**All Standard Disclaimers Apply**

Book Two in the Doppelganger Trilogy
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Shadow Kingdom
by The Wolfess

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Chapter Twenty Four: The Return

In the sacred grove, the guardian sentinels stood silently by as the Door of Time creaked open. The first thing that the hylians and their wolf pack noticed was that there were birds singing in the treetops and warm sunlight was streaming down on the bare branches of the trees. If they had looked closer, they may have noticed the smallest buds peeping out on some of the branches, promising new life yet to come.

Having forgotten that it was still winter in their time, Zelda, Adrienne, and Ikal were all shivering. The princess helped Adrienne to take out and put on her winter clothes, and the wolves cuddled close to Ikal in hopes of lending some of their body heat to her. Link just took a deep breath of the crisp, cold winter air and smiled. He felt so alive—he was back in his own body, in his own time, full of courage again and ready for the next step in his destiny. He was fascinated that it had been so easy for them to come back. They had just walked through the door, although Ikal had had to be the one to open it. It wouldn't respond to Link or Zelda. Opening the pathways of time to return to their natural time stream was never as hard, it seemed, as trying to leave one's natural time stream to begin with. Link felt more familiar with this now than he ever had—it was as if meeting his past self had returned some of his past memories to him, and he remembered what it felt like to travel backward and forward through the streams of time.

Zelda bustled around, getting everyone organized and together. Communicating with the wolves now that they were hylians again was proving difficult, and Adrienne often had to communicate for them. Link frowned at that. He hadn't thought about the effect that returning to their hylian forms would have on their wolf friends. Determined to discuss it later, he wandered down to the ground level and walked over to the Master Sword.

It sat glistening in its pedestal, and the blue hilt seemed to speak to him. His sword hand twitched, longing to feel the ridges and planes of its majestic hilt in his palm. However, when his fingers twitched he found they were already holding something: the wolf mask left behind when the Hero of Time played the Song of Healing. Link turned it over in his hand, examining its own planes and ridges. It was odd to look at his own face detached right there in his hand, but that's what it felt like. This wolf face was as much his as the hylian face he now wore. He couldn't choose between the wolf and the hylian—and he realized that he should never have tried to hide it to begin with. As the Hero of Time had said when all that Link knew him as was the spirit of some unknown, ancient hero: one who has the spirit of the sublime beast.

"Hey," said a soft voice. Zelda stepped up beside him, her hand on his shoulder. When he acknowledged her with a nod, she let her hand trail down his arm and rest on the curve of his lower back. "What are you thinking?" she asked.

Link smiled. "I'm thinking…" he looked from the mask to the sword and up to Zelda's smiling face. She looked so beautiful and peaceful here in the grove. "I'm thinking that I'm going to need a new sword," he said. Zelda laughed.

"Yes, I suppose you will," she said. "We will have to get you one that is finely made. A good sword for a good swordsman."

Link sighed. "No sword can measure up to that one," he said. "It's…meant for me."

Zelda nodded. "Yes, it is. Let us hope that you will not have need of it again until the next life."

"In the meantime," Link said, switching the topic on purpose as he turned his back on the sword. "I have one stored in my house in Ordon that I can use until we get a better sword. Can't be unarmed." They had started walking back toward the pack.

"We are not unarmed, though, are we Link?" Zelda stated, her question more rhetorical than an actual question. She held up her own mask. "The forms that are locked inside these masks…they are powerful, and they do not need weapons."

Link frowned at the mask. "I'm worried about putting it on…has the evil of the crystal's magic been locked in the mask, alongside the wolf? Or has it been neutralized by the mask?"

Zelda tilted her head a little, holding her mask in both hands and stroking its face with her thumbs. "Somehow…I think that it is alright. That these are gifts. For example, while you were gazing at your old sword and daydreaming, I was trying mine on. We can hear and communicate with the wolves in these new forms, and there is something else that you need to…well, you need to experience it for yourself."

"I suppose that I'll have to," Link said. They had reached the pack and were standing together near the exit to the Sacred Forest. "We need to get out of these woods first."

"Where should we head?" Zelda asked. "There is so much that we do not know about the world. How has it changed? What has Dark Link done while we have been gone?"

Ikal finally spoke up, her mask hanging around her neck even in humanoid form, "I was thinking we should head for Ordon," she said, "but we should pay our respects at the Spirit Springs in Faron and Ordon first. They were the ones who kept faith in us, even when the light spirits of Lanayu and Eldin gave up hope." Zelda and Link agreed, and they began moving toward the entrance to the sacred woods.

Link and Zelda walked up front, lost in their own world. Ikal could hear them discussing plans and tactics, including Dark Link's possible motives and which people in the land might have a chance of rebelling, and therefore might be possible allies. Adrienne and the pack followed close behind the two hylians, and Ikal took up the rear. She had things of her own to think about, and she was careful to keep a close eye out for the Skull Kid who watched over the woods. His interference would be the last thing they would need at this point.

