A/N Thank you for everybody who continues to follow! We're getting so close now, I took a longer break this one because I wanted to write ahead a little bit. Once gain, I apologize for the delay but am as committed as ever to see this through. Just saying, reviews and reactions are great motivators ;)
Impa walked slowly across the castle grounds, taking a moment to savor each step as the rays of the morning sun danced upon her face. She followed the princess closely, the two of them moving like pieces of driftwood among the cleanup operations. Soldiers piled up the undead husks in small mounds, lighting controlled flames as they hurriedly sought to rid the area of the rotten contamination. Even as she walked, she could still feel a lingering numbness in her left arm- a present from the Deadhand's wound.
After Link defeated the beast their forces had rallied, driving the invading monsters from the northern wall and reestablishing the perimeter. Impa had remained below to deal with the undead infiltration- watching Zelda as the princess once more used her flames to hold back the opposing rams. Though morning had been a few more hours off, the loss of the diversionary assault within Mora' grounds robbed the attackers of their momentum. Sunrise found them standing triumphant upon the walls: they had survived the night.
But at what cost? Impa wondered to herself, her hand clenched into a fist as she walked. Not just Hylian lives, but Gerudo as well? How many would still breathe today were he not so stubborn? She watched the princess intently, wondering if the young woman would voice what she no doubt knew in her heart. Her head was bowed somberly forward, not fury or defiance resting within her step.. No... the princess still walked under the shadow of guilt- unable to condemn the Hero's folly.
They neared the Deadhand's hulking corpse. So far, no soldier had found the courage to touch the putrid remains. Its tongue, as long as a man's forearm, stretched along the ground from its slack jaw. Link stood beside it, glaring down at its lifeless form. As they drew near, he spoke.
"Tell me, Sheikah, does he have any more of these?"
Impa shrugged dismissively. "Hard to say. Who knows what sort of beasts Power can bend to its will?"
The Gerudo king turned, looking over at the two women. "You feign ignorance. From the very moment it appeared in the market I could see you held some deeper familiarity with this abomination. I wish for no more surprises of this nature to rampage among our forces, especially surprises stemming from your kind's fascination with dark magic."
Zelda wordlessly looked back to Impa, her silence causing no small measure of disappointment on her guardian's part. "You judge me? Do you honestly believe we Skeikah are not aware of the Desert Witch's laboratory, nor the Labrynnian prisoners sent there?"
A snort slipped from Link's throat. "You honestly think the two are comparable? The Gerudo once had a program to twist the weakest of our number into warriors of iron. Several times the Elders discussed starting it anew, yet each time I forbade it. That was a simple enhancement: look upon your people's handiwork and tell me it is not a dozen times more unholy!" A few soldiers slowed in their menial tasks, their gazes averted but their ears clearly listening. The attention left Impa with no small sense of discomfort. She preferred the shadows to the spotlight.
"Criminals, murderers, the worst of Hyrule's detezins- their twisted forms are only manifestations of their souls," the Sheikah countered, "If you wish to speak of evils, what about the hand of one who allows people to die because of his pride?"
"And what is that meant to imply?" the king retorted, taking a step towards the woman.
Impa resisted the urge to go for her blade- that wasn't the goal here. Instead, she pointed towards the boated mass. "The Deadhand- as it is called- is an animated construct of shadow magic. As you saw, conventional weapons are ineffective. The Master Sword was fashioned specifically to dispel and seal magic- quite possibly it could have felled the beast with a single swipe. How many people would still draw breath if your pride didn't stop you from bearing the weapon?"
Scoffing, Link took another step towards her, causing the Sheikah's fingers to twitch involuntarily. "That's your point? Once again shifting the responsibility and vilification onto my people when the simple fact is that your-" He stopped his advance, turning his head to the side as though his name had been called by a voice in the wind.
The princess had stepped towards him, setting her hand against his shoulder as she peered into his eyes. Though her face remained stoic, Impa could feel the frown which threatened to claim her face. What is she doing?
They stood motionlessly as quiet filled the air- broken only by the faint sound of crackling flame. Zelda continued to look into his eyes, her face firm even as his remained uncertain. Finally, after a half-minute, he broke the contact and stepped back.
"I don't need to stand for this." His words came in a sharp burst he spun towards the gatehouse, Racisa following closely behind- a slight run in her step in order to keep up with his long stride. Impa resisted the urge to follow- she had said her peace. Though he may wear a mask of indifference, she knew that her words would stick. Like a splinter, they would irritate and poke and his mind- that was the sort of man he was.
Zelda signed, turning to face her guardian. As with the king, she didn't actually say any words to her guardian- merely stared. After a minute, she Sheikah broke the silence. "No rebuke? No telling me to behave for our guest?"
"Impa, this isn't like you." Zelda's voice was concerned as she watched the older woman. "Is something going on?"
