The noon-day sun shone down upon the modestly-sized ranch, and the birds chirped and preened, basking in its warmth. A man with black hair walked out of the house, shielding his eyes from the bright sun as he looked around. He frowned a bit, as if he was looking for something.
"Hmm...where is he...?" he mumbled to himself, putting a hand to his chin as he walked around. There was a good-sized pen near the back of the house, with a bunch of Cuccos milling about, pecking idly at the ground and clucking softly. Sitting with his back to one of the three hen houses was a young lad no older than ten years old, with blue eyes and a generous mop of fluffy blonde hair on his head. Laying next to him was a medium-large dog with folded-over ears and a bushy tail.
"Hey, Alice, Dad showed me something cool you can do with grass, wanna see?"
He was fiddling with a thick blade of grass as he spoke; the dog lifted her head and looked up at him.
"Okay, watch this!"
Putting the blade of grass between his thumbs, he blew into it; the resultant noise was obnoxiously squeaky, and sounded a bit like a dying duck. The dog, Alice, grumbled and pawed at her ears, and the boy grinned sheepishly.
"Sorry, I think I blew into it too hard; lemme try again."
The black-haired man, Murphey, was walking towards the Cucco pen when he heard a series of obnoxious squeaks coming from nearby. Curious, he walked into the pen and found the boy and his dog, sitting by one of the hen houses.
"Ah, Link, are you practicing the grasswhistle?"
The blonde-haired lad, Link, was startled mid-blow into the grass, and he looked up towards the man, eyes wide.
"Oh, hi Dad!" he chirped, standing up. Murphey chuckled and patted the boy's head.
"I hope you are not scaring the Cuccos," he said, giving the blond a mock stern gaze. Link shook his head.
"Oh, no, I'm not," he said, looking down towards the few Cuccos that had started to gather near them. Alice stood up and stretched, yawning.
"I think they kind of liked the grasswhistle."
He blew into the blade of grass again, more softly this time to produce a short squeak; one of the Cuccos clucked in response, looking up at him. The man chuckled again.
"Perhaps the noise sounds like their young to them," he said, smiling a bit. "Regardless, I just wanted to let you know that I have to go and make deliveries."
The boy couldn't help but frown a bit; he knew this meant that his father was planning to make a trip to Castle Town in order to deliver and trade goods, and he most likely wouldn't be able to go with him. Again.
But it wouldn't hurt to ask, right...? Link thought to himself as he and Alice followed the Murphey out of the Cucco pen, making sure to close and lock it behind him so that no Cuccos would escape. They walked over to the wagon; it had already been hitched up to the single horse that lived on the ranch and was used to pull carts and such.
Link seemed to be mustering up the courage to pop the question as he helped his father load a basket of Cucco eggs onto the wagon.
"...can I...can I finally go with you to Castle Town...?"
Murphey frowned slightly; he knew how badly his son wanted to see Hyrule's Castle Town for himself, and the sight of those pleading sapphire eyes staring into his own did little to ease his mind.
"...someday, I promise. But not today. I'm sorry."
The trip to Castle Town led through the woods and finally into Hyrule Fields, and took roughly forty-five to travel via horse-towed wagon. But it was not the time needed that was the problem; the woods were deceptively dangerous. Gohmas and Wolfos prowled the shadows, waiting to prey on unsuspecting travelers, and Deku Babas flourished in the deeper portions of the woods. There were even rumors of Bokoblins and Moblins roaming the woods. Murphey was able to successfully travel back and forth due to his ability to defend himself, quite admirably, in fact; he was a gifted archer, and a respectable swordsman. Such skills were rather necessary to survive in an unexpectedly harsh environment.
Link crossed his arms and huffed, trying to hide his disappointment.
"The woods can't be that dangerous! It's not like the trail even goes through the deeper areas, anyways...!"
Murphey sighed. The boy had a point...somewhat. While it was true that not all of the trail was fraught with danger, some parts of it did go through the deeper portions of the woods, and the older man was forced to be highly vigilant there, despite having years of combat experience under his belt; a small, inexperienced and decidedly reckless child would stand no chance.
And Murphey refused to entertain the idea of Link possibly being injured during a trip. Or worse...
"I'm sorry, but the answer is no, Link."
The wagon was now loaded, and Murphey knelt down in front of his son, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Please understand that I'm not doing this to be mean," he said gently. "The woods are much more dangerous that you think they are, and I'd never be able to forgive myself if something bad happened to you."
"I-I know," Link mumbled, staring at the ground. "B-But I wanna be strong like you someday...!"
He really hated being a child sometimes; sure, whenever his father had to make deliveries to Castle Town, he (and Alice) had the important task of watching the house. But nothing ever happened during those times; it was so boring! And since Link was forbidden from going into the deeper areas of the woods surrounding the house, he had little to do...
