Interlude: Part II
DOOM of the DARKNAUGHTS
The Four Sword Sanctuary was suffused with a sense of anticipation. For nearly a century the place had stood empty, undisturbed. And then a shadowy figure—a being of magic guided by malice and greed—came to the sacred space. Like smoke blown through a shaft of light the thing phased into existence, mocking reality by its very presence. With empty red eyes the hollow thing considered the ancient room, ivy-columned and bare-furnished save for four empty pedestals marked with the insignias of the four elements; water, fire, wind, earth.
Then a shaft of light opened from above that brought the undisturbed columns and altar into sharp relief for a few brief blinding seconds. In this light the shadow cowered, blinking away the glory of the beam from his sharp crimson eyes. And then, a boy stepped out of the fading brightness peering dully into the gloom of the Sanctuary, catching sight of the solitary pedestal of the Four Sword. The Shadow leapt on him hungrily, slashing out with a blade of hardened darkness. The boy raised up his own sword to parry, glinting with gold in the dim Sanctuary. And furious was the battle that ensued where golden-sword flashed out against shadow-blade; neither foe faltering, neither overcoming; the one perfectly matched against the other—the Hero and his Shadow.
Now the hero was driven back, now gained ground. But in his heated overbearance the hero struck amiss and shattered his golden weapon against the very altar of the Four Sword, that legendary blade which could split its wielder into four separate beings. Of course, the hero did not pause to consider this lore; he only knew that his shadowy rival had suddenly been inexplicably disarmed. Now was his chance to catch the fiend! Throwing discretion to the winds, he gripped the hilt of the legendary blade and drew it from its cracked pedestal, slashing out at the Shadow-Made-Real. But it was not one sword which cleaved the air—not one hand which wielded the blades—but four. And in that moment as the Hero-Made-Four contemplated his broken existence, the shadow dimmed, dissipated and vanished with a snickering and a cackling…
But this was not the last voice the hero heard before he left that time-forgotten place; for a dusty, sinister voice came from behind and spoke words of disdain and arrogance. Ostensibly the voice must have come from the Four Sword’s altar, but the hero could not be certain—it spoke of vengeance sworn, and pain promised, and before the Hero-Made-Four knew what was happening, a great gust of wind erupted from the stone and swept each of his selves up into the air and out of that place.
The wind sorcerer Vaati had escaped.
* * *
The air in the barracks below the eastern courtyard of Hyrule Castle was stagnant with ire. For a moment none of the four brother knights spoke.
Finally: “The Lieutenant said he wanted us to stay where we are.”
“But Meryl, we must follow the villain west!” cried Sapphael. “You know as well as I that the Wind Mage fled to the Tower. That cursed sorcerer has escaped and you just want to sit on your hands? The Master Wizard told all of us just now—why do you hesitate? We must open the way to the Tower of Winds and vanquish him before history is repeated…or do you wish the daughters of Hyrule to vanish one by one as they did the last time this evil raised its ugly head?”
“Listen, you insolent runt,” said Meryl, thrusting one finger into his brother’s chest, “I have sworn the same oath as you; protect the royal family at all costs, which in this case means keeping the Royal Jewels as far from danger as possible. And where do you get off treating your elders with such belligerence? Don’t forget…”
“…that you were born first; yes, how could I ever forget your three minute superiority with your constant reminders?” Sapphael batted Meryl’s finger away. “Why don’t you point a sword into Vaati’s wizardly gullet instead of threatening me with weak excuses?”
“Because,” rebutted Meryl tersely, “the Wind Mage has fled to where we cannot reach him!”
“But that is precisely why we must open the way with the Royal Jewels; once we open the way to the Tower…”
“…we’ll be tortured until we reveal the secrets of the kingdom, hmm? Oh, jolly good plan. Next you’ll want to traipse into the Golden Land and deliver the Triforce to King of the Enchanted Thieves. It’s a wonder you don’t join his little girly band and have done with this protecting Hyrule nonsense. You’re so reckless it might just do us a bit of good to be rid of you. Here, Ameth, talk some sense into the boy.”
“I hardly think this conversation should be happening right now,” said Ameth in his deep bass voice. “The Captain’s Test is about to commence. We should be in position for the procession.”
“Who cares about all that pomp and circumstance?” countered Sapphael. He tossed a hand in the air as if he was batting at an annoying insect. “With the king sick up in Kakariko we have no one to escort—we’d be idiots to march out there in full armor without anybody between us…”
“…but it’s tradition…” Ameth added feebly.
“…and have you seen those storm clouds?” Sapphael pressed on as if Ameth were not even present. “It’s an utter deluge; no one’s going to be there anyway.” He pounded one metal-clad fist against the other. “The real need lies west. Who’s with me?”
Meryl thrust his finger at Sapphael again. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; that kind of bullheaded scheme will only put Hyrule in further danger! If you would just listen to me…”
“Would you idiots please just shut up!?” barked Rubeus. Up until now he had been leaning in the corner of the barracks muster area, silent as usual. But now he simply couldn’t stand to hear his brothers argue any longer. “Things will be fine; we’ve got more soldiers than ever training up to try their shot at facing the invisible, miraculously-vanished Ganondorf Dragmire—King of the Enchanted Numbskulls—now that he’s infiltrated the Temple of Time and gotten away with two accounts of murder and one fat act of treason to boot. It’s no matter nobody can find him; if anything we can just make use of the extra sword-hands. It’s a waste of resources to tie up the knights guarding the Temple of Time; he’s obviously not there anymore. If you ask me we should take every last knight, soldier and boy off the street who can hold a weapon and sweep the countryside for that blackguard.”
