Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 92
NO, YOU can't, I won't let you!" She was clinging to his collar, furious, trying to drag him bodily to the stair--to safety. He did not struggle, but stood firm. Under the arch, Sofia stopped and looked back in surprise.
"I have to," he said. "I promised."
"Link, please! I don't want to lose you as well--!" Unshed tears glistened in her eyes as she raised her head; her blonde hair hung limp and tangled around her grimy face. His heart went out to her in that moment--the Princess looked terribly, miserably tired. But he knew he couldn't go on with her: it would be against everything he was.
A gruff, gravelly voice rang out: "What's the problem?" They both turned as Kleox came padding back towards them, scuffing through the sand. He at least seemed unaffected by tragedy; he was as dirty and battered as any of them by now, but seemed only to get tougher with it, like tempered iron. Link looked into the orange slit-pupilled eye, saw its cool, intelligent depths, and felt his resolve grow firm again.
"I have to go back." He touched Zelda's shoulder lightly, trying to comfort her; she slapped his hand away.
"Why, Link?" She was crying now. "He made his choice!"
He was calm. "Listen," he said, and held out the bundle. "Take this stuff with you. I won't be long--"
"Oh, no you don't," Sofia snapped, fumbling with her pack. "We're coming with you."
"No," he said.
"What do you mean, no?"
He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to marshal his thoughts. "This is between him and me. It's got to be this way. I made him a promise."
Sofia drew in a sharp breath--but before she could speak, Kleox broke in. "What, exactly, did you promise?" he asked quietly, and there was a tone of surprising authority in his voice. It was entirely unconscious on his part: he simply took it for granted that he would be obeyed. Startled, Link opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again.
"It's out of the question," Zelda said with fury. "Let's just go!" She grabbed for his hand again, but he dug in his heels and would not be budged. Her voice cracked. "Forget him--don't make this so hard!"
Kleox raised his hand. "I want to hear this."
"What business is it of yours?" Sofia raged, turning on him through the lack of anyone else to attack. "You don't care about anything except yourself--"
"Shut up," he said, without turning his head. "Well?"
Link bit his lip.
"He tried to kill you." Kleox's tone was mild: it was a statement of fact.
"I know." He covered his eyes with his hand, trying desperately to clear his thoughts and find a reason they'd accept. "Look--I can't make you understand. Just trust me, all right? All of you. I have to do this."
When he looked up, the Lizalfos was standing with arms folded, watching him with a calm, thoughtful expression.
"Not on your own, Link," Zelda said with real pain. "It's suicide--"
"Trust me," he said. He felt firm now: it was the right thing. "Go up, tell them what's happening. Give me... twelve hours. If I'm not back, fill the hole in."
"We're not going to--!"
"Shut it," Kleox said. "He's got something in mind, even I can see that. You--Link." He nodded his head. "You're sure about this?"
"Yes," Link said, relieved.
"Then you've got twelve hours."
"Now hold on," Sofia snarled. "You are not in charge here..."
"Well, someone's got to be, and you lot are useless at it." He was unruffled. "Look. This thing has been weird start to finish. If the boy thinks he can do something, then let him try." He turned his head then to look at Link directly, and his pale teeth gleamed in a jagged crocodile smile. "Somehow I doubt anything will try to tangle with you while you've got that gold thing on your hand. Me, I'd run in the opposite direction."
There was a pause. "Twelve hours, then," Zelda said, in a thick, choked voice. "And then we come down after you."
Link shook his head. "Don't try it."
"Link, I will not be shifted on this. If you don't come back, we will come looking for you, all right? That is not negotiable." There was steel in her gaze, despite the tear-tracks on her cheeks: it was the Crown Princess look. She'd never turned it on him before.
An unwilling smile crept across his face. He'd wanted to be sure she would be safe from here, no matter what, but he couldn't pretend that he wasn't glad of the reassurance. "All right then... have it your way." The bundle was slipping awkwardly out of his arms; he hefted it. "Here, take this stuff--just give me back the medallion."
"Shouldn't you take the ocarina too?" Sofia asked quietly, as he turned to go.
He thought for a moment. "Yes," he said. "You're right." The Princess held it out to him, and he took it and slipped it into his pocket. It made a reassuring weight.
