Into The Woods

By Lyxie

Chapter 4: The Deal

Aveil found Zelda worrying over a thick sorcery tome and a plate of pheasant at lunchtime and dragged her away for the archery competition.

"You're an ace with the bow," said the fiery redhead, ignoring Zelda's protests as she was hauled off her stool. "You're coming."

Hapless, there was nothing for Zelda to do but stack her plate on her book and follow in her elder sister's wake.

"— Suppose you have a chance even though I am arguably better than you," the fifth princess babbled. Zelda forced herself to listen. "So I'll probably beat you, but still, we're the Princesses and we've got to put on a good show. I can't find Tetra anywhere, otherwise I'd drag her along, and Ashei has been practicing for this all morning. I hope she's got blisters all over her fingers. I can't stand it when she beats me."

"Mmhm," grunted Zelda as she took another bite of her pheasant— no easy task to do while being dragged along across uneven terrain at a fast clip and balancing a platter of food on the cover of a priceless text.

"And anyway maybe we'll find your mysterious masked man from the ball there," continued Aveil, ignorant of Zelda's sudden spluttering. "He looked like the outdoorsy, huntsman type— not that I was looking, but he definitely had archer's arms. What did you say his name was?"

"I didn't," managed Zelda. Nauseated worry was still a living thing in her stomach, twisting and writhing in a many-fingered ball. But Aveil's presence was a distraction, and a welcome one; even if things were on a level of "bad" that hadn't been seen in the Kingdom in years, Zelda still had to keep up pretenses. And the best way to do that was to bicker with Aveil.

"Well, keeping secrets isn't much unlike you, though I have to say that you can't keep him all to yourself. Sisters share."

"You're horrible," said Zelda drily. Aveil hummed and shrugged.

"Horrible or not, he has a very nice leg. Is he poor? Are you afraid of what Father will say? Because I wouldn't be if I were you. If Julietta talked Father into letting her marry Romio, you can probably get hitched to some… well, whatever he is."

Of all the Princesses, Aveil was closest with the King; she'd inherited his red hair and stubborn determination, though nobody was fully sure of where her inability to shut up came from. Zelda thought about pointing out to Aveil that, by all rights, Romio shouldn't have been able to pull off his three impossible tasks, and that he had (in fact) apparently made a highly dangerous bargain for it, but she decided it just wasn't worth the breath trying to argue with Aveil. She might as well try to talk a terrier out of barking.

"…But anyway that's all water under the bridge, isn't it? You've forgiven me for all that, right?"

Zelda was suddenly very sorry that she'd tuned out. "Um….?"

"Good, I'm glad to hear it," Aveil stated cheerfully. "Oh, look, there's the archery range. And there's Ashei— Goddesses, she does look ridiculous in a dress, doesn't she?"

"She looks about as happy as wet cat," Zelda agreed, momentary humor sparking through her at the sight. Ashei was clenching her bow in a white-knuckled fist, the folds of her ivory gown blowing gently around her legs. Her frown was visible from several hundred feet away, and if they could, her violet eyes would be shooting sparks.

"She argued with Father— wanted to wear her usual getup for archery, you know? But Father refused, said a Princess has to look… well, Princess like. Then he started to say something about being more like Julietta, except without the whole Romio thing, and I'm sure you can imagine where it went from there."

Zelda could. Ashei hated to be compared to anyone, but most of all loathed being contrasted against Julietta. The fourth princess of Hyrule had, on more than one occasion, called the Golden Princess "a featherbrained ditz."

"Ah, sororal love," sighed Aveil fondly. She grabbed Zelda's wrist and hauled her off again. "Come on, then, let's find your bow- I had the knights deliver it somewhere around here- and you can get to work showing us what you're made of."

"You're obnoxious," Zelda managed.

"Next thing you'll be telling me that there's an imbalance of yin and yang in the soil, and that you have to go do some ensorcelling up in a tree somewhere."


"We all know that whole 'yin and yang' thing is a load of dodongo dung. I don't know why you even try to use it anymore."

"You have got to be the least sisterly sister in Hyrule," Zelda finally managed.

"Nah, Julietta's worse. Did she really force you to listen to her recite that drivel she calls poetry for two hours the other morning?"

Zelda thought back to the surprising discussion, Julietta's tears, and the horrible news she'd brought. The ball of nausea began to writhe again.

"It wasn't that bad," Zelda managed weakly.

Aveil snorted. "And I'm a bouncing bulbin. Come on."

"Sheik, my book," managed Zelda. The shadow falcon appeared immediately and grasped her plate and book in his talons. He took it and soared away, and Zelda sighed in relief. One less thing to worry about.

Just then, someone bumped into her rather forcefully.

"Ouch!" Zelda exclaimed, stumbling back a few steps. She looked up into familiar eyes, and recognized that shock of red hair immediately. "Chancellor Makivelo!"

"A thousand pardons, Princess," Makivelo blathered, wringing his hands. "So sorry— I'm afraid someone jostled me, and I… well, I am so sorry, and if there's anything I might do…"

"It's quite alright," Zelda responded with a small smile. "But I really must be going."

"Of course, Princess," responded the man, bowing over her hand and pressing his lips briefly to the back of it. "Will you be competing in the archery contest?"

"If my sister gets her way," Zelda responded drily. "Good day, Chancellor."

