ELOZE


Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 82

IT WASN'T much of a cave, really--more of an alcove, a place to put your back to the wall while you snatched a few precious moments of rest. The two girls tidied themselves by the light of a single candle, nibbled a few more morsels from their stores, then settled down. Without once speaking, they seemed to have arranged it between themselves that the Hylian Princess would sleep first, while her friend sat up and watched. Watched him, mostly.

Kleox approved, in a grudging way, her determination not to give an inch, even while feeling somewhat aggrieved that she should think him so stupid. Had she learned nothing from the Dead Hand?

He crouched, facing away from them, staring out into the blackness--sensing the red-haired woman's gaze hot on his back. She sat back, leaning against the damp stone wall, with her scimitar lying ready in her lap. After a while the other woman began to breathe deep and snuffle a little. In the middle of their little circle the tiny candle flickered bravely, defying the ancient weight of darkness pressing thick about them. There was something humorous about the smallness of it.

It was the first time in a long time that he had been apart from the witch. In many ways, despite the precariousness of his situation, it was a relief. These Hylians were at least capable of reason. The red-haired one could bluster as much as she liked; she knew that they needed him for now. She'd backed down quick enough, anyway, once the Princess showed her little teeth.

He worried about it, though. It was a gray area. Was he helping them or not? Perhaps he could justify it by claiming later that he had simply been biding his time--when they let their guard down, he'd make his move. But then there was his sense of fair play, niggling endlessly at the back of his brain. He'd been ready to die of sheer animal fright: blundering around in the dark, notching his sword when he swung wildly and hit walls, cut air. They'd saved him from that, with their silly little candles; brought him back from madness' edge. They hadn't meant to, but all the same that was what they'd done.

There was a change in the breathing behind him. He turned his head, keeping his movements slow and stealthy.

The Gerudo had slid sideways a little; she was slumped against the rock wall, eyes closed, and mouth hanging very slightly open. She breathed slowly and deeply, in and out.

Well, well. She'd dropped off.

He eyed them both, nestled together in the candlelight; licked his lips and very slowly laid a hand on the hilt of his sword. By Din, he could do it. If he was quick, and careful, he wouldn't have to fight. Two Medallions, ripe for the picking--he could even see the fine gold chain of one of them around the Gerudo's neck, under her tunic collar. With two in his hands, he could name his price to the cursed old witch--she'd be the one who'd have to bow and grovel to him for a change--

For a long time he crouched and watched them, as they sank deeper into sleep. They were soft-fleshed and small, rather ugly really with their flat pink faces.

We don't leave our friends behind...

Damn the girl!

He squatted there silently with his elbows resting on his knees, thinking dark thoughts, and the candle shrank slowly, burned low and began to gutter. He had just about decided to wake one of them to deal with it, when the Princess began to whimper in her sleep. She shifted and pawed at her face, then squeezed her eyes shut as if something pained her. Her restlessness disturbed the other one, who sat up with a start and shot him a vicious glare; he shrugged without interest. It wasn't his problem.

"Zelda?" The Gerudo leaned over and touched her friend's shoulder, nervously. The Princess shivered and mewed like an animal in wordless fright, but she did not wake.

"Wake her up," he said. "If she keeps that up she'll attract attention."

"Don't tell me what to do," she snarled at him; but she reached down anyway and gave the other girl a gentle shake. Zelda writhed and sobbed for breath, seeming to struggle with an invisible enemy, then her whole body went rigid, stiff as a board. Her eyes flew wide open and she shrieked. Kleox winced and glanced away quickly, out into the darkness; as far as he could tell there was nothing out there. Yet. He turned back.

"What in the Dark World's wrong with her?"

The Princess shuddered and stared at nothing, her eyes huge. She clawed suddenly at her throat, and Sofia reached out swiftly and caught her wrists before she could do any damage. "Zelda! What is it? Zelda!"

"He's gone!"

She folded into her friend's arms, hysterical.

