The City of Fire: Chapter Forty-Two
RIGHT from the start she knew that she had made a serious error of judgement where Kurgh was concerned. He was fast and agile to a degree that one would never have suspected, given the immense muscular bulk of the Moblin. Zelda dived between his legs to dodge the first blow, but he recovered with surprising speed--almost as if he were familiar with the trick. She was forced to leap backwards as the Moblin swung his battleaxe around towards her, and even so the sharp edge came close enough to slice a few threads loose from the front of her rough jerkin.
A new sound rose over the screaming of the watchers; a frantic drumbeat. The heavy rolling sound gave the arena the air of a ritual sacrifice. Youngsters squealed and leaped into the air, slapping their big hands together in time with the drums. The sound seemed to goad Kurgh. He raised the battleaxe high above his head and roared.
She spun the Sheikah spear through her hands and held it with the tip pointing towards him. At another time, Zelda would have wanted to examine the beautifully made weapon with its haft covered in the abstract symbols that were the hallmark of the Sheikah. The blade was of some blue-gray metal, smooth as water to the touch and sharp enough to split a hair; a single barb protruded backwards from the base of it. She had no time now to take in the niceties of the spear's construction, for Kurgh came thundering towards her.
The axe whistled down again, but Zelda sidestepped and leaped away. Angry now, Kurgh turned the axe and struck out with the metal-capped butt. She had not been prepared for a backhand blow and the butt struck her hard in the ribs, knocking her over. She swallowed a scream of pain and staggered to her feet again, clutching the spear.
"That the best you can do?" she asked, looking up at Kurgh through her grimy tangled locks of hair. In response, the Moblin just swung again, and Zelda flung herself back.
Dark Link would be able to do this, she thought to herself, remembering the way the shadow had always moved. He seemed to be nothing but air, almost, his movements were so graceful. As if he were dancing. She visualized Dark fighting and tried to emulate his smooth, calm, almost languid movements. As the axe came whistling back round, Zelda dodged underneath the blow and continued her upward movement by slashing out with the spear. Its sharp tip pierced Kurgh's thigh. Blood, dark red and gleaming, flowed out of the wound.
Kurgh did not yell in pain, though he grunted as he felt the injury. Zelda leaped away swiftly before he could retaliate. She had only nicked him, and she knew that he would not be particularly disabled by the small wound. Still, the distraction might slow him up, and that was all she could ask for. She took a deep breath, thinking of Dark, and murmured a swift prayer to Din, Goddess of Power. Din was Dark's deity, the Goddess sacred to all creatures of night.
Her hair slipped into her eyes again and, irritated, she threw it back. It returned at once to obscure her vision as if it were a living thing. She became distracted and pawed at her face, trying to get rid of the rats-tails that blocked her line of sight. Only the tell-tale whistle saved her; she dived and rolled, and the axe thudded deep into the ground only a few inches from her head. From the scream of noise that went up from the spectators, she realized that something had happened, but until she stumbled to her feet, she had no idea what.
Kurgh yanked the axe free of the ground and shook it. Threads of gold spiraled down to the ground. With a sudden start, Zelda lifted her hand to her hair. The right side had been trimmed raggedly to the length of her shoulders--she'd been lucky not to lose the tip of her ear.
Her hair was longer than Sofia's, and she usually wore hers tied. Long hair, she realised now, was actually dangerous in battle. Zelda thought for a moment. Her father would not approve--but her life depended on being able to see clearly, and to concentrate. Keeping an eye on Kurgh and backing away from him as he advanced, she reached for her hair and gathered it into a bunch. She was conscious of Link's eyes upon her, but if he said anything she would not have heard it over the drums and the shouting. With one swift slice, she brought the spear's blade up through her hair, cutting it all off. She threw the handful of gold to the ground in front of her; next moment, Kurgh's big foot came down on it and crushed it into the dirt.
The Moblin looked at her and grinned, baring his teeth. He knew why she had done it. "Tha wants t' yield yet, child-woman?" the ogre asked.
"I thought this was a fight to the death," she said, still breathing heavily.
