Disclaimer and Notes: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks belongs to Nintendo. I only have a wooden whistle that imitates a train… As of writing this, I've just finished the game for the first time. Late on in the game, I had gathered just enough ritzy treasure to spring for the Golden Train (or as I like to call it, the Scrooge McDuck Train – if you don't know who that is, look up "Ducktales," kids). I found its whistle-sound quite eerie, especially in the Dark Realm, hence the inspiration for this.
"It's a bit gaudy," Link complained, giving his shiny new train engine an exploratory thump with his hand. "But the health gauge reads eight units and it seems sturdy enough. I guess Mr. Linebeck is an honest businessman, after all."
Zelda floated up in front of him. "You didn't have to get it," she said. "You could have sold all the great things you found and been as rich as…me… I guess. Nearly so."
"I can only carry a couple of potions," Link replied. "Medical stuff is the only stuff I'm interested in stocking up on right now. I could sell this thing somewhere when everything's done, but… I was thinking…"
Zelda noticed how he was toeing his boot into the ground. She also could see a light blush coming to his cheeks. He looked up at her sheepishly.
"I really just wanted to get the Royal Passenger Car," he said, turning his gaze groundward again. "For you… I mean, you're a princess. You should travel in class like that. The Spirit Train was basic. The Skull Train was fun for a while, but so… gearhead, all pirate-y. It suited me, not you."
"My Grammy Tetra would have loved it," Zelda giggled.
"The Royal Passenger Car wouldn't have matched anything, so… I got a matching set," Link sighed. "That and the strength Linebeck promised me with the Golden Train. I really wanted to get this for the strength. The whistle on it's pretty weird." He hopped up inside the head and pulled the cord, sending something of a low metallic ring into the air.
"It sounds a bit like a brass bell," Zelda said. "That is a little odd for a train-whistle."
"It's kind of spooky," Link said.
"It's almost like a temple bell… a wedding bell…"
"A funeral bell," Link groused.
"Well, now we have it," Zelda said. "Now we can take on anything, right?"
Link nodded a swift affirmative.
"So, the next place we're going is the Dark Realm," Zelda said. "The Compass of Light pointed right… to tracks near your home. Aboda Village, right?"
"Yeah," Link said. He was walking away from the train and away from her. He sat down on a patch of grass, staring out toward the sea. If the Trading Post had anything going for it, it was a great view of the ocean.
"Who would have guessed that it would be so close to home?"
The boy looked up at her, tight-lipped.
"Shouldn't we get going?"
"I wanted to rest a little more!" Link said, almost curtly. "I'm still a little bruised up. I wanted to at least watch the sunset."
"Alright," Zelda said.
Link didn't notice when she'd "sat down" (as much as a ghost could sit down) next to him. She'd even slipped a ghostly arm around his back. The sun was beginning to sink over the trackless horizon. He turned around.
"Oh! I did not mean to frighten you! Oh, Link, I'm so sorry!"
"Its okay, its okay," he said, flustered. "I just didn't expect you to sneak up on me like that! I can't hear you or anything!"
"Is it okay if I sit next to you?" The tone of her voice was sad, worried.
Link nodded. He could guess what was distressing her. They were about to embark upon what was (hopefully) the final battle before putting her dire situation and the endangered situation of the kingdom to rest. They'd never been to the ominous-sounding "Dark Realm" before. Visiting another dimensional plane was bound to be dangerous, particularly if it was the origin-point of that horrible-looking Demon Train - Not to mention the home of the eldritch abomination that was trying to use Zelda's body as a gateway into their world.
Already in this quest, Link had nearly died many times. As young as he was, his muscles had grown hard and his scars had grown many. The scar on his foot from the time he'd stepped on a broken seashell running along Aboda's beach was nothing to compare to the fine-line gash-scar along his chest from a swift Phantom sword.
Adding insult to injury, the Phantom that had dealt that particular blow had been Zelda.
"It's funny having a girl sitting all cozy n' close next to me and I don't even feel it," Link mused.
"I feel you," Zelda said softly.
"I mean, I can't really feel anything like with my body, but I can feel your energy a bit. You're warm."
Link squint his eyes hard and grit his teeth, trying desperately to work himself out of his fluster. He failed.
"You just got even warmer. Once I get my body back, I think I'd really… like to hug you."
"You're just saying that because you miss being able to hug anybody… Watch… you'll hug Anjean first. Maybe even Linebeck. Or Byrne! Well, after having your 'words,' with him..."
Link felt something cool on his cheek. It felt like an icy breath or a taste of mint on his skin. It lasted a moment and was gone. Had Zelda just tried to kiss him? Link wouldn't be surprised, once this was all over, if Zelda hugged everyone she could catch, took a dip in ice-water, or even grabbed hot embers with her bare hands: Anything to feel sensation. She'd been losing touch with what it was like to be joined to flesh and nerves. This was evident with how she'd urge him on when he tried to take rests. It was becoming obvious at how little she gasped and worried anymore when he got a bleeding cut or other nasty injury. She'd been so worried about him at first. She retained concern for him, but didn't seem to realize anymore how much pain he was in sometimes, or the physical impossibility of movement in some situations. Then again, he'd been shrugging off most of his injuries himself for the sake of pressing on. At least he had a body: He was the one who was still alive.
