The doors to the Sanctum had been blown open from the inside, and they hung, defeated, on broken hinges. As Link and Zelda crossed the deserted bridge towards Hyrule Castle's tallest, grandest building, they paused.
The doors, in their prime, had been constructs of metal and elder wood, built tall and thick to withstand the last stretch of a desperate siege. Opening and closing them required the combined efforts of half a dozen men.
They lay now in broken state, the stone and metalwork that had held them upright for five hundred years splintered, fractured, so that the entrance to the Sanctum gaped open like a mangled maw.
Overhead, the Calamity's smoke form had once again evaporated into thin air, but Link knew, trusting the wild thing deep in his heart, that they were only growing closer to the demon. Behind them, the Divine Beasts were roaring, jerking erratically. The city was ablaze.
But Zelda's hand reached for his, small and cold, the Master Sword glowed ominously, and Link felt a tiny twinge of courage ignite inside him.
It was only during a lull of the battles raging all around that they actually heard something from within: the clanging sounds of a sword fight.
"Stay behind me," Link commanded, in a tone that brokered no argument. Zelda nodded, though he suspected she had no intention of running ahead of him to begin with.
Overhead, the storm churned, dark and low, and it emitted a near constant rumble of thunder. The very air seemed thick with fear and electricity. So Link tightened his hold on the Sword, and he ventured into the open, dark doorway.
The Sanctum had once been a place of light and celebration. He knew it well ― they'd danced here, he'd been knighted here, and court was held here, presided from the King's high throne. On the north side, below the high windows, the crest of the goddesses had been made of gold and steel. The notes of an ancient melody had been delicately placed all around it, echoing a written score. It was a grandiose place, vast and beautiful, with tapestries and thick carpets in such a deep, rich red that Link had often wondered how much they'd cost to dye.
He'd dreamed of this place all his life, had dreamed of being knighted in the grand hall along with his father, had dreamed of dancing again with his princess― had dreamed of one day sitting at her side on the high dais, had dreamed― he'd dreamed.
So when he saw the red stain on the polished tiles to his right, he knew it didn't belong.
He froze, and Zelda with him.
High Priest Auru had apparently experienced a gruesome death. He had always been a ponderous old man, animated with a desire to honour his gods methodically. But he'd also been kind, in his own undemonstrative way. Link could remember the religious services he would host on holy days for the children of Hyrule, could remember his benevolent smile when they gave away the holy cakes, could remember him taking a patient interest in his childish ramblings when his parents had taken him along for knightly events.
But there would be no more benevolent smiles for High Priest Auru. His pure white robes were stained dark brown by his blood, his body slumped against the wall, his eyes staring blindly into the void. The back of his head had been crushed against the stone, no doubt ending his life immediately.
He was holding a small book of prayers. Its pages were wrinkled with dried blood.
"Oh―" Zelda wept, striding over to her old mentor, the man she'd danced with on the days of Wisdom, the man who had taught her all the mantras and all the mudras. "Oh, Auru―"
She seemed unable to decide where to touch him, could not bring herself to disturb his final rest. Tears came to her eyes, and she raised her gaze away from the gruesome sight, choking back the sorrow, and she froze.
As Link followed her gaze, he saw the bloodied writing on the wall above the priest's head. Ideograms had been scrawled painstakingly and methodically above the corpse, then dried there.
"What letters are those?" He asked, knowing that she would be better educated on the matter and otherwise unable to ignore the tightening in his throat.
She shook her head, and when she spoke her voice was raw. "I―" She frowned. "Those are Hylian. Very old Hylian." She inhaled, and looked back down at her mentor's body. "I don't understand. They aren't used anymore. We use a simplified system now― this sort of lettering is at least a thousand years old."
"Can you read it?" Link asked.
She looked up once more, forcing herself to focus on the writing. "I― not all of it. Something about misplaced piety." She pointed to a symbol that was far more complex than any Link had ever learned. "And that― It's a verb tense. A form of imperative, but a daunting one. It's a dare, I think." She pushed herself to her knees, motioning the holy triangle over herself in respect for High Priest Auru. "There are other ideograms I can't decipher, but these…" She swallowed hard, sniffling back tears. "Those are names. Notice the underscore? That one reads― Rin…ku―"
"Link," Link said, with a sinking feeling. "It reads Link." The beast inside was growling, and the knowledge came unbidden. "And the other reads Zelda." There was only one thing in Hyrule right now that had existed a thousand years ago, that would use those symbols to begin with. He turned on himself, away from Zelda and the wall and the dead priest, gazing at the vast empty Sanctum as a cold shiver ran down his spine. "We're expected."
