IMPORTANT: Most of you will have already begun this story some time back when it was incomplete. Well now it's complete, and I've done a lot of fixing. I will be posting chapters a lot faster this time. You'll also find I reorganized the story's layout. Now, no matter the length, you only get one POV per chapter. It's neater, and easier for me to setup.
PLEASE NOTE: Your comments and feedback are always welcome. I hope you will begin this story anew, with fresh eyes, and dive back into the world I took, like, seriously, over five years to write, which is ridiculous and which I will never, no, never, ever again attempt.
I want to also give a shout out to all of the readers who have been supporting me over the years. This story is dedicated to you, most especially.
With all my love,
PART 1:A PUPPET'S FREEDOM
CHAPTER 1: THE SOLDIER
17th of Quintember, Year 3378, Third Age
Hyrule, somewhere over the Gerudo desert
Hylian Alliance ship, the Courage
Smoke. Fire. Heat. Screams.
"Load your guns," the battalion's conveyor warned his men by radio. "They'll be hitting us next. Hold your fire until I give you the signal."
Link Forester took a deep breath. He was thankfully out of the firing line; he stood on the command deck with all the other captains, blinking in the unfiltered sunlight that blazed through the ship canopy. Below, men quivered and shook with fear and anticipation. But he saw and heard none of it.
Captain Ralph Advice stood off to the side, in a pained, stunned daze. Half of his squadron had been decimated that very morning, and the shock had taken its toll on the otherwise upbeat young officer. Of the twelve Flits that had departed, only five had returned. It was a great price to pay, and one Ralph had not yet accepted. He was leaning against the wall, eyes staring into nothing. Twenty-one flitters gone for good, another six seriously injured. Of the five engines that had managed to return, three had suffered severe damage and would require days of repair.
"Spit on the Guardians," Darunia Rocks, a large Goron who served directly under their commander, mumbled. He looked at the fierce airborne battle raging outside, seen in every detail from the command deck's large canopy window, voicing the hatred felt by a whole nation. He wasn't in a good mood. He'd just returned from an inspection and, as Link could guess, all was not well. "The bastards managed to take out the aft right-hand hovercraft on deck 2."
Link glanced at Impa Shades. The fleet commander was not in a good mood either. She'd announced before the fight even started that they'd suffer from it. She hadn't, however, expected attacks to actually reach the Courage, one of the Hylian Alliance's main airships.
Things had swiftly gone from bad to worse. Somehow, the Guardian Air Forces had managed to procure a large number of Flits and dogfighters in an alarmingly short time. Someone was providing the Guardians ―of the Guardian Coalition― with weaponry faster than the Hylian Alliance could purchase gunpowder.
In all fairness, it had seemed like a good idea, at first, to send out Ralph Advice's squadron. The captain was still young for such missions, it was true, but he was a natural for difficult fights. They'd expected him to lose a few Flits, but not that many.
And they certainly hadn't expected one of the Guardian Coalition's principal airships, The Argorok, to release such merciless dogfighters onto the then-helpless squadron. Ralph had retreated hastily, broken, his squad in shambles, and the Courage had struggled to fight off the subsequent onslaught of swift enemy attacks.
With one of the Courage's eight massive hovercrafts gone so early in the battle, the odds were against them. The airship could survive on four hovercrafts if necessary, but in a normal battle, large airships like the Courage didn't lose hovercrafts to enemy fire in the first place.
Link Forester had fought losing battles many times, but none had seemed this… desperate before.
"Captain Forester," Impa Shades called. Rumour had it the woman was of Sheikah ancestry, and her eyes, almost red in the sunlight, seemed to confirm it then. She stood rigidly as she looked at the flurry of dogfighters and Flits zipping by the command deck's canopy. The sunlight over the desert was bright and unhindered. They'd fought for hours, trying to reclaim the desert airspace. Her knuckles were white as she held onto her seat's armrests: she was uneasy.
"Commander," Link said, standing at attention.
"How many of your Flits are ready for combat?"
"All seventeen of them, Commander." Link pretended he wasn't worried for them.
Impa Shades lowered her gaze away from the gut-wrenching sight of the Hylian Alliance losing terrain and she breathed, "Have a Flit message out to Admiral Auru at the Citadel. We are losing this battle and will buckle down in the Canyon before more men are lost."
Link couldn't help but stare. Never before had he seen Impa Shades surrender. Gathering his wits, he said, "Shall I accompany it, or remain here?"
"Take your Flit."
The curt tone made the message clear: she wanted this over with as soon as possible. Captain Link Forester was the fastest airman affiliated to the Courage's fleet.
He clicked his heels together and said, in the same, efficient tone, "I will rejoin at the Castleton Base." He turned to Captain Gaebora, the most experienced captain on board ―perhaps because of his Rito lineage, which, though shameful in this time of war, granted him natural understanding of air and wind currents― and said, "The remaining sixteen Flits in my squadron are under your command until my return."
Gaebora nodded curtly. Good enough.
Link was relieved to leave the command deck. The Courage's sides were being mercilessly attacked by enemy fire, and he was beginning to doubt its strength.
