Summer wildflowers wilted before the blazing afternoon sun, even in the gentle hills and pastures around Hateno. Twilight always revived them a little, and the morning dew would do the rest. Zelda took the long way back to the village, gathering every herb and mushroom and fallen nut she saw. She didn’t need to - they had enough rupees to buy anything they didn’t already have at home. Between the pantry and the strange, ancient technology of the Sheikah slate, they probably had more foodstuff in storage than the East Wind, if not the whole village.
“It’s not that I don’t want to go home,” Zelda told the distant falcon lazing about on a gentle thermal above the grove. “I love Link. I really do. And he is everything good and kind and dependable and he saved us all. I should be happy that he remains at my side after everything he’s been through for my sake.”
The falcon gave no answer. She dove and looped back, climbing back up to ride the current again.
Zelda sighed. “He does that too, you know. Ruining a dozen shields on racing, risking his neck diving off waterfalls, and he’ll do it for no reason whatever except to do it. But will he talk with me? Even now, he falls back into the old quiet. And I hate to disturb him, truly. I understand now, as I didn’t back then.”
The falcon drifted along as before.
Zelda paused where the deer path met with the main road. “I just wish I could know his heart. Even a little. I wish I knew if he is actually happy - or if he’s just decided this is the new shape of his duty.”
The falcon skreeked and dove, and looped back to ride the thermal again.
Zelda squared her shoulders, and stepped into the road.
Zelda spread the precious maps out on the cottage floor, weighting the corners with clean river pebbles. The slate showed everything recorded in the ancient towers, and everywhere she and Link had taken it, and with greater accuracy than anything drawn on these fragile parchments. But the slate only held maps of Hyrule . It knew nothing about the world beyond the vastness of the desolate nameless riverbed, or the lands beyond the treacherous seas, or what hid in the scouring sands of the Gerudo desert. Link helped recover these from the castle library two years ago, before the restoration was even talked of. Some of the places on these maps seemed to be places she - or the slate - knew about, others seemed to be pure myth.
Zelda once thought gods and monsters and prophecies were myths too.
She folded herself on a fat floor cushion with the slate and her notebooks and a freshly filled fountain pen - a birthday gift. From Link. He said Cherry made it out of salvaged ancient materials. It was temperamental and tended to leak if she put it away with the point down, but it was perfect. Useful. Thoughtful.
Zelda bowed over her work.
Link said nothing when he came home. He smelled of horse, even from the door, but his quiet step said he’d at least left his boots on the porch. He climbed to the loft, gathered fresh clothing, opened the window, and left again. Without a word.
Zelda placed another glass pebble on the parchment maps. The sheikah slate could only record so many notes, but she could always buy more glass pebbles.
The sound of water splashing said he was bathing in the pond. Again. Even though they had a perfectly good tub in the washroom. He even used it on occasion.
The scent of dinner wafted into the cottage. Venison and mushrooms and chickaloo nuts with Goron spices. Zelda’s stomach rumbled. She continued placing glass pebbles.
Link propped the door open with a rock, making six separate trips to bring dinner to the table. He did not ask for help, or even say that the food was ready. He poured tea. He did not sit down. He did not speak.
Zelda placed the last glass pebble at the last coordinates from her notebook from last year. She screwed the cap onto her pen. She stacked the finished notebooks together, and laid the slate atop those. She rose, and smiled at Link.
Link smiled at her, raising his teacup in salute. He nodded to the table.
Venison and mushrooms and creamed vegetable soup and sweet rice with toasted chickaloo nuts - and fruit cake. With a little blue candle. And a Silent Princess bloom tucked into the vase of daisies.
“You remembered,” said Zelda softly.
“Happy birthday, dearest Princess.”
Zelda sat beside Link on the little porch, watching the fireflies dance. “I went to visit Purah today.”
“Ah,” said Link.
Zelda sighed. “It would be nice if you would say just a little bit more sometimes.”
Link tipped his chin to acknowledge the point, and sipped his tea. “Talk about anything different this time?”
“No,” confessed Zelda.
“She say anything different?”
“No,” sighed Zelda. “The data is inconclusive. A scatter plot at best. A hundred thousand different things could be causing a hundred thousand different anomalies, and there’s no pattern in any of it, no matter how we sort it.”
“Ah,” said Link.
Zelda sighed again and leaned against him in the peaceful twilight.Link put his arm around her and pulled her close. He held her in silence for a long time. He set his tea aside. “Do you agree?”
“Not everything fits neatly into numbers and columns and formulas. Do you agree with Purah?”
“She’s right though. There isn’t a pattern. The data doesn’t support my theory. Any theory. What if we’re wrong about lizal and blins and lynel and everything else? The Calamity corrupted the Guardians, why not living creatures?”
“What does your heart say?”
“Feelings aren’t data.”
“Maybe,” said Link with a shrug. “But the sealing magic didn’t awaken for you because of numbers , either.”
“I couldn’t bear to lose you,” whispered Zelda.
A faint smile tugged at Link’s lips. He said nothing. He pulled her closer.
“I didn’t feel anything before the Calamity rose. I certainly didn’t dream prophecies like a proper Zelda. Just silly nonsense things like everyone else. I shouldn’t bias the data with ragged nightmares that probably don’t mean anything either.”
“Ah,” said Link. “You heard a voice this time.”
“Not really a voice, so much as - this is stupid. I just have this feeling . And none of the data supports it, so I can’t let it bias my work.”
“What does the feeling tell you?”
“I don’t know how to explain,” said Zelda.
“Ok,” said Link.
Zelda sighed. “Will you look at the map again?”
“You know I will,” said Link with a lopsided grin down at her.
“Maybe I want to hear you say it.”
Link kissed her brow. “As you wish.”
Zelda slouched in her chair, drinking tea laced with courser honey and sharp amber spirits. Link scrolled about on the slate, studying this year’s pins and the glass pebbles on the parchment maps.
“Ok, I’ve looked. Taken together? All at once? Yeah. It looks like spilled rice.”
Zelda swore a decidedly unprincessly oath.
Link chuckled, and set the slate down among the notebooks. “I’m not saying Purah is right, either. My maps looked like that a lot.”
“Ok,” said Zelda, staring into her cup.
“Which direction do you feel like the dream is pulling from?”
“There’s no indication whatever that-”
“Not data. Feeling .”
“You’re one to talk,” scoffed Zelda.
Link said nothing.
Zelda sighed. “I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to do. There’s chaos everywhere, but the worst - that is, the most urgent disturbances are everywhere except south.”
Link nodded. “Then we go south.”
“The Gerudo will be offended if I question them again inside a year, and there’s so few people in Faron that I can’t justify pulling our few resources from-”
“You need more data to prove your theory.”
“That’s bad science.”
“You need more data to disprove your theory.”
“That’s not better,” groaned Zelda.
“The bridge over Lake Hylia wasn’t built by people who lived in a peaceful Hyrule any more than Akkala fortress was. But there were people living there before Hyrule tried to tame it, and there were people there before them to build the shrines and temples. The jungle probably ate all the villages a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist once upon a time.”
Zelda winced. “That was not a pretty chapter in our history, no. All the more reason to avoid even suggesting there’s corruption there without hard proof.”
Link nodded, padding over to the table to collect his own spirit-laced tea. He looked softer in the lamplight, in a loose white shirt and dark Gerudo-style sirwal. “Did Urbosa ever tell you why her people sent warriors against the Calamity even after everything else fell? Year after year?”
