Chapter 41

They walked in silence.

Zelda took the opportunity to study the regal dowager, almost unconsciously assessing her as her instincts had adapted to do these days. She had known the dowager as a child, although back then she had been queen consort. A demure woman of great standing, the dowager had been stern, but kind overall.

Zelda narrowed her eyes imperceptibly, critically.

Her current demeanor not did reflect these aspects of her. Zelda considered herself a dangerous individual, for those who had reason to fear her, but she didn't think she warranted the type of fright the dowager was displaying. Every touch of the banister was a tentative graze, her hands trembling all the while. Sneak peeks were stolen as the dowager observed her from behind wary lashes and flinched at every noise she couldn't account for.

It may be that the dowager was simply intimidated by her. A woman of high standing, alone with what she believed was a strange swordswoman would be a concerning situation.

Curiously no guards accompanied them as they traveled along the corridors, the early dawn light filtering through the windows.

Seeking to dispel the awkward silence, Zelda coughed quietly and the dowager instantly snapped her eyes toward her.

"Ah…" Zelda stalled, momentarily taken aback at the sudden focus of attention on her. The woman was certainly not going to like the subjects she'd bring up, but lack of advancement had her fishing for information from wherever possible. She cleared her throat before deciding on a cordial approach. "I trust that you and your family are well. His majesty seems awful busy."

Cold eyes met her, before they tempered to a more placid state.

"My son is often called away for meetings and judicial obligations. I'm sure as the servant to a regent, you understand."

Zelda nodded, looking out the window. She understood too well.

She contemplated how to broach the next issue.

"I had not realized that King Elias had abdicated."

"He took ill. He's dead now, there's nothing we can do."

Zelda's eyes widened fractionally. She hadn't anticipated something like that.

The tautness of the dowager's voice indicated the emotional strain she was fighting against. It was never fair when a parent lost a child, no matter their age at parting.

"I apologize, I spoke without diligence."

The dowager said nothing, staring straight ahead as they walked.

Zelda ducked her head, fearing that she'd brought up potentially painful memories with her blunder. She should have known Elias would not abdicate. That it had to have been something more substantial allaying his rule. She hadn't realized that he'd died. With all her travelling how had she not heard of it?

"Are you and your partner enjoying your stay here at the castle?"

Zelda looked forward to see the dowager had turned her head to stare back at her, her eyes crinkling a fraction.

Zelda smiled. "Of course. We have been treated with the greatest courtesy and feel fresh as ever."

"And how is your wound?"

Her hand unconsciously drifted to the cloth at her neck. The handmaidens that had been attending to her had offered her red potions and salves to heal it, and thankfully mentioned nothing when the wound didn't disappear as it should.

"It is better. I can hardly feel it now."

"Good. That's good, deary."

Wanting to divert to something else, Zelda determined to ask about her second major concern. "Has Prince Zellandus been asking for us? It unsettles Link and myself to be apart from him for so long."

The dowager appeared speculative. "He's a talkative one. He's been resting for the most part, and aside from meetings with Elfried, he hasn't had much time for anything else."

That didn't sound like him. Surely by now he would have gone out to search for them. Laval will have certainly prompted him to do so. That in particular stumped her. Why hadn't Laval come to find them yet? He could have been their go between in the castle, so why did he do nothing? Also, it was very hard to believe that Zellandus would willingly attend so many meetings. Zellandus and political meetings didn't mix. He'd aim to use whatever he could as an excuse to avoid them, despite the futility of it. Not only that, but he would have requested Zelda and Link attend to back him.

"Has anything been concluded yet?" she inquired.

This couldn't go on. They had very little time to spend debating on whether or not to go to war. She understood that it was a big issue, and certainly not a decision to be taken lightly, but for all they knew her people were dying. As dealing with Ganondorf throughout the ages had taught her, the longer someone was in power the stronger they became.

She just didn't want to return to a broken Hyrule. She was so tired of her country being torn apart.

"I know very little of what occurs in those meetings, so I can't say. I'm so sorry. You and your partner must be anxious to hear some news."

"It's not your fault," Zelda reassured. "It's simply the way it goes. I suppose these things do take time. Although I wish to make contact with his highness soon, if only to ascertain his wellbeing."

The dowager spread her lips in a kind wrinkly smile. "That I might be able to arrange."

They entered a large courtyard, brimming with trees and flora. A fountain gurgled in the center, with five stone dragons twined around each other, spurting water from their gaping jaws. Passing under an archway led to a garden with a hedge-lined walkway. They took the path down the walkway, passing many shrubs and statues fashioned as different varieties of dragons.

"It is said that eons ago a dragon lord used to inhabit this castle before it was slain and our ancestors claimed it as their own. There's a pit deep within the structure where the dragon is said to have slept."

Well aware of the history behind the Holodrum emblem, Zelda devoted her attention to scrutinizing the battlements and upper tiers of the castle, trying to guess which wing Zellandus had been allocated.

"It is quite fascinating."

In one of the corners of the garden was a considerably sized well. Its girth could easily accommodate one of the more snakelike versions of the dragons the dowager seemed so proud of.

