Chapter XVII: Ikana
Link left Hyrule Castletown long before the sun peaked the outer wall. The sense of urgency that had shadowed his mind since the night before weighed heavily still. Spurred on thus he felt the extra hour was well spent.
Even so, he was not preoccupied to the point that he missed the shadow slinking through the trees off to his left.
“… Slow on the uptake, aren’t you?”
Link reined in Epona, eyebrow twitching, “What do you want?”
“To see, meh?” Sheik scoffed, dropping from a tree, “So… You are headed south then?”
Link said nothing, but his eyes narrowed, “What. Do. You. Want?” and how did he know?
The shorter man snickered softly, “I want what you want, hero. Though perhaps for a different reason, meh?”
Link glared at the shorter man.
“The paths are a jumble all around you, hero.” He drawled, “Turning every which way and in on themselves. Even I don’t know what to make of them.” He leaned back slightly, and Link had the uncanny expression he was grinning behind his facewrap. That strange smell, of age and long travel, clung to him as potently as the stick of magic. Oh, so very old. Even Ganon has felt younger, Sheik… Sheik was ancient.
“Who knows what might happen, meh?” Sheik snickered, “So many paths, even I don’t know.” Sheik shrugged, “I was sent by the half-light princess to keep an eye on you once she’d discovered the release of the one unnamed- the true shadow of Ganon. I expect her highness explained that beastie for your convenience?”
“Good, then you understand the need for haste.”
“I don’t trust you,” Link said.
The man’s one visible eye slid the Master Sword , “Just as long as we understand each other…” He shrugged, “None of my business, meh… You want to know, you can find the answers if you look.”
The Ordonian blinked and Sheik laughed, a dry coughing sound that sent shivers down Link’s spine and made his hair stand on end.
“Meh… I’m going with you.”
Link opened his mouth to protest, then shut it. Short of breaking his legs, there wasn’t much he could do about it.
Sheik let out a piercing whistle. A moment later the beat of hooves heralded the arrival of a small dappled pony- the sort favored by travelers for their strength and hardiness. The little mare trotted right up to Sheik and stopped, giving Link- he could have sworn –the cheekiest look he had ever seen on an animal.
Sheik mounted and spurred his mount forward, trotting off down the road, forcing Link to quicken his own pace to keep up. Leaving Castle Town- with it’s half ruined Castle –along with any illusions of a past he might return to, behind in the dust.
Link paused only a moment, to listen to the whisper-faint sound of a distant howl.
- Shores -
“Zelda…” Link asked quietly, “Sheik. What is he?”
The princess sagged a little at the table, one hand going to her temple, rubbing wearily at the exhaustion there. They were alone. Ashei and Bulbin where resting for their departure in the morning and Auru had complain of ‘old creaking bones’. Technically, Link should have been asleep as well, but he had several important questions that he needed answered.
“Sheik is the last of the Sheika,” Zelda said at length, “The last remnant of the Sheika wanderers…”
“They were once sworn in the service of the royal family, their bodyguard and their greatest warriors. But during the great wars of darkness they were wiped out, almost to extinction. Lore has it that the majority of the survivors left Hyrule.” Zelda shook her head, frowning. There was a dark glimmer in her eye, a melancholy Link found unsettling, “I… As I understood it, Sheik blamed the royal family for the eradication of his people.” Zelda finished quietly.
Link nodded thoughtfully, then frowned, “The great wars were hundreds of years ago.”
Zelda smiled ruefully, “That’s one of the mysteries that surround Sheik, he doesn’t seem to age. If the records we possess are to believed- he was already several hundred years old at the time of the wars.
Link nodded slowly, a little surprised at how easily he believed it himself. Though, compared to some of the things he had seen himself- it wasn’t that strange, actually.
“… Why is he here?”
Zelda smiled but shook her head, “I wish I knew… All the texts I have say he has a very deceptive and secretive nature. Asking probably won’t get any answers I’m afraid.”
“He… he mentioned Midna.”
Zelda’s eyes widened in surprise- she made no effort to hide it.
“That is… surprising,” Meaning: impossible, her tone was clear, “With the mirror shattered…”
Link nodded pensively.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know how this could be.”
