Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 79

THE CAVERN went on for a long time with no apparent end in sight. They walked quickly, he leading and they side by side a little way back, keeping him always in sight, with the cat trotting behind them. The vast pillars dwarfed them; would, indeed, have dwarfed the greatest trees of the upper world. There was no sound at all, save the scuff of their feet on the bare rock, and the huffing of their breath. Their surroundings glittered everywhere with untold wealth, beautiful and dead. The candles burned out again and again. Hours could have passed--and likely did--and yet they seemed no nearer to a further side than they had been before.

Eventually, footsore and tired, they stopped again, to rest and share out a little more of their dwindling supplies.

It was not a pretty sight to watch Kleox tearing into a loaf of bread. He ate hunched over, snapping and worrying at the food, throwing his head back now and again to swallow a chunk without chewing.

"Why are you down here?" Zelda asked, when he stopped for breath.

He twisted his head, birdlike, to look at them both; his eye was bright and clever now, gleaming with renewed life. "I could ask you the same question, except I think we both know the answer. Took you long enough to figure it out, didn't it? Her Worship knew weeks ago."

An Amulet, she thought. The disturbance of Kafei Dotour's tomb. Sepultura had uncovered something about the Shadow Knight.

"Do you want to tell us where the witch is?" Sofia said.

Dinolfos shrugged. "Do you want to tell me where the Hero and the shadow are?"

Pause. "We don't know," Zelda said at last, feeling thoroughly fed up with intrigue.

"And no more do I know where Her Worship is." He bit ferociously at another mouthful, showering crumbs. There was something so ostentatious, so over the top about his foul manners, that Zelda found herself watching him intently and wondering if it could be some sort of ploy.

Her Worship? That--the way he'd said it--if anything it had sounded scornful. She thought about that for a moment, and made an intuitive jump. "Sepultura left you behind. Didn't she?"

He grunted, dismissive. "Why not? I'm only a lowly Lizalfos, it's not like my life means anything to the likes of them."

"Why do you serve her?" It came out more heartfelt than she'd intended, and Sofia glanced round sharply.

"Who said anything about her?" He tore another bite out of the loaf and gulped it down whole before going on. "She and I just happen to serve the same master. I'm doing it for His Dark Majesty."

"You mean Ganon," Zelda said flatly.

"If you like." He was intent on the food.

"You're better than that," she said.

Now there was a reaction. Slowly he raised his head, and the glint in his eye was cold. "Better?" he said quietly. "Better? Oh, don't give me that crap. I tell you in all earnest that I'd sooner see the Dragmire on the throne than you. At least he's honest."

That stung. "What do you mean, honest? If he had his way, the whole world would be a wasteland! Is that really what you want? And just how are we dishonest?"

"Zelda, it's not worth it," Sofia began to say, but was interrupted.

"It's all good guys and bad guys to you, isn't it?" Kleox said quietly, setting the remainder of the bread down. "You call that boy the Hero because one of his ancestors made life difficult for His Dark Majesty once. Well now, Princess, you tell me. Could life possibly be any worse for my kind, under the Dragmire, than it is now?" When she did not answer at once, he turned his head sharply, showing them his blinded side, flaunting the scar. "You see this eye of mine? Know how I came by it? One of your soldiers did it, Your Highness, on a routine patrol." He bared his pale teeth in something that was not a smile. "The bastard didn't even slow down to check if he'd finished me cleanly--for which I suppose I ought to thank him, because I wouldn't be here now if he'd done his job properly. No, I'll stick with the Dragmire, thanks all the same. He may be a murderer, but at least he's honest about it."

The two of them sat still, stunned. He finished the remainder of the bread and delicately dusted his fingers together, dainty as a Hylian noble. Another artfully constructed display.

Oh, how we have all underestimated him...

"You thought I was just another muscle-for-brains flunky, right?" There was a biting wit in his tone now. "Actually, I am quite capable of logical thought when the need arises."

"You know," Sofia said, "you're eating our food and burning our light."

He grinned viciously. "Oh, quite, quite, we're all friends here. We'd best be getting on, then." And a spiteful aside, as he rose gracefully to his feet, "Hope you brought enough candles."

They went on.

