Chapter 1 - A hero is born?
Kakariko City has no place for its dead. Built around an oasis in the middle of a dune-covered desert, nothing goes to waste. The sand is impossible to dig through without collapsing from the heat, and even if you could, the dunes would just expose the body anyway. And so, of all the provinces of Hyrule, the Duchy of Midna is the only one that permits cremation. The ashes are then put into urns made of cattle skulls, and placed in adobe cubbies in the sandstone caves, carved under the city by the subterranean rivers that feed and are fed by the oasis. None of the living come here - not willingly, anyhow, and once there they find it hard to leave from inside the skull of a cow. At least, that's what those above believe...
In a dark part of the catacombs, a splash echoed noisily through the caves. Five figures - three children, two nearly grown, adults by their standards if not by anyone else's - shrank back into the shadows surrounding their hiding space. On of the smaller shadows emitted a series of tiny squeaks. Two more splashes. Then, from out of the shadows...
"Link!" The three smallest shadows jumped up and ran over to the apparition approaching them. Behind them, one of the larger figures reached up and adjusted the light of a lamp, making it marginally brighter. Lamp oil was not as easy to steal as wallets were, and these Twilight Rats were used to living in darkness.
Here, everything blended into the same shade of grey, but in the light his cloak would have looked green. His shirt sleeves were ripped off long ago, the sole of his boots were beginning to separate again, and his pants and shirt were both patched so much that it was hard to tell if there was an original stitch left on either garment. Underneath his hood was a single, pointed ear (the point on the other had been chewed off in a long-ago fight), unwashed hair that might be called blond, and a face which bore numerous scars and bruises. In short, Link could never be called pretty by anyone...and yet he had a swagger as he entered the room. Even with ribs that looked like you could poke a finger in and touch his heart, he was the king of the rats, lord of the flies, a prince among thieves.
"Hey, Talo," Link greeted, ruffling the hair of a boy with bright eyes with one hand as he slid a pack off his shoulders with another. "That was a pretty good rat call."
"Wow, thanks Link. How can you tell? I've been practicing it ever since you left. I think I want to be a scout someday - do you think I'd make a good scout?" Link ignored him, which was just fine by Talo. He seemed to love the sound of his own voice almost as much as he loved practicing with his sword - usually a legbone from one of those lucky souls who were interred whole, though he found a curved stick one time and pretended he was a Gerudo swordswoman for a week before the blasted thing finally broke.
Link turned his attention to the second of the children. Like his older brother Talo, Malo had jet-black hair and a face as smooth as a baby's. Unlike his brother, Malo was a boy of few words, and bore the babbling of his big bro with stoic fortitude. "Hey there, Malo. Find anything new?"
"Nothing much. You were gone for longer than usual. How many rupees did you get?"
Link dug through his pack. "Enough to get you all...these." He pulled out a small wood doll, handing it to the third child there. Beth gingerly took the doll, stroking its horsehair braids. She looked up at Link and signed "Blonde."
"Yeah. It looks just like you, doesn't it?"
Beth held the doll out in front of her, tilting her head to examine it better. She looked back at Link with a disapproving frown.
"Well, it does. Did." Link pulled out a glittering, round object. "For you, Treasurer Malo."
Malo took the coin, entranced by the reflection. "What is it?"
Malo raised a dubious eyebrow. "Obviously." He tapped it against a wall and listened. "Lead," he assessed, with a sigh. "Still, the design is pretty enough. Thank you very much."
"Can't please you at all, can I?" Link muttered.
"Hey! What about me? Did you forget about me? Don't I get a gift?"
"Calm down, Talo, of course I didn't." Link grinned. You could count on one hand the number of people who'd seen the infamous Green Hood smile, but those who'd seen it once knew it wasn't a rare creature. The next item in the pack was a wood sword - sturdy enough to stun someone without outright killing them.
"AWESOME!" He eagerly grabbed it and began swinging wildly, without concept or consequence of who he would hit. From the shadows, a hand grabbed the sword mid-swing before Talo could hurt its prone owner.
"Easy, Talo. You can play with it later." Fado sat up. He was about as tall as Link, and except for his hood and his hair (jet black instead of light brown), the two might have been twins. "Damn it, Link, stop spoiling them," he blurted without concern for the three urchins. They'd all heard worse said around and to themselves before.
"He's right," Malo replied. "This probably cost you no less than two hundred and fifty rupees in today's economy. Are you sure you had enough left over to purchase us food?"
"Two hundred and forty-SEVEN, thank you very much," Link shot back. "And you're too young to be worrying about money."
"He's got a point, Link. You really should listen to your elders."
"This coming from you, pipsqueak?"
"Pipsqueak? You've only got half an inch on me!"
" 'Only' half an inch?" Link shooed Fado. "Come back when you're grown up some, shortstop." He turned to hide a huge grin.