She didn't bother to wait for the bumbling man's response, and instead allowed Aveil to drag her off again through the crowd.

"Who was that?" Aveil asked over her shoulder.

"Chancellor Makivelo of the Peak Province," responded Zelda.

"His hair is a lovely shade of red, though I must say that he seemed rather like an idiot," Aveil stated.

Zelda didn't know whether or not she agreed, and decided it would be safest to stay silent.

"Here we are," said Aveil, pulling Zelda through the last of the loose crowd to stand up front near the archery equipment. Ashei was there, scowling down at her billowing skirt.

"You know that this thing is a hazard, yeah?" Ashei said to her twin the second the redhead bounced up. "It'll get me all tangled up and then I'll shoot someone on accident."

"Nonsense," responded Aveil. "We always hit what we shoot at. Surely you aren't worried that I'm better at shooting in a skirt than you are?"

Ashei's expression darkened.

"I'll light your hair on fire," growled the raven twin. Aveil grinned, and set to work unpacking her bow from its long box and stringing it.

"How're you feeling?" Ashei asked, coming over to stand by Zelda as she tended to her own bow.

"Much better," Zelda lied quietly. The heat of the day was wearing on her, and the steady pull on her magic was a constant drain in the back of her awareness. "Saria came to see me yesterday morning, and made me sleep."

"She's been sleeping most of the time herself," Ashei responded. "But out of the three of us, she has the least magic. She'll be fine, yeah?"

"We'll all be fine," Zelda said firmly, and strung her bow in a single, sleek movement.

"Where's Impa?" asked Ashei as Zelda slung her bow over her shoulder. The familiar weight was comforting. She focused on that, and not the thick fist of of terror and nausea that slammed into her, or the exhaustion that was steadily pulling at her, worsening with every moment.

"Busy," responded Zelda. "She's off…. Doing Impa things." Ashei raised a brow. Zelda shrugged helplessly. "She's not exactly forthcoming at the best of times, you know."

"Clear as mud, yeah?"

"Yeah," agreed Zelda. She looked out towards the tree line, which was several hundred feet away, hoping that the fear causing her heart to slam against her ribs wasn't showing plain as day on her face. "Hey, Ashei…"

The shield maiden turned violet eyes upon her younger sister.

"Just… don't go into the woods, ok?" Zelda asked simply. "Like, really, no matter what happens, if you can help it, don't go in there."

"Something you don't want me seeing in there, little sister?" Ashei asked lightly, though her eyes said she understood.

"Oh, you know," responded Zelda with an airy wave of a hand that was remarkably steady. "There's some Yetis in there. And some other stuff."

"I'll be sure to steer clear of any stuff," responded Ashei blandly. "And let me know if you need help, yeah?"

Zelda was reminded of the conversation they'd had the previous night. She nodded once, then glanced around. "Where's Tetra?"

"Hiding from Aveil," Ashei responded. "I think she's off praying somewhere, or beating someone up with swords, or throwing rocks at stuff."

Zelda's eyes strayed to the woods. "Do you think she….?"

Ashei followed the direction of Zelda's glance, then shook her head.

"She doesn't like trees, you know," Ashei reminded Zelda. "Prefers open spaces. Says that's why she likes water so much, and that the only good tree is one that's part of a ship."

"Yeah," responded Zelda, still worried. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

Ashei touched Zelda's shoulder once in reassurance, and then turned away. Zelda blinked once as a leather arm guard was thrust into her face.

"Well?" said Aveil, wiggling it around.

"Thanks," Zelda said, catching it as Aveil impatiently dropped the arm guard.

"Well you two were so busy yakking I figured you'd forget it," said Aveil. "Have a sudden need for a meaningful heart to heart between sisters?"

"Asking her if she knew where Tetra was," Zelda responded, tugging off her gloves and laying them aside. She began to strap the guard on her arm, shaking her head at a servant who stepped up to do the task for her. Zelda preferred to deal with her own buckles; if she did it herself, she'd know that it was done right.

"Pooh, Tetra, off hiding," waved Aveil dismissively. "She just knows that she'll lose to me."

Behind Aveil, Ashei rolled her eyes at her twin. Sheik chose that moment to reappear, swooping down in a sleek rush of feathers and diving in a single liquid movement into Zelda's shadow.

"Just because your Sheikah can take the form of a falcon, he feels like he needs to show off," groused Aveil, even as Zelda sent a warm tendril of thanks to the exhausted shadow curled around her life force. He'd been feeding her magic all day, and she was becoming worried for him… though the beginnings of an idiotic, potentially catastrophic plan had taken root in her mind as she'd stared at her book, searching for an answer.

In fact, Zelda had been reading all morning; she hadn't taken the magic to cure herself of her hangover, and had instead grabbed the Vade Mecum, a thick tome that every sorcerer and sorceress was expected to have close to their person at all times. The book contained many secrets of life and magic, as well as no small amount of philosophy, incredibly dense magical theory, and a number of overwhelmingly detailed diagrams that wiggled, rotated, changed language, and otherwise tormented those who were hungover. When Ashei had glanced over Zelda's shoulder at breakfast, the older girl had turned green, told Zelda 'good luck,' and run off to vomit in a bush. Zelda herself had been feeling nauseated looking at all the shifting diagrams and lines of text, but it was necessary. Unfortunately.

