Into The Woods

By Lyxie

Chapter 2: The Spell

Zelda awoke to the blackened violet of predawn light. Impa's eyes flashed, catlike and purple, in the dark shadows above Zelda's cot.

"We go into the woods," Impa said, her voice a whisper.

The world was blurry. Zelda rolled from her cot, exhausted, and shivered the moment her sensitive skin touched the cool morning air. Impa helped her dress quickly in a thick tunic and gown. Zelda donned her boots, swirled her cloak around her, and followed Impa out into the darkness.

The guards saw the two women setting out side by side, but said nothing, merely inclining their heads to Impa as she walked silently past. If they found it odd that the princess was up at such early hours two mornings in a row, they would never voice any concerns. The Princess was a sorceress, and the palace Sheikah… well, it was hardly surprising that the two of them might be up to some supernatural task in the darkness.

The singing and dancing was still going on around many bonfires in the outer circle of tents. The two women slipped easily past the revelers, crossed the last of the meadow, and then slipped into the forest.

"Cast no light," said Impa as they moved into the pitch blackness. Zelda suppressed the urge to curse in an unladylike fashion as she tripped over a root. "Let Sheik loan you his eyes."

The answering bubble of magic happened before Zelda had even begun to voice the thought to her shadow. It rose from her heart, up the back of her neck, until it shivered and popped at the base of her skull. A moment of cold enveloped her, and she opened her new Sheikah eyes. The woods leapt into definition, as though two harvest moons were shining their blue light down through the canopy. Impa nodded, satisfied, and the women set off again.

Though Zelda was no Sheikah, she was light on her feet, and she followed the silent Impa nimbly through the underbrush. From the Sheikah's steady steps, Zelda assumed that she had been out already, scouting through the forest in the night while Zelda got her pitiful few hours of sleep. She'd been so tired that she hardly remembered what happened after she danced again with the handsome stranger. She remembered stumbling to her tent, shedding her gown, and falling upon her cot in exhaustion.

The forest was ever-so-slowly lightening. Zelda wondered where Impa was going; Zelda did not recognize this path through the woods, and it seemed to her as though they were going in a direction opposite of the holy spring that she had discovered the previous morning.

The cool air sliced at the exposed skin of Zelda's neck, and she shivered, pulling her cloak tighter around her. She hoped Impa didn't expect her to go into the spring again. She'd probably die of the cold.

The Sheikah stopped so suddenly that Zelda nearly slammed into her. A quick hopping step prevented the princess from overbalancing, though she wound up tangling her skirt in a blackberry bramble in the process. She hissed as the thorns bit against her leg. Impa shushed Zelda with a movement of one pale hand.

"Listen to the world," Impa said. "Tell me what you hear."

Zelda put the pain of the blackberry bush from her mind (a difficult task) and shut her eyes. She breathed deeply, and let her senses roam. She knew what it was that Impa wanted her to look for: magic. When Impa herself had trained Zelda at shadow sorcery, this had been the phrase she had used to attract Zelda's attention to something that was off, something just beyond the princess's perception.

The nighttime sounds of the forest seemed almost muted to Zelda. Little lives rustled in the woods behind her, but ahead, it was still. She fed the slightest bit of magic into her senses to strengthen them, and let them go further. The warm smell of damp soil tickled her nose, tinged with musk— it was almost dog-like. But no, there were two smells: a strangely familiar, faintly spicy scent, and something darker that smelled like subtle rot.

Dark Magic.

Zelda extended a hand into the air before her, allowing her sense of touch to move through the dark air. Up ahead, it was substantially cooler; nothingness was the closest way that Zelda could describe it. When she opened her eyes, she noticed how much darker the forest ahead seemed. It raised the hair on the back of her neck. She raised her eyes to Impa's, nodding once. There was something up ahead, something made of Dark Magic. The prospect chilled the princess; what would something like that be doing all the way out here, where there was rarely even the tiniest whisper of magic?

Impa set off again, this time towards the darkness. Zelda deftly untangled her cloak and skirt from the brambles and set off after her mentor, noting the way that the nothingness in the air was slowly thickening. Zelda called up her magic within her, holding the form of several defensive spells at the forefront of her mind. She wasn't unexperienced with Dark Magic- the royal academy of magicians occasionally allowed her to deal with minor threats- but she still would've been more confident with a team of magicians backing her up.

She and Impa both hit the barrier at the same time; the nothingness became sticky, solidified, and they were unable to move forward. Zelda looked at Impa, who was testing the nothing-air before them, frowning. The Sheikah tried to step back, but was unable to. The frown deepened.

"We've been Ensnared," she Sheikah said softly. "We've no way out but through."

Zelda gulped once, and nodded. She felt the Sheikah extend the tiniest tendril of Quest; the traditional magic of Heroes, Quest was highly addictive to Dark Creatures. It balanced the natural order of things: a strong Hero could use Quest to defeat a Dark Creature, while a strong Dark Creature could eat a weak Hero's Quest and strengthen itself.

The response was instantaneous. Impa and Zelda were sucked through the barrier into a glen full of stale nothing-air. The clearing was full of massive, sticky cobwebs, which the two women found themselves ensnared in. A monstrous spider dropped from the trees, bulbous body hairy and quivering. It had a single crusted eye above its pincers, which clicked and oozed venom as it shuddered towards them, abdomen jiggling and excreting sticky white webbing.

