All or Nothing
Link and Zelda looked around as they stepped into Nagadii's room. The door wasn't the only thing that had changed; the entire room looked vastly different. For starters, it was twice the size it had once been—a sure sign, in Link's mind, that they were walking into some sort of demon's lair. Secondly, it had a decidedly darker appearance. There was no sign that a human being lived in the room and used it for mundane things like sleeping. Instead, there were numerous tables covered with papers and magical equipment, and the walls were lined with bookcases full of old books, nasty-looking things floating in glass jars, and dried plants.
Link didn't want to know who the skull belonged to.
Near the far-right wall was the rift, still churning with black smoke and crackling with blue streaks of miniature lightning. And in front of the rift stood none other than Nagadii… or, at least, the figure standing there appeared to have once been Nagadii.
His face had distorted and his mouth and nose were elongated to the point it looked like he was developing a beak. His feet had become a bird's claws and his arms—while still shaped like arms—had long feathers dangling down from them.
He looked like he was halfway to becoming one of the demon-birds that he used on the field at Erenrue.
"What happened to him?" Zelda whispered.
Laertes, who was standing closest to them, whispered back, "He is becoming a demon."
"Did one of them attack him?"
He shook his head. "No, he's sold his soul to the Dark Lord in exchange for magical prowess. But I think he's finding that the Dark Lord has cheated him—as he will cheat any human."
"The Dark Lord has not cheated me!" Nagadii said loudly, sounding more as if he needed to convince himself than everyone else.
"He certainly hasn't given you the power to stop Link and Zelda," Laertes shot back. "Either they are more powerful than him, or he is setting you up to fail."
"You haven't seen a portion of the power he has given me! I will show you who is more powerful."
With that, he clamped his arms down to his sides, then he began spinning. But it wasn't like a child turning around and around on a spot; he was spinning as fast as a top, to the point that all of his features were blurred.
Everyone watched for a moment, unsure of what he was doing—or even how he was doing it. Then, suddenly, he lifted his arms and feathered darts went flying in random directions all over the room.
They plinked harmlessly off Link and Zelda's shield, but they struck many of the knights. And, before most of them could even cry out, they blinked out of existence.
"Shields!" someone shouted. There was a scramble to grab shields, but before they were all completely protected, the darts struck a few more.
"What's happening to them?" Zelda asked in a panicked voice. "Where are they going? They can't die again… can they?"
"I don't know," Link said, just as worried. When Zeyde had fought the Demon of Nightmares, the demon had said that he could steal Zeyde's soul. Were the Knights of Hyrule being trapped by Nagadii in the Dark World?
Nagadii quit spinning and laughed uproariously. "Where is your bravado now?" he taunted. "Did you think you were immune to my magic just because you're dead? Now you see the power that the Dark Lord has over both the living and the dead!"
He began to spin again.
"Form up!" Laertes commanded, running towards the center of the room. The others gathered around him, presenting a shield wall to defend against Nagadii's attack.
Nagadii laughed, then went careening around the room like an out of control top. Everyone was left trying to change direction to match him, and when he started shooting darts again, a few more knights were hit and disappeared.
He circled around the group, coming back to his place in front of the rift. But Laertes was obviously ready for this, and as soon as Nagadii stopped spinning, he jumped out of the group and slashed him across the chest with his sword.
Nagadii stumbled back, crying out and doubling over on himself. A moment later—before Laertes could strike a second blow—he raised up again, holding out his arms, and he shot feathers from his arms.
Link cried out as Laertes—along with half a dozen more knights in the group behind him—blinked out of existence.
But Laertes' hit had not been in vain; Nagadii's face looked human again. Apparently the hit had managed to knock some of the demon out of him.
"Hit him again!" Link shouted, but before anyone could do anything, Nagadii began spinning again and everyone had to duck behind their shields.
He went bouncing around the room again, shooting darts every which way, but the knights were better-prepared this time and they managed to turn in sync with his movements. Even so, a few darts flew low, hitting three more of them in the legs and causing them to disappear, too.
As soon as Nagadii came to a stop by the rift, a knight broke from the group and rushed him. He had hardly stopped spinning when the knight laid a powerful blow directly onto his head.
But instead of killing him instantly, the blow only sent him staggering back again and his bird's feet became human feet again.
But, like before, Nagadii shot his feather darts before he could be struck again. He took out the knight who had attacked him, but no one else.
