Chapter Five

Link found out just how tired he was when he finally realized, his eyes fluttering behind his tinted sunglasses as he struggled to stay awake after being startled to awareness, that Major Jessica had actually gently shaken him twice before managing to elicit a conscious response out of him. Trying to open his eyes and suppress the dull ache in his head told him just how hard it was on him to wake up after only a few hours of sleep, having remained awake for a day. He was honestly surprised that he could actually fall sleep in the helicopter, but the rocking – the helicopter bobbing up and down like a cradle – might have helped. Still, he mentally chastised himself; it was poor form for him to fall asleep when they had yet to reach Garuda.

Shaking his head to clear out the drowsiness – it made him dizzier, but at least he was more awake now – his eyes darted around to survey his familiar surroundings. He was in the hold of a heavy transport helicopter, surrounded by sleek metal composing the frame of the aircraft, strapped into one of the seats in the back along with a sleeping Princess Zelda right beside him and a diplomatic escort composed of four Gerudo soldiers – excluding the pilot and co-pilot of the aircraft – who had been available. Epona was strapped down tightly to the floor of the hold, ensuring that it wouldn't topple or slide should the helicopter have to make any sharp turns. It wasn't the same helicopter that Link had flown into Gerudo lines, but a separate one with the Gerudo defending force that had been fully-fueled and ready; understandably, Major Jessica didn't want another scare over IFF identification codes.

"Agent Link," Jessica nodded in satisfaction now that Link was awake, her face stoic even as she leaned over his helicopter seat, one hand against the slanted walls of the helicopter to stabilize herself within the moving aircraft. Her voice was not extraordinarily loud, but it was enough to be heard about the roar of the helicopter. "Apologies for waking you. I just want to inform you that we're in Garuda airspace now."

Link nodded in understanding, and undid the straps on his seat while Jessica took a step back to allow the Joint Intelligence agent to rise undeterred. She was dressed in the white, almost cleric-like robes of the Gerudo MICO, or the Military Intelligence Coordination Office, the umbrella military intelligence organization of all of Gerudo's armed forces. The white robes made her a somewhat conspicuous target when standing beside Gerudo soldiers dressed in the national colors of red and tan, but Link knew Jessica – along with the rest of her colleagues in MICO – wasn't too worried, not when a position in the office effectively meant being placed behind a desk, collecting intelligence and reports, analyzing the information, then transmitting required data in real-time to all commanding officers in the field. Her hair tied back in a ponytail, she was also much shorter and had a lighter skin tone compared to the soldiers in the helicopter; it was understandable, considering MICO agents were primarily rear echelon officers, mostly confined indoors and out of the sun to desk jobs or command-and-control roles, positions that didn't see much deployment in the field. With the princess Zelda now officially in Jessica's charge – surviving senior military officers couldn't be relieved from the frontlines to escort her back to the capital, not with the situation at the main line of resistance still extremely volatile – the major seemed to be taking her duties very seriously; despite her calm efficiency, it was clear to Link that she was stressed at having to watch over a very politically-sensitive package, even though they were flying over friendly territory. No one harbored any delusions as to who would or wouldn't be blamed if something were to happen to Zelda under Jessica's supervision.

Freeing himself of the harness that kept him safely in his seat, Link finally stood up and moved towards the cockpit, Jessica right behind him. Poking his head into the cockpit, he listened to the chatter between the pilots and air traffic control as code words and clearances were passed to and fro, looking out the window at Garuda. It wasn't his first time here, but every time Link came to Garuda, he was always impressed by the one aspect that stood out to him about this city: It was enormous. The lights below the helicopter were few and in between as it flew over the outskirts of the capital, but even as the aircraft approached the center of the city, lights from all around seemed to gather together, and from Link's perspective, nighttime Garuda – even deep through the day beyond midnight – looked like a galaxy, stars and pinpricks of light swirling around and eventually gathering in a swell of luminosity at its core. It was bright and dazzling, no signs of destruction anywhere. Unlike Hyrule City, the winds of war have yet to reach the Gerudo capital.

The buildings also increased in height as the distance to the city center decreased. Unlike Hyrule City, Garuda did not have much in the way of skyscrapers – massive buildings were not necessarily entirely practical in the desert climate – so the population was spread out across a large area instead of being relocated higher towards the skies. Still, as he flew over the outskirts, primarily formed by smaller, humble, single-story abodes and huts, he could see that the houses – residential or otherwise – were becoming larger and taller, until many of them were anywhere from ten to fifteen stories tall. Deeper into the city, as the buildings reached ten stories in height, was a ring-wall that surrounded the inner portion of the city, a massive congregation of metallic alloys that dominated many parts of the city, reaching to forty meters in height and ten meters in thickness, protecting the inner city from sandstorms and ground offenses. As the helicopter soared right above them, it came close enough for Link to spot what he always knew were there, dozens of turrets ranging from chain guns to cannons to artillery pieces to rocket launchers to missile tubes mounted on the defensive walls, capable of engaging any distant targets on land or in the air.

"Roger, ATC, clearance to land at Fort Garuda helipad west received," the pilot said, presumably in response to the air traffic controller on the other end of his headset. "Routing codes check out. Naga-1 inbound."

Fort Garuda, the center of Gerudo national authority, was not at all like Hyrule Palace, or even the entirety of Hyrule Castle. Although the Hylian palace and the Gerudo fort both towered over the local architecture, Fort Garuda clearly towered over the entire city, a feat that Hyrule Palace had not accomplished with the construction of corporate skyscrapers. It did not possess the tranquil beauty of the residence of the Hylian royal family, but Fort Garuda was not any less effective at attracting attention. Constructed from a mixture of reinforced concrete and hardened metallic battle armor, it resembled some strange combination of an enlarged bunker, a cathedral, and a ziggurat. The structure itself was sturdy enough to withstand all but the heaviest artillery attacks, and could withstand multiple direct hits from smart bombs. Occupying around three hundred acres in area – practically a kilometer long on all four of its square sides – Fort Garuda reached for the skies, ending its grasp at nearly one hundred meters from the surface. Like the fortress walls around inner Garuda, the fort was armed to the teeth with weapons. Even from kilometers away, Link could spot massive cannons and artillery pieces implanted deeply into its armor, most of which were capable of being withdrawn back into the fortress' metallic shell. Furthermore, although Link could only see some of the tanks around it, he knew from his Joint Intelligence briefings that Fort Garuda was heavily guarded by at least two army battalions at any given time.

With its combined firepower, there was little doubt as to what Garuda was: A fortress city.

"The generalissimo is aware of Princess Zelda's arrival," Jessica assured Link from behind him, "and would like me to inform you that he will be receiving her personally."

