The Bleeding Effect
Link sank into the steaming tub with a contented sigh. A Gerudo woman lingered, presumably to help him wash, but he dismissed her with a lazy wave of his hand. She bowed and departed, leaving him alone with his bath.
The freshly-anointed Gerudo King plucked a yellow sponge from a nearby shelf and started to scrub away at the layers of grit and grime that caked his skin.
"You should've let one of the ladies help you." Navi piped up. "You're still feeling pretty weak, aren't you?"
He had found Navi's jar not anywhere in the desk, but instead behind a few books on the bookshelf. It was a hasty hiding place, not well thought out in the slightest. Aveil must have stashed Navi there when she heard Link enter the torture chamber. Link couldn't help but shudder at the thought of that vile place.
"Link?" Navi mistook his trembling for a sign of physical harm. "You're clearly not alright; you're bone-white and shaking. Just let me—"
"No, Navi." Once he uncorked her from the jar, the little fairy wasted no time in enveloping him in her healing magic. But they had to be careful; Navi had only so much magical energy to expend before the healing spell started to sap her own life energy. Link would never give up minor discomforts and pains if it meant the loss of a good friend.
He slipped further down into the tub, the bubbly top layer of the water brushing against the bottom of his nose.
"I'll be fine."
The hero dipped his head back, letting his blonde locks get soaked. He randomly picked up a jar on the shelf. He unscrewed the cap and sniffed it. He wrinkled his nose. It was too…flowery. While he was glad to have proof that the Gerudo thieves did not sacrifice their femininity to prove themselves the most fierce warriors around, that did not mean that he wanted to meet Sheik back at the fortress entryway smelling like Princess Zelda's rose garden. He smelled the other jars; to his relief, one of them had a scent distinctly not of fruits or flowers, but of grass and earth. He dumped a generous amount of the substance onto his palm, and stared to work it through his hair, grimacing as his fingers snagged on matted knots here and there.
"Link?" Navi started, hesitantly.
"Are you really King of the Gerudos now?"
Satisfied that his hair was now fully lathered, he picked up the sponge again to start wiping away more dirt.
"I suppose that that's the way it turned out, yes. Aveil was left in charge by Nabooru, who was in turn left in charge by Ganondorf. For some reason, that bit of leather there—" He gestured to the brown scrap that sat on the shelf with the flowery bath products. "—is what they use to signify who is in charge. Because I defeated Aveil, I own it, and thus am in charge."
"I see." She sounded despondent. Link straightened up in the bathwater.
"Link, I don't…the Great Deku Tree always knew that my Link was different from the rest of the Kokiri Tribe. He knew Link would leave one day, so before I joined him to become his guide, the Great Deku Tree insisted on tutoring me on every enemy in the world that he knew about, to best help Link. But this…the Great Deku Tree never thought Link would be placed in a situation where he became a king. I'm afraid that I…can't give you any advice."
"Aw, Navi, is that what you're worried about? You're not just here because you know some trivia on the monsters we face, though such knowledge often comes in handy. You're my friend, and Sheik's and the other Link's." Link dumped some water on his hair to wash out the lather. The water was turning brown; it was just about time to get out. "And besides, do you honestly think I know how to rule over others? Before this whole crazy adventure, I was only in charge of goats. And even they barely listened to me."
"So what's your plan?"
"It's high time we picked Sheik's brain. He is the prince of Lorule, after all; even if he doesn't want to be."
There was a sudden knock at the door.
"The man you sent for has arrived." Informed a thief.
"Excellent." Said Link. "Tell him I'll be right out, after I've dressed."
Dressing took a bit more time than Link had first thought it would take. During his bath, one of the Gerudos had been bold enough to assume he wanted his clothes washed and stitched, and took them from his (once Aveil's) chambers to do so. Link didn't have any spare tunics with him. So instead, laid out in front of him on the bed, was a set of clothes made for the male Gerudo Royalty. He couldn't accurately describe how he felt as he held up the silken cloth. These were once Ganondorf's clothes.
He slipped on the thin shirt and puffy white pants. They weren't tight—on the contrary, they were rather loose on his small frame—or scratchy, and yet, Link still felt uncomfortable in them. There was also a velvet, red cape, emblazoned with the Gerudo sigil: a pale crescent moon curved around a star.