He was leading them now; somehow, somewhere along the way, he had taken charge of the situation. They followed sullenly as he made his way across the cavern floor, stepping around great stalagmites that rose up like spires to the limit of their light. For a long time there was silence.

Every now and again Dinolfos paused and turned his head slowly from side to side, flicked his tongue out to taste the air like a snake. The tip of it was delicately forked.

"You're following her," Zelda said, the fourth time it happened.

He glanced back. "Her? No. She can rot for all I care. A way out's what I'm looking for."

At the lake, earlier this year, he had followed them by scent. He had nearly caught them, too--if it hadn't been for Dark's trickery in the forest, he certainly would have done. A wild idea came to her. "Could you..." She swallowed, aware of Sofia's eyes on her. "Can you tell us if Link or Dark have been this way?"

For a moment Kleox remained quite still, looking at her sideways, then his lips drew back from his teeth in a long slow smile. "Well. What an... interesting question."

"You already know we're looking for them," Sofia said coldly. "Why don't you answer the question?"

"You poor little dears. Two little lost lambs all alone." His tone was honey-sweet, dripping with irony. "Do you mean to say you've wandered all the way down here all by yourselves without any idea of where to search for your friends? Wouldn't you say that was rather thoughtless?"

"On the other hand, we weren't the one who was sitting gibbering in the dark," she shot back at him, her eyes flashing. Zelda laid a hand on her arm quickly, worried that the two of them would come to blows.

"Touché," Kleox said. "Good hit."

There was a moment of silence. "Can you find them, then?" Zelda said.

His eye focused on her. "The Hero, possibly. If I had the scent, which I currently do not. The shadow, no. Not a chance."

"Why?" she asked curiously.

A sour expression crossed Dinolfos' face. "Have you ever heard the saying about looking for a black cat in a cellar at midnight? That slippery bastard's got no scent, leaves no footprints, and to top it off he can go invisible at will. I tell you in all honesty I couldn't find Dark Link down here if he was standing right next to me. He's not called the Shadow Master for nothing."

"That's an old title for an assassin," Zelda said after a moment.

Kleox shrugged. "I'm told your friend's accounted for at least three Hylian monarchs so far. Just saying."

Something cold crept up her spine. "Can we change the subject?"

"You brought it up."

Behind her, Sofia made a sharp, annoyed huff. Dinolfos ignored it.

"What now?" he said, turning to face her--and, by his posture, delicately excluding the Gerudo. The tension ratcheted up another notch.

"We'll have to go back, I suppose," she said, thinking aloud. "We must have picked the wrong path when we were on the lake shore... so if we go back the way we came and have another look around..."

Kleox bared his teeth--not in anger or challenge, but more with an expression of distaste. "Back in that thing's nest? There's brave, and then there's stupid."

"What's wrong?" Sofia challenged, in a voice like a ringing bell. "Are you frightened?"

"Frightened, oh yes, how silly to be frightened of something that can very likely kill me. Oh dear, what a foolish fellow am I."

"It's dead--"

"How do you know that was the only one, you stupid girl?"

They were bristling at each other like a pair of dogs. It was like it had been with Dark, except worse, and in a worse place. Watching them, seeing the pettiness of the squabble, Zelda suddenly felt sick of it all--sick of the dark, sick of the suspicions, sick of having enemies. Sick of the whole Quest, really.

Without a word she pushed past them and began to walk with her candle cupped in her hands, back the way they had come. Prowl caught up quickly and trotted beside her. She didn't look back to see if they were following; right now, she didn't particularly care. After a moment she heard the hurried scuffing of their footsteps approaching from behind.

"Zelda!" Kleox's voice, sharp and suddenly urgent. "Wait--!"

She half-turned, but that was all she had time to do. The ground shifted violently under her, tipping her sideways. For an instant she thought that it was her fevered imagination; they'd been walking on bare rock for so long now that it didn't seem quite possible that she could have fallen onto a floor of earth. But then without warning the soft dark soil erupted beneath their feet, and a multitude of spindly white hands reached up with snake-like speed, grabbing them all three in spidery cold fingers and dragging them down through a crust of thin earth that broke apart...

