In the shadow of the castle walls, a hooded figure pressed his back against the stone, clutching a dark slab to his chest. He held it tight, covering its faintly glowing marks with his arms as he caught his breath. He’d done it. He got what he needed. Now all that was left was to use it.
He held the slab in front of him, just as he’d seen done a thousand times before, flinching as the light from it suddenly intensified and blinded him for a moment. Panic gripped him with the thought that someone might see it, but no voices shouted for him and no footsteps ran toward him. His eyes squinted open, a bright blue and wholly unfamiliar symbol displayed on the tablet’s surface. That had to be the right rune.
He knew that all he needed to do was touch it. Just a single tap. But his hand felt frozen as his finger hovered before the surface, shaking with the uncertainty and risk of what he was about to do.
But he needed to do it. For her.
The bridges that linked the regions of Lorule needed constant maintenance. If history was to be believed, they had once been made of mere wood, but that would have been hundreds of years ago, when the chasms had floors and their expansion was nearly imperceptible. The development of the elastic bridges had prevented Lorule’s people from becoming completely disconnected, and they were still a vital part of preserving the last threads of the kingdom’s unity.
Once, the princess’ travels around the bridges had been only an annual occurrence. Now, it seemed like the cycle never ended, the drifting becoming more and more rapid. The chasms had become bottomless voids. The constant need for updating the terminals to absorb more of the earth to extend the bridge before it crumbled away kept the princess from resting for more than a few days, and even then she had responsibilities to keep her awake at all hours.
It didn’t help that the only one keeping her sane had developed a habit of wandering off while she was hunched over the terminals. She missed his constant chatter, no matter how distracting he could be at times.
At the end of the day, when she had finished her work and began walking back to the nearest village, like clockwork:
“Hilda!” He shouted, growing louder and more out of breath as he approached. “Wait for me!”
She turned around, crossing her arms with an amused expression. “Ravio. Where have you been?”
Seeing his crooked smile helped erase much of the day’s frustrations, even if he hadn’t been there until the end of it. Even if he didn’t know how to program the machines, his jokes and simple suggestions always helped her work through mental blocks without too much of a headache. “Oh, y’know. Around.” At her raised eyebrow, he whined, “Come on, Hilda, can’t I have this one secret?”
Hilda sighed tiredly, conceding, “Alright. But don’t think you’re getting out of showing me whatever you’ve found this time.”
Ravio brightened and it was as if the sun was finally shining through the thick clouds above Lorule. “Wouldn’t dream of it!” He reached to his side and held up a short stick with blue crystals embedded in one end. “I’ll show you what it does on the way back!”
As they walked, Ravio talked, and Hilda only had to listen to his animated explanations. She was exhausted, to be sure, but having him at her side was one of the few things keeping her spirits from falling like stones into the pit under the bridge.
Only a day later, the princess and her companion returned to the castle. They only had a few days, during which all of Hilda’s time was going to be consumed by meetings and councils. Hilda once told Ravio that those were even more exhausting than the constant travel, and after all of those she was too tired for anything - even seeing him in the evenings.
He missed her during those days, but he could see the despair in her eyes after her advisors told her about all of Lorule’s problems and how they just kept getting worse. At least, he assumed that was what they were telling her. After all, any time Ravio went into the surrounding town in the distinctive violet tunic she’d given him, they always demanded what she was doing about the constantly failing harvests, the constant monster attacks, and a thousand other things that Ravio didn’t have the answers to.
He’d never been used to that kind of attention. He was just some nobody from a tiny mountain village - why they thought he’d have any answers was a total mystery. Why would anyone bother giving him that information?
But every time he shied away from them, hiding behind his scarf like it could ward them off, their anger turned into derision. They called him a coward and they accused Hilda of negligence. He wanted to protest, to tell them that she was doing her best, but their first accusation was correct - Ravio was a coward, and his defense of Hilda was always nearly inaudible.
He’d decided long ago that he couldn’t tell her about what the people said about her. She didn’t need to know how unpopular a ruler she was when she was already doing everything she could.
