Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 89
I FEEL something," Sofia said, her voice quiet. "Is it just me?"
"I don't think it's just you," Zelda answered in a tone that was equally calm and controlled. Only the nervous flicking of her eyes betrayed her true feelings.
They were sitting down for a few minutes to catch their breath; the way ran upwards now, quite steeply, and it was hard going. The atmosphere down here was oppressive--no, it had been merely oppressive before. There was something else at work now, some huge malevolent presence overlying everything. The cat stalked stiff-legged and bristling; occasionally she snapped her jaws at air, as if biting at a fly that only she could see.
At a bridge over a chasm a few minutes before, they had come finally to the end of Vaati's knowledge--not that it mattered now, for their path ran straight and clear, upwards into the heart of that great invisible cloud. The boy had dropped back from his leading position, but he had flatly refused to leave them; he sat quietly crosslegged in their circle now, ears pricked forward to listen, and one hand resting lightly on the cat's back. There was dirt on his pale face, and the delicate vine-paintings were smudged.
Link paid no attention to the conversation; his mind was entirely focused on his right hand. He let it lie loose in his lap and kept his head down, breathed slow and deep. Every beat of his heart brought an answering thud of pain. He felt sick and dazed and feverish.
The girls brought out a water-bottle; when it got to him he looked at it stupidly for a moment, unable to work out what it was or where it had come from. "No," he said. "I'm all right." He passed it on to Vaati, who looked at him oddly for a moment before drinking. Link closed his eyes and tried to slip back into the trance, where he didn't have to think, where there was nothing except the rhythm of his pain.
A cool hand touched his face, annoyingly, and pulled him back to awareness of the world. He jerked away in some anger. Zelda was crouching close by, looking at him; her features swam in the light as if there were a heat-haze between them. Her eyes were huge and frightened, cornflower-blue. "You're burning up," she said, and turned away from him. "We'll have to go back." Her voice was shrill and painful to his ears.
"Leave me alone," he said. He heaved himself to his feet, but the floor moved; he fell back awkwardly and cracked his elbow on the stony ground. Hands came down on him again; he fought them off, forced himself back up and stumbled away a few paces. Then it was easier to keep going than to stop. He made his way along the tunnel, blundering along the walls towards the source of the pain, the center of the abscess.
Zelda again, grabbing at him. "Link, don't be a fool--"
"Leave me alone!" He shoved her away, hard into the tunnel wall, and it worked this time. They fell back and let him go.
Movement cleared his head a little. After a few more paces he stopped and stood still, swaying on his feet. The tunnel walls shimmered.
This is... not right...
"Like what happened to Kleox," someone said behind him, whispering. "Should I do something?"
Poison, he thought clearly. I've eaten poison...
He folded up, quite gracefully.
Consciousness returned slowly, and with it the knowledge that he had been sick. Someone had cleaned his face with water, but he could still smell it, sour and acrid. The front of his shirt was damp. He opened his eyes and looked up into Zelda's worried face. Her loose hair hung down in lank strings; she'd tucked some of it back behind her ears, but it had escaped. There were dark shadows under her eyes, and a redness on her forehead just starting to bruise. Shame flooded over him as he remembered what he'd done.
"Sorry..." he croaked. His throat felt burned. "I'm sorry..."
She looked down at him intently, biting her lip. "Are you all right?"
He swallowed, painfully, and sat up. After a moment he said, "I don't know." It was only the truth. His hand hurt, and there were cobwebs in the corners of his vision. "I think it's started."
"We have to hurry." He made to stand--but a hand came down on his shoulder, hard, forcing him back down.
"I've had enough of this," Sofia said calmly, crouching beside him. Her voice was quiet but there was steel in it. "No more secrets, Link. Something's happening to you and I want to know the truth. Now. Don't try to wriggle out of it."
"I don't think we've got time--"
"We have enough time, if you stop wasting it and talk."
No way out now. He drew in a long, shaky breath.
