It was his shelter, his seclusion.
It surrounded him, his jealous paramour waiting for him to succumb and leave the earthly cares of the body. It was shadow, it was stone, an embodiment of the greater surrounding whole that had been his heaven and hell for weeks. He'd lost count of the fresh white scratches he'd left in the pyramid's remaining rocks and his fever-bright eyes had long since lost their rationale. Had it been twenty, thirty days since that last struggle when the temple had collapsed in on him, when he first feared that this once-battleground was now his tomb?
He stared unblinking into it, and it peered right back into him.
It snickered with the wind's cold breath and hissed between the cracks.
It was nothing.
Nothing was his home, his past and future. Even so, it had a certain grim serenity to it that he almost enjoyed.
Here, he had to be Legendary Hero to none, not to the villagers, not to himself. There were no facades here, no pretenses or titles. If he strained his ears he could make out the dim tap of rainwater against the temple's ruined structure, the scrabble of rat claws as they navigated their way towards freedom, a place and concept as foreign to him as what awaited beyond the storm-hidden stars.
He'd long since dispensed with formalities--sanity was something to cling to when there were other people watching, when there might be something of a reality to return to. Questions of life after death had come and gone; and even as he'd once held the Triforce in his hands, feeling its warmth and hearing its voice, he looked at the churning squall above and felt no spark of faith. There was no comfort in the gods, the thought of his spirit resting warm and safe in some distant, future afterlife. They had used him, pure and simple, molded of him a convenience to bring peace to all others in the world and defeat the King of Evil, then discarded and left him in the collapsed Temple of Power.
He rocked in place, knees covered with the remains of trousers that had been shredded in his fall from what had been the floor above. The smell of dried sweat and old blood stung the inside of his nose and caused his eyes to water. He'd left the relic of terror long behind him, but agony was a different matter altogether. His left arm, shattered so that the gruesome sight of bone showed through skin, had mercifully numbed and left him in peace. The headaches he'd suffered after striking his head against rubble had abated as well, fading to leave him with the memento of an aggravating throb every once in awhile that kept pace with the futile laboring of his heart.
The hero glanced up, gaze wandering over all the familiar things. Here, the statue that Ganon had built for himself depicting the Gerudo he had been, the head severed from the neck in a clean break, the spear and the hand it was secured in lying a few feet away. There, the trident the monster had wielded, the thing that should have taken his life in a few blessed seconds but for the quick thinking and swordplay he was now damning. Resting atop that, the Blade of Evil's Bane itself, streaked with running beads of rainwater to shine dull in the weak light from the pyramid's open top several feet above.
It was the instrument of humanity's salvation.
It was also the tool with which his doom had been forged.
He'd made sure, after dealing those lethal silver arrows, to make a clean thrust into the nightmare's core, twisting so that blood as black as pitch rained upon his hands and face. The same blood he'd later licked from his hands, dried though it had been in hopes of tasting something, anything besides the dust that still covered him from head to toe in grit. The monster weakened the floor in their fatal scuffle and later when he'd made his wish on the holy relic, the force of its magic being wrought upon the Golden Land to transform it back had been too much for the cracked tiles to bear.
He didn't recall the precise instant the floor groaned, exploding into fragments to send him into the darkness below.
All he remembered was dragging himself back into consciousness some hours later, screaming for someone to help him.
Those were the bygone times when he'd railed desperate against the nothingness, the phase where he'd alternated between strangled sobs and hummed songs to keep his spirits light, when he'd tried to climb the mountain of debris that had stacked in a corner only to fall once more and that time destroy his foot. Only his boot held its integrity together, the leather sticky with his life.
He'd lost his senses after that. The evidence of it shone against the walls, places where he'd bloodied his fingers and broken his nails, words etched over and over in the red fruit of his vain efforts.
Light, said one set of Hylian runes. He'd depleted his own ability to make flame about a week ago and the effort had proven a fool's errand anyway. As he clenched his battered fingers to scrape against rock, he could still feel the broken glass that marked where his lantern had crashed to meet its end.
Clothes, the second read. The rags that hung about his gaunt frame could hardly be considered such anymore, torn from shoulder to waist and stained with all manner of things whose origins he could no longer recognize.
The last his eyes touched upon and then just as quickly looked away again.
His satchel, long-since emptied of sustenance, had been unlaced, ripped asunder. The indentations of his own teeth marred the smooth surface of the tanned leather as the abandoned article floated in a puddle. Eating the rats that he'd happened across raw had been all the more of an ill-conceived idea for the way it had upset his stomach and left him even more enfeebled. He morosely watched the precipitation pour to fill the grounds with moisture. Had this been a week ago, he would have praised the goddesses for a drinking source, but as things were now he saw it as their mockery, their temptation.
Do you dare to keep going, keep trying, just to show us your loathing for our grand design? They spoke with the soughing of the breeze, the pattering of droplets. He glared his abhorrence at the growing puddles and gingerly drew his knees up to his chest.
Every rib showed in stark relief against his sallow flesh. Each breath rattled. It was all he could do to hold himself upright and as sleep lapped black at the shores of his consciousness, visions of what he knew had occurred without him crept into his thoughts.
