Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 86
THE COOL clean air made her feel slightly chilly; she wrapped her arms about her as she walked, blinking owlishly in the gloom. Again the deep stillness surprised her. It wasn't just the character of the place; now, as she looked around her, she could see how many of the doors they passed were ajar, opening into dusty disused rooms. Her footsteps echoed.
"How many people live here, Vaati?" she said.
The boy had been trotting on ahead; he stopped and glanced back over his shoulder, and she had a momentary flicker of intuition: he doesn't like me. It left her feeling a little wounded; what had she done now, to set a little child against her?
"Umm..." Vaati hesitated. "Don't know."
"There used to be more of you though, didn't there? There are so many empty rooms..."
The boy was giving her an uncomfortable, hangdog look, as if she were a disliked schoolteacher. She sighed and gave up.
"Never mind. So, where is Impa?"
Relieved to be on firmer ground, he pointed down the corridor with his outstretched finger. "It's down here. She usually sits in her bedroom to talk to people but she wants to see you in the old hall because you're a princess." With wonder he added, "She's got her best dress on and everything."
Zelda hid a smile behind her hand: she doubted, somehow, that Vaati had been instructed to say that. She said nothing more, but followed him obediently down a larger and more majestic corridor carved with scenes in relief. There were signs of recent hurried cleaning--streaks of dust lay against the bases of the walls. A broom had been discarded in a corner.
The passage terminated in a pair of tall double-doors bound in silver. One of them stood ajar, and warm firelight spilled out from within. Vaati glanced back at her quickly with a flash of crimson, then slid his small body through with the litheness of an eel. She followed suit, and heard him announcing in his high clear voice, "The Princess is here."
This room was large, its roof domed like a cathedral, and it was dominated by a great dais upon which stood three chairs of ornately carved stone. The floor had been polished long ago to a mirror-like sheen, and it still gleamed even through the thin coating of dust that masked it. Carvings of superlative skill decorated the walls; she recognised scenes from ancient history and the Book of Nayru. Above and behind each chair, a golden goddess held up cupped hands from which emanated spears of carved light. The three rays mingled above the central, larger throne, and became a triple triangle. There were familiar smells now: woodsmoke and resin. A couple of freestanding torches provided the only light in the room.
On the low step before the central chair sat a woman: the woman in white robes whom Zelda had seen earlier. She had not seen the woman from the front before, and despite herself she was shocked in that first moment. Red eyes, pale skin, thick dark curling hair... the woman could have been Sepultura, would have been Sepultura had she not lacked the white lock on her brow, and that harsh painted look. When she smiled, though, the illusion was broken--faint lines around her eyes hinted at her true age, and there was an aura around her of detached, almost priestly kindliness. She stood, sweeping her long gown out of the way, and stepped lightly down onto the floor of the hall.
"I am Impa. It gladdens me to see you recovered, your Highness--please, forgive our lack of courtesy. It is not that we do not know what should be done, but we are sorely ill-equipped to receive you in state."
"What?" Zelda said, trying to gather her wits. "Oh--no--believe me, we are very grateful. You saved our lives, you've treated us so well..."
A warm smile lit the woman's face. "Thank you--you are kind." She held out both her hands in the old way, palm up as an offering of hospitality; Zelda reached out her own automatically, and they clasped for a moment. "Please," Impa said, and motioned to an alcove at the edge of the great cold room, where a much more homely table and chairs had been arranged--they looked rather odd and out of place. "Come sit with me. There is much we should discuss."
Food and drink had already been set out: chilled water in tall narrow-necked jugs, and bowls containing tiny round biscuits with a peppery, savoury taste. Zelda sat down and picked uneasily at what was offered, and the woman sat opposite and watched her with a solemn, thoughtful expression. Vaati accepted a couple of biscuits when the bowl was offered, then slipped away as soon as Impa nodded permission.
The two of them were quite alone now, in the huge old hall, and the silence weighed heavy.
"I have been speaking," Impa said at last, "with the Lizalfos who was your... companion? Would that be the right word?"
