Yomi, the Twilight Realm. A peaceful place, perpetually between darkness and light, where weary souls who had departed from the world of the living came to rest, and wait for re-entry into their next life.
The residents of this world didn't eat, though they did sometimes sleep, especially those whose last experiences had been difficult on their souls. Some slept for a thousand years; others so relished the taste of life that they returned as soon as they arrived.
Leading the souls between the two worlds were the shinigami(1), creatures nearly as old as Izanami herself. They were, in their true state, formless and shapeless; to earn the trust of the frightened, newly dead, they could change their shape to appear as a mother, a brother, a dear friend. When not on duty, they often appeared in a shape of their own choosing.
Although most of the wandering souls were free to move about as they wished, there were some that the local regents believed were too dangerous to be allowed among the others, or even to be reborn again. These were kept in prisons, one belonging to each region, and ranged from pleasant – but confined – homes, to dark dungeons devoid of any light, sound, or smell.
It was in the bottom of the deepest, darkest dungeon, in the section ruled by the Twilight Princess Midna, that an angry soul railed against his invisible bindings. His cell was darker than the caves where eyeless fish dwell, quieter than the inside of a coffin buried in a graveyard, and bereft of any breath of air that could carry with it the slightest scent. The only things that told Ganondorf he was not floating suspended in time were the walls that kept him moving around more than fifteen feet square.
At first he had pounded against the walls, for ageless hours, at first thinking that his feeling no pain had to mean he could bring them down eventually; but instead, it drove him more insane, because even pain would have given him something on which to focus. The everlasting nothingness tore at his mind and soul, and threatened to turn him into little more than a gibbering shadow.
But he struggled against the madness, for even as he cursed the names of the three who had led to his imprisonment, memories of his former lives began floating back into his mind. Clear and colorful, the images called to his sharp mind to review past mistakes, relive past successes. The shouts and screams died down, and he sat on the floor of his cell as if in meditation, his chin resting on one fist. He played the scenarios over and over in his mind, as if watching stage after stage of a play in which the actors never tired.
Now with the madness at bay, he was able to reflect upon his situation. How strange, he wondered to himself. In the hallway of tapestries, Zelda said that these memories were contained within the Triforce. I no longer have its power; so how can I remember them? Could it be she was wrong?
Can I find a way out of here that even Midna does not know?
He sat for an immeasurable amount of time like this, not tiring, never feeling hunger, periodically driving back the black madness as it attempted to creep back into his mind.
Then – he could not tell if he had been there for hours or years – he felt the air grow tight around him, as if admitting the presence of something that had not been there before. And then, a voice other than his own spoke to him. "Greetings, Ganondorf Dragmire of Hyrule."
"Who's there?" Ganondorf demanded, wondering if the madness had bypassed his defences. He could see nothing in that place, and yet an image formed itself in his mind of the speaker.
The stranger wore flowing black robes, beautifully woven, and silver gauntlets, with supple leather boots on its feet. But on stacked vertebrae was a faceless, eyeless skull, which spoke without moving its jaw.
"I am Onima," the stranger said. "I am a shinigami, a medium between the light and the twilight."
"Never heard of one," Ganondorf snapped.
"You were, as I recall, sent here directly by the Twilight Princess herself, rather than being escorted by one of us…so I'm not surprised." The hollow voice, strangely devoid of any emotion, sounded like a recording of a forgotten, long-dead actor.
Ganondorf cursed Midna's name, and threw in a few more descriptive oaths as well. "What do you want, Onima?" he demanded. "Has that demon princess brought you to show me another way to suffer?"
"No," it replied. "I came here of my own will." Ganondorf felt it bend down, and bring its cold bony head close to him. "I came to ask you if you would like to return to the world of the living."
With a snort, Ganondorf demanded, "What kind of fool do you think I am? If you are in the service of the demon princess, you must know I've been sentenced to stay here until the universe turns to dust!"
"The Twilight Princess does not know of my meeting with you."
"Oh really. So, we're just going to waltz on out of here, eh? You want to take a risk disobeying your ruler's orders? What's in it for you?"
"My reasons are my own," Onima stated flatly. "You will find out more in time. If you are to come with me, you would have to do exactly as I told you."
