To those of you who reviewed, congratulations! You saved a puppy from Demise! You are now known as a Hero of Puppies!

The first thing that Link noticed when he awoke was a slight pounding in his head; the second was the sharp pain in his ribs as he sat up too fast. He found himself on a limestone floor, with the heat of the desert beating down upon him from an opening in a wall, and with a thoroughly bandaged torso. Idly, he wondered just how long he'd been out. The last thing he remembered was fighting the... thing... in the temple, and taking the mask outside, only to find Sato seemingly vanished. That had been a little later into the day, but one quick look out the window told the fair Hylian that it was now probably closer to morning. As he was busy trying to figure out what happened, the cloth hanging in the doorway was pushed aside, and a Gerudo came in, eying Link almost wearily.

"You're awake," she said simply. Link peered at her curiously.

"Where am I?" he asked after a moment. The gerudo snorted.

"The Fortress. One of ours brought you here unconscious, though I don't know why he bothered." Her mild disdain became a sneer. "Bleach-skins like you coming into the desert are asking for trouble." Link frowned. This wasn't exactly how he'd imagined visiting the Gerudo Fortress; in his mind, there had been much less angry Gerudo and more goofing off with Gary. And speaking of...

"Oh!" Link felt himself straighten a little, his eyebrows raising in concern. "Where's Gary? Is he okay? I think he got cut, I couldn't tell how bad it-" The gerudo cut him off.

"He's fine. He took some herbs for himself and said he was going to the archery range, though why he was so adamant that we needed to take care of you first is beyond me..." She turned to a small table and grabbed Link's bag, tossing it to him. He managed to catch it before it hit the ground, thankfully, and a quick check found the mask inside still intact. "I filled your bottle with medicine and put herbs in there. If it starts to smart, chew on the herbs, and take a sip of the medicine every night before bed until your ribs heal."

"Oh, uhm, thank-"

"Now get out." Puzzled by the abruptness of the gerudo, Link slipped his bag over his shoulder and stood slowly, leaving the room as she continued to sneer at him. Maybe she was just having a bad day, he mused. It took some wandering and stumbling into random rooms, but eventually Link found his way out of the building (he had come to conclusion that it was some sort of hospital) and out into the hot desert morning. Gusts of warm wind blew as he made his way further into the fortress, passing by Gerudo children chasing each other around and playing and adult Gerudo shopping in the bazaar or selling their wares. Each and every one of them paused whatever they were doing as he passed by, fixing the fair Hylian with dirty stares and generally making him feel very out of place and uncomfortable. The guards seemed endlessly disturbed by his presence- there were at least two that he was sure of that were following him. Suddenly the idea of being in the fortress didn't seem as fun anymore, and he hunched slightly in an attempt to make himself smaller.

He found himself having to stop at one of the stalls to buy a canteen, his throat being completely dry and his stomach tied in knots from having literally almost every eye on him. He placed a red and a blue rupee on the counter and selected a nice, green-dyed one, and was painfully aware of the stall owner's piercing gaze on him as he turned away to dip it into the barrel of water she kept next to the shop.

"Uhm, sorry," he murmured as he turned back to her, "but how can I get to the archery range from here?" She glanced him over, her eyes softening a bit as she took in his lost, frightened demeanor.

"Go down the path here and keep going, you'll get there eventually," she said, jerking her head to her right. Link thanked her with a small, strained smile, and began once more down the street, this time at a quicker pace. He was pretty sure the guards had stopped following him once he left the bazaar, but as the canyon narrowed into a small path, he was convinced the couple gerudo hanging around in the shadows would shank him the moment his back was turned. Several glances over his shoulder after he passed assured him that they had virtually no interest in him, thankfully, and he arrived at the range unharmed.

As soon as he felt comfortable enough to spare a glance around, he took in his surroundings- there were a few gerudo teaching their young daughters to shoot with child-sized bows off towards the right, and a few more were tending to horses tied to posts by an overhang. There were many targets set up against the canyon walls, and two at either end of a long track at the top of posts. The only male gerudo he could find were in a small, open space, circling each other on their own horses as they practiced their mounted combat- and neither of the two were Gary. One was tall and broad while the other was soft-looking with a pair of glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose. Link watched them for a little while- at least, until a loud cry of "heyyah!" caught his attention.