Kurgh's grin widened. "Ay," he said, and pointed to her friends. "They die. But I keep tha, 'member? Give in, child-woman, and Kurgh spares tha."
This she had not expected. "You'll let me live?" she asked disbelievingly. Kill the others, yes--but why would he want to spare me?
Kurgh merely kept looking at her with that evil grin, and suddenly she realized. Yes, he would keep her alive... because he wanted her. It took her a few moments to realize exactly what was meant by that. Kurgh, the Moblin, wanted her. She could barely imagine the horror of the fate which awaited her were she to lose the battle. Sweet Farore!
Carefully, trying not to let her voice shake, she said, "I will die before I give myself into your hands."
His only response was a grunt as he lifted his axe again. She dodged, calling on her memories of Dark to protect and guide her in the hopeless fight. If anyone could win this battle, it would be the shadow of the Hero of Time. And Zelda now had a far stronger incentive not to lose. She had heard the soldiers telling black tales of Hylian maidens carted off by Moblins.
Kurgh swung again, and Zelda dodged, then lashed out with the spear. It came down hard on the Moblin's wrist, but her blade struck a spark from the ruby medallion, and the Amulet turned the blow. Suddenly the Princess wondered whether the Amulet had given the Moblin some kind of power over and above that which was naturally his. She shivered in fear at the thought--if that was so, then there was no way she could win.
Behind the rope, Link and Sofia looked at each other. Neither spoke of the most likely outcome of the battle; the fear was in both pairs of eyes and there was no need for speech between them; they understood. Link sighed deeply and dropped his head, his hair falling into his eyes. There was nothing he could do to help the princess, and he knew it--and it was agony to him.
Sofia glanced at the Moblins nearest them. They screamed and cavorted with savage glee as Kurgh turned ponderously towards Zelda yet again. So far the princess had stayed out of range, and had dodged the axe-thrusts--but only barely. Every time Kurgh swung and missed, a groan went up. The sheer bloodlust in the air made everything seem to hum.
Nobody was looking at them. Sofia let out a long breath, calming herself, and eased her fingers slightly. Her right hand--her good hand--had been clenched into a fist so as not to drop the stone. Blood now stained the ropes beneath that hand; she had gripped the flake of flint too tightly, but had been afraid to loosen her grip even slightly in case the Moblins noticed what she had. Nobody had searched them after their scuffle with Zelda on the ground; she had slipped the stone into her fingers before the beasts tied her up. She glanced at Link hanging motionless in his bonds, then slowly fumbled the stone around in her hand so that the cutting edge was toward the rope. Her fingers were slippery with sweat and blood and she thought that she would drop the stone as she began to press.
"My lady!" Maximus said urgently. "Please, be careful!" A moment later he regretted what he had said; Sepultura turned to look at him with an odd, irritated expression on her face, and he felt embarrassed. But she did not walk straight out into the firelit cavern, as she had been about to do, and Maximus's discomfiture was tinged with a feeling of relief.
The drums thundered their song from within the cavern. From where they were standing, they could only just make out the whooping, screaming forms leaping in the center of the cavern, lit eerily by the flaming beacons that surrounded the Moblin camp.
Maximus knew that Sepultura believed she commanded all the monsters of the underground city, but the Stalfos was not so sure of that. He himself was many hundreds of years old--and he knew monsters. When he had been alive, during the Imprisoning War, the old general had been a powerful warrior who had risen high in the ranks of Ganon's dark army. He recognized the signs of frenzy in the Moblins and knew that even Sepultura could be in serious danger if she forced her way into the ritual battle. The death-fight was a release of uncontrollable tensions for the ogres, an expression of their natural urges to kill, maim and tear that were kept stifled by the Lizalfos who made them dig for a living.
His hand slipped down to touch the hilt of his sword. His allegiance was to Ganon, Maximus reminded himself--he owed everything to his dark master--but even so, it was Sepultura with whom he was concerned. He would suffer no harm to come unto her.
"We must wait," he said. "Let them finish. If we force our way in now, the beasts will be surly and difficult to manage--and the outcome will be the same anyway, in the end." The sorceress nodded her agreement.
