Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 78
THE AIR of the tunnel was dry and dusty, smelling faintly acrid. There was something lifeless about it, like the residual smell of an alchemist's laboratory. It sapped moisture from the mouth and left them swallowing more than usual. The girls walked side by side, slightly bent over in the low passageway; Prowl padded down before them, her eyes flaring green from the light of the taper whenever she looked back at them.
The downward passage seemed endless. They walked for what felt like hours, moving down and down into the earth, following the steps that stretched straight as a spear-shaft into darkness so intense that to look into it was to be blind. The taper's thin flame flickered constantly in a cold draught that flowed up from below. At first the passage seemed to be a natural formation in the stone; the walls were irregular and the steps little more than a series of rough-hewn ledges in the floor. Slowly, however, their surroundings changed: the surfaces became smooth and polished, the roof arched up, and the passage widened so that two could walk side by side with ease. And still it stretched on down. There were no other passages, no openings in the rock.
At last, footsore and weary, they paused to rest. Sofia stuck the taper upright on a step as they sat; Zelda opened her pack and found a bit of bread and a few mouthfuls of water to share. Prowl lay down, quite comfortable in the heavy gloom, and accepted tidbits from their hands. The bread was new-baked, still a little damp in the center; it was a familiar taste, full of childhood memories, and Zelda nibbled at it slowly, savouring the sweetness. They did not speak to each other, but there was a kind of comfort in simply sitting close together.
"Well," Sofia said at last, with false brightness, "no monsters yet!"
Zelda nodded slowly, but she was distracted and only half listening; her attention was turned outwards, towards the downward stair. "All the same," she said slowly, "I don't think this is the real Underworld yet... we have to reach the end of this first."
"I assume it does have an end, then." Sofia's voice was brittle with her usual dry humor. In another moment her tone changed, becoming kinder, gentler, hesitant even. "Do you think... could you try..?"
Zelda looked round, startled; the other woman's eyes were wide in the darkness, glinting with flecks of gold where the candle caught them. There was an awkward, embarrassed expression on her face.
"I'll try," she said, and closed her own eyes to concentrate better.
She did not call to him, for fear of distracting him from whatever vital thing he was engaged upon. Instead she reached out very gently, silently, looking for the sense of him. It was difficult--like searching for a small thing in a darkened room, patting with your hands over the surfaces. The darkness, the emptiness, was so thick here--almost like an entity in itself, one that was cold and hostile to all life. It crushed the spirit.
Zelda blinked, startled out of reverie, and felt tears cooling stickily on her cheeks. "I can't," she said, rubbing quickly at her face and hoping that her friend had not noticed in the shadows. "I'm sorry. I can't find him." To cover her distress she hurried to wrap up the food and refasten her pack.
"You did your best," Sofia said.
And a lot of good it did us, she thought bitterly, but said nothing.
Setting off again was hard--it was so dark outside the tiny circle of the candle, dark and empty, that it took an effort of will to stand up and walk towards the nothingness. The steps went on without end, becoming tiny with distance as they sloped away; when they glanced back the way they had come, the view was just the same. It disoriented them, made them feel as if they were losing their balance. Zelda had been frightened before, but now she began actively to hate the darkness and the enclosing passage. The silence, too, pressed down upon them until it buzzed in their ears and made their heads ring. An attack by monsters would have been a relief.
The taper burned down to a stub, and still the stairs stretched on. Sofia lit a fresh candle from the dying flame before it could gutter out and leave them in true darkness. And on they went.
Change, when it came, was by degrees: first the air altered, becoming clammy instead of dry, stagnant rather than dusty. The downward stair widened further; its walls were of worked stone now, decorated with strange abstract carvings that glistened damply beneath the candlelight. And finally, at the limits of their vision, something glittered in the darkness: a break in the stair. They came down onto flat ground, stumbling a little at the change, and walked the length of a vast-roofed hallway to stand before an arch of polished black stone that soared up higher than the light could reach. Carved lettering in a strange unpleasant script writhed across its surface; but whatever evil things were written there, neither of them could read.
"It looks like this is it," Sofia said, running her free hand over the carvings. "We're here."
"Wherever here is," Zelda answered sourly.