“No,” confessed Zelda.
“It’s a secret passed from one chief to another - except Riju. I didn’t feel like it was my place to tell her, since Urbosa didn’t tell me to. But. The Calamity took the form of a man once. A Gerudo man.”
“Oh,” said Zelda. “So that’s why we - our ancestors I mean - why they - did such terrible things to the ancestors of the Gerudo. Why voe are forbidden.”
Link shrugged. “Or maybe the things we did came first, and carved a door in the heart of a living man that the Malice could walk through. Either way, they’ve fought for ages to balance the shame of evil rising among them.”
“But father taught me the Malice came from the festering hatred of someone from Hyrule. Except - inside the Calamity I found it was so very old - older than the oldest book in the royal library, older than the oldest Sheikah legend.”
“Maybe they’re all true,” said Link with a shrug, setting down his empty cup. “It rose many times, before the guardians and sacred beasts were built. So. Desert or jungle first?”
“I don’t know,” said Zelda.
Link tipped his head in thought. “Faron holds the spring of courage.”
“Farore never spoke to me though,” sighed Zelda into her teacup. “None of the Three did. Or Hylia. Only the sword, and the Great Deku Tree, and the other spirits inside the Calamity, if they were even real. The sealing magic just - came. No voices. It wasn’t there, and then it was.”
Link tipped his head the other way. “Maybe she will speak to me. Enough work for today, dearest Princess. Come to bed.”
“Ok,” said Zelda, setting aside the rest of her tea to accept his gentle, callused hands.
This story and its related blupees may have monsters, zombies, meta lore, implied sexual activity and possibly bawdy jokes (because this is after all, me), mild horror ( I mean, zombies? Obvs?), spoilers for a game that doesn't exist yet (BUT BETTER HAVE A REDEMPTION ARC BY ZOD), questions not fully answered by the text, demiromantic pansexual Link (of which more detail may be seen in Madness Most Discreet), Making Stuff Up(tm), fuzzy time because calendars are annoying and math is worse, references to Very Smol Details in canon and leaps of logic therefrom, Things Are Not As They Appear At First Glance, demisexual Zelda, bad puns, VERY limited 3rd person, implied battles, actual battles but they're not very messy I promise (no really, if only for wordcount), cows, and the eating of tasty plants and animals.
If you have Concerns about possible somethings not listed above, please feel free to send me a message on discord or tumblr and I'll be happy to answer you as soon as I can.
If any of the above trouble you, this story may not be for you. Alas.
Chapter 2: Below
Water dripped from glistening limestone, and fire consumed another torch. Between the two of them and the giant ox, they could only carry sixteen of the good sort: dense maple shafts, and tightly woven linen wadding soaked in white naptha and sealed with stearin and beeswax. Link scouted ahead after every rest, laying a few hours’ worth of small fires anywhere he found a dry place. He returned by sheikah runes every time, and never volunteered anything about fresh blood and ichor on his boots.
Zelda stopped asking. She’d watched him fight his way across Hyrule for years. He knew what he was doing. “This is stupid. Not one path leads anywhere but more darkness and more stone and more water that needs three passes through the filters to be drinkable and it still tastes like chalk.”
Link grunted, flipping through screens on the slate for the usual cold breakfast.
“I’m serious. And please, let’s have hot tea today? I know it uses more water but - I can’t remember what it feels like to be really, actually warm. We’ve been down here only a fortnight, but it feels like longer.”
Link chuckled, summoning a whole bundle of good quartered ash logs and kindling from the slate. “Doesn’t matter how many days you camp in one place or another. We’ve been on the road for ten solid months. That’s the number that counts. It’s the same in the mountains or the desert or anywhere. You know elsewhere there’s different weather, and food you can buy ready-made, but the longer it is between villages, the harder it is to have faith you’ll reach another. You forget what it’s like to rest, except that it’s different than the road. You forget what it’s like to be dry, or warm, or whatever. After the year turns though, you start to get used to it.”
Zelda winced, sitting on their bedroll between the peaceful ox and the cheerful fire, watching Link make tea and heat the skillet for breakfast. He usually saved cooking for when they set camp. “I’m sorry.”
Link shrugged, humming to himself as he sorted through provisions.
“The data hasn’t changed. Hostile creatures are no more frequent or straying from their natural habitats more here than anywhere else. Purah was right - the only pattern in any of this is coming from my own fear. We should go home. Back to rebuilding. That’s what’s important. The people. The land.”
“As you wish,” he said with a shrug, summoning eggs and cured bacon and peppers and mushrooms onto a more-or-less clean rock beside the fire.
Zelda sighed. “Is that all you can say anymore? Don’t you want anything for yourself?”
Link looked up from his work with a shrug and a rare smile. “I have you already.”
After breakfast, Link claimed the messy chores for himself. As usual. He handed her the slate and kissed the top of her head. He hummed to himself as he worked. Zelda finished updating her notes and organizing everything for storing in the slate or in the massive saddlebags. When she activated the screen though, she found Link had left it open to a picture of the cave walls, all mottled shadows washed in amber torchlight.
Zelda squinted, enlarging the image. She swore, tapping the enhancement runes frantically, trying to see more of the ancient painting. “Link, oh why didn’t you say something? This - the whorls, the stylization, the pigments- ! Deteriorated for sure, but too close to be pure coincidence. This was surely painted in the same era and culture as the ancient tapestry in the holy sanctum! Give or take a few centuries. I would need a sample to be sure but this is gloriously preserved - and nothing at all like the carvings around the spring and dragon ruins. But is it older or younger? Nothing in the library gave us any definitive measure of-”
“The passage narrows and drops after that place,” said Link, resting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s only a few hours to reach it, but not even the slate can make the water in that chamber safe to drink. It’s not a good camp.”
“I have to see it myself Link. Even just to sketch it. I need to see the rest of the design, however much survived.”
Link sucked a tight breath through his teeth.
“I promise we’ll still leave tonight. I’m tired and cold and I want a real bath so bad I would do almost anything to get it - but I really need to see this. It’s not what we came for, but this is a priceless discovery. Can you imagine? Everything we know about the era of chaos could be changed by this one painting.”
“As you wish,” said Link softly, bowing his head.
Zelda frowned, deactivating the slate. “What’s wrong?”
“I am happy to serve any way you wish, dearest Princess.”
“Please, tell me.”
Link winced and scratched the back of his neck. “We should turn the ox loose.”
“Why?” Zelda rose to her feet, studying him in the lowering firelight.
Link hesitated. He took a deep breath, raising his blue eyes at last. “It’s not just one painting. And doesn’t stop with that chamber. Neither will you.”
“That’s not fair. I just want to sketch it to study later.”
“And you can. I will be at your side for every step. I’m not mad. I admire the way you get excited about things. I’ve always loved that about you. I just want you to have the data before you decide. I can leave a rune here so we can come back later. We can go home to rest and refresh ourselves now.”
“You’re trying to protect me from something,” said Zelda softly.
“What did you see?”
Link shook his head. “Nothing I can measure for you. Just a feeling.”
Zelda worried her lip between her teeth. “Was it a heartbeat?”
Link’s eyes flared wide.
“I thought I was imagining it,” whispered Zelda.
Link dumped the saddlebags onto the cave floor, and emptied each cache in the slate one by one. He talked through his decisions as he redistributed provisions and weapons and clothing and tools. He prepared for battle, and he prepared for potentially months underground - or at least before the next resupply - and he prepared her to survive if something happened to him.