"Zelda, fire the cobwebs," said Impa calmly. Zelda quickly unleashed a flood of Fire magic, and the cobwebs holding the two women melted away. Impa fired a dart of powerful Quest at the spider's massive blood-golden eye; the spider recoiled, ichor rolling down between its mandibles, and let loose a horrible scream.

A number of smaller spiders streamed into the clearing. As Impa fired a second dart of Quest, Zelda concentrated on incinerating the infant Dark Creatures. They were weak, but there were many of them, and Zelda's control over Fire wasn't as adept as she would have liked; of the three Natural magics, Fire was the natural antithesis of her primary magic, Water. Add to it Zelda's strange weakness left over from the previous night- maybe she had been drained- and the spiders were giving her more trouble than they ought.

Sheik thrashed in frustration from where he was wrapped around Zelda's life force; it was still too dark for her to see without his eyes, and the Sheikah could not manifest without taking the ability to see in the darkness from Zelda. So the Sheikah fed her his own magic, and Zelda began to alternate streams of flame with wide blasts of Quest. This worked very well: the wide arc stunned the spiders, allowing Zelda to torch them and move on to the next batch. A quick glance showed her that Impa was holding up just fine on her own; the Sheikah had summoned a number of creepy looking beasts that were a hybrid of Quest and Shadow magic to distract the spider, and she was firing massive bolts of Quest at the spider's eye whenever possible. Smoke curled up from splotches of venom in the dirt, and ichor and cobwebs were melted together all around the clearing.

Impa struck the great spider in the eye a last time and it shrieked again before it burst into raw Dark Magic, curling like smoke. Impa waved her hands and shouted a Word of Power, her voice raw with the strength of it. There was a massive sucking sound, followed by a loud pop; the nothingness ate into itself and vanished, leaving only a perfectly smooth, dark orb in its place. The cobwebs faded and left the trees. Air rushed into the grove. The normal forest sounds returned, and the dawn lightened just a bit.

Impa walked to the center of the clearing, towards the dark orb. She looked for a moment as though she wished to smash it— the traditional method of disposal— but instead she knelt and scooped up the orb and placed it in a shadow pocket. Panting, Zelda looked at her mentor. Beyond Impa's shoulder, two violet crescent-moons appeared in the woods, then vanished so suddenly that Zelda was sure the magical drain was making her see spots. She returned her attention to Impa.

"What was that?"

"A Gohma," replied Impa calmly. "There is something very greatly amiss in these woods."

Zelda wrapped her arms around herself, contemplating the implications of a Ghoma while she and Impa caught their breath. A Gohma was on the lower tier of Great Monsters, and were often symptomatic of a great unbalance somewhere. They more often infested holy places that had been desecrated and corrupted with Dark Magic; what would one be doing in the northern woods?

The forest had lightened enough by that point that Zelda no longer needed Sheik's vision. The cold power in her eyes sucked back down her throat, past her lungs, and wound its way around her life force. Sheik squeezed once, and she thought he would manifest; however, the Sheikah did not appear. Shrugging, Zelda pulled her cloak off, fanning her sweating body in the chilly air.

A glance through the branches upward revealed that the sun had risen; watery blue sky shone between the green leaves of the massive, twisted pine that Zelda stood beneath. She sighed, and it was at that moment that the wolf from the previous day trotted out of the bushes and sat down very calmly a number of feet away. He curled his tail around his feet, looking haughty and dignified, observing the two with his stunning blue eyes.

Zelda tensed, feeling the weak remnants of her magic rush back to her— she wouldn't be taken aback again— but Impa began to smile.

"Well, I'll be cursed," Impa said quietly. The wolf held his aloof expression for a moment more before his jaw dropped open and his tongue fell out in a wolf's grin that reminded Zelda of some of the King's goofier hunting dogs. Unable to help herself, she smiled back.

"May I approach, Your Majesty?" Impa asked. Zelda thought for a moment that she Sheikah was asking for her own permission, and was about to answer that she wasn't sure that was the best of ideas, when the wolf inclined his head in what was an unmistakable nod.

Zelda's brows rose just as Impa moved forward towards the wolf. She knelt before it, sitting calmly on her knees, hands braced before her. Zelda couldn't see the Sheikah's face from where she sat, but she could see the way the wolf's blue eyes bored into the Sheikah's.

As she had observed yesterday, there was an intelligence there that was very un-wolf.

The wolf bowed his great, dark head, and Impa raised a hand. She ran it in the air just over the wolf, and then her fingers curled into her palm. She placed her fisted hand back on her knee. "I see," she said very softly.

The wolf nodded once, and then turned his blue eyes to Zelda. She swallowed. They were hungry, intense and familiar- Zelda wasn't sure how- but she remembered seeing a similar pair of blue eyes staring her down with the same potent strength, the same burning hunger. Zelda bit her lips, hoping that she wasn't about to become wolf kibbles. The wolf rose, took a step towards her, then two, and froze. His body was so still that he looked almost as though he was made of stone. Then, without another noise, almost too fast to follow, the wolf turned and vanished into the woods.

"Impa?" Zelda asked uncertainly, clasping her hands in her gown. "Impa, what's going on?"

But the Sheikah did not respond. She bowed her head once, and then rose, graceful as a cat.

"We'd best return to camp, Majesty," the Sheikah said. "There are many things that I need to ponder, and if we do not return soon, you will be missed."

Zelda knew that was the best response she would get out of the Sheikah. Frowning to herself, she drew her cloak back around her, and then followed Impa back through the woods towards the camp.

