Chapter 134: Witch Hunt

Link, we have a new problem.

Zelda's voice startled Link, coming so quickly out of nowhere in his own head. "Gods, you'd think I'd be used to this by now," he muttered

Midna and Kilishandra both looked up from the sizzling fish over the fire. The trio had made a quick camp on the short of the lake less than an hour earlier, and Link had demonstrated to Kilishandra a new device put into place only within the past year, or at least, the year before the kingdom had been petrified, when he fished a wire from the water and gave it a few sharp tugs.

This wire was connected to a bell under the water, and pulling the wire, while seeming to have no effect from where they stood, rang the bell, getting the attention of a nearby Zora patrol. When the patrol came to investigate, appearing from beneath the water, Link introduced himself, which garnered immediate salutes from the spear-wielding soldiers, as well as thanks for his part in saving their prince's life, and then explained to them that he was looking for any unusual people near the lake in the past two days. While this patrol had not seen anything, they promised to spread the word to the other patrols and search the lake and nearby rivers immediately.

Then, relatively easily, Link had managed to catch some fish from the lake and they were now cooking over their small fire, the pleasant smells rising slowly into the air when Zelda's voice suddenly popped into his head.

I was hoping we were pretty set for problems, as it goes, he responded to Zelda.

A messenger just arrived from the northern watch tower, Zelda told him, The Blighted Men are here, in Hyrule, and they're headed straight for the capital. The messenger says we're looking at an army, tens of thousands strong.

Those people we saw are animalistic at best, Link said, They can't have that kind of purpose.

Vargus saw one that was different from the others, Zelda said, A leader. Where there's one, there must be more. And whether its relevant or not, you need to find Zero as quickly as possible and get back to the city. If you're outside the city when they arrive…

We probably won't be able to get back in, Link said, So have Ganondorf be useful and wipe them out with fire and lightning. What's the point of having a wizard if we don't use him?

Ganondorf and I agree this must be a distraction, Zelda said, We waste our energy on big magic, and when the real threat shows up, we can't stop her. Link, I'm afraid this is down to you. You need to find Zero and stop what he's doing. If you can't stop him from loosing Shaklator, then the only option is for you to get back here, and the three of us do what we can with the Triforce and kill her. And obviously, you need to stay alive for this to work.

But if I can stop what Zero's doing, it'll at least buy us time to deal with this mess, Link said, What about the witch in the city? Any sign of her yet?

No, but Sibette is still watching for her, and Ganondorf is looking over her shoulder, and I have men watching both of them, Zelda said, I've been promised that if that witch so much as sneezes, we'll have her. What about you? Any signs yet?

No, but I've recruited Zora patrols to help search, Link said, It's getting too dark to search now, with Kilishandra lacking Midna and my level of night vision. As soon as the sun's up, we'll start poking around here.

We're short on time, Link, Zelda said.

Exactly why we can't be stupid about this, Link said, You do still trust me, right?

I do trust you, Zelda said, But if you can't stop Zero from opening a gate, you get your ass back here faster than you've ever moved before. Understand?

How long before this army reaches the city? Link asked.

We're estimating the day after tomorrow at the soonest, the day after that at the latest, Zelda said, Fortunately, an army that size can't move fast.

At least there's an advance warning, Link said, then said aloud to the other, "Okay, we need to find this thing tomorrow. Zelda's just told me that there's an army approaching the city."

"An army?" Midna asked, "Where did they get an army?"

"The people infected by the Blight in Mystara," Link said.

"They can be controlled?" Kilishandra asked, "They behaved like animals. Maybe a pack of animals, but animals nonetheless."

"Animals can be trained," Midna said, "Or at least led. Present company being the exception," she added with a wink at Link.

"Zelda thinks the army is just a distraction," Link said, "To buy time for Zero to finish."

"Of course," Kilishandra said, "My father won't want to waste his energy on them. If Shaklator is freed now, he'll need to save everything he has for her. But if we can stop Zero from opening the portal, he'll have free reign to wipe out the lot of them himself."

"We'd best get our rest tonight," Link said, "I doubt we'll have a chance in the foreseeable future."

"Fair warning," Midna said to Kilishandra, "Link can go three days without sleep before he has to slow down."

"That's easy," Kilishandra replied, "I've seen my father go as long as three weeks."

The sun had yet to even peek over the horizon when there was a knock at the door of Vargus' room. "What is it?" Vargus demanded without rising from the bed.

"The queen is requesting your presence as soon as possible in the war room," came the voice of another ninja through the door.

His normal shift wasn't due to start for another hour, so Vargus concluded that something must have happened. "I'll be there in ten minutes," Vargus called back, slowly sitting up.

"Wait… queen?" said the voice next to him, only half awake.

"I'm going to have to ask you to pretend you didn't hear that," Vargus said, sliding out from under the blankets, "It's not public knowledge yet."

