Author's Notes

All;

So it's 2:00 in the morning and I've finally finished this. I apologize for any incoherency in advance.

Hope you enjoy the read and it was worth the wait!

Rose Zemlya


A Brief Interlude

He found her seated atop a high point on the bluff overlooking Laky Hylia. She sat on the edge of the rocky face as she once sat on her father's perch as a girl; palms set flat on the ground at her sides, legs dangling over the edge, unafraid of the fall. Perfectly content in the knowledge that the water would catch her if she leapt, would cradle her as her mother once had, as she had cradled their daughter.

He hesitated in the space behind her, unsure of whether the intrusion would be welcome, but she stirred from her thoughts and glanced at him over her shoulder. "Acqul," she said, "no need to lurk. I could use the company."

"You'll catch your death up here," he noted, concerned. But he moved to her side and joined her on the edge.

"The cold doesn't bother me," she said, and settled against him. "A small gift in exchange for the larger burden of being a Sage I suppose."

He said nothing, turning his eyes out in the direction hers were facing. The Lake extended beneath them like a glacial mirror. Were it not for the dusting of snow blowing across its icy surface it would have seemed the sky were below. From this high up you couldn't see the dark creatures beneath its surface. You could almost pretend the waters were as serene and pure as they were meant to be. A shadow crossed Ruto's face.

"I could freeze the whole thing," she said. "With a thought." She gestured over the ice as though she was doing just that. "But in doing so I would cut off Hyrule's main water supply, and I don't imagine it would kill the blasted things anyway."

"Ruto!" Acqul said, startled by the uncharacteristically harsh language.

"We are in private," she said, a trace of a sulk in her voice. "And I am in a mood. I will speak how I wish."

He furrowed his smooth brow, but didn't argue.

"I could command the water to hurl them against the rocks and the walls of the basin, crush them into paste from the sheer pressure. But along with them, all the other creatures that call the lake home. An entire ecosystem destroyed, the Lake damaged beyond repair, and the waters left empty and unable to support life."

"Ruto," he said gently, "the battle goes well. The beasts are trapped within the Lake and can't get beyond. Our nets drag scores of them to the surface to die in the air every day, without a single casualty on our side. They don't appear to be growing in number, so we must be making a dent. We are winning."

"Then why do I feel like we are losing?" she demanded, turning to face him. "Perhaps we are doing well here, but the others are struggling, and there are less of us every time I travel to the Sacred Realm to report. And as well as we are doing, those abominations are still in the Lake, and they have not ceased their attacks no matter how many of their number we kill! Those waters are like an extension of myself and I cannot find a way to be rid of their presence for once and for all! I am a Sage and yet I may as well be helpless! I can't destroy those monsters, I can't bring our daughter home, I can't defend the other Sages from those that seek to fell them! This battle goes well, but we are losing the war, Acqul!" She turned her face away before she could ruin her composure further by breaking down completely.

He stared at her for a long moment, shocked and concerned and just a little alarmed. He reached out and gently cupped her cheek in his hand to turn her face back to him. "Love," he said softly, "those monsters will die. Link will bring Laruto back to us. And you and the other Sages will find a way to stand against your enemies as you always have." He took her hand and pressed it to his chest. "We have lost nothing yet."

"I am afraid of a thing I cannot name," she said, her voice shaky. "I feel a dread like I have never felt before, and I don't know where it's coming from. If Zelda were here, I would ask her, but she isn't and I can't."

"Have faith," he said, because he didn't know what else to say.

She didn't reply, but curled up against him once more and turned her eyes back out over the frozen lake. Acqul pretended to do the same, but kept his eyes on his wife, unsettled by the entire conversation, and the persistent trepidation in her eyes.

For a long time they sat as they were, lost in their own thoughts, until Ruto straightened abruptly, startling Acqul from his reverie. Her hand flew to her mouth as her eyes widened in surprise.

"Nayru!" she swore, startling him further. "Link!"

xxx

"All I'm saying is how do we know the Hylians aren't behind this?" demanded Nidiza. "They launched an attack on our fort through magic before. If the moblins have picked up mages somewhere, Castletown's the most obvious source!"

Amplissa stared at her for a long moment, trying to forget how pristine the younger woman's new uniform was. How straight and crisp the new hair cut. How not Aliza she was, no matter who said that's who she was replacing. She struggled not to hate the woman based entirely on how new she was. "All I'm saying," she finally responded, failing at all of that, "is that you're an idiot."

"Based on what?!" Nidiza demanded.

"Based on the fact that since when have Hylians worked with moblins?!" Amplissa responded acidly. "In case you've forgotten your history lessons, that was us. They hate the moblins as much as they hate us. They wouldn't work with them."

"Where else would they have gotten mages?"

"You know, we have those too, right?" Amplissa replied, giving the woman a dull look. "As do the Sheikah? There's one here, right now, training. Or…being horribly abused or something. Look, I don't know why he's here, but it doesn't matter. The point is, it's not the Hylians. That's a stupid thing to say and a misdirection anyway."

Nidiza's face darkened. "Say what you mean," she snapped.

Amplissa leaned forward on the table and showed the younger woman all of her teeth. "I mean, little girl, that you are like all the other hot-headed, over-reckless, angry women out there and you just want an excuse to go tearing into Castletown and take out the loss of our King and the wound on our pride on them. But here's the truth of the matter – the King got himself captured of his own accord and the man that did it wasn't any more Hylian than we are. And the wound on our pride is our own damn fault. It wasn't the Hylians that let the moblins breach the walls. That's on us. And no matter how many Hylians you kill you won't change that."

"Not that I disagree with your interpretation of the kid's argument," noted Indiga with an impressively neutral tone, "but weren't you the one screaming as recently as last week that we should be tearing in there and mounting their heads on spikes?"

"For one, I wasn't making up pretend reasons for doing it," Amplissa replied with a dark frown, "and for two, that was before our walls were breached and the moblins inexplicably sprouted magic powers." She threw a slow look around the table at the gathered Elite. "We have other priorities right now, sisters. We don't have the luxury of avenging a lost King who would kill us for even making the attempt if he ever found out." As had been the case since Link had gone missing, half the table nodded along with her and the other half scowled.

"Enough!" Nabooru snapped. "We're not invading Castletown."

"But—!" started Nidiza.

"I said enough!" Nabooru snarled, slamming her hand down on the table. She pointed at the newest member of the Elite and frowned. "You've earned that uniform and your place among us, Nidiza, but you still need to prove yourself to keep it. Don't cause me to question my decision."

The younger woman scowled, but sat back down and fell silent.

"Look," said Nabooru, addressing the entire room once more, "can we focus on one war at a time here? Some of you are newer and don't know the King as well as the rest of us. Trust me when I say that if he were here, his explicit orders would be to not attack Castletown."

"But he's not here," noted Indiga, still carefully neutral. "And he left no explicit orders."

Nabooru gave her a look that immediately forced her eyes away. "You want revenge, take it out on the moblins," she said, her voice hard. "We need every woman we've got right now holding that gate together and keeping those monsters out of our Fortress. And out of Hyrule."

"Or," said Nidiza tentatively, "we could funnel them into Hyrule…keep the Fortress clear, but just let the moblins run right on past…."

"Right," said Amplissa dryly, "just dump our problem on them to solve. How very…Hylian of you."

"We are not dumping anything on anyone," Nabooru snarled, getting to her feet before they could continue fighting. "These moblins are our problem. We have sworn to keep them out of Hyrule and we will keep our word." Her eyes were fierce, her expression livid. "If anyone here is more interested in petty feuds with each other, or our allies, than in defending this Fortress and everything else from the moblin blight, she can pack her bags and leave." She stared around the room until every last woman in it had finally turned her eyes away. "I don't want to hear another breath wasted on talk of a war with the Hylians while there are moblins beating in our gates, do you hear me? And I expect every last one of you to quash it anytime you hear the others speaking of it, no matter your personal preference. We will deal with the Hylians—Farore!" She straightened, the rage on her face replaced with an expression of the utmost shock. Her face went pale, and then red, and then pale again. Her mouth moved like she was tasting something on the wind.

"Nabooru?" Amplissa inquired cautiously. "What is it? Another attack?" The gathered Elite tensed.

"I don't—it can't—if this is a trick…." Her face darkened, but there was a wavering belief in the expression. So many maybes…too many maybes…

The Sage of Spirit ignored the questioning looks of the Elite and closed her eyes. She opened herself to the desert around her, and the spirits that dwelled there. She threw her senses wide, past the bruised pride and simmering rage of her sisters, past the vile stain that was the moblin presence in the desert. Into the Spirit Wastes themselves. What seemed dead and deserted on the surface was in fact full of life – both here and gone – and it was here that Nabooru turned her attention.

The spirits for whom the Wastes were named welcomed her, excited apparently beyond endurance. They danced and jabbered, but not with anger, as they had when the Moblins invaded. Not with hate. With hope. With love. With unrestrained joy. They were welcoming someone home.

And there was only one for whom they would put up such a fuss.

She opened her eyes with a grin as feral as a wild dog's and nearly threw herself at the map pinned to the wall behind her. "Here," she said, jabbing her finger against the worn leather. "He's here."

"He?!" Nidiza gasped, "You mean—!"

"Nabooru, the moblins," Amplissa said, coming to her feet. "He doesn't know, he'll charge right into their camp."

"Go," the Sage snapped, turning to one of the reds standing guard at the door. "Sound the King's Warning. And don't stop until your arm falls off. Amplissa," she whirled around to face the Elite again. "He'll head for the forest. I'll meet him there and bring him back, but we'll need an escort from the Spirit Temple."

"On it," she said, and pointed at half the table. "You lot, with me. Mount up."

"The rest of you," Nabooru said, "spread the word – the Son of the Wind has returned!"

xxx

"Moblins! Moblins! They're Moblins!"

The cry was practically a war chant, echoed up and down and the stony hallways of the Sheikah Caverns. Each person who heard it began to scoff, paused, and then picked it up in horror as the truth was finally allowed to register. Many of the townsfolk, unaccustomed to the confined space and dim light, began to panic, adding to the chaos as they ignored the instructions they'd been given and began to dart around looking for loved ones or protection. The moblins – their secret undone – took advantage of the frantic activity to attack and slip away again amongst the confusion. The few Sheikah left who were not guarding the mountain passes swore and screamed and swore some more as they tried to somehow get control of the rapidly escalating situation, and the Gorons were at a loss as to how to help them in caverns and caves that were narrow compared to what they were used to, and filled with far too many civilians to risk their most effective combat strategies.

Through this melee ran two little boys, a different kind of cry on their lips.

"Marni!" Cota called, desperately scanning the faces of the adults as they raced by him in every direction. "Marni, where are you?!"

"Hey!" Mido yelled. "Hey! We need to find someone! HEY!" He pushed his way across the corridor, dodging legs and knees on the way, toward a figure who was standing relatively still in the middle of the mass. "Hey!" he yelled, pulling on the figure's cape. "I'm looking for—!" but his request ended in a startled cry when the figure turned around and stared down at him from under its cowl with hungry, porcine eyes. "Moblin!" he shrieked. The Moblin grunted a laugh and swung viciously at him with the blade it had been hiding under his cape, but Mido threw himself flat on the ground. "Moblin!" The whistle of the sword through the air made his stomach twist unpleasantly, but then he was up on his hands and knees and crawling away.

One of the adults shrieked and pointed, and a great cry rose from the crowd as they stampeded out either end of the corridor. Mido gasped as a stray foot caught him in the side and he sprawled onto the cold stone floor. Terrified of the hurricane of feet he covered his head with his hands and closed his eyes tightly.

"Mido!" Cota crossed the distance between them as fast as he could and threw himself at a large man about to trample the frightened Kokiri. He managed enough force to knock the adult off his original trajectory and send him stumbling away on another angle. He didn't bother to see if he fell, didn't waste time looking for the moblin. He just turned and dragged Mido to his feet, and then they were running again.

"Those people—!" Mido gasped, twisting to look back behind them at the broken, bloodied forms lying still on the floor of the rapidly emptying room.

But Cota shoved him forward. "They're dead. We can't help them."

"How do you—?"

"I just do, all right?" There was something haunted in the young boy's eyes, a whisper of whatever it was that hummed on the edges of Link's sword and lived in the people in the sewers. Mido's mouth went dry. "I know what somebody who's dead looks like."

Mido swallowed thickly and turned his eyes forward.

The bulk of the crowd seemed to have dispersed from around them once again, and they finally allowed themselves to slow to a stop. They leaned against the wall, or on their knees and panted. "Stupid girl," Cota hissed. "Where did she go?" He threw a glance back down the hallway and Mido knew he was thinking of the lifeless bodies on the ground.

"We'll find her," he said, and did his best to sound confident. "Maybe she went back to the room to look for—?"

But Cota's face went pale at something he could see beyond the curve of the wall and he grabbed Mido and slapped a hand over his mouth. Mido stared at him in surprise, but Cota gestured for him to stay quiet and desperately pulled them back into the shadows of the wall. Mido didn't bother struggling. The next instant he could see what had caused Cota's sudden fear. A group of moblins walked pass the wide intersection ahead, muttering at each other in their harsh language. Over their shoulders, some of them carried bundles that a small pool of torchlight revealed to be people. The boys held their breath and tried to make themselves as small and unnoticeable as possible.

Just when they thought they were safe the small caravan stopped in place and the moblin at the back grabbed the head of the woman over the shoulder of the moblin in front of it. It lifted her head by the hair to force her to look at it, and Mido thought he recognized her as the woman who had spoken with Darunia after the Sage had rescued him in the village above. She was the General Dune.

"Which way?" it snarled at her.

She ground her teeth and glared at it without answering. The moblin snorted and barked something at one of the others past the corner where the boys couldn't see. It gestured roughly, pushing its cape back over its shoulder and both boys winced as a bright light shone suddenly down their corridor. Mido blinked into the light, starting when he saw what was causing it. There was a bottle tied to the moblins belt, glowing like it had a star in it. But there was something else, like a swirl of ink writhing in the centre of it. Mido squinted, trying to make it out better. Something about it made him sad, made him want to take the bottle and smash it. The ink shouldn't be in there. It was in pain. It wanted out.

But then the moblin hastily pulled its cape back down over the bottle. Any further concern for the thing at its centre was lost when a sharp, high-pitched cry sang out and echoed against the cavern walls. Cota gasped and it was suddenly Mido's turn to twist in his grip and slap his own hand over the other boy's mouth to keep him from calling out to his sister.

The moblins had Marni, and they were hurting her.

"Left!" Dune snarled, and immediately Marni's scream ended in a gasp, followed by terrified sniffling. "The Quisros is on your next left."

The moblin put its face very close to hers and showed her its filth stained teeth. "Sage of Fire be there, yes?" it hissed, eyes narrowed. "Or more than twisting we do to your friends."

"Just take your next left," Dune spat.

The moblin snorted again and the group moved on.

The boys slowly untangled themselves from each other. They met each other's eyes in the dark hallway, each drawing courage from the other. Then they turned without a word and crept quietly after the moblins.

xxx

Chapter 25

"Home," Hunter says, his voice so reverent it's practically a prayer. "I can't believe it."

I turn to reply to him, but the next instant the sound of the signal bell at the Fortress begins to ring. It's not loud this far out, but you can make out the pattern and Neesha and I both instinctively turn toward it, translating the message.

"Dammit," she says, stiffening.

"What is it?" Hunter asks. "Are they under attack?"

"No, we are," I tell him. I scramble to my feet and move closer to them, fumbling in my pouch for the Ocarina. "Nabooru must know we're here – that particular ring is always for me, and it's always a warning. It's not safe to go home right now."

Neesha's face is grim. "Judging by how hard they're ringing it, I don't think it's safe where we are."

But I've got the Ocarina out. "Hold tight," I say, and they both set their hands on my back. A few familiar notes and the sand, sun and sky disappear in a swirl of green light, replaced moments later with grass, trees, and vine-covered walls.

And, inexplicably, sobbing children.

"Link!" shrieks one of the know-it-all brothers. He throws himself at my leg with a wail and I stagger backward from the force of it. Hunter and Neesha look around them in surprise.

"What?!" I demand. "What is it?!" I pry his arms free of my leg and drop down into a crouch to look him in his red-rimmed eyes. "What's happened?"

"Mido's gone!" cries Fado, rushing over, at least three other distraught Kokiri behind her.

"What do you mean gone?" I ask. Something tells me this isn't hide and seek.

"He's gone!" Fado says desperately. "He's left! The Great Deku Tree sent him on a secret mission and he hasn't come back yet!"

The last ten minutes of my life have been just a little extremely hectic. Too many abrupt transitions in too short a time. So it is an effort to try to focus my attention on what they're saying and the implications of it. "I'm sure he's fine," I say. "Probably got distracted and wandered through a Lost Door. He'll be—"

"No!" cries the Know-It-All Brother. "He left the Forest. He's gone!"

That gets my attention. "He can't leave the Forest," I say. "You guys can't leave the Forest."

