"This is it, then..."
"Are you sure?"
Calamity Ganon was here.
Calamity Ganon was here.
Here, in Hyrule, as real as the air in Link's lungs or the ground beneath his feet.
Casting a sweeping look at the people of Kakariko, their faces transformed by anxiety, Link could feel the pit in his gut like a devouring monster.
They weren't ready to fight. That much was obvious from the clear terror on Zelda's face, the nervous silences from the other Champions, and the ball of pure lead in Link's stomach.
Not that it would keep them from trying.
Mipha had been the first to leave them, parting ways to head through the Lanaryu North gate and hurry back to Zora's Domain. She'd make it faster, she'd said, if she swam. She had kissed Link's cheek and squeezed Zelda's hand, and she had left to retrieve Vah Ruta, just like that.
No one had thought to ask her to complete her thought, the one Ganon had interrupted. Now, Link wondered what comfort she had intended to give Zelda.
Not that there was any comfort to give Zelda.
Once again, for what felt like the thousandth time since that morning, he glanced at his princess with a deep ache in his heart. The uncertainty was written plain on her face, the fear― but it was the other expressions he hated to see when she noticed him looking: the regret, the shame, and worse.
He'd thought nothing would hurt more than seeing her in the arms of another. Now he wondered whether it wasn't worse to have tasted her and been stopped.
Even now, she couldn't even look at him. She remained convinced, despite his best efforts to tell her otherwise, that she had wronged him. And his words of reassurance had only entrenched her opinion further. He was being too kind. Too forgiving.
So he'd fallen silent.
Somewhere overhead, brilliant red lightning struck, reminding him of his duty. He had to focus.
After all, what was the disaster of a broken kiss in the face of what awaited them?
Daruk had left them once they'd entered Kakariko. He had to roll all the way back to Death Mountain, but that, too, could be travelled quickly if he left immediately, tearing down the Sahasra Slope.
They'd gone to wish him well, if only for a moment. From where they had been standing, watching him go, they could make out the Castle's silhouette in the distance, black towers upon black skies, but the storm of red fury had hid too much for them to make out the Calamity itself.
It was as Daruk was leaving that the five pillars had emerged.
Zelda had mentioned them to Link before, of course― five columns beneath Hyrule Castle that supposedly housed countless types of Guardians, but she had given up on trying to find them. Apparently ― fortunately ― her speculation that they would only activate upon Calamity Ganon's return had been accurate. With a rumble that Link could feel in his chest even all the way in Kakariko, the ground around Hyrule Castle had broken, and the five columns had emerged, blue-veined and as impervious to the damages of time as all the other Shrines dotting the landscape.
They had risen slowly, tilted towards the sky, and Ganon had roared with such fury that it echoed into the mountains around them.
At his side, Zelda had exclaimed at the sight, and she'd turned to Urbosa with wonder. "The columns are stopping him."
"Bless the Sheikah," Urbosa had said, grimly.
Bless the Sheikah indeed, Link agreed, as their horses were saddled and rations were placed in their bags. A large Gerudo horse had been prepared for Urbosa in anticipation of their return. Master Impa's expression had been grave, but she had followed through on much of the rushed preparations when the rest of them had still been in too much shock to decide where to begin.
Bless the Sheikah, both ancient and young. The ancient for holding back the Calamity ―at least for now― and the young for being ever prepared.
It was deep night, but Zelda had changed into her travel clothes. There would be no waiting on morning. Even in the night, the eerie glow of the Calamity's unnatural red storm cast a threatening light on the horizon. And Link's heart squeezed to think of all those who lived in Hyrule Castle.
"Ride fast," Impa warned them as she handed out lanterns. "Your horses have been well-fed― they can take it." She had crossed over to Urbosa, who had just finished giving a farewell embrace to the princess, and added, "We Sheikah will marshall our forces and follow behind. Give us time. If you can."
It was that last addition that nearly made Link shudder. On his shoulder, the Master Sword seemed uncommonly heavy. It felt like the scabbard was burning him through his tunic, wearing at his skin.
Zelda swallowed hard, but to her credit no tears came to her eyes. She turned to Urbosa with a genuine, resolute expression, and the Gerudo Champion placed a tanned hand on her shoulder.
"Be not afraid, little bird," she said. She seemed about to add something, but shook it off. Without waiting a moment longer, she pushed herself into the saddle of her massive horse, and took off towards the west road, down into Hyrule Field, at full gallop. She had at least a full day of riding ahead of her, and would likely be last to return with her Divine Beast.