Zelda looked across at her, unsure. "I suppose so..." she said at last.
"The things he has been saying are very strange." She leaned on the tabletop and linked her hands together in the sleeves of her robe. "I would hear this story again from your own lips, if I may. From the beginning."
"What do you want to know?" Zelda said reluctantly.
The Sheikah's look was calm and inscrutable. "You do not trust me--I think I understand why. Let me be honest with you then, and set it out before you. The woman you know as Sepultura is my great-aunt." She said it matter-of-factly, with a casual honesty--as if it were of no more import than the color of the walls.
"Your great-aunt?" she said, astonished. "But... you look..."
"Older?" Impa smiled at her awkward look. "I do not doubt it, by now. She gave away something indescribably precious for that illusion of youth." Zelda said nothing; she was trying hurriedly to readjust her concept of the situation. Impa watched her for a while, then sighed. "Will you not trust me? Have we treated you ill?" She felt uncomfortable then, ungrateful, but caution still held her. Zelda lifted her hand a few inches, wanting to touch the Amulet of Water where it lay under her shirt; she caught herself doing it and quickly diverted the movement, pretending to fiddle with her hair, but Impa had seen.
"I know what you bear. My heart sank when I saw them, but I did not take them from you. I have not the right." She poured a glass of water, but did not drink; holding it, she looked directly at Zelda, and there was a strange sadness in her eyes. "How many have you recovered now--just those two?"
"Three," Zelda began to say, but then shook her head. "Four. There are four now. Two of them are in the hands of our enemies."
Impa's face crumpled: suddenly she looked old and worn. "Four," she whispered, turning away. "Too late to undo; they will not sleep again now. Oh, why did you not come to us first? Three help you, you will have to go through with it..."
Zelda stared at her for a long moment, thinking hard. "I don't understand this," she said at last. "Was Kafei right, then, when he spoke about the Light and Dark Worlds? Are they really one and the same?"
"Kafei?" The woman set her cup down hurriedly, with a shaking hand.
"He calls himself Carock, now," she said, "but yes. Link... he..." She had to stop for a moment then, and fight back the dark memories that rose into her head: her horror at the sight of that damaged, bloodstained body in Kleox's arms. "He's the one who hurt Link," she said at last, and left it at that.
"Nayru's mercy," the woman murmured, closing her eyes. "So it has come back to haunt us after all these years..." Her distress was visible and sincere, and in that moment Zelda felt her distrust fading. Impa sighed, and lifted her head again; her gaze was clear, but very tired. "I am so sorry," she said. "This is our fault. We had thought... we had hoped that Carock was no longer a threat, that he was entirely given over to his pleasure-seeking. He had grown bored of the world and everything in it--I cannot understand what could have brought him to show himself again."
Zelda closed her eyes and fumbled with the puzzle-pieces, easing them into new experimental configurations. "He was the original Shadow Knight," she said. "Something happened--something unforgivable. And he gave the Amulet--or half the Amulet, anyway--to Ganon. And they used it to bring back Dark Link, who'd be Ganon's agent in this world from then on."
"Yes," Impa said.
She looked up. "What happened? What did Kafei do?"
"I do not know," the woman said. "The truth of it died with the Knighthood. They hid it for shame."
"We never knew any of this," Zelda said; she was beginning to feel angry. "Why not, if you knew it all along? We've been fumbling around in the dark with just a couple of footnotes to go on... This should have been a matter for the history books! We should have been told! Who are you people? What other secrets are you guarding down here?"
Impa said nothing.
Zelda shoved her chair back and stood; the table rocked. "I'm going," she said. "Dark is over there, maybe in danger, maybe needing our help, and I'm not wasting any more time here. I'm going back to my friends, and we're leaving."
The woman looked up at her calmly; there was something in her face like--regret? Disappointment? "I understand your anger, Your Highness," she said simply. "Indeed, in many ways I feel it myself. We have failed you. We have been remiss in our duties, and all I can do is offer empty apologies. In the old days, one of us would have come to you when you were a child--you should have had the training as your forebears did, but--" She sighed, raised a hand to brush the curling hair back from her face. "We have had such need of our people here--and--we hoped that in the new world, you would never have need of what we had to teach."
