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Warriors tells a joke that has the others laughing. They’re all gathered around a campfire, and Wild has fried up some foraged greens that have no right being that delicious. They’ve stopped in the Faron Grasslands of Wild’s world, and it’s only late-afternoon but there’s a fragrant breeze and the sun is warm and gentle. More importantly, they’d travelled through the previous night at Time’s relentless urging, breaking camp every time they finished eating. It’s been a difficult few days – at first harried by the Yiga, but ever since more troublesome infected beasts. Moblins and Bokoblins and even Lizalfos have been causing them constant problems, and it seems to be all they can do to stay ahead of them, as they attack in new and unexpected ways, and new configurations, and with new weapons and viciousness and cunning.

They’ve got by with little more than bruises and scratches so far, but they’re all weary. Sky is all but falling asleep into his food. Wind is faring little better. But the promise of rest at last, a cooked meal, and pleasant weather, has the group in good spirits. The Faron Grasslands are beautiful too, though in the desolate way much of Wild’s Hyrule is.

Twilight bites back a yawn himself. They’ve all travelled through the night before as necessary, but rarely after back-to-back skirmishes. His gaze skips around the campfire, lips quirking at the sight of Wild showing Hyrule something on his Sheikah Slate as they eat. Four is taking the chance to wipe down his sword, checking it carefully for any lingering traces of black blood. Wild might be fine picking up any random weapon off the ground, but the rest of them are more particular about their equipment.

Speaking of… Time is holding his ocarina again.

He looks tired. They’re all tired, but the bags under Time’s eyes are painfully dark, sending Twilight scrambling through his memories of the past few days. Have they let Time take too many watches again? Hylia knows the eldest among them barely seems to sleep even in the good times, but it’s been a while since Twilight has seen him looking this bad.

“Going to play us a song, Old Man?” he asks, instead of, are you okay?

Time seems to startle at the question, which ratchets Twilight’s worry higher. He takes a deep breath, single eye blinking rapidly, stares down at the ocarina in his hand, and deftly hooks it back onto his belt. His gaze rises to the sky, then slides over each of them in turn.

“Old Man?” Twilight prods, and the others are paying attention now, picking up on the alarm in his voice.

“This area is too exposed,” Time says, ignoring his first question. “We should find some better shelter before dark.”

“What?” Warriors barks, standing up. “Are you kidding? We can’t keep moving like this. We need to restYou were the one who said not even an hour ago that we should take some time to recover, and now you want us to break camp again already?”

That was true. No one had argued it, except Wind who protested that ‘he could sail for days and this was nothing’, which everyone had dutifully ignored.

“I know. But there’s still some hours until dusk,” Time says, and looks to Wild. “Do you know of anywhere better nearby? A cave, perhaps?”

Wild looks alarmed to be put on the spot, and his voice seems to desert him as a result. He doesn’t get the chance to respond anyway, because Four cuts in, “We chose this spot because it gives us a good vantage – we can see trouble coming. I’m not sure a cave would be much better.”

“It would be more defensible,” Time mutters.

“I doubt there will be any problems around here though,” Hyrule offers, as though all Time needs is a bit of reassurance. “We haven’t seen any more signs of those infected monsters since we left the canyon.”

“We barely saw anything in the canyon, either,” Legend grouses. He’s tired and that’s made him even more acerbic than usual. “Old Man’s getting paranoid. We need sleep more than we need a cave.”

Time’s expression is tight. It isn’t often the group disagrees with him – mostly because he talks with such certainty, such confidence, in his every decision that it feels silly to argue. Part of it is an age thing, no doubt, but Time is usually right, when it matters. Even Warriors, who is used to giving orders on a battlefield, rarely contradicts him. So Twilight is holding his breath, waiting to see how he’ll react.

Time’s gaze skips to the others again. Noting Sky and Wind in particular, who are all but nodding off even under this peculiar tension. His mouth firms, but he nods. “You have a point,” he concedes. “Very well. But we should sleep now, while we can. I’ll take first watch.”

“Old Man, you need to sleep too,” Twilight breaks in. Sky and Wind might tire the fastest, but anyone with eyes can see Time is running on fumes. Which makes his bizarre insistence on breaking camp all the more confusing. Time pushes them often, but he’s always been sensible about it.

“And I will,” he says, “After first watch.”

As always, Twilight can’t tell if he’s lying or not. He exchanges a glance with Legend, and they seem to have the same thought – Time is overtired, to the point it’s affecting his judgement. Twilight glances at Legend’s bag, a question in his eyes – whether Legend has something that can put his stubborn ass to sleep in his endless array of tricks – but Legend just gives him a baffled glare like he can’t figure out what he means, so he drops it.

Warriors has a frown where it looks like he’s also going to argue, but in the end he shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He’s not the mother-hen type, and it’s clear he thinks the best way to get through to Time is to let him suffer the consequences. He’s probably right.

“I’ll take second watch,” Twilight leaps in, before anyone else can. There’s some muttering as they arrange the watch order – everyone is tired, but one thing all nine of them share is a nearly pathological habit to shoulder burdens in other’s stead – until they eventually settle on a schedule.

