The night seemed to stretch onward endlessly.
I paused from my pacing in order to peek through the windows, waiting. My patience was as vigilant as I could allow it, but it was beginning to wane against my will. My eyes were already drooping, my consciousness rapidly waned, and my body was eager, longing, begging, and desperate for the respite of slumber. For sixty-two hours I had crossed over the rough terrain of the outer regions of Koholint, plunged deeply into its treacherous caverns and catacombs, and entered a labyrinthine shrine. And after having taxed my stamina and endurance to their utter limits, I finally had managed to slay the sixth of the nine treacherous Nightmares. And at last, I had trudged my way across hill, dale, and mountain to return to the quaint little village of Mabe. And all of it had been without one wink of sleep.
I had dared not risk the consequences of slumber, not with the Nightmares still eager to prey upon my subconscious mind, not since I had encountered those horrifying visions I had seen during my first night upon Koholint's shores. I still shuddered at the memory of those thoughts; the havoc they had wreaked upon my fevered and delirious psyche that first night still haunted me in my waking hours. Nay, I dared not risk myself to the possibilities of losing my soul or sanity to them... to risk the possibility that I might never wake again...
Especially not now, now that the secrets of this lost, forbidden island had been laid before my very eyes.
Duty had forced me to trudge onward and to push my fears and resistance deep within me, yet now that I was in the relative safety of the village, it threatened to come back to overtake me. Yet in that instant, it was far too much for my sleep-deprived mind and body to cope with. My body demanded sleep, and it protested each step that I paced within the safety of my borrowed cabin. The tendons and muscles in my calves and thighs cried out in pain and agony with each movement, groaning for a slumber that I could not and would not yet grant them. Yet were it not for each methodical stride and the constant reminder of the horrors that would have awaited me should I to inadvertently fall asleep, I was liable to collapse upon the floor in a disheveled heap, my eyes would shutter completely, and I would find myself soon thereafter in the lair of the Nightmares, doing battle against them for the right to wake once again.
No, I could not allow myself to doze off. I could not allow my body to be stagnant...
At least, I could not until she arrived.
Every moment was agony and torture worse than the second before. Darkness clenched at my frame. Teeth nipped at my neck as claws as sharp as a blade's edge were dragged across my torso. No matter how long they had prolonged my suffering—a length of time that I now could longer reconcile—blood continued to seep from the gashes decorating my body, streaming down my limbs in crimson rivers, dripping onto the stone floor upon which I was chained.
Fear coursed through my veins as my heart drummed rapidly. This hadn't been the first time fear had overtook the courage that I had been blessed with, but it was the first time that I had ever been completely immobilized by it. Every painful thought told me that I should have been dead thrice over by now, and yet still my skin was freshly torn, my blood still oozed, and my consciousness remained agonizingly aware of each razor-sharp stroke cutting my flesh anew. I couldn't escape; I was trapped, helpless, and I was going to die.
I was going to—
—A caring touch at my shoulder caused me to bolt upright. The figure that had been at my side jumped backward and squeaked frightfully at my sudden jerk. I turned my head and squinted to identify the girl whose voice I had heard, yet my vision was incredibly hazy and unfocused; I could make out nothing clearly. All I could see was the a blue fuzz for the woman's dress and a tangle of brilliant, strawberry blonde hair adorning a quite concerned face.
And just as suddenly as it had come, the last of my energy was drained. My head suddenly fell back upon the pillow unceremoniously as it pounded fiercely like a drum.
"My goddesses, what a relief!" the girl said. Despite my disorientation, her voice was music to my ears, a melody that soothed my restless soul and was a salve against the torture that still traced itself invisibly upon my skin. "I thought you'd never wake up! You were tossing and turning and..."
She broke off, her concern melting quickly away as it gradually transformed into joy at seeing me alive and awake. A smile began to spread across her face as she returned to the bedside and knelt down next to where I lay, reaching for a hand and holding it protectively between hers.
That simple touch spoke to me in ways even her words could not. Though I knew that the mere thought was madness—for the nagging inkling that repeatedly reminded me that I had been sailing for months at sea already and therefore could not possibly be there—my heart passionately wanted to believe that I was somehow home, home amongst the people I knew and loved. The man in the corner could have been Uncle. And the girl's face next to me seemed ever so familiar: the gentle smile of curved lips, the smell of flowers from the castle garden, the radiance of the sun through the eastern window catching her hair just so, and the warmth from the covers keeping me tucked in. I was home. Where else could I be?
"Zelda," I murmured with all the strength I had, "it's been ages. How I've missed you. Even the castle."
My comment only seemed to confuse her however. Her smile faltered before being replaced with a deep sympathy. Letting go of my hand, she placed one of her palms upon my forehead, only to shake her head with pity. "What? Zelda? No, no, my name is Marin. You must still be feeling a little woozy. You are on Koholint Island!"
I scrunched my brow in frustration as I tried to make sense of the words. "Ko– Koholint? Koholint Island? I... I don't know of... Not Zelda? Marin..."
