The fire crackled. It wasn’t because of the meager dry twigs they had managed to find. It was because Link sat beside it, tossing shriveled leaves from an ancient palm tree into the flames. He liked the way they popped and sparked, shooting little jets of silvery stars up into the night air like little firecrackers. These tiny displays were somewhat useful to fill the long stretches of silence. For several hours now, he and Mika had sat, awkwardly attempting to make conversation while the others tried to squeeze in a few precious moments of sleep. It had started with polite small talk. Now it had lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, broken only by Link’s occasional pyromania.
Mika stood guard, alert and tense, watching the horizon. Link appreciated her staunch training, but somehow, he doubted very much that anyone would come upon their little oasis campsite. Twinrova was the only real threat right now, and Link suspected the sisters were too busy laying a trap to wage an open war against them tonight. He had said as much, but Mika insisted on standing at attention. This must have reflected her upbringing, he supposed. She had been raised by warriors, after all, whereas he had lived a relatively easy life among the Kokiri.
“Why are you still up?” Mika asked suddenly, breaking into Link’s little reverie. Immediately, he dropped his handful of leaves. “Not to say that I mind,” she added quickly.
“It’s okay,” Link assured her with a slight smile.
“I was just wondering.”
He shrugged. “I tend to avoid sleeping a lot these days.”
“Oh.” She paused, a spark of curiosity appearing in her eyes, so very much like Link’s own. “About what?”
“The things I’ve done, I guess,” he admitted.
“What do you mean?”
“All the monsters I fought.” He hesitated to mention the friends he had lost and the childhood he had been robbed of. Those were demons of a different sort, no less potent than a dragon or a Moblin.
“I suppose I understand that,” she said.
She frowned slightly. “Well, I try to. But I’ve never really fought a monster myself, so I can’t say.”
“Well, I’m sure you will, if you keep following me.”
“Hey, you’re the one following me. This is my quest.” This was true enough. It had been Mika’s adoptive mother, Alpha Medea of the Orca Pride, who had charged Mika with the task of assembling the Gerudo Topaz before the Twinrova sisters could. Link was merely tagging along.
“I guess so,” he said, pulling out the two Shards they had recovered so far. “I’m stupid like that. Can’t resist the opportunity to travel around collecting things.”
“I don’t know.” He tried to fit the two pieces together. Their edges were jagged and uneven, like a puzzle. It was possible that these two Shards didn’t even touch when the entire Topaz was assembled, but Link was determined. He turned the pieces over and over in his hands, continually rubbing them against each other, hoping for a satisfying click of some kind. “Did a lot of it during the whole Ganondorf thing.”
“No,” she said. “I mean, why are you coming with me?”
“You’re my sister,” he replied.
“We barely know each other.”
“True,” he sighed. “I guess, I’d just like the chance to know you a little bit. Seems important.”
“We’re never going to be true brother and sister, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. But maybe we can be friends.” Afraid of what she might say, he looked down at his hands, busily working the Shards. Without his gloves on, he could clearly see the blue lines of the Hylian symbol for peace that his parents had apparently tattooed into his skin when he was a baby. They had given Mika the other half. Again, he wondered what had given them the foresight to do so. Had they known the two would be separated? Link was grateful for their action, regardless of the motivation, and not just because it had helped him to find Mika. Without their matching tattoos, completing the rune, it was likely Mika might have killed Link.
“A few weeks ago, if a man had asked me to be friends, I would have spit in his face,” she muttered.
“Well, at least there’s some improvement there.”
“It’s very strange.”
“I guess it is,” he mumbled.
“Not what?” he asked.
Mika sighed, as if the admission were painful. “You’re not as bad as I thought you were. Men, I mean.”
“Careful, you might actually start to like us.”
“Not as a whole,” she added quickly. “But you. You’re not like the men I’ve been told about.”
Link glanced over his shoulder to the dark, silhouetted forms of their traveling companions, huddling in blankets. “What about Tyro?” he wondered.
She rolled her eyes. “Tyro is exactly like the men I’ve been told about,” she said with a groan in her voice.
“I’ve sort of noticed that you don’t like him.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“He’s obnoxious, I’ll give you that,” Link told her. “But Mika, you can’t blame him for being a little defensive.”
“Well, your people did try to kill him.”
“It wasn’t personal,” Mika said with a wave of her hand.
“Not personal? You tried to deprive the man of his life. How much more personal does it get?”
“It’s an Orca initiation,” she said softly. Link sensed danger now. They were drifting precariously close to a topic that was doubtlessly still sore with Mika; the death of her beloved Gerudo sister Alcia.
“Well,” he said quickly, trying to steer away, “it seems to me that maybe that particular tradition is starting to evolve. I mean, this is your initiation now. Finding the rest of the Shards of the Topaz. If you ask me, it’s a definite improvement. No less dangerous, mind you, but definitely less violent.”
“I’ve always been a bit different,” Mika mumbled. “It’s poetic that my initiation should be so different.”
“Was it hard not being born a Gerudo?”
Mika shook her head. “Not hard. No one ever taunted me or gave me a hard time for it.”
“I sense there’s a ‘but’ coming.”
“But,” she continued, “I suppose I always felt a bit out of place. So I tried to compensate by being the best I could.”
“That makes perfect sense.”
“And I was.”
“Modest too,” he said with a smile.
“I had to prove that a Thin Blood was just as good as a purebred Gerudo. And I think I did.”
“What’s a Thin Blood?”
Both Mika and Link turned around to find that Tyro had woken. He was moving forward, the orange glow of the fire falling over his handsome features, striking his cheekbones at a generous angle and casting a soft radiance on his auburn hair. “What do you want?” Mika asked him sharply.
“It’s my turn for the watch,” he said simply, looking at Link rather than at his sparring companion.
“Have a seat,” Link said, gesturing to the space around the fire.
“Aren’t you going to bed?”
Link shook his head. “Maybe in a bit. We were just talking.”
“I heard,” Tyro answered, sitting down by the fire and warming his hands over the flames. “You still haven’t answered my question, Mika.”
“What?” she snapped.
“What’s a Thin Blood?”
“A Thin Blood,” she said tightly, “is a woman who lives among the Gerudo, but has no Gerudo blood.”
“A slave?” he asked.
“No,” she said hotly. “A Gerudo. Like me.”
“And how does a woman become a Thin Blood?”
“She’s adopted into the Pride,” Mika explained, speaking very slowly, as if to a four year old. “She comes to live with them and they accept her as one of their own. Like me.”
“Are all Thin Bloods children with unpleasant dispositions?” Tyro sneered.
“No,” Link said quickly, hoping to cut off a fight that might wake Nebekah and Sapphia. “I’ve seen lots of adult Thin Bloods among the Jaguar Pride. Nebekah says most of them arrive as teenagers. They’re usually young girls hoping to avoid arranged marriages.”
“Well,” Tyro said, “that’s one way to do it. I’d imagine I’d do the same thing if I were in an arranged marriage.”
Link bit his tongue to keep from making a reply. He could imagine Tyro in many situations. An engagement seemed a bit casual. He was a bit of a playboy back in the village. It seemed plausible that he could be engaged to a different girl every week, given his reputation. “Yeah,” was all he said. “So how long do you think it’ll be before we arrive in Jaguar territory?”
Mika shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never been there before.”
“Me neither,” Tyro said. “You’re the only one who has.”
“I’ve never approached it from this side of the Valley before,” Link admitted. They were just coming from the Saber Tooth stronghold, after a somewhat lengthy ordeal with an unpleasant foreigner named Ari. Link was not sorry to put that experience behind him, although he found himself constantly thinking about a warrior he had met named Kae’lee. There was a click. Link looked down to see that the two pieces of the Topaz had finally come together, forming a slightly larger whole.
