The City of Fire: Chapter Thirty-Six
TIME passed in the underground with little to mark it out; they waited for a while, asleep or awake variously. Whether they had been in the cell a couple of hours, a day, or even longer, they could not tell. Occasionally the Lizalfos passed by, apparently to check on them. Link started to become aware of a pressing need, but said nothing, and hoped that the empty water buckets had not been left in their cell for a reason.
Dark spent his time sitting or standing, gazing out with fierce blood-red eyes at the Lizalfos when they went past on their duties. None dared come within five feet of the cell while the shadow watched; indeed, there was something about Dark's mood that was reminiscent of a caged beast. He seemed ready almost to spring, the tension apparent in his taut muscles and deceptively easy posture. There was threat in the very way he stood so still.
At last, there came a quiet time. The Lizalfos had settled into a routine: one would come past about every ten minutes, moving in a predictable pattern; the lizard passed across their field of view from the left, waited a second to gaze into the cell and make sure that all was well, and then moved on. The monster set to guard their cell slept on, no longer bothering to affect any sort of attention. Without speaking, Dark took the dagger from where Zelda had concealed it in the straw, and went to the cell door. The others watched quietly. There was no need for discussion now; they knew what was going on.
The lock clicked open in moments, now that he had the measure of it. With his customary silent grace, Dark slipped through the gap and then refastened the lock, accepting Link's help in aligning the chain.
Link cast a quick glance at the guard, feeling professionally disgusted at the beast's inability to keep awake, and then whispered quietly, "Good luck. And--" He smiled then. "No heroics this time!"
Dark nodded and hesitated for a moment in order to find the right words. "This time, I shall not return until I have found a way out of the mines, or at least something worthy of note. I will try to be as quick as I may, but you should expect me to be held up. If I do not return in twelve watches" -he calculated that, if the lizards came past more or less every ten minutes, twelve watches would give him about two hours in which to complete the task- "you must look to your own." He hesitated, glancing doubtfully from one to the other.
"Go on," Zelda murmured. "We will be fine." Sofia agreed with a sharp nod.
He sighed, reluctant. "I... I do not like having to leave you caged."
Link reached through the bars for a second time, and laid his hand on the shadow's arm for a moment. "Just go," he said softly. "We don't have time for this. Come back as soon as you can--but go quickly, now! You are losing time every moment."
"Take the Goron's knife," Dark said, pressing the hilt into the young warrior's unwilling hand. "Give me the Lizalfos dagger instead--I can use it better than you." Zelda held out the crystal blade, and Link took it and handed it to the shadow. Silently, Dark slipped it through his belt, and turned to go.
"Well..." Link sighed when he had vanished. "It seems we're stuck here again." He rested his hand on the bars for a moment, stiff movements betraying his frustration. "I feel like a snared rabbit. Curse this hole--I want to fight, or get out of here! One or the other!"
"It seems we have no choice but to wait," Sofia said, leaning back against the damp stone wall.
"Well, I don't want to wait any longer." His hand went to the tightly laced collar of his shirt, where the Forest Amulet lay concealed. "I think we should have gone with him this time. We made a mistake splitting up. Sooner or later someone is going to come--and we can't hide it forever."
"Too late now," Zelda sighed. "Wait and see. He'll come back, Link."
"In time?" the Hero said grimly, turning away. There was no answer that could have been made.
Dark took the other way this time, heading upwards and towards the brighter tunnels. He moved at a fast trot, holding the Lizalfos dagger ready in his hand. With a vague idea of the overall layout of the network, he was confident that he could find his way and avoid the monsters... if he was careful.
But something else was bothering him, something he could not quite pin down. There was something different about the atmosphere in the tunnels... they were too quiet. He paused for a moment, and then pressed himself into the shadow of the tunnel walls, waiting and listening. Nothing. And yet... For a moment he was tempted to head back, but there was no other way that his companions would escape their prison. He had to go on; he was their only chance. Dark's fingers tightened around the hilt of the crystal dagger, and then with an effort he forced himself to hurry onwards, daring the light.
