This has been done for a few months, and yet I only post it now. This is because I have been dithering over whether or not this was a sufficient end for book two. The answer I came to was: no, not really. But then, all the books are right here in one place. Its not like a certain lack of closure will leave readers desperately hunting for more when the sequel is going to be in the same place and posted faster for this abbreviated end. Frankly, I'm practically to the point where I regret dividing this story into books. Maybe I would be better off labeling them 'Acts' if only to release the subtle psychological pressure to stop writing with only a trilogy...

The Golden Power: Book Two

Chapter 12: Regrets

Tony's Home, The Astral Plane

After the Traveler so abruptly cast him off onto some kind of spiritual journey, Link spent an indeterminate amount of time in a state he found difficult to quantify. It was not unpleasant, per say, but it was highly disconcerting on account of the fact that he was incessantly bombarded with all manner of stimuli he had no practical ability to comprehend. Terms like 'lights' and 'colors,' 'sounds' and 'smells,' even fundamental things like spatial orientation and personal body sense had absolutely no bearing throughout the experience. If he were forced to equate it to something, Link would have instead punched the person trying to force him to equate it to something in the face. It was just that alien.

At length, however, it ended. Since 'time' was one of those things he hadn't been able to reference, he had no idea how long the journey took, but eventually, it was over. When he again had access to senses he could count on and began to perceive his surroundings, he found himself in a ruined, burnt-out shell of a building. For a little while, he thought that he had somehow been transported somewhere in Romali, because everything from the furniture and the architecture around him to the writing scrawled in various places was reminiscent of that particular foreign land. Considering recent events, it was not hard to imagine this particular sort of ruined structure there either. It was not until Link looked down at himself and realized he was still wearing his farmhand's garb that it occurred to him that he still wasn't in his material body. With that settled, he went back to examining the building, trying to figure out where the hell the Traveler had sent him.

Whatever the place had been used for before it was destroyed, Link was not familiar with it. It seemed at fist to be a saloon, because there was a massive bar against one wall with mostly-empty and partially-collapsed alcohol shelves gathering ash behind it. And yet, almost all of the vast floorspace was given over to a variety of different tables in all manner of shapes and sizes, with their only common feature being a surface coating of green felt. Various devices and patterns had been stitched into the felt to form diagrams and slogans, such that Link could only assume that the tables were meant for some specific purpose that the diagrams somehow facilitated. Small wooden coins painted in bright colors were strewn across the filthy, scorched, stained, and beaten felt-top tables, providing no clue to their bygone purpose.

A sudden clattering noise from the building's distant corner caught Link's attention, and he made his way over to its source. The shock of what he found nearly knocked him right off his feet. In this corner, sitting at an oddly undamaged table, an intensely familiar figure was rolling a pair of dice over and over again while muttering to himself in one of the Caredan languages.

"Tony?" Link choked, unable to believe his eyes.

"Si?" the familiar-seeming man turned on his swiveling stool, regarding Link with a face gone pallid in this depressing ruin. For a while after that, his expression was the only thing that spoke. At first there was pure shock to mirror Link's own. Then there was a flush of happiness at recognition. That happiness soon fled though, and his expression settled on a very sombre final note. "Link?" he sighed. "I can't say I thought it was impossible that you might be killed too... but I guess I honestly thought you would manage to survive somehow."

"Who's been killed?" Link asked, sidling up to take a seat next to him at the table. It's surface was absolutely coated in squares forming a complex asymmetric grid, each one framed or filled by text that Link couldn't read. Long rods with wooden hooks on the end were strewn about, and there was a veritable ocean of those colorful tokens scattered in various corners of the bright, plush felt. "Last time I checked, both of us were still alive... at least in the technical sense."

"Denial, huh?" Tony chuckled and tossed his dice again. They came up two-and-one, and he glowered at them. "I had that phase, too. But let me ask you this, my friend: If this isn't some kind of purgatorium, then just where in the world are we?"

"It's not my Home," Link agreed, feeling a large pang of guilt at being cryptic, since he hated it so much when others did it to him. "It must be yours."

Indeed, this was the conclusion Link finally settled on. The one who had invaded his Home for reasons she kept to herself and then tested him with a mind-beating that still had his thoughts jumbled before promising him all the secrets of the Triforce at no stated cost... seemed to have granted him one more boon. Whether it was some attempt to apologize for putting him through the wringer, some kind of bribe to soften him for her future demands, or hell, just another twisted test, Link couldn't really bring himself to care. The Traveler had sent him to Tony's Home, where his ego had also been driven by his grievous injuries. It was an opportunity of which he hadn't even dared to dream.

"Home?" Tony scoffed. "This dump? Maybe when it was new, this casino would have been the kind of place I'd dream of living in, but now its just damned depressing. I can't even say how long I've been here, or exactly what I was doing before I got here, but I know I'm not here because I want to be."

"Casino?" Link asked. Now that he was on the spot, he was in agony. He just couldn't bring himself to broach the subjects that so desperately needed to be discussed. There were so many things he wanted to say... where to begin?

"You really are from the country, huh?" Tony chuckled, and his eyes went distant. Memories plaid freely across his face. "It's a kind of huge gambling house. I'm a gambler, remember?" He threw his dice, and they came up six-and-six. "Mezzanotte," he cursed and grimaced at the dice. "Not much of a gambler, but yeah. I actually grew up right across the street from a place like this. I spent most of my childhood watching people win big or lose it all. Come to think of it, I guess this kind of place does seem a bit like home..."

"So... what makes you think we're dead?" Link asked. In his mind, he was kicking himself brutally. He just couldn't bring himself to dive directly to the point.

"Are you kidding?" Tony gave another small laugh. "I may not remember much about what I was doing before I got here, but I remember it hurt. A lot. I'm willing to bet against any odds that you don't survive when it hurts like that."

"Is that all?" Link's laughter was awkward and nervous.

"Well, that... and then there's the thing over there, too." Tony nodded over his shoulder, drawing Link's attention to a set of mostly destroyed doors that were probably once the casino entrance. Just beyond the shattered portal, an intense white light blazed unrelentingly, casting sharp shadows into the ashen, ruined entryway. "As near as I can tell, that's 'the light' that people who nearly die are always talking about." Tony sighed, then smirked at Link's shocked, staggered expression. "At first I was too scared to approach it, but I've been in here for a while now. I'm starting to get more curious than scared. I figure as soon as this thing lets go of me, I can see what's on the other side."

Tony indicated his left shoulder, where he wore a small pelisse cape, its milky white expanse and extravagant gold embroidery covering only his left shoulder down to elbow height. Link wondered for a moment how it had taken him so long to notice it, especially since it stood out so starkly against the simple green herald's uniform Tony wore so comfortably. It didn't take a huge leap of the imagination for Link to recognize Arrika's pinion, and so finally the truth really started to come home for him.

"You know, I tried to take a closer look at that light earlier?" Tony was conversational again. Apparently, certain that he was already dead, his many fears and cares had truly melted away to insignificance. "This thing won't let me get anywhere near it! Of course, I can't get it off, either. I can't figure it out, since its not like its tied down or anything. I guess the afterlife doesn't have to make sense, right? Maybe this represents something I have to resolve in this purgatorium before I can move on? I've been sitting here trying to think of what it could be. Do you have any ideas?"

"Yeah... Tony... I have an idea..." Link sucked in a breath and found his spine. "The truth is, I have a pretty good idea why we're both here."

"Really?" Tony seemed pleasantly surprised.

"I wasn't kidding earlier when I said we weren't technically dead. I know that I'm wounded, and I saw that you were wounded too. Rather than 'purgatorium,' or whatever, I think this is the brink of death. I'm not sure why we're together here or why it looks this way," Link lied, "But I'm pretty much certain that this isn't any sort of afterlife."

"Wait... so... I'm not dead yet?" The note of hope in that question was almost enough to stop Link's heart. "That's great! I mean..." Tony took in Link's crestfallen image and allowed his sudden excitement to cool. "What's the catch?"