The question caught her off guard. She had been prepared to argue the merits of her words, not for the conversation to shift to her. "Nothing notable, princess. The presence of these abominations caught me a bit off guard, but that only emphasises the need for the Hero to take up the Master Sword sooner rather than later."
Zelda continued to watch her intently. For the first time in her life the Sheikah felt uncomfortable beneath that stare- as though the princess suddenly gained the power to drag her from her home among the shadows. "Why are you upset with him?"
A strange, almost critical edge slipped into the princess's voice... "I already told you- he is on a path of folly which we cannot afford."
"There is something else as well." Zelda countered, her tone definitive rather than speculative. Impa didn't respond. Every word of hers had seemed to invite Zelda's scrutinizing gaze closer, as though she could see right through her. It was a treatment she never expected from the princess.
Finally, the royal broke the silence- as if aware that she had pressed too far. "Very well, I suppose this secret must rest with you right now. Still, you do have one valid point in that he needs to draw the sword before this is over. Would you come with me? I want to make sure it is safe after the attack."
Impa nodded wordlessly, the sun's rays no longer feeling quite so friendly as they made their way to the central keep. Inside, healers from the desert tribes moved hurriedly around the assembled cots and bunks. Rather than forcing the Gerudo to adapt to the Hylian facilities, the princess had offered them the wide, open chamber to treat their own. None of the women seemed to notice the two intruders as they passed through the makeshift field hospital, crossing over to where the grand staircase ascended to the second floor.
As they passed into the upper hallways and corridors leading to her room, Zelda's right hand went to her collar. Impa could sense the movement of magic in the air, though her shadow affinity left her with little insight into the princess's spell. She nearly asked the young woman about it, but found she had little appetite for further conversation.
Reaching her room, Zelda put her hand on the latch and gently pushed the door open. The sluggishness in her movement betraying her fatigue. "Impa, would you please fetch the chest for me?"
The princess settled down on the canopy bed as the Sheikah turned away, both of her hands reaching up to massage her neck. Impa stepped over to the corner of the room where a single, solitary chest sat- reflecting for a moment on how strange it must seem to store an artifact of such importance in such a common container. Without much trouble she lifted the case, bringing it over to where Zelda sat, her interlaced fingers in her lap.
"Impa? Do you know where that medallion is- the one you gave Link?"
Full of strange questions today, aren't we? The woman reflected to herself. "Not exactly, the shadows which inhabit the castle make it hard to sense. I do know that it hasn't left the capital." She set the chest on the bed, turning it to face the princess and unlatching it.
Zelda didn't answer as she lifted the cover, her mind seemingly elsewhere as she looked at the sword wedged unceremoniously in the chest. Reaching in, she withdrew the weapon. "It's funny that I can touch it, even carry it, yet the moment I consider drawing the sword out it is like gravity itself drags my thoughts to the ground and renders them immobile."
"Who can try to comprehend the goddesses' magic?" Impa responded, leading against one of the posts which supported the bed's canopy.
"Indeed, there are many things about how they work which we cannot grasp." Zelda echoed, a few strands of hair hanging down the side of her face. Her eyes studied the intricate, deep-violent crossguard. Impa wondered what thoughts were in the young princess' head, no doubt something related to the days ahead. Destiny and fate continued to move, drawing them into the future far faster than any of them were prepared for. Her ward took a breath, her eyes turning to the Sheikah as she held out a closed fist."Would you take this?"
Curious, Impa offered her palm to the princess, feeling a small piece of metal pressing into it. Drawing her arm back, she looked down to see a small, heart-shaped silver pendant with a ruby embedded in the center. A silver chain hung from the top, waving gently in the air. "Zelda?"
"Keep it with you." Something in the princess's voice caused Impa's head to snap up, immediately alert. She moved quickly, making it halfway around the bed by the time Zelda had risen to her feet- the Master Sword clutched in the younger woman's hands. A golden light burst forth without any clear source, engulfing the princess in a moment and fading just as quickly, leaving behind nothing but empty air and a strange, ethereal hum which echoed against the chamber's walls.
Impa slammed her fist against one of the bedposts, the noise splitting the calm atmosphere around her. A wellspring of fury erupted within her, an anger at the recklessness shown by the bearer of Wisdom. "So help me princess, the next time I lay my hands on you I'm shackling your wrist to my own!" She nearly barreled out of the chamber and started shouting for the guards- but what help would that be? Zelda had seen her opening and taken it.
And now, the princess was gone.
"So, which of our bodyguards do you think is angrier right now?"
Link's eyes remained transfixed upon the flame before him, though he allowed a smile to creep over his face. Racisa's string of profane string of curses echoed once more in his mind, the girl's shouts having chased after them even as her horse lagged further and further behind Epona. "Is yours even capable of emotion?"