Oozou stared out of the darkness at the screaming, yowling Moblins, and despised them. Stupid creatures, he thought, nothing more than animals. Cold black hate blossomed in the Lizalfos's heart.
Zelda was tiring now and she knew that something new was needed. She panted heavily, clutching the spear tightly in her right hand, and watched Kurgh. The Moblin was angry--he had expected to have been able to finish her before now. He lunged again but she saw the attack coming and dodged lightly out of his way. He turned faster than she had expected and she ducked, but the edge of the axe caught her upraised forearm.
She had never been hurt before in armed combat. A lightning-flash of pain seared through her; she nearly dropped the spear in shock. The axe had not hit her with any real force, but the sharp blade of the weapon had sliced through the skin, cutting a long gash across the back of her arm. She leaped back and ran from him, her head buzzing with pain. Kurgh followed, his steps shaking the ground. He was being careful now, measuring each blow before he threw it, and he was getting closer to her with each swipe as he slowly got the measure of his enemy. Bitterly she reprimanded herself for getting into the fight in the first place--it was becoming apparent to her now that she could not win. Kurgh was highly intelligent and adaptable; he was able to think ahead and plan strategically; and more than that he simply had more skill than she. She turned round, stumbling slightly; her lungs heaved for air.
"Yield!" Kurgh ordered, raising his axe again.
"Zelda!" Link shouted. There was a desperate plea in his voice. She steadfastly refused to look at him, knowing that if she did she would see the pain in his eyes. The princess reminded herself of what lay ahead if she lost; it strengthened her resolve and brought a last little bit of strength to her weakened body. She was faster than the Moblin: she could beat him still.
The axe swung out--too fast! A blistering sheet of metal! She had misjudged him all along--he had been playing with her!
The flat of the weapon slammed into her chest and threw her across the arena. She landed heavily on the rope and was thrown back into the ring by a brutal shove from behind. The screaming reached a new pitch. Zelda rolled over and tried to get up, but the pain was too great. She wondered how many ribs Kurgh had broken.
He was standing over her, suddenly, and then there was another agonizing impact as he kicked her. The Moblin's bare thick-nailed foot lifted her right up into the air; she fell again, rolled over onto her back and sobbed, trying to get air into her chest. A gigantic bulk blotted out the firelight; the screams echoed in her ears as if she were underwater; and from her prone position she saw the shadow of the axe fall across her body as Kurgh raised it high into the air. He roared in victory.
Dark Link, she whispered in her head, help me. Only you could do this now. Help me, Dark Link. Please, if you have grown to trust me at all, if you ever truly cared, lend me your skill and strength this one time.
Hylians were telepathic, and Zelda was strong in her sense. It was the last thing she could think of to save her life and that of her friends--a mute, silent appeal to the shadow, wherever he might be.
Kurgh's giant muscles bunched as he brought the axe screaming down towards the neck of the fallen princess. His lips drew back from his canine teeth in a vicious snarl.
The Moblin leader felt the jarring impact travel up his arm and into his shoulder, stinging the muscles. His axe hovered just above the princess, its blade blocked by the slender shaft of the Sheikah spear. She held the spear in both hands, forcing the axe away from her. Her bright blue eyes were cold and empty of emotion as she looked up into his face. Kurgh's jaw dropped open.
Zelda twisted the spear, diverting the axe's blade so that it thudded into the ground beside her. Kurgh stumbled, off-balance, and the princess rolled and got to her feet.
"What's going on?" Sofia screamed to Link over the riotous noise. "How did she stop the axe?"
"I don't know!" he yelled back. "It would have broken both my arms if I'd met a blow like that head on!"
"Zelda!" the red-haired woman shouted. "Zelda!" But the princess didn't even look her way.
Zelda lifted the spear again as Kurgh turned towards her. At last she could see puzzlement in the Moblin's eyes, and fear, and dawning anger. His brazen confidence was gone. She had shown him up in front of his entire tribe--a mere Hylian girl had blocked his most powerful blow. There was a baffled tone to the yells from the spectators, although they still supported him. But he had heard the wave of raucous laughter that went up at his failure.