"Why you..." Fado leaped up and grabbed his club, a wooden affair fashioned by the last member of their party.
"Knock it off, you two!" Two fists punched two noses, sending Link and Fado to the ground. Sokra sighed and rubbed where her eyes met her nose. Bright blonde hair bobbed above the tinkerer's shoulders. "Din's Strength, you two are less mature than the children sometimes. Link, did you get food?"
"Of course I did. I'm not dense." He reached into his pack and pulled out several pumpkins, apples, and other assorted vegetables. The children, used to the routine, began filing everything away in cubbyholes, burial spots sealed against rats and bugs and cleared of their former inhabitants. Fado and Sokra each took an apple for themselves. "Don't you need something, Link?" Sokra asked as she toyed absently with her boomerang. In the confines of the catacombs it was useless, but above ground she could hit any target, and even make her boomerang retrieve small items.
"I'm not-" Links stomach suddenly growled. "I'm not hungry," he finished.
In response, Sokra grabbed an apple and hurled it at Link's head. "You can't live on grave water alone." This part of the catacombs wasn't an active river, but it always had at a quarter-inch of water on the floor. "You're the Twilight Rat's best pickpocket. If you don't keep your strength up, we're all goners."
Link glared at Sokra. "I told you, I'm fine. Traitor," he whispered to his stomach.
"If I have to grab your jaw and move it up and down for you, I will. Eat."
Link locked eyes with Sokra. Moving very slowly, he took a large bite of the apple, chewed thoroughly and loudly, drawing out each crunch as disdainfully as possible before swallowing in a huge gulp.
"Thank you," Sokra said sweetly as she sat down. Despite his protests, Link quickly devoured the apple. "Where's Purlo?" Whereas Link was a pickpocket and Sokra was a lockpick, Fado and his buddy Purlo were acrobats. If there were enough adults left over to keep the kids safe, the two of them would start an impromptu performance somewhere, drawing a crowd either Link or Sokra could pick. He was by far the oldest of the Twilight Rats, but something about him never sat right with Link, and Purlo did his level best to let Link know the feeling was mutual without every saying a word to his face about it. Link wasn't so much worried about Purlo as he was worried about what trouble Purlo would try to get himself into.
"Gone. Disappeared day before last." Sokra swallowed. "How's the terraforming project going?"
"That wizard thing they're doin' to try and make more farmland around the city?" Link thought about it. "It looks it's gone a bit farther out. They're not making as much progress as they used to, but it's larger."
"You think they're running out of energy?"
Link shrugged. "Maybe. There's more wizards coming in from all over now."
Fado scoffed. "City slickers. You'd be able to support more people if you turned that into grazing land for goats and cattle instead of trying to force nature to do what you want it to. Bastard Barrhem's got nothing between his ears but swamp mud."
"It's not about the land," Link said.
"Oh boy, here we go." Fado plugged his ears. "Let me know when he's done."
"I'm telling you, they're preparing for war. We've all seen formation after formation coming into the city. You said it yourself, Fado; there's no way they're actually using that land for farming. It's just an excuse to bring in more and more wizards."
"I never said they weren't farming on it. Don't put words in my mouth, bro."
"She put an apple in mine. I'm just sharin' the love."
"But magic isn't used in warfare," Sokra insisted. "It's a tool to help people, not to hurt them."
"Just because magic hasn't been used as a weapon doesn't mean it can't be. I wouldn't put it past Chancellor Barrhem to do that."
"The Spotted Dick doesn't have the power or the influence to start a war. He's just a governor, and a toady at that. If they're preparing for a war, then the King of Hyrule, King Nemotang, has to be behind it."
"And how do you know this?" Link asked. Sokra collected their apple cores; they threw all food trash deep down a different tunnel so as not to attract rats.
"I'm a performer. We have to know politics. It doesn't work out so well if you play for the wrong guy and get your head chopped off. Sokra? You didn't go very far, what's the matter?"
"Soldiers," she whispered. "And Purlo."
"I'll strangle him myself." Link stood up and pulled his slingshot from his belt. "Fado, Sokra, take the lamp and get the kids out of here."
"Aw man, I wanted to be the hero." Even as he said this, he scooped up Malo and the lamp. Sokra grabbed Beth, who reached frantically for the ground.
"Sorry, Beth, we have to go right now. It isn't safe anymore."
"Doll!" Beth signed as she beat on Sokra's back. But neither she nor Fado in the lead could see her or her doll, discarded next to Malo's fake coin. Talo ran after the four, then paused. Turning around, he threw his sword at Link. "Here! You need a sword to fight bad guys, big bro."
"Thanks, lil' bro." Link grinned as he nabbed the sword and put it through his belt. He pulled back his slingshot and waited.
