Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 76
THERE was a tint in the air, an oddly cloying scent: smoke, wine, old spices and an undercurrent of other stranger things. Though there were no windows it was not dark, for a great gold chandelier, glittering with a hundred pale gems, hung low over the center of the room.
It was a peculiar room, with a unique character. Symmetrical and octagonal in shape, it measured some eight paces from one side to the other, and each of those steps would be cushioned by a carpet of rich crimson, worked with an intricate pattern of gold thread. Gold, indeed, was all about this room. It glittered on the brilliantly colored wall hangings; it framed the great triptych mirror that rested upon a desk of dark oiled wood; and in arcs and curlicues of surpassing delicacy it ornamented the great high-backed chair that stood before it.
Most of the room was spotlessly tidy; the desk alone showed signs of constant use. Its surface was stained, scored and cluttered with a panoply of pots, bottles, brushes, powder-puffs and other items of cosmetic use. Many of the pots of pigment stood open, their glittering enameled lids tossed carelessly aside; some had been upset, and the contents spilled over desk and floor alike. An old bottle of scent lay broken in several pieces on the floor; its contents, now no more than a dark stain dried into the carpet, might have been the source of that exotic odor hanging in the air. There was a tropical, hothouse feel to the atmosphere, a humidity that was thick and not entirely pleasant.
From the tall chair an arm stretched out lazily, reaching for a fine brush that lay clean and ready on the desk. Reflected in the mirror's silvered surface the trailing sleeve gleamed iridescent green and turquoise: a silk of surpassing richness.
The brush rose, dipped into a pot, and was swirled with absent-minded elegance. The hand that held it was very pale, strong and delicately formed, with long nails manicured and painted a brilliant red. Every finger bore a ring.
A tone of thoughtful, abstracted pleasure. The back of the great chair cast a shadow on the mirror so that the seated individual could be seen but dimly. But if one had been watching who was sharp-sighted and observant, the faint movement might have been made out in the glittering surface, as of painted lips curving in a slow, secretive smile.
Suddenly breaking the thick stillness: a soft knock.
A sigh. And the brush, trailing dust of lapis lazuli, was tossed down with a clatter into the confusion of powders and bottles strewn over the desk.
The door was behind the chair, across the width of the chamber, and as it swung open a cooler breeze brought chilly freshness into the hot and stifling room. A figure--a thing of absolute blackness, in shape perhaps akin to one hooded and cowled, glided soundlessly through and knelt, or seemed to kneel, upon the thickly carpeted floor, facing the tall chair-back. It waited.
The long white hand made a sleepy, languid gesture. The seated one spoke: a male voice, a baritone, warm and husky, with the rich headiness of honeyed liquor. "What is it, Gomez?"
The dark figure bowed something like a head, and spoke, in a rattling hiss like dried leaves, or the wings of many small things rustling and buzzing together.
"A trezzpasser, my lord. Taken in the outer court."
"Dead, I presume." The voice sounded bored; the hand stretched out again, toyed with an ornate blue-glass bottle, its stopper shaped like a hummingbird in flight.
The black thing's shape shifted a little. "No, my lord. Alive." There was a tone of apology, almost, in the rattling voice--as if the servant regretted having to contradict the master.
"Oh?" And now there was amusement in the warm honey voice. "How novel." A pause, then an abrupt shift in tone, to a disinterested malice--swipe of a cat's paw with the claws extended. "Feed it to Gohma."
"My lord, I thought you might wish to speak with thizz one..." The creature's form flickered again; rather than moving limbs it seemed to flow directly from one shape to another. Now, it flowed upright, and held out in cupped... hands... something that glittered like gold in the candlelight. "She had this..."
An instant's stillness--then the seated one rose in one smooth movement, peacock-bright silk swirling, and stepped out into the light.
The casual observer would be struck first by the clothes, for they were astonishing. A cloak of rich black velvety fur was arranged partly open to reveal a brilliant turquoise tunic stiffly embroidered with rainbow-brilliant designs of dragons and serpents. A great belt of golden rings held the richly colored fabric tight at the waist. Below it there were tight figure-hugging velvet trousers of a darker fabric, again embroidered, and black patent leather knee-boots polished to a brilliant shine. The clothes had been cut to show off a slender boy's figure to best effect. As the candle-flames danced above, their yellow light sparked off heavy gold earrings set with many-colored gems.
It was difficult at first to see past all the finery and make out something of the individual behind it. The man's skin was as pale and pure as alabaster, his face delicate-featured as a boy's, and framed by cascades of curls in--surely not--the tint of the light admittedly altered things a little, but those gleaming ringlets looked to be a brilliantly dyed shade of violet. His large, almond-shaped eyes were ringed by dark lashes that seemed too long to belong to a man, and when he turned with a swirl of his cloak and brilliant white-toothed smile, they gleamed the bright jewel-red of the Sheikah.