It was Revali who left them last. He had seen them safely to Kakariko, and was confident that he would make it to Tabantha and back in time.
"Princess," he said, kneeling before Zelda. "Grant me your blessing."
"I've been blessing my Champions every day since you were named," Zelda whispered, hurrying to raise him from the ground. "Go, Revali. And be careful."
Gently, she pressed a gentle kiss to his cheek, and the Rito's feathers ruffled like a shiver of embarrassed honour.
"I will fly low," Revali promised her in return, just as a bright pulse of lightning cast all of Kakariko in a red glow.
Around them, the faces of the villagers were obviously worried, but they still had a shred of faith that Link couldn't observe for too long. He was afraid too. Fear hung in the air so thick that breathing was difficult, and he worried that showing them his terror would only ignite it, cause panic.
Distant thunder rumbled. Apparently deciding that there was no more time to dally, Revali turned to Link, drawing him out of his stupor, and said, with far less gentleness than he'd used on Zelda, "Do not make a mess I need to clean up."
No doubt about it: Revali was nervous. Lashing out was his way of holding on to his last ounce of confidence. In kind, with a look of meaningful understanding, in a desperate bid not to display what he truly felt, Link replied, "I'll try." Then, for good measure, he added, "Featherbrain."
This seemed to satisfy the Rito, because he nodded gravely. Then, with a single powerful gust of air, he propelled himself into the sky, beat his wings a few times, and was gone into the night.
There was a beat, then more lightning illuminated the village.
"It's time to go," Impa said, helping Zelda into her saddle. "Are you sure this is what you want to do?"
Zelda looked down at the Sheikah Master, and noted the genuine concern in her red eyes. Evidently touched, she reached for the Sheikah's hand and said, "I must, if I can."
Link couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw Impa blink hard, perhaps against tears, and a newfound sympathy came over him.
The two women exchanged a few last words, so Link pushed himself into the saddle, fiddling with the reins, focusing on inane details, as though the fold he straightened in Courage's blanket would change anything.
When at last Impa reached him, her expression grave and anxious, Link forced a smile, "I thought the Sheikah were the worst when you began training me." Sheepishly, he added, with what he hoped was a tone of apology, "It was foolish."
"I thought for a moment that the Sword had made a mistake," Impa said, a gentle light in her eyes. Then, she seemed filled with sorrow. "We're even." She caressed Courage's neck firmly, and his horse nickered. "Win this battle, Champion."
He couldn't formulate a reply. It seemed dangerous to say he would try, and defeatist to admit he doubted they'd ever see one another again.
But in that moment he worried, and he missed her already.
So without waiting any longer, Link pressed his legs into Courage's flanks, and the horse began to walk, then trot. Zelda followed, though without looking him in the eye. She had retreated within herself now, and Link was still too raw from her rejection― her regrets― to investigate. He wasn't sure he had what it took to survive another sincere conversation.
And there were greater concerns at hand, anyway.
They coursed out of Kakariko sometime after midnight. Overhead, the stars were slowly disappearing behind a thick cover of clouds that occasionally glowed red, illuminated from within by Ganon's particular brand of magic. The lack of moonlight and starlight made navigating the roads exceptionally difficult. It was only with the light of the lantern that they kept their footing.
Under Link, Courage's breathing was hard, the sound of air whooshing in and out of the horse's nostrils like the rush of crashing waves. The animal's whole body moved with strength and beauty, and Link stood firmly in his stirrups, the better to prevent his bouncing weight from disrupting the mechanics of such a breakneck gallop.
Zelda was doing the same with Wisdom, though she visibly strained to maintain a perfect posture. He'd tried to ask her whether she wanted them to slow down, but she wouldn't even meet his eyes, let alone formulate a firm response.
It killed him that she refused to speak to him now. But he knew slowing down was not an option. Not really.
The ground vanished beneath their hooves, the roar of wind in their ears deafening, and every minute brought them closer to Hyrule Castle and the heart of the raging storm.
And all Link wanted to do was turn around and flee.
Kindness, he thought, bitterly. Kindness was the first of a knight's virtues. Now he was being accused of excessive kindness by the woman he loved because he'd been utterly unvirtuous and kissed her, desperately, in a moment of inappropriate weakness. The irony was almost too painful.
And courage, the second of the virtues, the only thing he sought to muster in order to face the storm. It was the single thread keeping him on course, thin and fraying though it was.