The parts of their quest that took place within the Tower of Sprits had been the most fun for her. Whenever she possessed a Phantom, she had a body – albeit a temporary one made of heavy armor. Link was amazed at how "princessly" she'd manage to make one of those formidable looking things. Phantom Zelda was a hulking knight with metal horns, but she'd sealed her back with the Royal Crest and had the cutest glowing pink eyes – for a given value of "cute." She'd seemed to enjoy having a physical component to her again and she could go places that fragile flesh could not. She could strike things with a huge sword.
Link had found out how attached she was to a physical form the hard way. Zelda had learned how mortal he was the hard way, too. When Link had first acquired the whip, he'd lashed her mercilessly as soon as she'd possessed a Phantom. From his perspective, it was not cruelty: It was a scientific experiment. He hadn't expected her to feel anything, being a ghost.
"Wha…what was that for?!" he'd coughed from the floor after taking the brunt of Phantom Zelda's anger. She'd given him a good whap with the flat of her blade. He'd been hit squarely in the chest with the broad side. Checking himself for blood and finding none, he stood up shakily.
"Why did you use the whip on me?" Zelda screamed; her rage still at a boiling point.
"I wanted to see if this would stop Phantoms and you're a good test subject!" the boy quipped. He narrowly avoided another whack.
"Really?" Link asked. "I didn't think you'd actually feel anything! You're a ghost, remember!"
"I can feel the vibrations through the armor!" Zelda cried, "I don't like them! And you're getting scuffs and scratches all over it! This is the only body I have now!"
"Don't cry. Look, I'm sorry. I really just wanted to see if this thing had any stopping power, is all. You can walk right around with them, but I gotta hide and run all the time. They aren't like anything I can just fight and I hate that."
The two had agreed to mend their respective wounds with the salve of forgiveness. They both had realized each other's respective frustrations: Zelda was disembodied and unused to the condition. Link was used to being able to physically fight his way through anything, or at least being able to put up a fight for a while, not to skulking around and scurrying into little "safe zone" holes. His sense of courage was undermined, as was her sense of self.
Link had, however, used the whip on her one more time.
The pair had been particularly confounded and annoyed navigating through a quagmire of hazards (some dangerous to tender Hylian flesh, some dangerous to heavy armor). On top of that rather creatively-designed maze (by whomever wished to keep people and Phantoms segregated while in the Tower), there were these horrible phantom-hands charged with keeping a key and a locked door separate. They'd' encountered this type of being before, but never in such an obnoxious way. Link and Zelda had lost the key a few times before they'd managed to unlock the door. Everything in that room had been dangerous and aggravating to them both. Before they'd passed through the final stairwell, they started to bicker. With their tempers flaming, it had turned into a shouting match.
"Don't you dare bring out that thing!"
"This is for failing to haul ass!"
Unlike the last time, where the experiment in science and mayhem had required several strikes before Zelda retaliated, it only took one taste of the lash for her to slam him with the Phantom's sword.
Only this time, she'd forgotten to turn it to its flat side.
The boy looked down at himself. Red soaked through the green soldier's uniform. He fell to his knees, then to his side. He winced, curled up and groaned.
"Don't die! Don't die! Don't die!"
Link managed to crawl to a corner and prop his back up against a wall. He pulled a bottle from his pocket and drank a small amount of the liquid inside it. He looked up at Zelda like a kicked puppy.
"I'm so sorry, Link! I didn't watch what I was doing! I was so angry!"
"It's okay," Link whispered. "I deserved it…"
"No, no, no…"
"Niko always told me never to bully a dragon unless I was prepared to kill it."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that I have a friend who doesn't know her own strength and I whapped her with a whip because I'm an idiot."
"I could have killed you!"
"But you didn't." Link was smiling, trying to reassure her. The potion had done its job of quick-mending his wound, though he knew it would take some time before it completely sealed. He could work, though. That's what mattered. "Let's agree never to do this again. I, Link of Aboda, Engineer of New Hyrule, will never use my whip on you out of anger or for science again."
"And I don't want to ever strike you with a Phantom Sword again."
As if sensing the event Link was remembering, Zelda turned to him and said "I think the Phantom-possession phase of our journey is over now. I hope it is."
"I thought you were really cool as a Phantom."
"I want my flesh and blood back," Zelda sighed. "I've been gone too long from it. A Phantom is not the same, though after this is all over, I may try sword-lessons."
Link laughed. "I wasn't ever expecting to need them, myself. That's why I'm so clumsy. It's weird… something in me comes alive when I've got a sword in my hand, like… I don't know, an ancestral calling, but I never really wanted to hold one."
"Well, you're really good at it… better than you think. Especially with those nasty rats."
Link turned to her with a bemused smile on his face. "Why is it that you're so afraid of rats anyway? You aren't afraid of rabbits…"
"Rabbits are cute, Link and they're harmless."
