The Reconquest of Erenrue
Link and Zelda made good time cutting across the plain to Pallis; in a little more than a week, they were within sight of the city.
They returned to their human forms and looked at it in the silence of the night. Tiny pinpricks of orange light in the watchtowers stood out against the otherwise dark city. The nearly-full moon illuminated the mountain behind Pallis, making its snowy peaks glow.
It looked quiet and peaceful from a distance. But something about it created a sense of unease. It was too dark and too quiet and too still. It was a city full of death.
Link looked at Zelda. "Are you ready?"
She nodded a little.
She unfastened the Soul Scepter from her belt—where it hung beside her sword—and slowly she held it aloft. In a clear voice—full of all the royal authority she could muster—she said, "I call forth the Army of Erenrue. Let all those who would fight for their homeland come and fight with us."
The scepter began to glow white, then an unseen magic shot out from it, creating a ripple in the air that fanned out across the open plain.
Link and Zelda held their breath, waiting to see who would come. The fairy had warned that the spirits of the dead could choose to respond—or not. The Soul Scepter could bring them into the mortal world, but it could not control them.
A moment passed, then a faint white mist began to rise up from the ground, like a fog over damp earth.
Link and Zelda watched silently as the fog rose to head-height, then it slowly began to coalesce into individual shapes. After a few more seconds, the shapes became more refined and features began to appear. They had a soft, pearly glow to them, and they simultaneously looked solid and vaporous—like thick smoke that had a definite shape, and yet could be passed through with ease.
A minute after it began, a huge ghost-army—thousands of men—stood on the plain before Link and Zelda. Some of them were wearing clothes and armor that had gone out of style decades—if not centuries—before. Apparently, it wasn't only the recent-dead who felt the need to answer the call for their kingdom's defense.
But, towards the front, were newer, more familiar faces—those men who had ridden out with Link and Zelda in the last battle.
Front and center was King Ranis and Prince Zeyde. Beside them were Duke Reginald—his arm draped over Nicoli's shoulders—and Duke Clark, who had taken an arrow when he tried to help Link and Zelda escape.
They were all dressed for battle, but as they had been before it commenced. There were no wounds, no rent garments, no blood.
"I knew this day would come," King Ranis said. His voice was familiar, but there was a ringing to it, as if he was speaking from the end of an echoing chamber. "I knew you would honor your promise to free our kingdom."
"We can't do it alone," Link said. "That's why we have had to call you from the Other World."
"Understood. And it's only fitting that the dead should have their revenge." He turned to face his army. "Am I right, men? Did we not come here to take back that which was ours?"
The ghost-army shouted, "YES!"
"These demons stole our lives and they have stolen our children's futures. We cannot live again, but we can get back the inheritance that rightly belongs to our children."
The army seemed to hold its collective breath—that is, if they breathed at all.
Then Ranis shouted, "Muster the troops!"
There was a gleeful whoop and cheers from the assembled throng that was quickly drowned out by the sound of horns.
Prince Zeyde and the other captains began passing through the ranks, organizing the men into lines and divisions. It seemed more chaotic than the last time—possibly because there were troops who had never served under King Ranis and who had no idea where they were supposed to be.
King Ranis stalked through the men, watching them with a critical eye. "You there," he shouted. "Get into line like everyone else. Just because you're dead doesn't mean you can run around aimlessly like some peasant rabble. This is the Army of Erenrue!"
Then he clapped an old man on the shoulder. The old man wore ancient armor, but stood with his back ramrod straight and his eyes forward. "Look at this man; take your cue from him," Ranis shouted at anyone who would listen. "Gods! What a specimen! Is it any wonder we're the best soldiers in the world when we have men like this old warrior as our ancestors?"
The old man smiled faintly.
As the hustle and bustle began to die down and the last of the ranks formed up, Prince Zeyde approached Link and Zelda.
"You will be in the back with me this time," Zeyde said in his soft, quiet voice. "We're in no real danger, but both of you will be. Whatever happens, both of you must live."
Zelda looked up at her uncle sorrowfully. "I'm so sorry you died," she whispered, tears forming in her eyes.
He reached out to touch her, stroking his hand over her hair. She could barely feel something cool pass over her, like a breeze.
"It was my time," he told her kindly. "And I would rather have died saving you than to have met my end by some torture devised by Nagadii; at least I died for a purpose. And now my sacrifice will be rewarded; we will do in death what we could not do in life: we will save our kingdom."
A moment later, King Ranis strode back through the army, which was now in neat, rectangular blocks of troops. "Zeyde, are we ready?" he called out. He sounded exactly as he always had: eager for battle. There was even the same old light in his eyes—a hungry gleam. It wasn't for naught that he had been nicknamed "the Lion of Erenrue." He looked at battle the way a lion looked at a deer.
"Yes, I believe we're ready to go," Zeyde replied calmly.
"I will take the first half of the army with me and we will assault the gate and main towers," Ranis said, pointing to them in the distance. "Once we have the gate open, we will push straight in, like a spear thrust. That should catch them by surprise. Then, on my signal, bring in the second wave and have the units fan out left and right and begin sweeping the city. Along the way, try to rally as many people as you can to our cause."
Ranis looked at Link and Zelda. "We can deal with the demons, but we cannot attack the living. If there are still mercenaries in the city—as I believe there are—someone else will need to take them out."
"Understood," Link replied.
"We will rendezvous at the castle."
"I want to go there first," Zeyde said, sounding anxious for the first time. "If they have Austina held hostage, they may harm her when word comes that they're under attack. I would like to be there before they have time to do anything."
"We do know there's a major demon somewhere in the city," Link added. "It's a good bet that he's in the castle."
Ranis considered this for a moment, then nodded. "Very well. I will put Clark in charge of the second assault. You can take a small detachment and fight your way straight to the castle. We will be along as soon as we can to give you reinforcement."
Ranis strode off to make the necessary arrangements.
Zeyde looked at Link and Zelda. "Alright, slight change of plans; you will go in with Duke Clark instead of me. But stay to the back; let him and his men handle all of the demons. You only need to be on the lookout for the living. But try to avoid fighting as much as you can; it's more important that Zelda retain possession of the Soul Scepter; without that, we're all lost."