"Well, I could certainly use it now!" she nearly shouted.
"Don't talk to her like that!"
She hadn't heard Vaati come back in; the little boy stood a few yards away, glaring at her with his small fists balled. His red eyes almost glowed in the torchlight; she felt his hatred washing over her in waves, and stumbled back a step with the shock of it, nearly knocking the chair over.
"You're nasty," he hissed at her. "I don't like you!"
"Vaati!" Impa said.
"Well, she is!"
The woman rose, majestic as a queen. "She is our guest, Vaati," she said, in a voice that hummed suddenly with power. "And you will not speak so disrespectfully to Arn's heir. You were taught better than this. Apologize!"
Vaati stared furiously from one of them to the other. "But she--"
"Vaati..." A warning note.
His small face was not pale now, but flushed with humiliation and anger. He lowered his eyes and glowered at the floor. "S'ry."
Zelda said nothing for a moment; she was shocked speechless by what had just passed. Her own anger had been doused as thoroughly as if it had been a smoldering coal, and cold water poured upon it. You were taught better than this. Would her father have said it any differently? "No," she said aloud, and they both looked toward her in some surprise. She bit her lip, then straightened the chair and sat back down on it. "I'm sorry, to both of you. I don't understand what's gotten into me lately. I acted disgracefully just now--please forgive me."
Impa smiled. "There is nothing to forgive," she said.
By the sullen look on his face, Vaati did not agree.
Zelda closed her eyes and folded her hands together in her lap, thinking. "From the beginning, then," she said eventually. "It was last spring--a little over a year ago now. Just after... after Link's quest. The first reference I found to the Knighthood was in a book of myths and legends, but it intrigued me, so I started to do some research. At first I was only reading out of curiosity, but after awhile I began to wonder if there might really be something in it. Then I started looking at the Book of Mudora, and it started giving me hints, just a little here and there--it was like magic, like something out of an old story. I knew I had to follow it up, but I knew I couldn't do it alone. So I wrote a letter..."
"He's in here?" Sofia said, hesitating with her hand on the latch. The door was heavier than most she had seen, and plainer too: no silver filigree here, for the catch was wrought of rough black iron. A thick bar of the dark wood had been laid across to keep it closed.
Lazuli made a grave gesture of assent. "We are not cruel. We took its weapon, but we did not bind it; we have allowed it food and water."
She nodded slowly, thinking it over. No weapon--well, at least that was something. She had seen Dinolfos handle that long, unwieldy sword, and felt immeasurably relieved that it wasn't going to come flying at her as soon as the door opened. On the other hand, she would have been happier if he had been tied, or if there had been a good stout set of bars between them. She loosened her scimitar in its sheath, and readied herself mentally; then she reached up and awkwardly lifted the bar out of its holder. Lazuli helped her set it down, but it still clattered loudly despite her caution. She turned the latch, and the door swung open.
The round room beyond was bare but not cell-like--it was more as if it had been hurriedly stripped of its contents to do double duty as a place of confinement. A lantern glowed brightly in a niche with the by now familiar blue-green luminescence. They had left a single table and chair.
Kleox sat with his back to them, resting his clawed hands on the tabletop. He had swung the chair sideways to allow for his tail. She lingered in the doorway; he did not turn his head or otherwise make any sign that he was aware of her presence. The room smelled not strongly but insistently of snake--it was a scent that made her uneasy, took her back to her childhood, when she had discovered a nest of hatchling cobras in the shadow of a cliff. Only her brother's swift intervention had saved her from blundering in among them and, like as not, being killed.
Goddess, he was big--probably as big as her brother if he stood up straight. With some people you got the impression that they would be slow with it--that their own bulk would weigh them down--but it was not the case with him. There was an aura of coiled power, cold and alien, in the very way he sat so still. As she watched, his forked tongue flicked out for an instant to taste the air, and her skin crawled.
