Well hello there, long time no see!
Did you know today is the Return's thirteenth birthday? I'm so very happy I was able to finish this in time to post it today (I actually tried to do it for Reconciliation's tenth birthday, which was a few months ago, but I failed).
I'm so grateful you guys have stuck around for so long (whether you've been here thirteen years or thirteen minutes). Thank you for all the kind words over the years, and all the favourites and follows and recommendations and likes and asks and reblogs and so on.
Thank you all very, very much. 3
(Sap aside, quick reminder that I'm over on tumblr under the username rosezemlya, and I post snippets and updates there under the "loz rr" tag. There's also fanart by talented people, an ask blog, and a few drabbles scattered here and there.)
I hope you enjoy the read and it was worth the wait!
This is the second funeral I've attended on the shores of this lake. Might even be the same spot.
True, it's not really a funeral. Not in the official sense. The Zora will need at least a week to make their preparations for that. Maybe more for someone like Ruto, I'm not sure on the specifics.
But it's the closest to it Hunter, Neesha and I are going to be able to get, and for Acqul this is the hard part. A week from now he'll have all the support he needs to get through it, but right now…he needs friends.
I break Zoran protocol as he struggles to speak, to form the words tradition requires he say, in order to lay my hand on his shoulder and squeeze. It's rude of me, I know, but I'm technically a visiting Head of State – protocol also requires he forgive me small transgressions, so it's a bit of a loophole, and he really needs it.
He's reciting a speech he stayed up all night to write. I know because Hunter and I stayed up to help him. We contributed not a word to the prose, but kept him company, brought him food and drink, and tried to share his misery as best we could. Recognizing that Gerudo-style comfort was not what Acqul needed, Neesha did the kindest thing she's ever done for him and opted to leave us to it. Not that she slept either, judging by the shadows under her eyes. She barely knew Ruto, but the death of a Sage is a vicious blow to our taken-for-granted belief that the good guys always win, and whatever triumph we might have felt in our recent victories has been swept right out from under us.
Acqul's speech is a brutally clinical retelling of Ruto's life, measured in awards, kudos, titles, and achievements. This, too, is tradition. But you can see the rest of the story in Acqul's face. The way his expression clouds over or crumples inward at certain parts that speaks to a deeper story behind the dates and the milestones. The way his eyes get glossy suddenly, never spilling over, or the way his lips curl to hide a tremor, tells a story of her life measured in conversations, and small touches, and gestures of love.
He gets through it without crying, which is more than I can say.
When his speech is done he steps back into the ring of mourners and lets the pitifully short agenda of speakers continue on schedule. Again, at the formal funeral there will be more. But right now, it's what we could scrape together on short notice in war time. Nabooru is here, a deep scowl etched permanently onto her face. She's the only Sage who could make it – Darunia and Impa are still swamped with clean up at Kakariko, and the others…well. A few officers from the Zoran military who had already been stationed here are in line, and, in a rare move likely intended to ensure a quorum of speech-givers given her negligible rank, one of Ruto's handmaidens.
I hand Laruto back over to Acqul as he falls back into place beside us. She's too little to understand everything that's happening, but she knows a formal occasion when she sees one, and she's got her Serious Face on. And she knows her dad's Sad Face, too, and curls instinctively against his chest to offer him what comfort she can. He takes some degree of strength from it, curling a hand against her back, and keeping his face turned relentlessly forward, unable to look at her without risking his composure. He keeps his eyes where I can't bear to look – on his dead wife's shrouded body, laid out on an alter carved of ice, engraved with ornate symbols that simultaneously represent everything she was and fail utterly at the exact same task.
"Is she really gone?" he asks me softly, like he can't quite believe it. Like maybe this is still a bad dream and he's just got to wake up. His voice is quiet, but raw.
I know I should tell him, yes, she's really gone, but I can't quite believe it either. "I don't know," I say. "I guess."
This was supposed to be a happy homecoming. I was so excited to see the looks on their faces when we handed Laruto over. So desperately in need of at least one rescue completed, one person returned home, unharmed, no strings attached. Turns out it wasn't a string, it was a goddess damned noose and I didn't see it.
There is some part of me that is – was – convinced that if I could just bring all the maidens home everything would work out. That's where this started. Them getting kidnapped. That's where it all went off the road and burst into flames in the ditch. If I could just fix that, everything else would sort itself out. And it almost…I mean, yesterday it looked like…but no.
It's not that simple.
It's never been that simple.
Because it didn't start when Aghanim kidnapped the maidens, and it didn't start when he built the towers, and it didn't start when he sent me out of Hyrule.
It started a hundred years ago when one specific asshole decided that what he had wasn't good enough. That's how simple it is.
Ruto's dead, but at least I get to go to one of her memorials. Aliza and a dozen other women I lived, ate, fought, and hung out with are dead too, and I missed theirs. Bruiser never even got a funeral.
And how many others I didn't know, never spoke with, and now never will? How many dead in Kakariko? How many dead in Castletown? How many dead here at Lake Hylia, and high up in the Goron Mountains? How many funeral pyres lit, how many graves dug, how many tombs carved out, and how many left lying where they fell because he decided he didn't have enough?
And how many more before this whole thing is said and done?
I feel it, now, in my chest. Like I did at Jinni and Ketari's funeral. A sudden, bleak sadness that goes so deep I don't even know where it starts. Maybe even all the way down to my heart of hearts. Like it's one of the pillars on which my life is built, and even when I think I've escaped its shadow it's still there, waiting. It knows I'll be back. It knows I can't really ever escape it.
It takes everything I have to stay still for the rest of the memorial and listen to droning speeches that fail to encapsulate the loss. That know they can't, so they don't even try. No mention of the vicious intelligence hidden behind the endless layers of formality and pomp they prefer to talk about. No mention of a heart unwaveringly dedicated and loyal to who and what she cared about, shoring up and grounding the service to her people and Hyrule they're focusing on instead. No mention of what an impossibly spoiled little brat she was, but who laughed at most of my jokes and took my side more often than she didn't and saved my life more than once. Who proposed to me when we were eleven years old, and then changed her mind when we were almost eighteen because she realized she had bigger duties and she had to put aside what she wanted to fulfill them.
And it never occurred to her not to fulfill them.
Selfish, selfless, horrible, wonderful woman, who made me miserable as often as she made me laugh. I have to keep reminding myself that I've got no business telling the Zoras how to grieve even if I think they're skipping the important bits.
I guess I should just be grateful my lingering hypothermia meant they left me off the speech list. I guess they should be grateful too.
How many funerals do you have to go to before you get good at them?
They'll drop us off at the tower tomorrow so we can go back through the portal and figure out whether we're going to have to hold another funeral for Anduriel or not, and then a small group of official pall bearers will continue up the river toward Zora's domain with the body for the formal ceremony. Then maybe I can get a start on making sure I never have to find out the answer to that question.
As soon as the speeches are done and I'm sure Acqul's not alone, I ask Hunter to make sure no one follows me and I leave the crowd.
I'm so done with funerals.
Nabooru finds me on the bridge, sometime after sunset, and takes a seat opposite me without saying anything. If it weren't for the moon glow catching fire in her hair you'd barely know she was there. When she catches my eye she jerks her chin at the simple knife driven into the planks not far from us and gives me a questioning look.
"Wasn't me," I say. "Probably Hunter, maybe when they first let him out of the medical tent. Whenever we're at Lake Hylia he likes to come up here and leave something. Flowers aren't really appropriate, given the women he's trying to honour, so he usually goes for whatever weapon he can spare."
"No one takes them?" she asks, no hint on her face of her opinion of this ritual.
"Sure they do," I say. "Free knives. But it doesn't matter. Ketari and Jinni would both probably be happier the thing is getting used than getting left here to rust, and all that really matters to him is that he comes and he does it."
"Jinni would kill him if she knew he was dulling perfectly good knives," Nabooru notes.
I snort. "Oh he knows. Ketari would too. It's half spite because they're not here to stop him."
She scratches at her cheek as she considers that. "Sheikah are weird," she concludes, then frowns, and a shadow crosses her eyes. "So are Zora. That was the strangest funeral I've ever been too."
"You didn't attend any in the Great War?" I ask, surprised.
She makes a face. "The Zora were really only close to us in the early days of the war. Before the moblins. There's a reason they switched over to the Hylians as easily as they did when it was over." She shrugs. "Besides, I was too young then. Nobody important enough to have regular dealings with Zora."
"You were still a Sage," I note.
"Aye, I was," she agrees. "And today we can see how much that matters in the grand scheme of things."
It occurs to me that while I had assumed she'd come out here to keep me company, I think it might be the other way around.
"They didn't talk about anything that matters," she says after a long moment of us both getting lost in our thoughts. If I were anybody else it would sound like a neutral observation, but I know her way too well to fall for that. There's a melancholy note in her voice, a sadness in the way she says 'matters'.
I nod at her, even though I'm not sure how well she can make me out in the dark. "They draw some really thick lines between public and private," I say. "Funerals are public affairs, so they talk about public things. To talk about who she was as a person would be rude and disrespectful in their view." I shrug as though to say, to each their own.
She frowns. "Ruto wasn't like that."
"Ruto wasn't like that with us," I correct her. "She loved the Sages like an extended family, so she let you guys in on her private life, included you in it. That's huge for a Zora."
"How are you going to tell Zelda?"
I'm suddenly tired. "I don't know," I manage to scrape out through my throat. "I still haven't told her about her father even."
"Don't coddle her, she deserves more respect than that from you." I can see a flash of white, her teeth in the dark. She's normally more careful with her comments about Zelda. Ruto's death has hit her harder than I thought if she's feeling protective enough to abandon caution.
"I'm not coddling her, I'm coddling me," I reply. "It's not a pleasant conversation, and I wish I could do it in person."
"You can't. Move on."
I sigh and wave her off. We let silence descend between us again.
"Do you think it's a good idea, sending Nidiza to Castletown?" The question is distant, she's only half paying attention to whatever answer I might give her.
I consider it. "I admit I didn't have a lot of time to get a feel for her style, but I know Amplissa well enough to know there's tension there."
"No woman will ever receive a warm welcome to the Elite from Amplissa again," Nabooru replies. Again, there's something sad, just a hint of it in her voice. I'm not even sure it's there, but I have my suspicions. "They'll never meet the standard she compares them to, and she'll forever struggle to swallow the fact that the seat they fill will never again be filled by the one she wants." She shifts her weight, looks out over the frozen lake. "But she's Gerudo. She will move on. She will adapt. And if it means the newbies have to work just a little harder to keep their uniform, that doesn't bother me." She sighs. "My concern was more around Nidiza's politics. She's still young and brash, she still thinks the Hylians are the enemy. And," she adds bluntly, "to be fair I have trouble coming up with examples of why they're not lately."
I nod to acknowledge this point and don't bother bringing up all the usual reasons – she knows them well enough. "I picked her because she was a green and has some skills I need in there."
"Indiga used to be a green," Nabooru notes. "You could have picked her. And she's likely to go along anyway."
"Indiga thinks she's funny," I reply with a snort. "I need someone who isn't going to get any bright ideas for practical jokes to play on the Hylians, or on me while they're working. Nidiza seemed serious enough, and I assume she's not the type to defy a direct order from the King. Besides," I add, "maybe I think Amplissa needs a reason not to go courting a Gerudo's death of her own."
"You think Nidiza will be that reason?" Nabooru demands incredulously.
"I think Amplissa can't stand not winning," I clarify. "And her conflict with Nidiza's not one she can win, at least not easily. The woman brought up how Hylians suck again after I basically said to stop bringing up how Hylians suck. Clearly she's both stubborn and bold enough to stand up to Amplissa."
"Oh she is," Nabooru assures me, and there's a resigned note in her voice that makes me grin. "Believe me."
"Great," I say. "So as long as she's around, she'll drive Amplissa nuts, and as long as Amplissa's being bothered she can't dwell, and if she can't dwell, she can't do anything to ignite her own pyre."
"You're too soft," she says quietly. "If she can't—."
"I'm not losing them both," I cut her off sharply. There's a growing heat behind my eyes and I have to swallow. I am suddenly grateful that she can't see my expression well enough to realize. "Aliza's bad enough. And now Ruto. Maybe Anduriel." I can't even say Bruiser's name. I just shake my head. "Enough, Nabooru. Enough."
She raises her hand and shifts her weight again. "All right, kid," she says, then adds with a quiet sigh. "Truth be told I've had enough too."
Another silence falls and this time neither of us break it. We stay where we are without speaking until the Zora nurse comes hustling down the bridge with a lantern in his hand, clucking about hypothermia this, and cold winter air that, and what was I thinking? I let him fuss. I can see in the way the lamplight trembles in his hand, and the sorrow in his eyes that he's upset by Ruto's death and this is just his way of handling it.
"Get some sleep, highness," Nabooru says as she pulls herself to her feet. Her voice is heavy, like there's a mountain weighing down on it. "War's not over yet."
A Brief Interlude
She arrived at the appointed hour, and was completely unsurprised to find it abandoned, save for herself and the mess of ghosts that haunted every corner of this blessed, cursed land. She loosed a resigned sigh. "Pawns in a game played by spoiled children, our every move dictated, and still my family cannot accomplish a thing on the appointed hour."
The ghost of one who had no ghost, could have no ghost, spoke to her anyway, through memories. Memories and scars. Perhaps then, my darling Valdyx, you are adopted. For Siranas is waiting on Anduriel who chases Khol and everyone but me has given up on Mudora. And Revanas, as she has told us many, many times….
"Arrives in time, not on time, yes, little one, I know." For a moment sadness broke through her customary disinterest. "But I'm afraid that's not the case this time."
"No. Sirana waits for nothing now, and Anduriel's blind and couldn't lead Khol even if Khol were still a thing that could be lead. Mudora, perhaps, is the most true to your recollection, but nothing short of the return of Our Ladies could shake her from her tower, and…there's no longer anyone to not give up on her."
I…I am gone?
Valdyx looked down at her hands. "Yes, pretty one. You are gone from all but my hands. They remember every light they've ever taken, even yours." She curled them into fists and tried not to think about how they had taken hers twice. "Especially yours."
You must be very sad.
"I'm not permitted to regret, little one." And yet…and yet.
I am very sad.
"I know, darling one, I know. Sleep now. I need to focus and I can't do it any better with your memory underfoot, than I could with the rest of you there."