"Link?! Is that Link?!" The voice is small, high pitched, and muffled strangely. Fado blinks and reaches into her pocket, pulling out a small bottle, with holes popped in the lid. Inside flutters a tiny fairy surrounded by a bright nimbus of green light. "Link!" she cries, pressing her hands up against the glass. "It's true! He left the Forest on an mission for the Great Deku Tree! He should have been back by now, Link!" Her face crumples inward and she starts to cry.

"Let her out of there," I chide Fado. "Why have you got her locked up?!"

"She kept trying to leave," Fado says, shuffling her feet but holding my gaze stubbornly. "We didn't want to lose them both!"

"Give her here," I say, holding out my hand. "Savi, just, calm down, all right? We'll go talk to the Great Deku Tree." I pop the lid off and she flies out gratefully, wiping at her tear-stained face. She flutters anxiously around my head. "The rest of you settle down. Okay? You're going to make yourselves sick."

"He's my partner," Savi sniffles. "He shouldn't have gone without me!"

"You'll find him, won't you Link?" Fado asks, wringing her hands.

"First Saria, now Mido!" wails the Know-It-All Brother. "We're cursed!"

"No! Stop it!" I hiss. "You're not cursed, all right?! Just…relax. I'll figure this out."

"I hope by 'this' you mean getting your ass back to the desert," says a dull voice behind me. "We've got bigger—."

But she's cut off as the Kokiri all shriek, startled by the unexpected intruder, and immediate explode into action, racing off in all directions, leaping behind logs and disappearing into the woods in about the time it takes Nabooru to blink in surprise. She stares around her and frowns. "They're not normally here," she says. "Or crying. What did you do?"

"Nothing," I say, "I walked into it to. It's okay, Savi, she's a friend."

Savi flies out from beneath my hat, looking embarrassed. "Sorry," she mumbles, "I know her, I just…wasn't expecting her. I've had a long few weeks."

Few weeks. If Mido did leave the Forest…

"Look," I tell Nabooru, "you may as well come with us to see the Great Deku Tree, I'm not leaving without talking to him, and it's going to take time for whatever escort you've arranged to make it to the Spirit Temple anyway. It's not like there's anything we could accomplish sitting out there that we couldn't do here."

She looks annoyed, unable to comprehend how the problems of the Kokiri could even come close to the problems of the Gerudo, but ultimately shrugs because I'm right and I think she knows there are bigger fights coming up she'd best save her energy for.

"Where the Hell have you been?" she demands. "And you!" She leans around me to point at Neesha as we walk. The latter attempts to meet her gaze defiantly, but there is something guilty in there that mars the whole effort. Nabooru says nothing else, just draws her finger across her throat.

Ah the simplicity of Gerudo communications.

"Dark World," I tell her, drawing her ire away from Neesha. "Which sucks. And I don't really

feel like talking about it or reliving any of the details thankyouverymuch. Suffice it to say that the portals at

Lake Hylia, Kakariko, and the Desert are closed. Working on the others. All the Maidens are alive.

Laruto is with a friend until I can find a way back in there to go get her. Zelda's still captured, but just

before we got booted back home she managed to make a telepathic link with me. Don't know if it'll still be

there when I get back, though. Oh!" I say as we walk into a huge hollowed log marking the path from

Saria's special place, "and the moblins have mages. I don't mean, like, one, either. I mean like an army of

them. Your turn. Go."

She takes a half second to process all of that. "Moblins breached the walls, but we turned them

back and none got through to Hyrule. They broke Sahasrahla's shield, and now I guess I know how.

Expected mage, not mages, but we'll adapt. Zora's holding well. Impa's down in Kakariko – no one

knows how or why. Darunia found her deep in the mountain unconscious and nothing's waking her up."

"Did you go?" I ask in surprise.

"Couldn't," she replies. "Moblins breached our gate, remember? Other priorities. Something is

up at Kakariko, but we don't know what yet. Darunia's on it. Castletown's been incommunicado since

Impa went down – none of us are willing to risk your father's rebellion by checking in on him. Impa was

managing it, so naturally we don't know anything except that Durnam made a play for the throne and

there's an ongoing civil war of sorts.

"I'll take the news that the portals are down back to the Sages at our next tête-à-tête in the Sacred

Realm. That'll help. Maybe we can push the bastards out and reallocate some strength. Oh!" she says as

we exit the log and emerge in the Deku Tree's glen, "and I need a direct order from you not to invade

Castletown and slaughter all the Hylians."

"Consider it yours," I say.

"That was the fastest debriefing I've ever seen," Hunter says with a frown that makes it clear he

doesn't know whether to nod approvingly or shake his head in disappointment.

"Great Deku Tree!" Savi cries, flying from my shoulder. "Link is here!

"Link," says the Great Deku Tree Sprout as we come out the other end of the tunnel in his glade. He is more relieved than I think I have ever seen him. "I am glad to see thee well, Hero. And thy companions as well. Things have been growing darker in Hyrule in thine absence."

I duck my head apologetically and come to a stop in front of him. "I'm sorry, Great Deku Tree," I say, "but they may need to stay dark for a bit yet. I can't stay."

It hurts me – physically – to say it. Like I just punched myself in the gut. Hunter actually gives a tiny gasp behind me, equally pained, but he doesn't argue.

"What?!" Nabooru snaps. "You'd best be talking about these Woods, highness."

"Later," I snap back at her, then turn to the Deku Tree again. "Listen, I'm sorry I have to be so abrupt, but I've been gone too long and I suspect there's a lot I need to do. When I teleported here, the Kokiri were freaking out. Something about Mido being gone."

"Please, Great Deku Tree," Savi says, lip trembling. "It's been weeks."

The Deku Tree Sprout's branches creak in a troubled way. "Yes," he says. "I sent him to thy father, or the sages or the generals with a message. There is a portal here, in the Woods. Worry not for the Kokiri! The moblins it spawned are lost within the depths of the Woods and will not find their way out again. But these moblins are not what we expected. They are smaller, more intelligent than their brutish cousins. They wield foul magic. And if they are here, they are elsewhere. Mido was sent to warn the rest of Hyrule."

"You're a tree," Nabooru says, clearly struggling to keep her temper under control, "and you knew they had mages. But not one of my women figured it out. They're Gerudo. And you're a tree."

"Magic does not work in the Woods as it does elsewhere," the Deku Tree says kindly. "Their cloaks and tricks do not blind me or my children, as they would thy kin."

"Is he…," I hesitate, glancing at Savi out of the corner of my eye. But it's nothing the little fairy hasn't been obsessing over since Mido left, I'm sure, so no point dropping the question. "How long can the Kokiri live outside the wood?"

"It is a complicated question," answers the Deku Tree grimly, "because none has ever left, save yourself. And you were a special case."

Even now, a decade later, the fact that he counts me among the Kokiri means more than I can say.

"Here," he continues, "they are protected from mortality. Time does not touch them. Death does not touch them. There are no shields out there, beyond the Woods. No protection. Mido is exposed, and Death can find him and I cannot stop it. He has until then – until Death finds him. How long that might take, I do not know." Savi's resolve crumples and she starts to cry.

"I'll bring him home," I promise her. "Where did you send him?"

"He left armed with names and descriptions," said the Deku Tree, "and directions to Castletown."

Nabooru hisses, and I wince. She glances at the crying fairy, then back at me with a questioning expression. I shrug and she shrugs back. "Castletown's in the middle of a Civil War," she tells them. "We don't know the status. I'm not saying the squirt wouldn't have made it there, I'm just saying it may not be safe to go looking. Not without risking the Sheikah's efforts."

"Did he have a coat?" Hunter asks.

"The best we could give him," the Deku Tree responds heavily. "And the Lost Door would have brought him close. But nothing thick enough if he was locked outside the city walls for too long."

"You said Impa knows the status?" I ask her, mind racing.

"I also said she's out of commission," Nabooru reminds me. "Comatose."

"Then I guess it's a good thing I've got a magical Ocarina that plays magical songs that can magically fix all kinds of magical maladies," I respond impatiently.

She raises an offended eyebrow at me. "Kid, who do you take me for? There's nothing your little pipe can do for her that I can't. Sage of Spirit, remember? Don't you think I tried?"

"Then it's not a spiritual thing," I answer her flatly, "and I use one of my many other magical pieces of crap to solve the issue. The way my life is going lately, I'm guessing it'll have to be the sword, but who knows."

"I'm pretty sure I mentioned the army of Moblins – apparently including mages – tearing the desert apart, no? We blew up half the fortress to keep them out, you know. You don't think that's a bit more important than a single little boy who probably froze to death three feet from his home?" She has the grace to wince, and bow her head apologetically to the tree and the fairy. "Not that I'm saying he has. I'm just trying to focus on priorities here."

I snort. "Portal's closed," I tell her. "They're not getting any reinforcements anymore. You know about the mages, and last I checked you had at least two of your own. I assume they're not dead, or you'd have told me already." I glare at her, eyes fierce and no doubt showing something of the canine Gerudo I have been spending too much time with. "If the moblins breached the gates, that's on you. All of you. And I tell you what. I'm not coming home until you unbreach them."

She glares at me, infuriated and offended, and I glare back, unbending.

"Our forces are significantly diminished," she says harshly. It's meant as a lash.

Before the Dark World maybe that would change my mind. Make no mistake, it hurts. I feel it, like a crimson brand across my heart, but it doesn't get anywhere near my decision. "Then I would assume theirs are too," I say. "If you tell me we lost more than one Gerudo for every five Moblins then I'm not coming home at all."

She snorts. "More like ten moblins."

"Then wipe them out," I say with a shrug. "I won't set foot in that desert until every last pig's been left for the ravens."

She considers me closely for a long moment, not confused exactly, but not sure either. But she's not offended anymore. She knows I'm right. With the portal closed, and too many massive battles fought too recently, there's no way the moblins have the numbers they need to withstand a direct attack by the Gerudo – especially not Gerudo with a King who's implied that if they can't wipe out a few monsters maybe they should cut off their ponytails and turn in their uniforms. "Fine," she says, "but when we're done you and I are going to have a long talk about exactly what happened to you on the other side of that portal. You're not normally this much of a hard ass."

"Make sure Sahasrahla's there for it," I tell her. "I need to ask him some questions about his mirror."

"Whatever," she says, and disappears in a swirl of bright light.

"It is really weird watching Gerudo be Gerudo in a Forest," Hunter says once she's gone. "I just want you to know that." Savi apparently seconds the motion, because she's staring at me with eyes as big as dinner plates – and she's not much bigger than a spoon.

"Gerudo are Gerudo everywhere," Neesha says, demonstrating, as usual, a complete and total lack of understanding for everyone else's complete and total lack of understanding of this very simple concept.

I ignore them both. "I'll find Mido," I tell the Deku Tree and Savi. "I promise."

"Thank you, Hero," says the Deku Tree gravely. "I pray it is not too late."

"I want to come," says Savi tremulously.

But I shake my head at her. "I don't think that's a good idea, Savi," I say gently. "I know you want to find him, believe me I know. But it's probably as dangerous for you out there as it is for him. You can't leave either."

"Navi did!" she says stubbornly.

"Navi wasn't a standard fairy," I remind her. "She was born without a Kokiri partner. She had to wait for me. She's not tied as tightly to the Woods as you are. It's not the same thing. I will bring him home. I promise. But you have to trust me."

"Savi," says the Great Deku Tree, "take heart."

At last she bows her head, her hair falling around her face. "Yes, Great Deku Tree," she says.

I nod at him and his leaves rustle in acknowledgement. "I'll be back before you know it," I tell her, and gesture for the others to grab on. I pull the Ocarina from my pouch and begin the Nocturne of Shadow. Normally it would have no place in the Woods, but it's strangely fitting given the mood in the glade.

Savi waves goodbye as the magic sweeps us up and away from the Woods, and drops us on the platform in front of the Shadow Temple. Below us is Kakariko's graveyard. Beyond that is Kakariko itself.

It is with no small amount of bitter resentment toward the Goddesses that I realize it is on fire.

xxx

A Brief Interlude

Marni kept her eyes shut and prayed through her tears. It was an old prayer. She could remember her mother saying it, over and over and over again, after her father had fallen ill. "Nayru shield me from the night. Farore deliver me to the dawn. Din deny the dark this soul." She repeated the words through her tears, murmuring them in a never ending stream, until the sound lost all meaning and she was saying them because if she stopped she would have to acknowledge the stench of the monster carrying her, or the sting of the gash in her side, or the fire in her broken arm. She would have to look up and see the wretched, shattered faces around her, or the demons that had taken them. She would have to consider what might have happened to her brother, and the little Kokiri boy, without her there to take care of them when the moblins had hit.

They were deep in the caverns now. The sounds of the battle had fallen behind, little more than distant echoes. Dune continued to give the moblins reluctant directions. Marni wanted to tell her not to. Wanted to tell her that they didn't deserve it. That she'd rather die than help the vile creatures. But then she remembered the snap of her own arm, or the sharp edge of their knives, and her mouth went dry and her lungs seized and no matter how badly she wanted to yell and scream and rail she couldn't.

They came at last to a large chamber. At the end of which was a forked corridor.

"There," said Dune. "The Quisrol is to the right. But you have to let me down."

"Think me stupid?" the moblin demanded with a snort. It grabbed the general by the hair and pulled her hair up roughly. "Me not stupid."

Dune scowled darkly at it. "There's a barrier," she snapped. "Only Blood Sheikah can pass through it. You need to put me down so I can remove the barrier."

It scowled suspiciously at her, then looked up at the moblin holding Marni. "You," it snapped. "Girl. Go see."

"W-what?" Marni gasped, and cried out when the moblin roughly set her back on her feet. Her arm screamed with pain and she cradled it against her chest and doubled over.

"For the Goddess' sake, leave her alone. You've plenty of uninjured captives to send."

"No," said the moblin. "Girl. Go. Now. Or we break other arm."

Marni gave a small gasp and looked at Dune. The Sheikah gave her a sympathetic look through her swollen eye and bloodied face. "It's okay, Marni," she said gently. "It's just an invisible wall. Right at the entrance to the hallway. Walk carefully and you'll find it. It won't hurt you."

She gave a small nod and moved forward uncertainly. When she was close to the hallway she began extending a foot out gingerly in front of her, searching for the barrier. It didn't take her long to find it. She pressed her good shoulder up against it, but it may as well have been stone. Though she could see the hall beyond, she couldn't breach the corridor. It was dark down the hallway, but she could see large shapes, almost like people but larger. Statues, she realized.

"See?" Dune said. "Set me down where she is. I need to mediate to lower the barrier."

The moblin snorted. "If you lie," it threatened, "break more than her arm, yes? Spine maybe. Skull. No lies."

"You've made your point more than clear," Dune snapped. "Put me down and let me break the barrier."

The moblin glared at her for a moment more, then nodded at the other holding her. It dropped her unceremoniously onto the ground and she grit her teeth as she pushed herself back up. She took a moment brush herself off haughtily, the expression carefully calculated to hide her jangled nerves. Then she hobbled over to where Marni was standing and met the girl's eyes as reassuringly as she could manage.

"Dune," Marni said, her lip trembling. "You said Darunia's behind the barrier. But if only blood Sheikah—?"

"Stay strong, girl," Dune interrupted sternly. "And mind your tongue," she added under her breath.

Marni took several quick, deep breaths, but nodded. "Can I help?" She asked, her voice shaking badly. "Just tell me what to do."

Dune gave her an approving look as she dropped roughly to her knees in front of the barrier. "Keep praying," she said, turning her eyes to look down the long, shadowed hallway beyond the barrier. "As hard and as long as you can. And don't stop, no matter what happens."

"Okay," Marni managed. "N-Nayru shield me from the night. Farore deliver me to the dawn. Din deny the dark this soul."

Dune bowed her head before the barrier and summoned her courage and her resolve. The girl's prayer helped her centre herself. This was a huge risk. The moblins would realize almost immediately what had happened. That they had been tricked. And they would be quick to take it out on their captives. But there was little other choice. She would not hand over the Sages. And they could not be allowed to seize the Caverns. No matter what the cost. She had sworn her oaths far too long ago to question them now.

"Nayru shield me from the night."

Dune raised her voice so that it would echo down the hall. "Mel ara cen dweio kar!" she called.

"What you say?!" demanded the moblin.

"Mel criahar lodanan ces makani!"

"Hey!" yelled the moblin, and it strode angrily toward her. "You stop! You tell me what you say!"

"Farore deliver me to the dawn."

"Makan cen sira!" Dune shouted defiantly as the moblin grabbed the back of her shawl and raised its blade to strike. She twisted in its grip and hooked her foot behind its knee. A vicious jerk sent it tumbling to the ground. The other moblins shouted and started running toward her. She turned desperately back to the statues. "Vena ces fierenzen!" she cried. "Makan cen sira! Vena ces fierenzen!"

Marni closed her eyes in terror as the moblins fell on the Sheikan general. Her mouth dried up and her lungs seized, but she called on every last shred of strength she had left in her. "Din deny the dark this soul! Din please!"

And in the darkness of the Quisrol, seven sets of eyes blazed to life.

xxx

Chapter 25 (cont.)

"Dammit!" Hunter hisses. "Dammit a thousand times over!" He's remarkably close to panic, and I can't blame him.

"This is impossible," I say. "They can't all be sealed off."

