From the moment I opened the inn's door, a cold terror wrenched my heart. She would never leave the hinges unoiled, be offended by the scattering of cobwebs stretched from door to frame, not allow the dust that crawled up my nose and made me sneeze to blanket the tables and floor. The pictures she had hung on the far wall so lovingly were untouched, the shadows of running water reflecting on the frames through the windows. Flowers, sunshine, children running down hillsides hand-in-hand were captured in oils. Happy times.
Never for us again.
"Anju?" I tried anyway, my voice swallowed by a low grumble of thunder. It was useless and I knew it, but somewhere a small hope sputtered that maybe she was upstairs, waiting. My clothing was soaked through with torrents of rain, my hair plastered to the sides of my face. I shivered as a cool wind ushered me into the foyer. I dripped as I walked, disturbing the dust motes as floorboards creaked under my feet. I trembled, the truth making my head ache. The lantern in my grasp wavered dangerously. I could hardly feel my fingers. A lump was coming into my throat.
So much easier to cry now than it had been in this younger body. I gulped back the tears, digging my knuckles into a stinging eye. Damned masked imp! If I could have only gotten my hands on him...But there was no time for vengeance.
I set my lantern down, the flame guttering, before the staircase. Twelve steps led to her bedroom door. She always kept it locked. I wondered if it remained so, even as there were no guests to snoop inside.
I took a steadying breath in through my nose and let it out slowly. I could face whatever was behind that door. None of it mattered now. Even if there was a scathing letter waiting for me expressing dissapointment, hate, remorse, I told myself I could withstand it.
First step. The earth shook warningly under my boots and I closed my eyes, waiting for the tremor to pass. The leering moon was drawing closer to earth, its bloodshot eyes so close I'd sworn I could touch them on my way here. The end was coming, and Termina was abandoned. In spite of my father's efforts to rally the guard and save the town, all had left in the end with the other fleeing denizens. No place was truly safe and we all knew it, but the ranch was a mental comfort if nothing else.
Second step, third. I gripped the banister on either side of me as my pulse picked up speed, made my breath short. I nearly staggered as the edges of the way ahead blurred. My courage quailed as a second stronger tremor rattled the floor so hard I could hear the glassware left out on one of the tables chime and fall, shattering. I laughed aloud, the keening wail echoing back to me from the stairwell. I bet those were the glasses Mother bought for our wedding. She'd be angry to know this apocolypse had smashed them!
Many times, Anju and I had discussed the hardships we'd face getting married. My parents had decided at first that an innkeeper's daughter was too low-class for me; her mother had thought I was courting her only child just to get what I could before making a hasty retreat. We'd convinced them in time that we were in love, and after much suspicion and talk amongst themselves, they'd agreed at an attempt to be civil. The first time our families had met over tea was memorable, and I filled my thoughts with better times as I ascended the sixth step, then the seventh.
"So, have you, ah, made any plans for your future?" My mother peered over the rim of her teacup, small eyes sinking into the crests of her dimpled cheeks. "Our Kafei's going to be mayor once Dotour has decided to retire. Isn't that right, dear?" Her elbow had sank into my father's side with the audible thunk of bone meeting bone, and he clutched at his ribs while fumbling to keep his teacup on the saucer.
"O-Of course, Aroma," he'd grumbled, pasting on a hasty smile to Anju's mother. "But we don't consider owning an inn to be any less respectable. It's a lucrative and necessary business, especially with all the tourists we have passing through."
"I should hope not." Across the parlor table, I could hear tension in the innkeeper's voice. Anju glanced at her mother with concern, laying a warning hand across hers. Bless Anju, she was pale with nerves but still managed to hold a certain grace under pressure.
"I was thinking of maybe taking over the inn Papa built." I could hear the strain in her voice, but her gaze didn't waver as she looked to my mother. "That would be respectable even for a mayor's wife, wouldn't it?"
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught my mother flinch. My father hid a grin with the corner of his sleeve as he feigned a cough.
"My Tortus wouldn't want to leave his inn to fall away to nothing, after all!" her grandmother chimed in from her wheelchair. Through beady stare, she caught my own uncomfortable fidgeting and winked, a grin fighting through the wrinkles around her mouth. Of all of them, I think she was the only one that knew from the start that we were meant to be together. And to think, I'd originally thought her senile!
