Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 90
THERE was an instant in which the whole Temple seemed to pause and become breathless; time was a wheel balanced upon a needle's point. Sepultura and her guards were halfway down a flight of stairs when it hit--the two Stalfos staggered and let go of her, but she was too shocked and startled herself to take any advantage of their weakness.
The feeling passed. She braced herself against a wall and raised her head slowly; joy filled her. All was forgotten in one instant of savage rapture. "He's here..." she whispered.
The guards were already recovering, though they looked shaken; one stepped forward and caught at her arm again. "That is as may be, Lady," he said coldly, forcing her down a few more steps. "It is none of your concern."
"Fools!" she spat at them. She was frightened of nothing in this glorious moment. "Will you still cling to your upstart prince? Turn now and he may still spare you!"
They were in a long hall now; her captors moved swiftly with her between them, forcing her to trot. They exchanged glances over her head. "Our allegiance is to Carock," the second Stalfos said after a moment. "He who raised us from the long sleep in darkness. We owe nothing to your king."
His tone did not allow for any further discussion. Even so she would have tried; she drew in a breath.
It was a casual backhand slap, but the power in it knocked her flat on her back. It astounded her. She sprawled there on the tiled floor, cold searing her body through the fragile fabric of her gown, and stared up wordlessly. There was blood in her mouth, hot and sweet. She was numb; her world did not allow for such things to happen.
They loomed over her, huge and fire-eyed. "No more of this, Lady," the commander said. "Hold your tongue, or it will be worse for you in the end."
"What do you mean?" she asked, and her voice suddenly sounded very small and shrill. "Where are you taking me?"
"The Room of Pain," he said matter-of-factly, as he reached down to haul her to her feet.
She kicked out--it was an instinctive reaction, born of fear--and caught him a lucky blow on the forehead. It did little damage; indeed it probably hurt her more, given that his skull was very hard and her slippers very thin--but it did knock him off balance so that he sat down hard. She rolled, evading more grasping hands, and staggered to her feet. She had only taken three running steps before they brought her down. Then there were fists, and boots, and pain beyond anything she had ever felt in her life.
She took the light to be a hallucination at first--a soft golden glow filled her sight and brought a scent of summer into the dank and clammy hall. But the radiance kept growing, getting stronger. Her tormentors ceased to beat her and straightened up to look.
"What in Din's name is that?" Brittle's voice was hushed with uncomprehending wonder.
It drifted out of a side passage that had been invisible in the gloom: a shining, indistinct figure that trailed wisps and streamers of pure light. Frozen into a grim tableau--she flinching on the ground, the Stalfos crouching over her with fists raised--they stared all three as it crossed the hall before them. The golden light burned into every corner and crevice of the hallway, revealing bleak and ugly stone rafters that had hidden in darkness since the day they had been raised. An iridescent mosaic floor glittered suddenly beneath the dust and accumulated filth, in patterns of red and blue and gold.
The glowing thing reached the midpoint, and paused there. Slowly it turned its head towards them.
Sepultura, still sprawled on the floor, cried out and raised both hands to her face; the light was a searing, agonizing fire, and in that instant of burning brilliance she was certain that she had been struck blind. There was rattling around her: hollow things hitting the ground like a dropped armful of firewood. Frantically she rubbed at her eyes until the white began to fade. The hall swam back into focus. She could see, though painful tears were still streaming down her cheeks.
The golden light had faded away without a trace. The apparition had vanished. So had the Stalfos. She sat back on her heels and stared for a long time at an object lying close by on her left hand side and still rocking slightly from its fall. It was a skull, ancient, stained and bare of flesh.
A small sound brought her back to herself: the scrape of a foot on stone. There was light again behind her, but this time it was softer, blue-green. She turned her head.
Kleox stood silently at the edge of the hall, watching her. It was the lantern he carried that cast the pale greenish shine over the floor.
She pushed herself slowly to her feet and blotted tears away with the torn edge of her sleeve, suddenly conscious of how she must look. Anger filled her then, warm and sustaining--how dare he see her like this?
"Where have you been?" she demanded in freezing tones, turning to face him.
For a long moment he simply stood there with his lantern held loosely in a claw, looking her up and down. His expression was odd and unfamiliar to her--if anything, he looked vaguely puzzled, as if his attention was elsewhere. He wasn't even paying full attention to her. The insolence stoked her anger.