"All the ones I know about," he says. "Including the ones I'm not supposed to know about."

"Why would they seal the Caverns?" Neesha demands. "Under what circumstances does that happen?"

"Rare ones," Hunter answers her grimly. He takes my offered hand and I pull him up and away from the caved in entrance. "Never in my lifetime. Only to protect the Caverns against invaders that have made it into Kakariko, and only as a last resort."

"What invaders?" I demand, gesturing broadly. "Hunter, there's no one here! Just...corpses." Moblins and people both. Hylians, Sheikah, a few goron. Mostly civilians from the look of them.

He turns toward the centre of town. "Then either it worked and the moblins gave up and left, or, more likely, the moblins used their magic to get down there with them and they're all locked in down there with the very things they were trying to get away from." I take back what I said about close to panic. He's all the way over the edge now. "We're going to the well."

"That's a horrible idea," I say. "We won't fit."

"You've got bombs," he says. "We'll make ourselves fit. The guardians won't bother us if we know the right words, which I do."

"What kind of guardians?" Neesha demands suspiciously. She doesn't know the details, but she knows I get pale and shudder if I have to talk about the well. And she knows what all Gerudo know, which is that Sheikah are creepy bastards. The combo is vivid enough. "It's bad enough you're going to drag me through some underground prison, but I'm not—Nayru!" She shields her eyes and leaps away from me as the Master Sword unexpectedly – and completely of its own accord – bursts into blue fire.

"What the Hell?" I snap, coming to a stop and drawing it from its sheathe.

"Link, what's—?" Hunter starts.

But I don't have time to answer him. The blue fire explodes, racing up the hilt and over my arm. I gasp, but it doesn't hurt. Warms without burning. It spreads across my chest and within seconds has consumed me. I have to close my eyes against the brightness of it.

"Link!" I hear Neesha yell, but then I don't hear anything but the crackling of the Master Sword's flames. And then they, too, die out.

For a moment I think I've actually gone blind. I can't see anything. All I can do is stand still and feel annoyed. I get that it's kind of a really busy time in Hyrule right now, I do. I get that there's a lot going on, and that there's a lot of places the Hero of Time might be useful.

But maybe, just once, we could ask the damn Hero whether he'd like to be jerked from one location to another without warning or explanation.

No. We're just going to drag him through a portal into Hell, or shove a Moon Pearl into a magic mirror, or light him on fire and teleport him. What does it matter what he wants to do? All that matters is what he has to do.

And that becomes clear enough when my disorientation fades sufficiently for the rest of my senses to clue in to my surroundings. I'm in a closed in space, judging by the amount of echoes, and I can hear yelling and screaming and wailing not too far in the distance. That and the unmistakable grunting of moblins. Now that is a sound I can get behind. That makes my goal instantly obvious.

I turn toward the noise, and the torchlight I just just see flickering down the long hallway, when someone – Dune! – shouts "Makan cen sira! Vena ces fierenzan!"

My eyes still aren't adjusted to the darkness, so I'm not blinded when the room I'm in is infused with a white light. The Quisrol. I'm in the Quisrol.Which makes a certain kind of sense. And the statues standing in a protective circle around me are staring at me, eyes open and glowing. Which makes far less sense.

I am well acquainted with the warning signs of giant statues coming to life, so I've got time for a quick glance around to confirm that Hunter and Neesha aren't here before I throw myself at a gap in the ring. I press myself up against the wall, but whatever magic brought these guys to life is apparently of better quality than the standard run of the mill magic that has set many a gigantic statue on my ass over the course of my adventuring career. No chunks of stone go flying as they step from their pedestals and begin down the hall. There's barely even any dust – the Sheikah keep this place clean. There's just a deafening, mountainous groan as they move. Each of them holds an object of some significance within Sheikan myth, but I'm gonna go ahead and admit I never paid much attention. A sword, a pair of knives, a book, a bow, a shield, a chain, and a pair of empty hands. They move disturbingly smoothly for giants of stone, and I have no doubt that those are fully functional weapons in their hands.

You know I never fully appreciated just how big those statues were until they started moving. I stare incredulously after them for a moment, then lift the sword in my hand to stare at it. "Did you do this?" I demand, giving it a shake. "This isn't funny." I point down the hallway. "That's not funny."

A shrill, terrified shriek pierces all the way down the hallway, even over the crashing of the stone footsteps. It brings me back to the present immediately and incredulously. That was Marni.

Of course it was Marni.

Where else would she be, if not in the middle of a room full of moblins and murderous statues.

I don't bother sheathing the sword. I just turn and bolt down the hallway. I drag my shield from my back and burst out of the corridor and into the chamber beyond.

The confusion in the room is palpable. There are moblins – the little ones, great, so magic – everywhere. At least a dozen by my count. And they've got a bunch of civilians with them. Their hands are tied, but at least a few of them have managed to get loose and are running around screaming in abject terror at the moblins or the statues or both. And then there are the statues. Seven gigantic stone monuments swinging weapons or running their fingers along a page as they chant a spell, or just, you know, punching stuff. They are doing some incredible damage to the chamber as they chase the panicking moblins, and I have the dubious honour of watching one catch their prey. There is very little left of the moblin when it's over, and it's over fast.

I give myself a shake. Stab first, questions later. I don't know enough about the situation to make anything resembling an informed decision so let's go with some assumptions. I'm going to assume the statues are on our side. I'm also going to assume that anyone who is not a moblin is on our side. Prioritization is important when one has absolutely no clue what one is doing.

There's a convenient little dog pile of moblins – at least three – right in front of me, so I throw myself forward and hit them at full tilt. The tackle sends one of them flying backwards towards someone – Marni, bruised and bloody – and she scrambles backwards with a shriek. She's cradling her arm to her chest like it's broken, and her face is positively bloodless. I cannot believe she's still on her feet. "Nayru shield me through the night!" she sobs. "Farore deliver me to the dawn! Din deny the dark this soul! Nayru shield me through the night!"

I catch sight of a blue clothed leg at the bottom of the moblin pile and shuffle my priorities back to where they belong. I loose the sword's fire and set to with my shield – can't use the blade until they're separated from whoever's on the bottom. The sight of the blue light combined with the pounding of my shield is enough to send the topmost one scrambling. I catch it across the chest as it tries to dodge me and it goes down with a porcine shriek. They're mages; their armour's nothing compared to this blade. I turn to get the last one, but it gurgles in an unattractive way and a deep shudder runs through it as its own blade explodes out its back. Dune shoves the corpse off and holds out a hand for me to help her up.

She gives me a wide-eyed, half-crazed look that I take to mean so-many-questions-too-many-questions – I know because I'm giving her the same one – but she's a Sheikah to the core and it's gone an instant later. I'm not the only one who prioritizes. "Civilians," she says.

I nod and we turn to join the fray with the statues, who are notably at a disadvantage against moblins with human shields. They really are smarter than your average pig, these ones. They've figured out that the statues differentiate friend from foe and are keeping the civilians between them and the stone guardians.

But they can't do that without leaving their flanks open. And for every ounce of help their hostages give them against the statues, it's a pound of trouble from Dune and I. They can't afford to let loose with any impressive spells, or they'll destroy their meat shields (and each other) and the homicidal stonework will finish them off. And keeping the hostages means keeping their distance. But we're good enough to take them out without risking the hostages – already two are down, a slim blade protruding from the eye of one, and an arrow from the heart of another. So really, the fact that the statues can't do much about them isn't much of an advantage.

The moblins make just about the only choice they can make, which is that maybe they're better off if everybody's running around screaming their heads off and complicating the whole situation. At a shout from one, they release their hostages with a shove. The hostages do what non-combattants usually do in combat situations – panic.

A few of the moblins cast a spell, and there's a flash around each of their allies. Some kind of augmentation – nothing the Master Blade cares about, though it'll give Dune some trouble. The statues can't move in right away, they're too big and there are still too many bystanders, but you can see they're just itching to get in there.

Doesn't stop me, though.

I throw myself at the closest moblin and it meets my blade with its own. Whatever advantage I gained from the surprise of my arrival and the general confusion around us is lost now. Three of them gang up on me and it's suddenly all I can do to retreat behind my shield to fend off their attack. They're faster than the big ones too, and that was before they got all hopped on magical augmentation.

"Dune!" I call as they drive me back toward the centre of the room. She's badly injured – was before the fight started – but my opponents aren't letting me through to back her up.

"I've got it, Link! Worry about the others!"

I'm about to argue with her – because no she damn well doesn't – when a giant stone arrow destroy one of the moblins facing her.

Okay.

Maybe I'm in more trouble than she is.

I pull a risky feint and manage to sink the Master Sword into the chest of one of the moblins, but I trade my blow for one of theirs. A curved blade slices across my back and it belatedly occurs to me to hope their weapons aren't poisoned. The slash draws a gasp from my lips and I stumble one way, but the moblin I just killed falls the other with my sword stuck in its rib cage. I lose both my grip on the ancient blade and my balance. I topple sideways, just barely getting my shield up in time to block the next blow. And the next. And the one after that. I have a brief, panicky flashback to Nobernal, pounding on my shield like rage incarnate.

If I were in the Dark World the Beast would be roaring its way to the forefront right about now, tearing these moblins limb from limb. It's the suspicious absence of my own rage incarnate that breaks the flashback. It's a cold comfort, maybe, but at least I know that if I'm going to die here, I'll die as myself. And I'll do it on home soil, not stuck in a pit in the Dark World.

The moblin raises its blade for one last strike – I know I won't be able to keep the shield up for another – but there's a yell from somewhere behind it. The sound is distinguishable from the din of the only because of its sheer impossibility. It's an angry, terrified, high-pitched battle cry with absolutely no business being shouted anywhere but in the safety of the Lost Woods. And yet the moblin falls away from my shield with a startled grunt. I get a glimpse of a tiny set of freckled hands wrapped in a death grip around its throat, and a set of bright white teeth buried in a long moblin ear.

Farore. It's Mido.

I scramble to my feet. "Mido!" I shout. The third moblin is running up behind him, blade out, and he doesn't see it. "Mido let go!" I snarl the command, a pitch perfect imitation of Bruiser's authoritative growl.

There's a moment, brief and breathless, where I'm afraid he didn't hear me. And I'm convinced that for all my promises I'm going to be bringing him home in pieces. But at the last possible second he does as I say. He releases the moblin and falls with an 'oof' to the ground.

The third moblin is moving too quickly to correct its trajectory now. It stumbles over the unexpected Kokiri speed bump and buries its sword in its friend's back. It actually looks genuinely surprised by this turn of events, and if my heart wasn't beating a hundred thousand miles a minute I might take the time to be amused. But I lunge toward it instead, tearing the Master Sword from the moblin it's stuck in as I go. The friendly-firing moblin doesn't even have time to recover before I'm on it. It goes down beside its buddy with a gurgling shriek.

I wait a split second to make sure neither one of them is getting up again before I turn back to Mido. He's got his hands on his knees, and is doubled over, shaking like a leaf. He's struggling to breathe through his panic. There's moblin blood all over him, smeared on his teeth and around his mouth. He'd look feral if not for the intense fear in his eyes. He meets my stunned gaze with an expression that is screaming for me, as a responsible adult, to just do my job and make it all better. My heart breaks for him.

Before I can ask him if he's all right, there's a scream from behind us and we both turn at the sound.

"Marni!" we cry simultaneously. My surprise that he knows her costs me, because he's off like a shot the next instant. "Mido wait!" I gasp. I feel like an old man as I chase him. There's something disturbing about how familiar this activity is – he and I in a race he started before I was ready. If it weren't for the screaming and the monsters and the chaos I could almost believe he'll turn around and shout out that a real Kokiri wouldn't have any trouble keeping up with him.

But these aren't the Woods, and neither one of us is playing.

Marni is curled into a ball on the ground, shielding another little boy with her body, as the moblin I threw off Dune when I first exited the hallway brings its sword down.

Mido gets there before me – his legs are short, but he's not weighed down by sword and shield, or slowed by a gash across his back. He tucks his chin against his chest and throws his whole body at the back of the moblin's legs. It gives a startled shout and drops its sword as it falls backward. The blade slices across Marni's side, but I don't think she even notices. Her eyes are closed, one hand buried in the other little boy's shirt. "Farore deliver me to the dawn," she continues to sob frantically. "Din deny the dark this soul!"

"Marni!" gasps the boy underneath her desperately. "Marni let me up! Mido!"

"I've got him," I yell, but it turns out to be a lie. I dash carelessly past a moblin I thought I had killed earlier, but it turns out I wasn't as thorough as I should have been. It grabs my ankle as I run past and I hit the ground, several feet too short to help Mido. I swear furiously and twist to kick at its hand, but it's already too late and I know it.

The other moblin has wrenched itself around and dragged Mido across the blood stained floor. It's got its hands wrapped around his throat in a rage. "Mido!" I yell. "Mido!"

I kick the moblin holding me viciously in the face, shattering what I hope is more than just its nose, then twist and drive my hand down into my pouch. Can't get to my feet, it'll take too long. Can't crawl over, I won't make it. Marni's trying to untangle herself from the boy under her, but they won't be in time either. Nothing more I can do but this – it burns me. It burns me to do it. It's wrong the way the Dark World is wrong. But I'm out of time, and he's out of options.

I haul the first sword I ever held from the pouch – it's barely more than a knife in my hands now. It's small and light, but straight and sharp and took good care of me until I found my real sword. They called it the Kokiri Sword, but it was never meant for a Kokiri. It was meant for me. A part of me knows that by putting it in Mido's hand I'm dooming him. I don't know how, or why, but it's true just the same.

I send it skittering across the floor towards him and meet his eyes as they struggle to focus on mine.

He understands. He reaches out with a hand, fingers scraping at the stone as he gasps and chokes and writhes. I'm pushing myself to my feet, to avenge him if I have to, but his fingers close at last around the hilt. He brings it up with every last shred of strength a terrified eleven-year-old can muster. That close he can't miss. Not even with his vision going black. The force of the strike drives the little blade deep into the moblin's eye, right up to the hilt.

It shudders violently and jerks backwards. The other little boy is there – must be Cota, he looks too much like Marni not to be. He grabs Mido's tunic and drags him desperately out of the way of the moblin as it topples over. I'm at their side the next instant, and I've got them both by their collars as I haul them back over to Marni and away from the spasming moblin.

Marni grabs her brother and I snatch Mido, turning his face away from the corpse. He struggles in my grip. "Link," he says, his voice so hoarse my own hurts in sympathy. "Link take me back there. Please."

"Mido, you don't want to see that," I say seriously. "You're okay, forget about—."

"Take me back!" he insists. "It has something. I have to…the ink, Link. I have to free it." He points weakly.

I don't know what to say. I should be playing Saria's song right now, but it feels cruel to deny him anything. I don't want him to look at the corpse. The moblin he killed. But he shoves at me until I put him down. He stumbles unsteadily over to the moblin – it makes him shake to look at it – and pulls at its cloak. The material is stuck underneath the corpse, so I move over to help him drag it free of the body and he fumbles at a pocket on the inside of it. I shift my weight nervously. "Mido, be careful, you don't know what's—agh!"

A painfully bright light explodes from the pocket as Mido withdraws his hand, prompting gasps from everyone near me, and uniting the cacophony of the battle beyond us into a single, startled shout. Then I hear the sound of glass shattering as Mido hurls the bottle away. The light is gone in an instant, and I have just enough time to grab Mido and curl myself around him before the inky blackness that was apparently buried somewhere in that glass jar explodes outwards. The torchlight is consumed, instantly. Even the light from the stone guardians' eyes vanishes with a sound like a sigh.

People start to scream, but then they cut themselves off or are cut off. The moblins, though. The moblins start screaming in earnest. It's a particularly terrifying sound. I can feel Mido clamp his hands over his ears and I would do the same if I didn't need them to keep him shielded.

Then, as suddenly as it began, it's over. The torchlight flickers back into existence. The stone guardians blink around the room with their glowing eyes, searching for the invaders. But the invaders are dead. Every last one of them. The people left in the room turn questioning, frightened eyes on each other, and Dune startles them all when she begins to laugh, nearly hysterical.

"Impa," she says by way of explanation, but of course no one understands her except for me. The stone guardians turn and move away from the chamber, following the wave of shadow in search of more invaders to crush.

Well. That's one problem down I guess.

I uncurl slowly from around Mido, but he doesn't struggle this time, or seem inclined to climb down from my arms. He keeps his hands pressed over his ears, and buries his face in my tunic. Then he bursts into tears. "It's everywhere," he sobs. "It won't go away. I can hear it."

"Hear what?" I ask, startled.

"It's not whispering anymore," he sobs. "It's so loud! I can't stand it! Make it stop, Link!"

I lean back to try to get a better look at him, but my hand clatters against the hilt of the bloody Kokiri Sword. I stare at it for a long moment, then turn back to him.

"Link, please," he whimpers.

The realization hits me hard and takes all the air from my lungs. I hug him tighter as my heart shatters.

"I don't think I can, Mido," I tell him hoarsely. "I'm so sorry."

