Chapter 27 and Interludes
So. 2020, huh?
For those reading on Ao3, I know I uploaded the rest of the story like two months ago, but the previous chapter was first uploaded to in July 2014, so actually it's been six years since the last update. I mostly point this out to manage expectations for new readers! Hello! Welcome! I am very slow, but I promise 95% of updates will be long.
For those reading on , I see you, I love you, I cannot believe we are all still here (the metaphysical here of this story, not the digital here of ). Nineteen years and counting, my God.
Obligatory decennial reminder that I will be done with this story only when I say I'm done with this story, no matter how long the updates take. In the unlikely event I do decide to give this up before it's done (but I mean, I started in 2001, and I'm still here, so), I will post, via my official accounts on , Ao3, tumblr and twitter (rosezemlya on all!). But I haven't yet and I'm not planning to.
Thank you for continuing to read after all this time!
A brief interlude
They sat on a hill – the Shepherd and the shadow – overlooking the small camp below. Fires glittered against the dark ground like fallen stars glaring up at the unfeeling sky that had cast them down. Most of them were occupied only by Wanderers, translucent and flickering in the warm light, but all had been started and were maintained by the other Shepherds. The ghosts couldn't touch the fire, couldn't feel its warmth, but something about its light helped to keep them here, in the present, despite the universal forces that picked at them, frayed their edges and tried to inch them toward oblivion. Despite the once popular depictions of their craft, the Shepherds' magic had always worked best in the light.
But they were a long way away from the days when the people of Hyrule knew them with any familiarity, and the Triforce had done them no favours when it changed everything. Roaring campfires were the best they were going to get for light these days, and they needed it badly tonight. They needed the Wanderers alert and ready, for what the Shepherd on the hill wasn't sure, but she had been alive a long time, and seen an unfair share of troubles during it. Certain elements of the evening's events had yet to be made clear to her – though she was certain the intangible being at her side had a better picture, which it could not and would not share – but the how of the current situation was irrelevant in the face of the what of it. And the what of it practically guaranteed trouble.
"I wasn't sure you'd come," she said eventually. Her tone was light but was carried on deep tides.
"It's not a good sign that I have," the shadow responded. It was hard to make the shape out against the night – reduced, as it was, to the hint of movement at the edge of her vision – but the presence was tangible, even if the one radiating it was not.
"Good or bad," she pointed out, "is often a matter of perspective, and this situation is too complex for either label."
They both carefully avoided talking about the newcomers in the camp below. They were easy to pick out. From the top of the hill, their presence seemed to turn the whole camp into a whirlpool, if you were the Shepherd, or a galaxy, if you were the shadow – spirits and bodies rotating in a spiral no one on the inside could see, caught as they were in the push and pull of forces that could not and would not be denied, drawn inexorably toward a single point made of the closest thing left to Divinity this poor, bereft world could claim.
Many things would be easier if they could talk about them – many things, throughout history and in their own lives, would have been easier if they had just been better about talking to each other generally – but at least in this case it wasn't a failure of courage or ethics or the common sense Nayru gave a rock that kept the talk to the edges of the situation. In this case it was the fact that you never knew who might be listening, except when you did, and you didn't want him to have any more of a warning of what was to come than he already did.
The silence between them returned for a time, enveloping them in a way that was neither companionable nor awkward. Their history was an ocean they had long ago learned to navigate without fear, if not without regrets.
"Are you sure about this?" the intangible shadow asked, after a long space had passed. "About what you're planning to do?"
"Do you presume to know what I plan?" the Shepherd replied, amused.
The hissing sigh this earned her was one she was familiar with, and on some level she was pleased she could still draw it forth. "I might not be the smart one, but it doesn't take a mage," the shadow noted sourly. "You knew who he was before your ghosts got to him."
"Wanderers," she corrected automatically. "And I'd like an idea of his plans before I come up with my own."
"They're not hard to guess either." This it said with a unique mix of bitterness and grumbling. "He's got a sword. He's going to stick it in a thing. That seems to be as subtle as he gets."
"Isn't that what you want?" she asked. She didn't need to be gentle with the question, but she was. That much comfort she could still offer.
"It doesn't matter what I want."
"It matters to me."
This was greeted with silence, and if she couldn't see the figure sitting beside her, she could at least picture its shoulders, tense with anger and frustration for a beat, then loosening and sliding into a sag, too tired to fight. "It is."
"Change is never easy, old friend."
"I wouldn't know," it replied, the barest hint of its old flippancy playing along the edges of the words, "I've never had to do it before."
The silence returned, but neither of them moved. Not until duty called them both away; the one, to the camp and its portentous visitors, the other back to the work that was the only constant anyone could count on in this poor excuse for a Cycle.
"She's not here yet," Eldrick pointed out. He adjusted the visor on his helmet for the thirtieth time in as many minutes and shot a less than furtive glance around the crowded campsite.
Liam shot him an amused look, mostly hidden by his own helmet. "She's a Sheikah, Dorian. You really think the rank and file could make her when she doesn't want to be made?" The name felt strange in his mouth – Dorian. Liam was the son of two weavers; if it weren't for his (former) position on the guard and his (current) position among the loyalists (a position he was still not entirely sure he merited or could sustain), he'd never have gotten so much as a good seat to watch the nobles pronouncements from. Calling a noble by their first name wasn't something that he would have previously believed to even be on the list of probabilities.
But, as Eldrick (Dorian) himself had pointed out, calling him Lord Eldrick while surrounded by an entire battalion of the Royal Army was a shortcut to the hangman's noose for all of them. At least until he'd waved his magic wand over their commanders and either taken the battalion over or brought their desperate little party to the hangman by a different route.
He still wasn't sure what to make of the young noble's addendum, however: Of course, you're always welcome to refer to me as such in private, you know. I believe you've earned the privilege.
The words were clear enough, but there had been something else lurking behind them, something not entirely about Liam. Something had happened between Dorian and Renaud, Liam knew that much. The young head of House Eldrick hadn't even said goodbye to the former Sheikah when they'd left, and as far as Liam knew, except for the late Eldrick senior, Renaud was all Dorian had.
Made him wonder if Eldrick wasn't, maybe, just a little bit lonely.
They'd see how long the casual friendship lasted if they managed to right things and Eldrick went back behind his gilded gates again – Liam wasn't naive – but he'd never been one to turn away from a person in distress, and whatever was going on in his household, Eldrick (Dorian, damn it was hard) was definitely that.
"She should have been here by now, we have to call it."
"Dorian," Liam said, firmly so as to draw the fretting noble's eyes to him. "What's wrong?"
"His big sister's close," said a third voice, and they both jumped as Bel slipped out of the shadows that lurked between the many rings of firelight that marked the rough shape of the camp Beamos Company had set in the shelter of a long stone ridge. If you climbed to the top, you'd be able to see the portal the Gerudo were heading for, as well as a few likely intercept points for the Company to take advantage of the next day. Command, however, had made it clear that climbing the ridge would only serve to give away their position to the Gerudo, and also net any aspiring mountain goats a night under lock and key and a two-week dock in their pay. As far as she'd been able to see, no one had tried it yet. She brushed the snow off her shoulders and took a seat between the boys as casually as someone who'd just run out to use the washroom, as opposed to someone who had crawled all over a military camp scouting out officers who might be willing to be a little bit treasonous. "It's giving him the shivers."
"I am not shivering," Dorian protested, offended.
"Un-straighten that back, man," Bel replied, unbothered in the face of his huff. "Soldiers aren't that prim. Hard to be when you're carrying twice your weight in gear through snow up to your hips."
Dorian huffed. "I was a soldier, you know."
"Officers – especially noble ones – don't count," Bel replied with a shrug. "I don't believe for a second you carried your own gear." She held her hands out closer to the fire to warm them and glanced at Liam. He was, as usual, staying politely out of the conversation. "His sister did, though, did you know? Not in her first year of duty, but after the Battle for Castletown. Something in her changed, or so the story goes. She started carrying her own kit, eating with her soldiers. Resigned her commission and enlisted the usual way instead. She is where she is now because she earned as much of it as she could the hard way."
"She betrayed us," Eldrick snapped, face rigid with anger. The thing that Liam had sensed in him earlier darkened the shadows behind his eyes. Made him look younger – no, that wasn't right. Made him look his age. Just eighteen, though it was easy to forget in present circumstances.
"Sounds to me," Bel countered neutrally, "like she left you. That isn't the same thing."
Dorian curled his lip at her. "And what would you know about it?"
Something in her eyes hardened in a way that sent a nervous spasm up his spine. He realized he'd made a mistake, but he wasn't sure what, and her reply, when it came, was like ice – cold and brittle. "I know more than you'll ever know about leaving something you love for someone that needs you more." The moment passed before he could think of a reply, and she turned her eyes to the fire. "Either way, I think we're going to need her. These soldiers love her. Like to the point of fanaticism. I honestly think she'll be good enough on her own if we can get her. Forget the others."
Dorian swallowed and didn't take his eyes off her. "Amira's not what we need," he insisted, but more cautiously. He may not have wanted to admit his sister would be helpful, but even he couldn't deny that they needed Bel if they were going to achieve anything. "I have plenty of pull with the others."
Bel gave Liam a look and he fidgeted unhappily. "We only have tonight, Eld—Dorian. Before we get too close to the Gerudo for this to work. We need control of the battalion before sunrise. If… your sister is the fastest way—?"
"I'll hit Harker first," said Dorian, as though he hadn't heard Liam speak, despite how close they were all sitting. "Durnam had his uncle killed, not prettily either, it shouldn't be hard to bring him over to our side."
Liam looked at Bel and shrugged, prompting the young woman to sigh, but she pointed down the rough path between the tents. "Big blue tent to the west. We'll give you five minutes then follow and run interference on anyone who might interrupt."
"Busy night tonight," Dorian said, rising to his feet. "Let's get it over with."
It's hard to believe, but the night is still young, despite the fact that we tried to sleep through it, and then we got into a fight, and then I got saved by the literal ghost of a long-dead friend, and then I lost consciousness from blood loss. You'd think that would have taken more time. Or at least that I'd have hit that sweet spot where the blood loss stops, but I get to stay unconscious until all the complicated stuff goes away.
"So let me get this straight," I say, "your death cult is neither a cult dedicated to the worship of death, nor a cult made up of dead things, but a cult dedicated to helping dead things?"
"Dead people," stresses the man sitting in front of me, in a tone that is basically begging me to please, Nayru, Farore and Din, just internalize this information already, "and we're not a cult. We're not even technically a religion, though most of us are religious. But otherwise yes." Did I mention he's a skeleton? Like, he's wearing a robe, but under it is just bones, no flesh. And his head is a skull. So, like, what are expressions? Do you know how eerie this makes everything he says?
"And you help them…"
"Take the place the Goddesses intended for them in the cycle of life and death."
"Is that really a cycle, though?" Neesha asks. She's not normally pedantic, but she's tired and cranky and this guy was apparently unnecessarily rude to us before I woke up, and, like, so is Neesha generally, but that's her job, not some outsider's, so now she's being what you might call a hostile witness, except the only thing she's witnessing is how long it will take, between the two of us, to make a skeleton cry.
Besides, Hunter's not paying enough attention to be pedantic for us, so somebody's got to step in.
"What?" says the skeleton (his name is Osae, but we have decided without needing to discuss it that we will not use it until he stops trying to lecture us to death, which doesn't seem like it's going to happen any time soon).
"Life and death," Neesha clarifies. "You're born. You live. You die. That's a line, not a circle."
"I don't…really want to debate philosophy with you," he says. Have you ever seen a tired skeleton? Because I have.
"And what is it, exactly, that you help these dead people do?" I ask as I throw an exaggerated look at the camp around us, which is largely populated by ghosts. They move back and forth between the handful of fires, the image of them flickering through what I think might be memories. Their clothes and expressions and ages change as they do it, and they're often speaking in a voice I can't hear, to people I can't see. They don't seem unhappy, I suppose, but they're ghosts, so who knows.
"I just said—"
"What you just said was unhelpful. I'm looking for something more concrete than a religious essay."
"I can't just—"
"Let me put it another way," I say, feeling my ever-too-thin patience stretching taut in a dangerous way. I lean forward so he understands that I mean this in a very particular way that promises a very particular kind of action if I don't like the answer: "What are you doing with the ghosts of my dead friends?"
As though summoned, there is a flicker behind him and suddenly Jinni of the Red and Ketari of the Sheikah are standing there, in all their impossible, translucent glory. I'm still not a hundred percent sure how aware they are, but the look on Jinni's face suggests that she thinks I could take it down a notch or two, and the look on Ketari's is a reminder that she's always been a fan of a good show, which tips me a little further toward 'generally aware'. There are a series of complicated feelings this evokes in me, but I very calmly take those feelings and put them in a box, wrap that box in chains, dig a hole deep down inside myself, and bury them there, so that I can continue on with the business of bullying this skeleton into answering my questions.
I have no idea how the skeleton is taking my poorly veiled threats, of course, because his face is incapable of emotion, but he doesn't reply right away. I keep my eyes on him to let him know I'm waiting, but right when I think he's about to finally say something, someone lays a hand (fully fleshed) on his shoulder.
"It's okay, Osae," says Mauna, his boss. We like Mauna better so far, but only just. "I'll take it from here."
Muttering something that sounds equal parts relieved and offended, Osae gets to his feet and abandons the field.
"You're worried about our intentions toward your friends," Mauna says as she takes his place. "Understandable. I swear that we have neither harmed them nor compelled them against their will. Is this your first interaction with the ghosts of the deceased?"
Neesha nods yes and I shake my head no.
"Okay," she says. "Well, let's start with the basics, then, just in case. When you die, your soul comes here, to the Sacred Realm." I open my mouth to comment, but she's apparently smarter than Osae because she cuts me off before I can speak. "The Dark World is the name that people give it in its current shape because they are frightened and bitter that it does not match their expectations, but it is still the Sacred Realm. In any form, that's what it is. And sooner or later, it's where people go when they die. At least for a time." She holds my gaze until I grudgingly cede the point. Not the first time it's been made, after all, but the distinction feels important to me, on a personal level, and so I continue to remind people of it.
Satisfied, she continues. "Where they go after that is a subject much debated by theologians of all stripes, and although there is an answer to the question, we prefer not to share it. That people and peoples have their own interpretation is a good thing. That they search and question and discuss the subject is something we think the Goddesses would have approved of. And also, a thing that is not known is a thing that is vastly more difficult to exploit. Because they do go somewhere. And that process is a key one, which helps to drive the Divine Systems that keep our world living and growing and thriving."
I feel the log I'm sitting on shift as Hunter comes to sit beside me. I was going to complain about how this was all very interesting (to a subset of the population which is not me) but I asked a very specific question and I haven't heard an answer yet, but I shut up. If Hunter is deep enough in the aforementioned subset of the population that he's willing to rejoin society ("society") here in the firelight to hear what she's saying, instead of lurking in a concerning way just on the edges of it, I can let her talk.
"Are you saying your theory is more accurate than everyone else's?" he asks, pointedly ignoring the sidelong looks Neesha and I are giving him. He ignores the ones Jinni and Ketari flicker to offer him as well, the former's face unreadable as ever but her eyes on him, and the latter's wearing a slight frown and a suspicious glint in the eye.
