Falling, falling… he seemed to be falling for eternity. It was a strange feeling; he knew he was falling, and yet his body did not move. Was it his mind that was falling? Was this death? Does one's mind simply fall into an endless abyss of darkness, with no hope of that fall ever being broken? The silence was oppressive; he couldn't hear the wind, even as it rushed by him. After a while, his mind went blank, and he simply resigned himself to the fall.
Water rushed up around him without warning. He didn't recall hitting the surface of the water, nor did he feel the need to breathe. His mind floated without effort in the middle of a dark abyss of water, and he could no longer tell if he was sinking or rising. He simply was.
Another eternity passed before Link could feel his face break the surface of the water. He began to breathe out of instinct, and the cool air was almost sweet as it passed into his lungs. Was he alive again? He was breathing, and he could feel his heartbeat, so he was certain he had a body. Link's consciousness began to become clearer, more defined, and he began to unconsciously recognize his own state of being. Flexing his fingers and toes, he became aware that he was still wearing his gloves and boots. His hat brushed against his neck as it floated in the water, and he could feel his chainmail and clothes weighing down on him.
With effort, Link opened his eyes. He was lying face up in a pool of clear water, surrounded by trees. Looking up at the sky, he could see the moon shining down on him, with multitudes of stars surrounding it. Small white lights seemed to be floating up from the pool around him, drifting into the heavens to join the stars.
"What a beautiful place…" Link thought.
Making a first attempt to sit up caused an incredible pain to branch out from his stomach, and Link grabbed his stab wound, which was staining the water around him red. Taking deep, shuddering breaths, he tried to subdue the pain, but it was far too intense. He gritted his teeth and tried to stand, but his legs gave out on him and he simply sat in the water, biting back the haze of pain clouding his mind.
"Wow," A woman's voice cut through the fuzziness in his thoughts, "it takes something special to maintain a human form in this world."
The woman's voice seemed to dull the pain somehow, and Link turned his head to see who was speaking. His eyes widened as he saw a young woman, looking to be around his age, floating above the surface of the water. She had long, midnight-colored hair tied into a thick braid, and sharp orange eyes that seemed to pierce his soul. But perhaps her most startling feature was a pair of cat-like ears perched on top of her head. They twitched as her lips curled into a feline grin.
"But of course, you are something special, aren't you? A legendary hero!" She folded her arms. "So I suppose it would to be expected that you can keep your form in this world."
"Who…" Link tried to stand up again, this time being able to keep his balance. "Who are you? And how do you know about me?" He was still clutching his stomach, wondering how much blood he had lost.
"Well, of course I know about you! After all, that mark on your left hand is the Triforce of Courage, isn't it?" The girl chuckled.
Link's eyes widened as she spoke. He was wearing gloves, so how did she know about the Triforce on his hand? Something about this girl was dangerous. He instinctively reached up for his sword, only to realize that he didn't have one. "That's right. I dropped the Master Sword during my battle with Ganondorf… So I'm unarmed right now. Not that I could do much, what with the state I'm in…"
"And as for who I am," She continued, walking towards him. "The name's Melateo. You can call me Mela. I'm just a meddlesome girl." Mela stopped right in front of him, looking down at him. Link could see that the cat-girl was a bit shorter than him, but she was floating just above the surface of the water, which came up to his ankles.
"What do you want?" Link asked, and Mela laughed. It was a musical laugh, but the attitude that came along with it bothered him.
"No, no, no, the question is what you want, Mr. Legendary Hero!" She leaned forward and looked him in the eye. "You've got something important to do, don't you? A very important mission, right?"
"That's right; I have to defeat Ganondorf…" Link clutched his stomach and closed his eyes. "But I…"
Melateo laughed again. "That's right! You have to defeat Ganondorf, but you failed, didn't you?" Link glared up at her, gritting his teeth. As much as it irritated him, she was absolutely right. Ganondorf had stabbed him, and he had fallen off the tower only to somehow end up here. Then was he really…
"You died before you could fulfill your all-important destiny. What a shame, Mr. Legendary Failure." Mela walked towards a large rock that had water flowing out of a hole in its face. She floated up and stood on top of it, and then turned to face him. Link's heart sank.