There are some things even I can't put back together.

xxx

A few hours later we've been rounded up and corralled into a room. They found Hunter and Neesha down in the well, trying to figure out a way to blow the hole without bombs. Hunter sits beside me, elbowing me in the side if he thinks I'm about to nod off. We gave up on Neesha an hour ago. She's got her head on her arms on the table, passed out. Impa is sitting across from us looking tired and drawn, with a clear migraine behind her eyes, but from what I understand, the fact the she is walking and talking is a cause for celebration. Dune was hurt badly enough she got a healing potion, so she's looking much better than she had been previously. Darunia and Karun are on the other side of the table from the Sheikah and appear generally unharmed.

"…and those," I say finishing up my long and sordid tale, "are the highlights of our tropical vacation in Hell."

"That Zelda is alive bodes well for the rebellion in Castletown," Impa says, dark eyes considering. "If we had proof of it."

"You've got the word of a kidnapper and murderer already convicted in the court of public opinion," I tell her. "Sorry."

A brief smile plays at the corner of her lips. "The court of public opinion is a fickle institution. I believe the Eldricks built you up to be something of a martyr when they were fanning the flames in Castletown. You should now find yourself placed upon a higher pedestal than you were even previously."

"The Eldricks?" I demand, balking. "Why would they do that?"

"You were the perfect option," Hunter says, nodding approvingly. "Hero of Time, maligned and betrayed by the same nobles they took issue with. And they probably figured you were dead, so bonus. They look good for beatifying you, can play up the regret of not having treated you better while you lived for sympathy points, and don't have to actually worry about ever making good on any of it."

I take all that in, then make a face at him. "Stop being good at that, it makes me hate you."

"Stop being bad at it, and I wouldn't have to compensate."

"I cannot decide," Darunia says, off in his own little world, "whether this was a victory or a loss." He holds out one massive hand. "The Sage of Shadow and the Hero of Time both are restored to us, the moblin invaders destroyed handily, and news of closed portals all in a single battle." Then he holds out the other hand. "But we were fooled into locking ourselves into these caverns with our enemy among us, and we did not escape without casualties. Most of them those we swore to protect."

"Would have been more if Dune hadn't summoned the guardians and that boy hadn't freed me," Impa says. "It was a victory, Big Brother. Let's leave it at that."

"There have certainly been few enough of them," Karun agrees with a nod.

"I'm not restored to you for long," I remind them. "Not until I've got your son and the others and brought them home again."

Impa drums her fingers on the table. "We could use you," she says, "but there is no one else to rescue the maidens, and we cannot leave those portals open. Have you told Nabooru?"

"Yeah," I say, "but we haven't actually discussed it at length, yet."

"How long are you staying?" Dune asks.

I exchange a look with Hunter and sigh heavily. "Tonight," I say. "We need sleep. Badly. Tomorrow we'll head back to the desert and get Sahasrahla to explain to me how to work the mirror. And then if we can get back, we go back."

"You should take a few days," Darunia says, eyes concerned. "Rest. No offence, but I can see the strain on your faces and in your eyes. As much as it pains me to suggest leaving my boy in there any longer, as you've said, he's safe. Protected. You are not. And you'll need your strength."

Hunter clears his throat in a pained way. "The problem is the longer we stay here, the less we want to go back," he says. "It'll be better now, with the Moon Pearl. But it's honestly…it's not anything…these have not been a good few weeks."

"Besides," I add, "a few more days means time for the moblins to redistribute their forces to the remaining portals. I'd rather get them shut down before that happens. The advantage we have right now won't last forever." Dun opens her mouth to argue, but I cut her off with a wave. "Can I make a request?" I say. "We've filled you in on what happened while we were gone, can we talk about what happens next tomorrow? I haven't slept in what feels like a year, today I watched a little boy who is also an old friend of mine go through something so traumatic I can't even explain it to you, and tomorrow I have to do whatever it takes to find a way to drag myself back to what is very literally Hell and submit myself to its clutches once more. I don't have a strategic discussion in me right now, I just don't. I need to find a corner to pass out in."

Hunter nods his agreement from beside me.

Impa frowns – because priorities you children – but Darunia and Dune both wave us off. I push my chair back from the table and get to my feet. Hunter rises with me, kicking Neesha on the way.

She wakes up with a snort, stares around at the table a little wildly, then gets to her feet as well. "Where are we going?" she demands, voice groggy.

"To bed," I tell her. I glance at the gathered Sages and Generals. "I've got a lot of travelling to do tomorrow. We can finish this discussion over breakfast, and if you've got any messages you want ported around give them to me then."

We yawn our goodnights and head out into the hall.

Hunter waits until we're away from the door before he raises an eyebrow at me. "You're hiding something," he says. "You didn't just cut that off because you're tired."

I just barely manage to stifle my yawn. "I already know how the conversation going to end and I don't have the energy to handle it right now," I say.

"Enlighten us," he replies.

"We'll talk about what everyone else is going to do, then we'll talk about the Gerudo. Nabooru should have the moblins cleared out by the time we get to the desert tomorrow, and the portal there is closed. Which means they're going to need new marching orders. I'm dropping the two of you off at Castletown tomorrow to get a message to Dad, while I go talk to Nabooru and get everything else set up. We can work out timing tomorrow when I'm capable of doing math."

"What's the message?"

I offer her a grin, fierce despite how badly I need sleep, and her eyes slowly widen as the reality of what I'm planning sinks in. Hunter's, in comparison, narrow.

"This is the worst idea you've ever had," he says dully.

"I know," I say, unnecessarily self-indulgent. "Shame we won't be here to see it play out. It's going to be quite a show."

xxx

At some point in the middle of the night, Marni wakes me to say something about Mido crying and she can't soothe him and he's asking for me. I get up and groggily stumble behind her to her recently upgraded rooms, where I crawl into bed with the sniffling Kokiri without really understanding what's happening. I let him curl up against me and am asleep again before he's even settled.

When I wake up the next morning and stare, bleary eyed around the room, it takes me a minute to remember what happened. And even then I'm not sure I didn't dream it until I spot Mido sitting on a chair on the other side of the room. He's got a borrowed toy soldier in his hands, and is making a listless attempt to play with it. His eyes are red and raw, and he rubs at his ears like they're bothering him, but he seems in better shape than I remember him being last night.

There's something in his eyes, though. Some subtle, nameless difference.

He takes the little soldier's sword between his fingers with an impressively dark expression and snaps it off.

I raise an eyebrow, but I haven't got it in me to scold him for breaking things that aren't his. That's the most like his old self I've seen him since I got here.

I push the blanket back and hang my legs over the edge of the bed. He looks up and meets my eyes and for a moment his lip trembles dangerously, but he manages to steady it. "I don't like swords," he says hoarsely.

"You don't have to," I tell him. "There are lots of people who don't like them."

"I used to want one," he says, looking back down at the toy in his hands. "I used to be so jealous that you got that sword and I didn't." His face twists and he shifts like he's uncomfortable. "I don't feel right. I feel like I'm moving all the time. I hear…I hear…" He pauses to rub at his ear again, and then abandons the difficult descriptor. "I don't…I can't feel Savi." His eyes well up with tears. "Before, I could. I could always…she was there." He bites his lip hard enough that I wince and clenches his hand on the toy, trying to get himself back under control. "Link, what if something happened to her? What if something happened and it's my fault?"

I feel like I've swallowed a ball of lead. I still don't fully understand what the Deku Tree meant about Death finding Mido, but I'm pretty sure whatever it is I failed to save him from it. Worse, I don't understand the consequences. I don't know what it means for Mido in the long term. I didn't think there'd be a long term. I just thought he'd die. And I don't know what it means for a fairy whose partner just lost the biggest game of Hide and Seek ever.

I don't know what to tell him.

But I know who does.

I get to my feet. "Come on," I say. "My ocarina's in my room. Let's get you home."

But his hand tightens around the toy and he pulls his knees up to his chest and shrinks into himself. He shakes his head mutely and I cock my head at him. "Why not?"

"I can't," he says, and turns his face away. Shame colours his cheeks, makes his freckles stand out.

Oh.

"Hey," I say gently, dropping into a crouch in front of him, "don't do that. You haven't done anything wrong."

"I ki—," he tries, but chokes on the word. "I kil—."

"You defended yourself," I correct him sternly. "And your life was only in danger because you were trying to save other people. And you did, Mido. You saved, them all right? Marni, and Cota, and me. None of us would still be here if it weren't for you."

He rubs at his ears and is unable to meet my gaze.

I drum my fingers against my knee, trying to figure out what to say, and how to say it. I mean, what do you say to someone who's too new to understand the blacks and whites and greys of war, but who's basically been thrown into the middle of it anyway?

I don't care how many years he's existed, he's so young. Too young.

As young as I was when they put a sword in my hand and sent me out to fight.

What did I do the first time I killed something? Puked, I'm pretty sure, so he's one up on me already unless Marni took care of that before she called me in. What would I have wanted to hear? If Navi hadn't been as new as I was, what would I have wanted her to say?

"Mido, look at me," I say, and wait until he does. "I want you to understand two things, okay?" I wait for his pathetic nod. "First," I hold up a finger, "you killed somebody, and no matter how good your reasons were that's never going to change. You can't unkill them. It's done, you did it, and you're going to have to live with that from this point forward." He lowers his eyes and starts to turn away, but I grab his face and keep him focused on me. I hold up the second finger. "I've killed a lot of somebodies in my life. They weren't all moblins. And I haven't always had as good a reason as you did. It's not always easy to live with that, but I manage." My face softens. "I've got a lot of fathers, too, and not one of them has ever stopped loving me because of it. Even when I didn't have good reasons. Even when I screwed up. And that includes the Deku Tree. He won't hate you, Mido. But he needs to know that you're okay."

His eyes well up with tears and there's no stopping them this time. "But I'm not okay."

I pull him into a hug. "He needs to know that too," I tell him.

I wait until he's calmed down before I pull back and consider him closely for a moment. He wipes his eyes, and avoids my gaze, but finally he nods reluctantly and slides down off the seat. I take his hand and call out to Marni that I've got him, don't panic, and we head back to the room I'm currently sharing with Hunter.

The Sheikah opens his mouth to ask me where I've been, but shuts it immediately when he spots the kid. His expression shifts into a wordless question.

I shake my head at him in a wordless answer. "I'm taking him home," I say. And give him a look that says I'll know more then. "Shouldn't be long. I'll meet you and Neesha in the common room for breakfast."

"K," he says.

It takes me all of a minute to get dressed and dig my ocarina out of my pouch. "Ready?" I ask Mido. He nods mutely, his face a mask of dread. He clings to the edge of my tunic as Saria's Song dances out of the flute. When the whirl of green light fades we're standing at the Forest Temple.

Mido sniffles and wipes his nose on his sleeve. He stares around like he's forgotten what home looked like in the few weeks he's been gone. "I wish Saria were here," he manages in a tiny voice.

"Me too," I tell him. "But I know she's safe for now, and I'll bring her home soon."

One prodigal Kokiri at a time, kid.

Either the other Kokiri are still in bed, or the Deku Tree is doing his wise, all-seeing, magical deciduous thing, because we don't run into any of them on our way to his glade. I am glad of it, no matter why. I don't think Mido could handle the crowd right now.

Guilt and grief gnaw at my gut as we enter the glade. This isn't the home-coming anybody was hoping for.

"Mido!" calls the Deku Tree, his relief palpable. "Mido, I am so happy you have returned."

"D-Deku Tree," Mido manages. He comes to a stop when I do, half hiding behind my leg, "I,uh. I…um. I didn't…." But his eyes fall on a small figure crawling over the Deku Tree's roots and his breath leaves him in a rush. His eyes go wide, like someone's punched him in the gut, and his hands fly to his mouth in horror. "Savi!" The cry is a sob.

"Mido!" cries the figure in a voice that is nothing like a fairy's. It sounds like a wind chime made of hollow wood. "Mido you're okay! You're okay!" Savi – I guess – toddles over to him. She is…not…a fairy. She's a little shorter than Mido now, but looks like a cross between a crudely made doll and an acorn. A mask made of a broad leaf is pinned to her face, a strange expression cut into it.

Mido can't even talk anymore. He crumples to his knees and buries his face in his hands and just wails. Savi hugs him as best she can in her new form, petting his hair and whispering "Shhhhh!" over and over again.

I leave them to it and approach the Deku Tree.

"I am glad," he says somberly, "thou hast brought him home. When Savi changed, I feared the worst."

I shrug uncomfortably and glance back at the trembling Kokiri. "I'm not sure what shape I brought him back in. I wasn't in time to…he was in the Sheikah Caverns. Moblins invaded. He…saved a lot of people, me included, but…." I hesitate, wince. "I gave him my old sword. It was that, or let him die. I didn't know what else to do."

The Great Deku Tree harooms in understanding. His boughs creak in a sad way, and I force myself to meet his eyes. "I'm sorry," I say.

"He is home," says the Deku Tree. "Thou art both safe. Do not apologize for that."

I swallow thickly and give him a nod. For a moment we watch Savi try to console Mido, and I stir from my thoughts to ask, "what happened to her?"

"Death's touch means many things, takes many forms," says the Deku Tree. He sounds older, closer to the wizened old gnarl of an oak he was when I was Mido's age. "This, Mido understands without being able to express." He shifts, rustles his leaves in a heavy sigh. "A Kokiri is made by twining together something of the world, and something of the Woods. Of the space between spaces, into which death cannot reach. A fairy partner – with one exception – is an expression of this bond, of the piece of the Kokiri that is of the Woods. It is too simple an analogy, but she gives the Kokiri half her essence to bind the two into one.

"When a Kokiri is in the Woods, this bond protects him. But when he is in the world, he cannot hide. The bond is a beacon. Death is an absolute. It is neither betwixt, nor between, and cannot abide either – and the Kokiri are both. Its touch does not always kill, but always it severs and grounds. Most often to the next life. But sometimes, to this one. And there is no turning back."

I lean up against his trunk, trying to follow what he's telling me. A frown stretches my lips. "You're saying…Mido's connection to Savi was severed?" I say slowly.

"Mido's connection to the Woods," the Deku Tree corrects me gravely. "And his connection to Savi along with it. He is no more of the Woods than you are now. And Savi is no longer twined with a partner, but exists as her own entity. What was given freely, has been returned. She is a piece of the Woods, without the world to ground it. But do not frown so, young Hero," he adds gently. "Death is not only absolute, but inevitable. Not even I can avoid it forever, as well you know. He is a brave boy, as brave as you in his way. He will be a brave man when the time comes."

I blink, straighten. "Wait, what?"

The Deku Tree's leaves rustle again. "Death has marked him," he explains. "As you are marked. As all who dwell beyond the Woods are marked. He will always be my son, but will not be a child for much longer."

"You mean, he's…." I stop, think, process that. "He's just a regular kid now. Like everybody else. He'll grow up? Grow old?"

"Aye," sighs the Tree. "And he will need guidance, care. He may stay here, if he wishes, he will always be welcome, but…."

"He won't want to," I finish for him, sagging against his bark. Been there, done that, kept the hat. I think it over for a minute. "I've got some work to do today, before I do anything else. Couple hours at least. Let him catch his breath, think it over. I'll come check in before I start the bigger stuff. It's safer here, but…if he wants to leave I can bring him back to Kakariko. Marni will watch him until the war is over, and then…well…."

He's gonna kill me. He's gonna kill me so bad. But fair is fair. "My dad kind of owes you about eight years' worth of babysitting fees."

"Thank you, Link," says the Deku Tree gratefully. "Whatever his decision, we will be ready when you return."

xxx

"The Council of Sages reconvenes this afternoon," Impa says. I struggle to pay attention to what she's saying, but the bacon and eggs are calling my name so loudly they're practically drowning her out. I haven't had a real breakfast in weeks and the fact that I'm unlikely to have another any time soon means I'm treating this like my last meal. "Darunia and I will brief the others then, and we will make our decisions regarding how we redistribute our troops, given recent developments. With portals down here, in the desert, and at Lake Hylia, we may be able to use our forces more efficiently than we are now."

"With reinforcements, we can push the moblins back, deeper into the mountains," Karun says, watching in amusement as Neesha tries to stab my hand with her fork when I attempt to snatch a piece of toast from her plate. "Maybe even reclaim Goron City. The other portal in this area is buried deep in the stone indeed. Their position here is significantly weaker, and they no longer have a contingent of mages at their disposal."

I swallow my over-abundant mouthful with an effort. "Best to ask the Zora for backup," I tell him. "The Gerudo won't do well in the mountains in winter."

"Can they drive the moblin forces out of the desert on their own?" Impa asks.

I pause with a sausage halfway to my mouth and offer her a fierce grin. "I spoke to Nabooru yesterday, so I imagine they're mopping up the remainder right now. They're angry, frustrated, and have been penned up in that Fortress for weeks. By the time I get out there today, the moblins will be nothing but rent flesh and broken bone."

"You're sure?"

"Nabooru was," I reply. "I gather the skirmishes have been big enough that if the moblins aren't getting reinforcements, there aren't enough of them left to win."

"So where will you send them once the desert is clear?" Karun asks. "If not the mountains. Lake Hylia is under control – and they'd fare worse in the water than the snow anyway. Kakariko is bloodied but secured. There are not many fronts left to this war all of a sudden."