The Shadow Medallion was cold, like ice, and though its surface was smooth under his fingers there was nevertheless a suggestion of sharpness, as if it would have cut him, given a choice. He held on firmly and wondered how it had felt to Kafei.
He did not enter the maze again but kept on walking past the entrance they had found, following his instinct along the line of the shore. In his free hand he carried the serpentine dagger; its hilt felt a little strange, slightly sticky. When he had looked earlier the dragon-scale detailing had been oddly warped and smeared, as if partly melted by a great heat. The lantern at his belt was fully open, illuminating the scene in bright blue-green: now he could see that the mud was not gray, but a mixture of hues, streaked with mineral salts--rust red, copper green. Peculiar things scuttled away as he approached, fleeing the light.
Now that he was alone again, he could admit it to himself: he really didn't know what he was going to do. He had only a certainty that Dark should not be abandoned down here--that finding him was, in some indefinable way, the most important thing in the world. From there, he'd simply have to hope that inspiration struck him somehow.
His wound had finally stopped bleeding, but his hair and the collar of his tunic on that side were sticky with clotting blood. The injury had turned out to be a slight one in the end, only cutting through the skin, but scalp wounds always bled a great deal. It stung now with a deep fiery ache; it was irritating, distracting him from the business at hand. He had time to think now, time to try and work things out.
At that moment in the throne room, when he'd torn the medallion from Carock's neck--he'd felt it then, though he hadn't figured out what it meant until it was far too late.
He won't help you. Why? Because he's not in there any more.
The Hero of Time struck his shadow with the Master Sword, splitting it from himself--and that was Dark Link. Everyone knew it.
Why was that important?
Link First was a man who had no darkness in him. Kafei had said it: like an angel. But that was not necessarily a good thing. Pity and mercy stem from our own inner darkness--the understanding that we all are flawed, capable of sin--that in the same circumstances we too might have lied, stolen, killed.
The Hero of Time was without pity, without mercy. He did not blame, for he had no hatred--but neither would he be capable of forgiveness. Such a man would doubtless have been frightening to know. The scene Kafei had described--the beggar-woman, the handful of loose change, the summoned guards--was a far cry from the popular concept of the noble, selfless saviour of Hyrule.
Link First, then, had been half a man. Where was the rest of him?
I called back the darkness that he'd banished to the void... I bound it...
Dark Link had always been different to the other phantoms of Ganon's magic. Historians wrote uncomfortably around him, as if they would rather have avoided the issue. He is mentioned only in passing, Zelda had said, and rarely by his name. Was it superstitious fear that discouraged the ancient scholars? Or something else--something that, had it been known, would have reflected poorly on the memory of the Hero of Time?
He was growing weary. A boulder loomed out of the night, all alone on the gray beach; he sat down on it for a little while to catch his breath. The cat laid her dusty head on his arm, asking to be petted.
He thought: try this.
Originally Dark Link was simply a phantom, acting only by its master's will. It animated Link First's shadow and took possession of it to fight him.
The Master Sword was also known as the Blade of Evil's Bane--in the legends, darkness could not abide it. Was that the key? Had Link First been tricked into turning the Sword's power back upon himself? Doubtless, in that case, the Evil King had hoped that the Sword would destroy the Hero outright--but instead, it had split one soul into two halves. The light, and the dark.
What I fought back there wasn't Dark. It was the phantom. It didn't know or care about anything except killing me.
So what had happened to the Dark he knew?
Carock had said: I called back the darkness... his fear, his hate, everything he couldn't stand about himself... I resurrected Dark Link...
He opened his hand and stared down at the cold amethyst disc.
The cat pricked her ears curiously as he stood. His light had dimmed a little as he had been sitting; he closed and opened the shutter again and coaxed it to burn brighter. Suddenly, he was worried: he'd assumed these lanterns were inexhaustible, but he really knew nothing about their workings. If it turned out to need some kind of fuel after all, and he had none... well, he supposed he'd manage somehow. He'd have to.
He walked on. Sometimes unseen things cried out in the dark, then scuttled away as he drew near. At one point he was certain he had seen a Floormaster at the limits of his light--but before he had even time to feel afraid the thing fled from him, scrambling away up the cliffs in a series of skittering bounds.