“And leave the castle defenseless… Oh, that makes sense,” muttered Meryl. “I’d prefer Sapphael’s idiot plan…”
Sapphael raised a fist but Rubeus had already caught it in the air, rounding on Meryl instead. “At least we know he’s not here! He’s only one man; he can’t escape all of us. Were Hyrule’s defenses were any better I might expect Din to come down and fight us just for the challenge!”
Ameth gasped. “Rubeus, don’t say that…”
“Ah, what do I care. The point is you all have no sense of security. I’m going to my room to catch a few winks; it looks like none of us are going anywhere fast.” Rubeus had turned and was about to open the door to his room when Ameth’s deep bass voice stopped him.
“Now just you wait a moment.” The others turned slowly to face him; he had never spoken so forcefully before.
“Well, you’ve got our attention,” grumbled Rubeus. “Now what?” He folded his arms.
“Oh, he won’t solve anything,” said Meryl. “Prim and proper, good for nothing…”
Ameth raised his chin. “As I was saying,” he said over his brother, “Afton would be ashamed of you all…of us,” he amended. He took a step forward. “Do we—who are the most fearsome knights of the Hylia—stand to let dissention into our midst? Do we—the dreaded Darknaughts—succumb to petty boasting, bragging and insults? I think not. What would the king think? What would the captain say?”
“But Am, the captain’s...” began Sapphael quietly.
“I mean our new captain,” replied Ameth calmly. “The captain we would have if circumstances would permit him his trial. And where would the shame lie if his four chiefest knights were not present for the ceremony?” Sapphael bowed his head. “Even so, if Captain Colin were still with us—Faroe rest him—he might whip us black and blue with a good tongue-lashing. ‘My knights,’ he would say, ‘are not little quibbling boys to have it out any time they can’t have their way. There will be order in this family,’ he would say. ‘For you are my family—my very brothers—in name if not in fact.’ ”
Meryl’s face was downcast. “Aye, that he would, Faroe rest him.”
Even Rubeus was silent; he took his hand from the door of his room. “What’s it to be, then?” he said, folding his arms. “What are the Darknaughts good for in times like these?”
“Why,” said Ameth, bearing up his massive double-edged sword and leaning it on his shoulder, “to set the Darkness at naught.”
“I am with you brother,” said Meryl, lifting his thick-bladed saber and cradling it in his elbow. “But how are we to do that? We can’t pursue the Wind Mage; not when the Tyrant is still abroad. It would spread our numbers too thin.”
“I haven’t the strength to do it without the rest of you,” said Sapphael, surprising the others with his meekness. “But if I could I would rid that foul wizard of his head just as soon as Ganondorf.” His fists clenched at his sides. “His deeds, though long since done, were just as dreadful.”
Meryl met his twin with a sincere look. “I agree with you, Saph. Something must be done.”
Rubeus grinned widely and heaved up his mace. “Now that’s what I was waiting for; a little solidarity.” He stepped forward and clapped a gauntlet to Ameth’s mailed chest. “You’ve got the streak of a leader in you after all, you have.”
“Listen, Meryl,” said Sapphael, gripping the haft of his axe, “I’ve been an ass; I don’t know what came over me.”
Meryl smacked Sapphael on the shoulder and smiled. “Me too.” Ameth beamed.
Rubeus fidgeted. “Yeah, yeah, real cute. Just let us know when you’re done kissing so we can actually get a plan together.”
* * *
“Now, if anything goes amiss we meet back here and gather our defenses as best we can. If we can we must draw the enemy out and keep him moving. That will make him more vulnerable.” Sapphael was debriefing the other knights in the barracks muster area. He spread a map of Hyrule out on the one large table. He indicated four x’s on the outskirts of Hyrule. A fifth represented Hyrule Castle. “From these vantage points we will spy what we can. Afton and a regiment of men will stay on the castle grounds while the rest of us rotate positions to keep the enemy guessing. With any luck we may find both of the fugitives we seek.” Outside a clap of thunder sounded. “Ameth will position himself here, beyond the chasm that separates Hyrule from the southern villages. Hinton, Franklin; you’ll be with him with your fifties—and make sure they include a pair of chain-troopers. Assemble your forces and move out.” Two of the knights strapped helmets to their heads and clapped each other on the shoulder before following Ameth up the stone staircase that led to Hyrule Castle’s eastern courtyard.
Sapphael continued: “Marlon, Grin; you will accompany Rubeus into the Burning Desert. Take an extra ration of water with you to be sure you can hold out. Assemble your fifties; go!” Rubeus, Marlon and Grin readied themselves and left the way Ameth and his knights had gone.
“Sapphael.” Meryl stood to one side, his helmet under one arm. “Are you certain any of our companies be able to handle both Vaati and the Thief King?” he asked in a low tone. “What happens if they attack the castle in tandem? Our forces will be spread far too thin and Castle Town could be decimated.”
Sapphael turned but did not look directly at his brother. “We’ll just have to hope we get to them first.” He turned to the map again and called out the names of the next two knights. “Verlan, Brandon, take your fifties and report to Kakariko Village with Meryl. May Faroe guide your blades!”
Meryl gave his brother one last long glance. “Fight with honor, brother. I will see you when this is over, Goddesses willing.” He placed a hand on Sapphael’s shoulder.
“Aye,” said Sapphael without looking up. “And you…” Meryl pulled his helmet over his head and trotted away with his knights. Sapphael stood. “Meryl!” he called. Meryl stopped, looking back through his visor. “Be wary,” he said. “Should the Goddesses take us…then let us meet in the Land of Gold, where all is good and fair.”
Meryl said nothing, but clapped his fist to his chest. Sapphael returned the salute and then his twin was gone. He turned.
“Sir?” said one of the knights; Sapphael realized he had been staring at the map blankly.