"I'm saying," Mauna clarifies, "that what we have isn't a theory, and isn't based on faith."
"Not that you'll share it, or the evidence used to formulate it," Hunter notes, his tone so dry it makes me homesick for the desert. Ketari flickers and now her face looks approving. Of course it does. The Sheikah cultivate a deep sense of suspicion in themselves like the rest of us would a favoured houseplant.
"It would break every single one of our tenants," Mauna acknowledges, drumming her fingers against her own cheek, "but I'm mulling it over."
That gets my attention back on the conversation. "Why?" I ask. I need both hands to count the number of things from any of my inherited cultures and religions that I'm not allowed to talk about with outsiders, which is a source of great pain for me generally, or would be if I was better at internalizing and remembering the esoteric. People tend to take that sort of thing seriously. And none of them are even in a cult, which this could still be.
"Because the Triforce didn't just reshape the Sacred Realm to match the views of the man who touched it. It granted him a wish. And the consequences of that wish are that one of the Divine Systems – the one with which my associates and I are most concerned – has, despite all our efforts to keep it otherwise, been co-opted. The entity to whom we would normally turn under such circumstances is otherwise indisposed and unable to assist us." She glances, briefly, at the hilt of the Master Sword sticking up over my shoulder. "I suspect you may be in a position to step into that role."
I frown, hesitant now. "Not that that doesn't sound important, but if you had any idea what's on my To Do List these days…"
"Enlighten me," she says.
"Will you give us a moment?" Hunter says, getting to his feet.
We follow him over and away from the woman, all of us frowning for all kinds of reasons. "We cannot," he says, "under any circumstances tell her what we're doing here."
"Why not?" I ask.
"Because I'm pretty sure Valdyx is the entity she was talking about, and we're here to kill him."
"You think they worship the Avatar of Death?" Neesha asks. "That's insane. She's death." I consider pointing out, not for the first time, the way she talks about the whole concept of a Gerudo death, a concept deeply rooted in Gerudo history and art and culture, and maybe it's not that hard to believe, but that's a guaranteed fight and we've got bigger problems right now.
"I think they work for him," Hunter clarifies. "I can't be sure, but what she's saying…they might be legit. I remember reading something about them in lessons when I was a kid. I think they might even be an offshoot of the ancient Sheikah, like, a very long time ago. People chosen by Valdyx specifically to assist when things get complicated, or during times when the volume of dead is just too high and creates too many risks of restless dead."
"What do you mean, restless dead?" Neesha demands.
"Like redeads or stalchildren."
"Yeah, see, that's why we burn ours."
"You still get poe," he counters, "and places like the Spirit Wastes. And just because—"
Okay, so apparently there are opportunities here to get distracted by more than one well-trod argument. I cut in quickly, "Okay, but how sure are you that they're legit?"
He makes a face and tilts his hand back and forth. "Fifty-fifty? It was a long time ago, and they were like a footnote on a lesson about something else entirely. Ask Zelda. Maybe she learned something in her lessons I didn't."
I prod the area where she usually is, and then shrug at him. "She's not answering." Hasn't all night, in fact. Not since we said goodnight last night – or, more accurately, a few hours ago. I guess it's still the same night.
"Do we need to be worried about that?" he asks, frowning.
My turn to make a face and tilt my hand back and forth. "If I don't hear from her by morning, I'll be worried. In the meantime, what do we do?"
"What do you think?" Neesha asks. "Use your weird Hero sense."
"I told you, you just made that up." But despite myself I glance back over at Mauna. She's sitting calmly where we left her, politely not watching us have this discussion. Jinni and Ketari aren't far from her, and they're less polite. I can feel both of their attention on me, even as they're flickering and playing out old memories. When I look over at them, they solidify, briefly, outfits changing (though Jinni stays in the red, I haven't once seen her flicker into the white), postures shifting, until they find a memory that allows them to return my gaze directly. On a whim, I nod my head at Mauna and raise an eyebrow at them. Ketari's form flickers, just slightly, and she gives me a short nod. Jinni's flickers and she suddenly looks like she's reclining on a chair somewhere, bored and shrugging, and that's about as much endorsement as they've ever given anybody.
Assuming they're not somehow bewitched or ensorcelled. Granting I have limited experience with Dark World ghosts, but these two are way more present and aware, more often, than Aunt Aeria was. When they're focused, they don't seem confused. When they're flickering and re-enacting their own lives, it feels more idle motion or strange sign language than inescapable trap. And they never quite disappear entirely. They don't fade in and out of existence.
Their situation isn't the same as Aeria's, that much is obvious. I just don't know where the differences are coming from.
"She's hiding stuff," I say, "but so are we—hey, man, you okay?"
Hunter, who followed my gaze two seconds ago and is now staring at Jinni and Ket and looking a little sick, shakes himself and looks back at me. "Sorry, what?"
I frown. "I'm saying I don't think she's out to get us, and I don't think she's lying, but that doesn't mean what we want isn't mutually exclusive."
"So what do we do about it?" Neesha demands.
I shrug. "I think we keep talking. Find out what she wants. Figure it out from there."
She sighs, but shrugs, because she hasn't got any better ideas. We both turn to look at Hunter to get his vote, but I suppose it's good we outnumber him anyway, because he's wandering off again.
"Hunter!" I call, half-protest, half-concern.
"I'll be back," he replies, but not with the sort of force or direction that implies he needs to do a thing, so much as he needs to not be doing a thing and he will come back when the threat of having to do that thing has passed.
I exchange a glance with Neesha. "You think this is about—"
"What else?" she demands. "I'll deal with it. Go talk to whatever her name is. And don't let her get away with not answering your question about those two." She gestures vaguely at Jinni and Ket's ghosts, and then jogs off after Hunter.
You know, none of us are handling prolonged exposure to the Dark World very well, but I'm starting to get worried about Hunter. Not that any of this is easy for Neesha and I – she keeps looking at Jinni and I can tell the red uniform is bothering her as much as it's bothering me, and I'm not saying I'd be nicer to Osae under better circumstances, but not knowing what to do with all these metaphorical fingers jabbing at my old wounds isn't dulling my edges any – but at least we tend to deal with and/or express our emotional turmoil in the moment. I'm starting to think Hunter's got more emotional skeletons in his closet than he's been letting on, and the Dark World keeps dragging them out to dance for him.
No offence to present company intended.
I start to wish Bruiser was here – he always knew what to do when Hunter was heading for some kind of brain spiral – but immediately glance over at Jinni and Ket, remember Aunt Aeria, and abort the thought before it can become anything solid.
He probably is here. And that's a problem.
I turn back to Mauna with a new goal beyond irritate her and her associates until they let us leave. I'm already slowly suffocating under my list of To Dos. What's one more added to the weight, right?
"Okay," I say, sitting back down in front of her, "let's talk."
A brief interlude
It was an unspoken rule of the universe that the Princess Zelda Hyrule was a Graceful Person. This was verifiably true and was due to a number of factors. First, there was her breeding. The Hyrules as a family were Graceful People. She came from graceful stock, with excellent physical intelligence, who had a knack for always knowing what their limbs were doing at any given moment and making whatever that was smooth and fluid and beautiful to watch.
Then, there was her training. Being a Queen-In-Training, which was what a Princess really was after all, meant learning to wield grace with the same intention you would wield a sword and shield. It was your best tool in things like diplomacy, negotiation, and, when required, even war. Training to be a renegade Queen-In-Training-In-Hiding / Sheikan-Guide-To-The-Hero (the memories remained, even if the events had no longer happened) also required learning grace. A grace better suited to shadows and subterfuge and spying (and not strangling the Hero because he just had that effect on people), certainly, but grace all the same.
Then there was her own nature. Grace came naturally to Zelda. It came as easily to her, in her every motion and action, as brazenness came to Link.
And yet here she was, with deep, personal offence, lying on the floor in a puddle of she'd rather not ponder what – not for the first time this escapade – rubbing Malon's nose with Malon's hands and praying she hadn't broken it this time.
I don't know which of us this is weirder for, Malon said, with utter honesty and complete bafflement.
I'm sorry, Zelda replied in her head (...in Malon's head, with her own voice – she'd tried talking out loud once, but Malon's voice did not sound like Malon's voice from in here and they needed to be quiet anyway). I'm just… your centre of gravity is… not where I'm used to? Language failed. There was no straightforward way to express what it was like, moving someone else's body using your own brain. I thought it would be like being Sheik, but that's a spell, more or less, and the magic sort of … takes care of things. This is more like being me, except everything's longer or shorter or wider or narrower than I'm used to. Everything's off by an inch here or an inch there… She gave up trying to explain it and stared up at the ceiling through a curtain of red hair. Your boots are so big.
They're for mucking out the stables, Princess, Malon replied, voice wry. I doubt you've worn their like.
Zelda couldn't tell if that was a dig or a statement of fact. Putting aside the fact that one was a Queen and one was a rancher, she and Malon were in the awkward position of being friends of friends of each other. Sure, they had hung out from time to time in their younger days, when Zelda had been posing as Sheik and skulking about at the archery shop, but that wasn't so much with each other, as it was with Link, who happened to be in both of their company at the same time. The fact that Zelda had been lying through Sheik's teeth about who she was, and the fact that Malon was dating someone that Zelda had a particular personal interest in had made things… well, suffice it to say that they hadn't put a lot of effort into getting to know each other back then. They'd found a way to tolerate each other for Link's sake and gone about their business. Now, though, the fact they knew each other just a little bit seemed to make the current experience even more awkward than it would have been if they'd been complete strangers. Neither of them knew how to navigate this with any sort of grace (nothing about this experience, it seemed, would be graceful), and then you put the Queen vs. Rancher layer back on it and the differences in their lives and social status and political power just put a huge magnifying glass on the whole thing.
I have not, the Princess finally said, opting for honesty. She didn't think she had even before she'd changed time, and that life had been significantly less fancy than her current one. Most of my shoes are for walking or dancing or riding or fighting. She wondered if she should have highlighted how many shoes she owned. She wondered if that had been rude.
She wished she could turn into Sheik. Nobody expected Sheik to be good at managing awkward social situations. Everybody called it a win if Sheik managed to get through a conversation without putting both feet in his mouth.
She rolled over and pushed Malon's body back up to its feet. This was their third excursion out of the frosted, sensory-dulling worlds of the crystals they were housed in since that first accidental one. So far, they'd gotten caught once and were forcibly returned to their crystals, much like the first time. The next time they were going to be caught and Zelda pulled the plug on the excursion (because it was the responsible thing to do, but also because it hurt to get caught, and also because she was afraid of causing damage to Malon's body, but also because it hurt so much).
This time was going much smoother, because they'd gotten farther away from the central chamber where the giant bari guarded whatever the pit it was sitting on was. The trick, it seemed, was to note where Malon's uninhabited body was going or what it was doing – chores, mostly, focused on caring for the bari and managing the room it never seemed to leave – and then mimic that as long as you were in sight of the bari. As long as you did whatever it expected Malon's body to be doing, it didn't seem to care.
It also, Malon had noted earlier, didn't seem to learn. It kept separating Zelda from Malon's body, but it never did anything different after that. It didn't seem to understand that Zelda could get out again, the instant Malon's body got close enough. It clearly controlled the empty shell, but it didn't bother to keep it away or change anything about its behaviour. So this time, they'd played along until they could get out of sight, and then they started exploring.
You know, Zelda said as she crept slowly to the edge of a corner to peek around the side of it, if it weren't for the circumstances that go us stuck here in the first place – and the fact that she wasn't in her own body – this would be kind of fun. The hallway appeared clear, so she moved out into it.
Serious? Malon replied, surprised.
One hundred percent, Zelda insisted. Reminds me of the time before I sent Link back in time. Not the bad parts, I could do without those. Nayru, and there had been so many of those. But the rest of it. Exploring all the lost, forgotten little corners of Hyrule. There are ruins in the Lost Woods that look kind of like this place, Dark World renovations aside. And there are crystal caverns under Goron City that no one but me has set foot in in millennia, not even the Gorons. She recognized the wistful sigh she was building in Malon's chest too late to stop it.
An adventurer princess, who would've thought, Malon replied. She sounded wry again, but not uninterested.
No, Zelda corrected her, exiting the hallway into a large room with a grand staircase extending upward in two directions. You can't be both. I wasn't a princess then. I'd been dethroned.
Which would you prefer to be? Malon asked, and Zelda worked very hard this time to keep the pained sigh from escaping.
Wonder what's up here, she said instead of answering. Malon didn't press.
She climbed the stairs slowly, taking care to lift Malon's feet high enough to avoid tripping on her boots, or skirts, or possibly nothing at all but tripping anyway. The air grew colder as she ascended, and she felt goosebumps raise the hair on Malon's arms. Do you have any allergies? she asked. The thought was random, but the higher she climbed the more nervous she got, and the chatter helped to keep her from turning around and fleeing back down the stairs. A bad habit she'd picked up from Link, whose stress you could measure by the number of words he crammed into a single breath. I should probably know in case you get hungry and I have to find something to eat.
Something doesn't feel right, Malon replied, apparently not sold on the value of distraction. Zelda remembered well the expression the rancher would be wearing if she'd been in her own skin. A slight narrowing of the eyes, a thinning of the lips, as she considered the object of her sudden and keen suspicion. She'd earned that look more than once as Sheik, for saying things that hadn't quite added up. Link never noticed, but nothing got past Malon. I don't even know how that's possible. I can't feel anything in here, but it doesn't feel right all the same. I swear it on my mother's grave.
I wouldn't bring up graves around here, Zelda replied, and then they crested the top of the staircase.
The room at the top was a circular loft, wide enough in diameter to fit maybe a hundred people. The walls were lined with bookshelves written in a language or languages neither of them recognized, or tapestries depicting various scenes with a particularly strong death theme. They had all been ransacked. The books were thrown carelessly around the room, some with pages or covers torn apart. The tapestries were ripped to tatters, barely hanging on to their hooks in the wall. In the centre were tables, broken or rotting, covered in dust and bones.
Nayru preserve us, Malon whispered. This is the creepiest thing I have ever seen, and a monster jellyfish is wearing me as a ring right now. We need to go.
Hang on, Zelda said, eyes scanning the tapestries and the torn pages with something akin to greed. There might be answers here.
Malon was incredulous. Answers to what?
Zelda hesitated. Remember when I asked you if you wanted me to give you the gentle version of where we are and why we're here and what we're doing about it? And you said yes?
Malon didn't answer for a moment, and Zelda gave her the space to think it over without moving further into the room. I think, Malon replied finally, sounding kind of ill, but mostly determined, I'm past that now. I think I need to be past that.
This place belongs to the Angel of Death, Zelda told her, keeping her tone even and matter of fact. Hunter and the others have to kill her. There might be something here that can help them do that.
Okay, said Malon, her voice small. Maybe a little gentler than that.
Zelda didn't reply. She was moving slowly through the desecrated library, careful to avoid disturbing anything she didn't have to. There was a lot she wanted to look at, but she hadn't been kidding about her time as an adventurer. In a room as creepy as this one, there was no guarantee how much time you had before something went horribly wrong and evacuating as fast as possible became the only possible action. Prioritization was key, here.