Patience― the only virtue he felt he mastered. He'd mastered waiting, hoping, standing by, with such excellence, that now that it was time for action, he worried he'd demonstrated too much of it.
He ought to have told Zelda everything. He ought to have forced the other Champions to practice. He ought to have― to have―
But what was the use? He'd done as well as he could with what he had. It would not be enough.
If he could protect Zelda, at least, help her make it to safety, then he'd consider his duty discharged.
Red lightning broke the heavens in the distance, and Link found himself eminently and pragmatically grateful that ancient Sheikah technology still worked. The pillars around Hyrule Castle had bought them precious time, and hopefully that would allow everyone to escape before the Divine Beasts arrived.
They raced northward along the Hylia River for several hours, cutting across it on the Rebonae Bridge, ignoring the deserted toll keeper's hut. From there, it was an almost straight line through the fields and country roads to Hyrule Castle, but their advance was slowing down, hampered by the increasing number of carts and travelers on foot running away in a panic.
By the time they were far to the north of the Mabe Prairie and within sight of the city, they were forced into a slow canter. The roads were choked with people, and many were cutting through fields, emptying the heart of Hyrule like rats off a sinking ship. Voices of children and panicked mothers did not help Link feel safer or more competent.
Mabe Prairie, he thought, looking south. Over those hills, surely his mother and his people would have seen the doom at hand.
He hoped she'd leave a note about her destination when she ran, and swallowed tears at the thought he might never see her again.
His heart ached. What comfort they could call out to the people who recognized them, or who asked for it, was brief and not very heartfelt, and everyone knew it.
They made it to the walls of Hyrule Castle Town in the early hours of dawn, though there was no sun to confirm it. The storm had spread beyond the horizon now, casting deep shadows and the occasional red glow that made the world hellish and somber.
The roads around the city were packed with people, carts and animals. It seemed everywhere Link looked, all he could see were panicked faces. The crowd would cry out with every crack of thunder, cower and weep with every bolt of lightning.
The guards at the gates were, to their immense credit, vying for order. They were loudly shouting commands to help the evacuation, pushing carts if they got stuck in the mud, gesturing to one another if they needed help.
But it was just a matter of time, Link knew, before they also began to fear for their families and their friends. It was beginning to show in their eyes, in the tension of their shoulders. Fear was more contagious than any disease.
Fighting against the living tide, Link slowed his horse to a walk and forced his way through. It was difficult, though, and dangerous. Children and mothers cried, holding hands, visible only at the last second, and Courage's general placidity was beginning to wane, replaced with the same anxious, contagious fear.
"Sir Link!" One of the guards cried out, and Link recognized Squire Niko.
Throwing his hand up in acknowledgement, Link motioned to the princess, who was following him closely.
Catching his meaning, Niko turned to the others and shouted, "Make way!"
"Make way," Link cried out as well, as a confused crowd of Hylians lost track of what direction they were trying to go. "Make way for the princess!"
The crowd only vaguely loosened, but Link was nevertheless relieved to make it through. As soon as they were through the press of the masses on the other side, he spotted Niko, who had squeezed into the people to catch up with him.
"Sir Link," Niko said, evidently exhausted. "Sir Groose is up in the gatehouses, Sir."
"Thank you, Niko," Link said. He glanced at Zelda, who looked utterly worn down. They had not had a single wink of sleep, and ridden hard for hours just to make it back. She was already out of resources, physically and emotionally. That would not inspire trust, either from the guards at the gate or the people fleeing. Turning back to Niko, he said, "Don't forget to help your mother, squire."
Catching Link's meaningful look, Niko frowned in worry. But he straightened and said, "When the work's done, Sir. I will."
Brave Niko, Link thought, conflicted, as the squire stubbornly returned to his post by the gates. Ever in service of his people and country. Foolish boy, ever in search of glory and valour. Link wondered whether the ache in his heart was due to how much he understood.
"We must go," Zelda softly said.
It was the first time she'd spoken in hours, but judging by the fatigue in her eyes, Link knew it was mostly because she had no choice. She would soon collapse with exhaustion.
So, casting one last look at Niko, whose dark-haired head was now vanishing back into the mêlée, Link clucked his tongue at Courage and forged onward down the street.
The town was a mess. Signs of looting were evident, as were small, contained fires. They picked their way only through the main streets, with Link occasionally warning for the last minute runners to move aside.
How quickly order faded, he reflected, reaching the town square and its large fountain. The town square was mostly deserted, and from here he could finally truly appreciate the massive size of the Sheikah pillars. It seemed they rose higher than most of Hyrule Castle's towers.
