"Marko! Wake up! Can Hyrule's destiny really depend on such a lazy boy?"
Marko Marin stirred at last. He'd slept early, as was his wont during the preseason, and was surprised to see golden rays of sunlight streaming in through the window. He was somewhat more surprised to find that the woody walls of his apartment had grown woodier still. And he was most surprised at all to find himself being shouted at by what appeared to be a talking dragonfly.
"Hey! Finally. Listen! You're going to be late. Hurry up and get dressed," it said.
"Wha? Late for training? Why can you talk?"
"Late for your meeting with Robbie!"
Startled into action, Marko sprung out of bed and rustled through his wardrobe.
"Navi," came the stern-sounding response.
"Navi. Right. Er, Navi, why do I only own green clothes? I swear I wasn't this attached to Werder Bremen when I went to bed?"
"Just throw something on. Hurry up!"
Marko shrugged on a green tunic and trousers, pleased to find that at least his belts had remained a sensible colour. There wasn't time for coffee, so as soon as he'd worked his way into his shoes -- rather flash looking leather brown boots -- he dashed out the front door, the creature calling herself Navi close behind.
He was greeted by an extraordinary sight. Rather than the pastel orange hallway he was expecting, a verdant, sylvan vista stretched itself before him. Great trees sprung out of fertile meadows, each showing clear signs of inhabitation. Balconies wrapped themselves around the smaller specimens, while the bigger, older oaks had a spidery network of rope bridges running between trunks and branches. Marko looked up, bracing himself for another surprise, and sure enough, a leafy canopy greeted him, fluttering weakly in the morning breeze.
"Navi? Has London always been a forest?"
"Will you shut up and get down the ladder? Let's not keep Robbie waiting."
Navi seemed to have an idea what was going on, so Marko decided to go with the flow, scurrying down the ladder and setting off in full sprint behind her.
"I know what's happened here. Ash spiked my drink with absinthe last night. You're the absinthe fairy!"
"Close enough, I suppose, but I assure you this is all very real."
Marko wasn't even out of breath by the time Navi stopped at the bottom of another ladder, although he did feel a minor twinge in his right hamstring.
"Here. Robbie's waiting for you. He's already met with me, so I won't listen in this time. Up you go."
Bracing himself for a demented, twisted version of the manager he'd gotten to know in the United States, Marin was pleasantly surprised when he passed through the threshold to see the dapper Italian sipping an expresso at his desk as though nothing out of the ordinary had occured.
"Marko, thanks for coming," said Roberto di Matteo.
"Boss, I'm not sure I'm up for this right now. Something weird's going on. I think I must have had too much to drink last night, I'll take the fine but-"
"No time for that. I need to tell you why you were brought into the squad."
"Er... wasn't it to play football?"
"Hah! Have you watched Eden and Oscar play? We're going to bring in Victor Moses too. Sorry, but you were kidding yourself if you thought you were getting anywhere near my starting eleven."
"That's not what I was pro-"
"You're much too important to risk playing football, Marko."
"What are you talking about?"
With that, di Matteo reached under his desk, withdrawing a bark-covered shield and, even more implausibly, a shining steel sword. He put the former object on the desk, handing the sword pommel-first to the rather confused German international.
"Marko Marin, you were brought here to save the world."
"Oh, and you'll need to wear this hat too. I don't know why, but the rules are the rules." A scrap of fabric -- green again -- was handed over. "I have to go. Navi can tell you the details. Don't let us down." Di Matteo, as well as the rest of his office, then vanished with a flicker and a mild clap of thunder.
By now utterly baffled, Marko donned the hat and picked up the shield, seeing only exposed wood and bark where Chelsea's manager had once been. If I am going insane, he thought, at least it's a cool kind of insanity.
"Oh, hi Navi. Robbie told me you could tell me what's going on. He also gave me this cool sword."
"Yeah, I heard an intern got crushed by a boulder retrieving that thing for you. He'll live, though."
"So what's the deal? I'm saving the world?"
