Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 83
WHAT is this? Am I flying?..
The darkness was total, and he was alone in it: a presence, a stray thought lost in the void.
"My name is Link," he tried to whisper, to reassure himself that he at least was real, but he had no lips with which to speak, and no ears with which to hear.
Is this... my punishment..?
There was nothing at all that he could do, so he reined in his panic, composed himself as best he could, and simply waited to see what, if anything would happen.
He could not have said at what specific point the nothing around him became something... it happened slowly by degrees, so that by the time he became aware of it, there was already ground under his feet and a sweet, oddly familiar scent drifting in the air. The air... there was air now. A soft, warm breeze touched his face and tugged at loose strands of his hair.
Link took a long breath--his first--and opened his eyes. And the sun was setting over Ukuku Prairie, in a whirlpool of rose and gold.
He blinked slowly and then rubbed at his eyes, turning around on the spot, but the meadow with its gleaming grass and sapphire-bright cornflowers did not fade.
But... we destroyed Koholint...
He whirled. There was a gnarled hawthorn tree in luxurious bloom, and a man leaning against it, with his hands jammed deep in his pockets. He was not Link Third. His hair was dark brown, thick, and quite short by Hylian standards, only just reaching down to his shoulders. He wore a sleeveless dark green peasant's tunic tied high on the breast, rather old-fashioned in style, and a brown wool shirt. Raising his head, he looked across at Link with clear hazel eyes, and one corner of his mouth quirked in a familiar ironic smile.
"...Grandfather?" Link said, floored.
"In a manner of speaking." The Calatian twang was prominent in the other man's accent, but there was also the rich roundness of the Hylian aristocracy underneath; he could hear it there now, after spending so much time in Hyrule Town.
"I... never saw you young before," he said. "You look like me."
"You've got it backwards, pup. You're the one who looks like me. How's the fishing today--catch a big one?"
That was what he'd always said, when Link came running into his little house after being let off work for the afternoon. Tears stung his eyes. "Grandpa, I've made such a mess of it all..."
"That you have." The young man--or was it an old man, a very old white-haired man?--withdrew his hands from his pockets, and folded his arms casually across his breast. "What are you going to do about it?"
He stared. "Is there something I can do?"
The man nodded his head. "Look behind you..."
He turned, slowly.
At first the sun's brilliance blinded him, and he had to shield his eyes with a hand--of course Koholint had always been like that. Two wide pebbled paths stretched away from where he now stood. One led directly toward the setting sun, into a swimming white-gold fire; he couldn't look at it for long. The other was bare and edged with tangles of thorns; it wound away to the north, into the darkness of cloud-shrouded Tamaranch under a sky the color of a bruise. A little child could have understood the message.
"It's not as simple as it looks," his grandfather said, coming up to stand beside him.
Link sighed and lowered his hand. "It never is... He really killed me, didn't he?" He touched his throat for a moment, remembering that icy moment when he'd felt the knife sink in. There was no wound there now. "Is this my afterlife, then?"
"It could be."
"So I have to choose a path. Where do they go?"
"They both go to the same place," his grandfather said implacably. "Death."
He closed his eyes, lowered his head. "Then I really have failed."
"Depends on what you consider failure." A hand fell on his shoulder, warm and comforting. He glanced at it and saw something he knew from his childhood: papery skin and old, bony, arthritic knuckles, the callused fingers striped with pale scars from ancient battles. It was the hand of a retired swordsman. Bittersweet memories crowded his head--he'd heard the story behind each one of those marks at one time or another, had even counted them out aloud innocent of their meaning when learning his numbers. Once, barely more than an infant, he'd stuck himself with a cruelly barbed fish-hook, stuck it right into the flesh of his palm, and his grandfather had got it out with those same skilled old hands. "We're close to the edge now," the man said, "closer than we've ever been since the First was maimed. There's more at stake here than you know."
Something resonated. Carock: I had discovered how to cripple the Hero of Time. "Wait--Link First?" He pulled away and stared, seeing old wise eyes in a young face. "Maimed? What do you mean?"
"Figure it out, pup," his grandfather said, turning away from him, "you're the Hero now. Anyway, you haven't got time to hear it. You must choose and be gone before the sun sets." He walked slowly back towards the hawthorn tree, leaning on a stout metal-capped staff; he was a bent old man now, his white hair thin and wispy.