The dowager settled next to the well, sitting tiredly on the lip and graciously motioning for Zelda to join her. Zelda approached but did not sit, instead peering diligently down into the dark recesses. She could barely see the bottom, and from what she could tell there was hardly any water down there. The lack of rope and bucket implied that it hadn't been properly used in ages and was most likely abandoned as a fresh water source.

"How is Hyrule these days? I've heard the rumors, but they might be more believable from someone who has been there recently."

Zelda tried not to let her face crumple in distress. "What – what have you heard?"

The dowager seemed to catch on to her hesitance and smiled in sympathy. "I've heard that the one who has overthrown your prince is a ruthless tyrant. A demon of a man with a broken face and wicked eyes. I've been told beasts roam freely and Hylians are persecuted mercilessly. This can't be true, is it?"

She debated how much she was willing to let on to the dowager and in the end gave an affirmative, albeit desolate, nod. "It is. From what I have seen…"

Images flashed through her mind, memories of the battle at the castle and their desperate bid for life, fleeing from the disaster. The village they'd used the Goddess Mark to materialize to and the devastation she'd beheld there.

Her eyes pressed together then snapped open. Xerthos would pay. Dasril too would pay for his betrayal. She'd make certain of it. She had been so foolish to trust him. After his first betrayal she should have known better. She should have never given him his freedom. And she would never had allowed it, had she known that there had been a way to subdue the Sheikah. Orretus, along with the others, were gone. And she'd let it happen.

It was the one thing she feared to admit to Link or her brother. The one thing that brought her ultimate shame. Even after all these lives, she was still a naïve bleeding heart.

"What is he like? This usurper? Has he really harnessed the powers of a demon? He grants seemingly unending power. Impressive by even my standards."

Zelda blinked and looked to see the dowager had risen to hover beside her. The guards from the parapets were watching too as they conversed. Suddenly Zelda felt unnerved, her senses prickling harshly.

"I should get back to Link. He'll have awoken by now and be wondering where I am."

"I assure you he is being well taken care of."

The dowager smiled a sinister and crooked smirk that had Zelda instantly on alert, body tensing automatically as every nerve shouted 'danger' at her.

"You and your partner must be pretty important for Lord Xerthos to want you this badly. Bodyguards, right? I wonder though if it's your heritage he's after."

Zelda was expertly trained through many eras of fighting as both Hylian nobility, and Sheikah warrior, so was instilled with the ability to react in a split second to any adverse situation, to think and move faster than her opponent when detecting an ensuing attack. Yet for all her commendable fighting prowess, she wasn't able to move quickly enough when the dowager suddenly grabbed her by the hair and yanked her over the well with surprising strength. She found that she wasn't able to move at all.

It was as if her limbs had suddenly constricted, pressing against her body in a tight grip. The prick of claws dug into her sides and legs, but to her astonishment upon glancing down nothing was there. Was this … a new form of magic?

Constraining powers were uncommon in most nations, but from her research on magic, none had ever been completely invisible, nor this oppressing. She could hardly move at all, she couldn't even give the slightest twitch of her fingers. The only control she had was of her head, and it was being held secure by the tight grip the dowager had on her hair.

Her eyes teared as the strain in her neck tugged at her fey wound, threatening to reopen it. Zelda's legs latched onto the lip of the well as her upper torso was dangled above it. Zelda was horrified to see the guards on the parapet watching but making no move to help her or to stop the dowager.

They looked entirely too accustomed to the scene for her comfort, and anything resembling hope plummeted within her.

The dowager shook her to gain her attention, leaning forward, her face took on a serpentine glee.

She tutted. "Did you honestly believe that your façade would work on me? My dear child, I've known of your heritage right from the start. Your simple spell is not enough to thwart Lord Xerthos. He knows all, he sees through everything. Your memory charm is like a paltry trick to him, although I am mildly impressed that you managed it. You're a naughty girl, to fool all of Hyrule – the whole world – into thinking you didn't exist. Hah, very foolish of you."

Zelda tried not to focus too much on the dowager's rambling and concentrated on the magic swirling around her, locking her in place. It shouldn't be this powerful. She should be able to break through, she was a powerful sorceress, it was impossible to hold her for long without a magical item for assistance.

But the power behind this was all wrong. Although she could feel it emanating from the dowager, a woman who had beforehand had no propensity for magic at all, it didn't quite feel like it belonged to the woman. Almost like she was channeling it, using herself as a medium. As if it were someone else's power. That or she'd summoned a part of something not from this realm.

She'd stumbled into this trap unknowingly like a naïve little fool. She was tired of being tricked. Tired of her heart being played for the trusting fool that she was. If only she'd remained cautious and jaded like before she'd reunited with Link. Reconciling with him had allowed her to hope, and because of that, she had opened up to other people. Been welcoming of them. She should never have allowed herself to become so desperate.

"You've been an inconvenience from the start, I'll have you know," the dowager chided, giving Zelda another shake. "You've ruined my plans from the very beginning. Let me tell you something. I've always hated Hyrule. I despised the people in it, its advancement compared to other countries, how Holodrum was always overlooked and looked down on because of its neighbor. My late husband – before I concocted my brilliant scheme to control him – had thrown several fits all because of that goddess-forsaken country. Nobody wanted to do trade with Holodrum when Hyrule proved such a more appealing partner, no one cared if you were Holodrum, but if you were Hyrulean then you were practically worshiped wherever you went. And who was there to bear the brunt of the idiot king's tantrums and taciturn behavior? None other than moi."