 

 

Zelda did not seem capable of telling them in any coherent manner what had happened to her, and nothing either of them could say would convince her that it had merely been a bad dream. She sat hugging herself and staring into space, her face as pale as death in the flickering candlelight. Eventually they packed up the meager scatter of possessions between them; she didn't lift a finger to help, didn't seem conscious of anything going on around her. He shouldered her pack casually--the Gerudo looked at him for a moment but did not comment.

Outside in the tunnel there was no sign of life; the black stone passage stretched out into darkness and impenetrable shadow. He paused at the cave entrance and listened intently, but heard only the ever-present dripping of water onto stone. The only scents in their air were their own.

After a little while Sofia came out and stood beside him, leading the Princess by the hand. Zelda followed her meekly, without speaking; there was no life or reason in her glassy-eyed stare. She did not seem to see them.

"Are we going on, or back?" he said.

The Gerudo woman looked up at him for a moment, then down again to the candle that he now held. Uncertainty flickered on her face; she did not hide her strain well. "Is it down to me then?"

He made another noncommittal shrug. "Doesn't look like she cares either way, does it?"

"Can I trust you?" she said softly, in a trembling voice.

"Can I trust you?"

She glanced towards the Princess, who was rocking back and forth now on the balls of her feet, oblivious to their conversation. Something in the Gerudo's face seemed to crumple then. She turned back, looked up at him with an expression that was suddenly very young and frightened. Slowly she reached out her free hand. He eyed it for a long moment before extending his own, reluctantly. They clasped in the Hylian formal manner, like polite strangers.

As they walked, earlier, they had seen the massive stalactites fold in slowly around them, until they had found themselves again in a maze of winding tunnels. Now, as they went on, the passage narrowed again by degrees so that there was no choice but to travel in single file. He led the way, cupping the candle gingerly in both hands; there was a steady draught running down the passage towards them, and he worried endlessly about the flame blowing out in a sudden gust. Looking after the thing put his sword arm out of action, too--if they were attacked now, he'd have to choose between being able to see and being able to defend himself. If only he had been able to save one of the storm lanterns...

This whole thing was rotten from the start. Curse the witch--when I catch up with her I'll--

What?

He didn't know, that was the truth of it. He had no idea what, if anything, he could do to her. She had magic; she could most likely kill him with a twitch of a finger if she wanted to. It would probably be better--or certainly saner--to avoid any further confrontations with the wretched woman. After all, she'd made her feelings quite clear towards the end of their last meeting, and so had he for that matter. She wouldn't have forgotten that. She never forgot anything like that.

Just let me survive, he thought. Just let me find a way out of this stinking hole, and I'm finished with the whole Din-cursed mess, Amulets and all. They can all kill each other over the useless baubles if that's what takes their fancy--I'm for the mountains.

"How do you know where you're going?" Sofia asked from behind him.

He grunted. "I don't."

She drew in a sharp angry breath--and held it for a long moment, then slowly let it out again. He smiled to himself, knowing that she could not see his expression in the gloom. Good--she was learning.

"You told us you could lead us to the... place," she said, in a carefully neutral tone.

"I believe the word I used was 'maybe'." The metal holder was getting hot as the candle burned lower and lower; he shifted it to his other hand.

He could sense her thinking it over. "That's honest, I suppose," she said at last. There was a long silence, broken only by the shuffle of their feet on bare rock. The tunnel grew infinitesimally narrower. "Do you... do you need a new candle?"

He did, and had been wondering how to broach the subject without losing face. "Couple of minutes left," he said.

"Wait--" A rattle; she swung the leather pack down off her shoulders and knelt to rummage through the contents. He turned and stood, watching her. A few feet away the Princess blinked stupidly and chewed on a grimy lock of her hair.

"How many have you got left?" he said.

Sofia froze, her arms buried to the elbows in the bottom of the bag. She bit her lip and did not look up at him. After a long time she said, "I've got nine. I don't know how many are in Zelda's pack."

