I seriously didn't mean to take this long to update. I had to deal with a few life issues, so I haven't been in the writing mindset. Jumping back in is always a struggle, but it's happening.
Enjoy the chapter! I'll aim for max of two weeks until the next is out. I find working with actual deadlines to be efficient, so if it's not out by then feel free to badger me about it ^^
The lake was still as glass. Keese squeaked and clicked as they flew, skimming along the surface hunting swarms of insects and scooping them up in the thousands. Atop a willow a large horned owl took to the air in pursuit. It banked on a chill breeze and thrusted its wings to push it upward, its glide smooth and soundless as it snatched up a keese with knife-like talons. It flew to an elm where it alighted then swallowed its meal whole. Its head whirled all of a sudden before it ducked low, camouflaging with the trunk, its feathers ruffled and massive eyes wide with trepidation. At that point all nightlife had scattered upon the sudden emergence of an even greater predator.
Savorre, flapping wearily and slavering at the mouth, circled above. If not quite dead he would be soon at the extreme exertions his possession demanded of his mangled and far too taxed body. He wheeled once high above the calm waters and faltered, dropping a good twenty feet before catching himself and pulling away to veer back toward the forest.
Upon a narrow bank hidden by bulrushes and sedge, Zelda kept a steady eye on the Rito until he was lost to sight. She sheathed the dagger she'd appropriated from Shad, as her own had been lost when she'd been brutally torn from the others, and refocused on the task at hand.
Leaning against an aspen, Shad, cold, wet and shivering, nursed his wrist which they'd recently determined was broken, along with his left leg which Zelda skimmed her fingers along, brows pulled down in concentration, small streams of magic flaring at her beckoning and used to probe the area.
"There's no making light of our situation, is there?" he muttered through chattering teeth.
"I don't fancy joking about our near demise," Zelda muttered, inspecting his injury. "Do you?"
"Not bally likely," he scoffed with false bravado, trying to keep his ailing spirits up. "You might have mentioned you had access to your magic again. I'd think it's something all of us would have liked to have been aware of."
"Between Ashei's planning and Link's coddling, I had nary the time for it." Or rather, she'd been too deep within the dark cavern of her mind to think of bringing it up. She sat back on her heels. "Fortunate for us it's a clean break. We won't have to set it."
"Unfortunate, is what you mean," Shad groused. "You're their primary objective and yet continuously, without rhyme nor reason, I'm the unlucky one they mark."
To be honest, it was more likely due to his interference that the phantoms had struck out against him this time. But yes, he seemed to bear a disproportionate deal of ghostly misconduct.
She released tendrils of magic to diffuse through his skin and muscle, heading straight to the bone. She was no Elvira or Dr. Borville, but she was proficient enough to fix a tibia. Luckily it was a clean break, and she meticulously fused his bone together, his marrow becoming white liquid before returning to its former density as she welded the break close. The crack sealing itself up until nothing but an indiscernible line remained where the separation had occurred.
"You should be able to walk now," said Zelda and then looked pityingly at his broken wrist. "I'm afraid we'll have to tend to that one later. It's more complicated than the break in your leg, and I'd rather not mess it up."
Shad frowned but made no fuss. Instead he held still as Zelda prepped a makeshift splint and bound it with torn bits of her blouse. Shad cringed as she tied it off, and Zelda wished she could give him something for the pain.
They were stuck with very little for supplies. Both their haversacks had been lost and they were left with only a single Sheikah dagger for defense. They could survive without food or water for long enough but it wouldn't be pleasant. Zelda was more worried about attaining medical supplies.
"I just noticed," Shad said. He fixed his bifocals, perpetually askew now due to the damage incurred to the frame and wire. "The ghost child. He continually refers to us all as two distinctions. Red blood and blue blood."
"Yes?" she asked, sitting back on her heels and running her hands up and down her arms to warm herself.
Shad was deep in thought before he turned his dark eyes upon her. "Initially I had thought it simply a grim referral to your royal status, but what if it is your blood specifically that they want. The blood of the Goddess Hylia. There might not be a visual difference, but there is definitely a physical one. What if your blood is necessary for some nefarious scheme and your death is simply a bi-product?"
Prickles of ice sleeted up and down her shoulders. The blood of the Goddess. The very reason her family ruled with absolute authority for all these years. Why her people were so reverent toward them, why her country would deteriorate if anyone else were to conquer it. There had only ever been one dynasty in Hyrule's history books, and that was the Harkinian line.
Her curse had required the blood of thousands.
The blood of Hylia… How valuable would it be to one whose magical focus was blood rituals?
Her eyes shone with thought. "In some old texts, blood is referred to as a variant of the soul."
Shad frowned. "So they might want Hylia's very soul? But what in Hyrule for?"
Zelda stood, brushing needles and soil from the knees of her breeches. "I wager the answer to that lies in there."
The scholar blinked then gave the ominous looking castle a fearful glare. "You mean to go in there right this instant? While it's still dark and in all likelihood teeming with dead things?"
She tapped her wrist where Impaz' charm was coiled. "These won't hold them off for long. In this proximity I estimate a few hours more. Soon enough that Rito or the phantoms will find us. I'd rather not be out in the open when they do."
His face scrunched, nearing a scowl. "Yes, we'd rather be tucked away in a nice cozy haunted castle instead."
"Of course she says that," he muttered to himself, then braced against the aspen and leveled himself up, right hand tucked firmly against his torso.
"Ah, thank you. For fixing my leg."
"Well I did not fancy carrying you," she said with a lighthearted smile.
A troubled look fell about him. "You should not have done that. You should keep as much magic to spare for yourself in case you need it for defence."