The princess gave him a judgmental "that's not very nice" look before returning to her apple. She rested in her formal dress one more, having changed into her battle suit for the duration of their ride. He questioned the practicality of her royal uniform, but she assured him that it's multiple layers would be better for the evening's cold. "You would be surprised. Just because a person wears a stone mask does not mean she doesn't feel, nor suffer, just as strongly as the rest of us. Still, if the final look passing over her face was any indication, I'm going to have quite the lecture waiting for me."
"If I get off with just a lecture I will be lucky." Link jested in return, savoring the heat as it washed over his body. His mind drifted back to earlier in the day as Impa had berated him, and the strange sensation when Zelda locked eyes with him. He hadn't literally heard her voice or anything like that, but somehow he had still understood. Make ready to depart, I will join you soon.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Zelda smile and look around their small campsite. Though the plains extended in all directions, they had found a small grove of perhaps a dozen, wild apple trees. "Still, that was quite the colorful vocabulary Racisa employed. I wouldn't have expected such things from one so young."
Link shrugged, "Her tribe comes from deep in the desert. They're a bit rougher than most of my sisters."
"Mhm." Zelda echoed, looking down at her unfinished apple core. "I guess I never thought of the different groups and tribes. To us, your people have always seemed like a uniform entity."
"Yea well... I suppose that happens when dealing with 'the other.' I remember the night of the gala. How much my eyes were opened as you introduced and pointed out all the various noble houses to me."
"The gala... you mean after the tournament you won?" Zelda asked, a distant look on her face as he nodded back. "Godesses... that seems so long ago."
A small sigh escaped his lips. "A simpler time for sure: before betrayal and violence flowed between us. Once this is over, I hope we can go back to that."
Her eyes jumped over to him, her slightly slouched back straightening. The motion was subtle, but it reminded him a bit of Kalila of all things- how the girl would suddenly perk up when he said something worthy of her interest. The thought brought forth a small ember of pain, one which Link quickly smothered. The princess spoke, her voice almost timid. "I... would really like that: a fresh start."
He returned her smile, though his eyes drifted to the blade propped against the tree beside her. Impa had railed against him for not yet having drawn it, but could such a sword really make that much of a difference? All his life he had fought with Gerudo steel, what did it mean if he abandoned that now for the Hylian's legends?
The princess interrupted his thoughts with an unladylike yawn, making it halfway through before she seemed to remember his presence. She quickly covered it with her mouth as a little bit of red formed on her cheeks. He chuckled lightly. "We had better get some rest. Why don't I take the first watch?"
"After fighting a battle and going the better part of two days without sleep?" She retorted, though he heard the halfhearted resignation in her tone. "Monsters will probably fall upon us after you nod off."
"The more time you argue is more time we lose,'' he responded, "Besides, that teleportation spell must have been quite the drain.
Far too easily, the princess seemed to cede defeat as she stretched out on her bedroll. "Alright, but make sure you give yourself time to rest as well. These lands appear barren but I sense something is out there and watching us. See you at the second watch" Without waiting for his response she turned onto her side with her back to him.
"Until then." Link responded, pushed himself to his feet as he grabbed a thin stick. He poked at the fire, one of the glowing logs crumbled beneath his touch and throwing a fistful of red embers into the sky. He watched them as they danced in the darkness like small, red stars as they winked out one by one.
He could hear the princess's deep breaths, perhaps an indication that she had already fallen asleep. Without her voice, the shadows seemed to close in just a little tighter around their small grove. I sense something is out there and watching us- Now why did she have to make that her final line of the night? His fingers twitched and he looked back to where he had previously sat, confirming that both his glaive and scimitar remained safely on the ground. As he turned back to the fire, his eyes fell upon the sheathed Master Sword.
It wanted him, that much he could feel. Gathering up his own bedroll, he took several steps towards the weapon- only to drape the bedding over it like a funeral shroud. "Can't you just let me do my own thing? To be my own person?" He muttered quietly to the undignified mass. Sighing, he began to turn back to where he had been seated, only to pause when his eyes fell upon the princess's form. Although her hair was long, she somehow managed to neatly tuck it all into her bedroll.
He gave himself a moment to admire her, though he knew that his fascination was not just bound to her physical form. Even after everything, she defied the Hylian mistrust of his people and still wanted a diplomatic thaw. Millennia of violence and hatred suggested there could never be a lasting peace between their nations, but if there was ever a ruler who could make it happen then it would be her. A new beginning for his people...
Returning to his spot, he slipped another piece of apple wood onto the fire before settling down. Although no monsters had yet stepped in their path, he kept his scimitar and glaive close... Kalila's glaive. His sister had carried it since her training, bearing it until the evening when she would fall before him.
"That's enough," he muttered to the night, wrapping his arms around himself as he watched the shadows. The command seemed to scatter his thoughts like fish in suddenly disturbed water, though he knew they would return as the hours crawled by. Letting out a grunt, he relined where he sat and turned his eyes to the stars above. It was going to be a long watch.