"Shhh, save your strength, Link," she said as she removed her hand from my forehead. "You're still running a terrible fever; it's amazing at all that you're alive! All in all, I'm just... really glad to see you finally awake. Hold on, you need a cold cloth for your fever. And you should get some sleep. You'll need—"
"No! No sleep!" I cried out, suddenly panicked by the thought of delving back beneath the waves of slumber. I didn't want to face them; the terror and trepidation from moments ago suddenly seized me, and I shivered uncontrollably beneath my blankets. "The nightmares... dreams... it was... Marin, it was so black..."
She looked to me with widened eyes. Those eyes... the expression in those eyes I knew would haunt me for days. Despite my fever-induced delirium, I could tell that there was recognition in her eyes. It had to be that she too knew of the nightmares, the very same nightmares that I myself had just faced.
Her eyes watered slightly, and a tear hung bitterly upon the lid of her eye, though she refused to cast it.
"Don't... don't go," I whispered.
"Hold on," came her reply before she rushed to the door, but she daren't go any further. "Tarin!" she called out. "Tarin, please! Wherever you are, come quickly! I... Link needs help!"
The call did little to pull me out of my stupor, and I could already feel myself slipping back to sleep. Little by little I flew into a fevered panic, yet I couldn't help but succumb. Though before I had managed the feat, Marin had quickly returned to my side. She knelt over the bed and placed her hands at my sides in an awkward attempt to hold me against her. "I'm not going to leave your side then," she whispered to me. At first, her voice had been so quiet that I questioned whether or not I had actually heard her voice, yet she repeated it again. "I'm not going to leave your side, Link. If the nightmares come for you, they'll come for us both. This I swear to you."
My eyes slipped shut.
And soon I plunged beneath the deep ocean of slumber.
Hours later, I woke to a mustachioed man padding a damp cloth to my head, and the red-haired girl still was holding me tightly as she knelt by the side of the bed. By the sparkle of sleep hanging in her eye, she too had dreamt with me.
Dreamt. Actual dreams. Not a single nightmare had plagued me that night. Never had they whenever she was at my side.
And I could tell by the peaceful smile upon her lips that it had been—and always would be, as I would soon discover—the same for her.
Finally, as if in recognition of my reminiscing, I spied a figure moving amongst the shadows off in the distance; even without a clear view, I did not know precisely who it is. Never in all the weeks I'd been here had there ever been another restless soul wandering about the village of Mabe under the moonlight. Yet had there been a doubt in my head, the wispy flow of an ankle-length dress would have banished it all away, showering me with relief that the end of my vigil was close at hand. She did not carry a lantern, as had always been the precaution for us each and every night she stole herself away from her father's home to pay visits to me.
Our nighttime visitations had always been honorable and never with treachery or immodesty, though I knew it would have been be nigh impossible to persuade those might otherwise discover us, especially were they to discover the reason and nature for our secret rendezvous beneath the stars. None would believe the true story that prompted our meetings, and as such we made sure to take extra care so as not to be caught. The last thing I wished for was to defend my honor to her father as if on trial; though he was known for being a bumbling and careless sort of man, the love, pride, and protectiveness he showed for his daughter was well beyond his significant fondness for mushrooms.
Through the pale moonlight, I watched Marin make her way step by step to my borrowed home. A smile crossed my lips as I watched the swaying of her dress' hemline and the moonlight reflect a hint of red from her hair. I found myself eager and progressively more impatient with each of her steps, and my heart urged her onward and forward. Despite how imminent her arrival is, the urge to keep myself from running out to greet her is near insuppressible.
Yet I kept my restraint in check and instead busied myself with the final preparations for her arrival. I unlatched the cottage door so that she might enter without needing to knock. I blew out the candles that I had placed in the small window—our private signal to announce my late arrivals into town—to keep our communication secret. And finally I drew closed the curtains in every window; let the townspeople believe that I was merely enjoying some long-deserved sleep... or better still, that I was still journeying about and not even here at all.
The door at long last opened, and I gazed towards the sound of the door's hinges. The room, though pitch dark with my eyes still blinded by the candlelight, yet acknowledged her arrival with the soft, moaning creak of the floorboards. It seemed to take forever, yet the door was shut and sealed, our seclusion guaranteed. Only then did I dare to move finally, and I crossed the room to her and wrapped my arms around her tightly, pulling her against my frame out of my mind's desperate need to have her close.
And then she did the same to me. For one more night, we were together again.
There she was, alone and perched upon a long, whitewashed piece of driftwood at the very edge of the ocean's tide. I could not see her face from my secret vantage point behind her, yet by now she was so easy to visualize inside my mind that I could imagine it nonetheless. Her sandals would be tossed aside to allow her bare feet to be covered with the soft, wet sand and the rushing water. Her eyes would switch between wide-eyed amazement as she scoured the horizon for far-off ships passing by and serene quiet as she closed them so that she might set her focus upon the wispy winds, the heat of the afternoon sun, and the smell of fresh hibiscus would mingle with the fragrance of the ocean's sea salt to perfume the air all around her.