It was as she tried to ignore the way that a number of characters were rotating wildly, at different speeds and in different directions, that she'd remembered that she wasn't the only strong magic user in the encampment. Magicians hated traveling, and most sorcerers and sorceresses tended to stay as far away from people as possible, so there wasn't anyone from the Academy present at the Carrus Din. But there was someone with an overwhelming amount of magic, wild magic, who might be able to help.

But would he? He'd probably want to strike a bargain. It would be a very big bargain, too; Zelda wondered what, exactly, it was that he would ask of her in return for so momentous a favor.

The slap of a hand against her cheek brought her out of her rumination.

"Ow," hissed Zelda, one hand immediately coming up to cradle the stinging flesh. She glared at Aveil. "What was that for?"

"I was calling you and calling you and you wouldn't respond," she said simply. "The competition is about to begin."

The archery competition, though not necessarily a strictly religious activity, was a crucial part of every Carrus Din. Praying all day got old, and the competition was a nice break in pace.

Zelda followed her sisters to their targets. The princesses always shot first, followed by the high ranking nobles, then the low ranking nobles, and so on. Points were awarded for accuracy; whoever got the most points won. She took a deep breath and let her mind wash clear. For just a few minutes, she would pretend like the world wasn't about to crumble around her. She could shoot arrows into a target. She could be ok.

"You're going down," hissed Aveil, elbowing Zelda in the side. She looked ahead at her target and imagined that the bullseye was the pinpoint of all her fears.

"It's on," the seventh Princess replied, notching her arrow, pulling the fletching to her cheek, and letting fly.

Aveil was still sulking that evening when it was Ashei's turn to perform.

"You're all scatterbrained all day, don't respond when your name is called, keep your nose glued to a book with words that rearrange themselves willy-nilly, practically miss the competition because you're off in dreamland, and then you all of a sudden hit seven perfect bullseyes in a row?"

Next to Zelda, Tetra rolled her eyes. The sixth Princess, true to form, had been hiding from Aveil all afternoon— in Julietta's tent, of all places. Zelda had found her older sister playing cards with Romio the knight and begged their assistance in hiding from the angry fifth princess.

"Look, Aveil, I don't know what you want me to say—" started Zelda. Aveil shushed her with a hiss and a flap of her hand.

"I'm not speaking to you," said Aveil, sticking her nose in the air. "But just so you know, you are my least favorite sister right now after Julietta, Tetra, and Ashei. In order of horridness."

Well, that was hardly unusual. At least Aveil's world was still well ordered.

Shad hadn't found anything in the Royal library that could help their situation. So, as she readied herself alone for the ball that night, Zelda called Sheik out into his human form and discussed her plan with him.

"Impa wouldn't like it," Sheik said instantly as soon as Zelda suggested her plan.

"Impa isn't here, and it's not like we have many other options," she responded, slamming down her hairbrush. After dressing her, the maids had been exiled. "Unless you have a brilliant plan, and I know for a fact that you don't, otherwise you would have told me."

Sheik sighed and sank onto Zelda's cot. The way he moved his arms reminded Zelda of a bird folding its' wings.

"We don't have a better plan, and though yours makes me nervous, it's likely our best shot," Sheik agreed grudgingly. "And I am beginning to believe that the sooner we get this dealt with, the better, no matter the means."

That was the most un-Sheik thing Zelda had ever heard the Sheikah say. She gulped, mouth dry.

"What aren't you telling me, Sheik?" she said.

The Sheikah buried his head in his hands— a completely human move she'd never seen him execute before.

"You can trust Link," Sheik said simply. "Impa trusted him, though she withheld her logic and, I suspect, some knowledge."

Zelda hadn't known that it was possible for Sheikah to withhold knowledge from each other. "Can she do that?"

"The Host can restrict knowledge," Sheik said simply. "The Host, and the Host alone, may do so. As the Host on this plane, Impa would have had the ability to keep pieces of knowledge from us— I am surprised, however, to learn that she did. It is alarming, to say the least."

"And…." Continued Sheik, his voice so hopeless that Zelda's stomach dropped to her toes.

"And?" She asked, voice carefully controlled.

"We may have a bigger problem," Sheik said simply. "Magic is being pulled from you at an incredible rate— much higher than you are aware of. The other Sheikah and I are pouring our own magic into you to keep you stable."

"I understand that isn't a good thing, but how is that a bigger problem than me entering into what could possibly be a horrible, catastrophic agreement so that I can battle with a force of nature that I know nothing about?"

Sheik didn't speak for a long time. Zelda grabbed a comb and begin brushing her hair, the familiar movements soothing to her nerves, which frayed more and more as every second passed by.

"Shad," said Sheik at last, his voice a whisper in the later afternoon. "The problem is Shad. He has no living host."

Slowly, carefully, Zelda set her comb down.

"Shad is keyed to the Castle Wards. If… if this thing drains enough magic from you, it could destroy the wards on the palace."

Swallowing was suddenly very difficult.

"You can't let that happen," she said simply. "If it comes down to it…"

Sheik looked up at her, his eyes hollow. Suddenly, he looked old— very, very old. Zelda could see the weight of his age in his eyes.

"How long?" She asked quietly. "How long do I have before the wards are compromised?"