"Greetings and bienven-augh!" Purlo, in a garish jester's outfit, gagged and spat on the ground. He carried a well-made torch. "What do you think you're-augh!" Link shot another projectile in the exact same spot on the back of his throat, pulling a steel ball from a pouch in his cloak before Purlo even realized he'd been hit again. "What was that? What WAS that?"
"Rat droppings." Link shrugged. "Seemed appropriate."
Purlo wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I suppose it's not worth it trying to fool you now, is it?"
"You're welcome to try. Protip, though; next time you betray someone, try not to carry something with your enemy's name scribbled all over it."
Purlo looked at his torch, which had the royal seal on it - a Loftwing rising to the heavens, with the Triforce emblazoned on the space between the bird's wings. He scowled before pulling an engraved silver whistle from his pocket and blowing into it.
"Seriously? First the torch, now the whistle? You're an idiot, and whoever you sold us out to wants you dead." Their room had five different exits; Link shuffled so that he was protecting a different exit than the one his friends went down. If this was about the Green Hood, then fine. If the soldiers were after all of the Twilight Rats, and Link died protecting that one path, then the soldiers would spend precious minutes exploring that path over the others, giving Sokra and Fado time to get the kids somewhere safe, preferably not in the catacombs.
None of the tunnels were large enough to allow two to walk abreast. It was even easier to shoot the governor's soldiers down here than it was on the surface. A solid shot between the eyes was enough to knock a guard unconscious, even through a helmet. Link's ammo couldn't last forever, so with five shots left and a lull in the action as soldiers dragged their unconscious comrades out of the way, he put away his slingshot and drew Talo's sword. In their main meeting area, it worked wonders. It wasn't quite as "one hit-one kill" as Link's usual weapon, but it never needed ammo and, best of all, it just felt right in his hands. Unfortunately, Link couldn't swing it at all when he retreated down the tunnel to try and separate the soldiers. Not even a Hero could stand against an army alone, and when the soldiers simply decided to mosh Link against a wall, it was all over - though that didn't necessarily stop the blows. Being a thief was bad enough. Harrying good men of the Knights of Hyrule was bad enough. Walking up to a soldier in broad daylight, making a rude gesture to his face before knocking the teeth out of his jaw and running away cackling, doing this so often that every Knight in town drew their sword whenever they saw the color green...their anger temporarily overcame their professionalism, and Link paid the price. Finally, their commander stepped in.
"That's enough, men. Chancellor Barrhem will deliver the rest of his punishment."
"Hey, Sjin. How's your beauty mark healin'?"
Commander Sjin rubbed the stub of his earlobe. His son, a delinquent and a lout, had bitten off the tip of Link's ear in a fight before dying three days later of, ironically, food poisoning. To avenge himself, Link had cornered the boy's father in a crowded bar, biting off his earlobe and selling the two hundred rupee earring the man was wearing at the time.
"Spread out. We still need to find the rest of these rats."
"Wait, what?" The words startled Purlo out of whatever decadent fantasies he was having.
"We're short three children and two teenagers. Find them and bring them back to this room."
"You can't! That wasn't part of our deal!"
Sjin backhanded Purlo hard enough to draw blood. "The Knights of Hyrule don't make deals with thieves and murderers."
"Told you," Link taunted Purlo before a gauntlet took him out of this world.
"Talo!" Link shot out of bed. Someone had dressed the wounds on his head, leaving him in a small stone room. The cot was hard, but had sheets on it, and a bucket sat in the corner for the necessary. The floor was tiled mosaic, and crown molding decorated one wall.
Link finished remembering the events of his last moments of consciousness. "Who was that?"
"It sounds like you're in the cell across from me," the voice replied, a male voice, weak and hoarse. "Which from your perspective means that I'm in the cell across from you."
"Doesn't really answer my question." His hand automatically reached for his slingshot - obviously removed by the guards.
"I'm a fellow prisoner. Does that suffice?"
"I'd like a name." Link finally picked out the source of a voice - a gaunt man, thin as a wire but standing straight as a pillar, someone with a quiet dignity and short hair.
"I don't have one. Not anymore."
"What, did you lose it or something?"
"I am no longer worthy of my name. I am worse than nothing. I am nil."
Link paused. "Well, I guess it's better than 'Hey, stupid.' So this is the big house." He tapped on the wall and whistled. "If this is the deluxe suite, I'd hate to see the by-the-hour rooms."
"We are not in the penitentiary. We are in the basement of the governor's house."
"Wow, someone REALLY wants me dead."
"The penitentiary closes at sundown. No one gets in or out. Not even His Maj-the governor can open the gates once they've locked for the night. By contrast, the governor keeps his home open at all hours of the day. It's more likely you were brought here out of convenience, rather than out of respect."
"Makes sense. Did you hear anyone else come here, Nil? Really annoying voice, kinda high and nasally."