"Listen, Tony..." Link searched for words, "I've seen a lot of wounds in my time. The kind I got is bad... but I'll probably pull through. The kind you got..." he didn't have the heart to finish.

Tony's face fell. Then he sighed and smiled.

"Well, I guess it's a good thing I already made my peace then, isn't it?"

"But Tony, it's not like there's no hope!" Link tried, but hit a stone wall in the form of Tony's upraised hand.

"You don't have to sugarcoat it, Link." Tony tossed his dice again, rolling one-and-one. He didn't bother picking them up this time. "It's written all over your face. I'm done for." When he noticed the utter despondence Link was now showing, Tony added, "But hey, what a way to go, right?"

"You remember?" Link asked, reviving slightly from his depression.

"I remember assaulting a mafioso to escape from that basement I was tied up in." He grinned at the memory. "I remember rushing into a burning building to save a child. Well... I set the building on fire to begin with, but that was an accident. Anyway, I remember crawling through a dark sewage hell to rescue a small nation of imprisoned zoras. After that I..." Tony's forehead creased with the effort he spent trying to recall his final moments, "I think I went a bit overboard. But still, I'm sure I must have gone down fighting. You don't get hurt the way I was by hiding under a rock until the danger passes by."

"I seriously doubt anyone could claim your final moments were anything less than insanely heroic," Link agreed. He didn't know quite how Tony had managed to wind up in the same burnt-out crater where Arrika had found the remains of a crippled demon-bird-beast, but he really didn't feel as though he were lying when he'd said that.

After stating that simple assurance, there was a strained silence between them. Each realized that the time had come to exchange what might be their final words, and neither knew just what to say.

"You know, assuming I remember this when I come to," Link finally began, remembering to pretend like this was some sort of chance meeting in the antechamber to the afterlife, "I guess we shouldn't waste this opportunity. In case you don't make it, is there anything I can do for you? Any message I can give?"

"Don't have any family," Tony admitted, and Link suddenly realized he hadn't known that about his friend. "Don't have a woman either. Haven't got any debts I intend to honor. I guess, if you can tell that fish girl off for me, just for old time's sake-"

"Ah... Leeta..." Link stopped, choked up a bit, then just shook his head. Tony understood almost immediately. He spent a long moment examining the dice reading snake eyes on the table in front of him. He picked them up and rolled them again, scoring a one-and-two.

"I knew it..." he eventually mumbled. "I knew that if I didn't stop them from dragging her into that carriage that I would never see her again." He grinned a rueful grin. "Listen to me, prattling about my valorous deeds! If I'd just had the guts to..."

"Don't blame yourself." Link heard Arrika's words echoing I his ears as he took a moment to console his friend. "If anyone deserves blame, its me. I had several chances to send her home, and I was too soft to do her even that hard kindness. She bet on me being able to protect her... which I guess means you aren't the only terrible gambler in Romali."

"Nah..." Tony threw the dice again. They hit the far sideboard of the felt table and bounced back, rattling and spinning until one die landed on one and the other continued to spin. For a moment, it looked like it would land on six. Then it turned unexpectedly and landed on two instead. "That was a safe bet. The problem," Tony picked up the dice that had treated him so poorly, "is that the house stacks the odds against you."

Without warning, Tony dug his fingertips into the table's felt covering and began to rip it off. Wooden tokens spilled everywhere as he peeled the surface back. After a few furious seconds, the wooden surface under the felt was revealed. It was covered in indented circles and letters of an obviously magical nature. Withholding comment, Tony dropped the dice on the pattern directly, getting a two-and-one again. Five more rolls returned a twelve, two threes, and two twos.

"A damn dice-fixing charm! I guess I really can't be dead yet. What kind of afterlife has crooked crapaud tables?" Before Link could say anything, Tony slapped him on the shoulder. "I know what you're thinking! You feel responsible, right? For my death? For Leeta's?"

"I..." Link held his tongue. He couldn't deny it.

"Link, I owe you more than I can ever account!" Tony shouted, as if he could drive away Link's melancholy with pure volume. "In these short weeks, you've been the best friend I've ever had. Besides that time you saved my life, something it seems I will never be able to repay, you inspired me to become something other than a spineless craven. Clearly, that didn't work out so well for me, but at least now I can face Dio with pride. Add in the way you helped me finally pull one over on these bastardi, and I really can't thank you enough!"

The last he said while indicating the cheating device hidden on the gambling table. Apparently the 'house advantage' was ingrained so thoroughly into Tony's psyche that it even appeared in his Home. How badly had fixed games hurt this man? How much pleasure had he gotten from fixing a bet and robbing the mafia in return?

"But Tony... if it weren't for meeting me..." Link persisted, though he was wavering.

"Then I would have been killed horribly to pay for my ill-gotten debts," Tony finished for him. "Link, mi amigo, I can say without reservation that it has been a true honor to have met you."

Link didn't know how to respond to that, so he just smiled. There was a sensation very much like a weight being lifted off his shoulders. Maybe, just maybe, he could forgive the Traveler's extreme methods after a parting gift like this.

"Tony, I-" Link began, only to be suddenly interrupted.

"Anthony Giovanni." A female voice, somewhat nervous and distant, echoed in from the brilliant light beyond the portal. "Can you hear me?"

"Holy Dio!" Tony shouted, eyes bulging toward the brightly lit doorway. "What was that?"

"Shit," Link realized a bit too late that he had put Arrika in charge of 'taking care' of Tony. No wonder the Traveler had been in such a hurry to send him on his way. Still, he'd said what he needed to say, hadn't he? Wasn't it time? "I think... that must mean your number is up."

"Why am I so surprised that they know my name?" Tony chuckled, but his face had gone pale. He stood up to begin edging toward the door, only to be caught by his shoulder by some invisible force. The pelisse was still holding him here. "Damn thing!" Tony snapped, pulling at it again.

"Hold on, I'm going to check this out," Link pushed Tony back into his seat by the table and walked over toward the bright light. If his intuition was correct, it was not the light to the other side, but rather, some sort of connection back to consciousness for Tony's ego to leave his Home. Hopefully that meant that... "Arrika?" Link whispered harshly into the blinding eternity beyond the broken doors. "It's Link. Tony says he's ready to go now. Could you... release him?"

With no idea whether that wild shot in the dark would work or not, Link wandered back over to the table where Tony was waiting. He took a seat next to his friend again and gave him a wan smile.

"I have a feeling you'll be on your way soon," Link said, although he couldn't bring himself to inject much confidence into his words. "You'll be facing the next great adventure, and I guess I'll be going back to face my injuries."

"Link?" Tony said, his tone pregnant with purpose. Link was all ears. "I've had a feeling since the day I met you that you were destined for something special." Tony picked up the dice and held them up between his extended fingertips. "But... destiny... its a bit like this, right?" He nodded at the dice-fixing charms carved into the crapaud table. "Do me a favor and don't let the house edge ruin your game, alright?"

Tony punctuated that final request by flinging the dice across the casino and out into the ashen darkness of its ruined vastness. With a skip and rattle, they settled four-and-three. In the same instant, the pelisse cape on his shoulder evaporated into a cloud of downy feathers.

"Ha! It's gone!" Tony shouted. Then he collapsed to his knees. His complexion paled almost instantly to a deathly shade, and all around, the ruined casino began to slowly dissolve into a light as bright and merciless as the stark white void outside the entryway.

Link jumped out of his chair and took his friend by the hand.

"Thanks for everything Tony." Link might have had the tiniest bit of moisture in his eyes. "Really. And... goodbye."

"Beat the odds," Tony replied, his voice shaky as the final trickles of his life ebbed away. "arrivederci."

Tony's Home persisted for a few seconds more, and then Link was dumped back into the same uncertain eternity that had brought him there.

Central Market Crossroads, Romali, The Confederation of Careda

For a long moment, Arrika wasn't sure how to take a voice claiming to be Link emanating from Tony's comatose body. Then she remembered that this wasn't even close to the strangest thing she'd ever encountered, and decided to take it at face value. Link would just have to spend a good, long time explaining things to her satisfaction later.