“Yes, Duncan, what is it?” said Sapphael finally, rolling up the vellum page absentmindedly.
“Oh, I was jus’ wondrin’ where we’d be posted is all,” said Duncan in a thick accent. “Me’n Carn here’d be more’n happy to do our part—jus’ give us the where and what for…”
“You’ll be with me, Duncan. Carn, too. We’re going east, among the falls at the borders of Zora’s Domain.” Sapphael looked over Duncan’s face; sideburns poofed from his cheeks and connected over his lip in a thick brownish-red mustache. His round ears stood out in contrast to the pointed ears of the Hylia. Under thick eyebrows were set a pair of green eyes, honest and adventurous. Sapphael would be glad of Duncan’s honesty on this assignment; he wanted no delusions about the fight ahead, and something gave him the feeling he would not see his brothers again. “Come Duncan, Carn. Let us give ourselves to the protection of Hyrule.”
Duncan turned to Carn, who nodded. “Very well, sir,” replied Duncan. “We’ll give her our best, then.”
* * *
The light of midday shone through the somber clouds in wide, long shafts. Arcing across the sky was one great rainbow produced by the sheets and sheets of mist rolling down from Lower Zora Falls. Sapphael had donned his full plate armor traced with blue Hylian hieroglyphs and carried his enormous axe at his back and a longsword on his hip. Blinking into the sun which now peeked out from behind a thick bank of clouds he considered the state of things. Turning his white mare, Iris, he watched as the line of one hundred soldiers trailed up the dew-covered slopes to his position, bookended by Carn and Duncan in the rear. As the men approached the Darknaught he gave them orders and assignments. Finally, Duncan and Carn reported, both on their respective mounts.
“That’s the last of them, sir. We’ve got the chain-troopers at the entrance to the path. What’ll we do now?” asked Duncan, bringing his appaloosa charger up to one side of Iris. Carn flanked Sapphael on his chestnut mare.
“Now, we wait. Hopefully our march will have attracted some attention.” Sapphael looked out over the fields of Hyrule and removed his helmet, holding it under one arm. A gleam shone in his vibrant forget-me-not-blue eyes. “My fellow knights,” he said quietly, “I do not wish to mince words with you; my fate is sealed.”
The red horse-hair plume of Carn’s helmet swung quickly as he turned his head in shock. “Sir, what do you mean?” Duncan looked intently on the Darknaught.
“I mean, friends, that my time in our fair land is at an end. A sense of foreboding has crept into my bones and I cannot shake it loose. I am done for…” Sapphael reached under the collar of his breastplate. He withdrew a pendant from which hung a clear blue stone the size of a small egg set in a silver frame. It was carved to resemble a sphere within a sphere and shone with an inner light.
“What’s that, sir, if’n you don’t mind…?”
“This, Duncan,” replied Sapphael, “is the Blue Royal Jewel; the receptacle of the power over the element of water which I have protected with my life these many years. My brothers hold like gems; of fire, and wind, and earth. These are they which we are protecting, and I show it to you only that you may know why it must never come into the hands of the enemy. Look to the falls.”
Duncan looked, but only after Sapphael had removed the amulet from his neck and held it above him did Duncan see the power of the gem—the water of the falls slowed and swept up like a curtain blown by a hard breeze. The sheet of translucent liquid fluttered over the hundred soldiers like a long banner and finally tapered again into the rapids of the river that swept to their southern flank. The soldiers staggered backward, fearful of this magic they did not understand, but Sapphael extended his hand to them and most of the men paused, even if they were still wary.
Halfway up the falls was revealed a dark recess in the stone wall. It looked accessible only by a long climb but was obviously no ordinary cave, for inside there glowed a thin blue light, pale and flickering. Then Sapphael lowered the amulet and the water returned to its usual course; thick, churning and sputtering. The cave would have been inaccessible if not for the diversion of the water. The knight returned the amulet to his neck and let the jewel rest on his breastplate.
Duncan’s eyes widened as he considered the jewel, then the knight, then the falls. “By the Maker—what’s up there, sir, t’be hidden by such strong magic?”
“One of the Great Fae; aligned with the elements of Hyrule. There are many such secrets about the kingdom, and few there are who can reach them without power greater than their own. The Great Fae hold a different kind of magic than the Royal Jewels. Nevertheless, to allow even the jewels into the wrong hands would be disastrous. I tell you this because of the pall of doom which hangs over me. There must be some who know of these things if the secrets are not to be forgotten. Do you understand me Duncan…Carn?”
“Yessir,” the knights replied.
“Good. Now, let’s make camp. We’ll need to make our position defensible if and when the enemy…”
But Sapphael did not have the chance to expound, for at that moment a great wave of cries arose from the masses of soldiers and pandemonium ensued. Without being able to discern the cause for the commotion, Sapphael witnessed men writhing on the ground—some seizing, others clawing at their backs. Some jumped away from the grassy turf in fear as if they saw some horrid enemy under their feet. Then Duncan pointed and shouted “There!”
When Sapphael looked his face paled; the shadow of the nearest soldier elongated unnaturally, stretching and filling out until it resembled the man in shape. Then two points of red light glared out from the shadow’s face as it pulled away from its owner and stood on its own feet. The soldier turned with a look of feeble horror and faced the thing…and then promptly fell backward as it pounced on him, raking at the man’s face with senseless, insubstantial fingers.
Everywhere the shadows of the very men were coming to life and wrapping their thin arms around their caster’s legs and necks. The shadows rose from the ground hollow-eyed and thin-bodied, and once one had seized a man it would press its face to his mouth and its essence would slip into him like a wriggling rope. Those men who were not yet seized upon looked about them in fear and uncertainty, looking to the knights for orders.
“What’s happening, sir?” shouted Carn, his mare rearing. “What sorcery is this?”