The presence faded into the static at the back of her mind where it belonged. She had never known them to come forward before, to speak to her directly, and was curious about the phenomenon. Was it because her sisters were not mortals, and their light was a different sort? Or because of what she had since become.
Another came forward in Nobernal's absence. This is not a meeting place befitting the Seven.
A new voice, a different memory. She sighed. "Sirana, this is hardly the time to be a stickler."
Well it is not. She could see it. She could see the other Sentinel crossing her arms, folding herself into a mountain that could neither be moved nor overrun.
"Well we're not Seven any longer, are we?" Valdyx snapped in response. "More like the Three-and-a-half. And I doubt Mudora will show. So Two-and-a-half."
Even two-and-a-half of us deserve better than a barren field. We do not often gather, Valdyx. Some formality is called for.
"Yell at Revanas. She's the one who called us here. This isn't my gathering."
Sirana's memory did not reply, but she could feel the weight of her stony, disembodied disapproval. She pressed her taloned hands together in front of her mouth and drew in a deep breath of ether. "If I find something better, will you stop harping at me and sleep?"
There was a long, gruding silence. Yes.
"Then fine. Now sleep." It occured to her as she began to look for an appropriate place, that if many more of them fell, her thoughts were going to start getting very crowded indeed.
It took her a while to find a good spot - couldn't be too grand or Khol might actually be pleased with it. Couldn't be too plain or Sirana would get her non-existant face in a knot – and the mulish creature had only been encouraged by death. But thankfully there was a group of ghosts huddled nearby, screaming as they all seemed to do these days. "Ah," she said, "perfect."
They were the owners and employee and guests of an inn, still huddled or scrambling, forever trying to escape the fire that had ultimately claimed their lives. She considered them for a long moment, poked through the threads of memory that kept them separate from each other and the nothingness around them. She decided their inn was suitable for her purposes, and that the brief theft of their memories was a fair trade for the equally brief respite from their current misery.
Certainly a fairer trade than the piece of her that remained wholly in the physical world would have offered them.
She drew in a deep breath and centred herself on the ghosts, then began to weave an elaborate tapestry from the threads of their memories. They calmed, one by one, as she worked, and seemed to recover something of themselves. The serving girl was first, climbing out from whatever it was she thought she was hiding within to continue wiping down the illusory bar. The owner was next, moving between the slowly coalescing tables to pick up glasses and plates that weren't there. Her husband after, to return to the kitchen and continue cooking the supper that had started the fire in the first place. One by one she rewound their lives for them, reset their position in their own memories. And with every guest that got up and returned to their table, every employee that went on about their duties as though they still lived and the inn was a physical place, the illusion gained strength and detail and warmth.
By the time Revanas arrived, nothing but the ghosts that moved around it gave it away as a collection of memories brought into the light.
Though she was clearly in a hurry, judging by the force with which she opened the door, she still paused on the threshold to look around and nod approvingly. "Khol won't like it," she said as she took the seat Valdyx offered her at a table near the fireplace. "Too mundane."
"That was sort of the idea," Valdyx replied, propping her feet up on the table and leaning back in the chair. She had woven herself into the memories enough to give herself the illusion of solidity. It wasn't the real thing, but after so long without, it warmed her to feel the sensation of her own body – her real body. Wings made of starlight, skin like the night sky, silver hair braided and knotted in impossibly intricate patterns. The smooth wood of the make-believe table against her heels, and the warmth of her make-believe skin against itself as she folded her hands across her stomach were intoxicating. She supposed it was rude to take this form in front of her sisters, who may also miss their original forms, but she was a simple creature, and simple pleasures were hard to deny herself. "The question is do you?"
"It's lovely. If Mudora were coming she would applaud your choice of era as well. This was a good century for us." She didn't need to say it. The silent 'perhaps the last' hung between them.
"Then Khol is outvoted and her opinion, as usual, is irrelevant," Valdyx replied with a shrug. "Murdora's absence doesn't surprise me, but do you actually expect Khol to show?"
"She can do nothing less," Revanas replied heavily. "Though not because I ask, but because he has told her to."
Valdyx straightened, dropped her feet to the floor. "To business then," she said. "I assume you're here before she is for a reason."
"Aye," Revanas said. "I wanted to ask two favours of you. One last time."
Valdyx frowned. "You know my limits, and right now they are many. If it interferes with my primary duty, I will not. If it requires direct interaction with the world beyond certain tight constraints, my hands, literally, are bound."
Revanas waved this off as unimportant. "When Khol is finished here, there will be some question as to who guards the Seventh Sage moving forward."
"You already guard her. Why would—oh. Oh, Revanas." She felt a wave of horror and regret wash over her. "What have you done?"
"What I had to," she replied. "As we all do. Valdyx, I don't have much time you must listen. It must be you that takes her, do you understand? Promise me this."
"If I can," Valdyx responded, still frowning. "Certainly in this role I have some minor freedom from his will, but I am still bound, Revanas. It's likely not up to me."
She waved this off as also unimportant. "Secondly, I need you to find the remaining Medallions."
"What medal—Revanas!" She gaped at the ram-horned Sentinel across the table from her and for a second her form, the table, the entire inn flickered. Horror crawled across the expressions of the ghosts and their mouths opened in silent screams as the flames crept toward them once again. Valdyx shook herself with a hiss and within a moment the scene had returned to its previous stability. She leaned across the table and lowered her voice, though there was no one there to hear them.
Well. Except for him.
"Revanas, you can't be serious. What are you going to do with them?"
"Me? Nothing. I won't even touch them. They just need to be found and restored. The rest will take care of itself."
"The rest of what?" Valdyx demanded. "Those things are abominations. Blasphemies. They never should have seen the light of day." Her dark face went grey. "If we hadn't found the last three before they were used, I—!"
"I'm aware of the history," Revanas cut her off crisply. "Mudora has an entire book dedicated to the damned things, in which her tone very nearly verges on opinionated, so you can imagine how upset she must have been. We were all upset. Perhaps you don't recall what was done with mine." There was an edge in her voice, a very, very dangerous edge and Valdyx, wisely, backed away.
"Of course, Revanas, of course," she said. "But then you, of all people—."
"Do what I must," she interrupted again, flatly.
"Revanas, mine is still out there." Her expression was a cross between horror and a deep, personal offence. "You can't—!"
"Valdyx, can you find them or not?" Revanas demanded, irritated.
She straightened, more offended. "Of course I can," she snapped. "Who do you think hid them in the first place? I know where they are."
"Then go and find them. Restore them to the physical world. Put whatever protections around them you need to to soothe your conscience and your anxieties, but they must be restored."
Valdyx's frown was dark. "Or what?" she demanded.
"Or the Hero will find them, and he cannot. If he does all I have done up to now for has been for naught."
"You can't just—."
But a bone-rattling crash, like thunder, shook the illusory inn, and the only thing that kept the windows from shattering was their intangibility. Both Sentinels flinched, and a booming voice called out, "REVANAS! I HAVE COME. DO NOT TRY TO RESIST."
Revanas sighed and sagged in the chair. Valdyx scowled, despite her pleasure at having someone not quite so ragged looking to take her anger and sudden anxiety out on. She rose to her feet, leaned on the table and shouted back: "She's as bound as we are, you idiot! She couldn't even if she wanted to!"
A distant roll of thunder was the only answer she received from outside.
"You want to show a bit of respect and come in here to talk to us with your inside voice?" She threw herself back into the chair with a scowl and crossed her arms over her chest. "Theatrical bastard, I hate it when she does this."
There was a moment of waiting, and then the door burst open and their sister stormed in. The expression on her scarred face mirrored the angry storm outside. Even her third eye was in on the act, looking more bloodshot and angry than usual amidst the mass of runes carved into her flesh. "You're talking about respect and this is what you conjure for our meeting?" she demanded, gesturing derisively around at the inn.
"It was perfectly pleasant before you brought your whole wrath of the Goddesses routine," Valdyx snapped in response. She dropped her boots back up on the table. "Thanks for blotting out what little sun we get in this miserable hellhole, by the way. Your presence is always a treat."
"Shut up, Valdyx, this isn't about you."
"Honey, in case you forgot, I'm death. Sooner or later it's all about me. Oh, and hey, in case you didn't get the memo, that goes for us too these days."
Revanas rubbed at her temple with her long fingers, mindful of her talons. "Listening to you two fight," she murmured, "makes me miss Anduriel."
Khol growled at her. "Comments like that are exactly why I have to drag you back to my tower, you know that right?" she demanded in a tone that implied frustration. "Why can't you just do what you're told?"
"I am doing what I'm told," she replied, turning in her chair to frown at her sister. "What I was told to do by the Goddesses. Balancing what they want with what he wants, isn't exactly a simple thing. I'm sorry he can't see that."
Khol rustled her leathery wings like a bird puffing up to make itself seem bigger. "He doesn't trust you," she said it like an accusation, and meant it as one. "He's sure you're cheating somehow. That you're only pretending to obey but you're actually aiding our enemies."
"His enemies," she corrected Khol.
"Our enemies!" Khol cried. "Revanas! Why do you insist—?!"
But Revanas rose to her feet so suddenly that Khol's voice failed her in the face of her sister's wrath. "There are three pieces of the Triforce that we are sworn to protect, and just because a single piece of it is currently in control of the realm to which we are bound does not justify the abandonment of oaths owed equally to the other two." She flexed her talons, rustled her own wings. "If he orders us to throw ourselves against the others until we lie in bloody pieces on the ground, so be it, but they are not our enemies."
"Revanas," said Valdyx softly.
She seemed to shrink again, and found her seat once more. She passed a hand over tired eyes. "I'm sorry," she said wearily. "I'm sorry, Khol. I'm just…knowing what is to come does not make enduring it any easier. And it has been an…an upsetting few days."
Khol shifted her weight awkwardly. "I'm afraid that I'm not here to make it any better." Her voice was suddenly quiet, no sign of her previous bluster in evidence.
"I know, Khol," Revanas said. "If it's any consolation in the future, I forgive you."
"It hasn't started yet," Khol noted with uncharacteristic gentleness.
"I can see the future, Khol, I know what's in store."
"As you said," the scarred angel noted, "to know is different than to endure. You may not feel so generous once we have begun."
Revanas lowered her head and Valdyx caught a slight tremor in her hands before she hid them under the table. "I will not," she said as lightly as she could manage. "And so I offer you my forgiveness while I am still a creature capable of forgiveness. Before he strips even that choice from me."
Valdyx had turned her gaze from one to the other and back again, and now frowned suspiciously. "What are you talking about?" she demanded. "What's going on?"
Khol turned to her and tried to speak, tried to explain, but found herself unable or unwilling to put voice to it.
"The master has decided that I am a liability," Revanas said, lifting her head again. Behind her mass of curls her face was hard as a stone, her eyes closed off. "He is convinced I have found a loophole in the binding, despite the fact that I have done as he has asked, and that even now I will allow Khol to take me, even knowing what is in store."
Valdyx suddenly felt sick. "Revanas, what—?"
"I am to remake her," Khol said, and the admission pained her.
Valdyx choked. "What?!" she managed. She glanced at Revanas, who would not meet her gaze, then back at Khol. "No," Valdyx said. "Khol, not again. You can`t."
"She's been corrupted somehow," Khol told her, and there was no sign of doubt in her voice. "By the Seventh Sage, I expect. The binding is cracked. She's still chained, but not completely – I can see it. She's found a loophole and she can't be allowed to continue using it." Her face was grim, her eyes hard. "I don't have a choice, Valdyx, it has to be done."
Valdyx struggled to remember how to breathe and it was a long moment before she remembered she couldn't anymore. "Why you?" she asked. "When Nobernal was…when she…it was him that did it. Why would he make you—?"
"I asked him to," Khol cut her off quickly. "I begged, Valdyx, and you know that isn't…that I don't do that easily."
"Why?" Valdyx asked, uncomprehending.
Revanas answered before Khol could. "Because she thought if it has to be done it should at least be one of my own sisters that does it. She thought that might make it easier. For me. For her. For the rest of you afterward." She sighed and pushed her chair back with a great deal of reluctance. Khol turned sombrely and held the door open for her as she got to her feet. "She's wrong, for the record."
Valdyx rose. "Khol, don't. Don't do this." Her expression was nakedly desperate. "Don't make me take her. Not by your hand."
Khol ignored this; adopted a tone of neutral instruction. "The Seventh Sage will be delivered to your stronghold, there to be guarded by your physical self. This is the Master's will."
Valdyx hesitated. "But…that's what she wanted. If she's a traitor—?"
"A ploy to make us do the opposite. As for the Medallions," her neutral expression wavered for just a second. Valdyx wasn't the only one with a Medallion left out there, "he says you are to restore those, and you are to keep them safe until he decides how he wishes to use them. He says…he says that you can consider hiding the knowledge of them from him your first strike. You won't be allowed a second." Her face was a study in stone, but Valdyx knew her well enough to know how deep her fear went. "Please, Valdyx. Just do what you're told."
And then they were gone.
Valdyx sat back down heavily and stared at the door they had left through, until long after the memory of fire had consumed the inn and left her alone and insubstantial once more.
Durnam ascended the stone stairs as slowly as his pride would allow. One watching him might have mistaken his lack of speed for age, or fatigue, or poor lung capacity. But while all of these things certainly played their role, they were not the true reason for it. Durnam, himself, wasn't sure what that reason was. Fear, perhaps, at the thought of what might be lurking in that chamber. Dread at facing another conversation with the monsters that had enabled him to take the throne, however tenuously. Confusion at the unexplained change in the monsters' tactics, summoning rather than appearing.
Or perhaps it was the weight of a hundred decisions that dragged at his feet and bowed his shoulders. Decisions both made and not made. Things done and things avoided. And the consequences of the sum, like a chain around his neck.
He had taken the throne, sure. Wore a crown, most definitely. But to keep it he'd had to cross lines he wouldn't have believed he could – lines he hadn't even known existed until he was past them. And what, in the end, was he keeping? A throne and a crown were nothing more than a chair and a fancy hat in the absence of the power and authority they symbolized.
And it wasn't them climbing the stairs to answer his summons, was it?
He closed his eyes and stopped, and it was a long time before he renewed his climb.
Aghanim's official chambers were gone, lost in the fire that consumed a good portion of the palace. But unofficially he had controlled more than a handful of rooms near the top floor. And in his absence, the moblins carried on his grim work. Whatever that was, and Durnam had no intentions of asking for details.