"So, I really am… dead?" He looked up at the sarcastic cat-girl, who was watching him with a condescending grin on her face.
"That's right! You're dead. This is the afterworld, Avartea. Those who die in Hyrule come here to receive a second chance. Of course, this world is quite a bit… different from Hyrule." Mela crouched down and pulled at her cat ears. "Most people don't possess strong enough Soul to maintain a human form in Avartea, and so it's quite common to see half-beasts or even full beast people here."
"Like you?" Link eyed her ears with suspicion. Mela laughed.
"Well, I'm a bit different, but you just can't tell right now." She stood up and hopped off the rock, floating just above the surface again. "But enough about me. What about you? What are you going to do?"
"What do you mean?" The pain was slowly starting to creep back as Link spoke.
"Surely you're not going to just let it end this way?" Mela turned to the side and stretched her shoulders. "What I'm asking is this: If you could go back and settle things with Ganondorf, would you?"
Link's eyes widened, and his heart raced. A chance to come back to life? Was it possible? He could go back and try again, and save Zelda and all of Hyrule?
Melateo noticed his expression and laughed. "You seem rather keen on the idea. But here's another question: Would anything change by you going back? You're the same weakling now that you were when you fought Ganondorf the first time. Why would a second chance change anything?"
Link gritted his teeth. Melateo's words hurt, but they were right on the mark. Going back the way he was now wouldn't change anything. He would just get himself killed again. But even so…
"Even so… I still need to go back." Link glared at the girl with determination in his eyes. "I can't… I won't let it end like this." Mela looked at him with a curious expression, and then sighed. A smile curled her lips, and she turned to him.
"If that's how you feel, then I guess I'll help you out." She shrugged. "Or at least, I would. But, you see, I'm in a bit of an unfortunate situation myself."
Link raised an eyebrow. "An… unfortunate situation?"
"That's right." Melateo crossed her arms and legs, still floating in the air. "See, I'm a pretty powerful person in my own right, but recently a rather unscrupulous character sealed my powers away. Normally, I would be able to send you back to the other world without any problems, but right now I just don't have enough power to do it."
Link narrowed his eyes in suspicion. Just who was this girl?
Mela noticed his expression and chuckled. "I can understand your suspicions, seeing how dead people don't just come back to life. But you're a bit of a special case, Mr. Hero. You've got a destiny to fulfill, and death can't stand in the way of that. So that's why I'm offering you a deal."
"A deal? What kind of deal?" The pain in his stomach was getting worse, and Link wondered how he hadn't bled out by now.
"A contract. You help me unseal my powers, and I send you back to the world of the living. How about it?" Melateo watched him carefully, looking for a reaction.
Link thought it over. It seemed like a good deal, but…
"What does helping you unseal your powers involve?" He asked, hoping for a quick response. The pain from the stab wound was starting to get unbearable.
"Oh, not too much." Mela shrugged. "My power is sealed by three towers that appeared in different parts of the land. We would have to find the keys to those towers and destroy the seals at the top of each tower."
"That's it?" Link raised an eyebrow. Seemed easy enough…
"Well, there's another, final seal that rests with Nehorim, the originator of the seal. We would have to defeat him, too. And if you're wondering why I haven't done all of this already, it's because getting close to the towers weakens me to the point where I don't have the strength to make the climb."
Link frowned. It seemed like a lot to have to go through, but if that was the only way to get back to Hyrule, it would be a small price to pay. But even so, he still had his doubts. Could she really send him back?
"What guarantee do I have that you can send me back?" Link asked through gritted teeth.
"You don't. You just have to trust me." Was Mela's straight-laced reply. "And of course, it's either this, or you wander around this world trying to find another way to get back with an open stab wound." She grinned mischievously.