Though our time together on Koholint only totaled but a few weeks, I felt I knew Marin ever so well.
My journeys upon the island carried me far and wide, though certainly there was still much yet to explore. Yet despite the adventurer's heart within me yearning to continue my quest and seek out the mysteries of this isle, I found myself—much to my surprise—finding more enjoyment and fulfillment not as I was spelunking in caves or trolling through dungeons but instead in my frequent returns to Mabe. More specifically, I found my secret joys in the hope and passion of one lovely girl: the girl who had taken care of me, the girl who worried herself sick for me whenever I would depart once again to vanquish the invading nightmares, and the girl who—dare I admit it—had captured my full interest and more than a little of my heart during my time here.
Yet as I stared at her, admiring her from a distance, I knew that our story wasn't quite so simple as a boy and a girl desperately committed to one another fighting for a shared love together. The bonds that connected here and I were unfortunately far too complicated for such a thing to simply happen.
It wasn't because I had doubts about how I felt for her or she for me. Had it been so, I might have pursued Marin much more boldly and openly, attempting to woo her or perhaps even to test the strength of my own feelings. Yet I already knew precisely the nature of both her and my feelings alike, even though her own thoughts about me had never been voiced aloud. Whenever I was away, my mind always managed to wander back to daydreams of her and I walking upon the beach or deep within the woods; sometimes we would be playing music together, and others we would be on a grand vessel adventurously sailing the Great Sea together. And from the bright yet altogether sly smiles she would flash me at dinner beneath the watchful eyes of her father, I knew her feelings couldn't possibly be too much less than my own.
It also wasn't merely for the fact that I was a stranger in a strange land and might one day leave for home, a fish in love with a bird, desperately seeking a place for us together. Marin had always worn her love for the world off-island on her sleeve; her very interest in me originally grew out of wanting to know every last detail of my homeland. She would grill me with questions about Hyrule; she longed to see Hyrule Castle with all its towers, parapets, and gardens. She yearned to learn the ways of our culture and people. She dreamt of riding the waves and finding new land to fully explore. She truly was a woman of my own heart, always seeking out unbeaten paths and new thrills. I had such the steadfast assuredness of a mountain that, were I to ask her to sail away with me, she would gladly cast away this paradise and her family in pursuit of adventure abroad at my side.
She and I were compatible on so many levels. But it was the awkward connection to the Nightmares that we shared that made transforming our friendship into something else entirely far too risky.
None of the islanders seemed to be able to recall precisely when the Nightmares had arrived, instead merely spinning legends of how they had always been and continued to be. Their influence over the midnight dreams of the village was subtle in the beginning, serving as a general warning that none should dare attempt to thwart their malevolent machinations. With time their power grew into something more treacherous and dark; nights would be plagued with stifling stillness and restless sleep. Yet my arrival had apparently stirred the Nightmares into a fever pitch. For the first time, the forces of evil were worried; for the first time, they feared death at the edge of my blade. And so their efforts increased, and they struck. First they struck me down the moment I had shipwrecked upon the island. And after I had struck down the first of their kin and had returned to Mabe to sleep in the empty cabin, they struck at Marin, sending her into an almost helpless coma and illness.
It had been a desperate warning; that much had been all too clear. Doing so sent the threat that they were capable and willing to take her life from me any time they saw fit. Even now, she'd always refused to speak of her nightmares upon that night (which was not to my surprise given how they had affected even me), yet the terror upon her face told me clearly that they were one and the same with my own.
Yet remembering that silent night of peace that she'd given me by holding me throughout the night, the two of us made a pact to continue keep each other close as we slept for each other's protection. And in doing so, we knew that whatever power the Nightmares held over this island and us vanished. Alone we were powerless and completely helpless from within that deep slumber. Yet together, we could inexplicably somehow push back the Nightmares for one more day. So each of my forays into the wilderness had been planned carefully so that I might return to Mabe by sunset, and my Marin would wait by the village gate eager for my return. And as dusk overtook the land and blanketed it with shadow, after every last lantern had been extinguished, in honor of the pact, Marin would steal herself away to me, slip beneath the covers, and journey to a world of dreams together.
Our friendship had deepened so quickly, and my trust in the girl had been sown deep. Yet sharing my bed with her merely out of necessity for putting an end to the Nightmares forever required far greater trust and faith than should have ever been expected with us so soon into our friendship. I had told myself countless times that, if I ever allowed myself to fall in love with the red-headed girl, if I ever allowed myself to shower her with kisses and call her my own, the likelihood of us violating the sanctity of our otherwise innocent bedtime manner would grow and one day burst. And until my duty was done, I could not risk it, not for me, and certainly not for her. The consequences were too great.