He shrugged the satchel off his shoulder, dropped it to the ground and opened it without ceremony. She didn't stop him. Zelda's bag was still mostly full; he inventoried the contents in his head as he rifled. There was a water-bottle, as yet unopened, and a few parcels of food. A blouse and a roll of bandages. And at the bottom, a layer of fat white candles. He had twenty-two.

"If these are hour candles," he said, bundling them back by handfuls into the bag, "we've got just over a day's worth of light left."

"I think they are," Sofia said.

"I don't think that's enough to find our way back to the stair, even if we started back now."

She closed her pack. "No," she said without emotion. "You're probably right."

They went on. He carried the fresh candle unlit in his hand until the old one was entirely spent, a smoldering puddle of wax in the bottom of the holder. He wasn't quite sure why; it wasn't as if a couple of minutes either way was going to make any difference.

The tunnel wound slowly downwards, growing dank and cold. Under their feet the rock became slimy and treacherous, and they had to walk carefully. The silence weighed heavily; now and then he became convinced that something was following behind them, but whenever he stopped the girls to listen, there was nothing. This place could make you mad by its very stillness. If it hadn't been for the little candle... no, don't think of that. It would come soon enough, anyway.

"I must know," Sofia said in the echoing dark. "Have you been here before? Do you know the place? Is that how you know where to go?"

He sighed; he'd hoped he wouldn't have to do this. "No."

"How, then?" She was relentless. "Are you just guessing?"

"No." He lengthened his stride a little; she matched the pace, hurrying the dazed Princess along by the hand. "Why do you want to know?" he said eventually, as a delaying tactic.

She sounded honestly surprised as she answered. "I want to know we're going somewhere on purpose, that's all. I want to know I'm not just wandering around for the sake of it."

He thought for a while in silence. She did not press him, but nor did she agree to drop the subject; he could sense her attention, like an uncomfortable warmth in the background. At last he said, "Why did your shadow come down here?"

She considered it carefully. "He was... called, somehow. I know he fought it. He'd been... different, for a long time. Looking off into the distance all the time, as if... as if there was some music that only he could hear. And... oh..." The realisation. "You hear it too, don't you?" she said in quiet shock. "Don't you? It's got you as well."

He winced at her words; it wasn't how he'd have cared to put it. "I'm not Dark Link," he said quietly, without looking back. "I'm no phantom--I'm flesh and blood. But... there is something..."

"Something?"

Oh, hells, she was going to pick at it now until she had the whole thing out in the open. "I told you," he said roughly, "that place is a heart. I don't know how all this stuff works--I'm only a Lizalfos. We're one rung up the ladder from the mindless beasts, in his eyes. But..." He sought for a way to phrase it. "Say that everything he made had a... a spark of his in it, or something like that..."

"How sweet," she said dryly.

"You know what I'm talking about," he growled. "Two years ago I felt a desire to go to Death Mountain. I did so, along with others like me. Then your Hero banished Ganon, and the purpose went out of us all. Well, since I've been down here, in the dark, I've started feeling a bit of it again. Whatever it is, it's this way. And you can take it or leave it, because it's all we've got to guide us."

"I hate magic," she muttered.

"I'm not too fond of it myself--" His foot slipped suddenly; he cursed and caught himself against the wall, which was running with wet now. A few pebbles skittered away down the steepening slope; their rattle was amplified to alarming levels in the enclosed space.

"Are you all right?"

"Slipped." His heart was still racing; he'd nearly dropped the candle in the water. Clutching it in a newly careful grip he edged away from the wall and began to pick his way down the gritty, shifting slope. Thin streams of running liquid glistened palely among the loose stones. "Where's all this Din-cursed water coming from?"

"Maybe we're coming back to the lake."

"Well, we shouldn't be..." He flicked his tongue out to taste the air; the breeze seemed stronger now. And--yes--he could taste water ahead. Lots of it. Somewhere ahead there was a soft steady rushing.

