Link stepped outside, glad to be away from the tension that was shredding what was left of his nerves. Epona sidled up to him, checking to see if he was all right. He leaned against her, glad to be with someone he knew he could trust. He hated being around people who did nothing but toss words back and forth, never achieving their goals. All they were gaining inside was how loud one could shout at the others. Ganondorf seemed to be in the lead. Marek had finally ordered a break, hoping that flared tempers would have time to cool. He didn't think it would help.
The cold air made his skin tighten, and he ruefully thought of the coat he had lent to Malon. Epona breathed on him, drawing his attention back to her. Someone approaches.
Link looked up and a tall woman stood before them. Her hair was long, and caught up in a high tail. The outfit she wore showed off taut muscles, and when she moved Link saw the grace of a trained fighter. Her features reminded Link of Ganondorf, and when she beckoned for him to follow, he hesitated. Deciding to trust his instinct, he obeyed.
She stayed two steps ahead, her hair swaying like the pendulum of a clock as she walked. The only sound Link could discern was his footsteps and Epona's, and the faint whisper of the wind.
She led them to the fallen Temple, right up to the entrance. She stepped aside, indicating that he was to go in. As he passed her by, he stopped and met her eyes. They were golden, like an eagle's, and he could see power that burned in their depths.
He bowed his head in honor of her strength, and she smiled in return. He moved past her, not bothering to glance back at her. He knew she was already gone.
Inside, the Temple was dark. He could smell the dankness, the scent of moss and growing things pervading the air. The marble reflected the little light that could creep into the building, and he could see the outline of the altar, and the door beyond it.
The sound of flint striking broke the quiet, and a candle flared to life. Zelda stood beside him, cupping the flame with her hand, the taper held in the other. He met her eyes and saw a power similar to his guide's. She started forward, to the room beyond the altar.
Past the door the window to the stars let in the growing light of dawn. The light illuminated a robed figure on the dais. Zelda led Link to him. He could feel the power growing in the room. It made the fine hairs on the back of his neck raise, and he had to fight the urge to run, or defend himself. The three stood, silent, appraising the others that Fate, or perhaps only chance, had brought together.
The robed figure moved, drawing attention to itself. A wrinkled hand pushed the hood back, revealing a wizened face that time had etched with a loving hand. When he met Link's gaze, his clear eyes pierced through any shield or facade, leaving all bare before him. Time would always strip away all barriers.
"Certainly something must be amiss for me to be in such august company," Link said with a tight smile.
Zelda's eyelids lowered in amusement at his words, but it was the robed man that spoke. "Indeed, that sums up this situation concisely. Tonight we end the peril that has befallen this land. Too long have we, Hyrule's guardians, let the land suffer for a mistake made with good intentions."
Link looked at Zelda, gauging her reaction. The Princess met his gaze, and he had to look away. He could feel his own emotions mirroring hers. Regret for past misdeeds, and a burning desire to make amends. Coupled with that, unlike within him, she had the strength and ability to accomplish her task.
Turning to the old man, Link asked, "Who are you that call yourselves the protectors of Hyrule? Why didn't you prevent this from happening?"
"The Seven," he replied, and Link had to stop himself from recoiling.
"What? The ones who 'chose' who would become a twisted monster?" Link's eyes narrowed in confusion and anger. "If you're the protectors of Hyrule, why in the Dark Realm would you do this to us?"
"We didn't mean for it to happen."
Link's heart sank at the voice he heard from behind him. Not wanting to turn around and have his eyes confirm what he knew, he clenched his fists at his sides. Saria came up from behind him and touched his hand. She stepped in front of him, her green eyes looking up into his, pleading for him to understand. "I swear it, Link. I never would hurt you."
"Not intentionally, anyway," he couldn't help but snap.
She looked away, and he felt guilty for his words, but he refused to apologize. He felt more presences behind him, the power in the room gathering to a fever pitch. Glancing about, he saw a Goron with an impressive mane of white hair, a Zora female, his warrior-guide from before, and someone else he hadn't expected. Impa's burning red gaze met his. Her eyes neither asked for forgiveness, nor understanding. A calm certainty hung about her, and that scared him more than anything.
Standing in the center of the room, surrounded by the Seven that had haunted him for years, Link said, "So, now that you have me cornered, what now?"
"We fix what has been broken," the old man said.
"Why do I believe this is going to involve a lot of pain and discomfort?" Link said, taking an involuntary step back. He wished he had some form of weapon, but Ganondorf had failed to yield the Sword to him when they had met again. He thought of calling to Epona, but when he stretched his mind out to her, he met a wall of resistance. The entire Temple was warded, the power of each figure meshing perfectly into a solid barrier, keeping everything that was to happen a secret from outside.