Sheik didn't answer. Zelda felt panic rise within her.


"A day," he finally croaked. "Maybe less."

Zelda was glad she was seated, else her legs would have given out.

"Make a deal with Link," Sheik said simply. "And pray that he is benevolent. Otherwise, it will mean your death, and Goddesses save us from the chaos that will be unleashed on our Kingdom."

Zelda felt jittery and terrified. Dealing with Link was like nothing she'd ever done before— no political maneuvering, no in-depth analysis of magic, nothing had ever prepared her for a card as wild as he. She wondered how things had come to this. How, in the space of four days, she was willing to promise a near-total stranger anything, anything, for his help.

Where was the strong, confident sorceress who had bathed naked in the spring? When had she been replaced with this fretting, fragile girl?

Thunderous applause nearly scared Zelda out of her skin. She cast her eyes to the stage in disbelief. Ashei had already finished her performance— and, from the looks of the two sweating knights on either side of her, she'd done marvelously.

Zelda swallowed. It was time.

The sun sank below the horizon as the occupants of the camp filed away to the ball area. The grass had been well and truly packed down by many feet; ordinarily, after such an event, Zelda would heal the field before setting off for the palace once more.

Zelda would be lucky if she was still alive.

With that thought to sober her, she looked around. She didn't see Link anywhere. As the dance started, she pulled on a precious magic and moved to go sit in the shadows of the great oak where Link had held her hands last night and asked her to unburden herself to him.

Last night. It was so recent, and yet Zelda felt wholly different from the woman she'd been then.

She didn't have to wait long. She sensed him before he melted out of the shadows.

"Waiting for me?" he asked, deep voice unreadable.

Below her mask, Zelda licked her lips and gathered all her courage.

"I need your help," she said simply. "I'm dying."

A great stillness settled over Link. He cocked his head to one side in a wolflike motion. Zelda took it as a sign to continue.

"I want to make a bargain with you," she told him.

"You want me to sustain you," he answered smoothly.

Zelda nodded once. Her hands were shaking. She fisted them in her lap, clutching the white silk of her gown as though it would keep her from unraveling.

"So you've obviously noticed by now that whatever it is that is draining you doesn't seem to affect me," Link said. "This… plague that indiscriminately sucks magic from men, women, and children does not touch me."

Zelda nodded once.

"You don't know why it doesn't touch me," Link continued, turning his back. Beyond him, beyond the shade of the massive tree, people danced and smiled and laughed as though nothing was wrong. "Only that I remain healthy and whole while you wither away. And yet you trust me? When, for all you know, I could be at the very heart of the evil in the woods?"

"I've felt your magic," she whispered. "It's not stolen magic. You aren't tied to this."

"You know so little, Princess," he snarled, whirling on her in a sudden move that had her shrinking back on the stool. "You know so very little indeed. And what did you think to offer to bargain with?"

"Anything," Zelda responded. "I will give you anything you want if you will help me stop whatever it is that's in the woods. I can't let it harm my people."

Link made a derisive noise in the back of his throat. Zelda would have been furious if she weren't so terrified.

"You need to learn, Princess, that not all men can be trusted," he said simply. "And that a bargain like that could get you into very serious trouble indeed."

"I will give you anything," Zelda repeated, voice a little stronger, "but I will not hurt my King or his heir, and I will do nothing that will risk instability in my country."

"Your bargain is accepted," Link responded. "But this is a very large deal, Princess. It needs blood to seal it. I need your blood to bind your life force to my own."

Zelda's pulse picked up, even as she unclenched her hands. Slowly, she stood and began to draw her left glove off.

"Does this negate the terms of our previous deal?" she asked, her voice quiet.

"No, Princess," Link replied, pulling off his own left glove. "It simply raises the stakes."

She was afraid to ask what he meant. Instead, she extended her bare left hand, pale skin bright beneath the moon. She took a good, long look at her palm. After this, it would bear a scar. Probably forever.

"Do you have a knife?" she asked, pleased at how little her voice shook.

"A knife will not be necessary," he said simply. "But you will need to shut your eyes, Princess."

She jerked her eyes shut and swallowed loudly.

"This is going to hurt, isn't it," she squeaked, jumping as a warm hand gently touched her neck. The touch was strangely soothing.

"Only for a moment," he responded. That warm hand withdrew.

She heard it the moment his own flesh opened. The soft splat of blood landing in the soil had her knees shaking. She was worried they would give out. A moment later, searing white pain lanced across her palm as something cut deep, down through the tissue. She felt muscles ripping away from each other. It was agonizing. She bit her lip on a scream and blood welled in her mouth.

A warm, wet hand wrapped around her own. Palm to palm, their fingers laced together as their blood dripped to mingle on the packed earth. Link spoke a single Word, and Zelda felt his power wash over her like a tidal wave. Her magic… her power was nothing compared to this. He was immense. Monstrous. Magnificent.

The heat of his blood on her palm was unbearable. It was boiling. Zelda made to jerk her hand away but his fingers tightened over her hand, locking her in place. It was like fire, and it rushed into her, filling her with flame. She was full of fire, and of wind, and of the wilderness. The pain shifted until it felt as though her body was a waterskin that was being packed, slowly and surely, with snow. She was frozen. She was dying. It was all too much.

And then it was over.

