Though you should build a bark of dead man’s bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch creeds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, bloodstained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a Dragon’s tail,
Long sever’d, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa: certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy, whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull
The defiant scream of a hawk echoed upon the gorge walls, the sound filling the air like a cry for war. Link traced the raptor’s flight with his eyes, the lazy soaring at odds to its fierce call. He envied the wild creature who could depart any time it chose, just pick up and leave all its cares behind it. Human beings aren’t as lucky, he thought, watching the hawk disappear into a forest on the other side.
Turning away from the canyon’s precipice, he started back on the mountain trail, Death Mountain’s pinnacle a looming presence beside him. He still had no sure idea of where to go now that his business was done here, though Malon did not know that. While she wandered through the streets of Kakariko, assuaging her immense curiosity, he had decided to walk up the mountain path that connected the Goron village to Kakariko, hoping some form of inspiration would strike.
He kicked at a loose pebble, knocking the stone off the trail and into the immense canyon. Listening to its fading echoes, he scanned the forested bottom. The fissure stretched for miles, its only known terminus at the border where Kakariko abutted Death Mountain. Myth claimed the split in the earth was a show of Din’s power, that the goddess gently placed her hand upon the ground and tore it asunder, the act also throwing up Death Mountain. Why the goddess would do such or thing was never discussed in the tale. No one expected a deity to have a reason, something Link had never fully understood. Why were people not allowed to question the thoughts of a god?
Not a problem you should focus on, he told himself. Where should we go? Even after all these years, I still haven’t found an answer or even a reason for my questions. I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing, and perhaps I have. He shook his head, trying to rid himself of these thoughts. “This is why Epona hates to leave you alone,” he muttered to himself. Stiffening at a sudden presence, he said, “What do you want?”
“Tarragorn had something to say to you, though why he’d need to discuss anything with an amateur is beyond me.”
Link ignored Ganondorf’s barb. “What about?”
“You’ll find out when you get there.”
Fighting the urge to smack the Hunter upside the head, Link swept past him. Perhaps this new situation would bring the answer he sought.
Ganondorf led him to Diderick’s shop. Why am I not surprised to be back here? Link thought, hiding a small grin. I wonder if he still considers our trade equal.
Inside the cramped store, they made their way to the backroom Link had seen on his first visit. The room was much larger than the small storefront led one to believe, with chairs arranged all over the stone floor. Lamps kept the place lit, the bitter smelling fuel smoking in its chambers.
The Hunters from the previous night looked up, eyes wary and watchful, like a crouching Wolfos. Tarragorn, who faced the group, smiled when he saw Link beside Ganondorf. “Wonderful,” he said. “Now we can get started.”
“What is this about?” Link said.
“If you’ll sit down, I will tell everyone.”
Narrowing his eyes slightly, Link settled into an empty chair, the beaten wood creaking ominously as it bore his weight. Tarragorn retook his place before them. “Since the Cataclysm we, the Hunters, have sworn to defend Hyrule and its allies against the fiends that have arisen. While we have been successful in destroying the enemies we’ve faced, there has been one monster that has eluded our grasp.
“Death Riders, the ultimate bane on this world, have been unstoppable. All one can hope for is escape if one is unlucky enough to face those demons. While we have some idea of what the monsters do, be they human or otherwise, the origins of these beasts have been as hidden as the one who caused the Cataclysm in the first place.
“What this all leads to, is that we believe that the Death Riders may have some clue to the one who caused the Cataclysm. If we’re able to catch one, then we can learn why these events have happened, and learn a way to defeat these unholy devils.”
A heavy silence hung over the room, the weight of Tarragorn’s words resounding through their minds. “And how do you plan to lure or restrain a Death Rider?” said a small woman near Link, her corded arms knotted with tension.
Tarragorn’s lip quirked in a semblance of a smile. “We were able to capture its beast, one of the demons they ride. And let me tell you now, the creature is as real as you and me, and just as capable of feeling pain.”