"What?" he said quietly. There was no challenge in his voice, but nor was there the slightest hint of deference; he spoke to her as if he were her equal, as if she had said something inexplicable.
And now--ah, now the old familiar rage was flooding in. She welcomed it, opened herself up to it. His fault, all of this was his fault, he'd failed her over and over in so many ways. He should have been here, should have protected her, should have made it right. She stalked towards him, forgetting that she lacked her staff and her power, forgetting that her gown was torn and her nose bloodied and that she'd lost a slipper when the Stalfos struck her down; she was trembling all over with barely contained fury. Words tumbled from her lips like drops of stinging venom.
"Where--have--you--been? You stupid delinquent beast! Do you have any understanding of what your negligence has caused? No, of course you don't--I doubt you'd have the wit to understand anything at all!" In a paroxysm of fury she actually slammed her fists against his muscled chest; he glanced down for a moment and then up again, still with that infuriating look of curiosity on his face. "Damn you," she shrieked at him, "where were you?"
He said nothing.
The fury passed, like a wave rushing back into the sea. It left her feeling limp. She dragged in a breath, stepped back, and finally managed to compose herself again; this wouldn't do. "Well?" she said, hands on hips, glaring at him through the tangles of her hair. "What have you to say for yourself?"
He thought it over--she saw him do it. This was strange. She'd been prepared for shamefaced mutters or sullen silence; not this alert, careful consideration. "Nothing," he said at last, looking her in the eye.
"Nothing?" she taunted him, viciously. "Nothing--well, what a surprise! Have you ever had an original thought, Dinolfos? Has any hint of reason ever penetrated your thick skull? I am surprised you even managed to get here without tripping over your own feet. Well, come on then--you might still be of some use to me." She whirled and stormed off towards the stair, kicking through one of the scattered piles of bones; her mind was already hard at work. First, the staff...
Kleox watched her retreating back for a moment, then followed silently. His longsword was still in its sheath. Unnoticed by her, his free right hand had crept to the satchel's strap as she had been screaming at him; he had let it rest there, but had not undone the buckle.
Now, quietly, he moved his hand away again.
Progress was inevitably slow. Link knew the way well enough, but he insisted on caution, and had them all ducking into the shadows at the first hint of any approaching noise. The deep gloom of the place made it reasonably easy to avoid detection. They dodged two parties of Stalfos that way, but it was a state of affairs that could not last: there was simply too much activity around them.
The third group caught them on the stairs, where there was no escape.
Link surprised himself with the speed of his reaction: his sword was out and whirling through the air before he himself was aware of it. The serpentine dagger shattered bone and his nearest enemy crumpled in the act of trying to draw. The two behind him, forewarned, were better able to react. Link closed with one; a silvery bolt flew over his shoulder and took the other neatly in the eye. He had a moment to appreciate Vaati's marksmanship--had their opponents been anything other than Stalfos, the boy's shot would have killed. As it was the Stalfos fell back in confusion, grabbing for the bolt where it jutted from his eyesocket.
The way was narrow and winding; there was not room for two to fight side by side. His foe parried and stepped back a pace, climbing to a higher stair. "You?" the Stalfos said, shocked. Link swung for his legs; he blocked and countered with a jab that was mechanical and easily dodged. A moment's pause. They watched each other narrowly, thinking: if he does this then I will do this and he will do this and so I will...
A scatter of running feet: the other was up, and dashing away, yelling out a warning. Vaati fired again, and the bolt splintered on stone at the bend of the stair. In the same instant there came a cry from below--Zelda's voice. Steel clashed, and he prevented himself with an effort of will from turning back, turning his back on his enemy to see to his friends. Trapped! The Stalfos blocked the narrow way, grinning down at him, holding the sword now across his body in a defensive position: all he had to do was keep them penned in here until reinforcements arrived and they could be taken.
"How did you cheat death, Hero?"
Below, he heard Sofia cry to some other assailant: "Come on and try it!"
He swung, raging, but his foe had the advantage on the higher stair and easily turned the blow. There was a cacophony from above: armored bodies making their clumsy way down, hurrying towards the struggle. "You should not have come back," the Stalfos said, shifting to an attack stance. "Carock will have you now, and your friends."
"Carock couldn't kill me before," he answered, trying to stifle the demon fear that yammered in his mind. "What makes you think he'll do any better this time?"