"He would never dare raise a hand against me, an esteemed noblewoman, but he had no such restraint when it came to verbal assault, and in time I grew to despise him. If he envied a powerhouse like Hyrule, then I would take it from under his nose and claim it as my own. Our alliance with Hyrule was a sham. I only used it to introduce Elfried to the Hyrulean court. After his studies abroad he would have been sent to Hyrule with the intent of wooing and eventually marrying the princess and becoming her consort. And once said princess bore a child, I would have ordered her subtly dispatched, then be able to rule through the child as I have been doing with my husband and sons. Both Hyrule and Holodrum would have been within my grasp."

"But then you cast that blasted spell and all my plans went to ruin. I forgot all the initial reasons for forging the alliance. And then Elias began thinking for himself and I had to do away with him. That's right. You essentially were the cause of Elias' death. If it hadn't been for you I may have sacrificed my rule over Holodrum in order to focus my efforts on Hyrule and Elias would have lived. But I must say that I'm not too disappointed with these results. I must thank you for your deception, this is so much better. Without you, Lord Xerthos would have not seized power, he would not have approached me to forge our alliance. You foolish Hylians came to barter for our armies, without realizing it's that very same army whom you fight against right now. Now I won't have to rule behind the concealment of others. I can rule upfront with no opposition. Finally people will openly bow and defer to me, not some twat descended from a royal and archaic bloodline."

"And Xerthos is such a generous lord. He's asked for little in return, and gave his word not to interfere with my reign at all. As long as he has my allegiance and I have his, and… as long as I help to rid him of his three greatest nuisances."

Zelda felt her heart skip a beat as the dowager revealed a Goron-made dagger and held it up for her to see.

She renewed her struggle in earnest, pouring her magic through her circuits wildly, desperately grappling with the force that confined her. She couldn't be killed now! She had to get to Link. She couldn't leave him alone again! This wasn't how she was meant to die!

Her heart stopped as metal flashed, the dagger zipping through the air toward her. Something tugged at her scalp, and then she was falling, tumbling into the depths of the well. During her descent, Zelda realized she'd regained her mobility. In a flash of movement, she torqued her body and flipped herself over to land feet down in the cold murky water at the bottom.

As she stumbled to get up, water sloshing and leaning heavily on the wall, she felt something prod her. All at once, the well lit up with etchings of glyphs, then she felt the pull. Suddenly her mana came pouring out, sucked free by the runes until what remained was a barely sustainable amount that left her staggering.

Zelda was overcome with a feeling akin to severe dehydration. Her head felt dizzy and her stomach lurched. She braced herself against the wall as she heaved in deep steady breaths. Her sodden clothes made the cold all too palpable and she shivered in the brisk air.

She coughed and struggled for breath, the putrid reek of stagnant water invading her with each intake. "L-Link…"

A cold laugh drew her attention toward the opening of the well far above her. Squinting, she could make out the self-satisfied dowager leaning over the rim, ogling her and flanked by two guards.

"One down, two to go," the dowager sing-songed pleasantly in a conniving wizened voice that made Zelda feel twice a fool for being duped so easily. "I'll be sure to keep this as a trophy." She raised her hand, momentarily blocking the small shaft of light beaming down at Zelda.

Further squinting enabled her to make out the form of the dowager's wrinkled fist enclosed around a bundle of pale yellow tresses. Zelda's shaking hand instinctively went up to her neck, touching the uneven cut of her hair, a few hand widths shorter than it should be.

That conniving bastard of a woman!

Despite her drain, Zelda lifted her arm, palm upward and tried to channel her mana to her fingertips anyways. Sweat built on her brow, her concentration wavering. She was unable to summon so much as a whiff. If only she could blast just one single beam of retaliation at her.

With a curse, Zelda dropped her hand, opting to instead use it to put pressure against her throbbing neck. If the fey wound reopened now not only was she under threat of bleeding to death, there was also a high risk of infection.

The dowager scoffed at this and gave an indicating jerk of the chin to the soldiers with her. They disappeared from view and then something clanked above her. Double slits opened up on either side of the wall of the well, near the top, and slowly half a grate emerged from each.

A grate embedded with wicked spikes.

The two grates slid out until they connected in the middle. Further mechanical manipulation had them slotting into twin sets of metal railings which Zelda had previously overlooked.

Zelda had seen devices like this before. The shadow temple had them aplenty.

"You have two options," came the dowager's saccharine voice. "A swift death by impalement, or a prolonged agonizing death from starvation in Subterra."

"You'll have to excuse me," Zelda uttered with a sweetness laced with mockery. "If I choose impalement, as your alternative hasn't presented itself."

The dowager laughed gleefully. "Of course, of course. Now if you were to do a bit of searching, you'll find a small fissure in the wall. It doesn't look like much, but through here you can access Subterra, my underground dungeon. I will tell you now though, it is inescapable. None of the thousands who've been sent down there have ever found a way out."