Link wondered how they happened to find that last tidbit out. A man from back said, “But that doesn’t explain how we could possibly control one of those things. They’ve killed men like they were less than nothing to them, and with such ease. They’re murdering devils sent from the Dark Realm, how can we stand against that?”
“That’s where our new weapon comes in.” Link looked up in surprise to see Ganondorf stand, his face as intent as his words. “It was discovered in the ruins of the temple in Castleton. A secret chamber had been blasted open by the Cataclysm and this was revealed.” As he spoke, he unsheathed the sword at his waist. The honed steel shone light-blue, reminding Link of the marble chunks that decorated the old temple grounds. The worn hilt of the broadsword showed signs of abuse far exceeding the almost pristine condition of the blade. While the handle looked as if it had gone to the Dark Realm and back, the blade appeared newly forged.
“How will that help us?” spoke a man, his scarred face eyeing the sword skeptically.
Ganondorf smiled. “Because this sword is more than it appears to be.”
Link raised his eyebrows at that. He doubted he could count the times he had heard someone speak in similar terms. Everyone desperately sought some way of defeating the Death Riders, and each time had ended in failure. The continued existence of the demons was proof.
The others shared his doubts. “What makes it so different?” said a hooded figure to Link’s right.
“We believe it is the legendary sword of the Hero,” Tarragorn said. “It was found in the right place, in the ruins of the Temple of Time.”
The sword of the Hero? The one who defeated the evil necromancer and saved the realm of Hyrule? That was pure myth. These two have been to the taverns one too many a time, Link thought.
“Perhaps you may believe so,” said the cloaked person. “But I don’t perceive that many will follow you on just your word.”
Many nodded in agreement. Ganondorf scowled, but Tarragorn said, “What difference does it make, whether we speak the truth or not? These abominations must be stopped; they’re destroying our people. If there’s a chance that we can kill one of them, isn’t it worth all our lives?”
Grim silence met his words as the Hunters mulled over his speech. In truth, Tarragorn was right. Every time someone tried to rebuild the capital cities, or tried to establish some semblance of government, the Death Riders swooped in like hideous birds of prey and laid siege to everything in sight. If Hyrule or her allies ever planned on bringing back order to the people, the Death Riders must be stopped. Link fought the urge to rub his aching forehead.
“What say you?” Tarragorn said, after giving them a moment to think.
Uneasy shifting filled the room until the hooded person stood up. “This may be a fool’s mission, and we may end up worse than dead for our troubles, but I’m in.”
The flicker of a satisfied grin flashed over Tarragorn’s face, but he swiftly masked the emotion. It was still too soon to celebrate.
As if the shrouded figure released a floodgate, voices filled the room, each risen in assent. The Hunters, more so than normal folk, understood the suffering of the people. They witnessed it in all their travels and hunts. They knew what was at stake and were willing to give their lives to pay for the price of the people’s happiness.
“What about you?” Link heard Ganondorf ask him, the Gerudo’s words laced with pride and scorn.
Link looked to see Tarragorn watch him, as if his response was one the man wanted to know above all others. “I’m in,” he said, meeting Ganondorf’s stare fully. “When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow at dawn,” Tarragorn said, relief washing over his face. “We’ll meet at the town’s entrance and leave as soon as everyone’s there.”
Link nodded and rose, ready to find Malon and talk to Epona. Both would be surprised at the turn of events, but he dreaded Epona’s reaction the most. “I’ll be astonished if I see you tomorrow,” Ganondorf said, his amber gaze hot on Link’s back.
“If you don’t show up, you won’t,” he said without turning around. He didn’t think the Gerudo would appreciate the smirk he wore.
On one side was silver-studded darkness, eternal rest. On the other, light stained crimson red, the primordial color of life, passion, hate. The soft call of a mourning dove contrasted against the shrill cries of the jays, their mocking song making light of all that would transpose today.
Link adjusted Epona’s cinch, making sure the leather strap was snug. He could feel the mare’s sullen presence, a brooding, heavy weight in his mind. She had not taken the news well.