"I think it's the Triforce--the Triforce of Power. I... think... I can sense it, somehow. Feel its presence."
She sat back on her heels, regarding him; her golden eyes were flat and cool. Behind her, Zelda and Vaati shifted nervously, wide-eyed and confused. The cat snarled at air.
"What's that got to do with your hand?" Sofia said.
He looked at her for a long time, then dropped his head, defeated. His right hand lay limp in his lap, the fingers loosely curled. He felt oddly detached from it. There were still scabs and healing scrapes on his fingers; the bandage was gray with grime. He reached across and began to pick at the knot. It was difficult, without a thumbnail on his left; he caught the scab on the rough fabric and it instantly began to bleed, a thin silver trickle of pain that momentarily drowned out everything else. He winced and jerked his left away, shaking it; and Sofia reached out instead and loosed the knot for him, silently.
They sat all together in the tunnel as she began to unwind the dressing. Nobody spoke. Vaati had his arm around the cat's shoulders; he watched with his intense Sheikah stare. His eyes were like drops of dark blood, reflecting only the lantern light, revealing nothing.
Link knew what would be there. He'd known ever since that moment in the meeting hall--maybe even before then. This was his coming-of-age year; he'd be eighteen.
The last shred of bandage fell away, and Zelda drew in a sharp breath, as if something pained her. "Oh, Link," she said shakily.
Cool air on his hot skin made him shiver. The bruise he'd had for months was fading at last, into patchy shades of yellow and green. And there it was revealed beneath, gleaming with a faint metallic sheen on the back of his hand: a triple triangle. It might have been a tattoo, if people ever got tattoos in liquid gold.
He closed his eyes, turned his head away. He didn't want to look at it.
Sofia said, "What does it mean?"
Zelda, tense and worried: "It means he's the Hero--Link First's heir."
"I think we knew that!"
"Look, pretend I know nothing, all right?" There was a deep resentment in her tone, an anger that had been growing for a long time. "I didn't grow up in Hyrule--I don't know your myths and legends. So just tell me, in simple terms--"
"It means I've got a Triforce," he said tiredly. "Inside me."
They think you have something... Something they want very much...
This choice is offered to you and you alone. Because of who you are, and what you bear within you...
He stood up. The dizziness was gone now, as was most of the pain; he just felt light-headed and immensely tired. He began to walk, and they got up and followed him silently.
That wasn't all that Link Fourth had said, under the hawthorn tree. One of us is going to die today, he thought. He knew now that it was true, and that there was nothing at all he could do about it. He'd made his choice; he'd have to see it through.
Vaati had not said a word throughout the whole scene. Link could feel the boy's gaze now, cool and thoughtful on his back.
Kleox sensed it again even before he reached the bottom of the stair: the pull, stronger now. Ah, you're back are you? it seemed to say, though he knew logically that it wasn't aware of him at all in that sense. Well, come along then, get a move on. I haven't got all day.
He went cautiously through the field of stalactites, ever mindful of the possibility that the Sheikah had left guards, but nobody challenged him. Probably they felt they'd scared him off sufficiently.
Remember this, the woman said, if you're found down here again, we'll kill you. Would he feel anything when the bolt struck home? Would it burn him like it had done to the Floormaster? What would that be like, to be burned from the inside?
"Lost my Din-cursed mind," he grumbled bitterly.
He broke into a run when he reached the stream--not a wild sprint that would tire him, but the long loping stride of the efficient hunter, a gait that wasted no energy. He'd been good at that once, in the old days; he'd run down deer over five, ten miles, made the kill every time. Trick was just to keep going, slow and steady--you didn't have to outrun the quarry, just keep it running from you. The satchel and its contents rattled on his back; he carried his sword drawn in one clawed hand, and the lantern clutched tightly in the other. Its bluegreen undersea light flashed on seams of metal in the tunnel walls as he jogged by.