Soon the tunnels started sloping up at a steeper angle. He met several parties of monsters, but each time he was well prepared and concealed himself with care; this time, not a head turned in his direction. Which was good for the monsters, for this time Dark was ready to kill if discovered. He ducked into smaller side-tunnels when he heard footsteps, and waited for the creatures to pass by. Many times there were parties of well-armed monsters moving in a military fashion, in regimented lines behind a commander. It seemed that the creatures under the mountain were mobilizing... but for what? Had they unbeknown to themselves stumbled onto the advance of an army? Such a huge force could easily sweep down from the mountains onto the unprotected fair lands below. Dark scowled as he remembered how indefensible the castle and town had become in the years since he had last seen them. People even stole stones off the city walls to patch their houses! Hyrule had relied on the lineage of the Hero for far too long, he thought grimly, and now only the small castle guard stood between the crown and an invading army. It was not enough.
He paused for a moment, wiping his forehead with his sleeve; it was getting hot. Surprisingly so, in fact. Ahead, the light was brighter. Dark listened intently but heard nothing; after a moment more he ran lightly forward and exited the T-junction at the end of his tunnel. He found himself in a larger passage, its walls smoothed out with use; almost in front of him was the end of a mine cart track, two posts supporting thick iron buffers to catch the cart at the end of its journey. At the end, to his left and only a few hundred feet away, the circular exit was illuminated by a fiery glow. The heat came from here. With a quick glance back down the tunnel to make sure that he was not followed, Dark stepped out and began to walk towards the light.
It was only a short distance, but it seemed to take surprisingly long, and the heat grew fiercer with every step. By the time he reached the end of the passage, his ebony hair was plastered down with sweat and he was panting, wishing for the thin black tunic that had sufficed his needs for hundreds of years before. The clothes the Kakariko villagers had given him were hardy but far too warm. He staggered out of the end of the tunnel onto a little plateau of rock, and had to lean against the hot stone to recover for a moment. It was like walking into a furnace... the heat was searing, incredibly powerful. With an effort, Dark lifted his head and opened his eyes, suppressing a cough in his dry throat.
He was standing on a small platform of stone, suspended on a cliff face that stretched for thousands of yards. Above, the roof was lost in darkness that even the burning light could not penetrate, but he could make out the glittering of steel from the rails of mine cart tracks that stretched across the vast empty space. There was a shivering heat-haze in the air, blurring his sight and making his eyes water as he attempted to focus. The chamber was shaped something like a horseshoe, of which he stood at the apex; the abyss stretched away from him on both sides, curving into blurry distance. The light and heat came from molten rock down below... it was a sea of seething magma, bubbling and spitting like some giant witch's cauldron. Before him, the other side was only a hundred yards or so away, and he could clearly see the dark opening of another tunnel. Between that platform and his stretched a bridge, of sorts--a thin, fragile expanse of stone barely two handspans in width, and with no rails or ropes to steady one who wished to cross. Still it could be done.
Dark had had enough of the ferocious dry heat. He stumbled back into the cover of the tunnel, away from the inferno, and sank to his knees on the dusty floor. The bridge was certainly the way out, leading up as it did. Their real problem would be crossing it; the heat was truly tremendous. Only a scaly-skinned Lizalfos, bred for heat, could have withstood it for long--he remembered the conversation he had overheard. If you see Kazakh or any of the Lizalfos, send 'em to look in the Cauldron, because I'm not going below for love nor money. It must have referred to this place...
"Where is a Goron tunic when you need one?" he muttered sourly, glancing back towards the fiery opening. The bridge passed only a hundred feet above the sea of magma. One slip would be fatal. Feeling tired at the very prospect, he slipped the crystal dagger through his belt, then stood up and brushed back his hair, taking deep breaths in preparation for the ordeal. He would have to go with all his speed, if he were not to be overpowered by the heat.
Approaching rattles from behind told him that someone was using the mine carts, coming in his direction. Faced with the prospect of being caught between the magma and an enemy, Dark hesitated no longer; he ran out into the furnace-heat of the Cauldron, and up the swaying, shivering span of the bridge, ignoring its unsteadiness beneath his flying feet. A roar of heat forced its way up from below, so great that he could feel the flames licking around his feet as his very boots threatened to catch fire. He almost slipped then--but one final leap and he was rolling on the ground on the other side, the slender bridge behind him. Wishing only to get out of the heat, Dark stumbled to his feet and dived through the opening into the welcome cool and darkness of the upper tunnels.
