Chapter VIII: Stealthy Collisions, Part 2
Hyrule in late spring was truly beautiful, the trees still bore most of their blossoms, yet the fields and hills had the richness, the fullness of summer to come. It was a vivid, yet restful time, the energy and vigor of early spring and the beginnings of summer heat rolled into one. This held no spell over the travelers, however. Now their eyes were ever searching for the signs of wolves in the shadows and anticipating howls of pursuit at any time. They had found wolf tracks, once, far too large to be ordinary wolves; and once they had heard the distant howls of a pack gathering under the moon, but nothing had bothered them.
Link almost wished something had, anything other than this maddening expectancy.
When the three of them passed over the top of the last hill and were finally able to look down on castle town two days after parting company with Heraji Link was beyond relief. Ashei would never admit it, but she was near collapse; her face pale as parchment, deep shadows under her eyes. She needed rest, a long one. Two and a half days of travel had worn her down more than even he would admit.
At first glance he missed the spires of Hyrule Castle, then remembered, the castle had been demolished in the final titanic battle with Ganon. In their place was a breastwork of scaffolds and pulleys. Reconstruction was well underway, and would likely be so for years.
The south gates could only be reached atop a flight of steep stairs, flowers and trees grew nearby in ornamental gardens to greet visitors, this was familiar to Link. They could already hear the distant murmur of the city.
They left their mounts at the base of the stairway. Ashei had to be carried up the stairs, complaining vehemently of course. At the top Link looked back over his shoulder.
He thought he could just make out a shape slinking through the trees, it vanished the moment his eyes fastened on it, so smoothly in fact that he could not be certain it was not a trick of the light.
Link stared off at the space between trees until Ashei demanded to know why they had stopped, he merely shook his head and turned to enter the capitol.
- Collisions -
Little had changed in the space of a year since Link had been to Castle town. Market was crowded and humid, clouds rolled in overhead the moisture in the air lending a sticky feel to one’s body in all the wrong places. Tempers were similarly affected, an undercurrent of animosity and general ill-will pervaded, a cauldron of humanity threatening to boil over.
Then it happened.
An invisible current ran through the crowd, heads turning at an unspoken signal. At first no-one can see what it is that they’re looking at. Those with the presence of mind have time to catch a glimpse of the young man in green through the partition in the crowd that has opened, almost automatically, to accommodate him. They might, just might, even recognize him for who he is. He is followed by a girl who is limping, yet steadfastly refuses to lean on any hand for support. Those with sufficient presence of mind notice this, but most only see the monstrous form following, towering above the rest.
He turns and fixes the crowds with what he must consider a warm smile and someone on the row nearest faints.
“Easy, he’s with us.” Those that missed Link the first time tear their eyes from Bulbin and see him for the first time. Link’s easy, gentle smile immediately softens the edge of fear that had begun to work on the crowds.
Then they remember that while Link was well-armed, the goblin behind him is much, much larger and carried an ax of his own.
And, Goddesses, that was a big ax.
They pass on towards the square, but every eye remains fixed on their retreating backs until even the stumps of Bulbin’s horns are no longer visible over their neighbor’s heads.
The humidity was forgotten, tempers were cooled and tongues were loosed. Market was filled with the sound of a thousand voices trying to make some sense of what had just happened.
“Did you see-
“That was a plains goblin-
“What’s it doing h-
“I reckon th’ hero’s got ‘im in hand-
Out in front of Madam Fanadi’s Agitha stood, listening intently and gossiping with the cleaning-lady who had been standing next to the butcher when he fainted. (Earlier she had seen a bad-tempered horse bite a man and lift him three feet from the ground, it refused to release the unfortunate until the combined efforts of four town guards forced its jaws apart with the butts of their spears. It then chased all five. What a day that girl was having!)
Just then the horns of the town watch blared, sounding a warning, their proud, sure voices rending the air. Instantly the pleasant atmosphere was shattered and replaced with an excited anticipation as everyone craned to see who’s head was going to roll.