A dozen small sticks and twigs scratched at Afya's arm while she climbed, her body wedged in the corner between the dry, dead hedge and the cold stone of the castle wall. Every light crack and rustle of the brush put her on edge, but so far what little noise she made hadn't attracted any attention. For the most part the castle gardens were fortunately devoid of patrols. Only an occasional pig-beast would show itself, clutching its spear tightly as it wandered through the grounds.
Afya looked up once more at the broken window, only a few stray shards of glass remaining within its frame. She could almost hear Impa's admonishing voice hovering just over her shoulder. The woman had been adamant- no insistent- that Afya not go to the castle. "This isn't some fun adventure dodging guards," her elder stated, "even when I was in the town after it fell I never dared to near the castle. In such a place as that, the shadows themselves seek to betray you."
Afya permitted herself a silent scoff as she grabbed onto the windowframe, pulling herself into the structure. It was as though Impa had forgotten that she was Gerudo now- something more than the Sheikah ever hoped to make her. Perhaps the woman simply didn't want to see that she had outgrown them, although some small part of Afya's mind felt touched at her old mentor's concern. Ultimately, though, it was irrelevant. Her brother had tasked her to keep an eye on the enemy and that was a duty she would fulfill. After a few days of poking around the town, she had decided to draw a bit closer.
Slipping through the window, she found herself amongst a series of wooden seats in the corner of a vast room. Several strides in front of her sat a railing which separated the partition from the rest of the chamber- a balcony then. So the window was connected to the throne room? Afya smiled, perhaps she wouldn't need to wander too far. To her immediate left sat a door, presumably to the stairs leading to the first floor. Forgoing it, she crept quietly along the side of the chamber as she used the chairs for cover. She could hear faint voices from the chamber below, though the lecture in her memory tried to drown them out.
"This is simply out of your league. If you are foolish enough to actually go to the castle you will be caught and killed." Afya took a deep breath and smothered the rage within her. She was a Gerudo elder, she didn't need to suffer such disrespect. Whatever motivation had led her to seek out Impa, she wondered whether she should have ignored it. Somewhere deep within, though she would never verbally admit it, she knew the other woman might be right. Had she gone then to get advice, or in some futile attempt at closure? Her response to the older woman still resonated within her mind, the conviction and finality of it breaking the furious expression on the other woman's face.
"Well, then at least I shall die in the service of my people- rather than a knife in the back as I sleep."
The voices in the chamber below grew clearer as she moved down the balcony, though she kept far enough away from the edge to avoid any stray gazes. Every ten paces or so a large pillar cut right through the front of the balcony on it's way to the ceiling high above, providing her with some cover for when she did wish to get a little closer. What Sheikah remained in her could sense the strength of the shadows around her, their shade beckoning her to come and find shelter within. She ignored their temptations, heeding at least one part of her old mentor's advice, "Whatever you do, do not try to use shadow magic there. If you do, he will know."
Finally, she made it far enough down the room to make out voices. The first voice sounded almost like the cracking of sticks, yet it still managed to project and fill the room. "-evidence of a much deeper failure with Shadow's tactics. It lacks true creativity."
"Oh?" A smooth, flamboyant voice retorted with an exaggerated scorn. "And how would you describe your performance in the Gerudo gorge? After all, that's what dragged up into this mess."
The first voice snapped back, "Shifting conditions! Nobody could have predicted the Hero would be alive and well. If I had the time and resources which Shadow-"
"Flame and Ghirahim, enough from both of you!" Afya's breath caught in her throat, forcing her to take a second to relax. Despite her distance, she could hear every syllable as clearly as if the speaker stood by her side. "I've come to a decision on how we will respond to the Gerudo/Hylian force marching south from Mora. They hold their heads high from their near-victory, foolishly departing their stone strongholds to face us."
Afya kept her body flat against the floor of the balcony as she inched forward, the cold stone drawing the heat from her body as she neared the edge and the voices below. "We will deploy the full strength of our forces to confront them in the open field. I want the castle and the surrounding forts emptied. They wish to force a decisive battle, and that is a wish I shall grant. Flame- you will have another chance to crush them."
The room below went silent and the attendees pondered the orders. As a precaution, Afya stopped crawling, unwilling to risk any motion while in the silence. When a new voice spoke, she inched forward again. A middle-aged man with blonde hair and garbed in white was speaking, "Lord Ganondorf, do you think it entirely prudent to deploy the full force of your army in the open field? The Hylians now have to come to you to recapture their home, would not a defensive approach be safer?"
Afya's eyes turned to the object of his gaze, stopping short when she recognized the young man seated on the throne. The nails of her fingers dug into her palms as her fists clenched. Although she recognized the flaming red hair, she found it hard to believe her eyes. The Hylian who had killed Link- he led this force?
"Even if Flame were to fall in battle, I can easily replace the lost troops." The knight responded, his once-pristine plate armor blackened and charred. "They are unable to face us in a war of attrition, and so we shall take every opportunity to engage them without delay."