It took him nearly five minutes to recover from the passage along the bridge of fire. He sat leaning against the wall, taking great ragged breaths, too drained of strength to even keep a watchful ear out for monsters. Luckily it seemed that the bridge and accompanying network were rarely used; rather, the monsters took the minecarts higher up; he could hear the occasional rattling whoosh as one passed far overhead. This was an early passage, then, or one that had been here since the beginning, and which the miners had simply appropriated to their own use. He got to his feet, dusting himself down, and then delicately scented the air. Ah.There was something here that had not been there before... very faintly he could feel a breeze, a lonely outdoors scent lost within the tunnel network. Sooner or later he would come across a way out, if he were determined. He started walking again, tracking that tiny puff of air.
For a long time he saw nothing of note. The corridors were roughly worked stone, bare and featureless, and a normal Hylian would have gotten hopelessly lost without Dark's razor-sharp senses. Indeed, once or twice he found himself confused, and had to turn back to get his bearings. Finally, after what seemed like miles of wandering, he realized that his surroundings had changed. His foot sank into something that was not stone, and when he looked down he found a dark wine-red carpet underfoot. It was so incongruous to find a carpet in the bare-rock tunnel network that he was shocked into re-examining his surroundings. He had not been paying enough attention. Somehow he had wandered into a part of the network that was different to everything else he had seen. The stone walls had been worked and smoothed out; instead of the baskets of luminous crystals, well-tended lanterns were set into niches here and there to provide light. Occasionally he came upon a door, dark oak with a golden ornamented latch. It was clear that this place was habited, assumably by whatever creatures were masters of the mining network...
Dark stopped suddenly, hearing voices up ahead. They came from behind one of the closed doors, this one taller and more ornate than the others. Silent as a ghost, he glided forward and pressed his ear against the wood.
There were two voices. One he seemed to recognize; it was the hollow tones of Maximus, or perhaps another of the Stalfos chieftains. The other was female, sultry and low, and a palpable sense of evil hung about every word. Dark frowned, realizing that this voice too was familiar...
"...suggested I bring the matter to your attention, my lady, and for once I believe that the wretch was correct."
"Perhaps..." the woman answered, and the lazy cruelty in her voice intrigued Dark. "You say the resemblance is striking?"
"Truly, it is as if he were made in his image. I did not guess until recently that there might have been something in it--after all, such things do happen in families--but with these new developments..."
"Well, I must see this young man for myself... I will give it some thought. Yet might I remind you of our place and purpose here, Maximus. We toil here for a good reason. We must find it before they do--they already have a head start and the first of them."
"Begging your pardon, my lady," came the gruff response, "but are you sure that it is here? We have delved deep enough to touch the Underworld already."
"I know it is here," she hissed, and said no more. There was a silence for a few breaths. Dark waited, and then his curiosity got the better of him, and he bent to set his eye to the keyhole.
The room laid itself out before him. It was large, and sumptuous. The same patterned red-and-gold carpet covered the floor, and the rocky chamber walls could not be seen behind swathes of red and purple velvet. His view was restricted, but he could see part of a gold chair, its crimson upholstery unoccupied, and a delicate silver table. Upon the table lay a familiar item: Link's serpentine dagger. As he watched, one of the room's occupants came into view; his suspicions were confirmed, for it was a Stalfos, though he could only see it from the chest down. The other... He shifted a little, trying to get a better view through his limited peephole, but saw only part of a long gown in deep cobalt blue, and a gilded girdle.
"Well?" the woman asked dangerously. "Why do you linger here?"
"I have something else to report, my lady." In Dark's limited range of view, the Stalfos stepped forward once to give his words greater emphasis. "About the ones who oppose us. You may or may not wish to hear it," he added, slyly offhand. Idly he walked to the table and picked up the serpentine dagger, tossing it lightly in his skeletal hand.
The gown swayed, slave to some movement of its wearer that escaped his sight. "Do not play games," the woman said coldly. "You shall tell me everything, now."