"He does not make the same mistake twice," the Stalfos said, advancing. Others were behind him now.
There was a sharp scream from below: one of the girls crying out in sudden fright. Instinctively he turned toward the sound, turned his back on his enemy--and without warning his eyes were full of searing golden light. It was as if the very sun had come down into the corridor. Fire filled the stairway, filled his body; he dropped his sword and tried to shield his eyes, certain that in another instant they would be entirely burned away, and he left blind.
It flared and was gone, and in the scatter of blue afterimages he heard Vaati's awed whisper: "Light Force..."
"It was a lady," Vaati said stubbornly, for the fourth or fifth time. "A lady made out of light."
They had reached the top of the stair, picking their way through scattered bones and bits of armor, and were standing together at one end of another vaulted hall. It was empty, save for a few more crumpled piles of stuff here and there. Link paused and rubbed at his eyes, which were still stinging; there were shimmering halos around the lanterns when he looked. "It's not that I don't believe you," he said. "I just didn't see it. I only saw a light."
"Well," Zelda said, "I'm glad it was on our side, whatever it was." She looked shaken, as pale and bleary-eyed as he felt. Behind her Sofia dabbed at her own streaming eyes; she'd taken the worst of it. Whatever 'it' had been. She sensed him looking and made a tremulous smile for his benefit.
"I think she was a goddess," Vaati persisted, plucking at his sleeve.
"Which one?" Link asked, distracted. He turned and looked down the length of the hall, trying to remember which way he had been taken before. There were several stairways out of here. He held out his hand and turned around slowly on the spot, trying to judge where the burning was strongest.
"Not one of the three, stupid!" Vaati rolled his eyes at the schoolboy mistake. "I think she was a goddess of light. A Light Force."
Link did his honest best to think about it for a moment, then gave up. A theological debate was beyond his strength right now. "I think it's this way," he said.
"You're not listening," the boy complained, trailing after him.
The hall was a long one, and the stair at the far end seemed different from the others they had seen; it was wider and straight, framed by a tall arch of intricately carved black stone. His hand burned more and more strongly with each step, but it was not painful exactly, now; it felt more as if something inside him was trying to get free. He wouldn't have been surprised if he'd looked down and seen the mark glowing, blazing with power--but it merely glimmered dully metallic in the light of the lantern.
Has it been in me all along? he wondered. Was I born with it? Or did it only come recently? And why has it only shown itself now? What does it want?
I think that was it speaking to me earlier, not... not my grandfather. It just took on his shape because I'd find that easier to accept.
Something fluttered suddenly, up in the rafters. He glanced up for a moment: a bat? Something niggled at him--there was something he needed to remember, about bats...
Prowl snarled and bristled. Bats peeled away from the roof in swarms, spiraled down around them; they were enveloped in a storm of wings. He hit out in fright, frantic to keep the things away from his face; their claws scratched at the backs of his hands. Something tangled for a moment in his hair. Then the bats were gone, streaming past to collect in a tight wheeling cloud beneath the arch. There was a moment of peculiar shift and settling, and then, where the bats had been, there stood a cowled, hooded figure. It carried a scythe now as a weapon: a monstrous thing of steel, hooked and serrated, with a bladed chain attached.
"You are looking surprisingly well, Hero," Gomez said in its buzzing, rattling voice. Vaati slotted another bolt into his little bow.
"Stand aside." Link tightened his grip on the hilt of the serpentine dagger. His palms were slippery with sweat.
"I cannot." The spectre seemed almost apologetic.
"There are four of us," he pointed out, and hoped secretly that that would be enough. This creature had been one of Ganon's generals, after all, if he had his history right. It wouldn't be an easy battle.
The chain rattled as the scythe came up, slowly, into a defensive posture. "It does not signify. I cannot permit you to go any further."
Light, Link thought grimly, now would be a good time. Nothing happened, which did not surprise him. Somehow he'd known that they were on their own for this one.
"You have very little time left," Gomez said. "Can you defeat me?"
No time to be afraid now. "We'll have a good try," he said, stepping forward.
The scythe whirred--
Two Stalfos guarded the room where the silver staff had been dumped. Kleox dispatched them without really thinking much about it, and then stood quietly to one side as Sepultura rooted through boxfuls of gold and gems before coming up with a green disc on a fine chain. She winced at the touch of it, pulled her fingers back hastily, then seemed to steel herself; she reached out again and took it firmly into her hands. Her expression, as she lifted the chain over her head, was cold and determined.