She had come here with a hundred things to say, but they had all gone out of her head now. Nervously she shifted her weight and tried to think of something.
"To what do I owe the honor?" His voice was mild and courteous, parodying a gracious host; a certain amusement told her he knew well how disconcerted she was. She drew in a breath, sensing Lazuli's eyes on her back, and stepped forward, into the room.
"I thought we should talk."
"And what can I do for you?" he said, again in that tone of mild amusement.
She glanced back; Lazuli stood framed in the doorway, her stance deceptively at ease. If anything should happen she was ready. The sight gave Sofia heart, and she turned again.
"What are you going to do now?" she said.
"You mean I have a choice?" He was tapping the tabletop idly with a claw; by all appearances he was supremely at ease. She wished she was.
"Well..." She frowned at his back. "No-one's told you anything? The Sheikah say they'll take you to the surface, anywhere you choose to go. You just have to name the place, and you're free."
"I see." He growled softly, deep in his throat: a thinking noise. "Well. That's good to know." His tone was noncommittal. "Why are you telling me this?"
A host of sharp responses presented themselves: because I had nothing better to do, because nobody else was willing to put up with your stink... "Because," she said, and left it at that. "Well? What are you going to do?"
"I will have to think it over, very carefully."
Was he winding her up?
He turned his head, slowly and deliberately, and looked at her sideways out of his good eye. "You and your little friends are still bent on assaulting the Temple of the Lost, I take it."
"Is that what it's called? Yes." She propped her fists on her hips. "Why--are you thinking of joining us?"
"Now why," he said in a soft, sweet voice, "would I do anything that stupid?"
"You tell me," she said.
A long pause. "I think not. Well, girl, you've delivered your message, so go away now and leave me in peace. I'll think about it."
"Don't strain yourself," she said sharply, turning on her heel.
Alone in the long room, Link sat at the table with a rag and a borrowed pot of grease and tried to clean his sword. He wasn't doing well; his right hand wasn't painful exactly, but it was awkward to use with the thick bandage they'd put on it. He'd have used his left instead, but that was the one with the missing fingernails, and that did hurt now. His back both itched and ached at the same time, irritating him.
He was tired--not physically, but deep in his soul. The things that had happened had changed him in ways he could not yet understand. Already, though, he knew that he would no longer be the person he had been. A part of him had died in that place; he had looked into an abyss of monstrous cruelty. He had seen evil, and he could never unsee it.
We have disturbed something worse than Ganon, he thought, leaning close to work at a stubborn spot of tarnish. It did not want to come clean.
Prowl strolled over and rested her head for a moment on his knee; he reached down absently to scratch around the base of her ears. She purred and pressed her head against his hand in an ecstasy of delight, half-closing her yellow eyes. Looking down into her ever-smiling face, he wished that he could be as uncomplicated as the cat, live always in the now as she did. Prowl did not have dreams, or nightmares; she just was.
The door opened, and he turned in some surprise; Sofia came in, walking carefully in the light Sheikah boots. She saw him and made a wan smile--she looked as worn-out as he felt. "Zelda isn't back yet?" she said. "I thought she'd be back before I was."
"Did you talk to him?" he said.
She sat down on the end of her bed, dropped her head into her hands. "I did. I'm glad it's over and done with--he confuses me so much..."
"Sounds like you were getting fond of him," he teased.
Sofia sat upright and looked away--she was considering it soberly. "I don't think so," she said at last. "I know full well that he'd have backstabbed us in an instant if there was anything in it for him--I've never met anyone so deliberately selfish. It's just that it seems like such a waste."
"A waste?" He set the sword down, intrigued.
She made a funny sort of smile, nervous and bitter. "It would be easier if the monsters we meet would just stay monsters, you know? He told us how he got blinded in that eye--a Hylian soldier did it, left him for dead. One of us. It puts it all in a new light somehow. I hope we never meet again--I don't want to have to kill him."
Link nodded slowly, thoughtfully, and turned back to his work. In a few minutes she spoke again.
"How are you, anyway?"
