Out to sea, a swell was building, the waves coating the concrete surfaces of broken buildings in dark rivulets, pouring through the holes that had once been doorways and windows, but were now empty sockets in the teetering skeletons, through the broken glass teeth of which the water poured forth again and returned to the sea. Passing through, the swell shoved aside the rotted remains of ocean animals and other floating debris. It set the few boats tied up at the dock swaying, tapping hollowly at the dock in a rhythm like drums.
Pushed from beneath by an unseen force, it splashed at last against a sea wall of piled stones. The water flattened, dragging fingers through crevices and gaps, struggling to pull itself upward. The red waters tried, failed, and tried again, their resolve unrelenting, or maybe they just didn’t have a choice.
Above the sea wall, on the seaside road that ran all along the coast, a line of tanks stood at attention, their turrets facing a single spot on the horizon, the blue glow of rune-bombs emanating from the aperture at their muzzles.
It was quiet.
Zelda let the phone drop, slowly, then rested it back in the cradle. He wasn’t going to answer. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t seen her in literal years, or that he had been the one to call her back to Central Hyrule from Lurelin, with no explanation. It must have been important, though, or Rhoam wouldn’t have sent for her at all. He may have been king, but her father’s work remained a mystery to her, much like the man himself.
He hadn’t even been the one to send the message; it came through several proxies and filters resulting in a phone call from the headmaster of her boarding school telling her to pack up her belongings and catch the next train. So with one hour and seventeen minutes to spare she had gathered everything that actually belonged to her into one small bag, not even that big of one. It only took five minutes.
She had held her walkman in her hand, earphones in, hesitating at the door of her tiny room. Vaguely, she felt like she should be saying goodbye to someone, but could not think of anyone to say it to. She scribbled out a quick note in case someone - an instructor, a classmate maybe, sent on an errand to make sure she hadn’t dropped dead - would benefit from it, and tacked it on the corkboard above her desk.
The train ride, at least, was soothing. Zelda had been the only passenger. With the afternoon sun slanting through the windows, the car was a peaceful space that stood still as the surroundings of Faron and Lanaryu moved past and around it. Forests, sunken villages, blasted rocky expanses. And the red waters of the sea, where it had infiltrated the wetlands and low-lying areas, staining the soil and slowly poisoning the plants that came in contact with it, twisting them into bruised-looking fleshy versions of themselves. Yellow eyes peeked from behind purple, heavy branches.
Zelda had stared at the floor, earphones in, and did not look out the windows if she could help it.
They had come out of the mountains and onto the gentle plain of Central Hyrule, which was still green and dotted with bustling towns. Normally bustling. Now empty and silent except for the wail of the air-raid klaxons, automated flashing billboards directing long-since-evacuated residents to seek shelter. Those were bad signs.
And now she was at the station just outside of Castletown-3, instead of the next stop directly outside the castle itself, because that fortress city had gone into lockdown and the train could go no further, and she was a princess in an empty train station standing next to a pay phone on a bright, still morning with nowhere to go.
Zelda’s fists clenched as she gripped the flimsy plastic barrier that surrounded the payphone. Her father should have known this would happen. King Rhoam had planned every aspect of her life, no matter how physically distant. So why, now, was he not picking up? Why had he not foreseen this? Why had he called her so suddenly and then forgotten, and then left her just -
The world tipped crazily around, and she was suddenly seeing the payphone kiosk from a lower angle, further away. She could see the grime staining the bottom of it's plastic shell that she had been touching without seeing, that was ripped out of her hands, or rather she was the one flung backwards. She was screaming, but she couldn’t hear her own voice. There was a brightness in the air, and Zelda realized it was the light of an explosion, a fireball not even a hundred feet to her right. The sound came back in a ringing and brought with it the sensation of burning pain on her hands and her left leg, the wetness of some amount of blood, and the sense of balance returned that told her she was lying near-horizontal on the pavement. With excruciating slowness, she craned her neck to the right.
There was a car, smashed. That was probably what exploded, she reasoned. On it was a foot. A large foot.
This was unusual.
More explosions occurred, higher up, flashes that lit up the concrete in blue. Sheikah bombs, Zelda realized. The Hyrule military was firing, at . . .
She looked up, and this time she heard herself scream.
While Zelda was still occupied with screaming, a blue sportscar pulled out of an alleyway. It screeched to a halt in between Zelda and the foot, which had started to slowly move, untangling painstakingly from the wreckage of its footfall.
The window rolled down - a hand crank - and a red haired woman with the most muscular arms Zelda had ever seen leaned out. “You Zelda?” she asked, as if this happened every day.