The fall was short and painful, broken by a fall onto a mound of hard and brittle things that snapped beneath them like old branches. Showers of loose earth cascaded down on top of them. Zelda flailed, half buried by soil, and tried to sit up in the shifting stuff--but the hands were on her, pinning her wrists and ankles in a cold, clammy, iron-hard grip. Everything was shifting; she had nothing solid to brace against. She cried out, and at once dirt filled her mouth; she choked on it. Driven beyond reason by her terror, she struggled like a wild thing and managed to free one arm. Her fingers found the short sword at her side, and drew it forth, and she swung furiously without grace, hacking at the arms that held her. Dry skin and brittle bone broke apart at the touch of cold iron, and the hands withdrew.

Darkness... oh, Nayru, darkness... Their candles were gone: lost in the confusion of the falling and then extinguished beneath the earth that had come down on top of them. She had never been in such intense darkness. She was blind. Something snatched at her hair again and she struck out wildly, screaming, careless as to whether she struck friend or foe--anything near her right now was a foe. She couldn't see--it was going to get her--She tried to roll, desperate to get away, and something else pulled at her, a tight band across her chest. She fought it, and the quiver strap snapped; arrows rolled everywhere like so many sticks.


She didn't think about it; she didn't have time to think about it. Something, some inexplicable instinct, simply made her slam her right hand down, palm-first, in the blackness. The edge was like a shard of ice as it sliced her flesh. And light blasted into existence, hot and gold.

A mad, filthy, earth-covered figure, she rose to her feet with her good hand clasped tight around the hilt of the sword. A few paces away, Sofia was doing the same; their eyes met. "What was it?" the Gerudo woman asked in a voice that shook with fear and rage. "What's after us now?"

The Fire Arrow lay on the floor, flaming brilliantly. Red blood had stained the swan-white shaft and dulled its beauty. It had never burned so powerfully before--it hurt to look at it. She bit her lip and clenched her wounded hand; blood began to well out of her fist. It had cut her deeply.

Hissing vile curses, and clutching his knight's sword in his free hand, Kleox surfaced from a pile of soft dirt. A severed hand, pale and ghostly, clung loosely to his forearm. He shook it off and then raised his head and looked at them.

"You any good with that sword, girl?" he said.

She blinked and glanced down at the short sword. "I... I'm not sure..."

"You think you can find out quickly?"

Sofia had been standing silently as she watched them both. "What is it?" she asked quietly, calm and still now. Rivalry was forgotten: the genuine fear in Dinolfos' voice had struck them both.

"Dead Hand," he said casually, glancing up towards the edge of the pit; it was too far to jump. Then he hefted his weapon for a moment, testing the weight of it, and looked at them again over the long blade. "We've fallen into its nest. If we're going to get out alive, we'll have to kill it. Anything else is going to have to wait."

"All right," Zelda said, making a split-second decision. "Tell us what to do."

They had been dragged down into a cave; or, not so much a cave as a deep hole dug out of the soft earth and roofed with a thin hard crust. It was roughly rectangular in shape, twenty feet long by fifteen wide, and they stood all three at one end of it. Mounds and drifts of loose dirt were scattered over the irregular floor, and other things, pale yellow-white in the gloomy light: skulls and bones, some of them humanoid, many more unfamiliar to Hylian eyes. A number of the remains had been splintered or bore deep scars and gouges. There was a thick brown earthy smell in the air, and underlying that another odor, sick and putrid--decaying flesh.

The three of them moved closer together by some unspoken accord, their attention fixed on the further end of the chamber, which was in darkness too deep to be pierced even by the Fire Arrow's light.

"It's over there," Sofia said in a fierce half-whisper.

"It's all around us," Kleox answered grimly in the same manner. "In the walls and the floor. It's how they hunt--they dig out a hole and wait for something to walk over the top. Then..." He shrugged expressively.

"How do we kill it?" Zelda asked. "Cut off the hands?"

"Forget the hands--they're not important. You can't kill it until you see its head. And the only reason it'll show its head is if it thinks it's caught something."

There was a tremor in the earth beneath their feet. Things were moving beneath the soil, burrowing their way up like white worms. Zelda's mouth was dry; she gripped her short sword tightly as sweat slickened the palms of her hands.

"Here it comes," Kleox said.