Zelda's knees began to wobble.

"Steady, Princess," said Link. "Keep your eyes closed. You've lost a lot of blood."

He helped her back to the stool. She sank onto it gratefully.

"Stay there," Link told her. "Don't open your eyes. You're going to be shaky for a few minutes. I'm going to fetch you something to eat. You need the energy."

"I feel funny," she said quietly.

"I know," Link responded, and there was genuine remorse in his voice. "I wish there was another way. Stay there."

Zelda was careful to hold her hand away from her dress. She hoped that no blood had gotten onto the white of her fourth night garb; it would be hell to explain, aside from the fact that it would ruin the silk.

The silk was the least of her worries.

Zelda looked within herself, to the place where Sheik rested, and was stunned to see her magical core was substantially replenished, though still far lower than normal. Sheik's sparkling shadow, though thin, was wrapped securely around her life force, and seemed to be faring better than earlier.

And there, knotted in with her own life force, inextricably intertwined, a single strand of ivy grew amongst the bright, pulsing threads of her own energy.

Zelda leaned over and threw up.

A cold goblet was pressed into her gloved right hand.

"Drink," came Link's familiar voice. Without hesitation, Zelda obeyed. She felt him take her left hand between his two bare ones, and a cool, wet rag moved over her skin.

"It's usually bad form to remove the blood in anything less than twenty four hours," Link said quietly. "But I'm not too worried. That's more superstition than actual magic."

"I'm bound to you forever, aren't I?" Zelda asked without preamble. Link's hands stilled from where they were gently daubing the blood between her fingers.

"We have the ability to share magic," he finally said. "Until one of us dies. Having second thoughts?"

Zelda jerked her head side to side in a halting no. She pressed the cool metal of the goblet against her lips and took a sip. The sickly sweet taste of potion clashed with the residual tangs of vomit and blood. She wondered what Link must think of her.

It hardly mattered. She was in a debt to him that was so tremendous that she doubted she'd ever earn her way out of it.

"Keep drinking the potion," Link said simply. "It'll rinse your mouth out. As delightful as this little interlude has been, you still owe me a dance, and I'm sure you're bursting with more questions."

"How will I explain this to the King?" Zelda asked, her voice a mere whisper.

Two fingers tilted Zelda's chin up.

"Look at me," Link said finally, his voice soft. Zelda opened her eyes and peered at him from behind her mask. His own mask was firmly in place, but his blue eyes were serious. "Don't worry about that now. Worry about the monster in the woods. We'll handle your father later."

Zelda nodded once. She finished the rest of her potion, and pulled her glove back on. Shakily, she stood, accepting the hand that Link offered her. He'd put his own gloves back on, too; he was looking handsome tonight in all ivory.

"Dance with me?" he asked her simply. Zelda gulped and nodded once, and allowed him to lead her from the hidden shadows of the tree out onto the dance floor, where they merged seamlessly with the other dancers performing a slow fox-trot.

The whole ordeal had lasted perhaps ten minutes, and Zelda was reeling. If only there had been another way. But there hadn't— none that she could think of, and there wasn't enough time for Sheik and the other Sheikah to come up with something better. And now, here she was, bound to the magic of a total stranger until she died, and owing him an enormous favor.

"Rupee for your thoughts," Link said as he guided Zelda in a slow spin.

"Tell me everything you know about why magic users who live near the Snow Spine are drained of their abilities and killed," Zelda said, whirling in Link's arms. "That's my question for this dance."

Behind his wolf's mask, Link frowned— Zelda could see it in the furrowing of his eyebrows.

"Rumor has it," he began, "that many centuries ago, there was a mighty war between the creatures of Good and the creatures of Evil. Hyrule was, at the time, under the care of a strong and capable Queen who was not easily defeated; however, the creatures of Evil had obtained the unholy power of a demon, and drove her from her palace.

"This was before the Snow Spine was part of Hyrule. The Queen sought refuge in the mountains, which were even wilder then than they are now. And it was there that she encountered several Creatures of Power. The strongest of all of them was the King of Beasts, whose form was ghastly, but whose heart was wild and good. The King of Beasts fell in love with the exiled Queen, and so he made a bargain with the Queen, who was a talented sorceress. If she would give him a human form- the one thing that he could not obtain for himself- he would in turn drive the creatures of Evil from her lands, and seal them away in the Underworld. The Queen agreed, and the King of Beasts took on the body of a man.

"He took his sword in hand and went to Hyrule to make good on his end of the bargain. He slaughtered the army of Evil, and lured the King of Evil- a malevolent, horrible spirit- north to his domain, to where his power was its strongest. There, the King of Beasts stripped the King of Evil of his powers, but in the process, the King of Beasts was mortally wounded. He begged the Queen of Hyrule to use the last of his life force to defeat the King of Evil fully, but the Queen had fallen in love with the King of Beasts, and could not kill her lover. Instead, she bound the powerless King of Evil in chains of Light, and sealed him away deep below the mountains.

"There's more to the legend, of course— happy endings, and so on, but the core of the legend, the stripping and sealing of a great Creature of Power— possibly a demigod— I know to be true. Apparently, when the Creature was stripped of its' powers, the job was not done completely, and it has been feeding off the magic of others, slowly regaining its strength over ages and ages."