Link rocked back on his heels and blew out a breath. He didn't like having his options stripped away from him, especially not when he really needed them. "Ready to listen now?" the elder Sage asked him, one wiry eyebrow arching upwards. Link wanted to knock the complacent look off his face.
"No, but seeing as I have no choice...." He glanced over at Zelda. The Princess met his gaze and held it, held him. He realized too late that that action had been a mistake, but now he was helpless to do anything about it. Her power, augmented by the strength of the other Sages, took control, leaving him vulnerable to all they had planned.
* * *
Malon fiddled with the hem of Link's coat. She pulled the jacket tighter, the lines around her eyes tight with worry. Lure stood beside her, one hand clenched on the hilt of his sword. She had met him on her way back, the almost panicked look in his eyes keeping her questions bottled up behind her lips. He had told her he had lost contact with Link, that the Guardian bond he could always feel at the back of his mind had disappeared.
He took off without another word to her, and she had hesitated, caught between wanting to warn Marek and Impa, and chasing after Lure. In the end, she had followed the Guardian, racing to catch up. She had finally caught him in front of the last standing room of the Temple of Time, past the fallen outer walls and rooms covered in smothering ivy.
The cracked marble was slick beneath her boots, the lightening air tight with an anticipation she could not understand. "How do we open the door?" she asked Lure.
He ran a hand over the gray door, a finger gliding over the etching of the Triforce emblazoned on the stone. He let out a frustrated breath and slammed his fist on the unyielding surface. "I don't know. It's never been shut before, I don't know what to do." He rubbed his face with his hands. "Goddesses be damned, I don't know what to do!"
Malon laid a what she hoped comforting hand on Lure's shoulder. "We're not going to help him if we give up already."
He glared at her, then sighed. "Sorry. Keeping my head's never been a strong point." He leaned back onto the cold stone altar behind him, arms folded over his chest. "There's got to be someway we can move this giant hulk of a door."
Malon scanned the way blocked before them, eyes searching for any weakness, any way they could get inside to their friend. This had to be where he was. Lure said he sensed something, some sort of wall or void space that prevented anything from entering or, so it seemed, leaving. This had to be where Link was. The only other alternative to his disappearance from the bond was that he was dead, and neither was prepared to believe that.
She rubbed her forehead, her frustration making her head pound in time with her rapid heartbeat. Despite what she had told Lure, her temper was held in check by the thinnest of reins. She needed to scream, anything to release the tension building within.
A sharp, painful chill crawled over her skin, stealing the breath from her lungs. Eyes wide, mouth slightly agape, she turned and involuntarily took a step backwards. Six figures robed in a black so deep it sucked in the dawning light stood behind Lure's turned back. She could see his worry at her changed expression, and he looked over his shoulder.
Lure sprang back, landing next to Malon, his sword already drawn and ready. They stood frozen for an eternal second, a tableau etched in time. Then one of the Death Riders stepped forward, gliding over the marble without a noise. Malon choked an involuntary shriek of fear and disgust, recoiling. A hand grasped her shoulder, and she jumped, her heart slamming painfully against her ribcage. Wide eyes met Link's blank gaze for a second before he passed by her.
Zelda walked with Link up to the two Death Riders that had stepped forward. They faced each other like generals readying the terms of battle. "Have we finally decided to end this?" one of the Death Riders asked, amusement clear in his voice. "Or are you giving us our own back?"
Malon took a step forward, not liking this conversation already. A hand on her shoulder kept her from moving any further; resisting the temptation to brush Lure's hand away, she grabbed it and held it tight.
"He is mine to with as I wish," Zelda said, hard-won arrogance lining her face and words. "He is the one I created, and the one who will unmake you."
A dry chuckle escaped the Death Rider. "And it only took the entire group of Sages to take his mind from him."
Both Lure and Malon made sounds of protest, the situation suddenly made clear to them. A warning glance from Impa kept them grudgingly in their places.
"Are you stalling for time?" Zelda asked the Death Eater.
A derisive snort was all she got for an answer. Ignoring the ridicule, Zelda turned to Link. She unsheathed a sword and said, "I believe Ganondorf has no more use for this, and it is yours by right. Take it, and kill them."
Link stared at the Master Sword in her grip, then slowly extracted it from her hands. He gave a salute that was a cross between mocking and sincere, and lunged forward, stabbing the closest Death Rider in the vicinity of its heart. The creature stood still for a second, as if surprised Link had made the first move, before it slipped off the Sword and lay still on the floor.