Sofia said nothing for a moment; her expression was unreadable. Then she let out a soft sigh. "Well," she said, "I suppose it's down to Prowl now..."
The sand cat was sniffing at the loose stones around the gate, turning them over with her paw; she looked up toward them again at the sound of her name. Her eyes flashed emerald as the candlelight caught them. She made a soft noise, a rumble that was not exactly a purr but too soft to be a growl, then turned and, bellying low, slunk through the great arch. Hand in hand they followed her, out onto a rough rocky surface strewn with loose pebbles and sand. Prowl rumbled softly in the back of her throat; her stubby tail was held low, and the fur between her shoulders was spiked up in a clear warning.
Now at last there was a sound aside from the clatter of their own footsteps: a soft rushing hiss that came and went, regular as breath. Zelda was the first to place it, although it puzzled her for a moment to hear it here in the lightless depths. Waves were lapping gently upon a shore. She motioned to Sofia to hold the candle high, and its thin pale light gleamed back everywhere from the blackness that surrounded them.
"It's a lake," she said, filled with wonder. "A lake underground!"
Water, black and glistening, rippled sluggish on both sides and threw back a thousand ghostly sparks from the candle's lonely flame. It was impossible to tell whether it was shallow or immensely deep for it revealed nothing; it was a slick glassy darkness that showed only empty reflections. Their little group stood upon a spit of rough bare ground that sloped down to a shore barely visible at the edge of their light. A dank and rotting smell filled the air now; they were forced to breathe through their mouths. Prowl sneezed twice and pawed at her face, looking disgusted.
They were on a small curved strip of sandy ground at the edge of the water; behind them a rough cliff of gray rock, running with dark liquid streams, stretched up into endless night. On one side their little beach petered out into nothing, sloping down into the water in a scatter of pebbles. On the other a thin path stretched away through ever deepening shadows. Zelda borrowed the candle and held it high, staring out over the lake, but she could not see any sign of movement. Nor did the hard shore hold footprints, had either of them been skilled enough to track. Prowl was investigating the edge of the water with some interest, but seemed disinclined to lead them anywhere.
"Now what?" she said, wondering aloud, but she thought she already knew the answer. There was only really one way to go from here. She passed the candle back to Sofia and adjusted the straps on her pack--it was starting to cut into her shoulders. "We'll walk," she said. "Hopefully we'll come to something."
"If something doesn't come to us first," Sofia muttered, lifting her own bag. "Well... at least it's something to do. Anything is better than sitting here waiting for the candles to run out."
"Oh Nayru, don't talk of that." Zelda suppressed a shiver. She knew she couldn't bear to be left in darkness, not here; she would go mad.
They walked slowly hand-in-hand along the edge of the lake, following the slow curve of the cliffs, and the cat came padding after. The black water sighed rhythmically, an invisible thing that breathed just outside the candle-glow. Gradually the rock wall drew away from them, widening the path until it seemed almost as if they walked once more in the world above, wandering across a silent beach in the dark of the moon. But this was like no beach the Princess had ever seen. There were no shells or scraps of weed scattered on the gravelly sand: the ground was sterile and dead. No... not entirely dead, for it was not long before they saw the first evidence that there were living things in this lightless place. Pale spiders scuttled about on hair-thin creeping legs at the edge of the water. They were blind and quite unconscious of the approaching flame. Once, too, a wriggling thing crossed their path and slithered into the water: a thin snake or worm, its white skin translucent enough to reveal the shadows of internal organs. Like the spiders, it had no eyes.
Hours could have passed, and likely did; they had lost their sense of time. Sofia relit the candle twice. At length, tired and dispirited, the two women sat down for a second time and shared a few more scraps of food. They ate sparingly. Zelda said nothing of it, but she could not stop thinking about their supplies and how long they would last. They had candles enough to burn steadily for a couple of days, if they lit them one at a time from now on; the food would stretch to a week as long as it did not spoil in the damp.
A quarter-mile further along, the rock wall opened out and became a wide gorge or passage; a rocky path led upwards, away from the lake which had in any case become an expanse of still shallow water, a swampy foul-smelling fen without reeds or birds. They halted.
"What now?" Sofia said, picking a warm drop of half-melted wax off her hand.