"Very well." He sensed that the Stalfos was maliciously pleased by the reaction he had elicited. "The prisoners our scaly friend Kreet brought home, my lady. They are, shall we say, friends of ours. Do you recognise this rather pretty little knife? There is a boy with the features of the Hero's line, and a blonde-haired Hylian girl. There is also a Gerudo, and the fourth..." A hollow chuckle then. "The fourth, my lady, is one I never thought to see again, especially in such company."
"Dark Link..." she breathed. "Yes... I know. It is a strange path he has chosen of late, and I do not pretend to understand it. Still, I have faith that he will not follow them forever. Blood calls to blood, Maximus, and creatures of darkness do not willingly walk in the light." Her tone changed then, becoming more eager. "This is news indeed! Where are they? Did you capture all four?"
Another hollow chuckle came from Maximus. "Aye, my lady, we did. Kreet came upon them unawares and they were taken like babes."
"Where are they now?" Insistent.
There was a pause then. "I sent them with Kreet and his cronies," Maximus said reluctantly. "He has taken care of all the other captives; I saw no reason to treat these any differently."
"I see." The woman's tone was deceptively gentle; in the next breath it hardened like the crack of a whip. "And what of the reports I have been hearing, Max? Shadows in the tunnels, that move independently of the light?"
The Stalfos was silent.
"Idiot! You know what we are dealing with! Where is he now--or do you not even know that?"
"I have set things in motion," came the gravelly reply. "There is a watch in the lower tunnels... We will catch him soon enough. If indeed it is he, and not some impressionable lizard jumping at shadows--the guards report that nobody has left the cell. We will see. At any rate, there is nothing to fear from the others. They are but children compared to us, children with weapons they do not know how to use."
"Three of them are children, perhaps, but one is older than you or I!" the woman hissed. "You were a fool to think that cold iron bars would hold him. I will go there myself once we have taken care of our other business, and let us hope that the lizards have not shirked their duty. But now, quickly, tell me of the search..."
Dark had heard enough. He pulled away and ran quickly down the empty corridor, his mind full of what he had heard. So it was her! After all this time! And she searched the mountain for... what? If she truly were the enemy they had sought, she was after the second Amulet--the Amulet of Fire. The Fire Medallion. Was it here?
But that voice... so many times had he heard it in his dark dreams. He knew the woman, knew her well. Three hundred years ago, the last time he had set foot in Hyrule, he had allied himself with that woman in the service of his ancient Master. Slowly, through the clouded fog that cloaked his inmost self, came a memory long-forgotten... his first meeting with the sorceress, Sepultura.
In the depths of the Underworld there is a great abandoned hall. In this place the blackness is so total that there might never have been such a thing as light. It is deathly cold. The chill scents of stone and stagnant underground water hang heavy in the still and silent air.
Far distant at first, then growing louder, the sound of light footsteps echoes in the cavernous space. It is followed by a sensation, almost forgotten... Something strange is happening. Distant pillars gleam faintly, new revealed after many centuries cloaked in shadow. The footsteps approach, then stop. An upheld lantern's light pools on the tiled floor where foul designs still gleam faintly beneath the cloaking dust.
She holds the lantern forward so that its golden glow falls on the dark huddled shape before the throne.
That pain... it is... light... I... remember...
"Get up! What are you waiting for?"
Dragging me back...
"Leave me be..." A cracked whisper is all he can muster. But he cannot slip back into death's sleep so easily: swirls of fine dust scatter away as he raises his head, eyes opening slowly, blood-red. He sees: white against the darkness. He has forgotten how to use his eyes. It takes several seconds for the shapes to coalesce into the face of a woman, young, barely more than a girl, her deathly pale face framed by long coils of inky black hair. In her shadowed eyes the tell-tale crimson of the Sheikah race blazes out like a flame.
"Get up!" She sets the lantern down on the arm of the throne, then tosses something else to the floor: a clatter of metal on stone makes him flinch. The thing glitters brightly against the darkness, reflecting the lantern's light. Weakly, muscles screaming with the agony of long inactivity, he reaches out and closes his dusty fingers around the hilt of a knife. The touch of something familiar--a weapon in his hand--restores him.
The woman pushes the hood of her cloak down onto her shoulders, then flicks back the twists of shadowy hair. A single white lock gleams faintly. She watches in silence, making no offer of help, as painfully he hauls himself to his feet, clutching for support at the cold black stone of Ganon's seat.