She made a good point, even if her attitude irritated him. He wouldn't last long with a wound like this. The fact that he was still standing was nothing short of a miracle. And even if he did manage to last a while, there was no guarantee he would find another way back. Helping her was looking like the only decent solution to his situation. Gathering his resolve, Link took a deep breath, and stood up straight, facing Melateo.
"Alright, I'll accept your contract." Link said with determination.
"Excellent." Melateo smiled, and walked towards him. "Then before anything else, I'll need to take some collateral."
"Collateral? What's tha-" Link was cut off midsentence as Melateo rushed forward and plunged her hand into his chest. Pain unlike anything he had ever experienced – worse even than being stabbed in the stomach – surged through his body. The excruciating pain paralyzed him, and he couldn't even scream. He looked down, but couldn't see Melateo's face.
"Yes… I suppose this will do." She gripped something in his chest and ripped her hand back, and Link howled as he collapsed, gripping his chest. He expected to be holding back even more of his blood, but to his shock and surprise, there was no wound. Even the pain was fading quickly.
"I've received your collateral, and that completes our contract." He looked up to see Melateo holding something that shone with blue light.
"Wh… What is that…?" Link asked, out of breath. She walked toward the large stone again.
"Your collateral. As part of the contract, I had to take the one thing you value most." Mela turned back to him and grinned as she watched Link's expression turn from shock to horror.
"What do you mean? What did you take!?" He glared at her, and she shrugged, apparently nonchalant about the whole situation.
"I just took your memories of the one person that means the most to you." Melateo replied, and the orb of light resting in her hand shattered into smaller forms. The smaller pieces solidified into jewels that shone light blue. She waved her other hand and a golden ring appeared. The jewels floated into place around the ring, and she brought the ring over her head and let it rest just above her shoulders. She closed her eyes and sighed. "You had a good childhood…" Mela mumbled.
Link scoured his mind for any idea of what she was talking about. He immediately noticed holes in his memory, from as early as his childhood even up to as recent as his fight with Ganondorf. What was missing? No, that wasn't it.
Who was missing?
"Well, if you fulfill your end of the contract, then I'll give these back, no strings attached." Mela shrugged. "Just think of them as insurance."
"And… if I don't fulfill the contract?" Link looked her straight in the eye. "What happens then?"
"You lose your collateral forever, I'm afraid." Was her blunt response as she met his gaze. "But that won't happen, now will it? After all, you have to go back, no matter what, right?"
"Right…" He looked down at the water. Mela grinned and walked over until she was right next to him, and leaned on his shoulder.
"We're partners now, Mr. Big Important Hero."
Link sighed with exasperation, but then noticed something odd about her reflection and looked up at her. "Hey, your ears are gone."
"Huh?" The simple observation seemed to catch her off guard. Mela patted the top of her head, and then felt the side of her head, where a pair of pointed Hylian ears had taken the place of her cat ears. "Oh, right, they are. It's thanks to your collateral giving me an extra little bit of power." She grinned, still feline in that respect. "By the way, I took the liberty of healing your stab wound. You don't have to thank me."
He had been so caught up in thinking about his missing memories that he hadn't even recognized the absence of pain in his stomach. Link looked down and, sure enough, the wound was gone. Even his clothes and chainmail had been repaired.
"So, what now?" Link asked, looking up at his new "partner".
"Well, I suppose we should set about finding the key to the first tower." Melateo replied. She walked towards the edge of the pool, but then stopped and turned around. "Oh, but of course, a hero without a sword is pretty useless. I'll lend you mine."
Mela held both her hands out, and the lights in the spring seemed to gather above her palms. They grew brighter and brighter, until they took solid form. A sword in a sheath floated above her hands, and she tossed to Link, who caught it warily. He gripped the handle and pulled the sword out of its sheath, and admired the blade.