Calamity Ganon, though, was nowhere to be seen. Briefly, Link wondered whether that was good or not.
"Where is it?" He asked, turning to Zelda, but she was looking for the same thing, and had no answers.
They pushed northward across the bridge to the Castle gate, finding the grounds deserted of all but military staff. No one had bothered shutting the gate, let alone lifting any drawbridges. The catastrophe was coming from within, after all.
There were wounded men. To the west, a rampart had collapsed, exposing the coarse stonework at the heart of the protective wall. To the south, against the outer wall, off the paved road, men were lying on makeshift cots, either wounded or in the deep sleep of death.
"Are they―" Zelda's voice hitched, and a hand went up to her mouth.
"Come on," Link said, reaching over to Wisdom's bridle and urging Zelda's horse forward with a soft jerk. "No need to dwell."
"How could this happen?" Zelda murmured, though she did not fight his guiding her away. Several physicians were kneeling by the bodies, removing unnecessary armour, and a priest of the Temple was painting triangular marks on their foreheads, mumbling under his breath. "How could―"
"They were soldiers," Link said, gravely. "This was always a possible fate for us."
Her eyes flew to his instinctively, the protest dying on her lips as she remembered how she couldn't bear to look at him. Averting her eyes, she said nothing, and a deep flush of shame came over her, making Link even more miserable.
The cry rose from the first Gatehouse, and was followed by a sudden chorus of excited shouts. Through the guttering of torches and lanterns, Link was surprised to see a large part of the Order of the Guard and the Royal Guard had established a command post in the major outbuildings. He recognized several of his Sheikah, and still more of his Hylians.
He hadn't expected to feel so heartened by the sight of them.
"It's Sir Link!" The alarm rang out, spreading like gossip at market, and before long Link found himself surrounded by his men and women, all of whom had clearly been deprived of precious sleep.
Dismounting, he handed Courage's reins off to one of the remaining squires, then reached up to Zelda to help her down.
She hesitated, then accepted, though Link suspected she was mostly concerned with appearances. Their tacit agreement, apparently, would be to wait until after they'd dealt with Calamity Ganon to hash out the entirety of the awkwardness between them.
The sight of Zelda had a ripple effect among the guards. Smiles widened, looks of relief were exchanged.
And Link realized they believed the worst had passed.
As though concluding the same for herself, Zelda straightened, desperate to project confidence. Overhead, lightning flashed once more, and the gatehouse went silent in anticipation of the thunder that followed, so deep it seemed to shake the Castle's foundations. Somewhere, a horse whinnied in fear.
Rather than allow anyone to begin asking Zelda questions she would be unable to answer, Link turned to the nearest shadow ― Lakna Jeem, ever straight-faced and dutiful ― and asked, "Sir Groose― Where is he?"
"In the second gatehouse," Lakna replied, gesturing to the wide doors across the room. "But you should know, Sir..." The Sheikah hesitated, then exchanged glances with Sir Jakamar, who, evidently exhausted, was covered in a dark liquid that could have been blood, mud or slime, and added, "You should be careful. There is a substance on the road that is highly dangerous."
"A substance?" Link echoed, noticing Zelda's frown.
"Some sort of ooze," Sir Jakamar said, looking haunted. "A little of it merely stings like a burn." He tried wiping the ooze marks on his face with a sleeve and winced. "But sticking a foot or a hand in it is agony."
"And it's toxic in large quantities, Sir," Lakna added, urgently. "We've lost two men to the stuff already."
"Is the path completely blocked off?" Zelda asked, all trace of self-doubt carefully effaced behind confident focus.
"No, your highness," Sir Jakamar replied, wearily. "But it's spreading. The road may be blocked ere long."
"Well, then," Zelda said, glancing at Link. "We mustn't dally."
Link's chest squeezed. He hated this. He hated being caught unawares, and he hated feeling like he was standing in the path of a tidal wave he could not avoid, a storm that would seize their lives― And he hated that she was there with him.
"Zelda," he whispered, when they were out the doors and facing up the road to the second Gatehouse. "You shouldn't be here."
"Where else should I be?" She asked, resolutely, and turned to him with a green fire in her eyes that constricted his throat.
"Safe," he croaked. His eyes traveled the paved road ahead of them and saw the deep, blood-coloured ooze that coated it. It stung, they'd said. And was toxic.
They'd failed to mention the smell.