Link turned again to face the two roads, the light and the dark. Distantly in the west he heard a child's joyful laughter, and his breath caught in his chest; the stab of pain that went through him was surprising in its strength. Another old memory, like a box forgotten in an attic and now opened after many years to reveal its treasures still intact within, still smelling of spring. Eina... my little sister...
"You said it wasn't as simple as it looks," he said softly. "But if they both go to the same place, then does it matter which one I pick?"
"Listen. This choice is offered to you and you alone, because of who you are, and what you bear within you. One path leads to your death, and an end from pain. For you, it'll stop. For you, it'd be easiest. For your friends, great suffering. The other road leads to the death of a friend. But if you choose that way you might still have a chance to save some of those you love."
He made a wry smile. "Great choice. And I suppose you can't tell me which way is which."
"You already know."
"It's Koholint again. The Koholint choice."
"Very similar," the old man agreed.
Still he hesitated, glancing from one way to the other. Tamaranch and Mabe. The hard way, and the easy. In the west, the sun was sinking swiftly, already half out of sight behind the rolling hills. "Link Third stayed behind," he said. "What happens when the sun sets?"
No answer. He glanced back, over his shoulder, and the hawthorn tree was gone. The field stood bare and empty in a gathering dusk.
"If it was just me," he said aloud, "this would be simple."
Your death... the death of a friend...
To save some of those you love...
In an instant, he made his decision. He turned to the west, to the brilliance of the setting sun. It was almost gone now; only a few beads of light glowed on the distant hills. "Wait for me a little longer, Eina," he called softly, and thought he saw a small figure move in the shifting white.
He ran north, into darkness.
There was nothing.
And then, unexpectedly, there was something... a sound.
He was cold. Terribly cold. Something squeezed in his chest like a clenched fist. And ahh, Farore, it hurt...
The first breath was the hardest; he had to will himself to take it, against the weight of monstrous pain that was pressing in, eager to be acknowledged. Dried blood had clotted on his lips, and it cracked away as he dragged air forcibly into his lungs, every inch of his body screaming protest. The muted agony in his back and neck was overpowered by a hot electric fire in his right hand--but that was dying down even as he became aware of it.
Someone was holding him, propping him up; he felt the grip of arms around his chest. A sharp, shocked intake of breath.
"Dark," he tried to say, and choked on something; he started coughing and couldn't stop, though it felt as if the convulsions would tear his whole body apart. They died down at last when he was too exhausted to cough any more. A red-hot wire had been laid across his throat, but at least he could breathe--he seemed to be whole, but couldn't say much more than that for now. His mouth tasted of blood.
"You were dead..." The shadow's voice quavered. "I felt your body cooling... how can this be..?" Something wet landed on his face in the darkness.
"I'm so cold..." His body jerked of its own accord and began to shiver violently; his fingers and toes were a tingling fire. "Dark..."
The shadow was weeping silently, gripping him so tightly that it hurt. He reached up and touched his friend's shoulder, feeling the bird-fragile lightness of him. Dark's hair was as fine as cobwebs when it brushed his cheek.
"What did he do to you?" His breath rasped painfully as he drew it in; he spoke slowly, with an effort. "It was inside you, all along... and he took it out of you, and you were all... I thought you'd gone all to pieces."
"I did not know, Link--I swear it! I... feel the loss of it now... oh, Link, I am so cold and tired... I am bleeding to death..."
Well, with that he could sympathise. He knew how it felt now. It wasn't very nice. "Where are they?" he managed to say, after a few moments spent catching his breath. The room had been crowded before, he recalled--now they were alone. A great deal of time must have passed if all those leaping torches had burned out to nothing.
"They are gone to be about other affairs... you were beneath their notice, once they had... once they thought you had..." Dark did not finish; Link could feel how he was shaking.
"What happened to the Hero of Time?" he said.
"Link First. How was he maimed?"
"I... what are you...?"
He swallowed painfully, and willed himself not to cough. "I think you know. Link Third said you were still a Hero, deep down. Then just now Carock said he'd crippled Link First. And my grandfather said something about the Hero of Time being maimed. That's three now--it keeps coming up, over and over. What happened to you?"