Zelda held the candle high and looked around, straining to make out details beyond the little circle of their light. There was nothing that she could see here, save the water and the rock and the creeping spiders that explored the fringes of the lake. The dead shore stretched onwards in the underground night. "Well," she said finally, "we have a choice. We can keep following the beach, or we can try that path."
"It leads away from the lake," the other woman pointed out. "What if they're still down here somewhere?"
"What if they've gone up? We can't tell, either way. We don't know this place, and we don't know where we are now, let alone where they might have ended up." She sighed heavily. "It was stupid to come down here on our own, I suppose. Oh, why didn't he wait? Couldn't he have spared five minutes?" Her voice failed her then and she stood with her head down, struggling against a great oppressiveness of thought that squeezed her heart in her chest and made her weak with sorrow. Prowl, purring, brushed against her legs for a moment then glided away to investigate some broken stones at the base of the cliff.
"Don't give up yet," Sofia said.
Presently Zelda sighed and lifted her head once more. "Well... we are still going to have to decide. Do we keep following the shore, or shall we try that way? If nothing else, at least the path leads upwards."
"We'll go that way," the Gerudo said decisively. Her eyes flared golden in the candle-light as she shook her head, flicking the long red sweep of her ponytail back over her shoulder. It made Zelda momentarily conscious of her own hair--grown out now from when she had cut it back so mercilessly. She could well remember the last time they had been lost underground; her battle with Kurgh still haunted her dreams now and then. But there had always been light in the city of fire beneath Death Mountain. It had not been like this.
The gravel beach became hard bare rock as the two women entered the gorge, side by side, with the cat following patiently at their heels. They both felt a kind of guilty relief now that a decision had been made, whether it was the right one or not. So they followed the upward path that wound between looming walls of gray stone, twisting torturously, sometimes doubling right back upon itself--but always seeming to slope at the same angle. They were walking up, towards the surface, and that gave them both some heart, though neither spoke of it. And nothing moved--nothing attacked them. They saw no living thing that was larger than the worm upon the beach.
Gradually the road grew wetter and more enclosed; the immense cliffs pressed towards them and began to lean inwards, until at last they formed a roof above their heads. There was a sick sweetish stench in the air now. They stepped carefully around puddles of unpleasant stagnant water ringed by a pallid moldy scum. There were fungi too, thick outcroppings of tiny ash-coloured toadstools that sprouted anywhere where there was a hold. Colorless soft-bodied beetles crawled sluggishly upon the growths, exploring their surroundings with long spindly feelers.
"This is horrible," Sofia muttered.
"Look on the bright side," Zelda said with a tight little smile. "At least we haven't been attacked yet."
The other woman ignored this; shifting her candle to her left hand, she reached out and plucked a beetle from the tunnel wall. It was the length of her thumb, its body very nearly transparent, and the stubby legs waved in a slow-motion protest as she turned it over to look at the underside. "It's got no eyes," she said.
Zelda squirmed at the sight of it, mindless and alien, wriggling with torpid dignity between her friend's thumb and forefinger. "Oogh, how can you? The horrid creepy thing--put it back!"
"What?" she said, laughing. "It's just a beetle. If we meet nothing worse than this, I'll be happy enough." With some care she replaced the insect on a particularly vigorous outcrop of toadstools. It showed no sign of distress at the capture and release as it made its slow way off between the fungal blooms.
The road continued to ascend, and by degrees it became dry once more; but the tunnel walls were of soft earth now rather than rock. The soil was hard-packed and stony, pressed into a solid mass. There were no tree roots--probably they were still too far down for them. But as they continued they began to encounter stringy pale threads that crept across the dark earth and collected thick as cobwebs across rocky outcroppings. Like cobwebs, they were sticky to the touch; but there was no sign of any web-spinning creatures to have made them. A thick warm fungal smell, pungent and slightly sweet, filled the oppressive air.
They began to pass other openings in the walls; at first there was only an occasional small hole nearly gummed up by the sticky threads, but soon enough they came across proper tunnels leading off at half a dozen different angles and directions. At length they came to a kind of circular cave with no fewer than five exits, and halted in some dismay. There was even a dark hole that opened out above their heads.
"We're going to get lost," Zelda said, squinting as she examined the room in the candle's poor light. There were no distinctive marks that she could see.
