Shadowed Fate

By Farore769

Chapter 16: Unity


“Where did you get that coin?” Aphelandra asked Noah as they waited for the next glider to land.

            “This?” He produced the item in question, a disc of copper with designs on both sides. “This is what Karradaini currency used to look like.”

            “May I see it?” Link asked. A single toss of that little circle of flattened metal had forced Kyrani to stay behind, though she had seemed almost feverish in her desire to accompany him.

            “Sure thing,” Noah answered, handing it to him. “I just want it back. It’s my lucky coin; I’ve rarely lost a toss with it.”

            Studying the coin, Link ran his thumb over the design on one side, three horses with their legs intertwined in a triangle, intricate patterns braided behind them. On the other side, a dragon reared on its hind legs, wings unfurled, its teeth and claws ready for fighting and a narrow stream of smoke rising from its nostrils. After a moment, he handed it back to Noah, who pocketed it carefully.

            “This is so fascinating,” Aphelandra said, adjusting the leather scrip she carried over her shoulder. “A path hidden within the cavern? And me a part of prophecy? I cannot wait to tell my father!”

            “Keep it down,” Link cautioned, watching a glider soar out of the darkness.

            Sneaking out past watchful Skaril had been an impressive feat, twisting a spare blanket in Zelda’s room into a rope and descending out the window, with Noah keeping watch. Gaining three mounts from the stables had been just as difficult--Aphelandra had barely managed, and she had only secured horses that were less than fine--but the closer they had come to Crystal City, the more they relaxed, chatting easily and making jokes. Rather, Noah and Aphelandra had. Link had ridden in silence, wrapped in his own thoughts.

            “You coming?”

            Breaking out of the reverie, Link followed the other two as they climbed onto the structure and took their seats. A grimness had settled over him, determination to beat the Partisans in figuring out the meaning of the prophecy, even if it killed him. The flight was bitter agony, for it stretched longer than ever before, or so it seemed. Two Riders flew past him, and he eyed the Talar birds with envy, wishing he were mounted on one of those creatures. When the glider finally touched down, he vaulted off, and then he headed for the ramp leading down into the glittering city without waiting for the others.

            Noah and Aphelandra ran to catch up, and Link checked his pace enough so that the priestess did not have to run in her embroidered skirts. Instead, she merely had to take longer strides than usual, her feet kicking the pale violet wool out before her. Snugging his gauntlets, Link turned onto the road leading to Crystal City.

            “No,” Noah said, seizing his tunic sleeve. “Not that way. Skodrags nest near the exit.”

            Turning, Link regarded him impassively, his patience stretched hair-thin. Noah took the lead, and he fell in behind the shorter man, absently noting Aphelandra’s excited expression. The priestess met his gaze and grinned like a child, biting her lower lip. He smiled back, a slight upward curving of his lips, and she gushed, “Isn’t it exciting? True, skodrags are the most abhorrent and disgusting creatures in the world, but still! To have figured out that pro--that message.”

            Wondering if he should not have convinced her to stay behind as well, he nodded agreement. People trickled past toward the second rise overlooking the city, arms generally laden with cloth-wrapped packages or satchels bulging with changes of clothing. The company forced them to remain quiet, but Noah slowed as they neared the twisting ramp leading up, forcing the others to shorten their strides. Glowering, Link demanded, “What are you doing?”

            “Making sure those people don’t wonder why we aren’t getting on the glider,” Noah explained, starting up the ramp. “Now, come on, and quit being so irritable.”

            Link followed him in silence, brows lowered dangerously. I am not being irritable. He simply felt oddly focused, like every event in his life had been leading up to this moment. Which is absurd, he told himself. Defeating Ganon was the climax of my life.

            Reaching the top of the ledge, the Karradaini paused for a moment and watched the other people disappear down the tunnel that would take them to the launching area for gliders. He then turned to the right and led them to a narrow ledge, which Link recognized as the one he had spotted before. Just wide enough for a person to cross, it posed a treacherous journey, with a long drop to the right. But the fall was far from sheer; anyone with the misfortune to plunge down would be battered to pieces on the protruding ledges long before they reached the bottom. Noah hesitated a moment as he tugged his gloves off and tucked them away, then started across at a slow shuffle, his bare hands pressed to the wall to the left.

            Hurry up! Link yelled silently, following the man. How long before the Partisans learned of the secret paths of the Riders and connected them with the Secrets mentioned in the prophecy? How long before they figured out a certain young priestess was named after a flower? Despite the dangerous nature of the rock-strewn ledge, he pressed forward, never mind muscles that began to tremble with the careful exertion. Each step had to land just so, and legs tensed before shifting the weight forward, unwilling to trust the first tentative parts of the step. Link heard Aphelandra panting behind him, and he glanced back to find her with her skirts hiked up well past her knees and tucked into the tooled leather belt around her waist, an expression of intense concentration on her perspiration-coated face.