"One more hit and they'll have him," Link said triumphantly.
Nagadii began to spin again, then he streaked across the room and zoomed up the wall. He was on the ceiling directly above them in a matter of seconds.
"Guard above!" someone shouted, just before Nagadii began to laugh and spray them with darts. Many men weren't able to get their shields up in time and they disappeared. Of the three dozen or so men who had entered the room with Link and Zelda, no more than fifteen were still fighting.
Link felt Zelda's hand slipping away and he clamped down on it tighter before she could pull away. "What are you doing?" he demanded.
"I can get him!" she said, looking up. Nagadii was still spinning on the ceiling and showering everyone below with volleys of darts. The remaining knights sheltered under their shields, waiting for an opening.
"You can't shoot him without breaking our shield, and we'll get hit before you can shoot," he said, even as a few darts bounced off their shield. "If these things can harm them, gods only know what they'll do to us."
"But I can get him. I know I can," she insisted.
"Zelda, let the knights do their job."
"But they're dying!"
"That's their job!" he said, shouting over her. "Why do you think I told you to call them? Why do you think they answered? They're here to protect you. I'm sure you can get Nagadii, but you'll get hurt in the process. That's what we're all trying to avoid."
She opened her mouth to protest, but at that moment, one knight, in the center of the huddled figures, stood up and, with a mighty heave, threw his sword end-over-end through the air. He was struck with a dart before it reached its target, but it did reach its target.
Nagadii screamed and fell to the floor. A moment later, the knights moved out of the way and Link could see Nagadii's fully-human body lying bleeding and broken on the floor. But he was still alive—his breathing wheezy and pained.
"He is human now," one of the knights said. "We cannot touch him."
It was Link who let go of Zelda's hand. "I am all too happy to come in for this part," he said.
He walked over to where Nagadii lay and he looked down on him. Nagadii slowly lifted his eyes. "I am not finished here," he croaked.
"Oh, I think you are," Link replied, drawing his sword.
"The Dark Lord will save me."
Link glanced at the rift. "I think—after what you did to Master Ryu and the King—that you need to go meet your Dark Lord in person."
He put the tip of his sword against Nagadii's shoulder and began pushing him across the floor like he was sweeping out the trash.
"Rohi. Carrabum. Petholni," Nagadii hurriedly began to chant.
"Here's a magic word for you: goodbye," Link said as he pushed him over the edge of the rift.
"Ganondorf!" Nagadii called out as he fell into the black smoke and disappeared.
"How do I close up this rift?" Link asked the remaining knights.
"Just thrust the Master Sword into it," one of them replied.
Link drew back, but the smoke rose up, as if it was going to fight against him. He stared, open mouthed, as the smoke fell away, revealing a huge, green-colored hand. One finger on the hand was easily as big as him and Zelda combined.
"Close the rift! Close it!"
Link shook off his astonishment and hurried to stick the Master Sword into the rift. But the hand seemed to sense what he was doing, and one finger flicked out, striking him like a child hitting a marble.
He momentarily blacked out from the impact; he was only vaguely aware of flying backwards. Unfortunately, though, he was all too aware of hitting the stone wall on the other side of the room. The impact drove the air from his lungs and left him unable to cry out or even breathe.
Then, to add insult to injury, his battered body fell, face-down, onto the floor.
He was going to die. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't move.
He only wished he would hurry up and die because the feeling of not being able to breathe was agonizing.
Then he found himself on his back and lips were pressed against his. Suddenly air flooded back into his empty lungs and he drew deep, gasping breaths. But he paid a price for the privilege of breathing again; each inhalation came with an aching, all-over pain that indicated cracked or broken ribs, as well as bruising.
"Link, are you alright?" Zelda asked, looking at him closely.
"No," he croaked.
"Are you being funny or serious?"
"Um… serious, I think."
"Do we need to leave?"
A moment later there was a dark chuckle and they both turned to see a huge head slowly emerging from the rift. It had green skin and wild, spikey orange hair and beard. The face was sharp and angular and the red eyes glowed with malicious glee.
The only good thing that could possibly be seen in the situation was that the rift was still so narrow, only the head and hand seemed able to emerge. But that was apparently enough.
The knights rushed at the huge demon from two different angles, but it just laughed and a solid beam of red light shot out from its eyes and instantly vaporized the knights on one side.
Link began to blindly grope for Zelda's hand, even as he stared at the demon-man in horror. "Shield… shield… shield…" he said as he searched for her hand.