It’s a stiff and uncomfortable silence as they finish their early dinner and set to retire, even though, as Time pointed out, there was still at least an hour until sunset. But if they each take a watch, they should all have a full night’s sleep with change, which they need just to stay on form, right now.

“Should one of us join him on watch?” Sky whispers to Twilight, casting a worried glance at where Time is stalking around the edges of the camp, looking restless.

Twilight considers it. Time isn’t… quite himself, but he would also be the last of any of them to fall asleep on accident, no matter how tired. “I think we can trust him to wake me up if he’s worried about nodding off.” He’s a little surprised Time hadn’t insisted on double watch, in fact, which is the standard when they are either anticipating trouble or overtired. But Four and Hyrule had both been right – in these Grasslands, they can see trouble coming, and there’s little reason to expect it.

So Twilight settles in his own patch of grass, a bit beyond the fire – with the sun still out, and the furs lining his tunic, he’s in more danger of overheating than catching a chill. Warriors throws himself to the ground next to him for likely the same reason, yawns hugely, then is splayed out and snoring in moments. He can hear the others settling down, the low murmur of conversation mixing with the snap and crackle of the campfire. Twilight rolls onto his side, and watches the Old Man from where he lays – Time is still walking laps around the far perimeter of the camp, looking stressed. More odd behaviour. He keeps glancing back at them. At Sky, particularly.

More and more oddities. Twilight sighs, and shuts his eyes.

 

…..

 

He jolts awake what feels like an instant later to a shake of his shoulder. Right, his watch. It’s just Time rousing him.

It’s also dark out. Time was supposed to swap with him at dusk – which judging by the moon, was at least two hours ago. “Old Man,” he begins to growl.

“Wake the others,” he says, already moving to Warriors.

“What, why?” He scrambles up, still struggling to wake. The sleep has helped, but it’s also reminded him how much more of it he needs.

“Trouble.”

That has him scrambling to his feet and fumbling for his weapons. When he casts his gaze across the field, however, he can’t see anything. It’s dark out – too dark. The light of the crescent moon is enough to see their surroundings, but not to pick out any details. “What did you see?”

Time doesn’t answer – he’s by Sky now, shaking his shoulder. Twilight hurries to where Wind and Four are curled up near the flicking campfire, and jostles them both awake. “Time’s spotted something,” he says, in apology. They’re sluggish to respond, but reach for their weapons by rote. Wild is already up – he’s one of the lighter sleepers – and is waking Hyrule and Legend.

Within moments everyone is on their feet and armed. There’s an awkward minute where they’re all standing around, swords and bows and magic rods drawn, ready for combat, but are greeted only with the quiet crackle of flames.

“Old Man, are you sure-” Legend starts to say.

“There’s no crickets,” Wild murmurs. He’s tense, constantly adjusting his grip on an old broadsword he scavenged from a ruin days ago.

He’s also right. There’s an unnatural silence blanketing the grasslands. Even in the darkest hours of night, even in the depths of the desert, there’s always a whisper of life in Wild’s Hyrule. A chirping cricket, a distant bird, a flock of bats. Now, there’s only a gentle breeze, rustling the grass.

Wait, the grass. Twilight squints at it. The grass around them is cut, in a wide circle around the camp. It hadn’t been, before they’d gone to sleep – it was lush, and long, and went up to their calves once they went more than a few steps from the road. Time’s doing? But why-?

He gets his answer when Time sticks the head of an arrow in the campfire, and moments later, shoots it into the distance. The tall grass beyond their circle goes up in a burst of flame.

The rattle of bones and angry puffs of dark magic follow, then suddenly there’s a rush of movement in the grass, as skeletons rise around the camp en masse. Stalkoblins. Dozens of them.

The fire takes out several of them immediately, but there’s gaps where it hasn’t spread, even as Time fires another fire arrow at their back. They’re surrounded, and outnumbered ten to one.

“Captain!” Legend tosses his fire staff across the circle. Warriors snatches it out of the air, and blasts a pack of stalkoblins rushing the group. Twilight nocks an arrow, aims, and puts another one down. They fall apart as easy as any stalfos, but there’s so many of them, and they just won’t stay down. It’s all they can do with their combined efforts, and the fire, to keep the horde at bay.

Then, on the outer edge of the crowd, there’s a new silhouette, and a rush of air.

“Scatter!” Time shouts, and grabs Sky, practically throwing him ahead of him. Twilight leaps and rolls after them, some distant part of him registering thundering hooves and the whistle of steel and the foul stench of rotten meat.

It passes, and they clamber back to their feet. Standing across from them, their new foe rears in the air. Ragged flesh still clings in thin strips to the bone, turning them grimy and black – it’s only by the light of the fires raging around them that they can see the huge, four-legged skeleton at all.

A stalhorse?

No.

stal lynel?

Wind lets out a series of swears that does his seafaring heritage proud.

Things get chaotic after that. Stalmoblins lumber into the fray, their skeletons pressing towards them with spiked clubs and deadly purpose, and dealing with them and the stal lynel means they can’t focus on keeping the horde of stalkoblins back. In moments it dissolves into a mad melee. The enormous skeleton of the lynel lacks some of the power and speed of its living brethren, but the huge sweeping blade is all the harder to avoid when they have half a dozen other enemies to deal with.