He turned to look out across the expanse in the direction they had been heading all day in an exhausting march. The Valley seemed broader and wider than he could ever have imagined it. Smooth stretches of sand gave way to choppy rock quarries in an endless pattern of hard and soft. As he looked out across the darkness, he saw whispers of silver rising from the desert plane. He frowned slightly. He had no idea what they were, but they were beautiful in an entrancing sort of way. They moved like dancing figures to the tune of a sitar and again, Link was reminded of a certain Saber Tooth who had caught his eye.
“Well,” Tyro said, “You can ask Nebekah in the morning. She seems to know everything about this blasted Valley. In the meanwhile, I suggest that you get some rest. Really, everyone needs to sleep. Even the Hero of Time.”
Link didn’t particularly feel like arguing the point. “All right,” he said, slowly standing up. “But you two keep it down when you fight, okay?”
Tyro laughed, but Mika gave him a dirty look. “Get some sleep,” she told him tightly.
“Wake me in a few hours. At sunrise,” Link implored them. Slowly, he made his way over to the pile of blankets reserved for him, tucking the attached Shards into his sheath. Of course, he didn’t want to sleep. He never did. Then again, there was always the chance that the demons would be kept at bay. Lately, he had been dreaming about Kae’lee, after all.
She chanced to catch a glance at her reflection in a mirror as she was led through the corridors of the Jaguar stronghold. Her face was full and round, her cheeks flushed a delicate, rosy pink. She was not young, not in the slightest, but rather a certain healthy and handsome matron with her light red hair intricately woven behind her head and the back of her neck. No one, not even the mirror, could detect the slightest trace of decay. The spell was firmly in place and grew powerful with every passing battle. When Kotake smiled, the borrowed face in the mirror smiled back.
Tiama, the healer of the Orca Pride, was a bit of a recluse like all the other Orca. She had never left her stronghold, so her face was not widely known in the Gerudo world though her name garnered a certain level of respect. This had made her an ideal disguise, one Kotake had put much thought into once she was finally supplied with the proper ingredients to finally restore a measure of beauty to her ancient face. Hungrily, she had longed to assume the role of a much younger Gerudo, but there had only been enough supplies, at the time, for one of the sisters to be restored to youth. Koume, for all her blundering foolishness, had managed to secure herself the role in the plan that would require beauty.
Kotake ground her teeth bitterly as she thought about the gorgeous form that Koume had assumed. Curse her, where ever she was, for her luck. Oh well. In due time, one their vessel had birthed Ganondorf renewed, Kotake supposed that she would have ample power enough to restore her good looks from the days gone by. A second pang of bitterness struck her stomach though, as she thought of the beautiful, fertile vessel. A servant, she might add, who had so far managed to let her down considerably by not collecting the Saber Tooth Shard. A servant who was suffering, perhaps, from second thoughts. It was unfortunate that the fellowship had chosen the Jaguar as their next stop on their quest to gather the Shards, but Kotake had decided to use this disadvantage as an opportunity to both cause trouble for them and perhaps to keep a closer eye on her hidden vessel.
“This way, mother,” the Delta girl who had been leading Kotake said, gesturing grandly to the Alpha’s reception chamber. She cringed. How she hated the Jaguar custom of addressing everyone in familial terms. In her opinion, the Jaguar were no more Gerudo than the bloodthirsty Kodiak. In her day, things had been different, better. And with any luck, they would be so again.
Kotake stepped into the chamber. The Jaguar were not as decadent as the Saber Tooth, but there was a certain measure of extravagance to the room. The stone walls boasted silk banners, displaying the Jaguar colors and the Jaguar symbol alongside of the Gerudo crescent. A pale pink carpet covered the path from the entrance to a dais, on which an elaborate throne, carved of ivory, waited. As Kotake took the path, she noticed with a level of satisfaction, that the entire room was lined with Delta guards, all of them holding drawn swords, as if expecting an attack at any minute.
“Alpha,” the escort called from the doorway, “Tiama of the Orca Pride.”
“Tiama,” Kotake recited, “daughter of Echidna, healer of the Orca Pride.” She crossed her wrists before her chest, bowing. Rather to her chagrin, she had been forbidden to carry weapons into the Alpha’s chamber.
“Tiama, daughter of Echidna,” the guard continued, “Alpha Petaleen of the Jaguar Pride.”
She straightened up and looked to the woman sitting in the throne. Petaleen was a handsome woman herself, somewhere in her late forties. Her hair was a mousy auburn color, her eyes piercing blue. Around her neck she wore a thick gold chain. Dangling from the chain was what could only be her Shard. It glittered, bright and amber, so easily within Kotake’s reach. She forced her hands to restrain themselves, but oh did she want it. With all respect due to a woman of Tiama’s age, Petaleen rose from her throne. Kotake was pleased to see her clad, not in delicate finery, but in battle array. “Tiama, daughter of Echidna,” she said, “Your reputation proceeds you.”
“You flatter me,” Kotake said with an ingratiating smile.
“Not at all,” Petaleen assured her. “I am told you that are a fine healer and a wise woman.”
“Thank you, Alpha.”
“And that you are a recluse,” Petaleen continued, her voice taking on a dangerously sharp edge. “That you have never left the Orca compound in fifty years. Is that true?”
For a moment, Kotake was silent. She knew she had a delicate game to play and her best maneuver was the careful one. “Yes,” she said slowly. “I suppose there is a measure of truth to that.”
“I find it odd,” Petaleen said, “that you should choose now of all times to come pay us a visit.”
“Of all times?” Kotake asked.
“Has the news not reached your isolated little corner of the Valley?” Petaleen hissed.
“We receive little news,” Kotake answered in Tiama’s voice.
“The Jaguar are facing civil war. Half of my people have turned against me. And now I receive a mysterious visit? You must excuse me for being a bit skeptical of the timing of your visit.”
“I assure you, I am not sent here as some kind of assassin,” Kotake said.
“Who has sent you?”
“I have been sent here by my Alpha, the wise Medea.”
“For what purpose?”
“To warn you of a great threat against your very life.”
“Medea’s daughter,” Kotake explained, “failed to pass her initiation into the Orca Pride.” It was best to keep to the truth as much as possible.
“And yet she lives?”
Kotake had not banked on Petaleen knowing that the initiation was a fight to the death. “There were unusual circumstances,” she muttered. “But needless to say, she lives still.”
“And?” Petaleen demanded impatiently.
“And,” Kotake continued, “She’s taken up with the Jaguar Beta.”
“Nebekah,” Petaleen sighed.
“She’s taken it into her head to do Nebekah a favor by killing you,” Kotake said. “So that she may become Alpha in your place.”
“I knew there might be trouble from Nebekah, but I hardly expected it to be a rogue Orca.” Petaleen folded her hands behind her back and paced the length of the dais, apparently deep in thought. “What does Medea want me to do?”
“Medea is an honorable woman. She will have nothing to do with assassination plots or those who try to assassinate.”
“She has disowned this daughter?”
“Medea is childless,” Kotake said carefully. Again, a half truth, she supposed, would suffice.
“That gives me leave to do as I please to this assassin,” Petaleen mumbled.
Petaleen turned out to the room, sweeping her gaze from side to side at the guards lining the walls. “Go into the territory. Seek out an Orca warrior and bring her to me. I want her alive.”
“Alive?” Kotake repeated. She had rather hoped for a messy, violent death for the inconvenient Mika.
“I like to look into the eyes of my enemy,” Petaleen said boldly. “I will decide her fate to her face.”
“A noble sentiment,” Kotake replied, a bit disappointed.
“In the meantime,” Petaleen continued as her guards began to sweep out of the room, “you are my guest, mother.”
“Thank you, Alpha,” Kotake answered, cringing inside.
“I only wish you could have visited us under better circumstances.”