The way grew wetter until he was slogging through a mire, sinking at times knee-deep in the fine clogging silt. Now he followed the cat, who padded on ahead, finding the surer ground; she led him unerringly and steered clear of sinkholes that would likely have meant his death. Once something underneath the muck grabbed at his boot, and held on with an icy grip; he hacked at the gray sludge until thick black ichor bubbled to the surface, and the pull slackened enough for him to wrench himself free. The attack was not repeated.
By the time he reached the other side of the mud flats he was shaking with weariness, and he and the cat both were covered in the foul clinging mud. He permitted himself five minutes rest, attempted to scrape off the worst of the gunk, and went on.
And he was getting closer again now; he could feel it, that cold ancient presence he knew now to be Ganon. It was a shadow of what it had been before, when he'd felt the vibration in his very bones, but it was undeniably there. And it was aware of him.
He trudged down a shingly slope to the shore of another, far different lake--a shifting darkness, like a void. Zelda would have had a fit if she'd known how tenuous was his hope. He was banking on a number of things all going his way now, and first of those was to do with something Dark had said to him before, on a similar shore.
There is always a boat.
There was a boat, just a few yards off. It was the same little styxwood rowboat he had had before. He didn't stop to wonder how it could be here again, waiting for him--it was enough that it was so. He got in, and the cat jumped in after. The boat slid out silently onto the lake. He felt glad to have found it--it felt like an old friend.
Prowl lay down on his feet and warmed them for him through the leather of his borrowed Sheikah boots. He reached down and scratched her ears, but his gaze stayed fixed on the night outside. On the board seat beside him, the lantern blazed, throwing the black wood into stark relief.
I wish I was more certain about this, he thought.
The cat yawned and rested her head on her paws. He rolled the Shadow Medallion over and over in his fingers, and waited.
It was some time after midnight, and the air was full of woodsmoke, sweet and stinging. The Temple crypt glittered with torches: constellations of them, everywhere, in battered iron stands. Someone had even placed candles on some of the old coffins in their wall niches. Reflected firelight glittered on the patches of dampness on the floor and walls, and on the silver armor of the dozen or so nervous guards who waited.
Sofia sat gratefully on a battered wooden bench filched from the church above, a blanket draped around her shoulders, and sipped at a cup of hot sweet tea. She was really too hot for the wool blanket, but it was what people did when they wanted to be kind, and so she had accepted it. And anyway, the tea at least was good.
It had been a grim, miserable journey, toiling up those endless steps, and the more so because Zelda had balked at one point and had to be physically forced to go on. Kleox was merciless; he would not even hear her arguments, but grabbed her by the arm and shoved her onward, threatened to sling her over his shoulder if she didn't move. Sofia had never imagined she would feel grateful to him for manhandling her friend; but she knew that she herself could not have done it; she cared too much. She had not wanted to leave Link either.
She drank a little more of her tea, then glanced over to where the Lizalfos sat, resting his back against the wall. Two silver-armored soldiers stood over him. He was affecting nonchalance, but the act was not a perfect one: there was a tension in his shoulders, a nervous agitation. He'd been deprived of his sword again--it was propped up against her own bench, a couple of feet away from her hand. She eyed the weapon, ugly and battered in a leather scabbard so scuffed, cracked and encrusted with dirt that its original color was a mystery. It had a few more scuffs now, as did he; the guards had not been gentle disarming him, but the Goddess only knew what they'd thought when he'd come up first through that hole in the floor. If Zelda hadn't cried out when she did...
The bedraggled Princess was sitting with her father now, a few yards away on another bench; he spoke to her in a low, insistent voice, leaning close. Mutely she shook her head, and though she lacked the Hylian magic Sofia knew their conversation:
Come home. Come and rest. There is no need to stay.
No. I am going to wait for him.
Somewhere far above, the Temple bell began to strike. She tilted her head to count the chimes: two in the morning. It had been some time in the evening when they had arrived back here. So far, this was the longest night of her life. She set her mug down and pressed her fingers into the corners of her eyes, rubbing at grit.