Thus, with a silent prayer of benediction that was many times older than any current civilization she was aware of, Arrika gently brushed her right hand along Tony's intact left brow. The energy that described her pinion was easy to locate and just as easy to reclaim, and in an instant, the charming accessory materialized on her shoulder where it belonged. At virtually the same moment, Tony's body released a death rattle, his final breath holding a note of exceptional relief. He was gone.

Ziggy had stopped actively terrorizing the crowd some time ago, such that the closest elements were able to hear that mortal breath and see his sudden, pristine stillness. They immediately knew what had happened. This was why, rather than being amazed by the sudden appearance of a quarter-cape on the strange, costumed girl-child that had jumped the line with her huge guard dog, they instead began to wail in abject sorrow. That the miracle had come to and end was all they seemed to care about.

"You!" One of the impromptu clergy that had been managing the crowd's access to the miracle site overcame his fear and sadness quite rapidly by the generous application of blind rage. "What have you done to our saint?"

He brandished a lead pipe, quickly drawing the attention of untold dozens of other disgruntled pilgrims and focusing it squarely on Arrika. Ziggy began to growl, but Arrika waved him off. With a small signal, she urged him away, and after a grudging moment, he obeyed, dashing over debris piles no human could hope to navigate and vanishing over the nearby rooftops. Arrika took a final moment to touch her throat and implement a small trick her sister Beatrix had devised for commanding scattered mortal troops on a chaotic battlefield.

"Children of Dio, hear me." she spoke casually, except that the voice which projected from her mouth was gigantic. It was so loud that the nearest edge of the crowd was driven back, clutching their ears, while even those at the plaza's farthest reaches could hear her easily. The acoustics of the enclosed plaza were such that the booming words actually reflected around and must have seemed to come from every direction, enhancing her intended effect. Her final concern was only that her Romali was so archaic that they wouldn't be able to understand her.

"Last night, foolish men released a great evil and allowed it to run rampant in your homes. By the efforts of many brave citizens of Romali, the evil tide was turned back. This man, Anthony Giovanni, whose miraculous vitality you have gathered to witness, is no saint. He is just one more who fought to guard his home and the lives of his neighbors. His sacrifice mirrors that of so many others who died last night, and none of them should ever be forgotten. If you truly wish to honor these brave people, spread out and reclaim your city from the madness that has gripped it." As a final afterthought, even though it went against her better judgment, Arrika added, "Dio will help those who help themselves, and he will reward those who treat others with kindness, fairness, and justice."

Satisfied that this message would be hard to misinterpret, and yet resigned to the fact that it inevitably would be twisted to meet the needs of some unscrupulous, power-hungry group of manipulators, Arrika returned her voice to normal. The strain of using that small bit of magic was greater than she'd anticipated, and she still needed to make her grand exit. With the crowd beginning to press in around her, still unsure whether to hate her or revere her, Arrika took one last look at Tony's shattered body. Despite her statements to the mob, he was doubly-sure to be canonized now, and that meant his body would likely be ripped to shreds so that each little bit could serve as a relic to draw pilgrims and their money to various remote shrines and temples. Tony deserved better than that, and so Arrika resolved to send him off with an even better funeral pyre than the lamp oil factory that had failed to consume him the night before.

"Are you an angel?" one of the less thoroughly riled female pilgrims shouted, and the note of hysterical desperation in her voice cut Arrika to the bone. Rather than answer, Arrika took a knee beside Tony's body.

Kneeling beside her target, Arrika forced roughly half the power she had left directly into her pinion. In the blink of an eye, a pair of translucent wings grew from nothing to a twenty-five foot span, bursting from her back like twin phantasmal streamers of white silk. The near edge of the observing crowd barely had time to gasp in shock before the wings spread, lifted, and beat downward once. A circular shock wave of wind blasted out in all directions simultaneously, knocking back the crowd, and Arrika rocketed upward like a crossbow bolt. At three hundred feet and climbing, Arrika turned herself back toward the ground and readied her blade. With wrist motions that barely seemed to budge her sword at all, she began to draw a tiny knot in the air beneath her, a tracing of white light tracking where the blade had passed. The knot grew steadily more complex, but did not grow any larger. Roughly five seconds after she lifted off, just as she reached the apex of her leap, she thrust her sword at the knot one final time, launching an attack at the ground with all of her remaining strength.

Back on the ground, most of the crowd anywhere near the target zone hadn't even finished the process of being buffeted backward by the gust of wind that had launched Arrika into the sky. That meant there was no danger of accidentally harming a bystander when her enormous illusionary blade rose came streaming down out of the sky like the finger of an angry god. Sequential waves of imperceptible force hit the crater encircling Tony's body like successive sheets of cutting rain. The tight groupings of slicing force actually agitated the soil so thoroughly that by the time the final wave hit, a bubble of energy had built up underneath the target zone. The final wave burst that bubble, and a column of earth erupted some fifty feet skyward. Earth was perhaps too kind a term for it, because it had been so thoroughly pureed by Arrika's attack that no particle larger than a grain of sand remained of where Tony had once been.

Satisfied that Tony had received a fitting pyre, and that her shrunken combat form could still perform some of her more complex attacks, Arrika aimed her descent to come down on the opposite side of the dust cloud she'd created. To the onlooking crowd, it would seem as though she'd vanished into the heavens. In reality, after her final course adjustment, her powers were spent, and she plummeted to the earth in an uncontrolled spiral.

Right around the time she was nearing terminal velocity, no more than thirty feet off the ground, Arrika managed to squeeze one last drop of power into her pinion. Her wings again sprouted and spread widely, reducing her downward speed to almost nothing in the space of fifteen feet. She fell the last fifteen feet normally, landing hard. Her transformation dissolved the next instant, and she was left in her usual fencer's gown, lying face down on the pavement of an empty ally a few streets away from the plaza she'd just left, exhausted. Indeed, she wasn't even able to maintain a spiritual form independent of her sword, and anyone watching would have been treated to the unsettling sight of a little girl dissolving into a puddle of black ooze. Apparently not even the amorph could hold her if she lacked the fundamental strength to project a phantasmal body outside the blade.

The amorph quailed. Deprived of its favorite insubstantial molding pattern and separated from its lupine master, it had no idea what to do. Eventually it simply wrapped itself around Arrika's sword and transformed itself to blend in to its environment. It took on the shape of a shattered piece of timber and blended seamlessly into the dozens strewn across the streets by the collapse of several nearby buildings. Not too much later, Wolf Link arrived to collect them, easily sniffing out the camouflaged amorph and intimidating it into hiding again within his thick fur, sword and all. Lacking anything more urgent, the vast beast then swept out to patrol the city again. The asses of many villains had yet to be marred with the enormous fangs of justice.

Meanwhile, in the nearby central plaza, something strange was happening. Not long after Arrika's dramatic exit, the crowd, too, began to disperse. Those who had some or all of their senses divided into groups and got to work. The women formed teams for herding together and calming those too deranged to work and rallied behind healers and magicians to nurse the wounded. The men divided into labor crews for clearing wreckage and putting out lingering fires or formed militia patrols to protect everyone else from roving bands of looters and the violently insane. All of this took place against the protests of those who had declared themselves clergy of the New Cult of Dio, who would much rather they all stayed, at least until they had signed over all their worldly assets in exchange for salvation amid the lingering air of fear and uncertainty clinging about the city.

It was, for lack of a better term, a miraculous development. Along with the arrival later that day of a huge expeditionary force consisting of armed militia from the countryside and the regular forces of several local Dons, this resurgence of community spirit and civic responsibility signaled the end of the first phase of the crisis that decimated Romali. Only time would tell if the 'Jewel of the West' would be able to survive and recover from the nightmare that had annihilated one third of its population and the vast majority of its economy in a single night.