Malon’s gentle voice rose above the bird song. She was comforting her mount as she saddled him, the roan gelding agitated by the unusually early rising. In contrast to Epona, Malon had been overjoyed by his decision. The fact that she had no way of comprehending a Death Rider, and her desire to see more of the world probably had something to do with that.
“Ready?” said Link.
“Right behind you,” Malon said, twitching Phooka’s reins over his head.
Link double-checked that their packs were tied on securely. Assured that they would not loose any gear on the trip, he mounted, Malon following suit, leaving the inn‘s courtyard.
They made their way easily to the meeting place, the dirt streets devoid of all life. At the town’s gates, a large group of Hunters were waiting. Link kept Epona away from the crowd, and for once the mare did not object.
Malon kept turning her head about, like cat watching a toy dance before its eyes. Link grinned at the analogy, and Malon seeing, smiled back. “You don’t think they’ll mind me coming along?” she said for the hundredth time.
“They won’t if they want me along.”
“Perhaps we don’t.” Ganondorf sat upon a gray mare, the Gerudo breed showing off her sleek lines with every delicate step and flip of her flowing mane. Funny, but he had always pictured Ganondorf on a black mount.
Tarragorn, beside him on a bay, gave Ganondorf a sharp glance. “Of course we don’t mind,” he said. Turning away, he rode through the crowd to the head. “Are we ready to move out?”
A resounding chorus of agreement filled the early morning air, startling a group of starlings from their tree perch. “Then let’s move out!” Tarragorn said. The congregation followed his lead, leaving behind the relative safety of Kakariko into the wilds of Hyrule Field.
“Where are we headed to?” Malon said, reigning Phooka in, allowing the other horses to pass.
“Hylia,” he said, adjusting his seat as Epona set forward, following at the rear. “They claim that the Death Rider’s mount’s held there.”
Epona laid her ears back and he felt her tense up underneath him. Easy, he told her. No use getting worked up now. Epona remained silent.
“How can they restrain something that evil?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.”
* * *
A steady rain pelted their bodies, plastering their clothing to their chilled skins. A dense fog covered the spongy ground, filling the hollows of the land and rising up to creep stealthily over the hills. The lack of tree cover ensured that every inch left exposed was soaked the moment they had stepped from their tents that morning. Link tried to remember what it was like to feel dry, and failed.
“You’d think when they said waterproof cloaks, they’d actually be waterproof,” Malon griped, Phooka looking like a drowned kelpie beneath her.
“But that’d make sense,” Link said. “Who’d want do that?”
Malon gave him a look, before her scowl melted into a smile. “Maybe if we figured that out, we’d know everything.”
Link snorted and was about to speak when Epona stopped. I can feel him, she said, her head facing the city they were walking towards, the main group of Hunters backlit by the lamps on the city gates.
So do I, Link told her.
What do we do? Epona said, her ears flattening out. He’s in pain.
I know. We can’t do anything, not yet.
He felt the surge of rage in her mind before she stifled it. Understanding her emotions, he could only stroke her rain-soaked hide, trying to placate her roiling thoughts. They couldn’t afford to go to pieces now, not with Hylia so close.
“You all right?”
“Huh?” He looked up to see Malon watching him curiously.
“You do that often,” she said.
“Get all quiet suddenly, and sort of stare off into nothing, like you’re listening to a song in your mind, something only you can hear.”
“I’m just spacey,” he said with a grin, hiding the stab of fear that rose up.
Malon smiled wryly, as if she didn’t believe his words but was willing to let it slide this once. “What do you think a Death Rider looks like?” she said, switching topics.
If only you knew, he thought. “Not really sure. Some say they look like devils in cloaks, their beast mounts like fire-eyed fiends from the Dark Realm. Others, the sober ones, say they look like hooded forms. No one’s ever gotten close to them and lived to tell about it. Well, mostly no one,” he amended, thinking of Kafei.
“Lovely,” Malon said. “Something to look forward to after a grueling day on the trail.”
