely, neglected road. No sound but the rushing of wind past the vehicle. After a few minutes, the buildings and houses of his town disappeared behind him, giving way to long stretches of neglected and overgrown countryside where the asphalt was cracked and the long, gnarled branches of trees hung over the road. For miles on end, there was no trace of civilization. Eventually, he pulled up to a massive stone building, three stories high, surrounded by a battered iron gate. The windows glowed with life.

This was the place.

Richard strolled up the steps and knocked on the heavy oak door. The door swung open, revealing a tall, thin man in a perfectly tailored black tuxedo and wearing a white rabbit mask that completely covered his face. The bright white of the mask was accentuated by elegant gold patterns painted on it. Curiously, the mask seemed to be worn over some kind of white, tight-fitting cloth hood that ran down his neck and disappeared down the color of his suit.

"We've been expecting you," the man said in a warm voice. The man stepped aside and beckoned him in with a graceful movement of his gloved hand.

Richard stepped inside and was immediately hit with the sounds of lively music and chatter.

There was a silence.

All the other guests turned to look at him. They were all covered head to toe in costumes of the highest quality. All eyes were on him as he made his way to the center of the enormous room. He looked around admiring the craftsmanship of their costumes. Their eyes left him and they went back to what they were doing before he came in and the band resumed playing.

He made his way to the refreshments table. There was a maid in a sheep costume ladling rose-colored punch into shimmering glasses laid out in military rows on the edge of the table.

He took a plate and started taking things from the table. He chose a cut of sausage, a cube of cheese, a slice of fresh-baked wheat bread. The maid handed him a glass of punch, which he graciously accepted.

He admired the maid’s costume for a few seconds. The entire body except for the head, forearms and lower legs were covered in a thick, curly white fabric that looked very much like the wool of an actual sheep. The parts that weren’t were comprised of a dark brown fabric that was so tight-fitting that he didn’t see any wrinkles or creases in the fabric. Even the servants had perfect costumes.

He rejoined the crowd and took a drink from his glass. The punch had a very sweet taste, with a somewhat floral aftertaste. As he ate and mingled with the other guests, soothing warmness settled in his stomach. “What a party!” he thought to himself. He finished his glass and was heading to the table to refill his plate and glass.

Then his eyes caught a most fascinating sight.

On the other side of the room was a woman in an absolutely stunning parrot costume. The deep red fabric clung to her body. The wings of the costume were adorned with soft dark green and crimson feathers that looked remarkably authentic, like the plumage of an actual bird. His face was covered with an ornate scarlet mask carved in the shape of a parrot’s face, with a hood coated with feathers that were the same red color as the mask covering the back of her head and neck. The rich, vibrant colors of the bodysuit were contrasted by the dark gray tights covering her legs and feet.

Curiously, Richard couldn’t see any seams on the dark gray leggings. Neither did he see any wrinkles.

Richard set the plate and glass down and made his way to the woman. Her costume had so impressed him that he had to know who made it.

He rushed over to her. “Your costume is absolutely stunning!" he said, trying his best to sound sophisticated.

She let out a little flattered chuckle and replied: "Oh, thank you so much for noticing! I had it made a week ago just for this occasion! Her voice had a light, almost singsong tone to it.

Richard was quite impressed to see that the black beak of the mask moved with her mouth as she talked.

"May I ask who made it? They did a fantastic job!" he said to her.

“The same gentlemen who provided the costumes for the other guests! They’re very talented men; their family has been making costumes for generations!” she said.

“Can I get their names, if you don’t mind?” he said.

She kept talking, as if she didn’t hear his question. “See the feathers? They used real Macaw feathers as a reference! They look and feel so much like the real thing!”

She turned herself around so Richard could see the whole costume. The blue and yellow tail feathers swayed with her every motion.

“The men who made your costume, are they here at the party?” Richard persisted.

“I think they might… Isaac said they were going to attend.”

Just then she noticed a man wearing an identical costume to hers beckoning her to come over to him.