Silence and stillness. He ran on steadily, pacing himself, his breath coming in harsh puffs from his throat. He passed the place where his guards had sat down to rest; there was a scrap of cloth discarded on the ground, a wrapping left from their food. The dark stream widened slowly and became a river; the hard rock floor became pebbles, then gravel, and at last a fine gray silt that sucked at his feet and tried to trip him. Cold mud spattered his legs at every step. The call grew steadily stronger, and he had to force himself to keep a steady pace.
He passed several carved eye symbols, but saw no living thing, not even worms in the muck. He guessed now that those eye symbols marked a part of the Underworld under Sheikah control, that they took steps to remove any monsters that happened to trespass on their territory. Perhaps they'd simply missed him this time. Or perhaps they were watching him even now, saving him for later, to make an example out of him, the stupid animal that had been spared once by whim but had dashed straight back into the same trap. It didn't make any difference--he ran on anyway. He had to.
It was only when he had no more land to run on that he did, finally, stop. His path led him down along a barren, stony ridge, and at last to a gray shore of brittle shards, edged by shifting darkness that was not water. He stood there in his little bubble of light, dragging in long painful breaths through a dry mouth, wondering what to do next. The relentless call was drawing him further out, into the dark lake, but in a rational state of mind there was no way he was setting foot in that stuff. He couldn't even swim in normal water.
The terrible temple was not in sight. There was merely him, and rocks, and endless, suffocating darkness. He could go left from here, or he could go right. Neither way appealed.
What am I doing here? he thought miserably. He hadn't thought much about anything while running; now, with his path blocked, he had leisure to reflect on his stupidity. He'd been out, damn it. He'd been free...
Standing on that black shore, all alone, he came as close to despair as he had ever come in his life. He was going to die down here. He'd bring the Amulet to Sepultura, and Sepultura would kill him. If he was sure of anything in the world, he was sure of that. And yet what else could he do--go back? He couldn't go back.
The darkness that was not water rippled slowly by. He stared down at it and thought about simply jumping in. Was it more like water or air--would he drown in there, or simply fall?
Suddenly, he was aware of a presence. It felt like the warmth of sunlight on his left side--his blind side. He turned swiftly, instinctively ready for battle, and saw her, some ten or twelve paces away.
It was the woman from the graveyard.
Except she wasn't cold stone any more. She was made entirely of light, a warm buttercup yellow, shimmering in the darkness. Her hair and gown rippled in a wind he could not feel.
He gaped, just managing to retain the lantern in fingers that were suddenly slack.
Her eyes glowed like stars. She turned her head and looked at him for a long moment with the hair whipping around her sad face, then turned away again. She began to dwindle and recede, her form breaking apart like smoke in the wind.
He was never sure why he did it, unless it was that down here, even a ghost's company was better than none at all. He cried out to her.
"Wait! Wait for me--I'm coming!"
The woman was no more than a speck; she winked out completely before he had gone three paces. Had he imagined it? It didn't matter--he was moving now anyway, running, smashing the fragile shards of slate under his hard feet with every step. The lantern bounced in his free hand and threw mad shadows over the boulders littering the shore.
The woman did not reappear. He kept going anyway. This way was as good as any.
Some twenty minutes later he found the boat.
It was tipped on its side, a couple of feet away from the waterline: a small rowboat of black wood, elegantly shaped but without decoration. He stopped and stared at it for a long time. The wood was very fine-grained, smooth and unreflective: in the lantern's light it looked as if it had been cut out of darkness itself.
A boat. Just lying there waiting for him. How convenient.
He came over to it slowly, with suspicion, alert for the possibilities of a trap. All was still. Shards broke like pottery under his feet; he winced as a fragment nipped him, finding a soft spot between two scales. The pain was small and easily ignored.
There was a scent, faint but familiar. He flicked out his tongue and tasted it. Link. Old blood, and a whiff of the cat. He never forgot a scent. He recalled the story the boy had told on the shore, and an odd feeling swept over him. A strange coincidence, this, that he should have been led to just this place.