            The mindless repetition of fatiguing motion allowed Link’s mind to wander. Even with his limbs quivering and sweat trickling down his back and plastering his bangs to his face, he wished for more speed. The ledge appeared to stretch out ahead endlessly, while behind it stretched out even further. A curve in the cavern wall hid the safety of the rise from view, but it also hid whatever end existed to the path. Filled with impatience, Link paid no mind to the hand-sized rock Noah spent an extra few seconds skirting. His boot landed on it, and as he shifted his weight forward, it slipped out from under him.

            Link hurtled off the edge, too stunned to cry out. Grasping desperately for the ledge, his arm burned as a hand suddenly seized his wrist. Aphelandra held him, he realized, straining to draw him back up to safety. Her dark eyes wide in a suddenly pale face, she panted and braced herself. She heaved upward, but Link only slid a few inches further down.

            If I can reach a ledge to help boost me up, he thought desperately, fighting down the panic rising in his breast. Yes, that’s what I--

            The priestess lost her grip, and he plunged downward. A scream came now, torn from his throat as he plummeted toward a jagged protrusion littered with shards of broken rock as sharp as razors. His corpse would not be pretty, ripped to shreds and mashed into an unrecognizable lump. He felt sorry for those who would see him after his death.

            Talons snagged him out of the air, wrapping around his arms. As he was painfully jerked upward to the sound of heavy wingbeats, Link’s panicked mind attempted to deal with the fact that he was not going to die just then, that something had saved him. What that something was, he had no idea; he just hoped it would not feed him to its young or something.

            Noah and Aphelandra dashed forward as his rescuer set him tenderly on a broad ledge, well away from the drop, and then the priestess hugged him, weeping loudly. “Link! Oh, Link! How would I have learned of the goddesses if you died?”

            Something was wrong, because he heard laughter. Wondering who would laugh at a time like this, Link opened his mouth, but found it already wide as possible, the sounds of insane merriment rolling from him. Shocked, he compressed his lips, recognizing signs of hysteria. “I’m fine,” he assured, without conviction. When have I ever been so careless? I would never have lasted five minutes in the Shadow Temple with impatience like that!

            Noah backed into him, shielding them from whatever else lay on the ledge. Suddenly curious, Link attempted to pry Aphelandra's arms from around him, but she refused to let go. Peering around the Karradaini, Link saw many dark shapes huddled in a cave hewn out of the cavern wall, and dozens, scores, hundreds of pairs of orange eyes with pupils that crossed them horizontally, all fixed on the three people intruding upon their domain. Rising unsteadily--the priestess finally released him, but she bit a knuckle nervously--Link took a deep breath and called, “Skodrags, I have need of your assistance.”

            The forms shifted, rustling dryly. A series of short calls, similar to the haunting dirge the creatures uttered while soaring near the cavern ceiling but softer, emitted from the cave, and then one rose--or its eyes rose, at least. Slowly, it walked out from the cave, and Link beheld a skodrag clearly for the first time.

            The first word that came to mind was ugly. A misshapen bird’s head, covered in scabby skin, held the lamp-like eyes, and an iron-colored beak curved down, too short compared to the rest of the creature, with a knob on its underside. A short but heavily muscled neck  connected to its bulky body, bulging with cords of sinew visible even beneath its scraggly feathers. Taloned feet--the feet of a bird of prey--supported its front half, but paws like those of a large wolf or an overgrown cat held up its hindquarters, and a long tail swept out behind it, large flaps of stiff skin serving to make it extremely rudder-like. Overlarge wings rose from its shoulders, the feathers ragged and unkempt. And its color was just so abhorrent to those who had seen the light of day--a pale, sickly hue for its feathers, indescribable save as the color of blindness, and an even paler color for its skin, mottled with the purple veins lying close to the surface, pulsing visibly with the steady beat of its heart.

            Fighting down revulsion, Link watched as the skodrag continued forward, and in movement, the creature was transformed. Somewhat. Its shape and color still spoke of wrongness, but it carried itself regally, proud in what it was because there was nothing else it could be. With its wings half-raised, it approached Link, inhaling sharply. Abruptly, he realized the creature was blind.

            “I am here,” he said, holding out his hands. Noah and Aphelandra backed away uncertainly, but Link held his ground, though he wanted to run from the creature. Surely falling would be better than touching one of these things.

            The skodrag halted before him, and he realized it was the size of a horse. Odd. Somehow, it had seemed... smaller. Perhaps that was because of its haphazard construction. Slowly, the thing lowered its blind head, sniffing Link’s gauntleted palms. Uttering a short keen, it forced his hand over its hard beak, made his fingers slide over the smooth surface.

            We knew you would come.

            Link jerked away, yanking his hand off the creature’s beak. That foreign voice inside his head had been nothing like telepathy. It was as though some alien presence had entered his mind and bent his consciousness so he thought those words. His whole nature rebelled against the invasion, but with an irritated wail, the skodrag once again forced its beak under his hand.