The trip back out was shorter than Zelda remembered; she was so lost in thought that she barely noticed when they stepped out of the forest of twisted pines and into the meadow where the campground lay covered in a fine dew. There was more on the Princess's mind than the beauty of the morning, however; in the aftermath of the battle, it was all she could do to walk straight and blink. Her heart was beating a rapid tempo, faster and faster. She and Impa had fought a Gohma.

Any panic attack that might have occurred was swiftly derailed when Zelda looked up and found herself in front of her tent. Impa had already stepped inside, and Zelda followed, only to see her second sister Julietta standing in the center of the tent and twisting her hands.

"Help me with my poetry for tonight," the Golden Princess demanded.

Julietta was fondly known throughout Hyrule as the Golden Princess, or Princess of Love. Ballads had been written about her skin of of palest alabaster, hair like spun sunshine, and eyes of cornflower blue. But what the Golden Princess was most famous for was her star-crossed romance with a handsome knight named Romio. The two had grown up together— he had been groomed for the specific purpose of serving her. But when the news of the romance had leaked, the two had been separated. Romio had begged and pleaded with the King to allow him to wed the fair Princess, who had been betrothed to her cousin, a prince of Gamelon. Though the King initially refused, both Julietta and Romio had threatened to kill themselves. So the King had allotted a year and a day for Romio to accomplish a series of three impossible tasks: find him a sword fit for a Goron, bring him dust from the fabled Mirror of Twilight, receive one flaming hair from the head of the mythical Gerudo Queen. If Romio could complete the tasks assigned to him within the given time, he would be allowed to wed the Princess Julietta.

Romio had vanished, and for many months none heard of him. It was assumed that he had died, and as the time grew shorter, Julietta retreated further and further into herself. The Prince Onkled of Gamelon had journeyed to Hyrule to claim Julietta as his bride, and begun planning the wedding, for no man could accomplish such a series of tasks as Romio had been assigned in a lifetime, never mind a year and a day. But on the day before the wedding, exactly one year and one day after Romio had departed, the knight returned to the King's Castle, gleaming in golden armor, and set down at the King's feet a massive and ancient sword forged by a Goron Giant, a sack of glittering dust that turned the air around it to twilight, and a single strand of hair that was ever burning.

The King had no choice but to allow Julietta and Romio to marry. The entire Kingdom had celebrated, and many ballads had been written about the two lovers. Zelda remembered the festivities and celebrations through the eyes of a child: Julietta had been nineteen, and Zelda had been nine. Looking at the Golden Princess now, though, the glow of love was still present around her, but also there was a haze of worry and nervousness. Julietta had always been one to wear her emotions for the world to see, and she was plainly agonizing over something. It was strange, thought Zelda— the Princesses had each shared their gifts with the people of the Kingdom dozens of times before, yet this was the first time Julietta appeared to be stricken with a bout of nerves.

"Is that all that's bothering you?" Zelda asked. The words slipped out before she was fully aware of them. Julietta's bright blue eyes narrowed, her scarlet mouth turning down in a frown. Though Julietta was beautiful and kind, she was also spoiled; too often, people fell at her feet in admiration. Only Zelda, Tetra, Ashei, and Aveil didn't rush, unquestioning, to do her bidding.

"Impa, you may leave us," Julietta said to the Sheikah. Impa bowed curtly once, then walked from the tent. Zelda thought about pointing out that both Sheik and Julietta's Sheikah, Louise, could allow Impa access to all the knowledge they acquired through access to the Great Host, when Julietta did something that surprised Zelda.

"Louise," Julietta said quietly, "please leave us. Zelda, send Sheik away."

Julietta's feline Sheikah appeared and padded out the door, unquestioning. It was apparently not the first time the Sheikah had been sent away.

"Julietta…" began Zelda, uncomfortable with having Sheik away from her after the morning's events.

"Please, Zel," begged Julietta. "It's important."

"Sheik, go," whispered Zelda. "Go to Impa."

The falcon materialized and cast a baleful red stare at Zelda before swooping away.

Julietta waited until the tent flap had settled, and then turned to Zelda.

"Use one of your Words of Power," she said simply. "I don't want to be overheard."

Zelda blinked once, twice, and then a third time. "Julietta, what's going on?"

Julietta blew out a breath, exasperated. "Just do it."

Shrugging- what was the harm, except further depleting her already low magical resources?- Zelda spoke a Word. It appeared, glowing in the air for a moment, before rushing out to wrap itself around the inside of the tent. All of the noise from outside faded immediately. Zelda was reminded uncannily of the spider's clearing earlier that morning. She shivered once, feeling green.

"Romio has been uneasy," said Julietta without preamble. Zelda blinked as the Golden Princess discarded her usual ethereal elegance and plopped indecorously down onto a stool, her yellow gown poofing out around her. "Very uneasy."

"I'm…. Sorry to hear that?" managed Zelda. Her second eldest sister was always a wild card, and Zelda was never fully sure how to behave around the delicate beauty.

Julietta twisted her hands in her lap, then looked in the direction of the tent door.

"Romio made a deal," Julietta said. "When he… when Father… back then."

Zelda blinked again. "What kind of deal?"

Julietta shrugged. "He wouldn't tell me," he said. "Only that… that he wandered for months searching for the treasures that Father asked for, and he was certain he would fail, but a man of incredible power found him dying of cold and thirst. He took Romio to… to an underground castle, and told Romio that he could provide him with that which he sought, but that Romio must promise something in return."