Link and Zelda looked at one another and, without a word being said, reached an agreement. "No offense meant to Duke Clark," Link said, addressing Zeyde, "but we would prefer to go in with your men."
"Link, you said yourself there's a major demon in this city and it's likely in the castle. That makes it the last place where we want you and Zelda."
"No offense to your prowess, but you may need our help. Her Highness and I have a lot of experience fighting these demons."
"Yes, and they've nearly killed you," Zeyde argued. "You can sit out this once; let someone else carry the burden."
Link looked at Zelda questioningly, but she shook her head.
Link turned back to Zeyde. "Thank you for your concern, but we would still prefer to go in with you."
"Link, I didn't give up my life just to see you both die needlessly," Zeyde said, sounding increasingly frustrated. Ranis stalked past a moment later and Zeyde pulled him into the argument. "Father, tell them that they must stay in the back with Clark—that they can't go in with me."
Ranis looked at them critically. "You want to get a piece of this fight, huh?"
"We know more about demons than anyone," Link argued. "We know their tricks and where they're likely to have weak spots. It makes sense for us to go where we're most likely to be needed."
"It makes sense for you to stay where you're least likely to be killed—which is exactly the opposite of where I'll be!" Zeyde argued, his voice rising.
"Aw, Zeyde, they want to fight. Let them," Ranis said. "How many times did you ask to lead from the front?"
"Yes, and how many times did you deny me? And for the exact same reason: the heir to the throne has to survive. Zelda must survive."
"If Aunt Austina is hurt, we'll be able to help her," Zelda hurried to say, offering the one argument she knew would destroy Zeyde's resolve. "You can't touch her, can you?"
"No," he said sadly.
"Then you will need us if she needs help."
Zeyde sighed, and Zelda knew he was defeated. "Very well," he reluctantly agreed.
Ranis clapped him on the back. "It'll be alright. I don't think there's a force in this world or outside it that can whip these two." He suddenly laughed. "You may need them more than they need you."
Ranis turned back to the troops. "First wave, make ready!" he called out, as he began moving to the front of the line.
"We will go in after Father," Zeyde said, still not sounding happy about being overruled. He walked among the remaining men, choosing the ones he wanted to fight with him.
Link looked at Zelda. "You know, we might should have called everyone up a little closer to the city; it's a long walk and you can't transform while holding the scepter."
"I hadn't thought about that," she said, looking at the distant lights. "But surprise is probably more important than our feet."
"Your feet," Link corrected. "I'm going to fly."
"What!?" she demanded, shocked that he would let her suffer alone.
"Even if we're traveling with an army of the undead, it might help to have some reconnaissance. I'm going to fly ahead and see what's going on in the city."
"Uncle Zeyde probably won't like it."
"Which is why we're not going to tell him," Link said with a slight smile. "Besides, it's you who needs to live; he can probably see to spare me."
Before she could say anything, he transformed. He hopped across the ground a few times, to get up speed, then jumped into the air and began flying upwards.
Zelda watched his dark form, silhouetted against the bright night sky, fly towards the city, then disappear into the darkness.
She didn't notice Zeyde coming to stand beside her. "We wondered about the two of you once."
She looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"Father and I—we wondered what was between you and Link. Something appeared to be there, but… not matured yet. But that was more than a season ago and the two of you have changed. You've grown up and grown together." He smiled at her. "And I must say we're pleased."
"You approve of Link, then?"
She looked back at the dark city. "But will the people of Hyrule approve? That's the question."
"It is indeed."
"I don't know that they have your… rationality."
"Rationality?" Zeyde asked, perking a brow.
"You see who Link really is—not what he was born. You judge him for the qualities that he can control—and that are important. That's rational. But I'm not sure Hyrule will be so rational. I fear they won't get past the fact that he's the son of a fisherman."
"No one could see Link and think him a mere fisherman," Zeyde argued. "He was impressive when he was here months ago; he has only become more so since then."
Zelda didn't say anything; she hoped her uncle was right.
She could feel a slight coolness where he put his hand on her shoulder. "Zelda, just let the people see Link. I think they will come to appreciate his inner nobility and cease to see that he lacks it on paper."
Zelda sighed. It was something she didn't like thinking about. While she had faith they would somehow win against Nagadii, she wasn't so sure about her future with Link. That still felt questionable. And the fact that she couldn't be sure scared her. It made her question whether what they were going through now was really worth the effort. Which was obviously the wrong thing to think. Of course she wasn't doing this for her own gain; it was for all the people who had suffered, who were suffering, and who would suffer in the future.
So that's why she didn't let herself think too far ahead.
"One problem at a time," she said.
Zeyde smiled softly at her. "A wise course of action at any time."
Duke Clark interrupted them a moment later with a blast from his horn. "To me!" he shouted.
"Let's go," Zeyde said, gesturing for Zelda to follow him.
As the rest of the army did an about-face, Zeyde and Zelda and his hand-picked force moved through the ranks until they came out at the head.
"Will you go before us?" Duke Clark asked Zeyde.
He nodded. "Ready whenever you are, my prince."
"Company make ready!" Zeyde shouted. Behind him, his men formed an orderly block five men wide and four deep. Zeyde stood beside Zelda at the front.
They began moving forward. Zelda had to walk fast to keep up; the ghost-soldiers moved faster than they would have in life.
They were only about one hundred yards behind Ranis' part of the army—just enough distance to give the first wave time to attack and push back the initial defenders. After that, they would be on their own.
Not long after setting out, Zelda saw a dark shape in the sky above them. Her immediate thought was that it was a demon-bat, but a moment later, when it swooped closer, she saw it was just Link.
He transformed mid-air and dropped lightly to his feet beside Zelda and immediately fell into step without missing a beat.
"The city is quiet," he informed Zeyde. "They don't expect anything… or else they're very good at pretending to be off-guard."
"Don't worry," Zeyde said. "Nagadii can no more see us in his scrying stone than we can see through his magic. If he sees anything at all, it will just be the two of you approaching—and while he would like to kill you, he would hardly except you to be a threat to the city."