"What's going on?" Arin asked, sitting up, "What time is it?"

"Looks like about an hour before dawn," Vargus said, "As for what's going on, that's what I'm about to go find out. You can go back to sleep if you like and I'll have someone wake you with enough time to be ready for your post."

Vargus lit the oil lamp on the bedside table and stood up, moving for his clothes and weapons. Arin blinked, rubbing his eyes against the sudden light, and then the realization, both of where he was and what he'd done the previous night, hit him suddenly.

This was certainly not the place he'd expected to wake up this morning, let alone doing so in company at all. After the visit to the tailor, and having Vargus fitted for several sets of clothing, they'd done just as the elf had asked, simply walking the city. Things that seemed so ordinary to Arin had fascinated Vargus, from the statue garden on the south side, to even things like candy stores. Vargus had a bit of a sweet tooth, as it turned out.

And they had talked for a long time. Vargus had answered Arin's questions about himself without any hesitation. Vargus might not be able to talk about events surrounding the princess, but he had no reason to hold anything back regarding his homeland. Though when Arin asked about what his training had been like, Vargus' immediate response had been, "You're too old, if that's what you're asking."

But the longer they talked, the more Arin believed he was seeing past the face Vargus always so carefully put on. On the surface, the dark elf seemed so calm and easygoing, yet Arin was now certain that a profound sadness was heavy in his heart. Arin had been the one to "make the move," as it were, a bit lost in the moment, and now waking up in Vargus' bed, he thought about the previous night, of what he had felt when their two bodies were entwined, the two sharing a level of intimacy he'd never had with the few times he'd been with a woman.

Maybe it was then that Vargus had let his defenses truly down, or maybe Arin was simply a very empathetic person, but Arin had felt the scars on Vargus' back, and he had imagined what it must have felt like, how painful the kind of wounds that would leave marks like these must have been. It had been at that point that any remaining nervousness and hesitation had left him, and even if he couldn't lift the heavy sadness that held onto Vargus, maybe he could at least lighten the load for a while.

As far as the sex was concerned, Arin could still honestly say he wouldn't know what to do with a woman, let alone this situation, but Vargus was an experienced lover, and knew exactly how to not just make it pleasant for both of them, but even make Arin eager to assist. It was certainly different, but Arin smiled to himself as he thought he could definitely get used to it.

"I think I'll just wait five minutes and then leave," Arin said.

The scars on Vargus' back stood out sharply in the flickering lamplight, and as the elf put on his padded undershirt, pulling it down over them, Arin realized one question he had neglected to ask the previous afternoon, when Vargus had been talkative about his past.

"The woman who did that to you," Arin said, "What happened to her during the rebellion?"

Vargus paused his actions for a moment, though he did not turn around, and said, "I found her. What I did then… It was not quick. But it was still quicker than what she did to me."

Arin knew Vargus was not proud of what he had done, at least in retrospect. It was hardly like Arin could hold the fact Vargus had killed against him, given that during his first year as a guard, he'd killed a would-be criminal himself. It had been a case of their life or his own, and he was quite pleased with the result. He couldn't help but think, though, that had been what had landed him a daytime post in the market square. Other than a few pickpockets, that was a make-work position if there ever was one.

Arin was almost certain his father and his money had been an active hand in getting that post, after his dear mother had heard he'd gotten a little blood on himself.

The only other detail was Vargus doubtless had far more kills to his name than Arin's one.

"A ninja must kill without emotion," Vargus had told him before. A man who enjoyed killing would be dangerous, and far too difficult to control, and those who feared it, or hated doing so might not do so when they must, allowing a target to escape. And Vargus hated the fact he had allowed that woman to inspire such hatred in him.

Aside from being too old to start the training, Arin was quite certain he'd never make that requirement to be a ninja. As happy as he was he hadn't been the one going in the grave after his encounter, at the time it happened it had left his hands shaking and his heart trying to climb out his throat. He did often wonder if he had to repeat the experience if it would be easier the second time, or if he'd completely crack under the pressure.

Vargus had dressed, and was now putting on his black leather armor. In spite of the fact the hardened leather looked perfectly smooth, between it and the padded underclothing, the ninja had a surprising number of hidden weapons. The left shoulder pad concealed about seven of the ninja's unusual throwing knives, and belts of the same were strapped around each thigh, and another set was hidden in his sleeve along his left forearm. Arin had expected more to be in his boots, but instead each boot concealed a dagger about a foot long, too small to be a real shortsword, but far too large to be considered a knife. Vargus had explained they were fall back weapons if he were disarmed or needed an off-hand weapon to help defend himself.