Zelda managed to stop screaming, but in the process lost her ability to speak entirely. She nodded instead.
The woman smiled, and tilted her head to the back door. “I’m here to pick you up. Get in.”
Zelda didn’t move.
Now the woman sighed. “I’m Urbosa. Your father sent me. You gonna get in the car, or stay here and get smushed?”
Maybe I’d rather be smushed, came an unbidden thought. Because whatever that thing was, Zelda knew in her heart that it had to do with why King Rhoam had summoned her back. He was the king, after all. In times of calamity he summoned what resources he had to protect the kingdom. She was one of those resources, and that meant at some time in some way she would have to face the horror she had just witnessed and do something about it. Maybe dying now would be better. Maybe she could just lay on the ground and the strange woman would give up and drive away, and she could just lay there alone until she was crushed by a falling building. Listen to some music. Wait out the seconds. It would be better, and easier.
The only thing that kept her from lying back down was the smiling face of the woman, gazing back at her. With softness and warmth that made her want to get up again. But that was a burden in its own way, too. Must she really go through the effort of living because this stranger wanted her to? It didn't feel like a good enough reason.
Then another thought came, unbidden: Duty. She was the princess. Her father would be working to save the kingdom. She was expected to, as well. Zelda felt a sudden surge of self disgust at the power that idea had. Wanting to live wasn’t enough. Gratitude for being rescued by a beautiful stranger wasn’t enough. Even wanting to save the kingdom wasn’t enough. In the end, she pushed herself up on trembling limbs that still tingled with numbness, the precursor to what would be an epic series of bruises, and gathered her thankfully unbroken possessions, and got into the car, and allowed herself to be spirited away, all because in the end it was easier to do as she was told than to not.
They took a winding road through Castletown-3, avoiding debris where they could. The woman - Urbosa, Zelda reminded herself - drove skillfully around obstacles and squeezed through gaps that seemed too small. Frequent backtracking made their progress slow through the tight streets full of abandoned vehicles and, increasingly, chunks of concrete and the remains of destroyed buildings. They stayed just ahead of the slowly advancing destruction caused by the ponderous aberration and even more so by the military units pelting it ineffectually with conventional cannons, rune-bombs, and even a few Gorons. A scant number of helicopters buzzed ineffectually around its head, the Rito crews sporadically firing machine guns and ancient arrows. Everything bounced off, as if it was hitting an invisible wall a hundred yards or so around the . . . thing.
When she had first looked at that thing, the form had defied comprehension and felt like something too big and too bright to properly behold, like a square peg being forced into Zelda’s round mind. What glimpses she got now as they passed behind buildings and changed directions a dozen times gradually coalesced into the idea of a vast, shambling, humanoid entity, arms far too long for its body and neck too short, wearing some kind of orange robe, at least two hundred feet tall. In its hand was a glowing spear that it occasionally used to remove an obstacle or swat away an annoying armored vehicle or helicopter. But mostly it ignored the attempt at opposition, and kept marching steadily forward.
Zelda stole a glance at Urbosa. A Gerudo - it was not so unusual for the Gerudo to be seen in Castletown, but working for the king of Hyrule was a bit unusual. She was probably the most glamorous person Zelda had ever seen. Her hair ornaments and the bangles on her wrists tinkled and glittered in the breeze whipping in through the windows. Her top covered only the upper portion of her chest, leaving her stomach and lower back bare. Zelda wondered if her back stuck to the pleather seats of the car in the summer. She wore a long skirt, but it was slit up to nearly her waist on one side, revealing a long powerful-looking leg and a glittering shoe that worked the gas pedal.
Urbosa saw her looking and smiled back at her. “Your father will be glad to see you, you know. Heavens, you look just like your mother.”
“Will he?” Zelda said, doubtfully. “Did . . . did you know my mother?”
“You could say so,” Urbosa said, a gleam in her eye. “I knew you, too, a long time ago.”
“That must have been quite a long time ago.” Zelda would have remembered her.
“You’re telling me - I guess I won’t be changing any diapers this time, right?” Urbosa swerved around a chunk of debris.
Zelda was suddenly very embarrassed.
“Anyway,” Urbosa continued, slowing down and pulling, with protests from the rattling car, up and over an embankment onto the main road that lead to the bridge over the river. “You’ll see how much he misses you when you see him in a few minutes.” They made it across the bridge just in time to see the massive thing emerge on the bank. It paused, as if confused, then with one massive swing of its leg, stepped across. Its loose folds - robes, Zelda had thought at first, but they seemed too much part of its body for that, billowed out, and the legs and feet seemed less humanoid the more they moved.