Zelda was breathing hard and her legs were aching by the time they came into sight of the actual walls. But they pressed on as King Ranis's men suddenly—with a shout from their commander—broke into a run and charged the gate. A moment later, they began disappearing through the solid wooden doors.
There was a shout inside the city, then another, and soon there were random shouts all over. There were screeches from demons as well.
Archers in the guard towers tried shooting at the soldiers as they passed through the gate door, but their arrows passed through the figures and thudded impotently into the ground. A moment later, there were nearby screams and the arrows stopped coming.
"How will we get through the gate?" Link asked, as the troops quickened their pace; he and Zelda were having to jog to keep up.
"Leave it to us."
As if on command, there was a scraping sound, then the large doors began to slowly open outward. Even if the ghosts couldn't touch the living, they could at least touch inanimate objects.
As the gates opened, they revealed chaos in the streets. There were demons and mercenaries and civilians all running around, scared and unsure of what to do, swatting at the ghosts, but accomplishing nothing.
The demons were quickly taken down by the soldiers. Shouts from them encouraged the populace to take out the mercenaries. Slowly, as the ghost army swept up the street, old men and boys not yet teenagers and grown women began coming out of their houses and mobbing the surviving mercenaries. The hired soldiers were laid low by the thrust of spears, and iron skillets to the head, and table knives wielded like blades—whatever weapons could be found.
A horn sounded, signaling for the second wave.
"This way," Zeyde called, as they broke into a run. They passed through the gate, then veered off to the right.
They ran up the stairs and inclines, taking the shortest possible route to the castle. They saw people peeking out from behind curtains, but the streets they were running through were deserted.
Then they turned a corner and were suddenly rushed by an entire mob of large, humanoid demons. Zeyde and the other spirits pushed forward to engage, but a few demons slipped past them. Link was set on by two of them and ended up pinned against the wall of a house, his own sword pressing dangerously close to his neck.
Another one slipped past and made directly for Zelda.
"Zelda!" he shouted, struggling to get away from the demons who threatened to overwhelm him with their superior size.
Zelda saw the demon hurdling headlong for her. She had no time to switch the scepter to her left hand and draw her sword. That left only one possible weapon at her disposal.
She planted her feet, gripped the Soul Scepter in both her hands, and drew back. As soon as the snarling demon was in range—when it was practically on top of her—she swung a mighty uppercut that caught it under the chin. The thud of the impact could be heard over the din of battle.
The demon squealed as it was thrown backwards. Then, before it could hit the ground, it disintegrated into black smoke.
The next moment, Link managed to draw his sword out, cutting across the necks of both of the demons gripping him. They made a high-pitched, strangled noise, then collapsed into smoke as well.
Panting, he turned to look at Zelda.
"Who knew you could use that as a weapon?" he asked, looking at the scepter in her hands with astonishment.
"A scepter is just a ceremonial mace," she said wisely. "And I guess a holy mace works the same as a holy sword."
"Well, when you put it that way, it makes sense," he admitted.
Zeyde hurried to them a moment later. "Are you two alright?" he asked nervously.
"Yes," Link replied.
He looked them over once, as if he needed to be sure, then he nodded. "We have the way clear. Let's go."
They continued their run up the streets of Pallis. At one point, a flock of demon-birds came screeching out of a bell tower and dived towards them.
"Get down!" Zeyde shouted.
Link grabbed Zelda and they fell to the cobblestones. Zeyde's men surrounded them and began hacking at the birds. The birds tried several times to get at Link and Zelda, but the Erenrue soldiers had them too well-protected; within moments, the last bird was cut down.
They ran into a few more small groups of demons, but none as big as the first pack that had swarmed them. With one exception, Zeyde and his men took care of all of them, and Link easily dispatched the one who got through them.
The gates to the castle's courtyard were closed, but Zeyde and his men passed through them as if they weren't there. A moment later, there was a scrape and rattle as they lifted the bar from the inside and pulled open one of the doors. Link and Zelda hurried in.
"Where to now?" Link asked.
"We should spread out and search," Zeyde said. He began pointing to people, pairing them up and giving them an assignment. "You two, check the kitchens and cellars. All of them. You two, the stables. You two, the armory. You two, the treasury and jewel room."
He quickly dispatched his men, then he looked at Link and Zelda. "We'll check the throne room and the royal apartments; that's where Austina is most likely to be."
"And where the demon is most likely to be too," Link added grimly.
Zeyde nodded, then led them across the narrow courtyard and up the broad steps to the main door.
They ran silently through the dark, empty hallways. When they came to the throne room, they found the doors standing wide open. At the far end of the room, in the pale moonlight that filtered through the large windows, sat a ghostly-pale Princess Austina. She was seated on the golden throne that had once belonged to Ranis.
"Aunt Austina!" Zelda called out, hurrying through the door.
"Zelda, wait!" someone called out behind her, but the words didn't register; she had to get to her aunt before any demons did.
And then she was falling forward. A hand tightly clamped over hers, making sure she didn't lose the scepter as she went down.
She landed painfully on the carpet runner; a heavy weight on her back nearly knocked the breath out of her.
"It's a trap!" Link whispered in her ear. "Just because we know this place doesn't mean it's not a demon's lair like all the rest."
A moment later, something large and dark began to rise up behind the throne.
"You should have let her come," a voice hissed.
Zelda's eyes grew wider as a demon slowly unfolded itself. It was taller than even the golden throne.
"It was going to be a very sweet family reunion," it added.
The demon slowly moved around the throne and walked down the stairs. It looked like a gargoyle of the old legends. It stood on long, powerful legs like those of a rabbit. Its body was like that of a man, but its arms were unnaturally long and it had long hands with claws that would put any tiger's to shame. Its face was angular and wicked and it had long, pointed ears and a mouth full of fangs. Behind it rose great black wings, like a bat's, with claws at the tips.
It was easily twice the size of the humanoid demons in the city—and every bit as large as the Demon of Darkness which they had fought in the first cave.
Prince Zeyde stepped in front of Link and Zelda, his sword held ready.
The demon seemed surprised by his sudden appearance, then he laughed. "Well, well, well," it said with a mocking hiss. "If it isn't the prince come to reclaim his throne." He laughed louder. "You might have trouble keeping it, though, seeing how you're dead."