Finally came his belt, with his exotic curved sword which supposedly could cut through human bone as if it were hot butter. The belt was also lined with all manner of puches, filed with every manner of tool from lock picks to vials of poison and even simple grease to keep hinges from squeaking when he opened a door. The knives were bad enough, but if Arin had known about all these tools, especially the poisons, when he'd first met the man, he'd have been extremely unnerved. He almost felt as though he should now, but the princess trusted this man with her life. And after last night…

Vargus certainly had a way of getting him to lower his guard and just relax around him, and it was strange to think Arin was the one who needed the consolation when Vargus had such a powerful sadness hidden within himself. Maybe it wasn't even simply because of what that woman had done to him, or what he had then done to her. Maybe it was something much more profound. But Arin did feel good about the thought that maybe he had helped ease that burden, at least for a while. At the time, he wasn't sure why he'd actually made the push, and come here with the dark elf, but now he was glad he did.

"You're at your post today?" Vargus asked, picking up his shoulder wrap and then pulling it on over his head, arranging the hood and mask so they wouldn't get in the way.

"That's right," Arin said, "Don't take it the wrong way, but I'm not quite ready for word of this to get back to my parents."

"Don't worry about that," Vargus said, "Nobody but me knows you're here."

"Speaking of which… where does this go from here?" Arin asked. As much as he couldn't deny he'd enjoyed it, he suddenly realized he had no idea what a man like Vargus would be looking for long-term, or if he even was looking long-term.

Vargus gently pulled his sword a few inches free of its sheath, then slid it back home, simply making sure it was free and could be easily drawn in an emergency. For the first time since he'd climbed out of the bed, he turned to look at Arin. "I'll leave that up to you," he said, "I've certainly been around, and I'm no child. It won't hurt me if you decide this isn't for you. Or maybe you'd simply prefer someone closer to your own age. But if you decide to come back here again…" he paused, a sly smile slowly spreading on his face, "Well, the door will be locked, but I'm a light sleeper. Just knock and I'll let you in."

Early in the morning, Sibette returned to her circle. She had slept in the room with it, to ensure she would wake if it were set off. Tracking magic by its use wasn't the easiest task, but she had done this several times to hunt down traitors to the coven. There wasn't a coven anymore, and likely never would be again, now that she was free of her contract.

She passed the time waiting by sitting near the circle's edge and meditating. It was easy to drift away, thinking about the possibilities open to her for the future. As she sat down and settled in for another long stay, she had even truly started when the circle suddenly reacted. Sibette was on her feet in an instant as the lines of sand lit in green flame.

"I knew you couldn't resist, sister," she said with a smile, rolled up her sleeves, and sent a tendril of her dark energy forth, connecting with the circle.

Her mind's eyes shot forward, out of the castle and through the streets. Buildings and alleys flew by as she closed in on the source of the reaction. Finally she passed through the stone wall of a building and into the basement beneath it. The image that came into view was mostly as she expected. A black-clad elderly woman, the room lit entirely by burning candles, and a witch's circle drawn on the floor, and a cage, one about the size intended for a dog or similar, and within the cage a young girl, only four or five years of age. The witch had been unable to resist being in the city, surrounded by children, and not take a child to return years to herself.

What Sibette had not expected was what had actually caused the reaction. The witch was preparing the circle even now. What could drive a witch to practice her magic in daylight? The circle was also not drawn in sand, but in fresh blood, though the source was not immediately apparent. A more powerful circle, but when the blood dried, useless. She was in a hurry. But what for? Did she know Sibette was in the city? Surely not…

Sibette suddenly released her grasp, snapping back to herself. "Please no," she said, running for a nearby ladder that had been used previously to cover the windows, and climbing as fast as she could, "Even with everything else, I can't have missed that…"

Reaching the window, she grabbed the black cloth glued over it and pulled, tearing it open and allowing sunlight to flood into the room as she looked out to the east, toward the morning sun. Her blood ran cold. How could she have forgotten? Witches track this event with such care, and she had bloody forgotten!

The moon was visible in the morning sky as a circular silhouette, moving slowly toward the sun. Put into motion by the desert witch slain by the first king of the Gerudo four thousand years ago, once every one-hundred-twenty years a solar eclipse occurred in sync with the event called Walpurgis Night. The ancient witch had used ritual to cause it, and would have gained invincibility if the ritual was completed while the sun was completely black, but the Gerudo king had slain her before it had been completed.

But the aftereffect of the eclipse had never faded in four millenia. When this eclipse occurred, it lasted for seventy-two hours, and the effects of the event called Walpurgis Night remained in effect for the entirety of that time. The normal effect of the new moon was irrelevant during this once-per-century event. The ignorant called this event "The Longest Night," and believed it was the time when Hell was closest to the mortal world. They didn't even know how right they were.

"Son of a witch," Sibette cursed, "We don't have two days to find the gate they're making. We have six hours."

