Just a quick plug here, I know this took a while, but I wasn't exactly inactive. There are two chapters of a new story, titled Devil May Cry: Retribution, up and available for viewing. I keep saying I'm done with fanfiction when this story is done, but only if I have the willpower to stay away, and I think it's clear that I don't. Those who want to search the story up will need to enable mature stories to display. The first two chapters maybe don't earn that rank, but what's coming later definitely will.

Chapter 135: Time Runs Out

The cave was dark and damp. Kilishandra was grateful for the humidity, if only for the fact it so quickly drenched them that the cold sweat she was in was hidden, though she still gritted her teeth, keeping her mind focused on the task at hand. She and Link still walked in ankle-deep water, trying to move quietly, as she kept one hand on the wall until her eyes adjusted to the dark. Link, of course, was leading the way, already seeing in the dark as well as she could in daylight.

Kilishandra bit back a groan of revulsion as her fingers, following the wall, dragged through a patch of mushy algae. Link suddenly whispered to stop, the sound of his feet in the water disappearing as he held still. Kilishandra tried not to make a sound, but she reflexively shook her hand, trying to dislodge the disgusting algae, whether real or imagined, from her skin.

Faint voices in the distance, barely audible over the sounds of running water, and far too distant to make out what they were saying. Kilishandra was finally reaching the point she could make out shapes in the dark, and when Link whispered to follow, they moved around a bend in the cave.

Both of them were blinded by the lantern suddenly focused in their direction. Link cried out in surprise and pain as the glare stung his eyes. In the next instant, splashing footsteps closed in on them swiftly, with voices rising in wordless shouts of aggression.

The first stroke was the deadliest, as Link drew his sword over his shoulder, directly into a slice toward the sound, and was rewarded with a scream of agony and hot blood splashing over his arm. But unable to see, beyond this point Link was unable to tell which sounds of movement were the attackers and which were Kilishandra and Midna.

"Back up!" he shouted, trying to move back even as he lifted his sword to guard against strikes he could not see.

The strikes never came, and the aggressive shouts suddenly turned into pained gurgling, followed by larger splashes, which then led to silence. "It's all right, Link," Midna's voice said, "Let me just get this lantern… Okay."

It took a moment for his eyes to clear, but Midna had turned the focused beam of light from the lantern away. Kilishandra, sword in hand, pushed past him, looking at the bodies laying facedown in the water, and running trails of blood flowing deeper into the cave.

"Oh, gods," Link whispered when he saw their clothes clearly at last, "These are people from the city."

"The victims of the witches," Kilishandra said, and looked up at Midna, "What did you do?"

"Slipped through the shadows around behind them," Midna said, "And then I cut their throats."

They weren't even armed, at least not with real weapons. Link spotted a few knives, and a pair of large pitchforks. One of them had been using a scythe. Fearsome looking it might be, but a scythe was extremely difficult to use effectively as a weapon.

It was most likely too late to do anything to save these people anyway, but Link could not feel good about this, and he hated even more that there were likely more waiting for them further in.

"They know we're here now," Kilishandra said, and with a flick of her fingers spawned a globe of light that hovered in the air over her head, "I'm not going any further in the dark."

Sure enough, the sound of more splashing footsteps could be heard further up the tunnel, coming toward them.

The shouting and agonized scream had carried all the way into the depths of the cavern, where the tunnel opened into a larger chamber. The water flowed into the tunnel slowly from Lake Hylia, and over generations had carved this chamber and formed an underground lake at the far side. One dry area, about ten feet in diameter, had been ringed with candles, and small grooves carved into the rock floor into the familiar shape of a magic circle. The pile of bodies near the water's edge had been the source of the circle's real construction, filling the carvings with human blood. It created a far more temporary circle than using the preferred material of forged silver, but the strength of the circle was far greater while it lasted.

The two witches turned at the sound of the scream. "They've found us," one said.

"I knew that fool wouldn't be able to resist the children in the city," said the other.

The first started to stand up from her work. "I'll deal with them," she said.

"You'll do nothing," Zero said from the edge of the candlelight, the flickering light making the black burn scars and enormous red eye even more grotesque than he'd appear in daylight, "It's Link. I can feel it. How soon can you begin?"

"The closer to the eclipse, the better we'll be," the witch said, "But it's still hours away. We could start now, but the rift will be unstable. It won't last long."

"It doesn't have to," Zero said, and lifted his black sword, "Start now. If she misses the chance, it'll be her own damn fault, and I'll have done my part. I'll go and entertain our guests."