The glare she sent him was rueful.
"I am serious, you know. If worse comes to worse, I expect you to fend for yourself and leave me."
"I believe we've established the impossibility of that course of action," said Zelda tersely.
"No Shad," she ordered straight out. "Still nothing. Even now I feel my magic replenishing itself. The rate is slow, but it is returning."
"And that is another thing. How is it doing it? According to Impaz your magic should be subjugated by the curse."
It was something that plagued her mind ever since she'd first rediscovered it. "I… don't know. I'll think on it. For now there's no use being ungrateful."
Shad leaned heavily against the tree, testing his leg. "Trust me, I am anything but ungrateful. But I'm afraid we still have a problem."
"What is it? I'm still not leaving you behind, and we must move now before Savorre returns."
Shad waved her concerns away. "Yes, I understand all that. It's simply, how do you suppose we're to get up there?"
The castle, a veritable fortress of ancient make, towered at unprecedented heights against the backdrop of the sky. The cliff which comprised of its foundation was flat and impossible to scale. And all around the lake were equally sheer walls of limestone and granite. They were essentially stuck in a pit.
Zelda observed the ancient structure, derelict and solemn. She pictured the make in her mind, what defenses it may have, the magic it might possess. "There should be a postern, perhaps within a cave. Some hidden docks the people here must have used to access the lake."
They both stared at the black mass of smooth liquid before them, both imagining what creatures may be lurking beneath, both dreading entering the frigid cold waters once more. They hadn't yet dried from their first dip and neither were inclined to have a second go. But the bank they'd used for their repose was small and isolated. A short stretch against the flat cliff face. They had reached it by swimming, and they'd have to leave it by that same method.
"Realistically what lives in lakes," Shad said consolingly to himself and counted off his fingers. "Pikes, turtles, skullfish, toados… baris…"
"If we move slowly and hug the cliff we should be able to remain unnoticed," she said reassuringly. "Most water creatures find prey by the movement in the water."
"And what if there are dead bodies… in the lake?"
"Please, let's not think about that," she hissed through her teeth.
She couldn't deny that the same thought had crossed her mind, how a lake would have been an ideal place to stow away hundreds of corpses once their use was fulfilled. And whether they wanted to or not they'd have to swim in it.
"Are you a good swimmer?"
Shad shook his head. "Not in the least."
Zelda inspected the geography once more. If there'd been any other recourse she'd have sent Shad away to safety while she forged on ahead alone.
"I could always ward this area. I have enough mana in my reserves for it, and without me here there is a small likelihood that the ghosts would bother you. You don't have to come with me."
"I said I can't swim well, not that I can't swim at all."
Zelda's lips pursed with worry. "It will be extremely dangerous. The castle itself and the swim to get there."
"Abandon you on the last leg of this suicidal venture? Not bally likely. I'd be a fool to leave you on your own, even as handicapped as I am." He lifted his crudely bandaged arm.
The thrum of guilt stole through her at the sight of his injury, knowing she inadvertently was the cause. "That's contradictory of you. Weren't you just insisting that I leave you behind?"
"And you replied that under no circumstances that you would."
How acute of him. Zelda said nothing that would further encourage any hypocrisy.
"We'll have to make due," she said reaching out a hand to grasp him by his good arm. "Fortunately any injuries I've sustained are minimal. You'll have to hold onto me." She took a first tentative step into the frigid lake, water filling her boots and seeping into her breeches.
Shad gasped at the temperature. "That smarts."
It was worse going in the second time now that the pressure to flee was no longer there to fully occupy their minds.
"Don't let go."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
They waded in until they were submerged nearly up to their shoulders, then hugging the side of the cliff they ventured out.
Although seaweed lapped at them and the lakebed was a muddied layer of suction, nothing came forth, dead or alive. Not a thing stirred. It was a while later that they reached the area of the wall directly across the island that hosted the castle. A row of pylons supporting the bridge stretched before them. A pathway straight to hell.
They'd have to swim out in open water to get there, a good few hundred yards or so. Shad's ears were drooping, furls of fog misted from his mouth from behind chattering teeth.
"This is a nightmare," he croaked feebly.
Zelda silently agreed.
"I'm going to push off now. Remember, slowly. No harsh movements and keep as calm as possible."
Zelda made certain Shad's good arm was secured over her shoulders before shoving away from the rock face, giving them a short boost as they floated out on the lake. They kept a steady pace as they went, heads above the water focused on anything but the expansive depths beneath them. Their pace was agonizingly slow, but they kept at it, rounding each of the pylons one by one like progress markers. What felt like hours later they reached the island, hands finding grips in the rocky side, nary the worse for wear. No underwater beast had attacked them, nor had any dead things made themselves known.
It was then that Savorre gave a distorted screech.
Zelda immediately went tense as she clung to the cliff and eyed the skies. A dark spot appeared high in the atmosphere above the forest, soaring toward the lake.
"There must be an entrance around here somewhere," she hissed urgently, shuffling her way along the island's circumference. "Some sort of cavern we could hide in."
Rolling clouds blocked the moon's glow from shining directly upon them, but she could not ascertain the extent of Savorre's night vision. She hadn't met very many Ritos in her life, and hadn't bothered to study them extensively either. For all she knew they were all gifted with perfect night vision as well as the more well-known sharpened sight of a hawk.
Shad grappled alongside her, struggling to move more than a few inches at a time. The island was large and they weren't making good headway. Waves buffeted them against the rock, propelled by katabatic winds, and the cold was once more beginning to seep in, stiffening their limbs and staggering their movements. Savorre soared overhead, his noisy flapping carrying loudly over the lake. And then to her aghast, the clouds shifted, unveiling a bright gibbous moon like the unveiling of an eclipse.