Hyrule Merchant's Guildhall, Hyrule Castle Town, Hyrule Province

Zelda leaned forward against the guardrail of the balcony overlooking the grand ballroom of the Hyrule Merchant's Guildhall and felt a certain tickling satisfaction as she watched her efforts come to fruition. The gala below her was in full swing, with every noteworthy personage of Hyrule Castle Town present and deeply engaged in that basest of all human communication: gossip. What's more, thanks to a few small seeds planted by Zelda through a few whispers in the right ears by her agents, the rumors breeding and multiplying on the tongues of this evening's guests were all items of her own invention. By this time tomorrow, the whole of Castle Town would be talking not of the mysterious lights flashing from Zelda's balcony at the Royal Hylian Arms Hotel, but of her secret paramour and the possibility of a royal wedding in the near future.

Not for the first time, Zelda wondered at how easy it was to manipulate a large group of people. Without even engaging any of her Triforce powers, she had effortlessly changed the topic on everyone's lips from dangerous rumors about her experimentation in dark magic, to completely harmless speculation about which noble dandy was secretly rendezvousing with her in the dead of night. If she had to endure a few outraged stares and salacious, filthy speculation about her personal relationships for this stratagem to work out, then so be it. It was better than seeing eyes filled with barely suppressed fear and hate as people took wild and imaginative guesses at what sort of bizarre sorcery she was dabbling in to generate such excessive light shows every few nights. Witches and wizards made useful things, and so were barely tolerated in this land where the only sorcerers in the oral tradition were the ones trying to enslave the kingdom. Meanwhile, gossip about her potential sex life was fairly harmless, in the grand scheme of things. Really she only worried the rumors would mix, and people would speculate about her deviant, magically-enhanced sex-life.

Of course, there would be protests. A certain kind of conservative, usually older men, would certainly have something to say about a monarch who wasn't male having a social life that wasn't celibate, and complaints along these lines could allow these rumors to undermine her authority. Rather than fearing this faction, Zelda was counting on them to stoke the fires of the rumor and really push those whispers about black magic firmly into the 'yesterday's news' category. Meanwhile, anyone who tried to make real trouble for her would find her a difficult opponent to embarrass, even without bringing her powers into the equation. Although it would no-doubt come as a shock to these men, historical precedent was on her side, and everything they might raise as a complaint was taken care of by royal privilege and a few simple precautions.

Historically, Queens and Crown Princesses of Hyrule had fooled around before and during marriage at least as often as Kings and Princes. A combination of birth control magics and medicines and the Hylian Royal Dynasty's tradition of legitimacy by blood, not wedlock, made bastard children both rare and a moot point besides. As long as the children were hers, a difficult point to contest with a female monarch, and the father could be reasonably proven a noble, which was only somewhat more problematic, her children were legitimate heirs. Thus, if anyone tried to question the legitimacy of her future children based on today's rumors, or disparage her character for allowing such rumors to come up at all, Zelda would be ready to smack them down. Before that, however, they could explain to her, to her face, in front of witnesses, that they didn't believe her when she said she would remain a virgin until marriage. She prayed, truly prayed to her goddesses, that some fool would dare. She wasn't about to get herself knocked up, especially since her lover was a total fabrication, and without a bastard to wave under her nose, who could dare challenge her word?

At the same time these conservatives complained, but not too loudly, anyone who wasn't institutionally hypocritical was busy speculating about which eligible noble bachelor Zelda's paramour could be and what their chances were of witnessing a royal wedding in the near future. Such speculations were sweeter than the most powerful drug to a certain kind of courtier, and might as well have been the manna of heaven to the wives and daughters of the merchant class, and together they would make these rumors the talk of the town in no time at all. Then, depending on her future needs, she could either string them along with further strategic leaks of romantic details, completely derail the rumor mill with equally delicious news of a royal breakup, or... what?

Zelda bit her lip, her mood suddenly souring. The truth was, before she was done, she was going to have to pick a suitably noble fellow and use him to make a royal heir... perhaps even several heirs. Logically, this meant she'd have to be intimate with him potentially dozens of times for each heir. The thought did not particularly thrill her. She was in the enviable position of having no imminent political needs dire enough to necessitate immediate marriage to someone she hardly knew, so there was that... but so what? Even the high quality sons of noble families tended to be self-important pricks, and the window for finding her intellectual equal grew smaller every hour, so quickly was her mind expanding these days. Could she even have a real relationship with a man when every human on earth was subject to her absolute mental domination at her merest whim? And as for picking some suitable pretty-boy as a sperm donor, there was a problem there, too.

Essentially, ever since Zelda had met Link, even the Hylian men who kept in shape seemed like laughable cream puffs. Even Reanalds Jr., arguably the most beautiful human being in Hyrule and sexual fantasy of every woman from fourteen to fifty who'd never heard him open his mouth, seemed like a foppish nancyboy after knowing Link. Somehow, a chiseled jaw and a smile that turned girls insides into butterflies and honey paled next to Link's air of constant danger and body like a steel monument to perfect human proportions. If you add to that his inherently gentle nature and the emotional vulnerability and depth he'd shown during their many long conversations, and it was only natural that she'd feel something for him, and nothing at all for any of the other young men she saw. But were her feelings for him really all that strong? Was that why she didn't feel the slightest enthusiasm for the reality of her future marriage and children?

Her logical mind protested this trite answer, and before she knew it, Zelda found that she was debating herself on the subject. She had only danced around it before, considering all the nice distractions she'd had to deal with, but now she really began to examine her feelings. Glancing down into the crowd below, Zelda quickly located the younger attendees by their resplendent self-presentation as they attempted to impress both peers and parents with their eligibility. She found a particularly charming young man in a small circle of very interested young ladies and considered him in detail. He had a fit body and a cute face, and the young women flocking around him in their bulbous and frilly ballgowns seemed to fancy him a great deal. By dint of great effort, Zelda forced one cycle of her mind to abandon all critical thought and considered the young man as a purely physical specimen while another cycle monitored her vitals and the third coordinated the experiment.

Just by looking at him, Zelda felt nothing. There was no elevated heart rate, no pupil dilation, and no discernible response anywhere else in the parts of the human body that were not under conscious control. Deciding to step it up, Zelda cast the handsome fellow as the hero in the sort of romantic fantasy that had given her fits of delight as late as five years ago, when she was a carefree thirteen year old girl with a loving family and a peaceful imagined future to fill with heart-pounding imagined romances. Unsurprisingly, the thought of him as prince charming to her damsel in distress was more amusing than anything else.

As a final gambit, she undressed him with her eyes and cast him in a fantasy of a much less innocent nature. She didn't exactly have a huge well of experience to construct the fantasy from, but her father had collected filthy Caredan romance novels, and she'd paged through a few as a lark while helplessly imprisoned by Zant... had it really been less than a year ago? The flowery conceits used to describe the wanton carnal relations between strapping princes and pouty-lipped village girls had done little to conceal the graphic mechanics to which they referred. The detailed illustrations had also been highly illuminating in that regard. In any case, it was not difficult to construct in her mind the sort of pornographic situation that would have left a younger Zelda blushing from the tips of her pointed ears to the edges of her modest bosom. And yet, her body responded to these thoughts with intense indifference.

After pausing a moment to consider these results, Zelda began to repeat the experiment over and over again, trying to increase her sample size and account for factors like body type and age. Fifteen minutes later, she was beginning to think that she wasn't physically attracted to anyone of marriageable age or otherwise who had deigned to attend the gala. Fifteen minutes after that, she was certain of it. Finally, Zelda brought to her mind her most recent memory of Link from their last face-to-face meeting at the cliff-side balcony of Reanalds Mansion. Of course, just picturing him didn't do anything for her, so she cast him as a pillar of strength she could cling to in an uncertain world and quite naturally... well, no, she still didn't feel anything. Zelda hesitated then. Plucking up courage, she inserted Link into the same sexual fantasy that had fallen flat with so many other male leads pressed naked against her. When she still felt nothing, she heightened the fantasy with every sordid detail she could dredge up, actually shocking herself with some of the filthy scenarios that came to mind in her desperation.

"Shhh..." Zelda hissed, forcibly wiping her mind of all that filth and stalking away from the balcony edge in a huff of frustration that barely covered a rising panic. Instead of appealing to lust, then, Zelda remembered her long conversations with Link, their camaraderie during the battles they'd cooperated through, and her desperate efforts to protect him from that dark thing he'd battled just before the blank area in her memory the night before. The warmth that arose in her body with these memories was a staggering relief, and she expanded on it by thinking fondly of Auru, Ashei, and all her friends and allies in her personal court and administration. She found she cared a great deal for all of them, and the fact that this was still true was a balm that warmed her chilled soul.