Nil inhaled audibly. "I do not talk often with others. To me, any voice is as beautiful as that of the Goddess."
"Lovely. First time in prison and I get stuck with Don Quixote."
"The guards did bring in another prisoner at the same time as yourself. He seemed convinced he had been cheated in a deal with the Knights. Is this who you are seeking?"
"Yep. Sounds like Purlo. Are you in the same boat as us? Just here for the night?"
"No. You might call me a long-term resident."
"Cool beans. What are you here for?"
"I will not discuss it with you."
"Do you have anything else to do?"
Link shrugged. "Not unless you have a way out."
Nil sighed. "Talk of escape is forbidden. But...perhaps I could interest you in a lecture on the history of this building. It would certainly pass the time."
"Forget it!" Link walked back to his bed. "I don't want to listen to-" He stopped and went back to the bars. "Would that lecture include...architecture?"
Nil smiled. "Most certainly. One cannot discuss the history of a building without covering how it was put together."
Link gave a big grin, turned over the necessary bucket, and sat down next to the bars.
"As you are aware, circumstances during the War of the Sages caused Kakariko Village to be destroyed. While terrible, this gave the survivors the opportunity to build the new Kakariko exactly how they wanted it, designing the whole city around a central house of worship. The wall around the King's Quarter is actually the wall of the temple, and this building, which Chancellor Barrhem has claimed as his private residence, used to be the sanctum of the Temple of Sands."
"Sanctum?" Link didn't know many fancy words, but he knew "Sanctum" was synonymous with "treasure." "What did it hold?"
"A reliquary containing the Mystic Shield." At Link's curious look, Nil continued. "The Mystic Shield is an energy construct, designed to be carried by the Hero of Light and Darkness. It is completely impenetrable to all attacks."
"Energy construct? So it's magic?"
"No, it is empowered by the Triforce."
"So it's magic."
"The Triforce is its own power, delivered directly from the Goddesses to those with the Mark of Three Three's. It is not arcane, not eldritch, it is divine."
Link stared blankly at Nil. "So basically, it's magic."
Nil's posture never changed, but his face fell. "I'm not getting through to you at all, am I?"
"Well, you will find better men than me to explain it to you. I'm sure you're wondering how this bears on our discussion of architecture."
'Bout time, Link thought to himself.
"This room is the resting place of the Mystic Shield."
"Before this room was converted into a prison. What happened to the shield?"
"Not 'was' its resting place, 'is'. It's still here."
"What? How? Oh wait, let me guess. Divine versus mystic versus whatever."
"Good guess," Nil patronized. Link broke into hysterical laughter.
"Sorry, sorry," Link apologized. "I haven't had a laugh like that in ages. Thanks, bro." He beamed at the man across from him.
"I'm happy to be of service, sir. The construction of the Sanctum Sanctorum is quite interesting. First, huge stones were moved from a marble quarry almost on the other side of Hyrule - from the same place as the Temple of Time, in fact. Each stone was hand-carved and fitted so tight you cannot slip a human hair between any of the cracks. Finally, after building everything else on the grounds, the builders asked for Hylia's aid, and with her handmaidens - Din, Nayru, and Farore - she created a second room beneath this one."
Nil shrugged. "The texts do not specify further."
"Sounds more like a load of bullcrap to me."
"That's what happens when you deal with the goddesses. In truth, I suspect that even the builders didn't know how it was done - all they know is that it happened."
Thrilled nearly to tears, Link turned around. The wall opposite his door had all the fancy molding on it. The wall with the door, and the remaining two walls, were roughly plastered and had no decorations on them at all. "So that back wall is one solid piece of stone. What are these other three made out of? Brick and mortar?"
"Concrete, with wood reinforcing struts to give them strength."
"Aw, man. What about the door frame?"
"Placed in the mold before the concrete was poured. Quite ingenious, really."
"So basically, I'm still stuck here, and that was an hour of my life I'm never getting back. Way to be a team player, Nil."
"You're from the streets."
"You have no clue and no interest in the Mystic Shield, the Temple of Sands, the Mark of Three Threes, any of this."
"I think you already know the answer to that."
"I do. And that's my point. Do you really think I would have bothered telling you all of this if I didn't think you could use the shield to escape?"
"What? How? Solid marble, concrete...door! Were you listening to yourself just now?"
"What's on the wall behind you?"
Link checked. "The Triforce."
"A common mistake. That is not the Triforce."
"Of course it's not the actual Triforce, you idiot. It's a...drawing doo-hickey. A symbol."
"Correct. But that symbol is not called the triforce. It is known as the Mark of Three Threes."
Link looked closer. "I get it. Three shapes with three sides apiece. Sounds cooler than calling it the triforce."
"It is at that mark where the path to the Mystic Shield begins. Behind that wall, you will find the room the Goddesses created."