The demon quickly turned its eyes on the other group of knights and vaporized them before they could even come within striking distance of him.
Only Link and Zelda remained to fight.
The demon turned its face on them just as Link managed to grab Zelda's hand and reactivate the shield bracelets. It laughed and shot its eye beam at them.
Luckily, Zelda instinctively ducked, because the beam cut through their shield as if it was non-existent and missed her head by a fraction of an inch. In fact, the scent of burnt hair wafted through the air a few seconds later.
The demon laughed at them. "Your little magic toys are of no use against me! I am the Dark Lord, Ganondorf! You should just give up now."
Link gritted his teeth and pushed himself upright. Zelda put her arms around him and helped get him to his feet. He didn't bother trying the shield bracelets again, since they obviously didn't work against something as powerful as Ganondorf. He noticed that Zelda had given up on the Soul Scepter, as well.
"If you hadn't noticed," Link said, his voice tight with pain, "we don't give up easily."
Ganondorf laughed. "I had noticed that," he admitted with something almost sounding like approval. "But you were only fighting Nagadii then. You will find I am not so easily defeated."
A second later, he shot another beam of light at them, forcing them to dive in opposite directions to avoid it. It hit the stone wall behind them and caused a small fire on the stones before quickly burning out and leaving only a black scorched place.
He laughed again. "I gave some of my power to Nagadii—just to encourage him—but it was really he who was giving me power by allowing my demons to wreak havoc in the mortal world. They have fed me and sustained me for this, my final battle against you both!"
He turned his gaze on Link. Link grabbed his shield a split-second before Ganondorf shot another beam of light at him. He had only a sliver of hope that the shield would work where the bracelets' shield had not, but apparently the mirrored surface of the shield was made of tougher stuff, because the beam hit it—so hard it knocked Link back several steps—and bounced off. It flew across the room at an angle and hit a shelf of books, exploding its contents in all directions and setting it on fire.
Ganondorf's mocking expression darkened and he growled. "You think that shield will save you? Nothing can save you from me this time!"
He turned towards Zelda.
She ducked her head and sprinted for Link. Ganondorf fired repeated blasts at her, but she stayed just one step ahead until she reached Link. The final blast hit him in the shield again, sending him stumbling back. Zelda put her hands against his shoulders, steadying him.
"Bow," he whispered to her out of the side of his mouth.
He turned back to Ganondorf. "What do you mean 'this time'?" You talk as if we have fought before."
"I think we'd remember you," he retorted.
"Ready when you are," Zelda whispered in his ear.
Ganondorf laughed. "Do you not remember your past lives? This is not the first time you and I have met, Hero. Nor is it the first time for the Princess, either. We have danced this dance many times."
"Seeing how the world still exists, I take it that we won all the previous times?" Link asked. Then he whispered to Zelda. "Like the others—aim for an eye or mouth," he said.
"Yes, you did," Ganondorf replied.
"Then it would seem that you should be the one to give up, since you know what the outcome is going to be this time around, too."
Ganondorf laughed. Zelda chose that as her moment, and she stepped to the side so she'd have a clear shot, then she fired directly for his eye.
But before the Light Arrow could cross half the room, Ganondorf shot his eye beam at it and vaporized it as easily as he had the knights.
He laughed again. "Do you want to try again, little princess?"
Zelda frowned, looking angry, and she quickly fired four arrows, one right after the other. Ganondorf shot down each one rather lazily.
"I have been planning this a long time," he said. "I know, as the gods do, that the line of Hylia is almost gone. When you both die, you will take the bloodline with you. And that will be the end of you—permanently—because neither of you can reincarnate as humans."
He laughed manically. "You will never be able to thwart me again!"
"But you still have to get through us," Link said. "And we're certainly not going to make it easy on you."
"What will you fight me with? As you see, your weapons are useless against me!"
Stay behind me as much as you can, he warned Zelda. If we separate, he'll attack you.
What are you planning?
I'm going to rush him and try the Master Sword. If it can close up the rift, surely it can damage him.
Link braced himself, holding his shield in front of him, ready for the next attack.
It came a few seconds later. The beam of light struck him—making him stagger back—then flew off in a different direction. But as soon as Link recovered his balance, he ran forward to attack. He sensed, more than felt, that Zelda was close behind him.