"Brilliant," Zelda muttered, darting her gaze around for the fissure. In the limited illumination at the bottom of the well she had to feel for it more than look for it.

The water was frigid against her fingertips. The rest of her was numb. How it must have amused the dowager to watch her scramble around half-blindly, desperate for any means of escape even if it led to her death.

Zelda had no plan for this. No strategy for outmaneuvering the dowager. Not until she reached the surface. For now, she was trapped.

Her knees shook then as images came to her. A solid substance encompassing her on all sides, morphed around her in a round prison. Her containment small and unyielding against her pounding fists. Suddenly she was back in that orb, suffering from claustrophobia, battered by incessant pain as the light was ripped from her in the most agonizing way possible.

She wanted out. She needed to get out.

"What have you done with Zellandus? With Link!?"

For they'd been there after her torment. They'd released her and helped her heal.

Pain shot through her head and Zelda winced, pinching the bridge of her nose in an enduring motion. Her mind, still a scrambled mess of mania behind that cool barrier Wisdom provided her, pulsed with remembrance.

"You'll find out soon, deary," came the woman's silky malefic answer. "You're all destined for the same fate, after all." She smiled languidly to the side. "Commence the count," she ordered a soldier then returned her attention to Zelda. "Now you get to choose, princess, whether your blood shall join that of others on these stones, or whether your corpse shall rot forever in an unforgiving underworld."

Her mind was surging with agony and she had yet to find that blasted fissure. It was her best bet. The dowager may say that no one has survived it, but none of those people were Zelda.

The grate above her groaned and shifted an inch downward. Zelda prodded the walls, searched out for any spots darker than the other. Her fingers curled around the edge of a jagged surface.

A loud echo of screeching iron deafened her eardrums, and then the spiked grate came crashing down.

There was a daunting clang and slosh of water as the spikes hit bottom. If not by impalement, anyone would surely have been crushed to death by the weight of the grate.

"Ah, so it is the coward's death that you prefer. I've heard a Hylian can last weeks without nourishment, but it's sure to be a painful process. Well then, enjoy, my dear."

Zelda felt a shudder run down her back at the trill in the dowager's voice. She clung on desperately to the corners of the fissure opening just above the water level, the rest of her dangled down a steep craggy incline that would prove to be a sure painful drop down a tunnel leading to the labyrinth the dowager had suggested lay below Holodrum.

It was a good thing she went in feet first. Now to wait until they'd gone so she could climb back up, if her body would be so compelled. Her mana drainage had weakened her considerably and the cold numbness of everything physical didn't help either.

Something fell into the well. A small orb, it flashed in the darkness and clanked against the metal grate before plopping in the water.

Abruptly the water blasted upward, smoke billowing out, her lungs suddenly suffused with the arid gas.

Zelda momentarily blacked out and in that one instance, released her hold on the edge of the opening.

And then she was falling.

Link was woken up later in the day by a servant. Square shoulders and stern features met his gaze as the servant took a step back, giving Link his space.

"The Lady Zelda wishes to see you. She is waiting for you to join her for breakfast in the dining room."

Yawning and rubbing the grit from his eyes Link sat up. He'd slept longer than he'd meant to if it was already breakfast time.

Briefly he wondered why Zelda hadn't been here to wake him herself.

"Has Prince Zellandus asked for us yet?"

The manservant remained expressionless as he answered. "Not that I am aware."

Link nodded. He wouldn't bother asking about the meetings. They weren't something a servant would be privy to.

After a quick bath and changing into a new set of clothes, Holodrum styled, since his own were worn with travel, and he didn't fancy walking around in the Zora suit packed away in his pouch, Link was ready to head out.

He followed the servant along the winding halls and many staircases. There was a subdued silence around them. It was something he'd noticed during his stay. The entire castle had a quiet about it that was uncanny, as if it was not quite lived in. The servants made themselves scarce when not needed, the soldiers stood guard in front of all the important rooms, but otherwise were few, and he hadn't seen any courtiers since that first day.

He didn't know if something had happened, or if this was the norm for Holodrum's court. He hadn't been inclined to visit many of their allied courts during his other lives, although he could say with certain positivity that he much preferred Hyrule castle's atmosphere.

This place was positively grim.

Link frowned as suddenly his heart gave a hard pang. Subtly he pressed a fist over the area, riding out the vicious sensation of burning in his chest.

He hadn't told Zelda, but the ache had gotten worse. It happened in flashes, the onset so sudden that he had to fight to keep his expression in check whenever she was around, but it never lasted long. They'd run out of potions for his ailment a few days ago, and he had insisted that he was alright whenever she asked.

How could he explain to her that sometimes it felt as if his blood was on fire? And not in the good way either. He didn't want to worry her, so he'd deal with it until at last it went away.

He knew that if it had been Ganondorf who had attacked him that day instead of Vivienne, he'd probably be in a more critical condition than he was now. Vivienne is a powerful sorceress, he'd give her that. And maybe she did have the means of killing him and might have had the chance to when she'd infused him with whatever dark matter she'd wielded on him, but it had only been a fraction of the sickening power Ganondorf was capable of.