“Four, on your left!” Wind calls, moments before he knocks a blast of air his way, sending half a dozen stalkoblins tumbling in a clatter of bones. He and Four square up in the gap, back to back, as their enemies reassemble and lurch back towards them. Near them, Wild is on his own, but he’s picked up a heavy club from somewhere and is swinging it around recklessly, so no stalkoblin can even get close.

Twilight swings, and dodges, and grits his teeth at the unpleasant crunch of bone against his blade. He stops half a second to spear a hopping skull, letting it shatter and the dark magic holding it together to dissipate, one more enemy that won’t be reassembling beneath their feet. Hyrule is working with grim purpose next to him, short jabs of his sword and quick steps dodging the grasping fingers of bone and clumsy swipes of rusted weapons. Warriors is cutting a swathe through his side, and is quickly forced to make use of the space to dodge another charge of the stal lynel.

On his flank, Time and Sky are handling a trio of stalmoblins. Time is always a marvel to watch in battle. If one were to speak of raw talent, Sky is the most adept of them all with a blade, but Time moves with a surety as though he can predict where each blow will land, how each enemy will move, and react accordingly.

The mark of experience, they guess. But something tickles at the back of Twilight’s mind, an errant thought that itches.

Then there is the thundering rush of hooves again, and Wild is standing, mid-swing with an enormously heavy club, directly in the stal lynel’s path.

“Wild-!” Twilight starts to shout in warning, pushing away from his current opponent, but it’s late, too late-

A trill of music stops the creature – stops the entire battlefield - dead in its tracks. Twilight throws a startled glance in search of the source, catching a glimpse of Time with ocarina in hand, swaying in place.

Wild, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate – he drops the club and takes the opening to dash in with his sword instead, attacking in a vicious flurry. There’s a sharp crack as his sword shatters on a particularly heavy blow, then half a second later Sky is there with the Master Sword, striking with deadly precision, the blade glowing bright blue.

The respite lasts only seconds. The stal lynel is eerily silent, but when it rears, and slams its hooves onto the ground, the shockwave knocks them all down, friend and foe alike.

They scramble back to their feet. Twilight puts down another two stalkoblins on the way, smashing their skulls with the hilt of his blade. Warriors sends out another blast of fire with Legend’s fire rod. The stal lynel has wheeled out of the battlefield again, vanishing through the fire and smoke into the darkness beyond.

“I can’t see it,” Hyrule says, trying to search beyond the ring of flames for the sight of the imposing skeleton.

“Focus on the enemies we can see,” Legend grunts. “And worry about it when it comes back.”

They’re making inroads against the horde of stalkoblins at least, though the ground is now dangerously littered with bones. Wild seems to be using them in place of his broken sword, discarding them after a handful of hits to pick up another. Twilight grits his teeth as one of the few remaining stalmoblins reanimates in front of him, tightening his grip on his sword. A quick slice of his blade deprives it of its arms. A second sends its skull flying. Twilight watches just long enough to see Wind smash it with his sword.

“What’s it doing, though?” Hyrule asks, even as he kicks a skull away from a pile of bones before it can rejoin them. “It should have come back by now.”

“Maybe we lucked out and it’s run away,” Four pipes up, optimistically.

“Lucky, us?” Legend scoffs. “More like Big Trouble all the time.”

Twilight's about to reply, when a sound tolls like a crystal bell, and his vision flashes blue.

An arrow tumbles to the ground in front of him. The blue is because he’s encased in a shimmering, translucent crystal.

Time is standing across from him, ocarina in one hand, the other stretched towards him. Nayru’s Love. It’s not the first time he’s seen it, but compared to Hyrule and Legend, the Old Man uses magic so sparingly Twilight had forgotten he even could. Had forgotten he has one of the strongest shield spells of all of them.

His gaze drops back to the arrow. Then up. The stal lynel has a bow.

He hadn’t even seen it coming.

“It’s got arrows!” Wind yelps, pointing to where the stal lynel is drawing the bow for another shot. “Watch out!”

“Go!” Wild calls, sheikah slate in hand. A beam of light shoots from it, and freezes the stal lynel in place mid-draw.

It only lasts for a breath, but that’s enough time for Warriors to close the gap. He leaps forward with a cry, and in one sweep of his blade, cleaves the stal lynel’s skull from its spine. It bounces away, and Four pounces like cat, stabbing fiercely at the skull until wisps of darkness burst from it. The stal lynel’s body collapses into a pile of putrid bones. Nayru’s Love disappears, and the sheen of blue fades from Twilight’s vision with it.

“Stay alert, we’re not done here yet!” Warriors calls. Twilight shakes himself, and refocuses on the battle.

After that, it’s a matter of persistently disposing of the remaining stalkoblins and stalmoblins. With their numbers thinned and the larger threat disposed of, it goes quickly, and soon they’re all picking their way across an entire graveyard’s worth of bones, checking for any skulls that might still hold a spark of dark magic.

“I’ve never seen so many at once before,” Wild mutters, rolling a cracked bokoblin skull gingerly with his foot.

“It’s keeping up with the theme of this weird adventure, though,” Legend remarks with a bitter smirk. “What should be a routine monster fight gets blown all out of proportion.”