When the chill fully dissipated, Zelda frowned. While it was a relief that she could still care about people who were important to her, the deadpan way her body was reacting to thoughts of intimacy was completely unnatural. Had something in her changed? There had been all those magical shenanigans last night, but she'd been so distracted by the expansion of her powers, she hadn't noticed anything else. She'd escaped the party on pretense of exhaustion, but the truth was, Zelda had felt just great since she'd awoken from that strange petrifaction she'd seen in the memories she'd read and replaced the other day. Mildly concerned, Zelda made sure her guards had their eyes focused on the narrow approaches to her private, second-floor, balcony alcove, then checked her body as best she could in her tight regalia without making a spectacle of herself. She found very quickly that her body still responded to physical stimulus in the natural way, so why then was the thought of intimacy leaving her so cold?

Below, the dance music came to a stop and a sudden blaring of horns called for the attention of all present, forcing Zelda to put that line of questioning on hold. Stepping back up to the balcony, she saw it was the Master of the Merchant's Guild, one Leon Trusis, who was about to speak.

"Ladies, Gentlemen, and Her Esteemed Majesty," he orated, "thank you for attending tonight's gala. As a special treat, the Kakariko Province Development Board has sponsored a demonstration of that region's famous fireworks for our viewing pleasure. I would direct anyone interested out to the veranda, the rear patio, or any east-facing window. They will be launched from just outside the east walls in roughly one-half hour. Thank you, and enjoy."

There was a great commotion as people began to converse excitedly all at once. Despite her concerns, Zelda found herself intrigued by the prospect of fireworks. The strife of recent years had made fireworks production virtually impossible, and the fact that Kakariko Province had rebuilt enough to manage some was either surprisingly good news, or an excellent marketing ploy by the KPDB. Perhaps all the relief funds she'd finally been able to funnel there were already bearing fruit in the form of revived industry? She could only hope. In any case, this was no time to be enjoying fireworks. Only the goddesses knew what was going on with her body right now, and she wouldn't be satisfied until she pried the secret out of them for herself. It was time to retire someplace private and really analyze what all changes might have come over her body, now that she was finally getting comfortable with what had happened to her mind.

"Your Majesty?" Donald, Zelda's chief steward, appeared at her shoulder without her noticing. It was an obnoxious habit of his, and the middle-aged man allowed a smile to play under his impressive mustache as he appreciated her annoyance. "Per Your Majesty's instructions, I have deflected all requests for an audience that have arrived since Your Majesty took her leave of the gathering. However, this most recent request is from Guildmaster Trusis himself. He has invited Your Majesty to view the fireworks from his private rooftop garden along with many other community leaders. I thought it prudent to bring this invitation to Your Majesty's attention."

Zelda immediately gleaned several things from this statement. First of all, she knew he thought there were prying ears, since he never bothered with linguistic gymnastics like third person address when it was only the inner circle and guards within earshot. Second, he had picked up a sense of deeper importance behind the invitation, or else his standing order to deflect such entreaties would have prevented her from ever even hearing about it until the post-event report.

Careful not to show any break in her expression, just in case there were eyes to go with those prying ears, Zelda considered her options. Honestly, a deeper investigation of her body was not that urgent. She had only even discovered what strangeness there was by chance, and in a field that had no bearing on any pressing challenges she faced. Meanwhile, her handling of the city's merchant elite was still in a critical stage. If she was to maintain her current commitment to resolving the city's economic stagnation without resorting to any more mind control than she had already, rather rashly applied, she was going to have to take invitations like this very seriously.

"You may tell them..." Zelda forced herself to smile, "that I would be delighted to partake of this special diversion in their company. Please clear matters with the guard detail and arrange transportation. It would be inexcusable to delay the overall spectacle just to allow me time to safely reach Master Trusis' lovely manse."

Donald smiled again, understandably happy that she put such stock in his intuition. With that, the stodgy fellow turned, his tailcoat flapping, and set off to organize matters. Zelda was left to ponder her approach to an evening in close private contact with the leaders of the community. Mostly this amounted to finding some way to resist the urge to reach into their skulls and rearrange their priorities to suit her needs. She was determined to not be 'that kind' of Queen, although it was questionable how long that determination could last in the face of the sort of self-absorbed, self-interested, and downright selfish assholes that were running Hyrule's markets right now. She'd already looked inside their minds, she knew what kind of people they were, and convincing them to accept less guaranteed money now for a promise of a brighter future for all of Hyrule was an onerous prospect indeed.

If Zelda had still been dedicating cycles of her mind to her little experiment, she would have noticed a distinct increase in her pulse, a dilation of her eyes, and a great many other small tells to indicate her physical arousal. The very idea of the sheer challenge of selling some hybrid of mercantilism and free-trade capitalism to entrenched beneficiaries of cronyism and isolationist conspiracies was arousing her in a way that all of Hyrule's most attractive noble sons couldn't begin to manage.

Thus did the Goddesses motivate their tools.

Arrika's Home, The Astral Plane

When Link regained senses he could fathom, he was standing in a large, extremely clean, rather bare, circular room. It was a credit to how hectic his recent life had been that it took him a few dazed moments to recall that this distinctive place was Arrika's Home, her soul's nest within his own. From the central raised, circular stage, to the huge stretches of bare carpet, to the odd clusters of strange, though well-used furniture, everything was exactly as it had been when he'd left... how long ago? Between the time he'd spent senseless in the storm of spiritual damage outside and the two indescribable periods of disorientation that he'd endured to reach Tony and return, his last stop here could have been an hour ago or a week past. Of course, he'd reached Tony before the end, so it couldn't have been that long...

"Uhg, what a day," Link sighed, feeling suddenly exhausted. With mounting fatigue, he stumbled toward the edge of the room with the low chairs and short table, quickly collapsing into one of the cushy, divinely comfortable seats.

The furniture was so low to the ground that Link's dangling hands rested on the carpet, allowing his fingers to bump into something that had been discarded there. He grabbed at the thing and idly picked it up for a closer look. He found himself clueless. It took Link a good ten seconds of furious concentration before he could place the smooth, eight-inch rod of mysterious gray material, and when he did, he almost kicked himself.

"Right... the 'controller,'" Link took a small but undeniable pride in remembering the odd thing. It was a rather impressive feat, especially considering how completely his thoughts had been muddled by everything that had happened in the unknown length of time since Arrika's abridged attempt to comfort him over his suddenly immaterial existence. "Now... I wonder how I get it to bring back that window that shows what the wolf-me is seeing..."

No sooner had Link mumbled his desire out loud, than did the controller respond. An eight-by-ten foot rectangle appeared on the thin air about six feet in front of his chair and presented him with a wolf's-eye view of the rooftops of Romali's commercial district, complete with audio of the overpowering mess of noises assaulting the wolf's sensitive ears. The hulking presence of Il Cattedrale de Dio dominated the scene, with the city's vast central plaza stuffed with citizens spreading out under it. The scene immediately reminded Link of Tony's passing, stinging him badly enough to keep him from noticing a familiar voice threaded into the noise that came through with the picture.

"...and he will reward those who treat others with kindness, fairness, and justice," spoke a voice that could only have been Arrika's, easily recognizable despite being badly distorted by over-amplification and multiple echoes. Link noticed it just in time for the scene to get wild.

Over the next few seconds, Link wondered if he might have some clue what others felt when they watched him do impossible things. The wolf did not have a great vantage point to observe her actions from his perch on a rooftop three blocks off the central plaza, but his sharp eyes followed her when she was visible, making it impossible for Link to miss the sheer magnitude of her feat. The way she cannoned up into the sky was matched in awesomeness only by the incredible flower of invisible destruction she sent to the ground in her wake, a flush of distorted air the only brief clue to its passage before the spectacular explosion. It didn't take him more than a moment to recognize the explosion that followed as Tony's funeral pyre, and though he didn't recognize its necessity, he found the ostentatious eruption a fitting send-off. A moment later, the wolf's eyes were focused on a small dot that was falling fast on the city-side of the oddly vertical dust plume left by the explosion.