            Hero, listen.

            “Will you stop that?” he demanded, dodging lightly to the side in an attempt to lose the creature.

            It seemed that, in the lack of sight, the rest of the skodrag’s senses were honed razor sharp. This time, it seized his hand in its beak, and he knew that with one snap it could ruin his whole left side permanently.

            Is this how you repay those who saved your life? We would not let the Hero tumble to his death.

            So it had been a skodrag that had saved him. Idly, Link wondered if it would not have been better to have died.

            Do not think such thoughts, Hero. The creature’s beak seemed to hum as he thought those words--or it thought them for him--and as another stray wondering flickered within Link, it said, We have access to the minds of those we touch. All your memories, all your feelings, hopes, fears--all are laid before us, so long as you are in contact with us.

            “So let me go,” he snapped, tugging experimentally on his hand. Nothing happened.

            Myrekni set us this task long ago, the skodrag forced him to think. To take you to the Guardian of Fire when you came before us. To the First of all life, the one who serves Din. You who have already met the Guardians of Wind and Water, come with us.

            Who are these Guardians? Link demanded mentally.

            The four deities of the elements. The Great Deku Tree stood for Farore as the Guardian of Wind. Lord Jabu-Jabu stands for Nayru as the Guardian of Water. Now come. You must meet the Guardian of Fire. She was born first, drew breath even before the first sprout of green broke the surface of the ground.

            You will take us? Link asked, resigned to meeting this Guardian of Fire.

            We will take you.

            Movement within the darkness of the cave, and then two more skodrags paraded out, ghastly dignified, and approached the other two people. Aphelandra shook her head vehemently, and Noah murmured, “No, no....”

            “There’s no other choice,” Link said. “They will take us to the Guardian of Fire, and then through the secret paths of the Riders, hopefully. I told you the skodrags would be the only way to go through those paths.”

            The Guardian of Fire waits through the path forbidden to the Talar birds. But you will need the courage of the Hero to find her, for the path grows dark, and lost pasts take flesh.

            I will do my best, Link thought in return.

            The skodrag released his hand, and he approached its side. It crouched, and, using its front leg as a step, he pulled himself onto its back. As it rose, he clutched at the scabrous skin desperately. The creature turned, and suddenly he found his mind sinking into its....

            The skodrag was not an individual. It had not been an individual since the day it gave birth to the only young its womb would ever carry--so it was female, though she did not think of herself in a singular manner. Her mind, her entire being was blended with all the other skodrags who had either sired or born the one child they ever would, mixed and turned into one mind that rang throughout. Every one knew everything about all the others, thousands of memories and thoughts, and he sensed the sympathy they felt for their young, so tender, so alone, locked away from the others.

            Link felt his own individual mind sliding into that conglomeration, but he did not fight. As it swirled ever deeper, they rejoiced at the newcomer, evenly shared the pain he kept locked within him. Breathing deeply, they watched those other Hylians--so lonely! And without the comfort of knowing this sacred unity would come one day--stare at them uncertainly, with the wondrous sense of sight shared by the newest. Donning a smile, they said, “It is all right. Trust us. We will not harm you.”

            The people stared at them in fright, but the skodrags near them nudged at them gently. Gnawing her lower lip, Aphelandra slowly gathered her skirts, dignified as a queen but with apprehension about her dark eyes, and approached the being near her. Gracefully, she climbed onto its back and sat sidesaddle. Her eyes widened, and then she smiled. They rejoiced as another presence came out of isolation, as her desire for knowledge and thirst for truth spread throughout everyone. Together, they turned to watch Noah, drawing on the sight of the female as well.

            “Don’t tell me you’ve gone insane, too,” he grumbled, nervously flattening his hair again and again.

            “Noah, you do not know what you are missing,” they said. “We need you to come, too. Please?”

            He backed away. “What, are you royal now?” As one moved forward, he snarled, “Stay away from me!”

            “Noah, trust us,” they pleaded, everyone voicing it, though two spoke in short sounds, the others in cries of distress, conveying their longing to bring everyone into their unity.

            “This is madness,” he said, but slowly climbed onto the one near him.

            His mind resisted, at first, but they coaxed it into the one slowly. And such feelings were shared! A sense of rejection spread equally among them, and then they smiled. Together. Into the beyond. And they flew.

            Even those still grounded shared in the exhilaration of the broad sweeps of those wings designed so carefully for flying where hidden things threatened, where sight was a hindrance. They all marveled at the wonders of sight, to be sure, but soon all relied upon those senses far less likely to be deceived--hearing, taste, touch, smell, others that came only as impressions. Depending on the way the air flowed over their pinions, they adjusted their course. Every path through the cavern possessed a distinct taste, and sounds helped them judge their path. Ahead, the air smelled dark, and all too soon, they landed.

            You must go on alone, they said, gently forcing one mind out. Link gasped and tried to return, but they said, Remember us. Remember unity. For if you think alone, you fail alone, but if you live as one, you conclude as one.