It made his stomach roll and the frown lines on his forehead deepen. He'd been after the Augurer so long, had obsessed over finding him and carrying out his vengeance for what he'd done to Zelda in their last life, that he was rather disappointed that it turned out not to be Ganondorf at all. Still a Gerudo, but not the cad he was after.

Ganondorf was a dangerous adversary, many times he'd almost died fighting against him, yet it annoyed him beyond measure that he had not been reborn with them this time. To be instead confronted with this foreign enemy. It disgusted him. If Xerthos hadn't been the cause of untold torment to Zelda then Link wouldn't have considered him worth the mud on his boots.

Link fiddled with the ring on his hand. The one Adra had given to him. He'd been meaning to give it to Zelda without telling her its significance - he had a feeling if she knew it was a magically defensive ring she'd insist he'd keep it for himself – yet hadn't found the opportunity yet. Actually, he was certain she'd recognize the magical properties at first touch and then force it back at him. The foolish girl and her self-deprecating qualities.

Didn't she know Hyrule would be lost without her too?

She'd been a martyr in their previous life, but he'd be damned if she turned it into some sort of habit.

"Mister Link."

The servant in front of him stopped and bowed to a man who had just exited a gold embellished door they'd passed.

Link stilled and inclined his head, impassive as he observed the man. He was moderately surprised. In all his time here in Horon's castle he hadn't before been approached by a single courtier. His livery and the grace in his movement gave it away.

"Mister Link, are you headed down to the meeting?" the nobleman asked.

Meeting? Link thought with relative confusion. From what he'd been told, neither he nor Zelda were permitted to attend any meetings going on in the castle, especially those pertaining to their countries' current unfortunate predicament, which were the only meetings he'd be willing to go to.

The man fixed his cravat, smoothing down his coat. "I suppose it was rather spontaneous. Lady Zelda herself seemed surprised upon hearing about it only moments ago. We can walk down together then." He waved the servant away. "I'll take over from here."

The servant finally came up from his bow and backed up against the wall, leaving them room to pass. Only when both Link and the nobleman had left, did the servant head off.

The nobleman peered pleasantly at Link from over his shoulder. "I'm Lord Gant, one of the king's high advisers."

Link gave an indifferent nod. "You know my name."

Gant tugged on the hems of his coat, chest puffed out. "Indeed I do. I visited the Hyrulean court not too long ago. Saw you there accompanying the prince. It's a shame what's happening in Hyrule now. A very pleasant country, although not quite like home here in Holodrum."

Link's lips thinned. A shame indeed.

It didn't take him long to notice that they were headed further downward and had probably passed ground level by now.

"Why would the king ask us to attend the meetings now, do you know?"

Gant looked at him. "I would guess that they're nearing a resolution. It might not seem so, but you and Lady Zelda have left quite an impression with him."

Have they now…

Link imperceptibly narrowed his eyes.

"Here we are," Gant said cheerily as they reached a metal door at the end of the hallway. He opened it for them and motioned Link to go in first.

"A little late, but I'm sure his majesty won't mind. I hope they haven't been waiting all this time for us – ahhhh. Mister Link?"

Link eyes narrowed further from the other end of the blade he held pressed up against Gant's throat. Gant swallowed, the motion causing his neck to brush the point and nick his skin open. A trickle of blood seeped from the wound.

Gant's face hardened. "What is this? How dare you raise a blade in the king's castle!"

It was a good thing Link carried his pouch full of equipment on him at all times. He had a feeling he'd be beating a hasty retreat after this.

"I've never known meeting chambers to be this far beneath a castle," he intoned lethally, fingers curling tighter over the hilt of his sword. Gant shuddered and looked at him with wide eyes. "And you need not pretend that you haven't set up soldiers all around us to make sure I fall into whatever trap you have set up for me."

Gant swallowed again and winced as his wound pressed up against the blade. "I'm sorry to inform you that the king won't be joining us today. As you see, this is a rather clandestine engagement and the king would not risk his reputation for that."

"So Holodrum's king is involved in this," Link spat, his murderous intent heightened tenfold. He neither felt threatened by nor acknowledged the half dozen soldiers emerging from the hidden alcoves behind them, swords drawn and poised for orders.

"Oh he is very involved, whether willing or not. Everyone in the castle is." His breath caught and he squirmed a little as Link leaned closer.

"Where are the prince and Zelda?"

Gant took on a savage look as he hissed. "Why don't you go through the door and find out."

Link didn't take too well to the patronizing tone and angled his sword more effectively against Gant's throat, threatening him with the edge instead of the point.

Link smirked and cocked his head. "You first."

There was an indignant rustling of the soldiers behind them, but they were quelled with a look from Gant.

Gant scowled, and soon determined that he had no choice. Stepping cautiously backward, Link's sword leveled at him the entire while, he inched through the door.

Link kept his attention equally divided between the nobleman hand the soldiers behind him. He paid specific heed to the man's pulse, any of his reactions. Not even a skipped beat would go undetected by him. He tensed when Gant's heartbeat sped up.

There was a roar that shook the room and caused a few of the men behind him to jump.

Link held back a shiver, knowing too well what that sort of roar signified.

"A yes, her excellency's dragons."

Another roar and Link found himself stepping further into the room.