Zelda paled. She did not argue. She took notes.
He gave her three of each type of arrow, then stuffed the rest of her quiver with ancient ones. He filled his own with half plain broadtips and half ancient bolts. The rest he returned to the slate. He made her carry ancient blades and spears and shields even though she could barely manage to remember the training patterns he so patiently taught her every evening.
He piled every scrap of simple roasted food into the slate, and fried enough truffles and stamella mushrooms to fill every empty rune in the provision screen. He loaded all her notebooks into a single bag, using a traveling rune to take them to a safe place. He didn’t tell her where, but promised he would leave the coordinates with the Great Deku.
Just in case.
He said he didn’t trust anything mortal or mortal-made. Not even the Sheikah slate.
Except for her.
Ancient paintings covered every scrap of wall and ceiling. The flicker of torchlight made everything seem ominous. Birds and serpents, lions and boars, horses and bears flowed over curved stone. At the four compass points above the creatures travelled faceless human figures with unidentifiable shapes in their hands and distinct radial patterns instead of hair. At the cross-quarters, four figures on majestic horses, carrying lance and sword and spear and bow. Above their heads, a massive figure with vast crescent-and-spiral wings, and dozens of tiny brushstroke people standing in its hands and in the shade of its wings.
“Nine,” said Zelda, shaking her head over her sprawling sketch. “Every type of creature is painted nine times, if that winged one is supposed to be a person. It’s so dark - the slate just can’t capture better pictures.”
“Too many torches will leave soot. You need luminous stones-”
“No. Stay, please. I’m not like you. I don’t think I can sit alone in this place very long without - remembering too much.”
Link petted her hair and pulled her into his strong arms. “Later, dearest. I won’t leave you. We can come back for that later.”
“Yes,” confessed Zelda to Link’s shoulder. “But I - can’t leave just yet. I feel like the rhythm changed.”
“Uneven. Like a lamed horse.”
“Like we’re running out of time.”
“Or torches,” teased Link, squeezing her hard enough to make her wheeze.
Zelda poked his ticklish spot in rebuke.
They did no more exploring that day.
The descent through the next two chambers demanded every scrap of strength and attention they had to give. The cave paintings rioted around them. The heartbeat grew louder, and less steady, with every step.
Zelda stopped sketching. She engraved the unspeakable mystery of the ancient paintings on her heart, and followed her beloved, faithful knight. Followed the faltering, primal heartbeat into the darkness she’d hoped to never need to face again.
There wasn’t anywhere to camp. Link braced himself in the passage and tied her belt to a rock. He wedged himself in next to her and doused the torch. He sang soft and wordless things, stroking her hair. He cradled her to his chest and promised to keep watch.
Zelda wound her arms around him and fell asleep against her will, caught between two heartbeats. One beloved and steady and fearless. One strange and faltering and dangerous.
The treacherous descent brought them to a vast, musty emptiness that refused the light of their torch. Link grumbled, pulling the last torch from his backpack. He took the half-spent one and gave her the new, holding up his hand for silence. He sidled away, until the amber circles of their light barely even touched. He knelt, brushing chalky powder from the ground beside his boot, revealing not limestone, but fragile ancient wood.
Link turned sharply. A splinter of light left his hand, vanishing into a squeak and wet little thup. He doused his torch, leaving her alone in the light to creep his way along a path only he understood.
He returned to her side with something small and oozing in his hands. His eyes asked her if she was ready.
Link opened his hands to show her the corpse of something that was probably a rat, once. It did not bleed so much as ooze viscous black and magenta goop where the little throwing dagger ended it.
Link marked the safe path with drops of luminous dye. They vanished when she brought her torch too close, but she counted spots and steps before the next turn, trusting his skill to lead her to stable ground.
Link lit his torch again when she reached the cracked, slanting stone floor. It looked like baked pond mud, the jagged stone sharp where it split.
The largest cracks all pointed downslope.
Link drew the blessed sword from his back. He wove a double loop pattern and returned it to its ornamented sheath. A salute, and a promise.
Zelda nodded, handing him her torch so she could string her bow. Of all the weapons he tried to teach her, this was her best - and she was not half as good at it as he had been as a child .
She tied it to her belt with the swiftknots he taught her almost three summers ago, and reclaimed her torch. She led him into the crater, pretending she didn’t see the eight menacing painted figures vanishing into the darkness behind them.
Magenta tendrils appeared in the darkness. They pulsed, and they writhed around even deeper darkness. The air changed. The torches flared. Zelda gasped when the first sinuous tendrils of green light eeled towards them like temple incense.
Link rested a hand on her shoulder. They watched more wisps emerge. “They don’t seem hostile,” whispered Zelda.
Link made her turn to look at him, expression grave.
“I have to know,” whispered Zelda.
Link nodded. He tapped a finger on the back of her hand, in perfect sync with the heartbeat. He pointed ahead and up to the faint silhouette of a man, staggering and overbalanced, his long hair billowing in the frozen moment of his fall, his mouth gaping in a silent scream as an inhuman hand clawed at his chest.
The silhouettes didn’t move.
Link followed her to the fragile curtain veiling the tormented stranger. It crumbled to dust when she touched it.
A circle of seven torches flared to blinding life.
The heartbeat stumbled.
Zelda squinted, edging into the inexplicable light, riveted to the horror of the dessicated corpse at the center, one hand still raised in a vain attempt to ward off the glowing green hand with its wicked nails buried in its chest, the other barely even brushing the surface of the pulsing, luminescent stone at the exact center of the circle. Torchlight reflected on dulled gold jewelry, and a gold-amber gem on its brow. Long red hair hung limp from its skull. Goopy, pulsing Maliceroots sprawled in radial chaos from under the miserable corpse.
Neither the roots nor the stone matched the heartbeat. The outstretched hand seemed to twitch.
“A trick of the light,” breathed Zelda.
A dusty, shivering crack echoed through the chamber.
The corpse turned its head with a crumbling, popping, brittle crunch. Hollow eyesockets damned them for intruding on its torment. A red glow sparked in the hollow emptiness. Yellow slit-pupiled eyes opened. A baleful hiss raced around the massive chamber.
Zelda stepped back.
Link stepped forward.
Crunch and crumble and dessicated skin flaking from ancient joints. Malice raised the unhappy dead, wrenching the corpse from the grasp of the eerie, elongated green hand with green wisps floating in spirals around it.
The hand recoiled and lashed out at the corpse again. It might as well have struck a pile of sand, its wicked nails slicing clean through the shrivelled flesh between its ribs. The corpse hissed, a tendril of Malice darting from the wound to wrap around the green wrist.
A deafening shriek echoed through stone and flesh.
Link drew the blessed sword, stalking toward the horrors like a wolfos cornering its next meal, torch still raised in his off hand.
The corpse stumbled forward, red-and-yellow eyes darting and shivering in rage as the green hand tore free of the Malice.
Zelda wedged her torch in a crack of stone at her feet. Link lunged. Malice tangled his stride.
Zelda shouted in rage and denial, hands shaking as she pulled at a swiftknot that wasn’t swift enough. The green hand struck her, sending her hurtling across the circle to land in a painful heap at the base of a metal torch.
Link severed the ensnaring tendril and followed the blade around to leap at the corpse.
The green hand seized his wrist. The torch fell. Link thrashed and tried to cut at the writhing Malice and the green hand, failing on both counts.