"Holy Din, that's Arrika!" Link realized, perhaps a bit late. "She can fly now, right? I just saw her fly! That was the whole point of the damn 'pinion' thing! Why is she falling?"

The wolf whose eyes Link was borrowing seemed to come to the same conclusion, and suddenly, the point of view they were using launched toward the falling figure. Of course, there was no chance of catching Arrika before her urgent meeting with the ground, not from their distant vantage, and especially not with the supernatural wolf moving at a sluggish pace hardly comparable even to a mortal wolf's speed. He seemed almost too drained of energy to move at all, and they had hardly made it to the ground and around the corner before Arrika disappeared behind the rooftops, approaching the street with terrifying velocity. Helpless, Link could only brace himself for one more failure, holding out hope that Arrika's supernatural nature would protect her.

There was a pause that extended beyond the point where Arrika should have hit the ground. It lasted just long enough to make Link think things might be okay. Then, just when he started to hope, Arrika's Home was plunged into absolute and utter darkness.

"Well... shit." Link stood for a moment in darkness so perfect that he could not see the tip of his own nose, stumped. "Okay, Link, let's reason this out. It's too dark to see... what now?"

The inky void offered no answer. Lacking anything approaching a clue, Link found himself reverting to his adventuring experience.

"Fire. I need fire to make light. Better yet: a lantern. So... how do I get a lantern? Arrika lit this place by making those weird orbs on the damn ceiling glow, I'm not going to just trip over a lamp while stumbling around this cavern in the dark..."

The silent darkness devoured his rhetorical reasoning, mocking his impotence.

"Of course!" Link gripped his forehead and rubbed his face to try and expunge the taint of his own idiocy. "It's the astral realm, stupid! I can make a lamp!"

Remembering his crash-course in psion from the Traveler, Link proceeded to do just that. He recalled his trusty lantern, picturing in his mind every facet he could dredge from his memory, from the smell of its burning oil to the unique weight it placed on his hand or hip. Right around the time he started to imagine the sound of its metal hinges creaking, he felt an actual weight pull upon his fingers, and he knew he had succeeded. With a practiced motion that he could perform even in the darkest of blackout conditions, Link cranked the lamp's flint striker, igniting the oil wick and flushing Arrika's Home with new light.

Rather than the odd room, with its mismatch of coziness and sterility, Link found himself in the center of a white void that extended in all directions as far as the light could reach into the darkness. For a dizzying moment, he thought it might actually be infinite. Then he saw the door through which he had first entered Arrika's Home, and through which he had made his fateful sortie into the storm of his own spiritual trauma. When he saw that, his mind finally got some dimensional references to work with, such that he could finally perceive the true nature of his surroundings.

He was still in Arrika's Home, and it was the exact same huge round room, except now it was utterly featureless and devoid of anything other than blank white surfaces and a connecting point to his own Home. Link suffered from a bit of vertigo as he tried to resist the optical illusion of infinity, and succeeded only when a glint of reflected light drew his gaze to a point out beyond his lantern's immediate reach. With nothing better to do, he moved to investigate.

"Nayrue, Farore, and Din!" Link swore, as he approached the source of the reflected light. What he found, the one and only thing to remain now that Arrika's Home was stripped bare, was the mummified corpse of a child pinned to an alter by the thin, mirror-bright length of Arrika's sword, Bijou Blanc, thrust through its heart. Once again, Link was assaulted by the unfamiliar chill of mortal terror as he gazed upon the morbid tableau, and he hesitated to approach, looking away as he tried to gather himself. It took him a moment—plucking up courage was not something he usually had to worry about—but he eventually managed to approach the alter for a closer look.

Further investigation revealed little. The sword was Arrika's sword, the body was very, very dead and desiccated beyond recognition, and the alter was little more than a solid, coffin-sized slab of rectangular marble with perfectly smooth sides and dangerously sharp corners, but lacking in adornment or carvings of any kind. The mummified corpse was wearing a stained black rag that might have been a fine black fencer's gown in a bygone era, and a few strands of long blond hair clung to its horribly discolored, paper-dry, pruned-up skin-husk. These features were the only clue to its identity, but astonishingly, it was still enough for Link to identify the remains.

"Arrika..." Link sighed, as the various wisps of her past she'd let slip came back to him all at once. She had mentioned a sacrifice to her father, Smith, the forge god, but somehow Link had never allowed himself to imagine something quite so graphic. Staggered by the sudden implications of his discovery, Link was forced to lean on the alter for support.

The moment he touched the smooth, cold marble, there was a sharp pain in his skull. The symbolic image of a triangle the Traveler had carved on his psyche to connect his consciousness to the Triforce blazed brilliantly into his mind's eye. Before he knew what was happening, Link felt a great wave of energy leave his body, draining away his strength and driving him to his knees. He groaned, suddenly weakened, and dropped his lamp from numb fingers. It promptly vanished back into the nothingness from which he'd imagined it, plunging Arrika's Home back into utter darkness.

The darkness barely had a chance to even begin ridiculing Link's flub before it was pierced by a fresh glow from the alter that was sucking Link's strength away. More specifically, the glow came from hundreds of thousands of small symbols that had not been apparent before they'd lit up, and from the blade and gems of Bijou Blanc. With his vision blurring out as unconsciousness threatened, Link was just barely able to drive the cursed triangle from his mind, once again achieving a psychological state that did not include three-sided geometric thingies. When the t-word was safely sealed away, the draining stopped, and he was free to black out, which he did.

Link woke suddenly, a soft hand on his shoulder jerking him back to consciousness with a gentle touch. Eyes that did not want to focus found Arrika's charming features looking down on him with concern while the aggregate of his other muddled senses told him he was back in her Home as it had been when he first knew it, bizarre but comfortable. There was a ringing in his ears, and it took him an extra moment more to recognize it as speech.

"Are you okay?" Arrika was asking him. It was an excellent question, and he spent a full thirty seconds making sure he knew the correct answer before trying to speak.

"I'm not sure," Link eventually settled on a non-committal response. "Was that some kind of astral realm-brand waking nightmare, or did I just get vamped by a stone bearing a sword and a mummy?"

"You saw that?" Arrika asked, drawing away from him with enough haste to get his attention.

"I'm not sure what I saw..." Link sighed, "but it seems you know something about it. What the hell just happened in here, Arrika?"

Arrika did not answer right away. By the war of emotions playing across her face and all through her body language, there was a strong question as to whether or not she would answer at all. Eventually, however, she managed to give him a weak grin, taking a sudden interest in the complex lacework of her conservative green dress—the same one she'd donned earlier when he'd found her casual clothes too distracting.

"Ah, yeah... about that..." Arrika forced herself to meet his gaze, "that's my anchor to eternity. Most of my Home was set within yours when we completed the contract... but if it all combined with yours, I would die when you die. Just as that door," she nodded to the large portal now sealed against and ocean's tide, "links your Home and Mine, that sad monument links my Home to the part of me that is forever within the sword. You could call that the cornerstone of my existence; it's as good a metaphor as any."

"But why did it look like that?" Link asked, "and why did it drain me?"

"I exhausted myself again," Arrika began, looking embarrassed to admit it, "flying around and blasting things, I squandered all the power the wolf-you lent me, and was forced to enter hibernation to preserve myself. My Home responded to that injury just as yours has responded to your injury. That was what you saw. Since I'm awake now, I can only assume I got some more power from someplace. I guess I have you to thank for that."

"Great!" Link acknowledged her refusal to talk about the morbid edifice he'd seen by letting the subject drop, "I take a huge risk, it pays off, I learn more than I ever hoped to about the Triforce, and the first useful thing I make it do is a complete accident!"

"Wait," Arrika perked up, pleasantly surprised to escape a grilling about the almost literal skeleton in her closet, "what are you talking about? For that matter, how the hell did you transfer power to me? Your wolf avatar seemed pretty tapped out."