Neesha and Hunter both suddenly become very interested in their breakfasts, and I shove an entire piece of toast in my mouth under the pretence of needing time to think about it.

"There are two," I reply once I've swallowed. "First, there are seven maidens, so there must be seven portals. We only know about five of them. And judging by the layout of the Dark World, and the goddess forsaken symmetry of this sort of thing, you're looking at one in Castletown – which explains the moblins Dad's been fighting – and another somewhere in Hyrule Field."

"If there was a portal in Hyrule Field why aren't they using it?" Dune asks.

"It's not ideal – or wasn't," Impa replies in a tone that means she's clearly considered this before. "By coming in at the edges of Hyrule they are able to claim the lands around the portal and fortify their position to keep the supply of reinforcements flowing. Had they attempted to enter in our midst, we would have found the portal and rendered it useless to them anyway by securing it ourselves."

"But now that they've lost three of their other options…" Karun says. He rumbles unhappily. "I see."

"Exactly," I say. "It'll take them time to redistribute their forces. They'll have to march them across the Dark World to get them to the new location. But the Gerudo will beat them there. They'll secure the area around the portal and pin them in place. They're not going to be getting in that way." I glance at Impa. "They'll need clothes," I tell her. "Winter gear. No Sheikan symbols if you can manage it – they'll be unhappy enough camping in the Field in winter."

"They'll have it," she says after a moment's consideration.

"You said first," Dune notes, eyeing me suspiciously. "What's second?"

"Castletown," I say.

Several eyebrows around the table go up. Impa looks positively unenthused. "That situation is a powder keg," she says sharply. "The addition of Gerudo will not make it any less explosive."

"You know what makes things less explosive?" I respond, giving her a dull look. "Blowing them up. Also, taking off the Hero hat here, and speaking as King of the Gerudo – I'll do what I want and you can't stop me."

She gives me a look that has sent many a Sheikah scurrying to escape it, but I hold my ground. "And were you wearing your Hero hat, what would you say?"

"I'll do what I want and you can't stop me."

We stare each other down for a long, tense moment. "You are making this decision for the good of Hyrule?" she asks at last.

"I am," I promise her. "But I don't want to talk about the details because despite what you all think I have learned something about politics in the last few years. And I can also promise you that everyone around this table will be glad for the plausible deniability when everything's said and done."

"That doesn't make me feel better," Impa says darkly.

"I don't really care," I respond flatly. Hunter gives me a dirty look for being a jerk about it, but there's no point in beating around the bush with Impa.

Besides, breakfast or no breakfast, my morning hasn't exactly been fun so far, and I've got more than a few difficult conversations left to have before I can even think about lunch. So I'd rather just nip this one in the bud. She and I both know how it's going to end anyway, and as much as it burns her she knows she's better off not having the details.

We stare each other down. "Hunter's got your messages for Brayden, and I'll fill Nabooru in before the Council meets this afternoon. If there's nothing else, I think now's a good time for us to head out."

"I'm not done eating!" Neesha growls, but Hunter jabs her in the side. She slouches in her seat and crosses her arms across her chest sulkily. "Throw me out into the goddess damned snow on half a goddess damned breakfast. I literally haven't eaten in like a month, you know."

"Will you return to Kakariko before you leave?" Impa asks.

"Not a guarantee," I say, "but I expect to, yes."

"Fine," she says. "Good luck and be careful."

"Likewise," I say with a nod. Hunter and Neesha get to their feet and I pull my ocarina free of my pouch.

I'm sure the conversation gets lively immediately after we're gone.

We land at the Temple of Time and I shiver in the cold air. A deep pang of homesickness rings hollowly in my heart. Right now I'd give just about anything to head over to the Archery Shop and just sit for a while, but it's not like Bruiser's there to harangue at me about taking off my boots before I track water all over the floor and he supposes I expect to be fed and if I'm staying for any length of time I'm taking a shift at the register like everybody else.

The other two look like they're having similar thoughts, but none of us have time to dwell. I clear my throat. "Two hours," I tell them. "Be back here waiting. If you need to send someone else, give them the password Anduriel."

"Got it," Hunter says. "Any message for your dad?"

I think about it. "Tell him he's old."

He grins. "Got it."

And then they're out into the snow and the shadows, following Mido's directions to Dad's hideout, and I'm teleporting away again before I trip any magical alarms that may be up.

I don't really have time to worry about them, as much as I want to. I just don't get the chance. A moment later the chill has disappeared entirely from the air, replaced with a blistering heat, and I'm staring at a pack of Gerudo elite. They are smiling or scowling or looking startled, but they're all teeth when they see me – makes me think of the Dark World Gerudo, but these are a different kind of pack. They're on their feet in an instant, bowing or laughing or pulling me in to punch me. Amplissa – has to be her, no one else would dare – leaps on my back and drives me down, face-first into the sand. A laugh bubbles up from my chest and out into the air, and the sound of it warms me in an unexpected way. It's been so long since I had something to laugh about.

I wrestle with Amplissa for a moment, but it's an easy fight. She's sporting some semi-serious injuries and hasn't got the strength to take me right now. She ducks her head grudgingly once I pin her, then sneaks in a cheap shot to my gut when I let her go. "I'll get you back when I've healed."

I meet her eyes and grin. "Twenty rupees says you don't."

"So the King has finally graced us once again with his presence," says a sour voice from the back of the group. The women part to reveal Nabooru. Her eyes are hard. "The moblins are dead. The Desert is cleansed, as instructed," she reports. "Now you're going to run that thing by me again. That thing where you intend to go back to whatever Hell put that ice in your eyes."

"It's a long story," I say.

"Tell it on the road."

"Can't," I tell her, and fold my legs under myself to make it clear I have no intentions of moving. "I have to wait here for a couple hours."

She stares at me and heaves a sigh from the very depths of her soul – and she's the Sage of Spirit. It's a deep soul. "Why?" she manages.

"Dropped Hunter and Neesha off at Castletown to deliver a message. Rendezvous in two hours. I'll pick them up and bring them back here. Then we can go home. I need to talk to Sahasrahla. Also, do you have anything to eat? I'm starving."

"We have—," starts one of the new faces. The Elite have clearly taken casualties since I left, which sobers me up considerably. I know better than to ask now, though. That's a private question, for later. The Gerudo don't mourn publicly – it's disrespectful. But I don't have the kind of control they do. Best I don't know the names until later.

Nabooru cuts the newbie off. "He can have leevers," she says. And curls her lip just a little bit at me.

"You know what?" I say. "Fine. At least I know it was never a person."

"What?" Amplissa says, staring at me blankly.

"Like I said, long story." I move over to the shade of the Temple wall and drop to the ground against it. "I'll give you the highlights, but then we talk business. Deal?"

"Deal," Nabooru says.

So food is handed out and I run them down the quick version of what happened after I left the Fortress chasing Neesha what feels like a lifetime ago. Even the quick version takes me almost the full two hours. In between incredulous interruptions and disbelieving questions, plus my own reluctance at certain points, I'm surprised I get it out at all. The newer, younger women stare at me like I've got two heads and probably wonder exactly what they've signed on to. It's only the willingness of the veteran elite to buy my story that keeps them from washing their hands of me entirely.

"A rabbit," Amplissa says flatly once I'm finished, face horrified.

"A pink one," I clarify. It's a testament to how much I missed these women that I am willing to give them this kind of ammo. "I went over that, like, thirty minutes ago. We're past that part now."

"I'm still stuck on it."

"Right."

"I'm going to be stuck on it forever. The King of the Gerudo turned into a damn rabbit."

"A pink one," I remind her.

"I remember Ciardi," Nabooru says, a frown playing on her face. "Hard woman. Ambitious. Heart so cold it burned, even then. Some of the other names are familiar, but you'll have to talk to Rue. Most of us were too young when they left."

"I remember Anahti," Indiga says. "Wild one, her. Came close to exile more than once. The others…I knew because they were Elite. Face and names, though. Reputation. Not the women themselves."

"If I can find some way to get them home I will," I say. "Wild or not. But I don't know enough yet to make promises. There's still too many ways this could all play out."

"You still intend to go back," Nabooru says with a frown. "After all that?"

I raise an eyebrow at her. "After all that, how could I not?" I demand.

"A rabbit," says Amplissa again. She crinkles her nose. "We can't hang out anymore."

"I will miss your company," I tell her. "But given how many times this rabbit has kicked your ass, maybe I agree you might want more appropriate company. A mouse, perhaps. Or a flea."

"I will cook you," she says with the closest thing to affection a Gerudo can muster, "and turn you into a stew."

"I will be delicious," I assure her. "You're an excellent cook."

"Wear your ear as a good luck charm. I hear the Hylians do that."

"Foot actually," I correct her.

"So," Nabooru interrupts. "Business, then." The younger ladies are staring at us in a way I can only describe as agog. Doubtless, they expected more formality when addressing the King. More dignity. I offer them a wide, wolfish grin. This bunch will be fun, I think. New Elite always are.

"Right," I say. "Business. If you're sure the moblins have been put down for good, then I need a good sized force moved into Hyrule Field."

"And then into a hot spring, naturally," Indiga notes with a raised eyebrow.

I shrug a shoulder apologetically at her. "No," I say. "Into the snow and the wind. You're looking for a portal, like the one here. It's still active, and with so many of the others shut down, the moblins will be looking to make use of it. I want you to get there first and make every single one of them that steps out of it regret the day they were born."

"Highness," says one of the newer ladies.

Amplissa snorts. "Here we go," she says. I raise an eyebrow at her, but she just rolls her eyes.

"Why would we leave the desert when we've just secured it?" the new one says. Her cheeks darken at Amplissa's scorn, but she's stubborn. I know I've seen her face before, but I can't remember her name. "Our oaths are to protect these lands. Not the Hylian lands."

I meet and hold her gaze for a long moment. Until she shifts uncomfortably and looks away. "There are no Hylian lands," I say finally. "There are no Goron lands. There are no Sheikah lands, no Zora lands, no Gerudo lands. None." She looks back up at me in surprise, and a few of the others do as well. "There is Hyrule. And to turn our back on that is to break our oaths, no matter how cleverly the argument is built. Twisting the words to suit your own purpose is beneath you." The words are harsh, but my tone is gentle. Amplissa starts to snort, but I turn a vicious glare on her and she chokes it back down. I turn back to the woman who asked the question and she meets me gaze evenly, despite the blush that's spread from her cheeks to the rest of her face and down her neck. "What's your name?"

"Nidiza," she says.

The name places her more firmly in my mind. "You were a green, weren't you?" I say. The fact that I remember her takes some of the sting out of my previous rebuke.

"Yes, highness," she says.

"Link, thanks," I correct her. Which is hopeless, especially if she was a green, but I have to try. "Listen, a lot of you are new." I direct my gaze broader, taking in the whole group. "You don't know me well yet, but you will. I want you to speak your minds to me. Always. But I'm making it clear right here, and right now, that no matter what's happened in the past, the people of Hyrule are not our enemies. And we are people of Hyrule. Our protection extends to them."

Now Amplissa does snort. "They need it," she says. "They're like helpless baby keese, crawling around blind and crying for milk."

"Aye," says Nabooru. "They need it." She turns her gaze back to me. "What are you thinking? There's got to be more to this than just the portal."

The seriousness leaves my expression, and it melts back into something entirely too mischievous for anyone's good. "Castletown's been taken over by usurpers and moblin mages," I say. "My father is running a rebellion as best he can, but he's only got a handful of people, and none of them real fighters. The Sheikah and Goron are still reeling from the attack on the Caverns. The Zora are still cleaning up Lake Hylia – it will take time, even with the portal closed. Nothing short of a miracle is going to clear those monsters out of the lake in time for them to come take Castletown back. And they're a different sort of force, besides. So it falls to us."

Nidiza shifts her weight and clears her throat. "I…heard what you said, highness. Link. Highness. But I…if the Hylians couldn't keep it, by what right do they deserve it?"

"Technically the Hylians still have it," Nabooru notes. "It's a civil war. The King means for us to choose a side."

"Which side?" Nidiza asked.

"His pretty little princess' side, of course," Indiga says.

"It's her throne," I say with a shrug. "Her father's dead," – and how am I going to tell her that? –"Zelda's Queen now, not Princess. It was treachery that sent her to the Dark World, treachery that killed her father, and treachery that sat a traitor on her throne. A traitor," I add significantly, "who handed me over to Agahnim and left me stranded in the Dark World."

"As a rabbit."

"Shut up, Amplissa."

"It does explain those giant pointy ears of yours."

"The grown ups are talking. Shut up."

"Fine," she said with a dramatic sigh. "So we'll form a rescue party and go save your pointy-eared friends from their own ineptitude." The others grumble in a disgruntled fashion, but voice no more arguments.

My half-smile turns into a full-blown grin, ear to ear, with as much violence as glee in it. "Now, now," I say smugly, "who said anything about rescue?"

As one the Gerudo turn to face me, startled. "If not…rescue…," Amplissa starts, then she gasps. Her eyes go as wide and enchanted as a kid's on Solstice, and she actually claps her hands over her mouth to hold in her surprise. It would be adorable if she didn't know forty-two ways to kill me where I sit. "No!" she says from behind her fingers. "Link! No! Seriously? Are you serious?"

"What?" says Nidiza. "What do you mean no rescue? I thought—"

"Kid," says Nabooru darkly, but there is a hint of excitement in her eyes, "you'd better not be getting our hopes up for nothing."

"Nidiza's right," I say. "The Hylians couldn't keep the throne. And if we just walked in there and gave it back to them, they'd lose it again. Without Zelda there to keep them in line, and the Sheikah busy elsewhere, the civil war would continue unabated. And once we've taken out the moblins, there's nothing to keep it from turning into an even bigger bloodbath. No. We absolutely cannot give the throne back to the Hylians. Not right now."

"And who, exactly, would we give it to?" Indiga asks, though it's clear by her face that she already knows the answer.

"Isn't it obvious?" I reply. "We're keeping it for ourselves."

xxx

A Brief Interlude

"Pathetic," sneered Eldrick, watching Brayden retreat from the planning room with his nephew in tow. The sudden appearance of two of his missing family members – and the news that his son was alive – had been more than the overwrought man could take. He was completely undone by his emotions. It was embarrassing.

"Hey, Eldrick," said a flat voice from immediately to his right. He turned to see who spoke, but the next instant something very hard slammed into his stomach and he was forced to double over as all the air left his lungs. "Watch who's in earshot when you decide to make snide comments. Idiot."

It took him a minute for his eyes to regain their focus, and when they did he became aware of the woman in front of him. It was not immediately obvious under all of the layers of winter clothing, but between the growing bruise on his stomach, the flash of a dark cheek beneath the scarf, and the hard, glittering, disdainful eyes he remembered better than he liked to admit, it wasn't hard to realize who he was talking to.

"It is a sad creature who takes advantage of a man who is in a bad spot," he said hoarsely as he straightened. He glared at her. "If things were as they should be, I would have you hauled off to jail for daring to strike me."

"If things were as they should be," she said sweetly, "there wouldn't be some poor horse out there wandering around without its backside. And if you think this is a bad spot, you just need perspective. Try spending a day where I just came from. I'll show you a bad spot."

"Yes, well," he said with a sneer, "better a sewer than out in the desert with the savage—oof!"

She hit him again. "I wasn't talking about the desert," she said, a dangerous edge to her voice. She threaded her dark fingers into his hair to hold him in place before he could straighten. Then, almost casually, brought her knee up into his face and sent him toppling over onto the ground, clutching at his bloodied nose and gasping.

"You are lucky," she said, voice very close to trembling with rage, "that the freckled little brat explained how much Brayden needs you, or I would kill you where you stand for that little stunt you pulled with Durnam." He opened his mouth to respond, but she grabbed the front of his jacket and dragged him to his feet before he could. The sudden motion caused him to gasp in pain, but she couldn't have cared less. She dragged his pretty, bloody face close enough to hers that she could have bitten him. She showed him all her teeth to make her point clear. "And I don't promise I won't when this is all over."

"You can't threaten me!" he growled, and tried to pull away.

But her grip was iron. She didn't respond verbally. Just reached out with her free hand to run her finger across his cheek, gathering some of the blood, then licked it off her finger. She shoved him away from her with a snort.

"Savage," he snarled, staggering back against the table. "Is that a message from your master?"

"I have no master," she retorted.

"Your King, then," he snapped. "Did he send you here to bully and threaten me?"

"No," she said flatly. "He would have told me to leave you alone. But I wanted to make sure things were clear between us. So, Lord Eldrick, are we clear?"

He drew a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to his face, trying to stem the flow of blood. "Crystal," he said icily. "Touch me again and I'll have you killed."

She laughed without responding, the sound hard and amused and altogether more painful than anything she'd done to him prior. "I do have a message from the King, though," she said, grinning viciously. "Hunter's probably giving it to Brayden now, but I made him swear I could be the one to tell you."

"Out with it," Eldrick snapped, "so I can be free of you, wretched woman."

"You'll get the military support you need," she said, and he didn't like the glint in her eye. "The Gerudo ride with the sun tomorrow. A small contingent will be sent here to deal with the moblins and restore order in Castletown."