Ganondorf shot another beam at him—it bounced back and just barely missed the top of Ganondorf's head—but that hardly slowed Link down. He was about to leap forward with a hard strike when Ganondorf raised his massive fist and brought it down, hard, on the floor.
Link and Zelda both were knocked off their feet. Bits of plaster from the ceiling rained down on them, creating a white fog.
Ganondorf laughed, then shot another beam at them. Link barely managed to get his shield up in time to block the beam and send it ricocheting off to one side of the room, setting another bookcase on fire.
He struggled to get to his feet—the ache in his ribs and the rest of his body was getting worse, not better—and he made another run at Ganondorf. But almost as soon as he started, he was knocked down again by the thump of the Dark Lord's fist. Larger chunks of plaster rained down.
If he didn't do something to stop Ganondorf from pounding his fist, he was going to bring the ceiling down on them. And while he would almost certainly survive a cave-in, Link and Zelda weren't likely to.
Link felt Zelda's hands on him, helping him up. Link, remember those lava-snakes? she asked. You bounced a fireball back on one of them and killed it that way. What if Ganondorf isn't immune to his own attack, either?
Link was surprised he hadn't thought of that first, but then Zelda had always been smarter than him when it came to using the magical tools they had been given and executing non-traditional attacks.
Ganondorf interrupted their planning by shooting another beam at Link. He didn't have time to properly set himself up for the ricochet, and although he tried to angle the shield to bounce the light back, the force hitting him was too strong to allow him to control it, and the beam went shooting uselessly into the stone wall.
I don't think I can do this at an angle, he told Zelda. We need to move so that I'm straight-on to him.
I'm with you, she said.
Together, they scooted over a little until they were directly in front of Ganondorf. But no sooner were they in place than he pounded his fist on the floor again, shaking down even larger pieces of plaster. One piece, the size of a dinner tray, hit the floor just in front of them.
Link felt Zelda's hands on his back, bracing him. He set his feet and made sure that his shield was directly perpendicular to Ganondorf's line of fire.
Ganondorf's red eyes widened and a second later, he shot out the red beam of light. It struck Link's shield with a reverberating ping, then went straight back to its source.
Ganondorf's eyes widened in surprise moments before his own beam struck him. His face screwed up in pain and he yelled so loudly, it made Link's ears ring. He pounded the floor several times, causing it to shake so much, Link and Zelda both fell down.
They had only seconds to scramble back to their feet and resume their position before Ganondorf was staring at them again. A moment later, he shot another beam.
The shot hit the shield again. Zelda helped keep Link from being pushed back, but unfortunately this meant his shield arm absorbed more of the impact. Link hardly noticed he was successful a second time; he was more concerned with the tingling numbness in his right forearm.
Again Ganondorf raged with pain. He struck the floor three times, shaking Link and Zelda off their feet and causing another shower of plaster. Several large chunks hit them, causing them to cry out with pain.
They were not recovered by the time Ganondorf looked at them again. Link managed to get his shield up in time, but the shot was wasted; it deflected high into the wall behind the rift.
Ganondorf struck the floor once very hard. Link was too slow in getting his shield up over his head; he was struck half-senseless by a plaster-covered rock the size of his fist.
He was only dimly aware of being moved—and only then because it hurt.
He whimpered as every bone in his body protested.
"Get up, Link!" Zelda hissed, hauling him to his feet. "One more. Only one more."
Link found himself standing up again, facing Ganondorf. He managed to raise his weak arm one more time. Ganondorf's shot hit and bounced right back into his face.
He screwed his face up again and pounded on the floor. But instead of everything disappearing and returning to normal, more plaster and rocks rained down, even as they fell to floor, unable to stand.
"I… don't understand," Link said weakly. Every other major demon they had fought had been defeated after three hits. Ganondorf was clearly affected when he was hit by his own light beams, so it wasn't as if he was immune to their attack.
He was still half-numb with shock, pain, and the hit to his head when Zelda crawled onto him and held his shield up for him. She was just in the nick of time; Ganondorf's beam bounced off it a split second later.
It ricocheted high, but managed to hit Ganondorf in the top of the head nonetheless. He went into a rage again and pounded the floor.
A falling rock hit Link directly in the kneecap. "OW! Gods!" he said, curling up and holding his knee.
But Zelda was less than sympathetic to his plight. "Link, get up!"
He tried, but he hurt so badly, he could barely move; he certainly couldn't move fast.