Zelda pulled herself to her knees, and raising her hand to call the sealing power. Light blossomed, streaking harmlessly through the green hand. More tendrils of Malice erupted wherever the blessed sword cut dessicated flesh. More green wisps flowed where it cut the green hand.
The heartbeat stumbled.
Zelda loosed a freezestone arrow at the corpse. It grazed the thing’s hip and halted the ponderous advance no longer than two heartbeats. She loosed another at the green hand. It too passed through the spectral arm to shatter against stone somewhere on the other side.
Link howled as the winding green tendrils encircled him. The corpse swiped at him. It missed.
Zelda nocked an ancient arrow, sighting on the strange spiraling ornament on the green hand. She too missed.
Link howled in pain.
The green hand yanked him off his feet and up - into a blight of green luminescence.
The corpse hissed at the vanished thief and whirled towards her.
A shock arrow did nothing.
It caught the firerock arrow and threw it down into the riot of Malice driving it onward.
Zelda screamed and thrust her hand between them. The sealing magic burned forth.
The corpse squealed in something like pain and halted mid-stride, its horrible jaw clacking around a tendril of Malice.
Zelda loosed an ancient arrow at one of the Malice eyes. This time, the corpse staggered, black and magenta goop splattered and oozing down its left side.
Zelda begged the silent gods for a stronger seal. She wasted three more ancient bolts trying to hit the other eye.
Link was gone, and she was going to die alone in a knot of Malice with an eldritch heartbeat hammering her bones. She screamed in fury as she retreated, raising her bow. Light poured from her hands, streaking after the arrow. Pierced the remaining horrid eye of Malice.
A tapering, pained squeal wriggled into nothingness with a puff of acrid black and purple smoke, taking most of the Maliceroots with it. The corpse halted, swaying unsteadily.
Zelda screamed at it, at the empty cavern, at the pulsing luminous stone, at the knot of Malice still tangled at the center of the circle. She called the sealing magic. Light wove itself into a massive, tapering, three-faceted spike in midair.
Zelda howled again, balling her fists in rage and stomping her foot.
The spike thumped down on the Malice with earth-shaking force.
The soft hiss and pop of eight torches seared the emptiness pressing down on her.
The heartbeat thumped.
Deep, dry laughter echoed through the cavern.
Chapter 3: Between
“You are so fucking screwed.”
Zelda screamed in horror and rage, loosing wild arrows into the shadows.
“Show yourself, monster-! I fear nothing in this world or any other,” howled Zelda, whirling about, snatching up plain arrows fallen from Link’s quiver when the hand took him.
Zelda howled, trying and failing to call the sealing power.
“Are you quite done? We both know the truth, and shattering arrowheads isn’t going to bring him back.”
Zelda growled at the empty chamber.
Crack and crumble. More dark laughter.
The hair stood up on the back of her neck. She turned toward the swaying corpse. Which was readjusting its dislocated jaw like it was trying to make its horrible mouth close by force.
“You should probably scavenge as many of those arrows as you can. The torches won’t burn forever.”
Zelda stared at the uncanny corpse, watching it fuss with it’s dull long hair like it was going to weave a plait. It was only slightly less horrible with its mouth closed, its taut, dry lips pulled back and askew in a caricature of wry mirth. “I am going mad.”
“Good. That will probably help, given that interfering scorpion took the damn sealing sword because your damn knight wasn’t bright enough to drop it before the veil closed.”
“How is this possible,” whispered Zelda, lowering the bow. The arrows hadn’t seemed to affect the corpse at all anyway. The sound of its joints cracking and its dry skin crinkling and sloughing off bits of itself started to blend with the hiss and pop of the torches. Its golden jewelry clattered and swayed as it struggled to cinch up the dark cloth slung about its withered hips, or knot it through the rings of its golden belt. All engraved with symbols of sun and wind - and something unsettlingly akin to the stylized skull that formed the ancestral mark of the Gerudo people.
“There is more magic under the heavens than your science admits. Or have the pleasures of the mortal world so tarnished your brilliant mind that you cannot recognize your old friend, little bluebird?”
Zelda squeaked, nearly dropping her bow. “Thunder? ”
“One and the same, unfortunately. I really wasn’t jesting about the arrows. There should be enough naptha in the torches for another ten minutes. Unless one of the wells cracked. Which is possible.” His jaw didn’t move to match his words, but she heard him as clearly as she ever had while she dwelled in the heart of Calamity.
Zelda did drop the bow this time. “Goddess bright, you’re real ?”
“Work first, gibber later, bluebird. That seal won’t hold Him long, and we want to be a hundred leagues away before it cracks. Farther, if the Three smile.”
“Um,” said Zelda, still staring at Thunder’s vain efforts to improve his appearance. “That was your heartbeat.”
“Zelda,” said Thunder quietly, turning his head towards her, empty eyesockets refusing the light. “My magic isn’t what it used to be. Scavenge what you can, or leave it to rot, and prepare to move , if you would preserve any hope of saving your gallant knight.”
The first torch winked out five minutes later. Another one followed two minutes after that. Zelda recovered all but two of the ancient bolts, most of the broadheads, and the one firerock arrow. She piled them all into the slate to deal with later, and extinguished all but one torch.
Thunder said nothing else while she hacked apart the exhausted torches and cut one of Link’s shirts to rags, standing in the same place the whole time, at the edge of the light. She dribbled naptha onto the improvised wadding from the well of a third cooling torch. She collected the other wells to store in the slate. She did not calculate how many hours her work would buy.
Thunder did not react when she held out the bundle of six crude torches.
“You are coming with me?”
“Then you can help carry.”
Thunder held his hands in front of him, palm up.
“I’m over here,” she said softly.
“I’m aware,” said Thunder. “Give me whatever it is and let’s go.”
Zelda frowned. She laid the bundle in his hands.
He stood, waiting.
She waved her hand as close to his face as she could reach, given that in life he surely had been enormous. Just like the desert tribes.
“Well? Is that it?”
“You can’t see me, can you?”
Thunder said nothing.
Zelda swore. “The way up is - not easy, old friend. Link painted the path for me, but it was very hard to follow, and vanishes when I get close to the marks. My steps are shorter than yours -”
“Painted with what.”
Zelda frowned. “Does it matter?”
“Sacred ink is perceived by the soul, not the eye. If you speak of those meandering dots above us? Take me to the beginning of the path and douse your torch until we reach the top.”
Zelda shivered, glancing between Thunder and the shadows of the ancient ramps.
Thunder tucked the bundle of torches against his withered hip and slipped off one of his gold bangles with the delicate golden chain linking it to the others remaining on his wrist, offering it vaguely in her direction. “You don’t have to touch me, bluebird.”
“It - isn’t that,” said Zelda, accepting the bangle.
“I won’t lead you off the edge,” said Thunder coldly. “If you cannot trust in me, at least trust that I am completely disinterested in remaining inside the spiritgate in any condition whatever for any longer than it takes to climb the fuck back out of it.”
Zelda wept when she saw the giant ox still placidly chewing her cud beside the decimated baskets of alfalfa. She dropped the golden bangle and stumbled across the cave to embrace the sweet creature, babbling in gratitude and exhaustion.
Thunder stayed where she left him.
“Three days - surely it has been more than three days? But you stayed, you stayed anyway,” babbled Zelda.
“The gods are an absolute farce. He’s gone, but you stayed. Not that I want you dead either, but surely a hero is worth more than a cow? Even a really good one?”
“Bluebird, this isn’t the time. We have a long way to go yet.”