Zelda had been so preoccupied with looking behind her or at Urbosa that she had forgotten to look where they were going. When she did, the sight left her in awe as well as a little uneasy. The castle was gone.
They passed a short, stout embankment and suddenly were racing along a causeway over a huge pit where the castle had once been. Far beneath lights twinkled and vast engines rumbled. Belts carried components this way and that, and everything was lined in massive metal panels that occasionally tilted and repositioned or slid silently along enormous tracks. There was evidence of Sheikah tech but just as much was completely unfamiliar to her. It was a riot of mechanized activity, unguided by human hands. A few people could be seen far below or on the opposite side, but they seemed to be in the process of evacuating with great alarm.
It wasn’t that Zelda hadn’t expected this at all - she was entirely aware of the Skyfront project that had been completed only last year, had avidly followed it in the news and on the feeds. But it was different now that she was here, and it was if her childhood home had been crudely hacked out of the earth. It was visually more stunning to be here in person - but she felt less amazement and more horror than she might have expected.
A multitude of cables and chains ran from the bottom of the pit up into the clouds, out of sight. Urbosa expertly slowed the car and timed it to pull gently onto what was essentially an elevator: a continuously moving series of rectangular platforms being lifted up into the sky, connected together by four huge cables, one at each corner. It creaked gently beneath them in the wind. Urbosa set the emergency break, then also got out to secure the wheels with chains to the platform. Zelda did not get out; the platform was lifting rapidly and already they were far too high above the ground, and guard rails seemed to not have been part of the plan with this lift. Urbosa got back in, and twisted sideways in her seat to regard Zelda quizzically.
“So, when we - “
Urbosa didn’t even finish her sentence; she was staring at something behind Zelda’s head and up in the clouds. Suddenly she leapt forward onto Zelda, smothering her into her torso and shoving her down below the level of the window. At the same time, Zelda heard a vast rushing sound like nothing she’d ever heard before, and the car was bathed in red light, followed by an explosion that dwarfed the one that had knocked her to the ground at the train station by many orders of magnitude. The elevator platform they were on bucked and groaned and swayed and sounded like it would have liked nothing more than to snap off entirely. If the wheels had not been secured, Zelda knew that the force would have sent them flying and crushed them like a tin can below. As it was, she could tell it was a close thing, and it was enough to smash the windshield and shower them in shards of glass. Bits of rock and metal clattered down around them that had been flung into the air by the explosion.
When Urbosa released her, the Gerudo woman was furious. “I can’t believe they did that. They could have killed us!”
Zelda was still un-crumpling herself from near the floor and picking glass out of her hair. “That was a Guardian laser, wasn’t it?” she asked, more excited now.
Urbosa nodded, picking glass out of Zelda's hair.. “Yes. Well, a bigger version. We call it the N2 cannon. With enough power routed through it, it’s the most powerful conventional weapon we have.” She suddenly sounded worried. “I hope it was enough. They probably took out a decent chunk of the ground complex.”
“‘Conventional’?” Zelda snorted. “Then what’s ‘unconventional’?”
“You’ll be intimately acquainted soon enough,” Urbosa said, sticking her head out the now-shattered rear window of the car to peer down at the ground.
The cannon had, in fact, taken out a decent chunk of ground from the edge of the pit below, in a circle like a crater on the moon. The ground left behind was black glass, still glowing slightly, leaking smoke as fires smouldered around its circumference.
Everything within was pulverized, disintegrated. Everything, that is, except an orange figure that slowly pulled itself up out of the ashes, shook the dust off, and continued its forward progression. It looked like it was making for the center of the pit itself. But it was less certain now; it slowed and meandered a bit, listlessly knocking over machinery and destroying catwalks as if by accident. The thing didn’t have a recognizable face, but Zelda got the impression that it was looking upward into the clouds, towards the same place they were heading.
“Fuck,” said Urbosa, and slouched back in her seat, drumming her thumbs on the wheel.
They broke through the clouds like risen angels, caked in the dust of the devastation of their own fall, caressed by cloud-tendrils and cold winds.
Zelda thought she was prepared for what she’d see. The reality of the Skyfront still blew her away, as the high-altitude winds attempted to do the same.