"I think we already are," Sofia muttered. "Well, what shall we do? Turn back, or go on?"
"I suppose we should go on... anywhere has to be better than that black lake. But there's something I just don't like about this place. It looks..." She frowned and ran her hands over the smooth hard-packed wall. "It looks dug out, like a... a rabbit warren or something."
"Oh, Goddess," the other woman said, laughing--though her eyes held fear. "I don't want to think about what might dig tunnels down here."
Zelda did not answer. She kept moving, walking around the edge of the room, examining each passage in its turn. Two sloped up, the one whence they had come sloped down, and the others seemed to be more or less flat--as far as she could see in the poor light. She poked her head into one of the level passageways and wrinkled her nose at the unpleasant smell of the air: hot, sweet and decaying, like windfall apples left to lie. The sticky threads lined the walls and floor like thick white drifts of cotton.
She pulled back. "Ugh," she said, rubbing at her nose. "I don't like the look of that one at all. I wish Dark was here--he might be able to tell us what's making that foul smell."
"Well, he's not here, so we'll just have to get on with it ourselves." Sofia's tone was sharp. She stood in the middle of the cave, glancing from one passage to another. Her taper was burned down now almost to the brass holder, and she shifted her grip a little on the ring.
Zelda finished her circuit of the room and joined her friend, thinking hard. Two of the possible exits were thickly gummed up with the white threads, and although she had seen nothing yet to suggest that the sticky stuff was dangerous, she did not like the atmosphere along those paths. The third route was the one leading back to the lake. Climbing up into the ceiling hole would be well nigh impossible. That left two options: one path on the level, and one that seemed to go upwards as far as her eyes could follow.
Prowl snarled suddenly; they both turned in some surprise, to see the cat staring up to the ceiling hole, back bristling and ears laid flat. That made the decision for them; they both started for the upward path, swiftly, with nervous hurrying strides. The cat swiftly outdistanced them, and then they were running to catch up.
There was no rational reason for their panic: it was an emotion that rose up from some deep inner place, an impulse of the most ancient animal kind. All Zelda knew was that her friend was running, and that she had to run too. The cat bounded ahead of them, whipping round corners and choosing her way through the labyrinth without hesitation, moving with long leaping bounds. --Was that a sound? Was something behind them? Was something there?
Tunnels flashed darkly by. The candle guttered wildly in Sofia's hand, threatening to go out, and she guarded it desperately with her free hand, careless of the heat. They were heading upwards now along a steady incline, strings of spidersilk snapping as they tore through.
Rounding a blind corner, stumbling and skidding on the damp ground, they came face to face with it: the terrible tunnel digger.
It was dead.
The tunnel floor was soaked, streaked with black ichor like the stuff the Floormaster had bled; the giant worm had crawled a long way with terrible injuries before dying here in its own nest. It was slick, dark, huge and hideous, armored with plates of black chitinous stuff like the wing-cases of beetles--although that armor had done it little good, for great gashes had been hacked through the hardened stuff, splintering the thick carapace. Its jaws, pincers like a stag-beetle's but each the full length of an arm, hung limp and open. A cluster of round bulbous eyes were dark and glazed in the candle-light.
Prowl was stalking round the corpse, growling deep in her throat and placing each paw very carefully with cautious, almost mincing steps; occasionally she snorted as if with disgust. Indeed there was a bitter, acrid stench in the air here. The thing's blood smelled poisonous.
For a little while they just looked at it together, struck by its alienness. It did not seem possible that such a thing could exist; not in a world where there was sunlight and blue sky. If that sun and sky had been real, and not just a cruel dream of hope that could not be.
"Did they kill it?" Zelda said eventually.
Sofia did not respond for a long time. "I imagine Dark could, with or without Link's help," she said at last. "But I don't... think... the wounds are right."
The Gerudo reached out a hand as if to touch one of the cuts, then thought better of it and drew her arm back quickly. "They're big," she said. "From a long blade. Don't you think? Something that's big and heavy enough to smash its shell in like that. Both Link and Dark use short swords. And the thing's been hacked at wildly, too... that's not like Dark. He was always very precise. No wasted energy."