The Hylian agent nodded at the news. The helicopter circled Fort Garuda once, preparing an entry vector onto the west helipad of the fort; it was one of three that stood out from an aerial view, pronouncing the building's multi-tiered design. Link did not stay to watch the view even as he returned to the passenger hold, Jessica making way for him, and stopped right beside the sleeping form of Zelda. She had managed to wash up just a bit after Link landed their helicopter behind Gerudo lines in a small town that the Gerudo military had transformed into a temporary command post – they spent an hour there preparing for Zelda's immediate departure for Geruda – but she certainly still looked like a princess who had spent the last day running for her life. Link wondered if Zelda really would like to meet the generalissimo like this as head of state…but figured there was no choice in the matter. Gently, he rocked the princess' shoulder, slowly shaking her to consciousness.

Zelda slowly roused as she made a small moaning sound, her eyelashes fluttering in an attempt to fully open them. She looked around, trying to orientate herself, figure out where she was, then returned her attention to Link and Jessica, both standing solemnly in front of her. "Are we near Garuda?" she asked drowsily in a voice that sounded distinctly like a mumble.

"We're already over Fort Garuda, your Highness," Jessica answered formally with a slight bow in the presence of foreign royalty. "The pilot is conducting final landing procedures. The generalissimo will be receiving you personally."

Nodding sleepily, Zelda rubbed her eyes weakly in the attempt to shake herself from the grasp of drowsiness; Link surmised that she either did not care much for appearance right at this very moment…or was too tired to actually connect the dots.

Noting that Link's gaze seemed to flicker every now and then to Epona – the motorcycle that managed to bring them half the way here in one piece – Jessica made sure that she addressed his concerns directly. "Your vehicle will be delivered straight to the garage in the fort, agent," she reassured Link. "If necessary, our technicians – with your permission, of course – can conduct repairs on it."

Link nodded and wondered if he wanted to take up on the offer. After all, aside from scratches here and there from ricocheting bullets, Epona was fine…and giving the technicians a chance to repair the motorcycle might also be giving them a chance to see what makes her tick. Link wasn't sure he wanted to disclose this kind of military technology, even to an ally like Gerudo…at least, not without authorization from someone with greater authority.

The fact that the helicopter was no longer twirling, combined with the sinking feeling in Link's stomach, told him that the helicopter was landing on the helipad. This was confirmed as he felt a bump below him that resonated through the aircraft, a clear indication that the landing gears had safely touched down on the helipad. The whine of the spinning rotors also died down, the pilot powering down the aircraft so that the entourage wouldn't be stepping out into a miniature hurricane generated by the massive rotor. Immediately, the Gerudo soldiers sitting in the hold with them stood up in unison, looking to Princess Zelda for a cue. She merely rose from where she sat after unfastening the safety harness by herself and stood in front of the helicopter's rear hatch, waiting for it to open. Link immediately stood to her side one step behind, Jessica took the other side two steps to the rear, while the Gerudo soldiers formed a perfect square around them. Judging by Zelda's lack of interest at this formality – lack of reaction, as a matter of fact – Link guessed the princess had probably gone through such protocol many times before on her diplomatic trips to Gerudo.

A green light lit up beside the hatch, and the platform lowered itself onto the ground, providing a ramp from the helicopter to the helipad. In perfect tandem, the entourage of seven stepped out of the aircraft, and it was then that Link suddenly noticed that Zelda no longer seemed sleepy or tired. Instead, her posture was completely erect even as she walked down the steps of the ramp. Despite the fact that her hair was frizzled and her dress a bit of a mess, she still managed to seem as regal and dignified as any Hylian royal should be, a princess with her escort about to meet the head of state of another nation. Her eyes were not clouded, but clear and alert. The transformation had been instant and complete, and Link realized that, not for the first time, he had underestimated Zelda's willpower and resilience.

Although it was night, the helipad lights were bright enough to provide the area with sufficient illumination. As Zelda stepped off the helicopter, flanked immediately by Link, they saw before them an assembly of Gerudo soldiers lined on both sides, creating a road from the helipad to the interior of Fort Garuda, and, as soon as the princess made her first step onto the helipad proper, they immediately snapped to attention with a smart salute with coordination worthy of a parade ground. They were all female – not at all surprising in Gerudo – and they were dressed in a neat mixture of black-and-red ceremonial uniforms and the tan-and-red combat fatigues of their nation, matching well with their tan complexion.

By no means was the reception restricted to Gerudo soldiers. Frantic movement right in front of Link and Zelda attracted their attention, and the princess had little time to react when she suddenly found herself in the arms of her chief of staff, who had been standing at the fortress end of the helipad but made her way forward as soon as her eyes saw for true that Zelda was alive, well, and had safely made it to Garuda. The sweeping sense of relief had completely thrown formality out the window, and Impa found herself shaking even as she wrapped what seemed to be a blanket around Zelda, keeping her warm in the cool desert night. With a slightly embarrassed but equally relieved smile, the princess, despite the stoic onlookers, managed to return that embrace. It was clear that Impa had not expected to see Zelda again.

Behind Impa, Leonore, unlike the princess' chief of staff, managed a calm walk as opposed to Impa's brisk jog, but her expression, too, betrayed subtle shock that cast strange lines, curves, and shadows in ways that were alien to her features; one did not take the DJI by surprise very often. Instead of looking upon Zelda, however, Leonore first settled her line of sight on Link as she stared at him with an expression Link could not read – what was it, disbelief mixed in with bewilderment mixed in with concern mixed in with paranoia mixed in with relief? He honestly wasn't sure. He could never tell with Leonore, who refused to take her eyes off him for several seconds…until she suddenly dropped that expression and smoothly transitioned to a tired smile, nodded in a manner that almost seemed like a silent way of conveying approval and admiration.

Link returned that nod in a likewise manner. Compliments were difficult to earn from the fourth director of Joint Intelligence…which was why Link accept every sign Leonore would offer him.

While Leonore respected a polite distance between herself and an emotional moment between Zelda and Impa, she was soon joined to the side by a figure, someone Link had seen many times on photographs before, but never actually met in person.

Generalissimo Ganondorf was easily the largest and tallest individual standing on the helipad. A dark-skinned, well-built man, he easily could easily dominate any crowd with his natural size, and yet it was not only his height and build that allowed him to stood out, but a dignity that rivaled Zelda's own even as he patiently waited for the princess with a serious, expressionless face. His flaming red hair was pulled back by a traditional metallic Gerudo headband, and his eyebrows and beard were quite thick and rich. It was clear that, although the generalissimo was well into his fifties, his physical prowess and fitness still rivaled his considerable intellect; his black-and-red ceremonial full dress uniform, complete with stripes, epaulettes, and cape, was devoid of medals or campaign ribbons, but complemented with a set of ceremonial battle armor – constructed from high-quality metal and leather – across the chest and the hips. Link could only imagine the discomfort of wearing that around…and carrying a large ceremonial broadsword on a sash by his side.