"I... he... I don't remember..."
"I don't believe that." The shadow was pulling back; Link grabbed his arm. "Who are you? Don't keep running away from it--tell me! Who are you?"
"Leave me alone!" Dark jerked away, shoved him viciously--he fell flat on his back on the stone floor, cracking his skull so hard that he was convinced for a moment it had fractured. His back became a sheet of blinding agony at the impact, and that woke up various other wounds. For a little while all he could do was lie there, spread-eagled, struggling to breathe through the roaring waves of pain that swept him, top to toe. Then, slowly, he drew his limbs close, rolled over onto his side and lay that way instead. He had wanted to get up, or at least sit up, but with that much achieved he found he was utterly drained.
I felt your body cooling...
His right hand was pulsing pain steadily up into his brain. He concentrated on the rhythm of his breath, in and out, letting his body recover at its own pace. The stone under him was clammy and tacky with something drying to a gritty crust; he must have bled a lot.
Sooner or later someone was going to come. Whatever the truth of what had just happened to him--whether he had been dead, or just very close to it--he doubted very much that he would be spared a second time. He breathed in and out deeply several times, steeling himself for the effort, then heaved himself to hands and knees. His arms shivered with the strain of supporting his weight.
Standing was not an option, so instead he crawled, fumbling blindly over the ice-cold floor. His body felt as heavy as stone. It must have taken him a good five minutes to reach a wall: he collapsed again there and lay still, taking a little comfort in having something solid at his back. Where was the way out? He groped out and touched something--a low carved step. No... the base of the throne. The cold polished stone prickled under his hand like the sting of a nettle, and he snatched his hand back. Not this way.
His breath was loud and stertorous, rasping in his ears: the exhausted gasps of a dying man. He heaved himself up, turned and began to crawl again, not knowing or even caring if he was keeping his direction, just wanting to get away from that terrible throne.
In the dead darkness, a cool hand lightly touched his bare shoulder.
"Thought you'd gone," he mumbled.
He heard the shadow sigh. Then Dark took his arm gently, pulled it over his own shoulder, and hauled Link upright. Agony lanced through him at the movement, and he almost fainted. When he recovered his senses, he was being dragged; he tried to find his feet, but didn't seem to have the co-ordination.
"If they find out that you helped me, you'll be in danger."
"It does not matter. They have what they wanted from me now." Dark's voice came faint and weak; the old-Hylian accent was much more pronounced now.
"Then you'll come with me?" A flash of hope.
"Why?" he pleaded. "If he has what he wanted--?"
They were out of the hall now, and moving through a more enclosed space; his feet dragged over a step, and he stumbled and tried to take some of his own weight. Leaning on Dark felt precarious; he was irrationally afraid that the shadow would shatter like glass. He felt that fragile.
"I still have a task to do," Dark said softly, "for my master."
At the bottom of the stairs, a low space--a corridor of some sort--now a small door rattled and swung open, and there was light. They had come out of the Temple by another way and stood now on a shore lit by great braziers that burned with a leaping green-blue flame, many feet high. He hadn't seen those before--they hadn't been lit when he and Dark had arrived. The dark lake hissed and sucked among the stones; nearby was a small rowboat of dull black wood, lying tilted on the gritty sand. A tiny blue lantern, unhooded, hung on its prow. Had he been on the surface Link would have thought it a nothing light, a firefly glimmer; now, after the Temple, he had to shield his eyes. There were cuts and grazes and brown smears of dry blood all over his left hand when he looked at it, and running up his bare arm; three of his fingernails had been torn off. Cold sickness churned his belly at the sight--he had forgotten that they'd done that. The wounds were partly healed already, the raw flesh scabbed over.
Dark dragged him over the sand and tumbled him unceremoniously into the boat. Something clattered down on top of him: his own sword, back in its scabbard, with the belt attached. He lay there winded for a moment, the fine-grained styxwood cold on his bare skin, then tried weakly to sit up. His limbs seemed to have become disconnected from his brain. Dark was pushing the boat out now, and its hull ground over gravel. The ethereal lake accepted it without a splash or a ripple, as if it floated not on water but on air.