“Pardon me, dear.”

She walked over to the man in the parrot costume. They started to talk and laugh in a way that made Richard suspect they were husband and wife.

He moved through the crowd again, maybe he would have more luck with someone else.

He was surrounded by colorful masks and costumes. There were cats and foxes, dragons and owls, angels and ghosts.

“Enjoying yourself?” said a warm voice behind him.

He turned to see a man dressed in a suit that was entirely jet black. Jacket, shirt, tie, everything was made from black silk. It was such a deep black that it seemed to be crafted from darkness itself. The outfit clung to him in a way that gave his body a strange shape.

His chest and stomach were curiously small in comparison to his long, gangly limbs. His fingers in particular were very long and thin, and the back of his hands were covered in very thin black hairs.

He wore on his face an ebony and gold mask that covered his entire face above his mouth. Richard could not see the man’s eyes through the eyeholes of the mask, which were unusually small, so small that he could barely see them, as they were just as black as the rest of his costume.

That's a very nice mask," Richard said, trying not to stare too long into the gaping holes of darkness. "It is, isn't it?" the man said with such a coldness that unnerved Richard.

“It’s porcelain, made by a professional sculptor and hand-painted. They made a plaster cast of my face so it would make a perfect fit.”

“Would you mind if I asked you to take it off, for just a moment?” Richard said, sheepishly. Just then, Richard noticed a man in a white mask glancing at him. It was just for a second, the man had turned away just as Richard got a good look at him.

Just then a glare shone from somewhere in the crowd and he caught the stare of a man in a shining white domino mask.

Their eyes met for just a second before the man in the white mask turned away.

Richard turned back to the man in black.

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take it off for just a second,” the man said, his hands gripping the sides of the mask.

Richard wasn’t prepared for what he saw when the man’s mask came off.

The skin surrounding his eyes was darker than on the other parts of his body, like the mask of a raccoon, except it was more rectangular in shape. Among the edges of this patch of skin were surgical scars. The man's sunken eyes had a faint smoke color to them.

A sharp gasp escaped Richard’s lips accompanied by a slight jump. He immediately resented such a reaction and apologized to the man.

“I’m so sorry, sir,” he said, ashamed of himself.

“It’s alright, you couldn’t have possibly known,” the man said, pointing at the discolored skin around his eyes.

“I should explain this. I got this from an accident. I was in a car crash, my eyelids were badly burned. I needed surgery to fix my face, but the surgeon was… inexperienced… to say the least.”

“I’m so sorry,” Richard said again.

“Don’t be. You’re not the surgeon.”

An awkward moment of silence hung over the two before Richard once again saw that glare flash amongst the crowd. The man in the white mask was rushing through the crowd, towards the exit. Richard excused himself and pursued the stranger. Richard wanted to know what he was doing watching him like that.

He trailed behind the man, but the party-goers interfered with his path, acting as obstacles that only slowed him down, and the closer he got to the exit, the more hastily the stranger seemed to move.

He lost patience and tore through the crowd, thoughtless of the disturbances he was causing the guests, and dashed out the doors after the man who'd already disappeared out of them.

As he went on, he felt himself getting tired. His legs felt like the joints were going limp. An odd throbbing sensation pulsed in his head.

The guests around him turned into a massive blur of color as a strange sleepiness overpowered him. The band's music grew fainter. He started to lose strength in his hands. He staggered about, trying to keep standing. He felt as if the joints in his body had turned to water.

The light and sound grew fainter and fainter, the world around him becoming imperceptible. All his strength had deserted him. He was falling. His body felt like a limp rag doll as it began to collapse, everything around him whirling in a colorful, dizzying haze. Blackness greeted him once he met the floor.

His legs gave out. He saw a blur of light and color as he fell, and then there was blackness. Richard awoke to the glaring white glow of a surgical lamp, his temples throbbing with a massive headache. It was as if an axe had been driven into his head, and he felt cold metal on his back. He realized he was completely naked, and his mind spun into a panic as he struggled to sit up only to be stopped by metal restraints clasped over his wrists and ankles.