Zelda sucked air in through her teeth. This was bad. "What did the man look like?"

"Romio never saw his face," responded Julietta. "He would try to look, but his eyes were always averted. It was like he couldn't look. But he said that the man's hair was like fire, and he smelled like… like magic. Like you did when you came into your own as a Sorceress, before you managed to fully leash your power."

This was very bad. If Romio had had any sort of training in magic- any at all- then his first lesson would have been to never, ever, ever make a Pact with a Creature of Power. And it sounded like that was exactly what Romio had done.

"What did Romio promise?" Zelda asked, her voice low. She could understand now why Julietta had sent Impa from the room— the Sheikah would have been furious. Likely to the point of making things explode. (It had only happened a few times, but when it occurred, it was truly spectacular.)

"Assistance," Julietta responded quietly. "The man asked him, when the time came, that Romio would help him with a Great Harvesting."

The youngest Princess ran a hand over her face.

"Can you give me any more details than that? Can Romio?" she asked. "He made a Pact, Julietta. With a Creature of Power. Those are almost always unbreakable, but there's usually a loophole. If I'm going to find it, I'll need to know everything possible."

Julietta shook her head. "Part of the… the Pact was an oath," said Julietta. "That he would not speak, sign, write, sing, dance, draw, carve, or otherwise communicate more than ninety nine words about what happened, from the time he entered the underground castle to the time that he was delivered to Hyrule Field in golden armor. I've told you everything he was able to tell me."

Zelda sank onto her cot and buried her head in her hands.

"Do you think he could nod or shake his head?" Zelda asked Julietta. "If I asked him yes or no questions?"

Julietta shook her own head. "I tried that," she said simply. "It didn't work."

Zelda sighed and ran her hands through her hair, feeling empty without Sheik's presence wrapped around her life force. The Sheikah was distantly radiating rage and concern. She took several deep breaths, using the calming meditation tactic she'd learned in training, and looked up at her sister, whose eyes were welling with tears.

"It's fine," Zelda said before Julietta could start crying and apologizing. "We'll figure something out."

"But, Zelda," whispered Julietta, two perfect tears running down her beautiful face— even when she cried, she was perfect, though Zelda angrily— "You don't understand."

"What don't I understand?" Zelda asked, trying to tamp down her temper.

"Romio," Julietta whispered, voice choked. "He says… he says he saw the man. Here. And Romio is afraid that his Pact is about to be called in."

Harvesting. But what could anyone want to harvest here, now? Zelda inhaled once, then exhaled once, pushing down the confusion and anger rising within her.

"I'm a Sorceress," Zelda finally said. "I am a Sorceress, and that's got to count for something. Everything will be fine. It's in the nature of Sorcery to deal with Creatures of Power. At least Romio didn't promise to give him Ashei or one of the others."

Julietta gave a hiccuping laugh. "Ashei would carve up Romio before going anywhere with him," said the beautiful Golden Princess. The mirth faded from her eyes and she looked at Zelda. "Are… are you sure you can handle this?"

No. "Yes," Zelda said with far more surety than she felt. "I am." She moved from her cot to kneel before Julietta and take the older princess's long, pale hands in her own calloused ones. As annoyed with Julietta as Zelda was, the younger Princess had always looked up to her beautiful elder sister. When Zelda had been very, very young, she'd idolized Julietta for her frail beauty. A little of that childhood fondness and worship remained tucked deeply within Zelda's heart.

"Julietta," said Zelda quietly. "Everything will be fine. So don't cry, ok? Just come get me when Romio's Pact is called in, and I'll see what I can do. And I promise, I won't tell anyone. "

"Not even Impa?" said Julietta blearily. Zelda bit her lip. Julietta had an irrational fear of the blood-eyed Sheikah. In fact, most of the Princesses did; even Aveil and Ashei, who weren't afraid of anything, were intimidated by the Royal Sheikah.

"I can't promise that I won't tell Impa," said Zelda finally. "She's my mentor, after all. But I'll only tell her if it's absolutely necessary that she knows," finished Zelda. Julietta looked like she was about to protest, but then nodded.

"Okay," said Julietta. "That's fine."

Zelda smiled fondly at her older sister and squeezed her hands once.

"So," said Zelda as the elder princess seemed to calm herself, "Did you want me to help you out with your poetry?"

Julietta's lip trembled as she smiled at Zelda.

"Yes," said the elder Princess. "I would like that very much."

It was nearly an hour later when Zelda was driven, blinking and hungry, out into the sunshine. While Julietta recited poetry, Zelda had changed into a gown more fitting of a princess than the heavy homespun she'd worn for her journey out into the woods; her day gown was white, with a yellow tunic over it in deference of the color of the Second Day. She'd pulled her hair up into a bun and pressed a single daisy into the riotous golden strands, which were nearly the same sunshine-bright color as Julietta's.

Before departing the tent, Julietta had given Zelda one last long, worrying look. Then she'd hugged her younger sister, and had left the tent, breaking the Word of Power with her departure. Zelda felt it the instant the magic popped, like a bubble; the sudden drain of expending even that small amount of power for so long made her feel weak. She wobbled once, but then shook her head and decided to go eat. She'd been awake for several hours now with no food— surely once she got something into her stomach, she'd feel better.