The chamber was massive. Columns arranged in a square along each of the chamber's four walls, supported a high vaulted ceiling. Scorch marks scarred the stones in various places, the air was too dry for mold or mildew to grow, and a burnt odor filled the air. With the lack of windows the room felt more enclosed than it should have. Small, even despite its grand size.

What struck him most was the enormous square pit in the middle of the room and the two dragons lurking on the other side of the bars covering it.

Link wrinkled his nose at the sight. He'd never liked dragons. Most of them were untameable, and the wild ones left disaster wherever they went. Although they avoided people whenever they could, as long as they didn't encroach on their territory, on occasion there came the random feisty ones that would not be swayed by the sight of swords and had to be taken down.

It was said that dragons used to be intelligent creatures. Some dragons were considered spiritual and even capable of speech. Hah, not very likely. The disgusting beasts.

"Amazing, aren't they," Gant chortled, watching the creatures weave around each other like coiling snakes. "They were a wedding present from the dowager's uncle. These two have a particular taste for grown men. Hylian's especially."

Link remained unruffled. Both dragons were scrawny and underfed. It was evident that they'd been starved and tortured and that it was regular thing for them. Their reptilian faces were gaunt, wings shredded so to prevent flight, the smaller of the two had lost one wing entirely. He could tell by the occasional rasping noise they emitted as they opened their mouths in silent screams that the glands that enabled them to breathe fire have been surgically removed as well.

"I'm not dealing with this," Link muttered, backing out of the room, the nobleman in tow.

Had they intended for him to be fed to them? Even with their noticeable disabilities they would prove to be a challenge that he had no patience for.

"Now, you fool, take me to where Zellandus and Zelda really are," Link said coldly.

Gant frowned. "That is something I can't do."

The whistle of air was the only indication of the arrow shooting straight for link's skull. Link was forced to renege his hold on the nobleman in order to use his blade to deflect the arrow. This gave Gant the opportunity to stumble backward, moving as far out of Link's reach as possible.

Link looked upward at the balcony above, counting no less than four archers. Again the lack of manpower hit him. Back in his day in a situation like this he'd have dozens of arrows pointing at him at once.

"I wonder where all Holodrum's forces are at," Link drawled indifferently. It was rather insulting to be underestimated like this.

From his periphery he saw a pulley mechanism at work, opening the barred hatch of the pit. The dragons were already uncoiling, clawing the walls in anticipation.

Gant smirked menacingly. "Your friends are down in the pit. Go get them." He chortled and Link heard the draw of bows from above, all pinpointed at him.

He fingered a metallic contraption in his pouch, lingering affectionately over the handle and latch.

"You get them!"

In a quick flash, Link unleashed his clawshot. Reminiscent of his first battle with Reth, the blades dug deep into Gant's shoulder and he wailed in agony. Jerking his hand as well as reeling the chain in, Link yanked Gant toward him and stepped aside just as they were about to collide.

Gant's horrified gaze briefly connected with Link's lethal one before he veered over the side into the pit.

Arrows thwacked the ground around him and he guarded with his sword for others. The soldiers on the ground brought their swords up to attack but Link was ready for this.

What he hadn't anticipated was the harsh yanking on the chain of his clawshot and the subsequent loosening of his hold on the device. In all the tumult, he hadn't fitted it over his hand properly so it easily slid off. Gaping in disbelief, Link lunged for it as it clanked against the floor and disappeared into the pit after Gant.

"Shit damn it!"

Those things were valuable. And he had a certain attachment to his clawshots. In most lives they've saved his skin more than once, and were handy in numerous situations. Now he'd have to go in the pit and get it.

"Fuck!" Link arched back as an arrow skimmed his cheek.

It was just not his day.

He dodged a swipe a soldier made at him and blocked the sword of another. He fought them, all the while slowly moving toward the pit. The soldiers shouted in triumph when Link then turned and jumped in.

The arrows stopped coming and the soldiers backed away, shutting the hatch.

Link looked around to gather his bearings. The two dragons were occupied with tearing Gant's flesh apart, one had the top half, while the other was chewing hungrily on the bottom. The poor fool hadn't even had the chance to cry out.

The flicker of torchlight reflected off the chain of his clawshot, sticking out from the mouth of one of the dragons.

"Just brilliant," he muttered foully. He'd have to slay them quickly then go find Zelda and Zellandus. They were getting the hell out of this place as soon as he was done here.

It didn't take long for the dragons to make quick work of their meal, and then they noticed him.

"I hate dragons," he spat.

Link decided that it would be prudent to withdraw his shield from his pouch. He lifted it just in time to deflect the claws tearing at him. Still he was pushed back a good five feet, almost pressed against the wall. That was one thing he couldn't allow, he couldn't let them corner him.

The smaller dragon snarled and lashed out at the other, tearing into its flank. The larger retaliated by buffeting it with its shredded wings.

Link twirled his sword and then dodged beneath the larger one. Once he had its throat exposed to him, he thrust his blade up.

The dragon keened and thrashed its head. Blood surged out from its mouth as it roared with pain.

Link held on to the hilt and grabbed the flailing chain, tugging on it harshly, trying to loosen it. The dragon shrieked louder.

At that moment the smaller dragon pounced. Link swung his body out of the way just in time to avoid dragon teeth sinking into him. Instead they dug into the larger dragon's throat.