Sergeant Sheik Strike, his second-in-command, fell into step with him. He'd overheard Commander Impa Shades' order; there was no point in asking. Sheik always knew what was going on. They'd been partners for so long that Link wasn't even surprised at his efficiency anymore. The lithe young man was technical. "I've finished restocking the Flit. Its hovercrafts are in working order and the directional engine is as good as it can be. I've chosen Colin Blade as our third man."
Link nodded. When he was out of the Commander's sight, he relaxed easily. Colin Blade was a seventeen year-old navigator, son of the Hylian Alliance's Ground Forces Commander, Rusl Blade. He was a quiet kid, with an innocent, harmless look that hid his skill. Where Sheik was the ideal technical engineer, Colin was the perfect navigator. Link always piloted; their assistance made each one of his flights successful.
Colin Blade was waiting by the Flit's open cockpit door, anxiously leaning against the side in a uniform that seemed a little too small on him. He was still growing, and his pants were getting short.
Link took a moment to do a once-over of his airship. A Flit was a lightweight aircraft, with two rotor-based hovercrafts to maintain lift. A strong directional booster at the back was necessary for movements in mid-air. There were two short wings on each side of the boxy but surprisingly spacious cockpit, mostly to maintain balance in strong winds.
Link enjoyed flitting; the engine was easily handled and was the swiftest aircraft in existence. A well-tuned Flit could travel at high speeds and still execute sharp turns at the slightest nudge of the pilot's hand. It was easy to feel in control, and Link honestly considered himself a champion of Flit piloting. He'd won grand races before enrolling in the military. It had made his renown, and had quickly propelled him to the rank of captain.
"All tuned and ready to go, captain," Colin Blade said, smiling. The boy liked flying too.
Link nodded, smirked, and removed his uniform jacket. He disliked its formality. It landed in a trunk inside the Flit's engine room. They kept everything in nailed boxes and trunks, to avoid loose objects during the flight. Sharp turns could end up being deadly otherwise. As he sat in the pilot's seat with Colin next to him, he checked the fuel gauges and the heat generation gauge on Sheik's boards, while Colin calculated the distance to destination ―the Citadel's headquarters, a good four hours away― as well as the maximum speed for the endurance flight.
"Wind from the south-west. Maximum speed, 212," he said, then added, "at an altitude of 800. Hovercraft strength set on ten FGU, propeller on eight. I've entered the best route to destination on your directional screen and calculated a fifteen-minute battlefield escape time limit."
Link grinned. "All good. We're going to be way under."
Sheik shut the cockpit door and sat behind Colin. "I wouldn't be sure about that. It's a bad war zone out there." He secured the safety belt over his torso. "All engines are ready to go, though I noticed a medium-levelled oil gauge on our left hand hovercraft. It should still last us a good while. I'll check it regularly in flight."
Link nodded and put on his headset. His flight companions imitated his practiced movements. With the sound their engine would soon be making, they'd need the headsets to communicate.
It took a full minute to warm up the hovercrafts and the propeller.
"Putting the hovercrafts to one FGU. Propeller on zero." Something below their craft started humming lowly.
Sheik glanced at the gauges at his side. "All normal."
"Turning hovers up to one and a half… two FGU." The humming increased; the craft lifted off the hangar floor.
"All normal," Sheik confirmed again.
"Hovers on two," the captain said, for the benefit of his help. He then tuned in with the hangar operator, and said, into his headset, "Battleship Courage, Flit 106 calling for exit."
'Gotcha, Captain Forester; it won't be long. Clearing launch port― all right, they're clear. Five minute opening, no more. We'll cover you.'
A signal was given to the automatic doors. The latch was opening. The three young men watched as daylight and gunfire sounds started pouring into the dark hangar. Link wasted no time. "Hovers still on two; propeller on one FGU… two."
The still weak propeller was slowly pushing the Flit on an air cushion created by the hovercrafts. It drifted towards the battleship's hangar opening, and the sound of the battle mixed with the sound of its engine began to deafen the three-man team. It was customary, however, so none of them reacted.
"Flit 106 taking off."
'Have a nice flight,' the operator's sarcastic farewell said, and Link snorted into the headset, then disconnected from the operator's line. He raised the hovercraft's strength and increased the propeller's power.
"Hovers on three; propeller on four."
Sheik didn't say anything this time. The verifications were done. Link only did it to help Colin keep track. Outside, many allied and enemy aircrafts were zipping by, spiralling, trying to shoot one another down. They'd have a secured ramp for take-off into the empty airspace below the ship, but after that, it'd be a zigzagging feat to escape the battlefield.
"Hovers on three and a half, propeller on five… six." The Flit was steadily gliding towards the opening. It was now moving along the release ramp and would soon plunge into the open.
Colin checked his watch. They had twelve minutes to get out of the battlefield area at full speed before settling for their cruising speed.
"Hovers on four, propeller on seven…" The Flit was moving faster and faster, and the end of the ramp came faster and faster. "Eight…"
The Flit dropped off the ramp and into the sunlight. Immediately, Link adjusted the hovercrafts' strength and pushed the propeller up to nine, then ten fighting-gravity-units.
