As night fell and the last rays of sunlight disappeared behind the cover of the Calamity's storm, rain began to fall.
Behind them, the burning ruins of Hyrule Castle Town started to smoulder. A thick column of smoke was rising, mingling with the clouds. The darkened walls on the High Hill swirled with ominous red malice, and occasionally the Calamity roared with fury at their escape.
Link pressed on, glancing back periodically to ensure Zelda was following along.
She was trudging miserably through the mud and the tall grasses, her robes sullied. In the mess of her braids and loose hair, a sprinkle of droplets shone like diamonds.
Onward, his entire being screamed. Ever onward.
But he kept a slower pace than the urgency in his mind. She had to keep up, and she wouldn't if he urged her to run.
Every so often, she'd turn back too, look back at Hyrule Castle with an undecipherable expression that could have been grief, regret or shame, or all of those. In the dim nightfall, the shapes of the four Divine Beasts stood motionless amidst the storm and the flames, as much a part of Hyrule Castle now as its towers and its pillars. Would the ghosts of their Champions haunt them forever? Link shuddered at the thought and turned resolutely away.
As they painstakingly made their way over field and plain, Link's mind kept circling, ruminating. What paths could they follow now? What ways remained open? It seemed like every door had shut in his face, every window shuttered before he could even locate them. But there had to be a way forward while he still drew breath― surely― surely there was a way forward…
Night fell around them like the rain: damp, dark, gloomy. All Link could think to do was to keep the Hylia river to their left, down the soft incline, where it murkily flowed, dirtied by the ashes of the city and the blood of its people. In the dark, the world seemed utterly without hope ― the trees did not rustle. The grasses did not wave. There was no moonlight, and even the lightning had become sparse.
But they couldn't stop. There was no place for them to hide, no shelter he could provide.
Zelda's sandals squelched in the soft dirt, and his boots sank to the ankle. But she did not complain, and he did not dare interrupt her ruminations with his own. The grasses were soaked; they rubbed at his sides and he was soon drenched. Behind him, Zelda's thick prayer dress was weighed down and miserable looking.
They continued, drained, to follow the river. On his back, the Master Sword felt unbearably heavy, like the weight of his guilt.
There was no telling how long they walked, nor how well they were progressing. Every step felt like an ordeal, every tree looked the same.
In the darkness, Link felt his heart grow and shrink with every pulse. He wanted to cry, he wanted to surrender. He wanted his mother to hold him close. He wanted his father to give him words of comfort.
But he was numb. And on and on he trudged, silently, helplessly.
They came upon the Orsedd ruins hours later. Link recognized the tall thin columns well enough, though they emerged out of the darkness almost by surprise. The road passed between them, trampled into a thick slippery mess of mud. Horses and carriages and people had passed by here, but there were none in sight now, no matter how Link squinted at either end of the road through the rain.
"We must be near the Orsedd bridge," he remarked to Zelda, who stood in silence at the edge of the mud river that the road had become.
She did not reply, though she managed a small, despondent nod.
Together, they followed the road eastward to the river, past a few fields and copses of trees.
In the rain, Link kept his eyes peeled for the light of the bridge keeper's lanterns ― they marked both ends of the bridge in the night to guide travelers. But even as they approached the rushing river, no lights appeared.
And then they came to the broken ruins of the bridge.
It had collapsed at some point recently. The rubble was still fresh, without a single trace of weeds or moss. In the midst of the collapsed support columns and broken paveway, the black waters of the Hylia river boiled and flowed like obsidian, too fast and deep to ford.
It was perhaps a testament to the shock they'd experienced all day and night, but neither Link nor Zelda reacted to this. The Orsedd bridge had once been among the busiest passages into Central Hyrule. It had served as a main trade route with Eldin and Zora's Domain, had once been patrolled by soldiers on their way to or back from the Moor Garrison.
But now, as they stood looking at the rubble, soaked to the bone, neither of them could summon an inkling of surprise or indignation.
As thunder rolled, low and long, overhead, Link exhaled slowly, and turned to look southward at the distant treeline of the Applean forest. "We can continue south," he said. "Along the river to Rebonae."
Zelda didn't reply. She merely began to squelch her way across the muddy road towards the south, and once again Link's heart squeezed.
He missed Mipha. He missed the warmth she would give him when she wanted to comfort him. His fingers were frozen. His toes were damp even through his boots. He couldn't begin to imagine Zelda's discomfort, and he couldn't think of any way he could help her. He didn't have Mipha's gift of healing. Didn't have any gift, apparently.