He turned around just in time to see Gary spur his horse into action, a young black stallion with red eyes blazing as hot as the desert sun. As the horse barreled down the track, Gary pulled a bow off of his shoulder and drew an arrow from his quiver, pulling it back and letting it fly. Link watched on, amazed, as his gangly friend proceeded to hit the bullseye on each and every target he passed, despite how fast his mount was galloping. Gary maneuvered his horse wonderfully as he rounded the post and shot, nearly hitting the bullseye on both its front and its back, and while Link was marginally more impressed than he'd been moments before, Gary looked pissed off to no end. He fired more bullseyes into the targets by the wall before tugging at the reigns, his horse skidding to a stop. Link found himself grinning.

"Hey, Gary!" he called. "Nice shooting!" Gary whirled around, staring at him with wide eyes as other gerudo looked over, highly amused. He glanced around at them uncertainly before jogging over to Link.

"Dude!" he hissed as soon as he was within hissing distance. "Why'd you leave the hospital?" Link frowned.

"Nice to see you, too," he replied defensively. "The girl there kicked me out almost as soon as I woke up." Gary groaned.

"Ugh! Damn, I should have seen that coming, Ysel hates knife-ears..." He sighed heavily. "Oh, well. Can't be helped, I guess. At least you'll stop whining about going to the training grounds." The young gerudo turned to holler for someone to put his horse in the shade, and as several gerudo ran to do just that, Link noticed the two other males who had been previously sparring coming over to join them. Gary groaned again. "Oh, jeez, of all the..."

"Are they not your friends?" By the way they were grinning, that didn't seem to be the case.

"Gary!" the broad one greeted as they finally drew near. "You didn't tell us the one you dragged back was a knife-ears! I thought Dinnas talked you into cave-running, again!"

"I'm surprised he's still alive," the bespectacled one snickered, "bleach-skins are notoriously frail."

"Guys...!" Gary protested. "Lay off, he broke two ribs and bruised, like, three!"

"And yet, here you stand with but a scratch, oh mighty warrior!" the first laughed. "You know what they say; never send a Hylian to do a Gerudo's job!"

"Yeah," Link agreed, smirking, "too bad Gerudo have terrible immune systems. I bet I'll give you all some horrible disease just by breathing at you- see how strong you are, then."

"I like this one!" the first laughed. "I'm Kallah Raziv." He held out his hand firmly, which Link shook.

"Link Glaradith." Gary stared on, dumbfounded.

"But... but you guys...," he stammered. The bespectacled one snickered again.

"What, you think we'd chew him up just for being Hylian? I thought you said he was your friend," he replied.

"Azael-!" Link smiled as he watched them bicker like old friends- of course, he reminded himself, they probably were. Gary probably had loads of Gerudo friends who were closer to him than Link was- they'd only met in the seventh grade, after all. Sometimes he forgot that fact.

"So how long have you all known each other?" he piped in just before Gary and Kallah started beating each other up. Gary shifted awkwardly; Kallah looked thoughtful.

"I'm not sure how long, exactly," he replied after a moment, "but before any of us can remember. We're all in the same age group, you know?" Link blinked, wondering if that was supposed to mean anything to him.

"Let me put it this way," Azael tried, "we're all the same age, and we're the only males in our age group. If we didn't know each other, something would be very wrong. While we live and fight alongside our sisters, there's something comforting about being able to get in a group with nothing but other men."

"I guess that's something us knife-ears take for granted," Link added thoughtfully. "I knew Gerudo men were hard to come by, but I didn't think it was that hard, any more."

"There's one more of us, but he lives in Termina, and we rarely hear from him." Kallah shrugged. "His name's Ra'al, he loves the sea, and he's a damn good smuggler, so he's always out on a voyage of some sort. I hear he's getting his own ship this year, he's planning on calling it the Goddess Flame or something."

"Now, there's something," Link said, "we have Kallah, Azael, and Ra'al- Gary, what the hell's up with your name?" Gary's awkward shift became worse, and he was pointedly avoiding Link's gaze, now, as were Kallah and Azael. "Uhm... sorry. Did I hit a nerve?" No one replied.