The bench creaked; someone sat down quietly beside her, and she flinched, grabbed for the hilt of a blade that wasn't there any more, and then felt silly. A young blond man, a Hylian, gave her a wry smile. "Don't kill me," he said. "I'm innocent."
"Harper..." She let out a great sigh and dropped her head into her hands. "I'm sorry," she said through her fingers. "I'm just so tired... Everything fell apart at the very last minute..."
"So I hear," he said.
"I don't understand..." She was losing her composure now, just from the sound of a friendly voice; she clung on grimly, forcing the lid back down with an effort of will, but she was not quite fast enough, for a shameful tear burned its way down her cheek. Furious at herself she scrubbed it away with her sleeve and hoped against hope that he had not seen. "I can't understand why he did it... he loved Link, you know... if he loved anyone, it was Link."
"Link does have the ocarina, doesn't he?" Harper asked, and there was something odd in his voice. She sat up straight and turned to look at him. His gray eyes were clear and direct as he met her gaze, but there was a worn, haggard look to his face, and his hair had not been combed. He had on a soft cream-colored tunic and white undershirt that would have been attractive had the garments not been creased and grimy.
"You told me to take the ocarina," she said softly. "You said you dreamed it. Did you dream this, Harper? Did you know?" She was too exhausted to be angry.
"Not in so many words." He bent his head for a moment, and ran his fingers through his hair, leaving it in greater disarray. When he looked up again his expression was calm and still. "I saw the Hero in the bottom of a boat," he said. "Covered in blood. I saw the cat curled beside him, licking his wounds. And I saw something else, too--I saw him holding up the ocarina, and it was shining in the dark like a star. He was holding something off with it, or trapping it. I don't know which." She must have looked shocked, for he gave a dry little laugh without any humor in it. "There--now you know as much as I do. And if you can make any sense of that garble, good luck to you."
She felt as if lightning had struck her; her chest was so tight she could hardly breathe. "One of them I can," she managed to say at last, in a small weak voice. "Harper--you have true dreams?"
"I did once," he said. "Two years ago, when I was a duke's son in Lotharia. The dream I had then brought me to Hyrule."
"Who are you, really?"
He shrugged, affecting surprise that she should ask. "Just a boy from a very minor family, come to court to get a bit of education. What about you?"
"Me?" She was startled; surely he could not mean to enquire about her family? She had never made any secret of it; she had assumed everyone simply knew.
But what he said next shocked her. He leaned forward.
"You dream too, don't you?"
It was cold water in her face. She stood up too swiftly and knocked the cup to the floor; it shattered, spraying lukewarm tea over her feet and his. Heads turned. "I'll get it," he said, and bent down. Crimson with embarrassment she pushed his hands away and collected the broken crockery herself, carried it upstairs to dispose of it. It gave her a way to escape.
The clock struck the quarter-hour as she was coming back from the vestry. Time always seemed to go swiftest when you were waiting on a deadline. She paused at the top of the crypt stairs, hoping against hope, then went down quickly, two steps at a time. The scene was as she had left it: guards yawned at their posts. Zelda had fallen asleep on her father's shoulder--her face was white, pinched with exhaustion. Sofia felt much the same; she wished she had someone to lean on. But her brother was--
No. Leave that.
Cursing Harper for what he'd stirred up, she sat down on another chair on the other side of the room. She saw him watching her, but he did not come over, and she felt relieved; she was too tired to argue. She closed her eyes just for a moment and slept through the next three bells.
The strange torches had burned themselves out now as inexplicably as they had kindled, and the Temple was in thick darkness as it had been the first time he arrived. He sat still as the boat's keel ground up on sand beside the jetty. Only when the cat yowled anxiously did he stand, and clamber out onto gravelly sand. He debated pulling the boat up a little, to ensure that it would not drift away, then told himself not to be so silly. If it wanted to take him back, it would. If not, he'd have to find another way home.
At the base of the steps the sand had been kicked into a confusion of footprints. He stepped over a few scattered bones and went up, treading carefully on the black stone steps. In his right hand the medallion suddenly seemed to twist like a living thing: he gripped it fiercely until it became dead gold again.