Murphey pulled the lad into a warm hug, and the boy promptly hugged him back.
"You will be someday, I promise that. And someday I'll let you go to Castle Town with me. But it's too risky for now."
He let go of Link and stood up, offering a warm smile.
"Besides, even now, you have an important job to do," he said. "You and Alice need to keep the ranch safe while I'm away."
The boy nodded in response, feeling better somewhat; even if the job was boring, it was still an important one.
"I'll be back in a couple of hours," he said, climbing atop the horse. "And remember, don't go any further than the river."
Link nodded once more; the river that was relatively close to the ranch made a sort of natural barrier between the safety of home and the more dangerous areas of the woods.
Nudging the horse into moving, Murphey road towards the trail at a steady pace, leaving Link and Alice alone to watch the place once more.
Link loaded another stone into his slingshot and took aim at the old wooden dummy that was propped up at the left side of the house; Murphey frequently used it for target practice, and Link had recently begun using it to hone his own marksman skills. Since he was not yet allowed to use a bow and arrow, he settled on a slingshot that he had made himself.
"Okay, this time...this time, I'm gonna hit it right between the eyes!"
He drew back the pouch, squinting slightly at the dummy. He always liked to envision it as some marauding monster trying to attack the ranch; it at least gave him the chance to let his imagination run wild. Alice looked up from the stick she was chewing on.
"You picked the wrong place to mess with," he growled at the wooden dummy, slowly stepping closer to it. "'Cuz now you got me to deal with, buddy!"
He let go of the pouch, sending the stone shooting forward. It barely grazed the top of the dummy, and instead clacked against one of the trees behind it.
"...that was just a test shot!" he cried, quickly loading another stone into the pouch. "I'll get'cha this time, monster!"
He drew back the pouch and fired again; this time, the stone flew besides the dummy's head.
Grumbling a bit, Link jogged over towards the dummy; quite a few of the smooth stones he had been using as ammo were scattered a bit beyond the wooden fence the dummy was sitting in front of. He scaled the fence and dropped down on the other side, going to gather the stones he had shot.
That was when he heard a snapping sound. Instinctively, he froze up, despite the fact that he should've had no reason to assume he was in danger; the woods around his house were full of life, and there were always critters running or flying around. But no mere squirrel or bird could've made that snapping noise. It was like someone nearby had stepped on a twig.
"...m-maybe it's just a fox," he mumbled to himself, putting the stones he had picked up into the pouch he had tied around his waist, and going to gather the rest. But the air felt oddly tense, and it didn't help that Alice, who had trotted over to the fence, had started to growl.
"Alice, what is it?" he asked, looking over at the dog; her eyes were trained on the edge of the forest just behind Link, as if she had seen something he hadn't. That made the boy quite uneasy, so he hastily put the rest of the stones in his ammo pouch and made his way back over to the fence, scrambling over it more frantically than he'd care to admit. Alice seemed satisfied that he was now back in a safe area, and pressed her wet nose against his hand, tail wagging.
"Aww, Alice, it was probably just another animal," he said, scratching idly behind her ears now as he and her made their way back over to the house. She looked up at him, with a look that said 'You don't really believe that, do you?'. He frowned as if reading her thoughts.
"No, I really don't..."
A half-hour had passed since hearing the strange noise in the woods, and a burning curiosity had been eating at Link ever since then. If it wasn't a fox or stray cat or whatever, then what could've made that snapping noise? Clearly it had to have been big and/or heavy enough to break the twig underfoot. He mulled this over as he spread out feed for the Cuccos, brow furrowed as if deep in thought.
His father had said that there were rumors of Bokoblins and Moblins roaming the forest; nasty, pig-like bipeds with bloodthirsty temperaments. They were one of the primary reasons Link was forbidden to go past the forest's river; Gohmas and Wolfos were mostly active at night, and no Deku Babas 'grew' close by.
"They wouldn't come here, though...right? I-I mean, if there even were any..."
A few of the Cuccos looked up at him, clucking softly.
"...hmph. If any of them did try and show their ugly faces here, I'd make sure they regretted it!"
Yet for all his bravado and stubborn will, he truthfully had no idea what he'd do if a Bokoblin or Moblin decided to pay a visit to the ranch, especially if his father was not home at the time. What could he hope to accomplish by slinging stones at them? Anger them and make things worse for him? He would probably just have to hide in his room until they left. But then what if they didn't leave?
Link didn't even realize that, in his worry, he was standing completely still, staring at the ground. It was only when Alice nudged at his hand, whining softly, that he jolted back to his senses.
He sheepishly rubbed the back of his head, looking embarrassed.
"Sorry, I got...lost in my thoughts..."
His gaze drifted towards the woods once more, towards the place where he had heard the noise earlier. Frowning a bit, he left the Cucco pen, with Alice following close behind. After closing the gate, he walked back over towards the wooden dummy at the other side of the house. Alice whined once more, and quickly blocked his path, trying to ward him away from the fence.