In three swift gliding steps he crossed the room and plucked from the other's grasp the shining thing. He held it up, and the golden ring spun slowly on its chain, bright flares of candlelight dancing over its intricately carved surface. It seemed to be intended for a pendant or medallion, but it bore no stone within the setting.
"How fascinating... I haven't seen one of these in years..." The crimson gaze lingered thoughtfully, then his brightly painted lips quirked again. He turned his head, glancing towards the servant through the hanging coils of his bizarrely colored hair. "A woman, did you say?"
"A Sheikah, my lord." The rattling voice died away like a wind on bare branches, in a receding hiss.
"Ah-h..." The cool smile widened. "And now I think I know our visitor, at least by hearsay. Do you recall Agd, Gomez? Had she not a daughter?"
"I... recall something of the kind, my lord."
He dangled the jewel for a moment longer, admiring the shine of it, then gave a light laugh, and palmed it with magician's skill.
"Gomez--my staff, if you please. I believe I will see the young lady."
She had been allowed to wash and clean herself, and to choose new garments, but there was nothing she could do to hide the cuts and bruises on her face and hands, nor the dark shadows of exhaustion that clung beneath her eyes. She looked very young and fragile sitting there at the stone table, her black hair coiling damply on the shoulders of the dark velvet gown she had borrowed. Cowed, that was the look of her: cowed and humbled. But not frightened--her red eyes were sharp and curious, darting from corner to corner of the bare stone room. It was not a way out she searched for, but a way to use this, even now--to twist it to her advantage, if she could. He could respect that.
The pendant lay between them on the polished granite tabletop. Her eyes returned most often to this with a tangible hunger, but she did not dare to reach out and grasp it.
He reached out, saw the way she stiffened and stared, the sudden tension in her shoulders. With the long lacquered nail of his forefinger he lightly tapped the golden disc: click, click.
"How did you find it?"
The woman looked to his eyes for a moment, and then smiled, confidence coming back into her face. "It wasn't hard, my lord. What a shame the Hero and his friends did not think to look under the casket--they had been there ahead of me." Pause: a slight flicker of uncertainty. "However, I have been unable to discover where the other part was hidden."
"How unfortunate. And?"
She licked her lips nervously. "I thought--that perhaps you might--"
"I?" he said.
Her gaze flicked to the staff, leaning against the edge of the table--the dark gnarled wood, the glittering red gem with its own internal light. She sat back, staring at him, her expression becoming hard. "You are his creature--I know what that staff means! The bargain you made with His Dark Majesty--"
"--Is long fulfilled, on both sides." He picked up the disc and leaned back in his chair, idly winding the delicate chain around his fingers. "I'm going to need a better incentive than warm fuzzies, my darling. Ganon doesn't frighten me. He's nothing here."
She did not know how to deal with this. For a little while she was silent, her eyes glittering harshly in the light of the torches.
"You will betray your lord?"
"My lord?" he repeated, teasingly. "Sweetheart, he's not my lord. I have no love for the Boar, and nor is he too fond of me these days."
"Yet you were his general during the Imprisoning War."
"I make no secret of that; I did serve him. As did Gomez, who now serves me. And Dark Link..." There--a flicker, an infinitesimal change in her expression at the name. Dismay. How curious.
"Dark Link," she said hesitantly, "has proved himself... untrustworthy."
"No," he breathed, with a great swelling delight. He threw his head back and laughed for the sheer joy of it. "Dark Link--the infamous Master of Assassins? The Butcher of Kasuto? You're telling me Ganon's own Right Hand has defected? My love, it simply cannot be true!"
"It is true," she said sullenly. "He follows the Hero now. You must have heard the rumors, my lord..."
"I had, at that. But of course I gave them no credence..." He laughed again, and used his silk sleeve to blot a tear of mirth. "Oh my dear, what a wonderful jest... stiff old Dark Link, always so proper, a traitor to his beloved master... well well, I never thought he had it in him. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful..."
"I am looking for a man," Sepultura broke in sharply. "One Kafei Dotour."
He stopped laughing.
"Kafei. Now there's a name from the distant past. Interesting. Why do you seek a dead man?"
"Dead or not, he has what I need."
The man sighed and leaned back, crossing his legs; the polished patent-leather of his boots squeaked. "You're going after the Seal, aren't you?"
Sepultura's face was cold and determined. "Everything I have read points to this Kafei Dotour being the key to the Shadow Amulet. You know something, my lord. Tell me where to find him."
"All right, my darling. Since you ask so nicely, I'll throw you a bone. You're wasting your time looking for Kafei. He doesn't have it."