Twilight huffs, and jogs over to where Time is staring out over the remains of the battlefield. He owes him a thanks, at the very least, for the save. And he has questions too. The oddities are getting too many to ignore. “Hey, Old Man-”

Everything he was about to say is immediately forgotten when Time turns around. Something is wrong. He’s too pale, his eyes are glazed. Magic exhaustion? Maybe there was a reason why the Old Man didn’t throw around magic that often. “Are you okay?” he demands. “Do you need a green potion? Hyrule, do you have any-”

“No, I already took one,” Time said. “I’m just… a little tired.”

“Aren’t we all,” Legend snorts.

The rest of them had at least three hours sleep though, before Time had roused them. “You should have woken me for my watch,” Twilight scolds, which isn’t the way he wanted to thank Time for the save but it needs to be said. “And what was with the-”

The words die on his lips, though, when he catches sight of the ocarina in Time’s hands.

He’d had it in the battle, more than once, but Twilight had only heard its music when he’d played the song to stun the stal lynel. So why, instead of his sword…

The mysteries begin to click into place, like the final step in a temple’s puzzle.

They all forgot. They overlooked it, because Time carried so many other mysteries, and Twilight is forever preoccupied by his memory of a bitter shade.

It’s right there in the title. The Hero of Time. It’s his nickname, for Hylia’s sake. They make jokes about his age!

It can’t have been just for injuries – they’ve all had to limp through hostile territory before, with broken bones and bleeding wounds, sometimes even one of them unconscious, in desperate search of a fairy fountain. Time hadn’t done anything then. So that means…

“Who was it?” he asks.

“This time?” he responds, as though he doesn’t realise that there is no more terrifying answer he could give to such a question. His gaze then flits to Hyrule, betraying him.

There’s a lurch in Twilight’s gut though. Not from the realisation that Hyrule might die.

The Nayru’s Love.

He hadn’t seen the arrow at all, until he heard the sound of it striking the magic shield.

Then again, before that. When Time had played that song to save Wild. And again, before that, when he’d pulled Sky out of the path of the stal lynel, instead of trusting him to dodge like the rest of them. Oddities upon oddities.

They’ve been breaking camp at his behest, over and over again, for over two days now. Ever since Gerudo Canyon.

“How many times?” The words are nearly a gasp.

Time’s gaze just slides away, and he doesn’t answer.

Twilight bites his lip. Until now, he’d seen this as just another adventure. The infected enemies they’ve been fighting are strong, and smart, and have been giving nine of them trouble when once upon a time just one of them could have handled it, but he’d thought they’d been on top it.

It turns out they aren’t. It turns out death has been licking at their heels this entire time.

“Old Man,” Twilight says, gripping him by the shoulders. “Where do we need to go?”

Time blinks at him, long and slow. He’s exhausted. Twilight has never seen him this exhausted.

It’s all so much worse than he’d thought. Time isn’t worn from taking too many watches. Time hasn’t slept for much, much longer than that.

“Shit, you need sleep.” He glances at the dying embers of their campfire – it had been trampled in the melee, though they still have enough light thanks to the remains of their impromptu grass fire. “Is here safe? What did we do last time?”

“No,” Time says, grabbing his hands, and gently pulling them from his shoulders. “We need to…” He clenches his good eye shut, and runs a hand across his face, visibly pulling himself together. “We’ll have to fight them. Eventually.”

“Fight what?”

He can see Time warring with himself. Twilight suspects his exhaustion is the only reason he’s responding at all – he’s started thinking out loud. “Infected lynels.”

Shit. Dammit. That weird stal lynel had been bad enough, but at least it had been fragile. An infected lynel? And… more than one of them? In what situation would such a territorial beast attack in a group?

In exactly this sort of situation, where strangely coloured bokoblins will set up elaborate ambushes, and skeletons will rise from the ground en masse where no grave should be. The rules they’re used to no longer apply.

“We need to run, then,” Twilight says, nodding to himself. As they are currently, they’re in no fit state to tackle such a battle. No one is seriously injured, but even those of them who have slept are tired. Their reserves are too low for magic, they’re running short on arrows, and Wild is currently holding a bone instead of a sword for a weapon.

Time is already shaking his head. “We can’t.”

Twilight scowls. “Not forever, Old Man. But we need to recover. You need to recover.”

“What’s going on?” Wind asks. The others are joining them now, being drawn by the commotion.

“He’s been time-travelling,” Twilight says.

What?” Sky pushes forward. “How?”

“His ocarina. I don’t know the details,” Twilight says, irritated. “There’s infected lynels. We need to get away.”

“We can’t,” Time repeats.

Twilight pauses, and listens. This isn’t… this isn’t just Time enforcing his opinion that they need to deal with it. He grows cold at the realisation.

He’s already tried running.

“The Lake?” Twilight asks, dread curling in his bones.

Time shakes his head.

“Back toward the canyon?” he tries next.

“That’s where they’re coming from.”

“Then south?”

“We’re not fast enough,” Time says, and there’s a story in each answer that makes his gut twist, even as Time remains stone-faced.

“Farore’s tits,” Warriors whispers, and Sky doesn’t even smack him for it. They’re all realising now just what Time has been doing for the past two days.