It was eerie, entering this hall for a third time. All was as it had been before, silent and abandoned; but the thick dust had been stirred up everywhere and lay in smears and spirals. There was still a stink of incense in the cold, clammy air. The harsh bluegreen light of the lantern showed him the full ugliness of the carvings now, the hideous things written, but he was used to them and kept going. A half-open doorway faded out of the dark.
He took several breaths before ducking beneath the broken door, as if preparing for a long dive. The cat's hackles were raised, and she snarled softly; she seemed wary of what lay within, but not fearful, and that gave him heart. He swallowed, shifted his grip on the sword, and stepped through.
The throne room was in darkness once more, and his light struggled to reach its furthest confines; but he could see that the body of Kafei was gone. A smudged space in the dust showed where the sorcerer had fallen. Link came forward, his ears pricked tensely. His light was fading, struggling; something in this room was anathema to it. He walked a little further forward, and the light dimmed a little more.
At the far end of the room, still steeped in impenetrable shadow, something growled, low and menacing. It was a guttural, inhuman sound, with a hideous wrongness to it--but his heart leaped all the same with a great shudder of joy. He had been right.
"It's all right," he said, sheathing the sword, and advanced another pace. "It's me--remember me?"
Something was sprawled on the steps of the throne--something indistinct, hazy, half-formed.
He bent down, unhooked the lantern, and set it down on the tiled floor--the green flame fluttered uncertainly as he took his hand away, then slowly steadied. He straightened up again and slipped his free hand into his pocket.
"I've got something for you," he said.
It shrank back as he approached, and bared white fangs that were the only solid parts of it. He stopped when he saw the sudden tension--he knew that if he took another step forward, it would flee, and all would be lost.
He took out the ocarina, and held it up. The light in the room was very poor, now, but the crystal seemed to draw in what there was, so that a hazy blue glow grew within it. The thing shrank away from it, shifting, seeking a body that it could use. He saw it try for his own, but it was brutally weakened and could not complete the transformation. Instead, it settled on the shape it knew best, the one it had worn longest. He came closer, holding out the ocarina before him.
"Come on," he said softly, moving the crystal instrument slowly back and forth. "It's yours... come and get it."
When he was five paces from the throne, the phantom sprang, straight for his throat. He'd been expecting it, and let the snapping teeth have a fold of his cloak as he whirled it forward.
The entangled form banged into him; he raised the ocarina high out of reach, and as it struggled and snatched for the glittering thing, wanting it with no more mind than a magpie--he brought out his other hand that he'd kept hidden. His right hand, with the golden mark.
"Take it back," he said, and forced the medallion through.
Teeth slashed his hand as he drew back, and laid it open to the bone; but it was too late, he'd done what he'd come to do.
Something writhed in agony, clawing at the tiles. He moved back a few paces and waited until the struggles had stilled. Then he picked up his discarded cloak, knelt, and gently bundled up the crumpled form, in the shadow of the looming throne.
With the lantern once more hooked on his belt, he stood, and turned to go.
Something fluttered by in the velvet darkness, just above his head, and he heard the cat snarl. There was a strange feathery sound from the doorway, and then the rattle of a heavy chain.
He sighed. "Gomez," he said.
There came no answer, and the deep gloom hid what lay before him, but he knew all the same that the spectre stood between him and the door. He could put Dark down, take out his sword, and fight. He could win.
"You took away Kafei's body," he said.
The rattling voice spoke in answer: a hundred wings beating together in strange harmony, shaping sound.
"I gave him Hylian burial. He deserved that."
"Yes," Link said. He thought how strange it was that he and this phantom of Ganon could agree on something, but for opposite reasons.
The chain shifted a little. "What will you do now, Hero?" Gomez asked, sounding genuinely curious.
In his arms Dark was still, light as air. But not dead--warm and breathing. Link raised his head and looked directly into the blind blackness, to where he guessed Gomez to be.
"I'm taking him home," he said firmly. Come on and fight me for him--if you dare!
There was a long silence; then he heard the phantom move to one side.
"Take care of him, Hero," Gomez said. "You are safe enough from me."