The larger dragon lurched then gave one long shudder. Suddenly it slumped, falling on top of its companion. The other dragon let go, unruffled by the death of its partner. Instead it turned to Link, who was busy tugging his sword out and then using it to help prop open the dead dragon's jaw.

"Blasted thing." He cursed, having opened the mouth only a few inches and was now determined to pry the rest of his precious clawshot from its jaws. The dragon's head was almost the size of a full grown horse and could easily encompass his entire form in one snap. This made it impossibly heavy.

Grumbling to himself, Link stuck his hand in, sliding it between two vicious looking incisors. He fumbled around for his clawshot, ever aware of the second dragon looming behind him.

If he could just get it out…

He could smell the fetid breath of the creature, about to pounce on him.

The clawshot came free – finally! – and Link spun with his sword raised, his other hand occupied with reeling the rest of the chain in the clawshot. Before he could thrust his sword into the dragon's gaping maw, a dark entity appeared.

Blackness, slick and oily, shot up from the ground like a wave of ink. Jaws manifested from the substance and clamped over the dragon's face. The dragon tossed and clawed at the blackness in panic. With a deft crunch the dragon stilled. The entity released it and fully emerged from the ground.

Hero! What has happened?

Link frowned and wiped his sword on the dragon's hide. The familiar presence of Laval in his beast form a comfort to him.

"We'll talk later. We have to go find Zelda. Is Zellandus waiting for us somewhere close by?" he asked, shoving the clawshot back into his pouch.

Like a hammer to his chest, all the sudden Link was wracked with that dark malignant pain. He staggered backward and took a few steadying breaths.

Are you alright?

Link winced and willed the pain to quickly abate. "Yeah. Just fought of two dragons. A walk in the park, really."

Laval's large dog-like head nodded and he lowered himself.

Hold onto me.

Link gripped his mane and Laval shot up, crashing through the bars. He heard the stunned cries of the soldiers before Laval batted the closest ones and knocked them out. The rest fled at the sight of him.

"Off to warn their bloody king," Link griped. He was so done with this place.

He let go instantly once out of the dragon pit then felt the familiar slightly invasive sensation as Laval sunk into his shadow, taking on incorporeal form once more.

"Alright, we'll grab Zelda then high-tail it out of here." Link took hastened strides toward the way he had come then looked around. "Where's the prince?"

Laval snarled lowly.

When we arrived Zellandus was rebuffed and shoved into a tower with limited access to anywhere else.

Link's eyes widened. "You left him there?"

He demanded I leave him there.

"Then what are you doing? Go get him!"

He felt the Sheikah bristling then seep away like oil on water.

Link started back along the corridors, hurrying at a brisk pace. King Elfried was sure to hear about his adviser's failure in disposing of Link. Now that he knew that Holodrum was not on their side, he had no qualms about brandishing his sword and threatening anyone who dared block his path.

He encountered few on his mad rush through the castle, and those he did looked on in bemusement to see a swordsman so brazenly shooting down the halls, too stunned to interfere.

Link burst through the double doors of the throne room and, without breaking stride, marched up to the throne. Only Elfried wasn't the one sitting on the dais. Instead his mother, the dowager and former consort to the old king, was there looking healthy and smug, not one sign of illness about her.

Link was neither fazed nor caring to see the old woman in place of the king. To him they all were guilty of betrayal.

"Where is Zelda!?" he demanded, voice booming in the hollow chamber. "Where is she!"

There were a significantly greater number of guards in the throne room, and all of them moved forward, spears raised and aimed at his vitals.

Link was too incensed to care. The panging in his chest flared, his vision darkening at the corners, but he'd withstand it. He'd use Courage if he had to. He'd raze this castle to the ground.

The dowager scrunched up her face crudely, peering down her long pointed nose at him. The man she'd been speaking with bowed and moved away. "I've just been informed that you've killed one of my favorite advisers and have slain my precious dragons. And now you make this demand of me? I ought to have you whipped. I ought to have you locked up for the rest of your life, as is Holodrum law. Do you think those were my only pets? I have more dragons where they came from. I could throw you in their cage with nothing but the clothes on your back."

Fury coursed through him. The dark essence in his chest augmenting it.

"Oh please, I eat dragons for breakfast. Now. Where. Is. She?!"

He tapped into Courage, coercing it to awaken.

If they'd tried to have a go at his life, it wasn't impossible for him to conclude that they'd also gone after Zelda and Zellandus. He had a bad feeling about this though. These were people Zelda was attached to, despite them having no memory of her. She wouldn't know of their treachery until too late.

"Tell me or I'll-" Link stepped forward and at once the spears around him pressed closer.

The dowager was now smiling. She waved a blemished hand. "Stand down," she said, rising from the throne. "I can take him there."

The amusement wafting off her was palpable. It made Link worry all the more.

The dowager stepped down the dais and glided gracefully from the throne room. Link, with several guards at his back, followed, form tense and prepared to act at any sign of deception. How he wished Zellandus had Carus with him so Laval would be at his disposal. The Sheikah of this time were amazing assets. It was abominable that all but one had been sealed away.

"You say you're called Link?" asked the dowager.

