She had slept without dreaming for so long that the fact of dreaming was, itself, a jolt. She knew she was dreaming (she always knew when she was dreaming, and how did she know that about herself when she knew so little else?) but clung fiercely onto the fact of the dream, not daring to wake up. She could feel the world outside of sleep, parallel to herself, and she did not know why but she knew that it was wrong, that something outside of her sleep was more terrible than the worst of her dreams, and she was so tired why shouldn’t she keep sleeping?
A light grew within the darkness of her sleep, and she saw the shape of her dream: herself, in a vast dark expanse with no up or down. She didn’t know how long she had been here, but the question was driven out by the golden light, and she found herself drawn to it. It was warm, familiar, important in a way she didn’t understand.
A woman with golden hair called out to her from within the light. The woman stood out in the radiance, after a moment she realized the woman was the radiance, beautiful in a way that made her suddenly terrified, hair the yellow of flames and eyes that shone like suns over a mouth shouting words she could not hear.
She tried to answer, but found she had no voice. She tried to reach out to the beautiful, terrible woman, but her arms would not move.
Desperation filled the woman’s face, a storm of fear and frustration and anger and a kind of strangling hope, and the shout was repeated. Now it reached her ears, the smallest sound in the world, but even in the vast silence of her dream she could not make out the words.
So the woman shouted again, and again, reaching out with grasping hands, eyes wider and more pleading than ever, and the radiance grew blinding and she thought she saw wings on the woman’s back. What was this? Who was the woman, whose voice built to a roar and now the woman was the dream, taking up the entirety of her awareness?
“Wake up!” The sound of thunder heard from miles and miles away, huge and terrible but faint, distant.
“You must wake up!” The stars were falling, she could see tears falling from a face that had known worlds of sorrow. She had to stop that, stop whatever was causing it.
“We’re running out of time! You must wake up! You must wake up now!”
So the god commanded her; so she did.
The light shifted as she woke, yellow fading to blue. The world snapped into clarity as her eyes focused. She felt warm, and light, and rested.
She was lying in a pool of luminescent blue fluid, which even now drained away. She sat up, looked down at her fingertips, saw the fluid recede. It left no residue, did not discolor her skin, but she could feel its temperature as if she were still submerged in it. A curious thing, suggesting a kind of thermal insulation property…that persisted once it was removed? Curious indeed.
Again she looked up, at the source of the blue light: a stone edifice beneath an opening in a large blue bulb, which was anchored to a much larger edifice above it, lines of luminescent piping like the arteries of an enormous heart running from it up and into the ceiling.
“Strange,” she said, and the sound of her own voice was even stranger but she found herself better able to think as she spoke. “If the pipes connected to this bulb were carrying that fluid, and assuming this entire chamber wasn’t flooded before I woke up…” She imagined herself floating inside of the bulb, sleeping, dreamless. “Something like amniotic fluid, perhaps.” She got to her feet, found her legs steady but not quite as strong as she had expected. That told her the rest of it: she felt as if she had been completely sedentary, maybe even stationary, for an extended period. It was possible she had been a prisoner here, but that didn’t seem to be congruent with how the fluid felt, and how she had been released by it.
“I was injured, then. And…badly, it would seem.” This caused a quaver in some remote part of her thoughts, but when she reached for them she had no concept of why that would be so. “Badly enough to have lost my memory of the events. And.” She stopped, because she realized then she didn’t remember anything.
Well, no. That wasn’t true. She had one thing.
“My name is Zelda.” She looked around the chamber in which she had awoken. Left without prior knowledge to work with, she would need to build new conclusions based on the small observations she had made so far. “And I have to leave.”
The room itself was arresting, composed of a very glossy, dark-colored stone she did not recognize, set with glowing orange lines and circles that suggested constellations. The walls were lined with pillars made of the same dark stone, encrusted with a much lighter stone which also formed both a path across the floor and the two objects at the far end: a waist-high pedestal that hummed with light of that same blue color, and a door that seemed to be made of interlocking stone slats. Curiosity took her to the pedestal in firm but slow steps.