Then, again, knowing his briefing files on Ganondorf and the military exploits he had personally led in the past, Link wondered just how "ceremonial" the generalissimo's sword was…and how deadly it would be if he decided to use it with lethal intent.

It was only after Zelda finally detached herself from Impa that Ganondorf stepped forward to the Hylian delegation, his demeanor regal and proper. Seeing the approaching generalissimo, Zelda took one step forward to meet the leader of Gerudo. "Generalissimo," she greeted him courteously, even as she extended a gloved hand to the imposing man. Per tradition, he gently took the delicate hand and raised it to his lips as a means of courteous greeting.

"Princess Zelda," Ganondorf's voice was appropriately deep, but soothing and smooth, and he bowing his head in a gesture of goodwill. "Welcome back to Garuda. I am profoundly relieved to see that you are alive and unharmed, and embarrassed that I had nothing to do with your safe arrival."

Zelda shook her hand as she retracted her hand. "Please don't be. I am aware of the destruction that has also fallen upon your nation; I'm grateful that you have come to receive me personally when you must be preoccupied as commander-in-chief of the Gerudo armies."

"Then you will have to excuse the haste in which I must arrange for your stay, your Highness. I'm afraid the dilemma at hand still requires much attention. Valentine forces have momentarily lost their momentum, and I want to put efforts into placing down a strong defense to prevent further penetration. I hope you can understand the situation."

"Of course, generalissimo," Zelda responded with a courteous nod. "Please do what you must, and attend to pressing matters first, although I must ask that I am let in-the-know on the current state of the war…" she allowed a pause to draw out for the purpose of emphasis before finishing, "…both in Gerudo and Hyrule."

"Naturally," Ganondorf reassured her with a slight bow of the head, then turned his attention to Jessica, who still stood dutifully behind and away from attention as the official representative of MICO in this delegation. "Major, escort her Highness to the state guestroom, and send for a doctor immediately. Make sure her needs are attended to. I'll leave responsibility of the princess to you."

Again, Link noticed that Jessica put effort into remaining stoic and expressionless. "Yes, generalissimo," she responded with a sharp salute, and stepped close to the princess' side. Link wondered at possible reservations or dissatisfaction that might be plaguing the intelligence major, although he was not quite able to come to a satisfactory conclusion as to what Jessica might be hiding. He looked at Leonore – who Link knew was better at reading people than he – for a sign, hoping that any expression she might have adopted may help shed some light on Jessica's motive, but, unfortunately, Leonore seemed oblivious…or merely pretended not to notice. Link somehow felt the latter was more likely.

In the meantime, Ganondorf politely gestured towards the helipad entrance to Fort Garuda. "Please, princess," he stepped aside, allowing Zelda and her Hylian subordinates to move forward first before falling into stride with the princess, the full armed escort following suit one step later.

"What's the situation at the front so far?" asked Zelda as they moved towards the fort entrance, making sure that Ganondorf was keeping in stride and within earshot.

Ganondorf was blunt and honest with his answer. "Not good. Our defensive forces stationed at the border provinces were inadequate in stopping the Valentine offensive, and enemy forces have made significant progress in their invasion. The majority of our defensive forces suffered heavy casualties. One day of fighting gave us enough time to recall and prepare all our military forces – those on standby as well as the reserve army, plus the border guard and anyone we can spare in the law enforcement agencies – in our current attempt to hold the line and establish fortifications, but we still require another day or two to properly mobilize and deploy all forces across the nation for a coordinated strategic defense, never mind a counteroffensive."

Zelda understood Ganondorf's difficulties; although he was generalissimo, commander-in-chief of all Gerudo military forces, the Gerudo Union was, in fact, a tight alliance of various states and provinces under different civil leaderships…leaderships that had a degree of autonomous powers. Despite their overwhelming military power, Gerudo did not excel in rapid deployment of their military assets; national coordination has always been a weak point of their armed forces.

"I have, unfortunately, not been actively communicating and coordinating with Hylian forces," Ganondorf admitted as he moved onto what he knew of the Hylian side of this war. "They have initiated communications on a handful of occasions, but electronic interference has been heavy. It appears that enemy penetration has gone deeper into Hyrule than it has Gerudo. I know not the status of your army – although I fear there may not be any good news to bear in that department – but I have received word that the esteemed Hylian navy has barely managed to achieve parity in the north."

That was one piece of good news in a sea of disaster, pun not intended. "Anything that can shed light on the strategic goal of the enemy?" Zelda inquired. "I'm assuming you've found the Valentine strategy baffling."

"Baffling in that they seem to be ignoring all long-term strategic advantages in favor of complete wanton destruction, yes," the generalissimo concurred. "We have no clue of what Valent is after, although our forces have managed to capture a small handful of Valentine prisoners of war that we're transporting back here for immediate intensive interrogation right now." He took a deep breath. "Based on on-site preliminary analysis from MICO field liaisons, though, we have little reason to be optimistic where gaining vital information from them is concerned."

Nodding, Zelda noted that they finally passed through the archway, stepping past the barrier between fortress interior and the helipad. Whereas the design for Hyrule Palace was based on the concept of ethereal tranquility, Fort Garuda seemed to pursue elegant antiquity. The hardened and harsh exterior masked the tradition kept inside the building housing the executive center of Gerudo; candles were favored over electric in many places, and the walls was adorned with elegant ornaments and designs in a style that seemed to have been kept in place since the previous century. One could live in relative comfort here, and Zelda was certain Generalissimo Ganondorf did.

"Now, if you will please excuse me, your Highness," Ganondorf made a bow as he prepared to leave with his own private escort, presumably to his control center where he would be able to continue to oversee and coordinate nationwide military efforts, "this is where I must take my leave." He gestured to Jessica, who nodded smartly behind Zelda. "Major Jessica will take care of your needs."

"Thank you for your hospitality, generalissimo," Zelda permitted herself her own half-bow, the inclination of her head conveying gratitude. "Please keep me informed of any developments, generalissimo, regardless of the hour."