Zeyde narrowed his eyes. "I don't come for myself. But I will take it back."
The demon laughed again. "I think you've bitten off more than you can chew, Lion Cub of Erenrue," he mocked. "I am not easily defeated—not even by the undead."
The demon held out his hand and black smoke began to swirl around and coalesce into a long, wide blade. He held it up for Zeyde to see.
"Do you know what this is called?"
Zeyde didn't reply.
"It's called the Soul Reaver," the demon continued. "With it, I can take souls—even yours. No more peaceful Other World for you, little prince; no more reincarnation. Your soul will belong to me for all eternity."
He licked his lips with a red, forked tongue. "And do you know what I do with the souls of the damned?"
Zeyde didn't say anything; he didn't even move.
The demon laughed. "So, you see, you are no match for me. Go back to the safety of your world and leave these mortals to me."
"No," Zeyde said coldly.
The demon shrugged. "Have it your way."
Zelda—back on her feet—gripped Link's arm tightly. "We can't let him steal Zeyde's soul!" she hissed.
Link's hand clenched tightly on the hilt of his sword. "We won't. Let's see how cocky this demon is against two."
But before he could draw his sword and join the battle, the demon raised its hand and Austina rose gracefully to her feet and stepped lightly—it almost looked as if she was floating—down the stairs.
Zeyde watched in confusion as his wife walked towards him apparently without seeing him. Then, without hesitation, she walked through him and headed towards Zelda and Link.
Zelda began to grow more nervous. As Austina came closer, Zelda could see that her grey eyes were glassy and vacant; she wasn't looking at Zelda any more than she had been looking at Zeyde.
"I think she's a…" Zelda started to whisper, but she was interrupted by a sharp blow to the side of her head, which sent her staggering sideways, half-blinded by black lights popping in and out of her vision. Before she could figure out what had happened, she was grabbed roughly, her arms pinned behind her back. She almost dropped the Soul Scepter in the process; she managed to save it only by the tips of her fingers.
She looked up and saw that Link had the same vacant eyes as Austina. The demon had made them both puppets.
Zeyde shouted in alarm, but he was quickly attacked by the demon and was forced to fight to defend himself. But even if he had not been fighting for the continued existence of his soul, he couldn't have helped; only Zelda could fight the living.
If she could find it within her to fight against Link and her gentle aunt.
Link reached out and grabbed her sword, pulling it from its sheath. It seemed that he was going to kill her with the very sword he had pledged to her long ago—the sword that had been lovingly maintained and passed down through his family for generations because it had once belonged to one of the last Knights of Hyrule.
Anger suddenly flared up in Zelda. The demon was attempting to corrupt everything that was good—to turn symbols of honor into weapons of dishonor—to attack her through her loved ones so they would suffer as much as she.
She wouldn't stand for it.
When Link moved in for the mortal blow, Zelda kicked out, striking the sword and knocking it from his hand. It went flying through the air and clanged noisily on the marble floor.
A look of rage crossed Link's face and he slapped her across the face so hard, it made her see black spots again.
It took her a few seconds to regain enough vision that she could see him running for the sword.
She struggled against Austina, jerking her arms and twisting. Even if Austina's intentions were now evil, that didn't make up for the fact that her body was as slight and sickly as it had always been.
Austina's grip began to loosen.
Link picked up the sword and turned back to the fight. Zelda knew she only had seconds. He wouldn't fall for the same trick a second time.
Zelda managed to slam her head back against Austina's face, and that was enough to break the other woman's hold; she staggered back, holding a bleeding nose. Then, with a twinge of regret, Zelda stepped around her and swung the Soul Scepter hard at the back of her head.
It made a sickening thud on contact and Austina was sent sprawling onto the floor. She didn't move again.
Zelda hoped that she was merely knocked unconscious—which is what she had intended to do—and wasn't dead. But there wasn't time to worry; Link stepped over Austina's body and bore down on her.
Zelda took a defensive stance. "Link, whatever spell he has you under, you have to fight it."
Her words didn't register. Instead, he came on in a furious onslaught—stronger and faster than she had ever experienced. She had not seen him move like that except when, enraged, he had beaten the boy at the monastery who had bullied her.
How easily and quickly he had defeated an opponent who was a challenge for her was a worrying thought.
She used the Soul Scepter to block his repeated blows, but it was all she could do to maintain her defense; she had no time or opening with which to club him, and he had her only other useable weapon.
He chased her around the perimeter of the room—while Zeyde and the demon fought in the middle—apparently with the intent of wearing her down.
Her arm was growing tired and beginning to ache; she began to slow. He thrust at her and she dodged, but not quickly enough; the sword sliced across her right arm just below the shoulder.
She screamed and instinctively clamped a hand over it; she could feel the sticky blood between her fingers. But Link never let up, and she was forced to run backwards in retreat, trying to give herself a few seconds to recover.
But Link chased her down. Afraid and in pain, she didn't pay attention to where she was going until her back slammed into the wall and she nearly knocked the breath out of herself. With a sickening, triumphant smile, Link resumed his attack and it was everything Zelda could to make her arm move to block his blows; she knew she was seconds away from being killed by the one person who—when conscious, at least—would have rather died than hurt her.
"Oh, gods, help me," she prayed desperately.
And then, as if in answer to her prayer, Link chopped down hard, hitting the handle of the scepter, and with a loud ping, the old sword broke in two.
Link almost looked surprised as he drew back only half of a sword. But Zelda didn't waste any time on emotion; she struck him in the side of the head with the scepter.
He was knocked to the floor, but unlike Austina, he moved and groaned; Zelda had not managed to knock him out completely.
She looked down at him, wondering what she could do to keep him on the floor. Even with half of a sword, he was still dangerous, and she was wounded and already worn out; she wouldn't be able to fight him for much longer.
Then it occurred to her that he had specifically grabbed her sword—not his. The Master Sword was still in its sheath on his belt.
Why had he not gone for his own sword at the start? And why, when he lost the use of her sword—twice!—had he not immediately switched to his own?
Was it because he couldn't touch it? He was still human—or rather, Hylian—but he was clearly possessed by demonic power. Maybe the sword would know that the mortal hand that gripped it wasn't mortal on the inside and it would rebel against him. Link always said the Master Sword could think for itself.