Zelda slumped against the warm hide of the faithful ox. “You keep saying that. But where is there to go? It’s over, it’s all over. The one hope of peace, our hero, our light - is gone .”
“It is not over,” said Thunder, shuffling towards her voice. “Fortify yourself with whatever spirits you have in your supply, and get your riding beast turned the right damn direction. You can weep in the saddle just as well as you can weep sitting still.”
“What do you even know about anything anyway? A hundred years and you never once wept or raged or anything . You’re as bad as he is-!”
“You can ride and hate me at the same time, I promise. Up with you.”
“Yes,” growled Thunder.
“What do you even care? You’re already dead!”
“ Mostly dead. I assure you there’s a difference. Get up .”
“The whole world can burn and it won’t make any difference to you. Nothing makes any difference to you. Everything was always a joke, a riddle, a minor amusement. And now I find out you were real the whole time? What else have you lied about? Why were you down here to begin with?”
“Get up or I will make you get up, bluebird. I will gladly pay the entire price of summoning a wight right now if it will scare you into the damn saddle.”
“So am I, by the measure of your pathetic science. Do you want to save your beloved knight or not?”
Zelda scrubbed at her face, hauling herself to her feet. “You didn’t say where we’re going.”
“The Shrine of Resurrection,” said Thunder, reaching her side at last. “Obviously. ”
Zelda gaped at him as he patted the ox, trying to find the saddlebags that were still draped over the pile of things Link insisted they leave behind, to guard them from the damp. “That took a hundred years to heal Link- and he was alive when the Sheikah-”
“ He is not a witch. Are you a complete barbarian and ride without tack?”
Zelda sighed. “You weren’t renowned for patience in life, were you?”
Thunder turned his head towards her, saying nothing.
Zelda groaned. “Stay put and try not to get stepped on. I’ve only done this once before.”
For all he scolded her about dragging her feet before, Thunder hesitated when she offered her hand to help him mount. “It would be useful to know if you bothered to pack extra personal gear. Cloaks. Gloves. Herbs.”
“Of course, but-”
“I require one of each,” interrupted Thunder. “Well. Two gloves, but one for each - stop dawdling, you know what I mean.”
Zelda frowned at him, but opened the slate to retrieve their longest raincloak and a pair of Link’s gloves. She had to cut the fingertips open to accommodate his long, bony fingers, and cut vents down the back to widen them. He still cupped his hands in a cramped and painful-looking way, and he still wouldn’t take her hand to mount. “Whatever it is, I can’t help if you don’t tell me.”
“Herbs,” said Thunder quietly.
“You didn’t say what kind.”
Thunder shrugged, even though every movement made his bones creak and his skin crackle, even after two days of trudging back up through the deep caverns. “How am I to know the graceless names you call things in your time?”
“Tell me what they’re for and I’ll see if I have anything similar.”
Thunder turned away, as if he couldn’t bear her looking at him. The cloak was ridiculously short, and the hood far too small to tuck his hair into.
“Oh, said Zelda, blushing at his bowed back. “We have soap -”
“No,” said Thunder. “I am excruciatingly aware that a civilized bath is among the top three worst ideas in the world at present.”
Zelda blushed in nervous embarrassment, flipping through screens to find a handful of golden safflina to soothe his pride. “Honestly I hardly notice. As long as you’re less fragrant than a Korok seed, you’re fine.”
“A what?” Thunder pivoted, accepting the safflina with a distracted air.
“Nevermind,” said Zelda with a chuckle. She handed him the dragging bangle with a smile he couldn’t see. “ Now will you climb up?”
“Stop,” said Thunder, clutching her shoulder hard. His bones dug into her despite her cloak and padded jacket.
Zelda urged the ox to stop. She waited for an explanation, squinting against the thin gray light from the surface.
“I smell rain.”
“It’s fine - I don’t have anything on me that will draw sparks, and I don’t think your jewels are enough to-”
“I have less than no fear of lightning , bluebird. I have little to trade you for your service already, but that much I can manage. So long as you travel with me, you may dance with thunderheads while wearing steel from crown to toe and never be struck unless I will it so. Which I won’t. Nonetheless, we should wait until this storm passes.”
Zelda frowned in thought. “The only place wetter than the Faron jungle is the Zora Domain. If we trade for horses at Lakeside Stables, we might reach the bridge in about a month.”
Zelda raised a brow, glancing over her shoulder at him. He’d managed to part his hair, drawing it over his shoulders so he could tug the hood more-or-less up. It didn’t actually hide his withered face and hollow eyesockets at all, but she didn’t tell him that. “You know. Ferns. Trees. Bugs. Snakes. The most annoying birds under the sun. Waterfalls. Rain every day.”
Thunder shivered, bones rattling.
“I guess this place looked a lot different in your day. Sorry. I didn’t think about that. I could empty a saddlebag for you.”
“I am not cargo .”
Zelda snickered at his prim offense. “I can put a blanket in there for you. A few puzzle-blocks to play with. Make you a poppet even.”
Thunder‘s face tightened in a fearsome glare.
“It’s dry,” she teased in a sing-song tone.
“Does it please you to torture me, bluebird? Wherever did the sweet maiden princess acquire such wickedness? I shall burn it to the ground and salt the ashes.”
Zelda laughed. “Oh, we already did. But that doesn’t matter, because he comes back like noxious weeds, doesn’t he? Prophecy my foot. No one needs anything so mystical to explain stinging nettles and kudzu and bindweed.”
Thunder tucked his chin, jewels chiming merrily.
“Don’t be stubborn. Who else have I to tease but you? If I do not laugh at something , I will cry.”
Chapter 4: Passage
“Why do you always bring me sparkbloom, bluebird? We rest in your fair green Hyrule now, surrounded by clover and sweet herbs, you adorn yourself with primrose and daisy and featherleaf, but for me it is nothing but sharp, tangy sparkblooms.”
Zelda sighed, tossing the ill-favored bouquet to the grass, sinking down to rest in the shade of the apple tree as Thunder crunched his way through another apple. “I thought you liked them. I’ll find different ones. Later. I’m tired.”
Thunder finished eating as much of the apple as evidently interested him and tossed the rest downslope where the horse shortly found it. He folded his gloved hands over the heavy quilted poncho she’d bought for him. He refused to accept trousers of any kind, even when she tried to assure him she knew where to buy really long ones, but fashioned the raincloak into a wrapped skirt instead.
“I don’t dislike them, bluebird. I just want to know why, of all possible herbs, you choose these .”
Zelda blushed, drawing her knees up. “They’re rugged plants, safflinas. Grow everywhere, seed everywhere, bloom without regard to weather or tending, and we’d observed about four hundred distinct species in the genus before the Calamity screwed everything up. Most botanists used to think the gold subgenus more temperamental than the rest, but because my mother was so close with Lady Urbosa, I had the opportunity to study many more cultivars and wild varieties than other people. It took years of work to convince the scientific community that soil composition and microclimates are actually real things that matter. I had six different kinds of gold safflina growing in the castle gardens, but two were hybrids of the others, so those might not count.”
“You never mentioned these were so dear to you before. Just plants in general, and wildflowers in particular.” Thunder picked up the bouquet, turning it over in his hands like he would study each leaf and tiny blossom with his fingertips.
“They’re not. I grew thousands of plants and studied a lot of things. Father was always chiding me for reading half the night and dozing off during matins.”
Thunder laughed. “Rhoam Bosphoramus seems to have held very fixed ideas of how the world should be ordered, from everything you’ve told me over the years.”