A touch of concern, barely noticeable by those who have yet to learn the finer details of hiding one's emotions in a political poker game, graced upon Ganondorf's hard features for a moment as he turned to face Zelda. "With respect, your Highness, you have just been through a very rough experience, escaping from the clutches of the enemy in Hyrule City, escaping from the clutches of the enemy in Hyrule City. Would it not be safer to rest first? A ruler cannot lead by willpower alone."

For all the chivalry Ganondorf could've intended to be in that sentence, Zelda felt as though the last remark had somehow struck the wrong chords within her, and she couldn't help but respond with a polite but ultimately thin smile. She did not like any indicator, real or imagined, that she needed to be taught how to be a leader or run her country. "I assure you that I'm quite fine," Zelda voice was still kind and formal, but a strange tone to it made Link highly alert and concerned of his princess' mood. "I've been uninjured, and have had enough time to rest. I will, of course, accept your generous offer of a doctor, but I intend to act in full capacity as soon as possible."

Subtly, the flicker of concern was gone, replaced by the reputed calm and neutral expression Ganondorf was known for. "Of course, your Highness," he gave another bow, to excuse both possible impudence and give himself leave to attend to military matters. With the formalities over, Ganondorf briskly turned around, his cape swirling around him once as he completed a one hundred eighty degree turn, and marched off with two accompanying soldiers towards another wing of the fort.

With the generalissimo gone, Jessica swiftly stepped forward – her motions swift and abrupt to break the awkward moment between two leaders that severely outranked her – taking center stage as she gestured towards another wing with a subdued sweeping motion of her arm. "Your Highness," she spoke softly, politely, expressionlessly, "your room is this way. If you would please follow me." Zelda offered a brief nod and a small smile to Jessica, following the MICO major even as she herself was followed by Link, Impa, and Leonore. Two armed Gerudo soldiers swiftly brought up the rear.

Walking through the spacious, well-lit hallways, Zelda turned her head slightly, allowing Leonore to meet her gaze. "Director Leonore," the princess spoke soothingly, perhaps the first time she had used a generous voice towards the head of Joint Intelligence, and a small smile drew itself across pale lips, "thank you for bringing Impa safely to Garuda. I wouldn't know what I would do without my chief of staff."

Behind Leonore, Impa stifled a smile; Leonore offered a tired chuckle instead. "Think nothing of it, your Highness. I'd hardly take credit for bravery and valor; being caught along with her by a massive invasion army was a pretty good incentive to move quickly."

Smiling in earnest, Zelda added another question that had been tugging at her. "How did you get here?" She had thought that, with the speed they had been traveling at, they would've reached Garuda first.

It was Impa who responded in Leonore's place, her voice thick with satisfaction. "Leonore managed to hijack a Valentine humvee, and we managed to get out of the city relatively undeterred."

Raised eyebrows and a glance towards Link were the only indicators that foretold Leonore's turn to speak. "Judging by the fireworks on the other side of the city – undoubtedly caused by a young Joint Intelligence agent who shall go unnamed – I guess we have you to thank for diverting the enemy's attention." She sounded greatly amused, and Link suppressed what would've otherwise been an annoyed grimace as he struggled against an urge to look pointedly away and remain stoic. He wasn't sure if Leonore was poking fun at him or not…nor was he sure he particularly like that feeling, being teased like a child by one's superior.

"We kept going southeast until we ran into Gerudo forces fighting just past the border," Impa finished, oblivious to Link's discomfort. "They managed to bring us here with an airlift with all due haste earlier this afternoon. Just by looking at you, I'm guessing your journey was far more adventurous."

Managing a smile mixed in with both fatigue and awkwardness, Zelda quipped, "Like you wouldn't believe." Again, Link, listening in to the conversation, fought down the urge to make a face.

There were a few grand staircases that the entourage had to navigate before they finally reached the elevators somewhere that seemed deeper within Fort Garuda. Security details seemed lighter than Zelda remembered them; most soldiers that could be spared were probably already redeployed to the front, after all. For their lack of numbers, though, the princess noted that they were most certainly more heavily armed. Submachine guns were replaced by assault rifles, patrols seemed more vigilant, and they were also carrying grenades.

"We seem to be headed deeper for the mid-levels, major," Zelda noted to the Jessica, having taken notice of their ascent up various staircases and the increasing lack of windows or openings to the outside world. The group stepped into an elevator that seemed to be as large as the car of a cargo elevator, and, after Jessica pressed the up button, the doors closed and the elevator car began to climb.

"Yes, your Highness," Jessica confirmed with a formal nod, making sure her head was politely turned towards the princess even as she waited for the elevator to reach its proper destination. "It's where all the fort diplomatic residences are, along with the generalissimo's quarters. It's further away from ground level, so it puts some distance between the suites and a potential ground attack. Not so high, however, that it's vulnerable to air strikes and missile attacks, should they manage to penetrate our anti-air defenses. The entire area is heavily armored and can withstand a direct hit from an artillery barrage or a missile strike. It falls under three overlapping security sections, and has direct access to elevators that bring VIPs directly to the command and control bunker situated deep underground, should it become necessary."

The princess smiled as the elevator made a pleasant chiming sound as a prelude to the opening of the metallic, ornate double doors. "Sounds very impressive."

Jessica nodded impassively, stiffly, guided the entourage out of the elevator after the door fully opened. "We do our best to ensure the safety of our dignitaries, your Highness."

"Then I assure you that I'm feeling relieved already," Zelda replied kindly, following in stride two steps behind. Taking note of his princess' tone, Link wondered if Zelda had noticed that Jessica was trying hard to be formal and impassive, and was reacting to it…and suddenly realized that Jessica might not be unenthusiastic or indignant as much as she was nervous and uncertain of having to deal with a foreign sovereign. Majors in military intelligence, after all, generally did not often deal with highly-ranked officials outside their own communities. Understandable, of course, considering just how short-staffed Gerudo probably was at the moment.

The hallways here were notably smaller but more ornate, and radiated a homely charm despite its relatively dim lighting. Its architecture resembled the palaces of old, complete with stone walls and fanciful engravings. If there was any further doubt that this was the diplomatic suites area, they were soon dispelled as, some length down the corridor and a single turn later, Major Jessica opened a set of double doors – the Gerudo soldiers took posts on both sides of the hallway and stood guard – revealing a rather elegant, spacious bedroom inside that was not at all unlike a hotel suite. The parlor of the suite was large enough to hold a small staff meeting in considerable comfort and was stocked full with amenities, and Zelda had no doubt that the connecting bedroom would be any less impressive. It wasn't quite was grandiose as the luxurious, stylish suites in Hyrule Palace, but it certainly made the princess feel almost as if she had stepped into someone's home.