"I don't know what awaits us," Link said, as she began picking her way through rubble and malicious-looking ooze. "And I'm afraid I won't be able to protect you."
She did not look back at him, so he was forced to follow along, hating it all the while. "Sir Link," she said, "you and the other Champions are Hyrule's best hope. I dare say―" she glanced over her shoulder, to make sure they were out of hearing range from the Gatehouse sentries, then continued, "No, I dare hope that you will not forget to uphold your knightly vows. In order."
It was her pointed look that made his stomach sink.
He remembered his knightly vows. He had sworn them in order, had been told a long time ago― an age ago, it seemed, in a time of sunlight and hope ― that there was a priority to them.
Destroy Ganon. Protect the incarnation of the Goddess. Combat any and all agents of the Calamity.
Zelda caught the memory in his eyes, because she let out a single huff of sad triumph. She remembered too. Destroying Ganon came first.
And Impa ― kind, naïve, ruthless Impa ― had once told him that there was no way those vows would ever conflict.
Link felt a mix of hopelessness and fury churn within him.
Ahead of him, Zelda picked her way around puddles of ooze, and Link wanted to reach out, grab her hand, pull her back to him, beg her to leave. Foolishly. Naïvely. Lovesick.
"Maybe," she said, unaware of the torment inside him, "facing Ganon will awaken them," she said, softly, without looking back at him.
Of course. Maybe. But Link had too often seen his hopes disappointed to put much stock in her new theory. "Zelda..."
"Princess," she murmured.
The reminder was like a vise, squeezing at his innards, drowning his voice. He couldn't even force the word out, too choked with helpless rage to remember what he wanted to say.
The doors to the second Gatehouse swung open, and they were hailed by Sir Groose himself.
His second-in-command looked terrible, Link realized as he got closer. Unshaven and unkempt, with dark circles of exhaustion under his eyes, Groose looked like he hadn't had a proper moment of rest in a long while. But he wore his full armour and his cleanest tabard, and the set of his jaw had the stubborn line of one who was refusing the call of fatigue through sheer force of will.
When he spoke, though, there was no denying the relief in his voice. "Commander," he said, "you're fashionably late."
It was a weak attempt at humour, but Link forced himself to smile anyway. "I was sidetracked."
Groose nodded, and Link realized he had to be impossibly tired if he wasn't even forcing a smile of his own. "I am very glad you're here," the giant said, earnestly. He bowed to Zelda, slowly, and motioned to the command table he'd set up in the middle of the Gatehouse, among the bedrolls and armour racks. "It's a mess out there."
"And I'm sure Kah Maag will be glad to summarize," Link said, clapping his shoulder. "You are relieved for now. Get a wink of sleep. I will rouse you when you're needed." Instinctively, his eyes swept across the room, seeking the Sheikah sergeant.
Groose shook his head, and he lowered his voice. "Kah Maag is dead. A hallway collapsed while we were evacuating―"
The horror on Zelda's face was unmistakable. "Oh, Groose―I'm so sorry." Her eyes widened, and she swallowed hard, holding a hand flat against her chest, right under her breast. "... My father― Is he―?"
"No sign of the king," Groose said. "We couldn't reach him in time. There are knights missing, though, who could be with him now, on the other side of the Castle. We're having a hell of a time making our way through the grounds, on account of the Malice and the lightning strikes. It's like the storm itself is sentient―"
"Groose," Link said, firmly, "get some sleep."
"No," Groose said, as more members of the Order of the Guard and the Royal Guard assembled around them, at a respectful distance, hope and relief evident on their faces at the sight of Link and their Princess. "No," he said again, turning to Zelda, "we are ready, Princess. Ready for the counteroffensive. Say the word, and we will breach the Castle."
"Not yet," Zelda said, softly. "We must wait for the Champions and the Divine Beasts." She reached out and touched his arm gently. "Truly, Sir Groose. Get some rest. They will not get here before night, at the very least. We will wake you when the time comes."
Deflating completely, Groose's demeanour relaxed utterly, and he suddenly looked like a crumpled version of himself. "Very well, Princess," he said, muted. "I will provide my commander with a debrief, and I will get myself a bedroll."
Pleased, Zelda nodded. Groose pulled Link away from the crowd that suddenly swarmed her with excitement and cheer, and Link saw her expression take on that fixed quality that told him she was bracing herself.
"Commander," Groose said, running a hand through his rumpled hair. "Are you ready?" His eyes slid to the Princess meaningfully, the question burning in Groose's golden eyes. "Is she ready?"