Kurgh charged her, roaring in fury.
In truth, Zelda herself was unsure as to what had happened between the axe's rise and fall. But now, she felt it with her conscious mind. A gentle pressure on her right hand raised the spear; a gentle breath at her waist made her bend like a sapling in the wind. She slid around the axe, feeling the rush of air as the blade passed her face, and then struck out with the spear. It bit deep into Kurgh's upper arm and slid out again, gleaming crimson. Gracefully she danced back two steps as he roared in pain and stumbled round towards her.
Link blinked several times, trying to clear his vision. The sweat was running into his eyes; his matted hair was dangling in his face; but even so, it was not quite enough to explain what he had seen. For a moment, instead of Zelda, he had seen the shadow in the ring--literally, glowing red eyes and all. He shook his head violently. It had to be the heat...
Zelda watched the axe come again. It seemed to come in slow motion; Kurgh's movements betrayed his decisions before he had made them. She stepped to one side and struck again; the spear sliced a line of red across his stomach, parting the gray-brown skin. He bellowed and lifted his free hand to clutch at the wound. She spun away like a breath of air, and struck.
The spear bit deep into the back of the Moblin's knee, hamstringing him. His left leg buckled under him and he fell heavily, dropping the axe. Now her face and his were at the same height. She had brought the ogre to his knees.
She stood not two paces away from Kurgh, looking directly into his eyes. There was a mute plea in the monster's expression as he stared at her, barely able to believe that he had lost the battle. The spear raised again. Something in Zelda rebelled at that and she tried to drop the weapon, but something else--something cold and foreign--held her hand steady. Her arm moved. The blade of the Sheikah weapon bit deep into the base of Kurgh's neck, embedding itself to the hilt. The barb sank in.
A gout of blood came from Kurgh's mouth and snout, spattering her face with warm sticky fluid. Still staring at her, he lifted his hand towards the spear--but it never got there. The ogre toppled backwards. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. Through an infinity of time he fell towards the ground.
The impact shook the stones underneath her feet. Kurgh's right arm was flung outwards by the fall; the Amulet hit a stone with a loud clink, and the delicate catch sprang open. The golden gem bounced and rolled across the uneven ground, coming to rest at the feet of Sofia just as the red-haired woman's frayed ropes gave way and she stumbled to the floor.
There was utter silence.
Zelda stood stock-still, looking at the body of the Moblin sprawled on its back on the rocky ground, knees bent clumsily beneath. She began to shake uncontrollably.
You killed him!
It was the first time her hand had struck a fatal blow. She felt nauseated. Kurgh's hot blood dripped down her cheeks.
He would have killed you.
Another sensation traveled through her then. She shuddered and opened her eyes wide.
Sofia bent and picked up the Amulet of Fire. The red gem flashed brightly in the hot light. All eyes were on her now. Deliberately the red-haired woman lifted the medallion and fastened it about her neck.
"Zelda!" Link shouted. It pulled the Princess out of whatever fugue she had entered. She yanked her spear free, ran across the arena and slipped under the rope. As the Moblins milled about in confusion, unsure what to do without the orders of their leader, Zelda slashed through Link's ropes; Sofia caught him as he almost fell.
"We have to go," Zelda said urgently.
"Of course, before they realize--"
"No, Link!" She stared at him, her eyes wide and terrified. "We have to go! We have to find Dark!"
"Dark?" he said, not understanding.
"Dark! He's dying!"
A female Moblin tore the ropes away and dashed to the side of Kurgh. She knelt beside the fallen leader and lifted her muzzle in a long, wailing ululation. It drew Sofia's attention; she turned towards the scene and saw beyond Kurgh's mate, just as the sorceress stepped into the cavern. Sepultura's staff was alight with a fell radiance.
They all saw her.
"Maximus!" Sepultura cried, her eyes suddenly alight. "Look--look! Do you see? Another! They have another!" Without waiting for his reply, she hurried forward; the huge Moblins lumbered away like startled bulls at her approach. The Stalfos muttered a curse and followed; he yanked the twisted Lizalfos along with him, his skeletal hand clamped around the tattered spikes on the back of its head. It sniveled and stumbled along beside him. He threw Oozou to the ground as he reached the sorceress in the center of the ring; he wanted to keep the thing in sight, but he didn't particularly like touching it.