Ikal looked around the forest and found herself surprised by how different it looked from the higher vantage point of a humanoid. Not only that, but the benefits she gained from the extended sight of sheikian eyes reopened the world. She could see squirrels in the distant treetops. She could pick out the falling white snowflake from the background of the gray sky with minimal effort. There were some senses, however, that she found herself missing. As a wolf she would have known the squirrel was there because she could smell him. She could have seen things in the spirit world that humanoids were not able to because she could sense them in a way that only wolves can. There were tradeoffs with every good thing in life, she guessed. Become a wolf, lose your sheikian body. Return to sheikian form, lose your wolf senses. Serve the princess, get turned into a wolf to begin with. Serve the princess, become exposed to emotions like love and companionship and worry when you were not supposed to feel emotions. Become the holder of the Triforce of Power. Not be able to love at all, ever again.

The Sheikah was surprised by how quickly the princess and the hero returned to their normal selves. Already they spoke of kingdoms and battles, allies and enemies, while she felt stuck thinking about where the pack would find their next meal, and what they would do about the wolves now that the animals had fulfilled their purpose. The three hylians had come in and killed their alpha, upended their social structure, and dragged them all through the battle with Skull Kid's puppets just to get some information. They then dragged them across the entire country of Hyrule, across the desert, and through the Bulbin hordes so that Ikal could get her power. One of them died, actually died from wounds sustained in the battle, and then what did Ikal do? Turn her into something similar to a wolf so that she could at least still have her senses and normal abilities, like a large dog? No, she turned her into a hylian—all for them. Because they needed her to translate and ask questions in ancient Hyrule when none of the wolves could communicate with hylians.

Ikal looked at Adrienne, and after a moment the wolf girl turned her head slightly and looked back at Ikal. The sheikah looked quickly away, but she heard Adrienne excuse herself from the conversation she and the wolves had been having. She dropped back alongside the sheikah and fell into step with her. Her white hair fell across her eyes as she tilted her head and looked at Ikal.

"Is everything okay?" she asked. "You do not seem as happy to have your body back as the alphas do."

Ikal met Adrienne's eyes for a brief moment, and then looked at her feet again. "What does the pack say about us?" she finally asked, her voice quiet.

"You can't hear them?" Adrienne asked. "I thought that all hylians could hear like I do."

Ikal shook her head. "No…you are special. You can hear the voices of all animals, not just wolves. I gave you that ability so you could still communicate with us, but the rest of the humanoids in the world cannot hear as you do."

Adrienne thought about that for a moment. "So, I'm special? Like you are?"

Ikal raised an eyebrow. "I am not so special," she said. "I am just another aid to those two," she gestured at Link and Zelda. "They are the stars of this celestial show, not me."

Adrienne shrugged. "They are special, yes, but not like you. You have the mask. You returned life to me and gave me powers. You opened the door that took us into another world. On a personal level, you have instructed me and helped me more than they have. I do not know the history of all that is going on and it's rather confusing to me, to tell you the truth, but what I do know is that in my eyes, from what I have observed, you are very special as well."

Ikal smiled, and she reached over and took Adrienne's hand in her own. "Thank you," she said, her red eyes a little more shiny than normal but not quite tearing up. She squeezed Adrienne's hand and then let it drop. "But, I am not supposed to be special. I am a shiekah—we help others shine and protect them from the darkness which would blot them out. We do not shine ourselves."

Adrienne rolled her eyes a little. "It does not sound as if I would like being a sheikah," she said. "Thank you for not making me one."

Ikal laughed a little. "I didn't think you would like the change in eye color," she teased. "Sometimes I think that red is a rather evil-looking color for eyes."

Adrienne smiled. "I think your eyes are beautiful," she said, her voice soft. Ikal blushed a little and looked away, tucking a loose strand of long burgundy hair out of her eyes, just as Link and Zelda stopped in their tracks. They had all reached the edge of the Sacred Woods and the wolves looked ready to jump, but the hylians held back.

"It's okay Link," Zelda said, her mask in hand and ready. "I already put mine on and took it off. It only hurts a little, and I promise it will come off."

Link hesitated still, looking down at the inside of his mask with trepidation. Finally he took a deep breath and put his mask on. The initial transformation was painful in the same way that touching the wolf stone had always been painful. It was nothing that he couldn't handle or was afraid of, though the pain itself was new for Zelda and Ikal. He was afraid of the evil magic that created the wolf form to begin with. He was afraid of himself. Link knew, however, that courage was not the absence of fear. Rather, it was being brave despite fear. It was putting on the mask for the sake of others, because it was what the world needed him to do.

When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to find that he could see higher than before rather than lower, and his eyesight was the same as it had been when he was a hylian. He could, however, choose to use the wolf's senses to look around and see what hylians could not. He looked at his hands and found that they were large, hand-like paws. He was standing erect on his hind feet, a large, towering werewolf version of his wolf self. It was as if his hylian form had merged with his wolf form to create this towering creature, and the wolf stone was nowhere in sight. He could not feel its evil influence on his senses, whispering to him in the back of his mind. He could not feel its power within him. If there was external power that he felt, it was the same comforting, healing power that had poured from the ocarina of the Hero of Time when he played the Song of Time.