A feast was held after Ganon's overthrow, the smell of rich meats and puddings so strong that he could sense their ghosts himself a world away. Everyone had come in their finery, the king in his great patterned cloak and golden vestments, his many rings flashing as he carved the roasts and doled out the vegetables to his throngs of guests. Night bled sable into the grand dining hall, broken in eerie waves by the candles set across the single, long table. Food remained untouched, heads bowed and the hero watched as if he were a specter unleashed from the thereafter to haunt all present.
Two chairs were empty. One he supposed was for him, and the other---
"I'm afraid my daughter was unable to join us in this celebration tonight. I had hoped to make it a happy time, but she requested in lieu of her presence so that she may pray at the Sanctuary, that we remember the one who made this occasion possible but is now..."
He felt a strongly compelled to leave, as if something was trying to catch his attention elsewhere, and he obeyed its call, passing with fleshless ease from one large room to the next, up the carpeted stairwell and past servants who didn't notice his presence. Beyond closed chambers whose realities he'd seen countless times in his visits to Hyrule Castle, and at last to his destination.
"Link, please...come back. Please." Her plea was thick with sorrow and heartfelt from behind her bedroom door, and he paused as if he were mortal again, as if afraid to knock and announce himself.
If he was honest to the core of his being, he'd harbored resentment, even hatred, for Zelda. Had it not been she whose telepathic message had roused him from slumber one cold evening, led him to an early grave? His chest seethed with the strength of the emotion and he turned away, torn. Yes, but was it not also true that she herself in the end had been a pawn too, used as he had been?
He exhaled his frustration and passed through the door into her chambers. As with the banquet hall, here too were scattered candles to stave away the night phantoms, but something had changed, shifted. Some time, he suddenly felt, had elapsed.
The heir to royalty's burdens was not clothed as if going to a feast. Instead, she was clad in her nightclothes, sitting on her bed with honeyed hair in disarray, freed of crown and baubles. He wandered closer; had it been possible he would have held his breath.
The room blurred and faded at the sight of her, she the only thing alive, the only thing vibrant, the sole reality enclosed within it. The darkness murmured with the desolation of destruction, sliding between to separate them before he could speak to her. There would be no opportunity for such.
One last touch, then.
Yet their time was short and growing shorter. It was coming, sensing somehow that he had escaped his grave but for a brief time, and was coming back to claim him.
He reached, and his perfect left arm responded to his summons. Fingertips grazed the pale hand that sat clenched on the princess' knee.
She startled to look up directly into his eyes, sensing without seeing him.
It surged, flood waters impatient to take him, and he could deny it what it wanted no longer.
Closing his eyes, the land's destined hero faded into nothing.
"Did you feel that?"
"Feel what, Majesty?" Rinsing his hands in the water basin, the specialty healer turned to face the stricken princess. Surrounded by wilting bouquets well-wishers and suitors had sent in droves, the young woman sat up to push the coverlets off, her cheeks flushed.
"He was here!" Zelda's plea for understanding was tinged with desperation. He couldn't suppose he could find fault with her; even her own servants suspected these days in whispers that she was mad. "Did you not feel his presence, Marlow?"
"Majesty." The healer couched his reply in soothing tones. "You clearly have a fever. It won't do for you to become worked up. The plague illness is spreading throughout the towns faster than we can close their gates to contain it. It's just the wind playing tricks on you and exacerbating your condition. How are you coming along with those waking nightmares you last told me of, by the by?"
"I have no condition and it was not a waking nightmare," Zelda snapped. "Link was here, just now, right here, right in front of me. He touched my hands." She had been thus for months, since about the time the hero she had chosen to be Hyrule's savior had toppled the evil king. His disappearance and probable death had been too much for her, the gossip-mongers maintained. Being trapped in a crystal for months beforehand hadn't helped matters, either.
He hadn't wanted to believe she could be undone so until he answered the king's summons and seen her with his own eyes. Now he blew out a breath and turned to snuff the candles that constantly burned at her bedside. Her 'personal vigil' was what she called it. Her father had disagreed, and so he had been summoned to see to her 'morbid symptoms of grief.'
"Please, Majesty, sleep." He suppressed a grimace at the smell of dying roses and reached for his healing kit. In a few minutes the medication he'd slipped into her dinner would have sway with her. "It will all look better in the morning, I promise."
He hardly had the agility to make it out into the corridors before her pillow thumped against her closed bedroom door.
He started for the throne room in quick stride, eager to be going. Even Mido, its population decimated with the worst of the sickness, was more welcoming a place than the castle. As the night watch nodded greetings that he hastily returned in passing, Marlow came to the landing that would take him down and paused.
That smell. Cloyed by the perfume of rotting blossoms, he'd denied detecting it, but now, there was no mistaking it. In his time as a healer he'd come to recognize it anywhere, ever-present in every sickroom, every sanctuary where funeral services were held.
The smell of fresh death. It permeated the corridor, a faint inkling like the hint of a lady's perfume. The princess was in good health despite her mental state and those in the castle had managed to wall themselves away from the plague, so it could be none of them.
It left one possibility, and he didn't wish to ponder it. He refused to believe in spirits; wasn't he a healer, a man of medicine, for Din's sake?
He hurried down the stairs two at a time, eager to be away from the saccharine odor of decaying flowers and the finality of the stench hidden beneath it before it could sway his long-held convictions.
It was his first visit to Hyrule Castle, and, after that night, the last.
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