The fire had been a blessing in disguise for them. Though they had lost much of Aghanim's things in the blaze – tools, notes, books – it had effectively separated this wing of the palace from the rest of it, and provided an even more convincing reason for the denizens of the palace to stay away than had Aghanim's black-magic barrier. Less important sections of the palace had been rebuilt, repainted, and refurnished already, while this one went untouched, and if any wondered about it, they knew better than to ask.
Durnam had never been in the actual remaining tower – an arrangement that had satisfied both himself and his benefactors – and he couldn't help but wonder for what purpose the monster was demanding his presence now.
He passed by doors and hallways on his way to the top, marked with strange symbols he could say with some certainty he had never seen before. He was no mage, but the House Durnam had almost always employed one, and he could not recall any of those he had known in his lifetime to have drawn images so harsh and ugly. He didn't know what had been used to draw them, but there was a sickly sweet smell in the air, almost strong enough to overpower the lingering scent of burning wood, and he put it out of his mind with a shudder.
He saw only a few of the beasts on the stairs as he climbed, and they all stopped what they were doing to leer hungrily at him; he could feel their porcine eyes on his back long after he had passed from their line of sight. He didn't feel Kingly in their presence, or even lordly. He felt, in fact, like a child in the woods on a moonless night, with nothing but the starving wolves for company.
The door at the very top of the tower was open when he arrived, and he could see a sole moblin within – the one who was either their leader or their representative. It crouched in the centre of the room, surrounded by mirrors and basins of water, and pieces of glass. Symbols like those he'd seen elsewhere were scrawled in patterns all over the room, and on some of the reflective surfaces at which it stared. It leaned forward to scowl at a mirror, before something about a basin of water to its right caused its ear to flick, and it abruptly rerouted its attention. Durnam, frozen outside the doorframe, could hear something, like whispers but sharper, but could make no sense of the sound.
The moblin looked up suddenly and scowled at him, gesturing for him to step inside. Hating himself for how badly he trembled, he did so, and the sounds became clear so suddenly he gasped and staggered.
They were voices. Dozens of them.
"—say that Zelda's alive! The Hero sent them a message and said to—"
"—hear that? I think the kids are up. I don't want them to hear us talking about the reb—"
"—sons are dead too. Youngest wasn't even old enough to succeed him as head of the House, why—"
"—got a pigeon from Kakariko this morning. Said the moblins have got mages from somewhere and I started to wonder—"
"—throw in an extra couple rupees and I'll give you the latest rumours about the Lord Regeant and his—"
But the moblin made an intricate series of gestures and the voices died down again, back to a whisper. It turned to Durnam. "Things go up now," it said brusquely. "Things get hard. Need new plan."
He stared blankly at the moblin and tried not to let his eyes drift over to the mirrors. From his new angle he could see images flickering on them, like reflections on a lake. "I wasn't aware things had been easy," he managed.
The moblin ignored this, as though he hadn't spoken. "Need army. Go to field, to place on map. I give you map."
Durnam balked. "You have an army," he said harshly. "Go yourself."
"No," the moblin snapped. "Your army goes."
"I need my army here to keep order," Durnam protested. "Without it I'll have no defence against the rebels."
"Have us, yes?" the moblin said, and for a moment a hint of its old wheedling self was back. "We good. We handle rebels."
Durnam managed to scowl. "Yes and you've done a marvellous job of that so far," he snapped. "I don't need charmed mirrors to tell me what's happening on the streets. Rumours are running wild about the return of the Hero, talk is beginning to sound favourable toward to the rebellion, I don't have solid numbers on how many people have run off to join them, because my primary spy was one of them. My dungeons are overflowing with people who refuse to respect the curfew, and I've had to execute three of my own House members, and assassinate a very old friend in the last week. To be honest with you, I don't believe you've been holding up your end of the bargain at all!"
Something dark and angry flitted across the moblin's face, and though the air in the room remained as dead and heavy as it had when he'd entered, the heavy door behind him swung shut, plunging the room into what would have been darkness but for the faint light coming from the flickering images on the array of mirrors.
One of them in particular, grew brighter than the others at the moblin's gesture, and Durnam could once again hear the voice associated. It appeared to be a young guardswoman, speaking to a merchant. "He wouldn't," said the guardswoman, frowning. "I admit I don't agree with everything he's done, but you're saying he's using moblins?"
"I'm saying," the merchant repeated, his voice barely above a whisper, "that that's what I'm hearing. Something happened in Kakariko. Something big. And moblins and mages were involved, and some folks are saying it bears a lot of similarities to some of what we've—"
Another gesture, and a chunk of painted glass lit up. "All I'm saying is why hasn't the Grand Lord High And Mighty Regeant come out and said something about it, huh?" The voice was drunken and loud, the face it came from a little too red. A chorus of voices tried to hush her, but she refused to even acknowledge them. "If there's even a chance the Princess – the Queen – is alive, then Durnam should just acknowledge it. Just say that IF she comes back, the throne is hers. That's all." Somebody hissed something Durnam couldn't make out. "'S not treason, would be treason not to say it. He's the treasonous one!"
It gestured and the light from the mirror faded, replaced by the light from a large, ornate basin of water. "—got a hawk from one of our field patrols. Swears he spotted Gerudo out in the Field, headed away from the desert. Wants permission to engage."
"Denied," snarled a second voice. "What is he, drunk? No way there are Gerudo out there in the snow, not even for raiding. Not this time of year."
There was a hesitation, and then in a lower voice the first speaker added, "I heard a rumour that they're in support of the rebellion. That the Hero's sent them somehow, from wherever he is. I mean, it is his father running the damn thing, so—"
"Gerudo," said Durnam numbly, as the moblin gestured again, and the light dimmed. "Coming here."
"And the secret about to be no secret no more," said the moblin, pointing at itself. "Once break, no more spell. No more cloak. They know. They all know. Then they come. For you."
Durnam felt himself go pale.
"Time for new deal," said the moblin. "Your army go to Field on map. Stop Gerudo. My army come through portal. We fix everything."
"What?" said Durnam. "No! I won't allow you to—!" But the moblin rose out of its crouch and crossed the space between them in three long strides, forcing Durnam to stumble backward into the wall.
It put its face right in front of Durnam's and even in the dark it was impossible to miss the murderous intent in its eyes. "I say," it growled softly, its breath warm and foul, "new deal." Behind it a full-length mirror slowly lit up, and though there was no sound, Durnam could see his family in it, sitting down for a meal and no doubt lamenting his absence, as often as it was these days. His heart stuttered in his chest. "You send army to field. Kill Gerudo. You find me people for magic. For sacrifice. Many peoples. And maybe we leave something behind for you when we done." The mirror faded back to empty glass. "Maybe."
Durnam tried to speak, but found his voice would not come to him. The only sound he managed was a small, strangled noise, perhaps a sob, at the back of his throat. But he closed his eyes and nodded, and the moblin smiled and backed away.
The door opened of its own accord and light flooded the room again. Durnam flinched away from it, but the moblin grabbed him and threw him bodily out into the hallway, slamming the door shut behind.
When he could breathe again he tried to swear. And then he tried to pray. But the Goddesses names would not pass his lips.
With his head lowered and his spine bent, he started back down the stairs.
Chapter 26 (cont.)
It is a grim procession that heads out the next morning. The first, shortest, and slowest leg of the journey is on foot, on top of the ice to accommodate those of us who aren't water-breathers. Once they're in the water and swimming they'll be able to travel much faster, but Acqul asked Nabooru and I to bear the coffin with him and Ruto's handmaiden – now Laruto's handmaiden, and standing in for her – for this leg of the journey. Nobody's about to tell him no.
Hunter's face is stone this morning, but Neesha looks a little pale as the ice creaks and groans beneath us. She's never been a fan of any significant body of water, and her near-drowning experience in the ice-cold version of it has done nothing to endear it to her. There isn't much on this planet that can scare her, but I think drowning just rocketed to the top of the list, and she now has a renewed appreciation for the fact that ice is just water in disguise. But the Zora were out here before we were, checking the thickness and making sure it would hold our weight.
It's slow going, and the wind lashes us angrily, like it blames us for the weight we carry on our shoulders. I can't speak for the others, but a part of me is glad when the cold finally drives the feeling from me and lets me hide behind my numbness. Takes us the better part of the morning to reach the base of the now empty tower. We set the coffin down so the Zora can make whatever modifications they need to make for the underwater part of their journey, while we say goodbye.
"Find the others," Acqul says when he shakes my hand. "Bring them home." He can't bring himself to say it, but clear in his eyes is the silent plea, 'make this worth it.'
"I will," I promise him, even though it might turn out to be a lie in the end. Because I don't even know that I can do it.
And I don't think anything will ever make this worth it. Not for him.
"Take care of each other," he adds as he says goodbye to the others. "Be careful."
"Hey," Nabooru says before he can go. She grabs his arm and turns him to face her. "She was a strong woman, for all her foolish whims. I liked her." Acqul, thankfully, has had experience with Gerudo and understand the true depth of this comment. He nods seriously, but Nabooru doesn't let him go. She works her jaw for a moment, either looking for words or questioning them, but finally adds: "Someday someone's going to come looking for that little girl. Hoping to find her mother's power somewhere in there. Talking about sages and awakenings." She holds his gaze fiercely. "Don't let them."
His eyes are wide, and more than a little confused, but he nods, and she lets him go.
"Now who's soft?" I ask her under my breath as she rejoins us on the edge.
"Shut your mouth," she snaps.
Laruto waves at me sleepily as he carries her back toward the water. "Blue!" she calls to me.
I nod solemnly. "I'll tell him," I promise her.
And then they're gone beneath the icy water and it's just the four of us left at the tower. "I'll walk you to your portal," Nabooru says. "Just in case the Zora missed something on their sweep, and then I've gotta get back. Seeing as you sent most of my good women away I'm sure the B Team is busy burning down the fortress while I'm gone."
"Way I hear it, you're the one who burned down the Fortress," I note as we turn and head back inside.
"It was infected," she replies with a sneer. "It had to go. You would have done the same and you know it. Besides it was just one wing. That's nothing." I manage a good impression of a grin and she offers me a decent mockery of a scowl and we let the silence retake its place.
It's eerie being in this tower now that it's just a tower. Feels like a lifetime ago since the last time we were here. Distant memories of it echo back off the walls with our footsteps, like scenes from someone else's life. I can't help but stare at the pile of gigantic rubble that used to be an armos as we pass it by on our way to the portal. I try, and fail, to trace the path that lead me from there to here. From then to now. How long has it even been? A month? Two? I don't know.
"Should start watching the mirror from here," Hunter says as we near the point where we ported back into Hyrule. "Check for threats on the way. Maybe see if you can spot Anduriel."
I nod and pull the mirror free of my pouch, mindful of the pearl nested in the top. Doing my usual dance with the reflection to try to avoid having to see myself in it, I use it to spy on Anduriel's glade as we walk.
Or what's left of it.
My stomach sinks as I stare at the charred trees and blackened ground. Tilting the mirror up I can see smoke still streaking the air above the orchard with sooty lines, like claw marks in the sky. Somewhere in the distance the fire is still burning, but all around us here it appears to have consumed everything available. I hiss and Hunter and Neesha both glance at me, questioning. I tell them what I see and watch the same fear twisting in my gut crawl into theirs.
I go rapid fire through the argument I've been having with myself for the last two days. We couldn't have gotten back there any faster than we did. Even after the healing potion none of us were in fighting shape right away, thanks to our bracing swim in the lake, and the Zora camp is all the way on the other side of it from here. Trying to cross it on our own after Ruto's…before the Zora had had the chance to confirm it was clear of Dark World Zora and were able to test the ice would have been a terrible decision, and we didn't know whether the tower was holding more of them. The Zorans needed time to do it, Acqul needed us to be here, and as much as it burns me to admit it, if we're too late to help Anduriel now, we were too late by the time we hit the lake, let alone hours later when we finally woke up in the medical tent. I would have happily taken the risk, but it would have been for nothing anyway, and it was Acqul asking, what was I supposed to do?
Without a word exchanged all three of us pick up our pace.
When we're finally out on the parapets and have picked out what appears to be – oh Nayru, oh Farore, oh Din please let it be – the portal, about two feet out from the tower in the middle of space, but a good few feet above the level of the floor we're jumping from, I turn back to Nabooru. The wind's gotten angrier since we started climbing, and I have to shout to be heard over it. "I don't know when we'll be jumping back next. Anytime we get near a good spot to connect I'll try to jump back to report, but it could be a while."
"Try to hit the Hyrule Field portal next," she shouts back. "Then I can move the women from there into Castletown to help keep order." We talked about this earlier and I nod to let her know that I remember. She turns her eyes over all of us, and her face is grim. "Get in, hit hard, get out," she says.
Neesha goes first, which surprises me. I expected her to hesitate over leaping off an impossibly high tower into open air above the very same lake she almost drowned in – in fact, the hole we made hasn't frozen all the way over yet. But I neglected to calculate the Nabooru-Effect. She's not about to show weakness in front of her, not with the amount of trouble she's currently in, even though I can see in how bright her eyes suddenly are that she's quite sure she'd about to die horribly.
Instead she hits the shimmery patch in the air and disappears.
Hunter backs up to get a running start and then he's up and over and gone as well.
Nabooru catches my shoulder as I move to do the same. I glance up at her, surprised.
"I've had enough," she reminds me.
I hold her gaze for a moment, then nod. She lets me go, and I make my jump, soaring off the edge of the tower. I brace myself as I cross the portal and land in a pile of ash and dust on the other side.
A Brief Interlude
"I'll take something warm to eat, and something strong to drink," Brayden said, dropping into a seat at the bar like the entire world had settled on his shoulders – wasn't hard to pretend. "Oh, and whatever gossip you've got that's worth the breath it takes to tell it."
Renaud was already installed at a table nearby, chatting up the people he was drinking with like they were old friends, even though he'd never met them before taking a seat at their table. Brayden threw a glance around the room, ostensibly to survey the crowd but actually to watch Renaud work. He hated to admit it, but passive or not Renaud was better at this part of the job than he was.
His wig was itchy and the roaring fireplace kept the temperature in the room at a level that was already making him sweat under the make-up Mel had carefully applied for him before he left. They weren't going to be able to stay long.
"It's a good day for gossip," said the barkeep, reaching for a bottle of something honey coloured. She pulled it down down and set a glass in front of Brayden. "Not so good for food, though. Lunch crowd got here before you. I'll have the boy cook something up, but it'll take a while."