Eighth step, ninth. More breaking plates made a chill grapple my spine. Lightning lit the downstairs and the wind tore through the corridors, extinguishing my light. Shadows snuggled on either side of the stairs to mingle with my own as rainwater was blown inside. The front door flapped like a broken wing before it was torn from the hinges with the screaming of metal, toppling down to smash the fragile lantern box. Another tremor radiated from the earth, this one strong enough to nearly send my small frame head-over-heels down the stairs. I scrambled for and gripped the banister with clammy fingers and gritted my teeth until it had passed, hearing the trickle of loose ceiling material scatter across the lower floors. This inn was going to come apart at the seams when the end came.
Just a rumor with a dash of hysteria was all this 'end of the world,' business was supposed to be. I'd bought into that at first; put a large group of people together with any cause for alarm, and like as not you'd get a disaster going by word of mouth in no time. Yet as the days had passed and the unnatural moon had grown closer, the weather had turned foul. The earth rebelled. The private scoffing and giggling had turned to looks and mutters of concern, and bags had started to be packed. Even the skeptics had turned tail in the end. Mutoh and his workmen had been the best noted in the cynical camp, pointing and laughing at the worriers behind their backs. Funny, how your hidden eyes can open behind a mask. People assume because your face is covered, your ears must be as well. How far from the truth!
The tenth and eleventh step, one more until the top landing. I felt a wreck, my heart going so fast it seemed it might give out any second with only inches to go.
I noticed for the first time then that a new picture had been hung. It wasn't rendered with the same skill as the ones downstairs--the artist had been hesitant in their strokes. A man, a woman, their hands clasped, dressed formally.
A mask of the sun obscured the man's features, but the woman, mask of the moon in hand, was reaching for it, her red hair unbound and streaming. As I looked dumbfounded at the portrait Anju had contructed of our wedding day, it came askew under the onslaught of another tremor, tumbling down to meet the staircase. The frame shattered, reflecting my wan skin and wide, startled eyes a hundred times over. I turned away, the lump becoming larger. Unlike the paintings downstairs, purchased for the benefit of guests, this had been meant as ours.
His high child-chuckle roared into my pounding ears as I tripped over the twelfth step and onto the landing. My bare knees stung and I knew they'd been scraped. Tears sprang into my eyes.
"You'll never get her back now, never! You'll be alone like I am!" The imp's words brought anger to the surface and I wetted my sleeve as I swiped at my trickling sorrow. I picked myself up, stumbling for her bedroom doorknob. My fingers slid away and with a growl I attacked it again, twisting.
It turned and the way was clear. My knees burned protest but I ignored them as I forced myself on. The scent of her perfume was heady, intoxicating. Her bed was made perfectly as though she'd be back to claim it. I looked about me for her letter, the words inside telling me that things were through, that she hated me and didn't care what became of me...
What I found was far more destroying.
White, outlined in the softest of blue lighting. Made by careful hands, her unused wedding dress hugged the curves of the dress dummy, its faceless head covered by the mask she was to have donned. My heart sputtered a few feeble times before stopping. A dead man on my feet, I moved to gather the folds of her dress in my fingers, spoiling the smooth clothing.
Her smell, god. It permeated the room, the fabric, and I inhaled. I could finally die happily. I'd found paradise in the midst of hell and was content to make a final stand here. I rose long enough to close the door and return to the gown, sinking to my knees. I felt empty, ruined, but for a lone spark of joy. This was hers and I'd never leave. No one could see my shame here, none could mark me for the failure I was. I buried my streaming eyes into the purity in front of me and allowed myself to vent my grief, past, present, eternal.
I must have fallen asleep unawares. The sound of feet on the stairs in the stillness brought me hastily to and I sat up, rubbing away the salt that had crusted into my eyelashes. A high-pitched, tinny tone broke into the fog my nap had cast, scornful. Someone, or two someones, were on the other side of Anju's door.
"Fine thing he did, holing himself up in here, if he even really is here like you say! I still say we could go after Sakon if we really tried. Why are we coming after him, again?"
A lower, quieter response was patient but weary. "We'll set it right, Tatl. Maybe not this time, but we have other chances. I wanted to say I was sorry for not moving quickly enough before the Sun's Mask went down the chute." A hand found the knob and turned. The door opened.