Link frowned and wasn't compelled to reply. The dowager gave him a haughty look evidently miffed by his silence.

"She called for you," the dowager went on. "In the end. It was such a feeble voice. Like the bleating of a lamb."

Link tried not to react, but when one say's 'in the end', with that sort of implication, it was difficult not to jump to the worst conclusions.

"For your sake," he intoned darkly. "She better be unharmed."

The dowager smirked knowingly, confidently.

They made their way outside, entering a vast garden filled with high hedges, perfect for concealment. Link cast his gaze all over the place, taking in his surroundings with the ease of a trained warrior, scoping for any indication of threats and counting the guards on the battlements.

The deeper they went the more wary he became, yet no one made a move against him. Was the dowager pulling one over him, or was she aiming to satisfy herself with whatever reaction she expected from him?

The dowager then veered off the path and circled around a large well, hand skimming over the rim.

The dowager smiled broadly. "She's down there."

Heart jumping to his throat, he double-checked that the guards were a significant enough distance away so that he wouldn't be unexpectedly shoved in, then looked down into the well, hairs on the back of his neck prickling.

He gnashed his teeth and leveled a heated glare at the smug dowager.

"She's not there," he shot. The dark essence was again latching itself to his soul, fixing itself with seeping whorls.

The dowager raised a brow. "Obviously. Feel lucky that she is not," remarked the dowager. "If so, you would have found her bleeding corpse. No, she's in Subterra now. She'll never see daylight again."

Link glared hard at her. "Subterra?"

"Check again, you fool boy." The dowager sneered, tucking her hands in the opposite sleeves.

"You've been lying this whole time, haven't you," Link spat.

The dowager scoffed. "Oh please. You think I would fake my pride in taking down two of the people Lord Xerthos most wants dead?"

Something lurched inside him. He didn't even want to contemplate what bringing up Xerthos' name meant. "You've done something to Zellandus as well?"

The guards chuckled behind him while the dowager smirked.

"Both your royals were so easily tricked. They cling to their emotional attachments so deeply that they forget to look for the obvious. But you know differently, don't you. You've been a hard one to crack ever since you've entered my castle. But still not good enough. And to think, Reth had difficulty facing you. Poor insipid little wretch. And here I am, in a matter of hours, I've taken down all three of you."

"Well my opinion of you has just plummeted," mocked Link. "Knowing that you consort with that filth."

The guards took a step forward, spears poised, and the dowager again had to motion them to stand down.

"It doesn't matter," she said to her guards, her face amused and snake-like. "He'll be dead soon anyways. But for my pride's sake, just so you know, I have no involvement with that man other than through our connection with Xerthos. Reth is a vile little thing."

The soldiers lowered their weapons but Link remained stiff with tension.

"Let me enlighten you," said the dowager. "At the bottom of this well, there is an aperture in the wall. A tunnel that leads to Subterra, my dungeon. It was Zelda's choice to enter. She knew that once she did, there was no coming back."

Link stared at her hard. "I'm not the type of man who naively believes in the lies of my enemies."

"I have no proof, but for my words."

But the tug on Courage was all the proof he needed. His Triforce felt the presence of its sister, flaring wildly far beneath him. And that he was able to sense it at all meant that Zelda was actively using its power. Zelda never used her Triforce unless it was absolutely necessary, only in the most desperate of situations.

This thought frightened him more than ever.

Whatever was down there, he had to go to her.

He had to trust that Laval would take care of Zellandus. Zelda needed him more.

Eyeing the guards, Link stepped up on the lip of the well, the toes of his boots hanging over the edge as he peered downward.

Goddesses, he hated wells.

It was enough that Hyrule had its own subterranean catacombs in the well in Kakariko village, why would any other place adapt such a nonsensical idea. For one it was highly unsanitary, especially since wells were supposed to provide drinking water.

Link took out one of his clawshots and shot it into the wooden beam above the well.

"You willingly go to your death then?"

Link scoffed, a sound that indicated that he thought it was the most ridiculous thing in the world for her to say. "Neither of us are going to die."

The dowager chortled. "I already told you, my dungeon is inescapable. Neither of you will be coming back up."

Link didn't deem that worth a response. He stepped off the lip and released the catch on the clawshot, lowering himself down.

He reeled in his clawshot once he hit the bottom, frigid stale water splashing around him as it sloshed around his legs. Link was instantly shivering. And then he froze. Light bloomed over the walls of the well, marking appeared, glowing with furious intensity. And then it was gone and Link felt a fraction weaker.

What was that?

"Ah, so it doesn't affect you as much? I suppose you don't have much magic in you, especially compared to Zelda. She had been near fainting because of it."

Link scowled and searched around for the tunnel.

The fissure was there, like the dowager had said. The pull on his Triforce wavered but was still strong enough for him to sense Wisdom somewhere down there.

Link used the blade of his sword to widen the hole.

"Give my regards to her corpse."

Link didn't look back up as he climbed into the hole.

Holy it's been a while since I've updated this. I've been in the process of rereading the entire story and going over my notes to refresh my memory and make sure I stay consistent. But if anyone does notice any inconsistencies feel free to tell me and I'll try to fix them as soon as I can.

Thanks for reading!