“He did. He was such an ass sometimes. But I’d give my right arm to have him back,” said Zelda, resting her chin on her knees.
“You would appear to have a taste for collecting stubborn men in his absence,” teased Thunder.
Zelda ripped out a handful of grass and clover to throw at him.
Thunder only laughed, burying his face in the bouquet. Between villages, he left his shawl looped about his shoulders sometimes, tipping his withered face to the sky as he rode pillion behind her. During noon rests, he would often as not stretch his massive bones out on the ground to bask in the sun like a lizard or a cat.
His skin seemed to have softened a little, sloughing less, and though his bones still cracked and popped, they didn’t crunch unless he attempted something truly jarring. He still avoided any movement he didn't have to engage - except for moments like this.
“They’re from the desert,” blurted Zelda.
Thunder turned his face towards her, flowers still held against his ancient skin, brow-gem and earrings flashing in the dappled sunlight.
“The designs on your jewels. Your kilt. I’ve seen things like that in the Gerudo lands. That’s why gold safflina. Because maybe they would help you recover more memories of who you were. Are. Whatever.”
Thunder said nothing.
“I know. It’s stupid. A theory woven of air and moonbeams. Even if they are descended from your people, that doesn’t mean your tribe necessarily traveled the same region - or if they did, that the climate was anything like it is now. Or that you even want to remember them. Are you ready to move on?”
“Thank you, my little bluebird. I treasure your gift,” said Thunder softly.
Two days’ travel from the more-or-less excavated processional stair to the ruined temple plateau, a stalblin clawed its way out of the dirt at twilight.
“That little jerk. I was just about to pull us off the road to set camp too. Hold onto me,” growled Zelda, gathering the rein.
“I’ve the cantle in hand. I’m fine for a few more little sprints,” said Thunder.
“You are not going to stoic at me. I get enough of that from Link. You couldn’t walk after the last one. Hold. My. Waist.”
“A minor inconv-”
“ Now .”
Thunder obeyed, slipping his massive bony hands around her and locking his fingers together.
Zelda prodded the horse into a faster gait, turning him in a wide circuit to build speed - and tease out two more stalblin in hiding. She prodded the beast into a startled lope, pulling his head down and forcing him to run directly at one of the stal. The horse frog-hopped and lashed out, crushing its skull exactly as she wanted. She murmured praise and promised him oats she didn’t have, turning him towards the others.
Within minutes, it was over, the cursed bones ground to powder under iron-shod hooves.
“Are you alright?”
“For varying definitions thereof.”
Zelda winced. “Sorry. I thought a couple minutes of jostling might hurt less than an hour of trying to shake them.”
“I think - we shouldn’t stop tonight. Does the road branch in the next three, four hours?”
“I don’t think so. I always just check the slate, but I can set a pin… that won’t do you any good. Damn.”
“Another Sheikah enchantment,” sneered Thunder. “Set it anyway and hand me the reins. I will wake you in three hours.”
“Don’t care. Reins. Now .”
“What’s wrong? Something broke didn’t it?”
“Not the time for questions, bluebird. If we do not reach the shrine before the seal cracks again, bones will be the least of our problems.”
The horse refused to climb the processional stair. Or rather, the rubble-strewn slope that it had become. Thunder insisted on draping the saddlebags over his shoulders, and told her how to tie up the stirrups and saddle strings so she could send it down the road alone. He assured her the horse would follow the road to the nearest stable, or join a wild herd if the chance afforded and the lead mare felt benevolent that day.
Zelda gave him their longest spear to lean on, and grasped his fragile, bony hand to help him find the smoothest ground and keep his balance on the long climb. It was hard. They spoke of nothing but the work. The next step. The next rest.
Zelda did not tell him about dark clouds on the horizon. If he smelled them, he didn’t say anything either.
Zelda did not check the distance to the closest ruin with any kind of roof. They would reach it in time, or they wouldn’t. Looking at the map would only mean that many fewer steps they could take.
“There’s no flat place on this one, just lean on me. The next three will be smooth. Then there’s actual stairs for a while. Good. Two more.”
“Bluebird. I don’t think I have that many steps left. The power to defy the Great Pattern demands a price, no matter how good one’s reasons. Either my feet will shatter, or my hands will. Tapping more magic to stabilize either will steal rather more than it gives.”
“We’ll deal with that when we get there. We’re on the stair now, feel the rise? They were built in sets of eighteen, I don’t know why. In between there’s a landing three steps deep. Maybe the rhythm of some antique hymn.”
“Bluebird. You must return to the spiritgate with your Sheikah rune and renew the seal. Your duty is to your people, not to me. You must find any seers left in this shattered world, and strengthen your power. Every season, you must return to layer another seal over the last.”
“Halfway to the landing. Save your energy for climbing, we can talk later. At the landing I will see if we’ve any hearttruffle cakes left, or that bitter green elixir.”
“Bluebird. You must bring forth daughters. As many as you can. Seek the Zora healers to strengthen you and pious lovers to give you twins and triplets. Teach them everything . When they blossom into their strength, teach them the sealing magic. Not superstition and myth. Use your brilliance to show them the data. The Great Patterns. Teach them to bear daughters after you, and to teach them in turn.”
“Now you really are talking nonsense. Two more. You can do it. I have faith.”
“Bluebird. Faith is not enough.” Thunder stumbled on the landing. “If your hero cannot carve his way through the spiritroads in time to help you, then you must do everything in your power to hold the gate closed as long as it takes for the mercy of the Three to return us to your side.”
Zelda helped him sit down on the landing. She suggested a hundred different preserved foods and elixirs. She did not ask why he hid his hand in the pocket of his poncho, or why his soft sheepskin boot seemed to be at a strange angle. She stopped suggesting meals when he drew his shawl over his head, shivering at midday.
“I have a new idea. I'll return before you can count to a hundred.”
Thunder laughed. It was not a nice laugh.
The magnesis rune was anything but graceful in the hands of a novice. Zelda swore every oath she’d ever heard of, wrestling the makeshift metal sling up far too many crumbling stairs.
Thunder said nothing about his wild and perilous flight except to promise he would kick her down a mountain if she ever told anyone that he let her tie him to the damn thing to achieve it.
He let her help him to his feet in the antechamber. He hobbled into the sanctum more or less under his own power.
“The slate has to be locked in the pedestal to work,” said Zelda, watching him hesitate beside the empty Cradle of Stars that once brought Link back from the border of death. “I’m not sure if I can get things from it while it does… whatever it does to the shrine.”
“Empty it then. Outside. Quickly.”
Zelda sucked a hissing breath and took his advice, dumping almost everything on the dusty stone floor. She left the claymores and another spear, all the gold safflina and apples and hydromelons and simple roast meats. She climbed up to the surface to capture a last picture of the dramatic sunset painting the advancing storm.
When she returned to the sanctum, he’d already stripped his garments and all his ornaments but the topaz on his brow, climbing into the dry cradle. His left hand was missing, and his arm seemed strangely passive and crooked.
“You squander time you do not have. Pop the slate into the spellmatrix and go, or do you want to face Him alone?”
Zelda did not dare edge closer than halfway. “How long-”
“As long as it takes. You know your duty. Do it or defy it, I care not which. Just leave the slate and go .”
Zelda cursed him for a stubborn old stick, turning heel. She made sure the slate was set to show him the sunset when he retrieved it, deactivated it, and fit it in the pedestal. She had exactly three heartbeats to reach the door before the chamber sealed.