“Unfortunately, we rarely get to choose our circumstances.”
“True enough,” Petaleen said with a nod. “For the majority of the time. Still, there are occasions…” Petaleen frowned, breaking off. She turned to look away from Kotake, a distant expression in her eyes.
Now what did that mean? Kotake observed the Alpha and suddenly found herself more curious than she normally would have been. Perhaps she would stick around a bit longer than planned. There was certainly no harm in observing. And anyway, if she and Koume were able to do as they pleased, restoring the Gerudo nation to the glory it so richly deserved, under the strong command of Ganondorf, she would have to decide if this was the kind of warrior she wanted in her new nation. For now, she decided to withhold judgment on Petaleen.
“Are they going to try to kill me?” Tyro asked, stumbling over some loose shale along the path.
“No,” Nebekah assured him with a smile. “The Jaguar are peaceful. We live close to the village and see men all the time.”
“Anyway,” Link added, looking back over his shoulder at Tyro, “you belong to Nebekah. They wouldn’t dare harm the property of the Jaguar Beta.”
“Also true,” Nebekah said with a laugh.
“Great,” Tyro grumbled.
Nebekah merely smiled and continued on. She was leading the pack. They had started out shortly after sunrise, following a meager breakfast of cold yams, the last of their supplies from the Saber Tooth Pride. It didn’t matter though. They were already near Jaguar territory, and soon, Nebekah reflected, they would be enjoying the warm hospitality of Alpha Miral, her best friend. They would be treated to fruit and bread and plenty of hot cider.
She was anxious to get home. Not so much because she was homesick and lonely. Nebekah was constantly traveling across the Valley and into Hyrule itself on various missions on behalf of her Pride. No, the real reason she wanted to get back to the Jaguar compound was to show off her Pride to the others. She certainly wanted to prove that not all Gerudo Prides were barbaric like the Orca or extravagant like the Saber Tooth. She wanted them to see a working, peaceful society, every bit as sophisticated and as advanced as the Hylian villages.
Absently, she glanced over at Sapphia, walking alongside Mika and discussing big game hunting. Nebekah was determined to show the Kodiak that the Jaguar were a far superior Pride. True, she had agreed to lay aside her animosity for Sapphia, based solely on the principle that she was the Kodiak Beta, but nevertheless, she couldn’t forget that their Prides had been enemies during Ganondorf’s time and that the Kodiak had been responsible for the death of nearly a third of the Jaguar population, including Nebekah’s own mother. Some hurts simply didn’t go away. They ran far too deeply. Nebekah would find the best in Sapphia, but not in the Kodiak as a whole. That was something she could never do.
“Who’s the Alpha of the Jaguar Pride,” Mika asked.
“Her name is Miral,” Nebekah answered proudly. “She became Alpha after the Kodiak killed her mother. She’s a good friend. There will be no problem convincing her to give us her Shard. She loves blondie here.” She jerked her head in Link’s direction with a wink.
“Now that’s what I like to hear,” Tyro drawled.
“Miral is known for being wise beyond her years,” Sapphia chimed in. She and Nebekah exchanged a look. Nebekah forced a smile, but a small part of her could never stop wondering what Sapphia’s ulterior motive was for complimenting Miral. “I’ve heard of her many overtures to the Hylian king.”
“Overtures?” Mika repeated.
Nebekah shrugged. “Miral has taken up the mantel of her mother. She seeks for a way in which the Gerudo and the Hylians can live in peace. As it is, the Jaguar have been coexisting with the villagers of Kakariko for years, right next door.”
“Oh,” Mika said suddenly. “Is that the border of your territory?” She pointed up a head.
“Yes,” Nebekah answered, but a slow frown marred her face. Along the border, a series of tents had been set in a circle. Surrounding the tents were lines of briar that had been uprooted and arranged like a protective barrier. Several Delta warriors could be seen moving in a slow march around the perimeter. “That’s not right,” she mumbled to herself.
“What’s going on there?” Link asked, coming to a halt beside his friend.
“I don’t know,” Nebekah replied.
Suddenly, there was an uproar from the tent city. Clearly, the travelers had been seen approaching. “They don’t sound too happy,” Tyro said, inching his way behind Nebekah. Despite his cowardice, Tyro seemed to be right. The cries were angry and almost immediately, a line of armed warriors began to make their way in the direction of the fellowship.
“The most peaceful Pride, huh?” Mika droned.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Nebekah insisted. As the line drew closer, she recognized the figure in the lead. It was Deidre, the Gamma, third in command of the Pride after Miral and Nebekah herself. “Deidre!” Nebekah called, raising her voice. “It’s Nebekah!”
Deidre slowed down, the warriors behind her gradually lowering their weapons. They continued to approach, but there was a definite look of relief on Deidre’s face. “Well, that’s better,” Link mumbled.
“Who’s she?” Tyro whispered.
“That’s Gamma Deidre,” Nebekah explained.
And by this point, Deidre was standing before them. She was a pretty little thing, skinny and agile, with long, willow red hair, hanging loose behind her shoulders. Her dress was simple, a tan blouse and a brown skirt wrapped around her tiny waist. Gracefully for someone so small, she raised her twin blades, crossing them in front of her chest and bowing slightly. “Nebekah,” she said, “thank Din you’re still alive.”
Nebekah crossed her wrists, returning the gesture. “Why wouldn’t I be alive?” she laughed. “I was just traveling to the Orca. I got a little sidetracked, admittedly, but that’s neither here nor there.”
“Who are these people?” Deidre asked, looking around at the others, her eyes lingering for a moment on Link.
“Oh, that’s Tyro,” she said gesturing behind her. “He was a gift to me from the Orca Alpha. This is Mika of the Orca Pride.” She hesitated for a moment. “Sapphia of the Kodiak. And you remember blondie, here.”
“What are you doing, traveling together?” Deidre asked, her thin eyebrows lifting slightly.
“Unfortunately,” Nebekah explained, “we need to collect the Shards from each Pride. Twinrova has returned. We need to reassemble the Topaz before they can. Alpha Medea thinks it’s the only way to destroy them for good.”
“I see,” Deidre muttered.
“We’re on our way to speak to Miral.”
Deidre was silent for a moment. “I’m so sorry, Nebekah.”
“Sorry,” Tyro repeated. “Sorry? Why are you sorry? Why is she sorry?” He turned his gaze in all directions, looking distraught.
Nebekah furrowed her brow. “Deidre? What’s going on?”
“Miral is dead,” Deidre told her.
And instantly, Nebekah felt her head spin. She would have fallen, but Link planted a strong hand on her shoulder. Deidre’s words echoed, as if from far away, or as if Nebekah herself were at the bottom of a great chasm. It wasn’t possible. Miral couldn’t be dead. Miral was just playing some prank, the way she used to as a child, always slipping spiders into an elder’s soup, always filling some poor trainee’s shoes with sand. “No,” she whispered.
“It’s true,” Deidre said gently.
“Well, what happened?” Sapphia demanded.
“Don’t give me orders, Kodiak,” Deidre hissed.
“What happened to Miral?” Link pried, gently.
Deidre looked at him for a moment, then turned to Nebekah. “Murdered,” she said.
“What?!” Nebekah stood up, taking a step toward Deidre, practically ready to wring her neck if only to hear it wasn’t true.”
“Miral was murdered,” Deidre insisted.
Heat rose in Nebekah’s throat, keeping her from uttering more than a single word. “Who?”
“Petaleen,” Deidre answered. “She killed Miral and assumed the role of Alpha. Half of the Pride is loyal to her now. But we,” she gestured to her followers and to the camp beyond, “know the truth. We won’t rest until Miral’s death is brought to justice. Petaleen and her lackeys must pay for what they’ve done.”