"Swell. And then what, I bust down the walls with it? The uber-reinforced, concrete walls? You said this thing protects me from attacks, not lets me make them."
"In all the old stories, what happens at the end of a temple?"
"Uh, you fight the boss."
"You get the weird magic artifact thingy. Or the mystic power or whatever."
"You...uh..." Link's eyes opened wide. "You get warped to the start of the temple!"
"In this case, outside the King's Quarter's walls, and consequently, outside the prison."
"Oh yes! Yes!" Link jumped around his cell and cackled as quietly as he could. "That's brilliant! They'll never see it coming! Oh, you've done it again, you lucky dog!"
"Oh." Link straightened up. "Guards. Right."
"While the guards were putting you and...Purlo in your respective cells, I heard them say they were putting your personal artifacts in the Armory. Do you know where that is?"
"Yeah, I've broken in before." Link limbered his arm. "You know how to open this thing?"
"One with the heart of a hero who prays before the Mark of Three Threes will receive what he needs." For the first time, Nil sounded confident in himself.
"Oh. Okay." With that, Link plodded back to his cot, rolled his cloak into a ball, and used it as a pillow. "Good night, Nil."
"What are you doing?"
"I can't do it. I'm not a hero, bro. Like...I dunno, I steal stuff, and I beat up Knights because I get a kick outta it, an' I don't go to temple, and I blew our money on a sword an' a doll an' a fake coin, an' now they're all dead or in prison an' I couldn't do anything to help them..."
"Link. Link." Nil bellowed, "Stand up and account for yourself, boy!"
Link nearly hit his head on the ceiling, he stood up so fast. "I have no idea what that means, and please don't make me find out!"
"Listen here, boy." Nil spoke like a parent patiently correcting a child. "You're a thief, to be sure. But people can go to temple every day and still be rotten inside, while prostitutes will get their place in the Golden Realm. You sacrificed your own share of food so the children could have toys, and you sacrificed your freedom and your life to give all of your friends a chance to escape. If that's not prophecy smacking me in the face, I don't know what is. Now face the Mark, get down on your knees, and repeat after me. O youth, guided by..."
*Ballad of the Goddess*
Link finished. "So what does that-" The wall before Link glowed with sunlight brighter than any star. When the glow faded, the wall had dissolved into a downward staircase, lit with ethereal lamps. "Oh, that is one cool magic trick. Divine trick, I mean."
"This next step is important. Look at your hands."
"Whoa! My right hand is glowing!" Link showed it to the man across the corridor. "Is that supposed to happen?"
"Yes. When you grab the Mystic Shield, make sure to grab it with the hand that has the Triforce on it."
"You said it's the Mark of Three Threes."
"Yes, I did. Sorry."
"No worries. What then? How do I activate that portal thing?"
"I don't know. If it doesn't happen automatically, it should be fairly obvious. All I can do now is wish you good luck."
"Thanks. I...I don't want to say I'll come back for you, 'cause I'm not sure if I will, but..."
Nil held up a hand. "It's fine. Let the Goddesses guide you."
Link paused. "Yeah, same to you." He turned to go down the stairs.
"You wished to know my crime."
"Uh, it's fine. I'm not gonna push you for it or anything."
"I am a traitor. I am here because I betrayed someone important."
"Oh." Link tried to cook up a reply. "Well, you're a nice guy, Nil, and people in power can be real assholes sometimes. I don't know what you did, but I'm sure you made the right choice, whatever it was." Link rushed down the steps, and the wall reformed behind him.
"No, Link, I didn't," the man called Nil whispered. "But hopefully, what I did today will correct my mistake."
(to be written; stuff about the Mystic Shield, Link escaping and breaking back into the King's Quarter, finding his stuff and fighting with the shield for the first time)
Link let out his breath as the last of the guards ran past the tree. He knew from his earlier visits that the King's Quarter had an exquisite garden in the center, and with his green cloak he was basically invisible. Getting up and moving further into the grove, he reflected on his inventory. Slingshot, check. Ammunition, five pellets sewn into his cloak - thank the Handmaidens that was still there. Rupees, twenty-four he'd liberated from the guards. Weird Triforce mark, check. Mystic Shield, nowhere to be seen. Link tapped his hand. "Turn on. Shield mode, engaged. Divine powers, activate! By the Castle Greyskull, I have the power!" Link held his hand close to his ear and shook it. "Nope, not working. Maybe it only turns on when I'm in danger." Hopefully, it hadn't run out of juice, but Link didn't feel like testing that theory. One standard-issue knife, also liberated from its previous owner, check. Wood sword, friggin CHECK! Thing did awesome against those guards, especially together with the Mystic Shield. Lead coin, check. Doll, "You're dirty. I need to wash you off. And I'm talking to myself." Link listened closely; sure enough, there was a fountain nearby. He followed the sound of running water. Instead of a normal fountain, with finely carved marble, gracefully jetting water, and half-naked ladies everywhere, this was made of grey rock, with water running down in rivulets to pool in small, separated puddles at the bottom. Moss covered the whole thing, and leaves cluttered around the base. Link found a place where the water briefly left the surface of the rock and began scrubbing gently. Soon, all the grave mud that had caked on was removed.