Her rigid fingers dug into Shad's arm. "Deep breath," she warned, and Shad had just enough time to comply and secure his glasses before she plunged them both beneath the water.
Ice pierced her skull, so cold it felt like a wave of boiling lava had rushed over her. All sound completely vanished. God rays lit the surface from above and cast the water into brief clarity. She could see the fright in Shad's eyes, mingled with a muted sort of fascination as he took in the world of darkness around them.
A void of fathomless black expanded beneath their treading feet. It was the most daunting thing she'd ever seen. Barren of even the scantest bit of light, it was like looking upon a bottomless shaft. A soul eating stomach of a malignant beast.
It was… almost hypnotic. The darkness drinking her in. She couldn't tear her eyes away.
And then two golden pinpricks stared back from the depths.
Zelda's throat clenched, her lungs heaving and protested at her refusal to take in any air. The eyes continued to bore into her. Growing larger. Coming at her fast.
With a frantic sense of urgency she shoved upward, dragging Shad along with her. They broke the surface gasping. Zelda clasped a hand over her mouth forcing her breath to muffle, Shad brought up his hand to mimic her as they both pressed tightly against the wall.
Zelda looked down but couldn't penetrate beneath the surface. It sent her into a panic thinking that the owner of those eyes might be lurking beneath them, hunting them, ready to pull them under.
"Did – did you see-"
"Shhh," Shad hushed her, whole body tense as his gaze, opposite to her, trained upward where Savorre was harrowing away once more for the woodlands.
Zelda shuddered and leaned her cheek against smooth stone, not daring to move, to stir the water even a little.
"I think," Shad said with a tremor, once Savorre was gone from sight. "I think I've found the entrance."
Zelda blinked lethargic eyes at him then flit her scrutinizing gaze back to monitoring the waters. She wished she'd never looked down. Had never seen those eyes watching them from beneath the waves. Also there was the health ramifications of submersing one's head in such temperatures. Plunging them in near freezing water must have been about the most reckless thing she's ever done.
"You have?" she uttered, grasping at their only silver lining.
Shad nodded but worried her with his reluctant expression. "I believe so, but you're not going to like it. Hylia knows I don't like it."
She frowned. "You can't mean…"
His eyes were sobering, his ears drooping as he sent a pointed look to the glistening surface of the water.
Zelda barely refrained from hissing out a curse. Beneath the water. The entrance was beneath them.
Shad gave a stiff shrug, brows poised in fret. "The lake must have swelled with the rain, or perhaps the levels were lower back in the day when the castle was initially built."
"Alright," she whispered, breathing steadily, a brittle hardened sound. "Alright… How far down is it?"
"I don't know. Ten feet, maybe fifteen." His features were grave. "I could be wrong, you know. The light wasn't absolutely clear. What if it's just a crevice and doesn't lead anywhere."
"Either way, we're trapped in this lake," she said, no more confident about this than he was. "The only way we're escaping is through the castle."
"Or we could wait until the others find us."
"We will freeze before then," she replied logically. "Or be found by phantoms."
"But what if we attract the attention of a monster like Morpheel. What if it's waiting in that cave? We don't have any Zora suits, we won't be able to fight it off."
"Shad," she tried to interject. But it was as if he'd become suddenly inconsolable.
"Our luck has held out so far, but it's bound to run out. I don't think it's wise to go down there. We should head back. Find a way up from the ravine."
His eyes were blown, shaking his head, muttering a fearful anxiety filled litany to himself. Zelda firmed her grip around his arm, digging in her nails through his tunic until she was sure she pierced his skin.
"Enough, Shad! I demand that you calm down."
"We'll die if we go down there. This castle… It reeks of death."
"Damn you Shad! You can't desert me like this!"
Shad's frenetic eyes turned to Zelda. His breaths came in rapid heaving gasps and his eyes were wild, but at least he was listening, recognizing the clear order from his queen.
"I – I am not deserting you."
Her eyes had darkened. "Yes you are. You would abandon me to your hysteria."
He gaped his mouth open to oppose her, but Zelda cut in.
"Whether you come with me or not, I am going in that castle," she stated in no uncertain terms, although her voice shook. She forestalled him again when he once more made to speak. "I would not want you to do anything you wouldn't wish to, although I would appreciate your company and your help. If you come with me I need you keep it together. But if you wish it, I'll help you back to shore, set up the wards and you can wait safely for us to retrieve you."
"But then you'd have to cross the lake twice more." His eyes were no longer manic, yet the fear had not yet fully subsided.
Zelda cringed at the thought of it. "If I must then I will. I have to get inside that castle, you understand."
"I can't…" He took a steady inhale of grimy air. "I can't leave you alone."
She gazed softly upon him. "Then trust me to see us through."
He clutched the rock tightly, shoulders hitched up to his ears as he nodded. "Alright… Alright."
It was a different feeling, knowing that she had someone relying on her so implicitly. She couldn't fail him. No matter what, she would not allow more harm to come to him.
She smiled kindly, biting her bottom lip. "We've already made it this far across the lake. Swimming beneath shouldn't be too different."
Wisely she made no mention of the eyes she'd seen fathoms beneath them. That would be her fear alone to burden.
"Are you ready?"
"A moment. Just another moment to get my bearings."
Her fingers dug firmly into the rock. "Very well. But remember, time is not our friend."
They perched against the rock face for a short while, Zelda thankful for the reprieve yet anxious to move on. She wondered how the others were doing, and whether they'd tracked them to the ravine yet. Or maybe they were headed straight for the castle, following the ghost lamp she'd imparted to Link the day before. A wise decision on her part, in hindsight.