The "war room," as it had been called, was the royal council chamber. It was also noisy chaos when Vargus entered. A large map of Hyrule was spread on the main table, and Vargus noted the small red flags arranged at the northern side of the kingdom, and a large cluster of blue flags in the center, with smaller numbers scattered at the various posts around the kingdom. Dozens of bodies surrounded the table, conversations everywhere, all melding together if one didn't intentionally listen to one or another.

Zelda and several men Vargus had yet to meet were pouring over a second map at the far end of the table. This map he recognized as the city itself, with the outline of the walls clearly defined, along with the streets within. "They're coming from the north," Zelda was saying as he came within earshot, "I want all the southern ballistae moved to the north side of the city. They won't be able to circle around to the southern pass without massive losses to the east or west."

"What about the weapon the Gorons are working on?" one of the men asked.

"I'd hoped it would be ready in time, but we can't depend on it now," Zelda said, "Make sure we have plenty of oil for the murder pits as well. And get the engineers mixing up a huge batch of Sheikan fire. There should be enough time left to get a good ditch laid, and the rest can be fired from the walls with the trebuchets."

She dismissed them and they saluted, moving away, and Zelda turned to see Vargus. "What's happening?" he asked.

"A messenger from the northern watch tower arrived last night," Zelda said, "An army is approaching from the north. And now that you're here, I need you to get your fastest scouts out there and get a good estimate of their strength and what kind of siege equipment they have. All we got out of the messenger was that there were enough to cover the plains standing shoulder-to-shoulder. I'd have liked more details, but the man was half dead when he staggered in the gate."

"Done, we'll have numbers by this evening," Vargus said, "Now, I need your permission for something else…"

The double doors at the main entrance of the war room suddenly burst open, slamming hard against the walls as Ganondorf burst into the room, bringing all eyes to him, and then immediately to the witch at his side and only one step behind him.

"We know where she is," Ganondorf announced without preamble.

"We'll talk after this is done," Zelda said to Vargus, "Get as many of your men as you can, and you…" she paused as she turned to one of the nearby officers, "Get the city guard. As many squads as they can spare. We're hunting witch and I do not want her escaping. We will block streets, alleys, whatever it takes. We want her alive, but I'd rather have her dead than free."

It took less than fifteen minutes before the streets were filling with armored and armed men and women, practically storming the district indicated by Sibette. More than a hundred members of the city guard, split into squads of ten, surrounded the building, while the ninja took to the rooftops, stationing themselves where they could see every exit the witch could use to make her escape.

Ganondorf, Zelda, Sibette, and Vargus watched from across the street in front of the building as the guards moved as quietly as they could in their armor to the front entrances, glancing in the front windows and signaling it was clear.

"Now that we're here, what about her magic?" Zelda asked, "She could turn my men against each other."

"I will suppress her," Sibette said, "My power dwarfs hers, but she'll know I'm here the instant I start, and will try to flee."

"We need her alive, at least for a few minutes," Ganondorf reminded her, "So long as her heart is still beating, the rest of her condition is irrelevant, however."

"There's four floors in the building and at least one basement level," Zelda said, "Is there any chance she has set some kind of traps?"

"Not anything drastic that would give her away," Sibette said, "You may lose a few guards getting into the basement, however, since that is where she has constructed the circle."

The thought pained Zelda, but she knew more was at stake. She signaled the captain, and he ordered the men to move in. The front door wasn't locked, and the guards moved in with weapons drawn. Like shadows, four ninja slipped into the top floor through the windows. The building was condemned, and used to be an apartment building. Zelda just hoped any squatters would be smart enough to keep their heads down while the rooms were cleared.

"I'm going straight to the basement," Ganondorf said, "If I can corner her, she won't escape."

Without waiting for a response, he was away toward the building at a full sprint, crossing the street faster than Zelda expected of a man so large, and he had vanished through the door before his cloak, thrown off when he dashed, had even hit the ground.

It felt like an eternity to Zelda, watching from outside, but the events that transpired within that building would be over in matter of seconds.

Arin didn't know how he lucked out and managed to find himself in the first squad in the door, but he'd leaped at the chance when volunteers were needed, seeing a chance to actually do something for once. When the captain ordered them in, they'd charged, weapons drawn. More squads moved in, blocking all the exits, and Arin's squad moved to the stairs leading to the basement storage. So many men to capture one woman seemed a bit excessive, even if she was a witch, but Arin learned the danger of attacking such a creature when the squad leader took the first step down the stairs.

A red outline suddenly materialized on the wall beside the stairs, the image of a star inside a circle, which spun quickly and flared brightly, and then the scream. The man went down, tumbling down the stairs, his armor crashing loudly as the image faded from the wall. Smoke poured from the gaps in his armor where he landed. "Davis!" one of the others shouted, moving after him.

