Chapter 78 - The Gathering Gloom
She woke up screaming at the top of her lungs. A swift, moist hand clamped shut over her mouth as her cries were muffled into the scaly palm. Veraca’s face hovered over her as he gave her an ardent look, it was clear he was under a lot of stress and tension. The chimeric Gerudo army was not more than a few hundred paces from their concealed sleeping spot. They had been tailing them since the breaking of the Nevachrean siege at their now destroyed temple deep in the desert.
“Would you please tell her to keep it down?” Ruto hissed, propping herself up on her forearm looking over at them. She had been clearly sleeping soundly before the outcry woke Ruto from her blissful slumber.
Malon was still heaving from her vivid dream when Veraca removed his hand from her mouth. “It is not her fault that she had a nightmare Ruto. She cannot control her reaction as she wakes from it.” Veraca rebuked the affronted Zora queen.
“It won’t matter if she brings the whole damn Gerudo army down upon us!” Ruto susurrated harshly, she craned her neck upwards as she tried to peer over their huddled forms and view the substantial army beyond the tree line.
Dawn was just breaking as the faint glimmer of light was peeking over the eastern horizon. The Gerudo army has grown considerably since assaulting the Nevachreans. Many of their women died that day only to be reborn as two new entities; each sharing the same body, talents and memories. It was abhorrent to Malon that such a thing was possible and it did not give her any comfort that her sister, Giana, might be lost in that mob or worse, dead.
Veraca began to reproach Ruto further when Malon placed a hand on his arm, forcing him to kneel back down. “It’s okay Veraca. It was just a bad dream.” She tried shaking her head to clear the memory of her death and those of countless others. The worst part about her dream was the flapping of black wings. “I will be all right.” She assured him with an involuntary shudder.
Ashley was effectively ignoring the whole interlude, only gazing up once when Malon woke up shrieking. He was pulling the final lace taut on his rucksack, having since packed it nearly a half hour ago in preparation to leave. The sleeping horde was just starting its first rumblings of awakening and he did not want to be late in following them once they picked up and left. Unlike the Nevachrean throng, the Gerudo traveled light and slept under the stars. They did not need to bring along tents, firewood, food stores and entertainment for the men, they were self-sufficient and dedicated to their cause. There was little dissent in the ranks for they all knew their singular purpose.
Malon gratefully accepted the firm arm of Veraca as he pulled her up off the frosted grass. They had scaled over the eastern bluffs bordering the desert and were now in the rolling fields just north of the Negev Marshlands and south of Lake Hylia. It appeared that the Gerudo were planning on attacking the army from the south and potentially cutting off what little supply lines that were still dwindling in.
It was completely astounding how lethal they were as a hostile force. With the aid of dark magick and Kotake still at their side, the Gerudo cut a blazing swath through the mass entrenched at their doorstep nearly a fortnight ago. Their Cyn’Taak infused weapons were deadly and obliterated all resistance the Nevachreans put up. With a continuingly growing force upon each death, the potential end result of this war was terrifying to Malon and the others.
“We should retreat to the Negev, rally our troops and defend Glaun’rung. I fear that once the Gerudo wipe out the main force up in Hyrule, they will travel southwards and eliminate what is left of their country. The capital is a defendable position if we invest some-” Veraca was baring his proposal plainly to the others, but Malon cut him off.
“There is no time.” Malon shook her head. “We have to get to Kakariko somehow. I know that is where Link would have been meeting Talon and the others.” She smiled forlornly at the mention of her father. She wondered if what the witches said about his death were true. “We must warn them that Ganondorf and his hags are not to be trusted. If we follow this army to the main body, I am sure they will cut a path for us to the other side and we travel north to the meeting place.” She sighed with despondency, “I just hope we aren’t too late.”
Brushing off the flecks of irritating dirt and grass clinging to her wet scales, Ruto gave a tempestuous look in Malon’s direction, “And what purpose would that ultimately serve?” She scoffed, folding her arms. “We just trade one danger for another.” At an incredulous look from Malon, Ruto rolled her eyes and continued, “Link is coming back with two of the sacred stones from what I’m gathering, yes? It won’t matter if we warn him or not if the Gerudo get to Naar first and take the Zora Sapphire from him. I say we do Link a favor and get it ourselves.”
Suspiciously, Veraca questioned her, “Just what exactly are you intending?” He was worried she might return to her former, wicked ways the moment she got the chance.
“We follow the Gerudo as we had originally planned, but once we cross the border into Hyrule, let them tackle the Nevachreans while we head north to the castle. To Naar.” Ruto tried to hide a smirk, but Veraca saw it immediately.
