AN: Wow, I don't know how this thing managed to slip my mind for several weeks, but sorry about the long wait. Here's the final chapter. Thank you for following the story. Your reviews are greatly appreciated.
Exhausted and pained still, I soon slept under Link's watch. I slipped into hours of dreamless sleep, too exhausted for nightmares of shadow. It was only when I felt myself beginning to wake that my lady came to me. I knew that she was weak and in pain yet from the ordeal I had put her through, but it seemed to me as though there was a new strength in her eyes, and serenity in her face.
"This is good," she said, sounding satisfied. "I'm glad that Link found you. He'll take care of you."
I could not look at her. "Forgive me," I whispered.
"I forgive you, Sheik," she said simply, and then I awoke.
Link was nowhere to be seen, but his mare Epona was there, so I guessed he couldn't have gone far. Epona raised her head to look at me for a moment, chewing thoughtfully on a clump of grass, then lowered her head to graze again. I abruptly became aware of my own gnawing hunger, and I hoped that Link had gone to find food.
Briefly I entertained the notion of leaving. It would have been so much easier to seclude myself away somewhere, even in my lady's body, so that I wouldn't have to face what I had done. But I knew now that there was no point in running. It wouldn't change what I'd done or what I felt. And I wasn't sure that Link wouldn't come after me again if I tried.
As if my thoughts had summoned him, the rustling of brush underfoot alerted me to his presence. He came out of the trees with bow and arrows slung over his back and a dead hare in his hand.
He looked at me for a moment. I still couldn't read his expression. "How do you feel?"
"Fine, I suppose."
"I wasn't sure you'd still be here."
"Neither was I."
He said no more, but sat in front of the fire and began to skin and gut the rabbit. The sight of the blood and innards awakened an answering throb in my hand. I winced and hoped Link hadn't noticed.
He had. "Here," he said, reaching into a pouch at his belt and bringing out a handful of leaves. "I got these in the forest. Saria used to grind them up and mix them with water. It's good for pain."
I couldn't perform the work, so once the rabbit was roasting over the fire, Link made a sticky green paste from the leaves and unwrapped the bandages on my hand to apply it. In silence I watched him work, his head bent, brow furrowing slightly as he uncovered the bloody wound.
I looked away so I wouldn't have to see it. "Maybe I did want to hurt myself," I said suddenly, surprising myself with the confession. Link glanced up at me briefly, then looked down again. He didn't reply, merely waited.
"It's easier," I said after a moment or two, to fill the silence. "Being afraid of the shadow…it distracts me from that."
"But it's only temporary. And then you have to deal with it, and this." He turned my hand palm-up in his to apply more of the medicine, which did indeed begin to soothe the pain almost immediately.
I watched him work in silence for a few moments. "I know I've been a fool," I said in a low voice at last. "I should have explained matters to you."
"You were afraid," he said, without judgment.
"Yes, but there's another reason. I know you wanted to save me."
"Want to save you."
He looked up at me. "You're going to tell me there's nothing I can do. But there has to be something. If you can't serve Zelda any longer after Ganondorf's gone—"
"No," I said sharply. "No! I knew that you would say that. I refuse to serve you."
"But why can't—"
"It's her or me," I said ruthlessly. "You can't have us both. If I stay with her, I'll devour her. I'm not strong enough to fight that hunger. It's only a matter of time."
Link drew in a breath and said nothing, but I saw it all clearly in his face.
"You love her."
"I love you both."
I believed him. It should have been enough to keep me here, to bind me to him. I wanted it to be.
But it changed nothing. Once I had looked to Link as my hope against the shadow. Even knowing that our fates were not entwined, knowing there was nothing he could do for me, I had wanted him to save me. I knew now that that was impossible.
But I could save him.
"I won't be the one to destroy you," I told him. "Nor will I destroy my lady. You have to let me go."
His hand tightened on mine, enough to hurt. I welcomed the pain. "I won't."
"You must. Let me die to protect you. Then at least my life will have meaning."
I didn't think he would let go of my hand. But he did at last, and I got to my feet.
"I'll be all right. I'm not going to die just yet. Go and do as you must." I looked at him. "I'll still be watching you. I am still your guide."
There is little more to tell. Undoubtedly you know the rest of the story already. Link freed the final sage from the Spirit Temple and came back for my lady and I. At long last I withdrew and let her have control of her body once more, so that she and Link might speak face to face.
Consequently, I was asleep when Ganondorf captured and imprisoned my lady, when she was freed by Link, and when she helped him to destroy the Black King once and for all. I was told of it later, the last time I spoke with Link.
"She said she's going to use the ocarina to turn back time seven years," he told me, his face reflective. "She said the proper flow of time must be restored."
"She is right," I said, speaking once again through my lady's voice. "It will heal the land. And it will be right for you, who slept these seven years."
"But you won't be there," he said.
Neither of us spoke for some time. At last I smiled. I was not wearing a mask. It was my lady's face he saw, but it was mine as well.
"Say goodbye, Link."
He took my hand in his and gripped it fiercely. "Goodbye, Sheik."
I held on to the sensation of my hand in his for as long as I could, until at last it faded away. I could feel the shadow very near, waiting for my return. But a bright figure stood in the way.
"Don't go, Sheik," my lady said to me.
"I must go."
She looked at me, her eyes fierce. "I order you not to go. I order you to remain with me."
I met her eyes. She meant it. She would risk her own life for me, knowing the danger I would be to her, knowing perfectly well what I might do to her.
It was in my nature to obey her orders. I warred with myself.
"No," I said at last, surprising myself with the strength of my refusal. Wide-eyed, she gazed wordlessly at me. "No. I will not remain. Our association is ended. Release me from your service, my lady."
There were tears on her face. "I can't."
"You must! Release me, now!"
She shut her eyes, turning away as though she could no longer bear to see me. "Our association is ended," she echoed me, her voice catching. "I release you from my service."
I sighed. It was done. "Farewell, Zelda."
The shadow waited. I went quietly into its embrace.
I expected to integrate again with the entity that had given me birth, but somehow I retained my consciousness for a time. In that cold horror I half-slept, half-waked, as though awaiting something, as though there was some task I had left undone.
Then she appeared, driving away the shadow with her mere presence, commanding it for that instant. "Impa," I said in recognition.
"Come with me, Sheik."
I followed her through the shadow. I was not afraid, in Impa's presence, but I was puzzled. "Why have you come? I am dead."
"Yes. I've come to be your guide for a little while."
My guide? What need had I of a guide? "I don't understand."
"Sheik," she said slowly, "do you know why our people were cursed to shadow?"
"They betrayed the Royal Family, whom they were bound to protect," I said. "You alone remained loyal. For this transgression, the goddesses made the Sheikah to be part of shadow, forever birthed by it, forever returning to it."
"Yes," Impa said quietly. "Sheik, you are the last of our kind. You died willingly for the princess's sake. Your actions have redeemed our people. Sheikah will no longer be birthed from the shadow. There will be no more."
I stood still, the words ringing through my ears. "I lifted the curse?"
"You are dead, Sheik. Nothing can change that. But you are not to be enslaved in shadow. I've come to take you to the Sacred Realm."
I realized then that my awareness of the shadow was gone. My link to it was severed, as suddenly and irrevocably as the loss of a physical limb.
I was free.
In the Sacred Realm, in the bright place where souls dwell, I wait to perform my final task, content in the knowledge that I will see them again.
I was their guide. So I am, forever.