- Collisions -
But in order to explain what happens next I shall need to take us back in our story to nightfall, the proceeding evening.
- Collisions -
The city was more lightly defended than Heraji would have expected for someone of the Queen’s reputation.
He eyed the remains of the castle at the northern wall, residual magic lingered there, dark magic and… something he couldn’t quite identify. It might warrant investigation later.
But not now, he had a more pressing objective. He rolled a dagger in his fingers, eyes gifted with the sight assessed every aspect of the city, the fortress both visible and invisible. He counted four detection planes, shimmering like spun moonlight, and that was the outer walls alone. Layer upon layer of spells were woven into the masonry.
He held the dagger so it caught the starlight. The glimmer of night warped on the metal, turning wild, beautiful colors that eluded the eyes like an oil slick on water. It was a tool he’d come to rely on heavily, one he’d gone to a great deal of trouble to acquire.
He grinned under his facewrap, testing the blade’s edge. Tonight, it would serve him well.
- Collisions -
How Heraji, on foot and a relative stranger, managed to outdistance both Bulbin and Link, who were mounted and knew every inch of this countryside, was a bit of a mystery.
Perhaps it can be excused by the arcane arts the former possessed, and the care the latter showed Ashei by riding slowly. Whatever the means, Heraji arrived a full day ahead, and with the fall of darkness over the city he stole in, as silent as the wind.
At night a city is a very different animal, while in the day it might murmur, groan or even roar, at night it is nearly silent. This holds true for all but the very largest, but to call any city silent would be foolish, for even a small city talks in its sleep.
A small phalanx of night guards marched down a street. A messenger ran with urgent steps for the nearest doctor, a dog barked. Rats scurried in an alley, a quartet of girls walked in one of the shadier districts, a drunk stumbled home. The red-clothed specter ignored most of this, gliding over rooftops without a sound. He moved slowly, purposefully, carefully shrouding his presence.
Here it was too dangerous to use the sight, sensitives could detect it easily, but there were other ways of locating what he sought…
- Collisions -
Zelda ran a hand down the spine of the great tome taking up more than half of her desk space. It was massive and ancient, dwarfing even the largest volumes that filled the shelves of her temporary study.
It was a persisting rumor that an enterprising page had once tried to lift it while it was till housed in the great libraries of the castle with the intention of cleaning it and had been crushed by the book when it slipped.
Such stories were preposterous or course, he had only suffered a couple broken ribs.
The Book of Mudora, the ancient book of record to the royal family, containing the secrets of the royal bloodline and a history of Hyrule. It had no answers for the young Queen tonight though, she sighed, rubbing sore temples.
None of her messengers had returned bearing favorable news. Link was simply not to be found in Ordon, or any of the countryside surrounding, for that matter. What they found was rumors, rumors of silent raiders in the dark that came silently, taking no prisoners.
“Where could he be?” Zelda asked the room. She covered her face in her hands, exhaustion fraying the reins she held so tightly on her emotions.
I have to sleep. She said to herself. I must sleep or another day will be the end of me.
She pushed out her chair from the desk and left her study, closing the door behind her and walking the short distance down the dark hall to her bedroom.
- Collisions -
Heraji crouched outside the window, waiting until the Queen’s presence faded, then he drew the dagger and, with exquisite care, slipped the blade through the joint where the window met the frame, sliding the blade up and around the frame’s length.
Spells of detection and sealing were cut away with a flick of his wrist.
Moments later he stepped to the floor, paused to listen attentively. Not a sound was to be heard in the silent house. He padded to the door, it’s hinges were well-oiled and in swung inwards without a sound. He moved down the hallway, taking stock of the rooms and their occupants. Two in one room, a man and a woman, another empty, then the third… there was a presence there, well-shielded against casual probes, a powerful magical presence made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
She was there, then. The dagger in his hand twitched, then he returned the weapon to its hidden pocket. Heraji returned to the study and closed the door gently. Quick strides carried him to the desk and he gingerly touched the massive book left there. Mudora, the first king of the Royal line, founder of the kingdom of Hyrule; a magician of such a reputation even Heraji had heard of him.