"Come on, this is a long story." Link stood up, and found that it posed him to trouble. He was energized, his exhaustion seemingly cleared away by his impromptu power nap. To feel this way after that agonizing draining was counter-intuitive enough to cause him a moment's concern. "We'd... better have a seat."

Over the next few hours, Link filled Arrika in on his wild journey through the storm of his injured spirit, his tortuous encounter with the mysterious Traveler, and his round-trip ticket to meet Tony at the brink of death. He spoke slowly, the two of them discussing all he'd learned, as well as everything he suspected he'd been lied to about. The discussion took longer than it might have, mainly due to their mutual mental exhaustion, but also because they had the feed from Wolf Link's eyes playing, and the way he kept breaking the limbs of murderers and rapists was highly distracting.

"You don't trust her," Arrika said, more as a statement than a question. This Traveler character made her nervous on all sorts of levels, but mainly because the sort of psion talent it took to forcibly eject someone from their own Home and astral project them into another stranger's Home was both rare and intimidating. The return trip was more natural, since this was where Link's spirit belonged, it would come back naturally when Tony's Home disappeared with his death. But there too, he'd appeared in Arrika's Home, which had to be the Traveler's doing again. Arrika had never even heard of someone with that kind of skill in Psion.

"She openly admitted that most everything she said to me was a lie to manipulate my reactions. To this very moment, I still don't know if she's crazy, or just a raging bitch. Of course I don't trust her." Link had an expression of severe disgust as he remembered his time with the Traveler. "But she's my only knowledgeable connection to this whole Triforce mess. If she's really going to teach me how to master it, I can't afford to pass up this opportunity."

"Okay, Link," Arrika sat back in her low chair and smirked at a projection showing the wolf she'd named Ziggurat busting into a barricaded building and terrorizing the rioters inside so fiercely that they fled over their own barriers and into the waiting hands of the militia soldiers besieging them. "I won't try to tell you how to handle this. Just remember something: this 'Traveler' appeared when you were at your most vulnerable, when you were beyond my reach to help you, and in a place that very few are qualified to visit with impunity. Timing like that doesn't happen by coincidence. At the very least, she has been watching you. Before you give her free reign to shape your connection to the Triforce, you need to be sure of her motives."

Link nodded, and the two of them sat in amiable silence for a while, enjoying the spectacle of Ziggurat's antics of justice. He seemed to have recovered his energy just as Link and Arrika had, and provided them with seemingly endless entertainment. There was something about a pony-sized predator imbued with supernatural powers laying into people who really deserved it that brought a smile to one's face. Ziggy had even begun to let offenders off with fairly minor wounds now that there were 'official' authorities around to apprehend his victims and give them trials and 'official' executions. That really took the moral ambiguity out of vigilantism, and left nothing put pure comic value in every ass-bite dealt out, every gonad crush administered, and every soiled pair of pants that Ziggy caused.

"So, are we going to talk about the mummy?" Link asked. By Arrika's suddenly pensive expression, the question was not entirely unexpected. Rather than answer immediately, she posed her friend a question of her own.

"Link, what do you suppose constitutes humanity?" Arrika let her eyes fall away from the view of Ziggurat biting through the ropes of another female victim of the riot and considered eternity instead. The eternity she had lived through was once again written upon her features, and it was impossible to mistake her for the child her body suggested.

"That's a pretty heavy question," Link sighed, "but, unfortunately, not one I've been able to avoid thinking about myself." Link started to chew on his knuckle. This was not comfortable territory for him. "I'm hoping it has something to do with recognizing and identifying with the feelings of other humans. If it has something to do with what your body is made of instead... then I'm probably in trouble."

"Right, well, I was talking more about origins." Arrika smiled. "Arrika lo dim Rospalcino sert Belturgolo... that was my name. Or rather, that was the name of an exceptionally pure, noble, and divinely-favored young beauty who lived around this region of the world during the Genesis Times. When Smith, the forge god, demanded sacrifices in trade for his help constructing anti-demon weapons, she was chosen as the tribute of the western gods. She was taken to an alter much like the one you saw and slain quite callously so that one of Smith's grand weapons would have a personality to go with all the power of the western gods, forever."

"That scene you found while I was forced into hibernation was what I consider my first memory. It is what I saw the day I was born, and it is forever carved into my consciousness. It is highly symbolic of my eternal existence, and so naturally, my subconscious found a way to incorporate it into my Home. It always shows up here when I run up against the limits of my immortal nature."

"I'm not sure I understand," Link said, finally locating the absolute limit of his ability to adapt to crazy shit tossed his way. "Are you saying that you're not Arrika?"

"That's the question, isn't it?" Arrika had a somewhat manic grin. "I have all Arrika's memories, all her mannerisms, and I look exactly like her. Yet, Arrika was a human child who died millenniums—plural—ago. I am manifestly not a human in the 'what I'm made of' sense, and as for the rest, isn't that just philosophy?" She paused to rub her forehead and wonder at her sudden urge to share. Since the day she'd been reduced to a shade and forced to contract with mortals just to get by, she'd never spoken of this with anyone.

"This was never something I worried about back at the start. I thought I was Arrika in a new body, blessed with a unique chance to serve my creators. The battles were incessant, and none of us really had a chance to stop and wonder at what had been done in the name of preserving existence. Of course, I've had all too much time to think about it since then. Now I can never shake the question: am I Arrika with a new body, or am I a weapon with just enough Arrika squeezed in to be self-propelled and pleasant to interact with?" She let that one hang in the air for a moment. "Of course, there is no real answer. Philosophy is a bitch that way. All I know for certain is that I have a mission that will never end, a duty that I am incapable of abandoning, and the rest of time to yet endure my assigned tasks."

"So that's why you get so hot when you're labeled a talking sword?" Link asked, finding some insight at last. "Because you're afraid it might be true?"
"Yes." Arrika nodded. "And that's why I was so happy when I learned you were the Hero of the Triforce. As I said before, if anyone could relate to to my situation, it would be you guys. More than anyone else I've ever even heard of, you exist at the bridge point between human weapon and weapon with human traits. Hell, it was a conversation with the first Hero that planted the seed of doubt in me that I'm boring you with now."

It was silent between them for a long time after that. Back in the real world, a pitched battle was taking place in the streets of Romali between a mob of looters in the red light district and a mob of vigilantes that had turned out to protect their homes and businesses. Ziggurat arrived and scattered them all, saving goddesses know how many lives by chasing them all back into hiding.

"Thank you for telling me," Link broke the silence. He really meant it, he really appreciated her trust, and she appreciated his sincere gratitude. Just then, the two of them had a Moment. "But you know, there's something I thought of recently that's given me a tiny bit of comfort." Arrika perked up, interested to say the least. "That is, you and I, even besides one another, are not alone in blurring the lines of humanity. For me, there's the legacy of past Heroes, and I suppose those possessed by the other thirds of the Triforce as well. For you, it's..."

"My sisters," Arrika finished for him. "So what you're saying is, even if I'm just a layer of personality makeup on a war machine, at least I have a handful of other war machines to share eternity with?"

"Cold comfort, I guess, but it's something, right?" Link smiled, and much of the tension in Arrika's Home started to disperse. "You know, I haven't forgotten my promise to help you search for your sisters. In fact, if you recall what we were talking about the other day—just before it became a waking nightmare—I think I know where to go for a lead. That jackass Britoli knew something about you before I even showed him the sword. He's a gigantically wealthy weapons collector... so what do you want to bet he knows every single legend about divine swords that exists in living memory?"

"Are you sure?" Arrika seemed taken aback by his obvious eagerness. "Shouldn't we focus on getting your body restored?"

"Arrika, do you really think I can rest when clues to more unbelievably awesome weapons are even theoretically within my reach? Besides, I already have a clue for restoring my body. Let's go get some leads on our other priority mission."

The way Arrika suddenly sprang out of her chair and jumped into his lap to squeeze him with a girly hug of joy just about salvaged Link's entire miserable day.