"Mending," he said. The word came out rougher than he'd intended; he cleared his throat. "I'm all right, Sofia, or I will be. I'm just worried about Dark."
"We'll save him," she said.
"As long as there's still something left to save by then," he muttered, and then wished he hadn't. He bent his head and began to scrub again at the mark, using all his strength; the effort made him breathless. His back started to sting sharply under the bandages as a scab cracked open, and he swore under his breath.
Sofia, perhaps wisely, didn't offer any help; she stretched out on her bed and closed her eyes. He kept working, losing himself in the repetitive, familiar task.
I never even got near him in that fight. Not once.
I left him there like a coward...
His right hand gave a sudden, unexpected jolt of pain; he threw the sword down in a temper, and the cat bolted under the nearest bed. He slumped forward then, elbows on the tabletop, and knotted his fingers through his hair.
"I'm all right," he mumbled, his voice muffled.
"You don't look all right."
"Yes--well--I'm just tired," he heard himself say, and was unnerved to hear an echo of Dark in his own voice. She said nothing in response but he could sense her gaze on him, sharp and thoughtful. After a moment he heaved himself to his feet; he had to lean on the table for a moment as dizziness swept over him, and he hoped that she had not noticed.
"Where are you going?" she asked as he limped towards the door.
"Where's the privy?" It was the first excuse that popped into his head.
"Down the corridor," she said, "there's one a little way down on the left. The narrow door."
"Thanks." He slipped out, closing the door on Prowl as she tried to follow him; he heard her disappointed footsteps padding back across the floor. The corridor was very dark, and there was nobody in sight in either direction. He took a deep breath of solitude and went to find the privy.
On his way back he saw Zelda, approaching from the other direction. Her eyes lit up as she recognised him; she held out her open arms in a welcoming gesture as she hurried forward. "Link! Are you--?"
"I'm fine," he said again, and held her close for a moment. She put her arms around him, but was gentle. "How was it with Impa?"
"She--" The Princess looked at him for a moment, and her expression sobered slowly. "We'd better talk about it..."
He reached past her and turned the door-handle.
"The Sheikah never disappeared at all," Zelda said. "They've been here all along, ever since the Imprisoning War, watching the Temple as Hyrule's first line of defence. Impa is... a kind of title, I think... something to do with guarding the royal heirs. I haven't yet been able to work that one out."
"Impa was the name of the Sage of Shadow, wasn't it?" Link asked.
"Yes. And she was the Prophet Princess's bodyguard. You see how it goes."
"Will they help us?"
"It's difficult to say..." Her face was deeply unhappy. "Because it's Dark. They don't like that at all."
"Why not?" Sofia asked angrily. "What's wrong with Dark?"
"It would be easier to say what's right. Impa started to tell me, but I... I couldn't let myself listen. Things that he'd done, in the past..."
"Like Kasuto?" Link said; they both looked at him blankly and he shrugged, then winced and regretted it. "Never mind--I know some of it. How does it affect us?"
"Well," Zelda said miserably, "we'll find out. She's talking it over now, with her advisers... they're trying to decide whether to help us rescue him, or just send us all back home under guard. Those are the options, apparently."
"You mean force us to give up on him?" Sofia shot to her feet, furious. "They can't do that!"
Link sighed. "I think they probably can," he said. "I mean, what are we going to do, fight our way out of here? You saw the way we came in, how heavily guarded it was. Do we get to plead our case at all, or is it just up to them?"
"I don't know," Zelda said.
Sofia's face was tight with rage. "I thought these people were supposed to be our allies!"
"They are," the Princess said. "They'll do what they think is best for us. To keep me safe." There was a fatalistic, hopeless tone to her voice.
They were left for what felt like a very long time. A man came with a tray of food: more bread, unidentifiable meat, and some odd colorless fruits that, when cut, tasted unexpectedly delicate and sweet. They made a light meal of it, tidied up the plates and utensils as best they could, and settled back down to wait. By the time the door finally swung open again they were all irritable and on edge--even the cat.
The newcomer was another man, unfamiliar and somewhat older; he had the light beard that only came to Hylian men in late middle age. He made them a cursory bow and said without preamble, "The Council will see you now."