The crackling voice spoke next, drawing Afya's attention to a floating aberration, a lumpy collection of fabric with thin, black arms- it's face obscured by a hood. "And insightful plot. However, that does leave the castle undefended. Have you considered the possibility that they've split their force?"
The knight chuckled, the sound of his mirth filling the room like water poured into a glass. "Oh, not only have I considered the possibility but I know it to be the case. The Princess and the Hero ride alone to the northeast."
"Then..." the man garbed in white hesitantly ventured, "why would you empty your garrison?"
Afya watched intently as the warrior shrugged dismissively, her fingers playing with the dagger at her side. "Even if they were to turn now and ride for the castle it would take them over full day to reach us. I know not what their errand is, but it has carried them away from the theater."
She recognized the next voice as the sarcastic one from earlier, tracing it to a thin figure beside the knight. Each word which slipped from his lips felt as though a sneer lay beneath, "Then perhaps that is our true opportunity Lord Ganondorf. Alone and isolated, we could them now and eliminate the goddesses' agents!"
Ganondorf... so it is the Hylian knight after all. Afya shook her head. Did the princess know? Of course, she must.
"My Shadow will handle them." The man replied firmly, his tone making the finality of his decision clear. "We shall fall upon the coalition, our focus being on the Hylian force. Even if they win this engagement, they will be unable to mount an effective siege if their heavy infantry has been routed."
"Not to mention," the snide, tall one continued, "that even in the case of a rout our master can replenish our forces before the opposing army can cover half the distance to the castle."
Ganondorf nodded, "Of course, that is if Flame fails me for a final time."
"With the Hero gone and the force of your full force behind me? My lord, I leave now and will not return until they lie rotting in the Hylian plains!" The floating, ghastly aberration chuckled as it turned and quickly floated towards the front of the hall.
At Ganondorf's side, the thin being muttered in his master's ear- though Ganondorf seemed to shrug off his comment. The new lord of Hyrule turned to face the blond man stationed at the food of the dais.
"Ambassador, the time may be near for you and Tricia to depart this place."
"Depart? This is a pivotal moment for your regime!" A woman's voice called out, surprising Afya. She quickly skimmed the rest of the room to find its source. Outside of the immediate circle, leaning against the pillars and partially hidden by the shadows, a young lady stood wearing violet robes similar to the man in white's.. Though Afta was surprised that she failed to notice the woman sooner, the woman's azure skin and orange hair surprised her more.
"War is never clean nor certain," Ganondorf responded, "particularly in a conflict such as this. If some fragments of the Hylian force survive then this castle could become the next battleground. I doubt the Hylians would be too... enthused by your presence."
The woman stepped towards the throne's dais, "But with these next-"
"Thank you my lord." The ambassador interrupted. "You bear a valid concern and we shall consider it seriously as we consider our next step- unless you are demanding we leave."
Ganondorf's eyes moved from the man in white to the woman, "Of course not, the two of you are free to stay if you so desire. The coming conflict will no doubt clarify the future between our two domains." Placing his hands upon the throne's armrests, he stood. "With that, I can think of only one more thing that needs to be addressed- Ghirahim?"
"At your ready, my Lord." A disturbing level of eagerness dripping into the slim guardian's voice. Afya found herself slowly pushing back from the edge- there was something dangerous in that tone.
Ganondorf turned his head towards the balcony, his eyes suddenly locking onto Afya's. His following statement was simple and abrupt, "Do it." It was the only warning she got.
A surge rushed through her body as she pushed against the floor, springing to her feet even as a series of diamond-shaped sparks filled the surrounding air. The sound of shattering glass surrounded her as she spun, only to find the tall, thin warrior towering above her. Hunger shown in his eyes as his black cutlass leapt forward- her dagger barely deflecting it downwards in time. Her arms shuttered at the impact, her muscles not quite prepared for the sudden action. Pushing through the lethargic motions of her body, she took advantage of the opening and lept towards her assailant.
Despite driving her full weight behind her strike, only the very tip of her dagger managed to sink into her target's chest. He didn't acknowledge the wound, a smile gracing his face as his violet-rimmed eyes bored into hers. She saw the steel coming from the corner of her vision, pushing against her dagger and using the force to help her backpedal out of range- though leaving her dagger behind. The balcony's railing cut into her back as she withdrew and raised her other dagger in a feeble defense.
Her assailant advanced, her original dagger sticking from his chest for only a moment before it slipped out and clattered to the floor. None of the individuals in the chamber below made any noise, politely watching as the specter launched another powerful swing. She barely managed to deflect this one as well, even that glancing impact sending a shutter through her arm. This was a fight she simply had no chance of winning. Grabbing the railing behind her, she pushed off the floor and swung over it in a single, smooth motion.