Letting out a bitter laugh, Link said, “But we don’t have to worry about the Rider, at least not yet.”
“Until we get to the place they’ve got the beast held, let’s think of something more pleasant.”
By true nightfall, not the preternatural twilight they had rode in the whole day, they arrived at Hylia, the city that bordered on Lake Hylia. Once a bustling port town, where its capital came mainly from seasonal tourists and the fishermen who trolled the waters, the city still managed to survive. The remaining people lived off the water, using the precious liquid and its inhabitants to keep their families fed. Hylia was the one place Link had visited that still had some semblance of law in its walls, the people doing their best to restore their lives back to normal.
Perhaps that’s why the Death Rider chose here, Link thought. This is the last bastion against total madness, the last stronghold people have.
He could feel the weight of their eyes upon them as the city folk watched the Hunters pass through their cobbled streets. He hoped, and perhaps he prayed, too, that whatever transposed tonight would not destroy the tremulous hold on sanity this town had gained.
The sound of Lake Hylia grew louder, the crashing of the waves booming against the many docks, the boats moored to them threatening to break free. Set apart from the main body of the city, close to the water, was a small house, its every window brightly lit. The building rose two stories, its narrow girth tilted crazily, as if it wanted to topple into the water beside it.
Tarragorn shouted orders, his deep bass rumble barely perceptible over the roar of the storm. Hunters scattered at his words, no doubt off to various posts to keep watch for the arrival of their guest. Some remained, and when Tarragorn got to them, Link knew they would be staying as well. “We want you to come inside with us,” Tarragorn shouted over the wailing wind.
Link nodded, then motioned to the horses. “There’s a lean-to they can use for cover for now,” Tarragorn said. The man turned his mount away, heading for the shelter. Malon and he followed.
After the animals and Epona were taken care of, the Hunters entered the unsteady home. Inside a blazing fire popped and growled in the hearth, the entire bottom floor one room. Beside the fire a table stood, various bottles and beaker of glass bubbling with indeterminate liquid set on its stained surface. Bookshelves lined the walls, every inch of them filled with tomes of all shapes and sizes, some in languages Link had never seen before. Papers lay scattered over the ground and on the few chairs that decorated the room, giving the place a feel as if a small tornado had whipped through.
“Ah, welcome,” greeted a small man beside the table, his skin like milk, as if he’d never felt the sun’s golden touch upon his face. His thick glasses distorted his eyes, making him appear like a giant fly, and the robes he wore were stained with ink. Link had never laid eyes on someone like him before.
“Is everything ready?” Tarragorn said, the eager light in his eyes heightened by the fire’s glow.
“Yes, yes,” the gnome said. “I’m ready to start whenever you are.”
Tarragorn nodded, then turned to them. He motioned Ganondorf over, whispering something into the Gerudo’s ear. Ganondorf nodded, and followed the small man from the room. Link wondered what they had planned.
“The Professor has agreed to let us use his house,” Tarragorn said. “At this moment, the beast is located behind this building, in a shed. Once the Professor is prepared, we’ll let the monster out and hope it calls its master.
“I want you people to be the main defense,” he said, pointing at the five of them. Link saw that the hooded figure was with them.
Most gave their assent. Others readied their weapons, making sure they were loose in their sheathes. “If you don’t want to be here, tell me,” Link said, hoping he could convince Malon to go to a safer place.
Malon, albeit paler than before, only shook her head. “I’m staying.”
He knew better than to argue. Soon the Professor returned, sans Ganondorf, and they followed the sallow man back outside, to a spot behind the house where the water crashed against the bluff, rising up and stretching its white fingers forward as if it wanted to pull the house into its blue womb.
A hastily made shed stood between the house and the water. A small lamp hung over the door, its light barely perceptible in the gloom. Inside, Ganondorf stood beside a hulking silhouette, the outlines of chains and ropes visible. Link caught the scent of animal and blood and swallowed the urge to vomit.
“It’s been quiet,” Ganondorf said, motioning to the creature.
“What’s it look like?” Malon whispered in his ear.