Of the assorted detritus, there was one tapestry in particular that caught her eye. It reminded her of a picture she'd seen in a book when she was small. It wasn't a Hylian book, it was one of Impa's. Very old, and she shouldn't have been touching it at all, but old things had always spoken to her more than new things did, and she couldn't help herself. It had not been a book for children, that much became clear to her as soon as she'd cracked open the cover.
But this image was even worse, somehow, than the one in Impa's book. It was twisted, like the map of Hyrule in her visions, an eternity ago now when this had all started; the one that had turned out to be of the Dark World. What was left of the tapestry showed a gibdo, howling in pain and rage, while the world burned behind it. It was rising up out of a cauldron, bubbling with sickly green light. There was a piece of the tapestry missing, and Zelda tried to remember what must have been there, based on what she had seen in Impa's book.
She crouched down near the wall and reached toward the dust, making a face as she brushed a small pile of bones away from a crumpled strip of torn cloth. She lifted it up and turned to try to get a better look at it.
There they were. The figures she remembered from the book – duller, and smaller and less purposeful looking, but they were there. Like priests and priestesses, standing up to the gibdo. Their leader stood in front of them, a word emblazoned on her back. The letters here were twisted, like everything else, but Zelda remembered the Sheikan word from the original (because she'd asked Impa about it later and thus outed herself as a disobedient book thief): Makan'oha. Shepherds.
She felt something scrape against Malon's foot, but was so distracted by the tapestry she didn't think to panic until she glanced down and saw the bones she'd brushed aside earlier shaping themselves into a hand that was trying to tangle itself in the laces of Malon's boot. She hissed her breath in sharply.
Zelda! Malon gasped, but the warning was far too late, as the stalfos dragged itself out of the shadows against the wall, using Malon's boot as its handhold. Run!
Zelda brought Malon's other boot down hard on the Stalfos' wrist, rejoicing in the sickening sound of bone crunching. It would put itself back together in less time than it had taken her to shatter its wrist, but it was enough to shake herself free of its grip and make a scrambling retreat back toward the stairs.
She suddenly couldn't quite remember why she'd thought she missed this.
They sat in the dark of the room affectionately referred to as "the office" by their motley group of would-be rebels / loyalists / some other word defined by the mouth from which it sprang. The lamp on the table between them had burned low a long time ago, but either they hadn't noticed, or couldn't be bothered to get up and refill the reservoir.
A crash from outside the room sent them both to their feet, knives in hand, but all that followed was muffled laughter. No shouting or screaming, no clashing of steel. Durnam hadn't come for them yet.
They heaved sighs that, though relieved, did nothing to release the tension sitting hard and cold in their rib cages and took their seats again.
Deciding abruptly that silence wasn't helping anything, Mel spoke. "Think they're okay?"
Renaud looked up as he settled back into his seat. His eyes had cleared of the influence of his previous drinking, but the building hangover draped behind them looked like it was gearing up to be nasty. "Who?" he asked, and the fact that it was a legitimate request for clarification was probably the most depressing part of the whole situation.
"All of them, I guess," Mel replied, "but I was thinking of Bel and the others. There are so many ways their mission could go badly." She didn't say there was no point asking about Brayden, since he was probably dead or worse already.
Renaud studied her face in profile for a moment. "Not used to working on your own, are you?"
She glanced at him and then looked away with a sigh. "No." She rubbed idly at the smooth leather of her gloves – a world away, she thought, from the bandages she used to wear. Easier to put on. Easier to take off. But less like a second skin, less like a ritual, less like a uniform. Because they weren't. "There used to be three of us, actually. Bel and me and Thomas, all the way through training. Until he got assigned to Castletown and … well." Goddess it seemed so far away now.
"I know who Bel is and why she's not with you now," Renaud said, tracing the grain of the wooden table under his hand, though his attention was on her. "What happened with this Thomas?" There was something a little too aware in his eyes – if she'd doubted his heritage before, that was dispelled now; only a Sheikah would read you that quick. "Is he the reason you don't wear your uniform anymore?"
She wasted a moment wishing, briefly, but still, that he hadn't sobered up quite so quickly. "It's complicated, and I probably shouldn't talk about it with someone outside." To his credit, he didn't wince.
"Exile," he said, and to her credit she didn't wince, "is hard. It will be easier for you if you have someone to speak with who understands it, and there are not many within the borders of Hyrule who can make that claim. I'm not asking for state secrets, I promise you. But I know what you had, and I know something of what you've lost, and you are treading ground some of us have walked before. If you want someone to help you find the way, I'm here."
"You left," she said, "because you wanted to."
"I left," he clarified, "because my life had reached a point where a choice had to be made. A man who serves two masters is a man who betrays at least one of them sooner or later. And I knew which it would be. Better to leave before it came to it."
"Yeah well," Mel said, "some of us weren't that forward thinking."
For a moment, silence fell again, and each followed it back down into their own thoughts. But after a spell, the younger of them stirred. "Was Eldrick the second master? The one you chose?" She paused. "Not the ass, the older one."
Renaud, to her surprise, chuckled. It was a brief and wilted sound, but genuine despite that. "His father was an ass too," he said, and though the fondness there should have surprised her, it didn't. "And I'm sure he would have liked to fancy himself my master, but that would be true only in the most indirect sense. My choice of masters, little exile, was between my soul, sworn to serve the Goddesses at any cost, and my heart, which would have, in a single beat, sold the former to save him."
"Him, as in the senior ass?"
"Just so," Renaud replied with something that was almost a smirk. His eyes were distant, lost in another time.
She didn't interrupt his thoughts, taking the opportunity to try to sort out her own. Eventually, almost unconsciously, she said, "The reason I don't wear a uniform anymore isn't because of Thomas. The same as… the same as Lord Eldrick wasn't your second master, but he was… he was at the centre of the choice. I made the choice I did because I couldn't stand the thought of doing anything else. It's not his fault. He didn't make me do it. He couldn't have. I just… He was in trouble. He needed help. And I couldn't give him that without…well." She gestured at the Hylian outfit she was wearing. "I didn't even know I had two masters, Renaud. But I had to choose between them anyway."
"And your sister?" he asked.
The guilt in her eyes was sudden and vicious.
"Ah," he said. "She chose you, did she?"
Mel's voice was admirably steady when she replied, but she kept her face turned away from him. "She shouldn't have had to. I shouldn't have put her in that position. Thomas was mind-controlled, he couldn't help himself. I don't have that excuse."
"She chose to go with you, the same as you chose to go after him," Renaud said, not gentle, exactly, but not rough either.
"She didn't want to, though," Mel said. "She thought we should follow protocol. All the way through, she thought...she argued…" Mel sagged in her chair. "She was right. She was right all along, but I was too panicked to listen. She was thinking, I was reacting. And now here we are." She looked down at her hands, fighting to keep her scowl off her face. "Being a Sheikah was everything to her. She's always taken it more seriously than me. She's always just… wanted it more. For me, it was just something I was. It was just… just…"
"Culture," Renaud supplied.
"Yes," Mel confirmed. "Culture. Community. The world. It was just how it was, you know? But for her? It was more. It was more serious. It was a very solid thing for her. Practically physical. It was… it was…"
"The Quis," Renaud clarified.
"Yes," Mel said, and deflated. "It was the Quis. The real, true thing. The calling. It was everything to her. And now…"
"And now she must live with the fact that she chose something else," Renaud said, "the same as you must." He paused and thought for a long moment, trying to remember what he would have needed to hear, if he had had someone to talk to about the choice before – or after – he'd made it. "It is a heavy sacrifice the Goddesses ask of the Sheikah; to choose Them over all. We're mortal, at the end of the day, you know. We forget that, I think. Or prefer not to think about it." He paused, considering his own words. "Easier to think of ourselves as little pieces of the divine, easier to justify the sacrifices, easier to validate the losses, easier to carry on with so many holes in our hearts. Sen quis lodannan sen venan, and all that."
He paused again and his eyes grew distant. When he resumed speaking, she wasn't entirely sure he was talking to her anymore. "Sometimes I think… I have spent a very long time thinking about this, and sometimes I think it's better to be among the fallen. That's what we are, did you know? We're among the venan now. To fail in the Quis is to fall. To be mourned like the dead. But the life I have lived since I left, Mel… I miss my family. I miss my people. I miss the Caverns and the food and the music. Every day I miss it, like there's a piece of me missing. But I built a life here, do you understand? I built a second family. With a man I loved, and children I love, and work that has been meaningful and given me purpose. It's not… it was never the Goddess' work, Mel. It wasn't the Quis, but it was good, do you understand? I wouldn't trade it. Not even for Them." He looked, suddenly, fierce in a way she had never seen him. For one, bright moment, it was as though the weight of the last few months had been lifted, and his back straightened and his eyes burned and the fear and the grief and the guilt faded in the face of his vivid, bone-deep conviction. "We may be venan, but we're not dead, Mel. You've lost something you'll never replace, but you can make a life for yourself that is more than anything you ever thought it could be. Do it. And don't look back. Not even in a place like this, in a time like we're living. Do you understand? Never look back."
"What do you want me to say?" she replied softly. "It's not just my life that needs to be rebuilt."
"But yours is the only one you can rebuild," he replied. "Your sister and your friend will have to figure themselves out. And they will. If your sister wants to serve the Goddesses still, she can. The Sheikah do not have a monopoly on service to the Goddesses, girl, and the Quis is not the only path to righteousness."
"No," agreed a new voice from the shadows, "it is not."
They were on their feet less than a heartbeat later, knives out as they whirled to face the darkest corner of the room, but then they saw who was stepping out of the shadows and into the failing lamplight. Neither of them, in that moment, could decide if this was better or worse than the alternatives.
"Hello Impa," said Renaud, and sheathed his knives. "It's been a while."
Eldrick nursed the warm drink in his hand, despite how badly he would have preferred to down it in one go. It wasn't that it tasted good, he was too young yet to have acquired the taste for alcohol and whatever had been added to the drink was strong and bitter. It was just that the treks between camps and tents was cold, and his stress levels were growing with every stop, and it would be nice to let something take the edge off his growing anxiety.
But he'd been offered a drink at every tent he'd been to, and if he drank them all he'd be useless faster than he could ask for a refill.
"Edwin," he said, frowning, "be serious, man. You can't honestly tell me you think following Durnam is the right thing to do."
"Ah, Dorian," Edwin replied, swirling his own drink around in his glass. The light of the lamp on the heavy wooden coffee table glittered and refracted through the burgundy liquid. "Always such an idealist. I think following Durnam is the only option on the table right now."
"I'm literally here offering another."
The look Edwin gave him was far too close to pity for Eldrick's tastes. "No," Edwin replied. "What you're offering is nothing and I think you know that. You're asking me to commit treason, to exhort my soldiers to follow me in it, and you've not even tried to bribe me for it, Dorian. Because you have nothing to bribe me with."
Eldrick shifted his weight in the soft armchair and leashed his shortening temper as best he could. Getting angry wouldn't get him anywhere, not least because Edwin was right. "Treason? What treason? Durnam is not King, but a usurper. If anything, it's patriotism I'm asking you to commit. Loyalism." He shook his head. "I didn't try to bribe you because I have more respect for you than that, but if you want one, we've had word from the Hero. Confirmation that Zelda lives, which means I can ensure you are rewarded when she returns." He didn't technically know if that was true, but he didn't see a way around making the promise anyway. He liked to think she'd honour it. The more cynical part of him suspected she wouldn't have much of a choice – far too few of her nobles were willing to stick their necks out for her in absentia. She would need to reward those who had, if for no other reason than to make a point to the rest.
Edwin's face grew serious and Eldrick could see the shadowed edges of his position behind his eyes; hints of things he had not yet spoken. "Her ass is not the one in the seat, Dorian. Between the two of us and these walls, I'm with you. Spiritually. Philosophically. But practically, and financially, and militarily...I cannot commit House Terral to your cause." He shook his head slowly, considering a future where he did just that, assessing the grim potential of it. "I just got married, did you know? If I did what you ask, I risk… well I can't risk it. Not the sort of move you're talking about. Not without a higher power backing you— a higher power who is here, physically, now," he clarified immediately upon seeing Eldrick open his mouth.
The younger noble muttered something bitter and sank back in his chair. He was sulking now, and he knew it was obvious, but it was becoming difficult to maintain a veneer of political savvy in the face of the mounting challenges he did not like the solution for. "Congratulations on your marriage," he said. "That provincial cousin of the Shenyans I assume. A good alliance. Or at least it was before Durnam started assassinating people in the night. I'm honestly not sure where the Shenyans stand these days, or where they'll stand when the Queen returns." He paused and a frown flitted across his face as something occurred to him. "I don't recall receiving an invitation. My father attended for Eldrick, I assume?"
"Ah," said Edwin, and shifted in his seat. "Well who knows, really. It was months ago, now, and I had quite a good time, so—"
"Terral," Eldrick snapped, drawing himself up. The drink in his cup sloshed a warning. "Was my family not invited?"
"Well, no," he said, "of course the Eldricks were represented. I know I'm not always the most socially acceptable of my House, but I'm not that rude."
"Then who was invited?" Dorian demanded. "Not some cousin?" And then he realized what Edwin had said. That the Eldricks were represented – but not Eldrick, their house. He scowled. "You can't be—"
"I had to make a choice," Edwin cut him off, "because your father's incredibly public position forced me to. I had to choose between the House Eldrick, and my friends therein, and my commanding officer. The woman who is one of the very few commanders I have served beneath with anything resembling pride. She's saved my life, Dorian. Did you know?" He shook his head. "I genuinely wanted you there, but if I had to choose, there was only one choice to make. I'm sorry."
Eldrick did not reply, opting instead to sit and scowl and stew. Irritation broke through discipline and he took a long, burning draw from his goblet. (Din, but it tasted awful.) (He did it again.) Why was it that every conversation tonight was coming back to this? Coming back to her? He was offering these cowards their honour back, and all they would say was—
"Now… if you could get the Commander on board with your plan—"
Eldrick stood up suddenly enough that Edwin stopped talking and stared at him in surprise. "Thank you for the drink," he forced himself to say stiffly, setting the goblet back down on the table between them, hard enough it sloshed over the side and ran onto the carpet beneath, "and for your discretion. I won't trouble you further."
"Dorian," said Edwin reproachfully, but Eldrick ignored him, moving on a beeline for the tent's exit. "Eldrick," he snapped, and there was definitely something forceful and commanding in the voice. The military had done well for him.
Scowling darkly, Eldrick glanced back at him over his shoulder.
"Your father was a good man, who meant well," Edwin said, serious. "But you're head of the House now, not him. You don't have to do everything his way. Grieve. And then move on. Move forward."
"Thank you for the counsel, Terral," Eldrick replied with barely concealed offence. "I will take it under advisement."
And then he stalked out the door and into the swirling snow beyond.