He set the boat upright with a heave, and wrestled it out into the lake. It floated, firm as a rock. He threw the satchel in, then his sword, then climbed in awkwardly with the lantern and sat down on the single seat. The boat slid out onto the glassy dark.
Sitting there, he had a nagging sense that he'd forgotten something; when it clicked, he leaped up in alarm. There was no oar, no rudder, no visible means of propulsion. He'd set himself adrift with no means of controlling his course. In his fright he grabbed at the sides, thinking that he might still be able to leap back to land, but the boat rocked alarmingly and he had to sit back down again in a hurry. The shore faded swiftly into shadow.
The boat gathered speed, gliding through the night. He fiddled with the lantern, putting the shutter up, then down. Agitation made his hands awkward and clumsy. No way to get off now--he was trapped.
You've done it again, you idiot, he thought. Probably headed straight over a waterfall, the way this current's going.
Except that the current, such as it was, was going the other way. The boat was traveling against it; very faintly he could see ripples in the black shadow-stuff spreading back from the bow. Somehow, he suspected that this boat wouldn't tip him over a cataract. No, he suspected that this boat would take him directly to the one place he didn't want to be, the one place he'd come down here to find.
Either he'd gone stark raving mad, or something very peculiar was going on. It could well be both. In any case events were out of his control now; he had nothing left to do but go where chance took him. There was a strange kind of comfort in that thought. He put down the lantern, made himself as comfortable as he could on the board seat, and settled down to wait.
Sepultura was not accustomed to brutal handling. Sitting awkwardly on the cold stone floor, shivering in her tattered gown, she nursed the bruises on her arms and fought not to show her fear. The two Stalfos who had brought her here stood over her, dark and threatening, but their attention was fixed on the tall, graceful figure of their master--who ignored her utterly. He was preening himself, scratching at a smudge on the sleeve of his silk tunic.
He was stronger than her. She had very rarely found herself in a position where another held power over her, and she was desperately frightened of him now.
The throne room was subtly changed from the last time she had been here--but not, she thought, improved. Lamps glittered, lighting up the shadowed corners of the room; hangings stirred in the cold air; rich perfumes made a heady, choking atmosphere. Carock seemed to have no concept of moderation there--there were four or five censers dispersed throughout the room, each smoldering with a different incense. Though each might have been pleasant on its own, the effect of all the mingled odors was revolting: sweet and sick, like overblown, rotting fruit. She breathed through her mouth.
There were only half a dozen Stalfos here now; he had sent most of his monsters below, to prepare. They would strip away all trace of Ganon's presence in this place, so that their new lord might take his throne in an unsullied atmosphere. She could hear hammers below, and an occasional ripple of jeering laughter as some monument came crashing down. And yet there was an uneasiness throughout the Temple--this was sacrilege, and all knew it. Even if Carock did not seem to feel it, her two guards did. They shifted uneasily, scuffing their feet; fiddled with belts and the hilts of their great swords. They sensed the gathering clouds.
Something happened out in the hall--there was a commotion. She looked up sharply and her eyes narrowed. Gomez entered with slow ceremony; another pair of Stalfos came in behind, dragging Dark between them. Their armor rattled as they stood to attention.
Carock turned, smiling his brilliant smile, and held out both his hands--the gesture of hospitality and welcome. "Good morning, my friend, how are you? I trust you spent a pleasant night?" His warm, jovial tones fell flat in the smoky, oppressive room, like a discordant note in a tune. Dark raised his head and looked at him, very slowly. There was something wolfish in the way he watched.
"He had a knife, my lord," Gomez said in its dry-leaf voice. "As you said. Concealed beneath his sleeve, on his right arm." It drifted forward a pace and held the object out by the blade: a small silvery thing with a handle of carved bone.
Carock reached out and took it delicately between two long-nailed fingers. He held it out at arm's length, watching the way the light struck it as it turned. Then he sighed, passed his other hand over it and made it disappear. "Is that it?" he said. Dark made no answer, merely looked with that cold unblinking stare; his face was emotionless. "Weak," Carock said, and turned away, turned to face Sepultura where she sat. His eyes were bright spots of color in a pale, perfectly made-up face; the violet curls gleamed sleekly in the flickering light. "Even for you, my dear young lady, that's weak. What was he supposed to do with that little thing--trim my nails?"