More screams echoed up the tunnel.

"Sounds like you'd better hurry," Zero said, turning and walking toward the sound.

The witches watched him go, then turned to each other. "He's insane," one said.

"We also can't touch him," said the other, "Let's just finish this dance macabre and maybe we'll be able to slip away in the chaos that's sure to follow."

His first memory was of mortal terror. Suddenly waking up with knowledge of nothing and no one, to immediately be attacked by monsters, demons, whatever they were. Fear and desperation gave him strength, and he had managed to fight them off, killing many with his bare hands as he realized how powerful he was. As they broke and fled from him, he had laughed, fear now replaced with relief, elation, and laughter.

Then she had appeared, presenting herself as a giant, and wordlessly she had grabbed him, her hands larger than he was, as his laughter turned to a scream of terror as he was swallowed into the darkness.

That was Zero's birth, in a sense. His first memory. What came next was the training. He was pushed endlessly by Shaklator and her pets. Though his body felt neither pain nor injury from mundane sources while in a physical plane of existence, the Void was less forgiving. Zero was pushed to his breaking point, allowed to recover, only to be pushed there again. Training to increase his pain threshold, to feel neither sympathy nor mercy, and brainwash him into a blindly faithful servant.

Zero found his escape from the agony. In hatred and rage, he found his resistance to what he was subjected to. Thoughts of what he would do to her as soon as he was strong enough to challenge her on her own level. No matter what she did, no matter the agony she put him through, he fed it into the flames of rage, building it ever stronger.

But nothing enraged him more than when she told him of his own origins, that he was a copy born of another. A copy that would never surpass the original. Zero nearly felt she was telling him this only to enrage him further, but she spoke of Link in such a way, of the fire in his heart and indomitable spirit.

Link would be the one to stand by her side, she told him, because he was what Zero would never be. But she'd never explain what that was, even as she set about breaking him once again.

When Zero finally was sent between worlds, ordered to aid Khall and his men, Zero at last found a sense of freedom like he'd never known. He'd let that fool Khall think he was on a leash with that death curse on his "heart," and did what he had to in order to draw Link into the open, as Shaklator had wanted.

But there'd be no greater revenge than killing Link before he did whatever it was she wanted. Try time and again, and yet Link continued to survive. It had become a personal challenge. Link would die by his hand, and no one else's. See what Shaklator thought then, when this man she had this bizarre infatuation with was dead by the hand of the copy that would never live up to the original.

And now, trapped in this small cave, there was nowhere left for Link to run. Zero came around a bend in the tunnel, into the light of the hovering globe over Kilishandra's shoulder. Link turned immediately toward his approach, and stopped short, with an outcry of "Woah, ugly!"

Kilishandra turned toward Zero, her own sword in hand. "At least he bothered to put on some clothes this time," she muttered.

"Oh, the two of you together," Zero said, a sinister smile crossing his face, "Of all the people I want dead, both of you are in the top three."

Link readied himself, cursing the close quarters and poor footing. Against Zero's inhuman strength, he needed to be able to maneuver, and his ability to do that here was severely limited.

"Yes, the two of us together, and we're going to bury you," Kilishandra said, sparks crackling along her free arm, "This is the end of the line, Zero."

"You're right about half of it," Zero said, lifting his sword out to the side, "This is where it will end."

The alarms came sooner than expected. Zelda had made her way to the north wall of the city. The ringing bells echoed across the city as men and women dashed seemingly everywhere. The city guard were alerted, and every station in the city saw them donning armor and weapons being passed out to each. The army as well were already activating, readying for battle.

On top of the wall, Zelda merely snapped her fingers and held out an open hand and someone quickly put a spyglass in it. She knew what she would see when she lifted it to her eye, bringing the great worm of fire closer in her vision, and seeing the gray skin of the riders, holding torches aloft, atop half rotted horses. They were not riding hard, no doubt saving themselves for the coming siege.

"Captain," Zelda said, not looking away, "Get everyone inside that you can and close all the gates. The city is now on lockdown."

"Yes, highness!" was the response, and already footsteps were racing away.

"Could you stop them?" Zelda asked, not turning though she knew Ganondorf was only a few steps behind her, "Use your magic to wipe them out?"

"Possibly," Ganondorf said, "But I need to save my strength, in case Link and Kili aren't able to stop Zero in time. You're going to need to be rested for that as well."