"Then who does?"
He smiled, baring a double row of perfect white teeth. "You're going to love it..."
The night was hot, damp and still: there seemed some quality to the air that muffled sound, so that even the rattle of gravel under their feet seemed foggy and far away. Link walked with his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. It had been a long time since he had had to fight anything--he had even given up practicing lately--and he hoped that he would still remember how when it came down to it.
Dark walked beside and a little behind him, moving with the old familiar silent grace. He wondered how aware the shadow was right now of what was going on. He wondered if he should have told him to stay behind.
"Are you going to tell us what this great emergency is?" Zelda asked, sounding curious and somewhat annoyed.
They were passing through the gate--it was, as the man had said, open and empty, though a light was on in the guardhouse. The soldiers on duty had probably decided to have an illicit drink, guessing that nobody would be along to check on them on this festive night. "All I know," he said, "is that there's some sort of disturbance down in the Temple of Time. Someone may be hurt--the man wasn't sure what was happening."
"A disturbance?" she said crossly. "Link, that could be anything--a couple of drunks causing trouble. It's a matter for the town guards, not for us."
He shook his head silently, knowing this was the right thing to do but unable to come up with a rational reason why. His right hand twinged suddenly where it rested on the hilt of his sword; he winced, then lifted it to look at it in the moonlight. His shirt was one of those awful fashionable ones with the lace--he had not bothered to change, but had just thrown a cloak over his formal wear and buckled on a sword--and the ruffled cuffs hung down well past his wrists. He pushed the folds out of the way and eyed the back of his hand with resigned dismay. The bruise was back--well, truthfully, it had never really gone away, just faded a little for a while. His fingers felt stiff and sore as he flexed them; gripping a sword hilt was going to be awkward.
The square was deserted when they reached it, and the two town guards were also gone from their posts. If they had needed any proof that there was trouble in the city, it was here.
They assembled by the fountain in a grim silence.
"Something's wrong," Sofia said quietly.
Link massaged his sore hand as he looked towards the Temple of Time, a shadowy spire against the night sky, jutting up above the nearer roofs. "Come on," he said at last. "This is hardly ideal, I know, but for the moment it seems that we're the only ones who can do anything about it." He attempted a smile. "It may be nothing--drunks, as you say, Zelda. At any rate, the least we can do is take a look."
All hope of its being a simple situation died when they reached the Temple. The tall fence surrounding the building was thronged with people; the ornate wrought-iron gates were closed, and one of the soldiers from the market was doing his best to keep them so. Torches burned bright in a hundred hands. An excited murmur of talk overlaid all: Link heard the word monsters and felt a chill run right through him. But the Princess was moving swiftly through the muttering crowds, heading for the gates, and he had to hurry to keep up with her and the others; there was no time now for talk.
Zelda laid back her hood, and her golden hair, still bound with pearls for the banquet, gleamed in the light of torches. "Let us through, please," she said simply.
The guard gaped at her. "Your highness? We thought... the King..."
"If it's to do with monsters," Link said, pushing his way through, "I'm the one you want. Let us through!"
The guardsman was really quite young, and his face beneath the shadow of the polished helm was deathly white. He stared desperately from one of them to the other. "I... sir, your Highness, I'm under orders--"
"I can give you new ones if you like," Zelda said. "We've come to deal with the matter. It's all right--go and get a superior if you have to. We'll hold the gate while you're gone."
"Is there a problem, corporal?"
It was a female voice, and it took them a moment to work out where it was coming from: the slender guardsman striding towards them out of the darkness of the Temple grounds was actually a guardswoman. The mistake was an easy one to make: she wore a man's battered armour, and her hair was close-cropped to dark stubble. Her figure too was tall and broad-shouldered like a man's.
The guard began to explain, but the woman stopped him with a motion of her gauntleted hand. Her small, dark eyes watched them intently through the bars of the gate. Link noted a flash of recognition and surprise, quickly veiled, as her gaze met his.
She turned. "Let them through, corporal. I'll take charge of them."
The man swallowed, nodded and bent to fumble at the old square lock. Something clanked, and the gate swung open just wide enough to admit a single body. The small crowd of citizens, clustered an arm's length away, watched sullenly as the four of them filed through.
"Keff Coll, Town Guard," the woman said, turning to lead them up the gravel drive. "Captain Keff, preferably. We had hoped for the Royal Guard."
"Exactly what is going on, Captain?" Zelda asked, putting an edge to her voice. She was still wearing her Crown Princess personality tonight.
The woman sighed. "Very well. There's been an... incident in the Temple, and we are concerned for the safety of the abbot. As far as we know, he's been alone in there since sundown." Ahead, the Temple of Time loomed against the night sky, a dead black shape shot with gleams of colored light from the stained-glass windows. Two standing torches had been lit at the door, but they were the only outside lights.