"It's okay; I'm not gonna go past the river, I promise," he reassured her, stepping past and climbing over the fence. He took a deep breath as he faced the woods, apprehension still clouding his mind. He had gone into the woods plenty of times (yet never past the river), but today, the air felt tense and uneasy, as if there was something wrong. Alice barked, and he turned towards her.
"Alice, I won't be gone long, I promise," said Link, yet his voice was somewhat unsteady; had she sensed something earlier that he had not? Sure, she barked at wild animals sometimes, but whatever made the noise from earlier, she had perceived it as a serious threat. As he stepped towards the woods, she barked once more, a noise punctuated by a distressed whimper.
Maybe I shouldn't do this, he thought to himself, staring warily ahead; was it just his imagination, or did the forest look more sinister than it should be? He shook his head, trying to clear the worry from his mind.
"I'm not gonna be scared of a silly noise," he mumbled to himself, walking forward and stepping past the trees, into the forest.
As far as Link was concerned, everything seemed to be normal. Birds were singing high up in the trees, and he saw a couple of squirrels dart past. He felt somewhat reassured by this; if there was a monster roaming the woods, all the animals would be hiding and staying quiet instead of going about their normal routines, right?
Somehow, he wasn't so sure.
"I'm probably just over-reacting to all this," he mumbled to himself, crossing his arms as he tried to steady his nerves. He was frustrated by the whole situation; he had gone into the woods plenty of times, and nothing bad had ever happened. So why was he experiencing a constant, nagging sensation of dread?
He started to rub at his temples, grimacing slightly.
"Everything's fine, calm down," he scolded himself. "You'll see; there was no monster in the fir-"
His words were cut short by the sudden, putrid odor that quite literally punched him in the senses. He blanched and quickly pulled his shirt up over his nose, coming to a halt. The only word he could think of to describe the scent was 'death'.
He swallowed thickly to keep the bile out of his throat as he slowly walked forward, trying to find the source of the stench. Surprisingly, he managed to locate it within minutes...but now he found himself wishing that he had just turned around and went back home, instead.
It was a fox lying on its side, pale tongue lolling out of its partially open mouth. While Link had never seen a corpse before, it was still obvious to him that the creature was deceased. But that wasn't what had caused his blood to go cold. It looked like the fox's side had almost completely rotted; the ribcage and surrounding flesh had collapsed upon itself, and the mostly furless skin was a dark, diseased color, with some holes in it; the edges of the holes were ashen and brittle, and looked as if they'd crumble away into putrid dust at the slightest breeze. Wisps of black smoke curled lazily from the holes, carrying a sickening, acrid odor with it.
He wanted to run, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from the sight; it was fascinating, in a morbid way, and yet there was something incredibly sinister about all this. What in Hyrule could have caused such a vile demise?
Had a person done this? No...no one could be that evil, right...?
It was only when one of the larger holes suddenly caved in, sending a puff of 'ash' into the air, that he was jolted back to reality. He took a couple of hasty steps backwards, shivering; all this time, the air had been clinging to him like a death-shroud, and he just now realized how clammy his skin felt. It was almost like the very place around the fox's corpse was cursed.
"I-I have to get out of here," he mumbled to himself, before turning tail and running away as fast as he could, stumbling as he forced his trembling legs to work. His head was pounding fitfully and he felt horribly nauseous, but he didn't stop running until he had gotten back to the ranch...
Alice whined and paced frantically once she noticed Link running towards her, looking like he had seen a ghost. As soon as he scrambled over the fence and landed none-too-gracefully on the other side, she promptly began to lick his face, whimpering.
"Ghh...Alice, stop," he mumbled, but made no effort to push her away. She let out a soft woof and sat down next to him, pressing her warm, furry body against his trembling form. Letting out a shuddering breath, he embraced his friend.
What if it had been her-
He bit back a whimper and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to purge the fabricated image of Alice's half-putrefied corpse from his mind. He felt bad for what had happened to the poor fox, but knew he could have done nothing to help it, even if it had still been alive. He could only be grateful that Alice had not been the victim instead.
"You were right, Alice; there was something wrong earlier," he mumbled as he stroked the back of her neck. He then stood back up and walked towards the house, not wanting to dwell on what he had seen any longer. Alice got up and followed him, tail wagging slowly.
"I just don't know what it was..."
Even back at the safety of the ranch, Link still felt ill and exhausted; his legs threatened to give out beneath him with every step, and his head was throbbing painfully. He wanted to crawl into his bed and pass out for the rest of the day, but knew if his father found him like that when he got home, he'd be quite worried.
And he didn't like worrying the older man.
"No...everything's fine, now," he mumbled to himself, rubbing his temples again, as if trying to massage the headache away. He leaned back against the side of the house, exhaling shakily.