“No! Out of the question Ruto!” Veraca fumed. “We toiled hard to track you down and finally bring you back home to your people. You are not going to throw away your entire race, your people, just to return to that despicable man!” He began advancing on her.
She stepped back a few paces, clearly defiant, “Oh, please Veraca. Hear me out first before jumping to conclusions.” He promptly stopped, but was highly agitated that all their hard work in reforming Ruto to be the queen of the Zoras was going to waste. He also felt a twinge in his heart. Did he dare say he was even jealous of this Nevachrean male who had plundered his beloved time and time again?
Unknowing of his inner turmoil, Ruto rattled off her plan, “I am still his Dark Mistress as far as Naar is concerned and anyone else under his command. He has not heard word of me in many orbits. It would do well if I get back into his good graces again. As far as I have heard from Link, he has the Zora Sapphire in his possession.” Veraca merely growled. Malon looked dubious wondering if this was even going to be a feasible plan. Ashley just yawned, anxious to get a move on.
Raising a finger in the air to make a point, Ruto pressed, “For the sacred stones to be viable, they must be freely given to the chosen by their bearers. Link returned the Sapphire back to me when he left our domain those many cycles ago. I have not returned it to him of my free will. If I can get close enough to Naar to acquire the sapphire, we have a chance of helping Link better than if we were to just meet him at Kakariko.” She finished the last statement with a leering smile.
“So you get the sapphire, the sacred stone of our people that we were sworn to protect, then what?” Veraca grilled severely, he did not like where this plan was going.
Ruto chuckled at his disbelief, “For someone who claims to love me so much, you surely don’t trust me that well.”
“I do love you Ruto.” Veraca was taken aback, hurt at her words. “With every fiber of my being, I love you.” He steeled his eyes with firm resolve. “However, your past actions and what was done to you has altered your mind state. I cannot be anything but wary.”
Ruto shrugged her shoulders, “We either do it my way and help Link further or we go Malon’s way and help Link less.”
Malon scowled at the flippant disregard of her original course of action. Her only goal in mind was simply to be in his arms again, to take comfort in his forest scent and revel in the comfort of his body and wings. She missed his smile and touch. As much as she hated the plan Ruto was offering, she had to admit that it made the most sense with regard to assisting Link in reclaiming the Master Sword. With great reluctance, Malon sighed, “We will go with what Ruto is suggesting. We head north at the earliest opportunity. We will confer the best course of action once we reach that point.”
Ruto clapped her hands with mock excitement, “Splendid! Then shall we be off? It seems Ashley has already left us.” She jerked her chin in the direction of the Gerudo mass. It was indeed true that Ashley was already hunkered low in the tall grass, surreptitiously trailing the back end of the horde.
Veraca shook his head in disbelief, “Does that boy even care if we are with him or not?”
Malon grinned, “Ashley just assumes we will follow him. He has no fear that we won’t be there for him. For really, what choice do we have?” She had to suppress a laugh at Veraca’s expression. Picking up her scimitars, she wedged them through the loops of her belt. With a sorrowful look and a small pat to her belly, she started off after Ashley. Ruto and Veraca shared a look before gathering their procured weapons and following them.
Impa adroitly leaped off the horse while simultaneously grabbing the reins and swiftly leading it into the brush along the rock face bordering Kakariko village. They had shadowed Ganondorf and Apolloni northwards until they turned west and galloped up the rock-hewn stairs leading into the village proper. Dawn was breaking, casting a deep shadow from the mountains westward across the plain, keeping them hidden from sight.
Merin slid off the exhausted stallion and stepped up behind Impa, her eyes gazing towards the massive throng seemingly pulsating at the entrance to the castle. She scrunched her nose in disgust as she viewed the river that ran downstream past their position from the castle, it had turned a filthy shade of brown and an awful odor of refuse and filth was emanating from it. The army had polluted the very land they occupied and nothing was safe from their contamination.
A quick snap of Impa’s fingers riveted her attention back to the grooved stairs leading up to the foot of the pass. The Sheikah had already tethered the horse behind a conglomeration of bushes, hiding it expertly behind the foliage and shade of nearby trees. Without a word, Impa motioned them forward as they skulked alongside the rock wall and peered around the corner. Seeing nothing but the bleached bones of the poor villagers who were mercilessly slaughtered and raped on these very stairs seven cycles ago, she and Merin advanced forward up the steps into town.
“What happened here?” Merin asked dismayed. Her foot inadvertently touched a small skeleton of what looked like a young child. Its hip bones cracked and twisted in such an odd fashion that it appeared it had been raped to death in a rather deviant manner. What awful screams must have been echoing through this village that day?