All around, the other members of the Jaguar Pride pumped their fists into the air, crying out in agreement. “Petaleen,” Nebekah repeated thickly.
“Who’s Petaleen?” Link inquired carefully.
“A Thin Blood,” Deidre explained. “A Delta warrior. One of the few elders to survive the Kodiak attack.”
“Why would she do something like that?”
Deidre shrugged her thin shoulders. “We don’t know. Petaleen’s always been discontent with our pacifist stance. She probably hopes to restore the blood thirsty ways of the Gerudo. There was a time when warriors moved up in rank through assassination.” She gave Sapphia a dark look. “The Kodiak still practice that.”
Link scowled. “Doesn’t that mean that Nebekah is the rightful Alpha?”
“Technically, yes,” Deidre answered. “But the trouble is, if she goes to claim that title, Petaleen will probably just have her killed. She’s already killed a good portion of my followers, anyone who threatens her place as the new Alpha of the Pride. Power is a funny thing. Once you get a taste for it, it’s hard to give up again. And you’ll do anything to keep it. Even kill your own sisters.”
“Of course,” Sapphia mumbled dourly, “this means Petaleen will have the Shard?”
“She has it,” Deidre replied.
“And here we thought this was going to be easy,” Link muttered.
“Hey,” Mika chimed in suddenly. “Where’s Tyro?”
And as they looked around, it was then they realized that the easy going Tyro, with his lazy smile and his drawl, was missing. Link looked urgently over at the warriors. “Did any of you see where he went? The other man who was with us just now?”
One of them pointed over her shoulder. “He headed off in that direction,” she said.
“That’s the direction of the compound,” Deidre says. “If he goes there, he’ll be killed. Petaleen hates men more than most Jaguars. I imagine that’s another custom she wants to restore.”
“We’ve got to find him,” Sapphia said.
Mika sighed. “I’ll go stop him.”
“Hurry back,” Link told her.
“And be careful,” Deidre added. “There are scouts for Petaleen all across the Valley.”
Tyro had absolutely no idea in what direction he was going. He couldn’t be sure if it was the right direction or not. He tried to remember everything Nebekah had told him about Jaguar territory, but it was all a blur now and he wasn’t going to go back to ask again. There was only one direction and it was forward from here on out. And so, one he went, trudging through the shale and sand, determined, one way or another, to find the Jaguar fortress.
Of course, some part of him felt a tad bit guilty for just up and leaving while the rest of them were dealing with what seemed like a very serious crisis, but he couldn’t expect them to understand. This was simply something he had to do and asking for permission would only lose him time. Not to mention the fact that they’d probably try to talk him out of it. They’d all give perfectly logical reasons for why he shouldn’t pursue this path, sane, rational explanations of the delicate political balance of the
or something equally dull. He didn’t care. It had been pleasant fun, playing this game of heroics alongside Link, recovering the Shards and promising to save the world. But fun time was over. Gerudo Valley
He should have known they wouldn’t let him go so easily. Tyro did not turn to look over his shoulder. He kept on walking, hoping that the voice was disembodied and that it would fade into the nothingness behind him. Using his pole for support, he stumbled over the loose shale, the pieces of which were growing larger and larger as he went.
It was Mika’s voice, Tyro was sure of it. Why, of all people, would they send her after him when they knew only too well how much he detested the very sight of her as she strutted prettily through life, hating men and standing for everything that he was against. The last thing he needed right now was further irritation from her. To the best of his ability, he tried to speed up the pace, hoping that just maybe she hadn’t spotted him, but was merely calling out from some distance, expecting him to answer so that she could divine his position.
“Tyro!” No, the voice was right behind him.
He turned around, annoyed to find her fast approaching, her superior ease over the terrain making it absolutely unavoidable that she would catch him. “What?’ he snapped angrily.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?”
“Leaving,” he said.
“Where are you going?”
“To the Jaguar stronghold.”
“That’s none of your business.”
She came up to him, pulling herself up to her full height, looking him dead in the eye. “Of course it’s my business. I’ve been sent to bring you back.”
“Go back. Tell them you couldn’t find me.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because I said so.”
“Mika, I’m warning you…”
“What?” she asked, folding her arms. “You’re going to fight me? Come on, Tyro, we both know I’ll just kick your butt.”
“This is a personal matter.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Petaleen is my mother.” Tyro didn’t know what made him say it, but it just came tumbling out, followed immediately by a severe pang of regret and frustration. Of all the people to open up to, why was it always Mika? He stared at her, masking his own surprise to the best of his ability, which was considerable. Telling the truth to girls was always so irritating. He couldn’t think of what had possessed him to be so honest, other than the obvious fact that he really wanted nothing from Mika. Nothing but to be left alone.
“Your mother,” she said evenly.
“I think so. Her name was Petaleen.”
“And you’re assuming this is the same person?”
“It’s not a common name,” he said tightly. “And it’s Hylian in origin. Same alphabet.”
Mika frowned. “Could be,” she finally admitted. “Deidre did say that Petaleen was a Thin Blood.”
“She’s fighting back.”
“Against her captors.”
“Tyro, I told you, the Gerudo don’t kidnap –”
“Well, apparently the Jaguar do.”
“You heard what Nebekah said,” she countered. “Thin Bloods are girls who willingly join the Gerudo.”
“To avoid arranged marriages,” Tyro grumbled. “I know, I know. But it doesn’t work.”
“My mother was already married and had me. There’s nothing to escape there. She has to have been kidnapped.”
“Why? Why do you say that?”
“Because it’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“She could very well have left home of her own volition,” Mika countered. “She could have run away to join the Gerudo.”
“She wouldn’t do that.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.”
“Tyro, you told me you don’t remember her. Isn’t it possible that just maybe she had that in her. For all you know, she left to get away from your father, even if she was married to him.”
“That’s ridiculous. My father was a kind, gentle man. There’s nothing to run away from. If she had wanted to leave, he would have helped her back the bags and hired a coach.”
“My father’s journal –”
“He wrote that she had been taken by the Gerudo. I know. But what if that means ‘taken in’ by the Gerudo?”
He pointed a sharp finger at her. “My mother did not abandon me,” he insisted angrily.
“You don’t know that.”
Mika raised an eyebrow. “It’s not at all possible in your vivid imaginings that maybe, just maybe, your mother wasn’t happy saddled with a husband and son? That maybe she wanted more out of life.”
“Don’t say that!” Tyro’s placid surface was cracking like ice and as hard as he wanted to maintain his cool, he found that he simply couldn’t. This was all too much. His mother was alive. She was being accused of a coup and murder. And now, now Mika was shattering the desperate hope that he had clung to, the hope that he could be the one to rescue his mother and redeem himself for a past of ignoring his father, wallowing away in misery. “There has to be an explanation,” he said slowly. “And I’m going to find it.”
“Tyro, whether she’s your mother or not, you’re still walking right into the middle of a dangerous conflict between members of the Jaguar Pride.”
“I don’t care.”
“Further,” she continued, “You don’t even know if it’s really your mother. It’s possible there could be another Petaleen.”
“It has to be her,” he whispered.
“Halt!” a voice shouted. Both Mika and Tyro turned around to see a small pack of Gerudo in Jaguar colors moving swiftly toward them. All of them had swords trained on the duo. “Who are you?” the leader of the group demanded. “Spies from the other side?”
“We’re not affiliated with the Jaguar,” Mika said quickly. “We’re here on behalf of the Orca Pride.”
The leader raised an eyebrow. “Orca Pride?” she repeated.
“Yes,” Mika said.
“And who are you?”
“I am Mika,” she told her. “Daughter of Medea.”
“We found the Alpha’s daughter!” the scout shouted. And suddenly, all of the Gerudo in the party descended on Mika and Tyro, throwing them down, face first, to the ground.