“Can we hide somewhere?” Four suggests. “To buy time at least. Or maybe get the drop on them?”

“How are they even tracking us?” Legend mutters, which is a question that’s plagued them for more than one world. The portals tend to drop them near threats that need defeating, but it’s increasingly the case that the threats are finding them first.

Wild has his slate out – it lights his face a bright blue as he swipes at it. “What about a shrine?” He glances towards the south west, where the mountain range that divides the Gerudo Desert from Faron Grasslands towers, an enormous hulking shadow against an already dark sky. “Ishto Soh’s shrine is only a short climb, and only a couple of hours away on foot.”

Further than he’d like, but infinitely preferable to taking on lynels in their current state. “Old Man?” Twilight checks, just in case they have done this before.

Time hesitates. “…It might be worth a try,” he concedes. His gaze flits to Hyrule again, before darting away once more. Luckily, Hyrule doesn’t notice.

That’s good enough for him. “Lead the way, Wild.”

They set out as a group, tense and silent. None of them like travelling at night, though the odds of there being any stalkoblins left in the whole grasslands after that ambush is low. Legend grumbles angrily under his breath occasionally, and Sky is watching Time with an unnerving intensity, but no one breaks the silence. Twilight is burning with questions too, but they all recognise that they need to deal with the present threat first.

Time, for his part, keeps pace, even though they’re all acutely aware of the occasional stumble he makes on what is even ground. His height helps – Four has to take two steps for every one the older hero takes. Still, Twilight lets himself fall to the rear, to ensure Time doesn’t fall behind. Hyrule wordlessly matches him, likely for the same reason. Normally it’s him and Wild leading the pack.

He tries not to remember the way Time’s gaze had flit to Hyrule, and what it means. It won’t happen. They won’t let it.

After nearly two hours of walking in tense silence through the dark grasslands, their way lit only by the light of a crescent moon overhead, they at last come close to the base of the dividing range. “It’s just ahead. It’s hard to see from this angle,” Wild promises. He leads them to a spot at the base of a cliff, and points up. “It’s only a few minutes of climbing. It’s easy enough, but it is kind of dark…”

“Ugh, I hate climbing,” Legend grouses.

“We should hurry,” Time says, staring into the darkness beyond. His hand is constantly on his ocarina now, a gesture Twilight has seen countless times before but now suddenly comprehends. He feels sick.

“Yeah yeah, don’t get your tunic in a twist, Old Man.” Legend adjusts his gear and starts examining the rock face as though it might tell him its secrets.

“Just follow Wild’s path,” Warriors says, pointing at where Wild is already well above their heads.

“Shut up! Don’t rush me. We can't all be part mountain goat.”

They head up in pairs, Hyrule with Legend, Four with Wind, Warriors with Sky, leaving Twilight and Time to take up the rear. The only sign of Time’s exhaustion is his grim silence when he might have made some remarks on their progress, and his lagging pace that was more in line with Sky and Wind’s climbing. They reach the outcropping where the others wait soon enough, though – Twilight makes it up first, then he and Warriors reach down to pull Time up with the rest of them.

The shrine sits back from the cliff edge, nestled in a hollow that hides it from view of the grasslands. Wild waves them over to the entrance, pointing at a sigil carved into the stone floor.

“We can only get down when the slate activates this,” he explains. “So everyone gather up. So long as everyone has a foot on the sigil, it should work.”

“Are you sure?” Warriors asks doubtfully. Wild just shrugs.

No one is filled with confidence, but it’s not like they have a choice. It’s an unbearably tight fit with all nine of them, but they somehow manage, the ground beneath their feet glows, their vision turns blue, and what feels like moments later, they’re inside an enormous chamber.

“Whoaaaa,” Wind breathes, dashing out almost immediately. “Wild, this is what a shrine is like in your world? It’s amazing!”

Twilight can’t help but agree. He’s seen some incredible things in the temples, and in the twilight realm too, but nothing like this. There’s contraptions shooting out steady beams of light, and pillars that look like they might move, and a handful of empty, opened chests scattered about – no doubt the result of Wild’s last foray in here. It’s an eerily neutral temperature, and the entire place is bathed in a gentle blue light. It’s not altogether silent – there’s a sort of low hum, a soothing, even rumble that’s just barely audible, that reminds him of a distant waterfall – but compared to the cacophony of nature, the place has the feel of a temple. Nearly every surface looks unnaturally smooth, as though it was only freshly mortared, but Twilight can’t even begin to guess what kind of rock was used for it. It’s jarring to know that this place is ancient, but feels so modern compared to the crumbling ruins that litter Wild’s Hyrule.

Wild disappears for a moment behind a column and comes back with an iron sword. “I dropped this in here last time,” he remarks, giving the battered sword a few experimental swings, and tossing the bone aside once he finds it to his satisfaction. He gestures vaguely at the entrance where they’re all standing. “Make yourselves at home. There’s not much else to the place. It won’t be very comfortable,” he admits, apologetic. “But it’s safe here. Safer than a stable, even. I would catch my breath inside shrines, sometimes, when there were too many enemies about.”