She pulled him to his feet again. "Get ready," she warned, pointing him towards Ganondorf.
"I can't hold my shield," he said. His right arm was hanging uselessly at his side; he didn't have the strength to lift it again. For that matter, he didn't have any feeling in it, either, save for the occasional painful prickle, as if it had gone to sleep.
Zelda ripped the shield from his arm and stepped in front of him. Ganondorf's attack hit a moment later.
Link had to steady her to keep her from being knocked off her feet by the impact.
"Gods! That's awful!" she exclaimed.
"Now you know why my arm's gone numb."
A moment later they were thrown to the floor again. But Zelda had the presence of mind to huddle over Link and shield both of their heads from the falling ceiling.
"That's five hits and he looks exactly the same," Link said over the noise of destruction.
"I've been thinking about that," she hurriedly replied. "We don't have these holy weapons for nothing."
"But they don't work."
"We don't know that; we were never able to get close enough to try."
Link immediately saw where she was going. "Attack him while he's incapacitated by his own blast," he said.
"That's what I was thinking."
The floor stopped shaking.
Do you want me to shoot him, or do you want me to keep the shield? she asked, switching to telepathy so Ganondorf couldn't hear their plans.
Keep the shield, he said, pushing himself to his feet with renewed vigor. He still hurt and his right arm felt like it wasn't going to ever be the same, but he was like a wolf that had gotten the scent of blood; he was confident that they had the solution now and the end was, at last, near.
He withdrew his sword as Zelda braced herself in front of him with the shield. Ganondorf's beam pinged off of it a moment later. Before it had even returned to its host, Link dodged around Zelda and sprinted towards Ganondorf.
Link was within feet of striking him when he raised his hand. But Link had already run through the fight in his mind and he had a plan. As Ganondorf's fist started to come down, Link jumped. He was in the air when the floor began to shake and the worst of it was over by the time his feet hit the floor again. He never broke his stride.
A moment later, he stabbed at Ganondorf's face.
Ganondorf screamed louder than before as the Master Sword sank into his flesh with a sizzling sound.
He thrashed around blindly and, before Link could get the sword pulled out, he was knocked aside by Ganondorf's fist. For the second time that day, he found himself flying backwards. He didn't go very far, though, before he hit the floor and went rolling ass-over-tea-kettle across the stone-littered floor.
He came a stop face-down on a heap of plaster. With his first ragged breath, he snorted up some of the fine white powder, which left him coughing and gagging.
He was only half-aware of what was going on in the rest of the room. Ganondorf angrily flicked the Master Sword out of his face, like a person getting rid of a mosquito, and it went sailing across the room and bounced off the burning bookcases and landed on the floor a few feet from them.
He took aim at Zelda with his eye beam, shooting at her multiple times. The repeated blasts overwhelmed her and knocked her on her backside. She stayed protected behind the shield, but the beams ricocheted every which direction—none of them landing on Ganondorf.
Then he turned his malevolent eyes towards Link.
Link scrambled to push himself to his feet, running while he was still in a half-crouch. He could hear the beams blasting the walls just behind him.
But instead of running for the safety of Zelda, he made a beeline for his sword. The only problem was that, once he had the sword, he would have nowhere left to run and nowhere to hide.
Shoot him! he told Zelda. With Ganondorf's eyes fixed on him, hopefully Zelda's arrows would be able to hit; he just hoped that they worked as well as his sword. If not, they would both be left defenseless.
He dropped down, sliding across the last few feet of floor and picking up his sword in the process. A second later, he was on his feet again and he turned just in time to see one of Zelda's light arrows hit Ganondorf in the side of the head.
He shouted and went into a rage again, pounding the floor and knocking Link and Zelda both off their feet and sending down a rain of stones and plaster.
But, somehow, Link managed to get to his feet between strikes and he started to run across the room again. He had to simultaneously watch Ganondorf's hand—jumping to avoid being knocked down again—and he had to dodge the falling debris.
Everything—his life, Zelda's life, the lives of everyone below who were fighting Nagadii's guard—depended on him being perfect. He couldn't mistime his jump; he couldn't allow himself to be struck by falling stones. He had to make it to Ganondorf before he recovered and killed him and Zelda both. It really was all or nothing.
But everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. He had all the time he needed to jump before Ganondorf's fist came down; the ceiling stones were falling as slowly as fat snowflakes on a windless day. His life had been building to this single moment and he was in complete control of it.