For a fraction of a second she hung, judging the distance to the ground even as her attacker raised his blade to strike at her hand. The floor sat no less than two stories below (in a normal residence) but the pillar to her left cast an inviting shadow too far from her position. Lacking any better idea and running out of time she pushed off the rail- aiming herself for the dark, comforting embrace. A small grin graced her lips as she felt the escape open for her, Kotake and Kohume were not the only elders to know some magical tricks.
But something went wrong. Right before she dove into freedom the doorway closed, leaving behind nothing but hard stone. A criss-crossed web of agony tore into her as her right side slammed into the floor, a collection of audible snaps sounding out from her arm and shoulder. Tears welled up in her eyes as she clenched her teeth together, flight suddenly the last thing on her mind.
"You fool. The shadows serve me!" She heard his heavy footsteps approach from behind, her back shielding her from him. Any attempt to move only caused the bones in her side to grind together, her own body weight crushing them as the pain nearly drove her blind. Still, she still had one good arm... and her dagger.
"Did you not think that they would whisper to me your intrusion? Did you honestly feel you could slip by beneath my nose?" He scoffed, though he almost sounded a little... insulted? She remained motionless, her body curled around her left hand. She felt his strong grip on her shoulder, "My foes have always underestimated my power- have never been able to see or understand just what sort of dangerous game they-"
Knowing the pain she was about to put herself through, Afta set her jaw as she twisted in his grip- the knife in her good hand charging for his throat. The other half of her body screamed in a grinding chorus as what felt like several hot lances tore into her side- she must have several broken ribs to add to her list of wounds. Her last burst of energy collapsed into disappointment as her strike stopped short- his other hand catching hers when it was only two-thirds of the way to his neck..
He sighed, "Again, such poor foresight." She felt his grip on her wrist tighten painfully, until suddenly it crunched. Despite her best effort, her dagger slipped from her hand as a scream slipped from ther mouth. Her vision started to blur, but not before she noticed the two Labrynnians in the corner of her vision (out of all the things to focus on). Though the man in white visibly winced at the display, the blue woman watched with an intent glare. Ganondorf continued to taunt her, though there was no anger in his jeers. "You've accomplished nothing here- you've changed nothing. Things would have simply been better had you remained with your sisters."
Like a jeering crowd which presses in from all sides, the agony in her body slowly deafened her to any other sensation. She could still perceive color from the lights and torches around her, but her eyesight was rapidly slipping into darkness. It took all of her concentration for her mind to piece together his final words. "Fortunately, for you, you will not know this regret for much longer."
She took his words as a promise, one which she was grateful he kept as all sensation finally slipped from her body.
A smile leapt onto Zelda's face as she snapped out of her sleep, her excitement quickly dispelling her fatigue. "Link, I think I know now! At the waterfall..." her voice trailed off as she looked around in confusion. The previous day, guided by her intuition, they had followed the eastern river up the narrow gorge it cut between the mountains. It was there that their quest had come to an abrupt halt in the form of a dead end. Despite this, the feeling within her insisted they were in the right place. Unsure of what to do next and faced with a setting sun, they had returned downriver a short distance and set up camp. "Link? Why is the sun up?"
He sat several strides away from her, his back against the side of a rocky cliff as he turned to face her direction- a smirk on his face. "Should it not have risen this morning?"
"Don't give me that!" She retorted, her initial excitement turning to vexation. "You were supposed to wake me for the second watch. Any fatigue on your part will further endanger us."
"Sorry I-" he interrupted himself. "I lost track of time."
She crossed her arms, surprised at just how angry she felt at that moment. "I know that's not an honest answer."
Her companion let out a nervous chuckle. "That's right, the little connection between us. Why is it that you can hide your feelings from me but I don't have the same ability?"
"Because it is all over your face." Zelda responded, allowing an edge to slip into her voice. "Whatever training you may have had in the art of diplomacy can't measure up to the centuries which we Hylians have developed the practice. Do you not trust me to keep watch?"
Link visibly flinched at her final question, the tone of his voice conveying a small amount of hurt at her phrasing. "No! That's not it I just... saw something."
He nodded, a sigh escaping from his lips. "A pair of yellow spots in the night, glowing like the eyes of a cat- except that they were too far from the ground for any such animal."
A slight chill worked its way down her spine. "Eyes? Where?"
Link pointed back down the path, "Probably thirty strides away. They hovered there for quite some time until I blinked and they were gone. After that, I felt no desire to sleep."
"I see." Her voice turned a bit softer.
"Still- I'm ready and eager for the day!" Link bounced up, his body betraying no fatigue even as the tone of his voice sounded a little forced. "You said something about the waterfall?"
"Oh yes." Zelda responded, "That's the door to the ruins. We just have to sing a melody and it shall open for us."
Her companion's eyebrow shot up. "Oh really? That seems awfully... simple."
"Well, did you think of it?" She retorted, a little disappointed when he didn't chuckle back. A weak, cold breeze blew from the north- some remainder of the winter now past.
Link knelt and began rolling up his unused bedroll. "Well then, I don't think we should waste any time- unless you want to have breakfast first."
