The silence bled through the cracks of the castle and coagulated into thick pools of stillness.
Zelda thought it would be different, somehow. The roar of flames and the screams of refugees had been deafening as she made her way through Hyrule Castle Town with slow and deliberate steps. The air had been filled with ash and the ozone flash of the beams of the Guardians, which skittered through the burning buildings like spiders grown fat and frantic. These machines moved as Zelda had never seen them move before, and despite her growing apprehension she was able to appreciate the efficiency of their trajectories. She had expected chaos to reign at the castle as well, but the reality of the situation was infinitely more disturbing.
When she stepped through the gates at the entrance to the castle complex, it was as if she had passed through an invisible curtain. On the outside, the city screamed in pain as it was consumed by flames. On the inside, the castle lay within a single moment of dreadful anticipation. A strange acrid smell tickled her nose, but there was no smoke.
A vague sense of vertigo tugged at the edges of Zelda's attention, and it took her a few seconds to place its source. The geometry of the architecture was appallingly amiss. Lines that should have ended in neat angles were twisted, and corners compressed themselves into nothing or expanded into impossibly vast pockets of space. It was like looking through a heat haze, but the air was cool, almost chilly. Something was terribly wrong here.
As Zelda walked into the lower courtyard, the quiet only deepened. She felt rather than heard a small earthquake under her feet. The stones of the outer walls trembled, but they did not make a sound.
The courtyard was deserted, and all the windows in the high walls that rose above it were empty. The castle had housed hundreds of soldiers and staff, as well as numerous visitors from all the four corners of Hyrule. At any given time, there would have been members of the parliament and official witnesses operating in the service of the royal council bustling about, not to mention the various Sheikah scientists and engineers who had made the castle their base of operations. Zelda hoped these people had been able to evacuate, but she feared for their fates. No one hailed her as she strode across the paving stones, and no one rushed to seek her aid.
She was alone here, completely alone – but this was as it should be. The Calamity was her responsibility, and hers alone.
Zelda had expected there to be monsters. She had been attacked before, and Link had defended her, cutting down wave after wave of the strange creatures that suddenly appeared on the margins of her kingdom, creeping over the borders under the cover of night. Or had they always been in Hyrule? Where had they come from, and what manner of grudge did they hold against her people?
She knew she should not trouble herself with these concerns, yet they bothered her. She could not stop herself from asking questions, even if the answers were inconvenient. Perhaps she could find answers here – if only she could find anything. There was no demon king gloating down at her from the ramparts, and no monsters rushed out to capture her. There was nothing in Hyrule Castle, only silence and ruin.
Zelda's heart hammered in her chest, but she would have been offended if anyone suggested that she was afraid. This is my purpose in life, she told herself, but she could not calm her breathing as she pressed her hand against one of the great oak doors at the entrance to the castle buildings that towered over her. The door creaked ever so softly when she pushed it, but its hinges and timbers did not resist her touch. Zelda swallowed, gritted her teeth, and slipped through the narrow crack that opened between the doors.
When she saw what waited for her on the other side, she had to bite back a scream. There was darkness, and that darkness was filled with eyes. They were amber with vertically slit pupils, and they glowed with their own eldritch light. They were huge, easily as large as her head, and all of them were intently focused on her.
Red flecks of light like falling sparks drifted through the air. As Zelda's vision adjusted to the dim illumination, she saw that the dozen or so eyes were supported by spindly stalks emerging from a thick bituminous mass that coated the floor and walls. The fleshy goo pulsed with an uncanny approximation of a heartbeat.
Sweet Hylia, Zelda thought as she recoiled in horror. Is that substance alive?
With all their knowledge of ancient technology, the Sheikah scientists had never said anything about a monster like the gelatinous creosote that prevented her from entering deeper into the room. Had this mess – or this creature – been deliberately placed here to bar her progress? Was this the byproduct of a machine, like the spent oil that required special treatment in order not to become a hazard? Or was it some sort of construct, an experiment gone awry?
Zelda's curiosity got the better of her. No matter how much her father tried to dissuade her, she had always been the victim of her desire to know more, to fully investigate the world around her. She clenched her fists and approached the goo that blocked the inner gate of the reception chamber. All of the eyes followed her progress, their pupils dilating as they tracked her movement. The red flecks of light flitted away from her, not a single one falling on her skin.
As she approached the black mass, it twitched hideously and retracted into itself, creating a passage just wide enough for her to walk through. The sight was so awful that Zelda's skin broke out in goosebumps, but she pressed forward nonetheless. The small tunnel smelled strongly of ammonia. It was a clinical smell, like the medicinal alcohol used to sanitize a wound.
While the fields burned, Zelda had taken the Master Sword to the Great Deku Tree, who watched her as she returned it to its pedestal to await Link's return. The tree, curse its wooden heart, had given her advice that seemed wise but was, for all practical purposes, useless. She was not some lovestruck teenager, but a princess burdened with a great and terrible task. Why had it not prepared her for this goddess-cursed scene of living tar coating the walls of an otherwise empty castle? Why had it not told her anything? Her Champions had given her encouragement, but it was her knowledge that needed to be bolstered, not her will. It was almost as if her role had been merely symbolic from the very beginning. A sacrifice does not need to know what greater purpose it serves, after all.
On the other side of the tunnel was even more of the black substance, which clung to the ceiling of the reception hall and oozed down the walls in gluey rivulets. Zelda wondered how there could possibly be so much of the stuff. Where was it coming from? If she could locate its source, perhaps she would be able to find Ganon. According to the legends, the demon appeared in a different form to anyone unlucky enough to see it. How would it look to her, a princess whose sole fear was that she would betray the expectations placed on her head along with her crown? The only way to know was to seek it out.
Zelda thought of her father, of the Champions who had fought for her, and of Link, who was supposed to have been her hero, but she pushed these memories from her mind as she gathered her courage and prepared to plunge herself even deeper into the horror of Hyrule Castle.