Yet as I watched her from my alcove, damned if I didn't wish it were just that simple. Because already I had broken my vow not to fall for her; now all that held me back was that I refused to openly acknowledge it to her... just as she held back from me for the same reason. If only it were simple, but alas, it was not.
Refusing to reminisce any longer in my distracting daydreams, I leapt off of the rocky outcropping and started walking across the stretch of sand towards her. She must have heard me, for her head swiveled back quickly to gaze in my direction. Just as I had suspected, a smile was already upon her face even before it grew in size at my recognition. "Oh Link!" she cried out, standing briefly as if to greet me properly. "I'm... I'm glad you found this place."
I chuckled a bit. "'Twasn't too difficult to find you," I said in jest. "You did leave a note after all."
Her smile was radiant, and the laugh she gave was melodic. "For just in case you managed to get back earlier than I expected." She paused a bit, suddenly turning somewhat bashful. "And... in truth, I secretly hoped you might return early enough to find me here."
Her honest admission brought a smile to my face, and I felt myself grinning like a fool for her. "It's a beautiful place, I have to admit. I passed by here once already, but... now it seems all the more special." A part of me wanted to kick myself at not being more discreet about my feelings; another part of me wished only to say it all the more clearly.
"Well, I'm not ready to go back to the village just yet. Will you stay and talk to me for a while?"
"It'd be my pleasure."
She sat back down daintily upon the driftwood as I took a careful step over it and then sat down next to her. It wasn't until then that it hit me how alone we were here, how anything could happen and no one from the village would know. My foolish comment replayed over and over in my head, reminding me how strongly I felt about Marin, which didn't help conquer the thoughts already garnering from our solitude. I fidgeted my hands nervously to slow my mind from racing in altogether too many inappropriate directions.
If Marin was thinking the same sort of thoughts, she wasn't obviously doing so. "I wonder where these coconut trees come from?" she had blurted out almost at random. I had known the obvious answer, yet the answer she was looking for seemed to be much more philosophical than my first reaction. "Tarin says there is nothing beyond the sea, but I believe there MUST be something over there. These coconut trees had to come from somewhere; to have grown here on this island in the middle of nowhere on their own... it seems impossible." The answer was quite obvious to me; there were things out there beyond the sea, and I was proof of that point, something she remembered quite fiercely. "When I discovered you, Link, my heart skipped a beat! Several in fact! I thought, 'this person has come to give us a message, a message that there is another land somewhere beyond the sea.'"
She trailed off, yet I remained silent in thought. I had known her sentiments about the world beyond well before. Though yet, as my mind drifted off and pondered over coconut trees and the possible origins thereof, the thought of Hyrule seemed suddenly so far away. The memories of my uncle and Zelda were as slippery as wet soap, wriggling itself out of my fumbling attempts to hold onto those precious moments I still recalled.
I almost interjected then about how hard it was to remember home since landing here, but Marin had jumped in again, now considering another line of thought. "You know, if I were a seagull, I would fly as far as I could! I would fly to faraway places and sing for many people! At least, in whatever voice a seagull can sing in." She chuckled at her own joke, and I couldn't help but laugh as well. Yet still her thoughts were deeper than I had initially fathomed. "If I wish to the Wind Fish, I wonder if my dream will come true."
I so admired Marin in that moment. I loved her silliness, her childishness, yet also the seriousness she exhibited when it was important. She was as carefree a woman as I'd ever met, and her spirit exhilarated and challenged mine. It was no wonder I had befriended her so quickly and fallen for her just the same. And yet as my thoughts were guided towards the faraway lands in the ocean, my thoughts turned towards planning how a future between Marin and I would work.
And I wanted to make those plans as soon as possible. When should I ask her to leave the island with me after my work here was done? Could I dare to ask her to give up her family, her friends, and her livelihood to come to Hyrule with me? Certainly it seemed to be what she wanted deep inside of her, but it felt so unfair a request to ask. Then again, I hardly had a ship to my name with which to set sail for Hyrule... nor did I have my trusty compass or astrolabe to help me determine which direction I might find her. Those were definitely questions that could be answered later... but questions that didn't need to be answered now. Now was the time to figure out just how to ask Marin—
"Hey! Are you listening? Link, are you listening to me?"
"Huh?" I said, jumping out of the stupor I'd been in. Maybe I was more tired than I had thought; it had been over a day since I had slept, and my thoughts were incredibly jumped and mixed up. I hadn't intended to fall asleep... had I fallen asleep? It was so hard to tell. "No, I mean, yes, I am listening. Flying... as a seagull, and asking the Wind Fish for your wish."
Knowing that I had been paying attention brought a smile over her face, and the peace had returned once again. Yet as I glanced at her, there was something more. There was a feeling I recognized...
"I want to know everything about you," she whispered softly and demurely, though still quite audibly. "I want there to be a day when we can be togeth—er, uhm—"
She paused her sentence in mid-flight after realizing that I had heard each word of her confession. A bright rose color filled her cheeks, and she turned away briefly so as to keep me from seeing. She laughed to herself, trying to cover her mistake, but it was already too late.