The staff restored her arrogance. She took it up, turned, and her eyes met his. There was something deadly in her look.
"Carock must be stopped."
He nodded, noncommittally.
"Dark Link will be able to resist," she said, "for a little while. I strengthened him last night. But he will need help to finish the task. You will assist." She pushed back past him, out of the room. He followed her down the corridor, thinking.
Give it to her, something said, give it to her now! But something else held him back: not yet. Not the right moment. Wait and see... .
The strangeness had been here before them. The corridors were empty save for occasional heaps of old bones, or the crumpled, withered husk of a Wizzrobe in its stinking rags--dry brittle things, centuries dead. Everything the light touched seemed to lose its animating magic.
But I'm still alive, he thought. And so is she. So is it not interested in us, or is it saving us for something?
He slid his hand into the satchel and felt around for the yellow medallion. It was still there. He held it for a moment loosely, weighing it, then let it drop back into the bottom of the bag. Sepultura was getting ahead; he broke into a loose jog to catch up.
Halfway up a spiral stair he nearly ran into the back of the witch, who had stopped with her head on one side and an intent expression on her face. Somewhere ahead there was fighting--steel clashing on steel, voices crying out sharply. Sepultura hesitated, then began to climb again, more slowly.
A few yards on the stair ended, and they stepped out into another long hall--and there they were, the three children, spread out in the gloom to face something dark that flickered and flowed from one stance to another. It seemed to be guarding the further stair. Small things littered the ground around it, some of them moving--too dim to tell exactly what they were. The Hero and his friends weren't doing well, whatever it was they were fighting--the thing blocked every attack they threw at it, spinning the huge scythe as if it were weightless.
Sofia glanced round and saw him. Her gaze flicked sideways to take in Sepultura, and then back to him, and for an instant something very much like hurt showed on her face. It startled him.
"How did he do it?" Sepultura snarled, her own eyes fixed on the Hero as he fought. "I saw him die!" Link was not conscious of their presence in the hall; all his attention was on the black thing blocking his path. He ducked the spiked chain as it sliced the air, and responded with a slash of his own that brought a scatter of small things tumbling to the floor. The witch's lips drew back from her white teeth. "Well, no matter..." she whispered harshly, and raised her staff.
"Wait," Kleox said, and reached out to push it down again.
It was the novelty of it that stopped her, really: she couldn't quite believe he'd done such a thing. She turned her head and looked at him, eyes wide. He drew a breath.
"They want the same thing. Why don't we help them?"
Sepultura stared at him as if he'd suggested flying to the moon. "Help them?"
He improvised hurriedly. "The boy's come back from the dead once already, my lady. He's not easy to kill. If this Carock has got to be stopped at any cost, why not let this lot do some of the dirty work? Worst that could happen is Carock takes them out instead of us..."
"Be silent, lizard," she snapped. But his words had sunk in; he watched her turning them over in her mind. In a moment she turned on her heel and strode off towards the battle.
Everyone had seen them now. People stopped fighting and watched, waiting tensely to see who would come out on which side. Out of the corner of his eye Kleox saw the little Sheikah boy raise his crossbow and sight, aiming directly at him.
Sepultura leveled her staff, and the dragon's mouth spat a bolt of red-veined fire. The dark thing swirled like fog out of its way, and the flame splashed harmlessly on the far wall. "Go!" she called fiercely, directing her words to Link who stood frozen, staring. "Quickly--get to the throne room!"
"I think not," the spectre said, reappearing amidst a cloud of chittering winged shapes.
Bats, Kleox thought hysterically. What in the hells can you do with that? The Din-cursed thing's made out of bats!
A sudden movement made him glance down; the cat pounced and swatted at a broken thing struggling over the tiles. Bats, dead and wounded, were everywhere--that's what those things were that he'd seen scattered across the floor. Dead bats. So they could die. Well, that was all right then.
He hefted his sword and strode forward, brushing by the astonished Sofia. "Drive it away from the stair," he said. "Let the boy get through."
The spectre was strong: certainly stronger than any one of them alone. But there were too many enemies for it to watch all together now, and the tiled floor was slippery underfoot with blood and the dead bodies of bats. It tried to retreat beneath the arch, to force them to come at it singly. Sofia got behind it and forced it back out into the open. For one moment, the way was clear--and Link took it, dashing through the arch, ducking beneath the scythe as it swung. The spectre saw him go and struck out viciously with the bladed chain, sending it whirring through the air. Kleox leaped forward and caught it on his own sword, let it tear the weapon from his grip. The blades cut him across the chest, and he fell hard on his back.