"I have spent many years searching for you." The woman's eyes are fever-bright now, hot with triumph. And the accents of her voice are strange--not foreign--but new, oddly changed. "So at last I find you here... at your Master's feet. That is as it should be. But you have wasted enough time now. Get up and come with me."
He watches her warily. A Sheikah? Here? Now? "What dostow want from me?" His voice is rough from long disuse.
"It is your Master, not I, who is in need of your services. Time may not exist under stone, but the world above has not ceased to turn. A child of destiny is soon to be born, or has been born already--we must make haste!" She takes up the lantern and steps back as if to go.
Still he hangs back--renewed now, and warm with shadow's power, but yet reluctant to leave the place where he has waited half a millennium. Black oblivion calls him: to sleep until the end of time. If only he could. "Who artow?" he asks softly.
Her eyes flicker for a moment as she looks him up and down. "My name is Sepultura. Do you think I am a spy sent to trick you? We serve the same Master, you and I. He sleeps still, but it will not be long before he begins to awaken--and in that time we have a job to do. In the world above there is a family of ancient lineage. The long peace has softened them; they are unguarded and unprepared. If we strike now, we may have them all!"
He glances down at the long Sheikah knife in his hand. It would be... good... to hunt and fight again.
The sorceress waits. Dark Link brushes himself down, shakes the silver dust from his black hair. In the corners of the ancient throne room, shadows stir... and a smile creeps across the pale face to be mirrored on the dark.
"Yes... I will come with thee."
Dark shivered. The memory had been so clear! It was as if he had truly been back in that time, working for Ganon. He had near forgotten the heady power of those days, the dark fire that burned within him whenever he smote a blow for the Flame of Din. Blood called to blood indeed...
And she knows, or guesses, that I am free... I have wasted too much time.
Caught up in such thoughts, he barely paid attention to his surroundings until he once more saw the light of the fire ahead, and felt a swiftly growing warmth in the dry air. He was approaching the bridge and the Cauldron; he was coming back to the lower levels. He paused in the shadow of an overhang, forcing his mind back into the present, and then listened intently; there was no sound of pursuit, or, indeed, any sound at all aside from the deep distant hissing and bubbling of the magma. After a little while he stepped out again and walked forward quickly, passing into the fearsome heat for a second time. The bridge awaited.
It was not as bad the second time around; knowing that he had done it once made it easier. He ran across the span with as much speed as he could muster, having no wish to stay there any longer than was expressly needed. How Link and the others would manage it he had no idea. They would do it somehow, that was all. He had no time to worry about the logistics just yet--there were other more pressing concerns.
He skidded to a halt suddenly, rounding a corner and running smack into a party of Lizalfos. The torchlight hit him like a blow; he flung his arm up to protect his eyes. There was no chance of his not being seen or recognised this time: he had been fully visible, concentrating as he had been on his personal troubles. The monsters charged towards him, and Dark fled cursing himself for his inattention. One thing only remained: he had to keep ahead of them. He lowered his head and sprinted as fast as he could, throwing caution to the winds in order to gain a little distance on the lizards only a couple of yards behind. Here we go again, he thought wryly.
Without warning two more of the creatures jumped out in front of him, and he swerved, diving away from them and coming up on his feet from a forward roll. A side-passage beckoned; he took it swiftly, not even pausing to see where he was going. Behind him the sound of pounding feet was loud in his ears. Reptilian voices barked commands.
"Don't let him get away!"
"Hurry up, we'll lose him!"
"You and you--head him off at the junction!"
There was torchlight ahead, and the flickering shadows of more Lizalfos told him that he could not keep to his chosen tunnel. He took the first left, and then a right, choosing directions at random. He had to shake the pursuit, then he could stop and think over his next course of action. Still the monsters were fast--this was their world after all, and they knew it better than he--and he could not seem to increase the distance between them. It was difficult enough to maintain his lead. He was starting to tire.