It's worked--he suspects nothing! She fought not to reveal her triumph.
He gazed down at her for a moment more, then spun away from her on his heel, throwing out one arm so that the fur cloak billowed out dramatically. "Do it," he said.
Dark did not fight as they dragged him towards the dais, but neither did he go willingly; they had to drag him bodily along. He turned his head a little and looked at her, or seemed to look in her direction at least. Her heart leaped.
Carock was coming back towards her, stepping with deliberate, choreographed grace. His bootheels made sharp clicks on the stone flags. She looked up unwillingly, into his face, and could not hide the shudder that went through her when her eyes met his. He saw it and made a slow, beautiful smile.
"Well, my dear young lady. And what are we to do with you now?"
She rose slowly to her feet, gathering the shreds of her dignity. Her captors did not force her back down, though she had half expected them to do so. "I am charged with a message, my lord," she said quietly, and was heartened when her voice rang out with strong authority; even Gomez turned from its work on the ground before the throne, and listened. "You have treated me shamefully, and worse, you have disrespected our King. He is not well disposed towards you currently, but in recognition of your services over the years he will offer you one last chance. Carock--it is not too late."
There was something in his eyes then--something very old. "It was too late for me a very long time ago," he said coldly. "If that is all you have to say--"
"I have said all I need, my lord."
"Good. Then Brittle, would you and your companion escort the lady outside, please? Make sure she doesn't interfere any further."
That wasn't in the plan! He laughed at her shock, at the way she struggled when their cold bone claws snapped tight around her shoulders.
"My love, I'm not Ganon! Did you expect to get a front-row seat? No, much as I'd enjoy an appreciative audience, I'm a practical fellow at heart. You'd try to distract me at a critical moment, or something similarly boring." He turned away again, flicked his hand lazily towards the door. "Gomez--"
They bundled her out, immune to her struggles and shrieks. In the doorway she managed to resist for a moment, to glance back, and her eyes found Dark's as he was pinned down. She had expected to see something in his face--alarm at the least, given the sudden alteration to what they had agreed. But there was nothing there at all. She had noted the change in him last night, when they had made their plans--but it was marked now. He showed no more emotion than a stone.
The boat traveled swiftly; Kleox could feel the breeze rushing over him, cold and damp, tinted with that scent of rot and mushrooms that he'd come to think of as the Underworld stink. He stood up on the boards, balancing carefully with his tail, and watched the green flames draw nearer in the night.
By Din, the place was huge. It rose up out of the lake like a sheer-sided mountain, lit patchily by the blue-green beacons dotted around the base. There were no windows--what would you want to look at, in the dark of the Underworld? The boat turned towards a thin gray strip of shore, and he leaned forward suddenly, urgently, and cursed under his breath. Shapes were silhouetted on the jetty, tiny against the towering pillars of flame which lit the scene. Stalfos. Hers? No way to tell, until he got close enough to speak to them, and he didn't want to do that.
The boat, however, didn't seem inclined to give him a choice. It kept on smoothly, gliding straight as a spear-shaft towards the landing stage and the two figures that sauntered idly up and down. He swore at the boat, then hit it with the side of his fist, but nothing he did to it had any effect. The shore was getting larger by the second. At last he closed the lantern's shutter tight and squatted down as low as he could in the bottom of the boat, every muscle taut with fear and anticipation.
The looming beacon lit the landing stage in underwater green. Luck was with him in at least one respect: the boat drifted into the shadow of the jetty while the Stalfos had their backs turned. He felt the bottom grind softly on sand or gravel. All motion ceased. He was partly under the jetty, an easy jump to the shore--and the Stalfos were not three feet away. From where he crouched he could have reached up and touched their ankles.