Her feelings were obvious. Deep down she was as in love with me as I was with her. And yet, she knew just as well as I that, it was far too risky to further our relationship past friendship when the need for her in the night was still so grave. We simply couldn't until they were extinguished one by one.
I eventually shrugged it off before casting a furtive smile. "It's okay, Marin," I finally said. "I already knew..."
"You've made it back safely," she whispered as she buried her face into my chest. "I was worried; you were gone longer than you've ever been before."
"The journey was long; the Shrines were on the opposite side of the island," I tried to explain, though whatever words I said were far less important than being here with her. I closed my eyes and allowed my hand to find purchase within the cascading sea of her flowing hair to pull her close to me. The smell of flowers filled my head with a heady haze that comingled with and heightened the fog that already existed from my sleepless days. "And the battles were hard; I fear it will only be harder from now on."
Marin sighed sadly; with her voice muffled by her closeness, it had the same effect of a child's pout. I could tell that she already held those fears inside her and that I had done nothing but confirm that they might yet still come to pass. Whether she verbalized it or not, I knew that she was quite concerned for my safety and that she worried that I might exhaust myself, feared that I might succumb to the dark power of the Nightmares, and had nightmares over the possibility that I might not return from my next expedition.
Yet at the same time, as her arms tightened around me, I knew that she trusted me in my steadfastness and that she trusted in my mission to rid the world of Nightmares... to free Marin and all her kin from the terror that haunted this place.
Of course, if only it were that simple to do. It was always supposed to be a simple matter of waking the Wind Fish; how naïve was I to imagine that was the be all and end all?
We unlocked ourselves from the embrace and move to opposite ends of the large bed. We gracefully tore away the blankets and sheets covering it and, without undressing save for my boots and her sandals, laid ourselves down, slipping beneath the covers as we sidled up next to one another. I lay upon my side, my front to her back, and I tenderly wrapped my arm about her waist and pressed my forehead to her shoulder. Impetuous as it was to dare such proximity in the marriage-bed with an unmarried woman—much more a woman I felt such a strong attraction towards—it was those very touches that proved to be the only certain method to repel the Nightmares night after night.
At first I had felt such guilt and shame to embark upon this nightly ritual with her, to violate the sacred codes of conduct my own society and these islanders would impose upon us; yet after seeing the damage the Nightmares had wreaked upon Marin, I could not help but do what I could to protect her. And ultimately, knowing how desperately she too wanted and needed our ritual, the guilt and shame faded, and all that was left was to keep our meetings secret and to hope that our sheer willpower and trust in one another would remain unblemished so as not to ruin our precarious friendship and send us spilling off into a relationship that might have such disastrous consequences if things worked out less than well.
And even if things were to proceed nicely throughout a relationship, I now knew that the risks of heartache were all the greater. I had always thought—perhaps even envisioned—that, after my quest was finished, I'd be able to pursue Marin and one day marry the islander.
Yet Fate was proving to be such the cruel mistress of late, for she had seen fit to give me Truth of this haunted isle. No longer was my future merely ordained by the sanctity of my friendship with Marin; now my future had been spelled out with crystal clarity, and none of it proved well. No longer was there hope and promise for the future.
The words I had read haunted me still.
I pulled my Marin close to my frame, struggling to hold back tears.
As the stone knight that defended this ancient keep came to rest upon the dusty, stone floor, the sound of stone rubbing against stone and ancient mechanisms and pulleys creaking and grinding piqued my ears. I turned around to face a passageway hidden and inset into the wall; unlike most of the others I had found, however, this one truly surprised me. My quest had led me to this place in pursuit of a key that might open the inner shrine's forgotten chambers, nothing more. And with that key now finally in my possession, I had been ready to return to the surface to press onward. They key should have been all that was needed, so why the secret passageway? At first, I simply stood there, my mouth agape as the door slowly crept its way open as I tried to predict an explanation to solve the riddle. Yet I knew that the only true way to know the truth was to not waste time with thought and explore the mysteries oneself, and so I happily resolved to accept the door's invitation.
Behind the door lay only a deep darkness; I found myself wondering just how long this place had remained unvisited and pristine, if indeed one could call these long-since abandoned ruins "pristine." How long could it have been since anyone had discovered this secret chamber? I imagined myself being the first living soul setting foot upon these hallowed grounds since the ancients created their stone guardians to keep the wayward traveler from accidentally discovering the secrets within.
My mind immediately leapt at the thought of finding gold and rupees without measure, yet just as quickly I realized that I was simply fooling myself. Koholint was an island nation far removed from every other land. Even Marin sometimes questioned the existence of lands beyond her own. Where would such riches have come from? And why would they be stored in such a holy place? Nay, I knew I would not find such treasure here, and, even if I had, to what gain? I had no true use for silver and gems save that it paid the tab whenever I swung by the tavern.