Brayden woke up in the lap of the innkeeper he'd been speaking with at the bar before Renaud had ruined his own disguise and had needed to be escorted out. It was a nice lap, he thought, in the addled way of the recently woken and the gently concussed, but he didn't think he was here because he'd finally listened to the disastrous advice Bruiser had tried to give him a few months ago. Some nonsense about moving on and living the life that had been returned to him. That's what he was doing, wasn't he? He was breathing. He was moving around. He talked to people when they talked to him. What else did he need to do?
It was a nice lap, soft in all the good ways, but eventually his senses began to follow his consciousness and wake up, and several things came back to him all at once.
He choked on a swear word and sat straight up. Even so, it took him several seconds to be able to survey the room, because the sudden motion had set it to spinning alarmingly.
"You should move slow," said the innkeeper, in the dazed voice of someone who didn't think the standard advice was much use in the long run, but who couldn't stop the programmed responses from coming out despite this. "They hit you pretty hard in the head."
They had, he remembered. The snow-covered steps hadn't helped when he'd fallen and hit those too. He was hurting in other places, but after a few seconds of careful motion, he determined that he hadn't broken anything to the point where it couldn't be used, just to the point where it was going to make him pay for any motion later.
"They've lost their minds," said the innkeeper, watching him take in the room. "They've gone insane, haven't they? This isn't an inquisition."
And Brayden, who took his sudden, intense desire to lie to her as a very bad sign indeed, said: "No. No, it's not."
They were in one of the palace's small ballrooms – one that was multi-purpose. It could be used for small, intimate parties of a hundred people or less. It could be repurposed for large meetings and conferences. It could, apparently, be turned into a makeshift cage for approximately a hundred and fifty terrified civilians, bloodied and sobbing and jumping as a single, panicked unit every time something outside the door at the east end of the hall made a noise just a little too loud.
There were only a few reasons Brayden could think of to take this many people, this violently, and put them in a room like this, and not a single one of them was positive.
He had to get these people out of here.
"I, uh, your disguise came off," said the innkeeper, and though it was an effort, the statement set off enough alarms in his brain, that Brayden dragged his thoughts away from what was happening and back to what had happened. He killed the instinct to reach up and seek the complicated makeup he'd been wearing and confirm anything was wrong. If she'd made the statement, of course it was. "Or, I mean, it got damaged. When they hit you. I don't think they noticed, so when they put us all in the cart and I saw… anyway, I took it off before anyone noticed and I muddied up your face a bit. Dirt and blood mostly, sorry. It's a bit… unhygienic, but I figured…"
He turned to look at her in surprise.
She shrugged, uncomfortable. "Things are bad, and you were trying to help. You didn't have to. You had lots of reasons not to, but you were trying anyway. Didn't seem right to just let them punish you for that. I thought, maybe, if they didn't recognize you it would be better but now, I…" She threw a hopeless look around the mass of people huddled in the room. "Might have been better for you if I'd told them straight up who you were."
He felt a sudden surge of warmth for this woman, and maybe a little for the people she represented. "Are you so sure you know who I am?"
She snorted. "That boy of yours and his friends come into my inn all the time when they're in town. They eat like you starve them, and they tip generously. Yours chats me up like he's flirting, but he's just like that, I think. Just honestly curious about everything and everyone around him." Her face softened at the memory. "He looks just like you, you know. I knew who you were as soon as that stuff you had on your nose was off."
Brayden studied her for a moment longer, then turned to survey the crowd again. "Thank you," he said, "for keeping the faith."
"Faith's about all we have left, I think," she said, and sounded sad. And angry, a little bit, underneath it. She looked back out over the gathered civilians and her eyes were distant. "They're not here, you know? The friends I mentioned back at the bar. The ones who were taken in the last inquisition. They're not here."
Brayden let that sink in and then frowned. "It's a big crowd—"
"I looked," she said, and her voice was matter of fact enough that he didn't try to offer her comfort on the point again. This, he decided, was a practical woman and she'd been kind to him; he saw no reason to offend her intelligence. "I asked around. I made noise. If they were here, I'd have found them. They're not here. And I don't think they're anywhere else either."
"What makes you say—"
The doors at the east end of the room slammed open without warning, and a great shriek went up from the crowd. The innkeeper reached out and caught Brayden's sleeve as he started to rise, dragging him back onto the floor and then down again into her lap. The movement was insistent enough that Brayden didn't fight it. He even half-closed his eyes, keeping them open just enough to watch what was happening through a curtain of lashes.
The innkeeper pressed herself back against the wall and seemed to be trying to make herself seem as small as possible as a heavily armed group of soldiers marched into the room. Except they weren't soldiers, and it was less of a march than a prowl, like a predator seeking a snack.
"They're moblins," he whispered to the woman and felt her hand tighten on his arm as the information shattered their illusions for her. "Steady," he whispered as he could feel her drawing in her breath. "You've done well to avoid their attention so far, keep it up. A panic in here serves no one."
The moblins split up and moved into the crowd, selecting people and dragging them back to the east side of the room. Brayden took the opportunity to glance toward the open door. He couldn't see anything but the wall of the hallway beyond, but the sounds were a little clearer now that it was open. Somewhere down that hallway, someone – a group of someones – was making a steady, repetitive noise. Like a song, or a chant, but even as muffled as it was, he didn't think it was that. It was a disturbing rhythm, and the longer he listened to it the less happy it made him. It was familiar and it brought back some of the least pleasant memories he had. Of dark rooms and darker chains and even darker acts, committed with his hands, staining his soul, no matter how he'd railed against it.
In all, the moblins grabbed about a dozen people and herded them at spear point toward the door. None of them fought. For one thing, there was no hope of achieving anything if they did – the moblins were armed and armoured, the civilians were not. For another, where would they run from there? For a third, and probably most pertinent, these people weren't soldiers. They weren't combatants. They were merchants, and housekeepers, and blacksmiths, and tailors. Brayden felt the stirrings of his old temper deep in his chest – this was a gross injustice on so many levels. But where, in his younger days, he might have jumped up right then and rushed over to help, he was older now, and more aware of the realities of situations like these.
It was too late for the people the moblins were leading out the door. It was honestly, probably too late for the other hundred and fiftyish (hundred and thirty-eightish now) left in the room, but maybe not. Time was a resource not to be ignored. There were a number of events in motion that might create an opportunity for him to help at least some of these people. The Gerudo could arrive and interrupt whatever was going on beyond that door. The rebellion could come looking for it's misplaced leader (he honestly hoped they wouldn't do that – they weren't strong enough and that would just result in them getting dumped in here with him). The Goddesses could come back to begin Judgement Day proceedings and render it all moot. Time was the only resource they had right now.
The door closed again like the sealing of a tomb and the innkeeper let Brayden rise again.
"Moblins," she breathed. "We have to—"
"What's your name?" Brayden asked, cutting her off before she could chase that thought and start shouting. He didn't necessarily disagree with the instinct, it was just that they had to be careful about it. He was going to have to light the fuse on the crowd eventually, but if they weren't careful about when and where, it would just make things worse.
She looked at him, surprised. "What?"
"Your name," he repeated. "You know mine. I bet my son knows yours. He seems to know everybody's. But I'm not as social a creature as he is, and I've just realized I never asked it. You probably saved my life—" she rolled her eyes, because, given the circumstances, had she really? "—and I haven't even asked your name. That was rude of me. I'm asking it now."
"Anna," she said, cocking her head.
"Anna," Brayden repeated. He adopted a tone he hoped was reassuring, one he'd heard Bruiser use a thousand times when people were jumpy and scared, and he needed them calm and focused. The one he'd used on Brayden a thousand times in their younger days. "Call me Bray. Thank you, sincerely, for everything you've done so far. I am going to ask you for another favour right now, and I want to be very clear that you can tell me no." He really, really hoped she wouldn't.
She frowned at him, curious despite the nature of their situation. "All right," she said, "ask it."
"I can get one person out of this room, and only one person," he said. "But then you will have to get yourself out of the palace. And once you're out, I need you to do something for me. I need you to do this thing before you do anything else, and I need you do it no matter what happens. No matter who else you're worried about. No matter who gets in your way. Do you understand?"
She was frowning at him now, smart enough to know a double-edged sword when she saw one. "Is this Sheikah stuff? I can hold my own in a bar fight if I have to, and I know my way around a sword, but I'm not a Sheikah."
"This is Hyrule stuff," he said. He pointed at the eastern door. "There is something very bad going on back there, and the rebellion needs to know. If they don't… if they don't, the badness that is happening in this palace could burn right through it and spread outside it. You understand?"
Still frowning, she glanced over at the door and then back at him and nodded. "Why don't you take the message if you can get someone out? Get yourself out."
He considered the question seriously. It was a fair one and he didn't have a good answer. Just a feeling. "This will, I think, go very bad before it gets better. If it gets better. I have… I am probably the only person in Castletown right now with firsthand experience of the kind of badness that's happening. I might… I think I might be more useful here, than out there. And honestly…" He hesitated. "I've been walking a razor's edge between breathing and not since my son was sent to the Dark World. I would feel better about that, about facing the other side of that edge, if I knew I had done something useful before falling over it. If I had saved someone, like I couldn't save him, you understand? That would be worth a lot to me."
"I understand," she said slowly, and he wondered if she was thinking about her lost friends.
"It's not a guarantee," he said, "but it gives you a chance you won't have in here. And my message needs to get out. It's the only real chance everybody in here has, and even if not for us, then for everybody else."
"Why only one?" she asked. "Why not all of us?"
"One-way door," he said, "powered by magic. We don't have a mage to reset it for us, so it'll work once and once only. Will you do this for me?"
She hesitated. Her eyes moved over the gathered misery and he could see she wanted to leave badly, but still she hesitated. "Why me?" she asked. "Because I hid who you were? That's thin reasoning to take a chance like this on me. You don't know me. I could bolt as soon as I'm out of here."
"Well," Brayden said, "these are far from ideal circumstances, and I don't have time to conduct an in-depth investigation into your intentions and tendencies and reliability. But you said my son tips you well and chats with you and that means he likes you and he has good instincts. I trust him."
She gave him a look that was so unimpressed he almost laughed. "He probably just likes my cleavage," she said. And then he did laugh, despite everything.
"He might," he agreed. "But as simple a person as he can be sometimes, he sees much more than that when he looks at people. And I have nothing more to go on. You ask good questions, you took a risk to keep who I am a secret, and you were strangely convinced back at your bar that I was an inherently good person capable of doing the right thing despite personal feelings and interests, before you'd even met me. Least I can do is return that faith."
He held her gaze for a long moment as she weighed all of that, and the risks, and the potential consequences, and the heavy responsibility that came with it, against the chance of freedom – for herself, and no one else. At last she took a deep breath and then let it out again slowly.
"Okay," she said. "What's your message?"
Hunter and Neesha sat together in silence, watching the camp around them go about its business. Mostly, this business was sleeping, at least in the case of people who were (despite appearances in some cases) still alive. Moving between the fires like it was the middle of the day in the market, however, were the ghosts. Neesha scanned the transparent figures as they moved, looking for anyone she knew besides Jinni and Ketari, but while there were plenty of faces to scan, and even a few Gerudo, there was no one familiar.
She wasn't sure how she should feel about that.
She noticed other things as she studied the eerie phantoms. Other details. Generally, though not always, she could figure out where they came from, what nation claimed them, but some of the modes of dress were strange. She was almost definitely, despite her youth, the most well-travelled Gerudo in several generations thanks to the strange company she kept. She had a good idea of what Hylians from any given place looked like, and what Sheikah looked like when they weren't pretending to be Hylians, and it hadn't been that long ago that she'd spent some time in Zora's domain, and she knew what sorts of fashions they were getting into now, and some of these people didn't match any of that. Some of them were older – great war era, going off the armour they wore and the wounds they bore, but some of them she thought were even older than that.
She stirred and made the observation out loud to Hunter. He blinked, pulled from wherever he'd gone in his head and looked around at the ghosts. "They're from everywhere," he said. "Every when." He pointed at one particularly ostentatious looking Hylian. "He looks like he's from maybe two hundred years ago. Hard to say for sure, our records get sketchy that far back. Her, I can't even guess," he added, pointing at another ghost. "It's just some of them, though. Most of them…" he trailed off and frowned, thought about it, and reformulated his statement. "You know what's concerning?" She didn't bother answering. He had a habit of asking rhetorical questions and it wasn't worth it to answer them unless you wanted to irritate him. "Most of them aren't that old. Most of them are Great War or later." He threaded his fingers through each other, focusing on the physical motion as he consider the implications of that. "I think Mauna's right. I think something happened to the machinery of the world when Ganondorf took over. I think he did something to it."
He looked on the verge of getting lost in his own thoughts again, so she said: "Is that what's bothering you?"
It was like watching a man turn to stone. "A lot of things are bothering me, Neesha. I think it's safe to say that's on the list."
She studied his face in profile for a second and then huffed out an irritated breath. "You know I'm not good at this," she said, earning herself a surprised look. "You know I'm not good at getting you to talk about this stuff. I'm not Link, I can't come over here and talk about the weather for a while and suddenly have you sobbing and spilling all your secrets."
A displeased frown wriggled through the stone in Hunter's face. "I don't… I don't sob. What—"
"Help me," Neesha said, "help you. Because I'm not a very gentle person, and I'm okay with that, but I feel like maybe you're a little brittle right now, and I don't want to hurt you, okay?"
He turned away from her. "I don't want to talk about it."
She frowned. "No," she corrected him, "you don't want to have anything to talk about. That's not the same thing. You can't pretend whatever it is away, Hunter. Especially not here. Did that ever occur to you? That keeping it all inside and not letting anyone help you is playing right into the Dark World's hands?"
He gave up ignoring her, which, honestly, he had known wouldn't work, but also, his options were limited. "Maybe I'm not ready to talk about it."
Despite her best efforts her frown blossomed into a scowl. She pointed at where Jinni and Ketari were talking with someone they couldn't see, playing out one idle memory or another. "They died years ago, Hunter. When are you going to be ready to talk about it?"
"They didn't die," he said, irritation working his jaw as he paused. "They were killed. It's different."
Dead is dead is dead, thought Neesha, but didn't bother to argue the point. Just like she didn't bother to remind him that she'd been on that bridge too. It wasn't his to bear alone, no matter how tunneled his vision got. It never had been.
"Besides," he added, before she could think of something more useful to say, "it's not about them. Or...I mean...it's not about that. I just…" he gestured, inarticulate, as though trying to pull the words he needed from the air. That wasn't, she felt, a great sign, given that he didn't usually have trouble articulating the things in his head. "I don't know what to do."
"About...about this!" he said, and gestured to take in, she assumed, the ghosts, and the Dark World, and the situation as a whole. "We have steps to take, yes. We have a sort of plan, sure. I mean, it's a to-do list, let's be honest, but whatever, that's not my point. My point is… my point is: then what?"
"Then what, what?" she asked. "Saving the other...the other…"
"Sages' descendants is probably less annoying than maidens if that's what you're trying to avoid," he offered.
"Sage's descendants," she said, grateful for the suggestion. "Is saving them and stopping the moblins and locking all the badness back in here not enough for you?"
His expression took on that look that it had been defaulting to since she'd woken up in Misery Mire. His version of Link's "Dark World look", except it hadn't gone away when they'd realized what the Moon Pearl did. "No, Neesha," he said, "I don't think it is."