Sapphael reined in Iris to prevent her from spooking as well. “None that I have seen.” He drew his longsword from his waist. “The enemy is surely upon us. Carn, Duncan, gather the men who will follow you and escape to the other side of the river. I go to meet my fate.” The knights shouted their orders and any man who was not beset by his own shadow followed without hesitation. Sapphael raised his amulet once more and the river was diverted in its course, raising up over the heads of the escaping knights and soldiers.
“You three,” said Sapphael, addressing a few scouts at the end of the procession, “you are skilled in tracking are you not?” The men nodded, glancing back all the while at the writhing men, visibly eager to be gone. “Then I charge you to follow me until I have perished; then go to my brethren and tell them of my fate. Stay out of sight unless you wish to be set upon by that which dooms me. Do you understand?” The men nodded, inching further away from the writhing crowd.
Sapphael lowered the amulet and the river resumed its proper course. Then, raising his sword skyward, Sapphael shouted: “Then, o’ foe, come for your prey and leave these be; I have the Gem that you seek! Follow your quarry—Iris, fly!” And with a jab of Sapphael’s heels at her sides Iris reared and broke into a full gallop, taking the Darknaught back from whence he came—back to the fields of Hyrule—and from there south as far as his destiny might carry him.
* * *
Rubeus and his knights were halted just east of a mountain pass that led into the Burning Desert. The mountain range and a single deciduous tree was all that marked their position in the vastness of southwestern Hyrule field. On the other side of the mountains the trails would be infrequent and rarely-traveled. After that there would be desert wind and dunes and no trails at all. The soldiers were about checking their waterskins to be sure they would hold in the arid desert heat.
Rubeus bent over a fresh set of tracks. “Something has been this way,” he said.
“What do you suppose made them, sir? They don’t look…normal….”
“No, Grin, they look like the prints of a pig but they’re too big to have been made by a typical animal, that’s for certain.”
“Could there be any connection between these tracks and the escape of the Wind Mage?”
“If there is we must simply be more careful, Marlon. Anything this large might be a powerful minion indeed if it also had the intelligence to free the Wind Mage.” Rubeus ground a handful of dirt through his fingers. “We may be dealing with magic beyond that of Vaati…”
There was a yelp and a shout of indignation and Rubeus turned to see pair of soldiers bearing a man between them by the armpits. They threw the unhappy fellow to the ground before the Darknaught.
“Found him snooping around the saddle-bags for rations,” said one of the soldiers. “He must have been hiding behind the tree.”
Marlon raised an eyebrow at the dubious explanation; the tree was thin and failing and could no sooner have hidden a spear. “Was anyone with him?”
“He’s alone,” said the other soldier with a nod. “The tree couldn’t have hidden more than one…unless there was somebody standing on his head.”
The intruder stood to his feet, dusting himself off. “What in tarnation do you call that, you bucket-headed buffoon!? It certainly wasn’t a welcome!” The man’s wiry black mustache twitched moodily.
“I will take it from the stench that accompanies you that you have not bathed,” said Rubeus intolerantly. “As such I will choose to excuse your lack of manners and consider you merely uncivilized. If you do not attempt to be more civil, however, I’m sure we could teach you to do so.” Rubeus rested his enormous mace over one shoulder. “Do we have an understanding?”
The black-mustached man stood as tall as he could, only just reaching the Darknaught’s chin. For all of the man’s height he was still no match for the remarkable stature of the Hylian Elite. “Well, I guess it weren’t all that unfriendly a welcome,” he said, eyeing Rubeus’ mace. “I suppose I should be thanking my lucky stars you didn’t take back what I had already eaten…” He gave a nervous chuckle.
“We could still arrange that,” said Rubeus, “unless you care to tell us who you are and why you dared to steal from the knights of Hyrule.”
“Tweren’t knights I stole from! Lousy soldiers is all…” He stopped himself when Rubeus un-shouldered his grim mace. “Ingo!” said the man testily. He raised his hands high in the air. “Name’s Ingo; happy now? Look! I ain’t got any weapons!” He lowered his hands again, straightening his soiled shirt. “Jeez, I go from bein’ paid second rate as a ranch-hand to havin’ nothin’ but a rock fer a pillow and now I’ve got Hyrule’s Shiniest breathin’ down my neck fer nippin’ a strip o’ jerky in a pinch…”
Rubeus pulled away from a whispered conversation with Marlon. “What brings you this far west of the fields, rancher?” said the knight, interrupting Ingo’s tirade. “What’s your business here?”
“Look, I’ve been robbed just last night, if you really want to know. I saw you passing by and I followed you out. Figured you’d have something to eat. Ain’t a crime to keep yerself from starvin’, is it? Didn’t figger you’d give me any o’ yer rations even if I asked…”
“And we probably wouldn’t at that—” began Rubeus.
Ingo thrust his hands out to either side. “There, see? What’s a feller supposed to do?”
“—but only because we are in need of the rations ourselves,” finished Rubeus. “But we might not have let you go hungry, if you had asked. We could perhaps have given you some of our catch.” Ingo sniffed and seemed to locate the waft something tantalizingly flavorful on the air. “But since you have had your fill on rations it seems you wouldn’t need anything more, now would you? Now if you please, Master Wanderer, we have a mysterious beast to track and we simply can’t permit ourselves to be detained any longer…”
“Wait, wait! What if I could to tell you something about this here beastie that made them tracks? Could I get a bowl of that there stew or what’s y’got?” Ingo rubbed his hands together greedily.
Rubeus considered this. “Our finest hunters caught this meal, Master Ingo, and bombchus are not easy or convenient to catch; your information had better be worth the trouble.”