That was true. Zelda thought about it for a moment, and then found herself suddenly overpowered with disgust at the whole situation, the very idea that they could be giving logical thought to something like this. "Well, it's dead anyway," she said, and her voice came out rough. "So it won't bother us. Let's forget about it and just go. This place stinks and I want to leave it."
The monster's bulk filled half their tunnel, and blocked off another in its entirety, but there was just enough room to squeeze round it and continue on the upward way. Prowl was standing at the edge of the light, looking back at them impatiently. She turned and padded away quickly as they came towards her, hand in hand, and once again they were hurrying to keep the cat in sight. They quickly left the dead worm behind as they ascended, following a winding path. There were fewer openings now, and the threads of pale silk had vanished without trace. They trudged together up a long slope of loose damp earth, kicking through it at times as if it were snow. Pebbles and dirt rolled away beneath their feet. A cool breeze, dry and comparatively clean, brushed suddenly against Zelda's face and she loosened her grip on Sofia's fingers, and began to run again despite her tired and burning legs. "Come on!" she cried joyfully. "We're nearly out!"
And suddenly, they were out: one last lunge through a low opening, guarding the light of their precious candle as they brought down a shower of earth, and then the pair of them were standing upon an expanse of bare gray rock, in a cavern so immense that they could see no end to it. Gigantic cliffs and pillars loomed up out of the vast darkness, massive as mountains. It might have been a city of giants, carved from the living rock; but there was no sign of a civilisation in this place, and the rough faces of the stones were naturally formed.
And everywhere--everywhere they looked, there was a glitter on the stone, as the light of their candles struck sparks from crystal, gems, seams of precious metal.
"Wow," Zelda said very quietly. Beside her Prowl, unimpressed as ever, lay down and began to groom the fur on her left haunch.
They stood for a few moments lost in wonder, then Sofia shrugged the pack off her shoulders. "My candle's nearly out again," she said, rummaging. "Should we light two this time?"
The Princess blinked, brought back to earth. "I don't know... We need to conserve them."
"Are you sure? Two are less likely to go out..."
"Good point," she said. She looked again at the stump of Sofia's candle, thinking, but when we have no more left... "All right. Give me one."
Sofia was kneeling by her pack, just touching a new wick to the flame, when the sand cat suddenly sprang to her feet, bob-tail twitching in agitation. They both froze where they were. Prowl's eyes were fixed, it seemed, on something in the outer dark. In a moment there came a sound, a rattle like metal on stone--a dragging footstep, and then another. The sand cat snarled, bristling, and was answered by a wheezing hiss.
Two yellow gleams in the darkness moved, and became eyes.
"Back," Zelda said very softly. "Back to the tunnel..."
"No, don't... don't leave..." The voice was hoarse, gravelly, agonizingly tired. "Din! I won't hurt you--just don't--don't take the light away..."
Her mouth dropped open in shock. Beside her, Sofia made a small noise, and managed awkwardly to draw one of her swords while still balancing the candle in the other hand.
"Kleox?" Zelda said.
He came into the circle of their light with slow limping steps, shielding his face from the glow with a raised hand. The other was dragging his longsword, making the scraping noise they had first heard. The dull green of his scales barely showed here and there under a coating of dust, foulness and crusted brown blood.
The Lizalfos lowered his hand slowly, blinked a couple of times, then focused on them, twisting his head to one side to see out of his good eye. "You two?" He seemed to draw some strength from somewhere then; he straightened up a little. "Where's the Hero and his shadow, then?"
"None of your business," Sofia said smartly, shifting her stance. "Where's the witch?"
"Damn it," he muttered, and looked down vaguely at the sword he was holding. Its blade was caked with a foul black stuff. "Look--do we have to play this game?"
"You killed the worm," Zelda said suddenly.
"It's dead then. Good." He shivered all over, for an instant--the moment of weakness swiftly hidden, but not swiftly enough to escape her eyes.
"We're wasting time here," Sofia said, jamming the scimitar back into its sheath. "Let's just go, forget him."
"No!" Kleox stumbled forward another step, and halted as both their free hands went for the hilts of their own blades. The cat was on her feet, watching tensely, with eyes wide and ears laid flat. He stared from one of them to the other, then suddenly, dramatically, spread his arms and flung his sword aside. The clang made them both flinch, and the cat leaped back.
"I surrender. Take me prisoner."
Zelda gaped. "What?"