"What are you doing?" he said, alarmed. Gripping the sides of the boat he finally managed to pull himself into a sitting position, just as Dark gave the boat a powerful shove. It glided away; he stared back toward the shore, seeing his friend for the first time. There was a haze of drifting darkness around the shadow; his outlines flickered and changed ceaselessly in the weird blue light, as if he could not settle on a shape to be. He spoke, softly, but in a carrying voice.
"You know boats, Link; you may yet find your way back to the Overworld, if you are quick-witted and stealthy. You are the last of the Hero's line. Find somewhere where I can never find you, for both our sakes--you must live, or it will all have been in vain."
"Come with me!" Link cried one last time, but the boat was moving swiftly now, carrying him away, and the Temple, and that bleak shore, faded swiftly from his sight. The last thing he saw was Dark's eyes glowing like dying embers in the night.
The little boat drifted through an endless darkness, a blue spark flickering on its bow. Through massive caverns fringed with hanging stalactites greater in girth than the mightiest of trees, down dark winding tunnels where the hanging roof grazed the high coiled prow--it glided without a splash or ripple, never faltering on its way.
Until at last it slowed, turned, and scraped softly up onto a rocky shore.
Its passage had not gone unnoticed by the dwellers in the dark. A cold, silent retinue followed it to land, drawn by blood-scent and the faint faltering breaths of that which lay within. The blue light daunted them, but they were hungry; food was a rare resource down here, valuable enough to risk a great deal. They watched, the scavengers, and waited patiently for those weak gasps to finally struggle and stop.
At last one of them grew impatient and glided down on noiseless wings to settle on the stern. It hunched there, panting greedily, and wrapped its webs of skin tight around itself. The animal was dying by inches, down in the bottom of the boat; its body temperature was dropping, the heartbeat slowing to a weakened flutter. The bold one leaned down and breathed in through an open mouth, tasting the strange and unfamiliar scent.
Something large leaped silently out of the darkness, clean into the boat--a magnificent spring of eight feet or more. The scavenger shrieked and flung out its wings to fly, but it was an instant too slow: hooked claws tore the delicate membranes asunder and brought it down with a thud on the smooth black wood. Maimed, it mewed out once in mindless agony and terror before the powerful jaws scissored down, crushing the life from its furry chest.
Growling softly, the beast poked at the limp body with a taloned paw, then made a disdainful swipe and knocked it overboard; the silent waters swallowed it without a splash. Above, the remaining scavengers circled and screeched in baffled fury at the appearance of a greater predator, but they did not dare to challenge. The food had been claimed. One by one they peeled away and glided back out into the dark.
The predator stood for a little while foursquare and perfectly balanced, straddling the rowboat; then, with sleek and soundless grace it turned and jumped down into the bilge. There was a scent here which intrigued it. It snuffed around the body for a few moments, then, purring, began to lick at the smears of crusted blood.
Link woke in a sweat; something hot, heavy and unbearably itchy was draped over the top of him, rumbling like a grain-mill. Dazed and still only half-conscious he raised a hand to push at it, and his fingers found bristling whiskers and a triangular, tufted ear.
"Prowl?" he whispered hoarsely, in disbelief.
The purring redoubled. Her whiskers, long and wiry, spiked his face as she nudged him with her heavy blunt-nosed head. Stroke me, stroke me. Didn't I do well?
She had been licking at him while he slept, for his cheeks were sore where her harsh tongue had rasped. He rubbed at her ear weakly with his left hand; the other was trapped under her, and he didn't have the strength to pull it free. This sudden appearance was beyond him--he couldn't fathom it, couldn't make himself understand that his pet was really here.
"Prowl," he whispered again, giving in to the impossible, and wrapped his free arm around her stocky muscled neck. She purred patiently and let him sob into her fur.
He dozed, then woke, then dozed again, drifting in the fuzzy delirium of total bodily exhaustion. Sometimes the cat was there beside him, sometimes she wasn't--he couldn't tell which times were real and which were just dark dreams. Sometimes he thought himself back in that round cell, hanging in the cruel chains with Carock grinning at him, and woke yelping, and she nuzzled him then until his terror faded enough for sleep to claim him again. When he finally managed to drag himself back to true wakefulness, it was to the accompaniment of a raging thirst. The cat sprawled elegantly across his stomach; she opened her eyes and yawned at him, then rolled over to show him the short pale fur of her belly. He shivered as the cold of the Underworld rushed back in around him.