It burned him, but he drew himself up to his full height, and lowered the bloody handkerchief. "Fine," he snapped. "If we can't have real soldiers, I suppose mercenaries will do."

"They're not mercenaries," Neesha said, her smile widening.

"Oh?" Eldrick replied, angered by whatever game she was playing. Something in her expression made him think of what Durnam had told him, the last time he'd spoken to the old fool. Something about who would conquer whom.

"They're an invading army," she clarified, clearly relishing the news. "And you're going to open the gates for them."

"Dorian! Your face!" Renaud gasped, coming into the room. He hurried past the Gerudo to his young master, grabbing his chin to look at the wound. But Eldrick didn't look at him, he kept his eyes fixed on the red-haired woman and hated every single thing about her until he was sure she would burst into flames from the heat of it.

But she didn't. She just laughed at him one last time, and then moved to join the rest of her foul family in the next room.

"Tsk," said Renaud, oblivious, or pretending to be, to what had transpired. "The nose is broken, Dorian. I'll do what I can to restore it, but it won't be what it was."

He clenched his hand around the bloodied kerchief and swore to himself that he would kill her. Whatever it took, he would destroy the wretch.

xxx

Chapter 25 (cont)

"Right in the face," she says, for like the thousandth time. I shouldn't be encouraging her, I really shouldn't, but I'm honestly not tired of this story yet.

"Did you seriously break his nose?" I demand.

"I broke something," she says gleefully.

"Not that I'm saying he doesn't deserve it," Hunter notes, sitting as far away from us as possible because he'd rather not be associated right now, "but you understand we're going to pay for that later."

"No, I'm going to kill him later," Neesha corrects him.

Hunter gives her a dull look. "He was technically on your side in that whole mess, in case you've forgotten that inconvenient little detail."

"I'm sorry," she says acidly, "I didn't see you putting on a dress and having to be leered at for the better part of an hour. This isn't about sides."

Hunter, wisely, steps out of the argument entirely.

"Did he cry?" I demand.

"He wanted to," she answers.

"What does this boy look like?" Amplissa asks curiously.

Hunter gives me a pleading look and I roll my eyes, but step in before this escalates. "Hey," I say, pointing at her, "you promised you'd keep things under control if I let you lead the invasion force."

"What, exactly, are you accusing me of?" she demands, raising an eyebrow. "I asked what he looks like, not what his weaknesses are. Haven't seen the little spitfire this excited over a broken nose since she busted Noni's when she was ten. I'd like to meet him."

"Noni had it coming," Neesha notes defensively. "She snitched. And you don't know what this jackass is like, okay? I've wanted to do that for years. And he finally gave me an excuse that nobody—," here a significant look at Hunter, "—could fault me for. Guy sold me to my biggest enemy. I'm not joking about killing him later."

"Why didn't you kill him then?" Nabooru demands, prompting a scandalized look from Hunter.

"Hey!" I cut in again. "He's a jackass, but Dad needs him, all right? New rule, nobody kill anybody working for my Dad."

"Just a question, Highness," Nabooru says neutrally.

Neesha shrugs. "Like he said, Brayden needs him. If he lives through his stupid civil war, then I'll kill him."

"Unusually strategic of you," Amplissa says, as neutral as Nabooru. Several flags go up in my brain and I frown suspiciously at them. Something's over my head here and I'm not sure I like it.

Neesha responds with vastly less neutrality. "I'm not an idiot," she snaps. "If I'd killed him that rebellion falls apart and there'd be no one to open the gates for you when you get there."

"Because we care so very much about locked doors here in the desert," Amplissa replies, her lips curled into an amused grin.

"Fifty," says Nabooru, before Neesha can respond.

"Fool's bet."

"Dates then."

"I'll arbitrate a pool," Indiga pipes up. "See me after to lay your wagers – Amplissa, make sure your team knows to find me before they leave."

"Wait, what are we betting on?" I demand. "And since when do you arbitrate pools? Where's Aliza?"

"No Kings allowed," Indiga says flatly.

"What?! Why am I not allowed to bet?"

"Too much influence, you could sway the outcome."

I narrow my eyes at her. "Fine, then Hunter can lay a bet for me on whatever it is."

"I don't believe I know any women named Hunter," Indiga notes with a raised eyebrow.

"Hey!" Nabooru snaps at me. "Stop messing with the Arbiter! Not even in the pool and you're trying to cheat."

"I'm not cheating!"

"Just let it go, Highness."

"But what are you betting on?"

"Probably whether and when I kill Eldrick," Neesha says.

"I thought we just agreed not to kill Eldrick," I say. "I thought there was a rule about that now."

"Only for as long as he works for your Dad," Neesha reminds me cheerily.

"Who are we killing?" asks a mild – male – voice from the door. I turn and meet a pair of bright old eyes.

"Sahasrahla!" I say, getting to my feet. He holds out his hand to shake mine in greeting, but I drag him into a quick hug instead. I give him a hopeful look when I pull back. "We found your moon pearl, can I keep it? Please?"

"I found your moon pearl," Neesha corrects me.

"You stole his moon pearl," Hunter corrects her. "And you were going to sell it."

"To buy you solstice presents, why do I get no credit for this?"

Sahasrahla snorts. "I imagine you have far more need of it than I," he says. "Take as long as you wish, Hero."

"Where's Rue?" I ask. "I thought she was coming."

"Ah," says Sahasrahla, "well, it seems our mutual apprentice – I believe he's a friend of yours, Thomas of the Sheikah – felt the need to sit this one out." He shoots a sidelong glance at Hunter, who politely ignores it. "I believe she took issue with the fact that he thought he could simply sit anything out here at the Fortress, and so resolved to ensure his time was used productively, whether he came here or not. She does, however, wish to speak with you, Link, before you leave the Fortress. To, ah, update you. On certain events since you have left."

That sobers me up quickly. I cast a glance at Amplissa, but she won't meet my eyes.

Oh. That's why Indiga is arbitrating the betting pool instead of Aliza.

Oh.

"Right," I say, the wind gone from my sails in a heartbeat. "Sure. I'll go find her when we're done here." I gesture for him to take a seat at the table and then reclaim my own. "Did anyone fill you in?" Please, oh please let them have filled him in. I don't have it in me to tell the whole story again.

"Highlights," he says with a wry grin. "I think I've got the gist of it. They…mentioned you met Anduriel…."

"Yeah," I say. "I'm sure she would have asked me to say hi if she'd known I was coming back, but…this whole side trip to Hyrule was more or less unscheduled."

"I saw her, at one point, when we scried the mirror." His face is sad, his eyes distant. "The transition has not been kind to her."

"She's in rough shape," I confirm, "but she's hanging in there. Saved my butt more than once and probably will again before all is said and done." I hesitate. "The others, though…Ganon's got them. They're not…what they were."

"No," he says heavily, "I don't imagine they would be. They're tied too tightly to that realm. What it is, they are."

"Do you know anything about the others?" Hunter asks. "I know some of the lore, but I only know some of the names, and it's not always clear which they're talking about. It might…if we're going to have to fight the others, it would help to know something about them before we get in there. Avoid a repeat of some of our previous mistakes."

"We've met Sirana and Nobernal," I add. "Those were the names they used."

"Why don't we just ask your sentinel friend?" Neesha demands. "She would know them better than some old geezer who's lived his whole life in a cave."

"Neesha!" Hunter says, annoyed. He turns to Sahasrahla. "I'm sorry," he says, "she clearly wasn't socialized properly as a child."

"I'd rather not ask for Anduriel's advice in how best to murder her siblings," I tell her with a frown. "It hurts her bad enough that it's required, there's no need to beat her over the head with it if we can get the info elsewhere."

"Fine," Neesha says, crossing her arms and slouching. "Then you may as well give him all the details. By 'met' those avatars, he means killed." Which is just so helpful of her given that she wasn't there for either of them.

"Killed!" Sahasrahla exclaims, and somehow grows even sadder. It's another moment before he stirs again, but none of us interrupt his thoughts. Guilt and regret gnaws at my gut, but looking back I can't think of anything else I could have done.

At last he shakes himself and returns to the present conversation. "Sirana was the fifth of them," he says. "Lore associates her with strength of arms and feats of war. Also, sometimes, retribution. I shudder to think how Ganon's wish must have twisted her."

"She…it was not…an easy fight," I manage. "And I didn't do it…entirely under my own control."

He waves at me to say that details are not required, and I nod gratefully at him. "Nobernal was the youngest," he continues. "In the stories she symbolizes creativity and love. Art, especially music. The tales say she liked to sing." Hunter and I exchange a look, eyebrows raised.

"Wow," Hunter says. "He must have—." But he cuts himself off and we're all glad of it I think.

"Anduriel you know. If you wish to think of the Sentinels as creatures that were born, she would be the middle child, and a balance for them all. Lore associates her with healing and mercy. Redemption, reconciliation, renewal.

"The eldest is Revenas. Not much is known about her, except that she is an oracle. In the stories she is often cast in the role of the omnipotent narrator, or the background manipulator. She pushes and pulls at events as the moon pushes and pulls the tides, keeping things in line with the Goddesses' plans."

"Oh goody," Neesha groans. "Another prophet. Because Zelda wasn't bad enough."

"At least Zelda's on our side," Hunter replies, rubbing his temple wearily as he considers that.

"Third is the Chronicler. The earliest records I can recall noted her name as Mudora. Concerned only with what has been, the Chronicler does not interfere in events or the world. Merely records all of it in her histories. The stories are unclear as to why."

"There's a legend among the Sheikah that our language was given to us by Mudora," Hunter notes, contemplative. "We were historians before we were warriors."

"Warriors," says Amplissa. "Pffft."

Compared to the abuse he's received from the Dark World Gerudo, that was nothing, and it slides off his back like water off a Zora's. Amplissa, I can't help but notice, is irked by his lack of a reaction.

"The last two," Sahasrahla continues, "are less well known. Second in the line is Valdyx, associated with death and the afterlife, and the transition between the two. Sixth is Khol, associated with magic – arcane and divine. Supposedly had a fondness for puzzles."

"Farore," I mutter, "I don't know what's worse. Corrupted death angel, or corrupted puzzle angel."

"Death angel!" Hunter says incredulously.

"Puzzle angel," Neesha contradicts him immediately.

"There is one other," Sahasrahla says before it can devolve into an argument.

Hunter blinks and does a quick count of the names Sahasrahla mentioned. "I thought there were only seven."

"Eight," I say, and point at the sword on my back. "Apparently the Master Sword is a person. Sort of."

Hunter looks thoughtful. "That explains how you got pulled down into the Quisrol," he says. "Dune called on the stone guardians, but the word that's used for that spell is makan. It's the word Makani comes from. It's not just, like, a city guard or something. It's a holy thing. Ties to the goddesses and sacred oaths, and the like. If the Master Sword is a Makani, it could have responded to the magic behind the guardians."

"The sentinel's original name has been lost," Sahasrahla says. "We only know the names of the sword now. But the lore associates it with both protection and judgement. It is a balancing force, but more active than Anduriel. And more intimate with the world and its fate than any of its siblings. It pains me that…." He trails off, rethinks his words. "I am sorry that it has come to this. Sentinel killing Sentinel. But what must be must be. That sword is your best weapon, perhaps your only weapon, against the others, Link. But be aware of the bond between them. It is no small thing you ask of it."

"If there were any other way, I would take it," I tell him seriously. "If I thought I could heal them, or restore them I would. But I can't." I glance down at my hand, at the Triforce mark on the back of it. "I'm not strong enough."

"I think it knows that, Link," Hunter says gently. "It wasn't you that killed Nobernal, not really. It did. It had to. You saw her. We were a far cry from creativity and music. Nobernal wasn't…she didn't…she thanked you, in the end."

"Yeah," I say. "I know."

"Why in the name of the Three do you want to go back there again?" Amplissa demands.

"Which brings us neatly around to our second question," I say, grateful for the unintentional change of topic. "The mirror brought us here when Neesha oh so gently caused me to place the pearl into the mirror." I pull the reunited artefacts from my bag to show him, careful not to look at the reflection in the glass. "How do we make it take us back?"

"It will have left a portal," he says. "Looks like the barest of shimmering in the air in the spot where you teleported in. Like a heat wave, almost. Anyone who meets the criteria put into the seals by the Sages can use it. Once the mirror passes through the portal closes again."

My mind immediately runs off on the hundreds of irresponsible ways I could use that ability when Hunter asks an actually intelligent question. "How do we make sure we're popping into Hyrule in open space, instead of, say, fifty-feet thick of mountain? Or half in this room, half in the other?"

My head snaps up and I blanch. I hadn't even considered that possibility. I give Neesha the dirtiest look I can muster and she looks away quickly.

Lucky, we are soooo lucky.

"The mirror will show you your surroundings as they exist in the other world," Sahasrahla says. "Look past your own reflection to the area behind you." I give him a suspicious, hesitant look, and slowly lift the mirror, careful to angle it away from my face. It occurs to me he's correct. The reflection isn't right. Instead of the walls of the Fortress I see an endless expanse of driving grey rain, and faded, tired vegetation that wishes it would just drown already. Vaguely, in the far distance, I can just make out the shapes of what is likely the Gerudo camp.

"That is…oh my Goddess," says Hunter. Now he's running off on irresponsible uses for the mirror. "You could…we could see—!"

"There is a reason," Sahasrahla notes neutrally, "I did not entrust it to the Sheikah as a group." He winks at Hunter to dull any sting. "It was a gift to me from a friend, it was never intended for espionage or intrigue."

"It won't be used for it," I say, catching the hint. I ignore the sound Hunter makes behind me. Half shame, half pain. I stuff it back into my pouch before he gets any ideas. "We travel back to Hyrule by putting the pearl into the socket?"

"Pearl in socket," Sahasrahla says, "hand on glass."

"The pearl protects against the Dark World effects?" Neesha asks.

"Aye, and the mirror bridges the gap. You can't leave the Dark World while in its grip, so both are required."

The thought of not having to wake up in that burlap sack every morning is almost too much for me. I turn away from the others before they can see just how overwhelming my relief is. Between the pearl taking care of my transformations, having our third partner back, and now a ticket home when we need it…it's like the three biggest logistical problems to this entire misadventure have been solved in one fell swoop.

With Neesha back, and me not spending the night as a rabbit, it means we can take turns keeping watch and maybe actually get some sleep. It means being able travel farther in a day, and being able to escape trouble easier. It means being able to get the maidens out of the Dark World as soon as we've got our hands on them.

It means we've got hope, which is a damn sight more than we had before.

Sahasrahla, the only one who can see my face right now, offers me a sympathetic smile.

"Right," says Nabooru, "so, I'm pretty sure I already know the answer, and I don't disagree, but I need to pretend to have this fight with you so the other Sages don't rip my head off. The Sheikah and the Disgraced One Who Is Totally Looking At a Demotion can't go back with you. We'd just be handing them right into Ganon's hands, and then the portals would be reopened and we'd be back to square one."

Hunter tenses and Neesha straightens, but I just turn back to her and let her see the last few weeks in my eyes, and my face, and the line of my shoulders. "I can't do it by myself," I say. "I literally can't. I will try, and I will die, and I won't even care when it happens. They're the only people we have, right now, who can cross the seals with me. I need them more than we need to keep them out of Ganon's reach."

"All right," she says, getting to her feet. "If anyone asks I kicked your ass around the courtyard over it. I'm going to go report in to the Sages. Go find Rue and get her update. And make sure you're still here when I get back." She shakes her fist at me threateningly, knowing full well I won't be. I reply with a rude gesture at her. "Neesha," she says, turning to look at her with burning eyes. "I haven't forgotten your little stunt before this all went south. You've got a reprieve until the maidens are all returned, but if you're smart you'll make sure you die heroically in the Dark World, because you don't want to know what I'm going to do to you when you get back for good."

Neesha's expression is dark and angry, but she slides further down in her chair instead of responding, which is probably the wisest thing she could do.

Nabooru snorts and teleports out with a flash.

Neesha looks over at Amplissa. "Did she mean that about demotion?"

"A-yup," Amplissa replies. "Been ranting about it since you left. I get why you did it, kid, and I can't say I blame you, but there are consequences. You'll never make the White you keep pulling stunts like that."

The word 'kid' hits her like a punch in the gut – harder to swallow than the threat of demotion. She slinks even further down in her chair, her expression growing darker.

I give Hunter a look that's part apologetic, part relieved, and he gives me a dirty one in return. It's not often Neesha gets like this, but it's a nightmare to try to bring her out of it. And I've got the get out of jail free card of having to go talk to Rue.

Not that anything's actually free. And not that this is going to be an easier conversation.

"I'll walk with you," says Amplissa, getting to her feet.

"Good luck," says Sahasrahla as we leave, "with this conversation and everything that comes after."

"She'll be in the training rooms," Amplissa says. "Making the Sheikah boy run or jump or climb something until he passes out."

"I thought he was training to be a mage, not join the Elite," I say, raising an eyebrow.

"I duelled one of Rue's old apprentices once," Amplissa says. "Before you came. Closed the distance and caught her in the chin with a right hook before she was done casting. One hit knock-out. Magic doesn't mean anything in real combat if your body can't keep up. Besides, you don't come to Gerudo Fortress to learn magic sitting at a desk and taking a bunch of notes like a pasty-faced Sheikah. Wouldn't happen even in peace time, and we're a long way from peace time."