She stood alone among the heaped provisions in the desolate antechamber, watching the storm break above, and wept.
Chapter 5: Above
Zelda slept in the cold antechamber the first night, too heartsick and sore to do more than curl up on the pile of clothes and draw a blanket over her head. She clutched one of Link’s tunics to her chest. It still smelled like him.
In the morning she forced herself to eat a mushroom cake, and climbed to the surface to study the plateau. She’d come here many times, before and after Calamity, often with Link in her shadow, silent and strong. She’d always carried the slate before.
“It could be years before the chamber opens again. If it opens. If it accepts him. The little shrines certainly never woke for me . I hadn’t yet realized the little hill by the abbey had anything under it though. Still - the slate responds to me - surely it will obey him too?”
The peaceful morning did not answer. The hills and meadows glowed with vibrant green life, invigorated by the passing storm. A lazy hawk drifted above the forest, no doubt still watching for prey, but putting no particular effort into the hunt.
“I watched you stand like this. Did you feel as lost then as I do now? What did you feel when you saw the old man watching? I saw you hesitate - you! The fearless! Gathering crude weapons before even feeding yourself. Hiding close enough to overlisten him muttering to himself over the fire for an hour - yet entirely ready to believe him a threat.”
Zelda gazed downhill at the shallow, soot-blackened overhang beside the road. “It’s completely irrational, Father’s spirit lingering without the imprinting runes of a sacred beast to preserve his mind. That he could persuade you to believe his ruse. That he would spend a century finding a way to fashion these lessons. That he knew somehow the shrine would take your memories away though he never read even one of my abstracts. And that I just buried our most important relic for gods only know how long for the sake of maybe healing a man of questionable virtue who’s been dead for aeons while you are off being heroic or dead somewhere not here and I don’t know what to do about any of this! Me! I am supposed to be wisdom and light and virtue and if a god manifested before me right now I would fucking punch them .”
Two weeks later she settled into something like a routine. She rose when dawn snuck through the gaps in the cabin wall. She threw sundried winterberries and precious chickaloo nuts into coarse acorn porridge. She collected her bow and exactly eighteen plain arrows in her quiver and crept across the meadow to steal more eggs and nuts from songbirds and squirrels. She often startled deer, but always failed to take one down. She did get juvenile herons on lucky days.
“Not that I want to be plucking feathers,” muttered Zelda to the pond as she waded through the shallows to collect it. “But I don't want to break into the frozen cache yet. Gods I wish I had butter though. Or at least milk.”
Crickets sang at the verge of the water, and the morning breeze played in her short hair as she gutted the bird and buried the waste. Link would have eaten everything , but she wasn’t that hungry. Yet.
She collected seventeen arrows and returned to the cabin for breakfast. She added water and mushrooms and fat purplish carrots to the pot, letting the rest stew for lunch. She packed clean flattened birchbark, the last pocket pies, and the roll of fragile willow charcoal into her satchel. She exchanged Sheikah-made hunting garb for most of Link’s climbing gear.
Noon found her perched in the ancient tower every day, muttering to herself over which landmarks from above would still make sense on the ground and struggling to triangulate the right scale. She scolded the gods, telling them they had better have given blessings to the patient scholars who scribed maps before they began to recover pieces of ancient technology, or else she would never offer them prayers again.
The gods didn’t answer.
After, she gathered deadfall from the Forest of Spirits, and searched for more usable storage chests in the ruins of the abbey. She lined one entire wall of the cabin with chests, rationing her ink for marking little shakes to label each steel cache - tools, cloth, dried food, smaller weapons. She rationed ink and naptha for compiling her sketches into a simplified map, scribed on the somewhat bedraggled linen she salvaged from her long sleeping chemise.
On the evening of the fifteenth day, when she set out to make another attempt at hunting deer, she heard strange fae music from the east. She ran, climbing the shattered wall as fast as she could. She stared in wonder at the shining, sinuous spiritdragon, and forgot her entire exhausting purpose for over an hour.
It was wonderful.
“I hate fishing,” grumbled Zelda two weeks later, squinting down into the tiny lake below the temple. She nocked another plain arrow. “I no longer wonder why you preferred the bomb rune. But I have to climb Mount Hylia to sketch the west and south and I don’t remember the elixir recipe except for butterfly wings and I’m worse at catching them than I am at hunting. So spicy meat-and-fish fry it is. Damn you Father and all your stupid superstitious ideas about the education of firstborn daughters anyway. You write him all these useful things, and all you ever wanted from me was piety .”
Skewered bass floated to the surface, one after another, until their blood clouded the water too much to see any others.
“ Fuck your piety, Father. Love my knight like the son you never got, spill barrels of ink moaning about how hard it is for you to be a tyrant in your damn memoirs so history will smile on you, and what did you ever do for me in life except make sure I needed a knight when our world burned? How did that theory work out? If you had a grave I would spit on it.”
Rain came on the fifty-seventh day. On the sixtieth, Zelda moved the simple antique bed to the center of the cabin and carried all her dried provisions to the shrine antechamber, burning through most of the remaining aged ashwood and hundreds of green branches to stave off mildew.
“I have to take a buck down,” said Zelda to the dreary sky. “Birds and rabbits don’t have enough meat on them and the dried fish was revolting . I know you gave me the ancient bolts for defense, but I’ve lost too many plain on imperfect hits. I’m not like you, Link. And I won’t be wasting weight on shields I’m no good at using, either. If something hostile gets close enough for a shield to make a difference, I’ve already lost anyway. Maps and notes are far more important if I’m going to reach the Lost Woods and make any sense of your message when I get there.”
The rain continued, indifferent.
Zelda wrapped her shawl around her face and hair, belted her cloak over her quiver and strode into the storm with her waxed bow unstrung in her hand.
Zelda carved another notch in the log wall beside the door at sunset, brushing away stray curls of pine. “Seventy-five days. We must be nearing equinox by now. The nearest stable is two weeks on foot, and with every spare hour going to gathering I still have but four days of dry meat and berries amd nevermind water. Between that and three days of fresh, it weighs so much already-! Why can’t I remember how he made that frog soup? Even two bottles could buy me enough time to reach the foraging commons around the place if I fast half the time. But I can’t catch many more or it will destroy the balance around these tiny marshes.”
The wall offered no answer, but she frowned at it anyway, tracing the pale wedge-shaped grooves. She ducked inside for her father’s ridiculous, fictional ‘survival memoir’, turning the antique pages to one with a fat margin. She frowned at the rough walls. She followed the narrow, fading wedge of rosegold sunlight. She held the book awkwardly against a log, rubbing charcoal over the antique paper. She carried it outside to study both in the little light remaining.
Despite the rough texture, the charcoal showed her tally-notches the shadows had hidden. One mark was taller than the others, crowned with six radial gouges, and below that a cluster of old-fashioned ideographs no one but a priest or scholar would know.
“Zelda’s birthday. Light guard you always, my brave, brilliant, beloved daughter.”
On the eighty-second day, she dragged a chest of extra cloaks and belts and shawls and brooches into the shrine’s antechamber. She sealed the lid to the body of the chest with courser wax, and fixed the pinewood label to the hasp with a chain bracelet. She left a birchbark book of sketches of the plateau beside it, with the mortise-and-tenon crates she’d built for the shields and spears she’d decided not to keep. Link would have grumbled about leaving one of the two flamespears and both of the freezestone.