“Right you are, Mister Knight. But my tongue is so dry just now, see? It might be easier to tell with a little broth to whet the whistle, eh?” Rubeus cast the ranch-hand a sidelong glance before nodding to one of the soldiers. The man returned with a bowl of the soup. After two or three mouthfuls Ingo was humming contentedly.
Rubeus cleared his throat.
“Right!” said Ingo, slopping broth down his stubble-speckled chin. “Right, of course; a deed for a deed, then…” he said, licking his lips. He slurped another mouthful and swallowed, still holding the half-filled bowl with obvious gluttony. “This here thing yer lookin’ for ain’t got nothin’ on yer Wind Magician business… Oh, and uh, it’s huntin’ you all if truth be told.”
“What do you mean by ‘hunt?’” snapped Marlon. “We are the hunters, if hunters there be!”
“Silence!” barked Rubeus. “There is more to this than what we know. Explain yourself, Master Ingo, and be plain about it.”
Ingo seemed pleased at this mild altercation. “As I was saying,” he began theatrically, “this Wind Mage ain’t got nothin’ on the King o’ Darkness…”
Grin gasped. “King of Darkness!? But I thought that was an old myth…”
“Quiet!” said Rubeus.
A wicked smile crept across Ingo’s broth-slopped face. He leaned in as if what he was about to say was a fine secret. “Yep; the King o’ Darkness is real. And he’s got the Trident o’ Power…” The nearby soldiers marveled and a few began reciting old superstitious poems to themselves. Ingo slurped the rest of his soup down in the subsequent hush, drawing out every moment as dramatically as possible.
Rubeus’ stare was flat. “How do you know of this? What proof do you have?” He patted his mace with one hand. “And remember what an unsatisfactory answer will cost you.”
Ingo swallowed the last of his soup with evident strain. He hiccupped and then burped nervously, jabbing his chest with one fist. “Well, I’ll be,” he said finally, “that soup was mighty tasty, but uh…I don’t guess I could trouble y’all fer a bit more…?”
“Do you think only of your stomach when the fate of Hyrule is at stake!?” Rubeus reached into his breastplate and snapped something from his neck. He thrust his fist out at the rancher, his clenched fingers face up. Ingo flinched as instantly there was a spark and a fizzle and over Rubeus’ fist appeared a rolling, snapping ball of flame, dangerously close to the rancher’s bristly black mustache. “I am the bearer of the Ancient Fire. Give me one reason not to cook you where you stand and leave you as a meal for the vultures!”
Ingo suddenly lost control of his faculties and cringed to the ground, humiliated and utterly fearful. “O-okay, okay! He said his name was Ganond-dorf, but I knew it couldn’t have been. It was a travelling magician playing tricks; soaking up notoriety off the name! M-must’ve been…”
Rubeus feinted and the ball of flame crackled louder, threatening to singe off the man’s mustache entirely. “You must take my men and me to be simpletons! You’d better have something more convincing than that.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! It’s just…he’s a hard master; if he knew I was talking…”
“If who knew? That stew in your belly is your last meal if you don’t tell us who you’re really working for!”
“Yes… Yes, of course. No travelling magician; it was Ganondorf alright. He took the Trident of power from the Pyramid in the Desert of Doubt.”
“What does he want? Vaati?”
“No, Vaati’s just a pawn; a distraction! It’s the princess he’s after! Once the royalty is out of the way he can have Hyrule under his hairy blue fist, see? It’s the truth! I swear. He found me last night and nearly killed me. I begged him t’spare me and he said he would only if I spied around a bit…”
“What else did he tell you?” shouted Rubeus.
“Nothing! By the Goddess, nothing; he just took a shield I st-…had and bolted off right fer Hyrule Castle…”
Rubeus’ eyes widened. “Shield? What shield?”
Ingo’s hands flew to cover his head. “I don’t know—a shiny one with a face on it. Nothing special…please! That’s all I know…please…” Every muscle in the ranch-hand’s body was clenched in anticipation of an imminent pyre.
But nothing happened.
Then Ingo realized that everything around him was deathly still. He could feel the sun warming the back of his neck. Finally, he lifted his gaze from the ground. The Darknaught and his knights were staring eastward with drained faces. Ingo turned and saw what they did; a distant blue speck that was advancing with unnatural speed across Hyrule field, the displaced air casting waves through tallgrass like water. The effect was altogether as unsettling as it was uncanny. Ingo’s eyes watered with the shame of a disobedient servant who knew that his fickle master was soon to beat him soundly.
Ingo swallowed dryly. “Y’all hafta go,” he said, now more adamant than he ever was. “The sooner the better…”
Rubeus nodded to his knights. In moments all the men were assembled and mobilized, heading into the mountains. One knight remained behind.
“Sir, are you not coming?”
“No, Marlon. I feel the Goddess staying my feet where they are. Go before me and lay in wait. I will lead him into your ambush. Go!” After a mutual glance of understanding, the knight turned and brought up the rear of the retreating troop.
Once the others were out of hearing, Ingo stood. “Y’all don’t expect to live.” It was not a question.
Rubeus gave Ingo a hard stare and gripped the rancher’s scrawny neck with one gauntleted hand. “My fate is yours, do you understand?” Ingo gulped dryly again. He nodded quickly. “Then tell me truthfully, cur; what approaches?”
Ingo’s eyes wandered out to the fields where the blue speck was advancing like a meteor through the grass. It would be upon them in moments. “It’s him… It’s the Great Ganondorf.”
* * *
The cold, moist air in the mountain village of Kakariko sewed stitches into the chests of the soldiers, weary from the hastened march. The sun shone down over the village, the clouds quickly revealing more and more sky over the thrumming masses of villagers that meandered to and fro from one hut to the next. In and out of shops, stores, gamehouses and taverns they churned. Working men would roam from one cluster of women to the next, hoping to get a word in before Mutoh, the Work-master, had a chance to box their ears for negligence.