Link reached out to place a hand on Groose's shoulder, and forced a smile. "We will make do."
Groose stared at him blankly, then turned his back to the rest of the room, and Link saw his lip quiver. But he didn't comment on Link's admission. Instead, the red giant straightened his shoulders, set his jaw, puffed out his chest, and fixed Link with a look that was both cool and composed, in dire contrast with his state of disheveled exhaustion.
"Alright," he said, and Link wondered whether he heard or merely imagined the note of defeat in his voice. "Very good. Glad to hear it." He cast a glance at the men and women in the Gatehouse, those who crowded the Princess or who silently made their preparations for battle, and his eyes grew bright. He pressed his lips together.
And Link feared he would command them all to leave. It was the right thing to do, of course. The sane thing to do. There was very little chance of victory on the horizon for them. Keeping them here was heroic, valorous, useful, and wrong.
Sir Groose evidently wrestled with this truth in pained silence, and Link did not dare to interject.
At last, after a minute of tortured reflection, Sir Groose turned back to him and said, his voice small, "Don't get started without me."
Then, fighting against the shame of his decision, he headed for a neatly folded bedroll and did not tell the Guards of their impending doom.
If they lived through this, Link thought, with the same pained sorrow, he would make Sir Groose commander of the Order. No man or woman in Hyrule cared for his own as Groose evidently did. Link cared, of course, but he'd been so focused on Zelda, so preoccupied by Ganon and disaster― he was unworthy of blind loyalty.
It was as he reflected on this that a powerful roar was heard. Flinching, heart suddenly racing, Link returned to the center of the Gatehouse, even as Zelda's eyes found his.
"Don't you mind those," Shee Kasho, one of the shorter Sheikah shadows, said. Those around them had only barely reacted, as though they'd grown used to the reverberating howls coming from far above them. "The columns are holding the Calamity back, and it's not happy about it."
"Where is the Calamity?" Zelda asked, her brow furrowed in concern. "We didn't see it on the way up."
The others exchanged looks. Eventually, Sir Linebeck ― who had never looked this sober or this miserable about it ― shrugged his sloped shoulders. "It comes and goes, your highness. Last we saw it was sometime before dawn." The knight's eyes went to the high windows, through which they could all see that the thickly clouded skies had only just lightened a little. "Maybe it doesn't like the light."
"Would explain the storm clouds," one of the other Sheikah said, as his fellows grumbled speculatively.
"Where is she?" A sudden voice cried out, and both Link and Zelda were startled to recognize it instantly.
Purah, though she was tiny, had nevertheless cut a swathe through the crowd, her arms outstretched to immediately embrace Zelda's waist.
"Oh," she exclaimed, fondly, "there you are. I am so happy to see you!"
"Purah," Zelda said, stunned, "what are you doing here?" She glanced at the improvised barracks around her and the numerous fighters. "You can't fight―"
The Sheikah woman pulled back, scowling. "Oh, and did you think I wouldn't do my part?" She leaned in emphatically. "The Guardians. Someone has to activate them." She crossed her arms and looked up at them both smugly. "Or had you forgotten?"
"I hadn't," Zelda said, smiling softly. "Although I confess I had other things on my mind."
"Well, don't you worry, little princess," Purah said. "As soon as we're done waking them all up, we'll be out of your way." She, too, glanced upwards towards the windows. "I sure hope Ganon doesn't attack in full force before a while. He's gathering his power."
Zelda took a deep breath, evidently aware that the eyes of everyone in the Gatehouse were on her. "We'll take him on," she said, as some of the knights cheered. "As soon as the Divine Beasts arrive."
And Link swallowed his guilt, glancing at Groose's sleeping form.
The wait was unbearable. Zelda was offered a cot to rest, and she eventually fell asleep despite her best efforts, the night of riding and the lies catching up to her.
Link, though, couldn't find a wink of sleep. He'd tried, but he'd found himself staring at the ceiling. Outside, a change in the wind had begun pushing back against the storm clouds, and by noon some sunlight finally shone through the windows, which seemed to increase the spirits of the guards, knights and shadows even more. But he couldn't see hope in it. He knew the beast was biding its time.
So instead he'd found refuge on the second floor, sitting on a parapet that looked northward, to the Castle itself.
How had it come to this? How could things have changed so much, so quickly?
Last week they'd watched a hanging. He'd danced with Zelda. Now he didn't even dare approach the keep, couldn't even speak a word to the princess that wasn't about the immediate task at hand.