On the prow, the little lantern still burned with its steady green-blue light. He sat up painfully and leaned to unhook it, then set it down on the boat's single board seat.
Farore, he was a mess. He couldn't see what had happened to his back--and for that he was rather grateful, since it felt like a solid mass of scabs--but his front in itself was bad enough. Prowl had washed him like a kitten while he lay senseless; she'd gotten most of the blood off, but not all. Her work revealed the beginnings of fantastic bruises on his ribs. He raised his hand to his throat and felt a thick scabbed line running across just under his jaw. It had really happened, then. For some reason he had been expecting the killing cut to have healed without a trace.
He lifted his head a little against the pulling of the wound and looked up for the first time, out of the boat. The lantern's light didn't reach far, but he could just make out the line of a bare rocky shore strewn with gray boulders. He had no idea at all where he was; he remembered very little of the dark journey after the Temple had faded from his sight. Just how cold he had been, and how dreadfully, miserably tired.
"You saved my life, cat," he said. "Didn't you? Kept me warm..." The wonder of it hit him all over again--how in Farore's name had she found him in the midst of the Underworld? Could it mean... were the others around here, somewhere? He wanted more than anything for that to be true, wanted desperately to see their faces. Zelda... Sofia...
Prowl watched him with wide yellow eyes, then yawned again, showing off her powerful white teeth; her canines were a good inch long. You're boring, her gesture said, clearer than words. She stood in one fluid movement, then leaped sideways out of the boat. It rocked with her departure and settled back on the ground at a slightly steeper angle.
His tongue was swollen in his mouth; he felt light-headed with thirst. Water, that's what I need... The lake did not tempt him--he would have still had to be a good deal thirstier than he was to even think of touching that strange shifting darkness. He wanted real water. He couldn't see any streams running down the beach, but the cat hadn't looked as if she was in any distress: there was drinkable water out here somewhere, if only he could find it.
It took him three attempts to stand, and a good few minutes before he managed to climb out of the boat. The stony shore was covered in shards of rock that cut into his bare feet; he tottered away clutching the lantern in one hand and dragging his sword belt in the other. It was unlikely in the extreme that he would be able to put up any sort of fight if challenged, but it made him feel better to have the weapon by him.
He fell twice in the first ten yards. The second time it happened, he did not even bother to get up again, but simply crawled onward on hands and knees, pushing the lantern before him. At the top of the beach it got a little easier--there were more boulders to get round, but fewer splinters. He collapsed there in the lee of a great pillar of stone, and slept.
Prowl woke him by starting to rasp at his back with her sandpaper tongue. He groaned and roused himself enough to push her away. "Cat... don't... that hurts..." She purred at him again, not a bit contrite, and sat down to nibble at her haunch. Something made him lift his head and look at her more closely. There was wet around her mouth, and dripping also off her chin-fur; drops of clear liquid glistened on her long pale whiskers in the lantern's light. Water. She'd found water, and she'd been drinking it very recently.
The sight gave him new hope. He rolled over and staggered to his feet, then began to limp on along the rocky way, heading inland. In a few more yards his path turned and began to ascend through a landscape of boulders and broken masonry. The effort required to scramble up the steep gully was very nearly too much for him, but he kept going, forcing his way past the exhaustion. He could hear the water now.
It was a small stream, barely more than a trickle really, and it fell from somewhere far above to collect in a round pool at the base of a sheer cliff. He threw himself down beside it and drank until he sloshed. The water was icy cold, clean, and tasted of nothing at all--bliss.
He fell asleep again there, curled in an overhang. At some point the cat must have come back again to lie beside him, but he did not remember her doing so. She was there when he woke, purring and pressing her furry shoulder into the hollow of his side. He lifted his arm over her broad back and lay there for a while longer, taking comfort from her living warmth.