"So my men will have to fight this horde, while we deal with a single woman more dangerous than the horde," Zelda said, and with a sigh, leaned on her arms in the gap between the crenulations, looking out at the approaching force, "How? How could it have come to this?"

She paused, and turned around, facing the wizard. "Even everything you have done pales in comparison to the blackhearts that brought this upon the world. You've stated in the past that good and evil are merely perspectives which you no longer concern yourself with. But what do you call that out there? And what do you call what brought it to be?"

Ganondorf stepped forward, past where Vargus waited silently, and leaned his elbows on the wall, looking out past Zelda. "I see blindness," he said, "I see hatred. I see the inability to look past one's own pain, magnified to an explosive degree. I see human nature at its darkest.

"I see the result of two people who feel they were wronged by those they trusted," he paused, turning toward Zelda, looking down at her beside him, "That betrayed feeling became rage, and hatred, unchecked, which bloomed into insanity beyond anything mortals can comprehend."

He put up a hand, before Zelda responed, taking a moment before finishing his statement.

"I see the path that I so very nearly walked myself, in my hatred for the Princess Zelda, your ancestor, and the Hero of Time. The path I was so barely saved from by meeting Kilishandra."

"No one capable of rational thought could possibly want the extermination of all life," Zelda said, "But then, our enemies are so far gone, they are not capable of rational thought."

"Hatred and ignorance are at the very core of human nature," Ganondorf said, "You can't change that, no matter what you try. And what lies beyond these walls now is the end result of hatred ruling over reason. The darkest pits of madness."

"The darkest parts of humanity," Zelda mused, "I wonder if I could fall that far."

"In the right circumstances, I believe so," Ganondorf said, "But rather than wonder about what might be, we must focus on what lays before us. As I told you once before, the history of Hyrule is written in blood, and one way or another, so too shall be its future."

Zelda didn't respond, and looked up, though she had to squint to do so. The silhouette of the moon was visibly moving, the edge of the dark circle barely beginning to overlap the edge of the sun. Now that she knew what was happening, she was able to pull the details of the legend from Ganondorf's memories in her own mind, of the witch who sacrificed more than ten thousand people to manipulate the moon's orbit. Another such sacrifice once the eclipse was complete would have cast the world into eternal darkness, and granted the witch invincibility, and she would have ruled the world for eternity.

According to the legend, the first king of the Gerudo had managed to slay her before the ritual was complete, wielding the Arrows of Light and a blessed spear that pierced her magic, even as she tried to manipulate him into joining her, to rule the world as her husband.

How true this was, Zelda did not know, and she didn't really care. What she knew was that every one hundred and twenty years, the three-day long eclipse returned, casting the world into the Longest Night. The cause was ultimately irrelevant, and all that mattered was dealing with it now.

The eclipse would be complete by the time the approaching horde arrived. Zelda knew what the path forward meant. Battle preparations were well underway, and it was time she prepared herself as well.

"Is there any way this can end without one side completely destroying the other?" she asked, one final plea against the hopeless truth she already knew.

"No," Ganondorf said, "This is not a battle against a greedy king, or even encroaching darkness of evil. We are battling against madness in its most terrible form. No true villain ever considers that they are the evil one, and that is why concepts such as good an evil are utterly irrelevant at this point. Our enemy is older than any other living being in this world, and mad beyond anything we can comprehend. What started as a desire for revenge in how she believed she was wronged has become a maniacal drive that no reason or logic can hope to deviate."

He paused, smiling as he chuckled, before going on. "And the historians of this world think I'm a real monster."

"What you have done will never disappear," Zelda said, "Don't forget, I am now the keeper of your memories, all the sordid acts you've committed through the ages. But no matter how terrible you were, even at the darkest, you never stepped beyond your original goal. You want to rule the world, not destroy it. I understand this is not a war of ideals, morality, or even simple greed, but one for our very survival. And in this case, you are one of us."

She turned on him, standing as tall as she was able, dusting off her sleeves. "I need to go prepare to address my men," she said, "It will likely be the only chance I'll get."

"I'll stay here, in case something unexpected happens," Ganondorf said, "I think the attack will begin shortly after the eclipse is complete."

There just wasn't enough room. Link's efforts at evading Zero's vicious blows kept resulting in half-blocked strikes that jarred his arms viciously. And that damn sword…

It was just a scratch, but the blade had cut Link chain mail easily and drew blood. It wasn't even a dangerous wound, but Link realized the implications a moment later when the rapid healing he had become so used to wasn't working.