"Please rest here for now, your Highness," Jessica allowed for Zelda, Impa, and Leonore to step through even as she and Link held open the double doors for her in perfect flanking tandem. "I shall return with a doctor shortly. If you need anything, please don't hesitate to ask any member of staff here."

Again, Zelda gently and graciously smiled. "Thank you, major," she conveyed her gratitude, and Jessica responded with a dutiful nod before stepping away, undoubtedly to escort the doctor up to the quarters.

Link looked back out to the hallway; now that the princess was safely in her room, the escorting soldiers were replaced with actual armed patrols that seemed to be part of the detail formally responsible for security on the floor. They took rounds across the area instead of standing immediate guard, and their formation seemed a bit loose, but the soldiers here also wore heavier body armor and bore what seemed to be heavier assault rifles. They obviously took local security quite seriously.

With a fleeting glance that made sure his three superiors were properly situated in the room, Link prepared to close the double doors and stand guard outside himself, but he had just closed the first door and had the second halfway shut when a gentle hand placed itself on the frame, and Link immediately stopped in slight surprise as Zelda stood at the door, looking out at him. "It's alright, Link," she nodded quietly, gesturing for Link to enter. "Please come in."

That was a rather surprising move, Link conceded; he had only lately become used to giving the princess her personal space, especially when it came to her study and private quarters – habits of ensuring a VIP's safety had been engrained into his head and were hard to shake, something that he knew annoyed Zelda. Now that he had managed to adapt to her tendencies and preferences, though, being invited in was a somewhat strange sensation. Regardless, he nodded obediently, and stepped through the gap in the door before closing and locking it behind him. With no further orders, he stood at the door while folding his hands behind his back, standing at attention.

Zelda, meanwhile, sat herself down on one of the living room couches, exhaling a sigh as she finally rested herself on something soft. She noted with some amusement the disapproval on Impa's gaze, a gaze that Zelda followed to the hems, edges, and corners of her dress, which had been stained, dirtied, and damaged across a day of riding on motorcycles and helicopters. Still, she swiftly pushed it to the back of her mind; concern should not be placed on how Zelda was dressed right now. "What is that status of the Hylian defense right now?" she came straight to the point as Impa and Leonore followed her, still remaining standing.

Impa pursed her lips before speaking. "Your Highness, Ganondorf has a point; these matters can wait after you've seen a doctor and get some rest…"

"Impa," Zelda was clearly impatient as she interrupted her chief of staff scornfully with a frown, "I don't intend to sit by and watch Valent tear Hyrule apart. These first few days are the most crucial. I intend to make as much of it as possible, especially since I've already been delayed by a day."

Zelda had barely finished, however, when she noticed that Impa was not actually looking at her. Rather, although Impa's head was turned towards Zelda, her eyes looked discreetly in the direction of Leonore. The princess followed that gaze, and as soon as Zelda and Leonore locked stares, Leonore silently mouthed four words: "The walls have ears."

Being lip-readers, both Zelda and the further-away Link understood immediately what Leonore was talking about. It was naïve to think that nations would unconditionally put honor before reason, and they were both well aware that the guestrooms have a chance of being bugged in consideration for a possible edge in the international game of espionage. Leonore must've already confirmed their presence…or at least had very strong suspicions. Although Zelda herself did not know it, the guestrooms in Hyrule Palace were equipped with the same kind of bugging and recording equipment, a legacy left to the royal family by Leonore's Joint Intelligence director predecessor.

For now, though, the message was clear: No sensitive information was to be spoken of. No codes, no protocols, no classified intelligence. They would go along, pretend that they didn't know the devices were there, pretend that they didn't know better.

Taking a breath, Impa pretended to be frustrated member of staff regretfully relenting to Zelda's adamant demands. "Very well, your Highness," she breathed heavily voice, turned to the other woman in the room. "Leonore?"

Leonore's expression and voice was appropriately grim; she did not exaggerate her mood for the sake of possible secret surveillance, nor did she need to. "We're looking at a disaster so far, your Highness," her voice was tight and controlled, knowing just how bad this update was. "The Hylian military – what's left of it – has been completely mobilized, but without central command at the Haven, we're looking at patches of undefended regions, general confusion. So far, from what we've been able to find out in Garuda, Rear Admiral Chester on the HRS Astraea is the highest-ranking officer attempting to circumvent the Haven's command system and reroute the national chain of command to his vessel, but…" Leonore sighed, rubbed the bridge of her nose in a clear sign of fatigue and frustration. "Everything has become a total mess, your Highness. Chester's not the only officer attempting to establish national command, and I don't think these various commanding officers are even aware of each other trying to do the same thing."

Her expression appropriately grim, Zelda asked, "Any chance we can contact them?"

"Communications have been substandard at best. The enemy has been using electromagnetic interference to their advantage very heavily."

"We've been lent a communications suite by the generalissimo," Impa added. "People drop on and off the radio every now and then, never staying on for any extended periods of time."

Looking at Impa for a moment, Leonore almost seemed to look as if she was seeking the unspoken opinion of a second party, but when Impa did not pick up the sign and give Leonore and real sign of support, the intelligence director merely pursed her lips and spoke in a tight, quiet voice. "Your Highness," her tone was deliberately devoid of emphasis, "we need to talk very seriously about the possibility of a traitor."

Her eyes widening for just a moment before tightening into a clear frown, Zelda remained silent even as she turned her attention squarely to Leonore. She was not entirely surprised to learn of this – Zelda had recognized the possibility was not at all a small one – but now that Leonore was mentioning it herself, it began to seem like a substantial problem…one she was not at all eager to have to deal with.

Seeing that Zelda was waiting for her to continue, Leonore went on with her explanation. "As far as I can make out, Valentine wartime intelligence has been extraordinary on the Hylian front. They're hitting fast, hard, and accurately. As far as I can make out from battle reports on both sides, they seem to know exactly where our forces are and how they're deployed."

"It also explains how they managed to sneak up on the capital that quickly and effectively," Impa added swiftly, "and why Hylian resistance has been so difficult to mount. Valent is destroying resisting forces before they can even become a threat, and they're doing a very good job at it."

"It's only been the first day of fighting, yet our forces have been very seriously battered. This goes beyond wartime intelligence; the enemy is capable of tracking our forces in real-time, your Highness. And it's no coincidence that Gerudo forces have been holding out better than our own. Someone in a position of knowing exactly how our military forces are deployed may very well be feeding vital intelligence to Valent."

Zelda's expression turned even harder than before. "You suspect Admiral Francis." It was difficult to tell whether or not she actually approved of this line of thought, but it was clear that she did not like what she was hearing.