Link stood in front of the mirror as he fumbled with the clasp, which was encrusted with large rubies.
"You look…good, Link." Navi tried to be nice, but he could tell the radically different style of dress was throwing her off. Clothes didn't make the man, he assured himself. He would never be like Ganondorf. Link turned a bit to the side, looking his reflection over.
"Do you think they'd let me ditch the cape, at least?"
The fairy hesitated. "Well, I can't be sure, but they might see that as a slight against them. If I were you, I would try my best to not upset them during your very first day as king."
Link frowned, but knew she was right. He threaded his belt through the pants, attaching various pouches—one of which included the Gerudo token—to it. He also hooked the Master Sword onto it; the hero simply couldn't strap it on his back with the thick, cumbersome cape in the way.
"At least there's no crown." He consoled himself.
Link pushed open the door to exit his chambers. The two guards posted on either side of the door snapped to attention as he passed them by. He still couldn't get over how rapidly and wildly his circumstances had changed; a day ago, those very same guards would have happily thrown him into a jail cell before guarding his life and possessions.
An aide was waiting at the foot of the stairs, gesturing for her new king to follow her through the maze of corridors. He acquiesced, and soon enough Link was led into a sort of foyer.
Sheik was waiting for him. He did a double take as he clapped eyes upon Link, and the hero had to restrain himself from bursting out laughing at the utterly astonished expression on the Sheikah's face.
"Sheik!" Navi was delighted as she circled around the man. "You're alright!"
"I'm glad to see you made it out unscathed as well."
The room was too full for Link's comfort. All the Gerudos were feigning disinterest in the interactions of the three companions, but it still set Link's teeth on edge.
"Leave us." Link's command rang throughout the room. The Gerudos all genuflected before filtering out of the room. Link eyed the floorboards and ceiling beams warily. Even though everyone was dismissed, there was no real guarantee that they all obeyed him.
He led Sheik to a nearby sofa.
"Are you alright?" He started, speaking lowly. "Did you have any trouble with—?"
Link yelped as Sheik leaned over and smacked him hard on the head.
"What was that for?"
"That was for sending your thieves to come get me instead of going out to see me yourself!"
"I was recovering from my injuries!"
"I thought they had killed you, Link." His eyes were hard and shiny.
Link swallowed. "I…I'm sorry. I didn't think…I'll be more careful next time."
"Next time?" Sheik said incredulously. "There won't be a next time. You're not going to go off adventuring on your own ever again."
Link gave up the line of conversation, knowing that he would eventually lose the argument. "What happened with the carpenters?"
"I sent them back to Kakariko Village with our horses. I told them Mutoh would be right behind them soon enough."
Link had a dark look on his face, and Sheik sighed. "He won't be though, will he?"
"Aveil tortured and murdered him long before we escaped."
"Link, what exactly happened after we split up? How, by the Goddesses, did you manage to become the Gerudo King?"
"I defeated Aveil and claimed the Gerudo token. But what we need to focus on now is what I'm supposed to do as king."
Sheik quirked an eyebrow. "And what, you believe I have all the answers?"
"You have to!" Link burst out, a bit louder than intended. "You're a prince."
"I was a prince." Sheik corrected him. "I forfeited my right to the throne of Lorule to come here."
"That doesn't mean you've forgotten how to be one."
"Link, this is an entirely different set of circumstances. This is a land of thieves, spies, warriors."
"So is Hyrule; the Gerudo are just more upfront about it."
"My point—" Sheik growled. "—is that my etiquette lessons will not help you here. I am just as much in the dark about how to handle this situation as you are."
"Look, I don't want this. I don't want to be King of the Gerudos. I can't stay here and rule—I need to go out and get the last medallion."
"Don't be so hasty in throwing away your kingship. We'll pass on the title to someone else as soon as possible, but right now, it's the only thing keeping them off our backs. In fact, it might not even do that for too long. Didn't you say there was a revolt going on?"
Link nodded. "There was a revolt against Aveil. But since I defeated her, the revolutionaries are satisfied. They have no ill will towards me, as far as I know."
"And what of those who were loyal to Aveil?"