"It would make sense," Zelda said, though she felt cold at the idea of a Creature of Power that old and that angry rising up from underneath the mountains. "I don't know if I can battle something like that, Link."

"Have faith in yourself, Princess," Link said. "You're stronger than you give yourself credit for."

As though on cue, the dance ended. Zelda curtseyed deeply to Link.

"I will come and find you later," he said simply. "You still owe me a dance."

He bowed over her hand. As he turned to walk away, however, a series of screams rent the air. Link's fingers tightened on Zelda's and he pulled her behind him as he turned in a fluid movement to face the screams. The crowd was pulling back and apart from a shriveled husk that had collapsed to the ground. Zelda recognized the shock of red hair immediately and stepped out from behind Link to rush forward.

It was Chancellor Makivelo.

An incredibly handsome man garbed in rich black robes materialized suddenly by Cole's side, kneeling on the packed earth. He looked not quite real; there was something transparent about him. He reminded Zelda, in a twisted way, of Sheik. Wild chestnut locks framed brilliant blue eyes that were unsettling. She knew them, somehow. The man stared, delicate face unreadable, at the Chancellor's shriveled body. What was left of the Chancellor hardly even looked human— it looked as though all the moisture had been sucked from him. His skin clung gruesomely to his bones. His eye sockets were clearly empty. His teeth showed in a silent scream.

"Well, well," said the man in black, turning brilliantly blue eyes on Zelda. There was something incredibly familiar about them, though the cold in them gave her shivers. His voice was familiar, too. She just wasn't sure how. "Well played, Princess. Well done." He bowed swiftly in a mocking salute. "Does it satisfy you, you wretched girl?"

What? Zelda thought, unable to wrap her head around the situation. What was going on?

Without warning, a sword was in Link's hand.

"You will not insult her," he growled.

The figure laughed a high, clear, terrifying laugh that raised the hair on the back of Zelda's neck. He stood, and dusted his hands off, before narrowing his eyes at Zelda. A muscle in his arm twitched.

Zelda reacted instantly.

Before the blast of Dark Energy had even made it to her, she'd conjured a barrier of Quest around herself and Link, who had- just as quickly- summoned a number of tree roots to wrap around the figure's legs. The blast dissolved against the Quest barrier even as the figure shook clear of them and aimed another spell. Zelda had summoned the counter spell before she even fully realized what was going on, acting on pure instinct; the figure's blast was contained. Spinning blades of purple and red Dark Energy shot out from the man towards the crowd. Just as quickly, Zelda sucked the blades towards her, caught the Darkness between her hands, and reshaped it instantly into Wind, which she wrapped around the man in black.

Beside her, Link was moving in a way Zelda had never seen. His feet were firmly planted against the ground while the rest of his body twisted. It looked almost as though he was dancing, except that with every flipping, twirling motion of his hands and arms, the world shook and massive roots twined upwards from the soil to wrap around the figure in black, only to be blasted apart by Darkness. As the strange man was distracted by a large root, Zelda quickly conjured her bow and shot two quick Light arrows at the man. Both arrows were swatted away by a blast of pure Dark Energy; however, one redirected arrow went hurtling into the body of what had once been Chancellor Cole Makivelo.

The effect was instantaneous.

The corpse burst into purple smoke, then crumbled into dust. The man screamed and clutched his head, and turned ferocious eyes on Zelda.

"You'll pay for that, you bitch," he hissed. Then, terrifyingly, he smiled, and let loose another of those evil chuckles; in the next second he vanished in a cloud of black smoke.

Exhausted, Zelda sagged, and would have crumpled to the ground had it not been for Link's quick arms around her. A quick glance inward confirmed what she already knew: her core was almost completely depleted. Sheik was a hollow shadow, thin as gossamer cobwebs, wrapped around her soul. Steady energy pulsed slowly into her from the vine of ivy within her— Link, loaning her his strength. Gratefully, she latched onto it as she latched onto his arms, feeling steady warmth slowly trickling into her.

She became aware of the whispers and stares of the people around her. Then the crowd parted to admit the King of Hyrule, who was ferocious in his golden lion's mask.

"Princess Zelda," he said, his voice rumbling with rage. "Explain this."

Zelda tried to speak, but her voice came out a mere croak. To her surprise, it was not Link who came to save her, but Sheik.

The Sheikah manifested, almost completely transparent, looking haggard.

"My King," said Sheik, dropping to one knee. "What you have just witnessed was a pair of rogue Sorcerers that the Princess and Impa have been tracking."

"Chancellor Cole Makivelo was a sorcerer?" the King asked dubiously.

"A low-level one," rasped Zelda, picking up on Sheik's lie. "He has been siphoning energy off of our people. What you saw was what happens when an energy spell like that gets out of control." That, at least, wasn't a lie. Zelda only wished that she'd realized sooner that the Chancellor had been the one pulling energy off of her. How had she not noticed? She was a disgrace. As though reading her thoughts, Link tightened his arm around her in a reassuring squeeze. "Impa and I are still uncertain of the identity of the second man, who you saw."

"And where exactly is Impa?" the King asked. "She has been remarkably scarce the past few days."

"Searching for the sorcerer's power sources," lied Sheik. "The energy that they were siphoning had to lead somewhere. She is trying to track it and destroy it even as we speak."