They shut Prowl in the room, and then followed him silently as he led them back through the twisting corridors. Zelda kept her head up and looked about with some interest: it was the route she had taken before, with Vaati. So they were to meet again in that great echoing hall...
The doors swung open, and they stepped through into wonder. Their hosts had not been idle all this time: there was no dust at all in evidence now. Everything had been cleaned until it glittered. Torches lined the walls, revealing for the first time the intricate details of the carvings--in one bas-relief image, even the weave of cloth on the goddess Din's garment had been carefully conveyed.
This time the hall was not empty: some thirty or forty people stood or sat on the tiled floor. A wide clear path had been left from the doors to the dais, where the three thrones stood. They were occupied now. In the central seat sat Impa, severe as a priestess in her plain white gown; to her left, under the goddess Din, was Lazuli in her blue leather; and to her right beneath Farore the young dark-haired man in hunter's brown who had greeted Zelda on arrival. There was something of ritual about it all.
"Welcome, Princess," Impa said into the expectant stillness, "welcome Hero, and welcome also to your companion, the Gerudo. Please--come forward. Stand beside us on the dais."
They did so, rather nervously, and very conscious of the many interested eyes upon them. There were men, women, children--all ages were here. Even so Zelda could not help noticing that the hall was less than half full. There were very few children; a quick glance showed her only Vaati and a couple of slightly older girls towards the back of the room. She flicked her eyes sideways, wondering if Link was drawing similar conclusions; he glanced back at her and made a very slight reassuring smile. She wondered enviously how he could appear so calm.
"We will endeavor not to keep you long," Impa said. "There are only two matters for the assembly, and one is linked to the other." She raised her left hand and made a gesture, and there was a sudden stirring towards the back of the room: restlessness, startled murmurs, people shifting away. Kleox came through the doors, flanked by two soldiers in leather armor similar to Lazuli's. He was unarmed, and his clawed hands had been tied before him. He moved with long, confident strides, looking around with apparent interest; the guards had to lengthen their steps to keep up. At the base of the dais he stopped and turned his head for a moment, sweeping the room and its assembled audience with his sharp orange gaze.
Impa leaned back in her chair, regarding him gravely over folded hands. "You are one of Ganon's creatures. Do you have anything to say in your defence?"
"Can't help how I'm made." His voice was an amused growl, but there was an odd undertone--of curiosity, or something like it.
The room was silent now; everyone's attention was focused on the dais. Impa's expression was cold and emotionless. Zelda, watching, was startled by the difference; the woman carried herself now with an icy dignity that was in many ways reminiscent of Sepultura. She sat quite still in her chair, her red eyes narrowed. "In the ordinary way of things," she said, "your life would have been forfeit the instant you stepped within our borders, but you have fought at the Princess's side, as her defender. In recognition, we have agreed to spare your life."
"Much obliged, I'm sure," he said mildly. He spoke eloquently, with perfect diction, and there was a stirring again in the audience; they did not know what to make of this.
"You have expressed a desire to be freed in the mountains of eastern Hyrule, and this we will do. You and your escort will leave shortly; my purpose in bringing you before this council was to ensure that you are sensible of the great honor done to you. Today we break one of our most ancient laws on your behalf."
"Oh, don't worry, I understand." With a twist of irony, "Thank you for not killing me."
For a few seconds there was silence. "Very well," Impa said at last. "Remember--should you ever lift your hand against the Princess, the agreement ends." She folded her arms. "You may go now."
The guards took hold of his arms, but he didn't move; for a long moment he looked around the hall with a piercing stare, as if to fix it in his memory for later. His gaze came to rest at last on Zelda and the others where they stood quietly to one side. There was an uncomfortable quality to his look, as if they, not he, were the ones on trial.
The guards tugged at him then; he turned to go.
"Wait!" Sofia said suddenly.