She sidled up to him nervously. "You can't possibly know."
He turned back to her with quiet desperation. "Zelda." He studied her face, her lovely face, her brilliant eyes, the tears on her cheeks. "Zelda, please, you have to go. Before it's too late."
Before she suffered the same fate as the priest. Link wouldn't― couldn't― withstand it.
She didn't have time to respond. The echoes of fighting resounded loudly now, and Link realized they came from the staircases that led up from the gallery to the circular triforium and the clerestory windows, or perhaps even from the tower.
He unsheathed the Master Sword as a sudden war cry echoed through the hall.
The sharp certainty of getting closer to evil was now undeniable. He pulled Zelda behind him, though he wanted her to run― and run away with her. Together, they hurried along the covered right aisle, staying close to the wall, and raced up the stairs to the dais.
"Not now," he whispered, tightening his hold on her hand. He was looking for signs of danger, though his senses screamed that he was in it already. "I can't tell where―"
The clanging of swords rang out more, and with it the grunts of effort of two fighters. They turned, climbing up the staircase from the dais to the gallery, and saw the two fighters on the stairs leading up from the gallery towards the triforium.
"Link, I know that voice―"
Link did too, now that he saw the two fighters.
King Rhoam's ceremonial sword had lost several jewels, but was no less radiant. It caught the light of the setting sun at a sharp angle and then it swung into the less impressive dark sword in Chancellor Cole's grip.
In any other setting, the sight of massive, imposing King Rhoam Bosphoramus struggling against the wailing strikes of a man much smaller and shorter would have been risible. But Chancellor Cole was not himself. The diminutive man was animated by some sort of otherworldly strength and determination. He was hacking and slashing at his king's weakening defence, unfaltering.
Judging by the many cuts on King Rhoam's clothes and the blood covering his face, they'd been at it for a while. Much longer than duels of the sort tended to last. It was obvious King Rhoam had only survived this long because he was much larger and stronger than his assailant.
"Father―!" Zelda cried out, though she was not overheard.
"Stay here," Link commanded. "Run if I tell you to."
As Chancellor Cole raised his sword with both hands, his face deformed with a sort of mad malice, Link slipped in front of King Rhoam and raised the Master Sword in a desperate attempt to brace. Behind him, King Rhoam faltered, caught off guard by the interruption, and he stumbled backwards.
Chancellor Cole's blow landed and rattled Link's teeth. There was no way this was the man's natural strength― it couldn't be.
And if it was, then King Rhoam was an even better fighter than Link had surmised.
Startled, the Chancellor finally seemed to notice Link and his interference. But instead of being intimidated by suddenly facing two armed fighters, his mouth curled into a smirk.
"You." He watched hungrily as Link stepped back, trying to shake off the force of the blow he'd just absorbed. "I was wondering when you'd show up."
Link had recognized King Rhoam's voice by his grunts of effort, but this voice― this guttural sound― was foreign to its host. The words were certainly the Chancellor's, but the tones speaking them weren't the Chancellor's usual crowings. This voice was deeper, older, and familiar in a way Link daren't identify.
"What's the matter?" The Chancellor asked, stepping forward and forcing Link back.
He had to focus. The small man's blows were dealt with unbelievable strength, enough to easily kill the princess if he decided to switch his attacks to her. Link would have to be careful and keep his attention.
But the Chancellor was fascinated. "Don't you recognize me?"
"Chancellor Cole," Link growled, "drop your sword at once."
"As I already told your pathetic king," the Chancellor said, with a pained wince skyward, "I'm not keen on that title. Your Grace would do. Or better still," his face twitched into a terrifying grin. "Your most holy of gods."
There are no gods here, Link thought to himself, forcing himself to remain grounded. "Cole― drop your sword."
The Chancellor did not take the command well. His face was deformed by sudden rage. "You don't recognize me at all, do you? By all the devils in the Dark Realm, can it truly be you've forgotten me?" His eyes flared red, and his hair seemed to flicker, as though it were made of red fire, until Link doubted his own senses. "My vassal warned me, of course― He said you were deaf, blind and stupid. He let me walk about in his body, and none of you saw it. Especially not you―"
The Chancellor's eyes moved from Link to Zelda, over his shoulder, and Link's stomach sank.