            The skodrag forced him from her back, and he rested a hand on her smooth beak, staring into her sightless eyes. “Thank you,” he said, feeling profoundly alone.

            The others will always be a part of you, separate yet one. And we will always wait if you seek us out.

            Link watched Noah and Aphelandra land on the ground, and the priestess flung her arms around the skodrag who had born her, thanking the being again and again. Noah nodded to his, but with lips parted in longing, eyes wishing for a different outcome.

            As the one gently pried Aphelandra away, all three skodrags turned, spread their wings, and soared off.

            Slowly, Link drew a deep breath. I have never felt so understood.

            Nor I, a voice like Noah’s said.

            Nor I. Like Aphelandra’s.

            Facing them, wonder lit Link’s face. “Are we still in something like what we just experienced?” he breathed.

            Hope came, and then Aphelandra laughed and clapped her hands in delight. “We are! Oh, we are!”

            “I hope this doesn’t carry through to the marriage bed,” Noah said, and then they all dissolved into laughter, made all the better by the merriment rebounding throughout them.

            “Where are we?” Link inquired, gazing around. Experimentally, he separated himself further, and he lost what little awareness he shared with the other two. Feeling so isolated it cut at his heart, he swiftly rejoined with them, studying the area they were in. It was a stone tunnel, unnaturally smooth, wide enough for six wagons abreast and countless high. Ahead of them, it sloped upward into darkness, while behind, it dropped away into light.

            Link knew the answer before it came, but Noah voiced it anyway. “We are in the dragon’s head guarding over Crystal City.”

            “Well, this is where we need to be, so let’s go.”

            Facing the darkness ahead, Link strode forward, aware of the other two following. The path, though perfectly smooth, proved taxing, as it sloped up at such an angle that his calves soon burned. Aphelandra wheezed behind him, and even Noah panted, though he fought it gamely. Neither were as fit as Link was. Grabbing at that sense of unity that suddenly seemed so ephemeral, he attempted to grant them a little of his endurance. Yet much of his strength was spent, after the arduous trek over the narrow ledge.

            A hand grasped his shoulder, and as Link glanced back, he only saw a patch of lighter darkness against the shadows pressing down on them. Recognizing that slight paleness as Aphelandra’s hair, he suddenly noticed the blackness practically smothering them, and panic began to claw within him.

            “Keep going,” the priestess said wearily, hope swelling from her. “I trust you.”

            “As do I,” Noah said further down, voice fatigued. “But this way, we succeed or fail as one.”

            Finding no words, Link faced forward and pressed onward, climbing the slope. Old wounds, long forgotten and barely scarred, began to throb with the exertion. He began to stumble a little, and one time he barely caught himself with his hands, his gauntlets protecting his palms but the rocks scraping his fingers raw. Sweat ran down his back, streamed into the eyes he opened wider and wider in a vain attempt to perceive anything. Only Aphelandra’s hand on his shoulder--and her presence, and Noah’s, within his awareness--gave him the strength to continue on.

            Quite suddenly, a woman stepped forward, her golden hair bound back with a silken scarf embroidered with birds in flight. With eyes a bright blue shining out of her kind, lovely face, she smiled and spread her arms. “Link.”

            He paused, staring at her hungrily, his eyes eager to find something they could perceive.

            “Link,” she repeated, a note of sadness in her melodic voice.

            Confusion emanated from Noah and Aphelandra, and the priestess asked, “Link, what is it? What’s wrong?”

            “Link,” the woman said for the third time, and he ignored the other two people as he moved toward her.

            Behind him, Aphelandra suddenly gasped and breathed, “Mother? Is it really you? But... you died!”

            Walking toward the strange woman, his legs trembling, Link asked, “Who are you?”

            Sorrow filled her eyes. “Oh, my son, I have longed to see you.”

            His heart stopped for a moment. “Mother?” He reached out to her, and she stretched an arm toward him, a beautiful sad smile on her lips.

            Suddenly, Aphelandra cried out while pain flashed through Link’s mind, and then something struck the side of his face, sending him crashing to the floor. He rolled downward, the stone scraping at him, but he finally managed to halt his descent and regain his footing. Apology burst from Noah, but the man explained, “You were both in trances; the way you were acting and ignoring me, you would have stayed in this tunnel till you starved to death.”

            Aphelandra sniffled loudly in the darkness, weeping at the sorrow threatening to overwhelm her. “You had no idea,” she said softly. “I saw my mother. My mother! She died when I was four!”

            “Yeah? I saw my father. But I knew he could not really be here, so I was able to banish him from my vision. And I know you’re sad, but we can’t stop for what is past and gone.”

            Feeling out with his hands and finding the upward slope, Link said, “We need to keep going.” He sensed what the others had felt and knew they felt his own sorrow at the sudden loss. My mother. My own mother. I never knew what she looked like, before.