Zelda shook her head, her mood quickly turning somber. "No, I'm just as eager to find the ruins."
"Great, we'll try your password then." He responded, hooking his bedroll to the back of his belt and grabbing their satchel of food supplies. Though they had left most of their cargo with Epona they carried enough for a couple of days. Seeing that she hadn't yet made any movement, he looked back over to her. "Zelda?"
The princess sighed, picking away at the edge of her dress. At no other point in her life had she ever thought she might be sleeping in her royal attire. Forcing the distracting thought from her mind, she elevated her gaze and looked her companion in the eye. "Look Link, I'm sorry suggesting you don't trust me. For all this time we've known eachother you've only encouraged me to take initiative and do things for myself. I'm just... stressed."
He paused for a moment before responding, "Well, then I suppose the best thing we can do is target the source of that stress- right?" Stepping towards her, he offered her a hand to pull herself up with.
After he lifted her to her feet she held onto his hand for a moment longer, studying his face and the resolve behind it. He hadn't accepted her apology- no, to do so would be to admit that her earlier words had cut him. For whatever reason, her companion didn't want to telegraph the emotions she could sense beneath. "Zelda?" He uttered questioningly as she stared.
"Once this is over, I will do right by your people." She let his hand drop to his side and made a hand motion- another flash of light claiming her dress and replacing it with her Sheikan attire. Turning, she fled his inquisitive gaze In a few steps she reached where the Master Sword lay, allowing him a moment to process her words without her gaze. The end would come soon, after which she could finally set things right.
Link turned, any thought of a sarcastic comment driven from him as he watched in awe. The twin waterfalls to either side of the entrance slowly came together, embracing the entrance like a protective mother. "I still can't believe that worked."
"Now if only I had gotten the dream the night before- we wouldn't have been left out in the cold." the princess responded, though her voice remained triumphant. Though they were technically underground, he could still clearly see her face- though washed with a soft, blue aura. A strange luminescence filled the hallway with no clear source, seemingly bleeding from the rocks themselves.
He nodded back, his eyes drawn forward as they walked down the subtly-sloped hallway. As they advanced, the sound of the waterfall behind them slowly gave way to a second, far mightier one ahead. The tight walls to either side of them gave way, opening to a great chamber.
"So this is where they lived." Zelda whispered softly, her eyes drawn upwards. Shadows hid the ceiling, making it impossible for them to judge just how high above them it rose. Meanwhile, Link walked towards the end of their stone platform and looked down. The base of the chamber was filled with clear, crystalline water. It seemed to sparkle in the ethereal lighting, its surface strangely undisturbed by the massive waterfall pouring out of a high cut in the far wall. Nor did there appear any visible outlet from the chamber. He furrowed his brow. There was something… else that felt off to him, something he couldn't immediately discern.
The stone cliff beneath their feet ran around the perimeter of the room, several ramps breaking off to slope gently towards the water below. At the back of the room, near the waterfall, another path disappeared into the stone. He silently followed the princess, his eyes carefully studying the hard surfaces around them.
"I expected there to be something left- some sort of sign of their living here." A thin wisp of uncertainty slipped into her voice as she surveyed the barren surroundings. "They were an aqueous race- maybe they actually lived in the pool?"
"That- or their foes sought to leave no trace of their existence." Link countered, gesturing for her attention and then pointing towards the floor. Though smooth at first glance, a closer inspection revealed numerous, shallow cuts and pits in the otherwise-polished path.
The princess knelt. "You think these are from battle? I didn't think that wandering piece of steel could do this much damage to stone."
"Not unless there was something very big and heavy behind it." Link responded, looking once more around the chamber. He felt a thread of anxiety gnawing against his bones. "So- armory?"
She glanced towards the back of the chamber. "I don't know where they may have kept their weapons- I guess we can start with that hallway?"
Seeing that he didn't have any better plan, and that the princess' intuition had been right so far, Link nodded and followed silently along. The path led up to another, smaller, room which seemed like some sort of audience chamber- with a central platform and elevated points all around. Unfortunately, the room was also barren- nothing but glowing stone and ankle-deep water awaiting them. They found another path leading to the top of the waterfall, and as they explored the complex they encountered several more tunnels ending in empty, stone rooms. Link kept one hand on the scimitar at his waist, his fingers nervously drumming against the hilt.
"Look!" Zelda pointed as they splashed through more shallow water. "That's sunlight."
Snapping out of his thoughts, Link refocused on the path ahead as it bent around a corner. Sure enough, the glow coming from the stone had a bit more of a yellow hint than the bluish glow of the halls. The continuing anxiety at the back of his mind was slowly souring his mood. "I hope that doesn't mean we're at the exit."
"No," her emphatic response drew his attention to the princess. Though she seemed confident, he wondered if she were just being stubborn. "With the other entrance so hidden I don't think they would have such an exposed way to enter their ruins."