Yet if not gold, then what lay beyond?
I grabbed an unlit torch, doused it with pitch, and then lit it over one of the flickering flames held by the shrine's braziers before making my way back to the doorway leading into the darkness beyond. The burning light in my hand began to cast itself against the pillars and the walls, the shadows darting to and fro as the erratic torchlight licked at its heels. The room was certainly more ornate than the antechamber and the small arena had been, yet the decorations came not from elegant furniture or gaudy tapestries. Instead, the décor was smooth stonework that held exquisitely intricate carvings and pictograms etched with the precision of a master mason. Famous historical scenes, many of which I could identify from the various books in Mabe's library, were depicted amongst a sea of geometric designs.
Yet most important of all was a slab of stone at the far end of the room that held the most awe-inspiring relief of them all, for it remained the only one that the ancient tribe had taken the time and care to color with (now fading) paints. And as I approached, I discovered that, tucked away into a corner of the stone slab, there were characters of the Koholan language imprinted onto the relief.
Unable to read the foreign characters without the aid of the book that Marin had lent me, I quickly lit flames in two of the nearby braziers and then rested my torch upon a hook so that I might freely reference the language primer from my satchel without fear of burning the delicate papyrus pages. In a messy script, I transcribed the symbols from the relief onto the cover, blemishing it with my sloppy penmanship so that I might decode the message within.
The effort took nearly an hour—time in retrospect I should have used to continue my journey so that my waking hours were not so strained—but as the message began to make sense, as word after word fell into place within the message, I found myself progressively more overeager to finish the deed. Yet as the sentences came together, my heart began to sink like an anchor hoisted overboard into the ocean.
"To the finder," it read in Koholan, "the Isle of Koholint is but an illusion."
I couldn't help but pause when I had reached this point in the translation. As I stared at my Hylian script, my jaw drooped in shock, and for several minutes I could do naught but reread the line over and over before going back and ensuring that I had picked the best definition for the word "illusion." Clear as day, it was the only thing that made sense, however, yet I was determined that it had to mean something else, that it was some metaphor or purple prose, and it was only that decision that allowed me to proceed with the translation.
"Human, monster, sea, and sky... a scene on the lid of a sleeper's eye. Awake the dreamer and Koholint will vanish much like a bubble on a needle. Castaway, you should know the truth!"
The inscription only served to ask so many more questions than it answered. Being the only castaway on the island in as many years as any could recall meant that this message had been left for me. How would the ancients have known that it would be a castaway that would one day discover the message and instead not another? It would have only been more odd and impossible if it had mentioned me by my own name. And yet, if the message from this lost civilization was left for me, if someone from years gone by knew that I would be the one to discover these hidden runes and heed the warning writ upon the wall, how then was that more believable than the possibility that the whole isle was otherwise wholly illusory?
I slammed the book shut as if to attempt to banish all knowledge of the relief's message from my memory, yet I knew I could not avoid that trinket of truth forever. The price had already been paid. No matter how much I wanted to reject what it was that I had learned, it was far too late. The seed of doubt had been planted, and from there it would only germinate, grow, and spread, eventually overtaking my mind.
"Marin," I said suddenly. My thoughts were bound to think of her at some point, and now I could see truth's weed quickly growing vines about her, sinking her deep within its grasp. "Marin... you can't be... you shouldn't be. Are... you... why must you be an illusion too? Why? WHY?" I was screaming now, and the paralysis that had seized my frame was gone. I stood up and moved closer to one of the pillars before pounding it with my gloved fist several times. I drew my sword and flung it across the room, wanting nothing to do with the blade. "Why must it all be fake? Why must it all be false? Why... why must you... you be... when... when I love..."
And for the first time in as many summers as I could recall, I wept. My chest heaved, and tears flowed freely from my eyes.
I could not tell how long I had remained in that cave huddled against myself in sorrow. I had lost all care for the world in those bitter hours as I hugged my knees and struggled to find solace that would not come. I didn't even know how I managed to finally gather my courage and wits again and emerge from the catacombs. Yet somehow I had mustered enough to pick up blade and shield alike and return to the surface world. To the northwest shone a miraculously beautiful sunset. A false sunset, but it was beautiful nonetheless.
An owl hooted from atop one of the many warrior statues, eyeing me with curiosity. I recognized the bird; he'd been talking to me during my entire tenure on the island, urging me ever onward toward the Wind Fish, guiding me always to the next Instrument so that I might succeed. Yet for the first time, I suddenly found myself questioning its very existence. When it was that I'd finally truly felt it natural and normal that owls could speak in the human tongue. Ridiculous as it had seemed at first, time had gotten me used to the oddity. Yet now, once again it seemed a ridiculous premise at best, making the theory of Koholint being nothing but a dream all the more plausible. Stupid, stupid hero; how could I have not seen it before?
"You again," I said in faux-greeting. I'd never been so dissatisfied to see him.
"Indeed. I see you have read the relief," the owl said conversationally.