The Moblins were confused; it had taken them this long to figure out that Kurgh was really dead. Some of the brighter ones had got it into their heads to look around for his killers, but the three fugitives were already halfway to the tunnel on the other side of the cavern.
Sepultura lifted her staff. Bloody lightning crackled around the dragon's head as the sorceress summoned the powers of Din. The three of them were an easy target in the open cavern; she could strike them down all three at once and take the second Amulet from their smoking corpses. The sorceress laughed with the delight of pure evil and took a couple of skipping steps forward, the better to fling her flame.
Her heel came down hard on the tip of Oozou's tail.
The sharp stab of pain was like a lightning bolt in the deformed lizardman's head. Every instance of cruelty Oozou had suffered in his tormented life, every thoughtless blow and uncaring cuff, every unkind joke and sneering jibe flashed through his brain. The core of hate in his heart burned white-hot with the damaged pride of his people. He whipped round and sank his teeth into the sorceress's free hand.
Sepultura screamed in pain. Her magical bolt went awry and struck the side of the cavern, high up and several hundred feet away from her intended targets. The impact shook the entire mountain.
Maximus didn't think--he merely heard his sorceress's scream and reacted with a rage he had not known he could still possess. His sword was out in an instant; he struck out with enough force that the blade sank an inch into the solid stone floor. The blow severed the latter half of the Lizalfos's tail which tumbled writhing to the ground; the wounded beast fled for another tunnel exit, shedding spatters of gore. Eye-flames blazing with fury, Maximus ran after it, but Sepultura screamed at him to come back. "No, you stupid fool!" the sorceress hissed in rage, cradling her hand which was oozing blood. Her robes were stained with drips of red. "Get the Amulet, before they escape! Swiftly!"
"What's going on?" Link yelled. "Why did she miss?"
"Don't count your Cukkos yet, Link!" Sofia shouted back. "Just keep running!"
They pelted into the tunnel as fast as they could go, Link half-dragging a sobbing Zelda behind him. Maximus was only thirty feet or so behind them, and he knew it. The Stalfos would not get tired as they would. They needed another trick.
They were running along an iron minecart track that led down a steep incline, and as they turned a sharp corner Link saw two abandoned carts that gave him an idea. "Sofia!" he shouted. "The carts!" She turned, saw what he had in mind, and nodded. They charged together.
Maximus came pounding round the corner and stopped dead, confronted by an empty expanse of tunnel. It took less than a second for him to see the cart rattling off into the distance, picking up speed swiftly on the slope, and after that he did not hesitate. He ran to the second cart, shoved it hard to get it moving down the incline, and then leaped in.
The rattling sound slowly faded.
Very cautiously Link poked his head up from behind the boulder. His green eyes gleamed with relief as he saw that there was nobody around. "He fell for it," he informed the others, who had secreted themselves in similar alcoves. "But he won't be too happy when he realizes he has been chasing a cartful of rocks--and there's a very angry sorceress back there, as well. I suggest we get out of here as fast as possible."
"We have to find Dark," Zelda said urgently. "Link, we have to find him now. He's dying!"
"How do you know?"
She took a long, shivering breath. "When I was fighting Kurgh--he helped me. He showed me how. He was the one who struck the finishing blow--I did not want to, but he made me. Nayru, he just... But Link, I felt him failing, losing consciousness. He was so weak--We have to hurry, or it will be too late!"
He wanted to object, to tell her that Dark had been far from that place when she fought her battle. She was distraught because she had killed her first sentient being--she was trying to deny to herself that she had caused Kurgh's death. But he took another look at her, remembered what he had thought he had seen, and bit down on his tongue. "Come," he said, offering her his good arm. "Quickly."
"But," Sofia said, "which way?"
"Sstha," said a hissing voice from a nearby access tunnel. Two baleful orange eyes gleamed at them in the dim light. Link fumbled for his sword and then remembered that he had none. But the creature made no move to attack.