They weren't Sepultura's. These fellows were old, battle-scarred; the rumbling voices were tinted with an accent so archaic he could barely make any sense of their words. He caught familiar names, though: Carock, and then Dark Link.
They only had to turn their heads a little to see him cowering here. He did not even dare reach for his sword hilt in case one of them picked up the movement. Could he take two at once? Probably, if they were no better than Sepultura's lot. He suspected they would be better. He could take one by surprise perhaps, but not without raising a cry.
Then, without warning, they turned and strolled together off the jetty, still chatting.
He hadn't realised he'd been holding his breath. He let it out slowly now with an effort of will and tried to quell the shakes that swept his body.
There was no-one and nothing else in sight on the shore. He waited another minute anyway, to be sure, and then sprang out of the boat to land heavily on black sand. The crunching of the fine grains froze him to the spot again, but no cry sounded. He scrambled up and fled, sprinting up the slope in his haste to get up against the walls. Once within the building's shadow he pressed himself for a moment against cold stone, gulping air. No sound of pursuit. He reached back and drew his sword, and it slid from the scabbard with barely a whisper; he'd had plenty of practice at that in the mines. He turned and slunk away along the wall, keeping his body low--one shadow among others.
Link's door proved difficult to find. The Temple was huge, larger even than he'd thought on first seeing it when it was shrouded in the dark. He rounded the corner of the building after some time and headed on along one of the side-walls, moving swiftly and openly now. The wall was sheer and sloped slightly inward; the surface was rough and unpolished. He could probably have climbed up it, had there been anything on that featureless face to climb up to.
He nearly missed it. There were alcoves interspersed at regular intervals, and he had already gone by, striding with anxious haste, before he took in the slightly different texture of the shadow.
The door was low and rounded, made of that smooth dark wood that seemed so common here. There was no handle, just a rough hole for a key. He touched a claw to the fine-grained surface and found it cold, unpleasant to the touch. He pushed slightly, then used more force.
"--and there again, captain. Seest thou the prints?"
Quick as thought, he had folded himself into the inadequate shelter of the alcove, and was pressed against the door, hardly daring to breathe. They came along the shore together with slow unhurried steps, pointing here and there at the ground. He saw his mistake then. The sand was smooth from the tide; the marks of his feet were clear as day in the beacons' cool green light, leading them straight to him.
Damned door! He shoved his back against it, hoping desperately that it would somehow give without making any sound to alert them. It did not.
They stopped, only a couple of yards away. Now, with a beacon close by, he could see them clearly, and they were a very different prospect to Sepultura's ragged thugs. They wore armor--and clean, sound, well-cared for chain at that, with black tabards edged in gold, bearing an unfamiliar insignia: a smiling-frowning mask with strange designs around the eyes. The swords on their hips had ornately tooled hilts. One, slightly taller, wore a helm with a crest that presumably marked him out as of rank. They might have been a pair of gentleman soldiers, hired guards to some stylish noble, if not for the grinning skull-faces lit with inner fire.
The captain turned his head and looked directly into the alcove.
No point trying to hide any further. He tightened his grip on the hilt of his own sword, drew a breath and stepped out, into the light.
"A Lizalfos," the captain said. His tone was worryingly neutral. "Thou art a long way from the surface, beast-born. What dost thou here?"
Flustered by the flickering witch-fire gaze, he told the truth. "I... I'm looking for someone..."
"Thou wast summoned?" There was a cold note in the Stalfos's voice now. The skull-face nodded to one side, as if the speaker wished to motion to his companion: mark this well.
"'Twas to be expected," said the other, shrugging. "We here felt it soon enough. Others will come."
He watched them narrowly, alert for the first movement, the tiny shift that would come before the lunge. They glanced toward each other again and seemed to come to an accord. Not worth the effort.
"Thou art not welcome here," the first Stalfos said. The tension went out of him: he stood back casually, one gauntleted hand resting on the hilt of his sword. "Nor wilt thou find thy King. Get thee gone."