Link looked away from his own hands and feet to see that Zelda and Ikal had also put on their masks. He was taller and bigger than both of them, but they were quite powerful-looking themselves. Ikal looked as she did before, the transformed mask of truth doing its work reliably even now that she was a Sheikah. He supposed that the goddesses had planned that—even after they received their healing, their sheikian friend would still be their equal in every way, and yet also slightly different than them.

Zelda herself was obviously smaller and more slightly built than both of her friends. Still, she stepped toward the ledge where the wolf pack waited for them without fear, ready to lead them to the next step as if she owned the world—and soon, when they restored her to her rightful throne, she would. Link was happy to see the ruler in her returned, and he was happier still to follow her lead wherever she might go.

"See, not so bad" she said, wagging her tail. "Now we just need to figure out how to get Adrienne across with us."

Ikal stepped closer to the wolf girl, her white and red paw reaching out to rest on the white-haired girl's small shoulder. "I will carry her," the sheikah volunteered.

Link nodded. "If you carry her, then I will carry her pack at least. That's a lot for one person to carry and still make these jumps."

"Fine," Ikal said, and she helped Adrienne take the pack off. Link took it, holding it in his hand since there was no way it would fit over his large, furry shoulders. He walked over to the edge with Zelda and they both crouched down, their tails stretched straight out to balance them. They leapt at the same time, landing with a loud thump on the first wooden platform. Four quieter thumps followed as Kelana, Mutlu, Konuk, and Xenalli followed.

"Are you ready?" Ikal asked, turning to face Adrienne. The wolf girl swallowed, looking down at the canyon beneath the platform, then nodded.

"You'll catch me," she said. "You have the power to catch anyone, right?"

Ikal wagged her tail. "Yes, I can and I will." She then turned around and crouched on all fours. Adrienne crawled onto Ikal's back, wrapping her arms around the red and white wolf's neck and her legs around Ikal's torso. Ikal stood up, hitching the small wolf girl a little higher and holding on to her forearms with both hands. "You still okay?" she asked.

Adrienne nodded, and added, "as long as you are, then yes."

"Let's go quickly then," Ikal said, and she wasted no more time. She crouched down, bracing herself in a runner's pose with one leg in back to push off of. She sprang forward like a bell had blown, running full speed toward the edge. Adrienne squeezed her eyes shut, holding on as tightly as she could. Ikal braced both large hind paws on the edge and pushed off, launching into the air.

She flailed for only a moment as Adrienne's added weight on her back sent their weight swaying too far back as they soared through the air. Adrienne screamed, and the wolves already on the platform howled out in fear, but the holder of the Triforce of Power adjusted quickly. She threw her weight forward and stuck both her legs out just as they touched down on the wooden platform. They landed solidly, and Ikal's legs buckled a little, but she steadied herself before she fell with one large paw on the railing. She then straightened and stood solidly.

Adrienne was shaking a little. Link and Zelda were already jumping to the next platform. Ikal let go of the railing and patted the wolf girl's arm. "See, I got you," she said, wagging her tail a little. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Adrienne said, tightening her grip on Ikal in preparation for the next jump. "Let's do this."

The next jump was smooth, the sheikian having figured out how to compensate for the additional weight on her back, and they all made the rest of the jumps safely. On the other side, the whole pack stood by the path that led up to the forest temple and took a deep, steadying breath.

"This is where we officially met," Adrienne said, climbing off of Ikal's back. Xenalli looked at the spot where her mate had died, then tucked her tail and slunk to the corner to be alone. The pack ignored her and wagged their tails, looking up at Link and Zelda towering over them.

"Yes, and we thought you were lying when you said you were hylians," Mutlu added. "We were obviously wrong."

"We are sorry to have dragged you all over Hyrule for our sake," Ikal said, feeling truly apologetic. The wolves, however, just seemed to shrug it off.

"We are a pack," Kelana said. "That makes you our family. You have been better leaders than Nazim and Xenalli ever were. They were cruel, but you are compassionate. They were selfish, but you sacrifice for others and for each other. We will follow wherever you go."

"But where we go wolves aren't generally accepted," Link said, his face sad. "There are no trees and no hunting. Where will you stay? What would you do? Would you become tamed for us?"

"Do you not want us to come with you?" Konuk said, his quiet voice ever timid. "It just sounds like…"

"Of course we want you," Zelda said. She looked at Link, her eyes defiant. "I do not care what royal or social protocol say," she said, her voice agitated. "These wolves have sacrificed everything for us. We will care for them, whatever they may need. Who knows, maybe someday I will want to go for another hunt. I cannot do that alone, can I?"

Link wagged his tail, and then gave a loud barking laugh. "I thought I would never see the day," he laughed, looking at her with a tender, sparkling gaze. He loved this woman so much. "You are wonderful," he said, stepping over to her and touching her arm with his paw.