"Just the drink and the gossip then," Brayden said easily. "I can't sit long."
"Did you hear about the Gerudo?" she asked, filling his glass from the bottle.
"Little cold out lately for news about Gerudo," he said with a wry quirk of his mouth. "What about them?"
"Not cold enough, apparently," she replied, popping the cork back into the bottle. "Rumour is there's a group of them headed this way as we speak."
It wasn't any harder for Brayden to look surprised than it had been to look tired and worried – nobody was supposed to know that yet. "Says who?"
"Had a couple of lads from Beamos company in for breakfast this morning. They got their marching orders while they were sitting at the table. The whole company's shipping out first thing tomorrow."
Brayden felt a chill run down his spine despite the heat in the room. "What makes you say it's Gerudo?"
"Well one of them joked about it, didn't he?" she replied. "Made some comment about it being war with the Gerudo and they all laughed. But the messenger didn't crack so much as a smile, and they all got this look on their faces, like they didn't know what to think." She shrugged. "Maybe it's not Gerudo, but that seemed pretty clear to me. You add that to the rest of the rumours—."
"What rumours?" he interrupted.
"What do you mean, what rumours?" she demanded. "You out of the loop?"
"My nephew's normally the one who feed me my gossip," he said, and it wasn't a lie. "But he's away. So I guess you could say that, yeah."
"Well, you know about the rebellion at least?"
"Of course! Everyone knows about the rebellion."
"Do you know who they're saying runs it?"
"Thought it was that noble boy. El-something."
"He's part of it," she confirmed. "But he's partners with Brayden!"
Brayden gave her his best blank stare.
"Oh come on!" she said. "Brayden of the Sheikah. He's the Hero of Time's father!"
"Oh, that Brayden!"
"Yes, that Brayden! And what's his son besides the Hero of Time?"
Brayden pretended to think about it. "King of the Gerudo?"
"Exactly! So we figure he's called in a favour and that's why the Gerudo are coming."
Brayden took a long drink from his mug. "Are we thinking that's a good thing or a bad thing?"
"Hard to say, inn'it?" she replied. "The Hero's a good man. And so's his father, the way I hear it told. And, I mean…." She paused and cast a paranoid look around the bar, then leaned in closer and lowered her voice. "I mean, I'm not the sort to question the powers that be, but I can't help but think maybe there's something to this rebellion, you know." Her face lost some of its practiced joviality and Brayden saw a hint of much darker thoughts behind her lashes. "I had some friends taken in the last inquisition. Their families haven't been able to get word from them or find out where they are. They were good people, you understand me? Loyal to the crown. Never had a treasonous thought in their lives." She straightened again, shaking her head. "Makes you wonder."
He offered her a sad smile that wasn't even a little faked. "My son was taken in the first inquisition," he said. "Back at the start of all this."
She paused and gave him a sympathetic look, then shook her head. "Well, I'll pray for you that the Gerudo are here to help and maybe we'll find your son and my friends all holed up in a dungeon somewhere, waiting for rescue." She didn't sound particularly hopeful.
"What else would the Gerudo be coming for?" Brayden asked. "If not to help?"
"Treaty's gone," the barkeep answered with a frown. "Nothing stopping them anymore from seeing if they can do this time around what they couldn't last time around."
Brayden took a slow sip of his drink and then looked up at her. "Well," he said, "to be fair, we did put a price on their King's head and hand him over to his enemies."
"Which is why we're all hoping it's Brayden that called them," she answered.
He shrugged and set his mug back down. "Their King is his son," he pointed out. "I can't imagine he's much happier with us than they are."
"Then why's he fighting this rebellion?" she demanded. "He's been trying to help us."
Brayden sighed. "I don't know," he said. "He's a Sheikah. Maybe duty counts for something after all."
"It's all a moot point anyway," the innkeeper said with a shake of her head. "If Beamos company finds the Gerudo before they get here it's all over. They're some of the best we got, some rising stars in their ranks. Like that Amira lady. She earned her stripes in the battle for Castletown a few years ago. She's fought with Gerudo, she'll know how to fight against them."
Brayden opened his mouth to ask who else might be in their ranks, but was cut off by the sound of someone slamming a fist down on a table with vindictive force. He spun on his stool to look at where Renaud sat.
The ex-Sheikah was still seated, to all appearances calm despite the anger of his tablemate, but Brayden spotted a tightness in his jaw and a vicious glint in his eye. His tablemate – the one who had struck the table – was standing and looming over him, face red.
"Say that again!" he bellowed, oblivious to the crowd staring at him.
"Hey!" shouted the innkeeper. "It's too early in the day for fighting, take it outside!"
Brayden offered her an appeasing gesture and got to his feet to go intercede.
"I don't quite understand the issue," Renaud said. "It was just an observation."
"Well observe it again," said the man. "I dare you."
Renaud took a lazy drink from his mug before replying. "All I said was that maybe the late Lord Eldrick was worth three of any man content to sit in a tavern and speak ill of the dead, instead of avenging them."
"My sister is one of those dead, you bastard! Taken in the last inquisition!"
"And I'm sure she'd be so very proud of her brother for being a cowardly drunk too scared to do anything real—."
The man was over the table before Renaud could finish and Brayden heard the solid smack of a fist striking flesh. Renaud didn't even try to block it. He and the man went down in a heap, half of their table on top of them. Swearing viciously, Brayden bolted over to them and with the help of one of the other patrons dragged the two apart. The drunk man didn't have a scratch on him, and he chose to interpret that as victory – a misunderstanding Brayden was content to let him have. Especially given that Renaud's face was bloodied and his disguise was marred.
"Out!" the innkeeper was yelling. She came around the bar brandishing a broom in her hand like a maul. "Get them out of my inn!"
Brayden grabbed Renaud's scarf from the back of a chair and threw it into his face before anyone could look close enough to notice anything other than the blood was amiss. "Put pressure on it," he said, grabbing his arm and dragging him toward the door. He glanced over his shoulder at the innkeeper. "I'll get him out of here and somewhere to clean up. Okay if I settle in a few minutes?"
She gave him a terse nod and he shoved Renaud out into the snowy afternoon.
They didn't speak until they were safely hidden in an alley, just above the sewer grate they'd used to travel to the inn. Brayden released Renaud and watched him lean up against the wall of the building. "You want to tell me what happened back there?" he demanded.
"Not especially," Renaud replied.
"I don't," Renaud cut in acidly before Brayden could continue, "work for you, Brayden of the Sheikah. So don't lecture me as though I'm a supplicant." He held Brayden's furious glare evenly. "I had a moment. I'm over it. Move on."
Brayden stared at him for a long time. "You told me," he said, "when I asked you why you left, why you went passive, that the pay was better and you had more freedom."
"It was and I do. For instance, the freedom to pick fights and lose them as I please without being interrogated about why."
"I don't believe you."
"Would you like to know how much I make?"
"I don't believe those are the reasons you left."
"And why is that?"
Brayden considered him for a long moment before answering. "The way Eldrick looks at you and talks to you, when he's not being the Lord Eldrick, when he's just being the boy Dorian. It's more respect and more thought than he can be bothered to show to his betters, let alone his servants. He defers to you when he's not paying attention."
"I joined the household when he was five. He doesn't remember a time when I wasn't around. And my duties included training him and his siblings. I have been a…mentor to him. An advisor."
"His father is dead."
"One of them."
"Brayden," Renaud said evenly. "I would be a worse father than I was a Sheikah. A father would have helped him filter the lessons his sire taught him. Helped him pull the truth free of the entitlement it was wrapped in. I didn't do that. A father would have helped him understand his own privilege, helped him grow to recognize it, to use it appropriately. I didn't do that, either. A father might have…might have taken his sire to task for failing to teach him self-control, failing to teach him restraint. For encouraging his insubordinate nature, for nurturing his arrogance. The few attempts I might have made at that were weak, at best. A father wouldn't…a father wouldn't…blame him for being the stupid boy he couldn't help but be, because of those failures. Wouldn't blame him for…the consequences." He shook his head, lowered his eyes. "I'm a selfish man. I've always been a selfish man. Too selfish to be a father."
"So get over it," Brayden replied unsympathetically.
Renaud blinked and looked up, startled.
"Being a father isn't about you, Renaud. It's about your kids. You think you're a bad father because you didn't yell at him enough?" He made a face. "I murdered my son."
"That hardly counts," Renaud said with a frown. "You weren't you."
"You think that matters to me?" Brayden replied, something hollow in his voice. "You think I feel any differently about it because of that?" He raised a hand to rub at his face and took in a deep breath. "Look, my point is that I can't change any of that. What I can do is what I'm doing. With his permission, I can do my best now to make up for my failures. I can try to help him. I can try to enable him. I can try to support him."
"Dorian doesn't need the help of a man who can't get past the fact that his father's death was his fault. Twice over."
"You know, I've known a handful of Gerudo in my life, and most of them would tell you that it was his fault. Directly his fault. And that what you're doing isn't blame but recognition." He shifted his weight. "You both have a choice now. Acknowledge the failure, learn from it, and be better moving forward. Or give up, lay down, and wait for death to make it moot."
"I'm no Gerudo."
"Then do what a Sheikah would do," Brayden replied. "Cut your losses, reprioritize, and salvage what you can. But keep your eyes on the end goal." He gestured back toward the inn. "This war's not over yet, and until it is we can't afford that kind of thing happening again. Do what you need to do to deal with your grief. Go to a temple and confess to a priest, write an angry letter and set it on fire without mailing it, or bury your grief down so deep in your heart you forget you ever felt it. But do it quick, because we're out of time."
Renaud didn't reply.
Brayden leaned down and brushed the snow away from the sewer grate. "Your disguise is ruined," he said as he lifted the heavy grate. "You may as well head back. I'm going to hit up the last two taverns on our list and then I need to speak to you and the others."
"I still need to confirm it, but there's a rumour that Durnam knows about the Gerudo and he's sending the army out to meet them first thing tomorrow morning. We need to figure out what we're going to do about it if it's true."
"You shouldn't be out here alone," Renaud said with a frown. "It's too dangerous. What if you're caught?"
"Should have thought of that before you picked a fight you intended to lose," Brayden replied neutrally. He pointed at Renaud's bloody face. "I don't have a choice now. We need confirmation of this before we act, and if it's true we need to act now. It's only a couple of taverns, I'll be fine." Renaud didn't move and Brayden's face softened. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry about Eldrick. I may not have liked him, but I think I know what he meant to you."
"And what is that?"
"Something worth a lot more than a good paycheque and a bit of freedom," Brayden replied. "I would have left for Nat. If it had come to it. If she had asked me to." His expression grew distant and a little lost. "Sometimes I wish she had. Maybe things would have turned out differently."
"Sentimental for a man who just told me to bury my feelings."
Brayden shrugged. "I'm no Gerudo either."
Renaud shook his head, but he moved away from the wall and over to the sewer entrance. He climbed down onto the ladder leading to the sewers. He waited for Brayden to drop the grate back into place and peered up at him through the bars. "I assume it's not the whole army they're sending for the sake of a small squad of Gerudo."
"Just a company as far as I can tell right now," Brayden said. "But that's probably triple the size of the Gerudo force. It's big enough to stop them."
"Did they happen to mention which company?"
"She said Beamos."
It was hard to tell through the blood and the ruined makeup, but Brayden was pretty sure Renaud's face tightened at the news. "I'll gather the others. We'll be waiting for you when you get back." He was gone before Brayden could question him.
Feeling his age twice over, Brayden got back to his feet and left the alley.
He moved quietly through the grey and snowy afternoon, pausing just outside the inn's door. The light inside was warm and welcoming, the noise cheery and amused despite the recent altercation. It felt like a memory. Distant, hazy, and untouchable. Something he understood but couldn't feel.
He couldn't bring himself to go inside.
Need to let a bit more time pass, he told himself to justify it. Don't want it to look like I just took him to the alley and dumped him.
He leaned up against the wall between the door and the window instead and turned to watch the snow fall. It was thick and silent and heavy. Reminded him of his first Solstice with Natalia and Link. He'd promised Bruiser a year's worth of babysitting if he could convince Impa to let him take Natalia and Link above ground, just for a few days. They'd rented a room at the inn in Kakariko – Bruiser and Aeria and Hunter as well – and it had snowed the entire time. Just like this. It had always amused him that Link's first Solstice was also Natalia's first Solstice.
It occurred to him that Solstice would be a much smaller affair this year.
"Evening, citizen," said a voice to his left. "We're hunting for rebels. Have you seen any?"
"What?" he said, turning to look just in time to catch a mailed fist in the temple.
He heard, in a distant sort of way, banging and crashing from inside the inn, followed by screaming. An alarming number of heavily booted feet stomped past his face to crash through the doors and catch anyone trying to leave through the front. He tried to push himself up but didn't quite get there before a foot caught him in the ribs and sent him back to the ground.
He had just enough time to recognize his attacker's tabard – the symbol for the House of Durnam – before everything went black.
Chapter 26 (cont.)
I've never been a big fan of silence. I think most people who know me would corroborate that. Mostly because it's boring, but sometimes, like now, because it's painful. Because sometimes being quiet is worse than saying one of the dozens of careless, insensitive things you could say, just to fill that empty space with sound. Just to do something that isn't sitting where you are and feeling helpless.
I want to speak, I have an overwhelming desire to open my mouth and just talk; to say anything – anything – to drive the silence away. But the problem is it's not silence, singular, that I'm confronted with right now. It's silences, plural. And I can't fight them all.
There's the silence that still lingers in the space between Neesha, Hunter and I, left over from Ruto's funeral and our long walk to the Tower. This, I think, would be the easiest to fill, if not for the others. Nayru knows we tried. For a while after we got back we talked about next steps, repeated conversations we'd already had a million times. Talked about anything and everything that wasn't what had happened, or the implications of the devastated orchard around us. Even Zelda, with no understanding of what had taken place after we left, couldn't bring herself to ask. But then we found Anduriel, and the silence returned.
Maybe the worst of the silences is the one coming from Anduriel, who sleeps in a huddle of rags and feathers at the back of the cave Kiki found for her to crawl into after Revanas left. I catch myself, more than once, staring at her to make sure she's still breathing. One of her wings is a charred mess, and when she shivers in her sleep and the burned robe slips a little further down her shoulder I can see her back isn't in much better shape. If I thought she was pale when I first met her, she's worse now, and it's a sort of grey shade that's not encouraging. Her face is badly bruised, the dark purple of it stands out like a flag on her face; it makes her look impossibly mortal. There's a brittleness in her silence, as fragile as the sleep to which she clings. It's an unspoken waiting for the next tragedy, and a bone-deep knowledge that there are plenty of those still out there, stalking her in the dark.