A hundred soldiers clogged the streets and by-ways, waiting for orders. Cool perspiration beaded down from under helmets and made hands squish inside of gloves as they nervously gripped swords, spears and shields. The villagers of Kakariko were accustomed to the presence of soldiers in their town, and so they quickly learned to avoid the stagnant clump of men and find detours that were well-traveled in no time.
Meryl crouched in the shadow of an unoccupied house, preparing his two knights for the long wait they anticipated. “If we’re pressed back, we retreat to the mountain pass to the east and follow this exposed water channel. From there…”
“Sir! Sir Meryl, I have news!” A scout sprinted up to the pair of knights listening to Meryl’s instructions.
“Ah, Jenkins. What is it? Why are you not with my brother; I thought you were assigned to his troop?” said the Darknaught.
“Sapphael…” said Jenkins, panting.
Meryl waited. “He said…?”
“He told us to follow him…he…”
“What do you mean ‘we’? There are none but you. What message does my brother send?”
“We don’t know sir,” said the scout, cradling a stitch in his side. “It was big…but it couldn’t be that big…”
“What are you talking about, Jenkins?”
The scout sighed and raised his hands over his head weakly, pantomiming claws and fangs and (Meryl thought) a pitchfork. “It’s a pig, sir. A blue one. Holding a spear or some such… Hard to tell.”
“Are you playing at something, Jenkins? Very well, then; Brandon, take him, will you? See if you can get anything out of him after he’s rested. We’ll just be ready for this bigger-than-normal pig with a spear.” Meryl rolled up the map he had been using and tucked it into his belt. “Best return to your post then, Verlan, that will be all. I said you can go, Jenkins…”
“Yes, sir, you said that, didn’t you?” Jenkins was no longer panting. Brandon was already giving the scout sidelong glance.
Meryl placed his fists on his hips. “Say, Jenkins, have you got the stroke? Maybe you should report to the apothecary for a remedy or…”
“I’ll not be needing a remedy, sir.” Jenkins stared at the Darknaught blankly. Then, inexplicably, he let out a shrill cackle as if laughing at some unheard joke.
Meryl stepped back into the light to consider the man. He could see that Jenkins was not himself but he could not say that there was anything visibly wrong with him. “I say; you’re not well, son. Here, come with me and we’ll get you some water at least.”
“Whatever you say, sir.” The scout followed the knight out across a trodden dirt path and down a set of stone steps carved into the rock of the mountainside. It was not more than a handful of seconds when Brandon’s voice caused Meryl to turn.
“Sir Meryl! Behind you!”
Meryl had only a moment to get the saber on his back loose of its harness before the scout’s sword came down on his helmet. Meryl’s head thrummed where the blade had struck but he was not harmed; nevertheless the blow had forced his head down where he caught a glimpse of Jenkin’s boots. But there was something odd about the sight. The next moment Meryl realized what it was—in the direct light of the sun the man had no shadow to speak of. Meryl brought his saber up and deflected another blow, intent on preventing the scout from surprising him again. They locked swords and Meryl marveled; he had to strain to fight off the scout’s pressing force.
“Jenkins, what…?” But then Meryl saw the man’s eyes—hollow, sunken things that glowed red. The hollow scout smiled with all his teeth and slashed out with his weapon. The two swords sang and grated as their edges slid past one another. Meryl held the blades locked at the hilt.
“Where do you come from, demon? What do you want?” barked Meryl.
“Oh, it is not I, sir. I am but the herald that comes before the Darkness. We are all here to smother you; push you into that world…”
And to Meryl’s horror, scores of eyes glowed red from within the shadows between the surrounding buildings; unnaturally still and fierce, like a malicious flame frozen in pinpricks of ire. Meryl had brought a hundred men with him, and two knights besides. Could they all have been afflicted like Jenkins? The lot of possessed soldiers shambled forward.
And then the dim screams started. From deep within the alleyways of the village came the calls of chaos and pandemonium. Something was horribly wrong.
“Come Knight of Hyrule, show us your mettle,” chanted the hollow-men in chorus.
Meryl cast his eyes around, searching for any man—any soldier—who might still be unaffected. There was no one left nearby; and all the villagers had found detours by now… No, there—
“You there, lad! No wait, stop! Here, come here…” Meryl caught the shirt of a villager boy and spun him around. Listen to me, lad; I see you’re not hollow-eyed like these… Don’t look at them, no, don’t look. Listen to me. Get everyone in their homes. Sound the alarm at the guard tower. Can you do that? Can you be a soldier?
The boy nodded dumbly and, taking one last fearful glance at the advancing hollow-eyed troop, turned and staggered away hastily, never looking back.
“There’s no sense in giving them false hope, you know…” said a thin, sharp voice, like the edge of a keen knife.
When Meryl turned again he spotted the scout—joining the shambling mindless throng—but now there stood before him a new figure, dark and unreal. Ostensibly composed of nothing more than thick shadow, it looked startlingly like the boy-hero who was to be captain, but it had the same hollow-red stare as the others. Resting on the Shadow’s shoulder was a metal rod tipped with a ruby the size of a child’s fist.
“Who are you?” barked Meryl, brandishing his saber. “And where did you get that? The Fire Rods of old were all confiscated.”
The Shadow cackled, sounding like the shaking of glass shards. “The private stores of the Royal Family have many helpful items.” The thing unshouldered the rod. “It’s unjust to keep power from the powerless. I’ve taken the liberty of redistributing the wealth…where I see fit.” The Shadow struck out with the rod and a jet of flame leapt from the tip of the ruby, catching the roof of the nearest home. The wooden shingles steamed and smoked as the recent rains evaporated. Then the fire took hold and crackled loudly as it ate away at the building. Frenzied wails came from within.