Overhead, the skies churned.
The cry rose up sometime in the early afternoon: Vah Medoh was on the horizon, and Vah Ruta had just emerged from the Hylia River.
Link had never been so relieved to see Revali, nor so comforted to see Mipha. The two Champions found their way to the Gatehouse sometime later, to the rising cheers of all those garrisoned in wait. Zelda and Groose, who had both woken up by then, welcomed them warmly.
Link, though, didn't move from his perch.
A few hours later, Vah Rudania parked on the edge of the Castle's Hill, on the cliff by the Gatehouse, its thick claws anchoring it to the side of the mountain, and Daruk was welcomed with the same warmth and candour as the other two Champions.
Only Vah Naboris was missing, now. One of the lookouts claimed to see a thick dust cloud rising from the south, though the giant camel beast was arguably the slowest. By rough estimations, it would arrive by suppertime.
Link forced himself to swallow a tankard of light ale and a thick piece of day-old bread. It sat heavily in his stomach.
"This is the worst part, isn't it?" Revali suddenly said, next to him.
Link turned, seeing both Revali and Daruk had climbed the steps to join him on the parapet. Together, they turned north, craning their necks up to look at the castle's spires.
"The quiet before the battle," Daruk said, gravely. "I never could stand it myself."
"It's too quiet," Revali said, sourly. "And those knights down there," he glanced down through the windows at the quiet, optimistic garrison, "are too happy."
Link glanced back as well, then said, as quietly as he could, "They don't know."
Daruk's eyes narrowed in understanding, but he said nothing. He, too, looked down at their princess, who was bravely keeping a mask of careful serenity on her face. "Poor little princess."
"Poor little us," Revali corrected him, and Link was inclined to agree. "No one will commiserate. It's our lives on the line, too."
"The whole kingdom is at stake," Link said. "Our friends, our comrades… our families."
Daruk clapped him powerfully on the shoulder, and Link nearly toppled forward, over the parapet. "Don't you worry about your mother, kid. She's fierce as a dodongo, that one, and smarter than old Darunia himself. She'll hold down the fort."
Or die trying. Link took a deep breath. "I know, Daruk."
"For what it's worth," Revali said, "I'm glad we could make it on time."
"Aye," Daruk agreed. He strode over to the western side of the Gatehouse and squinted at the horizon. "And if my eyes don't deceive me, that's our last Champion valiantly riding over the hill."
Vah Naboris was stomping across Hyrule Field with painstaking precision, the power it radiated making up for its slowness. Its arrival was heralded by more cheering, but Link noticed only perfunctory smiles on the faces of his fellow Champions.
When at last Urbosa made it to the Gatehouse, obviously exhausted, the sun was already beginning to set once more. Calamity Ganon had been in the world for one full day, and while Hyrule had marshalled its strength, Link did not doubt the Calamity had, as well.
They were about to go down the steps to join the rest of the assembly when a tremor rose from deep within Hyrule Castle, and a thick furl of clouds swirled up from the moats, the grounds and the trenches. It swirled around the Castle at unnatural speed, as though animated by more than just the forces of the world.
Turning, Link looked westward, even as a hissing growl began to sound.
And he saw the Calamity for the first time.
Massive didn't begin to describe it. The demon was a pulsating mass of smoke and ooze, its snout covering massive tusks. Its horns were merely swirls of smoke, but they gave Ganon a look so unholy that Link froze in terror.
Like a snake coiling around its prey, Calamity Ganon undulated, its head alone as large as the building where Link and his comrades were hiding, and raced around Hyrule Castle with otherworldly ease. It curled around the Gatehouse, casting thick smoke into their faces, and cries rose from within the building.
And then Link saw it from up close, its angry yellow eyes shining in the face of a demon so vast, so unimaginably evil, that it made Link recoil in amazement and horror. Its presence alone was so wrong, so contrary to order and good― that for a split second all Link could genuinely feel was pure, unadulterated rage.
The fury boiled from deep within, from the wolf and the warrior, from something that had called the Master Sword, from the very essence of Link's being, and he clenched his teeth, too stunned by his anger to properly articulate what he felt.
How dare you return to this land?
The question came not from Link's mind, but from his heart, and seemed to echo directly in the Master Sword. In its scabbard, the blade had begun to glow a blinding blue, as though pulsating with indignation and determination. Not for the first time, Link feared the Sword was alive.
And if it was, then they were in perfect agreement.