"Right. I think I'm good now, if you are," Shad piped up meekly and not at all sure of himself. "Let's get on with this. The more I think about the doing, the less I want to."
She agreed wholeheartedly, even though neither were completely ready. "On my count then. Three. Two." They both took deep breaths and dove.
It didn't take long for her to spot the cave where the light rays were abruptly cut off by a mark of shadow on the wall. Feeling for that well of magic within her, Zelda scrounged up enough to create a feeble film around her hand that glowed with a pulsating golden light. They swam swiftly toward the crevice, a slim fit, yet wide enough to accommodate a small boat. All the while she refused to look down. Refused to seek out the thing below and let it stall their progress.
A few meters in, the crevice opened up into a wide cavern and Zelda and Shad surfaced to the sight of a hollowed out chamber littered with stalactites and suffused with the smell of must and mold and other ranges of filth.
Beneath them were the floating carcasses of two wooden long boats, hulls rotted and still anchored in place to their docks, also sunken beneath the water, and all of it overgrown with slick algae and tiny things swimming in the murk.
Against the wall was a rotating staircase carved from the stone that extended high above them in an ascending semi-circle. They paddled ashore and collapsed onto the stairs, their nerves shot and their energy sapped. Shad jumped when a torch spluttered then cackled a wheezing flame to life. The rest followed suit, a single malfunctioning one guttering out almost as soon as it lit up. The castle reacting to their presence within its bowels.
The illumination was welcomed and greatly appreciated as both Hylians hovered near a torch, panting, soaking in as much heat as they could. Drying patches of their clothes.
Zelda took this reprieve to survey the chamber, the make and age of it, its straight high walls littered with ridges and cracks. It had been well used in its day. Not anymore.
"We're in," said Zelda, freezing to the bone, but glad to be out of the water. "We're okay."
Even still Zelda could feel the shadows seeping from the walls, slithering along the ceiling and lakewater. The voices in her head had risen to an excited hum and she felt the worms under her skin more pronounced than ever.
"Yes, you were right," he said, wiping the water from his spectacles then hugging himself as he shivered with the cold.
Her brows furrowed. "I could use some magic to dry us off."
Shad glowered at her. "Don't even think about it. You need to reserve as much mana as you can for when you need it."
"Don't be ridiculous," she retorted. "Making sure we don't freeze to death is vital." And before he could reply, she whipped her hand out and evaporated all the water from his garments simultaneously doing the same for hers. She staggered then and pressed heavily against the grimy cavern wall.
"Your majesty!" Shad flew to her side but Zelda insistently waved him away.
"I'm fine." She blinked slowly, her vision darkened as it did when one received a head rush from standing up too quickly. She only had to wait a moment for it to fade. "I should resign myself to smelling like filthy lake water for the near future, should I."
Shad gave a half-hearted meager fascimile of a smile. "Worse than swill."
She breathed a strained laugh. Truly they should not have feared the water to the extent that they had when both knew the true danger lay within the castle.
"We should rest awhile." Shad said, easing himself to the floor, clutching his bandaged wrist. "Replenish our energy."
"I'd rather we push on. It's not wise to stay stationary."
Shad sighed. "Your majesty, you can barely stand on your own two feet. We can't possibly go further, not at this time."
"Resting on a staircase is hardly beneficial," she argued.
"Yet I'm about to do it anyways," he said petulantly then gentled. "You got us into the castle. That's one less hurdle we must jump. The least we can do is celebrate with a long overdue nap."
Zelda acquiesced with all the airs of someone who was sacrificing a great deal, motivated by sheer exhaustion and a private admiration of his stubborn resilience. She hunkered down next to him, hugging her knees to her chest. "What time do you suppose it is?"
"Somewhere between sunset and sunrise is my estimation."
She side-eyed him nonplussed and heaved a shallow sigh.
Either way, it had to be hours yet until dawn. She wondered if the ghosts had sensed them yet. How long could she risk falling asleep for? Shad too was staring droopy eyed into nothingness. He covered a yawn and stretched his arms uncomfortably. Now that he no longer had the lake water to numb them, he was probably feeling every single aching bruise and scrape from his fall.
Zelda carefully sketched a blue glyph in the air.
"No! You! Stop that now!"
She tilted her head and sighted down Shad's pointed finger aimed accusingly at her.
"If we are to rest as you certainly seemed insistent on, then we can't very well do so without protection."
"You've already exhausted your mana reserves when you healed me and when you dried us off just now. You can't handle anymore."
"Perhaps not," she gusted out. "I wouldn't be surprised if this last glyph knocked me out completely. Try not to be alarmed. And don't move too far away. The parameters of this spell only reach so far. It should last us until morning. At least then it should be safer to wander about the castle."
"Absolutely not!" he yanked her hand down and released her just as quickly, appalled at his own gall at touching the queen in such a manner. But then he once more hardened his eyes. "That is… It's inadvisable that you do this."
Zelda too had been shocked at his impudence. None had ever reproached her in such a way before. Yet still she raised her hand and continued to carve out the glyphs with two fingers. "This is my stipulation. If there are no wards then you'll have to contend with me standing watch. I will not move on this matter."
And she dearly desired the sleep that lingered on the fringes of her consciousness.
Shad grit his teeth, knowing he'd lost. "Ack, very well. Only until morning. I'd like to spend as little time in this place as possible." He reclined his head back, red hair falling over his brow in scraggy clumps. "You sure we'll be safe?"
Zelda gave a noncommittal hum in reply. "If I roll off the side into the water I'm blaming you."