There were fields. She hadn’t been expecting fields, or houses and trees dotting a bizarrely pastoral landscape somehow transported above the clouds. There were also vast, convoluted blocks of Sheikah-derived machinery, some of it familiar and some she didn’t know the purpose of, studding the rock and earth. The largest piece was similar to the laser weapon of the ancient Guardians dug out of the ground - fifteen years ago now - but huge, and upside down, protruding from the bottom of the floating landmass that was the Skyfront. That must be the N2 cannon, Zelda reasoned, and in fact the metal around the “eye” of it was still glowing red from superheating. Teams of Ritos, and Hylians suspended by ropes, were swarming around it. Something that powerful was certainly not a rapid-firing mechanism; it looks like they were actually lowering down an entire new lens, a huge glass disk that was being held up precariously by Octorok platforms and ropes.
Urbosa climbed out of the car again, still shaking off shards of glass, and undid the chains around the tires. The cables holding up the elevator were being pulled along way ahead by a massive pulley system; as it drew the platform level with a sort of pier that jutted out of the floating landmass she started the car with difficulty and drove out onto the - again railing-less - narrow causeway. Then she took a left, onto a road that spiralled down and away from the castle, along the outer edge.
“Where are we going?” Zelda had found the presence of mind to start speaking again. “Shouldn’t I meet with my father?”
Urbosa sighed. “He’s not up at the castle. Zelda, I . . .” She cleared her throat. “Zelda . . . there’s something only you can do, and we need your help.”
“What do you mean?”
“I . . .” She started drumming her hands on the wheel again. “It’s not fair. I am so, so sorry.”
Zelda was surprised. “Is it the Sheikah tech? I’ve been studying it so I can probably help out . . . but all this is beyond anything I’ve seen before.”
“That has something to with it. But we don’t need your help on the science side, exactly.”
This deflated the hope that had been welling up in Zelda’s heart. Rhoam hadn’t summoned her for help. He probably just wanted her to stand in on some ceremony yet again - giving the Goddess’s ‘blessing’ on some piece of new tech or some symbolic ritual. Only a few years ago he had sent her to each of the shrines of the ancient gods - he was supposed to come along for the trip but of course became too busy, probably because he was building a stupidly enormous sky fortress. The trip amounted to standing in various pools, in provincial and boring Akkala or mosquito-infested Faron or the worst, the top of a fucking mountain, to recite some ancient prayers to deities no one actually worshipped anymore. She came to the conclusion afterward that it was some kind of perverse trick by old, male priests thousands of years ago to get a private wet t-shirt contest from the princess or queen of the time, that had accidentally become enshrined in myth and religious practice. She was suddenly angry, to have been summoned so abruptly, to have made it through the chaos below, just for something like that.
They drove in silence, the Gerudo woman occasionally glancing sidelong at Zelda with an expression she couldn’t decipher. The road spiralled around, dipping lower, until the “ground” level was above them again and they were moving inward toward the center-bottom where the laser was positioned. Zelda’s heart quickened again. Maybe she would at least be able to see it up close, break a champagne bottle on it or whatever. Beseech the Goddess for quicker reload and cooling times.
Then the road veered to the side into a tunnel, and they were lost in darkness for a few minutes, silent except the motor of the car. After a minute or two there was a glow ahead, and they pulled into a sort of station.
Urbosa killed the motor, and sighed deeply. “I am so sorry,” she said again, but Zelda wasn’t listening.
Instead she was staring at the giant head on the other side of the platform.
It was a woman’s face made of stone - the goddess Hylia, Zelda realized, or one of her common depictions. Not just a statue though - there were riveted bits of metal covering everything from the shoulders down, like a massive suit of armor. As she looked, the eyes opened , and Zelda barely suppressed a shriek of instinctive terror.
Fumbling, she got out of the car and stepped toward it, as if compelled. Something was wrong here, she felt deep inside. The dead black eyes of a statue that was not a statue. The impression of a vast and vital force contained in a tiny space, a huge beast circling in its cage, face impassive, a mask to trick it’s jailer. This feeling came and went just as quickly, and Zelda was once again looking at . . . some kind of artwork. Or possibly a machine.
A ghostly teal light came on above the Goddess, silhouetting King Rhoam through the window of a control room.
“Zelda,” he said. His voice was tired and strained but not without warmth, and she was momentarily comforted. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Hi, dad,” she said. “I came as fast as I could.”
“Good,” her father replied. “Not a moment too soon. Thank you, Urbosa.” The Gerudo woman nodded, tapping her foot. “I need you to do something for me.”
Of course . “Of course,” she said.
“This is a divine beast. It’s the only weapon we have that can stop that thing down there. I need you to pilot it, and save us.”
Urbosa broke her silence. “What about the other champion?”