Black Razor was the dark equivalent to the Master Sword, and just as the Master Sword negated Ganondorf's swift healing, Black Razor defeated Link's own. The stinging on his arm was a constant reminder of this as he gave ground to avoid Zero's next swing, only to have the dark duplicate charge him. Link was forced to lift his sword, catching Zero's and locking the guards together as Link was pushed backward against the wall.

"Is this all you're going to do?" Zero growled straight into his face, "Everything leading to this, and you're going to let me win so easily?"

The Triforce of Courage responded to what Link felt was needed, whether focusing on it himself, or subconsciously, and it suddenly flashed bright, causing Zero to cry out as the light struck him, the smell of burning flesh filling the tunnel as he quickly backed away from Link. Not wasting the chance, Link moved forward, slashing hard with an overhead stroke. Zero managed to step back, barely deflecting it with his own blade, but his inhuman strength causing him to barely flinch from the impact.

"Kili, Midna!" Link shouted, "Go stop the witches! That's all that matters now!"

He pressed his attack again, this blow being struck aside by Zero, who charged in closer again, forcing Link to step around him, ducking his own head under Zero's sword and feeling the wind of the swing in his hair.

"You can't handle this alone!" Kilishandra said, the Master Sword in her hand, looking for an opening to catch Zero off guard.

"Yes he can!" Midna said, "He's in more danger while you're in the way! Come on!"

She motioned for Kilishandra to follow her deeper into the tunnel. Kilishandra looked back to Link as he gave Zero ground, evading another strike completely, to counter with a glancing blow to Zero's shoulder. The magic of Link's sword, possibly the only weapon capable of doing real harm to the golem, caused Zero to cry out in pain.

"We'll be back!" Kilishandra said, and turned to run after Midna.

Now Link felt he could focus. Even with Kilishandra's light gone, Link was sure Zero could see as well in the dark, if not better than he could, but it evened the footing now that he could move more freely without staggering into them. He turned another strike from Zero with his own sword, and moved quickly around to slip one foot behind Zero's and kicked, tripping him up and sending him to the floor with a large splash in the water. Link stabbed his weapon downward, aiming for Zero's face, only to strike the stone floor. Zero's face and body had melted away so quickly, and flowed as liquid some paces away, rising back again, reshaping into the image from a broken mirror of Link himself.

"And here I thought you wanted to beat me fair," Link said.

"What would you know about fair?" Zero sneered, "How many times did Shaklator offer you the hand of friendship, and for you to take it only to spit in her face. That's the difference between us, Link. At least I admit that I'm a brutal killer. You, on the other hand, like to play the hero when you're no better than me!"

"No, Zero," Link said, "I never pretended to be a good guy. I'll admit I'm pretty terrible. I'm completely selfish, and only fight for what I think is important, and to hell with the rest of the world." He paused, and Zero smiled, opening his mouth to respond, but Link cut him off, "But what's important to me is people. People I care about. People that are my family. I will do almost anything to protect them. And helping them happens to help a lot more people. I don't care for being called a hero, but I know what's important to me. That is the difference. You have nothing to fight for. Nothing but yourself. You might be stronger than me, faster than me, maybe even smarter than me, but I have something to live for. You don't.

"You can never beat me."

Link held his weapon ready for Zero's attack. He expected his dark copy to fly into a rage, or maybe scream otherwise, but instead, Zero laughed. Not simply a chuckle, or even maniacal insane laughter, but genuine, gut wrenchingly amused laughter, throwing back his head. And as soon as it started, it ended, Zero sneering at Link as he replied, "You're a fool. These people you protect are your weakness, the chains that hold you back. You'll throw yourself into harm's way to protect them, and that will be your undoing, or you'd realize how pathetic your words are.

"I was created from your blood, Link," Zero threw his arms wide, as if to emphasize his point, "I am you, but superior in every way. I am stronger and faster, but more than that. I never need sleep, I'm insusceptible to disease, I don't require food or water. I don't even need to breathe! And I'm also not held down by your pathetic human emotions. Happiness, pity, remorse, love… I know of them, thanks to my connection to you, but they are nothing more than a distant ugly memory."

"I don't know, you've got pride and rage in spades," Link said, "Seems to me like you're proud of the fact you've only got the worst parts of being human, and never had a chance at the good things. If anything, it makes me pity you."

"There is nothing good about being human, Link," Zero said, "Ever since the species' inception, they've sought the meaning to their own existence, why the gods stuck them on this ball of mud, and have found nothing. What meaning is there in an empty, short, pointless life of a man?"