"Listen. Robbie wasn't screwing around. Hyrule needs a hero. It needs you. And you're going to start by saving this forest."
"What's wrong with it?"
"Remember when you walked outside for the first time? Did you notice that huge tree in the centre of the forest? The one with darker leaves?"
"Well, that's the Great Daveku Tree. His magic fuels the forest, keeping everything that lives here healthy and protected. And he's dying. We don't know why. He asked for you specifically."
"Ok. I guess we're going to see him then?"
"And this is all real?"
"Ok. Let's do it."
* * *
"SPIDERS. SPIDERS IN MY BRAIN." The voice carried for what seemed like miles, getting louder and louder as Navi and Marko approached the centre of the forest.
"This is why all the homes around here are abandoned, yes?"
"Yeah. He's a little bit annoying at the mo-"
"SPIDERS ARGH ARGH ARGH"
"-ment. When he's talking to someone he's mostly fine though. Apart from the vomiting spiders bit."
"The vomiting spiders bit?!"
The pair stepped into a vast clearing. The rest of the forest seemed to melt away under the watchful gaze of the Great Daveku Tree, showing their protector due deference despite his ravings. As for the tree himself, he was majestic. His trunk was broad and stretched into the sky, keeping russet curls aloft and whispering in the breeze. But the face, weathered, but still devastatingly handsome, drew the most attention. Marko could feel a pair of great eyes tracking him.
"HELLO GEEZER," said the Daveku Tree.
"You know me?"
"OF COURSE I KNOW YOU. YOU ARE THE HERO WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR. GOOD OF YOU TO FINALLY COME. HELLO TO YOU AS WELL LADYGEEZER."
"Hey Daveku Tree. How're you feeling?"
"TERRIBLE, MY DEAR. THE SPIDERS, YOU KNOW. BUT THANK YOU." The Daveku Tree paused as a minor tremor shook the ground. He sighed momentarily before a trio of dog-size arachnids erupted from his mouth. "I APPRECIATE IT," he said over the screams.
"By the way, Marko, the other reason everything around here is abandoned is that the spiders like to eat people. I'd get that sword out if I were you."
"Oh my god."
Faced with what seemed like certain death, Marko reacted with reflexes he didn't know he had. The first spider to attack was met with a vertical slash of his blade, cleaving it in two. By then the second was upon him. A sideways juke took him clear of its fangs, dropping with what looked like a particularly virulent poison, and a swipe of the sword took three of its legs off at the knees. The stumps, dripping with ichor, failed to keep it aloft, and the spider stopped moving, hissing in anger and pain.
"Marko! Behind you!"
Navi's warning came just in time. Marko spun and jabbed, penetrating the last spider's iridescent, armoured skin. He kicked the dead, ugly thing off his sword with a curse.
"I hate spiders."
"YOU HATE SPIDERS? DO YOU HAVE THEM LIVING IN YOUR BRAIN?"
"THEY ARE DRIVING ME INSANE, GEEZER. THE OTHER DAY I VOLUNTEERED TO BE A DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER. I'M A GOD DAMN TREE. HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO PLAY FOOTBALL?"
"ALSO I AM DYING. WHICH IS A BIT OF A DOWNER."
"And I can help?"
"YES. KILL THE QUEEN FOR ME AND I WILL BE CURED. SHE'S THE ONE IN MY BRAIN."
"And if I don't?"
"I WILL DIE. AND THEN, EVENTUALLY, EVERYONE ELSE WILL TOO. OR END UP ENSLAVED. INCLUDING YOU, GEEZER. SORRY."
"CLIMB UP TO THE TOP. THERE'S AN ENTRANCE UP THERE. BUT BE CAREFUL IN THERE PLEASE."
"Let's do it. Show me the way."
Marko cleaned off his sword on the grass before sheathing it. The Daveku tree was easy enough to climb, the rugged bark giving him easy purchase as he hauled himself to the top, following Navi's flickering blue lead. It wasn't long before the fairy paused at a cleft in the wood.