Link was shaking his head, looking as if he was about to recover. She was out of time.
She ran up to him and—trying not to be too hard, but not too gentle, either—she stomped on his crotch.
He cried out and rolled onto his side, in the fetal position. While he was incapacitated, she jerked the Master Sword out of his sheath and, a bit awkwardly—since she had to use her left hand—she touched the tip of it to his face.
He yelped even louder than before and tried to squirm away. In the middle of the room, the demon likewise yelled and dropped his guard for a moment. Zeyde—who had barely been doing better than Zelda—was able to take advantage and switch from a defensive to offensive attack.
Zelda quickly put two and two together and she threw herself on top of Link, pinning him down with the weight of her body, and she stuck the flat of the blade against his face.
Even over his anguished howls—mirrored from farther up the hall—she could hear the nauseating sound of burning flesh. The only thing worse was that she could smell it, too.
But even as he struggled to get away, she pressed down harder, gritting her teeth in determination. The Master Sword glowed brighter than it ever had before.
This hurts me as much as it does you, she said, although she wasn't sure if the real Link could hear her.
As she struggled to burn the demon's presence out of Link, Zeyde got the upper hand. The demon seemed to be experiencing Link's pain and it was barely able to fight. Zeyde began hitting it in the limbs and body, causing it to cry out even more.
Finally, it fell to its knees, bleeding black blood on the white marble floor. Zeyde raised his sword one last time and brought it down hard on the back of the demon's neck, severing his head in one blow.
The demon's head hit the floor and rolled around for a moment, then the head and body both exploded in a puff of black smoke and sparks. His sword exploded too, and there was a strange, distant noise that sounded everything in the world like hundreds of tiny voices shouting in triumph.
Zelda could feel Link immediately relax under her. The Master Sword dimmed and the sound and smell of burning flesh went away.
She pulled the sword away and sat back on her heels, looking at him.
He groaned, then slowly opened his eyes. "Z-Zelda?" he croaked.
He put his hand up to his face, but jerked it away immediately when he touched the raw, bleeding place the sword had left.
"I… I was having a nightmare, and you… you were burning me…" he said, still sounding—and looking—confused. "But… how did I really get burnt?"
"Oh, Link, that wasn't a nightmare; it was real. The demon took control of you."
Link's eyes fixed on her bleeding arm. "Oh, gods." He reached out a trembling hand, but stopped short of touching her—as if he didn't dare. "Oh, gods. I did that."
She saw the panic in his eyes and she tried to cut it off before it got going. "Link, it's alright. I'll be alright. And Zeyde killed the demon, so you never have to worry about the nightmares ever again. It's over."
He clutched his head in his hands, his fingers pulling at his hair. "Oh, gods, I nearly killed you. I actually tried to kill you." His breath came faster, sounding as if he was bordering on hyperventilating.
Zelda put her arm around him, holding him as he curled up on himself. "Link, shh, it wasn't you; it was the demon. I knew it was him all along."
He didn't seem to be hearing what she was saying. His tears came in violent sobs that racked his body. "I… can't… take… this… anymore. I… can't…."
She rested her cheek against his shoulder. "Oh, Link, you don't have to. It's over now. No more nightmares. You can get a good night's sleep and everything will be fine when you wake up."
They were interrupted by the sound of someone clearing his throat. "I, um, hate to intrude, but could one of you please help my wife?" Zeyde asked. "She's not waking up."
Zelda looked up and saw Zeyde kneeling by Austina's sprawled form. She hadn't moved since Zelda hit her.
Zelda got up and hurried over, suddenly terrified that she might have killed her aunt. She didn't think she had hit the other woman that hard, but Austina had always been frail, and there was obviously something wrong with her head since she had headaches all the time; it might not have taken much to push her over the edge.
Zelda knelt down and immediately put her ear to Austina's chest. Relief washed over her when she clearly heard the sounds of Austina's heart and breath.
"She's alive," she said, looking up at Zeyde.
"Thank the gods," he said fervently.
Zelda slid her hand behind Austina's head and found her dark hair was sticky with cool, congealing blood.
She frowned. She didn't know how bad the wound was; it might be fatal yet.
She closed her eyes. Kara?
Yes, Your Highness? Do you have good news? Kara asked, unable to conceal her eager curiosity.
Perhaps, she said evasively. We're in the city and we've defeated the major demon. But Princess Austina is hurt and she needs help. Will you come to her? We're in a safe location at the moment.
Yes, of course I will, Kara said without hesitation. Zelda didn't know why she had worried about asking Kara to come to help before the city was fully secured; she should have known the old woman would have no fear.
A moment later, she teleported Kara to her side.
Kara looked around for a moment, as if getting her bearings, then she knelt beside Zelda. "What happened?" she asked, immediately beginning an examination of Austina.
"The demon took control of her—and Link—and made them attack me." Zelda grimaced. "I had to hit her and knock her out to keep her off me. I just couldn't handle her and Link both at the same time."
"Don't beat yourself up over it," Zeyde told her. "You had to save yourself. I'm… I'm just thankful that you spared her."
"I hope I spared her," Zelda said sorrowfully, looking at her aunt's pale, still face and bloody nose. "I didn't want to hurt her."
Kara felt under Austina's head as Zelda had done.
"I think this is just a minor wound," she said. "But I need to get her somewhere where I can examine her better. She may need stitches."
"I can't carry her," Zeyde said.
Zelda knew she couldn't either; even if she didn't have to hold onto the Soul Scepter, the best she could have done was dragged Austina somewhere else.
All of their eyes turned to Link. He was still sitting on the far side of the room, huddled up, with his knees drawn to his chest. His face was red and there were still tears running down his cheeks, but he was watching what was going on.
"I'll get her," he said with a hoarse voice.
He reluctantly pushed himself to his feet, put the Master Sword back in its sheath, then shuffled over to them.
Kara actually winced when she saw his burned and bleeding cheek. "What happened to you?"
"I burned the demon out of him," Zelda whispered. If Link was horrified by what he had done to her, she felt the same by what she had to do to him.