"I'm not the one to speak for the entire world," Link said, "But each person has to find their own meaning. But I've found everything I want, and I won't let you or anyone else take it from me."

"I hope you're ready, then," Zero said, pointing his sword at Link, "Because I'm about to do just that. I am the superior being, and I'm going to prove it by killing you."

Kilishandra and Midna entered the open chamber deep in the cave to find the witches' ritual well underway. The magic circle etched in the ground was glowing with red light, the two black-robed figures on either side of it, their hands high in the air.

"I'll get the one on the left," Kilishandra said, not wasting any time.

"There's no shadows around them," Midna said, "I can't sneak up on them.

"Then do it like the rest of us have to," Kilishandra said, moving up toward the circle. She suddenly cried out, pain shooting through her body, and was thrown back onto her back on the stone floor.

A circle of white light had flashed brightly as Kilishandra tried to approach, sending painful sparks of magic through her limbs. It wasn't lethal, and probably a hastily erected barrier, but she was seeing stars as she tried to sit up.

"What was that?" Midna asked as Kilishandra slowly climbed to her feet. Midna reached forward, quickly withdrawing her hand as the air began to crackle and glow.

"A barrier," Kilishandra said, "They're just trying to stall us. I'll blast right through it."

She sheathed her sword, freeing her hands, and leveling both palms toward the witches' circle. "Daem!" she shouted, a blast of white lightning shorting from her hands, the white glow appearing in a large cylinder around the witches, the sparks flowing around them before vanishing. The ground shook from the impact, and loose rocks fell from the ceiling around them before everything settled again.

"Not big enough," Midna said, reaching out and finding the barrier still in place.

"If I go bigger, I might bring the ceiling down on us," Kilishandra growled, noting that the witches were continuing their ritual, ignoring the pair of them.

Midna's eyes lit up. "Idea!" she said, "We're under the lake! So bring the ceiling down and drown them!"

"But then we'll drown too!" Kilishandra said.

"Not if I do it," Midna said, "You go, get back to Link. He's our way out, and I'll be there in an instant. Get Zero off of him, because we'll have to move fast."

Kilishandra looked from her back to the witches, and the circle that was beginning to glow brighter. She guessed they had only minutes anyway. "You're sure about this?" she asked.

"Look, crawling in tiny holes is the least of your problems when you're following Link around," Midna said, "And this is still nothing compared to clinging to a dragon a thousand feet in the air as you're killing it. Link and I have done that, you know. Now go!"

Cursing silently, certain they were all about to die, Kilishandra turned and dashed back down the tunnel. Midna picked a spot on the ceiling where water was dripping into the underground pool. The black lightning she called Shadow Magic was not an explosive force like most magic. Instead it erased what it touched on a microscopic scale. She did not slice men in half by actually cutting their flesh as a sword would do, but erased a light of flesh across their bodies, causing the now separated halves to fall apart.

Cutting a circular hole in the stone ceiling was child's play in comparison. The stone popped down like a cork, a waterfall appearing and the pool beneath starting to rise rapidly as the sound of crashing water filled the cavern, causing the two witches to turn in surprise. It was time to leave.

Zero couldn't comprehend it. He was the stronger, the faster. Yet every time he was certain he had Link cornered, his blade was effortlessly turned aside. Every time he put all his strength into what should be a killing blow, he struck nothing but air. And he himself was covered by an ever increasing number of small wounds, harmless in themselves, but adding up over time. He didn't bleed, but he was slowly being destroyed.

It was as if Link could see his every move before he struck. Was that the power of the Triforce? Could Link see, even just a few seconds, into the future? Zero grew increasingly enraged as the fight went on, feeling like he was fighting a phantom that he could see but not touch.

Link would attribute it to simple experience, and knowing how to read an opponent. Zero put excessive force into every swing, broadcasting his moves long before Link was actually in danger from them. The kind of mistakes that would have been fatal a hundred times over to a normal man. Zero quickly recovered from his misteps, his inhuman strength and speed keeping Link from doing serious damage quickly, but he kept making the mistakes.

But Link was so focused he leaped back in shock when a shout came from further up the tunnel, and a blast of lightning illuminated the tunnel and Zero vanished, the dark, thick ooze of his body splattering across the wall and his sword falling into the water with a clatter.

Kilishandra came at a run, and Midna appeared from the shadows just behind her. Even as Kilishandra shouted they had to go, Link could hear the sound of rushing water coming up the tunnel, and saw the crystal in Midna's hand.