"Thanks Link," Zelda said, stepping back a little. "But you have dog breath, and now that I have a choice I would rather you wait to touch me until you are hylian again." They all laughed and relaxed, glad to know that no matter what changed they would stay together. They were a pack, a family, and family sticks together.

! #$%^&*()

"You return," said a voice that sounded like light itself. The three chosen had taken their masks off and were standing ankle-deep in the waters of the Faron Forest spirit spring. Adrienne stood with the wolves just behind the chosen, at a respectful distance from the spirit. "I see that you have found your destiny, Chosen of Power," said the light spirit.

Ikal bowed. "Yes, I have. Thank you for your guidance."

"You have more, yet, to learn about yourself," the spirit said. "You will, in time, find the peace for which your spirit longs." Ikal nodded and stepped back, sensing that the spirit was done with her. It seemed to turn its attention on the remaining destined. "It is good to see that you both have re-discovered yourselves and, by association, your power. It gives me hope."

Link and Zelda both bowed low. "You believed in us when the others had given up," Zelda said. "We owe you everything."

"This world is our world too," said the spirit Faron. "The evil that now controls Hyrule will not stop his acquisition of power, and we are mere guardians. We could not hold back the onslaught of Ganondorf, and we will not be able to hold off this foe for long. You truly are our last hope."

"I will not fail you again," Link said, his eyes hard and his stance confident. "I will not fall to him again. I have learned my lesson."

"Good…now go…there is one whom you must see in Ordona's spring," said the light spirit. His presence faded from the spring as suddenly as it had appeared. Link and Zelda walked back to the pack, and Zelda was starting to shiver. Unlike Link and Ikal, whose suits were well suited to any weather, Zelda's dress was not sufficient. Adrienne had already changed into one of her winter outfits. As they all walked toward Ordon Spring, Zelda rubbed her upper arms and shivered. Link tried to wrap an arm around her, but he didn't have much warmth to offer her.

"Here," Adrienne said, taking her cloak off. "My clothes are warmer than yours. This'll help."

Zelda smiled, wrapping the cloak around her. "Thank you," she said. "You know, you make a very pretty hylian Adrienne. How are you adjusting?"

"I miss not having to worry about temperature changes so much," Adrienne said. "We just shed fur or grow fur accordingly. We don't have to think about clothes like hylians do. But I'm adjusting. Ikal has been explaining things to me."

Zelda looked over at her friend and smiled. "She's a good friend to have," the princess said to Adrienne. "I met her when I was really young, and she has watched over me my whole life."

Adrienne smiled. "Who watches over her, though?" she asked.

Ikal spoke up this time, smiling a little. "I'm a big girl. I watch over myself," she said, and winked.

Zelda smiled and grabbed Ikal's hand, pulling her closer. The princess looped one elbow through Adrienne's arm, and the other through Ikal's. She pulled them both close with her elbows and smiled. "I watch over her, Adrienne, and I will watch over you too. We are all family, after all. We are a pack, like Kelana said, and that makes us family." Adrienne smiled and Ikal tugged her arm away, looking uncomfortable. Zelda glanced at Ikal, irritation written on her features, and seemed as if she were about to say something about it when at the front of the pack, Link stopped in his tracks.

They were in front of Ordon Spring. Zelda glared at Ikal, determining to have a word with her later and find out what all of this 'ice' was about in a time of such great rejoicing, and then trotted up to Link's side. "What is wrong, Link?" she asked. Link shook his head and just motioned inside the spring.

There was a large cart tied to Daru, the work horse he bought for Ilia so long ago, and it was laden down with a little bit of everyone's possessions. Standing by the horse, who was tethered and ready to move, was none other than Link's best friend, Ilia. At least, she used to be his friend before the last time he came to Ordon. Link remembered that day so clearly. It haunted him. He was losing control of himself, of the animal inside himself, and he hurt those that he loved the most. He got in a fight with Fado, who was just trying to protect Ilia. The ranch girl had been hurt and insulting Zelda, and Link in his animalistic hunger had grabbed her shoulders so roughly that they bruised in the shape of his fingers. Mayor Bo threw him out and he hadn't been back since. Who knew what they thought of him now, with the dark imposter doing who knows what out there in the land of Hyrule. Who knew what all had happened since he was last seen by anyone in the towns?

Zelda took Link's hand in her own, twining her fingers through his. "It is going to be okay, Link," she whispered. "They care about you. Do not be afraid." She squeezed once and let go, shooing the rest of the pack back a little. This was something that the hero needed to do by himself, without their help. Link swallowed hard and bounced on his toes a little, as if he was preparing for battle. Finally he took a deep, steadying breath and stepped into the spring.

Ilia was alone in the spring. She had her back to him and was washing Daru down before their long journey. She spoke softly to the horse, and the hem of the simple, fur-lined cloak she wore dragged in the healing waters. Just beyond her Link could see a faint golden shimmer glitter in the air, and he waved a hand in silent recognition of the Light Spirit who watched. The young goat-like spirit, Ordona, had watched over them his entire life.