"In here, Marko."
"Are there any more spiders?"
"NONE THAT I CAN FEEL RIGHT NOW. JUST THE QUEEN," A voice came rumbling from below.
Reassured, Marko Marin squeezed into the crevice.
* * *
The innards of the Great Daveku Tree were unsurprisingly dark. Torches overhung the path at irregular intervals, but the glow faded within metres, leaving Navi's soft blue light as the only illumination. Not that Marko could stray, since the crack in the wood hadn't opened wide enough to accommodate any deviation. He could barely squeeze through as it was, and the air was stifling. More than once, he jumped at a particularly dark shadow. Despite assurances that the Tree was empty save the queen, Marko was on high alert for more danger, sword held point-first ahead of him.
"Hey. Look here," whispered Navi. Marko snagged his tunic on a lose splinter as he hurried to join here, leaving some of the fabric hanging on the wood. "There's the chamber."
Marko pressed his face to the crevice. Before him was a vast room, filled with a sinister green light. The floor seemed shrouded in mist, no doubt concealing great danger. Careful not to make too much noise, he kept his right eye clapped tight to the hole, looking for a sign of the spider queen infesting the tree. There was no sign of her.
"How big do you think she is, Navi? Can't be much bigger than the ones outside, right?"
The reply was rather late in coming, but come it did. "Uh... maybe not, Marko."
"Look at the ceiling."
Heart sinking, Marko obliged. There, nestled in the centre of an enormous, room-spanning web, sat what had to be the queen. And she was much bigger -- orders of magnitude bigger -- than her vicious spawn outside. Her exoskeleton looked diseased, crimson intertwined with sickly yellow, but the rest of her body, particularly her lone, baleful eye, belied any impression she was incapacitated. Said eye was in constant motion, probing her surroundings with obvious malice.
"Has she seen us, Navi?"
"I don't think so."
"How can we kill her? If I fight her I'll be killed. Does that mean I wake up in the real world again?"
"This is the real world. And if you die here, you're dead. It's like Canada. As for fighting her... you're the legendary hero this place has been waiting for for centuries. Trust yourself."
"Well, I'll see you in hell I guess."
Marko sprung into action, ignoring the protests of his hamstring as he leaped through the crack and landed on the fleshy floor. The eye fixated upon him immediately, assessing this strange new creature. She smelled her blood on the sword he carried. It had been killing her children! It must be ended!
An arm, tipped with a venomous sting, stabbed downwards, but Marko pushed the blow aside with his shield, severing it with a single slash of his blade. The arm lay twitching in the mist, and the queen roared in pain, detaching herself from the ceiling and dropping to the ground to face this green-clad man.
Marko threw himself at the queen, parrying a fang before stabbing at her carapice. If he was hoping that her body was as soft as her arms, he was to be mistaken. Sparks flew as di Matteo's sword connected with the foul creature, but aside for a score in her armour, the spider was unhurt. She shook herself in a raise, raising her had for a killing blow, and although Marko caught the attack with his shield, he was knocked to the ground by the sheer force behind the attack.
The queen lowered her eye to look at his face, the green iris and crossed pupil studying him momentarily before she moved in to finish him off. Her chelicerae quivered in anticipation of the tasty morsel she was about to devour. Suddenly, Marko knew what to do. Scrambling backwards until he found a bark-covered wall, he managed to set his sword against it just as the queen lunged at him, holding it against the wood, point-outward, even as he flattened himself to avoid her snapping fans.
The queen had impaled herself on the sword, which was buried up to the hilt in her horrible yellow eye. She was quite obviously dying. Her crimson limbs were thrashing about aimlessly, expending the last of her energy by kicking at the air. Marko had prevailed against the monster, and had prevailed unscathed. For the first time, he felt like a hero.
"Hey, Marko, look at the ceiling."
He looked up at Navi's prompting to see the webs disintegrating. The queen's hold on the tree was already failing.