She stared at him, trying to follow this. "Why not?"
He took in a deep breath and let it out again slowly, then pointed at Jinni and Ketari. "Doing what you said doesn't get them out of this mess," he said. "It doesn't get my mother out of this mess. It doesn't get… it doesn't get Dad out of this mess." His gaze was on the middle-distance, staring at something in his own head. "I can't— It's my fault they— Dad and Jinni and Ket at least are—" His voice had gone raw on him, and she looked away long enough for him to pull it all back together. "I can't just leave them in this state, Neesha. I couldn't save their lives, fine, but I can't let their afterlives be this." He shook his head, and then the rest of himself for good measure. "And it's not just them. It's not just the ones that have gone before, Neesha. What about everyone who comes after? When… when Rue dies – don't make that face, I know you don't like to think about it, but I need you to right now – when she dies, do you want her to come here? And get stuck like the others? Or conscripted into even more service and more oaths than the ones she already gave her life for? Or...or whatever else it is that has these people so spooked? Do you want to go on living, knowing, even as you burn her body and consign her flesh to the Wind, do you want to have to do it knowing it doesn't matter? Knowing she doesn't get her rest? Knowing she's stuck here? Knowing you will be too, one day?"
"Goddess dammit, Hunter, you are morbid," Neesha replied. She was harsh about it, but he could see the uneasiness in her eyes as she thought about what he said.
"I'm just saying," he replied, "because it's something that maybe needs to be said. We can't… unknow this. We can't just forget it. And we can't— I'm not sure we can leave it this way. I'm not sure… I don't think I can go home until this is over. Until all of it is over. And all I want in the world right now is to go home."
Neesha said nothing for a long moment. She turned her eyes back out over the camp and thought about what she'd seen and understood so far about the Dark World and those trapped within it. Hunter didn't interrupt her thoughts, but she knew he glanced at her every now and then, waiting for her response. Eventually she said, "It's not just the dead. I don't think we can leave the living here, either. They can't get back through the Seals with us. We have to take them down."
"If we do that," Hunter said, without dissent or argument, "Ganon gets out."
"Not," Neesha replied, "if we take care of him first."
"I think," said a new voice from the side, "we should handle one thing at a time." They both turned to look at Link, who was standing close enough that they both winced at not having noticed him approach. His face was serious, his unnaturally blue eyes stern, "But to be clear, I'm not ruling it out. I'm just saying let's get the others home first. Then we can talk about next steps."
And Hunter and Neesha both nodded, because honestly, one thing at a time was complicated enough. Hunter ran a hand through his hair and then scraped it down his face like he was trying to wipe something off. It was clearly an effort to pull his focus back onto their current problems, but he managed it. "So what did she say? What does she want?" he asked, glancing over at the fire where Mauna and Osae sat in quiet conversation.
Link made a face, like he wasn't quite sure how to put it. "Well," he said, slowly, "she wants us to kill their boss."
"Their … boss?" Neesha said, and then her expression went incredulous. "You mean Valdyx?"
"The angel of death," Link said. "Yeah."
Chapter 27 (cont.)
The map is impressive in its detail, and the Shepherds – apparently the title for Mauna and her living friends – let their fingers rest almost reverently against its edges after they've rolled it out. I don't ask but reading between the lines on their faces and the shadows in their eyes, I'm guessing they paid dearly for every drop of ink on the large stretch of parchment.
It depicts a field, dotted with fortifications that are depressingly organized compared to what I'm used to seeing here. There are notes on patrol schedules and troop movements. A couple of the Shepherds immediately devolve into what sounds like a familiar argument between a handful of approach plans. One of the more spirited debaters is, naturally, Osae. I'm starting to think we're not the only people who like arguing with him – or rather, that he likes arguing with.
Mauna is silent, but she watches us studying the map and waits for us to comment on the obvious gap: at the centre of the parchment, surrounded by all this beautifully rendered detail, is a giant, circular blank spot.
"Valdyx's fortress," Hunter guesses, raising an eyebrow at Mauna. She nods.
"Useful," Neesha sighs, annoyed.
Osae straightens, immediately defensive. "We haven't been able to get in. We're not exactly a standing army, here."
I can't quite resist a glance around at the gathered Shepherds. There are maybe a dozen of them in total, plus twice that in ghosts, if they're lucky. Call it thirty souls all around, less than half of whom can consistently interact with the physical plane. Valdyx, on the other hand, seems to have five or six times that in various Dark World Specials, plus an entrenched position and well-established defences. The Shepherds are more priestly than martial.
So, no. They're not exactly a standing army.
"It's fine," I say, noting Osae's frustration echoed on the faces of the other Shepherds. "Not the first temple I've broken into without any idea of what was inside." Which isn't to say it was fun, any of the times I've done it. You can't always count on a map, a keyring, and a useful tool hidden away in the first broom closet you come to.
"This isn't like those times, Link," Hunter says, like he can read my mind. "This isn't one of Hyrule's temples. Those were designed to be solved. And no matter how much you whine, they were built to be useful to you. This one," he taps the great, empty spot at the map's centre. "This one isn't about you at all." He ignores the way I cross my eyes and stick out my tongue at him in favour of looking up at Mauna. "What was it originally? Before Ganon touched the Triforce."
She gives him the slightest of smiles, like she was waiting for someone to ask the question. The look is subtle enough that I stop making faces and frown sharply at her. That she knows things she's not telling us has been obvious from the start, but it's irritating to see it so plainly on her face.
"It was a place of rest," she says. "Not all souls are ready to move on when they die. Before, they would all come here, to the Sacred Realm, and they could take their time coming to terms with their death, and all the work they left unfinished. They could wander if they wished, visit with the Makani if they wished, speak with each other or with us if we were here," she gestures at herself and the Shepherds, "and eventually, they could accept that they were dead, and it was time to move on." She pauses – not quite a hesitation, I think, more a feint. She doesn't glance at the other Shepherds, but she not-glances at them so hard it's impossible to miss. The instant they all relax, just so, she adds: "To let themselves be carried to the Cauldron and rejoin the cycle of this world."
There is a sharp intake of breath from the Shepherds – an actual squawk from Osae – and Hunter's head snaps up the way it does when he realizes he hasn't heard any noise from me and Neesha in a while and his dignity is in imminent and mortal danger.
"When they were ready for that," Mauna continues, like nothing notable happened at all, "they came here. To Valdyx's Temple. To rest and prepare, to record their final thoughts for Mudora's records, and to take Valdyx's hand for the second time in their existence and be carried into the Cauldron." Osae squawks again and moves like he's going to rush her, but Hunter snaps his hand out without even looking and blocks him before he can interrupt. "There, existence ends, and the little bit of divinity in all living things is reclaimed and fed back into the cycle set in motion by the Goddesses when they created the world."
"Mauna," says Osae, with such a depth of betrayal that I actually feel a little bad for him.
But she just sighs. "Osae, he's the Hero. His soul is older than mine. And that one is a Sheikah, which are the closest thing the Shepherds have to a spiritual successor active in the world these days. I think it's okay to be a little more open with some things, given our current extenuating circumstances."
Osae, who doesn't seem able to refute this logic but nonetheless still suspects some great sin has been committed, gestures at Neesha. "Well what about her? She's none of those things."
"She wasn't even listening," Mauna says dryly.
"What?" Neesha demands, irritated at being pulled away from her study of the emplacements outlined on the map. "Blah blah religious stuff. I don't care. Anyway, you're asking us to kill the Avatar of Death, so I don't think you're in a position to be stingy with information." She glances at Hunter. "And it doesn't matter what the place was before, it's not gonna be that now."
"No," he says, "but it'll be a perversion of it. We might be able to guess some things if we understand what it was."
The discussion dissolves into the usual sort of argument – one that will be annoying and frustrating for everyone involved, but probably actually come to some useful and interesting conclusions – and I try to pay attention to it, but I can't quite manage it. There's something in what Mauna said. Something that's bothering me, and not the way Osae's insistent interjections bother me. It's deeper than that.
Call it my Hero sense, just not where Neesha can hear you say it.
The empty circle at the centre of the map stares back at me, pale and menacing. "Mauna," I say softly.
She is at my side instantly. "Yes, Hero?" she replies, just as soft.
"The Cauldron … it's one of those Divine Systems you mentioned? The ones underpinning the world?"
"So it would still be there, wouldn't it?" I ask, narrowing my eyes at the gap. "It couldn't be erased or stopped by Ganon's wish."
"But …" A growing nausea makes me swallow. "But it could respond to his wish. He could use it. Exploit it, like you were afraid."
"Correct," she says again, and this time her voice is very soft indeed. "Ask the question, Hero. You don't strike me as one to dance around it."
I hesitate, mostly because I don't want the confirmation. Because I don't want to have to think about the implications. Because I don't want to feel grateful that what happened to Aunt Aeria was that and not this. But Mauna's right. Dancing never got me anywhere. "Where do the Moblins come from?"
I don't know if I just happened to speak during a lull in the conversation or if the weight of the question gave it metaphysical volume, but all other discussion stops as everyone turns to look at us. The Shepherd's expressions are guarded and unhappy. Hunter's and Neesha's slacken with growing horror as they follow the thread of that question back to its source.
As one we all turn to look at the hole in the centre of the map.
"The Cauldron," Mauna answers. "He wished for an army of monsters. So the Cauldron gives him monsters. But it needs divine material to work with."
"The souls of the dead," Hunter says, and his voice is so hoarse mine aches in sympathy.
There's a soft rattle, and I realize it's Osae's shoulders sagging. He runs a bony hand along the top of his skull, like he's running his fingers through hair that's not there anymore. "We try to keep them away," he says, and glances over at Jinni and Ket, watching us intently from the edges of the firelight. "We wake up the ones we find, assuming they're not so far gone that even we can't reach them. We protect them from Valdyx's ghost grabbers. But … we're not as many as we used to be. Less and less as time goes on. And … people in Hyrule keep dying. There's never any shortage of fuel for them to take." He shakes his head with something dangerously close to helplessness. "We can't be everywhere at once."
"We need—" I start, but I'm cut off by Zelda's presence, flooding back into my head.
Link? I'd been very carefully not paying attention to the breath I'd been holding since waking up and realizing she wasn't there, but now I let it come back in a rush of relief. Assuming one doesn't have a Master Sword or magic powers, how would one kill a stalfos for good?
There is a beat while I contemplate that non-sequitur, and she contemplates the surroundings in which I find myself.
I have questions, Zelda says at the same time as I answer the original one by saying, You don't.
"Is there something wrong with him?" Osae demands, staring at me.
Hunter waves him off with an irritated noise. "Zelda?" he asks hopefully.
I suspected you were going to say that. What are my options?
"Zelda," I say out loud, both answering Hunter and requesting clarification from my princess.
"Hunter, Neesha," I say, "if you were dealing with a stalfos and I wasn't there with the Master Sword, how would you do it?"
"Bomb," says Neesha without even thinking about it.
"Steal a bone and run," Hunter responds. "Can't reform if it's missing a piece."
I glance at Osae in case he has any ideas. He stares back and I can see his offence in the stiffness of his spine, if not his bony face. "Not all skeletons are stalfos."
"Why?" Hunter asks.
"I would love to tell you," I reply, contemplating the once again empty, Zelda-shaped space left in my head, "unfortunately our princess is in another castle..."
A Brief Interlude
One thing Impa had always been good at was prioritizing. The conversation with Renaud and Mel had included no good news, and most of it needed to be actioned. She supposed, on some level, she should have forced Mel to return with her – leaving a convicted traitor running around during a mission as tenuous as this one (with no active Sheikah left to oversee, no less) was a decision that history would judge harshly if things went as poorly as they seemed likely to do – but Impa cared little for hypothetical histories. The lessons to be learned from the present belonged to future generations; they would help no one today, and today Impa needed boots on the ground.
A passive and a traitor it was, then.
She had left them with instructions to focus on preparing for the arrival of the Gerudo forces. The latest reports had them arriving not long after sunrise, not counting any interference from Beamos Company, and that was the plan they were to stick to. The Hylian military was up to Bel, Liam and Eldrick (another traitor, a young man promoted well past his point of competence, and a spoiled Hylian lord who was little more than a boy – Ah, well, thought Impa to herself, if I cannot secure a brighter future for tomorrow's youth, at least I shall serve as a valuable object lesson for them).
Which just left Brayden to deal with. Ordinarily she would have, with quiet regrets, left him to either find his own way out of his predicament or else to wait for the battle to end and rescue to come (in time, or not). He was one man, and war didn't stop for a single soldier captured.
But he was also the central figure of their little rebellion – a rebellion already so stocked with martyrs that adding one more, especially one its members actually knew on a firsthand basis, one they trusted to deliver them and lead them and make them useful in a time when nobody seemed entirely sure what to do, would likely do what Durnam had yet to manage and break its spirit entirely. They needed that rebellion in place until the Gerudo arrived.
And if the Gerudo never arrived, well … then that rebellion was all they had for the foreseeable future.
So she made her way through a night that felt heavy against her shoulders, slipping through the silence and the shadows, to visit a handful of doors and windows belonging to those who knew how to listen for her knocks – not Sheikah, these, but just as loyal. A network carefully cultivated over long decades of calling Castletown home.
Disturbing, how many of those windows had been broken and how many doors kicked in. Of seven visited, she found only two, and of these, only one was able to tell her anything.
The palace, her spy reported, was in lockdown. Servants' paths too. The spy had tried the secret passages she knew of, but had been unable to get very far. Patrols were thick, magical wards were everywhere, and the moblins seemed to have the run of the place. She had not been able to penetrate deep enough to find any sign of those taken in the raids and had not heard a whisper about Brayden specifically. The look on her face told Impa all she needed to know of her assessment of the odds.
Impa thanked her for the information and disappeared back into the night.
She let her feet lead her toward the temple district and the Temple of Time slumbering therein. Had she been younger, perhaps she would have been more brash, headed straight to the castle to see how much farther the Sage of Shadow could make it than an informant who was more broker than agent. But the memory of a tiny black butterfly of a soul pinned inside a bottle of light was never far from mind these days, and the news of magical wards significant enough that a near-civilian could tell they were there gave her pause. She would not be so easy to bottle a second time, but that didn't mean she was eager to give them the chance.
Torches blazing, she thought. Every candle lit. They'll leave me little shadow to weave. I would do the same if I thought I might come. And if they didn't think she'd come, then they had gotten very far indeed on luck.
He may not even be in there.
Brayden was quick, he always had been, but Impa wasn't the only one getting older. She could see it in his face now, when they spoke. He was tired. He was flagging. He was young yet for Summerfell, but she would have offered it to him ages ago if she'd thought he'd have taken it. If the need for experienced Sheikah hadn't escalated so quickly. If things hadn't gotten so far out of hand so fast.
Brayden had done his duty. There was none who could say he had not served the Quis well. That he had not sacrificed enough for it – even by Sheikan standards. He wasn't a Sage. He was a middle-aged man who had lived a life that had not often been kind to him. Sooner or later that slowed you down. And sooner or later, seconds mattered.
He might be dead already.