Are angels even supposed to sleep?
And lastly there's the silence between Zelda and I. After we got here and Kiki briefed us in an uncharacteristically somber and straightforward way on what had happened, Zelda and I ran out of reasons to not talk about certain things. I said maybe it would be better if we did the Temple-Of-Time-Projection thing so we could talk in person, and you know what? I don't know that that was the best choice. A part of me is pretty sure that made it harder. I told her about Ruto, didn't manage to keep it quite as together as I would have liked, and then I thought about Nabooru and what she'd said about not coddling her, and since the conversation was already Hell anyway, I figured why not, and I told her about her father.
She said she wasn't surprised about her father and she had really already done her mourning, but her voice was hollow and I know better. And she didn't say anything at all about Ruto, just excused herself as formally as if she were meeting with one of her nobles and ended her side of the contact. The Temple of Time disappeared and left an empty space in my head where she sits when she's watching.
Empty and silent.
So I sit, surrounded on all sides by silences, and wish desperately for something happen. Anything. Even something bad. Let the moblins find us. Give me something to scream at.
After what seems an eternity of this, Anduriel finally stirs. Kiki is at her side instantly, and Hunter, Neesha and I straighten as she opens her milky eyes and stares blankly at us. I mentally prod the spot where Zelda would otherwise be. I have no idea if she can feel it, but she asked to be here when Anduriel wakes. She has questions for her. Something to do with Revanas.
It takes a moment, but she returns to the edges of my awareness reluctantly. Sorry, she murmurs.
'Sokay, I murmur back.
"You made it," Anduriel says, and exhales in relief. Her voice is so soft it breaks my heart, and her arms shake a bit as she lifts herself up into a seated position. A brief, pained grimace crosses her face as she adjusts her wings. "I'm sorry," she says. "You should have woken me."
"Are you okay?" I ask, and it feels good to have found my voice at last.
She offers me a gentle smile. "Would you believe me if I said I was fine?" she asks, her tone light.
"I would pretend to," I offer.
"Then I am fine, Hero."
"That's good," I pretend. "I'm glad to hear it."
Hunter sucks at this game, though. "Is there anything we can do?" he asks, his face carefully neutral, but his eyes bright with concern.
She settles her hands in her lap and draws herself up as regally as she can manage under the circumstances. "You can end this," she replies. "Bring us to a conclusion at last."
He doesn't know how to respond to that, so he presses a fist to his heart and offers her a sombre nod of his head. He catches my eye on the way up and I clear my throat. "Ah," I say. "So, Laruto is safe with her father," here Anduriel seems to breathe a little easier, "and the Dark Zora are no longer a serious threat. She'll return to her home and be very heavily guarded to ensure she isn't recaptured. Unfortunately, her mother…." I work my mouth to try to say it, but I can't. I said it once already and I don't have it in me to say it again.
"The Sage of Water has passed away," Anduriel supplies gently. "I am aware, Hero." She looks, for a moment, like there's something else she wants to say. Something grim. But she closes her eyes and shakes her head instead. A part of me wants to press, but it's a small part. Easily ignored. "I believe that was part of…part of what caused Revanas to visit my humble realm."
I frown. "No," I say, "Ruto…it happened after. After Revanas got here. In fact, if she hadn't shown up and pushed us to the side we—." I cut myself off and straighten abruptly.
We would have landed on the walkway of the Tower and never landed in the water and never prompted Ruto to rush out to save us, at the cost of her own life.
I suddenly can't breathe.
"Angel of prophecy," Hunter says quietly. He tips his head back against the cave wall and closes his eyes. "Oh my Goddess."
Neesha frowns. "You're saying she did that on purpose?" she demands. "You're saying she did that specifically to kill Ruto?!"
"Yes," I say, anger stirring in the ashes around my heart. It's held down by the moon pearl, no stronger than usual, but it's undeniably the same emotion that spawned the beast. "That's exactly—."
But, "No," Anduriel cuts in quickly. Then she hesitates. "Not precisely."
We turn to stare at her. Her expression is tired and uncertain. "Revanas' motives are rarely that clear," she says softly. "I cannot say I trust them entirely, but…."
"But what?" Hunter asks, frowning.
"Revanas knows more than the rest of us, sees more than the rest of us. She knows every possible outcome of every possible decision, and in very rare circumstances, under very explicit conditions, she is permitted to…manipulate events. To interfere."
Neesha's face is a shade paler than normal. "And Ganon's got her on a leash."
"No," Anduriel says again. "Not…I don't…." She pauses, lifts a trembling hand to her face. She takes a deep breath and restarts. "The three eldest among us – Revanas, Valdyx, and Mudora – were given explicit tasks they are to fulfill, without interference or manipulation from any outside the Goddesses themselves. Ganon may control their bodies, he may control their spirits. He may dictate every move they make, and every decision they take, but he cannot affect their fulfillment of those tasks. Not even death will affect their fulfillment of those tasks."
"Mudora is…the Chronicler?" Hunter hazards. The question prompts a brief smile, tinged with sadness, from Anduriel.
"An old name," she says. "One of her favourites, truly. Yes, that is she."
"Sahasrahla mentioned her," Neesha says, and glances at Hunter for more information.
"The Chronicler is in a lot of our old stories. Legend holds she's responsible for the recording of history – the true history of the world – in preparation for the day the Goddesses return to pass judgement on it. She's forbidden from interfering with the world at all, except to fulfill her duty." He looks like he can't believe that this person is actually real, and that we are actually probably going to have to kill them. "It was the Chronicler who's supposed to have taught us our language. And it's because of her we care so much about recording our history, and why we try to stay out of events as much as possible."
Neesha snorts derisively. "The Sheikah don't stay outside of events," she points out, "you guys have had your fingers in everything since the Great War."
Hunter shrugs. "Application of the policy varies from generation to generation," he admits. "And ours is a very active generation. But the principle is there – we never seek to rule or lead. Merely guide. Maybe the Chronicler can't influence things to get a more favourable Judgement in the end, but that's not the contract we signed."
"And that," Anduriel says with a measure of satisfaction, "your people learned from Revanas. Mudora is responsible for recording history as it truly is, a task she undertakes even now. Corrupted though she may be, her written word is truth and can be nothing less. But Revanas' task is to oversee history before it becomes so. To manage the manifold paths and the tangling of destinies. Under very specific conditions – conditions having nothing to do with what any mortal, even a Triforce carrier, wants – she is permitted to interfere. To prevent or ensure certain things critical to the ongoing stability of Creation as a whole."
"She did a real good job of that," I say, with a disparaging glance out at the ruined orchard, and the rest of the Dark World beyond it.
Anduriel's smile somehow grows sadder. She gestures listlessly. "This is not a threat," she explains softly. "This is an understood and acceptable by-product of certain mechanics central to the world's organization."
I stare at her, open my mouth to argue, but she holds up a hand to stop me. "Link," she says gently, "I understand. I agree with you. But you need to understand that the Triforce is not a person, with a sense of right and wrong. It doesn't judge anything, short of the worthiness of those who try to possess it. And that worthiness is not based on what system of morals that individual adheres to. Everything you see here, all of the mechanics at play, extend from the Triforce. Revanas is not permitted to interfere in the interests of preventing a thing that is simply a natural consequence of a perfectly acceptable event." She sits back and her expression grows troubled. "In truth, while I suspect she is interfering somehow, I have not been able to determine how or why. With the exception of those actions intended to preserve Creation's stability, she should be bound to Ganon's will, operating on his behalf, and yet…."
"She killed a Sage," Neesha notes dully. "Sounds like Ganon to me."
Again that look on Anduriel's face, like she knows something we don't, but again she swallows it. "She did," she says grimly. "But you cannot assume anything about her motives. I have known her to shift the position of a pebble on a road in order to prevent a war. And I have seen her save a life to cause one. And never have I fully understood why. I have found it is better not to wonder."
She's found a loophole, Zelda says.
"What?" I say out loud.
"It's better not to wonder," Anduriel repeats.
"No, sorry, it's Zelda," I say, pointing at my head. "She says Revanas found a loophole."
"A loophole?" Anduriel repeats, curious and surprised.
Something to do with probabilities, I think. She wouldn't explain it to me, wouldn't even acknowledge she was doing it, but I overheard…anyway, I'm sure I'm right.
I relay this to Anduriel, who mulls it over. "She is bound to Ganon," she says slowly. "She is required to act in his favour. To further his chances of success."
Hunter frowns thoughtfully. "But you said she sees all possible outcomes, right? Is it possible that she's trying to choose between paths that maybe have a forty percent chance of benefitting him—?"
"But a sixty percent chance of benefitting you," Anduriel finishes, nodding. "Yes. Yes I think that might be possible. But it would be unwise to assume that it is so. Again, you cannot tell with her. It's possible she has arranged this specifically to cause us to think this."
"Because it could help us," Hunter notes.
"Or because it could hurt us," Neesha points out.
"You see the challenge," Anduriel replies dryly. "The only thing I can say for certain is that she does nothing by accident, and makes no move without precision."
"How are we supposed to fight something like that?" I demand incredulously.
I don't think you'll have to, Zelda says slowly. Ask her what 'remaking' means.
I frown. "Zelda wants to know what remaking means?"
Anduriel goes very, very still. "Where did she hear that?"
I relay the answer as Zelda gives it to me. "She says Revanas met with two of the other sentinels – Valdyx and Khol. She left with Khol who's been instructed to remake her in order to circumvent the probabilities loophole."
Anduriel's wings flutter and she makes a small, pained noise that has nothing to do with her burns. "Remaking is…remaking is…." She stops, wraps her hands around each other, starts again. "We are, each of us, bound to the Sacred Realm, and to the Triforce. But the bindings, in very rare cases, may not be complete. Cases like mine, for example, where my tie to Rauru's sealed realm, and to the other two Triforce pieces were enough to bind me to them, instead of to Ganon's piece. Or Revanas', where her abilities left her a means to circumvent Ganon's intentions, despite the binding." She pauses and her face goes distant. "Remaking is a process Ganon devised, whereby our bindings can be adjusted and redone. But our bindings…are what we are. The remaking is…it is not…." She closes her eyes. "Nobernal was the first – the only – he's done it to. She did not…survive the process. So he twisted…so he…."
Kiki, who has been remarkably quiet this entire time, lays a tiny paw on her arm and she comes back to herself at the touch. She rests her hand on his head.
"Zelda says it won't be Ganon. Khol volunteered to do it."
"Oh Khol," says Anduriel, the words like a sigh. She turns her blind eyes on me, but it takes me a minute to realize it's not actually me she's talking to. "Revanas would have known this was to happen," she says. "She likely knew it before Ganon did. I need to know what she said. What she did. Every detail. Anything you can remember, leave nothing out."
"What good is that?" Neesha asks.
"She knew Zelda was listening," Hunter says. "She had to. Maybe there was a message somewhere in there for us. If she really did have a loophole…."
"You don't think this is just us playing right into her hands?" Neesha demands. "Just in case you forgot, she basically killed Ruto."
"Better we hold her accountable for what that cost us," Hunter says slowly, "than let Ganon hold her accountable for whatever invisible benefit it may have given us."
"Guys I can't follow this many conversations at once," I say, putting my hands out. "We can decide what we're doing about it after, for now shut up for a second and let Zelda talk."
A Brief Interlude
"Hey, your Lordliness."
Eldrick looked up from the crude copy of the one good map of the sewers they had. The recruits he was showing it too looked up as well. One of the twins jogged up to them, a strange look on her face. Eldrick frowned at her. "I am making an effort to learn your names, the least you could do is learn the proper form of address." She paused and gave him an expectant look and he hesitated. "…Bel…?"
"So close," she said, "yet so, impossibly far." She paused, and he waited for her inevitable finish. "Your Lordliness."
"I'm trying, here," he said.
"And we appreciate it. Especially since it's so randomly considerate of you." Well, not random unless one failed to consider the new angle of the young Lord's nose and the fact that it and his new found care with words happened to appear around the same time.
"Did you need something?" he huffed.
"Yeah," she said, but her eyes slid over the new recruits and she jerked her head to him to come talk to her privately. He bit his tongue and shoved the map at one of the new recuits. "Memorize it," he told them. "We have these hallways booby-trapped to Hell, you don't want to take a wrong turn." He got to his feet and brushed off his hands, then followed her back a few steps. "So? What is it?"
"It's Renaud," she said. "He's in the Strategy Room just…drinking? He looks like he's been in a fight."
Eldrick blinked at her in surprise. "What do you mean in a fight?"
"I mean his shirt is all bloody and his face is all bruised. Looks like someone clocked him."
She held out her hands and shrugged. "It didn't look like the kind of thing I should intrude on. I figured since you knew him better…."
He nodded and turned toward the Strategy Room, but she caught his arm. "Hey," she added, "ask him if he knows where Brayden is. He should have been back by now."
He nodded again and she released him. He moved through the room toward the alcove they had designated the 'Strategy Room' (in essence, a collection of crates and boxes with a series of poorly drawn maps tacked to them) – but it had a door, which was really the important part.
Eldrick pushed it open and peered in. "Renaud?" he called. "Are you in here?"
"Dorian," replied Renaud. "This is not a very good time."
"One of the—Mel mentioned you were hurt." He slipped into the room. "What happened?"
"Oh you know," Renaud replied, "nothing that doesn't happen every night in every tavern in the Kingdom. A drunk fool said the wrong thing to an old fool, and one of them paid for it." He shifted and the light fell across his bruised face. Dorian hissed in surprise. "Dorian, it is very difficult for me to avoid slurring right now. I'm serious when I say this is not a good time."
"Who did this to you?" Eldrick demanded. "I'll hang them myself!"
"Leave it, Dorian."
"No one lays a hand on a member of my household without repercussions!" Eldrick snarled. "Especially not you! Tell me who they are and I will—!"
"Dorian!" Renaud cried, cutting him off. "Let it go!"
Eldrick balked, setting his jaw and staring the older man down. "Are you drunk?"
"Is Brayden back yet?"
"No. Are you drunk?" Eldrick paused. "Why wasn't Brayden with you?"