"THANKS A LOT GEEZER. I'M ENJOYING THE LIFE AGAIN ALREADY. YOU CAN COME OUT THROUGH MY MOUTH IF YOU LIKE."
Light poured into the room as one of the walls rolled downwards. A mossy lip marked the top of the great door, which pulled into the floor with a great groan and crack. Marko peeked over the edge, seeing only a short drop to the ground, and felt earth beneath his feet and fresh air in his lungs for the first time in hours.
"You did it! You've saved the forest!"
"MY THANKS, MARKO MARIN. MY MIND IS WHOLE AGAIN. MAYHAPS MY DECISIONS WILL BE LESS INSANE IN FUTURE. IN THE MEANTIME, I WANT TO YOU HAVE SOMETHING."
A jewel suddenly fell from the canopy, landing at Marko's feel. It was an fist-sized emerald, glistening in the late afternoon sun. Gold filaments weaved their way around the gemstone, which seemed extraordinarily heavy even for its bulk.
"What is it?"
"THAT GEM IS THE SPIRIT OF THE LAND, AND THE REASON THE FOE SENT ONE OF HIS MINIONS TO ATTACK ME. HE WANTS IT FOR HIMSELF. I CAN PROTECT IT NO LONGER. BUT YOU, THE HERO OF HYRULE, SHOULD FARE BETTER. TAKE IT TO THE TEMPLE OF LIGHT NEAR THE CASTLE. THE SAGES THERE WILL KNOW WHAT TO DO. GO AT ONCE, GEEZER"
"GUARDIOLANDORF WALKS THE LAND ONCE MORE. STOP HIM. YOU MUST STOP HIM"
* * *
"Ok, Navi. My hamstring's going. I really can't keep on running like this, especially if I have to fight some guy soon."
They had been making their way across the countryside all evening, stopping for dinner with a charming green-haired young lady, who had fed them bread and honey before they set out again. Hyrule stretched before them, the great forest having quickly receded into scrubland before the luscious, rolling plains of the prairie took over.
"There's a ranch nearby. We can buy a horse there. I'll lead the way."
Progress wasn't quite as quick now, but Lon Lon Ranch was only a few miles away, so they got there without further ado, only to find its gates barred for the night. There was nothing for it but to roll out a sleeping pad and wait for dawn, and despite Marko's fears that the darkness held unknown terrors, they passed the night unmolested.
That didn't last long once the sun was up, though.
"Hey! Wake up! Why are you sleeping out there?"
A big, heavy-set man loomed into view above Marko. He was carrying a rather large pitchfork, and something about his demeanor told Marko that reaching for his sword would be a pretty silly idea.
"Good morning, sir."
"Good morning yourself. Name's Talon. I'm the owner of Lon Lon Ranch. Why are you out here?"
"Well, I meant to buy a horse, but I got in too late and I didn't want to disturb anyone by knocking..."
"A horse, you say. Can you pay?"
"Well come along then."
Talon led Marko and Navi through the gates, into the ranch proper. The stables were located directly across a smallish farmhouse, and Marko could quite clearly hear a young woman's voice signing the same three notes. Some sort of lullaby, perhaps?
"This horse is for you?"
Marko's attention snapped back to his host.
"This thing is, our horses are very big. And you are... not so big. You wouldn't even be able to mount them. I guess there's Epona, but even then you're probably out of luck. She's a wild one; only lets Malon anywhere near her."
"Can we see her?"
"No harm in it, I 'spose."
And so Marko and Navi found themselves ushered into the stables, where they were greeted with the traditional odour of such places, a horse sweat mixed in liberally with other equine products. The aside from a small, red-haired girl and a white-maned foal who Marko assumed was Epona, the place was empty, the rest of its denizens already having been let out to pasture.
The girl was singing to Epona, who scurried behind her as soon as it saw Talon and Marko enter.
"Good morning Malon. This fellow here was looking at buying Epona."
"Think she'll take to a rider?" Talon said.
"Sure. She carries me around just fine, and he's not much bigger," Malon replied. "Say, what's your name?"
"Marko. Marko Marin."