A grim countenance set itself upon Impa’s face, “A barrier to buy us more time.” Impa said with some regret.
Merin looked up at Impa’s eyes, searching the real meaning of her words, “They were sacrificed, weren’t they?”
A small bow of the head confirmed it, “The Sheikah’s sole purpose is to protect the royal family and the sacred objects entrusted to them. My charge at this time was Princess Zelda. Our only goal was to get her to safety. These villagers did what needed to be done. They gave us that time to get what really mattered away from this place.”
Impa closed her eyes, controlling her tears. She had not the time to grieve over the loss of her friends, the very people she had loved so much that she opened up the village to allow them to live in it. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she betrayed them all to a fate they didn’t deserve, and for what? Their sworn duty to their Goddess? What right did she have to condemn a whole town to death for a Goddess that supposedly loved and cared for her people? She passed a hand over her face to ward off her wayward thoughts.
Sidestepping a rather shocking collection of skeletons heaped together like trash, Merin followed Impa up the steps. “I understand what you mean. You did what you felt was the greater good.” Merin felt awkward, she said the words but she didn’t fully know if she actually meant them. Merin sensed that she had to say something to alleviate the tension.
“It doesn’t matter now.” Impa said, wiping away a fleck of crystalline from her eye with a finger. “What matters is that we avenge their souls on those that perpetrated this upon them.”
Merin went to say more, but was silenced with a raised fist from Impa. Up ahead they spied the tattered and broken sign welcoming visitors to Kakariko. It had been badly charred and was completely broken in half, lying covered in weeds on the ground. Beyond lay the wasteland that was now Kakariko, the grass no longer grew and was nothing but dirt and dried clumps of brown.
Impa silently voiced her disgust as she inspected the earth. The bastards had salted the soil. She tossed the dirt with a violent throw. There would be no grass, shrubs or trees that would grow in this village for many cycles to come. They not only destroyed this town, but they prevented it from becoming beautiful again.
She scanned the environment and noticed only several of the buildings still moderately intact. They had the majority of their structure burnt to the ground, but there were still some corner and beam supports still standing, if not a bit scorched. A neighing to her left galvanized them to action. They both hurtled across the path towards the nearest building remnants on the southern rise and looked north towards the center of town. There at the foot of the pass leading up to Death Mountain was Ganondorf and Apolloni, they had set up camp by the old watchtower in the center of town and were calmly awaiting Link and the others to saunter down the mountain as agreed upon.
Merin knew that if she had been an elder and underwent the process of implanting a ruby in her forehead, they would be discovered within seconds. She was immediately thankful that she never made the cut. She was nervous about confronting her king. She still couldn’t come to grips with the fact that she had been deceived by her own leader, the one man she ever looked up to. “So what do we do now?” Merin probed apprehensively.
“Nothing. We wait alongside them.” Impa confirmed with commitment, leaning back into a comfortable sitting position against the crumbling brick.
“We aren’t going to stop them from killing Link?” Merin stood there agape.
Impa rested her head up against the cool wall, “I highly doubt he’d do that right away. If I know Ganondorf, he’ll keep up the ruse that he is with us until he no longer has to. What he won’t expect is us showing up and spoiling his strategy. We have the element of surprise now. We will take them both on together when we have the rest to assist us.”
“Okay…” Merin said uncertainly. She knew in her heart that neither of them together were a match for the Gerudo king and the powerful dark magick he wielded. The fact Apolloni was there didn’t help the odds in their favor either. At length, she finally relented and sat down next to the Sheikah as they waited away the hours before Link’s return.
Argonim burst through the tent flaps only to be greeted by a claymore in the chest, its calm steel sinking deeper into his flesh before it pierced through his body completely and drew rivers of blood out the other side. He grunted in pain as he slumped over onto the wielder’s arm. Naar, disgusted, smashed a boot into the man’s knee cracking it with one swift blow. With his free arm, he divested from his blade the bulky piece of meat with a push of his hand.
“Fool! You should know better than to barge in without announcing yourself first. Did they not teach you manners where you are from?” With a wry grin and a hearty laugh, Naar seemed quite amused at his own joke. “Oh wait, I completely forgot. Where are my manners?” With a guffaw, he gleefully slammed his boot tip up into Argonim’s chin forcing the man into a twirling flip before collapsing in a moaning heap on the ground.
With a brief glance through the flapping tent opening, Naar growled for the other imbeciles to enter the pavilion. Presently they placed a small bundle of wriggling sackcloth on the floor at his feet. Naar dissipated his weapon as he looked down at it intrigued. He nudged the bag with the heel of his foot only to have a small shriek emit from its folds.