On the fourth stair, Link stopped, turned wide-eyed, would have come running back to help. Kleox roared at him in rage. "Go! Go on, you idiot! We'll follow when we can!"
The boy turned away and ran, taking the stairs three at a time. The cat streaked after him, actually leaping right over Kleox where he lay.
His sword had skidded out of reach. He stared up, into an absence of a face. Calmly the thing raised its scythe for the finishing blow.
An arrow whipped through its body from left to right, skewering three struggling bats. And then two more followed in quick succession. It flinched; the Princess advanced grimly, nocking yet another arrow to the string.
It was only an instant's respite, but it was enough. Kleox rolled, snatched up his sword and staggered clumsily to his feet, placing himself between the spectre and the stair. He'd buy the boy some time to do... well, whatever it was he thought he could do.
Link struggled up the stair with his eyes tight shut. The force bearing down on him felt like a physical thing now: a fierce wind pushing him back, or two magnets repelling. He kept going, pushing into it head-first, feeling as if the thing inside him was intent on burning its way out through his skin.
At last there was flat ground. He dragged himself up into yet another hall--but this one was different. Fresh air blew steadily from the further end, where two vast doors stood open to the endless Underworld night. It was not dark outside now: the lifeless shore was brilliant with a lurid blue-green glow. He'd reached the Temple's main entrance, and the door was unguarded.
It took all his willpower to turn away, to stumble deeper into the Temple. His muscles shivered uncontrollably; he could hardly keep upright. It was very close, now--he felt as if his body was responding to some vast resonance in the air, the way glasses trembled at certain notes of music. His teeth buzzed in his head, and he clamped his jaws shut. At his side the cat made an eerie childlike cry; her ears were flat against her head. She pressed her belly to the floor in the extremity of her terror. But still she stayed with him.
The doors to the throne room had been dragged wide; the broken one was propped up against the wall. Once more the space within was lit by torches--and fogged by clouds of incense, thick and foully sweet. The smoke and firelight gave the chamber a hellish tint of red.
He stopped in the doorway and stared.
He had been ready, he thought, for almost anything--a scene of horrific ritual, sorcerous symbols drawn in blood upon the floor...
Instead, he was looking at an almost empty room. A slim figure lay on the ground before the throne: Dark, still clothed in the tattered remnants of his Castle tunic. His eyes were closed. He had been laid out neatly on his back, like a body for burial.
Was it over then? Or had it not begun?
The cat moaned and shivered against his legs. And then he saw. A wave of sickness swept him; he staggered, and nearly collapsed to his knees.
On the back of Dark's limp right hand, outlined in crimson fire, was a mark--a triple triangle.
Something warned him--perhaps the mere movement of air--and he flung himself to one side so that the blow which would have smashed his skull landed on his shoulder instead. Something cracked loudly. He hit the ground hard and rolled, then came smoothly back up on his feet with his sword ready, putting the pain in a box for later.
Carock stepped out from behind the broken door, holding his gnarled staff in both hands like a quarterstaff. He had thrown off his fur cloak, and the gorgeous embroidery of his clothing glittered in the torchlight with gold thread and precious gems. "Do you have any idea how annoying it is, being right all the time?" he said casually. "Somehow I had a feeling you'd show up." He swung the staff again, two-handed, a ferocious blow, and Link ducked away from it desperately, backing across the floor towards the throne.
"Dark," he called, and then more urgently: "Dark!" The staff had a longer reach than his sword; he couldn't get past it, couldn't get inside the man's guard. He needed help.
"He won't help you," Carock said, and caught him another glancing blow to the side of the head. For an instant Link's vision flooded with stars; he reeled. "Do you know why?" the man said, enunciating every word with a kind of lascivious glee. "Because he's not even in there any more." He reached up with one hand, very deliberately, and tapped the amethyst medallion that hung around his neck.
Link couldn't help himself; his attention wavered, just for that one instant. The staff leaped like a striking snake and hit him in the center of his chest, over his heart. The red gem flared with light at the impact. It was like being struck by lightning. All his muscles convulsed agonizingly; he felt his body slam into the floor, tasted blood and knew he had bitten his tongue.