Ganondorf's eyes were starting to open again when Link made his final leap.
He yelled as he grasped the Master Sword with both hands and came down on top of Ganondorf's head with all the might he still possessed.
The Master Sword cleaved deep into Ganondorf's head, splitting it. A white light—bright as the sun—radiated from the sword and filled Ganondorf's head and pierced all the dark corners of the room.
A moment later, Link—with the sword still gripped tightly in his hands—was blasted backwards as Ganondorf groaned and melted back down into the rift.
The next thing he knew, someone was lightly smacking him on the cheeks. "Link? Link, can you hear me? Answer me, please."
"Had to get one last slap in, didn't you?" he croaked.
"Oh, Link!" Zelda said with relief. She scooped him up into her arms, hugging him tightly.
"Ow," he moaned as she squeezed his battered and bruised body.
She let go and laid him gently back on the floor. "Sorry. Are you hurt badly?"
"I'll live," he said, finally managing to open his eyes. He noticed that the rift was still glowing in the floor and the room had not been returned to normal.
"Let's close that up before anything else comes out of it," he said.
"Dear gods, yes."
She picked him up one more time and put him on his feet. He groaned the entire time.
"Sorry," she said again.
"Not your fault," he grunted.
She helped him limp slowly across the rubble-strewn floor. When they got within a couple of feet of the rift, something suddenly shot up from it.
"What's that?" Zelda shrieked, stepping backwards.
"I don't know," he said. The golden object was spinning so fast, it was a blur. But it gradually slowed, then came to a stop, hovering over the rift slightly higher than their heads.
It looked like a golden triangle, but it was hard to tell if it was real or not; it might have been solid, but Link suspected that it wasn't.
"What is it?" Zelda asked again in a whisper.
"It's not a demon," Link replied. Not only did it look nothing like a demon, but he didn't feel ill at ease, as he did when demons were around. In fact, looking at the golden triangle made him feel contented and peaceful. Whatever it was, it was holy—although only the gods knew why a holy object should come out of the Dark World.
As they stared at it, it slowly descended, then it moved towards Zelda. She shrank back from it a little.
"It's alright," Link reassured her. A moment later, the triangle passed through the middle of her and disappeared.
He looked at her face, but she seemed to be the same. "Do you feel any different?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No."
He frowned a little. "I thought it was a power or something that might heal you."
"Maybe it's here to distract us from closing up the rift."
"I don't think so," Link said, still convinced the golden triangle was benign. But Zelda did have a valid point: the rift needed to be closed up immediately.
Link shifted the Master Sword in his hand so that it was point-down, then he thrust it down into the rift.
The floor began to shake—once more causing them to fall—then the entire room began to glow. The rift began pulling itself together—starting on one end and traveling along its length, picking up speed as it went. Then the last of it blinked out of existence and there was a flash of blinding white light all around them.
When their vision returned after the flash, they saw that the room was back to normal—more or less. The bookcases and their contents were smoldering ruins, and there was magical equipment strewn everywhere, but the room was undamaged beyond that. Even the ceiling was in one piece.
With a weary sigh, Link laid back on the floor.
"Is it really done?" Zelda asked, looking around, as if a little lost.
"I think so."
"After so long… it doesn't seem possible that it could be finished—that it could ever be finished."
"I know what you mean," he said. He felt like there was something else they needed to do—another item on their to-do list. They had always moved from one challenge to the next without a break. It was hard to wrap the mind around the idea that they didn't have to keep moving; that they were home at last.
But it wasn't entirely true that their work was done. In fact, even though they had finished one stage, they had a new one to start: rebuilding.
He looked at Zelda sitting next to him. The first light of day was creeping in the windows, casting her in a pale blue light. Her face was blackened and her hair in disarray. There were rents in her clothes and scratches and bruises all over. And there was a not-too-faint scent of burnt hair and scorched clothing lingering around her. But, despite all of that, she was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
He reached up, his right arm trembling with weakness, and he gently tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. He let the tips of his fingers linger there, tracing the point. He had a sudden memory of the first time they met. He had tried to stop her from going out in the middle of the night. She had fought him over it—and quite well. She caught him with that high shot she loved so well and knocked his helmet off—revealing his ears that he had kept hidden so carefully for years.
She turned to look at him. As the pale sunlight reflected in her light eyes, it seemed for a moment that he could see the world in her eyes—and that she could see directly into his soul.