I've been useless. I couldn't do the one thing Hyrule expected of me.
He dispelled the thought with a firm shake of his head that sent water droplets flying, and forced himself to follow along behind Zelda.
He missed Courage. He missed Wisdom. Their horses ― he hoped they'd escaped with the others. He missed Daruk, and his infallible optimism.
Ahead of them, the Applean Forest seemed more ominous than ever, its dark, damp outskirts like a black mass of darkness and twisted trunks. He'd played in it so often as a child, but now he feared it with the irrational recoil of voiceless ancients. His reason was slipping, his comfort was long gone.
As they reached the first copses of trees, Zelda paused in the darkness.
"Must we?" She asked, her voice small, like a little girl's.
And Link missed Urbosa, who could make her strong. He slipped his hand into hers, squeezing briefly. He missed Revali, and his cocky confidence, his witty remarks. "We must."
Together, they began to trudge into the forest, slower than before. He led her through along long-forgotten paths, hoping his memory would not fail him, praying she continued to trust him.
He didn't know what time it was when he saw the glimmer of light through the trees.
Pausing, he motioned for Zelda to keep still.
And the barks of voices reached them ― Hylian men and women. The clanging of metal. The mutterings of curses.
As they approached, Link saw a circle of damp firelight under the cover of tall trees. A few men and women in the garb of knights was huddled around it. Hylian knights.
So it was with a tearful and relieved smile that he welcomed the knife of Shae Rokee at his throat.
Before the shadow could even ask for his business, the light of recognition dawned on her exhausted face.
"Commander," she breathed.
As Zelda approached, the Sheikah shadow's expression brightened even further.
"Good evening, Shae," Link said. "Or morning. I can't tell anymore."
The voices around the campfire quieted, interrupted by the unexpected chatter. As Link, Zelda and Shae emerged from the trees and entered the circle of firelight, their suspicions swiftly evaporated, transformed by relief and genuine gladness.
"Commander!" Sir Pipit said, even as Sir Shiro moved over to allow Zelda to get close and warm her shivering hands against the pitiful fire.
It was a comfort to see them, few though they were. Here, two Sheikah shadows who had never been part of the Order, and three guards he did not recognize. There was Squire Herschel, who looked utterly worn out, and on a pallet, lying in feverish sleep―
"Groose," Link whispered. He took a step, then paused, and turned to Shae. "Is he―"
"I'm alive," Groose muttered, straining to open his eyes. He looked terrible.
"What happened to you, man?" Link asked, inching closer. He kneeled in the wet grass of the forest floor to look down at his second, amazed by the extent of his wounds. Burns covered his arms and his torso, though his fellows had done the best they could to bandage the worst of it. "You look like a roast cucco."
"Courtesy of a few Guardians," Groose grumbled. "But I gave them hell, Commander."
A lump formed in Link's throat. "Shit. Groose." He gritted his teeth. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry," Groose echoed. "I know. You ought to have seen them, Commander." Now his feverish golden eyes brightened and a small smile pulled at his lips, though the burn on his chin and neck must have made the motion painful. "Sir Osfala, and Sir Linebeck. Storms of steel. And Lady Ashei― like the wind, she was." Now his eyes watered, either from the sorrow or from the pain. "We were unworthy of them. All of them."
Link knew it was the painful truth. "I know, Groose."
"I lost them―" he continued, through the fever. "There was fire everywhere. The walls and the buildings were collapsing everywhere. And I― I was looking for you."
"We got stuck. In the Castle," Link said.
"Castle." Groose repeated, dully. His eyes slid to Zelda, who was silently warming herself up by the fire, oblivious to their conversation. "The Divine Beasts attacked too. Monsters of the Calamity now." When he looked up at Link then, his vision was clear, and his voice, though a whisper, was full of understanding. "We lost."
"For now," Link said, his voice rough.
"For now," Groose agreed, nodding slowly. He took a deep breath that strained against his bandages and he winced. "We're going to the bridge at Rebonae, then Kakariko. They'll have a fix for me. And a plan. Come with us."
"We will," Link said. "Don't you worry. I'm not leaving you to fend on your own again."
"Nor I," Groose said, fiercely. "I can stand if I need to. I'm just… resting."
Link doubted it, but it would have served neither one of them to point it out.
After Groose drifted off to sleep, Link returned to the others. They were on edge and the damp made it difficult to rest. Zelda, for her part, had withdrawn somewhat from the others. She sat in the hollow of a tree's roots, within the circle of light, but out of its range of heat. Link approached her as one approaches a wild horse: slowly, warily.