The ground exploded. Like vines the long thin arms sprang up around her; in an eyeblink they had her by all four limbs and lifted her bodily into the air. She cried out and tried to fight, but her arms were pinned and she could not bring the sword to bear. Dirt was spraying everywhere as more of the gripping hands erupted from the floor--there was no end to them! White fingers grabbed for her throat, and she shrieked.

"No, not yet!" Kleox's voice rose above the fury of sound in the confined cavern; he was trying to hold back Sofia who struggled furiously, intent on reaching the Princess. "Wait, you little fool! You can't hurt it yet!"

"Curse you, get out of my way--!"

Zelda was the only one in a position to see what happened next, and she saw it upside-down. In the darker end of the cavern, the floor rippled, then surged like murky water; something huge was rising from beneath. Pale and ghostly in the gloom it broke the surface, and the earth cascaded off its back. It was a shapeless fleshy mound, mottled purplish-white like some strange nocturnal mushroom, blotched and hairless, streaked with dark veins. The brilliant firelight glistened wetly on its surface. A blast of cold air rolled out of the darkness, bringing with it a putrid rotten stink that made her gag.

It came forward in a rush, plowing up the ground before it: a cadaverous misshapen thing that might have grown like a tumour out of the rotting remains of corpses. It was massive--eight feet from the churning soil to the top of the pale mound. The forest of hands fumbled her about, lifting her up high to bring her close to the approaching horror. And, curiously detached from the action, she heard herself screaming.

For out of that lumpish mound of flesh appeared a face.

It seemed to form itself as she watched, extending downwards on a long thin stem of a neck. Once, most terribly, such a visage might have been Hylian, but there was nothing mortal about it now: it was deathly white, its features elongated and strange. The eyes were dark holes; the nose was a rotted knob of cartilage and torn flesh. As the head bent down on its long neck, a mouth yawned impossibly wide to display bristling fangs, translucent as the teeth of deep-sea fishes. Pendulous strings of drool swayed with the movement. It breathed on her, and the scent was of graveyard and charnel house, of murder in the dead of night.

Kleox's longsword seemed to come out of nowhere: it cut deeply into the face of the horror, tearing away a ragged flap of skin. Again there was no blood--just a black sticky fluid that oozed rather than flowed. A sound came from the thing, or from somewhere in the earth beneath them: a terrible desolate groan. Nothing mortal could have made such a cry. The head swung ponderously away from Kleox and Sofia's scimitar caught it on the other side, laying open the jaw. Again that awful inanimate cry, thick with an agony far deeper than the wounds. Then, abruptly, it reared away from them and submerged into the soil in a flurry of earth and stones. The grasping hands loosed their grip on Zelda and shot back down into the floor; she thudded down on her back on a thick carpet of sort dirt. For a moment she thought she would faint where she lay, but Kleox reached down and grabbed her arm, and hauled her bodily to her feet.

"You all right?" he said.

At that moment Zelda knew she had a choice--the Hero's choice. This monstrous undead thing was too terrible for mortals. Perhaps with luck she could flee this place and come again to the safety of the sunlit world; but she would dream forever of the Dead Hand's face, teeth, rotting flesh. Madness lay that way.

Her other choice was to face and fight the nightmare--to defy the darkness, to embrace the fear. Only five exceptional people had done so in over a thousand years of Hyrule's history... So this was what it had meant for Link to walk the long road from Calatia, carrying nothing more than a cheap sword in a hand-me-down scabbard. She understood it all now.

Her fingers tightened on the hilt of the short sword. "I'm all right," she said.

The ground rumbled and was silent. They stood all three at their end of the cavern, ankle-deep in loose earth, and waited. A little shower of dirt fell from the ceiling, and then all was still once more.

"Is it over?" Sofia asked. "Is it dead?"

"Round one to us, that's all," Kleox said, shifting his grip on his blade.

Was that a sound? Earth shifted several yards away; dirt and pebbles slid down the face of a mound. They tensed.

The eruption came from behind them. Without warning the earth at Kleox's back exploded, and a half-dozen spindly arms wrapped themselves around him, jerking him back to pin him against the cavern wall--no, against the Dead Hand itself, for now it forced its mountainous bulk out of what had seemed to be solid earth. Loose dirt flowed like water, puddling out across the floor. Kleox gave one startled shout and fought the thing, but its hands had his sword-arm pinned and were twisting, trying to force him to drop his weapon.