"Wait!" Arin shouted, but was two late, as the second trap was set off, another magic circle appearing suddenly on the wall, and a bright blue light flashed, followed by a crackling sound, and as Arin blinked against the second wave of sudden blindness, he saw the would-be rescuer had been flozen solid, deep blue ice encasing his entire body.

"Slow down, idiots!" came a voice from the back of the group, "All your doing is getting yourselves killed!"

The squad parted as Ganondorf moved through them. "Is there a way past this?" Arin asked as he came close.

"Yes," Ganondorf said, "Don't touch the stairs. You idiots wait here. If she tries to run, you stop her. In the meantime, if you want to save your friend here, chip the ice off his head before he suffocates, and keep working down. You should be able to get him free before his heart stops, though you'll want to get him near a fire and drinking something hot as soon as possible."

The wizard suddenly levitated up off the floor, floating slowly down the stairs, his feet never touching the stone. No more traps were set off, and he set down at the bottom of the stairs, and knelt down by the first victim.

Arin quickly got his knife and carefully dug into the ice of the frozen soldier's cheek, careful not to go any further down the stairs. Ganondorf pulled the face of the guard's helmet up, and sight caused one of the other guards behind Arin to swear loudly.

"Yeah, he's a lobster," Ganondorf said, lowering the metal face down over bright red face, the outer layer of skin and lips, leaving only a horrific red grinning skull behind, "You won't be saving this one."

He stood, turned to the door and reached for the knob. Finding it locked, Ganondorf took one step back, lifted his foot, and a mighty kick sent the door crashing inward, splinters flying into the air. He stepped through, and found a familiar face waiting for him in the basement.

The dark skin and red hair stood out in the light of the candles as Nabooru turned, smiling at him. "Sorry to ruin your hopes, but this trick didn't work the first time, and you're nowhere near as talented as she was," Ganondorf said, moving toward the witch trying to affect his mind.

This one wasn't nearly as talented as Sibette, merely able to make him see the Gerudo woman, and the environment was still hellish, the witch's circle drawn in blood. In the center of the circle lay a girl, no more than eleven years old. She was not bound, but was not moving, but didn't appear wounded. The ritual wasn't complete, and the witch had yet to drain her life. Ganondorf quickly surmised she was likely drugged to keep her from resisting.

The witch's illusion vanished instantly, transforming from the young woman into a haggard and wrinkled shell of countless years, who thrust one hand toward Ganondorf, her face contorting in effort as she worked her dark art. Ganondorf suddenly realized he shouldn't be here, and the guards on the stairs needed to die.

Too bad for the witch his will, tempered over his millennia of ice, may as well have been a piece of iron, and alerted him to the fact the thoughts were not his own, reminding him of the real purpose he was here.

"You clearly do not know who I am," he said in a low growl, stepping toward her.

"And you don't know me," the witch said as he stepped on a magical trap, white light flaring up around him as a circle came into existence.

It was just a restraining field, and wouldn't hold him long, but this witch hadn't survived for eight hundred years and escaped three witch hunts by being a fool. Better to cut her losses and go, and she snatched up only her staff, a gnarled piece of wood with a human skull at the top, and decorated with numerous crow feathers and rat tails, and she quickly ran for the door.

Already exerting her will as she came out the door and turned up the stairs, she aimed for the first guard and sent a seed of a thought into his mind.

But something else was wrong. A field pressed down hard. Sibette! the witch silently cursed, She's outside!

Arin saw her come around the corner, and quickly sheathed his knife, passing his sword back to his right hand, and then the world went insane. The walls and ceiling warped, shifting like gelatin and then suddenly melting. He had to do something. As if purely by instinct, he knew. He had to kill. To kill… what? His arm ached, needing to swing the blade he gripped.

And the only thing he saw was this wild woman, garbed in black, grey hair flying behind her, clutching a staff topped with a skull, rushing up the stairs toward him. And her face turned to an expression of shock, then to pain as his sword cleaved into her shoulder, just to the left of her neck. Bones splintered and snapped as he cut downward into her rib cage. His eyes burned as her blood splashed into them through the visor of his helmet.

She had been moving with such inhuman speed that her momentum crashed her into him, bowling him over and into the men behind him, carrying them both out of the stairs and crashing to the floor in the hall beyond.

The world around him stopped warping as her power faded, and Arin's conciousness slowly faded, voices shouting nearby seemed like they were so far away. He blacked out as he heard someone called "We got her!"

"Out of my way!" Sibette shouted, pushing through the guards.

"If she's dead, what are you going to get from her?" Zelda demanded, following close behind.

The witch's body had been laid in the hall, guards waiting seemingly everywhere, and Ganondorf standing close by.

"You don't know anything of witchcraft, and there isn't time to explain," Sibette said, "But I've got about four minutes to pull what we need from her memories before it disappears forever."

The guards stepped away as Sibette approached the body. "Let her," Ganondorf said, "If nothing comes of it, it's not like we've lost any more."