There he was. Simple, humble, alive against all odds.
I tensed, wary, skittish. I was ashamed at my bawling. I hadn't been so alone after all. Just like yesterday.
The first time we'd met face-to-face had been a complete surprise. I'd never seen him in town before, and with tourism slowing to nothing in light of the impending tragedy, it had unnerved me to see new blood in our sleepy town. I didn't sit and puzzle it over, though. I had a job to do.
My binoculars had been a chore to manage, and with a swear that certainly didn't fit my ten year old body I left off the effort of getting them to work and prepared to step off my crate. I cursed my short stature and weak body that I couldn't beat the thief Sakon to a bloody pulp, that I had to hide away disguised near the laundry pool and worry my parents. I was starting to feel weary, the heat rising from the adjacent pool to seep into my space. I yawned and stretched, removing my Keaton mask and rubbing the sweat away from my brow.
"There he is! Hey, Kafei! That is your name, isn't it?" A glowing ball of light, flickering gold and white in its excitement, was inches from my nose. The start was so great that I tried to back away on the crate, realizing I didn't have more than a few inches to work with. I tumbled hard onto my backside with a yelp, scattering scrolls, trinkets, children's baubles I'd collected as payment to the pawn shop owner downstairs. This was his private space, after all. It was the least I could do in exchange for letting me spy on the whole town in search of Sakon.
"What are you doing here? This is private!" In my wrath I sounded like a little boy guarding his fort. I blushed, dusting myself off as I stood. I gestured to my door, trying to sound imperious in my flustered state.
"Go on then! Leave! Don't tell anyone you saw me!" I flapped my hands in dismissal. The other boy, clothed in green, head topped with blond hair, folded his arms and smirked.
"Please?" I could feel indignancy rush out and bewilderment flood in. I sighed, picking up my mask and fiddling with it. "Fine. So you found me. I'm sure Mother sent you, with those goofy masks she's been handing out that look like me." I grimaced. "Not really a good likeness."
"I'll say! Boy, for all the money your parents have, you'd think they'd hire a skilled craftsman to make things so people can actually identify their missing son!" the little light-sphere squeaked.
"Shh, Tatl." The boy gave a small, half-joking swat at his companion and the fairy easily dodged.
"I'm telling the truth, Link, they are just horrible!"
"So your name's Link?" I took a step back as he took a step forward. "I thought I saw you this morning, by Mutoh's construction site." I took in his clothes. Tunic, hat perched lazily on his head, the tail end resting on his shoulder. Very odd. And, to my shock, a sword.
"How do you have one of those? Children can't carry those in town," I coughed nervously. "Did Viscen really let you walk through here with one?" I wrinkled my nose. "And where are you from? Those clothes are different, in a strange way..."
He nodded. "Uh-huh, he let me. I told him I'm not really a child." He smiled, and there was an ease to it that wasn't childlike at all. I was stunned.
"Look who's talking about strange clothes!" The thing called Tatl was indignant. "Have a look in a mirror lately?"
"Tatl!" Link made no show of humoring her this time. "Enough, please. This is no time for banter." His blue eyes found me and he dug around in a shirt pocket, tongue poking through lips slightly. "I met Anju this morning and she gave me something I've got to show you."
Anju! I didn't bother with being polite. "Is she okay?" I reached out and grabbed his tunic-front, forgetting fear. "You must tell me!"
He disengaged my fingers and stepped away in an easy movement. "She's just fine. A little worried. She sent me to help you. Do you trust me enough to?" He offered me a hand, like a man offering a deal to another. There was something in those eyes that lent itself easily to trust. I swallowed and took his hand in a firm grip. No going back.
"Yes. Now, we'll have to keep this secret, because if my parents find out I've been under their noses the whole time and see me like this..."
"Not to worry," he reassured. "I'll do everything I can to help you, even if time's not being too helpful here."
True to his word, he'd stayed by my side until the end, when Sakon had made off with my prized mask into the dark. My sun had set when it had fallen into his hands. The whirring of Sakon's conveyor belt was loud above the sound of heavy rain hitting stone as we'd stood in his cave, together in defeat.
"Kafei, I'll go after him, we'll get it back!" Determination shone in the little hero's eyes as he tried to soothe my crushed spirits.
"No, Link. He's long gone by now," I whispered, not giving him my eyes. "Oh Anju, I'm sorry."