"You're going to freeze if you don't take better care not get your clothes wet," Link said, not moving from where he stood. "Your dad wouldn't want you to catch a cold."

Ilia's body froze. He couldn't tell if it was in shock or in fear, or a little of both. She dropped the horse brush in the water and turned around slowly. When her green eyes locked with his clear blue ones, both sets of eyes began to fill with tears. Link stepped a little closer, his heart jumping in his throat, but Ilia stepped back into Daru, who bent his head over the ranch-girl's shoulders and whinnied loudly, as if daring Link to come a step closer. The hero stopped, and his shoulders slumped.

"What are you doing here?" Ilia said, her voice barely above a whisper. "How are you still alive? Where have you been?"

"There…is a lot to explain," Link said, "and I will explain. There will be no more secrets in my life. I have learned some tough lessons, and there are lessons yet to learn. Ilia…I'm so sorry…."

Link didn't have a chance to apologize any more. The ranch girl ran across the spring and threw herself into Link's arms, burying her face in his chest. Link held her tight, rubbing her back and resting his chin on the top of her head. They were quiet like that for a moment, just happy to be near one another again. Eventually they both pulled away, and Ilia was smiling up at Link as if, now that he was here, everything would be alright. Her hand reached up and cupped his cheek, and her thumb ran over some scars that lingered there.

"I don't remember some of these," she said softly, and her hand went up to what remained of his ear, lost so long ago when Ikal's brother, Jadus, cut it off to bring Dark Link to flesh, "and I didn't get the chance to ask you about this the last time you were here."

Link reached up and touched the ear nub, and sighed. "Yeah, I have a few new scars…but scarred skin is stronger than normal skin, you know. I'm strong than I was before," he pointed a thumb at his chest, "in here. I've grown a bit."

Ilia nodded and looked down, suddenly bashful. "I'm sorry too, Link…I shouldn't have said what I did. I was so confused and angry at you. People were saying such terrible things for so long and I didn't know what to think." She looked back up at Link, her expression suddenly serious. "You should have come back sooner. We've needed you here, Link. Things have been very difficult for everyone here and in Kakariko. We're all barely holding on."

"What's been happening?" Link asked.

"I'll get Rusl and let him fill you in. He knows more of the details than I do." She grabbed his arm and started pulling him out of the spring, talking all the while. "Actually, we're all leaving Ordon and moving to Kakariko. It's too dangerous to stay on our own down here now that the truth is out and we're opposing the crown."

"Woah, what?!" Link said, trying to stop them and failing.

"I told you," Ilia said, "Rusl will explain everything!"

Link dug his heals in and forced them to stop. Ilia looked back at him with confusion. "What?"

"I'm not alone," Link said, but he smiled to put her at ease as he said it. He turned and whistled. "It's okay guys," he said. "Come on out. I need you all with me."

Zelda walked out of the shadows of the trees first, long-dead leaves and small twigs already sticking out of her hair and gown. Behind her, the four wolves followed, and Ikal and Adrienne took up the rear. Link walked over to Zelda and held her hand, smiling at her in a way that said 'I'll explain later, but everything's okay'. He then turned to face Ilia, turning very slowly. "You already know the princess," he said, and Zelda smiled and waved in her proper way. Link then motioned to the rest of the pack standing behind them. "The rest of these are my pack. They are my new family, and where I go they go."

Ilia swallowed, looking at the four wolves with obvious fear. "They…ah…hmm. Are they safe, Link?"

Link nodded. "I promise. They won't hurt a thing."

Ilia shook her head, more than a little confused, and shrugged. "Well, I guess bring them then. Everyone will be in their houses getting the last few things they need together before we leave."

They walked into Ordon and Link stopped just outside his house. "I just need to stop in my house and grab a sword and some supplies really quick." Ilia nodded and stood outside beside Zelda. The two women smiled and nodded at each other, awkward tension hanging in the air.

"And how have you been, Ilia?" Zelda asked, a polite smile on her face.

"Could be better, but fine," Ilia said. "And you?"

"About the same."

The conversation died again. They could hear Link rummaging through things in his house, but the hero didn't come out yet. "Wonder what could be taking him so long?" Ilia wondered out loud.

Zelda laughed. "He is probably having a difficult time deciding which bow to bring, or how many potions. He takes longer than me sometimes."

Ilia laughed. "That's for sure."

They fell quiet again, suddenly shy once they realized they had actually been having a friendly conversation with each other, and after a while Link finally came out of his house. He had his old Ordon Sword on his back, the same blade he had used in the beginning of his adventure before he obtained the Master Sword.

"That's all you grabbed? A sword?" Ilia said, raising an eyebrow. "What took you so long then?"

Link smiled. "No, I have everything I need. It's in this pouch here—" he gestured to a leather pouch on his belt. "It's a magical pouch. Came with the outfit. Quite nice really." He climbed down the ladder and stood beside the two women, looking as if having a magical pouch were no big deal. In truth, Zelda couldn't help but notice how light and excited he seemed. He was unburdened by the evil of the wolf stone, and he seemed freed from a weight on his shoulders. He was the Hero of Light once again, standing confident and ready for whatever came their way. He was the man she fell in love with again.