Heads turned in surprise as the Gerudo pushed forward; Zelda had to move quickly to one side to let her get past. She stepped down off the dais and stood before him, her head tilted as she looked up into the sharp slit-pupilled eye. "Thank you for your help," she said quietly. "With the Dead Hand and... and everything else."
"I didn't do it for you two," he said, annoyed.
She just shrugged. "I know. But thank you anyway."
What's this? Link sent, his thoughts tinted with both puzzlement and humor; Zelda could only shake her head in answer as she watched. This was the last thing she would have expected from Sofia.
Kleox looked down at her for a long moment, with an unreadable expression; his long jaws were slightly parted, showing a glimpse of pale teeth. "Yeah... well... Try not to die."
His tone had been irritated and grudging, but the meaning could not be denied. Zelda moved forward a few paces, stepped down to stand with her friend. "I think," she said, looking up at him, "that may be the nicest thing you've ever said to anyone in your life."
He shrugged, refusing to be goaded. "Probably." He turned then and walked away with dignity, striding through the silent throng. The guards followed him hesitantly, unsure. He had taken the lead again, turned what should have been a humiliating dismissal into personal triumph. Harkinian, she thought, would have approved his handling of the situation.
The door swung closed behind him with an echoing bang.
For a few heartbeats there was silence. "The main matter, then," Impa said, shifting in her seat. "I have made this meeting a general assembly because of what it concerns: the phantom Dark Link is abroad again. By rights this is a matter for all the Sheikah to hear and discuss." A ripple of unease spread through the gathering; many faces looked shocked, or fearful. Zelda turned again to face the dais and pricked her ears. This was it.
But Lazuli was the one who spoke next, not Impa. She leaned forward, resting her elbow on the arm of the chair, and fixed them all three with a hard-eyed stare. "We hear that you and your companions were responsible for unleashing the phantom from his prison. Is this true?"
Straight to the point.
"It's true," Zelda said.
Amidst the renewed murmurs, Lazuli's voice rang out strong and powerful. "Why was this done? Please explain."
She opened her mouth, but Link beat her to it. "It was an accident," he said simply. "We didn't know what we were doing until we'd done it. We had no idea what the mirror was, or what it held."
"And you claim that Dark Link has since been helping you." There was a weight of contempt in her voice.
"Yes," he said.
There was a moment of utter silence. "It is not possible," Lazuli said, leaning back.
Angrily, Sofia jumped in. "Why not?"
The woman shrugged, looking almost bored by the question; to her it was a self-evident truth. "Nothing created by Ganon's magic will ever act against him. Especially not Dark Link! We of the shadow people know Dark Link--we know what he is capable of. If he ever apparently 'helped' you in any way, it would have been to further his master's ends."
Link flinched suddenly; Zelda turned in alarm and saw him gripping his arm in pain; he smiled at her, but his face was white and drawn.
"I apologise, Hero," Impa said. "You are not yet recovered. We will fetch you a chair." She raised her hand.
"No," he said, and took a breath. "I'm all right." He straightened up and stepped forward to stand directly before the thrones, facing the three. "Listen--about Dark. What you say--that was true in the beginning, when we first met him. I don't argue with that. But he changed. We started seeing a different side to him... I'd say I've got to know him better than anyone, and I don't think he's all bad."
"He deceived you," Lazuli said. "There is no shame in it--after all, he is very much older than the three of you, and he has great cunning. Think it over, Hero, and see truly. At the first opportunity he abandoned you all to return to his master."
"The first? No--more like the last. And he fought it as long as he could." Link stood straight and firm now with no sign of pain, and there was a strange power in him; Zelda, watching silently, could not recognise this intent stranger with the calm, carrying voice. "All I can say is, he saved me. It's not that he didn't have the opportunity--he did, absolutely, and he refused to kill me. More than that, he helped me escape the Temple--pretty much carried me out of it, given the state I was in. I freely admit to you that I wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for him. And I doubt very much that Ganon would have approved of what he did."
"There is nothing to discuss," Lazuli said. "We cannot permit this. To venture into that place in search of him would be certain death--you have lost him; you must simply accept it and move on."