His first trip into the town after coming back from the bridges was less eventful than it once would have been. It hadn’t taken him long to learn that he should hide his face and leave that identifiable clothing behind. But as he returned to the castle in the evening, he found Hilda almost immediately, talking to some stranger with a light in her eyes that he hadn’t seen in years.
When she noticed him, she smiled and said, “Ravio, you have excellent timing! I believe that we have found a solution to all of Lorule’s problems!”
That instantly made him suspicious. There was no way that some stranger showing up and claiming to have all the answers was good news, and it didn’t help that she’d been talking to the slimiest-looking man Ravio had ever seen. Maybe it was the way his face looked like a painted moblin or maybe it was just how his clothes made him look like an evil sorcerer straight out of a storybook, but he just screamed untrustworthy. He held out his hand to Ravio, and introduced himself with a disgustingly smarmy grin and a tone that was full of obviously fake sweetness. “I am Yuga. A pleasure.”
Sure, buddy. A pleasure.
Ravio next saw Hilda two days later, holed up in a room with one of the programming terminals. It was the middle of the night, and he knew for a fact that she’d been busy all day and would be again the next. “What are you doing?” She looked up with a start, and Ravio couldn’t help but notice that her eyes were noticeably bloodshot, which was concerning because her eyes were already red.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that!” Hilda scolded, shooting him an irritated glare. It wasn’t at all like the looks she usually gave him when he accidentally startled her. This time she looked genuinely angry.
He tried to ignore the nervousness prickling on his skin. This was Hilda. She wasn’t dangerous. “Have you been sleeping?”
“How can I sleep when there is so much to do?” She turned back to the terminal and continued doing whatever it was she’d been doing when he came in. “Yuga and I have been discussing plans of action for saving Lorule from destruction, and I must create a new rune to do it.”
Ravio tried to hide his suspicion the best he could. He’d seen Yuga strutting around the castle like he owned the place, and any time Ravio caught his eye, he looked at him like he was the dirt under his stupid pointy shoes. He didn’t know what Yuga was telling Hilda, but he didn’t like it one bit. “Y-yeah? What’s it supposed to do?”
She looked up again, with excitement that some other person might call madness. “It will allow us to travel across Lorule in an instant. Can you imagine? No more endless treks all across the kingdom. We could perform routine maintenance on every bridge in a single day!”
As incredible as that sounded, Ravio thought that it was just that - incredible. It had to be too good to be true and Yuga was giving Hilda ideas that could only end badly. Especially with Hilda working herself like this, trying to make the rune while she was running on no sleep whatsoever. After a moment of wordless staring, Ravio opened his mouth to respond, but Hilda began talking again with that same manic energy. “And Yuga is investigating a way to eliminate the need for constant checks! We may be able to prevent further drifting - possibly even close the gaps entirely!”
And that couldn’t be true. Or if it was, it would have horrific consequences that Ravio suspected would only benefit Yuga himself. He didn’t want to ruin Hilda’s hope for improvement, but she’d want to know what he thought, wouldn’t she? They’d been friends for years and she’d sometimes listened to his judgment in the past, so maybe she would now. “Hilda,” he started, trying to speak past his rising anxiety. “Are… are you sure that we can trust Yuga?” When she started looking somewhere between confused and outraged, Ravio took a step back and held his hands up defensively. “Please, just hear me out! He only showed up a couple days ago and now he’s saying that he has the answers to all of our problems? Doesn’t that seem a little suspicious?”
“Have you not seen what is happening to this kingdom?” Hilda demanded, giving Ravio a scathing look. “It is falling apart. It has been for centuries. If there are any solutions, it is my responsibility to look into them and do whatever I can to restore it to what it once was. Do you not understand that?”
“I do!” Ravio hastily defended. “I’m just worried that he’s just…”
“Just what, Ravio? What do you think he is?”