I scoffed at the owl's casual demeanor. I was in no mood for this. "Get lost, Owl. You're not real anyway. You're just as fake as everything else here."
The owl, if it was taken aback by my poisonous tone, did not show it. In fact, if I hadn't been so disinclined to believe its actual existence, I would've thought it suddenly felt sympathy with me. Yet it didn't share my disinterest for talk; he came for the reason he always came, to encourage me once again. "While it does say that the island is but a dream of the Wind Fish, no one is really sure. Just as you cannot know if a chest holds treasure until you open it, so you cannot tell if this is a dream until you awaken."
Maybe the owl was trying to help me cope, to instill in me a newfound hope to replace that which I had lost. Yet if that was its aim, it didn't take. "Oh right. A message left to me by someone who couldn't have known I would come. That's so believable." I spat the words at the owl in anger. "For the love of Nayru, you're a talking owl. There's an entire village worth of animals that talk. That's practically impossible and flat out ludicrous! Never in my life have I seen it until here. It's all an illusion! It's the only possibility! It's all fake, you and everything else, especially you."
Yet the owl seemed insistent. "You cannot know that, boy. The only one who knows for sure is the Wind Fish."
"Oh, so you're saying I have no choice now? I have to wake up or else? It's my destiny, and I'm helpless to fight it? All along, you've been spurring me on my way to some imaginary duty to see and wake the Wind Fish. Yet what's in it for me? If this is all a dream, I lose everything that I have. This paradise, my friends, my... 'best friend,' it's all gone in the blink of an eye if this is truly the Wind Fish's dream. I'll lose everything. So why should I even go to the Wind Fish at all?"
The owl surveyed me for a minute. If an owl could express emotions, it was certainly giving me a stern and disapproving look at that moment. "Boy, they were already lost before you even arrived." He paused, and as those words sunk in, I found that suddenly I had no witty repartee. The words stung, yet they were also the truth; it was impossible to combat truth. "Trust your feelings. Someday you will know for sure."
And the owl, either no longer apparently interested in discussing things with me or figuring that he had already won the debate, flew off, leaving me to my solitude.
And the damned thing was the he had won. My mind could not help but envision the sight of Marin, soon to be falling asleep in but a few hours. And then, moments later, the Nightmares would latch onto her, tormenting her, destroying her.
I couldn't let it happen. Even if she wasn't real, even if it was all just a dream, I loved her—or the figment of her—enough that I could never see her go through that sort of pain ever again.
That was all I had left: to go awaken the Wind Fish... not for my own sake, but for hers.
I really did have no choice.
"Link," she said softly. Her voice quavered slightly, a worried lilt in her speech. "Is something the matter?"
If indeed I had a weakness, it was Marin's heartfelt requests. It was all but impossible to deny her of whatever it was she asked. At her bidding, I could not deny that my heart was more troubled tonight than any other, lying next to the love I could never have... a blade thrust deeply into the heart and poured out my emotions in my eyes. Yet still, how could a person legitimately tell someone else that they were worried that the other didn't exist?
Instead, I said the only thing I could, a simple half-truth. "I'm afraid of losing you, Marin."
Her head tilted oddly in reaction, and ultimately she rolled onto her other side to face me. The dimness of the room revealed curious and confused eyes of the maiden. "Losing me? Link, why would you be afraid of that?" She chuckled suddenly, and her gaze shifted from quizzical to friendly. "I pray you don't really believe that deep down. I assure you, in the rare nights you are absent, I'm not dreaming of lying in the arms of another man? I only let you."
I endeavored to come up with a possible reply, but I found no words to explain my predicament, allowing a pregnant pause to slip in. Yet it was not I but her that filled it.
And she was the one to break it as well. "And would I but wish that you were ever the only one to do so," she added in a whisper.
Her words were not a surprise; we'd both several times over confessed our feelings to one another. Her eyes would always be on me whenever I supped with her and her father; I would be ever helpful for Marin when she went to market. She gave me her special winks, winks she never gave to any other soul; I would tell her every last fairy tale and secret I could fathom. And most of all, each night I was with her, I could feel her relax with complete trust and happiness in my arms as we shared the same bed.
And yet now, there it was again. Only now, I was lying next to her in the deepness of midnight.
"Would I but wish it too," I found myself saying. The dam that held all back the floodwaters of my emotions had cracked the moment she breathed her want, and soon all of my own feelings would tumble out in reply as the barrier continued to crack open. "To be with you night after night." Forever, my mind silently added, though I dared not be too forward. More importantly, I also knew that it was a promise I could not possibly keep.
A broad smile swept across her face as she nodded upon the soft pillow. She closed her eyes and touched her forehead gently against mine. I didn't flinch or pull back but instead leaned into the touch, treasuring the fiery warmth that spread through me. I listened to the soft of her breath, felt the beat of her heart, smelled fragrant flowers everywhere.