"I only needed the body, you see," Carock said, standing astride him and reversing the staff, touching the pointed metal-capped end lightly against his throat. "A phantom of his making to contain his Triforce. But Gomez wouldn't have done, oh no. I was right all along. Because of the Shadow Seal, and how I bound him to it--Dark Link is the key, the wedge in the door. He straddles both worlds. Problem is, the old boar still has a grip on it, and he won't let go. And I don't have the strength to wrest it from him. Not yet."
He crouched, a light of madness in his blood-red eyes. A stink of mingled perfume and corruption filled Link's nose and mouth; he gagged. Carock smiled brilliantly and leaned close, pressing the staff lengthways now across his throat. Under the bandage, the half-healed wound flared with pain. Link choked and clawed at the icy styxwood. His nail-less fingers skittered uselessly.
"You're going to help me," Carock whispered. "You'll give me the power. A Triforce to oppose a Triforce..."
He couldn't breathe at all now; he was graying out. It wasn't like last time. He could feel something passing from him to the other, flowing inexhaustibly out of his body and into Carock's. The other man drank it in, his head tilted back in wild ecstasy. Blue sparks crackled in his violet hair.
For some reason, as the world faded Link found his attention drawn to the amethyst pendant which hung now only a couple of inches above his face. It glittered rich deep purple in the firelight as it swung to and fro, to and fro.
A scream of pain--and suddenly the iron-bar pressure on his neck was gone. He dragged in a huge whoop of blessed air and sat bolt upright, coughing and grabbing at his abused throat.
Carock struggled on the floor of the throne room, wrestling with a tawny shape that snarled as it tore his fine clothes.
He flung himself to one side, rolled, snatched up his fallen sword.
"Damned animal!" The sorcerer flung the cat away, then swung viciously with his staff as she came hurtling back at him. There was a blast of fire, a shriek from the cat, and then the terrible, final sound of a body hitting the floor.
Link screamed wordless rage and hatred and launched himself blindly towards his foe. He couldn't see for hot tears, but his hand found the stiff embroidered tunic collar all right. The medallion's chain tangled in his fingers; he snapped it and hurled it away. He threw himself on top of the other and punched the blade in--twice, three times, four times...
Carock punched him, knocked him to the floor so that he skidded away on his back, losing the sword once again. Farore's Wind, the man hit like a ton of bricks. He struggled to get up against the sudden swimming of his vision. Deep water was closing over his head. Out of the haze the sorcerer appeared again, standing over him with the staff held lightly in both hands. He made his innocent, boyish smile. His fine clothes fluttered with holes, both from Link's sword and Prowl's claws, but there was not a drop of spilled blood to be seen.
"Well," Carock said, "it's been fun, but you're starting to bore me now. Shall we call it a day?"
With a flourish he raised the staff above his head--and stopped there. A light was growing in the room, and it did not emanate from the torches.
Link turned his head towards the door, knowing what was coming.
He saw it clearly this time--the woman--Vaati's 'goddess of light'. She glowed. Her hair, straight and shoulder-length, trailed ribbons of light as she drifted forward, hands outstretched, pleading. There was a clatter--Carock dropped the staff. He stumbled backwards, away from her, his perfect painted face marred now by a look of abject terror. Link saw his lips move silently, form a word--a name.
The apparition continued to approach, but it was fading as inexplicably as it had appeared. She reached the midpoint of the room and stopped there. The look on her face changed from sadness to a strange calm, as if she were waiting for something. Her lower body was dissolving slowly upwards into darting sparks of light.
Link glanced back and saw a darkness rise behind the violet-haired man who still stood frozen, staring in horror. It was not a darkness of his making. It held the shimmering Shadow Medallion in one hand, and in the other, Link's own serpentine dagger. The darkness reached around with practiced ease and, using the edge of the blade, drew a neat line across the man's white throat.
Carock made a small choked sound and stumbled away a pace. He turned, eyes bulging, and raised a hand to his throat. There was no blood, just a dark ichor very slowly beginning to well out. It was the same stuff that had come out of the Floormaster, so long ago.
"You--you've killed me--!"
"Yes," Dark said calmly.
The sorcerer was still for a long time. He held out his hand and looked at the black stuff on his fingertips. Something changed in his face then. Something shone out in his eyes--was it... gratitude?