He turned his head to see a pair of white doors swing open as a team of big men in surgical scrubs stomped into the room.

One of the men sat down a large tray filled with sparkling surgical instruments. He let out a low whimper as one of the surgeons picked up a large syringe. The surgeon plunged it into a bottle of clear fluid and slowly drew back the plunger. His eyes followed the clear liquid as it was drawn into the syringe.

He yelped a bit as the surgeon dug the syringe into his neck. He could feel the sting of the steel needle, the fluid rushing into his veins.

The surgeon placed the syringe back on the tray and one of the other men handed him a large scalpel with a blade that shone like a mirror.

He closed his eyes and bared his teeth as the surgeon began to cut along the edge of his skin.

He tried so hard to scream, but he couldn't. Whatever was in that syringe didn't numb the pain, it just kept him still.

He spent what felt like an eternity feeling the scalpel trace a path around his body, the pain was indescribable. He tried again to scream but he again found that he could not even open his mouth.

"It'll be over soon," one of the surgeons whispered into his ear.

Richard then felt a surge of burning pain as the surgeons began to peel his skin away in long strips, exposing the raw, red, bleeding flesh underneath. The surgeon’s white gloves were stained a deep red.

As they worked, they piled the bleeding strips of skin on the cart. Blood was pooling under the pile.

He closed his eyes as tight as possible. This had to be a nightmare. He would wake up in bed and everything would be alright. This couldn’t be happening.

The pain grew worse and worse, he could feel the sting of cold air on his exposed flesh. He looked up to see his bare red flesh twitch and shudder under the cold and the pain.

One of the surgeons had left the room.

He lay there seething with agony. Every second felt like a decade, every minute felt like an eternity.

Then, the surgeon walked back into the room with a mask and what appeared to be a very large amount of cloth.

The surgeons crowded around him, measuring and sewing the gray and black striped fabric onto his quivering red flesh.

He felt the sting of the needle and thread going in and out, in and out. The pain wasn’t the worst part. No, the intolerable thing was that he could do nothing. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t scream or do anything to distract himself from the raw hell that he was going through. The surgeons took special care to make the cloth adhere closely to his body. When they were done, his body was completely covered save for his face in cloth so tight that it didn't even wrinkle. The cloth was his new skin. The pain started to subside a bit, Richard felt this bizarre sensation, as if the already tight cloth was pulling tighter and tighter and the bleeding seemed to stop entirely.

He watched as a one of the surgeons took a finely carved mask in the shape of a cat's face. It was the same gray as the fabric, with black stripes along the face and stiff whiskers jutting out from the cheeks.

The surgeon slowly placed the mask over his face.

He then saw one of the surgeons pick up a long tool that looked like an electric drill and several screws.

The next few minutes was an ungodly blur of the roaring of the drill's motor and white-out pain screaming through his nerves as holes were bored in his skull, followed by even greater pain as the mask was screwed into place.

It was too much. The shrieking chorus of his nerves and the drilling and the sight of his flesh piled onto a silver tray sopping with blood overwhelmed his mind.

He blacked out. In the back of his mind, he welcomed the blackness, the relief from the nightmare.

The next moments were unclear in his mind, like faded pictures depicting sweet memories. He remembered being released from his restraints then helped upon his feet in front of the mirror...

He was overwhelmed with great shock and happiness at the sight of his new appearance.

The gray fabric was a perfect betterment of his old skin and black stripes accentuated his slender physique. He looked sleek, strong, and athletic. The mask was a perfect fit. It was as if the mask substituted his old face. He slowly caressed the sleek features of his mask in admiration.

The man in the glinting white domino mask appeared in the mirror, looking over Richard's shoulder. "Do you like your costume?"

"I love it," he said.

Credited to MMand and HiddenSpirit 

Content is available under CC-BY-SA