The tunnel narrowed again at the bottom of the slope; it was hardly wide enough now to walk in without turning sideways, and he had to duck his head around hanging columns of greyish translucent stone. An inch of clear water covered the floor, icy cold; he shielded the candle from falling drips. The ceiling was getting lower and lower. If this tunnel turned out to be a dead end...

It didn't. The sound of rushing water grew steadily stronger, to a muted roar, and as he struggled round one last claustrophobic corner the scent hit him: clean, cold, fresh water. Ten or twelve yards ahead the passage widened again suddenly, and came to an abrupt end at a shimmering, glittering, ceaselessly shifting wall: a waterfall. It caught the candlelight and threw it back at them in shifting many-colored arcs.

"It's beautiful," Sofia breathed as she came up beside him; he turned his head, startled, but her attention was focused solely on the Princess. "Look, Zelda," she said, touching the other girl's shoulder. "Isn't it amazing?"

"It's in our way is what it is," Kleox muttered, eyeing the jeweled cascade. He could see that there was a wider space behind it, an opening of some kind, but getting through with the candle-flame still burning would be awkward. After a few moments he moved forward slowly, grimacing as his feet splashed down into chilly puddles. There was a narrow gap at one edge of the fall where only a few stray drops fell; he could probably pass it out that way, if he was quick. He flattened his body sideways against the wall, took a deep breath and ducked through.

The water poured down over his left shoulder, and soaked the bag, but somehow managed to miss the hand that held the candle. He came out crouching in an awkward bent-legged run, moved a few hurried paces further off to get away from the spray, then straightened up and turned to wait for them. They crashed through together hand in hand, the Gerudo shaking water swiftly out of her hair, the Princess just looking vaguely stunned at her drenching.

"Now what?" Sofia said as she wiped her face.

He didn't answer; he was looking around with some interest. The three of them stood now on a stretch of grayish gritty mud, under a stone cliff running with a thousand streams--if he had not just himself come out of the passage, he would never have guessed that there had been anything at all behind that one cascade. Behind them, the wet ground sloped steadily downwards for some ten or twelve feet, and then cut off sharply. The edge of the precipice was deeply grooved by the innumerable streams, large and small, which ran over it and fell again a second time into night. No other side to the abyss was visible in their weak light. He took a few tentative steps towards the edge, stepping awkwardly through the sticky mud, then backed away again hurriedly; the depth of the fall into darkness was dizzying. He turned back, and eyed the cliff; it was sheer. They were trapped on a ledge.

"There's a stair over here," Sofia called. He started at the sound of her voice; he had momentarily forgotten about her and her friend. The two of them stood a few yards down the... it wasn't a beach, exactly, but he didn't know how else to think of it. He switched the candle back to his other hand, and strode over.

The way was narrow, only just wide enough for one, and it had been cunningly recessed into the cliff so that the water flowed, for the most part, out and over the top of it. The steps wouldn't be dry, but at least they wouldn't be running with wet. He glanced upwards to check the condition of the path further on, then set his foot on the first stair--and paused. Just beside him, at shoulder height on a jutting boulder, a symbol had been scratched: a crude sigil of an eye weeping a tear. He touched it curiously; it didn't look all that old.

"This thing again," he muttered, running a claw around the outline. The girls were just behind him; he turned. "Either of you know what this thing means?"

Sofia leaned close to peer at it as he held the candle to it. "I've never--"

"It's Sheikah," the Princess said behind them.

He didn't look round. "Oh, you're back are you? What's it mean then?"

She took a long time to answer, and when she did it was in a slow, confused, only half-awake tone. "It... means Sheikah were here."

"Thank you," he said sarcastically, bending to take a closer look at the scratched mark. "You've been very helpful."

The next instant, a hand snatched at his forearm. He whipped round, a snarl of challenge rising instinctively into his throat, and met the Gerudo's golden-eyed stare just a few inches from his face. "Would it hurt you," she hissed venomously, "to be just a little considerate of other people's feelings?"