“It’s perfect, thank you Wild,” Time says, leans against the wall, and slides to the ground.

“We should eat, before we sleep,” Warriors advises. After Time, he’s effectively second in command, however informal the arrangement is, and has evidently decided now is the time to step up. “You especially, Old Man.”

“As far as my body is aware, Captain, I ate at the same time as all of you,” Time says, his eye half-lidded.

“And we’re hungry too, after all that fighting and climbing, so you’re going to eat,” Warriors lectures. “Plus, I heard you admit to taking a green potion. You know what’s even more effective at restoring magic than potions? Food.”

“He’s right,” Hyrule agrees. “I think we still had some provisions, Wild?”

“Pies and rice balls,” Wild says, producing half a dozen of each, then also dozens of apples. Twilight picks up two rice balls and an apple and shoves them into Time’s hands. He takes them with a sigh, and starts chewing mechanically. Twilight snags a pie for himself, and settles against the wall next to him.

“How does that even work, though?” Four wonders out loud. “I never really came across any time travel in my adventures.”

The others are gathering around now – there’s no campfire, but they settle in a loose circle out of habit. Everyone is tired, but they’ve held in their questions this long, and now that they’re safe, they want answers.

“It’s Nayru’s domain, is why,” Legend says between angry bites of his own rice ball. “It’s a power that’s only supposed to belong to the Oracle of Ages.”

“I had thought it a power belonging to Hylia herself, with the Time Gates,” Sky admits quietly. “Although there were Lanayru’s timeshift stones, which produced some localised effects. To think there was any kind of magic that could do it on demand, though…”

“There was a door, in the Temple of Time, for me,” Twilight recalls. “But it only led to one time, and one place. I didn’t have any control over it at all.”

“Look, it’s safe to say more of us are familiar with the possibility of time travel than not, but this is still news to us, Old Man,” Warriors says. “We didn’t know you could time travel on demand, and this wasn’t the best way to find out.”

“I am called the Hero of Time for a reason, you know,” Time replies. “And… it’s not a magic I use lightly.”

It’s true, he wouldn’t. They all know Time, know how wary he is of the Master Sword, how careful he is about power. It’s a different kind of wisdom to Legend or Hyrule’s experience – it’s a caution born of being burned by it.

“So why this time, then?” Wind wonders aloud, and half the group tenses as they realise the other half hasn’t guessed.

“I have actually used it before,” Time says, in what to Twilight is a transparent attempt to deflect answering but which just makes it worse. “You’ve simply… never noticed.” At the horrified looks from Twilight, Sky, Legend, and Warriors, he defends, “Please, I’m hardly the only one here with secrets.”

He’s completely missed the point of why they’re horrified, of course. Wind is looking at them suspiciously, correctly guessing that they’ve all realised something he hasn’t. Hyrule is frowning thoughtfully. Legend sees it, and rolls with the change of topic. “Time travel on a whim, though?” he grumbles loudly. “It’s utterly broken. The Harp of Ages would only let me visit one time period, and even then it wouldn’t work half the time. How much magic does that even take, Old Man?”

“There’s limits,” Time explains with a sigh. “I’ve done time travel before, but this is… not precisely that. It’s more like rewinding time. And it can’t reach across worlds. Once we entered Wild’s Hyrule, for example, I couldn’t travel back in time to when we were in Traveler’s.”

“Probably because the portals themselves involve some kind of time travel,” Twilight reasons. “After all, how else could all of us be in Wild’s Hyrule? It’s so far in the future for the rest of us.”

Time nods, though it takes Twilight a second to figure out if he’s agreeing or simply falling asleep. “Just so.”

Warriors huffs, leaning forward far enough that his scarf drags on the floor. “Just tell us next time, okay? Don’t leave it to Twilight to figure out,” he lectures. “That was why you wanted to break camp, right? Maybe we would have listened to you if we’d known.”

Time shakes his head. “I didn’t push it, because you were right that we needed rest. I took the gamble that we could win the fight with more preparation.”

Except if Twilight’s suspicions are true, the gamble hadn’t entirely worked, and Time’s been trapped in an everlasting night, snatching half of them out of the jaws of death. Might still be.

“But you did that on your own! There’s nine of us, Old Man. I thought you of all people understood that we can’t make good strategies if we don’t have all the information. I know most of us aren’t used to it, but that’s what fighting in a group is all about!” Warriors slaps his hand on his knee to emphasise his point. “So next time, just tell us!”

Time inclines his head. “Very well." It doesn't sound convincing.

“Let him sleep,” Twilight says, regardless. They have enough answers for now - the rest can wait until they're all a little less ragged and prone to losing their patience with each other. “No matter what magic is at work, the mind needs rest too. Wait – Old Man, at least lie down first! I don’t want to hear you complaining about your back in the morning!”

Time’s eye flutters open. “Right,” he mutters, but doesn’t move, so, exasperated, Twilight gently shoves him to the side, until he’s lying on the floor. Wearing the armour doesn’t seem comfortable to him either, but Time’s done it before so he supposes it’s fine.

“Move over,” he tells Hyrule on his other side. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to move him.”

“Right.” Hyrule’s lips quirk into the smallest of smiles as he obliges. “He’s really out already, isn’t he?”