"We can rest for now," he said. "In the morning we'll continue our way to Rebonae, then Kakariko."
She did not look at him. She shook her head slowly. "No, Sir Link. It will follow us. We can't bring it to Kakariko."
The Calamity. "We don't have a choice."
"We need to find the end of the world," Zelda whispered. "And lure it over the edge with us."
"Princess," she whispered fiercely. "Princess Zelda." Her green eyes found his in the firelight, fierce and mad with grief. "The Calamity can't take that away from me, Sir Link."
"We can at least stop by Kakariko," Link argued. "Get you some proper traveling clothes. Get food and supplies. And new― new horses."
"And run," she said, hoarsely.
"If we must," he said.
"We're never going to recover my father's bones," she whispered, her voice deadened. It wasn't a question.
Link struggled to hide his grief. "I don't― I don't know."
"I know," she said, quietly, and that was that.
He looked down at her, speechlessly, and searched his heart for words of comfort. But there were no words of comfort to give.
It was the sudden clamour of voices from the fire that captured his attention.
"Ho there," one of the guards said, rising to his feet.
A shape had emerged from the woods and into the clearing. A small frame, limping, grunting. With his hand twitching to reach for the Master Sword, Link turned and braced, just in case.
Red hair. Muddy clothes. Pale skin.
The girl clambered towards Shae and began to sob helplessly.
And Link's heart sank.
"Oh, honey," Shae said, trying in vain to push Romani of Mabe Village's hair out of her face. "You poor thing."
Romani was a mess. Wounded, too, if the blood on her clothes and the way she nursed her stomach were any indication. Link immediately raced forward to help Shae pull the girl towards the fire.
"Romani," he rasped. The girl was younger than him ― a little sister of sorts. And his throat was closing at the thought that she was here, alone, and in this state. "Romani, by the gods, what happened to you?"
It took several tear-filled moments for Romani to recognize him. The mud, no doubt, and the darkness. But when she did, the sob that erupted from her was heartwrenching.
And Link knew, with a lurch.
"Master Link―" she sobbed. "I'm so―sorry―"
But Link couldn't hear her. He wasn't going to hear her. He pulled her firmly into him, trembling, the denial urging him to silence her. "It's going to be alright," he swore, though he couldn't decide who he was trying to convince. "They're going to be alright."
But Romani's sobs only grew harder, wracking her broken frame so hard she cried with pain, too.
"Commander," Shae gently said, pushing him away from the redheaded girl, "come now, she's hurt. No need to crush her, too."
"Don't worry, Romani," Link madly swore. "It's all going to be alright. We're going to fix it."
"Master Link," Romani weakly said, as Shae pulled her away. She was delirious with pain, but when she looked at him, the sorrow was undeniable. "She tried to shield them― she was strong."
His mother. No. "It's alright, Romani," Link said, drowning out her voice. "You don't have to―"
Romani slumped to the ground, and Shae helped her lie in a more comfortable position, though the wet grass made it difficult. But Romani didn't seem to mind anymore. "She was brave," she breathed. "Lady Marin― and Ilia, too―"
"Stop it," Link said, through inexplicably blurry vision. "We'll go help them soon."
"And Talo―" Romani whispered. "He died, too." Now she was crying. "I liked him… And my sister…" Now she was crying so hard her body jerked with each breath, and the sorrow mixed with agonizing pain, so that the crying became delirious torture.
And as Shae finally lifted the girl's muddied clothes, Link saw the deep gash in her lower abdomen. Her innards were beginning to spill out, the wound so shocking that Link couldn't reconcile its horror with the girl who suffered it.
"It's miraculous she made it this far," one of the shadows said, and Link wanted to punch him. Now madness was taking over.
"Shut up," he said. "Or give me water― We have to clean that wound―"
But Shae put a hand to Link's and hushed him. Before them, Romani's sobs were subsiding, replaced by harsh, uneven breathing. The tears at the corners of her eyes fell sideways along her ears, and the pain on her face began to fade.
"Romani…" Link breathed, panicking.
"It's alright," Shae said, leaning forward on her knees. She brushed Romani's hair off her forehead, as a mother might comfort her child. She was smiling at the girl, though there was no telling if Romani saw her. "It's going to be alright, sweetheart. You'll see, the worst is over."
"Shae," Link warned, the helpless rage rising within him. "Don't you― you can't―"
"The worst is over," Shae said, her voice wobbly. "It's going to get easier now. It'll be like going to sleep."