So she ventured out of the tent, blinking in the bright, mid-morning light. A glaring falcon had immediately descended upon Zelda from the sky and melted into her shadow. Once inside her, Sheik sent off waves of reproach and irritation. Zelda ignored it and decided to go in search of food. It was a little after nine o'clock and many of the princesses either weren't yet awake, or were just waking up; Aveil was sitting in the tall, open tent that had been erected for the royals, blinking into a bowl of oatmeal, her red hair pulled back into a braid that looked to be one gust of wind away from unraveling.

"Morning," grunted Aveil as Zelda seated herself next to her sister. A servant immediately brought over a tray of food, and Zelda selected a platter of eggs, sausages, and a large bowl of fruit.

"Good morning," responded Zelda, smiling wearily at Aveil. Then she set into her breakfast with gusto.

"You look like hell," Aveil observed. "And are you really planning on eating all that?"

"I'm hungry," Zelda responded. She thought for a moment about telling Aveil about her depleted magical core, but then shrugged. Aveil didn't need to know that, and if she did, she'd ask a dozen pestering questions, leak the secret, and the entire camp would know that something was afoot by lunchtime. So Zelda merely satisfied herself with stuffing her face in as ladylike a fashion as possible, enjoying every last bite.

By the time she'd gone back for seconds and finished eating, Zelda felt full and sleepy, and wanted to take another nap. Looking at the sun, she determined that she had long enough for a quick catnap, and headed back to her tent. She laid down in her gown and all and slept for a half hour before rising again and setting out to do the daily prayers with her sisters.

It was mid-afternoon when Impa came and found Zelda again. The Princess had managed to come by a large bowl of cloudberries and was eating them with relish. The Sheikah raised an eyebrow, but didn't respond, and merely pulled a Green Potion from her shadow pocket, poured it into a goblet that she produced from the same place, and handed it to Zelda. The Princess wrinkled her nose and downed the foul concoction as quickly as possible, and immediately felt a bit better.

"What's afoot?" she asked Impa, popping another cloudberry into her mouth.

"I've been going over all the official census information for the Peak Province for the past two hundred years," Impa said simply. "I've written down as many numbers as I can access. Shad is collecting the relevant documents from the Royal library and will be cataloguing the information within the Great Host within the next day. There are some things I would like to go over with you."

Shad had been the Sheikah of the most recent Queen Zelda, who had been one of the greatest sorceresses ever seen in Hyrule. The Sorceress Queen had worked a neat trick of magic when she neared the end of her life. So long as Harkinian blood sat upon the throne, Shad would live on, but only if he remained confined to the palace. The Queen had recognized a need for a Sheikah within Royal walls at all times, and had managed to somehow bind the life force of the Sheikah to the magic of the wards surrounding the Palace. Nobody was fully sure how she had managed it, and Shad refused to say what it was that fed him, but the quiet Sheikah seemed to prefer to spend most of his time in the library, absorbing knowledge for the Great Host, or observing nobles for much the same reason.

Shad was nowhere near as old as Impa, and tended to keep to himself; he was painfully shy, but his job suited him. Zelda was fond of the timid Sheikah, who always stuttered and stammered the answers to her questions. She wondered if his long life in Hyrule had made him diffident, or if he had always been so withdrawn. She could hardly imagine him protecting the legendary wayward Queen from the number of near-catastrophic scrapes that history said she'd gotten herself into.

"Bless Shad," Zelda murmured, lips curving up at the mental image of the Sheikah flapping around royal library in his owl form, precious books clutched delicately in his talons. She'd seen the sight many times and always found it endearing.

"If you'd care to retire to my tent, Princess?" Impa asked. Zelda stood, still holding onto her bowl of cloudberries, and followed Impa across the royal pavilion to the small, nondescript gray tent that sat in the shade of a massive oak.

Inside, there was enough room for Zelda to sit on a low stool. Impa sank onto her cot and produced a ream of papers from a small chest. She handed them to Zelda and then spoke a Word of Power. Zelda sighed as silence fell around her like a heavy curtain for the third time that day.

"That fight took more out of you than it should have," Impa accused, red eyes on the Princess, who was thumbing through the many papers written out in Impa's neat hand.

"It's nothing, Impa," said Zelda simply. "I'm a little drained is all."

"That's not the case." Sheik appeared, kneeling at Zelda's feet. Zelda aimed a good-natured kick at his head and he nimbly dodged, unperturbed. "Something drained her last night."

"I had too much to drink," Zelda responded, well aware that the two Sheikah were only conversing aloud for her benefit. "And besides, I'm fine."

"You've been eating all day, from the looks of it," Impa responded, her eyes moving pointedly to Zelda's hand, which had paused midway through the act of raising cloudberries to her lips. Zelda scowled, and then defiantly popped the berries into her mouth.

"I'm tired and haven't slept," responded Zelda, returning her attention to the sheaf of papers. "I've got to get my energy somewhere. Now, what did you want me to look at?"

Impa pursed her lips, but didn't lecture Zelda as the princess half-expected that she would. "Look at the infant mortality rates," Impa finally said.

Zelda licked the last of the berry juice from her fingers and set about to looking over the numbers that Impa had specified. Sheik leaned against her legs, his warmth solid and comforting as Zelda read, becoming more and more confused.

"Strange," Zelda murmured.

"Quite," Impa agreed.

"What do you think it means?" Zelda asked.

"It could be that deaths are so common in those families because sicknesses are passed down through the generations," Impa said simply. "It could be living conditions, or just pure bad luck."

"But you think it's something else," Zelda said simply.

"Please direct your attention to the next page," Impa said simply. "And take note of the professions of the families who experience the highest infant mortality rates."