“Hey!” Mika shouted.
“What’s the big idea?” Tyro added, spitting sand from his mouth.
“We’ve been expecting you,” the scout said.
Mika craned her neck to look at them. “What?”
The leader put her hand on the back of Mika’s head, pressing her face into the ground. “Tie them up,” she instructed the others who immediately set to work binding Mika and Tyro’s wrists. “We’re taking you to see the Alpha.”
Tyro was uncertain of how to react to this sudden reception. In a way, he had gotten his wish. Now, for better or for worse, he was finally going to meet face to face his with mother, Petaleen. On the other hand, he didn’t particularly like the unkind reception. He glanced over at Mika as she was being bound. Her face was covered with grit and grim and she looked very confused. He hadn’t wanted to drag her into this mess with him. Desperately, he hoped this mess, whatever it was about, would all be cleared up once he was finally in the presence of his mother. This mess, and so many others, he reflected as he was pulled to his feet. Finally, he would learn the truth about his mother’s kidnapping. That would show Mika.
Link, Nebekah, and Sapphia were brought into the rebel compound once the matter of their identities had been cleared up. As far as Link could estimate, based on his, admittedly, limited experience with the Jaguar, about half of the Pride had assembled in the camp. Most of them were pleasant, familiar faces Link had encountered on his various trips to visit Nebekah, but there was something different about them now. The peace of the Jaguar had been dissolved and these long latent warriors had been forced to surface, hard and cold.
The trio was brought into Deidre’s tent. Resting on pillows, they were fed dates and cashews. Deidre herself disappeared after a few moments to alert the other rebels to their arrival. It wouldn’t do, she explained, for any of them to be attacked just because the Gerudo didn’t know that they were friends and not foes. She also wanted to send out a few more parties to try and locate Tyro and Mika, who had been gone for well over an hour now.
He didn’t have much of an appetite, but Link ate the food he was given, supposing that he might not know where his next meal was coming from. He and Sapphia politely accepted various offerings, but Nebekah would have none of it. She paced the length of the tent, her hands tightly clasped, muttering darkly to herself and occasionally cursing under her breath. Link knew all too well what she was going through. She and Miral had been such good friends. He knew the pain of losing someone that important. There were words of encouragement and comfort he could offer, but something told Link to keep his mouth shut. There were times, he understood, when such comfort was unwelcome and he knew Nebekah enough to realize that this was one such time.
Really, he had never seen her so agitated before. They had known each other for years and Nebekah, he found, had always been a voice of reason and intelligence. When she went to any kind of extreme, it was an extreme playfulness, nothing more. To see her so upset made her seem like an entirely different person, one, Link imagined, he would not be nearly as fond of, if he had met her first. This was such a delicate situation. Unfortunately, Sapphia didn’t appear to take it as such.
“Sit down before you give yourself a stroke,” Sapphia demanded after a few minutes of watching Nebekah.
“Can’t,” Nebekah hissed.
“Please, Nebekah. Eat something.”
“No,” Nebekah replied.
“I understand you’re upset. Really. I do. But pacing like a caged animal is only going to make it worse. Have a seat. What do you want?” She gestured to the array of dried fruits and nuts.
“Revenge,” Nebekah answered hotly.
Sapphia scowled. “Well, I don’t think that’s on the menu. Would you at least answer in more than one word sentences?”
“Well,” Sapphia shrugged. “That’s two words. Twice as much. It’s a start, I suppose.”
“Really, Nebekah,” Link said quietly, wanting to head off any kind of conflict, “sit down. What are you going to do?”
Nebekah stopped pacing, brushing her long dreadlocks back, over her shoulder. “The first thing I’m going to do,” she said quietly, “is assume command of the rebel forces.”
“Nebekah!” Link cried.
“Let her talk, Link,” Sapphia said. “You’re going to assume command?” she prompted Nebekah.
“Yes,” Nebekah said, nodding.
“And then what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to lead them against Petaleen,” Nebekah replied.
“A civil war?” Link droned. “Really, are you serious? Is that something you want to encourage?”
“It’s already begun,” Nebekah told him. “And, as Miral’s friend and Beta, it is my responsibility to avenge her death. I will finish what Deidre has started. Or die trying.”
“By Din, Nebekah. You can’t really mean that.”
Link stood up, walking over to her. “Do you really?”
“And what about all your talk of peace?” he asked. “All the times you’ve boasted about how peaceful the Jaguar are? Would you really throw all of that away in favor of petty revenge?”
“There is nothing petty about this.”
“It’s pointless,” Link insisted.
“Miral was my Jaguar sister and my friend.”
“And by doing this, you’re going against everything she has ever worked toward, don’t you see that? Miral worked so hard to establish a peace. And now, you’d be encouraging a war right in the middle of the Pride.”
“Which is probably what they want you to do,” Sapphia said.
Both Link and Nebekah turned to look at her. “What?” Link sputtered.
Sapphia shrugged, still lying on a pillow. “It seems obvious to me,” she told them serenely.
“This is clearly the work of Twinrova. They’re trying to get rid of you, the same way they did with the Saber Tooth.”
“Do you think Petaleen is working for them?”
“Well,” she muttered, “it’s possible. They must be employing agents. There’s no way they can possibly do everything for themselves.”
“That’s true,” Link admitted. “A resurrection probably took a lot out of them. They might be weak.”
“It would explain why they want the Topaz,” Sapphia said. “I mean, other than the obvious reason of using it to kill, it’s probably going to give them a lot of power. Deidre was right. Power is addictive.”
“Do you think Petaleen could be one of them?” Link wondered.
“That’s possible too. I don’t know how much strength they have. But when they were alive, they could certainly change their shapes at will.”
“I remember,” Link said with a shudder.
“The point,” Sapphia continued, rising to her feet and walking over to the others, “is that it’s very likely they could be the cause of everything.”
“Which means you shouldn’t fly off the handle,” Link said, turning to look at Nebekah.
“I don’t care,” Nebekah said softly.
“Don’t Nebekah me,” she hissed.
“Sorry, I just –”
“My best friend is dead,” Nebekah snapped. “And she died honorlessly, while I was too far away to prevent it. I’m partly responsible for what happened to her.”
“You know that’s not true!” Link cried.
“True or not, it’s my responsibility to avenge her death.” Nebekah cleared her throat. “I’m going to assume command of this rebellion. And we’re going to take down Petaleen.”
“That’s your final decision?”
“Yes,” Nebekah said. “It is. And you would do well to help me in bringing her down. It’s the only way we’ll be able to get her Shard.”
“I’ll do what I can to end this fight,” Link said enigmatically. In truth, he was here to help, but he wouldn’t fight. Not if he could help it. There had to be a better way of ending this.
“So will I,” Sapphia promised.
“Good,” Nebekah said, nodding vaguely.
Sapphia folded her arms across her chest, looking smug. “As long as you eat something first.”
She held up her hands defensively. “All right, all right.” She turned, giving Link a significant look. Although he barely knew Sapphia, he could tell exactly what it meant. It meant they had a lot to talk about, but it couldn’t be done in front of Nebekah. Link sighed softly. He was glad to have an ally in this, but he rather wished it could be one who wasn’t quite so volatile among the Jaguar. After all, he had seen the way Deidre and her followers looked at the Kodiak. He wondered if she would be able to do much good. For that matter, he wondered if he would be able to do any either.
Anything Nebekah had ever told Mika about Jaguar hospitality, she immediately disregarded. She supposed it was unfair to judge a Pride that was caught in the clutches of a civil war, but Mika was far too resentful to take it into consideration. In truth, she had no idea why she and Tyro had been so rudely seized. Not that she blamed them for taking Tyro. He was a man after all, and an obnoxious one at that. Still, it seemed like awfully harsh treatment for the daughter of an Alpha, particularly the daughter of an Alpha of a Pride that had nothing to do with the Jaguar one way or the other. Yet here she was, bound and being dragged through the halls of the Jaguar fortress. She had given up on trying to reason with her captors. Clearly, there was something going on beyond anyone’s control.