Link quickly sheathed his sword, knowing what she had in mind and turned toward the uphill slope leading back out as the dark crystal's magic took effect. In seconds, he was on all fours, his clothing and equipment vanishing as dark fur sprouted, and his teeth grew into fangs and face elongated into a snout of killing potential. Kilishandra nearly stopped dead, the transformation presenting her with a wolf nearly the size of a small horse.

"Grab some handfuls of hair and hang on!" Midna shouted at her, diving into Link's shadow and disappearing.

The sound of water told Kilishandra there wasn't time for hesitation, and despite her trepidations, snatched a hold of hair and skin on the wolf's shoulder, throwing one leg over his back and grabbing more hair as he started moving. After the initial jump that nearly threw her off, the ride was surprisingly smooth, though she clenched her legs tightly around him, holding on for dear light with her hands and arms, which forced her to lay her head almost directly on his shoulders.

It was over in seconds when they started to slow, and she saw light from the small hole in the wall ahead. "Ride's over, get off!"Midna said, reappearing, and Kilishandra quickly slid off his back to the ground, and he was almost instantly gone, squeezing out through the hole. Kili moved down to get out herself to find hands reaching for her.

Link pulled Kilishandra from the hole, now both of them soaking wet again, and they ran for their horse.

"Where do you think you're going?" Zero demanded, appearing in the open cave as the witches desperately worked their way toward the tunnel through the rising water.

"We have to get out of here!" the first said, "We can't finish it. If we stay any longer, we'll all drown!"

Zero grabbed her arm with a painfully tight grip as she tried to slip past him, causing her to cry out in pain. "Speak for yourself," he said, "I don't breathe. Now here's your choice: You finish the ritual and die to the water, or die to me right now. Choose."

She looked up at him in terror, and then over her shoulder at her sister witch. "We'll finish!" the second said, turning and moving back to the circle, only inches above the water level.

"Yes, we'll finish it," the first said, "Just let go."

He released her, and rubbing her arm, she moved back to the circle, where the two resumed their work as Zero watched.

What can one say about the mind of madness? More than eight thousand years old, longer than any mortal being was intended to live. Her memory was hazy, to say the least. She remembered she was once regarded as a hero. She remembered the events she took part in, but all context was long since gone. She could remember the dark elf slave she had taken as her husband, and their child. And she remembered holding her husband in her arms as he bled to death, and the reinforcements that had been promised that never came.

And she remembered the one responsible.

Jazeira Shaklator, the barbarian heroine from the north, had been praised by those around her. She had only ever done what she felt was right. She fought for what was most important to her, and the fact it helped others was simply a by-product of her desires. She knew that so long as she had what was important to her, the people she cared for, nothing could stop her, and there was no challenge she could not overcome.

Until what she cared about was taken from her, and hatred replaced the love, revenge had replaced the family. She fell far and hard, and knew the man that was to blame. Darius, the so called wizard hero of Mystara. She would see him suffer for what he took from her with his empty promise, and she would watch him bleed away his life just as she watched the man she loved bleed out his own.

That was long ago, so long ago she had forgotten the context that drove her to that extreme. Now all she had left was the hatred. She could not comprehend it herself, only that she lived every second of her eternal life in unending pain, and felt driven to alleviate that pain by spreading it to others.

Even she did not understand why she was drawn to Link. Those that knew her in her time, if they knew Link, would see it. It was because he was the same as she. He lived by his own sense of right and justice, and fought for what was precious to him, and the fact it benefited others was irrelevant to him. And if what he cared for was taken from him, so irrevocably as it had been from her, he could fall just as far.

Villains never thought of themselves as evil. Without fail, every tyrant, warmonger, and conqueror believed they were doing what was right. They could justify any murder or genocide by their own sense of what was right. When men knew they did wrong, they justified it as simply doing it to survive, or that it was for the greater good in the long run.

But eight thousand years is far longer than any mortal was intended to live. Drowned in hatred and tormented by loneliness for thousands of years, what was left of Shaklator's shredded mind was so far beyond concepts such as good and evil, it could never return. When the light of the portal appeared before her, she did not think on the value of what she was about to do, or whether it was good or evil, who deserved it and who didn't. The man she desired vengeance on for so long was long gone.

Destroying the world he cared so much about had no meaning in justice. No meaning in right or wrong. No meaning in revenge or acquittal.

She would destroy this world because it was all she had left. Maybe then, when all the land fell silent, devoid of all voices of life, the pain would end in the silence.