Link caught her staring at him and gave her a questioning look. Zelda just smiled and looked away, staying quiet as Link and Ilia talked and the whole pack moved toward the main part of the town of Ordon.

"Hey everyone!" Ilia shouted, her voice carrying through the small village easily. "You all need to come out here and see someone!"

Rusl's door was the first to open, and he walked out with sword in hand. "What is it, Ilia?" he said. "Is everything okay?" That's when he saw Link and stopped in his tracks. Link straightened his back a little, widening his stance. He raised his chin. The hero would not cower before Rusl's judgment—he would take it like a warrior and defend himself. The others had come out of their houses. Children and adults all gathered around, murmuring and whispering to each other. Rusl walked over to Link slowly. Mayor Bo was close behind, his face grave as his hawk-like eyes watched the wolves gathered at Link's back.

Rusl stopped in front of Link and crossed his arms over his chest. He looked him over from head to toe, and then looked behind him at the pack. His eyes lingered for a while on Zelda's face, a worry crease forming in between his furrowed eyes. "So you've decided to return," he said, still looking at Zelda for a moment before his eyes moved back to Link. "A with a bunch of monsters following you again." He spoke through gritted teeth, his eyes flaring with controlled anger.

Link planted his feet. He curled his hands into fists then uncurled them forcibly. He took a deep breath and a step back. Zelda moved behind him slightly and placed a hand on the small of his back, subtly enough that no one would notice but the pack standing behind them. "They are not monsters," Link said, his voice steady and quiet, but firm, "and neither am I. You are wrong to classify everything with claws and teeth as monsters. I tell you that these 'beasts' as you would call them have taught me more about courage and loyalty and family and perseverance in the face of tribulation than any human could. We," he reached behind him and took Zelda's hand in his bringing her to stand beside him, "we owe them our lives, and our bodies, which I will explain later if you are willing to listen. However, if you cannot look beyond your prejudice to see the nobility in the beast, then I will take my pack and leave Ordon. We will save Hyrule without your help. It is your choice, Rusl."

Rusl glowered for a moment more. His eyes shifted from one to the other, down to the wolves, and back up. Finally he uncrossed his arms and sighed. "I do not approve of this," he said, gesturing at the wolves. "Wolves attack our goats. They could attack our children. How can you possibly control such savage beasts?"

Link set his teeth, and he reached inside his pouch and pulled out the wolf mask. He held it up for all to see. "Because I am one of them," he said. "I have been one of them since the day that King Bulbin stormed into our lives and brought the Twilight War with him—and when I was trapped in the body of a wolf and afraid, I came to you for help. Do you remember Rusl?" Link's eyes were blazing now, old wounds open in his heart. "It was shortly after the kids were taken. You were gravely injured, but you heard something splash in the water and came out of your house, leading with your sword and a torch rather than with your head." Rusl's eyes widened, remembrance sparking in them. "You found a wolf with this face out there, didn't you? And you attacked him. I came to you for help, but you did not even pause to look in my eyes and see that I was no threat to you. You attacked me without hesitation, without thought. Who is the real monster Rusl? These, who only hunt deer, and of those they hunt the sick and the old in order to make the herd stronger? These who mate for life and have a complicated social order? Or we hylians who call everything with sharp teeth a monster and do not hesitate to kill them?" Link shook his head. "I have been wrong, and so are you. True courage is not having the courage to kill. It is being brave enough to stay your hand in favor of mercy, and brave enough to kill only when necessary. We warriors with blood on our hands are the monsters here, not them. We can learn a lot from them about looking out for the world and for each other."

Rusl was quiet. He looked subdued. Sighing, he sheathed his sword and shook his head. "I do not know what to think of your claim," he said, eyeing the wolf mask still in Link's hand. "But your words are wise. If I have harmed you…then I am sorry, Link."

Link smiled and stepped forward, extending his hand to Rusl. The old swordsman looked at it, and then grabbed Link's forearm with his hand. Link locked his own hand around Rusl's forearm. This was a warrior's hand shake, only given to one who you consider your equal as a sign of great respect. Link smiled, and Rusl pulled the boy closer and hugged him tightly. "I have been so worried about you," he said, his voice full of emotion. "You are like a son to me, Link. I have only wanted the best for you."

"It's okay Rusl," Link said, his voice gentle as he patted the older man's back. "We've all made mistakes. But I'm here now, and from what Ilia tells me we have a lot to talk about."

Rusl pulled back and nodded, still not letting go of Link's forearm. Link smiled at patted the swordsman's hand, then let go for both of them. Before they could say another word to each other, the rest of the townsfolk gathered around him. They bustled about and asked questions. The adults wanted to know where he'd been and what he meant with that wolf mask. The kids wanted to know if they could pet the wolves, a request which Zelda gently refused when she saw the look of slight fear on Mutlu's muzzle.