"What do you want?" Sofia asked boldly.
The beast made a motion with its claw. Come.
"My lady," Maximus said softly, "I am so very sorry."
He had stood here for more than five minutes, in the doorway, waiting to be acknowledged, but Sepultura still refused to look at him. The sorceress sat on the edge of her bed, massaging her wounded hand. Her physician had done what she could but Oozou's bite was going to leave a scar. She cursed the filthy, despicable creature, and then cursed Maximus for having failed her. He had failed to protect her, and he had failed to recover the second Amulet. For now she knew--that there had been an Amulet in that cavern. The Amulet of Fire, the Fire Medallion: the thing they had been searching for all these months beneath Death Mountain--it had been right here all the time! And now they had it!
The sorceress looked for something to hurt, now, to relieve her absolute fury. Gaining the Forest Amulet meant nothing to her now, after Fire had been snatched from under her nose. Curse those children! There was something in what Maximus had said--they did have Farore's own luck! She clenched her wounded hand into a fist and suppressed a whimper of pain at the stinging sensation that it caused. A fresh rose of blood bloomed on the white bandage.
Maximus felt the agony of being excluded. Simply refusing to speak to him was doing more to hurt him than anything she could have said or done. He felt the full wash of her disappointment in him, knew the extent of her anger and reproach, all without her speaking a word. He could have begged, perhaps, or pleaded, but he would not do that. He respected the sorceress too much to demean her and himself in such a manner.
And so he waited. Standing silently in the doorway of her chamber, waiting for the woman to either ask him in or send him away. One way or the other, she would have to acknowledge him sometime.
"My lady," he said again, and left it at that.
The silence dragged on interminably. He would not be moved by it. She would speak to him.
"Go." Her voice was low and thick. "Your service to me is ended. I want you here no longer. Find Kleox and send him to me."
He said nothing. So, she was sending him away. She would try the despised Dinolfos; Maximus would be sent back to the long sleep in darkness. This was to be his final task for the sorceress--he had been relegated to the status of errand boy. Maximus felt a stab of pain in his chest that was none the less real for all his lack of a heart. He bowed stiffly, backed out and shut the door.
His mind was reeling with the realisation of what had just happened--but in truth, it was not so much of a surprise. He had known, the moment he leaped from the cart and found what he had been pursuing, what his fate would be. He had just hoped that somehow Sepultura would forgive him. He had been fool enough to think that there had been some sort of bond between them, or at least some sort of mutual respect. The sorceress saw him as a tool, nothing more; this was what he knew, but he had allowed himself to imagine that there had been more to it than that. Now he was suffering for his carelessness.
The undead felt no real pain, or so he had always believed. To be as he was was to be above and beyond emotions--to never become tired or hungry, to never need sleep or rest. He did not get angry as a living man would do, nor did he love. Yet, rejection from Sepultura hurt some deep core of his being that he had barely touched before. Maximus remembered the flash of rage that had run through him when he had seen the sorceress hurt by that filth of a Lizalfos--the emotion had been so raw, so powerful, that he had almost felt a living man again. Had he been a living man, he would have made Sepultura his.
He had never loved when he had been alive, he had never found a woman worthy of his love. In Sepultura he saw everything that he himself had yearned for--the beauty, the power, the determination to succeed. He could have ruled the world with her at his side. Maximus dropped his head and stared at his booted feet as they moved of their own accord. It was over now--long over. He was no man now. It was ironic in a way, that he had waited eight hundred years for a woman he could love, and at last had found her when it was far too late.
The Stalfos found himself walking down the corridor aimlessly, not knowing precisely where he was going. Kleox was off shift; he would be down in the lower levels, probably revelling with the rest of his scaly tribe. He ought to go and deliver the summons as Sepultura had asked, but somehow he felt disinclined to do so. He walked faster, knowing now that he was heading for the lower caverns once again--but not to pass on a message. Almost without realizing it, he had made up his mind as to what he was going to do. He would look for Link and the others and recover the Amulet himself. Let Sepultura sulk in her silken chamber if she wanted--Maximus would do his duty.
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