Or, she added loyally, he might have been recognized and moved somewhere else. He might not be in the palace at all, and infiltration might only serve to tip their hand and heighten security that was already higher than they had the resources to manage.
It was, Impa decided, deeply unsettling to know so little of what was going on in this city. People tended to forget that she was a Chosen Sheikah. That she had been born, not in the blanketing darkness of the Caverns, but in the sharp corners and angled shadows of Castletown. In these streets she had found herself, come to know herself. In these streets she had made her compact with the darkness. In these streets the secrets of this ancient city had always been hers, hung like black fruit on a tree made of commerce and cobblestone.
When she came at last to the Temple of Time, she climbed its dignified steps and turned to observe the city around it. It was dark, darker than it should have been, even with the building snow. Few torches blazed in the streets, fewer candles in the curtained windows. A silence lay heavy on top of it, woven of fear and confusion and a collective holding of breath. Everyone, it seemed, was waiting for the long night to pass. Impa narrowed her eyes.
This city's secrets were hers. Even the festering, rotted ones. And there was no magic here, or in the dark, twisted reflection of this place, that would deny her access to them.
She opened herself up, like a terrible flower blooming. The shadows cast around the churchyard grew longer and deeper, interlacing with each other in complicated knots and puddles and pools. The light from the Temple of Time dimmed, respectfully, as the shadows swirled around Impa's feet, danced over her face, played against the marble walls behind her like a frightening puppet show. And Impa tilted her head and welcomed them.
Zelda had asked her once, when the girl had still been small and curious, her shoulders yet unbowed beneath the weight of her own destiny, what it was like, conversing with the shadows. Impa wasn't entirely sure what she meant – the queen had recently died, it might have been a question about mortality. The war was escalating, and Impa had never sheltered her from it; it might have been a question about death on a scale she was too young to truly comprehend. Zelda, even then, was the Seventh Sage, and sometimes knew things she shouldn't have; it might have been a question about Impa.
She hadn't answered her then – no shelter, perhaps, but no cruelty either, and sometimes what a child really needed was a gentle kiss and a calming hand and an old Sheikan lullaby to coax them back to sleep – but if she had, she would have said it is a little like being underground, in a very dark cave, and listening to the whisper and the roar of a great river you can't see, and knowing that it is alive, and it is cold, and it is dangerous. It doesn't love you, the river, it can't. It's not for that. But the Goddesses trusted you to love it, and they gave you the tools to swim with its currents and dive into its depths, as deep into the darkness as you're willing to go.
And so, on the steps of the Temple of Time, Impa dove into that river once more and let it carry her through the old streets of Castletown. It offered her glimpses and fragments of things it thought she might want: a member of the guard expressing reflexive hope that Beamos Company would show those Gerudo what's what, but with a hollowness behind her voice and her eyes that suggested the opposite; a man sobbing alone in the wreckage of an upturned kitchen, uncaring of the snow swirling in through the door; a room full of mirrors, each displaying their own pilfered secrets, and a moblin sitting between them like an oil stain on the vision. Its porcine gaze was sharp, and the glass it watched showed the Lord Durnam, his cheeks hollower than she remembered, his gaze haunted. Though this last image was tempting, she politely considered each, before declining. None of them were useful to her right now.
Several more visions were offered up to her, and while each fragment gave her a better sense of the state of the city at large, she continued to reject them, until finally, one gave her pause. A woman she recognized only from reports – they kept close tabs on anyone the Hero of Time interacted with with any regularity. She had a sword in her hand and had it raised. Her technique was simple and straightforward, reasonably competent for a civilian, and well suited to an innkeeper, which, Impa knew, was what she was. Or what she had been, judging by the cut across her cheekbones and the blood on her clothing and the snarl on her face. Impa didn't need to see the colours on the tabards of the three opponents surrounding her – Durnam's, of course – to know she'd been having a rough night.
More interesting, however, was that those liveried soldiers were not soldiers at all, but moblins, angry and mean. The first ones Impa had seen all night outside the palace walls. Her awareness flicked back over to the woman. Well now, little bird, she thought, what cage did you escape from that has the cat chasing you down?
One of the moblins stepped forward, raising a nasty looking sword, and fear sent cracks through the innkeeper's snarling expression. "I'll kill you," she hissed at them, with absolutely no conviction at all.
"No," corrected Impa, and every blade in the alley came up as their wielders whipped their heads around, looking for the interloper, "but I will." She stepped out of the darkness of the metaphorical river and into the concrete shadows of the alleyway. One of the moblins had time for a single, panicked shout, but it was punctuated by the flash of moonlight on Sheikan blades and followed by three dull, wet thuds. The moblins fell to the snow-covered cobblestones and didn't rise again.
She turned from their bodies to face the innkeeper, who still had her sword up, her eyes a little wild. The woman's mouth worked, but no sound came out, and she seemed to try to press herself even harder against the wall.
Smiling, slight but sympathetic, Impa sheathed her knives and undid the top of her coat, pulling it open to reveal the Sheikah symbol decorating her chest.
The innkeeper made a sound like she was exhaling the longest hour ever lived since the one right after the Goddesses had left the world, and lowered her blade. With an admirable attempt at a steady voice, she said: "I have a message for you."
"You know," said Impa, "I rather thought you might."
They stood at the top of the stairs, two women in one body, panting hard and watching the pile of bones at the bottom. Something in the expression on the gently freckled face was reminiscent of a hawk, waiting to see if the shadows in the grass were going to resolve into something worth swooping down on.
The bones didn't move.
Are we dead? Malon asked, and Zelda was gratified to hear confirmation in her tone that the panic making the body's heart race wasn't felt by her alone. That had come very close to ending their excursion, and potentially their lives. They were nowhere near the giant bari here. She had no idea what would happen to their ineffable bits if Malon's body died while Zelda was driving it. Nor was she a fan of letting Malon's effable bits find their end that way.
She had always been a firm believer in returning things in the same or better condition than you had borrowed them.
We are not, she answered, projecting her best Effortless Confidence Voice. She started down the stairs at a jog, eyeing the metal glinting under the ribcage. It had been a long time indeed since she'd had to wing things as hard as she was winging them right now, but there was a certain sharp focus that having no significant resources gave one, and right now it was honing in on the potential of that blade. Have you ever used a sword, Malon?
No, came the reply, the tone a verbal shrug. Unless you count that time I helped kill Ganon with one, but I don't. Hunter tried to teach me, but I found it boring. I'm decent with a bow.
Different muscles for a bow, but Zelda didn't bother pointing that out. She thought about warning Malon that whenever she got her body back she was probably going to be sore as hell, but honestly, that prospect seemed so optimistic and far away that she couldn't bring herself to speak it out loud.
She leapt off the staircase with three stairs left to go and brought Malon's heavy work boots down on the stalfos' skull with a nasty crunching sound. I think, she told Malon approvingly as she bent down to retrieve a fragment of the shattered brain case, I might need to get myself a pair of these boots. The other woman didn't reply, but she felt her satisfaction and agreement and could almost picture the expression the body would be wearing if Malon had been the one driving.
The small fragment of bone was warm in her hands, and even through third-party flesh she could feel the black magic radiating off of it. Do you have something I can wrap this in? she asked.
Ew, why? Malon demanded.
Because Neesha's idea was a bomb, but I figured you're more likely to have a purse.
Some of us aren't dumb enough to carry explosives around in our pockets, came the tart reply. Zelda wished Link's penchant for doing just that hadn't come in handy as many times as it had. It would be nice to be able to agree with the perfectly sensible sentiment underlying the words. I had a coin purse, I think, when they took me. Check the pocket on the left.
Wriggling bone held firmly in one hand, Zelda dug into the pocket with the other. It was significantly deeper than she was used to, and Malon had put it to effective use. She rejected a spare bandana, a leather-bound journal, a safety pin, three dirty nails, a pocket knife, a bit of something she thought might be chicken feed, a small pair of pliers, a piece of wrapped charcoal, a short, thin piece of rope that felt like the kind of thing that had a specific name and purpose, though Zelda could not say she had any idea what it was for, and a currycomb that she did recognize before she found a sensible coin purse, tied with a straightforward leather thong.
Wait! Malon said as she moved to put the bone fragment into it. Take the money out first.
Why? Zelda asked as she acquiesced, dumping the contents of the purse back into the skirts.
Because I am not using that purse ever again after you put that cursed thing in it, and I would hate to have to burn good rupees with it when I do.
That prompted a snicker from Zelda, punctuated by her sliding the bone fragment into the newly emptied purse. She pulled the thong as tight as she could get it, wrapped it around the purse again for good measure, then secreted it back in the bottomless pit of a pocket. The rest of the skeleton, still scattered around her feet, began to twitch, but the heavy material she'd buried the fragment in weighted it down and kept its shudders from distracting. Clever boy, your Hunter, she said.
Too clever by half, Malon replied, but there was pride in her voice. Surprised you needed him, though don't tell him I said that. You used to adventure. I would have figured you'd killed a few of these things before.
Zelda gave the twitching pile of bones a couple of good kicks to scatter the rest of them away from each other. Sure, dozens, she said, bending down to retrieve the stalfos' scimitar from the floor. It was heavy, but Malon was clearly no stranger to heavy lifting. Swinging it around was going to pull things, but carrying it wasn't going to bother a body used to physical labour. But normally I've got my Seventh Sage powers to rely on. I would beat them to pieces and then sanctify the bones. That would stop them permanently. And most of the rest of the time, if I'm not by myself, then Link is there, and he's got the Master Sword—
And a pocket full of bombs.
—and a pocket full of bombs. So, between the two of us … She made a few experimental thrusts and swings with the sword, trying to get a sense for the differences between doing it in Malon's body and doing it in her own or in Sheik's. She quickly decided the best option was going to be not swinging it at all, but she didn't relinquish it either.
She moved away from the staircase, leaving the shuddering bones behind. Now that the frantic flight from the stalfos was over, their pace returned to a careful, quiet creep. The walls and ceilings of the corrupted temple rose high above them, looming and full of shadows, and Zelda was far too aware of the potential menagerie of monsters that could be lurking around every corner, or clinging to the walls near the broken stained glass windows. She paused to listen often and moved away from any doors or hallways that seemed inhabited.
The temple was a maze, but her father, Nayru guide his soul, had gifted her with a decent head for physical space and her mother had passed down a strong sense of direction. She had been wandering the labyrinth for long enough now that she was starting to get a feel for its shape.
There was also the twinkling of a thought starting to form in her head. She hesitated to call it an idea – it wasn't fully formed enough for that, and she wasn't in a position to flesh it out – but when you were winging it, you had to be alert to opportunities and she was starting to think this might be one.
She had only connected with Link for a moment – pressing concerns and all that – but it had been long enough for a glimpse of his current situation. Since she had said goodnight to him, just hours before, he had somehow found gone from sleeping in a cave to being out in the open, surrounded by strangers and ghosts, looking at something like a half-finished battle map while everyone around him looked grim and scared and nauseous. She couldn't even say she was surprised. These days she was mostly just glad he wasn't bleeding to death when she popped into his head.
Still. That battle map. Unless things had really gotten out of hand (always a possibility), she suspected she knew what it was a battle map of. And that giant gap in the middle of it …
It wouldn't be the first time she had filled in some details on a map someone else had drawn for Link, would it?
First things first, though. She needed more information, but to do that she'd have to talk to Link, and to do that – to really do that – she'd need to get Malon's body somewhere safe so she could focus more. And she didn't want to hide Malon away until she had explored a little more of this place, just in case they were found and went back to square one. At a minimum she wanted to maybe find the way out.
Or, perhaps more accurately, the way in.
Chapter 27 (cont.)
"Is this what it feels like to be her?" I ask. I'm laying on my back and staring at the swirling mass of angry-looking clouds that pass for a sky in this place. The rest of the conversation at the map table started going in circles, and Hunter, Neesha and I started showing obvious signs that we aren't used to working the metaphorical (for us) graveyard shift, so Mauna called for a break and told us to get some rest. That's, like, definitely not happening, though, so now we're all camped out here with our nerves twanging like an overstrung lute and nothing to distract us from the sound. My thoughts are starting to get fuzzy around the edges. "Is this what I do to her?"
"Is what what you do to who?" Hunter asks, with that tone that means he's pretty sure the answer is yes, but he would just hate to be inaccurate when assessing the exact genre and intensity of pain in the ass I am being to someone.
"Zelda," I say, like this should be obvious even though I've been having this entire conversation with myself in my head and not out loud where he could possibly have any idea what I'm talking about. "She just, like … disappeared for a while, and then smashed into my head with a really concerning question about how to kill a Stalfos with no powers, gave me exactly zero context, and then smashed back out again. And I have to sit here, just, like … is she okay? What is going on? Why is she fighting a stalfos? How is she fighting a stalfos? What is going on? Isn't she supposed to be trapped in a crystal? Why can't she just use her powers? What is going on?" I pause. "She said she was thinking of throwing a party last night. Tonight. A few hours ago, whatever. I thought she was being sarcastic."
Neesha makes a face at me. "I don't think she'd invite a stalfos to a party." Hunter gives her a look like, that's what you think is wrong with that statement?
"Do you have any idea," I say, "any idea at all, of how many parties I have been to that I wasn't invited to?"
"She's not throwing a party, Link," Hunter says, because he can't handle the thought of having to watch this line of faulty logic be pursued any farther. "And yes, this is exactly what you do to her. Constantly. She is going to be gray before she's thirty and it's going to be all your fault."
I make a face up at the sky that is too complicated to assign a single emotion to, but it's somewhere in the area where sadness overlaps with worry and brushes up against the border of defensiveness.
Whatever it is, it makes Hunter sigh. "It's just a stalfos," he notes. "She can handle a stalfos."
"But why is she handling a stalfos?" I sit up and give him an urgent look, like if I could just solve this mystery, I could somehow resolve the whole situation. Save the Maidens, heal the Dark World, not live a life where people (multiple people!) can say things like 'I need you to kill the Angel of Death' to me with a perfectly straight face. I can feel myself going wild around the eyes but there's nothing I can do about that, except probably sleep, and that stopped being an option at least five unexpected events ago. "Hunter, she's supposed to be in a crystal."
"Maybe she got out," Neesha says. She makes a wiggly gesture with her fingers that is generally her way of referring to magic powers. It's interesting, because it's just a gesture, but she always manages to make it look dismissive. "She's weird."
"Could you wait until I'm not extremely worried about her ongoing health and welfare to call her names?" I demand.
Neesha makes an expression like rolling her eyes, but with her entire body. "I'm not calling her names, you sand eater. I'm saying she's weird. She's different than the rest of us. I don't remember my time in the crystal because I wasn't awake for it." She gestures at Hunter. "Neither does he. Neither did Laruto as far as we could tell. But Zelda's going to because she's not asleep. She's been talking your ear off ever since I so kindly gave you my pearl."
"Sahasrahla's pearl," Hunter corrects. "Which you stole."
She doesn't respond verbally, but she points at him in an extremely threatening manner.
"She stole it from Agahnim, Hunter, that doesn't count," I say, because if I don't step in here this will probably escalate. "But it is Sahasrahla's pearl," I add before she can decide that means I support her claim that stolen squared equals legitimate ownership.