Is that it? They were warning him off? He stared from one to the other, then slowly began to back away. Relief sapped the strength from his muscles; his legs trembled under him.
"Wait." It was the captain who spoke, and the single word was like a steel trap snapping shut. The flames of his eyes thinned to needle-points. "What is in the bag?"
He'd forgotten he was carrying it. His face must have told his sudden alarm, for they both moved as one, drawing their swords. "Open it," the captain said.
Here it came. He threw the useless lantern down--he didn't need it anyway in this clear light--and raised his own sword in a two-handed grip. They paused at that, and stared; they hadn't expected any resistance. Then, without any further discussion, they came at him together, calm and murderously efficient.
He backed off quickly, trying to prevent them from flanking him, but it was a futile exercise. One sword flashed; he turned it, and barely dodged the other. The blows hadn't been intended to wound, but simply to test him. He ducked another more deadly slash, knowing that there was no way to win this. They moved apart so that they could come at him from both sides. In another breath they would have the measure of him, and he'd be cut down.
The light came from behind him, sudden as a flare, drowning the underwater green and lighting the beach in brilliant yellow. A soundless whump shivered the air. In that stark radiance his attackers flinched back and raised their hands to shield their faces. "Din--!" He was never sure which one had made that startled exclamation, for in the next instant they crumpled into two mounds of expensive armor and old stained bones. A lifeless skull rolled away. The gleaming swords thudded on the sand; one stuck point-first and remained upright, wobbling slightly.
A breeze stirred and brought a scent of rain and summer. The woman glided by and drifted into the alcove, passing straight through the door, which shriveled at her touch like a silk screen caught by flame. Her light flickered and faded as she passed into the Temple, and once more she was gone.
For a moment all he could do was stand there, staring at the twin piles on the sand, and trying to fathom what had just happened. Slowly he reached back and sheathed his sword.
Link had no idea how far they had come, wandering through cavern after cavern, struggling through tight fissures in the stone. They were under the Temple now at least; he was sure of that. He pulled his sleeve down over his right hand and tried not to feel anything any more, ever. The sickness was gone now, but it had been replaced by something that seemed worse: a thunderstorm tension that made the air feel solid around him, so that he struggled for breath. The golden mark burned more strongly with every step he took.
He was leading them. Nobody had spoken for a long while, since that scene in the tunnel--he had the impression that they were a little scared of him right now. Well, he was scared of himself at the moment, so there was nothing strange in that.
A mound of rubble blocked the narrow way. He climbed over it, wincing as his half-healed wounds strained beneath the bandages. On the other side of the blockage the path straggled on for a few more yards, sandy and rough, before coming to an abrupt halt at a wall streaked with many-layered rusty stains. Dead end. He straightened up, his lips forming a curse--and paused with the word unsaid. The stain marks led his eye upwards, to an opening in the ceiling covered by an iron grate that was also thick with rust. It was the first man-made thing they had seen since entering the caves.
"I hope that's not bolted down," Sofia said as she pushed past him. He followed her, the sand crunching under his feet. As he stepped out into the narrow space beneath the bars, a cold breeze washed down over him and he scented: blood, iron and a lingering hint of some sweet perfume. Oh no. Oh Farore no. Not here.
"I don't think it's--give it a shove--"
"The stone's all crumbly round the edge, look, maybe we can force it--"
The girls were working at it together now, without casting so much as a glance in his direction. Sofia balanced precariously on a boulder to set her back against the bars; Zelda reached out to steady her. He shivered and swallowed hard, then, as Prowl touched her nose to his hand, he knelt swiftly beside her and wrapped his arms around her neck, desperate for a distraction.
"I think I've--umph!" A screeching of metal on stone. "All right, give me a leg up..."
I can't, oh Farore I can't... why did it have to be here? Please no, get me out of here...
"Are you coming?" Vaati's voice. He opened his eyes; the boy stood alone beneath the opening, shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot.