Sibette knelt down beside the body, looking down into the staring, dead eyes, and placed her hands on either side of witch's head.

Sensing Vargus suddenly moving from her side, Zelda turned and saw him moving to a guard sitting on the floor. "Is he injured?" Vargus asked one of the others.

"Not as far as we can tell," said the guard, "He blacked out after he gutted the witch, though."

"Princess," Sibette said, getting her attention, "I've found it."

Zelda moved closer. "Where is it?"

"Unfortunately, I don't know the place," Sibette said, "It's a cave, on the east side of the lake, near the waterfall. Here, if you take my hand, I can show you, and then if you can send an image to your man at the lake."

The witch didn't need to touch her to work black magic, Zelda thought, and decided it was worth the risk. She took Sibette's offered hand. An image shot up in her mind, as if she were imagining it herself. It didn't help her, as she didn't know it either. A small round cave mouth, maybe large enough for someone to crawl into. She couldn't identify any other landmarks, but maybe Link could.

Link, are you there? she asked silently.

Depends on where 'there' is, he replied.

We think we have it, Zelda said, I don't know if this will work, but our witch pulled an image from one of Zero's witches' head. I'm going to try to make you see it.

She focused as she did when speaking to him, and tried to picture the image instead of words.

Holy hell, I know that one, Link said, And it's about ten minutes from here!

Well, that's good, because you've got about five and a half hours to stop this thing, another voice said.

Who the hell is that? Link demanded

Oh, it's the witch, I'm speaking through the princess, Sibette said.

Please stop, I've got enough voices in my head already, Link said, But what is this about five and a half hours? I thought we had two more days.

Look at the sun, Sibette said, When the eclipse is complete, they'll be able to complete the gate.

"Why in the hell didn't you mention this sooner?!" Zelda demanded, standing up and yanking her hand free.

"Tragic truth, I'm old and forget things," the witch said, "I forgot."

"Gods damn you," Zelda growled, Link, not to put more pressure on you…

I got it, Link said, I might not ask for much just for doing the right thing…

Stop this from happening and you're going to be the richest, most titled farmer in the world, Zelda said.

I'll settle for a giant feast when this is over, and when the castle's rebuilt, the royal bedroom, you know, the one you'll usually be using it, I want it for a week, Link said.

Why would you want my bedroom? Zelda asked.

Vacation, plain and simple, Link said, Though depending on how you feel about Midna and me, you might want to replace the bed when we're done.

Fine, Zelda said, I'll even make sure you get the best stuffed pigeon in sauce you've ever had at the feast.

Funny story, never actually had it before, Link said, Barely any meat on those things. If you're going to feed me that, better give me at least six

Okay, enough jokes, get going and stop this thing! Zelda said, We've got an army at our door, we don't need an angry goddess on top of it.

On my way, Link said.

In less than a day, this whole mess may be decided one way or another. Gods, the weight of the world felt heavier by the minute. But Zelda knew she could just stop what she was doing. She couldn't panic. She had to maintain control.

"Okay," Zelda said, turning to the guards waiting around her, "Let's get this cleaned up. Close off the building. Sibette and Ganondorf, can the two of you make sure there are no more live traps anywhere?"

"Shouldn't take long," Ganondorf said, "She was trying to not draw attention to herself."

"When it's safe, retrieve the casualty and…" Zelda sighed, thinking even one was too many, "I'll write a letter for his family. Where's the man that was frozen?"

"Back at the barracks, near the fire," said captain, "The doctor thinks he'll be fine, and hopefully we got him there in time to prevent pneumonia."

"I suppose the only way this could have gone better is if Ganondorf went in first," Zelda said, "Damn him."

She dismissed the captain to see to the task and turned back to where Vargus was. The unconscious guard was waking up, rubbing his face as Vargus spoke to him.

"How's our accidental hero?" Zelda asked as she came closer.

"From what he's told me, it sounds like the witch tried to magick him," Vargus said, "And apparently it backfired, since she was the only one he killed."

"Gods, my head," Arin groaned, holding one hand to his forehead.

"Considering a witch was rooting around in there, a headache is probably the least of what could have happened," Zelda said, "You're going to be all right, son."

"Son?" Arin said, looking up, "No offense, your highness, but I'm older than you."

"By about eight months," Vargus said, "That's less than an eye blink to me."

"The broody elf suddenly has a sense of humor," Arin said.

"Not really, just stating a fact," Vargus said.

"How do you know how old he is?" Zelda asked Vargus, but then a smile appeared as she put it together, "Wait, when you said you met someone…"

"Oh gods," Arin groaned, burying his face in his hands.

Vargus lifted a finger to his lips. "Not yet," he whispered to Zelda.

"Don't worry about anything," Zelda said, "We got what we needed, and the witch is dead, so I consider this a success."

"Gods, that could have been me that stepped into that trap," Arin said.