Hunter looks, for a minute, like he might pursue the subject anyway. The bags under his eyes are at least as dark as the ones under mine, we all need sleep, and that, plus the general Dark World ambience, plus the reopening of old grief, minus the closure that funerals once offered, plus that fact that we spent like an hour staring at a map, and there are still some hard feelings in certain quarters around here about maps… the current situation just isn't conducive to mature, rational thinking is what I'm saying.
But he rallies heroically at the last minute and manages to not pick the fight. "I know you're worried, Link. So am I. But there's no way to know what's going on with the information we have. None of it makes sense, which means we're missing too many pieces. We can't do anything about it until she reaches out to you again."
"Well…" I say at the same time as Neesha says, "Technically…" Because there is something we can do, which is to say charging the place and kicking down the front door. Neither of us thought that was a good idea before, but if Zelda's in there, out of her crystal, and fighting stalfos without backup…
"Okay," says Hunter, and I watch his resolve to remain mature disintegrate. "If you two keep—"
"Hey, have you seen Mauna?"
All three of us look over as Osae rushes up. I realize with a start that there has been a disturbance of some kind in the camp while I was contemplating the effect of my life and my decisions on the people around me for what I'm sure many would insist is the first time in my life. The Shepherds are all gathered in groups, speaking to each other with worry and stress clear on their faces and in the lines of their bodies.
"No," I say, turning my attention back to the skeleton with a frown. "Why? What's going on?"
Osae does that gesture, like he's running his hand through hair that isn't there, but he does it with both hands, which communicates a high level of stress to me. "She said she was going to pray, but she's been gone for thirty minutes and when I went to check, she was gone. No one's seen her."
Hunter is on his feet. "Is that normal?"
Osae turns to look at him. There is, of course, no expression on his face, on account of it being a skull and having no muscle or skin, but I've got enough of a feel for him now that I'm ready for the incredulous tone when it leaves his mouth. "Does it look like that's normal?"
Hunter gives him a look that make me wish, real bad, that I could see the two of them interact in circumstances that are way more normal than anything the Dark World is ever going to offer. It's not that they're the same person, because they're super not, but there is enough of an overlap there that I think they would drive each other insane in a way that would be both deeply satisfying for Neesha and I to observe, and also well beyond our ability to instigate on our own. "Does that sound like a useful response to what was clearly a request for context?" Hunter snaps in response.
Downside of that, of course, would be that I'm pretty sure these two are capable of getting mean. Like, I know I'm the most likely to fly into a rage, and Neesha's most likely to be grossly insensitive to the feelings of even the people she cares about, and that tends to make people think we're the ones to be concerned about, but only because they've never seen Hunter get really mad. Neesha and I might get hard to deal with, but neither of us sets out to burn bridges, even at our worst, and credit where it's due, we're usually sorry after (well, I am. Neesha's been known to double-down, but that's mostly her guilt triggering her pride. She gets over it eventually).
Hunter, though… he doesn't just pack his own matches, he brings a bucket of salt to make sure nothing ever grows back up out of the ashes when its done.
Note to self, I think, watching Hunter's current expression warily, in addition to getting some sleep, maybe give Hunter some time holding the Moon Pearl as soon as the sun comes back up and the risk of turning into a monster without it is gone. I exchange a glance with Neesha and get the impression the same thought is running through her head.
We get to our feet as well. "Tell us where to look and we'll go look," I say before Osae can reply. "Maybe she just went for a walk." Literally nobody here thinks she just went for a walk, but it's technically possible and it's better than saying any of the alternatives out loud.
Osae doesn't react for a second, keeping his face turned toward Hunter for a moment that feels just a second too long. But at last he nods – is it just me, or does the motion seem uncertain? Farore, I wish he had a face so I could tell how worried he is. "It's this way," he says, but then he raises a hand as though to stop us from following him. We stop, confused and annoyed, but then he says, "No, you two should stay here," and I realize he's looking behind us.
I glance over my shoulder and see Jinni and Ketari, who have materialized right behind us, looking very much so like they intend to follow us out of the camp. They're ghosts, so I can't be one hundred percent confident in this assessment, but also, they have faces, and I have a new appreciation for how much that counts for in terms of successful communication. Ketari is wearing a memory in which she looks amused and Jinni is wearing one of what I'm sure are thousands in which she looks utterly unimpressed.
"Guys, come on," Osae says, exasperated. "It's the middle of the night. The Ghost Grabbers are out in force. Stay here. The other Shepherds can protect you."
Jinni's form fuzzes for a moment, and then she's not standing behind us anymore, she's standing between us and Osae and just sort of scowling down at him in a way that is so familiar I can feel one of my overstrung nerves snap and lash my heart as it recoils. It's a look that doesn't exactly say 'make me', but that does suggest that unless you think you can make her, you should probably stop wasting everyone's time.
A strange sound pulls my attention away from Jinni's face. It sounds like it's coming from far away and down a very long tunnel, distorted enough that it takes me a second to place it. Once I do, I turn and raise an eyebrow at Ketari, who is definitely snickering.
Osae is getting whiny now. "You know how this works and you've never had an issue with it before. Stay with the other Shepherds, please." Jinni doesn't move. Osae throws his hands up in the air. "You've always listened before! Why are you being like this?!"
I lean over to look at him from behind her, which feels more polite than looking at him through her. "That's probably my fault," I say. "She was acting in the role of my bodyguard when she died." Someone needs to acknowledge how good a job I just did keeping my voice steady as I said that, because it wasn't easy. "I'm sort of her King."
Osae sighs and I'm a little impressed at how unfazed he is by the revelation that I'm a Gerudo King – that is not the usual reaction. "All right. Can you tell her to stand down? It's safer for her here."
Neesha snorts and I say, "Oh no, it does not work like that at all."
Osae stares at me in way I assume is meant to convey a lack of comprehension, on account of how most people understand the word 'King.'
"Look," I say, "are the Ghost Grabbers something I can hit with a sword?" I have not had nearly enough sleep to try to explain the intricacies of the many contradictions that form the substance of my life right now.
Osae tilts his head and shrugs in what I take for a general affirmative. "I mean, I guess, but—"
"Then I'll just hit the stupid things with my sword if any of them show up." I gesture for him to proceed.
He swings his face around the group of us, apparently confirms that he's not going to be finding any support for an argument here, and then sighs and turns around to lead us away from the camp and toward where it was they lost track of Mauna.
Jinni and Ketari fall into step with us as we follow Osae, Jinni in the lead and Ketari bringing up the rear, with me, Hunter and Neesha in between them. Like we're kids they need to corral. Or friends they want to defend. Or maybe a little bit of both. I guess we were both when they died. The thought joins forces with my lack of sleep and I feel something in my face get dangerously wobbly.
This is so complicated. This is so damn complicated. They're here. They're walking with us. They're willing to fight with us, like they always were. But they're still dead. I can't just cancel all my mourning and celebrate, because they're not actually back, not really. They're not going to be able to come home with us. And even if we manage to do what we're setting out to do, it won't change that. Nothing can change that.
In a realm that's beyond sight, I think, the old children's rhyme coming back to me unsolicited and unwanted, the sky shines gold not blue…
If I try to unpack that particular box right now, I think I will have a legitimate breakdown. In fact, this entire train of thought is bad, and I need to get off it right now. "Osae," I say, more forcefully than I meant to, and now I have to clear my throat and try not to look embarrassed when everyone, including my dead friends, turn to look at me in surprise. Right, time to pretend like that was totally normal, and they're the ones being weird. "Hunter said the Shepherds are an offshoot of the Sheikah, is that true?"
"Other way around, I believe," Osae says, and turns forward again to continue leading us toward the hill that overlooks the camp. "But it's been so long, probably only Valdyx knows who's really the cucoo and who's really the egg. Our own history is oral. In some ways that's better. Goes back farther than the Sheikah's because it can't be destroyed as long as at least one of us is able to pass it on. Can't be lost. To an extent, it can't be taken out of context, because we're the only ones telling it, and we only tell it to each other." He shrugged. "Can't be easily compared to original or older versions, though, to make sure the details haven't drifted down the generations. But I suppose once you've been around long enough, that'll be true of written history too."
He comes to a stop at the top of the hill and we join him. It's definitely Mauna-free, but it gives us a decent view of the camp below and the mix of long grass and black marsh beyond (I am never going to have dry socks again, am I?). In the distance I can see Valdyx's temple, which looks about how you would expect the corrupted angel of death's Dark World palace to look.
I try to think of something sarcastic to say about Ganon here, maybe about his decorating taste or how hard he's trying to make it clear he's the bad guy, like any of us could have missed that, but the thought that comes to mind instead is how much does a guy have to hate himself for this to be the reflection of his innermost soul?
"All right," I say, doing my best to not be relieved by the fact that Mauna is potentially in trouble because it gives me something to think about that isn't any of the things I have been thinking about, including that one. "Let's see if we can find a sign of where she's gone."
We spread out across the hilltop, scanning the ground for tracks or any other signs of presence or motion or whatever might be here. I find nothing, which I'm going to go ahead and blame on the bags under my eyes. Neesha also finds nothing, but in her case, she insists it's actually something: "Hey, what's that light?"
I straighten and turn to look in the direction she's peering. She's not looking at the ground, she's looking out over the marsh and the field. There is no light out there that I can see. She points at me when I shoot her a doubtful look. "There was a light."
"Okay," I say, because I don't think I have an argument in me right now.
"Osae, did she normally light a fire when she prayed?" Hunter asks, but there's a frown in his voice that causes me to turn and look at what's prompted the question. He's down on one knee in the grass, poking at what looks like a pile of ashes – but it doesn't look like a firepit. There's no charcoal, no stones. Just a pile of fine, grey ash.
"No," says Osae, and in his voice is enough despair that I don't think he's answering the question, I think he's reacting to what the question means. He's staring at the pile of ash. "No, no, no! Something's taken her!"
I open my mouth to say something hopefully useful, but the next second Neesha's grabbed the neck of my tunic and hauled on it so hard I spin and stumble in the direction she's facing. Now I open my mouth to snarl something definitely angry, but the words die in my mouth as my brain processes what I saw in the half second after my vision swung back out toward the marsh.
It was a light. Brief, but bright as Hell (or… well, not Hell, since that's literally where we are and it's called the Dark World for a reason, but… listen, I'm tired).
"Mauna!" Osae gasps, and I realize he saw it too. "Oh!" He starts down the hill, like he's going to go rushing out there to do something about whatever it is he thinks he saw, but I jump at him and grab his arm to stop him.
"You," I say, "do not have a sword. Tell us what's going on, then go back to camp and we'll go get her."
He makes a pained noise. "Please," he says. "She's my friend. I don't know what will happen if they—"
"Hey, Osae," I say, snapping my fingers in front of his face until he focuses on me, and then pointing at the hilt of the Master Sword sticking up above my shoulder. "Hero of Time." I point at Hunter. "Sheikan agent." I point at Neesha. "Red uniformed Gerudo warrior. We'll help her, I swear to you, but you need to talk fast because she's getting farther away and I'm not summoning my horse here." For one thing, it's bad enough I'm stuck in literal Hell, I am not putting Epona through that, just on principle, and I don't even know if the magic would work to bring her here, and I don't know if she'd be able to get out again. And for another, this terrain is marshy and untrustworthy, and I might as well break her leg myself if I'm gonna do that.
Osae's bones rattle in the skeleton equivalent of taking a deep breath. "That light is her. It's fire. They're … they're hurting her, whoever they are." He flexes his hands. "It's probably ghost grabbers. They're not intelligent creatures, they're just… doing what they're made for. Sometimes they get confused by her. They've tried to take her in the past."
"Not grave robbers?" Hunter asks, thinking of the group that jumped us while we were trying to get that sleep we're missing so bad right now.
"The grave robbers don't mess with us," Osae says. "They're afraid of the Wanderers." He looks over at Jinni and Ketari. "They really should stay here. The grabbers can undo what we've done. If they get them, they'll take them to the cauldron."
I hiss my breath out between my teeth, then turn to look at them. "Jinni," I say, and I'm using my King voice, which causes her to flicker into a memory of surprise, because I don't know that she's ever heard it. I didn't really figure out how to do it until after … well, until after. Not that I get a chance to show her now, because Ketari flickers and is suddenly wearing civilian clothes instead of her uniform and arching an eyebrow at me as she shifts her weight over to one hip and gives me a look, like, go ahead. We're all on the edge of our seat waiting to hear what you have to say. Been a while since I last heard a good joke. Or maybe, like, okay, but you're not my king. Or maybe actually just, bite me.
"There's the light again," Neesha says. "It's getting further away."
I throw my hands in the air and stomp my feet a little, because Nayru, Farore and Din I'm too tired for this! "Osae, go back to camp and tell the others what's happening, but do not come after us. Jinni, Ketari, stay close. I mean it." Shaking my head I turn in the direction of the light. "Let's go."
"You maybe wanna—" starts Hunter, but I cut him off.
"Yeah, yeah, I know how this works. Farore's Wind!" Osae stares at the glowing green ball of light that hovers in the space above my head, but we don't have time to give him the rundown of Great Faerie magic. I point at him as we start jogging down the hill. "Don't touch it!"
"He's totally going to touch it," Neesha notes as we leave the relative safety of the camp behind and run forward into the dark, starlit marsh beyond.
"Yeah," I sigh, "I know."
A Brief Interlude
Brayden spent the hour or so after he'd snuck Anna out sleeping, and while he slept, he dreamed: of blood-soaked straw on the floor of a tower in the desert, and of a cold stone altar on which two entities were forced into the shape of one, and of an endless sea of black oil, filling his lungs and dragging him down and drowning him in his own mind, over and over and over again. And each time he woke to a sea of frightened, bloodied people and wondered whether this was what life was. Just an endless series of prisons.
He raised a hand to his face and tried to rub the grogginess from it. Dad teaching Bruiser to cook in the kitchen, before the war, he thought. He gave me the spoon to lick because I was mad that I was too small to help. The hot springs at night, that first winter with Natalia, watching the snow fall and talking about all the things we'd never had time to before. The Archery Shop in the morning, full of the kids and their bickering and Bruiser making that old pancake recipe of dad's and the war's been over for decades and I get to be part of this now.
It was a trick Impa had taught him. When the nightmares were bad and hard to shake and the feelings you had in them stuck around longer than they should. Think of your grounding memories. The ones that put the lie to the simple story told by your darkest moments. The ones that prove your life is more complicated, more varied, more colourful than they want you to think.
Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but it never hurt.
He was pulled from this exercise by a shuddering gasp that ran through the tired crowd as the doors opened, but it wasn't a big group of moblins this time. It was a small group of Hylians – three guards wearing Durnam's tabard, looking a little grey around the face as they surveyed the crowd. They watched the people – their own people – as they scuttled back and away from them like fearful animals and exchanged a look of uncertainty. Not what you signed up for, boys and girls? he thought, watching the gauntleted hand of the woman in the lead rise, hesitate, and then fall again.
She shook herself free of whatever she might have been feeling and stepped forward. "We are looking for someone specific. A father to a blue-eyed boy."
Ah, thought Brayden, and felt every second of his forty-two years. And I suppose they think they're being subtle about it.