Eyebrows raised, he turned to the massive man beside him, groaning with the agony of reconstruction, “What is this present that you brought me?”
Gasping for air, Argonim managed to elevate his upper half enough to look over at the quivering package. “A gift. A bargaining chip with the Gerudo.” He rasped; doubling over hacking as the sucking wound in his chest began to close up.
Naar knelt beside it and carefully brought down the cloth siding until a flaming mane of hair emerged from its depths. His eyes widened with shock as he gazed upon a Gerudo for the first time, a child certainly, but a Gerudo nonetheless! He had only heard about them from his commanders, their lethal battle prowess and hearty constitution from living all their lives in the desert. The young girl was terrified with fear as she brought her knees up to her face, her eyes wildly darting around at the dangerous men surrounding her. Her eyes locked onto Argonim’s as he tried to get into a sitting position, she squealed and drew back further into the bag.
“Extraordinary…” Naar mused, as he beheld the beautiful creature before him. The fact it was female was definitely holding favorably in his sight, younger in both physique and build than the Kokiri but still no less majestic. His eyes suddenly darkened, “Why would she be a bargaining chip? The Gerudo are many and vast, why would they care about a single, lone child?”
Argonim heaved himself up to standing, clearing Naar’s form by several feet. He was so tall he had to hunch over to avoid hitting his head against the tarp cloth ceiling. “We snatched this jewel out by the pass near the Negev Marshlands. She was being carried by another Gerudo female. A scouting party ambushed our camp and took the older female away. They did not find this one.”
Irritated at the lack of answer he was expecting, Naar reposted his question, “That still doesn’t resolve the issue. Why would they care about bargaining for one child?”
The muscular man looked at his companions for answers. They were unable to supply any, preferring to stay out of Naar’s ire by remaining silent. Mumbling under his breath, Argonim attempted an answer, “I’ve seen the Gerudo go above and beyond to save every single prisoner we’ve taken into our camp. They are very protective of their own and are willing to go into the heart of our camp to rescue their people. I saw it firsthand when they routed us in the desert about a fortnight ago. I barely made it out alive with this little girl.”
Rage evident in his cry, Naar crashed a fist into Argonim’s face. Channeling inner energies into his fingers, the force of the blow initiated a concussion wave that bowled the other two soldiers standing by. The meaty man flew backwards and rammed into the side beam post of the tent with a sickening crack. His spine broken, he crumpled to the dirt in misery. Blood dribbled down his mouth as several teeth fell out, splintered and in pieces. The little girl yelped in fright and curled up deeper into the sackcloth.
“Idiot! They have weapons that can annihilate us in seconds, to reduce us to nothing but ashes and dust! Ashes and dust!” He rubbed some dirt between his fingers and tossed it into Argonim’s face for emphasis. “You think they will want to bargain with us? Without their leader to guide them and speak for them, they will not listen to the enemy! They would rather shoot us dead than allow us leverage against them. This girl is useless!” The spittle spewed from Naar’s mouth due to the encompassing wrath that had taken ahold of him.
Argonim croaked, “If…it’s all right with you sir…I’d like to have the girl if you don’t…want her.” A glimmer of hope flashed across his eyes as he gazed upon the luscious red curls of the trembling girl.
Naar backhanded the man across the face forcing him to crumble face first into the earth. “She is to reside with me until such time I decide what to do with her. As for you, I have a special task set aside for your talents.” Unable to even move, Argonim moved his pupils to look up at the imposing stature of his general. “The Gerudo leader decided to pay me a visit a few moons ago and divulge a most interesting scenario that is unfolding around us. You are to assist him in any way you can in the deal we have made. He is heading east to Kakariko as we speak most likely.”
“What if…he betrays us?” Argonim murmured from the side of his broken mouth.
Naar chuckled, “Oh, I have no doubt of that! I trust him as much as I trust my women, very little.” His expression hardened as he glowered at the two silent men at the entrance, “You two! Drag this sorry carcass out of my sight. Come back when you’ve fully healed and are ready to properly accept your assignment!”
With one final kick to the man’s ribs, Naar watched as the two soldiers struggled to heave the freakishly huge man onto their shoulders and lug him out into the open air. With a contented sigh, he turned towards the quaking little Gerudo girl. She was dressed in nothing but a simple plain dress of ivory white with intricate designs along the bottom, some sort of night wear he guessed. She was a pretty little thing and her deep blue eyes were startlingly captivating.
He leered, “Now what to do with you?” The little girl shivered uncontrollably.