"Shae, shut up!"
Zelda said something, and suddenly the three guards Link didn't know were around him, pulling him away gently but firmly, and then Romani was far away, surrounded by Shae and Zelda and Pipit, and they were all whispering gentle words of comfort.
"Don't worry, darling," Shae continued, choking.
Romani's chest rose slowly. And it fell slowly.
"Only a few moments left, sweet girl," Squire Pipit said, and his nose was red and tears were massing in his eyes.
"Like drifting off under a blue summer sky," Zelda said, gently.
Romani's wounded stomach rose. It fell.
And then Shae let out a sob.
And Romani lay still.
Falling to his knees, Link felt the mud seep into his clothes as the strength left him.
How long the camp was quiet afterwards, Link couldn't tell. He sat, numb, silent, for what felt like hours. Romani's small body ― she had never seemed so small ― was covered in a wet cloak, her feet peeking out. She'd lost a boot.
At some point, Zelda knelt at his side, wordlessly.
What more could they say that hadn't already been said?
"We're both orphans now," Link whispered. And Zelda trembled.
They dug a shallow grave for Romani of Mabe Village, the challenge made greater by the soaked soil and the shoddiness of their tools. By the time they were done, the sky had become a wet gray, and the rumbling of their stomachs told them they had gone too long without a meal.
Dawn was met with prayers, a small gathering of mud-covered mourners. Even Groose watched from his pallet, pale with fever.
And then it was time to resume walking.
The going was even slower now, with the men and women taking turns to help Groose along. He'd occasionally walk on his own, but would often weaken and need help with his pallet. The small, sorrowful company trudged through the Applean Forest until what might have been noon, and emerged near the road to the Rebonae bridge, their visions obscured by the rain.
They descended to the road slowly, slipping on the muddy slope. The skies were still pouring. The haze of the rain made everything hard to see.
But there was one thing Link noticed: there was no one on the road.
And his senses were screaming once more.
Though he was not well and leaning on Pipit, Groose seemed to notice the same thing. His hand went to his scabbard.
"Be wary," he commanded, and the others dutifully put their hands to their swords.
They crested a small hill and finally spotted Rebonae bridge in the rain.
Though less intricate in construction than Orsedd bridge had been, Rebonae nevertheless was another important artery in and out of Central Hyrule. If Orsedd had been destroyed, it would stand to reason that the remaining stragglers escaping Castle Town would have found their way south, to Rebonae.
But perhaps there were no stragglers. Destruction, after all, had found Mabe Village. It had ensured that there would be no survivors.
And evidently, it awaited them here.
The cohort of Guardians was methodically firing at the bridge supports, their insect-like legs stomping to position them correctly. The beams of fire they shot melted the stone, and the river thundered every time a new slew of bricks found their way to the bottom.
Lightning sparked overhead. Thunder rumbled.
"We need to go around," Link said, firmly.
And then the sentry spotted them.
"You do need to go around," Groose said, as the sentry began to sound its strident alarm. He pushed away from Pipit and shakily drew his sword. "Head south to Horwell. Surely they haven't reached it yet."
"Don't be ridiculous," Link said, pulling out the Master Sword. Ahead of them, the Guardians were refocusing. The bridge crumbled and suddenly the full force of the patrol turned to the weakened fighters.
But Groose wasn't having it. He seized Link by the upper arm with a force that surprised them both. "No, you don't stay. We swore an oath. And so did you."
"Groose," Link began to argue, but his second-in-command shoved him away, towards Zelda, who was standing, petrified, near the edge of the road.
"Go!" Groose ordered, and there was genuine terror in his eyes. "Or will we be doing this in vain?"
"He's right, Commander," Shae said. "Go." And she smiled at Zelda, though there was undeniable sadness on her face. "And avenge Hyrule."
Pipit barely glanced back. He had unsheathed his sword and was shouting his family's battle cry.
"Go," Groose implored. Then, with a bitter smile, he added, "I will see you in Kakariko."
Then, before Link could formulate a reply, the few remaining soldiers of the Guard were turning to their foe and charging, crying "Kindness! Courage! Patience! For Hyrule!"
Link seized Zelda's hand. With a firm tug, he pulled her away.
They ran south to the Bottomless Forest even as the clash began to sound behind them, deadly and merciless.
They ran, and ran, and ran.
And yet Link couldn't shake his guilt.
A splash. A silence.
"How…? How did it come to this?"