Sudden chaos erupted. Link took out two more before the Death Riders could gather their senses that they had been attacked and hurt, that they were vulnerable after all. Magic and steel flashed in the dawning light, blinding and illuminating in turns.
Watching her friend turn into the savage killer he abhorred, Malon shrieked, "You pigs, you disgusting monsters! All of you! How dare you do this to him?" Malon leapt forward, but Lure caught her by the waist, restraining her. "Let me go!" she screamed, "if we don't hurry, he's going to die!"
Saria watched the two, noting the way Lure's face was pinched and aged, how tears leaked from Malon's eyes and the hate that shone through. Knowing that both would gladly kill her to save Link, it hurt and she welcomed it. The pain wouldn't help save her best friend, but she felt she needed to be punished for what she had a hand in. The whole idea was pointless, useless, but she couldn't think of anything else. She didn't have the ability to help her friend, and it ate at her, leaving her hollowed.
Saria wrapped her arms around herself. A large, rough hand settled on her shoulder, and she smiled slightly at Darunia, the Goron Sage of Fire. Black eyes like two chips of flint smiled down at her, framed by his wiry mane of white hair. His brown skin was craggy; he had both the look and feel of a slab of granite formed in the shape of a rotund body. "Don't worry, girl," he said. "It'll be over soon."
Saria knew he was trying to comfort her, and she appreciated the failed effort. Saria knew he was trying to comfort her, and she appreciated the failed effort. Darunia didn't have the connection she did with Link. For him, he was doing his sacred duty as a Sage, not betraying a friend for the greater good. She wondered how Zelda felt about all this, truly felt. Saria had asked the monarch multiple times how she had felt, thinking if she could understand Zelda's reasoning, then maybe she could come to terms with her own. However, the Princess had always given her the same answer: "I have to do what is right for everyone, not just myself." A ring of falseness rang throughout those words every time Zelda uttered them, but Saria had never pressed. She knew how to respect secrets. She only hoped Link would survive them.
Only two Death Riders remained. They faced each other, steel mottled red as they circled each other. A flurry of blows were exchanged, Malon ignoring them as she struggled to escape Lure's hold. The Death Rider lunged in , catching Link on the leg and startling Lure enough that when Malon delivered a stomp to his instep, he let go with a sharp exhalation of pain.
She leapt over the altar, hoping she could bring Link back to his senses. She didn't care that he was destroying the world's troubles, she only cared that Link was not Link, was no longer her best friend, the only person who knew her as she knew him.
She was almost in reach when the Death Rider spotted opportunity and used it. He grabbed her shoulder and jerked her in front of him, using her as a shield. The Sword sliced through fabric and skin, gliding through with sickening ease. Malon froze, eyes widening more in surprise than pain. Her hand reached up and pressed against where her other arm once was. Her lips moved, but no sound came out. Suddenly, her knees gave out and she collapsed to the ground, face whiter than marble.
"Malon!" Lure shouted. He raced over to her and fell to her side, hands hovering over hers. "Great, merciful Nayru," he breathed before collecting his scattered wits. Ripping off his coat, he moved Malon's hand out of the way and wrapped it tightly around her torso, hoping to staunch the flow of sticky blood.
Malon made no move in either aid or protest. Her mind seemed to have shut down, unable to cope with what had just happened.
Link watched the scene, frozen in place like Malon. His fingers were numb and a loud buzzing sound filled his head. The world tilted violently, then settled, and he knew the danger of passing out had passed. His fingers clenched on the Sword's hilt, tightening until he felt they would snap. Turning to the one who had brought pain to his friend, who had dared to harm what was his, he unleashed his anger, his sudden fury taking the Death Rider unprepared. The Master Sword, the Bane of Evil, pierced the chest of the figure and ended its life.
As the last body of the Death Rider slipped off his Sword, he stood still, heart pounding, sweat dripping from his face and stinging numerous cuts he couldn't remember receiving. Sound began to penetrate the haze around his mind, and he heard sobbing. Turning to the noise, he saw Lure holding Malon, her shoulders shaking as she cried in pain. The shock must have worn off, allowing her to feel the extent of her wound.
He tore his eyes away from the grizzly tableau and met Zelda's stare. Anger surged up inside him once again, but this time he savagely reined it in. A cold smile stole over his face, and he said to the Sages, "I guess now you expect me to kill myself and rid you all of this blemish of yours."
Saria winced, and he ignored it. He was sick of this, all of it, and the urge to run, explode, or do both filled him. Slamming a lid on all of his emotions, he turned his back on them and walked over to Lure and Malon. Lure looked up, the front of his shirt soaked in blood. "She needs a surgeon, or a doctor, or, or Anju, get her-"
Link knelt down and scooped his friend into his arms. Her head lolled unnaturally, and he had to fight the nausea that overcame him. "Don't worry," he said softly to Lure. "I'll take care of her."