"It was sloppy of you to allow such danger near the people," said the King. Zelda felt Link stiffen. "I am remarkably disappointed in you, Princess Zelda."

Zelda bowed her head. "I understand, Sire. It was foolhardy of me."

The King turned his gaze on Link.

"And who are you?"

"I am a servant of the Goddesses, my King," Link said simply. "I live in the region." Zelda wondered what kind of magic he practiced, and where he'd learned. Certainly she would have heard of him if he had gone through the Academy. No sorcerer had the kind of power Link had. He was something else. Something bigger.

Something from the woods.

"I happened to encounter the same draining phenomena as the Princess and Lady Sheikah, and have been searching for a way to rectify it," Link said smoothly, even as Zelda's heart rate picked up in panic. "I am now serving the Princess, so that she might vanquish the power."

"And why, exactly, are you touching the Princess with such familiarity?" The icy disapproval in the King's voice made frost seem warm. Link, however, remained unfazed.

"The Princess has expended a tremendous amount of energy and put strain on her magical core trying to shield the Royal Family from the drain of the rogue sorcerers' spell," he responded. "I am feeding her my own meager power to keep her from completely depleting her core and damaging herself, Sire. To do so, physical contact is necessary." Zelda was glad that Link had omitted the part where he was also physically holding her up. If she had the strength, the would have ripped herself out of his arms. They'd just gone through a draining (though brief) magical battle, and he was fine. Completely unfazed. Nobody, no mortal, could have that kind of strength.

Oh, Goddesses. And she was bound to him, whatever he was.

Zelda pushed down a rising flood of panic.

"It's true, Sire," said Ashei, stepping quietly out of the shadows. She dropped a deep and graceful curtsey before the King. The golden lion mask glinted in the firelight as the King looked impassively down on his fourth daughter. "Zelda and I have discussed it. I have felt her shielding all of us these four days at camp."

"I will attest to this as well," Saria said, also stepping forward to stand beside Ashei. The second princess looked like a tiny doll compared to the willowy height and supple strength of the fourth. "I have put Zelda into several healing trances so that her magic could replenish."

"I've seen her drinking green potion, Father," said Aveil, stepping forward to stand on Ashei's other side. "Every night during the dance."

"And why was I never informed of any of this, Princess Zelda?" the King asked.

"Mortal weapons are no use against magic, Sire, and Impa and I believed it would have unduly alarmed you." Zelda's voice was hoarse and husky. She was trying to think about anything except the arms around her stomach. "As a sorceress— as a powerful sorceress, it is my own responsibility to ensure that rogue magic users are contained and that innocents are protected. Impa and I believed that we had the situation fully in hand." She bowed her head. "Clearly we were mistaken. A thousand apologies, my Lord."

The King frowned. Finally, he nodded his head once.

"The dance will continue," he said, striding from the floor. A few people looked askance at the scorched patch of dirt where the battle had occurred. Zelda drew on Link's magic, and with a twist of her hand, it disappeared into the earth, creating a hole. The rest of the soil pulled itself around the hole, knitting over it like flesh over a wound.

The transparency that was Sheik completely vanished at the same time that her legs gave out. Against her will, she sagged against Link. He quickly adjusted his grip to sweep her up and carry her, bridal-style, off the floor. He deposited her upon a stool at the Royal Table, a good distance away from the throne where the King and Queen sat, and conjured a large, stone goblet of green potion. Down on the dance floor, the music started up and the reluctant dancers got back to their business.

"Drink," he said. She wanted to fight him, but found that she didn't have the energy. She wrapped her hands around the goblet, taking it from him, and tilted it to her lips. The concoction tasted horrible but Zelda downed it, gagging and spluttering. When she was finished, she passed the goblet back to Link, who vanished it with a simple twist of his wrist. He then peeled off his leather glove and held out his bare right hand, letting it rest against the wood of the table before them. Glaring at him, Zelda removed her own left glove, careful to keep her palm down, and rested her fingertips against the hot skin at the base of his wrist.

She immediately felt his magic feeding into her, accompanied by the usual wild shock. This time, though, with skin pressed against skin, it was a thousand times worse. Zelda felt as though she'd caught a ball of lightning— something she'd been forced to do once in combative training. She could feel the electricity of him flowing up her arm and through her body. She felt it even in the back of her mouth.

"You're not mortal," she said quietly, trying to distract herself from the sensation of him. As soon as she said it, though, she realized she was right— it was no question. Her words were a statement of fact. To his credit, he remained unfazed.

"How have you come to such a conclusion?"

"Your magical core," she said simply. "It's too large for any mortal form. Even Impa's is nowhere near the size of yours."

He didn't respond. Zelda wondered if she'd angered him.

"You've led a sheltered life, Princess," Link said at last. "You'll find the world to be an incredible place once you begin to explore it."

Zelda resisted the urge to give a very unladylike snort.

"Right," she said caustically. "Because that's working out so well for me already."

Link was silent again. She followed his gaze to where her pale fingertips were pressed against the well-tanned skin of his wrist.

"How are you feeling?"

"A bit better," Zelda said. It wasn't a lie. Her magical core was surely and slowly swelling, feeding her life force. Even Sheik was looking a bit better; before, his presence had looked like mere gossamer threads. Now, he just looked like black hair wrapped around Zelda's life force.