An effort to adopt a neutral expression was clear on Leonore's face as she betrayed signs of inner conflict with her judgment. "Admiral Francis is in a position of suspicion, yes," she spoke slowly with obvious hesitation, "but I wouldn't be able to condemn him with any real conviction. He has…unique circumstances that make him a prime suspect, yes, but there's no real proof that he's done anything in particular."

That argument was not good enough for Zelda, not with what was at stake. "But what you're saying is," she mimicked Leonore's tone and pacing, "without rooting out the mole – or moles – in our ranks, any attempt we make at commanding the Hylian army may be sabotaged by their ability to track our every move."

Leonore's sober, regretful response was preceded only by a deep sigh. "That's an accurate summary, your Highness," she allowed.

What essentially comprised of Hylian high command in this room exchanged very difficult looks as they tried to assess the situational odds – clearly one that was stacked against them – before them. Options began to run through their collective thoughts, but there wasn't a solution that surfaced, not one that could immediately deal with just how terrible their situation was, however. Zelda hated that feeling of complete helplessness; she needed to do something, even if there was no clear and immediate solution, and yet the fates seemed to be conspiring against her.

"Do what you can about finding the mole, Leonore," the princess finally spoke evenly, firmly, keeping her temperament under control as she gave her orders. "Impa, I want you to keep trying to reach any Hylian forces you can. I want to be able to coordinate them and let them know I am safe. In the meantime, I will need to see how willing the generalissimo is in terms of allowing joint command of the counteroffensive. If we cannot command the Hylian military as we wish right now, we will have to depend on Gerudo."

"Yes, your Highness," the royal chief of staff and the director of Joint Intelligence responded in unison.

Zelda lowered her head with a barely audible sigh, and, for a moment, her own royal mask faltered for a moment, exposing just a flicker of vulnerability…but she soon had it under control as she turned to her retainers once more. "Do we have any word on my father?" she asked; her voice, though strong, betrayed just a bit of a waver.

Noting that moment of weakness, Impa and Leonore exchanged a glance, silently deciding who was to break the news. After a moment, it was Leonore who spoke. "No, your Highness. The last time we've heard of him was back in Hyrule City. Nothing else so far."

Nodding, Zelda quietly pursed her lips as her gaze lowered again in that same motion. The pressure, worry, and anxiety must've felt overwhelming as she clasped her hands on her lap, tightening them once as she fought for control over her emotions. "They may be going dark," she spoke in a controlled voice, forcing all the weakness out of her voice as she did so. "They might be aware that Valentine forces are tracking them, and imposed radio silence."

Leonore could only nod. "It's possible, your Highness."

Once again, the room lapsed into contemplative and considerate silence as the three non-royals carefully averted their gaze from the princess, not wishing to seem imposing during a private moment of vulnerability. This, however, last for only several seconds; the quiet was interrupted by the three successive knocks on the double doors, followed by the familiar voice of Jessica on the other side. "Princess Zelda? The doctor is here."

With an affirmative nod from Zelda, who immediately gathered herself together once more and donned the mask of an unshakeable princess, Link unlocked the double doors, opening it even and standing at the opening, acting as a shield for the occupants inside just in case the people outside were not who they were supposed to be. Thankfully, the precaution was unnecessary; stoic Jessica was standing right outside, and Link could see the doctor over her shoulder. Amusingly enough, the doctor had a skin tone that was slightly darker than that of the MICO major's. He stepped aside as Jessica mimicked the movement, and the doctor stepped into the room. Jessica, however, did not follow, opting to remain outside the room.

"Your Highness," the doctor introduced herself, giving a bit of a curtsy as she did, "I'm Doctor Taylor. I'm just going to perform a quick check-up on you, make sure you're in good health and won't be in danger of collapsing from fatigue anytime soon. I am told the day has been very rough on you." There was something about her that conveyed that she was a woman who meant business, and took things very directly.

Smiling, Zelda invited the doctor to come closer with a subdued gesture as she stood in polite greeting. "I believe myself to be fine, but I feel reassured in your care."

"You're too generous," Taylor spoke blandly while approaching with her medical bag; here was a woman who cared little for anything outside the medical well-being of others. "If you do not mind, your Highness, I must note that this might be more efficient – and easier on both of us – if you were to partially disrobe." She immediately shot a look at Link, clearly an indicator that he should be leaving the room now.

Link himself looked at Zelda for permission first, who gave her approval for him to leave the room. "It's fine, Link," she reassured him, then turned her attention to her chief of staff. "Impa, as we've discussed, please try to contact Hylian forces, and inform me the moment you establish a clear line of communication."

Impa bowed out before headed for the doorway, and Leonore seemed to be prepared to do the same. "Yes, your Highness. My room is the first door on the right, should you need me for anything."

While Leonore prepared to join Link and Impa out the door, however, a call from Zelda stopped the director in her tracks. "Leonore," the princess asked in a move that drew curious stares from the Hylians present, "could you please stay behind?"

Leonore seemed subtly surprised – her interactions with the princess had not given her the impression that Zelda was particularly fond of dealing with Hyrule's fourth DJI – but she politely turned around and nodded nonetheless as she was privately kept behind. "Of course," she replied and returned to Zelda's side. She gave Impa and unreadable glance, but whether or not Impa picked up on it was not certain; the chief of staff merely nodded at the development, and, with Link, walked out the double doors.

Being the last one standing at the door after Link and Impa disappeared into the hallway, Jessica prepared to leave even as she reminded Zelda of the services available to her. "Being tasked with your security and well-being, I will be in the immediate vicinity if you need me, your Highness," she spoke clearly and dispassionately, as she always seemed to do.

"Thank you, major," Zelda thanked Jessica before the major disappeared behind the set of doors she closed.

Under the expectant looks of Doctor Taylor, Zelda swiftly made her way into the connecting bedroom even as Leonore and Taylor patiently waited for her in the other room. While she kept the door open so that she may speak to Leonore, she stood in the room at an angle to the doorway where neither woman in the living room could see her.

Both Leonore and Taylor had seated themselves in the living room when Zelda called out to the former. "Please tell me more about Agent Link."

Something about Leonore's expression betrayed unwelcome surprise as she pressed her lips into a thin line, her brows tightened into what could've either been a frown of confusion or disapproval. "What would you like to know about him, your Highness?" she asked, keeping her voice level and emotionless.

Without actually seeing Leonore's expression, Zelda was not actually able to detect anything strange from Leonore's controlled voice. "Where he comes from might be a good start."