"Isn't Marin a girl's name? We'll go with Marko. Anyway, daddy probably already told you that Epona's a wild one, but she's easy enough to handle. Just sing her song and she'll follow you forever. Can you sing, Marko?"
"No. But I can play the ocarina."
"Might work. Make sure you put on a helmet if you're going to ride her, though."
Sure enough, Epona's ears perked up when she heard the melody, and she was soon nuzzling against Marko's helmet, brown eyes full of adoration.
"That was easy," Navi said.
After some debate over the value of the pound versus that of the rupee, Marko paid, said his goodbyes to father and daughter, and resumed his journey. Epona, despite her small stature, seemed to bear him easily, the rolling grassland gliding beneath her feet at high speed.
"How long until we reach the Temple, Navi?"
"Nightfall, if Epona can keep this pace up."
* * *
By mid-afternoon, the open blue skies had been replaced by darkening clouds, and soon enough rain began to fall. Although the green wool tunic kept Marko reasonably warm, and Navi seemed completely oblivious to the effects of the weather, the damp was clearly getting to Epona.
"We have to find a place to stay, Marko."
"There's no time."
"Hey! You're going to drive this horse to death otherwise. If nothing else, let's find a place for her to stay and carry on on foot."
Marko sighed. "Fine, but I don't see anything."
"There'll be a stables around here somewhere. Let's slow down and look out for one."
Eventually lights flared into view over a hill, giving the trio a brief respite. Upon arrival at a rather homely looking inn, the stablehands patted the shivering Epona down, giving Marko a long lecture on caring for horses in the process. He barely heard them. He was focused on what might happen if he didn't get to the temple in time.
"Navi, what makes Guardiolandorf so dangerous?" Marko asked, halfway through a bowl of runny but thoroughly acceptable porridge.
"Apart from the wanting to reshape the world and the legions of dangerous followers stuff?"
"He's also a deadly warrior and, on top of that, is able to convince you that he's right and you're wrong. He's actually pretty terrifying."
"And what makes me able to stop him?"
"You're the hero. Heroes always win, right?"
"That's not especially promising." Marko gave his porridge one last stir, then got up. "We need to get to the temple. Let's go."
Less than an hour later, the gates of the castle were in sight. The great stone walls we capped by roaring flames, which seemed to drive some of the cold out of Marko's bones even from afar.
"Why is the drawbridge down, Navi? It's after dark."
"That's strange. I wonder what's going on."
"I have a bad feeling abo-"
"Hello, Hero," a penetrating voice interrupted. "Good of you to join us."
Marko shoulders were suddenly put in an iron grip. He couldn't twist his head to see who had grasped him, but he could make out a tall shadow approaching through the rain.
A voice in his ear. "Arjen, take the sword. Then look for the emerald."
The shadow coalesced into a tall bald man, who moved with feline grace. Despite Marko's struggles, he was quickly relieved of his weapon. Then, worse, his backpack.
"Here is is, Franck."
Franck let Marko go, and he turned around to see a hideously ugly face -- scarred, no doubt, by hundreds of fierce battles -- leering back at him.
"Take it to the boss. Thanks for the delivery, Hero."
"What? No!" But Marko's protests were of no avail. Gem glistening despite the darkness, the man named Arjen slunk over the drawbridge, taking the hopes of a world with him.
Five minutes passed before it happened. A great bolt of light sprung up from inside the walls, punching through the clouds on its way towards the stars.
"This seems bad, Navi," Marko said, receiving a blow across the back of the head for speaking.
"Shut up, Hero. The boss will be coming to see you after this."
Come he did.
The clattering of horseshoes on cobblestones was the first indication that Guardiolandorf was approaching. The sound resonated inside Marko's bones, but the dread was nothing compared to when the man himself came into view, blazing with dark energy atop a black, armoured destrier.
"And here we have Marko Marin and his pet fairy. Thank you for your services to my cause, Mr. Marin. A true hero you are."
"You won't get away with this, Guardiolandorf!"