"Didn't you say you called a cab?" Azael finally asked after a sufficient amount of awkward. Gary nodded, scuffing at the ground with his shoe. Link looks between the three Gerudo uneasily. He wasn't quite sure what was going on, but he knew that whatever it was, a knife-ears like him would definitely never understand. Perhaps the translated version of Gary's name was rather awkward in common conversation. Either way it looked like Link would have to drop the subject for now.

"You called, Gary?" he asked. "I thought you didn't get bars all the way out here in the desert." Gary shrugged one shoulder almost noncommittally.

"I don't," he replied. He gestured broadly back towards market. "There's an old payphone back by the spice stall, rotary dial and everything. It's left over from when that one old phone company tried to expand its business to the desert." He glanced at his watch. "They'll be here really soon. We should head out of the fortress." Link pouted.

"Just when I got in, too...," he whined. "Alright. Let's go, I guess." He waited for Gary, Azael, and Kallah to have their good-bye hugs, and once they had, he and Gary set off back through the market and towards the gates leading out of the fortress. Fewer gerudo seemed to stare at him, probably because they figured Gary was keeping an eye on him. Though, the journey was a little odd- some gerudo seemed to stare not at him, but at Gary, and with some sort of reverence- Link sensed there was a story in there, somewhere, but he wasn't too keen on asking questions since Gary had pretty much flat-out refused to answer his last one. They continued to walk on in silence, eventually stopping when they reached the paved road outside of the Gerudo's Fortress. Gary watched a tumbleweed blow by idly before digging in his bag for a protein ball. Link watched the road for any sign of the cab.

"...I'm sorry," Gary said around half a protein ball approximately five minutes later.

"Sorry for what?" Link replied absent-mindedly. He'd found great interest in trying to catch some Gerudo dragonflies that were buzzing around as they waited.

"For back there. With the guys. And... Ysel and everyone else." He peered over his shoulder to find his friend staring self-consciously at the road as he munched. "I know they all gave you a hard time. Well, not Kallah and Azael so much, they seemed okay with you, but... there were guards following us out, did you notice?" Link paused and thought, quickly shaking his head no. He hadn't noticed, actually. He'd assumed that since so many people were busy staring at Gary and not him, he'd been either forgotten or deemed pretty much harmless.

"I guess I should have expected that," Link replied after yet another failed attempt to capture a dragonfly. "There were a couple following me when I went to try and find you. Oh, by the way, I didn't embarrass you, did I?" Gary cocked an eyebrow.

"What, when I was on my horse? Not really, I guess. It's just, that one shot always gets me, y'know? I was a little frustrated." He offered the bag of protein balls, and Link grabbed a couple to munch on. "I'm just gonna have to find a away to practice."

"Hey, we could always try hitting the shooting gallery downtown." Now that the awkward silence had finally been broken, the two boys carried on as always, laughing and goofing off and making plans for things to do over the week-long vacation they had coming up. When the cab finally got there, they piled into the back seat and requested transport back to Castle City. The seven-hour drive felt long, and a few times Link had to make use of the pain killers Ysel had given him, but for the most part, nothing interesting happened. Well, alright, there was that one guy who sped by on the new Epona model motorcycle by LonLon Inc, and Link couldn't help but feel extremely jealous as he did so, but other than that, there wasn't anything interesting. The fare was pretty expensive, by the time they got into town- almost one hundred rupees- but between the two of them, they managed to pay it off and leave before it got much worse, and walked the rest of the way back to Viscen's flat.

Of course, needless to say, Viscen was kind of pissed.

"Gary. Mahas," he greeted, dangerously calm as the boys entered the living room. He stood from his strategic position on the couch and crossed his arms as he stared them down with that expression he usually reserved only for the times Link came home drunk- and after the first couple times that happened, Link made absolutely sure to never do it ever again.

"Uhm... hi, Mr. Glaradith," Gary replied, grinning. "Lovely evening, isn't it?" Link had the right of mind to keep his mouth firmly shut.

"You were supposed to be back yesterday evening." Link squirmed uncomfortably.

"Well, you know, stuff came up and we stayed the night at the Fortress, and, uhm..." Gary laughed nervously. Viscen did not seem amused.