In seconds Meryl had his amulet in his hand—a green gem carved to resemble a stylized swirling leaf—and a great gust of wind whistled across the arboreal mountainside. The next moment a shower of leaves burst out of the sky and the wind pummeled the flickering flames, choking them to non-existence. Meryl turned to the Shadow again. “Identify yourself, cur! You are under arrest for theft and unlawful use of royal property!”
“Sorry,” said the Shadow. “I have no name.” And it cackled again eerily. “Or if you prefer, you can call me Shadow.” The thing considered this name pleasantly. “Yes, I am what follows you everywhere you go—silent, forgotten, disregarded—into the dark slumber that awaits all mortals after their pitiful lives…and then my life becomes yours.” He seemed delighted at this, and his grin was like a smile in a dark mirror—unseen, but understood to exist.
“Then whatever you are, you will cease this charade and come with me.” Meryl reached forward to grab the Shadow, but it brandished a bladed weapon seeming composed of the same stuff that the Shadow was made of, as if it were an extension of its body. The Shadow struck out but Meryl spun in place and disarmed the thing, its weapon dissipating like smoke. The next moment the Shadow had the Fire Rod trained on the Darknaught, ready to spew flames again. Just in time Meryl raised the amulet and a great gust of wind held a jet of flame at bay, choking it out just before it reached the Darknaught. Another gout of flame flew and every second it was brighter, thicker. But this, too, was extinguished by the force of air that followed Meryl’s command.
But the Darknaught did not stop at this. Pressing his fist forward, the gust threw the Shadow back against the line of possessed soldiers who were likewise bowled to the ground by the sheer force of the gale.
But the Shadow stood, seemingly unaffected by the aerial blast. It stooped and recovered the Fire Rod from the ground. “This has been fun…but I’d run if I were you.”
Meryl sharpened his gaze on the thing. “And why is that?”
“The boss is coming. He’ll deal with you good. And then he’ll let me have my fun with this place.” The Shadow rested the rod on its shoulder again.
“What are you talking ab-…?” But Meryl stopped. The shadow of his answer was looming over him.
* * *
A dense roar echoed across the canyon. The trained soldiers stopped half-way across the wide rope bridge spanning the chasm.
One of the knights turned to his side. “What do you suppose that was, Franklin?”
The other knight was looking back the way they had come; back into the thickness of the Forbidden Wood. “I right couldn’t say…unless it was a huge cat or sommat…”
“No matter,” said Ameth, leading his horse up between the two. “Come on, men! Further on, further in!” The train continued to shamble across the bridge.
A hundred men led their horses over the sturdy wooden planks, the chorus of falling of hooves a clopping cacophony. A thick mist broiled beneath them while the sound of distant rushing waters drifted up to meet their pointed ears. Then they heard it again; the rumbling roar of the unidentified beast. This time it was nearer and a small terror of ravens escaped the trees just across the chasm, croaking as they went, flying further from the yawning gorge and whatever had made the voluminous growl. Many of the soldiers looked over their shoulders warily.
“Pay it no mind, men!” called Ameth. He was almost to the other side of the rope-bridge. “We’re nearly there anyhow…” Every man quickened his pace and soon Ameth was mounting his own horse in preparation for the trek to their chosen position. It was little known and even less visited; a perfect spot to hide the Royal Gem of Earth from the Wind Mage.
Ameth and his men had not gone far, however, before small white specks began to appear in the air, floating around in little flurries. The soldiers studied them with furrowed brows, struggling to comprehend. The winter was past—why were there snowflakes in the air? Then there came from behind them the sound of wood groaning under an extraordinary weight. All in the company instantly halted and looked at one another. Ameth took immediate control.
“Franklin, Hinton, take the men and head to the rendezvous point; we want him to think we’re still on the move. Carson and Barry with me; you’re axes are needed sooner than we expected. We may be able to catch him on the bridge. Move!” The men followed his orders all too readily; all that is except for the two axe-men who looked as if they were going to their graves. “Come, now, have a little courage in you! On, then!” And emboldened just enough, they followed the Darknaught back the way they had come—back to the rope bridge, still groaning under some immense weight.
When they came in sight of the bridge, however, whatever had been so massive as to make so much noise was nowhere in sight—there was only the bridge, wobbling to and fro to prove whatever it was had just been there. Ameth was silent, scanning the trees for movement. There was nothing. Not so much as a whisper; only the snow, now falling thicker than before.
Then: “Carson? Carson stop spookin’ me. You know I don’t like it when you play like this…” Barry was shaking the other soldier as if to wake him. His friend was dipping dangerously in his saddle. If the man had been any drowsier he would have fallen from his horse and landed in the dirt. Then, just as Carson surely would have fallen, the soldier sat bolt upright staring straight forward.
Barry jumped in surprise. “Bloody… You scared me, man! How are you gonna be all spooky-like in this here enchanted wood? So sorry, Master Ameth, I couldn’t say what’s come over h-…” But Carson had planted his hands around Barry’s neck and was restricting the flow of air through his throat.
Ameth frowned. “Enough foolishness, man! What plagues you?” When Carson would not respond, however, and Barry did not blink, Ameth urged his horse forward. Carson suddenly released his grip on the soldier and drew out his one-handed axe, swinging out at the Darknaught. Barry choked on gulps of chilled air. Carson’s axe glanced off Ameth’s protective plate armor. Carson swung again.
“What in blazes…!” Ameth raised his metal-clad hands to protect his head and neck. “Stop it, Carson—what are you…?” But Ameth had little time to secure a response, Carson stopped dead and Ameth became vaguely aware that something huge was looming behind him. He turned.