He had told himself that when they returned to Hyrule, he would resume his proper station—that he would go back to loving her in secret from afar. But after everything they had been through, he couldn't keep his promise to himself.
"Kiss me," he whispered.
He half-expected her to argue with him—or at least demand to know why she had to kiss him if he was the one who wanted it—but she said nothing; she just leaned down and kissed him.
And gods, did she know how to kiss!
He felt himself getting light-headed as he seemed to melt into her. He didn't know who he was or where he was—and he didn't care. He didn't hurt anymore. The weight of the world that had been on his shoulders was gone. There was nothing but Zelda and the love he had for her, which felt too immense to be contained by his mortal body.
He was vaguely aware of her patting him on the cheeks again.
"Link," she said, a little more urgently.
He slowly opened his eyes. She was looking down at him with concern. "I think you passed out on me," she said.
He slowly smiled—a luxurious, lazy smile. "That was a hell of a kiss; you ought to feel proud of yourself."
"I'd be prouder if I thought I had anything to do with it." She reached out and touched his head. As soon as she did, he winced; his scalp was tender to the touch.
She pulled her hand away and he could see there was blood on her fingers. "I think this might be the cause of it," she said, holding her hand up.
"Well… maybe a little bit."
She pushed herself to her feet with a grunt. "Let's get you to the fairy," she said, reaching down for him.
"No, we need to help the others first," he said, putting his arm around her neck. "Everyone needs to know that Nagadii is gone."
She lifted him up and his words were taken away—along with his breath—as pain racked his body from head to toe.
"Link, you can't help yourself; how are you supposed to help anyone else?"
"At least tell them," he said between clinched teeth. It was true that he couldn't help anymore—he had given everything he had already—but he hated the thought that the others might still be fighting an enemy that was utterly defeated.
She started to slowly help him across the floor—although it was more like she walked and half-dragged him along with her.
She stopped near the door. "Link, do… do you think I should call the knights back? I mean… to see if they're alright?"
Link's mind immediately jumped to the people below who might still be fighting. The knights couldn't kill any human guards, but they might be able to scare them away. At least they might be able to distract them until he and Zelda could get there.
"Yes, see if you can," he said.
She helped him over to a wall and propped him up against it. Then she went back to where she had dropped the Soul Scepter earlier.
She held it aloft. "I call forth the Knights of Hyrule." Instead of sounding commanding, though, she sounded timid—as if she wasn't sure they would respond.
But a moment later, a vapor began to rise up from the floor. They watched in silence as the mist began to coalesce into distinct forms.
Link tried to do a head count. Were they all there?
At last faces appeared. And they were all smiling.
As one, the men put their right arms across their chests in a salute, then they knelt with their heads bowed before Zelda.
"Are you all alright?" Zelda asked.
Laertes, who was in front, looked up at her. "You are kind to ask after our well-being, Majesty, but the dead are rather hard to kill," he said with a slight smile.
"Well, we didn't know if they were stealing your souls or something."
He shook his head. "No, they just sent us back where we came from and we couldn't return without being summoned again.
"But even if they had somehow managed to steal our souls, you would have freed them again when you defeated Ganondorf."
"Is he really defeated," Link asked, "or has he just gone back to the Dark World?"
"One can never be too sure about him," Laertes replied. "He's fooled people before. But I think you broke his power. It will be a very long time before he recovers—if he ever does."
Laertes—and the rest of the knights—stood up, then he gestured to Link. "Link, come here."
Zelda went to help him, but he brushed her off. With stubborn pride, he slowly and painfully limped over to stand before Laertes.
"Link, we have been watching you for a very long time—all your life, in fact," Laertes began. "We know that it has long been your desire to become a Knight of Hyrule. You have diligently applied yourself to studying and practicing our ancient arts. And you have certainly proven your courage and your worth during this quest.
"But the title of 'Knight of Hyrule' can only be passed from knight to knight. When the last of us died, the ability to create knights died with us. Not even the monarch of Hyrule can make a Knight of Hyrule, no matter how deserving her subject."
Link felt his heart sink to his feet. It had never occurred to him why the title had passed out of existence. He had always just assumed that if he proved himself worthy, Zelda would knight him. He didn't know that the accolade could only come from another knight.
"That disappoints you," Laertes said more than asked.