Link didn't say anything; he merely bent down and picked Austina up with a grunt. Zelda had to put her hand against his back to steady him when he staggered under her weight—which was odd, since Austina couldn't have weighed very much. She was tall, yes, but she was also very thin. But when Zelda looked up at Link's face and saw past the burn, she noticed that the dark circles under his eyes had come back, and his face wasn't just tortured, but also exhausted. He was very near the end of his strength. If not for his stubbornness, he would have been finished days—if not weeks—before.
She remembered what he said about the demons trying to break them down mentally and physically long before they met them to fight. The last demon had obviously been doing that for weeks. And maybe that was the reason why he was able to take control of Link: Link had no strength left to fight off the nightmares.
When they passed through the foyer, heading for the royal apartments, they were met by several of Zeyde's men converging from different directions.
"Sire, the dungeon is clear."
"So are the kitchens and cellars."
Zeyde held up his hand, cutting off any additional reports. "We took care of the major demon and found Austina, so all that matters now is that we clear out any minor demons and mercenaries."
"We cleared out some bats down in the cellars, but I haven't see anything else."
They were interrupted by someone bursting through the front door. "There are mercenary archers in the west tower!" he shouted.
"All of you," Zeyde said, indicating the men who were gathered around him, "go into the city and find some people—anybody who has a decent weapon—and bring them here. I'll take them the back way up to the tower."
Then he pointed at the messenger. "Go back and monitor the situation; make sure they don't sneak out and try to come this way. This area is secure and we want it to stay that way."
The man threw a salute. "Yes, sir!"
"Report any problems to me immediately. Go."
The men hurried out the front door. They stopped another pair who were obviously coming in to make their report, spoke briefly, then they turned and joined their companions in a search for living fighters.
"This way," Zeyde said to Link and the others. He hurried through the hallways, leading them to the royal wing, and he threw open the door to his bedroom.
Zelda stayed close on Link's heels, unsure if he was going to make it to the bed with Austina before collapsing. He managed, but just barely. As soon as he put her down, he sat down on the edge of the bed, breathing heavily.
"Thank you," Zeyde told him. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Link just nodded, apparently unable to speak at the moment.
Kara set to work examining the back of Austina's head. "The wound isn't deep," she pronounced at last. "I don't think I need to stitch it up. But I do need to clean it."
"What do you need?"
"Some warm water and some herbs…. But what I really need is at my house. I know she will have a headache when she wakes up, but all of my medicine for her is at home."
Zeyde shook his head. "I don't know if it's safe to go there yet or not."
"You might have what I need in the kitchen—or, at least, enough to get by with until I can go home."
Zeyde nodded. "Take whatever you need. I'll start a fire in here while you search."
He gave her instructions on how to reach the kitchen. Once she was gone, he turned to Link. "We have things under control at the moment. Why don't you take care of yourself. You've been using the fairy in Shi-Ha to heal, haven't you?"
Link nodded a little. "Yes. But Her Highness needs to go first."
Zelda shook her head. "I can't go, Link. We don't know if the Soul Scepter's magic will hold while I'm teleporting."
"That's true," Zeyde said. "And I don't think we can afford for it to break just yet."
Link stared at Zelda's bloody shirt and the cut on her arm. It was nasty-looking, but it had clotted up and stopped bleeding, at least.
"Link, just go," she said. "Kara can bandage my arm as soon as she's taken care of Austina; I'll go to the fairy later."
He hesitated, but finally relented. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he said, before leaving the room.
"He's in bad shape," Zeyde said quietly, as soon as the door was shut behind Link. "He's much worse than he looks."
"I know," Zelda said with a sigh. "I hope that if he gets some sleep, he'll be much better. He's been plagued by nightmares for weeks; he can't sleep for more than half an hour at a time."
Zeyde had just gotten the fire going in the fireplace when Austina began to moan softly.
"Zeyde!" Zelda called to him.
He hurried across the room and leaned over the bed. "Austina, dearest, can you hear me?"
It took a couple of minutes, but her eyes slowly fluttered open. "Z-Zeyde?"
"I'm here, darling."
"Are we dead?"
"You're not, dearest. But I'm afraid I am."
Her eyes widened. "I… I don't understand."
Zelda stepped forward. "Aunt, it's this." She held up the scepter for the other woman to see. "I called up the dead of Erenrue with this."
"I… still don't understand."
"We're here to help Link and Zelda," Zeyde explained. "We're destroying all the demons and taking back the city.
"That… that winged demon…." She tried to push herself up, beginning to panic. "Oh, gods, he does things to me…. I… I can't—"
Zeyde put his hand against her shoulder, as if to push her down again, but wasn't able to stop her. Zelda had to restrain her instead.
"We killed him, dearest," Zeyde said soothingly. "He's gone and he will never torment you again."
"I swear it."
She burst into tears of relief and laid down again.
"Zelda… may I have a moment?" Zeyde whispered.
"Yes, of course," she said. She hurried out of the room to give them their privacy.
She wandered back to the entrance hall. She hadn't been there a minute when King Ranis strode in. "How are things here?" he demanded. "Where's Zeyde?"
"He's with Austina."
"Does she live?"
"Very good," he said, sounding relieved. "I know that will be a great worry off Zeyde's mind."
"Do you feel worry when you're dead?" Zelda asked, curious.
"Under normal circumstances, no, but these aren't normal times. Even the souls of the dead are watching what's happening here."
He squinted, looking more closely at her arm. "Are you badly wounded?"
Zelda shook her head. "I'll be alright."
"He's worse than me, but not dangerously so. He went to see the fairy."
"Did you find the demon you were looking for?"
"Yes." Zelda briefly recounted what happened when they encountered the Demon of Nightmares.
Ranis shook his head gravely. "That's a damn dirty business—underhanded—to use Austina and Link to attack you."
"It did make it hard to fight back, knowing I was hurting people I love. And, unfortunately, Link remembers what happened—although, at the time, it was just a dream to him. I'm afraid the psychological pain of that will hurt him for much longer than the physical pain. We have no way of healing that."
"Time will have to heal it."
A moment later, the same soldier who had reported earlier came back into the hall. He threw a hasty salute. "Your Majesty. I'm looking for Prince Zeyde."