"Come on now," Mayor Bo said, pushing everyone aside. "We don't have time for all of this. You can talk to Link on the road, now, we gotta go. Get your things and move out." He crossed over to Ilia and touched her shoulder with a large hand, shooting an uncertain look at Link. "Are you okay, sweetie?" he asked. Link rolled his eyes a little, but said nothing.

"Of course, dad," Ilia said. "This is Link we're talking about. If he says the wolves are okay…I trust him."

Mayor Bo nodded. "Okay then. Go get your things from the house. We gotta go."

Ilia nodded and waved at Link, then ran back to her house. Bo already had his pack on his back and seemed ready to go. He turned to Link and extended a hand. "If Ilia trusts you and Rusl is at least passing you for now…well, that's enough for me. Good to have you back, my boy."

Link took Mayor Bo's hand and shook it. "Thank you, Bo. It means a lot to me."

Bo nodded. "Well, it's good you showed up when you did. We're going to need you, and I guess your pack here, to guard us on our way to Kakariko. We got big trouble here, Link. That artillery you left us—thank you. It's come in handy holding the monsters from Castle Town at bay—and I'm not talking about the bulbins and bokoblins that the self-crowned 'Shadow King Dark Link' has sent down here."

"Shadow King?" Zelda said, finally stepping forward. "What do you mean?"

"Oh! Princess, I plum forgot you were here!" Bo bowed low before the princess, and Zelda laughed and touched him on the shoulder.

"No need to bow to me now, Bo," she said. "I am not, currently, the monarch of the land from the sound of what you just said."

Bo straightened up. As he spoke, some of the people of Ordon had begun to gather. "Begging your pardon, Princess, but you are the true monarch of this land. Hyrule needs you to retake the throne and lead us."

Zelda inclined her head, smiling a little. "Such duty I have forgotten…but no matter. Hyrule needs more than a princess. She needs her hero, and her valiant people, and yes, she needs me too. We all work together to make Hyrule the great land of the goddesses, where the golden power rests. I will need all the aid you can provide in order to save this land, Bo."

Bo nodded. "You have it, Princess Zelda." He looked around and saw that everyone was gathered, then nodded to himself. He did a quick count. "Okay, everyone's here," he finally said. "Let's meet up with the wagon and get going. Link…and his wolves here…are going to help Fado, Rusl, and Colin protect us."

The three men in question stepped forward, and "men" was certainly the term. Rusl was always the competent swordsman, but Fado and Colin were looking more experienced and competent than Link would have imagined. Fado, once the dumb but gentle oaf who always let the goats out, had a few scars on his arms and a nasty one on his neck. Strapped to his back was a two-handed broadsword so large that Link wasn't exactly sure he would be able to lift it. As for Colin, he had obviously hit his first growth spurt, and like most young boys going through that stage, he had grown over a foot taller. He was still shorter than Link, but he could no longer be called a child. He sported a sword and a wooden shield on his back to prove it. They all started walking to the spring.

"Hey Link!" Colin said, falling into step beside the hero, and Link could hear that his voice was changing. It was deeper than Link remembered. "Good to see you back—you look like you've been through hell."

Link smiled. "And you look like you've grown like a weed. When did it start?"

Colin shrugged. "The first day of winter. Hey, I've always believed in you Link. I never thought that King Dark Link was really you. The others laughed at me, but when the messengers from Kakariko came and told us the news, turned out I was right."

"Thanks Colin," Link said. "It means a lot to me."

They all turned into the spring and Ilia and Fado made some last adjustments to Daru's hitch. They loaded Malo, who was still very short for his age, Uli with now-toddler Suun, and Sera onto the wagon and pulled out.

"Okay," Rusl said, taking charge of the procession like a military commander. "Here's what's going on Link: we got the command to move all of our people to Kakariko, but the messenger ran into a small army from Castle Town on the way. We've dealt with raiders and small bulbin or bokoblin parties in the past, but this is an actual army. They're coming down here to wipe us out because of our connection to you, I'm sure. I don't know how far away they are, so we may run into them on our way to Kakariko Gorge. We're going to try to skirt the south eastern side of the field and sneak into the gorge, but we'll see." Link nodded and Rusl continued. "So, I need Colin and Fado to work the sides. Ilia, you stay up in the driver's seat and take care of Daru. I just want you to focus on the horse and the wagon. Mayor Bo and I will watch the rear. Link, if you could—"

"Zelda and I will take the front," Link said, cutting Rusl off. The older swordsman looked annoyed and defiant, wanting to keep the princess protected, but Link kept talking. "Trust me Rusl, I know what my pack can do. Ikal, will you focus on watching over Adrienne and the other innocents? Have Adrienne communicate to the wolves to spread out equally on both sides. That includes Xenalli, no matter what you all think of her. If I see her slacking, I'll handle it myself." He looked over at the former alpha female, his eyes threatening. "And you don't want me to have to do that, Xenalli."