Time has indeed already passed out – as though he’d just been waiting for permission.

“Yeah,” Twilight says softly. “He’s… been working hard. I wish I’d noticed sooner.”

“You worry about him a lot,” Hyrule murmurs kindly. “We all see it.”

Twilight’s voice catches in his throat.

He finds it a second later, though it bubbles out like nervous laughter, as though he’s an uncertain farmhand who’s missed the joke once again. “Well, you know, gotta look out for our elders, right?”

He can’t explain it, just like he can’t bring himself to voice every other fate Time has averted these past few hours.

He doesn’t know how it will happen. And Time can’t know, either, because it hasn’t happened yet.

It makes sense, of course. None of them will live forever. They don’t talk about it much, but they have a rough idea of the timelines. They know Sky came from a time that is so ancient that Ganon didn’t even exist. They know Wild is from a time so distant that Ganon had been twisted into something unrecognisable.

Twilight knows that Time came before him, at the very least.

And he knows, given the nature of timelines, that in his present, in his Hyrule, that Sky and Four must be long dead. That in Wild’s timeline, they’re all long dead. That no matter how many times Time uses his ocarina to cheat fate, it can’t be forever. So it really shouldn’t bother him as much as it does. It’s an inevitable thing.

But it does. Because that shade of a warrior, that golden wolf…

He’d been twisted, and bitter. He’d died violently, and with unfinished business.

And Time is already wearing the armour the shade wore. Is already missing an eye.

He hasn’t had a child yet, Twilight assures himself. And he knows Time is his ancestor, which means he fathers at least one child.

But it’s been some time since they were last at Lon Lon Ranch. Wasn’t it possible for Malon to be with a child, and they simply don’t know it yet?

So the fear, the anxiety, clings. Which means he finds himself watching Time the closest of them all, even more than Wild, who might be his best friend among them, or Wind, who is so terribly young, or Four, who is so terribly small.

He hadn’t thought anyone had noticed.

Hyrule’s still looking at him, so he deflates, and admits, “I just worry about him, you know? He can take care of himself but… he was the Link that came before me, right? Except there’s no legends, no stories about him. So I don’t know how his story ends.” It’s a half truth, at least.

To his relief, Hyrule just nods, and pats his shoulder. “I understand. That’s true for a lot of us, isn’t it? Except Wild, I suppose.”

“…Yeah.” Twilight sighs. “Time’s got the right of it, though, I think. We should sleep too.”

“Especially if we’ve got a fight with lynels coming up,” Legend grumbles. Wild shudders in agreement.

There’s no need for a watch within the safety of the shrine, so they all settle down for the second time that night – and what a long night it’s been. It’s difficult to get comfortable, though – the hard ground is no stranger to them, but it’s worse with no grass or leaves, and the absence of a crackling campfire is unsettling. Warriors makes do by folding his blue scarf up under his head for a pillow, and Wind does the same with a sailcloth. Sky sees them and follows their example with his cape. Wild and Hyrule don’t seem to mind it at all. Four pulls up his green hood and folds his hands under his head. Legend plops himself down and uses Hyrule’s stomach as a headrest with zero hesitation. Hyrule, patient saint that he is, lets him.

Twilight himself is tempted to shift into his wolf form – it would be far more comfortable for sleeping – but he doesn’t have any way of explaining how ‘wolfie’ made it down into the shrine, so he settles down next to Time, curling up with an arm under his head, and stares at the older hero as his eyelids grow heavy and the others fall silent around him. When he’s asleep like this, features relaxed and the scarred and marked side of his face hidden, he doesn’t look nearly so old as he acts.

He can’t reconcile it. That shade’s bitterness with Time. He catches glimpses of it, sometimes, when their unofficial leader speaks of the Master Sword, or Zelda, but he seems so self-assured, so steady, compared to the rest of them. He loves Malon, and cares for them all, calls them ‘his boys’, and he’s mature, and wise, far more so than his years should suggest. They joke, and call him Old Man, but there’s a truth to it. He sometimes seems as settled as any grandfather. If he were to fall on the battlefield, Twilight can’t picture him taking it with anything but peaceful resignation. He’d probably do it protecting one of them.

The Shade tells him otherwise.

His eyelids grow too heavy to watch Time any longer. The safety of the shrine, the sound of everyone’s breathing – or in the Captain’s case, snoring – is enough to let him drift off despite the dark worries plaguing his thoughts. His exhaustion is even enough to chase away his dreams.

So he can’t explain what wakes him so suddenly. But when he opens his eyes, Time is no longer sleeping across from him.

He jolts up, blinking the lethargy away furiously. The others are all still splayed out around the shrine, fast asleep. There’s no sky, no way to tell how many hours have passed, but he’s rested enough that it must have been at least a couple.

It takes him a moment to spot Time – he’s back near where they entered the shrine, approaching the raised dais they’d teleported onto. For someone dressed in full plate mail, he moves eerily quietly.

Twilight scrambles to his feet, not doing quite as good a job, but aside from a slight snuffle from Wild, no one stirs. He hurries over.

“Old Man?” he whispers.

Time’s shoulders go stiff. Which means he’s been caught sneaking.