Why had they been expecting her? That part made no sense at all, unless news of her quest had spread from the Orca and Saber Tooth Prides already. She doubted much had been said by the Saber Tooth. They had only recently left the stronghold and there was no possible way a Saber Tooth could have beaten them here. As for the Orca, she was sure her mother wanted to keep the quest as quiet as possible, in order to better protect Mika and her friends. Mika wracked her mind, trying to determine the source of the Jaguar’s information and she continued to return to the same, inevitable conclusion. The Twinrova sisters had something to do with it.
They arrived in what had to be the Alpha’s greeting chamber fairly quickly. It felt more like a war counsel though. The dais on which the throne rested as littered with various maps and papers of the territory. A flock of Gerudo were around the dais, leaning over to examine the map while a single warrior moved colored pawns across the paper landscape. The group looked up in unison as Mika and Tyro were dragged in, and one central figure stood up. She wore an amber stone around her neck that looked suspiciously like the two Shards the group had managed to collect so far. Without a doubt, this was the Alpha, legitimate or not. And it was clear to Mika right away that she was a Thin Blood. Her skin was milky pale and her hair was auburn, the same color as Tyro’s.
“We caught them near the rebel’s camp,” the head scout reported, pushing Mika forward into the middle of the room.
“She’s an Orca,” the Alpha said, stepping around the maps and taking note of the blue wraps of Mika’s hair.
“Yes, Alpha Petaleen,” the scout replied. With another shove, she sent Mika forward again. “Tell her who you are.”
Mika turned over her shoulder to give the scout a rude look. As she did, she happened to catch sight of Tyro’s face. He was staring up at Petaleen with wide, frightened eyes. She wasn’t entirely sure what this meant. Was Petaleen his mother or not? She certainly looked the part. Mika turned back to face Petaleen, squaring her shoulders. “I am Mika,” she said proudly, “Daughter of Medea and I –”
“I’ve heard enough,” Petaleen cut her off.
“Really,” Mika planted her hands on her hips, “I think I resent this treatment. What’s the meaning of all of this?”
“We were warned that you were coming,” Petaleen told her calmly.
“You’ve been sent by Nebekah.”
Blinking, Mika furrowed her brow. “I am on good terms with Nebekah,” she admitted, “but she certainly did not send me.”
“Then you’ve come of your own volition, on her behalf,” Petaleen countered casually.
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s no need for obfuscation, no need for deception. I know very well why you’ve come here.”
“Then perhaps,” Mika said, folding her arms across her chest, “You can enlighten me.”
“I received a warning from your mother that –”
“My mother?” Mika cut her off.
Petaleen sighed in annoyance. “Arrived this morning. She warned us that you were here to assassinate me.”
“And now comes the convincing claim of innocence,” Petaleen said to her companions who all sniggered politely.
“I don’t understand,” Mika said.
“Of course not. These plans are so much wiser before someone attempts to carry them out.”
“What? What plan?”
“The plan to restore your honor, no doubt. Join the Jaguar perhaps. You’re a Thin Blood, are you not?”
“As are you.”
“That’s neither here nor there,” Mika continued. “What do you mean by plan? I’m not an assassin!”
“You have come here after failing your initiation, have you not?” Petaleen asked her.
Mika bristled. True, she had not passed her initiation, but she would hardly say she failed either. There were no words for what had happened to her because there was simply no precedent. “I wouldn’t –”
“Enough, we’ve already been informed. You’ve come here on behalf of Nebekah to kill me and earn honor in her eyes.”
“While the idea has merit,” Mika said dryly, “It was not my own. I did not wish to have anything to do with you.”
“I’m sure,” Petaleen drawled. She sounded exactly like Tyro, with his bored, flippant attitude. Mika spared another glance at Tyro. He seemed completely frozen, his jaw hanging open just slightly, all traces of his placid, bored exterior gone in favor of some kind of paralysis of terror. Petaleen followed Mika’s gaze, seeming to notice the boy for the first time. “I admit,” she said, “I did not expect a man to be part of your plan. What did you intend to do? Offer him up to me as a gift and have him do the deed? Slip poison into my cup? Plant a scorpion in my throne?” She shook her head. “Kodiak methods.”
“He’s not a part of any of this,” Mika said. “I’ve never seen him before in my life.”
“She lies, Alpha,” a scout volunteered.
Petaleen raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“When we caught her, she was arguing with him with a fish wife,” the scout said haughtily.
“About what?” Petaleen wondered.
“We couldn’t tell. But it sounded as though they had been at it for quite some time.”
“Well,” Petaleen said, turning around and strolling back to her dais. “I can’t take any chances.”
“What are your orders?” a Delta warrior asked.
Petaleen sat down in her stolen throne, running her hands down the armrests. She leaned back and looked up at Mika, meeting her eye to eye, face to face for an excruciating long moment. “I must protect myself, mustn’t I?” she muttered, staring up at Mika.
“We all must,” Mika agreed. “But I pose no threat to you. I wish nothing more than to leave you behind.”
“I’ve already been given information to the contrary. There’s no more need to discuss. If I must protect myself, then my path is clear.” She curled her fingers under the armrests. “For the crime of conspiracy, I sentence this Orca and her slave to be executed at sunset tonight.”
“No!” Mika shouted.
“Throw them in the dungeon until then,” Petaleen told her warriors. “See that they are fed and comforted in their final hours.”
“Yes, Alpha,” one of them said, moving forward to Mika and Tyro with a sinister smile.
“At sunset,” Petaleen continued, “They will be pressed in the quarry.”
Mika felt the hands upon her and she could do nothing to stop them. She was a fine warrior, but she was outnumbered. She turned to Tyro. “Say something,” she hissed at him. But Tyro stood there, completely numb, allowing the warriors to seize him as well. “Say something!” she shouted in an echoing voice. But again, Tyro was silent, walking of his own free will as he was led from the chamber. Mika could not be so easily led.
She pulled her arms, trying to keep from being dragged out, gnashing her teeth. The guards seemed amused more than anything else. Most of them were seasoned, elder warriors who had probably dealt with flies with greater strength than the fresh and green Mika. She didn’t care. It was completely unfair. Why should she be sentenced to death? She knew all too well that her mother could not possibly have warned Petaleen of something as ridiculous as an assassination plot on behalf of Nebekah. “Twinrova!” Mika shouted, but no one seemed to pay her much attention. “It has to be the Twinrova sisters!” But no one cared.
Nebekah delivered a stirring, powerful speech to the Jaguar when she assumed command. All of her sisters pumped their fists into the air, calling out for vengeance as she spoke of justice and right. But they weren’t the same thing. This much, Link was sure of. Link lingered near the back of the pack, unable to conjure up the enthusiasm the others all shared. He watched the stranger Nebekah as she riled up her sisters, riling herself up in the process, her face becoming pink and bright and unlike the girl Link knew.
With his arms folded across his chest, he thought of how odd it was that this should be the first time he had ever seen such passion in an otherwise calm and rational woman. Then again, he supposed that she was expressing the exact same outrage he had first felt, waking up after seven years to learn that the world had gone mad without him around to stop it. Everything had worked out fine for him, in the end, but Nebekah wouldn’t have the same luck. Miral was gone. She couldn’t reawaken as a Sage and smile and tell Nebekah how much she missed her. Softly, the demons of Link’s memory sniggered.