Frowning, Zelda did so. Several minutes later, she was disturbed.

"As you can see," Impa said simply, "bakers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, tailors… these trade jobs have the usual rates of infant mortality. But families that have hedge witches present experience astronomically high rates of loss."

"You think it's related?" Zelda asked quietly. "That… that something is happening to the children with magic?"

"Something is happening to you," Impa said simply. "And the amount of magic present in the Peak Province is unusually low."

Zelda blew out her breath and resisted the urge to run her hands through her hair and ruin her coif.

"So," she said simply. "Something is sucking at my magic and I'm becoming exhausted. You think that there's… there's something here, in the Peak Province, that's eating magic? And that's why there are no magicians, or sorcerers, or witches, or anything?"

"It bears investigation," Impa said simply. "Which is what I plan to spend tonight and tomorrow doing. I wanted to inform you of my decision before I departed."

"Of course," Zelda murmured, feeling disturbed and a little cold.

Impa turned her red eyes on Sheik. "You will make sure that the Princess is always supplied with magic," said Impa. "Whether it be force-feeding her green potions, or feeding her your own magic."

"Do you think this has anything to do with… with what I woke up in the woods yesterday?" Zelda asked. Impa looked at Zelda, blood eyes calculating.

"The odds of this being a coincidence is astronomically high," Impa said simply. "So, yes, I believe it is likely that your adventure in the woods yesterday, paired with our discovery earlier this morning, is somehow tied to what is going on here in the Peak Province."

"Why don't you think anyone noticed before?" Zelda asked.

"Likely," said Impa, "it is because there are very few visitors to this region. We are only here because the augur declared that the Goddesses wanted us to come here. It seems that there are great powers at work here, Princess."

Zelda frowned and reached for her bowl of cloudberries. She was disappointed to find it empty.

"Do you think I'll be ok?" Zelda asked simply. Impa and Sheik both studied her with identical inscrutable expressions.

"The Goddesses have a plan," said Sheik finally.

Zelda snorted. Like that was comforting.

"While I am gone," said Impa coolly, "you are not, under any circumstances, to go into the woods without my protection."

"What if there's a hunting trip, or a prayer, or a pilgrimage to the spring?"

"Then I am sure you will weasel your way out of it admirably," responded Impa laconically.

Zelda huffed, but knew the Sheikah was right. If she encountered another Gohma, or something worse, she would be unable to defend herself with her depleted core.

"Fine," sighed Zelda. "I won't go into the woods."

"Good," responded Impa. "I will be back no later than dinner time tomorrow. Now, I've taken up quite enough of your time. It would be best if nobody suspected trouble— you know what happens when the Nonmagic get involved."

Zelda nodded once. Nonmagic, or people who didn't have magic, tended to exacerbate magical problems, usually in favor of Dark Magic. Princess Saria had enough magic to make a half-decent Hedgewitch, and Ashei could wield Quest when needed, but if any of the other princesses- especially Aveil and Tetra- suspected something, they'd be sure to make a mess of the situation.

"I'll get back to them," Zelda said simply. "It'll be time for us to start getting ready for the dance soon anyway."

Impa nodded once, satisfied, and then turned her gaze to Sheik. The two Sheikah communicated silently for a minute before Sheik popped out of existence. Zelda felt him wrap himself firmly around her life force, and she looked down at the double shadow clinging to her cloak.

"Come and find me as soon as you're back," said Zelda softly to Impa. "And if you learn anything interesting, tell Sheik so he can pass it along to me."

"Of course," Impa said.

Without any further goodbyes, Zelda stepped out of the gray tent into the evening sunshine. She hurried across the royal pavilion to Tetra's tent. She announced herself at the flap, and entered when called out to.

"Where were you? I looked for you everywhere and couldn't find you, and you promised to get ready with me tonight," said Tetra from where she sat on a plush stool, allowing a maid to line her eyes with kohl.

"Talking to Impa," said Zelda simply. "Sorceress stuff."

"What sort of stuff?" Tetra asked.

"Balance of yin and yang magic in the soil," Zelda deadpanned. Tetra made a face and huffed out a breath.

"I know that's a crackpot answer because you've used it on me before, so I assume you don't want to talk about it and I'm not insulted at all," sniped Tetra. "I had your maids bring your dress for tonight in here, so hurry up and let's start getting beautiful together. I seem to recall you dancing very closely with a mysterious stranger last night." Tetra batted her eyes stupidly at Zelda, and the youngest princess admirably suppressed the urge to toss a havoc spell on Tetra's elaborate coif.

"I know you just want me in here so I can tell you that you look nice for Lord Freedle," Zelda teased, then laughed as she dodged a hairbrush thrown her way by her irate sister. Tetra huffed, and Zelda grinned, and let the maids set about to stripping her and dressing her up for that night's dance.

Julietta's poetry recitation was, unsurprisingly, perfect. If Zelda hadn't known about Julietta's emotional turmoil firsthand, she would never have noticed the small tells: the way her eyes flickered uncomfortably to the youngest princess when she talked about "sacrifice of my dearest heart," or the way Julietta licked her lips and averted her eyes when she was met with thunderous applause at the end of the evening.

The dance that night was much the same as the one the night before, except that everyone was garbed in yellow, the color of the Second Night. Zelda's buttery yellow dress slid like satin around her legs as she danced and twirled; though she was still exhausted, she felt carefree. She felt good. Whenever she began to feel tired, Sheik pushed a little bit of magic into her body and gave her that extra boost. It also didn't hurt that she'd had a few discrete goblets of green potion, washed down with more than a few goblets of wine.