"I know... I know we weren't supposed to ever mention it," she whispered again, her voice low and conspiratorial. She didn't open her eyes to look into mine, but simply put faith in my presence beside her. Her hand sought after the arm that I had around her middle and pulled to her side before interlacing her fingers between mine. "I know... we both wanted to wait until... until your quest was over before... before we talked about being together. I don't want to wait any longer. I don't care if it's entirely improper or strange or if I even have my father's approval. I care for you so deeply, Link; I'm tired of waiting. And I know how you feel, and I know and trust that it reflects my own longings and wants."
She opened her eyes to meet mine, and she looked at me imploringly. Everything she said was true; I cared for her just as much. Above all the other many reasons I was on this journey, I was on this quest for her. I wanted her to have freedom; I wanted her to not have to fear the Nightmares again; I wanted her to be happy. And most of all, I wanted to be the one to make her happy.
And I remained steadfast in that aim; I ardently desired her happiness.
I decided then that, though I'd already been awake for sixty-two hours, there was very little harm in adding another few extra hours to that figure. I gave her hand in mine a tender squeeze before closing my eyes and matching my lips to hers.
As I was about to place the Thunder Drum upon the last of the eight pillars along the Great Staircase carved into the mountain, I found myself hesitating. My heart had been conflicted for the past few weeks, ever since Marin and I had begun to explore our relationship and the possibility of a future. Ever since, even knowing the truth of Koholint, I hadn't been able to resist the revelry of having her in my arms and the joy of her kisses and kindnesses. Each departure from Mabe had always left me looking forward to once again seeing the bright smile of her lips, the passionate embrace of her arms, and the excitement of our secret, ritual rendezvous.
And yet, as I gazed from my mountain perch toward the small village that dotted the landscape far into the distance, I couldn't help but feel as if everything had gone horribly wrong. It wasn't that I didn't long to spend my future with the girl or that I hadn't been true to her. Yet it was that I had fallen for the maiden at the worst of times, and I had let myself go with her at the very worst of times: the very day after I'd discovered the true nature of this forsaken place, the very day after I discovered what completing this journey would ultimately cause. Calamity, destruction, and painful loss were all imminent. All I had yet to do was to set the eighth and final Instrument down in order to crack the shell of the Wind Fish's Egg and then destroy the last of the Nightmares, preventing it from one day erupting from Mount Tamaranch and plaguing Koholint's islanders forever beneath an eternal anguish of hopelessness.
I stood transfixed—almost mesmerized by—the melody of the ballad being played by the automaton instruments about me. The smooth notes of the cello contrasted with the vivid melody of the horn. Bell and harp chimed in harmony beneath the waves. The percussive marimba and triangle added rhythm and soul. And last, the Organ of Evening Calm belted out sad notes of times gone by.
Times gone by. I'd first known this song as one of Marin's own, and it was hard not to think of her whenever I heard the music. She had wanted to be here for the awakening of the Wind Fish as well; she had even tried herself to awaken it once! Sometimes, I couldn't help but think that she had somehow deduced the very dark secret that I had discovered in the Face Shrine and longed to escape this dream. Maybe she had been trapped too? Maybe she was real, a shipwrecked girl like me, and was desperate to find her way back home... wherever her true home might be? Or maybe she simply wanted the nightmares to cease, allowing her finally to find relief in the death of her island... and ultimately the erasure of her own existence?
That was what I was offering, here and now. By placing the drum upon its pedestal, I was to be complicit with the Wind Fish in murdering every last denizen of Koholint Island. And me without having ever asked their opinions on the matter.
I set the drum onto the steps as I took a seat next to it, my heart aching for some sensible resolution, some other possible way to heal this island without destroying it. Yet the thrice-damned owl circling overhead like a vulture had made it perfectly clear that this was the only path that led out. There were no alternatives. It was either to wake the Wind Fish or succumb to the nightmares. And even though I was lucky enough to find freedom from that pain each night in Marin's arms, even I had to admit that it wasn't truly freedom. It was two lovers paralyzed by fear, hiding in a corner until the ends of our lives.
And yet it was Marin's own words that called to me in my moment of grief, Marin's own whispered words to me that finally spurred me to action to face the Fate of this sad little island.
I picked up the Thunder Drum and moved to the final pedestal.
I set it down and watched as the drumsticks began to move on their own, adding the final beat to an otherwise complete ballad.
A bolt of lightning shot out a nonexistent cloud and struck the egg with ferocity. And in its wake, it blew open a hole wide enough for an adult to climb into.
I unsheathed my sword with my left while arming my shield upon my right. I would face my Fate... and only hoped the goddesses would forgive me for my crime.
"Promise you what?"
"Promise me this won't change us. Promise me this won't change you. Promise me this won't change your resolve. Promise me this won't change your quest."
"You won't lose me, Link. Not now, not ever. Trust me. I will always be with you. I will always be flying towards with the wings of a gull."
"No matter what."
"... then you have my promise."
"And so, you will always have my heart."
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