            All will be well, Aphelandra thought in an attempt to comfort him, her voice fainter than before. Her hand found his shoulder once again, and he touched it lightly before pressing on once more, alert for more phantasms.

            Centuries passed in the pure darkness, or so it seemed, but Link suddenly noticed a faint reddish gleam ahead. Forcing quivering limbs to greater efforts, he hurried upward, drawn to light as a starving man is drawn to food. Noah scrambled upward on all fours and even overtook the Hyrulian, but as they finally reached a place where the ground leveled out, he hung back, tugging at his bangs uncertainly. Link paused beside him, gulping air down his raw throat, and then Aphelandra asked, “Well? Are we going in?”

            Taking a deep breath, Link entered a cavern and stopped, one word ringing in his head.


            Hundreds of dragons perched on ledges lining the circular cavern, with its roof slanting upward and ending in a small opening that allowed a glimpse into a star-dusted sky. Shifting, the reptiles pierced him with yellow eyes, and green eyes, and red, and orange, and every other color imaginable, just as the creatures themselves were every hue found in the world and some surely never seen before they emerged from their eggs. Clawed feet shuffled, leathery wings flapped slightly, and a few snorted billows of dark smoke that curled upward, leaving heat-shimmers in the air before drifting through the opening. A few creatures that were obviously younger peered from behind the legs of their elders, or from around boulders or stalagmites, blinking large eyes in curiosity and flapping comically oversized wings, and one even clambered over a rock, ungainly beside the majestic figures of its elders.

            But one dragon dominated the massive cavern with its sheer presence. Its scales glittered like molten fire in the light and shed a little luminescence of their own; in fact, Link thought all the illumination might have come from the noble creature and merely reflected off the cavern walls. A proud crest swept from the rear of its long head, and a few long white fangs were visible even with its jaws closed. A long neck connected to a sleek, muscular body supported by four strong limbs tipped with steel claws, and a heavy tail trailed behind it, long white plumes decorating its tip. Wings covered in crimson and white feathers rose from its powerful shoulders, only partially unfurled and still casting huge shadows around. Slowly, the majestic dragon stalked forward, regarding the three Hylians with yellow eyes tall enough for Link to have walked through with only minimal stooping.

            “Ah, so the Hero has come at last,” the dragon rumbled, her voice echoing in her cavernous chest and filling the whole chamber.

            Gaping, Link fell to his knees, forgetting all other dragons in the presence of this awe-inspiring being. “I have come,” he said hoarsely.

            He heard Aphelandra gasp as the dragon brought her head forward and nudged Link with the tip of her snout. “It is good to meet Farore’s chosen. I am Varyan, Guardian of Fire. What name do you go by?”

            “Link Dragonslayer,” he answered.

            Furious snarls echoed all around, and Link watched more than one dragon bound to its feet, spreading its wings as its eyes blazed in murder. Frantically, he said, “I have only ever killed one dragon, and it was the evil dragon Volvagia.”

            “Volvagia,” Varyan repeated, rolling the name on her tongue. “A Northland dragon, I assume? Serpentine, with two limbs and no wings?”

            Nodding, Link said, “Yes, like that, with a flaming crest and--”

            “I know of dragons, Hero.” Sighing, Varyan said, “There is much you need to know, but if I continue to talk to you like this, my neck will become sore. Valoo!”

            From behind the Guardian of Fire came a dragon similar in appearance, though smaller, and two plumes rose behind his eyes instead of a sweeping crest. He was still larger than all the other dragons, but small compared to the giant beside him. Bowing his head, he said, “My name is Valoo, son of Varyan and heir to her title. Climb upon my back.”

            Uncertainty seeped from Aphelandra, nearly drowned from the stunned wonder practically gushing from Noah. Snugging his gauntlets and summoning up confidence--which he attempted to filter through their sense of unity--Link strode toward the dragon lord, struck by how large he was. Nothing compared to his mother, of course, but still greater than the other dragons. He could have swallowed any person in two bites, or wrapped one clawed hand around a tree and snapped it to splinters. Halting beside the dragon, Link inclined his head respectfully, murmuring, “I have permission to mount?”

            “You do,” Valoo answered solemnly. “And your companions as well.”

            Aphelandra’s uncertainty wavered, then disappeared, replaced with firm trust. She trusted his judgment, Link realized, watching her gather her torn and blood-speckled skirts and glide forward, strength emanating from her fragile, dirt-grimed face. She smiled at Link, and then she climbed up Valoo’s foreleg, settling herself before the shoulder blades supporting the great feathery wings.

            Noah? Link thought tentatively, relying on the strange unity rather than his tiny ability with telepathy.

            The man stared at him, scraped hands clenching and unclenching. I don’t know. What if they betray us?

            They will not betray us; Varyan serves Din herself.

            Very well. If you are so certain. With resignation coursing from him, he strode forward and clambered up next to Aphelandra. Glancing at her, he scowled. How can you take this so calmly? We could die!