Leonore spared a glance at Taylor, who seemed to be busier than necessary with her medical bag. Chances were that she was tuned sharply into this conversation, but was otherwise pretending not to. The director wasn't surprised; the extended time Jessica took bringing Taylor here probably also included instructions to report back on any details she might notice while treating Zelda. Friends, after all, were not permanent in the political game; only interests were. Leonore would've instructed any of her agents to do the same thing had the situation been reversed…probably. "Are you aware of the Spencer Welfare Program?" she asked, deciding it didn't really matter whether or not Taylor was here.

It took only a moment for Zelda to recall the details. "It was a program initiated by my great-grandfather after Hyrule successfully claimed the ore rich regions of the Death Mountains. With an extra surplus in funds from the ore and a stronger economy from the war, he enacted the welfare program to provide government support to orphans who lost a parent or both parents in the war. The country paid for the living expenses and educational costs for these orphans, the curriculum specifically targeting civil service subjects such as political science, economics…all depending on the child. It came with the understanding that the child would work for any organ in the government after their education. As the economy strengthened, my grandfather expanded the criteria, and any orphan of Hylian citizenship became eligible as well."

Conceding that it was a good description of the program in general, Leonore decided to elaborate further. "One of the changes that we don't exactly advertise, your Highness, is that Joint Intelligence also has a hand in the program. We're legally permitted to keep track of the children and select candidates that show signs of exceptional talent, then provide them with the training that would eventually have them fall under the employ of Joint Intelligence when they are at a legal age for employment."

Zelda finally emerged from the bedroom, dressed in an elegant-looking Gerudo-styled nightgown, her hair undone and loose, hanging down to her torso. It was still frizzled from the motorcycle ride, and it was clear Zelda was in need of a bath or shower. Even as she sat down beside Doctor Taylor, she provided a frown that clearly showed she was not familiar with this aspect of the program. "Does this include combat training?" she echoed.

"Yes, your Highness."

With her attention focused on Leonore, Zelda was vaguely aware that Taylor had rolled up the princess' sleeve, pressing the index and middle fingers against Zelda's veins, a basic Gerudo traditional medicine technique that was supposed to detect the inner strength and vitality of a patient. "I was aware that we were not permitted to provide actual combat training to these orphans until they were eighteen and eligible for military service," Zelda noted.

"Yes, your Highness, military service," Leonore specified, her voice carefully neutral, knowing her sovereign was not going to like the answer in particular. "It's a restriction set for the armed forces. Frankly, we're not the military. Joint Intelligence has a free hand in this."

It was clear – if not by facial expression then by tone – that Zelda did not approve of this at all. "Who signed off on this?" she demanded impatiently as Taylor reached into her medical bag, pulled out a small low-intensity flashlight.

"Your father," Leonore answered pointedly. "Just short of a decade ago."

Zelda was not impressed with the answer, but any reply she could've mounted was cut short as Taylor said, "Princess, please do not move and keep your eyes open." Zelda obeyed as the doctor shone the dim light into her eyes for a quick examination. Inwardly, the Hylian royal reminded herself that, if memory served, the decision to allow Joint Intelligence to take advantage of the Spencer Welfare Program would've been made at roughly the same time as Leonore being appointed as the fourth Hylian DJI. Zelda did not find this to be a coincidence at all.

Taking advantage of the necessity for Zelda to keep her head still, Leonore went on with her explanation of Link's background. "We found Agent Link in the Spencer Welfare Program very early, when he was eleven. That was seven years ago; he had been in the care of the government for two years at the time. He showed excellent physical prowess, above average natural intellect, and an affinity for machinery, especially vehicles." She spared a small smile. "Judging by what I've heard about your escape from Hyrule City, I'll guess you've gathered that much already. We re-appropriated him to our own training regime. He began seeing formal active duty more than half a year ago, but he's trained to the standard of an agent with roughly five years of field experience."

Taylor turned off her flashlight, spoke even as she placed the equipment back in her bag. "You're not feeling any form of discomfort, your Highness?" she asked for confirmation.

"I'm just tired, doctor," Zelda managed a tired smile. "It's been a long day."

Although the doctor did not actually seem to believe what Zelda said, she nodded nonetheless, deciding the princess knew her endurance well enough to make her own calls. "I'll trust your judgment," Taylor relented, storing her equipment back into her bag. "I'd ask for a full examination, but something tells me you wouldn't listen to me anyways. You don't seem to have sustained any serious physical problems, but you're dehydrated, and you're low on sugar. When's the last time you ate anything?"

"Major Jessica got me some rations when we managed to reach Gerudo lines."

"Before that?"

Zelda recalled the "food" that Link had taken from the abandoned gas station convenience store earlier in the morning. "I had some cookies and juice earlier in the morning and afternoon," she answered.

Disapproval was heavy in Taylor's voice. "Insufficient to cover the adrenaline rush and physical output, especially for a fragile body like yours." She placed nine small plastic bags, silver in color, on the table before them right beside the water pitcher. "These are nutrient packets. I want you to drink them with water, three times a day for the next three days, thirty minutes before each meal, not after. You can pour it in your mouth or mix it in water. Drink as much water as you can for the next three days as well."

Zelda accepted this with a curt bob of her head. "Will that be all?"

Taylor's mouth twitched once in what was essentially a difficult expression. "I'd tell you to get as much bed rest as possible, but…" she sighed, and her impassive front dropped for a moment, belaying hints of actual concern and sympathy. "I know that's impossible with what's happening to our countries, your Highness." Taylor provided a small customary Gerudo bow, a slight inclination of her head and spine to indicate not subservience, but respect. "My prayers are with you and your people."

The gesture was not unkindly, nor was it received as such; Zelda personally was quite thankful for any sympathetic gesture she could receive at this point. "Thank you, doctor," she smartly imitated Taylor's motion. "I wish the best for Gerudo as well."

Finished with packing up her equipment, Taylor stood from where she had been seated, and Zelda politely stood with her to send off the doctor; as was required of court protocol, Leonore also rose as soon as her princess did. "Please don't hesitate to ask for me should you feel any discomfort," Taylor insisted as she prepared to leave.

"I will," Zelda reassured Taylor.

Bowing again, Taylor moved to leave. "Then excuse me," she spoke, then turned around, making her way through the living room and out the set of double doors once more.

As soon as the doors closed, Leonore decided that it was better if the princess' decision was temporarily diverted elsewhere. "I think it might be a good idea to heed the doctor's advice and get some rest, your Highness," she encouraged, her voice soft, soothing, and kind. "I will, of course, vacate the room if you'd like."

Zelda's thin smile betrayed a quiet amusement that almost seemed cold. "Interesting how everyone seems to be telling me to get some rest." Her voice was not at all scathing or harsh, but it somehow still conveyed a sense of veiled impatience with her situation.