"Forget it. I'm no one's slave."
"You prefer to stay here?" It was such a simple question, yet the suggestion rang with absurdity.
"No," Ganondorf answered immediately, suddenly terrified that his slim chance would slip through his fingers. "Every second here is torture. Take me back to the world of the living!"
"Very well," Onima replied, "But before we go, I must inform you…in order to ensure that we do not attract Midna's attention, we must replace your soul with another's. I have already chosen one for you…"
(1)Yes, I know many people have objections to using Japanese words when the characters don't speak Japanese. But the English word (taken from Greek) for a being that moves between the world of the living and the dead is "psychopomp". I think you can see why I chose not to use it. Also, for fellow Bleach fans…Onima is not a Soul Reaper, though he fulfills a similar function. The word "shinigami", which is translated as "Soul Reaper" in Bleach, is actually most accurately translated as "The Western interpretation of Death". In traditional Japanese mythology, Death is an event, not a person.
The nightmares were less frequent, now that her bond to the Triforce had been severed. But that did not make them any less vivid, her mind seeming to take sadistic pleasure in reliving her most horrible experiences.
Zelda's scream reverberated in her ears as she watched Ganondorf plunge his sword into the chest of the young hero. He jerked it out and stood back, admiring the handiwork of his death blow.
As Link fell to his knees, Zelda ran to his side. She cradled his head in her arms as he struggled to speak one last time. "I'm sorry," he said simply, his voice thick. "I tried…as hard as I could…"
It was not the words or his wounds that hurt her the most. It was the look in his eyes, knowing full well he had failed and all the implications it carried for her, for Hyrule.
It was the knowledge that she could not tell him the truth, but rather be forced to let him believe that he would die leaving her and her people to disaster.
After his eyes closed and he drew his last shuddering breath, she spoke softly so Ganondorf could not hear her. "I'm sorry…that I could not give you solace in your final hour. But we will try again…I will start the cycle again…and perhaps…it will end differently this time…"
"Come, Princess!" Ganondorf called from the throne. "A new era has begun! This kingdom is mine and I shall reshape it in my image with you by my side, a privilege I have rightfully won with my sword and the blessings of the gods." He flourished a bottle of wine and two glasses, normally for visiting dignitaries, which Zelda had replaced for a very specific purpose. "Come have a drink with me!"
Zelda lay the young man's head respectfully down on the marble floor and placed his hands over his chest. She walked up the dais like a zombie, taking the wine glass Ganondorf offered with his Cheshire cat smile.
"I'm sorry, my dear," Ganondorf said to Zelda after a gulp of wine, "I know you were fond of that young man. But he was too weak, as you can plainly see."
Zelda said nothing, sipping her wine sparingly, not wanting to give anything away.
Ganondorf drained his glass and poured another. "You know, once the Triforce is made whole again, the first thing I'm going to do is…" He took another drink. "Is…"
Suddenly his wine glass shattered on the ground. He clutched at his throat, gasping for air, at first confused, and then stared accusingly at Zelda.
She gave him a thin, grim smile, and held up her glass as if in a toast. "See you in the next life," she told him, and drained it.
She awoke gasping for air, as if the poison really had entered her body again. It was a few moments before she realized that she was in her own bedroom, bright sunlight streaming through the windows.
"Are you all right?" the young handmaiden asked, running to her side.
"Yes, May, I'm fine," Zelda assured her. "Just a nightmare…"
May frowned at her. "You've had nightmares every night for the past week. Is something troubling you?"
"Nothing in particular," Zelda said. "It's not uncommon…it's a stressful job, being a ruler," she added with a wan smile. "Can you tell me what the agenda is for today?"
"Well, the Gorons are here about the tribute you requested…"
"The Zora prince sent an emissary stating they require assistance because of the drought…"
"Yes, I thought they might…"
"Oh, and Link has returned from his campaign in the western lands. He might be here as early as lunchtime."
The first real smile in several days crossed her lips. "That's good, I was hoping he might."
As Zelda began to dress, May timidly attempted to bring up something she'd wanted to ask for a while. "Your Highness…may I ask…?"
"You're…fond of Link, aren't you?"
"Yes…aren't we all?"