Link broke into a trot for a few strides to catch up with the guardswoman. "The messenger mentioned noises..." he began, feeling less sure of himself now.
Again a moment of heavy silence, the sense that she was evaluating them... him. Her eyes flicked sideways, but she did not turn her head or break stride. "Well, Hero, I imagine you'll hear it for yourself shortly. You and your companions intend to go in, I take it?"
"Can't we?" Sofia asked.
The woman shrugged. "I wouldn't if the Boar himself was at my heels. We're waiting for reinforcements."
"Just over some noises?" Sofia sounded incredulous.
They had reached the low step leading to the door, and Keff turned and smiled at them, tightly and without humor. "Well now, perhaps you'd like to judge that for yourselves. Sol, Tynan, would you open up for our guests, please?" The two men on duty shifted, looking distinctly uncomfortable, then one of them turned hesitantly to unlock the heavy black-oak door. It swung open slowly with a painful groan, revealing a dimly lit interior cloaked with deep shadow.
Link moved first--and the guardswoman caught at his sleeve and held him back. Her rawboned, not-too-pretty face was set with anxiety. "I'll warn you one last time, young man--Hero or not, it'd be better if you and your friends waited for the Royal Guard."
He stared at her, uneasy and unsure; it was Zelda who spoke. "If the priest is in danger," she said, stepping forward to lay a hand on the door, "we should go now." Her mask of authority slipped slightly as she made a warm smile. "We'll be fine, Captain--we've fought all sorts of strange things before and come out with barely a scratch."
Link had been in the Temple of Time only a few times, and never at night. He remembered a very tall, echoing hall--not dark, despite the dizzying heights of its arched roof and the narrowness of the stained-glass windows, but filled with a blaze of rainbow light. It was very different now. The windows were dull black holes; the torches set at intervals against the wall were burned out, or nearly so. Disarrayed pews cast strange conflicted shadows across the nave.
Almost at once they heard the sound, and knew why the soldiers had seemed so unnerved. It came from the north transept: a heavy thudding of blows on wood, followed by frantic scrabbling.
"Something's in the crypt," Zelda said very quietly.
They stood still and listened. In a moment the blows began again, a thunderous rattle; even from here they could tell how the wood shook in its frame.
"I wish you'd said someone," Sofia muttered with bleak humor.
Link took a long steady breath, and reached again for the hilt of his sword; it was warm under his hand. "Well," he said at last, "I suppose we'd better go and look." He hesitated, biting his lip, then turned.
"Dark... I think it might be a good idea if you stayed here."
The shadow stared at him, looking almost angry. "I am not that far gone, Link," he said, in something like his old sharp tone. "Besides, I think you will need me..."
"Do you know what this is, then?"
Dark closed his eyes for a moment--turned his head away and breathed in softly through his nose. "Smell that?"
Link sniffed, a bit selfconsciously, then wrinkled his nose in disgust. The scent was earthy, mushroomy--sick and damp, bringing the hairs up instinctively on the back of his neck.
"You haven't said what it is yet." The girls were standing side by side, watching them; Zelda's expression was odd, preoccupied, as if she was trying to work something out.
"That is because I am not yet sure," Dark said. "But I know where it came from." He turned away and began to walk up the nave, fading soundlessly into the gloomy shadows of the church. Link frowned at his back, then followed, reluctantly, the girls coming behind him. They fell into single file.
As they rounded the corner and came into the north transept, there was another thunder of blows--frenzied now, as if the mysterious creature was somehow aware of their approach. The noise was followed by an eldritch shriek that drew a startled yelp from Sofia. Even Dark flinched. "Nayru's Love," mumbled Zelda, gripping her bow in white-knuckled hands.
The door to the crypt was at the bottom of a short flight of stone steps, in a dusty alcove at the end of the transept. It was a heavy portal, built to last the length of years: strong oak, reinforced at top and bottom with iron bands still sound though streaked with rust. A weighty metal key lock secured it. They stood at the top of the steps, looking down, and watched the door creak and shudder beneath a storm of blows. Something beyond was clawing at the wood now, tearing into it; they heard the surface splinter. Zelda fumbled for the Fire Arrow and found that her hands were shaking and she could not still them.
Link took a step forward. The thing in the crypt was hurling itself bodily against the wood now, mad to get out--mad to reach them. A couple of the timbers were beginning to warp out of their iron bands. The Hero paused on the top step, trying to steel himself to go on. He stepped down once and froze there. And soundless as a shadow, Dark came forward, took him by the arm and moved him gently to one side. He walked down himself and stood before the door. His ears were pricked forward, straining for sound. They heard him sniff once. Then he drew his own sword and backed away.