“The sight is too grisly for one such as yourself to see,” the Professor said, his high falsetto squeaking occasionally.
Malon bristled at his words, but she remained quiet. Link had the feeling the sight was inappropriate because of the torture the creature went through.
“What now?” said the shrouded figure.
“We’ll release the monster’s bonds, some of them, and give it a reason to call for its master,” Ganondorf said, the smile on his face reminiscent of death.
Tarragorn, Ganondorf, and a burly man with a long bow strapped to his back cautiously stepped forward, edging closer to the silent creature. As they began to remove its bonds, it remained still and watchful.
Leaving on ties to the animal’s head and forelegs, they led the creature from the shed and into the chaotic night. As the animal passed him, Link felt the being’s eyes focus on him. He could sense something rise in response to the animal’s silent thoughts, and he fought to batter it down. He couldn’t risk loosing control, not here.
“Now,” said Ganondorf to the creature, its form reminiscent of a deer, or elk in the dim light. “We make you scream.”
“Something tells me he’s going to like this,” whispered a voice in his ear. He saw the cloaked figure beside him. “And that same something tells me you will not.”
Link gave the person a measuring look, wondering what they wanted. “Perhaps this night will be more interesting than I first thought,” the figure continued before moving away.
Trying to puzzle the cryptic words was impossible over the sound of the tortured beast’s cries. Link closed his ears and his heart to the sound. He saw Malon’s face, and knew that the moisture on her cheeks was more than rain.
A startled yell rose over the failing wind, the rain falling to the earth instead of driving into the sides of buildings. Link instantly knew the source of the shout and he turned back to the terrible spectacle. Epona had knocked Ganondorf and Tarragorn away from the beaten animal, barricading the way with her body.
What do you think you’re doing?! he yelled to her as he raced over.
I couldn’t take it anymore! The mental anguish nearly broke his heart. I won’t let this go on, I can’t. He’s dying.
“Damned beast, what do you think you’re doing?!” Ganondorf growled, pulling himself off the muddy ground. He raised the whip he held in one hand, and stopped when he felt the sharp point of Link’s sword in his back. “Drop it if you wish to live,” Link said softly, his voice clearly audible over the rain.
“What in the Dark Realm are you doing?”
“Preventing you from harming my mare.”
“She’s protecting the demon beast!”
“She’s got a soft heart. Now drop it.”
Ganondorf finally complied, letting all his instruments fall. Facing Link, he said, “If this plan fails because of you, you’re head is mine.”
Link shrugged his shoulders as he pulled the sword away from Ganondorf. He didn’t care about any threats the angered man made. Turning his back on the Gerudo, Link walked to Epona. The things I do for you, horse, he said.
It’s why I love you, she replied, her voice still laced with traces of anger and pain.
Looking over Epona’s shoulder, he saw the animal watching him, its intelligent eyes burning with an inner light that reminded Link of Death Mountain’s fires. He comes, he heard Epona say in his mind, a pitch of excitement and fervor replacing the tension.
The dark animal tossed its head and let out a piercing scream of defiance and rage. The sound, bourn by the wind, carried over the city, freezing the blood of all who heard it.
In response to the clarion call, a figure coalesced into existence beside the creature. The unholy light it shed illuminated the scene, throwing everything into stark relief, revealing the creature to have the form of a horse, a giant one with blood stains over its ebony hide.
The Death Rider walked to its mount, taking the creature’s head in its hands, caressing it lovingly. The horse answered with soft nickers, comforted by its master’s presence.
Turning away from its mount, the Death Rider faced the Hunters, the menace it emanated palpable. It strode forward, pausing when it reached Link. Placing a hand on his shoulder, Link heard the Death Rider say, It is good to see you, brother . Perhaps tonight shall be like old times once more.
Link didn’t see the Death Rider move on, didn’t hear the fearful shouts of the Hunters as the demon neared. All he could sense, all he could feel, see, hear, was the pounding of his blood, and the stirring of a beast he had hoped he could keep locked away forever.