The long neck bent in a smooth and almost graceful movement; the ruined head swung down, rat-trap jaws gaping.

"Now!" Sofia shouted. Grim-faced they waded forward through the shifting dirt, hacking viciously at any hands that came too close. The monster flailed weakly as they approached, but its own limbs were small and ineffective; Zelda's short sword opened a long line down the side of its neck so that black poison gushed the length of her blade. It groaned and reared away from them, then dropped Kleox and slammed its bulk away from them, back into the earth. The chamber shook.

"We're not doing enough damage," Kleox said as he got to his feet. He was breathing heavily now, but he had kept hold of his sword despite the Dead Hand's best efforts.

"Can't we try to corner it?" Sofia suggested.

"Difficult. It can move in earth as easily as we walk on it. But if we take too long about killing it, it's going to get wise to us. It'll bring the whole place down on us if we make it mad enough."

"Then we'll have to kill it before it retreats again," Zelda said calmly. Sofia glanced at her, startled perhaps by her tone. She sheathed her short sword and walked out unarmed into the center of the chamber. "I'll draw it out so you can get it. Be ready, all right?"

They waited. But the Dead Hand was being cautious this time; the wounds they had given it must have smarted. They heard it moving through the earth like distant thunder, now off to the left and now somewhere to the right, but it did not show itself. Impatiently Zelda took a few steps towards the rumbling, and at once it faded away.

At last she turned back to her friends, her expression puzzled. "Did we scare it off?" she asked.

Kleox opened his mouth and was about to respond, when the hands shot out again--from above this time, high in the wall. They engulfed Sofia and drew her up in an instant, out of her reach. Soil showered them, pouring into their eyes to blind them.

"Sofia!" Zelda cried, rushing forward as the awful head snaked down from the ceiling of the cavern. Kleox shouldered her roughly aside; he leaped, too agile to be Hylian, and brought the long blade up and round in a powerful slashing blow. The tough white skin parted behind the gleaming edge and black ichor pattered down like rain. Moaning in its agony, the Dead Hand dropped Sofia, who scrambled to her feet and dodged out of the way of the clawing fringe of hands. The three of them backed away as one, as cracks sped across the wall around the monster's bulk. It tried to pull back into the earth, but failed; as the roof gave way around it the Dead Hand lost its grip and crashed down onto the floor of the chamber, a clumsy mountain of flesh.

They ringed it with drawn blades. Ungainly now, crippled by Kleox's blow, it raised itself and reared its vulnerable head up, away from its implacable enemies. Pale hands stretched out from walls and floor and snatched at their clothes, their limbs; brought to bay at last, unable to flee, the Dead Hand tried to defend itself. The long neck whipped like a snake, gape-toothed and threatening. Exposed to their bright swords it was weak and vulnerable, and it knew it, and they knew it.

"Cut it down," Kleox said grimly. "Quick--before it gathers its strength again!"

It was worse than the Floormaster had been; for no matter what they did the Dead Hand would not die. They cut it and cut it, reducing the thin pale skin to ribbons, until the floor, and their clothes, were drenched with its black blood. Gouts of earth flew in all directions; in the blizzard hands clawed at them, grabbing at their clothes as if beseeching mercy. Zelda battled with her own compassion--it was so helplessly horrible, the misshapen thing. She felt genuinely sorry for it. But the glittering teeth were sharp, and the hands that snatched at her ankles would not let her relax even for a moment. She hit it again and again, willing it to lie down, become still, die.

Sofia was the one who finally silenced it; with one furious blow she transfixed the head with the blade of her scimitar, pinning the thing to the ground. The moaning cut off short. One last convulsion wracked the shrinking, shivering body, and then the monster lay before them like a beached whale, its body twitching even now with the last few spasms of its unholy life.

"Your magic's failing," Kleox said into the momentary stillness of their triumph, and his voice was strained. "Best get your candles out again--"

The Fire Arrow had been dusted over with earth during their battle, but it was not fully covered. Zelda hurried to it and brushed away the dirt; the flame died down swiftly as she did so. Sofia was only just in time with her pack--she touched the wick of a new taper to the arrow's tip just as the last embers drifted away, and by luck the candle caught.