Link shrugged. "Most of them were dealt with during the chaos we caused."
"And if they decide to come after you?"
"I'm in no more danger now than I was before we came here."
"I suppose that's fair enough." Sheik relented.
"I have decided to make some changes to how the Gerudo Fortress is run. Firstly, I'm going to do away with that wretched torture chamber. Secondly, I want to look into opening up trade again. Obviously we would have to be careful about it—we can hardly let Ganondorf know that I'm in charge of his tribe right now—but I really think that—"
"Why are you taking such an active interest in Gerudo affairs?" Sheik cut in. "You just said you had no interest in being king."
"Of course I don't want to be, but I have to be."
Sheik's eyes flashed with alarm. "Link, perhaps the power is—"
"It's not what you think!" The Gerudo King defended his words. "Just hear me out, alright?"
Link succinctly told Sheik and Navi of how the Gerudo Tribe was wiped out by his time.
"That's horrible!" Navi wailed, but Sheik remained unmoved.
"And you plan to do what, exactly, to stop this from happening?"
Link faltered. "Well, I…"
"You do realize that this is only a temporary thing, yes? You're third in command. One word from Ganondorf or Nabooru and you'd be cut down."
"Furthermore, you cannot afford to get so sidetracked, Link. Do not forget our mission. Do not forget that Hyrule comes first."
"The Gerudo are people just as much as the Hylians are." Link said hotly, clenching his fists.
"You are letting your new role get to your head. You feel a protectiveness of them you wouldn't otherwise bare." Sheik closed his eyes. "Sometimes we need to make difficult decisions. We must sacrifice one thing for another. Hyrule must come first."
Link stood up, incensed. "I'm not you, Sheik. Just because you abandoned Lorule to its doom doesn't mean that I must do the same to the Gerudos here!"
Sheik leapt up as well, looking as if he was just about ready to come to blows.
Just then, Navi darted in between their faces, which were flushed with rage.
"Stop fighting!" The fairy demanded.
"But Navi—" Link started.
"Don't you 'But Navi' me!" She said crossly. "You two finally became friends, and now you're going to tear all that apart because you don't understand the concept of compromise?"
Link gave out some sheepish laughter. "She's right. I'm sorry, Sheik." The Sheikah nodded, and Link understood it was meant as both an acceptance of Link's apology and an issuing of his own.
"So what sort of compromise do you have in mind?" Sheik's tone was noticeably less furious as he addressed Navi.
"Link, you want to save the Gerudos. Why don't we all brainstorm ways to do that as we cross the Haunted Wasteland? That way, we'll be headed towards the location of the Spirit Medallion—and that much closer to saving Hyrule—while we work on the Gerudo problem. See? We can do both at once."
"Navi is correct. Saving the Gerudos will be complicated—most especially when you return to your proper time, and the Hero of Time is returned to his own body."
"That's something else we'll have to address eventually." Link said. "I have no clue how to get back—neither do you, nor the sages. Suppose we don't somehow switch back before the battle against Ganondorf. What then?"
Sheik blinked. "Then we push on and defeat him, of course."
"But…it isn't my fight. It's not that I'm unwilling—" Link assures his companions. "—it's just that it's not what I was meant to do. I don't want…"
"To rob the Hero of Time of his glory?" Sheik scoffed at the idea. "You needn't be concerned with all that."
"Link never liked fighting." Put in Navi. "It always upset him."
"It's not that you revel in it or anything." Sheik assured Link. "It's just that you're better equipped emotionally to fulfill your duties." Sheik then stared at him, calculatingly, long enough to unnerve Link.
"Time is a curious thing. It is far from rigid. Rather, like a stream. A handful of rocks can divert its path."
"Maybe this was meant to happen, all along. Maybe the other Link was never meant to be the Hero of Time—maybe you were. Or, perhaps not; perhaps this is just a different time stream, intermingling with the original. Perhaps this is simply another way that our story unfolds."
The companions paused for a moment, pondering.
Eventually, Link broke the silence. "You sent the horses away?"
"The Haunted Wasteland is too treacherous for them."
"You're saying we have to go on foot? Through a desert?"
"You're the Gerudo King now." Sheik reminded him. As if he could forget. "If anything, that will make our trip to the Spirit Temple an easier one."