Once the speech giving was at an end, the group disassembled to eat and plot their glorious revenge. Link stood still as the crowd thinned around him. Fortunately, no one gave him much trouble. After so many visits to the Jaguar territory, they knew who he was and knew he wouldn’t be a threat. The same could not be said for Sapphia. When the crowd was thin enough for them to lock eyes, she was on the other side of the camp. She made her way to him slowly, continually being slammed in the shoulder by angry Jaguar who could not quite accept the presence of a Kodiak in their midst.
Sapphia was buffeted about, taking everything in stride. Link would never admit it aloud, but she reminded him very much of Nebekah’s usual calm demeanor. Was that why they couldn’t get along? They were so alike? Then again, since his run in with Ari at the Saber Tooth compound, he had noticed a quiet abstinence brewing between the two of them.
When she, at last, made it to his side, they were both guarded, doing nothing more than nodding and slowly moving, as one, to the remotest possible corner of the tight little camp. For a long while, they were silent, standing by the briar barricade and watching as the Jaguar passed by. “Well,” Link finally said.
“Well,” Sapphia repeated.
“We seem to have a bit of a problem here.”
“Several, I’d say.”
Link nodded. “I’m not sure what to do about it.”
“I suppose we need to take it one step at a time.”
“What are we dealing with?”
Sapphia ticked off her fingers, looking to some point over Link’s shoulder. “Well, first of all, we need the Shard.”
“Secondly,” she continued, “Mika and Tyro have been missing for several hours now.”
“Thirdly, somehow, there’s a raging civil war devouring the Jaguar and given their track record for peace, I’d say Twinrova is behind it.”
“Yeah,” Link mumbled distantly. “And it’s slowly turning Nebekah into a raging maniac.”
“You can’t blame her,” she said softly.
“Of course not. This war is not only tearing apart her Pride, but it’s depriving her of her sisters. People are dying here, people she knows and cares about. That would be enough to drive anyone –”
“Wait,” Link cut her off.
He scanned the terrain around the camp. The area was relatively smooth, with only a few rock formations off in the distance. Silver wisps rose up from the land, the same ones Link had seen last night, dancing like Kae’lee. “Have you seen any dead bodies?” he asked.
“No,” Sapphia said, wrinkling up her nose. “Why?”
“How about any graves?”
“No, there wouldn’t be any. The Gerudo practice cremation, you know that, Link.”
“Have you seen any funeral pyres?”
For a moment, Sapphia was silent. She turned, performing the same once over of the Valley as Link. He already knew the answer. Other than the rocks and the silver smoke, there was nothing there to indicate any sort of funeral. “No,” she finally admitted. “I haven’t.”
“A war without deaths? That seems highly unlikely.”
“There have been deaths,” Sapphia said. “Remember what Deidre told us? Petaleen’s killed more than just Miral. She’s been killing her own Jaguar sisters. Anyone who –”
“Threatens her place as the new Alpha,” Link finished. “So the question is, what gives?”
“What? You think this is some sort of elaborate hoax?”
“No, but there’s definitely something going on that’s not really on the up and up. We need to find out what it is.”
“Well,” Sapphia said, gesturing over his shoulder. “There’s your chance. Deidre’s coming this way.”
Link turned around and saw Deidre approaching, her long hair swaying back and forth behind her back. “Deidre,” he called out to her in greeting.
“Link, we need to talk,” she said.
“I certainly agree.”
“I want your Kodiak friend under constant surveillance.”
Sapphia made an indignant squawk. “Really,” Link said, “that’s not necessary. She’s on our side.”
“I don’t know whose side she’s on,” Deidre replied angrily.
“She came here with Nebekah.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Deidre said with a wave of her hand. “I don’t want her alone in this compound and I don’t want her leaving.”
Sapphia cut him off. “It’s all right, Link.” She glanced coldly at Deidre. “They have every reason not to trust me.”
“Stand up for yourself, Sapphia,” Link urged her.
“It’s fine. There are more important things to discuss.” She gave him a pointed look. “Like this war.”
Link turned back to Deidre. “I have a question.”
Deidre folded her arms across her chest. “What is it?” she asked.
“What are the losses so far?”
“It’s hard to keep track,” Deidre told him. “I know I’ve lost about seventeen warriors to Petaleen’s forces. I can’t say how many we’ve managed to kill. It’s probably comparable.”
“Mmmhmmm,” Sapphia mumbled.
“Then,” Link said slowly, “where are the funeral pyres?”
“There are none,” Deidre said.
“Where are the bodies?”
“Gone,” Deidre answered.
“Gone?” he repeated.
“Gone?!” Sapphia cried indignantly.
Deidre nodded. “Taken by the other side. One final dishonor.”
“That’s terrible,” Sapphia muttered.
“Well, of course it is,” Deidre said indignantly. “If you’ll excuse me, I have important business to attend to.” With a wave of her hair, she turned around and marched away haughtily.
“I really don’t like her,” Link said.
“I really don’t like this,” Sapphia added. “Taking bodies means that Petaleen is crossing several lines.”
“You’re right,” Link admitted. “Which means we need to figure out why she’s doing it. I can’t believe it’s just for power or spite. There’s something more to this than meets the eye.”
“What do you suggest we do about it?”
He ran a hand through his cornsilk hair. “I’m going to go to the Jaguar compound,” he said finally.
“Are you crazy?”
“They’ll know me there. And if I go alone, they won’t be able to assume what side I’m on right away. I can approach by way of the village, Kakariko.”
“Why the village?”
“Maybe that’s where Tyro and Mika went. It has been a long time. It wouldn’t hurt to check along the way. Plus if I approach from there, they won’t know that I’ve been here.”
“Okay,” Sapphia said with a nod.
“Maybe I can talk some sense into Petaleen. I have to try.”
“What about me?” Sapphia asked.
“It’s dangerous for you to show your face among the Jaguar,” he said. “And if you leave, Deidre and the others will immediately suspect treachery.”
“You should stay here,” he decided. “Keep a close eye on Nebekah. See if you can get her to calm down.”
“I don’t know,” Sapphia muttered. “When someone’s bent on revenge…”
“It’s hard to talk them down, I know. But try.”
“All right,” she said with a nod. “But don’t be away too long. You might be my only advocate.”
“Don’t tell anyone I’ve gone at all, if you can help it.”
“Okay.” She held out her hand. Link grasped her wrist and gave her a quick shake. “Be careful, Link,” she warned. “Don’t get yourself killed.”
“That’s not in my plans,” he told her with a wry smile. And with that, he stepped back and turned around, disappearing as he hopped over the briar barrier and slipped away in the direction of the village. Sapphia watched him go, wringing her hands nervously.
The first thing Mika did once she and Tyro were flung into the dungeon cell was slap him across the face. After that, the second thing she did was to spit in his eye. The third thing she did was finally ask, “What’s the matter with you?”
Tyro stared at her blankly, all his arrogance and droll humor drained from his face. “What?” he mumbled in confusion.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Say anything,” he repeated numbly, walking across the cell to the far wall. “Say what?”
She stared at him in disbelief. “Was that her?”
“Petaleen? Was that your mother?”
He ran a hand along the rough, gray stone wall. They had been dragged underground, an interesting notion that Mika had never before encountered. There, they were brought to a long cellblock of small, square stalls. A long, barred fence ran along the open wall of each stall, locking them inside like caged animals in a menagerie. There were guards strolling up and down the corridor on the other side of the bars, but most of them looked like trainees. Mika was certain she could easily have taken them all out, but she wasn’t alone. Tyro, in his zombie-like trance, had become a sudden liability to her, leaving her with no choice but to allow girls much weaker and much younger than herself to cage her like a wild cat.
“Tyro,” she barked when he didn’t answer. “Tyro, answer me.”
“Was that your mother?”
“Yes?” she snapped impatiently.
“I think it was,” he said.
“It looked like her. Like that painting my father kept over the fireplace. Almost exactly the same, not even older really. Just…”
“Crueler,” he said softly.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” she demanded again.