Zeyde rounded the corner a second later. "I'm here."
The soldier saluted again. "Sire, we have half-a-dozen likely-looking people for the assault on the west tower."
"Very well. Bring them in."
The man nodded, then hurried out the door.
Ranis stuck out his hand, stopping Zeyde. "What's this?"
"There are some mercenaries who are occupying the west tower. I'm going to take some people up there to root them out."
"Let me," Ranis offered. "The city is ours; I just left some men to double-check that we had gotten everything. I can take care of this. Stay here with Austina while you can."
Zeyde almost looked like he was going to protest, then he nodded his acceptance. "Thank you."
A moment later, the soldier came back in with a rag-tag bunch of civilians. There was a boy who looked to be only fourteen years old, but he had a grim, determined face that was splattered with someone else's blood. There were two older men—one missing an eye from a battle he fought long ago—and three women. One rather large, fierce-looking woman wielding a heavy thresher's flail was particularly intimidating.
"I was going to take them through the old apothecary's study and up the back steps," Zeyde explained. "I doubt those mercenaries will expect an attack from that side; they'll be looking for a direct frontal assault from outside."
"Agreed." Then the king grinned. "Let's take back my castle."
He waved for the civilians and the ghost soldier to follow him.
"Is he still our king?" one of the men whispered to his companions, even as they followed Ranis through the foyer. "I mean, he's dead, isn't he?"
"I don't care," the fierce woman said. "He's here right now, and that's all that matters."
Once they had left, Zeyde looked at Zelda. "I know I don't have a right to ask you for anything more than what you have already given us…."
"Ask," Zelda said.
"Two things: one, do you think that you can maintain the scepter until dawn? I would like for the men to have time to see their families one last time."
"Yes, of course."
"And two… if you are able to rescue my children, will you… will you let me see them one more time? I… I want to apologize for not coming home to them, as I promised."
There were tears wavering in Zeyde's eyes and Zelda felt tears stinging her own eyes. "Yes," she said in a choked voice.
He tried to smile. "Thank you," he whispered, then he turned and hurried back down the hall.
Link contacted her a short time later. Can you bring me back?
Zelda thought he sounded better, but she couldn't tell. Yes, she replied.
A moment later, he appeared at her side. His face was still haggard, and the bags under his eyes were still there, too, but the burn was gone. And, thankfully, the fairy hadn't left a scar to remind them both of the incident.
"You still don't have that bandaged," he accused, looking at her arm immediately upon his return.
"Kara was trying to take care of Austina when I left," she said. "And I've been a bit busy since then."
Curiosity got the better of him. "What's going on?"
"The city is effectively ours. The king took some people up to the west tower to take out the last of the mercenaries."
"I should go see if they need help."
"They went this way," Zelda said, leading him away from the main door. "He said something about a back way to the tower through a library, but I'm not sure how to get there."
They wandered the hallways in a more-or-less westerly direction, but before they could figure out how to get to the tower, they ran into Ranis and his party coming back.
"I believe that's the last of them," the king said in triumph.
"So… Her Highness can go to the fairy now?" Link asked hopefully.
"Yes, I think that will be fine."
"Zeyde asked me to keep the scepter until dawn," Zelda interjected, "and I told him I would."
"Why?" Link asked.
"He said he wanted the men to have time to see their families again."
Link sighed a little, but nodded; even he couldn't argue against something so noble.
"Your Majesty…" the fierce-looking woman said hesitantly.
The king turned her to her. "Yes?"
"Do you need us anymore, or… can we go home? It's just that… my husband might show up there, and I want to see him."
The others in the group nodded. They all had husbands or fathers or sons they wanted to see one last time.
"Go home," Ranis said. "You have until dawn. Spread the word to everyone: they have until dawn. But past that, we can ask no more of Princess Zelda. Our fight is over, but hers is not yet done. She must press on to Hyrule."
The people nodded, then hurried away.
Ranis turned to Link and Zelda, then he stood up a little straighter. "I want to thank both of you for saving my kingdom."
"You and your men really did all of the work," Link said.
"But we could not have been here without you—and without all the sacrifices you endured to get the scepter."
"We said we would liberate your land," Link said. "And we always keep our promises."
"Yes, you do. But now, may I ask you to make me one more promise?"
"What?" Zelda asked.
"We saw what you saw at the fairy's pool: we know that Nagadii has Rayliss and Philippe and Castor. I know you will attempt to rescue them, but… if things don't go well… if he gets his revenge on them for the loss of Erenrue…."
His voice choked up with uncharacteristic emotion and it took him a moment to recover.
"You are next in line to inherit the throne of Erenrue," he said bluntly.
He held up his hand, cutting her off. "It's not a matter of wanting it; I know you don't want it. But the fact remains that you are of the Blood Royal of this kingdom, and my people will need a ruler to help them rebuild. You have already demonstrated your willingness to sacrifice yourself for them." He nodded to Link. "And you have a knight of the realm to help you. Join it to Hyrule or make it the inheritance of one of your children—it doesn't much matter to me. Just take care of my people."
A heavy silence descended upon them as the king's words sank in. If Rayliss and her brothers didn't survive, then Zelda would be Queen of Erenrue as well as Hyrule. It wasn't as if she hadn't thought about ruling Erenrue, but never in terms of getting it through Rayliss's death. She hated to even think about that.
"Of course we will look after Erenrue for you," Link said quietly. "But we will make it a priority to find Rayliss and the others. She is the true heir to this kingdom. We will restore her to the throne, if we can."
Ranis nodded. "I know you will." Then he smiled a little at him and Zelda. "I must say, I have never been more proud. I wish I could take some credit for Zelda's strength in the face of this crisis, but I'm afraid she—and you, too—were made by the gods from very different stuff."
Ranis left to check up on the progress and make sure that every last part of the city had been swept clean of the invaders.
As Link and Zelda roamed the castle aimlessly with nothing to do until dawn, they ran across Rayliss's room. The doors were open, revealing a chaotic scene. It had been ransacked at some point, but then left alone for a long time. There was a noticeable coating of dust on everything, which glowed in the moonlight.