            Can you not feel the confidence coming from him? she asked. I trust his judgment, for I... sense... his memories, and he has had brushings with greater beings than I ever dreamed of, seen fights that put the histories to shame. If he is confident, I will be confident.

            I... suppose.

            Link smiled. It seemed this unity had many more advantages than he had originally thought. Seating himself near the others, he wrapped an arm around Valoo’s neck as the dragon crouched and thrust himself into the air, his wings slamming down. Banking, he lazily circled upward, obviously a master aerialist, before landing on a ledge about a quarter of the way up the cavern wall. He watched them dismount with a single yellow eye shadowed by a heavy brow before pushing himself off and twisting to the side, spiraling down beside his mother. Varyan settled herself on her belly and faced the ledge, her gaze comfortably level with those on the protrusion of rock.

            “There,” she said, nodding once. “That is much better.”

            “Lady Varyan?” Aphelandra began hesitantly, seating herself and wrapping her arms around her legs, leaning forward to rest her chin on her skinned knees. She was definitely the worse for wear; a hand print marred her left cheek, and blood trickled from her torn palms, further staining her ruined dress. “Guardian Varyan?”

            “Varyan,” the dragon corrected. “My name is title enough. I sense a query in you, young one. What is it?”

            “Why do I... have a hard time understanding you?” she asked, head tilted slightly. “I can feel that Noah does, too, but Link can understand you perfectly.”

            A deep bass rumble shook the cavern slightly, emanating from Varyan. Shifting, she said, “Ah, I understand. To comprehend, you need to understand a little of the nature of languages. Have you heard of the Ancient Tongue?”

            The priestess shook her head. “No. Is that what the writing on those temples is?”

            “That is Hylian, in its original form, though languages evolve. The Ancient Tongue has no written form, but it is a part of every language. Hylia means light, while its opposite, sheik, refers to shadow. Feraladrask ne Gerudo is a prime example of the Ancient Tongue’s usage today. Fer, great. Ala, one. Drask, dragon. Ne, of. Ger, desert. Udo, daughter. The One Great Dragon of the Daughters of the Desert. But no one has ever used the Ancient Tongue as a true, living language. No, what is now called Hylian was the language spoken at the start of the world, what I myself speak. What those in Hyrule still speak.

            “I speak the same language Link does,” Noah protested, gesturing widely.

            Turning her head, Varyan pierced him with a single unblinking eye. “Is that so? Then why do you find my words complex? Why did you have to concentrate at first to grasp what the Hero was saying? As time has gone on, different peoples have broken from the old Hylian, and even the written form has evolved. You of Karradai have drifted from true Hylian, stripping it of its subtleties and beauty. In time, you will not be able to understand Hylian at all.”

            “I’ll create a record,” Aphelandra murmured thoughtfully. “A book of translation, so that this true Hylian will never be completely forgotten.”

            Varyan glanced at her. “What name do you go by?” she inquired.

            “Aphelandra Mudora.”

            All throughout the cavern, dragons exchanged significant glances, nodding sagely, and Valoo gasped, eyes widening. Varyan simply nodded. “Ah, the Sacred Flower. You have a good heart. I can see a little ahead, and if you survive the trials in the near future, you will became one of the greatest priestesses of all time.”

            The yellow haired woman gaped at the Guardian of Fire, then glanced down and smiled, pleasure worming through her attempts at humble acceptance. Link cast her a brief smile, but then turned back to Varyan as she said, “And you, Karradaini?”

            “Noah,” he said reluctantly. “Prince Noah. Are you gonna tell me that I’m this Shadowed Fate or something else mentioned in the prophecy?”

            A laugh rumbled from the dragon’s cavernous chest. “Nay, little prince, your fate has sidestepped those of the ones caught up in this prophecy, though your destiny is twined with those referenced within it. And, at some point, you will leave the land of your birth and never return.”

            “Well, I don’t really mind that,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t have any true liking for this country. Say, how long have you been down here?”

            Sighing, Varyan said, “Since early in time. My son and I, the only two Great Dragons ever born--marked by the sacred feathers of our wings--gathered those who wished to await the end of the land, who would step outside of the world until the goddesses saw fit to end the world. But now is not the time to learn of the reason for the existence of dragons. You have come for a special reason. You see, we are the only ones who know the secret of unlocking the temples.”

            Aphelandra sat up straighter. “Temples? You mean the temples dedicated to Nayru and Din?”

            “The very ones,” Varyan affirmed, her wings shifting with the silky rustle of feathers brushing against scales. “There were three, once, paying homage to the Golden Three, but Farore’s temple was torn down long ago, while Din’s was foolishly opened, allowing any to come in and defile it. Only Nayru’s has remained whole and truly sacred. But there will come a time, very soon, when the goddesses must come to the world if there is to be any hope of salvation. And the only way to call them is to awaken the orbs lying within their temples.”

            “How can we go about awakening the orbs?” Link asked. “And what do we do about Farore?”