The Royal Hylian Arms Hotel, Hyrule Castle Town, Hyrule Province

Zelda, stripped out of her ballgown and at ease in her nightclothes, sat back in her room's most comfortable chair and considered a great many things. Although it seemed she'd done nothing else today, there were still more subjects requiring her personal touch, and she split her attentions in many directions to keep up with it all. Chewing on an apple, she sifted through an array of issues with one cycle of her mind, cataloged an extensive to-do list with another, and had her third cycle projected out of her body to aid all three of them in designing a new dress for the upcoming royal presentation ball.

"What do we think, too frilly?" the outside cycle asked, spinning around to show off what she'd come up with so far. It was a conservative gown, heavy on the lace, pleats, and petticoats. She was demonstrating its fit in real time by constructing it as she wore it through the magic of astral mutability. A new design was a simple thought away, saving time and giving Zelda the abstract entertainment of playing with the ultimate dress-up doll.

"We're in love, remember?" Zelda spoke around a mouthful of apple, barely able to spare the attention to give that cycle a second opinion. "Plunge the neckline and push out the bust, then tighten it up around the buttocks until you can really see some curves."

"Right, right, good point. We'll work on tarting it up a bit." The phantasmal copy proceeded to work on altering the dress from its austere beginnings to something a bit more optimized for forcing a man's undivided attention.

Back in her own skull, Zelda was preoccupied. The part of her mind ruminating over the odds and ends of the day had it the worst.

First of all, there was the meeting with the city's lead merchants during the fireworks viewing to consider. Her foremost frustration had been broaching the subject of trade to begin with, since fully two thirds of the men there were either too drunk to take her questions seriously or found the thought of shop talk with any woman, even their monarch, too distressing to contemplate. When she'd finally gotten her foot in the door, assuring them that she was as up to date on financial matters as any of he ministers, most of what she'd gotten back from them was a lot of hot smoke. Foreign trade was 'needless risky adventuring' with 'return on investments far from guaranteed' and too much threat of 'foreign thieves getting their claws into Castle Town shopkeepers.' Their obscene satisfaction with their own stagnation was enough to turn Zelda's stomach.

For a while, toward the end of that party, she'd been tempted to just erase their vapid little minds and be done with it, then begin rebuilding Hyrule with an army of obedient mouthpieces. It would have been so easy, just so incredibly easy. The party had been winding down when a ray of hope had rescued her from planning her new model mind-control economy. The last third of Hyrule's merchant elite, the youngest businessmen with the smallest shops, had discreetly expressed great interest in foreign trade through a scrawled note left under her tea biscuits. It was enough to revitalize Zelda, and to send her mind off on a new line of scheming that was somewhat less cutthroat than transforming them all into her mind-slaves, but honestly, not by very much. However, her new plan was far more morally palatable, and it saved her from herself, so she was determined to make it work.

Reviewing the financial information she had stolen from the minds of Hyrule's top merchants, Zelda recognized an interesting truth. The benefits of the profiteering conspiracy were inequitably distributed to the merchants with the oldest families and best connections. The note she'd received at the party told her that the younger, less connected merchants were fed up with getting confined to the margins without hope of advancement. They recognized the economics of the conspiracy were unsustainable, and they weren't making enough money to keep them happy with the status quo. Outsiders like Malo Jaggleson, boy genius and merchant extraordinaire, had shown them there was another way, and they were eager to break out and settle up with their 'betters' in a contest of talent and fortune, rather than influence and favor-peddling.

With just a few new royal policies, just a tweak here and there to the tax codes, and with a renewed focus on trade, Zelda could use them to break the merchants' conspiracy and get Hyrule's economy back on track. Anyone who failed to innovate with the times would be driven out of business. Some might even wind up penniless, if the true dimensions of this approaching coup were anything like she anticipated. The best part was, no matter who won, it would all serve Zelda's goals. There would be no going back to the old way once these youngsters upset the apple cart, and that suited Zelda just fine.

On another subject entirely, Zelda considered what she'd learned about the changes to her body. That was, honestly, not very much. Further tests, some of which were quite embarrassing, even in the privacy of her own rooms, assured her she was the same person she'd been a few days ago, at least in any way she could measure. Whatever changes had taken place, they had to have been confined to her mind, or to places in her body she had no ready means to observe. Only time would tell what the full effects of the changes were, but for the time being, she could be sure of one thing. Her interest in men as sexual objects had become entirely academic. This didn't seem to change her ability to become embarrassed, flustered, or shamed, but absolutely eliminated feelings of enticement and longing within her.

Idly, Zelda glared at her left hand. Somehow, this had to have something to do with the Triforce. Such a sudden and bizarrely specific change couldn't have any other source. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything she could do about it but stay alert to further changes and hope it didn't influence her behavior too much. Perhaps a younger Zelda would have panicked, but subtle body horror like this was practically becoming normal for her.

"How are we doing?" the cycle working on the dress called for her attention again. Zelda turned to look at their progress, and her eyes popped.

"Pssshhh" Zelda sprayed a mouthful of apple across the room as she dissolved into a fit of giggles. "Wh-what is that?" she managed to choke out, still laughing.

"That bad, huh?" her phantasmal clone frowned, but couldn't keep herself form quirking a smile. Her alterations to her first unimaginative design had left her in a dress with a plunging v-neck that dipped all the way to the hips, a huge collar that stuck up like a crest a foot above her head, and slits on both sides of the full-length skirt that rose higher than the v-neck plunged. Every time Zelda looked at it, she just started laughing harder. "We thought it really had that extra 'va-voom,'"

A few minutes later, when Zelda finally stifled her laughter and calmed down, she managed to give herself a dirty look for the ambush humor. By then, she'd added a great many feathers to the design, plus a huge folding hand fan and a general covering of glitter and tassels in inappropriate places.

"Very funny. We're Hyrule's monarch, not its most expensive and least tasteful professional mistress." Zelda couldn't really get mad, considering it was all her in this conversation, and so just accepted and played along with her own joke. "That said, keep it in mind. You never know when we'll have to attend a racy Caredan costume ball."

"Oh, good point! But this is a little tame for a Caredan costume ball. Perhaps the same concept with about forty percent less fabric..." Zelda's projection trailed off. Her pleasant smile faded to an almost terrifyingly neutral mask. The atmosphere in the room became suddenly thick and oppressive. "What are we doing?"

Zelda was forced to pause by the sudden change. There was a sense of a brittle bubble around her heart fracturing along thousands of tiny stress lines. Zelda's face fell, and she found herself unable to deflect what was coming.

"Goddessess, we are in a bad place," Zelda agreed. Now that the adrenaline of her laughter had passed, there was a distinct pressure both inside her head and throbbing in her chest. She was choking up, but she could not find any tears. "What's happening to us? We have work to do, we can't just stop to cry over a bunch of crap we can't control."

"The goddesses stole our sex drive before we even got to use it for anything," the projection reminded them. "Did we really think we were just going to shrug that off?"

"No..." Zelda dropped her half-eaten apple on the floor and bundled herself into a ball by hugging her knees, leaving her sitting in her plush chair in the fetal position. "How much more are we going to change? Will we even recognize ourselv—shit!" The unfamiliar curse was hot on her lips. "I'm talking like a madwoman." She glanced at her projection. "Get back in here before we really start cracking up."

"In or out, we're the same," the projection, which was actually just one third of Zelda's tripartite mind, felt the need to remind them of this, but still drifted back over and settled into their body.

Zelda absorbed the projection's separate memories and felt no better about the borderline insane moment she'd just had. She sat in that chair for several hours more, not really thinking of much at all, and never managed to cry a single tear. Eventually, she snuffed the lights and made her way to bed. Ready or not, the next day's work wasn't getting any further away, and she would need her rest.

End Book Two

Note: Crapaud, the game Tony is losing at in his own Home, is just craps. He's trying to roll to pass. Clearly if he bet on twos or twelves, he'd immediately get a seven. The House always wins.

Next Chapter: Interlude Two

Part One: Arrika's Family Reunion Grand Strategy

Part Two: Ninjas and Queens

Part Three: What the Hell is a Divo, Anyway?