He huffed. "Hold me accountable all you want."
Shad huddled in a tight ball, preserving the little warmth he had. "You know, I might be scared out of my wits, but I won't leave you alone. I promise, I won't do that to you."
"I won't abandon you either."
Zelda smiled and cast the last sigil, straining her coils to painful, unhealthy limits and instantly blacked out.
Hadrian gazed awestruck as the dawn lit the massive structure before them, this towering monolith of a fortress. One undoubtedly built to fend off the warlords of Holodrum back when this area had been a well-traveled passage between the two countries.
Signs of siege were scattered all over the place. Scars from long ago battles scored the earth, chunks of rock were hewn from the great stone walls of the castle, and rusted weapons, shields, lances and swords, spotted the area like a gravesite. The single bridge leading to the gates had fallen to ruin, most of the arches collapsed and huge stone blocks lay intersected in criss-crossing layers. It had been a painstaking venture to cross and reach the gate on the other side.
It was a debilitating sight to behold and Hadrian was beset with extreme caution.
Link strode up beside him, eyes of a silent predator staring down the castle like an old foe.
He was of a murderous disposition. He'd hardly spoken a word since the battle the night before as he'd brutally dispatched the remaining redeads with lethal skill Hadrian had never before witnessed and never wished to again. For the first time since their acquaintanceship, he'd truly feared the greater knight. The distance in ability he knew existed between them had suddenly expanded to worldly measures. He knew in that instant what it was to fight as a mortal alongside a war god. Knew the terrifying might of it.
Link had run after her majesty then, but there'd been no trace of her. Her tracks had been swallowed up by the forest as if it too worked with the curse against them. They'd tended to their wounds on the march as Link followed the ghost lantern all the way to their current location. The lake marked upon Ashei's map, intersecting directly with the course she'd charted.
And now they were stuck before the gate, a single titanic slab of unyielding stone, with no means of entry. The battlements afforded no target for Link's clawshots, and neither was he presented with any spinner tracks or spinning blades for his boomerang. They were well and truly stuck on the bridge with no way in.
The castle was ancient, but virtually impenetrable. And yet somehow the hexer had made their way through. Had acquired access to the site. Hadrian had swiftly penned a note to Lord Raleigh inquiring into the current ownership of the castle (if such a deed existed after all these years) to be sent by hawk, but it would take almost a full day for any response, and none of them were inclined to wait.
It made him ill to think that Queen Zelda might be in there suffering untold horrors while they were delayed just beyond the doors. And who knew what had happened to Shad. Hadrian shuddered to think of any possibility that he might have been slaughtered on sight.
Ashei spat a vociferous curse, hands on her hips as her eyes shot angry blazons of death at the structure. With the queen and her fiancé now missing she'd been in as foul a mood as Link, yet instead of silently brooding she had become increasingly frigid and snappy at any foolish enough to address her.
Her vicious stare cut a path to Lady Anne, who was observing the castle as crudely as the rest of them.
"Can you warp us in?" Ashei threw out bitterly.
Anne raised her brows warily before deigning that Ashei was waiting for an actual reply. "No, teleportation is not an ability of mine, although I've known a few others to possess it." Carefully she held out a hand to touch the stone. "Too bad you've not given one of your communication devices to Zelda. That would have made all too much sense, considering she's the one they're after."
As obvious as that would have been, it hadn't crossed Hadrian's mind to ensure Zelda possessed one of the gossip stones. It should have though. It really should have.
The knights watched with rapt attention as she continued to feel out the castle doors.
After a short while her eyes snapped up. "La, there you are." She gave a discreet smile. "It's activated the Lagaz. I expected as much. It is of Hylian make, despite the outdated architecture… the schematics are all the same or very similar."
"Lagaz?" Ashei rolled the word on her tongue.
"What exactly is a lagaz?" said Justin, "And how does it help us get inside?"
"It doesn't," muttered Anne. "Quite the contrary, it works to keep us out."
Hadrian meanwhile looked over the castle with renewed awe.
"I've been in places that had them, but never were they activated," he said breathlessly. "I would have loved to see Hyrule castle's lagaz."
"And that is…?" queried Justin once more.
"An explanation, if you please, yeah."
Anne rolled her eyes. "Surely, sir Link, you've seen them with your numerous ventures into the hearts of dungeons?"
Link cast her a nonplussed glance but said nothing.
Unimpressed, Anne went into her lecture. "When a castle is breached, usually by enemy forces, it activates one last defense mechanism. The lagaz, as one would say in mudoran, or in modern terms, a puzzle. It becomes a dungeon. The entire building reorients itself to inconvenience anyone from making their way through it. I'm sure you've noticed how Hyrule Castle is not quite how it was when you first entered it, sir Link. That is because the lagaz had activated when Zant first attacked. He must have powered his way through rather than complete the puzzles, and it remained that way until you conquered it back. As you did with all the temples."
She removed her hand from the brick, eyes sparking with a sense of wonder.
"It is… rather amazing actually. Hylians have implemented such defenses since the beginning of our existence and the practice has spread around the world. The greatest noble families would pay millions to institute a lagaz in their homes and it takes at least ten sorcerers to develop the structure of the puzzle and cast it."
"Snowpeak Mansion had one, although I hadn't realized there was an actual term for it," said Ashei.
"You still haven't told us how to get in," said Justin.
"I suppose we just look for a puzzle to complete to activate the doors," said Hadrian. "Weren't there keys lying around the dungeons you entered, Link? In your adventure books it says…"
He trailed off as Link snapped a surly look in his direction and Hadrian felt suddenly very small despite his superior height.