"Good as new," Link whispered to himself. He'd seen the doll in the market earlier that day. Sokra was the most motherly of the grown Twilight Rats, and because she was better at picking locks than pockets, Fado and Link usually went up to the surface to gather supplies and shop while Sokra kept the kids safe. While Beth received lots of attention, she didn't have lots of toys. And once Beth got a toy, Talo would want something, and if Talo and Beth both got something, you couldn't just not buy something for Malo-
"Friggin' old man!" Link nearly startled himself. "Nil knew my name. How'd he know my name?" He tried to remember his conversation, to see if he'd ever introduced himself. "He heard the guards talking. Maybe he overheard them talking about me." Link sighed. "Stupid shield, stupid triforce, stupid old man. I'm in enough fairy tales as it is - no sense in making more of them for myself." A flash of movement caught Link's attention. No torchlight touched this grove, but enough moonlight came in to tell Link that, whatever it was, it was white and about the side of a man.
"Shit." Link ran towards the flash with the still-wet doll in one hand, trying to draw the knife with his left. The figure dashed through the undergrowth like it was a racetrack, while Link was buffeted by thorns and branches. He had about half a foot on his quarry, and even with his handicap he still managed to tackle the shape and get a knife to her throat.
"Not a sound, you hear?" Link grabbed a fistful of long, blond hair and flipped the figure over. Whoever it was had perfect cloud-white skin and the largest eyes Link had ever seen. They were as big as a sea, deep as a forest, with sadness and hatred and fear engraved into their retinas. Link forgot himself slightly as he looked into those eyes. Not even Beth had that look of despondency, and she lived in a graveyard.
Link's weakness cost him, and the woman beneath him spat at his face. Reflexively, he brought his hands up, and the woman beneath him bucked, knocking the knife and the doll free. After two or three seconds of scuffling, the young woman had Link's arms pinned and held the knife to his throat with shaking hands. Before, resignation had been the first emotion in her eyes. Now it was replaced with fear.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" The voice was as bitter-sweet as the face it came from, cracking from the tension.
"Screw you, bitch."
The knife pressed into Link's skin. "Tell me, or you die."
"If you don't keep your strength up, we're all goners."
Link's left hand found and grabbed the doll. He closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable. "Do it."
"If you're going to kill me, make it quick." Reunite me with my friends, he didn't add.
The mystery lady stiffened. After a moment of decision, she brought the knife up for a stab, and...just kept it there. This indecision rekindled Link's survival instincts, and he clenched his right hand to throw a punch.
Again, the Mystic Shield's activation caught him completely by surprise. This time, though, it actually helped him, catching both Zelda's face and the arm with the knife and bringing both to the ground. Link quickly straddled the maiden across her midsection, to pin her down. He talked quickly, before she could fool him again with her vulnerability.
"Listen here, princess. I don't want to kill you, I don't want to kidnap you, I just want to get out of here. I'm gonna get up and walk away, you can get up and walk away, and we can both forget about this whole thing, deal?"
From behind a leaf, a different voice said, "Not going to happen."
"Let's go! Double Sibling - PUNCH!" Two beams of light - one yellow, one dark violet - slammed into Link's forehead, knocking him off the woman.
"Hold him down, sis!" Link, knocked on his back by the attack, tried to rise but found himself yanked back to the dirt. "Whah-tah-tah! Whah-tah-tah! Whah-tah-tah-tah-tah-tah-tah!" At each of these phrases, the black ball of light moved to a different spot on Link's face before inflicting a sharp pain. "I got him on the ropes, Tatl! Now, finishing move! Fist of the North Star Technique. Ultimat-u PAUNCH-U!" Link felt like someone was jabbing a needle into the bottom of his nose.
"Both of you! Stop it! He has the Mystic Shield!"
The black ball hovering around Link's nose stopped and drifted down to his right hand. The force grabbing Link's hair let go, and the yellow ball joined its brother as the violet light dimmed. A tiny person with wings, standing on Link's wrist, revealed itself as it raised a knee and slapped it with its opposite hand.
"Well, slap a horse and call it Gramma, lookee there!" His voice switched from Captain Falcon to Yosemite Sam. "We have ourselves a Triforce of Courage here!"
"Looks like it, little brother," remarked the ball of yellow light. It flew over to the woman. "Are you okay, Zelda? We thought he was going to rape you."