"Why did you duel one of Rue's apprentices?" I demand.

Her face loses some of its expressiveness, her mouth stiffens, her eyes grow guarded. I've hit a nerve. "Aliza had a bad fall from a horse the day before, broke her leg. Stupid girl said some things she shouldn't have about it. Aliza was laid up, so I appointed myself her second and made my point." Her expression hardens further as she drives her emotions down with grim determination. "That was basically the point we started fighting together."

I nod but don't say anything, because what could I say?

We continue our walk in silence until we reach the doors to the training room. Amplissa draws in a deep breath. "You would have been proud of her," she says. "That's all. Rue will give you the details. She saved a lot of people. We wouldn't have made it out without her."

"She died a Gerudo's death," I say thickly. "Lived a Gerudo's life too. For her sisters in both cases." Somehow the confirmation is worse than the near-certainty was.

"Is she…is she still…dying a Gerudo's death?" Amplissa asks. "Like the Sheikah's mother?"

The question pushes the breath from my lungs as I consider it. I want to lie to her. I want to lie to her so bad. But I can't. That would be worse, more offensive. It would hurt more than the truth. "Probably," I say. A hundred little white lies, meant to soften the blow spring to mind. She's not really aware of it. She doesn't really feel anything. It's not really her. But to deny the reality of the situation is to disrespect all involved. I put a hand on her shoulder and squeeze it tightly. "But I'm going to fix it," I promise her. "Her oaths are fulfilled, she's earned her rest, and she'll have it. I'll find a way."

Amplissa nods, then bows quickly. More to hide her face than anything I think. "If there's anything I can do from this side, just say the word," she says fiercely. "I'll make it happen."

"I'll hold you to it," I tell her, managing a smile that's almost half genuine. She offers me the same, then gestures at the door.

"Rue's waiting in there," she says. "If you're planning to leave before Nabooru gets back, Indiga will arrange the escort to your portal. I've got to go gather my invading army."

"Remember," I say, raising a stern finger at her, "I want Castletown intact when I get back! Oh! And can you ask Nidiza to come find me when I'm done here? I've got a job for her specifically when she gets there."

Amplissa balks. "I wasn't planning on taking her," she says flatly. "She's obnoxious."

"So are you," I reply with a shrug. "And I need her to do something for me, so you have to take her."

"What do you need her to do?" she demands. "I'll do it!"

"Okay," I say, raising an eyebrow. "I need you to go into the third or fourth library, somewhere around the second mile of legal tomes, give or take, and go through some centuries old Hylian legislation to find—."

"Nevermind," she says, waving me off with a dull look. "You should have told me you were going to torture her, I'd've agreed right away. If I don't see you again, Highness, good luck. If you happen to find his Ex-Royal Highness tear him to pieces for me."

"No," I say. "I'll tear him to pieces all for me. No sharing."

"Selfish."

"Uncaring too."

She grins and waves and is gone.

I hold on to my own grin for as long as I can, then take a deep breath and turn to enter the training room. Thomas is already gone, likely sent away when Rue heard us talking. It's just her, seated cross-legged in the middle of the floor. Like no grandmother anyone has ever imagined, and yet the very picture of one I have in my head.

"Welcome home, Link," she says gravely. "Have a seat."

xxx

A Brief Interlude

It wasn't, precisely, that Impa was in a bad mood. Though the discussions had been lively for much of the council meeting, they had been nonetheless productive. And despite recent losses and tragedies, certain victories had been scored that rendered the way forward clearer for all. All good news. But she couldn't shake the feeling that this was a temporary lull.

Impa knew war. Knew war as well as one might know one's oldest friend. And she knew this war was not over; it was catching its breath.

Perhaps, she thought, without any sort of optimism, I am just tired.

And she was. The binding the moblins had caught her with had taken its toll. She needed to sleep, but it was hard to justify with so much work left to be done. It was no simple thing to close down the Caverns, and more complicated still to reopen them again. Kakariko was a smoking ruin, and many of its people homeless and mourning. And there were still moblins lurking and plotting in the mountains, whether or not the portal was closed.

To say nothing of what might or might not be happening in Castletown. She trusted Link's instincts, but instincts weren't always enough, and the boy was reckless and impatient. As were his people. And whatever he was planning, it wasn't like he was going to be here to execute.

Nabooru had been stone-lipped at the meeting about whatever orders he'd given them. She trusted Nabooru as well, but like Link she could not be there constantly. And there was still so much bad blood between the Hylians and the Gerudo. Exacerbated by Aghanim's actions prior to his death. And no longer a treaty in place to constrain their actions.

She paused in the Shadow Temple's exit and steepled her fingers tightly against the bridge of her nose, trying to drive her headache back.

"You should probably just go to bed, Impa," said a not-unsurprising voice from the sunny afternoon outside. "You look like crap."

She lowered her hands and offered the Hero of Time a dull look as she stepped out into the sun. He leaned casually up against the fence on the opposite side of the dais of shadow. "I suppose it's too much to hope that you were foolish enough to bring Hunter and Neesha with you."

"I do a lot of foolish things," he said with a grin that was as tired as she felt, "but that's not on the list."

"Where are they?"

"Scouring the desert for 'the barest shimmering, like a heat wave' that is actually a portal. They're going to be at it a while, I imagine."

"So you really intend to go back."

"People need to stop asking me that," he said with a frown. "Because I'm no happier about the answer than they are, and none of us can afford for me to change to my mind."

Impa offered him a nod to acknowledge the point. "The boy?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Left him with Marni," Link answered. "She'll watch him until Castletown's stabilized, and then I'm hoping Dad will take him. He's not…actually Kokiri anymore. He's just a regular kid like anyone else."

"If your father will not take him, I will find someone who will," Impa promised. "The Deku Tree shielded one of ours at significant cost to himself. The Sheikah will repay the debt."

"Glad to hear it," he said, amused, "because I don't think he'd thrive in the desert."

"You are not here to discuss that, though."

"No," he said, sobering again. "I'm not. I left out some details in my recap earlier, but I'd like to share them now if you've got the time."

Impa frowned. "Why leave them out before?"

"Because there was a crowd," he answered carefully. "And the details are more personal. Your ears only, unless you choose to share sort of thing."

"I appreciate your discretion all the more for its rarity," she noted. She moved over to the snow-dusted dais and folded her legs underneath herself, then gestured for him to do the same opposite her. "I don't have the time, but I doubt I will have another chance in the near future to hear you out."

The Hero took a seat opposite her. "Remember the part about Dark World Kakariko?" he asked. "The Cleric and the Thieves? The doppelganger?"

"Yes," she replied, unsurprised that this was the portion of the tale he wished to discuss. That the doppelganger was – or had been – a Sheikah was never in doubt. They had lost many to the Dark World, the only question was which had—

"It was Blind," he said. "Dashil, I think was his real name. But he went by Blind."

Her heart froze suddenly in her chest – not surprise, not even close, but disappointment and regret and a mix of other things too personal to name. "Hmm," she said carefully. "I see."

"I don't…you've already got most of the rest of the details, I'm sure you can put most of it together yourself. He…was concerned about what I would tell you. The Dark World has a way of blurring memories, taking them or twisting them, but whatever he remembered of you, he cared pretty deeply about it. Probably the only thing he cared about."

Impa said nothing for a long moment. It really wasn't hard to put things together. He had gone to the Dark World seeking an easy answer, hoping to beat the enemy to it. He had failed. And could no longer get home again. All the years she'd known him, he had chafed at the thought of home. Never wanted to return to the Caverns after a mission. But she knew him better than that. Once he realized he was cut off, that he could never go back….

Had he joined the Makani because it was a Makani and any proper Sheikah would?

Or had he joined the Makani because it was corrupted and he was self-destructive and spiteful?

"He was ashamed," Impa said slowly, "of how far he'd fallen."

It wasn't exactly a question, but he answered it anyway. "Yes. I think so. Based on what Hunter said, he redeemed himself at the end, though. Sacrificed himself to save Hunter. From, uh. From me." The Hero looked away, shame darkening cheeks already red from the chill. "I'm the one who…I killed him. I didn't want to, I tried to avoid it, but I was…I wasn't fast enough with the Makani. I changed, and…that was that." He swallowed thickly, but managed to turn his startling eyes back to hers. "I'm sorry, Impa."

"You are not to blame for actions committed under the sway of your Dark World form," she responded automatically. "You said specifically that you did not kill him when he tried to goad you into it as a man. If that was a test, you passed it." She managed through a supreme effort of will not to avert her own gaze. "As for Dashil, he had already set himself on the path that led him to this long before he'd set foot in the Dark World. I am...glad he remembered himself, at the end." She was relieved that her voice remained strong, steady. No hint of how much it hurt to say his name, or to think of him in the state he must have been in by the end.

Did she wish she had been there?

No. She supposed she was glad she had not been.

"Yeah, well," said Link, "he was kind of a jerk. I didn't really like him. But…I'm still sorry."

She offered him a ghost of a smile. "I doubt he liked you much either."

"Hated my guts," the young man confirmed.

Not as much as he hated himself, though. That she didn't need to be told. "Thank you, Link," she said. "I appreciate you not sharing this with the others. You were correct, and it is personal."

He nodded and got to his feet, recognizing the dismissal. "Don't know when I'll be back," he said. "Take care of yourself, Impa."

"You too, boy," she replied. "Watch your back in there."

"Hard lessons already learned." He pulled his Ocarina from his pouch and a few notes later he was gone.

Impa got to her feet and turned back to the Shadow Temple. The relentless winter sun was too bright, too reminiscent of the bottle she'd been trapped in. She suddenly didn't have the energy to deal with it. Or with the unexpected death of a hope she hadn't fully realized she'd been harbouring.

"Goodbye, Dashil," she said as she crossed the threshold into the comforting darkness of the Shadow Temple. "One last time, goodbye."

Sleep suddenly seemed like a good idea.

xxx

Chapter 25 (cont.)

It is amazing how far an escort of heavily armed wolf-women and a map can get you in the Dark World. A little under three days travel, and not a single bandit, murderer, or similar flavour of trouble-maker bothered to waylay us. There were a couple, here and there, we could see lurking in our wake, but none of them were able to gather up the courage to attack.

Which I'm actually kind of happy about. Without the Beast snarling away in my chest, I'm not nearly so eager for blood. Had enough of that to last a lifetime.

"Are you sure about this?" Apheri asks me for about the thousandth time. She eyes the tortured Orchard in the valley below us suspiciously.

"Yes," I tell her. "As useful as it has been having you guys around, we'll leave less of a trail on our own. And you're more useful at Kakariko."

"Remind me again why we care about Kakariko," Anahti says dully, looking bored already.

"Because you've been cooped up in that Mire for too long, and you can't tell me hunting's been good. You guys must have taken out anything that was even remotely a challenge a decade ago. You're not Ganon's anymore, so what's to stop you from taking on the next biggest challenge, hmm? Plenty of big, dangerous, well armed Moblins in Kakariko, and plenty of slightly unhinged, well-armed explosives enthusiasts to back you up. Trust me. You're going to love it. Apheri, you ask for Duthie and work with him. Anahti, you ask for Wandi, and just try not to kill anyone on our side, okay?"

"And then what?" Apheri asks.

"And then tear every Moblin in the region to pieces. If you run out of Moblins there, head on to the next region and repeat. Sooner or later I'm going to call for you. And that's when the real fighting is going to start, all right?"

Apheri has no problems with the plan, but she glances at Anahti, who has a problem with everything. The latter raises an eyebrow. "This 'real fighting'. Whose definition of 'real' are you using?"

"Gerudo," I answer immediately.

"Fine," she says. "I'm in for now."

Hunter gives Apheri a look, like, 'good luck with that.'

I know you keep saying you're sure, but are you really sure? Zelda asks me. I can hear a frown in her voice. An army of Gerudo might not be a bad thing to have right now.

I'm glad you feel that way, because I might have maybe sent one into Castletown to take it over and have been looking for an opportunity to tell you that.

Sorry, Link, she replies with a sigh, I'm still not really hearing you when you reply mentally. What did you say?

"I said yes I'm sure." I tap my head to let the others know who I'm talking to.

That's all you said? It seemed longer than that.

I also propositioned you in an extremely improper fashion.

She scoffs. I didn't get all the words, but I got the intention there. I also don't believe you.

Would you like me to improperly proposition you?

Oh! I heard that! she says. You're getting better! And for the record, you've never once properly propositioned me. Which might explain some things.

Ow, Zelda. Low blow.

"Do you want us to escort you down into the Orchard?" Apheri asks. "It's not exactly safe."

"It'll be safe for us," I answer. "And we've already got an escort, but I don't think she'll show if I bring a fighting force in with me."

"All right," she says. "Then I suppose this is where we part ways. Don't take too long to call for us, all right? You're right. We've been in the Mire for too long, and we could all use a real fight."

We take our leave of each other. The Gerudo turn back the way they came, and Hunter, Neesha and I head down into the Orchard.

"This is messed up," Neesha says, eyeing the twisted trees with an expression of mixed disgust and horror. "Ganon did this?"

"The one and only," I confirm darkly.

Hunter is quiet, taking in the surroundings and cataloguing I don't even know what about them. Threats, escape routes, hiding places. Or maybe just being respectful of the gross tragedy this whole place is.

"So where is this Avatar of yours?" Neesha asks curiously. I have to keep reminding myself she technically hasn't seen any of them before.

"She's probably—." But I'm cut off by a shrill cry.

"Unk-ink! Unk-ink!" A little blue blur of excitement and glee comes tottering between the trees, arms outstretched and a huge smile plastered over her face.

"Hey there, squirt!" I say, and drop to one knee to hold my arms out for her. I scoop her up when she arrives and get back to my feet. Coming up behind her is Anduriel, moving slower than I remember, her face a little more drawn, her wings a little more tattered. Kiki sits in his apparently customary place on her shoulder.

"Anduriel," I say. "I'm glad to see you're okay."

"You as well, Hero," she says, gracefully inclining her head to me. Her eyes move over to the others, and I shift my grip on Laruto so I can gesture to them. "This is Hunter of the Sheikah, and Neesha of the Gerudo. Two of my closest friends. Guys, this is Anduriel of the Sentinels."

Neesha gives her a deep nod, one fist clenched over her heart. It's the gravest and most respectful gesture I've ever seen her give anyone. Hunter drops to one knee and bows his head.

"Mel varasin lodanan tol, Makani. Toln secre quis meln est."

I serve before you, Guardian, Zelda translates for me. Or I am your servant. Something like that. Your sacred quest is mine. Or oaths or mission or something. Quis has a lot of nuances.

Anduriel smiles at him. "Escal, Sheikah. Toln quis est meln. Mel est tol belani."

Rise, Sheikah. I think Sheikah might actually mean shadow here, not sure. Your quest is mine. I welcome you. You plural? I'm not sure.

You got more than I did.

You don't study enough.

"It is nice to hear the old tongue again," Anduriel says with a gentle smile as Hunter climbs to his feet. He is more than pleased with this. Anduriel turns to me and her smile turns wry. "The Seventh Sage is welcome as well, if you will pass on my message. As are you, young Geru'do."

Neesha shifts her weight awkwardly and nods, unsure of the protocol under the circumstances. That she is thinking about protocol at all is a testament to how much the Avatars mean to the Gerudo. She's already on thin ice with Nabooru, the last thing she wants to do is add 'offending the sacred warriors who fought with Geru' to the list.

"Kiki!" says Kiki angrily. "You is forgettings Kiki!"

I offer him a smile that's all teeth. "Was trying to."

"Kiki," says Anduriel neutrally, "this is Hunter and Neesha, friends of Link and so friends of ours. I believe there is another who observes without being present."

"Zelda," I clarify.

"Zelda, then. Hunter, Neesha, Zelda, this is Kiki, who has been a very good friend to me in these troubling times."

"Kikiki!" says Laruto gleefully. "Blue!"

"PURPLES!" Kiki practically screams at her, clearly at the end of his rope.

"Walk with me," Anduriel says, interrupting the fight with an ease born of practice. "I'm sure you have much to tell and it is unwise to stay in one place while you tell it."

"Is everything okay?" I ask as we start to move. "I thought—."

"Just a bad spell," she interrupts me. "I overestimated certain things, and underestimated others, but it is nothing to worry about. It necessitates extra precaution, but there is no immediate danger. Still," she adds, "it is good you have found the moon pearl. I would not want the little one to remain in this place for much longer."

I give her a concerned look, but she's clearly not interested in talking about it, so I accept the change in subject. "We did," I confirm. "And we've had one unexpected jaunt back to Hyrule already. Sahasrahla sends his regards, by the way."

A warm smile flickers briefly over her face. "The pearl will also shield you from your Beast self," she says, "though I expect you've determined that already. Keep it with you, Link. And keep your friends close. It can protect them to an extent from the weight of the Dark World as long as they are near."

"Believe me," I tell her darkly, "I have no intentions of ever letting it go."