Leonore shook her head in an attempt to dissuade Zelda from any paranoid thoughts. "I'm just trying to look out for your well-being, your Highness," she tried to sound placating, and Zelda, for the first time, noted that Leonore somehow did not sound impatient for a woman not known to sugarcoat anything for or curry favor from her royal employers. It almost seemed if she was too tired to be particularly defensive…or something else – Zelda somehow was not convinced that fatigue had anything to do with Leonore's sudden agreeability. "I'm pretty sure anything Link did to help you escape Hyrule City is not likely to be anything you're used to. Joint Intelligence agents pull off some of the most dangerous feats in the world with alarming frequency."

At that, Zelda's smile turned soft; indeed, Zelda was not likely to ever get on Epona again, not with Link riding it. Still, it brought another feeling of fondness for the Joint Intelligence agent, for his dedication and fearlessness when it came to his princess' safety. "The reason why I asked about Link," she said plainly to Leonore, "is that I want to thank you for assigning him to me. I don't think I would've been able to make it out of Hyrule unharmed if it wasn't for him." She reached for the pitcher on the table; it was already filled with water, so Zelda immediately reached for the crystal cups stored in the cupboard underneath the living room table.

The twitch of her lips betrayed an effort to hide a smirk on Leonore's part. "You don't need to thank me, your Highness. My only concern was your safety at the time."

Having fished out the proper glass, Zelda began to pour the contents of the pitcher into her glass. "I want you to know," she continued, "that, once this is all over, I will be formally requesting Agent Link to be part of my personal security detail. Should he have no objections to being transferred from Joint Intelligence, I will be filing the paperwork as soon as this war ends. I wanted to inform you in advance and hope you don't mind my decision."

Although Zelda's words were not unkindly – there was no bite or derision behind it – and her proposal absolutely reasonable, Leonore wondered why it was that she suddenly felt edge, uncomfortable, anxious, and…frightened. Still, she hid it well with a shake of a head, indicating that she did not intend to mount any form of opposition. "You're the sovereign of Hyrule, your Highness," she said simply, then mentally chastised herself as she realized just how obviously evasive that remark was. Her gaze remained unwavering on Zelda, not only to prevent herself from betraying nervousness, but also to try to look for any reaction from the princess that could give hints. But Zelda was just as good as Leonore in the political poker face game, and displayed no sign that she had noticed anything amiss…which pretty much meant she did, but chose not to show it.

There was a moment of silence even as Zelda kept her blue eyes serenely on Leonore, breaking eye contact only after she had mixed in powder contents of the nutrient packet and slowly indulged herself on the liquid. The taste was a bit bitter; it was likely that the nutrients, ground into a fine powder, were made from a collection of rare desert herbs. From the other end of the table, Leonore silently wondered if the princess was deliberately and subtly being condescending.

It was only after Zelda finally trained the glass of its contents that she finally returned her attention to Leonore, her gestures polite and gracefully. "Thank you, Leonore," murmured Zelda. "I will heed your advice and get some rest. There's much ahead of us, and I don't want to be caught unprepared. Again, please do what you can about the mole, and don't forgo rest yourself."

The lack of actual options left Leonore giving a handsome bow even as she gave herself leave with the customary "yes, your Highness". But even while she turned around and moved to the exit, she couldn't help but notice that her heart was suddenly consumed by a strange fear and worry that she had not known was there before. Something about her conversation with Zelda, more than anything that had happened across this one-day-old war, had unnerved her, and it left Leonore shaken.


Exoria File #006
Gunswords

One of the most important events in the evolution of the ballistic weapon was the drastic reduction in size of gunpowder-based ballistic weapons, which eventually transformed the arm cannon into a pistol. With the Valentine invention of the rifle, Hyrule was quick to attach bayonets to them, but Valent went the completely different direction, and ended up attaching swords to their pistols. For a while, the resulting weapon, the gunsword, was the object of ridicule of Hylian and Gerudo soldiers, who found the weapon impractical and difficult to use. Their contempt, however, was squelched when, during the Third Zoran Crusade in 1264 a.s.r., Valentine Duchess Sieglinde of Rynwall led a counterattacking army against Zoran aggressors, and utilized a gunsword to achieve an astounding two hundred and thirty-two confirmed kills credited personally to her name in the Battle of Dendrite Falls. The gunsword quickly became known as an extremely deadly and effective in the right hands, but the extraordinary difficulty in skillfully using the weapon did not make it commonplace, and proficient gunsword-wielders were few and far in between. The invention of the gunsword in Valent, however, coupled with the vast majority of gunsword wielders being of Valentine origin, effectively labeled the gunsword as a Valentine weapon. Over the years, Valent has been making numerous improvements to the gunsword, resulting in a weapon that is mechanically-powered, possessing near-instant transition from handgun to sword, with capabilities that rival both modern firearms and blades. Valentine special forces are known to possess gunswords as a standardized weapon, which they use to great effect.


Author's Note: Okay, I'm sorry, this finalizes the "escape to Garuda" storyarc. I didn't actually intend to lie and make you think the story was moving forward that quickly, but this chapter ended up being much longer than I first thought. So…yeah. The next chapter with either be a breather chapter or the start of the next storyarc. We'll see how it goes.

And now Ganondorf has finally appeared on stage. I hope I got his introduction was satisfactory; he's an important character to the Zelda games, and I tried my best to ensure I got it right. He does seem a bit more gentlemanly and trustworthy – if not a bit noble – than as he is depicted in the games; it's intentional, and there are reasons for it. And, no, I'm not going to tell you whether or not he's faking it. That's for you to figure out. Or wait for a revelation that may or may not come.

For those wondering, I do maintain a deviantArt gallery; I do pencil sketches, then play around with them a bit on Photoshop. My latest adventures have allowed me to sketch Link in his Joint Intelligence attire. It's…not exactly a fantastic sketch – even I admit it looks a bit bland and un-Zelda-ish – but it gets the idea across. Hopefully, when Link finally gets a change of attire in the next storyarc, the sketch accompanying it will be better. I know FanFictionNet does some weird things to URLs, but the link to the sketch is: [http] ysionris [dot] deviantartcom [dot] com/art/Link-Joint-Intelligence-143452368

Also, of interest is that someone has directed my attention to the fact that Exoria is now officially recommended on the TVTropes website; I was amused of this to no end, but it also makes me quite happy. The recommendation can be found here, for those curious (although please watch out for the spaces meant to circumvent 's deletion of URLs: [http] tvtropes [dot] org / pmwiki / pmwiki [dot] php /FanficRecs/TheLegendOfZelda