Rhoam glanced at her. “The test failed. Unit Zero is out of commission for now.” His face, shadowed, grew grim. “I can have him pilot Unit One but it might kill him. Zelda, you must.”
Zelda’s mind was spinning. “P-pilot? That - that thing?”
“To fight the monster?”
“The Sage. Yes.”
The Goddess’s face looked more and more monstrous to Zelda, more inhuman, yet intelligence loomed in its eyes, cloaked behind something else. It was too alive, too horrifically real. He might as well be asking her to climb inside a Hinox’s mouth.
“No!” she shouted, her voice echoing in the dark platform. “No, no, no!” She continued, testing the power of the word. But to her own ears it sounded weak and pitiful.
“Yes,” her father said, blowing her protests aside with a simple word of command. The warmth was gone now. “It’s why I brought you here.”
“I thought you wanted to see me! I thought you’d let me work on the Sheikah tech.” But she hadn’t thought that. She’d just hoped it was true, and hoped her fears would be proven wrong. In the springs of Wisdom, Power, and Courage she had not felt the aspects of the divine that they represented; instead she had felt like a lamb being led again and again to the altar of sacrifice. But this time she could see the knife.
Duty , her mind whispered. This time, she ignored it.
“NOOO!” she yelled, at him and at her own thoughts. “Are you not listening to me?! I said no I said no I said no I said-”
Rhoam cut her off. “Stop it. You’re embarrassing yourself. This is not the conduct I expected from you.” He sighed. “I’m sorry I asked you to come.”
This cut her to the core. Next to her, Urbosa shifted on her feet but said nothing.
The king leaned his head back, crossing his arms. “If you don’t do it, I’ll have to make the other one do it again. He could die.”
But I could die, Zelda. Me or him, me or some random soldier, why won’t you choose me? For once, why can’t you choose my life over your kingdom?
“Fine.” Zelda spat it out, finally, hating herself.
After a pause like a held breath, Rhoam tapped something into a terminal next to him. He must have been prepared for this. Seconds later a door opened to their right and several Hylians and a Zora emerged, running and pushing a gurney. They were arguing amongst themselves and seemed exceptionally annoyed. The Zora, a female shorter than Zelda but probably fifty years older, was clutching the side of the stretcher and glaring daggers at Rhoam while keeping a hand on the shoulder of the occupant.
It was a boy. Oh Goddess, it was just a boy.
He was covered in bandages, and the skin that was still visible was so, so pale. While well-muscled under the bandages his frame was pitifully slight, far from fully grown. He was wearing only underwear and his visible eye was vacant and unfocused under a thatch of yellow hair.
As the attendants wheeled him out in haste a wheel became jammed suddenly; the speed was so great that the entire gurney tipped for a split second, and the boy slid onto the ground, falling bonelessly with no attempt to catch himself.
“Link!” the Zora girl (woman?) yelled.
He crumpled to the ground in front of Zelda and she managed to catch his head before it hit the concrete floor. Inadvertently, she ended up in a crouched position, holding him awkwardly in her arms.
“. . . Link,” she muttered. That must be his name. “Link?”
His eyelids fluttered open, and he regarded her with a piercing blue eye for a second. Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he convulsed against her.
“Give him to me.”
The Zora had kneeled in front of her, tucking her webbed feet beneath her and holding out clawed, scaly arms. Her voice was authoritative, but not angry, at least not at Zelda. She was focused on the boy. Zelda handed the boy to her and she took him, remarkably gently, supporting his neck and cradling him to her chest.
Zelda looked at her, and remembered her mother holding her like that, when she had gotten hurt climbing the castle walls or playing in the woods. Fighting monsters with sticks. The bravery of children. This boy, Link, had probably done the same. They were invincible, when they could run home and have their small pains taken away by kisses and gentle hands. But here he was, near death, helpless and alone no matter how close the two of them held him.
Zelda looked down at the hand that had touched his side. It was smudged with fresh red blood that wasn’t from her scrapes. Whatever had happened, he hadn’t even stopped bleeding yet.
She gazed into the wide eyes of the Zora. “I’m . . . Zelda.”
“I know,” the Zora said, and Zelda felt a little stupid. “I’m Mipha. I can heal him, but I need time.” Her voice was even but her eyes pleaded with the princess.
He could recover. But he would never be invincible again, and neither would they.
Slowly, feeling like an old woman, Zelda stood up and glared at her father.
“I’ll do it, I’ll pilot the divine beast,” she said, trying to sound self-assured and defiant. The words echoed back to her like a child’s whispers.
King Rhoam nodded, his face more grim than ever.