Ravio felt trapped, pinned by Hilda’s glare that was sharper than any that the people in Castle Town could ever give him. “I don’t- I don’t know,” he admitted, fiddling anxiously with the end of his scarf as he tried to resist the urge to bury his face in it. “But is this really the best way?” Before she had the chance to tear into him again, he amended, “You look exhausted . I know you’re trying to save us, but you can’t do your best work if you’re falling asleep over the terminal.” When she hesitated, Ravio took a careful step toward her. “Just… please. Let’s get you to bed.”
Relief rushed through him when she allowed him to lead her to her chambers, but that didn’t stop him from thinking about what she’d said about Yuga’s ideas for ‘saving’ Lorule.
He was obviously up to something.
When Ravio finally learned their ultimate plan, they were already close to putting it into motion. For days, he’d barely seen Hilda anywhere , and if he tried to find her in her lab, the door was always locked. He could hear her moving around and he could hear the sound of the terminal being activated - which was often followed by Hilda swearing in frustration.
She’d never gotten that bad before. Ravio had always been there to help her relax, but now she wasn’t letting him - no matter how much he wanted to.
The day he found out, Ravio had been standing outside her door, trying in vain to get her attention, when someone behind him said, “Don’t you think you should stop bothering her? Clearly she does not wish to see you.”
Ravio yelped in surprise, whirling around and pressing back against the door. “Yuga! What are you doing here?”
“I believe a better question would be what are you doing here? What business does an urchin like you have meddling in the affairs of the princess?”
Urchin? Ravio steeled his nerves, and standing up straight and as possible and responding as confidently as he was able, “I’m making sure she doesn’t work herself into the ground. I won’t let her do that just because some snake is telling her to!”
“Is that what you believe? It is quite the contrary, I’m merely giving her suggestions and informing her of opportunities.” Then Yuga gave him an arrogantly victorious look. “And do you truly think that she will listen to you? Stop her work because one little rat thinks that her kingdom can wait?” Ravio was speechless, and Yuga laughed at his expression. “Our plans go beyond what your tiny imagination can fathom. I would suggest not getting in the way.”
At that moment, the door to Hilda’s lab swung open.
She didn’t look like herself.
She looked even worse than when Ravio had last seen her, the manic excitement on her face making her appear even more mad than it had before. “It is done,” she announced, looking between the two of them with the wide eyes of someone who hadn’t slept in days. “The rune- It is ready! Our kingdom is saved!”
Yuga’s sneering had instantly been replaced by curiosity when Hilda had arrived, pretending that he hadn’t just been talking down to the princess’ closest friend. Ravio, on the other hand, wasn’t able to hide his indignant confusion. “Excellent!” Yuga cried, looking delighted as Ravio felt utter dread rising in his chest. “Our plans can now move forward!”
Slowly and uncertainly, trying to talk past the rock that was settling in his throat, Ravio asked, “What plans?”
He was sure that Yuga would have dismissed his question entirely, leaving him completely in the dark about what he and Hilda were going to do, but thankfully Hilda was readily willing to tell him. Ravio hoped that meant that she had forgiven him for speaking against her the last time he’d been in her lab.
“Do you remember the stories that the elder of your village told us when we were children? The ones about the hero and the princess of old?” Ravio nodded in confusion, unsure of where she was going with that. “Yuga has discovered that the same evil that was restrained by the hero’s sword is still in the labyrinth that the princess built around it. That is what is breaking Lorule apart! It was never defeated, so it has been poisoning the kingdom for centuries.”
“But-” Ravio started, disbelief clear on his face. “But Hilda, even if that’s true, we can’t do anything about it! The princess gave up the power so the evil couldn’t steal it, no one has had it in centuries! The only sacred thing left in Lorule is the sword, and that’s the only thing keeping it locked up in there!”
“That’s exactly it, Ravio! The only thing left in Lorule!”
He still had no idea what she was getting at, but her crazed expression combined with Yuga’s smug one pointed toward ‘nothing good.’ “What?”
“Yuga has found evidence of another world - one where the princess and the hero defeated the evil without sacrificing either of their powers. We must travel there and use them to eradicate what remains of ours!”