"Because I was feeling sorry for myself, so I picked a fight and lost it on purpose and ruined my disguise by accident. But he had a lead he had to follow. I told him not to, but he didn't listen." He picked up his glass and downed it in one go. "Which is apparently a theme in my life."
"I don't want to talk about it, Dorian, let it go."
"All right," Eldrick said after a long moment. "I'll let it go." He crossed the room to take the seat opposite Renaud. "What lead was he following?"
"Looks like Durnam knows about the Gerudo," Renaud answered. "They're sending out the army tomorrow morning. Brayden wanted to confirm it before we reacted." He considered the nearly empty bottle near his hand and looked down at his mug. He did some quick, hazy calculations. "What time is it?"
"After supper," Eldrick replied. "Why?"
Renaud frowned. "Didn't mean to get this drunk. He should have been back by now to stop me."
"I'll send someone out to look for him. Don't move, I'll be right back."
Renaud waved him off. He wasn't entirely sure he could stand up right now anyway. He really hadn't meant to get this drunk. He had thought a glass to settle his temper, take the edge of his black mood. It had worked until about glass three.
When did I get old? he wondered. Old and angry and afraid of conversations I don't want to have. He laughed mirthlessly. It had been what? Twelve years? Thirteen. Thirteen years since he'd last seen his father, but he'd somehow still turned into him.
"Nobody's seen him," said Eldrick when he returned. His brow was drawn down in an expression of concern so very like his father's that Renaud took another drink. "I've sent a few scouts. They'll report back shortly. What's this about the army?"
"Rumour is they've called up Beamos company." He watched the young man's face as the implications settled in. "They march out tomorrow to meet the Gerudo in the Field."
"We'll send a messenger," Eldrick replied. "Warn them."
"Thought of that," Renaud replied. "Won't work. The Gerudo won't turn back now, and we can't afford them to anyway. They might try to dodge Beamos, but it's the dead of winter and there are too many of them to cover their tracks. They're not used to the snow, they can't move that fast. They won't manage it."
Eldrick's expression was conflicted. "So, what? We cut our losses?"
Renaud tightened his lips and tried unsuccessfully to beat down the sudden rise of temper in his chest. "Cut our losses?" he repeated. "They're coming from the other side of Hyrule to aid you, and you're content to just let them die en route?"
Eldrick bristled. "I didn't ask for their help," he said.
"But you need it," Renaud replied. He gestured at the door. "You go back out there and you tell all those people, people who chose to follow you, who believe in you, that our reinforcements aren't coming anymore and you're okay with that. You tell them that you're content to let them rot down here until Durnam finally gets the nerve to send the army down after us. You tell them that the youngest son of Eldrick is content to let a usurper steal the Hyrules' throne while their supporters die for nothing in a cold stone sewer."
"What are you talking about?" Eldrick demanded. "You're the one who's sitting there telling me we can't help them."
"And you agreed so quickly," Renaud said bitterly. He scowled and lifted his mug again. "Not a hint of dissent on your lips. Not a pause to consider alternatives."
Eldrick stared at him for a long moment. "Say what you mean, Renaud."
"I did tell you it was Beamos company," Renaud said. "I know I did. I'm not that drunk."
"What does that—?"
"The same Beamos company you served your mandatory with last year. The same Beamos company you spent the whole summer bragging about how many of the Officers owe you favours or are in your pocket." He narrowed his eyes. "The same Beamos company Amira is assigned to."
Eldrick froze. "How do you know that?"
"We didn't all stop talking to her after your father threw her out."
"Renaud!" Eldrick cried, horrified. "You didn't!"
"Of course I did," Renaud snapped. "We'd just lost your brother, I wasn't about to let your father's stubbornness cost us your sister as well."
"Father's stubbornness!" Eldrick repeated, gaping. "Amira's the one who turned her back on us! She's the one who—!"
"Who what, Dorian?" Renaud cut in. "Who refused to turn her back on the people she had fought and bled with? Who had fought and bled for her? Who refused to turn in her uniform – the same uniform her brother had died in – so she could live a life of power and privilege, safe from ever having to get her hands dirty again? To play right-hand and protégé to a man who disparaged the very same people who had tried to help her when Nathan was dying on the ground in front of her?!"
"Your brother died for this city," Renaud snarled, rising to his feet. "And now you refuse to talk to the one person who could help you save it, so you can respect the foolish, pride-born grudge of a dead man! How very like him."
Eldrick's face contorted in anger. "And what, exactly, is that supposed to mean?"
"Did you never wonder, Dorian, how it was possible that your House could have such close ties to the throne, yet still be so low in terms of relative power? We were, what? Sixth among the Houses? Fifth on a good day?" He scowled. "Because your father, Goddesses rest his soul, was a stubborn, narrow-minded, shortsighted fool where his pride was concerned. He scorned allies for inconsequential slights. Turned his back on opportunities that weren't the shape he wanted them to be! And he's passed that arrogance down to you."
"And what would you have me do?" Eldrick shouted, slamming his fist down on the table. "Turn my back on his wishes? Reverse his decisions now that he's not alive to argue in defence of them?! How can I do that, Renaud? After I—after what I—." He cut himself off angrily, drew himself up. "No. My father was a wise man. His decisions stand. Amira is no sister of mine, and no member of my household—!"
Renaud hurled his mug across the room and into the wall. It clattered to the floor, spilling what was left of the drink across it. "I was a member of your father's household!" he snarled into Eldrick's startled face. "I served him because I loved him, pride and all! But I will not remain a member of this House if you are going to insist on taking it down the same, tired old path he walked! You got him killed, Dorian, you owe it to him to be better than he was!"
Eldrick's face went pale, shock and anger and a deep wound in his expression. Renaud deflated. Too far, that had been too far. He sagged back into his chair. "This is why I didn't want to have this conversation right now," he said.
Eldrick got to his feet.
"Dorian," he said. "Don't. Sit."
But the young Lord turned his back and moved toward the door.
"Where are you going?"
"To talk strategy with someone who isn't drunk," came the cold response. "I'll call in my favours with Beamos. Talk to my old friends."
"Get some sleep."
"I'm done talking." He reached for the door, but it burst open before he could, throwing him back. "What do you think you're—?!"
"Eldrick! Renaud!" It was the twins.
"What is it?" Renaud asked, dragging his eyes away from Eldrick at the panicked note in his voice.
"It's Brayden. He's been captured."
Chapter 26 (cont.)
"All right," says Hunter very slowly when I've finished relaying Zelda's information and her answers to their questions, "so there are three main points in that. One, Valdyx now has two Sages in her possession. Two, those medallions are important somehow – also in Valdyx's possession. Three, Revanas is maybe on our side, maybe not, but in X amount of time the maybe will become a definitely not." He glances at me and Anduriel for confirmation.
That's about right, Zelda says as Anduriel nods.
"We have to get the medallions," Neesha says, unexpectedly.
"What?" I say. "Why?"
"Because Ganon wants them," she replies, as though this is the most obvious thing in the world, and clearly I am a massive disappointment for not realizing it. "Because he jumped all over that as soon as he heard about them. We can't let him have anything he wants, everything he wants is bad for us."
I stare at her for a moment, then turn to Hunter. "I have a really hard time disagreeing with that," I note. "Unbiased opinion?"
He thinks about it, then looks at Anduriel. "What are they?"
"What, you don't know?" Neesha demands incredulously. "I thought you were some kind of history nerd."
"Do you have any idea how many libraries in how many cities have been destroyed in the many, many years of Hyrule's existence?" Hunter demands, and I can't tell if he's offended because she called him a nerd, or offended because she questioned his nerdiness. "The amount of knowledge we do have about Hyrule's history is a thimble compared to the Lake Hylia of knowledge that has been lost to us forever."
"The medallions are not in your history books," Anduriel cuts in, "because we took steps to remove them."
That gets our attention.
"You did?" Hunter demands. "The Makani?!"
"We had to," she says. Her expression grows distant and troubled. "They should never have been created. It shouldn't have even been possible!" She falls silent for a moment, then rustles her charred wings listlessly. "It was a very, very long time ago. Not your first incarnations, perhaps, but not far from them either."
Neesha shoots Hunter a questioning look, and he points at me.
"The magic that bound my sister to your sword, Hero, was not recreateable. But many tried over the centuries. The spell that bound your father to a shade is an example of the magic created in those early days. Such foolish mortals, they were. There is a reason so few of them survived to pass down their craft." She goes quiet again, for long enough that we exchange a glance.
"The medallions…?" Hunter prompts gently, drawing her back from wherever it is in her head she'd gone to.
"My sisters and I…we seven, at least, are bound to the Sacred Realm and the Triforce and the Goddesses' Will. For a mortal outside that trinity to bind us is…was unthinkable. But that didn't stop them from trying."
"Someone managed it?" Hunter asks, his expression a perfect picture of surprise.
"Not entirely," Anduriel says. "But close enough. A mage in Hyrule's early days, too clever for her own good, found a loophole. In those days the portals between the Sacred Realm and your home plane were wide open. It was something of a Golden Age, the likes of which I sincerely doubt we will ever see again. She studied under us, my sisters and I. Learned from us. And stole from us. Things we had touched or worn or used. Things upon which we had left a mark. And then she combined those things with earth from our realms and fashioned the medallions of them. And then used very old magic to…well, I supposed you could say she tricked the universe into recognizing the medallions as pieces of the Sacred Realm, but pieces that could be owned. And so owned, could be commanded."
"And you're bound to the Sacred Realm…"
"…and so could be commanded." Anduriel finishes heavily. "But not for long. The medallions are not strong enough to withstand the brunt of our power. Used once, they crumble, and we are free again. But the damage even one request can do…."
We're silent for a long moment as we consider that.
"Totally unbiased opinion:" Hunter announces finally, "Ganon cannot have those."
"What was she going to use them for?" Neesha asks, frowning. "The mage who made them, I mean."
"Failsafes, I believe, in her ongoing war."
Hell, Zelda says, coming to a realization. She swears again, more viciously. It was me, wasn't it?
I blink at Anduriel, and point at my head in a question. She nods. Yeah, I say. It was you. How many freaking times have we been reincarnated anyway?
I'm starting to think too many.
"In the end, she used Mudora's medallion to hide the others from us. She tried to command her to erase all record of them entirely, but could not supersede the Goddesses' instructions. So she settled for erasing their hiding places from Mudora's books, so we could not find them. Then she hid the things for her future allies. She had the gift of foresight, as all of her incarnations do. I think she knew what they would be used for, or suspected. Centuries later, Nobernal's was used to gain knowledge of the location of particularly vile magic books, once believed destroyed. They secured a key victory in the Seventh Sage's war, but at unspeakable cost."
Neesha raises an eyebrow. "I thought Nobernal was associated with art or music or whatever. Before she went all…you know."
"And where do the Gerudo keep their history?" Anduriel asked. "In song and story and spoken word. And Nobernal knew them all, for all the races, including many long since passed. Perhaps it is not Mudora's Truth that Nobernal keeps, but it is truth nonetheless."
Ask her about Revanas, Zelda says, her tone too neutral.
Zelda, I say cautiously, just because one of your past lives—
Just ask her!
"And Revanas'?" I ask, my frown deepening.
She looks at me like she knows who's really asking. "Revanas' medallion was found by another Seventh Sage, much later in history. As clever, perhaps, as the one who created it. She combined it with several other spells – old and ancient magics all – and trapped Revanas in mortal form, on the mortal plane. She bound those spells to the medallion, and then refused to use the medallion, as its destruction would free Revanas. Instead, she used a number of other spells on my sister's physical prison to compel prophecies from her for many years. Again, the battle was won. Again, the cost was high."
"She's not trapped now, though," I say, frowning.
"No," Anduriel replies. "One of your past lives discovered the truth of her, and shattered the medallion."
Wow, Zelda says. I hope you killed me.
"Ah," Anduriel says in answer to a question I didn't hear. "The Sage who made them also used mine. As I said, I believe she knew what was to come. Understood the thing she had created. And at the end she used mine to summon me, beg forgiveness, and demand mercy."
"Did you forgive her?" Hunter asks.
"I had little choice," Anduriel replied. "I was compelled. So I forgave her. And then I slew her."
Neesha nods like she totally gets that, but I can't help it. I have to ask. "That was mercy?"
"Compared to what my sisters would have done, yes."
"That's four, what about the other three?" Hunter asks.
"Lost," Anduriel replies. "For a long time. But Valdyx searched for them. All who die must take her hand, and she asked them all until she found the medallions and hid them. None of us knew where and that was for the best. The Triforce had been sought and found and lost again several times since their creation. We all knew our current situation was a possibility. And none can keep a secret like Valdyx."
"Until asked a simple question in an inn, apparently," Neesha notes with a derisive snort.
"By a sentinel who can see the future and would know exactly what combination of words to use to prompt that reaction," Hunter replies, his face dark. "She did it on purpose."
"She does everything on purpose," Anduriel replies. "If Valdyx revealed the existence of the Medallions within the awareness of Ganon, then Revanas intended her to."
"Because it was also within the awareness of Zelda," I point out.
"And she must have known Ganon would insist on having those restored so he could use them."
"Which gives us an opportunity to get them."
"Or to die in the attempt," Neesha reminds us.
"Well," Hunter notes, "if you'd prefer we can just let Ganon have them."
She considers that. "Fine," she says. "I'm in."
"Hang on, though," I cut in, "I think we should go for Revanas first." I glance at Anduriel and then back to them.
Neesha stares at me. "To kill her you mean, yes?" Her eyes narrow at my hesitation. "Link? Yes?"
"If…we have to," I concede. "But if she's on our side…"
Neesha grunts in an unimpressed fashion. "Big if."
"You didn't see Nobernal. I don't think we can just…leave her to that."
"You know what I did see?" Neesha counters. "I saw Ruto die in a fireball half the size of Lake Hylia."
"Link," Anduriel intercedes gently when I am unable to respond to that for a sudden lack of air. "I appreciate what you are saying, and what you are offering. But to go after Revanas right now is to face two of my sisters at once. The remaking takes time, and Revanas will be functional until she is at least half-way through. And she is not…she cannot truly be on your side. Not entirely. Besides," she adds with a false lightness, "Valdyx is closer."
"And has two maidens," Hunter adds. "And the medallions. And there is only one of her."
"Not entirely true," Anduriel corrects. "Ganon's instructions required her to abandon the duties the Goddesses put upon her. She cannot. So she split herself."
"Is that going to be a problem?" I ask, frowning.