"We'll pass under the melee," Link commented as he dropped the hovercrafts' strength. "And break back up once we're clear."
There was a certain risk to having little altitude but high speed. Obstacles were numerous at low heights. But Colin was calm; Link was a talented pilot. Rather than worry about obstacles, he concentrated on his monitor.
He sharply looked up at his captain. "Enemy dogfighter taking chase. I'm transferring the lock."
"Gotcha," Link said, absently checking his speed gauge. They were far above their cruising speed. "We'll push this baby a little bit more and lose him in the fray."
"Propeller at twelve," Link said. "Hovers rising to seven FGU."
The Flit heaved upwards suddenly, pushed both by its hovercrafts and by its strong booster. The battle and its numerous participants were drawing nearer, until the captain's Flit was right in the middle of it. Gunfire was abundant, and a few shots hit the armoured body, but didn't detract Link Forester's aircraft from its path.
Far across the battlefield, over the yellow dunes, the Argorok loomed threateningly.
Link weaved in and out of other flight paths, occasionally checking his timer and fuel gauge, but otherwise looking like he was having a great, if adrenalin-pumped, time.
"Is our dog still giving chase?" He asked his navigator. Colin was squinting at his now crowded screen.
"Hard to say. I think so."
"Alright then," Link grinned. "Propellers to maximum speed. Hovercrafts to ten FGU. Think we can still push her?"
"At full-strength, we can only afford another seven minutes before we start eating our cruise fuel," Colin replied.
Link grinned. The speed at which the Flit was hurtling through the air was exhilarating. "Hold on tight."
He raised the hovercrafts' strength to its maximum. As they rose in a graceful peak over the fighting, Colin checked his screen.
"Still giving chase," he said. "He's stubborn."
"We'll see about that," Link said, and in a single movement, dropped the hovercraft's power from maximum to three. It was like cutting out their air support. The Flit dropped down, back into the battle, and even lower as gravity dragged it, pushed forward only by its powerful propeller but otherwise in absolute freefall. Link zipped through the air, teeth clenched together in a large, tense smile. The dogfighter executed a graceful arc as well and plunged after them.
"It's gaining on us," Colin said, his heart in his throat and his body rising out of his seat ―thank the skies for his seatbelt― as the Flit continued to drop through the air. It was terrifying, but he didn't say it. He felt as if, at any moment, they'd hit the ground with a splat. Because indeed, the ground was hurtling towards them at a speed he was definitely uncomfortable with.
"I damn hope he's still giving chase," Link said between his teeth. He was concentrating on the ground, concentrating on his timing and experience, knuckles white as he gripped the controls.
"He's on our tail. We're probably in his line of fire." It was hard not to sound panicked. If they didn't hit the ground first, they'd be shot down.
There was the ground.
One last second…
Link pushed the hovercrafts' strength back up to seven fighting-gravity-units. The engines whined, but obeyed. The Flit landed on an air cushion and continued hurtling ―horizontally, this time― along the desert ground, at a speed that was higher than usual. It was like a miracle. They weren't dead. They'd just taken a powerful drop and nearly lost―
The dogfighter hit the ground at full speed, and rocketed in every direction as it exploded in a massive ball of fuel fire. Link pushed the Flit onward and away from the battle's airspace.
"They always overestimate a dogfighter's manoeuvrability," Link said smugly, ignoring Colin's pale face and Sheik's tight-lipped smile.
"Arrogant much?" Sheik said, with a teasing voice.
'Flit 106. A call from Battleship Courage. Come in, Flit 106.'
Colin took the line. "Flit 106 online."
'Commander Impa Shades for captain Link Forester.'
"I'm listening," the captain said good-humouredly, raising the Flit higher above the ground and lowering its horizontal speed. No one else had taken chase.
'Forester, that was a beautiful manoeuvre," Impa Shade's voice complimented, 'and if you ever risk a Flit like that again, I'm demoting you.'
"Duly noted, Commander. Good luck."
'No, good luck to you.'
The communication was abruptly cut off. Link glanced at Colin questioningly, but the boy had no explanation. Impa Shades was unreadable even on her good days.
The next few minutes as they flew over the barren land were quiet. The glare of the sun through the cockpit window prompted them to put on glasses to cut its bright light and see clearly. It was a long flight to the Citadel, and they were by nature quiet men. Link was the most confident, Colin the easiest to read, and Sheik the most analytic. Their three-man cell was well matched.
Colin was the first to break the silence. "Captain?"
"It's Link, Colin, when we're not in front of officials. What is it?"
"Sorry... Link. Um… Why are we headed for the Citadel?"
Link put the Flit on autopilot after entering their destination's coordinates. He took a deep breath and untied his seatbelt. Sheik relaxed as well and stood to check on the hovercrafts, which they'd strained during the battlefield escape.
Link looked pensive and mildly annoyed. "The Guardians' hold on the west is strong. We received orders to retake the desert lands, but apparently, it won't be possible. We need to tell the Citadel about the stalemate. They'll need to consolidate the defences quickly, because the Guardian Coalition won't be satisfied for long. If they reach the Citadel, the war will be as good as lost."
And the Hylian Alliance, which was already crumbling, would cease to exist altogether.