"But it wasn't," Zelda said, "And what happened to him wasn't your fault. If it's anyone's, it's mine. And I'll take responsibility for it."

"And witches aren't exactly standard far for a city guard," Vargus said.

"All right," Zelda said, "Well, I've time to hear what you out now, Vargus. Should we go back to my office?"

"Well, it's not exactly super secretive," Vargus said, "In fact, probably better if the guard does know. And since the ninja are acting as your personal guard, we're going to be working with the city guard fairly often."

"You're saying you need a liaison between the ninja and the guard," Zelda said, looking pointedly at Arin.

"Yes, and Arin here has voiced his dissatisfaction with his post in the market," Vargus said, "Maybe he'd like more challenging work?"

"Tell me what you've got in mind first," Zelda said.

"My men need to be able to move through the city quickly if the walls are breached," Vargus said, "We'll need to be able to resupply quickly with weapons and other tools quickly if we have to cover the soldiers as they fall back. So I'm thinking we set up a series of supply caches throughout the city. They will of course be disguised and locked so civilians can't get into them. I just thought it would be wise to get your permission first."

"I see," Zelda said, "And the guard should know where they are so they'll know if they've been tampered with. I can see how that could work. You're sure you can set it up so no one unauthorized can get into them?"

"One of the things we have is the designs for near-crackable puzzle locks," Vargus said, "They'll keep out anyone not will to destroy them to get in, and the caches themselves will be hidden so that a casual observer won't even know they are there."

"And the liaison will be a more long-term posting, for future activities," Zelda said, "Well, I don't see the harm. What do you say, soldier? Would you like the post? You'll be working closely with the ninja and coordinating their efforts with the guard and the army in the coming conflict and afterward, assuming you're not killed and I don't find someone better."

Arin had never considered a job like that, and his head was swimming with the sudden possibilities and what this meant he'd be involved in. And it was a job he could put all the management education his father had paid for to work for once. Not to mention it was a huge jump in rank, since in a way, he'd be above the guard captain.

"Yeah! I mean, yes, your highness!" he said, "I'd love that!"

"Okay then, you're acting liaison until further notice," Zelda said, "Come to my office in about an hour. I'll have drafted up some official orders for you so people won't get in the way. And boys," she added, lifting one finger, though she was smiling again, "Try not to get too distracted. There will be plenty of time for that after this is over."

"Yes, your highness," Vargus said, saluting as he had seen the Hylian soldiers do.

Across the city, another confrontation was about to occur, though of a different sort. Just an hour earlier, Arthur had come to Sheila in the camp to ask her to watch young Eric for a time.

"What makes you think I can watch a kid?" Sheila asked, "I've never had any kids.

"Who should I leave him with, then?" Arhtur responded, "That Alex guy? Kid'd be better off on his own! Look, it's not hard, just feed him when he's hungry and make sure he doesn't get into trouble."

Ilia had come out of her tent at this point and interjected, "I'll watch him. I'm used to taking care of children."

"Thank you," Arthur said, "I'll hopefully be back before dark this time."

"How did you end up with a child anyway?" Sheila asked, "I mean, considering your history, I'm sure you have plenty, but not here."

"His mother flat disappeared a few days ago," Arthur said, "Believe me, I've been looking everywhere for the bitch. But if I'm going to end up raising her son, by gods, I'm going to do it right. And that means finding her."

An hour later of poking through every seedy bar in town asking for her, he had one more to check, and sighed when he saw outside the bar. A group of what he could only describe as thugs hanging around out front. They weren't doing anything untoward, just talking with each other. What worried Arthur was the fact all them were tattooed and scarred, and every one of them wearing an article of clothing the exact same color, a deep blue.

He hoped his initial impression was wrong as he walked to the door, and felt their eyes all turn to him as he pushed the door open.

Gods damn it, he thought at the sight inside. The bar was packed with men and women, and every damn one of them was wearing that same blue color. This was not a place he wanted to be, he was sure.

Other than that, it was the usual bar scene, with drinking, darts, people sleeping it off on the floor. Arthur felt like every one of them had a bow aimed at him, and was certain if he ticked off even one of them, the entire gang would fall on him in an instant.

Except there was one person not wearing the color. The blonde woman in a man's jacket, her back to him, but Arthur was certain it was her. Gods, your taste really is bad, Arthur thought, but approached her.

"Claire," he said, tapping her on the shoulder.

She turned, and on seeing him, muttered, "Oh, great. The white knight again. The hell do you want?"

"What do I want?" Arthur responded, "I thought you'd like to know that your son is with me at the castle. But obviously you don't care about him, do you?"

"It's about time he learned to take care of himself," Claire said.

"He's nine!" Arthur said.

"Hey," one of the men in blue, carrying two beers, stepped over to them, "What's your problem, pal?"