"Rather redundant of the thing," said Justin. "A puzzle meant to keep people out, yet it has keys lying all over the place."
"Hylians admire those of courage and wit more than anything. The puzzles rewarded that," Anne went on. "In any case, I would guess that the lagaz's held their own bias toward sir Link. The dungeons wanted to help him along, they wanted to be cleansed of their infections."
"So we just need to look around for a key."
"Yes, but there's no keyhole."
Anne tilted her head, golden plait spilling over her shoulder. "I don't believe we need a key. Just let me..."
With another deft touch of her hand the doors shuddered. The knights quickly backed away as suddenly the locking mechanism groaned and rotated. It then collapsed into pebble sized shards of metal and stone. The massive door creaked open and Hadrian stared agape at the seam of darkness that spilled forth from within.
The next instant Ashei had her blade out and pointed straight at Anne only for it to clang against Justin's own sword, raised in instinctive reaction to the threat.
"Ashei!" Justin growled, straining against the force of her sword pushing him back. "What are you doing?"
But Ashei did not acknowledge Justin. She stared past him, glaring daggers at Anne, eyes wild as she yelled, "How the hell did you do that!"
Nervously Hadrian touched the pommel of his own sword. "Dame Ashei, really now."
Anne's eyes had gone wide as she stared along the flat of Ashei's blade. She then narrowed them and took a firm step forward and bumped into Justin's arm as it jutted out to prevent her from coming too close. "Are you that scared of a little magic? I just opened a door!"
"A little too easily in my opinion, yeah," Ashei snarled.
"Ashei! Stand down!" Justin barked, skidding a few inches as Ashei forced him back.
Anne gave a frustrated cry. "This is ridiculous. We have a way in and we're wasting time!"
"The Lady Anne's right," Hadrian pleaded, feeling confused and pressed by urgency. "This isn't the time for confrontations."
"How did you know how to get in?" Ashei said, voice piercing in its levelness. "Why did it accept your magic, yeah?"
Oh great Goddesses! What the bloody was going on?
Link spoke in normal tones yet his voice carried the most weight as it reverberated over them, lending to an instant silence.
"Lower your sword, Ashei, and bloody calm down."
Ashei remained poised, gauntleted fists clenched tight over the grip as steel ground against steel. Her gaze briefly darted up to Link, a silent message seemed to transmit between them and eventually she stepped down. Justin did likewise, but warily, sheathing his sword only when Ashei had put away hers.
Hadrian admitted privately to himself that was one of the most terrifying things he'd ever witnessed. Ashei losing herself like that, enough to jump in to an attack, and the silent cold manner Link had ordered her down. He wasn't liable to forget this anytime soon.
Link then inclined his head to Anne. "I'd like to hear your answer."
Anne was more than exasperated by now as she flung up her hands. "It was only basic magic theory, you superstitious simpletons! I could sense immediately that the lagaz was faulty. It's old and has been battered a few too many times. It's not up to the standard it had once been who knows how many millennia ago. I simply found a rift in the defense and overloaded it with magic until the differing potentials caused the mechanism locking the door to malfunction and then combust. And la, in we go."
"You… overloaded it?" Link clarified.
"Yes, like I did to your microscopic brains just now. Your grey cells must be titillated, really. I don't see how any of this merits an attack on my person."
"It didn't." Link stared down Ashei, not quite glaring, but not without warning. "Daggers out people. Ashei, walk with me."
Justin and Hadrian led the way through the doors, Anne hurrying after them. Ashei and Link took the rear, seemingly so Link could have a chat about Ashei's unprompted surge of violence.
"I don't think she likes magic very much," said Justin out of earshot of either of their superiors. "She's a hardened warrior prone to react without thought. This whole situation is not good for anyone's psyche. And with Shad gone it must be taking its toll on her."
"Really? Is that how we're going to justify this?" whispered Anne, rather scathingly. "Because it appeared as though I was being treated as a suspect."
"I'm certain that is not how she meant it."
"That is certainly how she meant it. And I'll zap you if you dare maintain the gall to contradict me." A long sigh was expelled and her features shifted to something tired. "Apologies. It's this place and everything that's happening. I am angry but I find I cannot blame Ashei. She does not know me well and has her right to be guarded. Please, you should do the same. Watch me closely if you will, and I'll prove my innocence."
"I – I cannot fathom that you could be a threat. Not against her majesty," said Justin softly.
Anne smiled up at him. "Well, of all these vagabonds, you've known me the longest. You've…"
But she didn't finish as she bumped into Hadrian who had stopped dead in his tracks.
"What is it?" Link said striding to the front him, then paused, taking a good look at their surroundings.
The narrow pathway they'd been traversing had opened up, and what resided before them was a scene so sepulchral, so morbid in its design that Hadrian was in both parts fascinated and horrified. A mangled cobbled walkway stretched straight to a portico, covered in mold with dead vines strangling the pillars. On either side, along the overgrown lawn of the bailey twisted trees sprang from the ground, coiling around one another like intertwining ropes. What had made his heart stammer, however, were the chains. Suspended in the murky fog from nothing, they dangled like strings of decorative beads all around the yard, with nothing to anchor them from above. Some were tangled in the tree limbs, and a few others had small carcasses caught within their links, birds and rats. Most of them hung feet above the ground but there were a handful that extended right through, pulled taught on either end.
Hadrian's stomach roiled and clenched and he hoped those chains weren't in any way sentient, because at this rate he wouldn't be surprised if they were.
"I think it would be best not to touch-"
At that moment Ashei stormed past him, swiping the chains out of her way left and right, as she fearlessly paved her way to the center, eyes trained on the portico ahead of them.