"I paraded myself in front of you― and that stupid, blind priest, and no one noticed!" The rage melted off of the small man's face, and a dark, pleased amusement took its place. "And even now, you look upon me with confusion. Hyrule is as defenseless as a babe before me. I suppose I should thank you, for paving the way for what comes next."
Zelda was speechless, clinging to her father's prostrate form. The king was evidently out of resources, too tired to fight back.
She was defenseless. Link had to protect her.
He swung, putting all of his strength and rage into the attack.
But the Chancellor blocked it effortlessly.
"Stupid little hero―" He said, the guttural voice calling to the beast inside of Link. "So unprepared. So weak." Then, to prove his point, the Chancellor swung, and Link braced against it. The blow emptied his lungs and his feet slid backward an inch.
By all the gods, where was this strength coming from?
"I watched you scurry about after my Yiga worshippers," the man said, the amusement unmistakeable. "And I watched you drag yourself from fountain puddle to fountain puddle, praying on a Goddess that has forsaken you… And the whole time, I was right here. Right…" He lifted his sword, the pitying smile unbearable to look at― "Here."
The sword came down and Link gritted his teeth. Under him, the polished tiles cracked with the force of the blow.
"You're― Ganon," Zelda finally managed, her voice as steady as she could make it, though Link heard the tremor and the fear.
The Chancellor nodded once with a dignity that he'd never exhibited before "Yes, at last. For the first time ― and the only one, you foolish girl."
"Her name," Link growled, "is Princess Zelda, heir to the throne of Hyrule, incarnation of Hylia."
"Of course," the Chancellor mocked. He turned, movements unnaturally smooth, to Zelda, who was now holding her own father up. The giant man was in worse shape than he had looked, and Link wanted to order them both out of the Sanctum. "And yes, my dear Zelda, I am Ganon. Or, at least, that is one of my many names. I adopted this mortal form to better study you both." He smiled kindly, the expression utterly alien on the Chancellor's face, and terrifying in contrast with his glowing red gaze. "And you know what?"
Neither Zelda nor Link replied, which Ganon took as an invitation to continue.
"I realized you can't stop me," he said, lightly, the smile deepening in a way that made Link's blood run cold. "So I thought to myself, why, isn't that―" He gestured the throne behind Zelda and Rhoam, "―a lovely chair for a god?"
"You're no god" Zelda said, defiant. "You'll lose. You always do. What god would lose to mortals?"
"Shut up!" Cole's possessed body shouted, the sound like a roar that made the Castle shake to its foundations. In a fit of rage, his arm swung upward, and the right stairwell behind him, the one that led up to the triforium, began to crumble upon itself, the ceiling collapsing and blocking the way.
The dust and rocks from the collapse made Link step back, bracing himself. And Zelda yelped as her father finally fell to his knees, struggling to remain conscious.
But Ganon wasn't finished. "You're right," he said, much more quietly. "I cannot be king if there is another king." He smiled and raised a hand, fingers spread. "It's obvious now that you say it."
The urgency in Link's heart flared. "Zelda― run!"
But Zelda, paralyzed, didn't run. Link pushed himself to his feet, tried to race to her side.
Ganon was quicker. With a single flick of the wrist, both Zelda and her father were thrown backwards, down the stairs towards the dais.
"Oh, no, little hero," Ganon rumbled, amused. "You don't get the damsel this time." The sword stabbed forward and Link dodged by a hair, inhaling sharply. The Chancellor had effectively halted his race, forced him to face the enemy. "I was there on the day of your knighthood." He smiled in fond recollection. "Oh, the promises you made. Do you remember them, I wonder?"
The growl that came out of Link's throat was that of a wild animal, animated by hate that transcended time.
Ganon noticed the change with pleased calm. "Ah, yes. Now we meet again."
Behind Link, Zelda was pushing herself back up to her feet. The king, for his part, was evidently dizzy, trying to find his bearings. The princess helped him up.
"Father, run," she pleaded. "Please."
"No one," Ganon said, raising his voice, "is running anywhere."
And then, before Link could do anything, King Rhoam was flying backwards, over his deceased wife's throne, and into his own throne, pushed by an unseen force of such power that even from where Link stood, he could feel the air being displaced. The force of the slam was enough to send the elaborate King's chair tumbling, and the King landed in a heap. He hadn't even cried out. The broken throne collapsed. The King grunted, but did not get up.
"I am always astonished," the Chancellor was saying, although now that Link turned to look at him, he was changing, growing taller, and his features were broadening, growing more menacing, "by how much you both care." His voice was deeper still. "You don't see the waste in it. You never have, really."