"What is it?" Zelda asked. "Do you know?"
He did not turn. "A Floormaster," he said, his voice strange and dull. "I suggest you all leave."
"We're not leaving you alone with it!" Link exclaimed.
Now Dark did turn his head and look back at them. His face was utterly calm, cool and expressionless. "It is nearly through," he said in that same odd, lifeless monotone. "It is an Underworld beast and cannot be slain by wounds. If we wish to stop it, we will have to hack it apart and burn the pieces."
"Let's do that, then," Sofia said grimly, coming down the steps with her scimitar at the ready. Link joined her.
Zelda stayed at the top of the stairs, but nocked the Fire Arrow to her bowstring. It kindled in an eager burst of golden flame. "Give me a clear shot first," she called, and the three moved aside for her. The door splintered visibly.
Wood cracked, and the iron band at the bottom of the door suddenly buckled. Two of the middle timbers broke loose. "It comes," Dark said vaguely. Link, back pressed to the wall on the other side of the door, had both hands clenched around his sword hilt. Zelda pulled back on the string, squinting through a wash of rippling golden light.
The door burst. Splinters spun up and outwards through the air and fragments of iron, twisted and broken, clattered against the stone steps. For a moment there was nothing beyond but a square hole of velvet darkness.
Then it sprang. A monstrous spider, or a gigantic taloned hand--a blind clawed thing of horn and hide, huge and terrible, with five unequal clawing limbs fringing a central ring of teeth. It filled the doorway entirely as it squeezed its bulk through, clawing madly in its eagerness to get at the living prey that waited just outside its reach. Zelda loosed the Fire Arrow; oily flames roared up and the thing shrieked and tore stone from the walls. But it did not stop or even falter. Even burning, it freed itself with a lurch and reared, and lashed out at the one who barred its way. Dark dodged past the blow and struck; the plain sword bit deep into claw and bone. There was no blood, just a black and sticky ichor that oozed down onto the blade.
Sofia attacked from the left with paired scimitars, weapons whirling in an intricate dance; each blow cut chips from the hard leathery flesh, but seemed to do little real damage. On its other side Link slashed viciously with the serpentine dagger. Zelda went to one knee for a steadier aim and fired arrow after arrow into the blazing beast. It reared again, seemingly unafflicted by pain, whipped around on the hindmost two limbs and struck Link. He went down. Red blood stained the stones for the first time. Dark leaped to the fallen Hero and stood over him, standing his ground, no longer dodging but bringing the plain sword up with grim determination to parry the deadly claws that came slashing from all sides. Sofia, beside him now, struck with all her strength and lopped off a limb that fell to the ground to twitch and claw and reach, still burning, still twisting with horrifying and inexplicable life. And then--horror of horrors--the severed chunk sprouted crooked claws, flopped over, changed--becoming another, smaller nightmare beast.
Zelda reached back and found that she had no more arrows.
Dark's plain sword darted like lightning, meeting every blow that was thrown at him. He fought without grace now, with a grim urgency that admitted no time for thought. Slowly, little by little, he drove the Floormaster back from Link, who lay twisted on his back on the stone floor, blood staining his white ruffled shirt. Sofia hacked and hacked at the piece she had severed, desperately trying to still its movement. Zelda threw down the useless bow and drew her own short sword, a weapon that she had never had to use before now; she started down the steps, terrified, knowing she was no match for the monster but knowing also that she had no choice but to try.
And then the impossible happened. Dark went down. The Princess did not see what happened--it was too quick. But suddenly a sword was flying up and up, spinning in the Temple's gloom, flashing scarlet as the blade caught the light of flames. The Floormaster surged forward and brought something to the ground; crashed down on top of it, raking and gouging in a frenzy. A woman screamed. Zelda wasn't sure who it was--it might have been her. Then someone shouldered roughly past her and clattered down the steps.
Keff Coll held a blazing torch in each hand. Shouting incoherently, she struck at the monster again and again. New fire roared up to overpower the old, rolling over the stones and stabbing upwards to the distant vaulted roof. Bright light and stark shadows filled the air. Incredibly, the Floormaster backed away, flinching from the woman who lashed it with flame. Taking sudden desperate heart from the sight, Zelda rushed forward to stand beside her and chopped frantically with her sword held two-handed, clumsy as if she were cutting wood. The blows jarred her wrists. Now the Floormaster tried to retreat back towards the crypt, weakening at last beneath the renewed assault; Sofia stepped out and blocked its escape with whirring blades.