Fog shifted around her form, the morning mist not yet having cleared. It was a dull day, made all the more gloomy by their unfortunate location.
Ashei gnashed her teeth and spun on her heel. "We're not getting through the front door, it seems. The entire thing is blocked."
And she was right, Hadrian saw as he approached to get a better look at it. The entrance appeared to have been caved in with brick, mortar and stone obstructing the doors from top to bottom in a pile too heavy to move aside without a full constructions crew at hand.
Link was already on the move, choosing the left path for his explorations, intent on finding an entry point.
The rest of them were helpless to follow, deferring to Link's experience.
A sound whistled overhead, the wild whooshing of distorted wind. And then a strangled avian call.
"That bird," hissed Ashei, bent in an automatic battle stance that was second nature to her.
"He's keeping an eye on us," mused Justin, squinting as Savorre's grey shadow swept above them, occluded by the heavy fog. "He's too far away for a shot."
Hadrian kept a wary eye on the grey smear as it circled around the castle turrets and out of their vision.
"I think it's time we dealt with that rito," said Link, venturing further down the path.
Hadrian frowned feeling thoroughly uneasy as they continued into the gardens.
Waking already crying wasn't typically usual for the hylian queen, but it had happened before. Although this instance seemed a little strange. Her eyes did not have the swollen tenderness of one who'd been weeping, neither could she feel the trails of dried crusty salt water along her cheeks. And never before had she cried so much that the wetness reached her torso.
A deep breath in lifted her chest and shifted the watery droplets pooled there, running tracks down the swell of her breast, soaking into the delicate linen of her shirt. She flinched as yet another droplet splattered on her neck and trickled into her hair.
Mildly annoyed, she blinked her eyes open and looked upward.
Black tendrils like downward drifting seaweed hung as a veil above her. And beyond the cluster, blue from suffocation with a network of ink stained capillaries etched beneath the skin, with blown irises and pupils faded to white to match the stark sclera around them, a face.
It took her a fraction of a second to register and within that moment she stilled completely.
An upside down corpse was hanging above her. Gaping at her. Leering at her.
Her wards were feeble but currently held. Within its unseen circumference they were safe, but found.
Zelda felt for Shad and nudged his shoulder, her eyes not diverting from the dead pair beyond the tangles of drooping hair, silently watching her.
Shad grumbled and attempted to roll over, groaning as he hit the edge of a stair and aligned himself to avoid the sharpness of it. Zelda gave a firm shove.
"Wha-?" He groaned, rubbing his eyes with lethargy, settling his broken glasses on his nose. "Whazzatfer?"
She didn't dare bring his attention to the thing floating above them and instead eased carefully to her hands and knees, crawling from beneath it, all the while it swiveled its head, matching her stare for stare. "We've slept for too long."
"I'm surprised if you can tell in a place like this."
If the corpse was just a few feet lower then she'd be able to reach it with her dagger. She'd throw it, but given the circumstances she wasn't quite willing to risk it falling into the water and potentially losing their only defence against the ghosts.
Shad, ignorant of their undesirable add on, stretched the kinks from his back, twisting left and right. "I can't believe we managed to fall asleep on a set of stairs. Goes to show that exhaustion can override anything. How's your magic doing?"
"I feel it," she said, offering up little else. It was beginning to return in larger increments, but still had a ways to go until she was back to full power.
Zelda made the mistake of glancing at him as he peered over the edge of the curved stairwell down into the lake then returned her attention back to the space above them.
The corpse was gone.
Ice chilled her veins. She cast about searching despite knowing inherently that she wasn't going to find it.
As if recalling suddenly where they both were, Shad became silent and stared at the single door at the top of the stairs.
"I suppose... Well, no sense in delaying."
He wiped the seat of his pants and the two of them ascended the curved stairwell. The postern was metal and had been rusted in place slightly ajar, but too narrow for them to squeeze through.
Zelda didn't hesitate and grabbed the end, giving it a few firm tugs, testing the worn steel.
Shad shivered and looked around, his gaze invariably returning to the sunken docks and the lake. Their movements echoed in the broad expanse of the cavern.
Zelda grunted as the metal refused to give way, earning her scraped fingertips from the jagged ends of the rust.
"If you stare too hard something might come crawling out of it."
He shook his head, relieved of the water's hypnotic allure. "If there was something there it would come out either way whether I'm watching or not. For alertness' sake though." He continued his vigil, ear twitching at each laboured huff Zelda made.
"Do you think the others have found this place yet?"
"I gave Link the ghost lamp before… all this," she said, bracing to try tugging at the door again. It barely budged. "They would have been led directly here." It was the only place for them to go. What other surprises could be so far out in the wilderness.
"Here, let me help."
"Thank you for the assistance."
Shad's face turned red as he realized he'd been incredibly rude letting Zelda do all the work.
"I don't mean to be accusing," said Zelda kindly. "I am honestly grateful."
"I should have still offered earlier. I suppose I'm simply too reliant on Ashei's strength, it has transmitted to me viewing all strong women in a similar estimation." He grabbed a hold of the door with his good arm, leaving the other braced tight to his chest.
"Much as I consider myself a strong woman, I am nowhere near as physically competent as Dame Ashei. Grip the higher part, will you. On three. One. Two."
Their combined effort tore the metal door off its hinges and Zelda stumbled into Shad as the sudden release threw them off balance. The door rebounded off the wall with a loud echoing clang and then toppled over the stairwell into the lake. The splash boomed in the cavern and both hylians stilled, watching the weight of the door pull itself beneath the surface.