Zelda had rushed over to her father, and was desperately trying to turn him over, the rubble and wooden splinters dusting them both up. Link planted himself firmly in front of the stairs to cut the Chancellor off, though now the man seemed less and less like the Chancellor, and more and more like something achingly primeval ― and familiar.
"Over and over again," the changing Chancellor said, his shoulders broadening, his stride becoming stronger. His face was utterly transformed. "An endless, unforgiving cycle."
"Link, he needs help!" Zelda cried, the growing desperation giving her voice a new, terrified edge. "He's bleeding― Oh, Papa―"
"And you," Ganon was saying, as the Chancellor's too-small clothes began to tear, and a dark-scaled mountain of muscles began to break through, "always standing here." He paused, managed a rictus of amusement. "Between me and Hylia."
Link tightened his hold on the Master Sword, gritting his teeth. "Forever," he snarled.
Suddenly, Zelda stood, fists at her side. Her eyes were bright with tears. "Ganon― You will pay for this!"
"Oh," Ganon said, feigning mild interest, "is that it? Has he died?"
Lifting a large piece of painted wood that had splintered off of her father's throne ― an ornately carved leg― Zelda strode, grief and fury fueling her attack, back up the stairs.
And Ganon began to laugh. He stood taller, broader, than ever before, and now Link knew they were facing a demon more ancient than any of the histories held in the Castle library. His hair began to grow, flaming red, and his fangs showed as he smiled. "Poor little Princess."
It took all of Link's concentration to stop Zelda from striding any further. In helpless rage, she chucked the wooden leg at Ganon, though the demon barely acknowledged it. Bouncing off the Calamity's aura, it fell to the floor harmlessly. And Zelda clung to Link's arm, sobbing with rage.
"At last," Ganon said. "The King is dead." He turned to grin at them both, and now he seemed to grow even taller. "Long live the Demon King."
"Zelda, run," Link commanded, forcing her to look at him. "Go. Find the others."
"Find the others?" Ganon asked, amused. "Don't be ridiculous. Your Champions will come for you, little hero." He smiled, though the look made him look more ominous than ever. "Why, here they are just now."
As both Link and Zelda turned to look, with growing horror, four constructs of sheer malice, deformed like phantoms or broken imitations of Ganon himself, appeared in the Sanctum.
"What are they dragging―?" Zelda whispered, her breath hitching. Her eyes were wide now, terrified, and as each of the blighted Ganons came forward, her breathing began to speed up and her grip on Link tightened to a vise. "Link― no― that― they can't―"
But they could. As Link watched, numbly, the four blighted monsters extended their spindly arms, and tossed four corpses to the middle of the room. One of scales, one of feathers, one of stone, and one of flesh.
And Link realized the four Divine Beasts had gone silent some time ago, during their fight.
"No―!" The choked sound that came out of Zelda's throat was a tearing cry, a sound of agony and pain so vibrant it pulled Link out of his stupor. She was sobbing in earnest now, the shock too great to handle, and Link himself felt the floor tilt under him, dizzyingly.
"Yes," Ganon said, in a tone that was so hideously pleased that Link immediately thought it was worse, far worse, than the earlier, quiet satisfaction. "Your wonderful Champions. It appears they were not as competent as you might have wished." He motioned happily to the four blights. "I think I've found better pilots for your silly constructs, though. Never fear, they'll keep your friends' ghosts company. But please, take a closer look if you like."
Then, a moment later, must run.
"Come," Link said, grabbing Zelda's hand mechanically. She shook her head, refusing to even look.
Ganon watched them descend the stairs, his delight evident. Link's heart was pounding, but he held on to Zelda's hand as firmly as he could. He forced her to follow him down the stairs, though she was sobbing and fighting him.
The four blights, one-eyed and alien, looked down on them passively; there were no facial expressions Link could discern.
And to the left, behind them, was the staircase down into the Royal Quarters.
Coming upon the Champions, Link paused. Zelda had buried her face into his shoulder, quaking.
"This is where you begin your little speech," Ganon called out behind them. A quick glance, and Link saw the demon had seized the Queen's throne for himself, and was now lounging in the seat far too comfortably, next to the king's motionless body. "You let the rage and self-righteousness fill you, and then you turn to me and you make a grand speech about your forthcoming vengeance." He crossed his legs patiently. "Make sure you really let the moment sink in, though, or you won't be convincing."