The next instant Ameth’s hand was on the hilt of his massive two-edged sword. A gargantuan, blue-haired, humanoid boar stood before him, its lower jaw set with a pair of tusks as long as kitchen knives. The thing made a sound like a snort and a squeal and then laughed openly; a wicked red laugh that told Ameth of the thing’s intelligence—cunning, cold and cruel. For a long moment Ameth stared into the thing’s beady red eyes, daring it to move with his composure, daring it to provoke him.
But the beast must have read his mind—or else not known the reputation of the Darknaughts—for it brandished its own weapon; a long red trident of some metal sharper than steel that glinted with hard malice in the whitening wood. Barry’s horse reared and fled with its rider calling out in fear and alarm. Both Carson and his steed watched calmly with hollow, red eyes glowing dully. Ameth’s trained charger was as collected as its master.
“Strike, then, beast! Make the strength of your arm known! Or do you fear the Darknaughts of Hyrule?” Ameth’s taunt provoked a snort from the beast, but nothing more. “Then catch me if you can!” And with this the Darknaught drew his sword from its place on his back and slashed across the arm of the blue-haired creature, turning his horse immediately in the opposite direction. The creature wailed, thrashing its arms, tossing a tree to one side, tearing it from the grip of its roots. Ameth spurred his steed into a gallop and raced away.
The beast’s bellows followed after him like the waves of a fierce sea-storm, fear threatening to creep past the chinks in Ameth’s armor and pierce his heart. But he would not be daunted, even as he heard one tree after another straining against its roots as it was knocked from the beast’s path. Ameth swerved this way and that, always wending his way toward the rendezvous point. This beastly form must be the Wind Mage’s ruse. If I can just get back to the others, he thought hopefully, then we will have him.
But the Darknaught was not rewarded according to his hopes, for when he arrived at the clearing he saw that his men were not only out of formation, but they were thrashing about on the ground as if they had been taken by vengeful spirits. But he only watched for some moments before each of them rose to their feet as if nothing had happened, their eyes glowing with eerie red light. When they saw the Darknaught on the outskirts of the camp, each drew his weapon. What used to be Franklin approached the Darknaught, eyeing him maliciously behind eyes of sharp crimson.
“What has happened here, Master Knight? What curse binds you? Where is Hinton?”
“Fled, sir,” said Franklin in a voice that was not his own. “He was the only one who got away. But you will not… You will not…” The knight threw back his sword to strike.
Ameth swept the weapon from the knight’s grasp with his own blade. He galloped around the outskirts of the encampment, staying far away from the other hollow-men. “What is this sorcery?” he whispered to himself. “What magic has the Mage wrought now?”
“It’s no mage-work, ‘fearsome’ knight,” said a heavy, growling voice from behind. Ameth spun to see the blue-haired beast had caught up to him. It spoke again. “It is the work of your new king. I have already infiltrated your castle, enslaved your princess and the maidens and overtaken the minds of all your men. It’s taken me some time to track you down, however. You were more difficult to find than your brothers.”
Ameth brandished his double-bladed sword. “What have you done with them, creature?”
The beast chuckled to itself. “You will know soon enough, little knight. Your powers aren’t up to this challenge; I will enslave you as I did the rest.” A chilled blast of air struck Ameth and his horse stamped its feet, sliding back nearly a yard. Ameth had to clap his hand to his chest to knock away a thin layer of ice from his neck armor.
“My power, you say…” said Ameth, pulling a cord out from within his tunic. “Not great enough? Are you greater than the elements?” From the leather thong around Ameth’s neck hung a purple stone worked into the shape of three triangular spires, vaguely reminiscent of stalagmites in a cave. “Know the unforgiving power of earth!” said Ameth, and the next instant a column of rock shot from the ground and smacked against the jaw of the blue-haired beast, sending it careening back into a score of trees, each of them flattening like blades of grass under the beast’s bulk. Ameth raised his hand again and the earth gathered up from under the creature, burying it alive in a matter of moments. For all of half a minute Ameth’s fist remained in the air—still clenching the royal jewel—and the earth shuffled, turned over and shifted as the creature sank down, down deeper into the earth. The horde of red-eyed soldiers watched mutely.
Finally all was still. Ameth exhaled.
But then the ground shifted. One huge blue-haired hand emerged, and then the rest of the beast followed. Finally, its feet regained the edge of its earthen prison and it stood before the knight, who was wide-eyed with shock. The beast chuckled, shaking the sod from its blue coat. It advanced on the Darknaught, its steps slow and deliberate.
“You have just sealed your fate Ameth Nohansen. By using your Earth-stone you have permitted me to corrupt it as I did the rest. As you can tell from my blizzard I already have control of water and wind and even now a fire consumes the village of Kakariko. But I am a gracious master. I will grant you this one last boon before you die; that you may know to whom your brother-king will bow when I find him. I am Ganon, the King of Darkness. And while you served your brother-king in life, you will serve me in death. Now; know the irresistible power of the void.”
The Darknaught once again raised his stone to the offensive, but all at once the purple gem in his hand went dull as if there was no light to give it brilliance. Ameth felt a sudden weight constrict his lungs and then a gritty, palpable blackness formed before him, staring through him with cold, red eyes. His shadow entered through his mouth and he had the sensation that it was hollowing out his insides as it went, robbing him of all sensation. He felt no pain, no fear; neither joy nor despair—indeed he felt nothing. He was no longer a man, but a shell of a man. A shadow wearing a man’s skin.
Ameth’s last thoughts before he left that world were of the captain of Hyrule—or rather, that boy who would soon be captain. And with the last shreds of hope left in his fading mind, Ameth begged the Goddess of Time to send the Hero once more on behalf of Hyrule…
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