"You seem to be enjoying yourself this evening," said Daphnes as he sidled up to her, wrapping an arm around his tipsy sister.

"I always enjoy myself, Daph," Zelda said to her brother, looking up at him with adoring eyes. Daph was in his early thirties, and shared the same wild red hair as their father, and as Aveil. He was a little pudgy, but had a strong, square jaw, and a smile like sunshine when it wasn't hidden behind a mask. He was a good man, and would be a good king, and was a wonderful brother to Zelda and all of the princesses. Daphnes's wife, Princess Felicia, was a perfect match for him: caring, kind, and very occasionally mischievous, the auburn-haired beauty was a nubile princess from the tiny island nation of Koholint. The couple had a son named Tarin, an adorable little boy that shared his mother's beautiful hair and his father's generous temperament.

"Will my baby sister dance with me, then?" teased Daphnes, extending his arms as a lively jig struck up.

"Of course," Zelda responded with a grin. Daphnes pulled her out into the dance clearing and the two whirled around, grinning and laughing. Midway through the dance, Daphnes managed to trade her off to Tarin and dance with his wife, so Zelda cavorted around the clearing with the ten-year old boy, who was less than a head shorter than she was.

"You're growing fast," Zelda puffed to Tarin as they finally exited the dance floor, laughing. Tarin wore a keaton mask that perfectly suited his personality.

"You're just shrinking," Tarin responded. Amused, Zelda ruffled her nephew's hair.

"You're dancing with me next, right?" Tetra asked, sidling up to Tarin and looping an arm around his shoulders.

Tarin gave an impressive, long-suffering sigh. "I suppose," he groaned.

"Hey!" said Tetra, and immediately she jumped upon her nephew, tickling him for all she was worth. Tarin began to laugh and squeal, "no, no, get off!" which naturally only worsened the tickling. Zelda was laughing so hard she could barely breathe when she felt a presence next to her. She turned and saw a head of handsome red hair.

"Chancellor Makivelo," she said, surprised. "Hello."

"I hope I'm not interrupting?" he said, a self-deprecating smile in his eyes. "I've come to beg a dance."

"Of course," said Zelda, though she was still pleasantly out of breath from the jig and the laughter. She allowed the young Chancellor to lead her out into the clearing for a lively rondo, and quickly found herself even more out of breath from the combination of dancing and singing. When the dance was over, she was more than happy to stagger back off the floor and to the royal table, where she stole a few bites of food from Lulu' plate.

"I always miss carrots," Lulu was telling Julietta, waving her goblet with enthusiasm. Her eyes were glazed behind her Zora mask. "There are no carrots in Zora's domain."

Zelda giggled, and reached for her own glass of wine. Before she could close her fingers around it, however, Aveil ran up, grabbed Zelda, and dragged her back onto the dance floor for a bourrée. After the bourée, Zelda was swept up by one of her cousins, then another Lord, and a Baron, and then Romio, who smiled sheepishly at Zelda but said nothing of Julietta's visit to her earlier that morning.

She'd been dancing for hours and she was exhausted. No matter how much magic Sheik fed her (or how much green potion and wine she drank, for that matter), Zelda was ready to go to bed. A wide hand extended out to her and she was about to tell the man- even if it was the King- that she needed a rest when she heard a rumbling voice.

"Trade a dance for a question, Princess?"

Zelda's eyes jerked up and she saw the man in the wolf mask- she would not call him by his name- watching her closely with his bright blue eyes.

"I'm exhausted," she said bluntly.

"Then it's very good for you that this is a minuet," he said simply. Zelda thought about refusing him, but then remembered the way he'd fed his magic into hers the previous night and sighed to herself. She could use the boost, loathe as she was to ask for it.

"Very well," she replied She took his warm hand and felt the instant flood of electric power up her arm. She looked up at his face again, and saw the surprise in his eyes.

"I didn't realize you were so tired, Princess," he said finally. "Perhaps you should rest."

"You wanted your dance, you'll get your dance," she responded. "It won't kill me."

They stood there for a moment longer, merely holding hands, before the man bowed his head.

"Very well," he said simply. "Though in the future, if you need magical assistance from me, you need merely to ask for it."

"I'm sure it would come at a price," she said, her voice snapping more curtly than she intended it to. The man looked taken aback, and then clearly grinned underneath his mask, blue eyes crinkling.

"Ah, but it wouldn't be such a terrible price to pay," he said simply, tightening his grip on her hand. She could feel the burning of his skin even through both their gloves, and she gulped. The heated promise in his voice had blood rushing to Zelda's cheeks, and she was very glad for the presence of her mask.

"What is wrong with you?" she muttered, more to herself than to him. He heard her, though, because a wolfish voice came from near her ear.

"Now, now, Princess, are you sure you want to use your one question on that?"

"I will be choosing a different question, thank you," she said stiffly. The man laughed in delight and spun her.

"Princess, you're a delightful creature," he said, voice warm with admiration. "I can see why your sisters are all so fond of you."

"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," responded Zelda, following his easy lead as he guided her around the dance floor.

"They've all been watching you very closely this evening," the man said, his voice pitched low. "Though I take it you hadn't noticed."