May twisted the fabric of her dress ribbon. "Well, I thought…he would make an excellent choice…if you decided to…"
"May." The handmaiden immediately stopped upon hearing the princess' tone. "He knows full well that route is open to him."
"He…he does? Then he hasn't shown any interest in…"
"May." Zelda turned to face the handmaiden. "Is it your business to comment on affairs of state?"
"No…no, your Highness! I wasn't commenting on that, it was something else…"
"Unfortunately," Zelda said as she smoothed down the few wrinkles in her dress, "both he and I have to think of it that way."
She left May and began walking down the hallway to the opulent dining room, recently repaired. The guard saluted her as she walked past, and she nodded to each out of habit, but her mind was elsewhere.
May…I have no doubt that speculative gossip has surrounded us two ever since the shattering of the Triforce. I understand what you are asking, and why. But my true answer, my true motives, can only be understood by another who has served as a vessel of the goddesses, another who has lived multiple lives, of which there is only one…
As the servants brought in breakfast for her and the nobles, she watched both speak with one another. A nobleman offered to fill the glass of a woman he fancied; a servant girl watched another young noble with hungry eyes; a page the girl's own age attempted to muster up the courage to speak to her.
Zelda had watched these scenes over and over, countless times. Her people were born, grew up, lived and loved, and died. She did not. For centuries, her existence had irrevocably been tied to Hyrule's. It made her neither happy nor sad, but it was apparent that her experiences were much broader than anyone else's, like a traveler who always returned home to find nothing had changed even years on.
That, certainly, she did have in common with Link, in more ways than one.
Link ticked people off on his fingers. "Well, Rusl has been teaching Colin the swordsman's art, he's been getting really good at it…I keep asking Ilia to travel with me, but she only came to Hyrule once, keeps saying her home is in Ordon…and you know about Malo, or at least you should, given the craze his shop has created…"
Zelda laughed. "Well, I haven't much time to wander around the town, but much of his influence has leaked up in here. Tell me, how did your visit with the warriors of the far southeast go?"
Link launched into a long narrative. "…and there were giant statues carved out of stone, bigger than anything we have here, tall as the castle, even! Once we got into the dining hall, they served me something made from some local plant, I forget what it was, but it tasted more like candy…"
Link and Zelda walked side by side in the castle garden, shielded from prying eyes by the high walls. "It was dinner and a show, there were a bunch of gymnasts and contortionists, you should have seen it!"
She smiled. "I wish I could have…it sounds better than any fairy tale."
He stopped and faced her. "Why don't you? Do you really think Hyrule will fall apart if you're gone for a short period of time? I mean, it's not like we have to worry about Ganondorf anymore…"
"There are other things besides Ganondorf," she replied. "All the things that a normal kingdom has to deal with…droughts, unsatisfied inhabitants, criminals, relationships with the other kingdoms…"
Link sighed. "But you've been stuck here for years…thousands of years." He stopped and folded his hands at the back of his head, looking upward. "Do you remember, in one of our past lives, we traveled as brother and sister? Wasn't that fun?"
"Yes…but there were many things that were different back then."
He placed a hand on her shoulder. "Zelda…you really should get out and see a bit of the world, at least once. We'll only live so long. Once we return to Yomi…"
He left the statement unsaid, but she knew all too well what he meant. Once we return to Yomi, if we choose to be born again…we won't remember each other…
Zelda knew that he would not want to languish in Yomi, that he would be eager to go back to the world of the living. She would have to let him go. It was her fault he had suffered so many times in their thousand past lives. His will to live, to see everything life offered, was far too strong to hold him back.
"Do you remember," she said slowly, not wanting to ruin their walk with talk of sadness, "do you remember any of the times you lost your fight with Ganondorf?"
Link screwed up his face in concentration. "Not really," he said at last. "It was more vivid before the Triforce shattered."
She looked down at the ground. "I'm sorry…I wanted to tell you that we had another chance, that it wasn't all for nothing…" Tears formed in the corners of her eyes.
He put his arm around her shoulder. "Don't be upset! Like I said, I hardly remember, so it's not worth crying over. Besides…remembering that, it was one of the things that made me wonder what was going on, made me realize that we were having our strings pulled by the goddesses. So, in the end, it served a good purpose." He turned to face her and smiled, hoping she would do the same.