He leafed through a few pages, stopping at an entry some hundred years old.
“…And the sages sealed the demon-lord Ganon, banishing him to the realm of Twilight where the damned linger for eternity…” He read aloud. He fell silent, leafing through the following pages in quick succession. A more recent entry caught his eye.
“…And the hero of twilight struck down Ganon in battle upon Hyrule plain, and thus the war of Twilight was brought to a close in thunder and lightening and great conflict…”
His eyes where hungry now, racing to and fro across the parchment, his hands as they turned pages trembled with excitement, consumed now with such absorption that he did not notice the pale light of morning filtering through the clouds outside the window.
Similarly he did not notice the gentle tread of bare feet on the carpet in the hallway outside; and as stated earlier, the hinges were well-oiled and silent.
“Who are you?”
And that was when all hell broke loose.
- Collisions -
Now we return to our diversion in the market square…
The horns of the town watch blared their warning and instantly the guards at the gates rushed to bolt and close the heavy wood doors. Everyone seemed drawn to the square and the pleasant atmosphere was shattered and replaced with an excited anticipation as everyone craned to see who’s head was going to roll.
What happened was not that, precisely, but they were not disappointed.
Link, Ashei, and Bulbin were startled by the sudden blare of the trumpets, town watchmen turned towards the sound and began to run. Link, as a member of the elite royal guard and knight of Hyrule was duty-bound to follow. The other two, naturally trailed in his wake, Bulbin scooping up Ashei and pounding the cobbles at an amazing rate through the milling crowd.
Link wasn’t thinking about the people around him as he forced his way through, not about the two behind struggling to keep up, not even about the pillar of smoke curling up into the sky. He was a year ago and the world was a rush of sounds and smells as he raced through the mob. Smoke, magic, witch-fire, sulfur. Blood. A wild rush sang in his blood, the anticipation of battle he hadn’t remembered missing, a feral hunger he hadn’t experienced without the grinding of bones that accompanied the transformation.
Hee hee, a year and you still think like an animal? A memory spoke in his mind.
His sword was in his hand without a thought, his shield a comfortable weight on his arm.
An explosion shook the ground, shattering cobbles and throwing up fresh clouds of dust. Abruptly the crowd was thinning, in mere moments the square was nearly deserted but for a few interested faces in windows and at the corners.
Link stopped then, watching the smoke billow from the wreckage of a stall. Instincts he hadn’t tapped for months told him this was as far as he needed to go.
Someone dressed in a long, tattered red cloak emerged from the ruin, swaying slightly as he ran but otherwise unharmed. Heraji skidded to a stop. There was a moment of silence as the two regarded each other.
“What is the meaning of this?” Bulbin thundered, “Heraji, what are you doing here?”
Heraji lifted one shoulder in a lopsided shrug, eyes wary, Link noticed a large bundle slung over one shoulder by a strap of leather. From the way Heraji carried it, his shoulder stooped under the weight, it was obviously quite heavy. The thin man staggered slightly under it’s weight.
“Acquiring a few things.”
“Stop… Stop him!” Soldiers rounded the corner, almost on top of them and they too slid to a stop. The sight of Bulbin’s bulk blocking out the sun gave them pause.
“What seems to be the matter, captain?” Link asked, not taking his eyes off Heraji.
The solider straightened, saluted shakily, “Sir Link, He’s a thief! He’s carrying a tome stolen from her majesty’s study. He attacked the Queen.”
Link raised an eyebrow.
Heraji eyed them like a cornered animal. Though caught, he maintained a fierce composure, utterly devoid of fear. The effect brought to mind a bird of prey, a raptor of the skies, or perhaps a feral creature of the night; brought to bay and dangerous. “I need this…” he hissed.
Heraji glanced at the guards behind, then at Link, he said nothing.
“Heraji, be reasonable- Bulbin began.