Anduriel shakes her head. "You will need to deal with her physical form. Her...ethereal self is not one you could touch. Nor can she touch you until…well, until it is your time."
"Time for what?" Neesha demands.
Hunter groans. "Angel of Death, Neesha. She's the Angel of Death."
"I'm not sure of the extent of her ethereal self's abilities outside the confines of her duty. Nor of the extent of Ganon's control. Regardless, you cannot do anything about that side of her. Her physical form will hold your friends and the medallions. Focus your efforts there. Kill her body."
"Anduriel," I say hesitantly, "it's okay. You don't have to…help us. Not with this."
She tries to smile but doesn't quite manage it. "We are drawing to a close, Hero," she says quietly. "I will do what I must to bring it about quickly."
Nobody's got anything to say in response to that. For a long, agonizing moment the silence returns. I bear it as long as I can, then I get to my feet – probably a bit too quickly, because the others look at me in surprise.
"Anduriel's right," I say. "Let's get this over with."
A Brief Interlude
"Are you a painter? A weaver, maybe? A sculptor?" Indiga frowned when Nidiza did not respond. She leaned over and punched the younger woman's arm, prompting a startled glare from her. "Nidiza. I am attempting to engage you in questionably friendly banter, here. Pay attention."
It was hard to tell through her scarf, but judging by the tightening at the corner of her eyes she was angry. "What is it?"
Indiga stared at her for a moment, then sighed and turned back to the fire. "No. It's gone. You ruined my setup."
"Why are you staring at Rue?" Amplissa cut in before the younger woman could respond.
"See?" Indiga muttered. "Should have taken my bait. Would have been a better conversation for you."
Nidiza ignored this. "She shouldn't be here. I have nothing but respect for her, but this is a combat mission, and she's a li—." Indiga elbowed her hard.
"Don't help her, Indiga," Amplissa said flatly, her voice colder than the wind screaming around outside their shelter. "Let her bury herself."
For a moment Nidiza stared at her, then she cleared her throat. "I was going to say a—."
"I don't care what you were going to say," Amplissa cut her off. "I really don't. Rue is here because she has more than earned the right to be here." An unspoken 'unlike some of you' danced in the hardness in her eyes. "Anybody wants to question that, just go ahead and let me know." She got to her feet before Nidiza could respond and moved toward Rue. The elder Gerudo sat on the edges of their shelter, looking out over the frozen wasteland that used to be a field.
Silence remained where Amplissa had been for a moment, until Nidiza sighed – in anger or frustration was hard to tell. "I don't know what I did to her."
"Okay, newbie, some tips," Indiga said. "First, don't ruin my set-ups. Ninety percent of the time I'm probably just being mean to you, but ten percent of the time I'm might actually be trying to spare you having the conversation with someone else, okay? The fact that I have to explain this to you is already ruining half the fun I get out of watching you try to guess which, but I feel bad for you, so there you go."
"I don't need your pity," Nidiza snapped, an angry huff of breath crystallizing on the outside of her scarf.
"No, but you do need my help," Indiga replied.
Nidiza huffed again and drew herself up, clearly about to argue, but her eyes fell on Amplissa as the latter settled in beside Rue and began speaking to her in low tones. Some of the air left Nidiza's chest. "What's number two?"
"Don't question Rue. I mean it!" she added sharply when the younger woman appeared about to argue. There was a murmur of assent from the other women around the fire. "Amplissa's not the only one who'll tear you to pieces for that. That woman has lived longer and through more than any Gerudo in living memory – including her own. She does what she wants and no woman alive today has the right to question her about it, do you understand me?"
Nidiza's lips tightened underneath her scarf. "I…hear you," she said slowly. "But I'm not questioning her because I don't think she deserves to be here. I'm just—."
"We will carry her to Castletown on our backs if it's required," Indiga interrupted her. "You're young. You don't remember what she did for us during Ganondorf's reign, just by being there. She carried us in ways I can't describe to you, and we owe her for that, do you understand? She carried us. And she'll never ask it of us, but there isn't one of us here – one of us who got her promotion before this war – who wouldn't carry her now."
Nidiza shook her head but gave up the argument. "Anything else?" she asked tersely.
"Yeah," Indiga said. "Don't stop being annoying and opinionated just because we're giving you Hell for it. Amplissa doesn't like you. She probably never will. I don't really like you. Get over it. You need to learn to read conversations a bit better than you currently do, but you don't need to back down, you get me?"
Nidiza made a face at her. "No."
"Look. You were a green, I get it. I was too. Spend long enough in administration and law and you start thinking the world actually works that way."
"Goddess, have you met our King?" Indiga demanded. "He's never met a rule he couldn't bend, break or work around – and let's be honest. I'm including the so-called laws of nature here." She shook her head. "It works the way you think it does most of the time. It works that way when it can. But there are exceptions. There are always going to be exceptions. More so than usual, as long as our cuddly, cotton-tailed King is around."
"Did I just miss a bunny joke?!" Amplissa interrupted, straightening beside Rue.
"I'll tell you it later," Indiga called back, then returned to her conversation.
"Are you saying we're above the law?" Nidiza demanded, frowning severely.
"No, I'm saying we're below it," Indiga corrected her. "I'm saying we're the ones holding it up, you get me? A system of law is as arbitrary as its creators. The Goddess didn't give us our laws, she gave us our mission. Our oaths. Everything else is ours. We came up with it, we enforce it, we uphold it. We adapt it. When you were still in your little purple booties chasing other girls around the nursery, we had a King who used our own rules against us. So whatever. Mistakes made. Clarification granted from on high. Lessons learned. Laws changed. Are you following me?"
"Maybe," Nidiza said hesitantly. "What does this have to do with Amplissa hating me?"
"You can't earn her love. To be honest, I'm not even convinced at this point you could earn her like," Indiga answered. "I'm trying to show you how you might earn her respect."
"And those are the secrets, are they? Don't ruin your setups, don't question Rue, and some weird combination of don't back down and change the way I do everything?"
"Never said it was going to be simple," Indiga replied with a shrug. "Glad we had this chat. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to go back to complaining about the cold and making thinly veiled threats on our King's life for sending me in—."
The sound of horses cut her off, and all the women turned to watch, hands moving for scimitars and bows. A moment later, Amplissa gestured for them to stand down. "It's our scouts," she said. "Indiga, Rue, with me. Time to find out just how much fun Phase 1 is going to be."
Chapter 26 (cont.)
"So," I say, rolling out my blankets on the hard stone floor of the little cave we found to camp in, "how much fun are we looking at tomorrow?"
A full day's worth of travel has brought us to the edge of Valdyx's territory. There are a number of symbols and words scrawled in that space on Zelda's map – some by her, some by Hunter after discussion with Apheri and Anduriel, and what he remembers from Duthie's warnings. Tomorrow we're moving in and it's fun to pretend like we can predict how that's going to go. You know, in a depressing, we-know-better kind of way.
Hunter contemplates the map and flips his pencil back and forth through his fingers. "We have depressingly little intel on what goes on in this region," he reports. "Everybody I asked just gave me an impassioned 'Don't go there' speech. Reasons included death-themed monsters, like stalfos and redeads—," I groan and he ignores me, "—an alarming number of well equipped, surprisingly competent grave diggers with more weapons than sense, an alarming number of graves for them to rob or fill as it pleases them, something Wandi referred to as 'Ghost Grabbers' in that beautifully descriptive way she has, and, just for good measure, the Cult of the Dead."
"I think they might be overstating the theme."
"What's the Cult?" Neesha asks. She's taking first watch and isn't in her bedroll.
"Honestly, Death Cult is all anybody could give me," Hunter replies. "They fight with the Ghost Grabbers – maybe – and also grab ghosts – potentially – and everybody is generally creeped out and afraid of them – definitely. I guess you can find them all over the Dark World, but they come from and return to this region."
"So, like, a cult made of dead things," I ask, "or a cult dedicated to dead things?"
Hunter holds out his hands in a shrug.
"This game sucks," I say with a frown. "Let's play I Spy instead."
"We're in a cave, Link," Hunter replies. "A tiny, one-room cave. We can't even see outside from here. Whatever you're spying, it's a rock."
"I would like to again register my displeasure with this camp site," Neesha says. "I don't know why I'm bothering being on watch if I can't see what's coming from here."
"If you can't see out, they can't see in," Hunter replies. "We're fine."
Did Revanas give you any hints about what we're looking at? I ask Zelda as Hunter and Neesha get into an argument – for the third time since we stopped – about whether this is a good camp site or not.
Not really, Zelda replied. And the Valdyx I saw won't be the same Valdyx you have to face.
What do you mean?
Well, remember how Anduriel said she was split? You have to do something about her physical form. The one I saw wasn't…physical. Not really. She kind of looked physical, but whenever she'd get upset or forget to maintain it, her form would flicker and she'd start to disappear, or her arm would go through the chair she was sitting in. That kind of thing. It won't be that version of her you have to deal with.
What do you know about the version we will have to deal with?
Nothing except the other version doesn't like her, Zelda replies apologetically.
Well, on the upside, you're probably there, right? Maybe we can finally get you out of that crystal and back into your own head.
I would like that, she says. I would really like that.
What are you going to do when you're out?
Are we pretending it's a given we're going to succeed at getting me out?
Zelda, that's more or less how I go through life. It's gotten me this far, just roll with it.
She doesn't respond for a long time. I don't know, she says finally, and I blink in surprise.
What do you mean you don't know?
I don't know, she repeats. I need to go back and…take the crown and set things right in Castletown. And the Sages are struggling and I need to help them. They need my help.
I frown. But…?
She hesitates. But you need my help too.
I soften. I'll figure it out, I tell her. I've got Hunter and Neesha now. I've got the Moon Pearl. Don't worry about me.
She scoffs. Stop being worrisome and I'll see what I can do. But she pauses and I wait for her to say what's on her mind. I just…keep thinking about what Anduriel told us. About the medallions, and about what I…what some of my past lives did with them. I mean…I made them. I shouldn't have, I can't even comprehend doing something like that,but…I did.
Another you did, I correct her.
Yeah, another me, she says. But I'm not so sure I can just wash my hands of the things my past lives have done. Maybe…my hands are clean, but my soul isn't. Do you understand?
I think so, I say at length. I do, yes.
And then I look at the mess they're in now. I look at Anduriel, I think about Revanas…it's not that any of that is my fault, it's not. It's just…I feel like there are other things that are, and like maybe…maybe I…
…owe them? I suggest.
Yes. I owe them. And if I just…go home after this…leave you to clean up the mess…I don't know. Sometimes it's hard to balance everything, that's all.
You know I would be more than happy to have you travel with us, I tell her. It's basically what I've wanted for a long time.
But there's also the issue of the Triforce, I add. If Ganon gets both of us…I mean, look at what he's done with one wish. Imagine if he got two.
True, she says. But imagine if we got it instead.
I blink in surprise. I…hadn't thought about that.
I did, she says. I have for a long time. She sighs. But it doesn't matter right now. There's a lot to think about, and we've got time before we have to make a choice on any of this anyway. You should get some sleep. I'll talk to you in a few hours.
I debate arguing, but my eyes are actually pretty heavy, so I let it go. Okay, I say. Good night, Zelda. Try not to do anything crazy while I'm out.
Was thinking I might throw a party, she replies. Really trash this little crystal house I'm in.
I love you, Princess.
Love you too, Hero. Go to sleep.
Her presence recedes from my mind and I try to do as she says, but I find myself staring at the golden mark on the back of my hand for a long time after instead.
A Brief Interlude
Zelda couldn't decide if she hated Link for needing sleep, or if she hated herself for not being able to in her current state. The first felt unfair and the second unreasonable. It was just frustrating.
The problem wasn't the sleeping, of course. How many times in the course of one day did she wish for more hours than there were to get everything she needed to do done? She would have happily given up sleep if it meant more effective operating hours.
The problem now was that she had lots of hours, they just weren't effective, and she couldn't really operate. She could think, and that was entertaining for the first little bit. But without lords and ladies and servants and citizens and Sages and Heroes to hand off the products of her thinking to for action, or to feed her new information to think about, thinking wasn't really a sustainable practice. Unless she felt like contemplating the meaning of life or something, but she didn't.
She was a terrible philosopher and she knew it. Far too concerned with practical realities.
But there wasn't enough practical reality to contemplate right now. Every time her thoughts lulled – which was often – and she ran out of things to actively, aggressively think about, her mind began to drift back into dark waters. She'd catch herself trying without success to remember the last thing she had said to her father, or wondering exactly when and how Aghanim had killed him; how long had he been dead? Or would reminisce about the first time she met Ruto, and how each of them had found the other insufferable and arrogant, but had united nonetheless in the face of overbearing nursemaids.
Or she would wonder who would die next, while she sat in this crystal and thrashed and screamed and cried to no effect. People who might have otherwise lived if she had been there to help.
She could feel herself teetering on the edge of another dive into those waters – already running through the timeline in her head of her road to this crystal, looking to pinpoint all the places she had failed to be strong, smart, or brave enough to take action that might have prevented it and so much else – when something new intruded on the edge of her senses.
Being in the crystal wasn't a thing that could be easily described, because of course she was completely cut off from her physical senses, so the usual modes of description didn't apply. She couldn't see or hear or smell or taste or feel anything. For all she knew it was dark as pitch or bright as day in there physically. What mattered was what she could detect with her mental senses, and none of the languages she spoke had useful words for that. The closest she had been able to come, when Link had asked her, was to speak in analogies and metaphors. To say that it was sort of like being in a glass box that was covered in frost. She could, to a very limited extent, watch the play of shadows on the ice as the world moved around her. She could tell when the shadows belonged to people, and she could tell that no matter how hard she tried she wouldn't be able to get to them. The Dark World had wrapped them in a different kind of ice, and that she couldn't penetrate.
But the shadow she could sense now didn't feel the way they did. Nor did it feel like the monolithic (and unresponsive) shadow of her new angelic captor. It was a person, she was sure of it, but something was different about them.
And something was familiar.
She stretched out her senses tentatively, scraping at the metaphorical frost to get a clearer look at the person on the other side. She knew better than to hope that it was a friend, but she'd settle for another pair of eyes she could access, even just for a moment. Just long enough to figure out where she was and what was around her.
Hello? she called mentally. Can you hear me?
But no rejection either. No cutting off. No impenetrable, raging force field around the other person's mind, like there were with every other mortal she'd tried this on.