They remained frozen for a while longer, ears flicking like alert cats, listening until they were certain nothing would come springing out of the walls at them.
Shad breathed a sigh and wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead. "Well then, into the terror within."
Zelda winced. "Let's not call it that. It presumes that we're already scared of whatever the castle holds for us."
"Are we not scared?"
Zelda stepped over the threshold. "With that mentality we'll definitely not last the hour."
"We're both terrified," he mused in a sullen tone.
He certainly wasn't wrong there.
A long thin corridor awaited them beyond the postern and they hesitantly made their way along it. Zelda felt her shoulders skimming the walls on either side of her, dampening her blouse with rank mold and mildew. The passage was hardly fit for a woman's form, much less a full grown man's. Shad may have been lanky, but he was still broader than her and had to shimmy sideways to make his way through.
"Oh good glory," Shad coughed. "I'm going to faint! The smell!"
Zelda silently sympathized. The air down here was old, and polluted by the mold seeping along the walls and their own reek from the lake. It would take at least ten showers for her to ever feel clean again.
Another door loomed ahead of them. Arched and set snuggly in the stonework. Fortunately this one was already wide open and awaiting their arrival. Double fortunate that it opened up to a broad chamber with a vaulted ceiling. Zelda stepped inside and down the short flight of stairs to the center of the room. Once again the castle generously ignited all lanterns within, illuminating a very curious arrangement.
"Oh, just a wine cellar," Shad eased through the door and looked around. "I was half expecting something worse, like the dungeons."
He ambled over to one of the boulder sized drums lining either end of the room in flanking rows. He knocked on the wood and received a deep thud as reply.
"Full, after all this time." He tapped a finger to his chin, cringing at the hollow whine of his belly. "Do you think… is it safe to drink?"
Zelda gave him a look. "Do you want to drink it?"
"Well I would like to drink something. I'm rather parched."
For less than a second Zelda too was tempted. But she rationalized a hundred reasons why they should not. "I am as well, but I'd rather not risk it. It might be hard, but we should try not to consume anything we find within this castle, no matter how it appears. For all we know they may be illusioned."
"Could you tell if they were?"
"Depends." Yet another door awaited them at the opposite end of the room and Zelda charted a straight path over to it. "It would be difficult if shadow magic were involved. To my knowledge only someone else versed in that discipline can see through other shadow illusions. My magic could detect and dispel such an illusion, but I'd rather not use it if it's not necessary. Also it could alert our elusive caster to our location within his or her domain."
"It's a good thing we're not planning an extensive stay. I'm not too keen of perishing from starvation."
Zelda quirked a dark humored smile. "I suppose whomever of us lasts longer could eat the other."
She let out a giddy, almost hysterical laugh and bounded the rest of the way across the room.
Her ears perked and her step halted. Something was in the air. She hadn't noticed before beyond the reek of the ancient castle, and wouldn't have caught it if not for that small stray whiff. Burning her nose, a terrible scent. Coppery and warm.
Zelda turned to the nearest cask. An enormous tun lying horizontally on a stand with a tap sprouting from the head. No brand and no dust. She felt the tap and it spun easily with a twist. Red liquid flowed thick and splattering upon the stone beneath. A few flecks sprayed on her hand and the hem of her breeches, and Zelda turned off the tap before delicately raising her hand to eye level, her skin a pasty almost ghostly white.
"What is it?" Shad approached, squinting at the substance. It took two seconds of inspection for his eyes to round in sudden horror. "Don't tell me that's…"
Zelda felt ill and whoozy and was close to swaying on her feet.
Blood. The caskets were filled with blood.
Eight of them, all the same giant tuns.
Already calculations were running through her mind. How many litres were in a person? A child? Each different race? How many thousands did it take to fill these to be stored for the caster's personal use later? How many other spells might the caster have active? It hadn't occurred to her that her curse may be one of many. That the caster kept up their practice with stubborn regularity. Of course they would need a storage of blood to feed their distasteful hobby.
Shakily she used the hem of her blouse to wipe away the red splotches.
"Maybe… maybe the rest are empty. They can't be all full, they just can't." Shad frantically began inspecting the other barrels, hastily knocking on the sides to determine if they were hollow or not. He left the taps completely alone.
Each deep thud rang achingly in her ears.
Zelda closed her eyes.
"Shad, just stop."
He tried a third then a fourth barrel, knocking in different places just to be sure before hurriedly moving on to the next.
A dull hollow sound reverberated and Zelda looked up.
"Here, this one's empty. And see, there's a symbol on it. I'm certain I've seen it before."
He was distancing himself from the knowledge of their findings, and Zelda found she couldn't fault him for it. Obligingly she came over and took in the branding, a simple oval with six arms stretching upwards from either side like the legs of an insect.
She enabled his distraction. "I believe it is an ikanan symbol."
"Yes, I see it now. The Red Symbol. It just lacks the actual red in it."
Zelda became fidgety the longer they remained in that room filled with blood.
"We should get going."
Shad hid his internal distress with overamplified excitement. "But don't you see the significance of this finding and what it entails?"
"Yes, the curse may very well be Ikanan. Either that or the barrels simply were acquired from the Ikanan region. There's nothing else to gain by staying here."
But when Zelda turned to leave the door had gone. Looking back showed the door they'd entered from had vanished as well. Trapping them completely within that chamber.
Zelda felt a keen sense of apprehension and unconsciously summoned her magic to her fingertips.
"Where where did the exit go?" Shad said in a calm voice that contradicted the dark climate of their explorations.
Before she could reply the entire chamber rumbled and the torches died out. The laughter of children rang out all around them, then the floor fell out from beneath them and they were plummeting.