“I’m getting out of here, if you want to keep from getting hurt you’ll get out of my way.” Heraji cut him off, no trace of emotion in his voice. His eyes danced from face to face once more, gauging the strength arrayed against him.
Link raised his sword at his side, “Heraji, you are under arrest.”
There followed a moment of silence, then without a Word Heraji released the strap, letting the burden on his back fall to the cobbles.
“So its like that, then” Link said, and struck.
Heraji stood still as Link rushed him, gaze fixed on the swordsman. Heraji inclined his head minutely to one side to dodge the first swing.
Link teetered, thrown off-balance momentarily, then gathered himself for a second spring, stabbing for Heraji’s unarmored chest. More quickly than the eye could follow, Heraji’s hand whipped up, locking Link’s elbow, his free hand seizing his wrist. Heraji took one step to the right using Link’s arm as a lever, momentum driving Link forward.
Link stumbled, barley keeping his feet this time.
Heraji’s eyes were hard, narrowed, with a cold light in their depths, his cloak billowed about him in the breeze. His stance was easy, relaxed but filled with energy.
Link rushed low this time, stabbing for Heraji’s gut in a flurry of jabs. Heraji bent like a sapling in an autumn gale, slipping around the blade like water.
Link paused, breathing a little heavily, he didn’t remember it being this difficult.
“You know how to fight.” Heraji said, calmly, idly, like he was discussing the weather, “But you are a bit predictable, you know.”
Link stiffened as Heraji shifted his feet, crouching slightly, raising one hand. He snapped his fingers.
There was a flash, the sharp smell of ozone, and in Heraji’s hand he held a long-bladed spear. Its shaft was black, of some rare wood or metal, Link couldn’t be sure. The head was as long as the mage’s forearm, a single long blade equally suited for stabbing or cutting.
Link narrowed his eyes, in the open square Heraji would have the advantage of reach, but if he possessed enough magic to fend off a score of wolf-beasts then why the spear? Why did he not use it now?
Heraji spun the weapon, settling the shaft behind his back. He eyed Link, then lunged; Link dodged, slipping past the point towards Heraji, except Heraji turned the lunge into a swipe at Link’s legs, going down to one knee as he swung with his full body. Link rolled, coming up behind Heraji and brought his sword down in a vertical cut, Heraji blocked with the butt end of the spear and they sprang apart.
Heraji held the spear in a wide two-handed grip. Link could smell magic on him, held firmly in check. Link flourished his sword once, eyeing his opponent.
They were both startled by a sudden cackle, echoing over the cobbles and roofs, empty and malicious.
There was no one there.
Link glanced at Heraji, who seemed similarly puzzled.
There was nothing, nothing but that smell… Faint and sickly sweet. Too faint for any normal human to detect, but he had been a wolf and some part of him still was. The back of Link’s neck prickled.
Nothing there. Nothing.
He breathed through his mouth a few times and after a moment (shaking himself slightly), looked back at Heraji.
A flash of an animal world of bone-deep fear and –
Link rolled to the side as a blade whistled past, steel met steel and his claymore rang, leaving his hand nerveless. He dimly registered Heraji swearing.
“Well, well, that’s faster than I thought,” snickered someone.
Link was clawing back to his feet, ears ringing, sword still humming the metal chord that came with blocking a two-handed decapitation swing – from beneath, he came at me below, how? – Link ducked, Dove away from the second swing, narrowly evading the whistling black blade that cut the air where he had stood a moment before.
He had only a moment to regain his feet before– tell-tale hiss: helm-splitter! – he ducked and rolled, evading by inches the blade that scythed down at the crown of his skull. His shoulder slammed awkwardly as he came up, staggering and whirling around to stop the crescent slice whistling up at his throat.
A ringing parry, retreat, then return. His opponent zig-zagged at him, lunging black-cat quick. Link leapt back and caught the mocking hiss, “What a pretty thing to kill!”