As she stepped near to it, the pedestal flashed with blue light. She did not flinch, too arrested by the sound of stone grinding against stone as the center of the dais rose from the body, rotated into a new orientation, and then the process was repeated with a rectangular block, which then was lifted into a vertical position.
“A completely separate piece, distinct from the stone in which it is set.” She leaned in and stepped around the pedestal, trying to see the object from different angles. “It has all the colors of the room, repeating the motifs of orange and blue lights, centered around what appears to be an eye.” Without hesitation she reached out and grabbed it. Trying to lift it she found that it slid easily out of place, and though it was firm and heavy in her hand it was comfortable, familiar. She weighed it, feeling its mass as she rotated her wrists, and when the center of the slate (why was she using that word in particular?) shone with a new light she leaned in close, to observe it more carefully.
Then the door ground open, the interlocking slats drawing back into the walls. Without thinking she hooked the slate to her belt, stepping through the door.
She stood in a new chamber, in structure similar to the first but in contents very different: broken and empty crates, which seemed to have once held contents that long since had turned to dust, and two stone chests that looked as if they might have endured better. She went to the chests and opened them, huffing with the exertion of heaving the lids, and inside found a pair of worn trousers and a nearly-as-worn shirt. The boots that had been stored with the trousers were so old that the leather might as well have been wood, but it all looked to be about her size and the sense of warmth from the blue fluid was fading. She dressed, found the clothes comfortable if a bit light, and kept walking.
“This whole place is one chamber,” she said to no one, the shape of the walls making it so her voice echoed back to her only very little. “There seem to be layers of locks and defenses that can only be opened from the inside, so it is not a prison. Whoever left me here,” and she consciously made space for the idea that she might have done this to herself, as she had no memory to the contrary, “wanted to make sure that I could not be disturbed. Who am I, to have such treatment?” You are Zelda, her own thoughts rejoined, and there was no answer to that.
At the end of the room was a second door, much larger than the first, and a new pedestal. Its appearance was different from its counterpart in the first chamber, covered in interlocking orange and blue lights surrounding an eye symbol identical to that on the slate she carried.
In another time, another place, another circumstance, a voice carried on golden winds would have directed the adventurer, but no such voice rang out to her, save in dreams. Her connection to the place was different, her understanding her own, and recalling how the slate had been set in the other room she held it up to this pedestal.
The pedestal hummed in a high voice, as if it were a sprite pleased with her intuition, and all the orange light shifted to blue.
“Blue and orange to blue and blue,” she said, and looked up as the door began to shift. The eye symbol lit up in the same blue, stone pillars (they were much too big for her to call them slats) shifting out of their interlocking position and receding into the wall. Then the door rose, and the light from behind it was white and blinding, as bright as the light she had dreamed of, and she shielded her eyes from it. When her vision adjusted she looked and saw that there was a rising corridor that opened into the pale blue of the sky.
“Finally,” she said, and stepped into the corridor. Her relief was quickly replaced by irritation: at the end of the first flight of steps she found a flat opening where more steps should have been; in place of stone here was grass, and soil, and standing water. To get out of the chamber she would have to scale a wall that was something like two and a half times her height. She could feel the impossibility in her limbs, the relative weakness in her legs. Maybe on her best day, but this certainly was not that.
“Well. I suppose one must deal with challenges as they present themselves.”
She walked back into the previous chamber, taking stock of what was available to her: some whole crates that were much too massive for her purposes, some decrepit crates that she would probably destroy in attempting to use them, and some even more decrepit barrels that still had their iron banding whole and in place, as unlikely as it seemed. One of these barrels she grabbed hold of and dragged across the chamber, praying that it would not fall to pieces as she did so. At the stairs she lifted it more carefully, setting it down and straightening her grip after each step. It was a long time indeed before she reached the top of the flight, and then dragged it across stone, soil, water, and grass to set it at the foot of the wall.