"You're imagining things," Zelda said primly. The man laughed again and spun Zelda once. He caught her and brought her a bit closer to his body than was strictly necessary, but he swiftly maneuvered her back out to proper position— it was so quick that Zelda wasn't even sure it had happened, except that her shoulder still tingled from where it had brushed against him.

"I hope your day was satisfactory," the man murmured.

"Quite," Zelda responded. "I hope that yours was the same."

"My day went very well, thank you," said the man. "I had some wonderful rabbit's meat for lunch, and took a long nap in the sunlight this afternoon."

Zelda laughed. "You sound like one of the King's hounds," she said. "Those dogs spend half their lives sprawled in a puddle of sunlight."

"I'm so glad that you think that I have the dignity of a dog," growled the man. Zelda looked to his face in shock, but then saw the laughter in his eyes and smiled under her mask.

"At least you don't drool everywhere," Zelda teased easily. The man spun her quickly and dropped her into a dip, catching her as she yelped in surprise.

"I," said the man calmly, "am not a dog."

Then he set her on her feet and they resumed dancing as though nothing had just happened.

"You're horrible," she said simply, surprised at how easily she fell into bantering with this man.

"Not even hardly," responded the man. "I'm Link."

"I won't call you by your given name," Zelda said warningly. "It's too familiar."

"Is that so?" asked the man, turning his bright eyes on Zelda. She suddenly felt about ten degrees hotter. She swallowed thickly and licked her lips.

"Why won't you tell me your full name?" she asked quietly.

"Is that your question?" asked the man. Zelda considered for a moment, and then nodded.

"It's not that I won't tell you my full name," the man said simply. "It's that I can't."

"Why not?" Zelda asked, curious. The dance ended.

"That's a question for another dance," said the man as he guided her to the edge of the dance floor. "And this evening has nearly ended. Would you care to guess my name?"

"Give me a hint," said Zelda, feeling like pushing her luck. The man looked at her, raised a brow behind his mask, and then seemed to come to a decision.

"You've heard it before, just as you've met me before," he said simply. "Though neither, I think, in a place where you expected it."

Zelda thought about the family that was most prone to doing unexpected things and grinned behind her mask.

"You're a Dotour," she said, smug certainty lacing her voice.

"You've guessed incorrectly," said the man simply. He took her hand in his own and raised it to the small muzzle on his mask. Zelda imagined that she could almost feel the touch of his lips on her skin. Electricity shot from his hand into hers. "Until tomorrow night, Princess."

And, just as suddenly as the previous night, he turned and was gone. Annoyed, Zelda refrained from stomping her feet, and instead thundered over to the royal table, where Aveil and Ashei sat watching her.

"He likes you" Aveil said simply. "What's his name?"

"Shut up," Zelda snarled, pouring a vial of green potion into a goblet.

"Why've you been throwing back green potion all night?" Ashei asked.

"There's an imbalance of yin and yang in the soil here," Zelda responded. Ashei raised a brow at her youngest sister, but didn't respond, and Zelda felt momentarily stupid— Ashei could access Quest. Ashei knew that that was the standard crackpot answer given by magic users who didn't want to explain why something was going on. Grumbling to herself, Zelda passed the goblet of green potion over to Ashei.

"Drink up and don't ask stupid questions," Zelda said simply. "I'll explain everything later, once we're back home."

Ashei pushed up her mask, drank a few sips of the green potion, and grimaced. She put her mask back down and passed the goblet back to Zelda, who tossed down the remaining contents with a distinct lack of relish.

"Disgusting," said Zelda simply.

"Agreed," said Ashei, bobbing her head once in a nod.

"You're both insane," Aveil observed calmly, tweaking the fabric of her canary yellow dress. "And I, for one, will be glad to get out of this hideous color. Zelda, will you be coming to any other dances tonight?"

"Not tonight," said Zelda, thinking longingly of her cot. "Impa got me up before dawn to go to sorceress stuff."

"Like what?" asked Aveil, curious. Zelda never spoke about sorceress stuff to her sisters.

"I made some trees grow out of more trees, and then I ungrew them," said Zelda simply. "And then I transformed some rocks into frogs."

"By Din, you're dull," huffed Aveil. Ashei was twirling a long strand of inky hair and studying Zelda from between her thick black lashes with the violet eyes they had both inherited from their mother.

"I'm tired too," said Ashei suddenly. "Zelda, let me walk you back, yeah?"

"That," said Zelda, standing up from her stool and wobbling, "would be wonderful."

The two princesses set off through the campgrounds as the last song came to a close. As they reached the royal pavilion, Ashei turned to her younger sister.

"I understand magic, yeah?" said the elder Princess. "And I understand that sometimes you can't talk about things that are going on. And I know you're not as close to me as you are to Tetra or even Aveil. But if you need me, or if you need my sword, I'm here for you, yeah?"

Zelda grinned up at her big sister, exhaustion and gratitude making her sway on her feet.

"Thanks," said Zelda, wrapping her arms around Ashei's yellow-clad waist. For someone who spent so much time in maille, Ashei could pull off a dress surprisingly well, even if yellow did look just as ridiculous on her as it did with Aveil's shock of red hair.

"Get some good sleep," said Ashei evenly. "Sleep in as late as you want. I'll tell the others not to bother you. And get me if you need me, yeah?"

"Yeah," responded Zelda. Then, under the watchful eyes of her sister, a legendary shield maiden and the fourth princess of Hyrule, Zelda slipped into her tent, shucked her dress, and fell into bed before Sheik could even take the form of a guardian falcon above her bed.

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