Hard contact, dodge, counter. The attacks came as a blur of motion, like a dance done only in dreams, marked by the lethal hiss of steel and there was that dark ozone stink, the smell of Dark magic. His opponent was swathed in it, bleeding black like steam, fogging the air with the seething inky nimbus. He was hard to make out in the mess, but a guess pegged the other fighter roughly his height, weight and build, wearing an ashen tunic, a muddy silhouette.
The Link that still lived happily in Ordonna with goats was remotely horrified – nightmares are supposed to stay in the night where they belong – but the Link who’d put a sword through Ganon’s ribcage was oddly unfazed. If his shadow wanted to get up and kill him for no good reason then he supposed they were entitled to do that.
Didn’t make fighting him any easier, though.
“You’re losing,” said the shadow cheerfully. Its giggle, an awful distortion of his own laughter, cracked with madness. “It doesn’t matter if you can see the now. It doesn’t matter what wild magic is in your blood. Give up. Give up so I can kill you!”
The last two words were delivered with a particularly swift volley of blows, a shock traveled up Link’s arm and he reeled back with its force. The ebon blade came down-
-And clashed in a shocker of sparks on the shaft of Heraji’s spear.
The Shadow paused, considering Heraji. Link regained his balance and stared at both of them, uncertain who was now his opponent.
“That was a private fight.” Heraji said, matter-of-fact, “You had no right to interfere.”
The Shadow hissed at him. With the speed of a striking snake it pulled back and swung at Heraji’s head. Heraji ducked, striking with the butt of his spear, forcing the shadow-thing back. He spun and lunged, the shadow flipped away out of range.
The smell of magic grew suddenly, red light traveling up the spear as Heraji raised it over his head. A crackle, like lightening-
“He’s doing it again!” A soldier cried.
-Heraji brought the spear down, smashing it to the cobbles, a wave of light leaped at the shadow like liquid fire. It impacted with a ringing boom that left Link’s head ringing.
Heraji straightened slowly, laboriously, hesitant and breathing heavily as if he’d just run a great distance. Suddenly the shadow was there, in front of him. Link caught a flash of steel and a gasp from Heraji as he flew past.
Link feinted right then sliced up left, but his opponent foresaw the attack and was already dive-rolling, somersaulting beneath the blow, under his arm and – because Link’s seen this move before, killed with this move before – he twisted sideways to avoid the slicing uppercut that swept up from behind. As he dodged, the black swordsman leapt up and pivoted into an immediate and familiar whirl, lithe ebon form suddenly violently in rotation and – because there’s only a couple ways to penetrate the reckless attack – Link slide tackles him.
The other swordsman grunted, startled apparently by the counter, but not so startled he doesn’t catch the slashing strike Link punched up from the ground at his midriff, stopping it on the edge of his own dark weapon. One vicious kick slammed Link back into the base of a wall. Their cross-guards locked and for the first time in the fight, both combatants were face to face.
And this was horrifying because he doesn’t have a face.
And this was horrifying because Link knew if he’d had one, it would be his own.
“You’re more reckless than the first one,” remarked the murky swordsman, his mouth indiscernible from the void of his features. “It’s your eyes. People tell you that a lot, don’t they?” He drove his full weight down on the Ordonian trying to shove the hero’s own blade back through his throat. Slowly, gently, he leaned close to breath, “But I’m afraid that’s not quite enough.”
Link heaved up, arms screaming and twisting, he turned the force of his opponent off him. The blade bit into the mail of his shoulder anyway. He rolled, swiping the finishing blow off course and he lunged up past the other man’s sword, into his open guard and drove a merciless stab into…nothing.
Link froze; froze because the monster was standing on the flat of his sword looking down at him. This was disturbing because of all the myriad of sword-wielding wicked things he’d faced up until now, none of them had done that before. Those smoldering eyes crinkled with amusement.
“You’re fast,” the shadow said gleefully, “but he was a better strategist.” And he kicked Link in the face.