He didn't have many options, but there were a few and he ran through them in his head for the sake of being thorough. Ultimately, though, there wasn't much point in trying to avoid this. Whatever anonymity he had, it had been on a countdown to expiration since arriving, and now that a giant red flag had been so very publicly raised…well. Suffice it to say that it was a good thing he didn't really need it anymore, anyway. He'd done what he could, set what pieces he could reach in motion, and all there was left to do now was ride it out and see where everyone ended up in the end.
He couldn't imagine what Durnam thought he had to say to him at this point in the game, but … well, as he considered it, he realized that even if he didn't much care what Durnam had to say to him, there were a few things he wanted to say to Durnam. Oh yes. Those sprang to mind quite easily.
One last mental check: had he done everything within his current power to tip the scales in this particular conflict? Yes. Was there any benefit anonymity would provide to him at this point that would make it worth preserving? Probably not. Would revealing himself create risk for any of those under his protection or receiving his service? No, not at this point. Would this action be in service to the Quis? No, but neither would it conflict.
He'd done what he could for everybody else from the floor of this ballroom. Time to see what happened next.
He stood up, the motion definitive enough, different enough from the rest of the cringing, shrinking crowd, that it drew every eye in the room. A startled silence fell over the makeshift prison, as the quickest among them began to connect the contextual dots, and he spoke into it, softly, coldly: "My son has blue eyes. And you should think very carefully about the part you're playing in this before he comes home." Despite himself, something that was almost a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, though there was very little humour in it. "He has a temper, you know."
They all looked uneasy at this, but Brayden noted one of the ones in the back, older than the others, go utterly white at the implications. Crossing a Queen was one thing. People did that all the time. Crossing the Hero, though, and through him the Goddesses? While your neighbours and kinsmen witnessed the blasphemy with damnation written all over their faces? Her lips moved silently, and though he was too far to make out the words they formed, he would have put solid money on it being a prayer for protection, or maybe forgiveness. He hoped forgiveness. A yearning for atonement he could work with.
He let the guards approach him. Let them bind his hands. Let them lead him out of the ballroom, away from the silent, staring faces. The door fell shut with a gentle thud, but the guards winced as though it was a tomb falling shut. They hesitated then, just a second, barely long enough to exchange another glance, but it was enough time for Brayden to step into the space they left and say: "They're moblins, you know." And he looked at the older one as the spell protecting the moblins from their awareness started to unravel and bald horror began to creep across their faces. "It's not too late."
"We have our orders," said the one on Brayden's left, his voice hard and grim, but with a note of regret, of stress, of doubt.
"So follow them," Brayden said. "You'll need reinforcements to get all those people out anyway, and I assume there are more of you in Durnam's quarters."
"You're a traitor," said the woman who had called him out of the crowd. It wasn't a question, but it also wasn't not a question. It made Brayden regret not trying to widen the cracks in Durnam's guard before now.
"Maybe," he said, because semantics weren't what mattered right now, "but I'm not a moblin."
She stared at him for a very long time, then exhaled sharply between her teeth. "Mina, take point. Alin, fall in with me."
"But," said the older woman who was apparently named Mina, "we can't just—"
"What we can't do," the unnamed woman snapped, "is discuss this in front of him. One thing at a time. Let's just get him to the King before they realize we've—"
"Regent," Brayden corrected.
"Shut up," she snapped and shoved him forward.
"So," said Bel, eyeing her partner-in-lurking curiously, "did you ever think your career was going to take this path?"
Liam, who was doing one of the worst lurks she'd ever seen, sighed heavily, the sound only slightly marred by sourness. "No," he said. "I really didn't." He fidgeted with the sleeves on his pilfered uniform, which were just a little too short for him. "I thought I was going to stand on some walls and ask travellers what their business was and bring in a nice steady paycheque. Maybe buy my folks some nice solstice presents for once." Bel winced sympathetically for him. Even assuming a best-case scenario in which no one died and the war-or-whatever-this-was ended and they took back Castletown quickly and largely in one piece … there was still no way they were getting things sorted out and cleaned up in time for him to get his back pay before solstice.
At least, she thought, he gets to go home when this is all over. It was a bitter thought, and it cut deep, but she didn't want to be the kind of person who was so caught up in her own wounds that she couldn't be happy for someone else, so she swallowed it back down and pretended it hadn't happened.
"Well, on the bright side," she said, "if everybody survives this, you'll probably get a medal. I can—" she paused and rethought that. "I mean, Eldrick can put in a good word with the queen and make sure of it." Maybe… maybe right before she had been captured, Zelda had been trying to help her, but… between the treason and the exile and the sort-of-technically-jailbreak-to-avoid-exile, Bel didn't think it likely that her putting in a good word for someone was doing them any favours anymore. At least, she thought with desperate cheer, I won't have as many people to buy presents for this year.
"A medal won't buy solstice presents," Liam pointed out.
"No," Bel agreed, "but it'll impress the ladies," and did her best not to smirk when a flush of colour darkened the young man's cheeks. How on earth did you get promoted to Captain this young? The answer, of course, was opportunists wanting someone in charge they could control, and who better than someone who was basically a new recruit with just enough competence for you to claim he was a rising star. Maybe he could have been, with a little more time and a little more experience. A little less magical brainwashing wouldn't have hurt, either.
They all could have done with a little less magical brainwashing.
"Do you think it's going any better in there than last time?" he asked, just a smidge too loudly as his desperation to change the subject overwhelmed his more important desire to remain unnoticed by anyone passing by.
Bel hissed at him and he blushed deeper, but subsided. They waited a beat to see if anyone was going to come see what the yelling was about, but none of the nearby soldiers seemed inclined to do so. Bel relaxed and thought about lecturing him, but there wasn't much point. He wasn't a Sheikah – neither are you anymore – and he was doing his best.
"Do you mean better than the last three times?" Something too wry to be humour twisted her lips. She glanced over at the tent their little lordling had smuggled himself into – fancier than the ones they were hiding between by a significant margin, but also decidedly less fancy than the ones Eldrick had already been to. It was increasingly obvious that he was running out of favours to fish with, and also that no one was biting. She was starting to consider options for approaching the Commander herself, since the head of the house of Eldrick seemed unable to bring himself to do the obvious thing. The moon was at its zenith now; they were running out of time to coddle him.
"Yeah," said Liam, and sounded dejected. "Bel, what happens if this doesn't work?"
She was spared from delivering the bad news by the tent's door flapping open and Eldrick storming silently out into the night. It was obvious from the fury in his face that this visit had gone no better than the others. Bel and Liam exchanged a wincing glance, before waving Eldrick over to them.
"Dorian—" Bel said.
"Don't," Eldrick snapped and pushed past her.
Bel balked. She had put up with a lot tonight, and whatever this boy's titles were, there was a limit to what she was willing to take. Hers weren't the only problems that didn't matter in the face of what they were dealing with, but it increasingly felt like she was the only one putting them aside. She snapped out her arm and grabbed the young lord's shoulder to stop him from storming away. "We don't have time to keep swaddling your pride! Renaud and the others are counting—"
"Don't!" Eldrick shouted, rounding on her in a fury.
"Hey," said a soldier, pausing in her passing by to stick her head between the tents and stare down the little makeshift alleyway at them. "What's all the shouting—?"
Eldrick whipped around so fast that his cape – which he had because he'd insisted Bel steal him one from an officer's uniform – snapped in the frigid air. Bel couldn't see his face, but the look he fixed the soldier with must have been impressive, because she paled and disappeared back around the corner, muttering angrily to herself about people who couldn't figure out their interpersonal issues before deployment, gotta bring it with them and make everyone else awkward, got a damn war to win, what are people thinking.
The three interlopers stood in the alley, holding their breath and waiting to see what followed, but no one else approached them.
"We should move," Liam said, nervous, but more because of the building tension between Bel and Eldrick than the fear of being caught – which, Bel thought, was saying something. Still, he wasn't wrong. She gestured for the other two to lead the way and fell into her now customary position as rearguard.
They moved as casually as they were capable – mostly Eldrick looked angry and Liam looked nervous and Bel looked tired, but all of that fit in just fine in a war camp preparing for what was likely to be a nasty battle the next day. She was pretty sure Eldrick was too angry to be useful right now – she was doing her best not to be, but wasn't too prideful to suspect she was maybe failing – but Liam's head, at least, occasionally turned as he sought a new spot for them to lurk and discuss their next steps at a hopefully more reasonable volume.
Bel hung back from the other two, careful to keep them in her sight, except for one point, about a minute after leaving their previous hiding spot. She brushed shoulders in a crowd with another soldier and felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise like the hackles on an animal scenting danger. Long attuned to her own instincts, she slid her hand under her coat to ready her knife, and turned, casually, to glance behind her.
The soldier she'd brushed up against was moving through the crowd with suspicious ease. He was walking with another soldier, but unlike most of the others around them, these two weren't talking, and none of the other soldiers called out to them as they passed. Between the winter gear and the angle, she couldn't see their faces, but there was a scent, just barely, on the wind – if you knew what to look for.
Frowning darkly, she withdrew her hand from her coat and turned to chase the other two down.
Well. At least she had a salt-the-earth option if she needed one.
And it was looking more and more like she was going to need one.
She spotted the boys ahead of her, standing on the edges of a fire lit by some other soldiers, most of whom were dozing or chatting quietly with each other and hadn't noticed the two lurkers on their fringe. Liam was leaning in and speaking in hushed tones to Eldrick, so Bel slowed her pace and took her time catching up. Best to let Liam talk Eldrick down out of whatever tree he was climbing up into. The way things were going, Bel was as likely to chase him back up into it.
She wished she'd had more time (any time, really) for research before heading out here. She'd never been officially assigned to Castletown and didn't have the kind of familiarity with its politics and pitfalls this type of work usually required. She knew the major houses, of course, everyone did, and she could name all the Heads and probably some of their spouses or heirs who were already of age. But that wasn't the same as understanding the way things moved beneath the family trees. She didn't know enough about Eldrick's fear of his big sister (and it was fear, she could smell it off him) to know how to coax him into doing the obvious thing.
Well that tracks, doesn't it? she thought, unable to resist the sudden wave of bitterness. Can't convince anyone of anything sensible these days. But she hissed at herself and, with an effort, managed to let it go for now. She could be bitter later. She could be angry later. Right now she had a job to do – and while she didn't have a lot of hope that Darunia's plan was going to work (Darunia was a wonderful person, but he didn't really understand how the Sheikah worked when it came to things like oath breaking), she still wanted to do something to make up for decisions made and actions taken that couldn't be undone. She couldn't leave Hyrule, couldn't go into exile, without doing at least that much.
Can't give Hunter back his dad, can't give Brayden back his son, can't give Thomas back his naivete, can't give dad back his daughters, can at least give Zelda back her Queendom. At least that.
Liam caught her eye as she joined them at the edge of the fire, and then turned to give Eldrick an encouraging look.
The latter appeared, for a moment, like he was chewing something particularly foul, but he managed to swallow it and say: "One more try. I have one last card to play."
Bel narrowed her eyes at him. "And then?"
"And then … we can discuss … alternatives," Eldrick managed. "But this one will work."
Nayru, Farore and Din, she was getting tired of optimists. "Why is this one different than the last four?"
"Because I'm not going to bribe this one, I'm going to threaten him," Eldrick replied. "You and Liam will accompany me this time. I don't need you to do anything, I just need you to look frightening. He's another Terral, but a lower ranking one. He's more at risk than Edwin with their Head murdered. I can use that."
Bel opened her mouth to offer her sincere and honest opinion of this plan – which was that it was as much a waste of time as all the other attempts had been – but Liam was looking at her with a pleading expression on his face. This wasn't much of a compromise, but it was a compromise, and probably one that had taken Liam significant wheedling to obtain.
Should have been a diplomat, not a guard, she thought angrily at him, but ultimately managed a terse: "Fine."
Relieved, Liam gave them both an encouraging nod. Eldrick took the lead and they moved through the camp much as they had been all night: sticking to the shadows where possible and trusting in their disguises when not.
He led them toward a tent closer to the edge of the camp than the others had been, and not really all that discernable from those of the regular soldiers in terms of size and stature. The only thing that really set it apart was the guards standing at the tent flap. Whoever was within was not somebody with the resources to augment the standard issue officer's allowance, and therefore not somebody with the resources to be of much use to them, but Bel bit her tongue and managed to keep it all inside. Last one, she thought, and then I take matters into my own hands. "Need us to clear out the guards?" she offered with a reasonable impression of civility. Liam was already moving like he was going to. They had a whole routine now. Liam was almost getting good at it, though he remained a terrible liar.
"No," said Eldrick. "I was thinking we would cut our way in through the back. More threatening that way."
Was I this unsubtle when I was eighteen? Bel wondered, but she kept her opinions to herself. The faster they got in there and failed, the faster they could get on with their lives. She drew her knife from within her coat and took point, leading them carefully around the tent and to a corner, out of sight of the guards on either side of it. "We'll have to move fast," she said. "Let me go first and slice it open, then dart right through. Keep your weapons sheathed but have them loose and ready just in case."
She waited for their silent acknowledgement of this before creeping out of their hiding spot and over to the side of the tent. She paused briefly, her breath held, to listen to what was happening on the other side, but she didn't hear anything. If there was anyone in there, they were either alone or asleep. Good enough, either way.
Her knife – sharpened religiously and with love – sliced through the thick fabric of the tent without a whisper and she paused again, to see if anyone inside had seen. A quick peek through the new slit didn't show her much, but she could see the shadow cast by a single person seated at a desk near the centre of the tent, with their back to her. She saw no signs of anyone else, so she turned and gestured for the others to hurry over, while keeping an eye out for unfortunate patrols.
Eldrick went first, straightening his back and adopting a posture of confidence and aggression. "Terral," he growled, in what Bel suspected was an imitation of his father. She and Liam slipped through the slit in the tent and moved to stand just behind his shoulders, "time is short, and my patience is thin. Give me—!" he cut himself off with a sound that was every inch a startled squawk, as the object of his aggression turned to face them, without surprise or fear.
"Dory," said a woman who was definitely not Terral. Her identity would have been obvious from the many decorations gilding her pristine uniform if the colour of her eyes, the proud tilt of her chin, and Eldrick's stunned recoiling hadn't given her away before they could. Cursing herself for not spotting the trap sooner, Bel grabbed the young lord and whirled toward the flap she'd cut into the back of the tent.
"I wouldn't," said the woman, with enough certainty that Bel paused. "The instant you entered I had my men surround us. They have orders to shoot on sight if you leave."
In Bel's grip, Eldrick straightened, and the poison in his voice surprised her, even as she was running through and rejecting a rapid-fire series of options. "You can't just—!"
But Bel licked her lips and cut him off. "The men surrounding us," she said, turning back to the woman, "you know them personally?"
This earned her the arching of an exquisite eyebrow, but the woman nodded. "To a one."
Bel let go of Eldrick and turned back to the woman, ignoring the young lord's betrayed look.
Well. They were in it now. Only way out was through.
"Have a seat," said Commander Amira Eldrick, gesturing to the chairs in front of the desk. "We have a lot to discuss."