Link stared out over the assembled crowd of Gerudos before him. The sweat of anxiety beaded his palms. Aside from the sickly, elderly, and those that absolutely could not abandon their posts, every single Gerudo in the fortress was in attendance. They lined up in neat rows in front of the makeshift podium—a few large crates stacked upon one another. Young and old alike stood ramrod straight, without fidgeting, in the open air and hot sun. They were untroubled by the heat; Link, on the contrary, was blinking the sweat out of his eyes. Personally, he blamed the cape.
"I count five hundred and twelve of them, give or take a few." Sheik murmured. He was standing on Link's right, hands clasped behind his back. His voice and posture betrayed no anxiety, but Link knew he was just as nervous as Link himself was. Perhaps even more so, given his cautious nature.
Link wondered, not for the first time, why Ganondorf had not utilized the Gerudo Tribe when he took over the Hylian throne. These warriors were his birthright, and each one of them, no matter their profession, was worth five Hylian men. Why would Ganondorf cast them aside in favor of monsters? Perhaps it had something to do with the intelligence gap; though some of Link's foes had sheds of wiliness, most were nonthreatening grunts. The Gerudo Tribe was full of thinking people. They would remain loyal, but only up to a certain point: when conditions became too intolerable, they would stand up for their way of life. The revolt against Aveil was proof enough of that. Dissent in the ranks would have led to infighting, which might have hampered Ganondorf's success.
Or perhaps he simply wanted to preserve the Gerudo Tribe the best he could. Perhaps he had a soft spot, a fondness for them. Link almost snorted. Ganondorf caring for anything more than power was as likely as a Zora growing wings and learning how to fly.
"Denizens of the Gerudo Fortress," As he spoke, any sets of eyes that were not already fixed upon him flew up to watch him. No need to be nervous now, Link reminded himself. Just repeat what Sheik drilled into you, and you'll be fine. "As you are all aware, I am your new and acting king until Queen Nabooru or…King Ganondorf choose to return. I came here a prisoner; and before the month was out, I managed to fight my way to the heart of the fortress, and single-handedly defeat Aveil. With her death she forfeit her position. Is there any one of you who would dare challenge my claim?"
Link waited, counting ten long seconds in his head. When no one spoke up, he gave a satisfied nod. He tilted his chin up a little—that was how kings stood, right? He prayed he didn't look as ridiculous to them as he felt.
"Refusal to take lives." Sheik reminded him softly of the next portion of his speech. Link flashed him a small, grateful smile.
"On my way to claim the Gerudo token, I spared many that crossed my path. Some of you might perceive this as a sign of weakness. What kind of ruler cannot cut down those who would oppose him? But I assure you, my refusal to claim the lives of those I defeated was a demonstration of my strength and foresight." Link swallowed. Talking so much in such high temperatures made him thirsty, but he couldn't stop for a drink now. They'd see it as a sign of weakness. "It was always my plan, from the very moment I crossed over the Gerudo Valley, to become its king. So why would I harm those that would soon become my people? Why would I purposefully eliminate my own warriors? However, you would be wise to realize that my time of mercy has ended now that I am king. Should any of you defy me, stand in my way, I will not hesitate to strike you down."
It was hard to read the Gerudos. Most kept their faces blank, concealing their opinions of his first speech. But some of the younger ones were nodding along with his words, agreeing with his wisdom. Little did they suspect he was feeding them lies and half-truths.
"I have many plans for the future of the Gerudo Fortress." Link announced. "But first, I must journey to the Spirit Temple. My reasons are twofold. Firstly, I wish to pledge my allegiance to the Goddess of Sand." Farore, Nayru, Din, forgive him for his blasphemy, a lie though it may be. "Secondly, I wish to discuss the recent rumors about Nabooru conducting experiments on others with her herself." Link was careful to not say what his opinion about her possibly performing such actions would be.
"It shall be my first time crossing the Haunted Wasteland, and I shall need—want, rather—an escort. Only so I might get to the temple as quickly as possible. How long would such a journey take?"
"With little to no winds, and few rests, the trip can be completed in a full day." Someone spoke up from the crowd. Link recognized her as the aide from earlier that morning.