"Good," he said.
The ghost of Anju, now little more than the hint of a face floating in midair, seemed to smile.
Kafei sighed and toppled like a tree.
A terrible thing happened--a shriveling, a collapsing inward. What fell was a man in the prime of life; what lay sprawled on the throne room floor a moment later, dried and wizened and shrunken in its ridiculous finery, was a mere husk of something, brittle and powdery as an old leaf, with just a few crumbling strands of white clinging here and there to its fleshless skull.
Link got to his feet and stood, looking down at the sad remnant, thinking of that rich cloying perfume, and what it had masked.
"He never realised he was dead..."
"He knows now," Dark said, quite seriously.
Outside in the hall, there was a clatter of footsteps. Zelda came running in, and then Sofia, with Vaati at her side. Kleox and Sepultura ducked through the door behind them. One after another they skidded to a halt, and stared; nobody said a word.
A soft cry broke the silence--a whine of pain. "Prowl!" Link cried, and ran to her. The cat was sitting up, shivering; she held her mouth open awkwardly, showing him the burn-blisters on her tongue, and where fire had singed away her whiskers. He ran his hands over her quickly, looking for worse wounds, and found none. She'd live.
"Oh, cat," he whispered, and pulled her close, careless of everything in this moment. "Oh, cat..."
"I see you two have been busy without us," the Princess was saying, in a teasing voice. Her tone changed in the next moment. "Dark--are you all right?"
Dark. Something cold settled in the pit of Link's stomach; he stood back up and turned quickly. The shadow stood over the body of Kafei; he raised his head and stared back silently, his face cold and expressionless. Link's gaze moved downwards to the right hand that still gripped the gleaming Amulet. In the next instant he felt a great wave of relief roll over him; he exhaled slowly. There was no fiery mark there now. And his own hand, indeed, was no longer burning.
It was over. He'd gone.
"What happened to Gomez?" he asked, turning to the others, who stood together now in a ragged group. They were variously disheveled and bloody, but looking highly pleased with themselves.
"Dead," Sofia said, "mostly."
"We may have missed a few," Kleox added without humor.
Vaati was staring at the body on the floor, and scowling. "I missed it!" he complained, in a tone of high offense. "It's not fair!"
"Trust me, Vaati," Link said, "if you'd seen it, you'd wish you hadn't."
Dark was still watching him--them--with that strange absence of expression. Link turned back to him, remembering the medallion and what he had felt in that moment when he'd had it in his hand. The shadow held it now loosely by the very end of its chain, between his fingertips, as if he did not wish to touch it.
"Put it on," Link said.
Dark held the thing out at arm's length. "You take it."
"No. You put it on. Under your shirt, next to the skin." He held the shadow's gaze, willing him, until Dark reached up slowly and did as he bid.
"Happy?" the shadow said softly, mocking.
"Yes," he said, though he was struggling suddenly against a great exhaustion, a fatigue of the spirit. "I'm happy."
"Good," broke in a different voice. "Then perhaps we can dispense with this rather sugary display." Sepultura stepped out into the room, gripping her silver staff in both hands. She smiled round viciously. "The Amulets, if you please."
Oh she could not be starting, not now. Not after all this.
He glanced again to Dark, who still held his own sword loosely in his other hand, then back to the witch. "Do you really want to do this?" he said quietly.
Sepultura turned her head and fixed him with a cold, penetrating stare. He looked back through it, saw the old dark thing that lurked behind her glittering eyes, and despite his scars and mutilated hands he felt a surprising stir of pity in his heart. Did she see that withered thing on the floor--and did she guess what it meant for her?
"The Amulets," she said. Nobody moved a muscle, and her eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. "As you wish. Dinolfos, take them."
The Lizalfos had been leaning quietly against the door-jamb, apparently lost in his own thoughts; he straightened up now, looking startled. Blood glistened wetly on his dusty scales; the bladed chain had left half a dozen oozing cuts and gouges across his upper body. The longsword he still held was bloodied to the hilt. He glanced quickly from one of them to another, his eye bright and nervous, before looking back to Sepultura who stood waiting, her face growing more and more taut.
"You have to be joking," he said hoarsely.
Her lips pulled back in a slow, hateful snarl. "I will not tolerate any more of your insolence, Dinolfos. Not here. Not now. Do as I say."
He took a long breath and stepped forward once. And then paused.
"You left me to die," he said quietly.