There was no saving this broken creature, and no saving those in her path.

The water level in the cavern was rising quickly, the portal jumping and shaking as the lines of the circle were washed out. Any second now, it would vanish, in spite of the witches' efforts to hold it open.

Two black eyes appeared in the portal's depths.

"Hold up here," Link said, and Kilishandra drew Ebony to a stop. They were on the path leading up out of the canyon, toward the great bridge that would take them back around the southern side of the capital city. With the army approaching from the north, that was their only way back into the city at this point.

Link turned to look down at the lake. Surprisingly little change in the surface of the water. All three of them knew that if the witches hadn't been stopped in time, there was likely little they could do about it now. Ganondorf's plan would require them to go back to the city so Link and Zelda could work with him to create the means by which they might be able to destroy Shaklator.

There were ripples on the lake's surface, and Link felt a chill go down his spine. He knew it couldn't be real, but he felt something, and oppressive force that was both alien and familiar. He'd felt it once before, in the Void, and somehow, he knew.

The ripples increased, and the water parted, Zero's silver hair appearing near the edge of the water, walking onto the shore, shaking the water from his hair as he did so, black sword still in hand. But the ripples only intensified, and Link cursed as a second figure emerged from the water.

Red hair, like fire, and red metal armor the color of blood, fitting her form in a completely impractical manner, but it mattered little. A sword clutched in her right hand, blood-red and its surface bubbling like molten liquid. Her hair was dry, water refusing or unable to cling to it, and she left no wet footprints as she walked. No, her steps left black scorch marks, her very presence burning the world as she passed. And she looked up, directly at the three of them, and waved.

"Shit," Link said, and no further elaboration was necessary. They'd been too late, and the ritual was complete.

As if on cue, the light of the sun vanished, plunging them into darkness as the moon blocked its rays so completely, it may as well have been the dead of night.

"We need to get back to the castle," Kilishandra said, "We're going to need my father's plan."

Every fiber of Link's being told him to go down there, to face her now, but he knew he wouldn't stand a chance. He'd barely been able to hold his own in the Void, where the strength of a person's will overpowered any physical differences. Here, he'd end up a stain on the ground in a matter of seconds. She was a woman who had once held all three pieces of the Triforce, and used it to permanently alter herself into an inhumanly powerful state. She wasn't a god, but she was so close it didn't matter to any of them.

Zelda, he said, silently sending his thoughts to the princess, We blew it. She's coming.

Arthur was quietly helping Zelda don the armor crafted so recently for her. She stared at herself in the full length mirror as he tightened straps, and bolted plates together. The armor fit together so perfectly, and gleamed in the dancing candlelight.

"How many people died in Darimar?" Zelda asked quietly, and rather suddenly.

Arthur stopped in surprise, but answered, "I'm not sure. Millions. The largest city in the world, after all."

"And how many in the other four kingdoms of Mystara when they fell?" Zelda asked.

"Just as many, if not more," Arthur said, quietly attaching one of the shoulder plates.

"When will it bet enough?"

He had no answer, and quietly moved around her to attach the other shoulder. Zelda watched her own eyes in the mirror, as if trying to look into her own soul.

"It is no demon or monstrous being that brought this evil upon us," she said, speaking more to herself than him, "It was man. Mankind chose to use this power granted us by the goddesses, and it was mankind that gave rise to the monster that seeks our destruction. And it was mankind that did not end it while she was weak, and vulnerable.

"The only time the gods have interfered in the affairs of man since our creation was the great flood that engulfed Hyrule millennia ago. They did not come down to save us from this evil eight thousand years ago, and they are not coming now. This evil was created by man and man alone. We were given the tools of our own destruction, and also the means to use them. But we were also given the sense to not do so.

"Why has it come to this?"

Her armor assembled, Arthur stood beside her, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Maybe that was the test before us," he said, "Maybe the gods want to see if we will destroy ourselves, or if we can rise above it."

"But no matter how many times we win, no matter how many times good triumphs over evil, another monster appears to take the last one's place," Zelda said, "It's a never-ending cycle of self-destruction. No matter how far we go, no matter how many corpses we climb over, the killing never ends. It's a future without hope."

"Gods," Arthur said, turning his head away from her, "I'm no good at this kind of talk. But look, I've seen something I've never heard of, never believed possible here in Hyrule, and that is completely different species living together, peacefully. And as I hear it, they were fighting, too, a long time ago, before Hyrule was really here. Doesn't that count for something?"