Harkinian looked down at his daughter, fast asleep on his shoulder despite the undoubtedly very cold and uncomfortable mail-coat he had on, and not for the first time wondered whether it would have been better to have had the red-haired lad packed off back to Calatia under a guard, as he'd nearly done after that first little escapade. He had decided against it at the time, as the boy had been able to show him the letter--the letter his daughter had written--so he had known who was really to blame for the ill-advised adventure. Plus the potential benefits of an agreement with the Gerudo were not to be overlooked. He had not wanted to antagonize their king so soon.
And he'd grown to like the boy, of course, in the intervening months. Not the brightest candle on the Yuletide tree, perhaps, but still far from stupid--idiocy did not run in that family. In any case, his other skills would more than compensate for any educational deficiencies.
He'd let things be, and here was the result: his daughter in love with a landless fisherman's son from Calatia. She'd said nothing of the kind, but he hardly needed her to--he'd suspected it long before now. He did not believe that either of them had acted on it--he had that much faith in the boy, and indeed Link might not even know. Zelda had not cried tonight, telling him what had happened, but then he had very rarely seen her cry. Her mother had never cried.
It was an impossible match. Farore forgive him, he'd have to tell her sooner or later.
She shifted a little, shivering, nestling closer. He drew a fold of his cloak around her and wondered why he had never been able to hold her when she was awake. When she had been a very small child he had sometimes stood in the doorway of her room and watched her sleeping, wishing that he could wake her, lift her into his arms and tell her how much, how desperately he loved her. He'd never dared to do so, and now it was far too late.
He had been ready to kill the young musician, Harper, when he'd heard where his daughter had run off to this time. News of the trouble in the Temple should have come to him first; Zelda should never have gotten involved. And to actively keep it from him--to come to him hours later, when he was settling his morning paperwork, and beg for his understanding--! Well, he hadn't understood, and he still didn't, but he could see how the young man had struggled with his decision, had felt caught between two loyalties.
Three days of waiting, the three hardest he had ever spent. Then a message brought mysteriously, by a messenger none had seen: a scroll sealed with a mark which had not been used since his own grandfather's time.
Your daughter and her friends are safe, and will return to you.
He had been down here in the Temple crypt within the hour, and had remained here ever since, despite increasingly urgent missives from the Castle: envoys begging a few minutes of his time, diplomats going away insulted. Let them all hang--let the country govern itself for a few damned hours.
Another whole day had passed in waiting, down in the gloomy damp, and he had been on the verge of assembling search parties despite the hopelessness of the enterprise, when there had been a rattling from below, and three filthy figures dragged themselves out into the light. Only three--and one of them an enemy; well, they had captured the Lizalfos, so that was something, to have Sepultura's chief lieutenant in custody. Harkinian felt uneasy; he thought it was not to his credit that his first reaction had been My daughter is safe, and his second The Gerudo Princess is safe; thank Nayru it is only the boy and the shadow who are missing. The death of the Gerudo would have been a diplomatic incident; the death of Link could be dealt with.
What time was it now? He'd lost track. Surely it was near dawn... his daughter had said she would go home when it was fully light. He glanced round for his captain, meaning to beckon the man over, ask him quietly to slip outside and check the sky.
His daughter jerked awake. "What was that?" she asked the air. "Link--?"
"Something's down there, my lord," one of the men said, crouching over the hole. On the other side of the room Sofia shook herself awake; the Lizalfos turned his head.
"It's Link!" The Princess leaped to her feet; Harkinian caught at her arm, wanting only to request caution. She hit his hand away and ran to the hole. "Link!" she cried, as the guard struggled with her, trying to stop her from jumping down.
Harkinian rose and came over slowly, gripping the silver hilt of his sword. He had seen the terrible corpse that had been carried out of this place: the thing that had been like no living beast. "Get away," he said, pitching his voice to a tone of command. "Everyone get back!"
"My lord--" His captain touched his shoulder, then stepped out in front of him. He hesitated, then allowed the man to go forward alone, approach the black opening in the floor. The captain knelt down on the very edge of the hole, and tilted his head to listen.
The scuff of a foot on stone, echoing upward through the damp still air. And distantly, oddly distorted, a voice:
"Link!" Zelda cried out again.
"I've got him," the boy was calling, very faintly. "I've got him! Put the lights out--!"
Here endeth Shadow's Mastery...
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