"Yes, of course," Link replied. "There are only two things I have ever wanted in my life, and to be a knight was one of them. I thought…." He looked away, his voice choked up. He had to swallow hard before he could go on. "You are all I ever wanted to be," he said quietly, not trusting his voice; if he spoke louder, it would crack with tears.
He didn't notice the knights glancing between themselves, smiling.
He looked back at Laertes in confusion. "What?"
He glanced back at Zelda, but she looked as bewildered as him.
Surely… surely they didn't mean what he thought they meant? He couldn't afford to get his hopes up. But he knelt as he was commanded.
The other knights slowly closed in around them, forming a tight circle around Link and Laertes.
"You all have seen Link's deeds for yourself," Laertes began, addressing the other knights, "so I will not repeat them here. I will only ask if there is any among you who does not feel that he is your peer."
"I am ashamed to call him my peer, because it implies I am his equal," one knight said.
"I agree," said another. "Link has suffered more and fought longer and harder than any Hero in memory. He is not only my peer, but my better."
The knights—save Laertes—all kneeled.
Link could hardly breathe for the tightness in his chest. He felt unworthy to be in the company of such men, much less have them kneel to him.
Laertes drew his sword. "Then, it is by the unanimous consent of this assembly that you shall be dubbed—" he tapped the flat of his sword blade on Link's right shoulder, then the left—"Sir Link, Knight of Hyrule."
Laertes put away his sword and gestured to Link. "Arise, Sir Link."
Link was too stunned to move for a moment, but at last he managed to push himself to his feet again.
"Let this be the last blow you take from any man," Laertes said.
But instead of striking him on the face, as was traditional for the colée, Laertes stepped through him. Link shuddered as cold washed over him and he felt a rush, as if there was a wind blowing inside him.
The other knights rose to their feet and, one after another, they too passed through Link.
He gasped as they moved through him faster and faster. A great wind began to blow inside the chamber and a light began to radiate from within him.
And then he was crying out from the intensity. He felt as if his frail mortal body was going to fly apart—his shirt was being torn from him, flying through the air in bits of green—but somehow he stayed whole as knight after knight passed through him.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was done. The wind and the knights both were gone, and the light snuffed out—as if none of it had ever been there—and Link found himself on his knees, huddled up, and shivering violently and gasping for air.
He felt Zelda's gentle hands on him a moment later. "Oh, Link, what happened to you? Are you alright?"
He managed to nod a little, but it was some minutes before his heart—which was threatening to beat out of his chest—returned to normal and his body ceased to tremble.
"My gods," he at last gasped.
"What happened?" Zelda asked anxiously.
He slowly sat back on his heels. He felt better than he had before—he didn't feel nearly as weak and sore—but he also felt strange—as if he wasn't the same person anymore. And, in a way, he wasn't. He felt full of things—new things—things that weren't a part of him.
"I don't know, really," he replied, "but when they passed through me, they somehow passed along their knowledge. Each of them, a lifetime of knowledge: names and faces of people who died thousands of years ago; wars that were fought so long ago, they've been lost to history; fighting skills, armor-making, sword-craft—everything they ever knew—they gave it all to me."
"You… know everything they knew?"
"Yes. All of it."
"Is that why you have a mark on your back now?"
"A mark? What kind of mark?" he asked, twisting his head around, trying to see over his shoulder.
She traced the outline of the mark across the width of his back, from shoulder blade to shoulder blade.
"It's… I guess it's a tattoo; it looks permanent and it's done all in black. It's a… a stylized bird of some sort. It has a weird, rectangular head that has upwards points on the ends that sort of remind me of an owl's ears. It has its wings spread out and there are three feathers hanging down from each." Her fingers traced what she described. "It has a fat, sort of round-shaped body, and then feet with one claw each, turned outward."
"It sounds like it's the Knight's Crest," he said. "Which would make sense, since they all had that tattoo—although where they put it was a matter of personal preference."
It seemed odd to know that, since he had never learned it in school. But he was certain that it was true. Like his natural intuition, the knowledge that he had just acquired was something that came to him without explanation, but he was absolutely confident of it.
He suddenly smiled. "I can't wait to tell Hols what I know about smithing and sword-making. I know all sorts of things that I bet were never in any of the books he read."
She stood up. "Well, let's check on the others, then we can spread the word that all it's over."
He stood up, too, finding he was much steadier on his feet than before, as if the knights had been able to infuse him with a renewed strength. "One part is over," he corrected. "The rest of our lives are just beginning."