“Thank you, your highness.” He said, more formally than he was accustomed, “This… I will keep this in mind next time I see him.” He gave a short bow, “Good night.”
He turned to leave, one hand on the door’s latch when her voice stopped him.
“One last thing, Link.” Zelda said, “I… I’m not sure but…” She hesitated, looking at the spear resting in the corner, “That weapon is a sealed demon, sealed in such a way that… It was meant to be released upon it’s sealer’s death as a last act of vengeance.”
Link stared. There was no sound in the room, none at all.
“Heraji is not dead.”
- Shores -
Many miles south and east of Castletown, Link and his self-appointed companion struggled through the foot hills of the South Ridge. Link pondered Zelda’s revelation in silence- and as his traveling companion did not seem inclined to conversation either, all was silent but for the wind.
The roads were empty, framed by steep overhangs of rock that Link eyed warily. However, once more they went unmolested by the wolves, or any other manner of monster.
That changed the second day out. About mid-morning Link became aware of the presence of a spell, something strong, but meant to scare off someone not attuned to magic- and obscure the sight one those that were. He reined in Epona and sniffed the air coming down from the mountain.
Behind them Sheik snickered softly, gray and pale blue cloth almost invisible on the hill, like a curl of smoke following in their wake. Only his hair stood out, pale yellow against the brown of the dead bushes around them.
“You’re starting to catch it, eh?”
“It smells… sulfur?” Link tested the word. Whatever the spell, it irritated him in a way he couldn’t quite give name to. A smell that repulsed and made his eyes water. He had smelt something like it once before- in the depths of the Arbiter’s grounds. The memory of that haunted place alone made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
“An amateur’s spell, designed to entrap the unwary,” Sheik said, “are you any good at resisting magic?”
Link didn’t answer, instead his left hand clenched slightly, his mark flaring briefly, “I’ll manage.”
- Shores -
After they turned east off of South ridge the land became increasingly craggy and rugged, there was no path to follow- they trusted their mounts to choose their footing. The desolation only seemed to deepen, until they were standing on the lip of a sheer canyon, the rise of mountains at their fore and back. As Link studied the rocks below he recognized the skeletal remains of buildings, walls without roofs, the faintest impression of a road… Far up the mountains on the opposite side Link could see the proud stature of a lofty tower.
The hair on the back of his neck prickled, the uncanny sensation of being watched. It was from that that tower that the spell originated. Before the presence had set him on edge, in the cracks of the broken mountain side the smell and feel had been obscured from the wind, now it returned tenfold.
The Arbiter’s grounds had been a place of miserable death, occupied by the tortured spirits of criminals- vengeful and filled with malice. The feeling that swept down off that mountain was far worse- Link’s eyes narrowed and his knuckles whitened as he clutched the reins. Strangely, he didn’t feel the cold fear he had expected clutching his stomach. Only… feral exhilaration. This is when things started happening.
“This place was once the kingdom of Ikana, a bright and powerful nation.” Sheik said, looking out across the gulf.
“It was ruled by a powerful and savage sovereign, an evil-hearted man who saw plots and dissent within every shadow. Before the war, a tribe of female thieves still raided these hills. When the war ended the armies of Ikana had slaughtered them, nearly to a soul. The stain of dark magic has lain upon Ikana since that war, centuries ago.”
Sheik paused thoughtfully, the silence lasted long enough to make Link uncomfortable.
“The land is dark now, silent, dead eyes haunt the hills beyond the river, and soundless feet walk the roads. When we cross, know this, nothing you see will be living. The land is filled with ghosts and illusions to ensnare the unwary. Eat nothing but what you have brought with you, and don’t drink the water!" Sheik’s red eyes bored into him. “Beyond is dust and death.”
They began to make their way down the side of the canyon, on foot, leading the horses with one hand leading on the rough stone, Link’s gaze fixed on the sheer drop. With each subsequent step, the weight of the dark deepened.
The river at the bottom of the canyon was shallow and slow-moving. Link thought it smelled odd for some indefinite reason. The horses refused to enter at first, Sheik and Link bound their eyes before they would consent to be led. The water was very cold, and left Link’s legs numb in passing.
On the other side… Everything was so quiet. Silent. So perfectly still it was unnatural. Not a leaf stirred, no insects droned. If it wasn’t for the sound of their own footfalls, for their own breath, he could have imagined he had suddenly gone deaf. Even the river’s faint voice faded minutes after crossing.