"Tatl thought he was going to rape you," the dark fairy commented. "I thought you were going to give him a ti-"
"What? It's true. Nothing was lined up the right way."
"I'm fine. Thanks for saving me, you two," Zelda interjected before the conversation could continue.
"No problemo, niña. You want us to kill this gringo or what?"
"First, I don't think you're using any of those words correctly," Tatl chided. "Second, what are you thinking! He's the Hero of Light and Dark - we can't kill him!"
"Just because he has the Triforce of Courage doesn't make him the Hero! Plenty of bad guys have had pieces of the Triforce! Like Gannondorf! And Ganon! And...Yuga Ganon!"
"Tatl? Tael?" Zelda held out her hand, and the two fairies perched on it. "I'm sixteen now. Can you please let me handle this?"
Tael rolled his eyes. "Fine. We'll be here if you need us, Princess Zelda."
"Zelda?" Link scoffed. "Yeah, right, and I just had tea with the King of Hyrule."
Zelda locked eyes with Link. The vulnerability in them was gone, replaced with a roaring ice. "Whose doll is that?"
Link shoved it behind his back. "None of your business."
Zelda's eyes narrowed. "I can call the guards here. Whatever you're doing here, I doubt you'd want the entire garrison chasing you. It will be very unpleasant for both of us, but I will do it if you make me. Now, who is that doll for?"
"It's...it's for Beth."
"That's real helpful. Who's Beth?"
"You're not very good at asking nicely, are you?"
"You're not very good at answering nicely, now who's Beth?"
Zelda raised her hands to her mouth and took in a deep breath.
"Fine." Link looked down at the doll. "Three months ago, Sokra and Fado came back with a little girl, less than five years old with a bloody stump where her tongue used to be. Sokra invented a series of hand signs, and after she healed and learned some of them, Fado and I paid a visit to her father. He was a wage laborer, had a wife and five kids to feed, but he couldn't get enough money to feed all of them. So he kicked the youngest and weakest out of the house, on the principle of 'those who don't work, don't eat.' When she tried to rejoin the family in the dead of night, he cut out her tongue so she wouldn't take their food ever again." Link gripped the doll tighter. "Fado broke his left leg, I broke his right. He won't be able to find enough work as a cripple to feed himself, never mind his family. I hope they paid him the same treatment he showed them."
"But how will they survive without income?" the yellow fairy asked.
"The oldest is twelve. He can make enough for them to survive."
Zelda asked, "Did you give her back to the family?"
"No. We let the father think she'd died in our arms, and we didn't dare talk to the mother or the children. If he found out she was still alive, he'd tear the city down to find and kill her."
Zelda locked eyes with Link. "You're a good man."
"No I'm not."
"You're a Hero, at any rate. And now, you will tell me...I mean, I would like to know your name."
"Who am I, you ask?" Link dropped his head and chuckled. "Fu fu fu. Far and wide, I am known for my dashing figure and gentle charisma." He stood up and turned around. "From one end of Kakariko City to the other, when you see a green leaf flutter in the wind and women swoon from it, know that it is because of me!" He whipped his cloak, turned around, and threw a hand to the sky. "I am the Green Hood, Outlaw and Lover Supreme!"
"Nice to meet you, Green Hood."
"What! You haven't heard of me? Or my dramatic introduction?"
"Uh, sorry, I haven't been outside the walls since I came here." She stood up and offered he hand. "I am Princess Zelda the 51st, daughter of King Nemotang."
"Oh. Well...okay." Link composed himself and reached for Zelda's hand, kissing it. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Princess Zelda."
Her hand suddenly contracted into a fist. "It is considered rude among royalty for a man to steal the rings off a young maiden's fingers."
Link straightened himself and, with a tense smile, moved all of the rings back into their proper position.
"Now, sit. I'm sure you want to get out of here, but there are things you need to know."
Link obeyed. He found himself reminded of Nil - sad, but refusing to give up his pride.
"What do you know about the terraforming project?"
"Just the usual skuttlebutt. The wizards are tryin' to make better farmland to support the city."
"And what do you think of that?"
"You mean do I buy it?" Zelda nodded. Without hesitation, "I think they're lying through their teeth. I think the wizards are here to make war on someone, and the project is just their excuse."
"You're smarter than you think. The truth is, this place is the center of the terraforming project." Zelda pointed around her. "We're in the middle of a fairy grotto. Think of it as a crossroads for the world's arcane energy. There are no paths, no fences, no sculptures here - everything is created by nature. The power of the grove wanes and waxes like the moon. Normally, this power doesn't extend outside the city, but there is a celestial event this year that's boosting the power of the grove to affect the land people haven't built anything on."
"And Barrhem's pretending to be all wizardly when it's actually just the grove doing it."
Tael chimed in with, "Not Barrhem. Ganon."
"Ganon? From the old stories? Yeah, right."