Black stars exploded across his vision. A deadly razor-wind whine and he ducked the throat-slicing swing. A narrow miss, he twisted away from the secondary thrust, though he can’t see it so much as feel it – Move, idiot!.
A crimson blur darted in and the doppelganger twisted, blocking a blow from Heraji. Link leaped forward and the Shadow fell back before the united onslaught. Then the thing was gone, one moment it was there, the next it wasn’t. Link and Heraji turned, eyes darting back and forth, searching for the opponent they knew was there.
A laugh, low and malicious seemed to echo from every crevice about them.
“Is this thing yours?” Link whispered.
Heraji spat what could only be a profanity, “Do you think it belongs to me?!”
“No, I suppose not.” Link conceded.
They jumped as the Shadow exploded from the ground, practically underneath them. In our shadows, Link realized.
Link spun and lashed out, blade slamming into the body he’d felt heave up and out the shadow to his left. A hiss, then impact. His blade phased through insubstantial ribs before cutting into some solid thing inside. The doppelganger’s scream was eerily familiar. Because it was his own. The shock of that scream froze the Ordonian and a black hand grabbed his own, pinning them around the hilt of his sword. The shadow was grinning. In its other hand the black sword twitched in anticipation.
“Heh. This blade…is not the blade…that you can kill me with.”
Heraji’s spear came down and severed the thing’s arm just below the elbow. He didn’t bleed – Some corner of Link’s mind noted – red. He didn’t even bleed black. He bled water, not clean but thick and sticky.
The severed limb vanished in smoke and the Creature turned to Heraji, a new arm re-formed in a heartbeat. For a moment Heraji was there, moving faster than the eye could follow, A flurry of motion and flashes of bright metal.
Then suddenly Heraji’s blurred movement faltered. Link caught a look of astonishment cross Heraji’s face, then he collapsed, breathing so hard he began to choke. A hand pressed to his side and red welled under his fingers.
The shadow paused over the wizard’s prone form a moment, black blade hovering over him contemplatively.
Link took a step forward, even though every instinct was telling him to run, now, because there was no weapon he possessed that could hurt this…. thing. Because the man on the ground had just saved his life.
“It’s me you want.” He said, “Leave him.”
The shadow chuckled, “Fight well then, because when you die he will follow.”
The shadow thing attacked again, smoky blade swinging. Link ducked and using his momentum, hurled himself sideways on all fours – execution-style overhand, messy, brutal. He’s not giving me any credit – and out of the kill zone. Jumped backwards, away from the Shadow as it came on, swinging the blade with a berserker’s abandon.
“Instinct and impulse!” yelled the shadow. “A wolf’s instinct won’t save you Hero! You’re not enough a hero to stop me. Not even the real hero was enough a hero to stop me!”
A hand shot out of the dark at his ankle, ripping his footing out from under him and he slammed down hard on his knee, an explosive burst of pain jagging up the bone. He cried out reflexively, grabbed his leg, gasping – then substantial cold settled against his throat.
Barely turning his head, he looked up into the not-face of his executioner. The shadow smiled and then-
With a flash the dark-thing grunted, like someone had hit him with a handball. Then he made a low keening sound, the same noise Link made in the back of his throat when hurt. And he was hurt: a glistening white-gold shaft was punched through his breast bone, the tapered arrowhead standing clear of his chest by three inches, throbbing soft yellow Light. It steamed in its new lodgings, eating away merrily through the shadow’s murky body. The shadow whimpered, hunched around the hurt, trying unsuccessfully to pull it free and screaming as even touching it blistered his ebon fingers.
Link could hear him gasping. “Not yet…I’m not…yet…”
The strength went out of him in heaving paroxysm, long twitchy convulsions, and the doppelganger went limp then and toppled neatly onto the pavement. The body promptly burst into a gush of grayish liquid, popping like a steamy bubble and soaking into the darkness, evaporating with a small oily waft of ozone flavored smoke.
Zelda stood poised, one hand raised, the other held a bow borrowed from one of the nearby soldiers. The string still vibrated with that lucky shot.
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