Time,” he hisses instead, storming up to him and grabbing him by the shoulder, pulling him around and-

Twilight stops, like he’s been struck by Wild’s stasis. His stomach twists painfully, as he can’t believe his eyes.

Time is holding the ocarina.

No.

“Go back to sleep, Twilight,” Time says. He sounds reassuring, and gentle. “It’s still early. I just didn’t want to disturb anyone.”

Twilight isn’t having any of that. “What happened?” He nearly chokes on the words. “How does it go wrong? What are you doing?” It’s ‘rewinding’ Time has said, so there’s nothing to show for it, but he can’t stop his gaze roving over the other hero, looking for clues.

That’s when he notices Time’s other hand is in his bag.

The bag with his masks.

Fresh horror sweeps through Twilight. “You’re not planning on using… that, are you?”

“Ah,” Time says, guiltily pulling his hand away. “I forgot you knew about it.”

Only because early on, Twilight had been carelessly going through Time’s bag, looking for a potion or bottled fairy. And he’d seen the mask, and how closely the markings matched the ones on Time’s face, and had felt the waves of dark magic rolling off it, and hadn’t let his mentor rest until he’d explained it. He still doesn’t have the full story, but like all things Time, what little he knows is enough to give him shivers.

“Did you ever tell any of the others…?” Time asks, leadingly.

“No. On the understanding that you wouldn’t ever use it.” They’d all disapprove. Twilight disapproves, despite the hypocrisy of his own pursuit of the fused shadow. That mask though… that mask dwarfs anything else they have.

Wild had quietly shown him a mask like it, once, though the magic in it was but a pale mimicry. Twilight suspects he thinks the mask is some strange relic honouring Time, not… something else.

“You promised me, Old Man,” Twilight says. “I don’t like any of this, but… what happens after? What if you really do lose control? How do you expect all of us to get out of this alive then?”

Time sighs, long and deep. “You’re right,” he admits. “As bad as this is, it’s… I suppose I’ve just been reminded too much of that time, when the mask really was the only way out. But the stakes are not that high, yet.”

Twilight wants to ask what stakes could possibly be high enough to use the mask, but he’s just relieved to see Time back away from that option. If he hadn’t woken up…

It’s a bad sign, though, that Time had even come to the point of considering it. All while Twilight slept, unawares. “Talk to me, Old Man. Why did you come back? What didn’t work? We can find another way, right?”

Time is shaking his head. “No, there’s-”

“What if we run again?”

“There’s nowhere we can. We can’t go up – they have arrows. They plucked us right off the walls.”

The past tense unnerves him. Twilight wishes Warriors would wake up – this sort of brainstorming is more his strength. He casts a glance over at the others, who are all still somehow asleep despite the fact that neither of them are whispering anymore.

“A ranged assault?” he tries.

Time shakes his head. “Again, arrows. And we can’t bring the fight to them – there’s no approach that doesn’t cost us. I’ve tried so many-” he cuts himself off, voice tight.

“Okay,” Twilight hears himself say. “So then… we don’t fight. We don’t run. We’re safe here, right? We don’t leave. We wait, until they give up and the way is clear.”

Time looks at him, haunted, and it’s an expression Twilight could have happily gone his entire life without ever seeing on his mentor. “…They starved us out.”

Twilight recoils.

Of ready to eat provisions, Wild has enough to sort them for another day comfortably enough, but he also has plenty more that they can use in a pinch, even if they need to use fire magic to cook it. He hoards food the way Legend hoards rings. If they rationed on top of that… that means…

“That’s… Old Man, are you okay?” He wonders if he should be waking Wild up to steal some of his pies, because even if Time is fine physically, psychologically how can he-

Time for his part, just blinks at him. “Of course. I’m okay, I’m always okay, it’s you boys-”

“Old Man,” Twilight interrupts. “None of us have been through it. It’s hypothetical to us. But you were there, and I can’t imagine what that would be like, so I’m asking now, are you okay?”

To his perplexity, something seems to ease in Time’s expression, like’s he’s found himself in a familiar place. He pats Twilight’s hand, as though in reassurance. “Thank you, Twilight. It’s very kind of you to always be looking out for me.”

The wording is wrong, the tone is wrong, like Time is quoting it by rote-

“You’re always the first to figure it out,” Time continues, “I really don’t mean to worry you so, but you’re so observant.” And Twilight’s heart is suddenly pounding, the roaring drum of panic in his ears.

How many times have they had this conversation?

“But this is something I have to do myself. There’s no point to you boys worrying about it.” His gaze turns distant, analytical. “I see now, the shrine was a mistake. Back at the Canyon, perhaps…” And he sounds so calm about it, even though Twilight is choking on the horror of it, that Time’s struggle here is not over, that he’s going back to a point before Twilight even realised- where nobody is going to know that Time has just come out of a weeks-long siege that they lost.

Time is going to keep fighting this battle all alone and he can’t help. None of them can help. None of them will even know they need to.

“Old Man,” he says, reaching out reflexively.

Time just grasps his reaching fingers, squeezing them briefly, before letting go.

“Don't worry. I’ll fix it,” he promises, and raises the ocarina to his lips. “I always do.”

The others wake up at the first haunting notes of music, but by then it is too late.