The pack spread out as Link commanded, and he and Zelda took the front. "Use your mask if you have to," Link said to her, and he glanced back at Ikal to make sure the Sheikah had heard. Ikal nodded her acknowledgment. Link looked back at Zelda. "I know you're missing your sword, so I expect you'll have to unless you can steal one from one of the attackers. I'll be right beside you, so don't worry."

Zelda smiled. "I think you are worrying enough for the both of us, Link," said the princess. "I can handle myself, thank you."

Link laughed a little, his attention shifting to the horizon as they moved past Faron Spring and approached Coro's house. "I know you can, I've seen you hunt," Link teased. "Hey Coro! Get over here! Don't you know that an army's coming to bowl this place over?"

"Oh hey guy!" Coro said. "You know, I've been safe in my house all this time, I figure I'll just stay here if it's all the same to you."

"We've already talked about this, Coro," Mayor Bo said. "You're coming with us. Don't make us take you by force."

"But I don't want to live in the city, man! The city is ugly. I'm a woods kinda guy."

Link walked over and grabbed Coro by his afro, dragging him over to the wagon. Fado lifted him up and threw him in, to Coro's loud protests. "You'll be a dead woods guy if you're not careful," Link said. "You're coming and that's that." Coro grumbled but settled down, and the group moved out of the gate and into Hyrule Field.

!

The field looked quiet at first, but something was odd about the horizon. It was black as night, as if a black cloud were slowly marching toward them. The wolves were the first to realize what was coming toward them. At the sound of their growls, Rusl, Colin, and Fado took out their weapons. Link looked at Zelda, who nodded back at him. She knew what he wanted to do. "This might look a little frightening," Link said to the Ordonians behind him, "but trust me. We're perfectly safe. It's just that this is a few more than I imagined."

The sound of chanting and marching feet floated across to their ears. Ilia snapped the reigns, sending Daru rushing forward. The people on the ground jogged to keep up, but the wolves had an easy time of it. Link, Zelda, and Ikal put on their masks.

The transformation was a lot faster this time for Link and Zelda, and they roared on the other side of it like animals. The Ordonians screamed, but Link could hear Colin shouting "he said it would frightening, it's okay! Steady everyone! He's just Link, remember?" Link wagged his large tail and looked back, trying to look as gentle as possible, but he didn't have much time to be friendly. The single unit—for now that it was closer, Link could see that it was indeed a larger unit, but a solitary unit of the army nonetheless—was upon them.

He roared, pushing off of his hind feet and leaping into the mass of black and silver-clad Hyrulian Soliders, their red eyes soulless as they rushed at the wagon, intent on leaving nothing and no one alive. Zelda was right beside Link, and they tore into the soldiers with teeth and claws. Rusl and Bo were fighting with them, but the rest of the wagon party—Ikal included—kept going as fast as possible.

When the wagon entered the narrow passage to Kakariko Gorge, Link tugged on Zelda's arm with his large paw-hand and pointed at it. The goal was to protect the wagon, not destroy Dark Link's unit. Zelda nodded and ran to the wagon, knocking aside some soldiers on her way. She was careful not to seriously hurt them—they were, after all, her own people and it felt wrong. Rusl and Bo were taking no prisoners, however. They cut through the Obsidian Army without hesitation, hatred on their faces, and moving farther away from the path to Kakariko Gorge in the process. Link howled at them, but they ignored his cry. Growling, he elbowed a nearby solider in the face and then leapt in front of Bo and Rusl. They looked at him as if he were just another monster, and raised their swords to strike, but Link stepped back and shook his head, holding his arms out in front of him. Their swords stopped at the last moment.

"Link?" Rusl said, blocking a nearby sword blow as he got his wits about him. Link pointed at the wagon, then howled in pain. He stumbled a bit and turned, reaching behind him. Sticking out of the back of his shoulder was the head of a rusty-looking, double-headed hand ax.

"Link!" Mayor Bo shouted. "Come on Rusl, let's get him out of here!"

Link shook his head. His vision was blurring. There were soldiers rushing at them, and he spun around, roaring in protest, his clawed hands digging into Hyrulian flesh and tossing bodies to the side. But his head was getting fuzzier and fuzzier. He could feel a hot liquid matting the fur on his back. He stumbled backward. He could hear Rusl and Mayor Bo shouting something, hear their swords blocking attacks and fending off soldiers. He felt a pair of large hands grip his furry shoulders. But he could see nothing, and soon he blacked out entirely.

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Author's Notes:

Hello everyone! Happy May to you all! I hope YOU, at least, have flowers. We're just barely getting buds here in Minnesota, but at least the grass is green. Mostly. So we hit 100 likes! YEY US! Well, really, YEY YOU GUYS! I'm hammering out the details of the contest. I'll announce it in the author's notes of chapter 25, which should be uploaded before the end of the month. Keep an eye out! In the mean time, you still have time to like the page and get in on this.

As always, thanks for reading! I'll be looking forward to the reviews. :)

~The Wolfess

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