The tunnel was now dark, very much so--it was hard to see anything other than the outlines of shapes. Behind him came the torches and the cries. Dark ran faster, noting that the corridor sloped downwards now. Was he heading back in the direction of the Underworld? He might be able to escape the pursuit down there, but it would be a struggle for survival to get out--he knew about the Underworld firsthand, had spent centuries there. Gibdos, Dead Hands, Floormasters, Like Likes... and worse, creatures that had no names and had never seen the sun's light. Dark had no desire to tangle with such things again. Everything down there was prey for something, even the predators.
Suddenly he had to halt, as two great fire-eyed shapes appeared out of the gloom before him. Stalfos! Dark skidded to a halt again, fumbling for his dagger, and then glanced back helplessly as the Lizalfos came pounding towards him. The game was up. Grimly he weighed the fragile crystal blade, knowing that it was a hopeless fight. The Stalfos advanced, their great swords held high; from the other direction, at least ten or twelve of the lizardmen were creeping forward with their daggers at the ready.
"This way..." said a small voice.
He stared left and right, seeing nothing. "Wh--what?"
"Come... quickly... this way..."
And then suddenly he did see it--a small space of deeper darkness, huddled by the tunnel wall. A deep shadow? Dark stared at it for a moment, and nearly dropped his dagger when he saw two glittering amber orbs appear there. They were like pupilless eyes, and they were fixed on him.
He became conscious then that there was similar darkness all around; the Lizalfos' torches were dimmed and guttering. The monsters had halted, watching him uneasily. Suddenly the darkness was filled with amber-golden eyes.
"Follow..." came the tiny, dusty voice. "We will stop them, Shadowmaster..."
"What did you call me?"
"Follow..." came the soft cry once again. The darkness closed in around him like a feathery cloak, shielding him from the sight of the monsters. Sightless but by no means blind, Dark fell back on his other senses and ducked sideways into the shadows, away from the monsters. Amber eyes gleamed at him from the darkness ahead, and he hesitantly walked towards them. He could hear the confused cries of the Lizalfos... and then something else, a high chittering noise like the sound of bats, repeated over and over. One of the Lizalfos cried out in pain then, and it signaled the start of an all-out attack. Soft squeaks made themselves heard over the screaming, persisting even when the sound of running footsteps had long since receded.
Then, without warning, all sound ceased. He remained perfectly still, sensing creatures close around him in the thick darkness. That soft musty scent...
His spirit sank as he thought of the others, waiting in that foul cell. There could be no mistake about it now: he had been seen, and recognised. He wanted to do nothing more than hurry back to his friends as fast as possible--but the shadowy things clustered thick now, blocking off the way whence he had come. There seemed to be no other choice. Slowly he walked forward into the blackness, navigating by the echo of his own footsteps and the faint stirrings of the air. All around him now were hissing, rustling noises and occasionally the high thin chitter he had heard before. Flanked by his strange unseen companions he passed down through the tunnel, heading ever deeper into a darkness he remembered well... the Underworld, the place which had never seen the light of day.
At last, in a chill cavern, they stopped. Dark blinked, seeing the glow of eyes again... there were many more of the amber orbs, surrounding him, and gazing up at him with... adoration? "What are you?" he whispered, kneeling down.
One of the things came up to him, slithering on the floor as if it were some strange kind of snake. He could see nothing save the loving eyes so tenderly fixed on his. Slowly he reached out, to where the eyes were. His fingers touched something not-quite-there, something that gave under pressure and felt like fur, or a strange mixture between solid and liquid. The thing moved under his touch, pressing itself against his fingers like a cat yearning to be stroked. All around him others sighed and rustled.
"We are Black Boes..." came the whispered reply. "We have been waiting for you for a long time..."
"Waiting for me?" Dark blinked. "Black Boes?" But in a moment, he did not have to ask. Of course... they were creatures like himself, in a way. They had been created out of the shadows themselves, were darkness animated and given life. He had never heard of such beasts as these, though, in all his long wanderings. Perhaps they were not creations of Ganon, but something else entire... who knew what lived and died in the deep places of the Underworld? "Why were you waiting for me?" he asked finally, frowning in the darkness.
"We have waited for a long time... we knew you would come. You are he... the Shadowmaster..."
"I don't understand," he said helplessly. "Why do you call me Shadowmaster?"
"You are the one who can endure the light," came the whispered reply. "You are the most powerful of all our kind... the Shadowmaster... It was foretold that you would come..."
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