In the renewed candlelight the arrow was different: its pale beauty had faded to a dull and featureless gray, stained by darkness where her blood had touched it. Somehow she knew by looking at it that it would never burn again.

...How many times may we use it, then, before its power fails?

Who knows? Once perhaps, or a hundred times. Who can tell how much magic remains in it after so long?...

"We wasted it," she said, and squeezed her eyes shut against the sting. "All in one go. It's all gone, all used up..."

"I wouldn't call it wasted," Kleox said quietly. "We're alive, aren't we?"

She tried not to cry as she went around gathering up the rest of her scattered arrows, keeping well away from the dead monster on the floor. The quiver strap, at least, could be knotted back together and mended. But the Fire Arrow... She supposed she should throw it away, for it was useless now. She dropped it into the quiver anyway, then gathered her strength, stood and turned to face the other two.

The chamber was in ruins. One end was nearly filled with dirt; the other had a yawning gap in the roof where the Dead Hand had fallen. Debris made a steep slope up to the overhanging floor of the cavern above. They could get out that way, if they were quick and sure enough.



The dirt had gotten into everything: their clothes, their packs, their hair. In the flickering light of their two candles Sofia's face was dark and grimy, her golden eyes ringed with pale owlish circles. Zelda supposed she must look just as bad herself. She could feel the rough grittiness of earth caked on her skin; her hands, when she looked at them, had dirt ground into the lines and packed beneath the fingernails.

They sat in a rough circle, the candles in their battered brass holders resting on the stone between them. The ground here was firm rock--that had been the first thing she had checked. The Dead Hand's pit, now nothing more than a long open trench in the ground, lay several yards away, just visible at the limits of their light.

She held out her right hand, and then winced as Sofia poured precious water over the cut, in an attempt to wash the worst of the mud out of it. "You did well there, Zelda... right across the palm. It ought to have a couple of stitches in it."

"We don't have needle and thread, even if either of us knew how," Zelda said tiredly. She was too exhausted to think.

Sofia fished about in her pack and came up with a roll of bandage that was almost clean. "Well... I'll bind it up tightly, all right? Try to keep it still while it heals." It was a stupid thing to say; if there was to be any more fighting, Zelda would have no choice but to use her injured hand. They both knew it, so she didn't bother to point it out.

It took several layers of wrapping until the blood stopped seeping through, and then her hand felt stiff and swaddled. Somewhere underneath, the pain was a dull bone-ache that seemed to ebb and flow with her breath. She let it lie limp in her lap.

"Where's the cat?" Sofia said suddenly.

The words hung between them in the silence, pregnant with meaning: Prowl had not been in the pit with them. Zelda turned her head quickly, looking all around, but there were no gleams of eyes in the outer dark--not that the candle's flame pierced far. "Prowl?" she called, softly, trying to strike a balance between volume and caution. She got to her feet, but a wave of dizziness hit her and she had to sit back down hurriedly.

"Jumped clear, probably," Kleox said, "when the ground gave way."

"Prowl?" Zelda called again. "Prowl!" She gathered her strength and made to stand again, but Sofia grabbed her arm and held her back.

"I'll go."

She left them one candle, and took the other. They heard her calling as she wandered, now close, now far away; her light was a little yellow spark in the blackness, insignificant. Zelda sat still and watched the flame of the remaining candle, fixing her eyes on it so that she could not turn to look at the pit and the dead horror within it. She was aware of Dinolfos' gaze on her, but he did not speak.

Sofia came back, alone.

"I couldn't find her," she said as she sat, though the words were unnecessary.

"My turn, then," Zelda said, and reached for the candle--but Sofia pulled it back.

"Zelda," she said, kindly, "if she wouldn't come to me, she won't come to you. There's no way we'll be able to find her in the dark--we'll have to trust her to look after herself for now."

"What? She can't, she doesn't know--"

"She can," Kleox broke in gruffly, startling them both. "She already proved she's got more sense than to hang about near that thing. Anyway, it's a cat. Looking after themselves is what they do. Now we have to look after ourselves, so take some time to get your head straight and we'll think about our next move."

"Who died and made you leader?" Sofia challenged, but you could tell her heart wasn't in it.