"Gary, your mother came looking for you yesterday," the guard said after a moment. "She said she needed to speak to you urgently. You need to go home, now." Gary winced and shot Link an apologetic look, which said fair Hylian mirrored right back at him. Gary quickly spun around and left. Viscen and Link were both quiet for a moment.

"...You know, what happened, it's actually a really great story-" Link began. Viscen immediately cut him off.

"Mahas. Glaradith." Ohhhhh, shit, he was in trouble, he was in such trouble... Link lowered his head a little at Viscen's intense glare. "How dare you worry me like that, young man! You'll be lucky if I let you go to work this week!"

"But- but Dad, I can explain-!"

"No! No, alright?! I don't want to hear any Goddesses-forsaken excuses! You were supposed to have your cellphone with you the entire time! If you had gotten stranded, you could have called! I would have come to get you, Mahas!"

"I would have, I swear, but I didn't get bars all the way out there, and to top it off-!"

"Then how the hell did you get back?! Don't even try to tell me you rode a damned horse all the way back!"

"No, Gary called a cab using a payphone, but-!"

"Then why didn't you do that in the first place?!"

"Because I got hurt, alright?!" It seemed Viscen didn't have a response Link's shout; he merely stared, surprised, and Link took the opportunity. "Sato showed up and dropped his mask inside the Spirit Temple because something scared him, and he asked Gary and I to get it for him, and I thought it would be okay, I mean, Gary had his halberd and I had a dagger and we were super careful, but..." Viscen sighed heavily and motioned for Link to sit on the couch with him.

"Is that what the bandages are all about?" the guard asked quietly once they'd both had a moment to calm down. Link nodded. "Would you mind if I took a look?" Link shrugged one shoulder and fiddled with the bandages, unwrapping them once they were loose enough. There were large, dark bruises around his ribs and chest, and Viscen frowned deeply upon seeing them.

"Wow. Those look like they smart a bit." Link couldn't help but laugh a bit, though with the pain killers wearing off again, it hurt a little. "What happened? You didn't try forcing your way into the Fortress, did you?"

"No." Link shook his head and smiled sheepishly. "Like I said, Sato asked us to go get a mask for him, but, at the end... there was this, well- this thing. It was big and armored and had a huge sword, and I was gonna run, but Gary decided to stay and fight, so I hung back to help him..." He grimaced. "Turns out a dagger isn't all that useful."

"I'm glad you're safe, but... you fought an Iron Knuckle?" Viscen raised an eyebrow. "I thought you didn't believe in them, Mahas." Link rolled his eyes and went about wrapping the bandages back around his torso.

"I don't," he replied. "I don't know what it was, exactly, but it can't have been an Iron Knuckle." It was Viscen's turn to laugh, now, and he ruffled Link's hair affectionately.

"Well, then. I was going to ground you for the entire length of the festival, this year, but I guess getting beaten so badly by something that doesn't exist is punishment enough. Now, go change into some normal clothes, I've got night duty this week, and Zelda's been dying to see you again." Link didn't need telling twice- he leaped up and ran to his room to do just that.

They took the subway to get to the castle, which ended up being a more-or-less five minute ride, and once they had gone through all of the security checkpoints, Viscen escorted Link to Zelda's garden and then went to his regular station and patrol. Link glanced around- night was about to fall, so the lanterns were already lit, as were the underwater lights in the fountain. Fireflies danced here and there, and the sweet smell of flowers joined them. All in all, Link always found Zelda's garden to be a rather relaxing, pretty place to be. He stood around for a while, admiring the scene, until finally he decided to sit at the ornate metal table in the center of it all and wait for Zelda. She was escorted in a few minutes later, carrying her harp, a foam sword, and a brightly-wrapped box. Link stood when he saw her and smiled.

She was beautiful, in every sense of the word. Her blond hair flowed gracefully over her shoulders and back, and her kind blue eyes radiated warmth. She wore a light jacket over her babydoll t-shirt and capris, as well as a nice pair of sandals. The first thing she did as soon as her escort was gone was run over and drop her things to the grass, giving Link the largest hug she could muster.

"Welcome back, Link!" she said, smiling. "It's been way too long!" After one final squeeze that left Link's ribs protesting vehemently, she let go, and the two sat together.