"I will spare you," she says quietly, "the retelling of Nobernal and Sirana's deaths. I sensed their passing when it happened, and I'm not sure I…." Her voice trails off and she doesn't finish the thought.

The air leaves my lungs in a rush. So she does know.

"Whatever forgiveness you feel you need you have," she says after a moment. "I wish with all my heart it could be another way, but it cannot. Beware the others, all of you. They will have sensed it as well and they are not used to fear or grief. Not like I am. They will harbour no kind feelings for you."

Ask her about Revanas, Zelda says. Revanas is upset, sure, but I don't think she actually blames you for her siblings' deaths either.

"Zelda says Revanas – that's who's got her crystal – doesn't blame us."

"Revanas," says Anduriel, surprised. Her milky eyes grow distant. "You say she holds a Triforce carrier. Why would he give her…?" Her lips tighten into a frown. "Be careful with Revanas," she says. "She is the eldest of us, and the wisest. If any could resist…but no. You cannot trust her. Perhaps she maintains enough of her heart to know the truth of what she is, but she is bound as surely as the others, and cannot defy him. She will kill you, given the chance."

"Noted," I say. "As far as a status, then, we've got three of seven maidens freed, and one able to communicate with us, which will help as far as locating and freeing her, and now we've got a way to bring them home. Three portals closed, and enough of a reprieve back home that Hyrule can redistribute its forces and hold the line at the remaining portals. The battles have cost us dearly, but for the first time things are looking up."

"You're such a jinx," Neesha hisses.

Seriously.

"Shut up, both of you," I snap. "Can you let me have this please?"

"Celebrate what victories you can," Anduriel says with a small smile, "but don't get overconfident. The war is not won yet."

"Blue!" says Laruto helpfully.

"Purples! Kiki is being purples! Ki! Ki! Is not being complicated!"

"Who's my Queen of Colours?" I coo at the baby. "Who is?! You are! Yay!"

She claps her hands delightedly and Kiki promptly moves over to the shoulder farthest from me, grumbling the entire way.

Hunter steps in, horrified that I am ignoring the generally more important conversation with the personification of everything a Sheikah is supposed to be about the fate of the world, in favour of engaging in three-year-old behaviour with children and child-like monkeys. "After some…negotiating…sort of…we've brought the Dark World Gerudo over to our side. They're on their way to Kakariko to join up with our allies there and help them push the Moblins out. In the event we need to bring in the heavy artiliary, we'll have a standing army ready to take up the fight. Any other allies we make can be sent along to join them."

"Rag-tag band of freaks, more like," Neesha notes sourly. "Whatever alliance we've managed to pull out of our collective ass is temporary. It'll fall apart faster than you'd think if we don't keep them busy. That real fighting Link promised them is going to have to happen sooner rather than later. I don't think we can count on them."

"It's better than nothing," I point out. "Worst case scenario they put a dent in the Moblin population before they scatter in a hundred different directions and we're still one up from where we were before."

Neesha shrugs and nods because fair enough.

"Here," says Anduriel and comes to a stop. "I believe this spot should be sufficient for your travel back, though my sense of the layout of Hyrule is not what it once was, I admit."

I set Laruto on the ground and pull the mirror out of my pouch. I lift it nervously and turn it so I can avoid my own reflection. It's honestly hard to see anything in the clear glass. It's snowing hard enough there must be a blizzard, but it looks like some kind of rampart.

"A watch tower?" Hunter suggests.

"Must be."

"Whatever it is is better than jumping into a frozen lake," Neesha says flatly, "so it's got my vote."

I twist the mirror to try to get a better sense of the surroundings, but the world is a frozen landscape of white. If there are landmarks, they're obscured. Hunter pulls out the map – I am no longer allowed to hold it – and considers it. "We're definitely Lake Hylia," he says. "Ultimately wherever we come out the Zora should be able to get us. Worse come to worst, if we don't land in their midst, we just sit tight until they can come find us. As long as we don't go in the water, the Dark Zora won't know we're there and can't come get us anyway."

"What if it's the Tower of Farore?" I ask. "And not a watch tower?"

Hunter frowns doubtfully. "Maybe we should just wait out the blizzard here."

But Anduriels gasps and straightens. "No," she says.

I turn to look. "What? What is it?"

"You have to go." The urgency and alarm in her voice startles and frightens me. "Take the little girl."

"Anduriel, what's—?"

"Revanas!" she says. "Revanas has entered my realm. She is coming, you have to go."

Zelda immediately withdraws from my head, but she's not gone long. She comes rushing back in two seconds later. She's right! We're in the orchard! South of you! Link, we're moving really fast! We'll be on top of you in less than a minute!

"Wait," I say, "no, this is our chance to get Zelda back."

"No." There is more authority in Anduriel's voice than I've ever heard her use before. "You cannot risk the little girl. Link, Revanas knows you're here. She knows and she comes anyway. She is ready for you. You have to take the little one and get out. Get at least one of the maidens beyond Ganondorf's reach. If you stay…if you fight…there is no guarantee you will win. None at all. And I do not think I am strong enough to defend her from Revanas, or those who would come after. Without you she is trapped here."

"Link," says Hunter, and lays a hand on my shoulder. "She's right. We have to go."

Link, go, Zelda says. Get Laruto out. You'll have another chance.

"Farore," I hiss, and snatch Laruto up again. I hand the mirror to Hunter so I can fish around in my pouch for the pearl. "I swear to all three Goddesses I'm going to—!"

"She's here!" Anduriel cries, spinning to look at something behind us.

My head snaps up in time to see a gout of flame leaping from between the tortured trees, but not in time for me to dodge it. Thank the Goddesses that Hunter and Neesha were paying more attention than I was. They both shove me as they leap out of the path of the fire and we fall to the side in a tangle. Laruto starts to cry.

"Go!" Anduriel snarls, and races toward the source of the flame. "Go now!"

I've got the pearl in my hand, and I can see a sudden glow between the trees again. "Hunter!" but he's already shoved the mirror at me. I don't even spare the time to look. I drive the pearl into place and flatten my hand on the glass. Reality tears around us, and all four of us fall through. I can feel the heat of the flames as they sear through the space where we'd been, but then it's gone and replaced by a bone-numbing cold, and the realization that our trajectory is not quite what we thought it was going to be.

The parapets are there, but they weren't a watch tower – it was the Tower of Farore. And, more importantly, we aren't landing on them. In fact, we're several feet away from them, in the wrong direction. We've reentered Hyrule in open space and are now plummeting down toward the frozen lake.

I have just enough time to curl myself into a ball around Laruto when we hit the ice and it shatters under us like glass.

If I thought it was cold in the air, it was a balmy vacation in tropical paradise compared to the water. Hitting the ice drove all the air from my lungs, and between that and the shock of the water my muscles seize and a sudden, instinctive terror sets in.

I just barely register Hunter, struggling to move in the water – he's trying to get to Neesha, I think, she's thrashing somewhere behind him. She can't even swim, and there's no way she's ever felt anything this cold before. But he's not going to make it, not before the cold drains him.

Laruto wraps her hands in my tunic, gives me a terrified look. She doesn't understand that we aren't Zora, we can't breathe underwater or swim with our gear all soaked and dragging us down.

She doesn't know what drowning is.

And I am so, so sorry that I'm going to be the one to show her.

xxx

A Brief Interlude

She sensed it, the instant they were gone, and she gave up the charade. Her step faltered, and she stumbled to a stop against a tree trunk, panting hard.

"Kiki," she managed, choking on the smoke. "Kiki run."

"Ki! Ki!" said the monkey guiltily, but he did as he was told and went.

Over the crackling sound of the fire and the groaning of the trees, she could hear the sound of cloth against leather as her sister slid from her saddle and moved out of the shadows and into the flickering firelight. Revanas stared at her with something like pity on her face. She turned her face to glance at the shimmering portal behind the wall of fire. "It's funny," she said softly, "how big of a difference two feet can make."

"What are you—?"

"If they had left from the spot where you lead them, they would have arrived at the Tower of Farore. They would have been cold, hungry, and on the verge of hypothermia by the time the Zora were able to get to them, but ultimately, things would have worked out. But they didn't leave from there. They left from two feet over. And now…."

"Now what?" Anduriel demanded, her heart pounding in her chest. "What have you done?"

"What I had to," she replied. "Now certain paths are no longer open, and others once in question guaranteed. Now, sister, you and I must talk. In private." She held up her hand and gestured to the crystalline ring she wore. "I have blinded her, deafened her for now. It is not for her to hear. Her, or the others." She gave Anduriel a significant look.

Anduriel frowned, sagged against the tree trunk and let herself slide down to the ground. She wasn't strong enough to stop Revanas from killing her if that was what the elder wanted, there was no point pretending otherwise. Not now that Link and his friends were gone. "You want me to…." Her eyes narrowed. "I have…very little strength left sister."

"You have enough left for this."

For a moment, Anduriel held her gaze defiantly. But at last her lips tightened, and she bowed her head. Her hands began to tremble, her breath came faster and shallower than it had before, but when she raised her face again grim determination shone in her ruined eyes. "It is done," she said. "I cannot…hold it long. Not against him. Speak your peace and be done."

"Things are in motion, faster than they have been in some time. Paths are dying by the dozens with every step the Hero takes, and every move our sisters make against him, myself included. There are still too many possibilities to predict the outcome, but certain things have become clear to me. Foremost among them that there will not be a sufficient number of Sages left by the end for the Hero to do what he must. For this Cycle to see an end."

"What?" Anduriel replied. "Who—?"

"The details are not yet decided," Revanas cut her off. "Which of them will fall and which will remain I cannot tell you, but what is guaranteed now – what I have ensured by throwing their departure off by two feet – is that at least two of the Sages will die before the end. Maybe more, but at least two."

"But…without all seven…!"

"And that is why I have come," Revanas said. "Why I had to come. Two of us need to get through this, sister. At least two. The boy is cutting a bloody swath through our ranks, but he cannot be allowed to kill us all."

"So speak to Mudora, or Valdyx, then," Anduriel spat. "Why come to me?"

"You know why," Revanas chided her. "Neither Valdyx, Mudora or Khol can do anything against the Master, they are bound far too tightly for that. Nobernal might have been useful, had he not killed her and left her corpse to dance in her place. It has to be you, Anduriel. You are the only one who can defy him fully. And I am the only one left who can aid you when the time comes."

"How?" she demanded. "How can you aid me? You are bound! If you can aid me, why am I sightless today?! Why did you not aid me then?!"

"Because it was not one of the paths available to me," Revanas replied, her voice pained. "I am trying, sister. I am doing what I can. I am bound, but I still have paths before me to choose between, unlike the others. But they are precious few, and I must guard them with my life, do you understand? He must not realize what they are before I take them, or this will all have been for naught. But you have to live. I can do nothing without you."

"That," Anduriel said, "may be out of my hands. I am tied…so tightly into you. All of you. For each one who falls…."

"I will not fall," Revanas promised her. "And the boy's sword cannot fall. We will have to be enough to hold you. Just until the end, sister. You only have to hold out until then."

"Why should I trust you?" Anduriel demanded. "Why should I believe anything you say?!"

"Because I am your sister," Revanas answered fiercely. "And the master may command my form, but my heart belongs to my Creators, and they have their own designs for this conflict!"

Anduriel looked like she was going to respond, but a sudden spasm of pain cut across her face. "I can't…," she gasped, her head sagging dangerously, "I can't hold him off any longer!"

Revanas took two steps forward and cracked her hand across her sister's face, sending the younger sentinel crumpling to the ground in a heap of tattered feathers and fragile limbs.

She felt the rush of the master back into her mind, gasped as he lashed her, far too suspicious to believe she had nothing to do with his brief inability to access her. She crumpled to her knees beside her prone sister, clenching her teeth and doubling over. "Stop," she groaned. "I've done as commanded. See for yourself. Anduriel is weakened, she will be of no use to the Hero if he survives the waters, and I have set in motion the necessary events to secure your victory. Please, stop!"

He did not stop, but she had not really expected him to. His trust in her was growing thinner by the day, but that was all right. That was part of the plan, there was no avoiding it.

She curled up into a ball beside her sister and waited for the pain to stop.

xxx

"What's that?" Acqul asked with a frown, squinting out through the storm. Something was falling from the Tower of Farore, three dark shapes in the snow.

"Link!" gasped Ruto from where she sat on the other side of the room.

"What?!" Acqul said, whirling to face her as the figures struck the ice and disappeared. "Ruto, the Dark Zora are out there! They'll be on him in seconds!"

She got to her feet. "I have to—!" but her voice abandoned her with a small choking noise.

"Ruto?"

"Laruto," she whispered.

"What?!"

"Laruto!" she cried. "They've got Laruto!"

She was out the door of their make-shift shelter and into the snow before Acqul even had time to process what she had said, and all the implications of it. When he did his stomach turned violently, and he was out the door behind her, screaming either for his troops or for his wife, but he was too late to stop her and the troops wouldn't be able to move fast enough.

She threw herself into the water's loving embrace and instantly her senses exploded outwards from her, confirming what she already knew. Link, Hunter, Neesha – drowning. Laruto – her beloved Laruto, safe and sound, but terrified. And the Dark Zora, alerted to the splash, to the thrashing of weak things in the water, of an easy meal. Like flesh-eating animals, swarming in for the kill.

It didn't matter that Ruto was still too far away to see them, she didn't need to see them, and she didn't need to be there. She could see what the Lake saw, be where the Lake was. And it would do what she asked of it.

A surge of water drove the air-breathers to the surface, Laruto with them as they gasped and sputtered. The water held them there despite the weight of their clothes, but she could do nothing about the cold that left them weak and trembling and unable to defend themselves from the monsters that grew closer, too close.

Too close and too many.

The dread that had plagued her for weeks reasserted itself with a vengeance and she knew: this was it. This was the moment she had been afraid of. This was the nameless thing that had haunted her dreams and chased her waking thoughts. A decision balanced on the blade of a knife, and once made could not be undone.

The troops were too far and would not be able to close the distance in time.

The Dark Zora were too many for her to handle them one at a time. While she busied herself picking off a handful of them, the rest of the pack would tear her daughter limb from limb and devour the pieces. It had to be all at once.

But she could not afford to catch Laruto and the others in the crossfire.

And she couldn't kill the monsters in a way that would poison the entire water supply for all of Hyrule. Whatever she did had to be clean.

And she had to do it now.

As a Sage she couldn't allow the Hero to come to harm.

More importantly, as a mother, she would not allow it for her daughter. Not now. Not after so long waiting, and praying, and wishing. Not now that she was so close to being safe.

There was only one option.

She closed her eyes and unleashed everything she had in her.

She could feel the Dark Zora's sudden fear and confusion, as the water began working against them. Tearing at them, pulling them back, away from their prey, and toward the sudden danger at the centre of the Lake. They thrashed and howled and struggled, but the water was unsympathetic, as cold as ice. They snarled their hate and their rage into the waters and Ruto nearly buckled under the force of it.

But somewhere in the cacophony of their reactions, she felt one, tiny bright spot – her daughter recognizing her mother's caress in the water's grip. Her mouth open in a silent, longing cry. Ruto held onto that, focused on it over everything else, held it in her heart like a torch.

She was sorry she couldn't answer the cry. But the alternative was not acceptable.

She hoped Laruto would forgive her.

She hoped Aqul would too.

She held out her hand and the water responded, dragging the screaming monsters in close. All of them. It reached into every nook and cranny in the Lake, pulled them screaming from their dark hideaways and crushed them in against each other. Until they were a terrified mass of scale and claw and teeth.

There were so many, all fighting against her. Her body was afire with the effort, flesh screaming, muscle trembling. It was hard to breathe, hard to focus, but she was almost done anyway. No reason to hold anything back anymore, let them feel the full force of her powers. Let them understand in their last few, screaming moments what being Sage of Water meant.

Ruto's life had been a sacrifice. She had always known her death would be the same.

She waited until she was sure she had them all, until her body was shaking so badly she knew she was out of time, and then she pushed. The water surged away in a rush. It struck the racing troops and drove them backwards, away from the danger at the centre of the lake. It pushed Link, and Hunter, and Neesha and Laruto up against the side of the hole in the ice their fall had caused, gave them a boost up onto it.

But it did not push the monsters. The monsters stayed where they were, and as the water fled from them and the air rushed in to fill the space, they fell. Their screams grew louder, more shrill. They scrambled over each other on the lake bed, blind to ally or enemy as they tried to get back into the water before the air could kill them, even as their scales began to smoke and their flesh began to curl.

But the water pulled away.

A few of them lunged at Ruto, hoping – correctly – that her death would bring the water back, but it was far too late for that. One exploded in a ball of fire. It was so close Ruto registered in a distant way the pain of the heat against her trembling body. It set off the other two and they went up in flames as well, burning and shrieking. And then they were all bursting into flame, setting each other off in a violent chain reaction.

Ruto closed her eyes and kept her focus on her daughter's tiny presence – the only thing that mattered anymore.

I'm so sorry, baby, she told her silently as the flames licked at her flesh and the heat and light grew more intense. Take care of our people for me. Take care of your daddy. I love you.

One last, impressive burst, a final roar of flame, and the waters came rushing back in to cover the graveyard of ash.

And Hyrule mourned the passing of its Sage.