They were arguing again, in sharp, angry voices, but the words no longer had any meaning. The only thing there was was misery. Zelda drew her knees up to her chest, and held herself for some small comfort. She wished she was dead, and everyone she loved with her. It seemed about the only way they would ever be reunited now.

"...Well, I say we should go back." Sofia's voice was taut and savage, the words spilling out quickly, like glass shards. "We've lost the trail now; there's no point going on from here. If we can find our way back to the lake we might be able to start again--or failing that, we can go back up the stairs and get help. This one's beyond us... Zelda--are you even listening?"

She raised her head. "I don't want to abandon him here," she said. "And what about Prowl?"

A few feet away, Kleox made an irritable snarl, and shifted. "All this fuss over a damned cat..."

"I don't see you falling over yourself to help out," Sofia snapped.

"Do I have any reason to?" he said mildly.

The Gerudo hissed breath through her teeth. "How about the fact that we're the ones with the gear?"

"Keep pushing me. See what happens."

Zelda fought back an urge to scream. "Oh, for the love of Din," she said, sitting up, "shut up, the pair of you. Over and over, like the same few bars of a tune. I'm sick to death of it." She glanced once at Sofia, who was looking at her with something like shock, then turned her attention towards Kleox. His expression was calm, and faintly curious. She drew in a breath. "If we agreed to follow you - what then?"

His control was good, but not as good as Dark's, and she had gotten quite good at reading Dark. She saw the momentary widening of his eye, the tiny stiffening of the frame: he was taken aback. "What then?" he repeated softly, half to himself, tasting the words.

She shifted position to sit cross-legged and face him, ignoring the waves of silent fury Sofia was giving off. "Yes," she said. "Sitting here isn't accomplishing anything except the waste of our candles, and we don't have candles to waste. We have to help each other out now. That's what you were saying, isn't it? Good guys and bad guys." She pitched her next words to Sofia, without shifting her gaze. "It doesn't matter who's on what side. I'm not listening to any more stupid arguments about it." The second candle still sat in the middle of their rough circle; she reached out and picked it up, cupped it in her hands, then pushed it over towards him. The brass holder scraped on the stone as she set it down. "Take it."

He stared at her, then did so, slowly.

"How do we find Link?" she said.

Kleox stared into the candle-flame for a long time without speaking; his scaled brows were furrowed, shadowing his eyes. Sofia shifted as if to speak, but remained silent.

At last he said, in a low growl, "He's with the shadow, you said. Where was the shadow headed?"

"Link didn't say--"


"To his master," Sofia said after a moment. "To Ganon." She straightened up, her eyes widening. "'Send it back to sleep'..? He's looking for--"

"Ganon's throne room," Zelda finished for her, and a chill ran through her body as she understood for the first time what that meant. "The Shadow Temple. Is that right? We're looking for the Shadow Temple?"

"Not exactly." Dinolfos's voice was gravelly now, harsh. "I don't think you quite understand about the Underworld, or the Shadow Temple."

"And you do?" Zelda said. "Well, tell us, then."

He set the candle back down and looked at her, his head twisted to one side. "The Underworld is the Shadow Temple, Princess," he said. "We've always known this, me and mine. Why haven't you? Your Hero of Time explored one part of it. We're in a different part. It's all one. But that place... I wouldn't say it's the heart of it--Din save me from ever seeing that--but it's a heart."

She leaned forward. "Do you know how to find it?" she said quietly. It was odd, but she felt very calm now--a little like she had felt on the boat, that time. Everything was suddenly very clear and somehow too sharp, as if she saw through a powerful lens, or had a fever.

"Maybe," he growled. "But it's not a place you'd want to go."

It was a crossroads. She sensed it, a feeling that the world held its breath for something--a decision, a commitment. But there was no decision to make... or at least, the choice had already been made for her, long ago. She drew in a breath, and said, deliberately, "We don't leave our friends behind."

Something shifted.

"Very well," Kleox said after a long silence. "We'll try it." He turned to Sofia. "If that's all right with you, of course," he added in a sardonically sweet voice. She stared him down coldly and did not answer. He stood, using the long sword for support, then stooped to take the candle. His one-eyed gaze met Zelda's as he did so; the expression on his face was thoughtful, opaque.

Sofia's look was more transparent: it said, this is a bad idea.



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