"Maybe we came in through the back door?" He questioned, following her around the bend and into daylight. Tall mountains rose on every side, leaving them in a wide, lake-filled clearing. A raised stone platform sat beside them, though little else greeted them besides isolated rocks and a few, large trees jutting up from the water.
The princess walked forward, her Sheikah boots splashing in the water. Their footsteps seemed to be the only motion in the clearing. "Maybe this was a recreation area for them? If we look around we might still find something." He followed closely, his hand still on his weapon. The discomfort had grown even stronger.
Surprising him, the princess suddenly came to an abrupt stop- her eyes focused on the water. He quickly caught himself, not wanting to step into her and knock them both into the shallow water.
But in that moment there was another faint splash- another footstep- which would have been perfectly in time with theirs.
Link spun, pulling his sword from its sheath and into a ready position as he bent his knees. His eyes scanned the cave behind them for the threat even as the cold water droplets he had kicked up continued to fly through the air.
"Link?" He heard Zelda question, her voice surprised and concerned.
The passage behind them sat empty, though his body remained tense like a coiled spring "You didn't hear that?"
The two of them remained there for a moment, frozen, as they listened for any more sounds. Zelda gently put her hand on his shoulder. "Maybe you imagined it? You've been on edge since we arrived."
"No." Link responded, brushing her hand off as he turned, his gaze sweeping the clearing. When it reached the princess he paused, his eyes captured by the sword strapped to her back. He could feel it calling for him. Zelda meanwhile, watched him with concern. Her lips parted slightly, wishing to speak.
Suddenly, her eyes widened as all the blood drained from her face. Like the lost snap of a twig in a forest, her voice came out with a sharp yet quiet whisper. "Link!"
He spun again, requiring only a moment to find it. About a third of the way around the small lake stood the figure of a man. However, this being was no child of the goddesses, as evidenced by the exposed, yet jawless, skull and the twin horns rising straight up from its head. Small, violet flames danced across it's arms and legs as it stood- watching them.
"Behind me!" Link barked, placing himself protectively between Zelda and the motionless stalker.
"Something's not right. That thing... isn't right." She murmured, her voice still in a whisper. Link wondered why she even bothered to be quiet- they clearly held the aberration's full attention. The hero walked slowly, acutely aware of how his heels dragged in the water. Footwork would be difficult here.
The princess was right though- he could sense the darkness radiating from the beast. Its head turned very slowly as they walked, though its arms remained crossed in a defiant stance. Scimitar in one hand, Link kept his other arm extended behind himself to steer the princess. Along the edge of the clearing was a small shore, which ran right up to the monster's position. If Link had to fight, he didn't want to have to do it in the water. A large tree rose out of the water, temporarily blocking their view as they passed it.
Link took several quick steps to get around the obstacle, not wanting the beast out of his sight. To his dismay, when he passed the trunk he found the creature had vanished. Dumbfounded, he paused for just a second before turning and grabbing the princess' wrist. "Alright, new plan- we're getting out of here!"
"But the arrows-"
"-are gone!" Link responded, turning his body back and forth as he tried to look every direction at once, the motion almost causing him to trip in the water. "Looted or taken years ago I'm sure." He gave a second for another objection and, when he didn't immediately hear one, pulled her back towards the cave entrance. "The spell you talked about- teleporting us back to the army. Can you do it?"
"I..." Zelda hesitated. Link's eyes continued to snap back and forth around the clearing as goosebumps covered his body. Yes, something was indeed wrong here. They moved quickly past the bend in the hallway, passing through a couple of rooms until they found a medium-sized chamber with two other tunnels leading from it. The ceiling rose above them, allowing their footsteps to echo against the stone. "I can sense the pendant but I'll need a minute. It is so far away and I need to build the bridge."
"Do it!" Link replied, releasing her wrist as he snatched the glaive from his back with his offhand. The room was utterly bare with no hiding places- just leaving the three hallways for an approach. He quickly looked back and forth between them, awaiting the inevitable approach. Beside him, the princess knelt in the water and closed her eyes. He could feel the air around her shift and she began her spell.
Although the three corridors remained empty, the tingling sensation in his body only continued to grow worse. His heart churned ever faster as his breathing turned panicked. Why? They had a good position and visibility here. An enemy couldn't take them by surprise from any of the three exposed corridors. He could feel his pulse in his temples, the sound of his blood rushing through his veins. There was no need to panic, he had checked all possible approaches.
His eyes suddenly flew wide with a sudden realization. All possible approaches... except one.
His entire body jerking with the effort, he snapped his head back and raised both weapons upwards in a rushed block. A pair of glowing, yellow eyes fell towards him from the ceiling- the light, violet flames reflecting off the surface of a large, metal trident as it aimed for the Hero's heart. The force of the blow sent a shock through both arms as the sound of shattered metal filled the air- followed almost immediately by a stinging pain to his face.