It lost two more limbs before it went down permanently. Even then the three of them did not stop, but kept cutting it and burning it until nothing was left but shreds and splinters. The guardswoman, singed and smoke-stained, methodically set fire to anything large enough to move, her teeth bared in a grimace of mingled fear and disgust.
Gradually it became silent. Link was trying to sit up, his breathing harsh with pain; Zelda ran to him and slipped her arm around him, holding him up. His face was deathly pale but he managed to smile at her. The Floormaster's curved talon had torn open his shirt and gouged his chest and upper arm; the wound would need stitches. A few feet away Sofia slumped to the ground, struggling for breath. Black goo had spattered her face and bare arms. "Dark," she managed to gasp out.
"Oh Nayru," Zelda said softly, appalled. "Oh no, Dark..." She held Link tight as she stared at the shadow lying broken and torn on the stones, lifeless as a rag doll. Blood had splashed as far as the wall. He was dead. He had to be dead. Nobody could survive that much damage.
Impossibly, his head moved; the crimson eyes slid open and gleamed bright with power. "Idiots..." he hissed weakly.
"Nayru's Love," Zelda whispered. "Dark?"
"All right... a minute..." He closed his eyes again. Sofia reached out for his hand but he moved it away weakly. A thin chill wind came up out of the crypt and ruffled his blood-soaked hair and the ragged tatters of his tunic. The torches in their wall brackets guttered and dimmed; a shadow seemed to hang in the air, clouding their light. They watched silently, frightened to speak. Dark did not move or even breathe. Steadily before their eyes the gaping wounds pulled together, closed and faded, leaving no trace of injury upon the smooth black skin.
He opened his eyes again and blinked once, then took a breath and got to his feet. His shredded clothes hung loose about him.
"You couldn't do that before," Sofia said in a soft awed voice.
The shadow turned slowly, unwillingly, to stare down into the darkness of the crypt. He shivered all over, then took a step... a step back. Turning again he pushed past the guardswoman who stood now with a remaining torch held low and guttering at her side; he climbed the steps at a steady, methodical pace, slipped by two more approaching guards, and vanished into the darkness of the church.
Link stood up, pushing Zelda's concerned hands away; he grimaced and pressed a hand to his chest as fresh blood stained the white shirt, then went up the steps after him without a word.
"What was that thing?" Keff Coll asked, still breathing heavily. Dark ichor was dripping down her burnished breastplate. She tossed the other torch away as it threatened to go out, and it splattered in a puddle of the same black oily stuff. There was a reek of burning. At the top of the steps, one of the young guards turned away and retched suddenly.
Zelda did not speak for a long moment: she was standing and staring up the stairs, in the direction Link and Dark had gone, and the look on her face was very odd. "I don't know," she said at last. "He said it was an Underworld beast..." After a moment more she moved towards the steps herself, her short sword falling unheeded from limp fingers.
Halfway down the nave, Sofia ran to catch her up. "Zelda--do you know what's going on?"
She turned her head and looked at the other woman, seeing Sofia's face pale and drawn, a splash of that same black substance drying on her cheek. She bit her lip. "No," she said eventually.
"I'm always left out." Sofia's voice was suddenly bitter.
Zelda sighed. "He really hasn't said anything. But... I can feel he's upset."
What she did not say was that, to that other mysterious sense she possessed but Sofia did not, Dark was over everything, like a cloud. There was some bond now between Link and Dark that she was not privy to--she could not feel either of them as strongly as she once had, but she could feel an intense distress thrumming through both of them--and something else, something deeper, something quite out of her experience. Whatever it was, it was exclusive to them. The two of them were a charmed circle, and she was outside it now.
A spider had made a web between two rafters, quite high up, and was occupied with a moth--rolling it busily over and over to wind it in pale silk. Link watched it with great concentration: anything to avoid thinking about the other thing that was happening right now.
The needle jabbed again, and he winced and dug his nails into his palms.
Zelda, he sensed, was close by: in the guard-house's canteen, sipping at a cup of hot sweet tea. When he reached for her he could feel her worry--though not so much for him, as for Dark. The shadow was coiled into himself, closed up tight like a snail in its shell. He made no response at all when Link reached out to him.
Link had found him outside the Temple, a few yards down from the door and its lights: leaning against the old stone wall with the palms of his hands, and taking deep gulps of cool night air. He was shivering violently in his ragged clothes, though sweat made a glistening sheen on his forehead.
"Dark," Link said softly, meaning to comfort. He reached out with his free hand--but the shadow recoiled violently as if he were a stinging viper.
"Do not touch me--!"
He let his hand fall again, remained where he was. "It's all right. It's dead. We killed it..."
Dark stared at him as if he had spoken in another tongue.
"You... who... are... you...?"
His breath caught in his chest as he drew in air; he felt that his heart would break. "Dark... let me help you..."