"I shall return in three days, then, no more. Because my time away shall be so short, I see no need to put another in my place as king. I trust you to act wisely and justly with each other. Hold your complaints and problems until my return. Now. Who among you would like the privilege of becoming part of my honor guard?"
Many hands shot up, far more than Link expected. Perhaps the Haunted Wasteland wasn't as treacherous as Sheik has made it out to be?
Sheik leaned over to whisper in his ear again. "Many of them believe that being part of your honor guard will give them a better chance at becoming your second-in-command. Some might even plan to cut your throat sometime during the journey."
Link nodded his understanding. Goddesses, he hated politics.
Link dismissed all save for those that volunteered, and after a rigorous screening by him and Sheik, they weeded out all but eight. Link was wary of taking that many thieves with them to begin with—though he wanted to save them, that didn't mean he trusted them—but Sheik assured him that it was a necessary evil.
"We need to show them that you don't fear some reasonable risk. If all eight tried to turn on us, they might succeed in killing us. By taking them all with you regardless, you're demonstrating that you're not intimidated by numbers—you'll cut them all down if they interfere."
Link hoped it wouldn't come to that point during their brief journey. Contrary to the declarations he made during his address, he would hesitate to kill any that opposed him.
The next morning, he was presented with a new outfit for the journey. It still couldn't come close to his tunic, but it was at least better suited for traveling. The cape was still a part of the ensemble, though, much to his annoyance. He contemplated asking for chain mail, but he held off. He searched through the royal wardrobe, and not one metal link was to be found. Perhaps the Gerudo warriors simply didn't don the same type of protective battle gear as the Hylians. Link supposed it made sense; the heavy gear would only weigh them down.
Link managed to find his own way to the foyer this time. The eight handpicked Gerudos waited for him, faces masks of serenity and patience. A little apart from them, Sheik tapped his foot, a lot less patient. Whilst Link was changing outfits for the trip, the other man seemed to have cleaned up as well: his face looked washed, and a new turban was wound at the top of his head.
The entourage left the inside of the fortress, heading for the large gate that stood between them and the Haunted Wasteland. By some unspoken agreement amongst the Gerudos, Link and Sheik walked in the middle of the group. Two thieves were on all sides of them.
The guards posted at the gate bowed at Link's arrival. Afterwards, one of them climbed up a tall ladder and wound an enormous crank. Despite its size, she turned it almost effortlessly, and the gate started to be retracted up. It didn't groan or whine—they must take better care of such things than the Hylians.
They had stepped hardly three feet into the desert and the wind had already picked up, tossing around grains of sand. Link rubbed at his eye with mild irritation as some particles got caught there.
"The Haunted Wasteland is littered with traps, my king." Said one of the Gerudos. "Some are set by nature, to keep us out. Some are set by us, to keep others out. We will do our best to guide you by the safest way."
Link nodded at the Gerudo in what he thought might be a regal way, and they pressed on, further into the desert. They were making good progress; soon enough, when Link glanced back, the Gerudo Fortress was little more than a faint smudge of brown on the horizon.
"Sheik." Link muttered, not particularly wanting the Gerudos to eavesdrop.
The Sheikah's eyes flicked to him with question.
"Why is it called the Haunted Wasteland?"
"This is a very treacherous land that we are crossing. Many have lost their lives here, from lack of water, any number of poisonous creatures, and from the very sand itself. It is said that those killed here never move on. Their hatred, spawned by the perceived unfairness of their death, keeps them stuck here. So the vengeful spirits now contribute to the carnage. They do their utmost to drag others down with them, either by distracting them away from the true path to the Spirit Temple, so the elements can claim them, or by grasping them by the ankles and pulling them so deep into the sand that they choke upon it."
Sheik smirked at Link's white face.
"It's only a legend, of course. Most likely generated by the Gerudo Tribe long ago to deter any outsiders from trying to reach their sacred temple."
"Is that why it's called the Spirit Medallion, and not, say, the Sand Medallion?" Navi asked sprightly.
"Your logic is sound, but that's not the reason."
Link lost his balance momentarily in the shifting sand; Sheik caught him instantly, and he righted himself again. It was all over in a matter of seconds. If any of the Gerudos noticed their king's minor blunder, they said nothing. Heat crept onto his cheeks. His already large respect for Princess Zelda quadrupled. To be under the pressure to be absolutely perfect in front of her subjects all the time…It was enough to drive one mad.