She turned her scraping into burrowing and started chipping a hole for herself. If you can hear me, don't answer out loud. I can't hear you physically yet. Try to speak to me in your head.
Still no reply, but still no rejection. She forced herself to temper her curiosity with caution. This wasn't the place to be taking risks, or assuming safety. The promise of an opportunity to get a look at where she was (and, more specifically, not spend the night picking apart her own decisions until Link woke up to distract her) was too great not to explore, however. She just needed to be careful.
She slipped her consciousness out through the hole she had burrowed and into the mind of the shadow on the other side of the glass. She expected to land in a tiny corner of the other person's mind, like she did when she reached out to Link or Revanas. A place where she could communicate easily, and observe the world through her host's senses, but where she remained removed and separate.
Instead, it was like stepping too quickly onto a steep slope. She fell before she could catch herself, surprised by the incline and the space and the lack of anything to stop her. When she landed it was immediately clear that she wasn't limited to a tiny corner. She was taking up the entire space. There was no one else in there.
She blinked, and the eyes she was staring out of blinked with her. She straightened, and so did the spine she had borrowed. She froze, startled and alarmed and appalled at the implications of these observations, and so did the body she was in.
She turned the face down to look at the body. Good boots, scuffed but comfortable. A ragged, dirty skirt, lined with geometric patterns and hidden under a torn apron. A well-made blouse half-tucked in, in a similar state of disrepair, collared with a tan bandana tied loosely around her neck. A curtain of carrot-coloured bangs slipped from behind an ear to obscure her view.
It can't be! Zelda gasped.
The hands were holding a heavy bucket of water, and Zelda tilted them to peer at the wavering reflection on its surface.
Malon! Malon, it's me! It's Zelda! She winced and the face winced with her. I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to…to…take over like this, that's never…it wasn't…oh my Goddess. Malon, are you okay? Can you hear me?
A loud rumbling startled her into turning the head to look up and to the left. She was in a large chamber that might have been a ball room once upon a time. The floor was slick with something thick and glistening. The lighting was dim, but she could make out hazy, transparent shapes, like people, shuffling around aimlessly. A large, bulbous shape glowed in the centre of the room, providing most of the available light. It undulated in a way that was familiar to Zelda, but that she couldn't place. Every now and then lightning arced out from the shape to strike one of the transparent people – ghosts? – and they would scurry off, possessed suddenly by some unknown purpose.
"What the Hell?" she said with Malon's voice.
The rumbling started again and she realized the bulbous shape was moving – upwards, in fact. As it parted from the floor it became clear that it wasn't the shape that was glowing, it was whatever it had been sitting on. The glow from the pit beneath it pulsed and danced, and the ghosts in the room turned and began to move toward it.
Long, thin tendrils descended from the underside of the bulbous shape, like the ribbons on a maypole, and lightning arced between and around them. It snapped and whipped these tendrils out at the ghosts, driving some back from the pit, and forcing others into it.
It wasn't until it had turned, and the glow from the pit underneath it illuminated the single, massive eye staring straight at her that she realized what it reminded her of.
A giant, electric, jelly-fish of a bari.
She stumbled back in Malon's body as it advanced on her. She dropped the bucket and began to search every pocket she could find for a weapon. But Malon had been taken while at home, eating supper with her family. She had none. Malon! Malon, talk to me! Malon, I need your help, you need to tell me—!
She didn't get the chance to finish the sentence. One of the giant bari's tentacles shot out from it and wrapped around Malon's arm before Zelda could make the unfamiliar body dodge. Lightning raced along it and she had just enough time to recognize Revanas' ring – the one set with the crystal that held her body – looped onto the tentacle before the lightning hit and her world went white. Pain seared through her (through Malon? Through both.) as the lightning cut her free of the body and dragged her back toward the ring in its grasp. It threw her unceremoniously back into her frosted prison, and the world faded behind the obscuring ice and the haze of pain.
Malon's shape beyond the frosted glass picked itself up and went back to whatever it had been doing before. Zelda watched it, lost in pain and confusion.
Malon? she called one last time, but she could hear the hopelessness in her own voice. She curled in on herself and waited for the tingling pain in every metaphysical inch of her to pass so she could think straight. So she could try to understand what had just happened. What she had just seen.
Zelda froze. Wondered, for a moment, if she had thought that and didn't remember. Maybe the shock had affected her—
Hello? Can anyone hear me?
Malon! Malon, it's me! Princess Zelda!
Princess? She sounded sleepy and confused. What's going on? Where am I? Where are you?
I don't know, Zelda replied and felt dangerously close to a giddy sort of panic. I thought you were out there, but I shouldn't be able to hear you if you are, unless— She cut herself off. Unless Malon wasn't out there. Unless Malon was here, somewhere nearby. Probably clutched in another tentacle.
But that had definitely been her body out there.
Which was impossible, unless—
Oh my Goddess.
Princess, said Malon, her voice tight, I'm trying to keep from panicking right now, so I hope you'll forgive any impropriety on my part, but I'd appreciate it if you'd start from the beginning maybe, because right now I'm lost.
Malon…you have no idea.
Chapter 26 (cont.)
I wake up to Neesha kicking me on her way to do the same to Hunter.
I suck in a breath to start swearing at her, but instead of air I inhale smoke and suddenly can't do much of anything but cough. Well that explains why she's waking us up.
"What's happening?" Hunter asks, pushing himself up. He grabs his scarf and ties it around his nose and mouth. "It's our first damn night on the road, what could possibly be happening already?!"
"Don't know," Neesha replies, dropping into a crouch below the smoke. "But there's nothing in this cave to burn and this started like thirty seconds ago, tops."
"Too much smoke for thirty seconds," I say hoarsely.
"Somebody's smoking us out," Hunter says. His face is grim.
"So an ambush," Neesha says. "Whatever. We can handle it."
Hunter and I exchange a look.
"Please don't give me the 'you haven't been in the Dark World long enough' talk again," she says.
"Well you haven't," I reply. I pull my Kokiri pouch off my belt and drop it on the ground. "Shove everything in there just in case. We don't have long before we run out of breathable air in here." I pull my hat off and cover my nose and mouth with it.
"Plan?" Neesha asks, rolling up her bedroll with military efficiency.
"Hard to say without knowing how many are out there," Hunter says, shoving his into my pouch.
"Or what they are," I add. "I mean…most of our canned plans don't account for vampires or werewolves or half the other things we've run into so far."
"Well they didn't try to take us while we slept, so they're smart enough to know we're a problem. But they still think they can take us."
"Forget their abilities," I say, grabbing my pouch and fastening it again. My eyes are starting to water and the smoke is getting lower and lower. "We don't have time to figure it out. If you were going to ambush someone in here, how would you do it?"
"I wouldn't ambush them, I'd walk in and call them on," Neesha says.
"That's why I wasn't talking to you," I reply dully. "I was asking Captain Cheap Shot."
"I resent that," he says, but Neesha starts coughing and reminds him of more important things. "I'd have my group positioned on the hill this cave is in – above the entrance. That way when my quarry comes running out they're facing the wrong way, and half blinded, and I can pick them off at range."
"Got it," I say. "So I go first and throw a deku nut up there. Gives us time to get up there while they're still screaming and clutching their eyes." They both nod. "Call your targets as you pick them. Hunter, you go left, Neesha, right. The slope is gentle – I'll keep the bow going from below to cover you."
We turn without needing to confirm it and crawl below the smoke to the entrance. "Ready?" I ask, putting my hat back on and pulling two deku nuts from my pouch.
"Ready," they reply.
I push myself to my feet and out into the pre-dawn grey. I whirl as I leave the cave, eyes burning, throat stinging from the smoke. I can just barely make out a handful of dark shapes lurking between the rocks on the hill, but I don't wait. I hurl the deku nuts high, one to the left and one to the right. An arrow slices across my arm just before they both strike and go off. I hear a satisfying chorus of shouts and snarls, and then Hunter and Neesha are out and bolting up the hill.
"Bird woman!" I hear Neesha yell, followed immediately by a loud, strangled squawk.
"Big teeth!" Hunter replies.
I dart out of the smoke and drag my bow off my back. I fumble to grab an arrow as I blink my eyes to clear the smoke from them. I get it nocked and raise the weapon just in time for a large shadow to fall over me. I glance up. It's a bare-footed man with a fur-covered face, tiny, beady black eyes and a star-shape where his nose should be. Unlike the rest of his companions, he was not blinded by the deku nuts, because he started out that way. He's perched on top of the cave's entrance and has his own bow and arrow pointed at me, using – what? Echo-location? I don't know how moles work, but whatever he's using it's better than regular vision, because despite the thick smoke between us he doesn't look to be having any issues pointing that arrow right at me.
We loose our arrows at the same time, but he had time to aim and I didn't. Mine sails just past his ear and his lands squarely in my thigh.
"Mole-man!" I shriek as I go down and my bow scatters from my grip. "Mole-man!"
"Are you calling him or screaming for help?" Neesha shouts back from somewhere up the slope. "Round thing!"
Mole-man's got another arrow nocked and pointed at me, but the next second there's a blurr of blue behind him and he goes sailing off the ledge with a knife in his back. "You good?" Hunter asks from above.
"Peachy-keen," I reply through gritted teeth.
"Hunter, call something already I can't take them all!"
I can't even see what they're doing because of the smoke and my angle. This is amazing. I am amazing. Neesha is never going to let me live this down. Not enough I turn into a bunny, I've got to go down two seconds into a throw down with a rag-tag pack of bandits.
I snap the shaft of the arrow in my thigh, groaning as I do so, and then drag myself over to where my bow is. Farore, that hurts! That's going to slow us down. Great. Amazing.
Day hasn't even started yet and it's already going fantastically. Hello, Farore. Hello, Nayru. Nice to see you again, Din.
Glad you Ladies could make it.
I get my hand around my bow and force myself up onto my good leg with an effort, nocking another arrow.
Whatever benefit the deku nuts bought us has officially worn off. Add to that the fact that there are more bandits than I thought, and it occurs to me that we might be in trouble.
"Shotgun not taking the like-like!" Hunter shouts.
"Shot—I'm injured you assholes!"
"You're also ranged!" Hunter shouts back, right before getting cracked in the ribs with the business end of a mace by the three-headed-lady he's fighting.
"Arrows don't grow on trees," I mutter, putting my first one in the head with the longest neck to driver her back from Hunter. He's back up and on his feet the next instant, so I turn my bow toward the like-like – which, disturbingly, appears to have a face half-lost in the folds of its gelatinous flesh. I fire and reach for another arrow as the like-like shudders and starts lurching toward me.
As I loose the second arrow into it I see something flicker up on the hill. A half second later I see the same flickering to the left of me, on the edge of my vision. I turn to look just in time to catch somebody's fist in my stomach. I crumple like a ragdoll, thanks to my wounded thigh, and a foot catches me in the stomach and sends me flying.
I force myself up onto my hands and knees with a groan, finding unexpected comfort in the complexity of the sudden murderous urge I'm feeling. Complex is good. Means it's just me. It's not the Beast.
As much as I could use the bastard right about now.
I look up and meet the eyes of my attacker. It's a lady – I think. She keeps flickering and shifting in and out of sight.
"Hunter!" Neesha shouts, enough tension in her voice to make my heart sink. Something up there screams. "Link! I can't get to him! Where's that covering fire?!"
"Coming right up!" I call back. I harness my anger and use it to force myself back to my feet. I reach over my shoulder to draw the Master Sword, but my opponent laughs – a strange, half-close half-far sound – and her form flickers and disappears. I see the flickering in the corner of my eye again and I turn to meet it, but I'm not fast enough. Her fist cracks across my face and sends me flying back and down to the ground.
"Neesha, behind you!" Hunter snarls from somewhere up the hill.
He sounds like he's far away and under water. It's hard to hear him under the ringing in my ears. I groan and roll over, shaking my head to try to clear it. But even after the stars fade from my vision and the sound of the battle clears, the ringing doesn't stop.
The flickering woman is moving toward me again, still laughing her weird laugh. In her hands is Hunter's knife – she must have taken it from the mole-man's corpse – and in her eyes an eager, bloody gleam.
I try to rise but I'm too dizzy – last fall dragged the arrow out of my thigh and I'm bleeding in earnest now. My arms are already shaking.
I can't believe this.
This is how I go out?
Murdered by run of the mill highwaymen.
But she pauses above me, knife ready, and cocks her head to the side. It occurs to me that maybe I'm not the only one hearing that ringing. Her face twists into a scowl and she whips the knife down at me.
As the gleaming blade leaves her hand, the bell peals three, rapid-fire notes, and stops ringing.
There's a rush of wind, strong enough to knock Flicker Lady back a step. Something bright and gleaming and partially transparent slides through the air above my face and strikes the knife away with a sharp clang. Flicker Lady's face goes angry and scared. "Death cult!" she screams to her colleagues as she turns to run. Her form starts to flicker. "Scatt—!"
There's a blur of red above me and Flicker Lady's shout cuts off with a wet gurgle. Her form solidies, the flickering stops, and she slides to the ground with blank eyes and a boneless thud.
I feel another, bigger rush of wind, and before I can get a look at my rescuer I realize whoever they are, they didn't come alone. I struggle up onto my hands to stare in surprise as a large group of armed and armoured fights appear out of nowhere, swept in with this sudden wind, and join the fray on the hill. Hunter and Neesha come to a bedraggled, bewildered stop as the fight suddenly moves on without them.
The bandits are already breaking, warned by Flicker Lady's dying shout. They flee up the hill, scattering in every direction, but the new arrivals aren't content to let them off that easy. Half of them chase the runners, cutting them down effortlessly when they catch up. The remainder polish off any bandits unable or unwilling to run.
I gape at them, my blood-to-brain ration too low to process what I'm seeing.
They're ghosts. All of them. Like Hunter's mum was, but without the lost expression, without the aimless sort of wandering, without the clear level of effort required just to stay focused on their task. They walk back down the hill as casually as if they were still alive, not speaking, not cheering, but expressions alert, present.
I look right through them to see Hunter and Neesha's stunned faces on the other side. Hunter meets my eyes across the distance, confused and startled, maybe struggling with his own blood-to-brain ratio. But then his eyes fall on something near me and his face goes paler than the ghosts around us, his expression absolutely stricken.
I turn to see what's startled him so badly and my eyes fall on my original rescuer.
Above me, scimitar gleaming in her hand, face hard, unyielding, and see-through, stands Jinni of the Red.