A snarl, suddenly--lips writhing back from wolfish teeth--the shadow's face changing in a way that was not human.
"Get away from me..."
Rage rose in him then, drowning the pain of his wound; he lunged, heedless of the renewed flowing warmth as the gash across his chest opened wider, and caught the shadow by both shoulders in a fierce iron grip, slamming him back against the Temple wall. His will burst from him like a firework, sparking across the gulf between them and filling the heavy night with white heat:
LEAVE HIM ALONE!
Pain flared in his bruised hand where it clutched. Dark jerked away from him and stumbled awkwardly, falling to hands and knees on the gravel path. Link felt him withdraw.
"Link?" Zelda's voice, alarmed. "Where are you?"
Whatever strength had buoyed him this far was near spent; he gritted his teeth at the burning line of pain across his chest. The whole front of his shirt was dark with dampness in the gloom. He pressed a flap of sodden linen against the injury and fought back grayness.
After a moment his vision cleared again. "Come on," he said gently.
Dark looked up with a vague distant expression.
"Come on," Link said again, and held out his free hand. "Let's go."
A rustle of cloth brought him back to the present: a soft pad was being pressed against his chest. He flinched.
"All right, my lad... all done. Can you hold that there, and sit up for me now?" He did so, gritting his teeth, and sat silently as the bandage was wound over and over. "You're a tough young cove," the doctor said approvingly, pinning the dressing. "Wouldn't mind a few more like you in the Guard."
He smiled at that, a little wryly. "I'm not sure I'd like fighting men any better than monsters..."
"Ahh... there is that." The doctor picked up a cloth and began to wipe his long fingers on it: he was a thin, stooped man, bony as a scarecrow, but with a kind spark in his pale eyes. "Take it easy for a few days, my lad--it wasn't too deep, but you've lost a good bit of blood. If'n you come down to the guard-house in a day or two, I'll take a look at it, see how it's healing."
"Thank you," he said as he slid down off the cold steel table--very glad indeed to be getting out of this room, despite his gratitude to the Town Guard for their medical services. Someone had dug out a spare shirt of cheap linen to loan him: he pulled it on and buttoned it with some difficulty. His left arm--the gashed one--was very painful when he tried to lift it above shoulder height.
"Herself wants to see you," the doctor said as he was heading for the door.
He paused in the doorway. "Herself?"
"Captain Coll. Asked if you and your friends would report to her office before you head off. They're in the--"
"--canteen," he said. "I know."
The older man gave him a curious look, then shrugged and turned away to busy himself with his tools.
Keff Coll's office was a small, poky room on the second floor of the Guard-house, its only furnishings a threadbare carpet and a desk. The four of them clattered in and stood awkwardly together on the creaky boards: there were no chairs for guests. An old oil-lamp on the windowsill provided enough light to see by; outside, stars glimmered faintly above the darkened roofs of the town. It was late--likely past midnight.
The guardswoman leaned back in her chair and propped her booted feet on the surface of the desk.
"Hell of a mess. Smashed coffins all over the place, bones all over the floor. That thing ripped the crypt apart--almost as bad as it did the old man."
"Sahasrahla is dead, then?" Zelda said, sounding sad but not particularly surprised.
"I should think so." Keff Coll grimaced. "I've seen worse things in this job, but not many worse things, if you take my meaning. Looked like it had been eating him. I'm guessing it caught him down there and he barred the door, locked himself in with it to stop it getting loose in the city. Brave man."
"How did it get in?"
The guardswoman swung her feet off the desk and sat up, folding her hands carefully. "Well now," she said, in a more serious tone, "I'd hoped you might be able to help us with that one. Let me give you a little context." She paused for a moment before speaking again. "I'll admit that I don't have much classical learning, your Highness, but I do know a bit about local history. There are a lot of very old passages under the Temple of Time: vaults, mausoleums, bricked-up cellars, that sort of thing. It's said that people hid down there successfully for years during the Imprisoning War, but even if that's true, they've been disused for a long time. Now, it seems that recently someone, or a number of persons, were quite eager to get down there."
She breathed in slowly, and then leaned sideways, bending out of sight to get at something on the floor behind her desk. There was a clatter of ironmongery; the woman straightened up, and plunked two items down on the scarred worktop: a small pickaxe with the handle snapped off halfway down, and the rust-corroded blade of a shovel. Both had been used very recently: the broken wood of the pickaxe handle gleamed pale against its dull patina elsewhere, and the dull metal of the shovel blade bore fresh silvery scrapes.