Zelda looked at Link's masked face and wondered what laid underneath. She wondered if he was just as unreadable even without the mask. She wondered what she'd gotten herself into.

"Can I trust you?" she finally asked, spitting out the words much as she had earlier that night.

Link's blue eyes swung around to her in surprise. Zelda shifted uncomfortably in her seat under the bright scrutiny of his eyes, but didn't waver.

"…Yes," Link finally said. "You can."

"How do I know that I can trust you?" Zelda asked.

Link shifted and took her bare hand in both of his.

"That," he said quietly, "is enough about me for one night." His gloved thumb rubbed gently over the back of her knuckles. Energy pulsed through Zelda. "There are more pressing issues to deal with."

Fine, she could drop it, even if he was right. Especially if he was right. Whether or not Link was trustworthy, Zelda was stuck with him. So she might as well focus on problems she could fix.

"Makivelo," Zelda said with a frown. "How could I not have realized that he was the one draining me?"

Link didn't respond.

"It was obvious," Zelda continued. "Or, at least, it should have been obvious. Every time we danced, or every time he touched me, I came away weaker."

"The easiest place to hide something is in plain sight," Link finally said. "You didn't look to the Chancellor because it did not occur to you to do so."

"But what killed him?" Zelda mused. "He was fine one moment, and the next he was…. I mean… it looked like an energy spell gone awry, but how could that be? The kind of spell to create that sort of drain on him would have been impossible to hide from even Aveil."

"I think we can both agree," Link said quietly, "that the Chancellor was likely not the mastermind behind this plan."

"But then why did he die?" If she could have, Zelda would have stood up and begun pacing. "It seemed so… so pointless. So random. And who was the man in black?" Zelda asked.

"A demigod, I believe," said Link.

Zelda's blood frosted. "You're certain?"

"Yes," Link responded, nodding his head once. "The smoke that he emitted when he vanished is typical of demigods."

"I never came across that in any of my books," mused Zelda. "But if you're sure. If he's a demigod, then that means he's probably susceptible to Light magic. But… demigods don't suck magic, do they?"

"I don't know," said Link. "But your color is good enough now that you could likely walk back to your tent if you so wished."

Zelda wondered why Link had changed the subject so abruptly. Then she saw the faint lines of weariness around his blue eyes and understood.

"Go rest," she said to Link. "I'll do the same. You won't be able to hold up your end of the deal if we're both exhausted."

"You have such faith in me, Princess," Link said sarcastically. Then he looked at her. "Would you care to guess my name?"

She didn't know if she was disappointed or relieved that her time with Link was coming to an end. The two emotions warred within her. She wondered why she was disappointed at all in the first place. She'd have to wonder about that later, assuming she lived through the week. "Give me a hint," said Zelda, to distract herself from the direction of her thoughts.

"I've given you more than enough hints for one night," Link responded.

Zelda thought about it. An immortal, from the woods, with a massive amount of power, who turned up in unexpected places. Too bad that didn't narrow her options at all.

"Loki," Zelda guessed at random, too tired to do anything but name the demigod who stirred up chaos wherever he went.

"A flattering comparison, but you've guessed incorrectly," Link said, amusement lacing his voice. Strangely, the sound reminded Zelda of the way the blue of the summer sky shone down between the leaves of tall trees. "Until tomorrow night, Princess."

"Tomorrow night?" asked Zelda. Link glanced at her once. Zelda had the distinct feeling he was smiling under his wolf's mask.

"Someone has to go look for Impa," he finally said.

"Don't do something stupid and get caught," she warned him. Internally, she was busy bludgeoning the instinctive worry that sprang up back into submission.

"I would never dream of it," said Link. "Good night, Princess. Sweet dreams."

"Good night," she responded. He bowed low to her once and moved into the shadows so quickly that Zelda wondered if he was a Sheikah. Shakily, she tried standing, and found that she was stronger than she ought to be after the evening she'd had. She glanced once at the King, whose attention was elsewhere, and made her way away from the dance.

Julietta appeared out of the shadows, golden hair glinting in the firelight, joy radiant in her pale blue eyes.

"You're really something," said the second princess, awe in her voice. She held out a hand for Zelda. "Let me walk you back to your tent."

"Thank you," Zelda responded, exhausted. She took Julietta's hand and the two made their way through the campgrounds.

"Listen, Zelda," Julietta said as they neared the royal pavilion. "I want to apologize for worrying you the other morning. I didn't realize that… that you were tracking a sorcerer. And anyway I think that, since Chancellor Makivelo is dead, Romio will be absolved of his debts. I think that it was the Chancellor who made the deal with Romio." Julietta turned happy eyes on her younger sister. "Because Romio was always so strange when the Chancellor was around. So you don't need to worry anymore, ok?"

"I won't," said Zelda. "I won't worry about it at all." She squeezed Julietta's hand once, reassuringly, and then turned as they arrived before her tent. "Thank you for escorting me back."

"It's my pleasure," Julietta responded. She was smiling below her mask. "I'm proud to call myself your sister. Thank you, Zelda."

"You're welcome. Good night, Julietta," said Zelda.

"Good night," Julietta replied. Zelda turned and walked into her tent, and fell onto her cot, still fully clothed, as exhaustion sucked her down into the black waters of dreamless sleep.

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