“That-” Ravio started, unable to hold himself back from protesting, even though it would likely only make Hilda angry again. “But that’s impossible! Traveling between worlds? How would you even do that?”
Hilda held up her slate, pride shining through and likely believing that it would convince Ravio that this plan would work. “With this. I have created a rune that can teleport one anywhere, whether across this kingdom or into another one.”
He twisted an end of his scarf around his hand, hoping that the pressure from it would ground him as he protested further. “But you can’t expect people from another world to allow you to use their sacred powers. What will you do if they refuse?”
“Whatever I must.”
Her words made Ravio hesitate before speaking again. But somehow, he found his voice - no matter how small it was - and asked, “But... won’t that just leave them to this fate?”
Yuga interrupted with a scoff. “They have been protected by their power for centuries. Their country prospers while Lorule crumbles. Would you have your princess sacrifice us all for the sake of a country of strangers?”
Ravio wanted to say yes, because he knew that Hilda would never forgive herself for it. But with both her and Yuga’s eyes boring into him, as if daring him to keep speaking against them, he couldn’t. He shrunk back, pulling his scarf over his mouth, and squeaked a muffled, “No.”
Hilda sighed. “I had hoped to have your support in this, Ravio.” Guilt and horror were making his stomach turn, feeling sick at both not supporting his best friend and knowing that what she was doing was absolutely wrong . “But you must understand that this is necessary for the future of Lorule.”
“Clearly, he is unable to see the greater picture. But fear not, princess. We can travel to the other world immediately.” Immediately? No, they couldn’t do that, Ravio couldn’t let this happen.
“Wait!” Ravio cried, scrambling to think of a reason for them to delay before Yuga accused him of treason or something similar. “H- Hilda. You’ve been working on that rune day and night, right? Don’t you think you should rest a little before going to a different world?”
Hilda hesitated, but Yuga shot Ravio a withering glare and began to say, “The princess will rest far more easily once her kingdom is whole, you-”
“No, Yuga,” Hilda interrupted, sounding more gentle than Ravio would’ve expected after all that. “Ravio is right.” Yes! “I am sure that we can wait a few more hours. We have the means to start in the morning. And I must admit, I am rather tired.” She gave him a grateful smile and Ravio had the sickening feeling that it would be the last one he’d ever see from her. “I hope you will see us off tomorrow.”
Ravio swallowed nervously and nodded. “Of course.”
Hilda went back into her lab to place the slate back onto the terminal for the night before exiting again and closing the door. “Good night, both of you. Rest well.”
“You too,” Ravio croaked, looking up at Yuga as the man glared down at him once Hilda’s back was turned.
“I do not know what you are up to,” he growled, looming over Ravio like a mountain. “But I will not allow you to interfere with this plan.” Ravio backed away a few steps, only stopping when he hit the wall.
“I’m not interfering,” Ravio lied. “I’m just looking out for Hilda. I told you I won’t let her work herself into the ground.”
Yuga looked disgusted. “I cannot believe one as low as you refers to the princess so familiarly.” Ravio felt frozen to the spot, staring up at him until Yuga’s glare was on him again and he ordered, “Get out of my sight. I have no time for one as rabbit-hearted as you.”
Ravio didn’t need any more encouragement to flee. He darted around Yuga before rushing down through the halls toward his own room where he could figure out his own plan before morning.
After perhaps an hour, Ravio gathered each treasure that he’d found in mysterious shrines that had somehow called to him on his and Hilda’s most recent circuit around Lorule. Five different rods that controlled five different elements were put into his smallest travel bag, along with the purple tunic that he couldn’t bring himself to wear but couldn’t bring himself to leave behind.
In the clothes he used to travel unrecognized through Castle Town, Ravio began walking back toward Hilda’s lab.
Hilda was willing to do whatever she needed to do to save Lorule.
Ravio had to be willing to do whatever he needed to in order to save Hilda.
Ravio closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. In a shaky exhale, he whispered, “Wait for me, Hilda.”
He touched touched his finger to the symbol, and bright blue light burst behind his eyelids.