He walked out of the Temple, half-expecting one of the Sages to try and stop him; they let him pass undeterred. He found Epona waiting for him, surrounded by startled and fearful Hunters and their kin. He ignored them all and mounted, leaving them behind. Right now all that mattered was the limp body in his arms. He had one more option that might work.
* * *
Lure took off his new coat and hung it on the rack beside the door. The smell of cooking, and the faint scent of hay and horses, greeted his nose. "Hey there, Cirion," he said to the dog watching him from the entryway with wary eyes. No matter how many times he would visit this house, he doubted the wolfos-like animal would ever fully trust him.
"Where's your mistress?" he asked the dog. Cirion cocked his head slightly, then stood up and padded deeper into the house. Lure followed him, a wry smile on his face. Cirion walked into a room brightly lit with sunlight and up to his keeper. Malon sat ensconced in a window, an unopened book in her lap, her face turned towards the world outside.
"How goes the day?" Lure asked, and she turned to him with a bright smile.
"Much better since you're here," she said, giving him a one-armed hug. "I've already started training that bay colt you were eyeing, and if you're really, really nice, I might give him to you as a present."
Lure laughed. "I get the sneaking suspicion you're after something. Isn't that bribery?"
Malon grinned. "Maybe. So how're things at the castle?"
Lure settled onto a chair beside her with a sigh. "Well, the monarchy's back in power, and the people are starting to migrate back to the city. Maybe in a year or so, it'll be back to some semblance of what Castleton once was."
"So there has been no more signs of the Death Riders?"
"Not a one. Seems they're gone for good, all of them."
Malon didn't miss the subtle insinuation of his words. Her smile slipped, and she said, "I wanted to thank him."
"Don't worry," Lure said. "I don't think he can stay away from us forever. We're his best friends."
Her smile returned, though not as bright as before.
"Do you remember anything of what happened after the Temple?" Lure asked her.
"Not really. The one thing I do recall is hearing a goddesses-awful laugh that was more obnoxious than yours, and then the pain seeming to leave. According to the guard at the gate, Link brought me back here and left, and that I was asleep for almost a week."
A silence descended on them as both slipped into their own thoughts. After a while, Lure stood up and said, "So how about showing me that palfrey of yours?"
"Palfrey?" Malon let out a snort and stood up. "I hope he takes a chunk out of you for that."
They both left the room and made their way to the stables, their laughter brightening the day far more than the rays of the sun.
* * *
A bird flit out from its perch in the tree with a trill. Link watched it fly away with a wide smile. You're looking at a bird, Epona said, shaking her mane. You'd think it was the goddesses themselves you're seeing.
"I just can't seem to get used to seeing animals moving about and making noise," Link said as he leaned back, head craning to watch the birds fly overhead.
Epona nibbled the hem of his shirt and he stroked her nose, enjoying being able to sit like this, with his back pressed against her flank, and not having to worry about nothing more than which bird he would see next. The waters of Lake Hylia lapped at the shore, and if he looked to his right he could see the faint outline of the town, repairs already turning it back to the bustling city it once was.
Do you ever regret leaving them? Epona asked, worry for him etched in her thoughts.
Yes and no. I miss them, but I've got too much left to do still, and I'll only be a burden to them. Maybe once I figure out if my being who I am is going to effect me moreso, and after I rid myself of my guilt.
That'll take a millennia, she said, her quip softened by the care he felt there.
"Maybe," he said, "but they've their lives to live, and I've mine. I can't go back until I'm ready."
And I think you're just avoiding the fight.
Link laughed. "I still can't believe that Gerudo found me. He looked just as surprised as I felt when we stumbled on each other, and then he blurts out that 'I'm not finished with you, I challenge you to a duel.'"
You like him?
"He is one of the more interesting peoples I've met. I think I surprised him more when I gave him back the Sword." He paused for a moment, watching a duck glide onto the lake's surface. "Do you care where we go from here?"
No, so long as you are happy.
He turned to her and ruffled her mane. "Aw, is my 'wittle Epona getting soft on me?"
She flattened her ears and bared her teeth. That'll be the day!
The sound of his laughter echoed off the bluffs' walls, startling a flock of sparrows into flight. He watched them fly away, for the first time in years glad to be alive.
A/N: First off, a GIGANTIC thanks to everyone who read, and who asked me when this last chapter was coming out. I apologize for taking so darned long. Anyway, this thing isn't beta-d a bit; I was too happy I finished this bugger. Hate the ending? Love it? Lemme know, and thanks again for reading.