"They're related to rats, you know."
"Oh, don't say that! I'll never be able to go to Rabbitland Rescue again!"
"Rats are smart," Link mused, "And I heard that they'll bypass food to save other rats that are their friends from danger. They're also really easy to kill with a swift sword-strike. I'm not afraid of them at all."
"I'm a girl."
"A girl in my village had a pet rat for a while. She doesn't have him anymore because they don't live long."
"My father told me not to ever go near rats," Zelda explained. "He said they came up from the sewers below the castle. They're filthy and have nasty scaly tails and horrid little crusty claws, and given the chance, they'll crawl on you at night, and eat babies in their cribs and…and…"
"Zelda, ghosts aren't supposed to be able to hyperventilate."
"Sorry… we were just… talking about an uncomfortable subject for me…"
"Hmm. Could it be that you've been afraid of rats all this time just because they represent death for you?"
Link took a deep breath. "I mean… disease… you fear them because they're filthy, but you're a ghost, so you don't have anything to fear from them. They can't get you sick or anything."
"I suppose you're right. They're still ugly and creepy, though."
Link turned to watch the dipping sun. The sky looked like it was on fire. "I've been meaning to ask you something, Zelda… something kind of rude…" he whispered.
"What is it, Link?" the spectral princess asked.
"Are you sure? It's a bit impolite…"
"What does it feel like to die?"
Zelda was stunned for a moment. "Why would you ask me that?"
"It's just something I'm wondering." His eyes took on a distant look, and his face, even in profile wore one of the most serious expressions Zelda had seen on the boy. "Once we head into the Dark Realm… well, I don't know if we'll be coming back."
"Oh, don't have doubts now! We've been through everything and kicked tail! We're an unstoppable team, remember?"
"I just have this ominous feeling," Link sighed. "Like… once we go there, nothing is going to be the same after that. I sense that we're going to lose something. I don't know. I shouldn't be a downer, but… I don't know if we're strong enough. Anjean told me something on the train about my spirit being in a line of great heroes, but I know that even heroes aren't immortal."
"I don't know if I'm really dead," Zelda said, "Like dead-dead. My body should be looking a bit like a Stalfos by now if I were dead in the normal way. When I was… separated… I didn't really even feel a thing. It took me a while to register what had happened – that's when I went to the Castle for help and only you could see me. If I do really qualify as dead, then I'd say the moment of it doesn't feel like anything other than a bit bewildering."
"I always heard that we're supposed to go to the Land of Spirits when we die…" Link began, "or to the Fields of the Goddesses. Some think we come back as babies… I even heard about a special place in the Heavens for all the great heroes of the past. I wonder if they have railroads there…"
"I've heard all that," Zelda said. "I also heard that some believe we just vanish when we die. Poof. Oblivion. The spirit fades away. I wonder if such a state would be better than eternity as a wandering shade…"
"That sounds like it sucks," Link contended. "All your life and hard work, your memories, your achievements, just gone…"
"They wouldn't be gone for the people who loved you."
"But they – and the people I loved – would be gone for me! I'll take a Heroes' Heaven or even life as a wandering spirit over that! I mean… even if we fail and you're stuck as a ghost forever… you could still see the world – see everything!"
"It could get boring."
"I don't think I could ever get bored with the world. It's just too awesome. It's why I dreamt since I was real little of being an engineer. I wanted to see all of the world. I grew up on tales of how the Spirit Tracks could take you anyplace in the country. Sure, they were told by Niko and he drones on and on and would put me to sleep, but still… I trained really hard… I'm the youngest student Alfonzo has ever had. I just wanted it so badly…"
"And you got it. You brought the Tracks back and you've been everywhere."
"And it's been beautiful," Link sad with a smile, gazing into Zelda's translucent eyes. "I know that I'm never going to get enough of beauty."
The sky had gone from golden to a deep red, painting the sea in a shade of blood. Link spoke to Anjean before readying to depart. Zelda kept her usual post as lookout to help him with anything that might escape his field of vision.
They chugged past Aboda. Link explained that he did not want to stop there, because if he did, surrounded by familiar things and familiar faces, he might lose the courage to leave.
"I'm not good at goodbyes," he told Zelda as the town's train platform disappeared from view. "And I'm not sure they'd understand if I tried to explain what was going on."
They entered the Dark Realm and it was unlike anything they'd ever seen. There were stars below their tracks – an endless sea of night. Zelda scouted ahead and informed Link of the many armored monster-trains ahead on the tracks. The Golden Train caught a Tear of Light and Link pulled the whistle. They sped through the night with the speed of dreams, all the while sounding that brass-bell chimney.
If it had not sounded like an evil omen before, it certainly did now. Surrounded by shining darkness and a consuming void, that whistle sounded even more like a funeral bell to Link than it had in the familiar world. He sounded it for speed and to hear the eerie echo across the night. He also sounded it strong because he knew that if they didn't come back from this, it was likely that no one would ever know what had happened to Anjean, Byrne, Zelda or him.
He rang the funeral bell for them, knowing that there would never be a funeral.
Link hoped that there would be no need for one, either.
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