"Nonsense, my friend. I already have. Me and my men now possess the treble; what now can stop us? Certainly not you. The Hero of Hyrule? Franck and Arjen are worth ten of you. If you were the one from the prophecies, they didn't make a particularly inspired choice."
"You shiny-headed monster!"
"I'm not even going to kill you. A 3'6" footballer with a dodgy hamstring playing with swords and thinking he can stand up to the true powers of the world? It will be amusing to see what happens next." Guardiolandorf paused momentarily. "Oh, but I will have Franck knock you out now. He likes doing that sort of thing, I'm given to understand. Goodnight, Mr. Marin."
* * *
The rain had stopped by morning, but although Marko awoke to blue skies and the chirping of birdsong, he was soaked through nonetheless. Groggy, he rose, remembering piece by piece the events of the night before.
"Navi! You're ok? They didn't catch you?"
"Uh, no. I can fly, remember? Guess it doesn't matter though. We failed."
Marko sighed. "Yeah. But I guess we'd better go to the temple, just to see what happened."
Dejected, Marko trudged across the drawbridge, surprised to see crowds of people going about their business as though nothing unusual had happened. Idle chatter dominated the market as children chased circling dogs and bomb salesmen hawked their wares, blissfully ignorant of health and safety regulations.
The temple, however, was a different story. Tucked on a side alley off the market, it was in poor shape, its spires blackened and the door blown off. Alert for traps, the due edged in.
"I wish I had my sword."
"I wish you had the [fun]ing emerald."
"Are fairies supposed to cur-"
"Psst. Hey. You two. Have they gone?"
"Who's that?" Marko asked.
"That must be Rauru, the Sage of Light. Master of the temple. I assumed he'd be dead," Navi said. Then, louder. "They've gone, Rauru. You can come out. It's safe enough."
"That goodness for that."
A portly man, covered in dust and soot, emerged from a chimney flue. He brushed off his robes and impressive mustache and pulled a face. "Hello Navi. And to you too, Hero. I assume you know what happened?"
"We failed. That's the long version."
Rauru laughed in spite of himself. "And the short version, Navi?"
"[Fun]." More laughter.
"Why is this so funny to you, Sage?" Marko interjected.
"You've never read the propechies, so I'll give you a pass. But Navi, you should know better," he said. "Guardiolandorf might have taken the Treble, but he could never take the Master Sword from the pedestal. That honour is reserved for the Hero of Hyrule, and the Hero alone."
"Kind of, kid. I know everyone's been calling you 'Hero' this whole time, but that's really in honour of what you are to become. As you found out last night, you're no warrior just yet. But the Master Sword will change that in a hurry."
"Can I try it? What will happen?"
"Well, nobody's ever been able to hold it before. But the teachings say it'll turn you into the True Hero, if wielded."
"Do I have any other choice?"
"Not really. Navi hit the nail on the head just now. If this doesn't work, we're doomed."
Marko walked to the centre of the temple, where a small stone pedestal held a blue-hilted sword. It was, astonishingly, undamaged. And more amazingly, the area around the pedestal was bone-dry, despite the night's storm and the fact that the temple was no longer in possession of anything that might even charitably be called a roof. Magic seemed to crackle in the air around him as he approached.
"Just pull it out, Marko."
"Here goes nothing..."
* * *
The Hero had almost forgotten the Temple and the battle. An eternity -- seven eternities -- had been spent floating through the void, sharpening his mind and body, becoming far more than he had ever been, had ever hoped to be.He could feel reality calling him back, ever more insistent, and after he could learn no more, become no greater than he was, he returned, finding Rauru and Navi in the same position as he'd left them, an infinity ago.
"Whoa, Marko. You got handsome!" The fairy said.
"Marko? I am Marko no longer; I have become so much more than Marko ever was. You can call me... Schurrle."
"Shirley? What is up with you and girls' names?"
The hero sighed. "Fine. Let's just go with Andre. Now, friends, if you don't mind, I have some bad guys to vanquish."