For a moment he could only stare down at her, genuinely baffled. "What feelings? The girl had a bad dream, for Din's sake!"

"It's more than that--she has powers I don't understand!" By His Majesty's blood, the woman was actually close to crying. "Something's happened to Link, and she sensed it!"

"You believe that, do you?" he said.

Her gaze was coldly furious. "Yes. I do."

Fat, silent tears were running down the Princess's cheeks, gleaming in the candlelight. She stood with her hands clasped tightly in front of her, and stared past them both, chewing on her bottom lip. He looked at her, then turned away.

"Forget it. Let's just see if we can get up this thing without breaking our necks."

 

 

It wasn't too hard actually, as long as you didn't look down. The friendly, anonymous stonemason had even cut a series of small holes into the cliff face to serve as makeshift handholds while you ascended. Kleox had no fear of heights; he climbed quickly, swift and sure-footed on the narrow way. The girls were slower to follow, and more than once, to his annoyance, he had turn back and bring the light back down to them when they fell too far behind.

They came up one by one onto a wide plateau of desolate gray rock, dotted with slate shards and broken boulders. Here and there sunken puddles of still dark water glistened in the candlelight. Once again there was no sign of anything living, not even mold around the edges of the oily pools. He wondered about that: nothing of any size had approached them since the fight with the Dead Hand. It seemed too much to ask that they should have been left in peace this long.

His candle was burning low again. This time he didn't wait for the Gerudo to mention it but fished a new one out of the bag himself. Another precious hour gone, another hour deeper into the dark. Cursing under his breath he began to walk, picking his way carefully over the sharp splintery rocks that littered the plain. The two girls followed him without speaking.

Again the thick, choking stillness--it made his head spin with the effort of listening for sound that was not there, and he had a constant, irrational feeling of being followed, although nothing was in sight across the width of the plain. He'd never been so tired. His head felt foggy, and he would have liked very much to lie down and sleep. If it hadn't been for the fact that they were losing light with every passing moment, he probably would have done so, never mind the wretched Hylians.

The walk was long and monotonous, and the new candle was halfway gone by the time they reached the far side of the gloomy plateau. The Gerudo was limping; he guessed the problem was blisters by the tentative way she was putting her feet down, but she made no complaint. She was keeping up with him still, her and her friend, so he left it for the time being. They crossed a rickety rope bridge, stretching over a vast black fissure in the earth, and passed into another tunnel on the other side. This one appeared more regular, with a smooth level floor, and he frowned as he passed another eye-symbol carved deep into the wall.

"How much further?" Sofia asked, some time later.

He had been eyeing two dark passages that opened side by side, and trying to decide which he disliked least; the sound of her voice broke his concentration and he lost his line of thought. "What?" he snapped, turning on her.

She looked back at him without fear. "I said, how much further?"

"How in the Dark World should I know?" he snarled.

"I think we should take another rest."

"What? Don't be stupid; we haven't got time." Angrily he stared from one opening to the other, trying to discern some difference between them, then lost his patience and picked one at random. "Come on," he growled over his shoulder. She shrugged and followed.

 

 

They backtracked from two dead ends, and had burned through another three candles, by the time they found their way out of the tunnel network, and he was getting more and more frantic. He hurried them on mercilessly, setting a grueling pace. He would not permit them even five minutes rest. Sofia watched him steadily, with a deeply thoughtful look on her face; he knew she was wondering why, and forced them on at double speed to stop her raising the subject.

Little by little they got closer; he could feel it out there somewhere, the way you could feel the crackle of a thunderstorm many miles away. By some strange alchemy it both drew and repelled him, and he could not explain either mechanism. He was not na´ve enough to think that he was traveling towards allies--another Lizalfos might have made that mistake, but Kleox had seen firsthand how the elite of the Dark Army treated their servants. He was nothing to them, had no magic, no strength save the strength of his sword-arm. At best they'd consider him an expendable tool, to be kept while it was still useful; at worst, if the witch was where he was going, he'd die. And probably not quickly.