Her face went still for a moment. "What?"
"You left me to die." His voice was quite calm, emotionless even, as if he were trying to work out some complicated puzzle.
Sepultura stared, something twitching behind her face--her makeup was smeared everywhere now, and her hair a tangled thicket. She didn't look beautiful any more. Though her face was still youthful, still unlined, she seemed somehow old, and hateful.
"Oh, don't be so melodramatic," she said. "What did you expect? Now take them."
He hefted the ungainly sword, two-handed, and began to walk toward her. Alarm widened her eyes; she backed away toward the throne. He kept coming. His orange gaze was fixed on her alone, oblivious to everyone else. Breath puffed harshly from his toothed jaws.
"You dare raise your hand against me?" Sepultura whispered, and a cold fire kindled in her eyes. "You dare?"
The dragon's mouth spat its crimson flame--and Kleox's body hit the far wall hard enough to shake bricks loose. Dark stepped to one side absentmindedly as the longsword whirred past his head, and then turned back again to watch.
Sepultura moved forward, clutching her staff in hands that shook with fury. "I'll kill you myself!" she hissed, and raised the glittering device--
--and screamed, and clutched at her upper arm, where the shaft of a silvery bolt had inexplicably appeared.
All eyes turned to Vaati, standing in the shadow of the throne; he was unconcernedly slotting one last dart into his little bow. "I'm a good shot," he said, raising the weapon. "I meant to get you there. This one will get you in the chest."
She yanked the bolt out with a shriek, and hurled it to the floor; it sizzled as it hit the ground, and a wisp of thin blue smoke curled upwards. Gripping the wound, which oozed blood (red blood, still, Link could not help noting), she stared round at them all, hatred twisting her face into an ugly mask.
"You'll pay for this," she hissed, whirled, and went for the door. Sofia stepped in front of her with blades drawn.
"Amulet please," she said pleasantly.
Sepultura tore the green gem from her throat and flung it down. She snatched up her staff where it had fallen, shoved Sofia viciously to one side, and stormed out. Her swift footsteps pattered away into silence.
In the stillness, Kleox muttered something indistinct that was very likely a curse, and sat up wearily, shaking his head.
"What does it take to kill you?" Sofia asked, only half in jest.
"More than a bit of fire. Stupid woman." He shook his head again, as if to clear it, and touched a wide charred mark across his chest; he winced. When she pulled a roll of bandage from her pack, he snarled her away. "Touch me and I'll bite your arms off. I'm not joking!"
"Oh Nayru," Zelda said, smiling a little. "Let's get out of this hole, shall we?"
"Wait." He hauled himself back to his feet, leaning against the wall for support, then bent down unsteadily to pick up a hand-tooled leather satchel that lay nearby. He upended it and tipped something out into his hand, then tossed it underarm. Zelda caught it clumsily, did a double-take, and gasped.
"I don't understand--you're giving us this?"
He shrugged, making light of it. "Doesn't look like she wants it, does it?"
"But... I... where did you get it?"
A long pause. "I don't really know how to answer that," Kleox said slowly. He lowered his head, looking suddenly immensely weary. "It came from that woman... I think I brought her here, by accident. I don't suppose you saw her, though..."
"You mean the lady made of light?" Vaati asked.
"Anju," Link said quietly, and everyone turned to look at him instead.
"She was Anju?" Zelda said.
"Who the hell is Anju?" demanded Kleox, irritated.
Link stayed silent and let them argue it out. He wouldn't have known where to begin explaining things. Quietly he walked over to where his medallion lay discarded on the ground; he picked it up and held it, feeling the warmth of it on his palm. It felt glad to see him again.
"Shadow and light," Zelda said softly, awed. "That means we've got five. There's just one left!" She glanced down again at the yellow disc in her hands, and a look of wonder crossed her face.
"Are they all like that?" Kleox asked. There was an odd tone to his voice. The Princess blinked, distracted.
"Well... warmish. Alive, almost. I don't know. I never touched one before." He shrugged again, embarrassed by the sudden stares. "It doesn't matter--forget it."
Sofia let out a yelp of disbelieving laughter, then looked appalled and covered her mouth with both hands. Dark lifted an eyebrow.
"I want to be absolutely clear about this," Zelda said, very carefully. She held up the yellow medallion so that the firelight caught it; it spun slowly on its chain. "This... feels warm to you?"
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