The Calamity roared, the sound so powerful it shook the ground beneath their feet. It continued on its path, curling upwards around the keep, then up its spire, and once it reached the apex of the Sanctum's tower, it slowed, curling upon itself in preparation for a greater roar still.
And that roar was deeper. Lightning struck, and the thunder melded with the growl to deafen them. Link could feel it in his bones.
And then the Calamity began to splinter.
Like fireworks, its tail began to break apart, bright fragments of evil exploding away from the demon, trails of dark smoke in their wake. As though propelled with a mind of their own, the myriad balls of evil flew upward and outward and began to land all over the grounds.
And into the sleeping Guardians Purah had just finished preparing.
Link didn't have time to cry a warning. A Sheikah scientist that had just finished working on a reticulated leg was surprised to see it suddenly start moving. Turning to the Guardian's body, he was suddenly blasted with a burst of deep red energy― and killed.
The Guardians were alive― and they were not on their side.
When the Calamity roared now, all Link could hear was triumph. Four more orbs of malice suddenly exploded out of Ganon, these much larger than before, and if Link could trust his gut, much meaner, too.
Link wasn't sure whether the exclamation had come from him, or from Revali, at his side, but they both lurched forward in horror when the orb landed squarely into Vah Medoh's flank― and the gentle blue glow that had ever been a sign of Sheikah efficiency turned a red so bright it was pink.
"No!" Revali cried again, as Medoh began to move on its own. "That Divine Beast is mine!"
With a sudden flap of his wings, Revali pushed himself into the skies, sending a cloud of dust and sand into Link's face.
But Revali was already gone, zipping towards his Divine Beast with the single-minded determination that had made him the best archer in Hyrule.
By the time Link turned around, he realized Daruk was already gone, rolling down the steps rather than taking them one by one. Urbosa, who had only just arrived, was cursing up a storm as she retrieved her sword and shield.
"Link!" Zelda found him and grabbed his sleeve. Her eyes were wide and her face pale. "Ganon―"
"I'll be right back," Urbosa said, returning hastily. She pressed a kiss to Zelda's forehead. "Damned Ganon won't have Naboris without a fight."
It was chaos in the barracks. At the door, Purah was having a meltdown even as Sir Osfala forced the doors closed and barricaded them to shield them all from the newly activated Guardians.
And then Link felt a familiar glow climb up his arm. Turning, he saw Mipha, her eyes filled with a concern he couldn't decipher.
Her clawed hand rose up to his face, and Link was suddenly afraid.
"Mipha…" He breathed.
Her eyes darted from him to Zelda, who was still clinging to his sleeve in a daze, then returned to him with a gentle, resolute resignation. "Wish me luck, Champion of Hylia."
"It will take more than luck to take you down," he said, fiercely, and Mipha smiled.
"It's love we need," she said, firmly. "Don't ever forget that. Love, Link."
"What?" Link said, dumbly. But it was too late, Vah Ruta was trumpeting with rage, and Mipha had already turned on her heel to leave.
"Mipha, what do you mean?" He cried after her, but she didn't hear him.
"Link," Zelda suddenly interrupted, having snapped out of her shock. She was shaking like a leaf, but her eyes had a wildness to them that was either a fever or a desperate plan. "We have to go. We can't wait any longer."
"The Guardians are heading towards town!" One of the watchers exclaimed, the panic in his voice rising.
"Groose," Link cried out, as a mad scramble began among the knights. "Groose― Take your men and head to the city. We have to protect the people, as many of them as we can! Evacuate the city!"
As Zelda was getting changed into her prayer dress, behind an abandoned screen, Link grabbed Groose's forearm, and the two men looked at one another. A quiet understanding passed between them ― they'd been squires together, had grown into being friends, comrades, and builders of an Order that would either survive or die with them.
"Kindness," Groose said, "courage, patience."
Link nodded curtly, and the two knights embraced with a clap. Then, without any time for further discussion, Groose raised his voice and called the attention of all those who were present.
And Link, taking Zelda's hand firmly in his own, slipped out the other door.
The guardians had deserted the grounds to attack the city, and already distant cries of horror were rising from town, along with plumes of smoke from fires. It made moving much easier ― all they had to do was dodge the malicious ooze on the road.
Zelda followed behind him, breathless.
"We need to get higher," Zelda said. "Somewhere we can fight him."
Link nodded. He knew exactly where they had to go, and his eyes remained fixed on the winding path that would lead them straight to the place where their fate would be decided.
Hyrule Castle Sanctum.