Zelda didn't respond for a moment, but then she smiled sadly. "You're right," she said, "It does. And now I know what the people need to hear."

The troops were assembling for battle, to defend the city. The moon had completely covered the sun, and darkness fell across the land as if it were midnight, torches and lamps were quickly lit to give light to the streets and walls. Zelda still drew eyes, the torchlight shining off the mirror-like sheen of her armor, though little decoration, it was a truly magnificent set fit for royalty. She took a place on the wall, looking down at the gathered soldiers in the street below, and she was brightly lit so all could see her. She'd never given a speech like this before, but she knew exactly what she needed to say.

"Stand firm, my brothers and sisters," she said, her voice carrying over the streets, and many even some distance away heard her, "I see in your eyes the very fear that would take the heart of me. I will not lie to you that we now face an enemy beyond any we have ever dreamed of. Even the Talian invasion of my mother's time does not compare to this.

"Make no mistake, unlike then, this enemy does not seek our lands. They seek nothing short of our utter destruction. This is not a war of freedom or idealism, it is a war for our very survival. But we have not come this far to fall to the mindless hordes on our doorstep. We have survived struggles the rest of the world can only imagine. The Unification War, the dark wizard, and countless other trophies adorn our mantle.

"I was once told that Hyrule's history is written in blood, and so too would be its future. At the time, I was insulted. But I have since come to know the true meaning of that statement. Hyrule is more than a country. It is a symbol. In this land, we have something that no other nation in the world has, and that is a unification of cultures, not just of humankind, but of the Gorons and Zora as well. Three different species, once endlessly at war with each other, came together and today live in harmony as if it always was. True equality among different peoples, multiculturalism like nowhere else in the world. And this is not a weakness, as some kingdoms would believe. It is what makes us strong.

"Hyrule is a symbol to all the world that there is a better way. And because we are such a symbol, we are a threat to every villain who would rule through ignorance and fear, who would perpetrate old hatreds to keep themselves in power. We have been invaded countless times through history by these rulers, but we have never fallen. We have stopped numerous threats endangering the entire world, and never asked for remuneration, because any other nation should do the same.

"Hyrule's history is written in blood. The blood of those that would destroy us merely because of what we are, and that is proof of a better way for the world to be. We will not expand and conquer to force our way of life on others, because that would make us the tyrants, and we fight that war with something far more effective than swords or spell. We fight that war with ideas.

"But war has come to our doorstep. War from those who will not listen, who will not improve their own lot, and choose instead to live in mindless hatred and ignorance."

Zelda drew her sword, which gleamed just as brightly as her armor in the torchlight. "We have never fallen to those who choose ignorance as their way of life, and we never will! Think now, brothers and sisters, of those you hold dear! Your friends and families! Think of what we are, and what we represent! Think of the peace we can live in, and the peace we can work for our children! These fools come to take that from us, and fools they are, because Hyrule has never fallen, and never will to such mindless hate!

"Stand with me, my brethren, and let these monsters taste the steel of good and true men, who will fight to defend what they believe in!" she paused, raising her sword high over her head, "Will you stand with me, soldiers of Hyrule?!"

Spears and swords were lifted high, and more than a thousand voices, both from the ground and the soldiers on the wall, joined together in a wordless cheer.

"Then let battle be joined!" Zelda shouted, "And before this night is over, let these villains learn the error of their ways upon the swords of Hyrule's greatest and truest defenders!"

Officers dispatched their men, taking position along the walls and in the streets, ready to fire volleys, and in position should the walls be breached. Soldiers on the walls manned the ballistae and lit braziers to light oil-soaked arrows. Zelda turned to look out at the wall of torches in the darkness beyond the walls, just out of artillery range.

Link had told her the events of the lake, but she had difficulty believing these monsters would wait for Shaklator to arrive. So what were they waiting for?

Now! The age of falling
The final hours of the world we see
Here! Fate is calling
The horror of a longtold prophecy

Time! Is running short now
To find out if mankind's fit to learn
Down! Soul-destruction
If pride is blindand stuns the will to turn

The final hours, the final night
The final trial if you'll stand the light

When time runs out
When the sky comes down
When the wall will burst
When it shakes the ground down to the core

War! The bombs are falling
Brother kills thy brother endlessly
Death! Massive destruction
A mess of blood that stains the boiling sea

The final hours, the final night
The final trial if you'll stand the light

When time runs out
When the sky comes down
When the wall will burst
When it shakes the ground down to the core

- When Time Runs Out

Written and Performed by Running Wild