It was a long blade, about the length of the Master Sword. The blade itself was made of white steel, but the color got progressively darker up to the pitch black tip. The hilt was a dark violet. The sword itself was light, even lighter than the Master Sword, much to his surprise.
"Hmm, seems like a nice fit, but can you actually use it?" Mela was eyeing him with a skeptical look in her eyes. Link frowned; why wouldn't he be able to use it? She shrugged and then gave him a mischievous grin. "Alright, come at me! Give me your worst."
He stared for a moment. "You're telling me… to attack a woman… and an unarmed woman at that?"
"That's right!" Mela replied. "Don't worry about my safety. That sword is mine, so it won't hurt me. Now come on, do your worst!"
Link looked down at the blade, confused. Just because the sword was hers, it wouldn't hurt her? Well, she had said that this world was quite a bit different from Hyrule, so he really had no choice but to take her words at face value. But even so, it was still hard to believe. Melateo read his expression and sighed.
"Here, I'll prove it to you." She strode over to him and wrenched the blade from his hand, only to turn it on herself. With no hesitation, Mela rammed the blade through her chest. No blood, no screams, and apparently no pain. Link stared in awe as she pulled the sword out, completely unharmed, and then handed it back to him. "See? Nothing to worry about."
"Alright then." Link whirled the blade around in his hand. "If you insist."
The next few minutes were spent with Melateo telling Link to perform various attack maneuvers with the sword, and Link performing them on Melateo. Each time, the blade passed through her body harmlessly and without resistance. After each successful "strike", Mela would laugh and give him some flippant compliment, and then give him the next move. All the while, the mischievous girl danced around the surface of the water, with Link running after her and attacking with no small amount of irritation.
"Yes, yes, good!" Mela mockingly applauded his last strike, a jump strike. "Now lastly, perform a Spin Attack. As a legendary hero, you must know the Spin Attack, right?" Link glared at her. She was getting on his last nerves, and she knew it. "Come on, take all that pent up frustration and let it out!"
His anger was boiling up inside him, and Link held his sword back behind him, focusing all of his frustration and irritation into the blade. He slowly crept within range of her, and then released all of his fury into a Spin Attack. Whirling the blade around him in a circle, it passed through Melateo's body like she wasn't even there. The girl giggled.
"I'm sorry, was that supposed to tickle?" She grinned and held up both of her hands. "I kid, I kid. That was very well done. The fact that you can use that blade is commendable." Link lowered the sword and sighed. Though he did feel a little better after that last Spin Attack, he was still irritated at her snide remarks about his swordsmanship.
"You know, I don't really appreciate your backhanded praise." He finally countered.
"Oh, I assure you, that last bit was entirely genuine. I really am impressed." Mela replied. Link raised an eyebrow. "You see, that sword is a bit… picky. I was just making sure that you can use it."
"Picky… You mean the sword chooses its wielder?" Link looked at the blade carefully.
"That's right!" Her eyes had a mischievous sparkle. "And it chose you. How lucky, Mr. Hero."
Link sighed and put the sword back in its sheath. "So, this key you were talking about…"
"Whoa, whoa, let's not get ahead of ourselves." Mela put up both of her hands in a stopping motion. "You may have a sword, but you won't survive long without a shield."
"I take it you don't have one that I can conveniently borrow?" Link knew that she was right; he would be dead in the water if he didn't have a shield. "So where can I get a shield?"
"Well, there's a village nearby. The local blacksmith owes me a favor, so we should talk to him first." Mela walked over to the edge of the pool, and stepped down onto the ground. Link was surprised. Could she only float like that over the spring? He walked toward her, but she suddenly turned around.
"Oh, not that I particularly care, but do you have a name?"
Link gave her a blank stare. She had been mocking him, forged a 'contract' with him, stolen some of his memories, had a one-sided sparring match with him, and she had yet to ask his name. What was with this girl?
"… Link." He replied.
"Link…" She chuckled. "Charming."
Link sighed. This was going to be a long adventure.