Arthur very quickly sized him up. Not exactly a huge, but the man was in very good shape. His muscled arms were heavily tattooed, and fully visible due to no sleeves, and was wearing a vest of the same blue as all the others. Arthur could see no visible weapons

"I'm not looking for trouble," Arthur said, "My problem isn't with you, it's with her. Look, Claire, your son…"

"Son?" the man in blue said, turning to Claire as he set the beers on the counter, "Is he saying what I think he is?"

"Yeah, I've been taking care of her kid because she won't," Arthur said and reached for the folded not in his pocket, "Now, I've got…"

"You got a kid and you didn't tell me?!" the man demanded, ignoring him and focusing entirely on Claire.

Clearly unhappy with being put on the spot, Claire didn't meet his eyes. "I didn't want to slow you down," she said quietly.

"Slow me…" the man's voice was utter disbelief, but then became a angry shout that drew the eyes of everyone in the bar, "Look at me! Look at me, woman! Do you see this color? Do you see it!"

"Yes," Claire said, "I just…"

"This color does not represent aimless thugs!" he said, not letting her finish, "We take care of our own! We're a family!" He paused, taking a breath, then the anger was gone from his voice, replaced by disappointment, "That's the whole point."

Without waiting for a response, he turned and walked away quickly, toward the door. "Deacon!" Claire called after him, then shot a dark glare at Arthur before following the gangster and calling again, "Deacon, wait!"

The silence in the bar was suddenly intensely oppressive as Arthur realized he was standing alone with every eye on him. He turned to leave, and conversations started again as he pushed the door open and stepped outside. At least if they were talking, they weren't after him.

"Well, cocked that up nicely," he muttered, seeing no sign of Claire on the outside, and returning the folded paper to his pocket. It was definitely not an environment he was comfortable in, otherwise he might of thought to stop Claire. But the thought of following her as she followed a gangster was too much, and he decided he was better off going back to the castle for now.

And fortunate for Sheila, too, since he'd soon be back, and she'd already lost nearly fifty rupees to Eric as he effectively cheated her at the game he'd offered as a means of entertainment.

"Come on, find the card, it's not hard, just keep your eye on it," Eric said as he shifted about the five cards on the bench, "Just get the ace of spades and get all your money back."

Try as she might, Sheila couldn't keep her eye on the right card. The kid had deft hands and shuffled them in ways that confused her sight, almost like an optical illusion. She hesitantly picked up one and groaned as it showed the two of hearts.

"Oh, looks like that's one more for me," Eric said, taking the small pile of rupees into his palm.

"You're cheating, you have to be," Sheila said, "Where does a kid like you learn to do this anyway?"

"One of my mom's old boyfriends taught me," Eric said, "I kind of liked him."

"I think Arthur's right, your mother has terrible taste in men," Sheila said.

"Because yours is so much better," Ilia said from over by the cooking fire, "I noticed you went to the wizard's room again last night. You're really in no place to talk about taste in men."

"I don't think that's the kind of thing to talk about around a child," Sheila said over her shoulder.

"Oh, I'm use to it," Eric said, "What about your money? One more try to win it back?"

"Don't do it," Ilia warned her.

"Double or nothing!" Shiela said, determined to not be outdone by the boy.

In the end, she got nothing.

"This is the place," Link said, pulling Epona to a stop and quickly dropping out of the saddle.

"I don't see a cave," Kilishandra said.

"Over here," Link said, motioning for her to follow as he moved toward the rocks near the shore.

Kilishandra climbed down from her saddle and followed him. Over the rocks and into ankle-deep water, into a small alcove, and there it was.

"You can't be serious," Kilishandra muttered.

The "cave" was barely more than a hole, maybe three feet wide, and less tall. "It opens up quickly on the inside," Link said, "I was here once before, seems like ages ago now."

"Why is it following you means crawling through tiny holes," Kilishandra growled.

"Now that you mention it, that does seem to happen unnaturally often with Link," Midna said, appearing from his shadow."

"Midna, if you wouldn't mind, go into the shadows and make sure there's nothing nasty waiting for us inside," Link said.

"Not a problem," she said, fading from sight again.

"Are you going to be all right with this?" Link asked Kilishandra.

"I'll manage," she said.

"It opens up when we're inside," Link said, "The narrow part isn't more than ten feet."

"You're sure they're in there?" Kilishandra asked.

"That's what Zelda said they got from the witch," Link said.

Midna's head poked out of the tunnel entrance. "It's all clear," she said, and vanished back inside.

"Okay, Zero," Link said, moving to the tunnel and dropping to his knees to crawl in, "You're not getting away this time."

Kilishandra sighed, moving to the tunnel entrance after him, grit her teeth tightly, and knelt down to crawl inside. In the choice of avoiding the tunnel and putting an end to Zero once and for all, she wanted Zero dead more.