"Oh, I almost forgot." He dug into his pockets and produced a small, exquisitely carved figure that appeared to be of Zelda herself. "An artisan in the town I visited made this for me. I told him what you looked like, but I'm not sure if he got it right…"
He handed it to her as if it were nothing, a little bauble he had picked up on his way out. But she could see his expression, anxious and eager to please. The carving itself was as accurate as a mirror image, and she knew it had to be as much from his memory as her as the skill of the carver.
"It's beautiful," she said, and meant it, wondering just what destiny lay in store for them, after so many lifetimes.
The next dawn found Link upon Epona, embarking upon yet another voyage beyond Hyrule's borders as envoy. He looked eagerly around him for signs of a new adventure, a new civilization, feeling himself surrounded in a cloud of euphoria.
He had never forgotten that it was on horseback that he had begun to question the strange nightmares he'd had, before he realized what they meant. There were few monsters to avoid now, though the wild lands between the countries' borders still held many dangers. Few, of course, could seriously threaten an experienced adventurer.
Zelda's reserve annoyed him at times. He knew she was capable as he was, but for some reason she chose not to follow. Is she afraid of something? Is she just so used to playing the role of the dutiful, tragic ruler that she can't do anything else?
He was determined, this time, to find something to shake her out of it. Some civilization, some scenery, some adventure so incredible that she would have to join him. After all, she had done it in the past…
As he rode, he could see someone walking up on the path in front of him. He slowed Epona to a walk, and shouted a greeting to the fellow traveler.
As the man turned around, Link drew Epona up short. The stranger was wearing black robes and silver gauntlets…and had a skull for a head. Link grasped the hilt of his sword.
The stranger turned around, supremely unconcerned. "I see you have finally arrived," he said in a cold, indifferent voice that chilled Link's spine.
Link drew his sword, and spurred Epona forward.
"Of course I have no objections to your people selling hot springwater in the market," Zelda told the Goron representative. "Who told you that?"
"One of the soldiers, your Highness."
Zelda sighed. "Go to the head guard; he will have you pick the person out. We'll be sure to let him know not to harass you in the future."
The Goron bowed, and left.
"What's next?" Zelda turned to her scribe.
"One of the noblemen wishes to see you about his accommodations, Princess."
She touched her hand to her temple. "That'll be Averring. All right, bring him in…"
One of the soldiers burst into the throne room. "Your Highness!" he called. "Forgive me…but Link has returned prematurely, and he is wounded!"
"What?" Recovering, she ordered, "Bring him to the healer's wing."
Once inside the small sickroom, Zelda could see that Link was patched up in several places, his head wrapped in a bloody bandage and his clothes torn, but he didn't look gravely injured. His eyes lit up when she entered the room, and he gave her a pale smile.
"Are you all right?" she asked as she came to the side of the bed, and signaled for the others around them to leave.
"I'm fine." He waved his bandaged arm, grimacing slightly, then smiled. "But…there's something I need to ask you…"
"What is it?"
"Being out there today…I got into a fight and won, but I came so close to losing…I would have gone on to Yomi, without you…"
She nodded, feeling herself grow cold, acknowledging that she too carried this hidden fear.
He took her hand. "There will be plenty of places to explore in the next life. For the remainder of this one…with the time I have left…I want to stay with you."
She blinked, not entirely understanding his meaning. "Are you sure? I still don't plan on venturing far from the castle…we both still have a lot of time left in this life…"
He smiled, and squeezed her hand. "There will be other lifetimes for me to do that. A thousand years…and we still don't know each other all that well…we have to make the most of the time that we have, don't we?"
He touched her face and leaned forward. For a moment Zelda held back. Strange, she thought to herself. Was his battle that traumatic? He seems much more forward than usual…
After just a brief moment, Zelda allowed herself her first kiss.
It was dark, impossibly dark. No sound, no smell, no grass or stone or any kind of fabric he could touch. As Link slowly gained consciousness, he tried to sense where he was, and found he could not.
"What…did…did I die?" He groped in the dark. "Midna! Midna, are you there? Is this the Twilight Realm? Somebody answer me!"