He tried to smile, but suspected the result would look more like a rictus grin: Vaati certainly did not seem comforted by it. "Yes, I'm coming, Vaati. I just need a minute to catch my breath..."
Vaati gazed at him for a long moment, inscrutable, then nodded and turned away. The ceiling was low, but he was still too short to reach the gap on his own, and hands reached down from the opening to help him through.
After a little while Prowl nudged at him and made a soft yowl, an interrogative cry. Well, aren't you going too?
He stood up and walked over to the grating. The girls peered down at him with anxious eyes: two heads against the shadowed opening. "Do you want a hand up?" Zelda said.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it isn't...
He reached up, and caught hold of the lip of the hole. Pulling himself through was beyond him; they saw his difficulty and hauled him up, as gently as they could, though despite their care he felt some of the cuts on his back cracking open again. And then he was lying on his belly on a cool stone floor.
The room was not a large one. It was circular like a drum, some eight or ten paces across, and hewn entirely out of the solid rock--a natural cave converted to a cellar, perhaps. An odd system of grooves carved into the floor led to the grating through which they had climbed, which it seemed now was some sort of drainage system. Without their lanterns it would have been very dark--there was only the distant glimmer of a torch through the half-open metal door. Brownish crusty stains marred the floor, clogged the channels around the drain. The only furnishings were a rickety table shoved against the wall, and two lengths of strong chain suspended from iron rings in the ceiling. They swung softly, jingling.
Silent and powerful, Prowl erupted from the hole in the floor and landed foursquare, skidding slightly on the smooth stone. She made no sound, but the fur on her shoulders was spiked, her ears flattened against her skull.
He pushed himself up on his hands and knees, then crouched. He was shaking too much to stand. "Get me out of here," he whispered. "Please..." Shame flooded him at what he had been reduced to--begging them like a child.
Zelda was looking around with narrowed eyes. She made the connection and rose smoothly to her feet, her face calm and set. "The door," she said. Vaati was already there; he pushed at it, swinging the huge weight outwards with an effort, glanced both ways, then turned back and gave a curt nod.
Sofia knelt, took his arm over her shoulders and lifted him. With Zelda on his other side he was able to get his feet under him, take a little of his weight. They helped him out into the corridor and he sank down against the wall. Vaati heaved the door to again, cutting off the view of the room, and Link found that he could think again. His hand was on fire; he nursed it. "Sorry..." he mumbled through numb lips.
"Don't you dare apologise." Zelda's voice was icy, but there were two spots of color high on her cheeks, and her eyes flashed in the gloom. "Don't you dare, Link. I won't have it." She stood up again in one fluid movement, turned her back and moved away. She still carried a lantern in one hand; the other had come to rest now on the hilt of her small sword. He stared for a moment, taken aback, then glanced the other way and met Sofia's eye. She made a tight smile.
"I wouldn't give much for Carock's chances right now, if she catches him. Would you?"
"Don't joke about that," he whispered back; he knew she had meant well, but his heart had gone cold in his chest at the thought of Zelda, his Zelda, in the hands of Carock.
Sofia gave him a peculiar look, not pitying exactly, but incisive. "Sometimes joking's the only way to stay sane. Can you stand now?"
He could, he realised; the shakes had abated. He got to his feet, stiffly, and brushed dirt from the back of his borrowed Sheikah tunic. "All right," he said.
"Where now?" Zelda asked without turning. She was looking down the dim corridor, past the inadequate light of the torch, to where a flight of worn stone steps rose up into darkness. They were alone here, but there were sounds: bumps, rattles, distant voices echoing through the corridors.
The stairs. He'd been dragged up those stairs--
I won't think about that now, he told himself. Later, all right? I'll pay it later, whatever price needs to be paid. Right now I have to concentrate, so lay off.
"The throne room," he said. "That's where it'll be. We have to get to the throne room. There's only one way in and I'm pretty certain it'll be crawling with monsters."
The girls looked at each other for a moment. "Oh, well," Zelda said. "Let's get going then."
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