"It's true. Ganon has revived himself again. I know I'm losing you, so I'll make this quick. The man on the throne of Hyrule is not my father. It is an illusion created by Ganon so he can control the movement of wizards and soldiers at the highest level. As the Hero of Light and Dark, you have to discover Ganon's plan, find his co-conspirators, defeat them, kill Ganon, and save Hyrule and me."
"Yeah, no." Link stood up.
"But that's your quest!"
"No, my 'quest' is to find my friends and make sure they're still alive before killing the bastard responsible for their death sentence. After that, we're...well, we can't come back to Kakariko, but we'll figure something out!"
"Stop! I'll pay you! Here, take my ring!"
"Is it registered?"
Zelda paused. "I don't know what that means."
"Nobles create a list of all their jewelry, with a drawing of the item and a precise count of all the stones in it, sorted by weight and color. This goes to every single pawn shop and jeweler in the city, and if you even see a piece of jewelry in your shop that's on one of those lists, you can be executed for trading in stolen merchandise. What that means is if I try to pawn any of your jewelry and it's been registered, I'll be in a jail cell before I can walk out the door."
"What if you take the stones out and melt down the metal?"
"I can't do that without going to a jeweler." Sokra could and had done it before, but Link wasn't in a position to go ask her. "Same problem as before, with the added bonus that even if the piece isn't registered, asking a jeweler to take all the stones out of a ring or necklace is a very suspicious thing to do, and will call the guards faster than bringing in a registered ring will."
"How about my shoes? Those are expensive."
"And who's gonna buy 'em? Ladies with a 7½ sole?"
"It's from a princess."
"Yeah, and if I go about advertizing that, the Knights won't just throw me in jail, they'll outright kill me. Especially if you being here is the government-toppling secret I think it is. At least with jewelry, I know who I can sell it to."
"How about my dress? You can take up fabric much more easily than you can resize a shoe."
"There's not much room for tailoring," Link said, looking at Zelda's small body. "And I don't know how to sell a dress any more than I know how to sell a shoe."
"Fine. Just...give me two or three days to come up with something. I'll tell them I want gold embroidery thread, or gems to design out my own ring, or SOMETHING."
"You don't get it, do you?" Link snapped. "I don't want to help you. I want to find my friends, find a nice one-story ranch in the suburbs of Castle Town, couple kids, maybe get a dog, and live happily ever after. THE END. Nothing short of crowning me King of the Known Universe will make me want to help you." Link turned and headed for what he hoped was the exit.
"Wait!" Zelda yelled. "I'll...I'll marry you!"
The grove went silent.
"What?" Link and the two fairies asked together.
"I...I will marry you." She composed herself. "If you defeat Ganon, the shadow king will dissolve, We will become Queen, and We can annul any prior betrothals and marry whoever We wish."
"Does that mean I become king?"
"No, Queen's consort. You won't have any responsibilities, but you'll live in the castle and have mountains of jewels. It's not quite King of the Universe, but will it do?"
LIGHT PATH"I'll live in the castle..." Link trailed off. "And do my powers as Consort include adopting new members of the Royal Family?"
"You will be expected to produce a blood heir. But," she added quickly, "If you want to adopt Beth, We would be happy to provide for her for the rest of her life."
Why stop at Beth? Why not adopt everyone? Link's eyes lit up at the prospect of Fado calling him Daddy.
DARK PATH"Jewels..." Link trailed off. He imagined a mountain of gems, jewels of every shape and size, a pile as high as a man. Consort sounded like a pretty cool position. Link grinned as he imagined himself in fine robes, talking to Fado from atop the wall of the King's Quarter.
"Fado? Hm, the name sounds familiar, but I'm afraid I don't know anyone by that name. Guards! Remove this commoner from my royal vision!"
REJOINLink clapped and rubbed his hands together. "I'm in."
"But I'm saving my friends first."
Zelda paused. "Very well. I accept those terms. Tatl, Tael."
The two fairies flew over to her hand. "What is it?" they asked in unison.
"Go with Green Hood. Keep him on his path."
"But what about you?"
"Yeah? Who's gonna protect you if we're not around to do it?" Tael asked.
"If he succeeds, I won't need protecting anymore. I'll be safe forever."
The two fairies flew up and hugged her cheek.
"I'll miss you two. Now go."
"Great. Why do I get stuck with them?"
"You'll meet other people who can explain it to you. For now, you have to get moving if you want to find your friends. Tatl and Tael can help you with that - they can track auras back to their source."
"It doesn't work over very large distances," Tatl explained. "And it becomes less effective if the trail is too cold."
"Let's move it, daisies!" Tael bellowed. "We're burnin' moonlight over here!"
"May the Goddesses guide you." Zelda bowed her head.
"Uh...yeah, and you too." Link headed off slowly into the woods, trying and failing to be as quiet as possible.