            “I am neither the Great Deku Tree nor his son,” the dragon responded, a touch tersely. “You are her chosen one. But certain words are needed to open up Nayru’s sealed temple, and other words are required for awakening the orbs, so they may call to their creators.”

            A sense of... embarrassment emanated from Aphelandra, while Noah emitted guarded curiosity. Clearing his throat, Link asked, “And what are those words?”

            Varyan’s great eyes slid shut, and she swayed slightly, head moving sinuously on her slender neck. “At mine behest, O wise Nayru, open the doors to thine temple and grant mine eyes the privilege of seeing the sacred splendor of thine altar.” Around her, the dragons snorted agreement.

            “And the orbs?” Link prodded cautiously.

            “The goddess I call. The goddess I need. By her chosen in the world, by the guardian of her element, I call her forth.”

            “Thank you,” Link said, inclining his head.

            The dragon opened her eyes, and then shook herself. “Take care no others learn those words, not even the Princess of Destiny. What is shared in this place is bound by the power of Din herself and the might of fire. To utter them in the presence of others is to incur the very wrath of the Creator.”

            “Of course,” Aphelandra said, rising. She had blocked her part of the unity they shared, but her lips were parted slightly, eyes filled with a sense of ecstasy. “Varyan, if you do not mind me asking a question, who is Myrekni? The skodrags mentioned her, but all I felt within them was a sense of purest awe.”

            Whatever question the dragon had expected, it was obviously not that. Taking a deep breath, Varyan said, “Ah, few know of the Dark One, in truth, though if people did, most would believe her evil. She is not evil. The raven is not an evil creature simply because it represents death and feasts upon carrion. Neither is the fourth goddess, who tends to death and shadows, leaving her older sisters to guard life and light. But she is no concern of yours. Her chosen one has not been born yet, nor is there anything for him to inherit, no fourth Triforce, though it may be that he receives something different. But this is of no importance to the danger facing the world now. The Partisans must not seize Shadowed Fate. They must not have the key to the Sacred Realm.”

            “What is Shadowed Fate?” Noah asked.

            Varyan shook her head. “In time, you will know. Now, however, you must go. Remember what I have said and act soon, else all is lost.”

            Link opened his mouth, but a dragon swooped down and alighted before him, scales glittering amethyst purple in the reddish light. “Come, Hero,” he urged. “My kith and I will bear you out of this place.”

            Two other dragons crowded onto the ledge, and Aphelandra mounted a silvery one, while Noah climbed upon one with scales like dried blood streaked with black. Sighing in resignation, Link settled himself at the base of the violet dragon’s neck, his legs placed before the powerful shoulders rippling with corded muscle. The proud beast nodded his regal head once, seeming almost like a child attempting to imitate his elder with a grave dignity--at least, in the presence of Varyan, he seemed like a child--and then he flung himself into the air before sweeping upward with powerful strokes of his ribbed leather wings.

            Link wrapped his arms around the dragon’s neck, glancing down and watching the other dragons dwindle in size, all save Varyan. She remained as impressive as ever, even rearing onto her hind legs, her great yellow eyes intent upon him. She spoke, words soft yet carrying, in a form of Hylian so archaic he knew Noah and Aphelandra could not understand it.

            “Take care, Hero. The way ahead is clouded, your destiny obscured. Take to heart what I told you. I cannot see whether you emerge victorious or otherwise, but Myrekni waits for you. She and Farore were always close, as Din and Nayru are close. Guard yourself.”

            He puzzled over the words, and then his dragon hovered beneath the opening in the cavern roof. A perfect circle, it was just large enough for him to grab the edge and drag himself through, focusing all his energy on crawling to safety. Once away from the hole, he stood and glanced around with genuine curiosity.

            Trees ringed around him, forming a natural wall around a small clearing with the opening directly in the center. Short grass shone silvery in the light of the setting moon, ruffled slightly by a stray breeze, and the leaves sighed an answer, fluttering upon their branches. The place held a quiet, subdued sort of beauty that reminded him of the Sacred Forest Meadow, a sense of something holy and ancient lingering in the air.

            “Where are we?” Aphelandra asked, climbing out. Her skirts were in tatters, her pale legs streaked with drying blood flashing through whenever she moved. Gazing around in obvious study, she reached to her side, only to click her tongue in irritation. “Of all the times to forget my journal.”

            Link turned in time to watch Noah struggle through, one of his shoulders yet trapped beneath the edge, the other at an awkward angle as he attempted to make himself as thin as possible. The Hyrulian knelt beside him wordlessly and took his arm and twisted him. Noah gasped, but then swiftly pulled his other arm through. With a burst of effort that rang through their unity, he squirmed out, and the he wearily pushed himself to his feet.

            “Now what?” he asked, planting his fists on his hips and peering around. “I have no idea where we are or how to get anywhere from where we are.”

            “How about we have the others came to us?” Link suggested.

            Brows drawing together, Noah asked, “How?”