“I have to block the entrance,” said Zelda to the door of the shrine. “People can climb up here now, and might steal your supplies. I’ll plant cedar and brambleflower in front of the logs to hide it too - those grow fast, and burn readily, so you shouldn’t have trouble getting out. I’m sorry I didn’t ask if you can read Hylian, but maybe the pictures will be enough.”
Silence answered her.
Zelda laid a hand on the door. “I admire your confidence - but I think it’s going to be a very long time before you awaken. May your gods smile on your new life, old friend.”
On the eighty-ninth day she climbed to the great temple again and stared at the silent statues a long time. She wore one of Link’s long tunics over her shirt and trousers, for the sleeves of her own jacket had grown tight, and difficult to work in.
“I don’t know if any part of you lingers here, Father. The holy texts say the Sacred Maiden is supposed to hear the gods and spirits, but I still hear nothing. Maybe you’re right, and if my faith was stronger, that would change. But I can’t believe in things I can’t even feel. When the Calamity came, Link gave everything for me. I didn’t have to believe in him, I knew he had the spirit of a hero. I didn’t expect the sword that seals the darkness to speak to me when it wouldn’t speak to him, but that wasn’t faith. That was need , Father. Just like the sealing magic.”
Songbirds trilled in the rafters, and sunlight drifted over rain-softened stone.
“I want to have faith that he’s alive,” murmured Zelda. “Thunder believed. I don’t know why. He spoke like he knew Link somehow - and he said us , didn’t he? As long as it takes for the mercy of the Three to return us to your side . The legends we have only speak of a Princess and a Champion. How much have we lost over the ages? And why? ”
Three days after equinox, Zelda carved the hundredth notch beside the door of the cabin. She ate the last of the cold porridge for dinner and scoured the pot with sand from Hopper Pond. She left the remaining naptha well on the torch stand under the eave, shouldered her packs, collected her bow, and struck out north through the birch grove.
The ground trembled faintly as she neared the Eastern Abbey. She hesitated, glancing between the shattered footbridge to the west, and the treacherous slope to the north. She chose the slope. “Fourteen days to the stables, two months to loop back to Faron. If nothing else interferes, I can be back at the Spiritgate with two weeks to spare before solstice. I can do it. I think.”
Zelda paused at the top of the ruined processional stair. She shook her head at the soft twilight enfolding her beloved Hyrule. “I thought I’d never have to do this again.”
Chapter 6: Dawn
On the seven-hundredth day after climbing the ruined processional stair to the holy precinct of the Great Plateau with a dead man at her side, Zelda left her traveling companions in the little walled settlement being built from the ruins of Gatepost Town at sunset, and climbed the treacherous slope alone.
“At least it’s different than being in the saddle for twelve hours straight,” Zelda told herself when she paused for water on the sixth landing. “I’m not complaining, honest. I just - I understand so much better the price you paid, every single day. If I could believe that weird green hand took you somewhere better, where you could be happy and free, I would still miss you. But it would be a comfort, if I could believe you’re getting the love and rest you deserve.”
Zelda trudged onward, listening to the soft trills of sleepy songbirds and lazy insects in the scattered clumps of grass around her. She plucked an early summer apple and sat down on one of the half-walls in the ruins of the main temple plaza to savor it with a bit of hard cheese and toasted chickaloo nuts. She watched the moon rise over the far Dueling Peaks.
“It doesn’t make sense to feel any closer to you or Father when I’m here , of all places. We need reason and science now more than ever, but you’re right. Some things just don’t fit in tidy numbers. Or not yet, anyway.”
The distant stars drifted through their patterns, fading into mystery before the silver brilliance of the full moon. Zelda washed her hands and climbed to the highest sanctuary to face down the stone goddess in the moonlight.
“I’m still angry,” she said to the statue. “Calamity was as much a god as You, once. Fight your own war in your own world and leave people out of it.”
The goddess remained as silent before Zelda’s anger as She ever had before her prayers.
“Father - wherever you are - I understand your fear now. I don’t agree with your ruthless methods, but you understood me and the legends better than I ever realized. It’s always been about need, not desire. But why do people have to die for us to learn that? Again?”
The night offered no answer.
She paced circuits in the quiet temple until the moon peeked through the shattered roof to eavesdrop on her thoughts. She laughed at herself and the whole mad condition of the world, and dug from her pocket a small carved stone. She climbed the altar to lay it beside two others with the same triangle crest and simplified round little songbird.
Zelda paused on the road when the earth trembled. Every time she passed the plateau, going or returning from renewing the seal on the Malice, she felt it tremble. Sometimes more than once. This one shook the world hard enough that sleepy birds cried in alarm and took flight. More rubble fell from ruined walls, and the shadowed forest swayed.
She turned uphill when it finally settled, grumbling about having to re-stack mossy, mushroom-covered logs again .
A shadow moved. Moonlight reflected on something sharp near the half-hidden mouth of the shrine corridor.
Zelda pulled her shawl up and readied her bow with a blackened steel hunting arrow, two more in her fist. She crept along the verge of the road, shadow to shadow, watching that shard of moonlight wriggle and dance above her.
It fell suddenly, and she imagined she heard a muffled curse. The shard was joined by another, softer reflection, and moved away from the shrine.
Zelda pressed herself against the wall of the shallow stone shelter beside the road, relaxing the bowstring as she watched the would-be-thief stumble along the road. She did not move to help them.
Two reflections became three, became many silvered ornaments draping the shadowed figure, from crown to toe. They jingled softly as they drew closer, leaning on their spear, testing their footing as they recovered from their little tumble.
Zelda waited for them to pass.
They stopped instead. His deep voice trembled the night. “You’re not allowed to braid my hair ever again .”
Zelda stepped from the shadows, squinting in the moonlight at the enormity of the man standing in the middle of the road with a Gerudo spear in hand, a golden claymore on his back, and rare, shining Silent Princess blooms growing in his long double braids. “ Thunder? But it’s only been two years-”
“I told you. Witch. Now get these damn weeds out of my hair before they go to seed again ,” he growled.
Zelda stood at the edge of the plateau beside the proud young man she knew only as Thunder. He’d told her when he first spoke to her the chaos of Calamity that he’d forgotten if he ever had another name. Looking at him in the quiet early dawn, his warm brown skin and sculpted muscles, his cloudy golden eyes and his strange-but-familiar ornaments, she frowned in doubt.
“It is a beautiful kingdom,” he rumbled, fist tightening on his spear.
Zelda tipped her head. “You can’t see it though.”
“I can still see light and shadow, and I can see your soul. That is enough,” he said, lifting his chin in pride.
“Oh,” she said, blushing. She turned her own gaze to the horizon. “It’s not a kingdom anymore though. The world has changed.”
“I can’t even imagine what you must be feeling. But if you want to come with us, I’m sure Granté and Lukan will be happy to catch you one of the big horses that roam nearby.”
“You have replaced your favorite knight so quickly, bluebird?”
Zelda swore at him. “They’re not knights, and they’re not mine . We’re working together, not just to save Link, but for Hyrule-”
“He fought for you, you fight for him. These people follow and fight for your idea of Hyrule because you asked them to. The land will survive either way.”
“What about you?”
Thunder grunted, saying nothing, but his eyes narrowed at the blossoming dawn.
“We’re supposed to leave at noon, but we can probably stay another day while you decide, now that we have the slate again.”
Thunder grinned down at her, stealing the Silent Princess bloom from her hair to adorn his own. “Who said I was giving it back?”