“No,” she said, weary but determined. “That won’t be nearly enough.” So back she went, for another barrel. Then another.
She did not rest; she knew that if she rested she would collapse, and that would not avail her anything yet. She lifted the third barrel by bracing it against the first, shoving it until it was stacked relatively neatly. So that was her support built: a barrel next to two barrels, standing like child’s blocks.
“Not the steadiest-looking staircase,” she said, pleased with herself in spite of her nerves and irritation and the way the old shirt was sticking unpleasantly to her as she sweat, “but I think it will do.”
Carefully, as if she had never climbed anything in this way in her life, she hoisted herself atop the single barrel. It was unsteady under her shifting weight, and she could feel the wood creaking ominously even as she kept her feet on its rim. If not for the iron banding it probably would have flown apart by now. That image, of herself effectively trapped here, was foremost in her mind as she carefully gripped the stack of barrels next to her. She tested it by putting weight on her arms, estimated it was not really any worse than the single barrel on which she now stood, and hoisted herself up.
She was instantly proven wrong as the entire thing began to sway, and then to buckle. Her first reaction was to panic, to flail; instead she got her feet under her, placed her hands onto the wall, and kicked off the barrel as hard as she could. She jumped, arms reaching over the top of the wall, and scrambled for purchase as she heard the splintering of wood and ringing of rusted iron falling into water behind her. She tried to find purchase with her feet, the worn leather of the boots sliding uselessly against the stone, and she could feel the roughness of the top of the wall tearing at the skin of her arms. For one brief, terrible second she thought she was going to fall, to break something and not be able to get up at all—and then her reaching right hand found a handhold, and her left another, and with panicked strength she heaved herself up and over, scrambling away from the edge and to a pile of dirt in front of the last staircase. Here she collapsed.
She lay panting for what seemed a very long time, and when her breathing slowed and her heart stopped pounding in her ears she felt the breeze coming from the top of the stairs, felt distant snatches of birdsong.
“OK.” She got to her feet, tested herself, found she was in no danger of collapsing. “Almost there. I’ll just get out of here, take note of my surroundings, then figure out what to do. Then I can rest.” Slowly, carefully, she went up the steps, or tried to. By the time she had reached the top she was taking them two at a time; by the time she came to the mouth of the corridor she had broken into a full run.
The world exploded into being all around her, overwhelming her senses with light and color and sound and sensation, a sense of place and reality so removed from where she had been a moment ago it was if she had awoken from another dream, her previous awakening only its own nested illusion. Trees on both sides of her, and the sun was high and the grass bowed gently in her passing as she ran forward. A cliff overlooked the land below it, and she stepped up to it, too enthralled to be afraid of its height.
There were no words for her; the wind took them away, carried her breath across verdant fields that stretched on forever. She could see for miles, miles and miles and miles, to the enormity of the mountains that framed the horizon, to a castle that lay far to the north, and out to the east…it was too much to take in, a scope that robbed her of her ability to analyze it. Not just a landscape but the whole world felt laid out in front of her, and in that one glorious moment she knew that she had never felt or known freedom like this in her entire life. For that one moment she forgot her dream, the cave, her name, the urgency of a woman’s words calling out to her from across the gap of time.
Then, as she looked east, she saw a path leading from where she stood, running down a hill toward what looked like an enormous temple. Partway down the path she saw a person, a man with a huge and snowy beard, and she laughed as she waved to him.
He did not seem to acknowledge her, though he looked straight at her. He turned, walking down the path to a fire that was set underneath a stone outcropping. She could not read his body language from that distance, but something about him struck her as sad.
That gave her pause. Was her presence disturbing to him? Was he a local, and she an intruder?
“It doesn’t matter,” she said to herself, as much for the assurance as for the speaking of fact. “I need directions, food, and shelter. Maybe he can provide one, if not all.”
Not knowing why she did so, she took a moment to comport herself, to call up a well of dignity that spoke calmness and surety to anyone who would see her. With that posture she walked down the path, to speak seriously with the old man at his fire.