He pulled in a long slow breath, then turned his head again to look directly at them. "You heard me. I'm surrendering to you. Tie me up if you want; I won't fight you. Just don't--don't leave me in the dark again. You don't know what it's like down here..." His voice cracked a little on the last, and as if struck by a lightning bolt Zelda felt in an instant what he was struggling to fight off, knew the dreadful exhaustion, and the iron will that held that weary body upright.
Dinolfos was six foot four of seamed muscle and sinew; stood head and shoulders above the pair of them, and probably weighed more than both of them combined. It must have made a ludicrous tableau from the outside: like a great wolf rolling over in submission before two trembling lapdogs. He held his clawed hands out to them, showing that they were open and empty.
She had never really considered Kleox, except in that he was one of Sepultura's servants, and therefore an enemy. Until now, she had never understood how dangerous he really was. Zelda knew all too well that weakness could sometimes be a strength; she had used that weapon herself on Dark, in the beginning. She had never imagined that someone else might turn it on her.
She turned away from him then, unwilling to endure any more of that cool orange stare, and faced Sofia instead. The other woman's face was taut with resigned anger.
"Why do I feel like I know what you're going to say?" Sofia asked sarcastically.
"I don't think you do," Zelda said. "I was going to ask you to choose."
She breathed out softly. "I don't trust my judgement right now, Sofia."
"So you'll let me make the decision? You know very well what I'm going to--" The Gerudo stopped, stared at her blankly for a moment, then her expression slowly hardened. "Oh. I see. That's a dirty trick you've pulled on me, Zelda."
"I'm sorry," she said with weary honesty. "I really am. But I can't do it."
Sofia turned with her candle, walked a few paces away, and stood with her back to them. She said nothing. Zelda sat down carefully on the bare rock, and set her own candle down beside her in its holder; the sand cat came over and she fussed with her, stroking her aristocratic face and losing herself as best she could in the wild desert-golden eyes. After a little while she sensed him shift and fold his arms, but she dared not look up.
It seemed a long time before Sofia came back to them; when she did, she looked very tired.
"The way I see it," she said after a moment, pitching her words somewhere in between the both of them, "we all have several choices." She turned her body slightly so that she was facing more towards Kleox; he stood now with his arms quietly by his sides, watching them both with worrying stillness. The long knight's sword lay a few yards away; those patches of the blade not covered in Underworld filth gleamed dully in the candlelight. "Firstly," Sofia said, "you could kill us, and take our gear. I'm sure you've been thinking about it." His calm gaze did not falter. "Unfortunately for you," she went on, "there are two of us, and we're both comparatively fresh. Plus, the cat would probably come to our defence, so that would make three enemies for you to worry about. We can rule that one out for now."
No-one spoke. Sofia ran her tongue over her lips, swallowed, and continued.
"The second option, and the one which I have to say I favour, is for us two to kill you. That would certainly be the safest outcome for us. We can't just walk away because you'll follow us, and probably attack while we're resting or distracted by another battle. I'm looking over my shoulder enough already. So option two leaves us rid of you for good, and free to go on our way." She paused. "I think we could kill you. You're tired, we're not. You're wounded, we're not. However, I still don't think we could take you down without at least one of us getting badly hurt.
"So that leaves option three. We take you prisoner. Tie you up with a bit of torn cloth, and somehow drag you along with us for as long as we can. Well, I'm ruling that one out as well. We can't afford to watch you; we'll need our eyes and ears for other things."
Kleox said nothing, just kept standing there, listening quietly. But Zelda had seen some tension go out of him slowly as her friend spoke.
What are you up to..?
Sofia shifted the candle to her other hand. "Option four, then," she said. "Truce. You come with us freely, we share what we have with you. If there's trouble we all fight together. This to last until we find what we're looking for, or you find what you're looking for. At that point, of course, we'll need to re-negotiate. So. Does that sound fair?"
Kleox dipped his head slowly. "Fair."
"All right then." She flipped her ponytail back over her shoulder; there was a strange expression on her face, a kind of angry smile. "Pick up your sword and let's go. Zelda must be overjoyed by the turn of events; she loves it when things like this happen."
Actually, Zelda thought as she hauled herself to her feet, I rather wish you'd picked option two.
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