Link had the nagging urge to glance behind, down the path.
He wished for a sound like he had never wished before.
The back of his neck prickled, and this time he couldn’t help but turn- Nothing, just some dust stirred in their passing. Link shivered, even the sunlight felt cold here…
“What are you doing?”
Sheik’s voice made him jump. He turned to find the man was already at the top of the rise, glaring down with disapproval, and, Link thought, fear. He hurried to catch up.
“One doesn’t linger here, hero!” Sheik growled as he drew even, “Not while you draw breath.”
Link nodded, he felt the chill air on his neck again, a chill without a breeze to move it.
The sun sank lower on the horizon before the ruined city emerged.
- Shores -
Lights came out as night fell… or the gloom grew deeper. Time no longer had the same meaning for Link. He felt as if he was being smothered slowly in a wet blanket of darkness, his senses extinguished one by one.
The city around them was illuminated by a myriad of ghostly candlelight, pale and flickering in the still air. Link could have sworn he heard the echo of laughter and children playing, merchants shouting- hawking their wares. As they passed the phantom populace grew silent, and in moments Link was aware of the faint murmur- as if a great host of footsteps followed in their wake. Link was relived to not sense malicious intent. In fact it seemed the majority of the spirits were… curious.
The mystified phantoms shadowed them, a soundless multitude as they trudged on under the mist. Link patted Epona’s flank, attempting to reassure to poor horse as he followed Sheik.
- Shores -
As night fell on Ikana a council- very different from the one that had transpired earlier in Hyrule convened. Though, ‘night’ never came to the land under the shadow of the tower- for the simple fact : to have ‘night’ you needed ‘day’…
Ballum tapped one finger on the rim of the mask in his hands, studying the ugly, contorted lines. He wondered if there was some kind of significance behind the form of the masks- some symbolism significant to their maker. Maybe he had an odd sense of humor…
He scowled. His own mask was the weakest of the Four Sealed Guardian Masks, the one he held was the strongest. He knew it ought not irk him the way it did, he needed his the least, after all… It just irritated that this little girl almost rivaled his own power.
As Ballum considered the chosen recipient of the mask, he couldn’t help but suspect there was some ulterior motive to the master’s choice for the wielder. The mask was a blocky, ugly thing, a virtual mass of eyes and two… fangs… he supposed. The contrast to the little witch standing before him was so marked it was comical.
He held out the artifact, “Yours is called Twinmold, Jazela.” The other two remained silent as she stepped forward to accept it.
Her pale hands rested on it lightly, griping it with only the very tips of her fingers. Elegant, slanted eyebrows raised, and full lips twisted in a smirk. She inspected the mask as a child would a new toy… and yet… not. Though she was a child.
Ballum grinned behind Odolwa, she was a pretty, slight creature. Master had found her in the Harem dens of Garo- drawn by the massive potential hidden in the tiny frame.
He gave her a dagger and told her to kill whoever stood in her way.
The little thing had come to them drenched in blood, a fierce, calculating vixen, trusting nothing and no one besides their master. She had taken to training in their disciplines like a fish to water, and now she would bear one of the masks.
Ballum chuckled as she began to raise it to her face.
“Be careful, Jazela. It ate poor Maple.” Said the one standing to Ballum’s left, his voice soft and bare of inflection. His mask, the fish, gaped at them, it’s wielder’s eyes glittering from within the open mouth, his hands hidden in the sleeves of his robe.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were underestimating me.” She retorted, her lips twisted in a mocking smile. To Ballum’s right the second man snickered; a full-head helmet adorned with a stern, bearded idol, concealed his identity.
Fish ignored Idol and tilted his head to one side, “You understand what you need to do?”
“Maintain the Murk Curse, and kill whoever comes to investigate.” Her eyes narrowed, she snorted disdainfully, “It won’t be difficult.” With that she donned her mask.
Ballum grinned behind Odolwa, his expression reminiscent of the jungle-man who’s face he wore. She would be ideal for the task they had set for her. A brutal, merciless, utterly loyal tool. And, if necessary, an expendable pawn that would not be missed should she fail. After all…
Master liked breaking pretty things.
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