"The Spirit Medallion is so named—" Sheik continued his explanation smoothly, as if the interruption had never happened. "—because of the person who traditionally carries it. Most of the medallions we've obtained thus far were sealed away by the people who own them. But the Gerudo Tribe differs, however, in that their high priestess—most commonly their queen—wears and wields the medallion's might. Because it is used so frequently in their religious practices, it has come to be known as the Spirit Medallion. Nabooru is the current queen; she must have it in her possession. That's why I wanted to speak with her when we first arrived here."
The troop continued on in silence, for some time, conserving their reserves of water. Every now and then the two thieves in the front would hold up their hands in warning. Everyone would pause as the pair carefully assessed the sand dunes in front of them. Once satisfied that no quicksand was waiting before them to drag them into oblivion, they would press on. Several times, adjustments had to be made to their course. Link fervently hoped the Gerudos knew where they were going, because he didn't have the foggiest idea. The only clue he had to go by were the posts of wood scattered here and there. At the tops of the posts were old, frayed knots. They were all dyed different colors, helpfully letting the travelers know that they were making progress, and not simply stumbling around in circles.
Their progress, however, screeched to a halt when they came to two posts. Both had yellow knots tied upon them. One led to the left, and the other, the right.
"This isn't right." One of the Gerudos snapped. "There shouldn't be two of them."
"Haven't at least some of you made this journey before?" Asked Sheik, voice calm despite the situation. "Shouldn't you recall which way the true path is?"
"The desert is hardly comparable to your calm fields of grass, Hylian." One Gerudo spat. Though they now had to respect Link, that didn't mean they had to extend the same courtesy to his companion."The desert is impossible to map no matter how many times you cross it. Each time it misdirects you in a different way."
"Oh? Then who put down the guide posts, and why do we follow them?"
The Gerudo was spitting mad now, and Link stepped between them.
"That's enough, from both of you."
The Gerudo scowled, and Sheik snorted with incredulity, but both still yielded to Link's command.
"Now, what we need to do next is…" Link trailed off, face draining of blood.
"Link? What's wrong?" Navi asked.
The Gerudos took notice of their king's sudden, unexplained discomfort, and crowded closer.
"My king, what ails you?" One asked, touching Link's arm. The hero flinched at the contact and pulled away.
"Give him some room!" Sheik said brusquely, shooing the group further back. He then followed Link's line of sight, and understanding flooded through him.
In front of them, directly between the two stakes, was a ghost. Link had encountered many poes before, in his own time, but this one was especially jarring. Instead of a lantern, a rotted head was clutching in its skeletal grip. The poe itself was a disgusting mess. Half of its face was grotesquely smashed in; that must've been the fatal blow it received when it was still alive. Strips of flesh have browned, but not entirely peeled away, and instead hung loosely upon the bone. One of its eyes was rolled back in its socket. The white membrane of the eye was sticky with blood. The other eye glowed with cruelty.
"You two have eyes that can see what many wish not to." The wraith hissed.
Link's eyes flicked from the poe and to the Gerudos. Dare he speak to the ghost in front of them? Sheik gives him a nod of approval, so he addresses the ethereal being.
"What is your purpose here, poe?" Link's voice was sharp and clear. The Gerudos looked alarmed—their king was speaking to thin air—but Sheik's warning glare quieted any of their protestations.
"You are lost." Cackled the wraith. "And I know the path to the temple. I can lead you."
"And why, pray tell, would I be inclined to believe your offer?"
"Because I will not be doing it for free." At Link's wary yet interested expression, the poe continued. "There is a toll."
Sheik stepped forward. "I will be the one to pay it."
"No, Link. You are the Gerudo King. Your wellbeing concerns more than just yourself."
"And what is this toll, then?" Said Link.
"The toll is not exacted, nor explained, until I have fulfilled my end of our bargain and have taken you to the temple. Now, will you follow?"
"We will." Said Sheik.
"We will?" Link could hardly believe that the cautious man was willing to take such an enormous risk in trusting the specter.
The poe grinned, and beckoned them towards it.