"It really has," Link agreed. "But there was no way I'd skip coming to see you before the festival. You're playing Hylia, after all, aren't you?"

The Festival of the Goddess, as it was called, was kind of a big deal in Hyrule. It celebrated Hylia, Din, Nayru, and Farore, and the prosperity they brought the land- it also celebrated the Hero of Spirit, who saved the land countless times and in countless forms. The entire festival took seven days, with all sorts of contests and games and parties. The most important part of the festival was deciding the year's honorary Hero by means of a costume contest, and three trials- one of courage, one of wisdom, and one of power. For each trial completed, the challenger would receive a replica Spiritual Stone, and whoever got all three won the title and played the Hero in the ending ceremonies.

"Yup!" Zelda grinned broadly. "I even made the dress and everything! I'm so excited, I can't wait!" She tilted her head and leaned forward slightly. "You're going to compete for the Hero this year, right? I mean, you have to, it's the first year you can compete for real!" Link rolled his eyes.

"As much as I want to, Zelda, you have to look at the facts, here," he sighed. "I don't turn seventeen until the first day of the festival, and you don't have a chance of winning the prelims unless you have a shield and sword. Where would I be able to find a good sword that quickly that I could afford?" Zelda pouted.

"I guess you're right...," she agreed. "Well... either way, you should at least try. That reminds me!" She brightened immediately and leaned over to grab the brightly-colored box she had brought with her. "Here, this is for you, since I won't be able to see you on your birthday. Go on- open it!" Under Zelda's watchful eye, Link took the package and carefully removed the wrapping. He hummed a little tune as he cut the tape apart and pried open the box to find...!

His hat.

He held it up in the air dramatically for a moment before putting it on, laughing.

"Thanks, Zelda, I'm sorry I keep forgetting it-" The princess cut him off.

"That wasn't all of it, Link, pull the separator out." Link glanced down into the box to find, indeed, there was a piece of cardboard laying on top of something, and shrugging, he removed it, humming his little tune again until he found what it was that was buried beneath so much bubblewrap.

It was a wooden shield, big enough for an adult to use but still small enough to be less useless than the Hylian shield Viscen always carried around on-duty. Nevertheless, it was beautiful, made of a dark wood and polished, with intricate carvings in the surface depicting the mythical loftwing. Link fingered it gently, not wanting to get too many fingerprints on its sleek surface.

"Wow," he said after a moment. "Just... wow. Zelda, thank you so much, this shield is amazing." Zelda giggled.

"You'll need it if you want to win the title," she said. "I wouldn't worry about finding a sword, too much. I'm sure things will work themselves out, eventually." When Link didn't respond, she glanced up towards the sky. "You know, in all of the old legends, something awful always happens on the most important festival of the year. Have you noticed? Twilight Princess, Minish Cap, Majora's Mask... In all of those myths, there was a festival." She gazed back at Link.

"I know it's silly," she continued, "but I'm a little nervous. What if something like that happens during the festival, this year? If it does, we'll need a good hero to save us all." Link laughed; Zelda glared. "It's not funny, Link, what if it does?"

"Nothing's gonna happen, Zelda," he replied. "I can promise you that." Zelda sighed heavily and then stood, grabbing the foam sword and holding it out to Link.

"Come on," she said, "let's practice!" Link took the handle and nodded, standing and following Zelda towards a more open space. "Alright, show me your ready stance!"

"Like this?"

"Ah, I forgot, you're a lefty...! Here, like this..."

It was weird, Link thought as Zelda continued to help him practice his swordplay. Despite what he had said, he was anxious. Maybe it was because of the odd happenings at the Spirit Temple, or maybe it was just because he was panicking about where he would find a decent sword in time for the festival- either way, it was a bad feeling, and though he and Zelda practiced through the night, he couldn't help but shake the feeling that, indeed, something terrible would happen.

He had to scold himself several times for being ridiculous. Those sorts of things only happened in the legends... right?

I know this one was a little shorter, and that it took a little longer than usual, but I was actually having a really hard time figuring out how I wanted the festival to go... Well, you're getting it next chapter, at least, and then the plot will start. Maybe. In the meantime, review! Every time you don't review, the Happy Mask Salesman will haunt your nightmares. Save a dream. Review a chapter.