"We'd better leave him alone." Tatl hovered near his ear, her sarcasm gone. Was that pity in her mutter? "We'll just try again."
I was too depressed to wonder at her last statement as they'd departed, feet echoing on stone.
"Link." I found my voice somewhere and greeted him once more in the gloom of what was to be our resting place. "I didn't think I'd see you again. Why didn't you flee with the others? The ranch must still be open to people seeking refuge--."
"No." He laid a hand on my shoulder. "I came to see how you were doing."
"That's insane!" I stared at him agog. "You could be with other people when the moon falls, and you're here with me! Why would you do something that ridiculous?"
"Excuse us for caring!" Tatl floated in front of my eyes, flushing red with her distaste. "Link was worried so he came after you! The least you could do is thank him for crying out loud! Stop feeling sorry for yourself all the time!"
"You were worried too, Tatl, admit it," the lad prodded with a thin smile.
"Maybe a little," was her grudging admission. "But only a little!"
Link shook his head with a tiny grin, then sobered as he turned his attention back to me. "I'm sorry about Anju. I'm sorry I couldn't do anything to help you more. Is--Is that her dress?" His pointing finger directed me back to the dress dummy. Numb, I nodded.
"She was going to marry me in that dress, yes." My sentence was thick as I sank down to sit cross-legged in the middle of the floor, rubbing my temples. "Isn't it beautiful?"
I could feel the warmth of his body as he sat next to me, copying my position. His fairy lit on his shoulder, surrounding us both with a warm glow as we contemplated the gown. "It is. I know someone back home who has a dress almost as pretty as that one."
My curiosity was roused. "You do? Who is it? Surely someone with lots of rupees, this thing was an expensive bit to buy."
"She's royal, so she has all the rupees she needs. Her name's Zelda."
I nodded and squinched my eyes shut as I licked my lips. "You never told me where you come from. Not from around here, with that garb."
He hesitated and thought over his reply. "Hyrule," he admitted at last. "I came here to look for someone I lost. I've got to find her before I go back."
"Ah." For the first time in days, I smirked. "So you have a lady waiting for you somewhere, do you?"
"Not a lady," Tatl broke in matter-of-factly. "She's a horse named Epona."
"Tatl!" Link threw the fluttering faye an annoyed look, then offered me a sheepish expression.
I bit back a giggle. "That's okay, even if it's just a horse, she's important to you, and that's what matters, isn't it?"
He nodded but said nothing. The ground under us was eerily still, the soft shine from the window bathing us both. At last, I let out a breath and he turned to me.
"What is it?" Concern was in his eyes.
"Nothing. Just, I'm sorry--sorry I dragged you into this." In spite of everything, I was oddly content. If it had to end this way, I preferred it like this. My emotions had been in turmoil for some time, leaving me an exhausted shell. It was pleasant to relax at last, even if under morbid circumstances like these.
"You didn't involve me in this, I involved me," he corrected softly. "I wanted to help you and Anju, even if I failed in the end."
"You didn't fail." I couldn't hold back a yawn as my shoulders slumped. "I wasn't quick enough and we didn't hit that final switch. But it's over and done with now, so no worries."
Silence lapsed thick between us again, and my muscles relaxed to the point of feeling watery. My head touched his shoulder, but I didn't move. I felt him tense, and then, the heat of his fingers at the edge of my knee.
"I won't fail next time, I promise."
"Next time?" I sleepily murmured. "There's a next time?"
"There's always a next time," came his firm answer. I kept my eyes shut.
The quakes began then in earnest, making the ground jar continually. I heard the dress dummy topple to the side and hit a night-table. Instinctive panic took root and I seized up, but I dared not open my eyes. I felt him shift, heard Tatl tell him something.
"Now!" Her command reached me above the sound of the building starting to fall apart under us. "Do it now, Link!"
I refused to allow my eyes to take in what was happening. Anju laughed softly in my make-believe world, and as I ran to her, her hair washed blonde with light, her clothing turning green.
A very strange final thought...
Above the groan of the walls tearing apart, I swore I heard soft music.
Its soft tune carried past the agony of my body being crushed.
The rest was silence until my eyes opened again behind my Keaton mask. My binoculars were out of focus again. The door to my hideaway was creaking open.
This time, I wasn't frightened.
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