"I wonder if they were looking for her?" Link said quietly, as they slowly walked across the floor, looking around at the overturned furniture, the clothes strewn everywhere, and the books and papers torn in pieces and scattered like flakes of snow on the carpet.
"Maybe she tried hiding," Zelda said, also surveying the damage. "I would think, once Uncle Zeyde realized the city was going to fall, he told them all to hide."
"I wish he had brought them with him when he came to get us," Link said sadly. "They could have escaped into the mountains with us."
"Or they might have gotten shot, like he did," Zelda countered. "And we didn't exactly have it easy, remember? If not for Long Fang, we would have frozen to death—or starved. And even after that, Tarsus tried to kill us."
"Well, that's true," he reluctantly admitted. "But, still… it doesn't seem as horrible a fate as being imprisoned for months."
Zelda walked over to a window, which had been left open. In front of it was a chair and Rayliss's harp. The harp was lying forlornly on its side, a few strings broken and curling uselessly in the air.
Link bent down and gently picked up the harp, setting it upright.
Zelda reached out and strummed her thumb over a few of the strings, but they made dull, discordant sounds. It was horribly out of tune.
It seemed like a lifetime ago—or, rather, the lifetime of a different person altogether—when she and her cousin had played together with Link for the reception.
Zelda almost laughed.
Link looked at her questioningly.
She shook her head. "I was just thinking about that reception. I was so upset that my grandfather suggested I pretend to look for a husband. That seemed the most awful thing in the world to me then. Now…." She shrugged. "It seems rather childish."
"We've seen a lot more of life since then—both of us," he replied quietly. "I was a lot surer of myself then—prideful, even. Now, I don't believe so much in those absolutes. I'm not invincible. I'm not infallible. And yet, I have a greater faith in myself now than I could have ever had then, because I know—I have proof—that I can endure. Nothing is hypothetical anymore; I've been proven."
They wandered out onto the balcony. The night air was sharp and crisp—bordering on cold.
"When we left here, it was spring," Zelda said, as she leaned against the balcony's stone railing. "I remember the flowers being in bloom."
"It was the end of winter when we went out onto the plain—the first night it wasn't too cold to be out," Link said, as he came to stand beside her.
He looked out over the dark city. In the east, the sky was a slightly lighter color of blue. To the west, the moon was sliding towards the horizon.
"And now we're circling back towards winter again," he added.
"I can't believe we've been gone most of a year.
"It will be our birthdays in a couple of months—maybe a little less."
"I hadn't even thought about that," she said, looking out at the city. Everything was calm again—no screeches or screams. Nearly every house was lit up, though, as if it was early evening. No one was wasting this one precious night; they were all sharing in their triumph and their sorrow.
"I'll be eighteen," Zelda said, still thinking about her impending birthday. "That sounds young, but I feel so old."
"I'll be nineteen," Link mused. "But that does sound old."
She looked at him and he smiled a little, looking a bit like his old self.
Someone cleared his throat behind them.
They both turned around. A familiar specter stood before them. Zelda felt a lump rise in her throat. "Nicoli," she whispered.
"May I join you?" he asked. "I saw you from the courtyard…."
"Please," Zelda replied.
He came over and leaned against the railing next to Zelda. "I've been looking for you. I wanted to see you before dawn so I could thank you."
Zelda felt tears welling up in her eyes. "Thank me for what?" She had to whisper to keep her voice from breaking.
"For staying with me at the end."
"I… I didn't want that for you," she choked out.
"I know." He turned his misty eyes to her. "But I died doing what I wanted to do: I helped protect you. And now you've come back to help to save our people."
"So did you," Link said quietly.
Nicoli nodded slowly. "Yes, I did. It's ironic, but I'm more help dead than I would have been alive and locked away in Nagadii's dungeon."
Zelda noticed that he spoke without a stutter now. He carried himself differently, too. He walked taller; he looked more sure of himself. It was as if in death, he had found his courage.
They were all silent for a long while, watching as the sky began to lighten in the east. But it was as if the sun knew there was a time limit, and it seemed to rise faster than usual in an effort to snatch away their last moment.
"Link?" Nicoli asked, as they watched the city slowly begin to light up.
"Will you sing that song for me again?—the one you sang when we stood here last."
Link took a deep breath, as if having to steal his nerve. But when he began to sing, his voice was true.
"Of all the money that e'er I spent,
I've spent it in good company.
And all the harm that e'er I've done,
Alas it was to none but me.
And all I've done for want of wit,
To memory now I can't recall.
So fill to me the parting glass;
Goodnight and joy be with you all.
"A man may drink and not be drunk;
A man may fight and not be slain;
A man may court a pretty girl
And perhaps be welcomed back again.
But since it has so ought to be,
By a time to rise and a time to fall,
Come fill to me the parting glass;
Goodnight and joy be with you all.
"Of all the comrades that e'er I had,
They are sorry for my going away.
And all the sweethearts that e'er I had,
They would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I'll gently rise and I'll softly call,
Goodnight and joy be with you all.
Goodnight and joy be with you all."
As his voice faded away on the last note, the edge of the sun broke over the top of the mountains, bathing them in its warm golden glow.
Zelda could barely see Nicoli turn to look at her; the sunlight faded his figure until he was almost invisible.
"When it's my time, I will live again." He smiled faintly. "Perhaps I can be your cousin again."
Zelda had to swallow hard before she could reply. "I would like that," she said.
"I won't say goodbye, then." He smiled more. "I will just say goodnight."
Zelda laid the scepter on top of the railing. "Until then," she whispered. Then she slowly released her hand. She thought she saw Nicoli still smiling at her for a moment before he faded away in the morning mist.
A silence seemed to descend on the city—a cold chill that even the warmth of the rising sun could not dispel.
Zelda had never felt more empty and alone.
Link put his arm around her shoulders and led her back into the bedroom. She found herself sitting on the edge of Rayliss's disheveled bed.
"I think I feel sadder now than the day they really died," she confessed.
"That's because we never had time to feel their deaths; now we do."
Tears began to spill out of her eyes. "I have never wanted to kill anyone or anything more than I want to kill Nagadii right now," she said through gritted teeth, her overwhelming sadness turning into anger. Anger seemed easier to deal with.
Link pulled her close, resting his head against her. "We will get our chance."