He felt a little stronger now, but he was also very hungry, so hungry that there was an actual gnawing pain low in his belly. Until now he had never quite believed in hunger pangs. In lieu of food he crawled back to the pool and drank deep again, then spent some time trying to wash himself. His hair was matted into stiff spikes from all the blood that had dried in it, and eventually he gave it up as a bad job. Prowl, at least, had got the dirt out of his wounds for him, and that would simply have to be enough.
When he had threaded the sword-belt back through the loops of his ragged trousers, he felt almost Hylian again. He stood very carefully, picked up the fist-sized lantern, and began to make his slow, laborious way back down the rocky slope towards the beach. The cat followed, padding silently on the bare ground.
Well, he didn't seem to be about to die right now, so perhaps there was time now to think a little further ahead.
Time to take stock.
Firstly, he had the lantern, which seemed to burn by some strange alchemy without smoke or fuel--the glass was cool under his hand. So he had light for the foreseeable future. That was good. That was very good.
He had his belt and trousers, but no other articles of clothing. Not so good. He was shivering again, and had already cut his feet in two places.
He had his sword as a means of defence. And Prowl, possibly, as long as she stayed with him. That was another plus.
A negative: he had no food, and nothing with which to store water.
Finally--he had a boat. Not much of one, it was true, but it floated, and really, what else could you ask of a boat?
If he had been on the surface now the solution would have been simple: find something, kill it, skin it, cook it. His woodcraft wasn't great, but he knew how to grab wild coneys by lying in wait above their burrows, or snatch a trout from a streambed. Somehow he doubted that he'd find anything like a coney here. Anyway, he had no means of making fire, and nothing to burn. He'd have to eat it raw.
He paused at the bottom of the trail, and leaned against a featureless gray rock to rest for a little while. I need help, he thought.
Prowl. It all came down to Prowl. Zelda had said she and Sofia were coming down after him: either they had taken the cat with them for some reason of their own, or she'd followed him down of her own accord. He hoped it was the former, because that meant the others might be nearby, even within earshot. But that raised another question. Did he stay here and wait for them, trusting them to find him, or did he go looking himself? How long would he last with no shelter, no decent clothing and nothing to eat? Either choice was risky--there was just too much that he didn't know.
On the other hand, there was one thing he might try...
He closed his eyes, feeling rather silly and self-conscious, and tried to focus, to reach out:
Zelda? Are you there?
No answer. The fragile thread that had once joined them was broken now. He wasn't even sure how to seek for her when he didn't know where she was--she had always been better at this than him. He sighed and opened his eyes again, then took his first step out onto the splintery slope. And in that moment Prowl saved his life again. She hissed savagely.
Something was moving down on the beach: a shadowy ill-defined shape that squatted like a spider. It crept slowly along the water's edge, loose stones rattling underneath it, then reared to paw awkwardly at the side of the abandoned boat. The misshapen silhouette told him what it was--a Floormaster.
They were blind, he realised now, for the monster seemed entirely unconscious of the light from his lantern which still glittered unhooded at his side. It was intent on the boat--probably it smelled him most strongly there, if smell was what it was using. He had left a good amount of blood in the bilge. How long would it take the thing to realise that he wasn't in there any more? And would it come after him then, following his trail? He knew he couldn't fight it: it had taken all of them together to kill the last one, and they had been fresh at the time--even then it had nearly had Dark. He turned and limped away as fast as his bruised body could carry him, cursing his wretched luck. Now he'd lost the boat.
He lost track of time. The little respite by the pool had not been enough. He knew that he was tiring fast now, for he could feel the strength bleeding once again from his overtaxed muscles, bringing back the miserable lead-weight weariness, but he was afraid to stop: the monster was back there somewhere, maybe plodding along his trail, maybe only a hundred yards behind him now in the dark. He stumbled on with his head down, clutching the tiny lantern in a desperate grip, and the cat padded at his side.
In the absence of any better plan, he followed the line of the shore. It was reasonably flat going, although the piled slate fragments that made up the ground down here were vicious on his unprotected feet. If he tried to move away from the lake and head inland, as he had done once or twice, he quickly became confounded by the rising mounds of rubble; he did not have the strength to climb them now. He was getting dangerously weak.
I won't die down here, he told himself, with grim determination. I have been given a second chance... I can save him, make it come out right... I won't waste this...
He wished he still believed it.
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