            “I have a... connection... with Zelda,” he explained.

            Envy, quickly suppressed. “And now you have a connection with Aphelandra and me.”

            Link shrugged. “It seems to be... fading,” he said. Indeed, the emotions coming from the other two seemed... less, and true coherent thoughts gone altogether. “It’s as though we’re forgetting our unity.”

            “But I don’t think it’s gone forever,” Aphelandra spoke up. “I just think that, as a race, Hylians are incapable of that intimacy. We are not skodrags, to bear one child and then lose ourselves in the whole. But we will retain some of that. And I believe your idea is a good one, Link.”

            Without waiting any further, he reached through the no’tzennok, and then he found Zelda’s awareness somewhere to the northeast, slight worry growing. Wondering if she had tried to contact him during his time unified with the skodrags, he said, Zelda, I am fine.

            Surprise, shock, then, Link. Thank the goddesses. Where are you?

            I’m not sure, he admitted. Still, we’ve learned important things. Noah, Aphelandra, and I will be completing some tasks, but could you, Pelayla, and Ria catch up to us? Bring Phantom and Arzosi, and a horse for Aphelandra.

            I will bring your mount, and Noah’s, and a third for Aphelandra, she said, then paused. You did not mention Romani.

            He hesitated. Is she well enough?

            Certainly. And she would take it amiss if she was left behind now.

            Reluctantly, Link said, I guess so....

            I will come, Zelda said with quiet conviction. But, Link....

            He sensed sudden uncertainty, her suppressed worry. What is it?

            We had to leave the healer’s house. We were attacked. We only had warning because Ria was still awake. Skaril and one of the Riders are dead, and the rest of us barely escaped with our lives and the few horses we managed to secure for ourselves. We were attacked by Lizalfos.

            Take care you are not followed, he advised, saddened by the two deaths. Slowly, he retreated from the no’tzennok, and then he faced his companions.

            “What is it?” Noah asked, worry clouding his brilliant green eyes. “Something’s happened, hasn’t it?”

            Link chose his words with care. “Healer Skaril’s house was attacked,” he began, then paused. “By Lizalfos. That confirms that it was the work of the Partisans.” He glanced at Aphelandra, then said in a rush, “Skaril and a Rider were killed, and the others fled.”

            Aphelandra’s face crumpled, pain in her twisted expression. Sitting down slowly, she hugged herself, rocking back and forth and chewing her lower lip. “Aunt Skaril,” she breathed, tears swimming in her dark eyes. “She deserved better. She was the best healer in the whole land.”

            Link ran a hand over his unblemished back, struck with new sorrow. If not for that woman, I would be a cripple. “Zelda said she and the others would catch up to us.”

            “I wish I had brought Jennu and Ailir!” Noah exclaimed. “Then we would have some means of self-defense!”

            Trying to ignore the missing weight of his sword, Link said, “Too late to worry about that. We need to figure out a way to find the temples.”

            “If I can find one, I can gather my bearing and find the other,” Aphelandra stated.

            “Great, but how do we find that first one?” Noah demanded.

            She hesitated, shame flooding from her and crimson staining her pale cheeks. Unslinging her scrip, she rummaged inside it, finally extracting a small orb that fit comfortably in her cupped hand, its surface a pale milky red. “I took this from the temple of Din,” she explained, embarrassment thick in her voice. “I... think this is one of those orbs Varyan spoke about.”

            Link’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “That was theft, removing that.”

            Clutching it to her breast, the priestess said, “I could hardly leave it there for some treasure hunter to pick up! At least I have some idea how important this is!”

            “What’s done is done,” Noah said, making placating gestures.

            Suddenly recognizing signs of rising fury, Link fought it down, wrestled it back into the dark corner of his mind that had been added when he donned the Fierce Deity’s Mask. Almost panting from the effort, he said, “Well, we have one orb, at least. Maybe you should try to say the words?”

            Aphelandra licked her lips, then nodded. The two men clustered around her, and she lowered her protective hands, the orb centered between them. Eyes fixed on the small object, she said, “The goddess I call. The goddess I need. By her chosen in the world, by the guardian of her element, I call her forth.”

            Nothing visible happened.

            “Did it... work?” Noah asked after a moment.

            “I don’t think so,” Aphelandra replied uncertainly, brows drawing together. “Maybe.... Maybe it has to be in the golden stand I took it from.”

            “Probably,” Link agreed, crossing his arms. “But how do we get to Din’s temple?”

            Tilting her head in a rather birdlike fashion, the priestess gazed at the orb in her hand. “I can feel... something. A sort of resonance, I suppose you would call it.” She brightened visibly. “I can feel where the temple is with this.”

            “Then what are we waiting for?” Link inquired. “Let’s head out.”

            Noah nodded emphatically, and Aphelandra said, “Oh, that is a good idea.” Without waiting, she strode off at a brisk pace, her tattered skirts barely concealing her legs.


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