Turning away to hide the rage that simmered within, Link brought Zelda's head under his chin, smelled her hair, held her close, as she buried her face into his tunic.
"Zelda," he whispered into her hair, ignoring the way Mipha's sightless eyes looked up at him, and the agony of grief rising within, "Zelda, when I give the signal, run to the stairs."
She pulled away, looked up at him, the question in her eyes barely visible through the tears, and though her brow furrowed a little, she understood. He was sure of it.
But she didn't like it. The sorrow in her, the pain ― she wanted to say no. She wanted to rebel, to refuse, to die at the same altar as her father and her friends.
And Link knew what she felt. He understood. Running was surrender. Running was forfeiting their right to ever be remembered or worse― to be hated forevermore. Running was anathema to courage.
But Urbosa lay dead before them, all the vibrancy and fierce bravado gone from her limp body. And Daruk, strong and optimistic, was nothing but a heap now, and seemed smaller for it. Revali's feathers were ruffled… he'd always been so meticulous about his feathers…
"We will avenge them," he swore, seizing Zelda's face in his hands.
From his throne, Ganon clapped.
"Yes, good, that's a good start," he said, his deep voice filling the Sanctum.
But Zelda didn't look at Ganon. She was looking at Link, her eyes as limpid and bright as shallow waters, as green as spring leaves. Her gaze was darting, full of doubt, and the question she was wordlessly asking pained Link.
Could they really?
Link didn't know. Not with any certainty.
But if they were going to fight, first, she had to live. Even being here was beginning to play with his sanity. It was the most dangerous place for her.
So he took a deep breath, and he turned to Ganon, squeezing her hand to give her what courage he could, and then he released it with a jerk, hoping she'd get moving. "This isn't the end," he swore, mustering the tatters of bravery he could still find within himself. Then, to drive the point home, he took several steps towards the dais, pleased to see the blights and Ganon were looking at him and not at Zelda. "You keep gloating on that throne, and I will keep returning to end you."
Ganon rolled his eyes, growing bored. "This speech again. I was hoping for more…" He inhaled, as though seeking inspiration. "More innovation, I suppose. But you're all the same."
"Does it ever irritate you," Link asked, feeling like he was desperately slipping on thin ice, "how you always end up falling to the forces of the Goddess?" He gestured with the Master Sword. "Or how someone always ends up wielding the Blade of Evil's Bane?" He forced laughter. "I don't know what's more pathetic ― a demon god pining for a mortal throne, or that you keep being defeated."
Ganon took a deep breath, but Link could tell he'd annoyed him. "By the Dark Realm, I keep forgetting how irritating it is to explain myself to each and every one of you, time after time. Sometimes I think I'd be better off not taking a mortal form at all." He pushed himself to his feet, and smirked down at Link from the dais. "It's not the throne I pine for. It's this."
With a sweeping gesture that drew all of the blights' attentions, the demon god turned to the crest of the Triforce hanging in front of the windows, over the throne.
"The Triforce," Ganon said, lovingly. "A beautiful thing. Pure, bright, all-powerful."
The four blights moved up to the dais, as though sharing in their creator's fascination.
"Can you imagine something made of such power that it can give form to the wishes of anyone who touches it?" Ganon said, softly. In the churning glow of the storm and the lightning cut by setting sunlight, he seemed completely mad, his longing only as sweet as the corpses that lay strewn in the room. "A thing of such enduring light, waiting only for me, for the sweet corruption of use?"
It was the last thing Link heard before he began racing down the stairs towards the grand halls of the Royal Quarters.
Not a few seconds later, Ganon's roar of fury seemed to shake the Castle down to its roots once more, and Link felt a prickle of electricity on his skin.
It was a passing satisfaction, Link considered, to know the demon hadn't expected that.
Zelda was in the halls at the base of the stairs, the concern on her face too sweet to bear. But there was no time to waste. Grabbing her by the hand, Link began to run, and she followed.
"YOU CAN RUN," the Calamity warned, its voice booming so powerfully that the very walls shook, and dust fell from the vaulted ceilings, "BUT I WILL FIND YOU, NO MATTER HOW FAR YOU GO, NO MATTER HOW DEEP YOU BURROW."
Link's heart was pounding. Zelda was holding back tears. As they began to race down the spiral staircase towards the main halls, they had to brace against the howling of the demon king.
"I WILL FIND YOU!"
And in that moment, though he ran as fast as his legs could move, Link knew the Calamity was speaking the truth.