"We found these," she continued, sitting back again, "discarded down there on the floor. Now I have been made aware that the Temple stood empty for two nights earlier this week, while the priest attended a sickbed in the city. Recently, we believe during that time, the floor of the crypt has been crudely torn up and a lower passage--of which we were not previously aware--exposed. We've examined the whole crypt with some care and found no other entrance points save the upper stair, which of course was barred today. So, from all appearances, once the passage had been opened up, that thing found its way up into the Temple from below." Her smile was mirthless. "Before tonight, I'd have said that was impossible."
For a long moment, nobody spoke.
Keff's eyes narrowed; she shoved the broken tools to one side with a sweep of her hand. "I think you four know something about this. Let me put it this way: monsters are the Hero's business, and that's fine, but not in my city. A man is dead. There will be an investigation under Hylian law."
"We don't know anything about this," Link said, sighing. "Honestly. The first we knew of this was when we got the message up at the Castle."
The woman gave him a long look. "All right, then. What about this puzzle-piece? One coffin wasn't smashed. It had been pulled out and set carefully on the floor, with the lid ajar, quite near to the hole. We can't tell if anything was taken--all we can say is that the casket was empty when we found it. I don't suppose the name Kafei Dotour means anything to you?"
Link heard Sofia shift behind him, and Zelda draw in a long trembling breath. He wondered if his own dismay showed on his face as strongly as he felt it; the guardswoman was watching them all intently for a reaction, and there seemed to be little enough that escaped her sharp eyes.
Finally, in a small stiff voice, Zelda said, "We know the name."
Keff Coll nodded slowly. "I thought you might. So this is Hero business, I presume?" She waited a moment, steepling her callused fingers as she looked at each of them in turn. At last she sighed.
"Doubtless you are aware, your Highness, that I cannot compel you or your friends to reveal anything. I serve the law, and the highest law in this land is your father." She spread her hands, palms up, on the desk. "However... I would take it as a personal favour, if you would see fit to tell me what in the Dark World is going on."
Another long, painful silence, then Zelda stepped forward to stand before the desk. Her face looked drawn and ghostly in the lamplight, under the remains of whatever make-up she had used earlier. "We'll tell you what we know... though frankly it's not much. Kafei... yes, we know of Kafei. And I suppose it's no secret by now what we're trying to do, or why. The... Amulets of Fate... we believe that Kafei Dotour was one of the original bearers... but there is some mystery about him that we have not begun to unfold." She turned her head for a moment, her glance flicking towards Link; he saw the deep unease in her eyes. "It seems like too much of a coincidence," she added more softly, though whether her words were directed to the captain or to him, he could not tell.
Keff snorted and threw herself back in her chair, so that wood creaked. "Your Highness, if I've learned anything in this job, it's that there's no such thing as coincidence. Evidently you and your friends are not the only ones interested in this Kafei, or his history." She folded her arms. "What are you going to do about it? Go down after these others?"
"No." They all turned, surprised: Dark had not spoken a word since the Temple. He was not looking at them; his eyes were half closed as he leaned against the doorframe, hands hanging limp at his sides. Despite what had happened earlier, no stain of red marred his torn and tattered clothes--save for one dark handprint on the shoulder of his tunic: Link's own blood, drying to brown now. "Fill it in," he said dazedly. "Bury it... send it back to sleep..."
"Ah, Goddess," Sofia whispered, and her voice trembled. "I can't take this... I can't take him like this..."
Keff Coll's expression had gone very still and cold. She placed her hands flat on the scratched, cup-stained desktop, waited a moment more and then stood, the chair grating back behind her.
"I am going to summon a hackney-carriage and have the four of you sent back to the castle. Grateful as I am for your help in the matter, your Dark World devil there is right. Go home. We'll set a guard on the Temple tonight, and summon masons in the morning to start filling in that accursed hole. In the meantime, I want you all to rest."
It won't be that easy, Link thought. But he said nothing as they filed out of the gloomy little room.
A scant few minutes later, the carriage rolled to a stop in the castle's stable-yard. Link climbed down stiffly, favouring his left side--his chest and arm were really very painful now; he could feel the stitches pulling when he breathed in deeply, and it was not a pleasant sensation.
Nobody came out to meet them: perhaps everyone was abed by now, even the king. The Temple bell had not rung to tell the hour for a long time now. They walked together in silence to the long gallery, then separated: Dark to climb the spiral stair to his room, Link and the girls to go along the corridor to theirs.
He stopped then, and watched the shadow go: shambling with dragging feet. He could catch no sense of Dark's thoughts: indeed, he had not been "there" since the battle. He had retreated somewhere, for now, where Link could not follow.
The girls had stopped, a few yards down the corridor. "Link?" Zelda called. "Are you coming?"
"In a minute," he said. "You go on without me."
This page is hosted by North Castle and created by Dark Link © 1999-2008. All rights reserved.