"What if it was one of you?" Sofia demanded suddenly; her voice sliced the air with biting fury. "One of your friends or loved ones? Would you just give up, then?"
"We would grieve for our loss. As we have done before. Many of our people have died cruel deaths in that place over the years." The woman spoke with icy disdain, her low voice cutting through the increasing clamor in the room. "I cannot understand how the three of you can stand before us and defend such a creature, let alone compare it to a friend. You have no comprehension of what you are dealing with. Has the memory of Kasuto been forgotten in the world above? What of the deaths which sparked the third Triforce War? What of the murders which preceded the last Hero's quest? Under your own Hylian law his crimes beggar belief--I doubt your courts could ever come up with a punishment great enough to atone for them. And this is one you would call friend. It is delusion, or obscenity."
Sofia drew in a breath; Zelda winced, seeing the explosion about to come; but Link stopped her in her tracks by simply raising his hand. "Leave Dark for a minute," he said, looking calmly at the woman. "We've got something else to worry about--Carock. I've heard everything so far about how evil Dark is, and nothing about what Carock might be getting out of this. And I suspect that Carock might be more important."
Zelda could almost sense the ruffled feathers settling. The room became still again.
"Go on, Hero," Impa said. "We will hear you."
"He has the Shadow Amulet now. It was his once, wasn't it? What can he do with it?"
There was a pause that was slightly too long. "I do not know."
"Really?" Link said. "All right, I'll guess. We've no idea what these things can do, let alone how to use them, but he obviously does. The six Amulets together unlock the Dark World, somehow. Could you loose the Seals with just one of them, if you knew what you were doing?"
She was shaking her head. "No. It cannot be done."
He rocked idly back and forth on the balls of his feet. "But?" he said simply.
She remained silent.
"But something can come through, can it not?" He glanced at Zelda for a moment; his eyes were cool and opaque; he had shut himself away from her now. "Like what happened in the Imprisoning War. This all seems to lead back to the Imprisoning War, every time. Ganon's spirit was called back by his priests, placed in the boar. Carock would have been there. And so would Dark. So tell me now--what did they use to do it?"
"Is this going anywhere, Hero?" Lazuli said sharply.
He closed his eyes for a moment. "Carock is planning something over there, and I suspect it involves Dark. A new Imprisoning War is how he put it. Look at that any way you like, it still isn't good news. What I can't figure out is what--" With a sigh he raised his hand to push back his hair, an unconscious agitated gesture--then froze.
"What?" Zelda said.
He was staring at his bandaged hand, held out now at arm's length. All color had drained from his face. "Should have given your courage up when you had the chance..." he whispered, the words barely audible.
"Are you all right?" Sofia asked urgently.
It seemed to cost him some effort to break free from whatever had been holding him; he drew in a long breath, and closed his eyes for a moment, looking terribly weary.
"Carock's after the Triforce of Power. That's what he wants, that's why he's gotten involved in this. The Medallion... and Dark, they're the keys. Because Dark has a link with Ganon, and the Medallion can open a pathway. He thinks he can use them both to get the Triforce back from Ganon--"
He was shouted down; the room erupted in argument.
After the angry heat of the meeting, the corridor seemed very quiet and cool. The three of them walked together for a little while in silence; they had nothing to say to each other, were still numb from the scene that they had left. Impa had not sent them a guide this time, but it was not difficult to retrace their steps.
At a junction of two corridors they paused for a moment, by mutual unspoken consent.
"What is going on with your hand, anyway?" Sofia said, as if taking up the thread of a previous conversation.
Link just lifted one shoulder, as if he were too tired even to make it into a proper shrug. "I don't know. Or rather, I think I know and wish I don't."
She folded her arms across her chest, frustrated. "You're getting as bad as Dark--can't you give us a straight answer?"
"I'm going to have a look round," he said. "Meet me back at the sleeping-room, all right?
They watched him walk away, moving stiffly with a slight limp.
"Nothing's ever going to be the same, is it?" Zelda asked quietly, when he had gone.
Sofia was silent for a moment; then she sighed and turned away. "Come on. Let's get back."
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