I could have gotten out. I should have taken the Din-cursed candles and run. I had the choice, I had the opportunity, and I blew it. Why did I blow it?

We don't leave our friends behind, she'd said, and in that one moment it had encapsulated everything that was wrong with the world. In that one moment he'd seen a million possibilities opening out like flowers; she'd tricked him, for that one moment, into thinking that maybe--just maybe--he could be something better than he was. It was stupid. But now he couldn't get it out of his head. Maybe they'd done the same sort of thing to Dark Link: if that was the case, no wonder the poor old shadow had fallen out of his tree.

The tunnel here was wide enough to have driven a coach through, and bore obvious signs of Hylian agency--chisel marks were very visible on the walls. People actually lived down here somewhere, or had done so at some point. Those marks, the eyes cut in the stone, that the Princess had said were Sheikah...

Wait. Sepultura was Sheikah, wasn't she? Whatever that word even meant. She'd been interested by the first mark he'd found. And dismayed, though she'd hidden it well.

"Who are Sheikah?" he said. "And what does that eye thing mean?"

He hadn't expected an answer, had simply been voicing his thoughts aloud; but to his surprise the Princess spoke out, breathless from jogging at his hard pace.

"Clear sight, regret and repentance... it was an oath they swore to serve the Hylian kings, after an ancient war..."

"Her worship must have missed that meeting," he muttered. The idea was darkly funny... or perhaps it was just that he was too tired to think properly about things, and so everything was funny. Still, there was something interesting in that... He slowed his pace, and they came puffing up behind him. "They'd help you, then?" he said, glancing back. "If we could find them--if you told them who you were?"

"I don't know," she said without much interest.

He gave up, but filed it away for later consideration. The tunnel sloped down again now, in a long, slow, pleasant gradient--the floor underfoot was sandy. A rough carved arch opened out before them at the bottom; he stepped through, holding the candle high--and saw light.

Once more he found himself standing on a muddy shore, looking out into thick blackness. But in the distance, perhaps a mile away, or perhaps much more, a thousand twinkling points of eerie greenish light dotted the base of something vast that rose up out of the dark. It was impossible to tell its true size--there was nothing to compare it to, no scale in which to place it--but even from here it looked immense, as if a dozen Hyrule Castles would have fit within it. Sheer walls of polished black stone reflected the torches as they rose into lofty dark, fading into invisibility at the limits of the light.

It hit him like a fist to the gut, without warning, and shot up from there through his spine to explode soundlessly inside his skull. He reeled and raised a hand to his suddenly buzzing head.

"Are you all right? Hey! What is it?"

"Got t'go," he mumbled, stumbling away down the beach. Something dark and barely visible rippled slowly by at the edge; it was not water, not exactly.

She chased him, grabbed his arm before he could blunder straight in.

"What's wrong with you? You're acting like you're drugged or something!"

Shrill little voice. What was it saying? Couldn't be important. Not as important as this, anyway. He tried again to push past, but she held on with a determined grip, glaring up at him with fierce golden eyes. She wasn't very big; he could have knocked her down with one swipe of his arm, but suddenly it all just seemed like too much effort. He swayed and drooled.

"Please," she begged. "Please, don't you go weird on me as well... I need you, I need your help..."

"Ov'r there... got t'go..." His tongue tripped awkwardly over the words; he couldn't remember how to speak.

"Yes! We'll go there! Right now! We'll look for a bridge or something--just don't leave!"

The raw urgency in her voice got through. His head was full of a warm pink fluffiness but he managed to rouse himself enough to focus his eye on the small frantic thing that was shouting at him.

"Go," he croaked, latching on to the one important word. "Now. Yeah..."

His grip slackened, and the candle-holder tipped in his hand. With slow, dreadful inevitability the taper slid sideways, teetered, then slipped right out of the socket. It fell.

There was a nasty little fizzle as it hit the stony beach, and then--

Darkness.

 

 








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