“What would I say?”
“That you were her son for one thing,” she said dryly. “That you had a lifetime of questions you had been waiting to ask her. Why didn’t you ask any, Tyro? What were you waiting for?”
“I just…I don’t understand this.”
“Any of this,” he said, gesturing vaguely.
“Tyro, you’re not making sense.”
“None of this is,” he said with a nod.
“What don’t you understand?”
He licked his lips, leaning against the wall. “Everything I read about my mother, everything dad ever told me about her, it was all so…nice.”
“Yes. She was nice. Sweet. Kind hearted. Quiet.”
“And that woman we just met was the opposite of it all.”
Mika shrugged. “Well, it’s a war. What can you expect?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “But that wasn’t it.”
“You still should have said something. She might have spared us if she knew you were her son.”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t. There was just something…something telling me not to do it.”
“I don’t understand this…this transformation,” he said earnestly. “And I just sensed that…that saying I was her child would…I don’t know…make things worse, somehow.”
“It’s possible,” Mika admitted.
“What if you were right?” Tyro whispered.
“About my mother. What if she really did run away? What if she really did abandon me and my father?”
“Then,” Mika said slowly, “I suppose reminding her of that life she left behind might upset her.”
“Why would she do it? I don’t understand. She had a good life. My father was a good man. The shop was doing well. We wanted for nothing.”
“I don’t know. Maybe not every woman in Hyrule is content to be nothing more than a shopkeeper’s wife and a mother.”
“Running away seems a bit extreme.”
“Maybe it’s the only thing she could think of. There are probably countless reasons, at least in her mind, as to why she did what she did.” She paused. “You still should have said something.”
“Are you crazy? You said it yourself, it might have upset her. It could have made things worse.”
“Worse?” Mika repeated. “How could they possibly be worse? We’re about to be pressed in a quarry.”
“What does that mean?”
“That means they tie you to a rock and they start laying stones on top of you until your ribcage cracks and you’re crushed under the weight.”
She blinked. “Oh?”
“Is that all you’re going to say?”
“What should I say?”
And Mika felt an explosion inside of her chest. “We’re about to be killed in a horrific and painful way and all you can manage to do is say ‘oh?’”
“What do you want from me?” he snapped.
“Show some signs of life!”
“Shall I eat through the bars?” Tyro droned.
“Well,” she exploded, “at least then you’d be trying to accomplish something. You wouldn’t be quite so useless.”
“Useless? I don’t see you coming up with anything helpful. Screaming it’s Twinrova certainly didn’t work!”
“At least I tried!”
“And that made all the difference.”
In two steps, Mika bounded over to him. “Well, you’d still be useless chewing through the bars, but at least it would shut you up!”
“I thought you were complaining that I didn’t say anything!”
“Useless either way!” She snarled at him. “You’re an idiot.”
Tyro’s eyebrows shot up. “An idiot?” he repeated.
“Yes,” she said firmly. “An idiot.”
“Well, if I’m an idiot,” he told her, “then you are a brute.”
“Yes,” he replied in a smug tone of voice. “Brute.”
Mika slammed her fists against the wall, planting them on either side of Tyro’s head. She leaned forward, glaring at him venomously. “Man,” she whispered with cold fury.
He stared at her, shaking with rage. “Can I kiss you?”
“I wish you would!”
And the next thing they knew, the two of them were engaged in a passionate kiss. Mika pressed herself up against Tyro’s chest, feeling his frantic heartbeat against hers. Her fingers slid through his hair, rolling down his strong back. He wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her tightly, as if he feared she would run away or vanish like smoke. She leaned in on the kiss and he spun her around, pinning her up against the side of the stall, the blue threads wrapping her hair snapping against his cheek and stinging him.
Abruptly, he pulled out of the kiss, staring at her. She was wide eyed, panting to catch her breath and staring right back at him. “Are you as turned on as I am?” he asked frantically.
“More,” she said. And hardly being a gentleman to refuse the request, Tyro kissed her again.
Nebekah sat on the floor, her legs folded under her as she leaned over to carefully review the series of charts and maps that had been arranged for her. They detailed the dreadful facts of the division of Jaguar territory. Since Petaleen and her followers had the stronghold itself, with all its supplies and weaponry, the picture before her was a dour one. The rebels were existing primarily on what they had carried on their backs during the initial flight from Petaleen’s regime. A few daring missions had been staged as an attempt to capture more supplies, but they had ended in disaster. Nebekah stared numbly at the list of the dead, their bodies apparently missing. This galled her more than the murders themselves. Petaleen had not only dishonored the Jaguar Pride in life, but also in death.
She rubbed her eyes, suddenly feeling old. “Such a waste,” she murmured softly, sitting back on her heels.
“True,” Deidre agreed. She had taken a seat on a pillow across the charts from Nebekah and was examining her carefully. “A great pity.”
“I never thought I’d live to see the Jaguar Pride turn on itself.”
“Like a snake devouring its own tail.”
“Ouroboros,” Nebekah sighed.
Deidre tilted her head to one side. “Your resolve isn’t faltering, is it?” she asked carefully.
Nebekah smiled grimly, no joy or pleasure behind it. “Miral must be avenged,” she said.
“Good,” Deidre stated with a nod of approval.
“I don’t like that ‘still,’” Deidre mumbled.
“Still,” Nebekah pressed on, “it all seems so…” But she couldn’t put her finger on the right word.
“Real?” Deidre supplied.
Nebekah nodded. “Real.”
“Well, I can see how that might happen,” Deidre told her, gesturing to the charts and maps before her.
“It’s much easier to talk of revenge than to actually seek it.”
“True. But it’s no less important.”
“I know, I know.”
“Miral died humiliated.”
“What do you mean?” Nebekah asked cautiously.
“There was no honor in it.”
“I know that.”
“You don’t understand,” Deidre insisted. “It wasn’t in battle or on the fire stakes or even by blade.”
“What was it?” Nebekah wondered darkly.
Deidre nodded. “It’s true.”
“Arsenic or lye, I think. Slipped into a cup over several days. It was awhile before we noticed something wrong with Miral, and by then, it was too late to do anything.” She paused a moment. “And then, to add insult to injury, Petaleen took a trophy.”
“She drained all the blood from the body and took it.”
“What kind of Gerudo would do something like that?” Nebekah hissed, pounding her fist into her palm.
“Petaleen,” Deidre replied.
“How could she? This Pride has been a family to her. We took her in. We didn’t have to.”
“I know. It was ungrateful.”
“And she didn’t even have the decency to look Miral in the eye when she killed her!”
“That’s not the Jaguar way!”
“I know,” Deidre said. “It’s the Kodiak.”
Nebekah shook her head. “And I can’t help but think that now I’m only perpetuating the cycle.”
“What do you mean?”
She shrugged. “Here I am, about to wage a war on Petaleen, hoping that she’ll die so I can take her place.”
“It’s not like that,” Deidre insisted.
“You are the rightful Alpha,” she said. “You’re not assassinating a superior to move up in rank. You’re removing a usurper to claim what’s rightfully yours. It’s not the same thing.”
“I wish I could feel that way.”
“So all that talk you gave, all those speeches and promises, were they nothing more than lies?”
“Of course not!” Nebekah cried.
“Why are you having second thoughts now?”
“I’m not having second thoughts,” Nebekah told her. “I’m just…reflecting on the situation. I was angry before. I’ve calmed down now. I’ve had my first chance to think about it.”
Deidre leaned back on her palms. “Miral suffered something awful, you know,” she said.
Nebekah bit her lower lip. “She did?”
“Oh yes,” Deidre replied with a nod. “Whatever that poison was that Petaleen slipped to her, it was terrible.”
“It started with a cough. Miral couldn’t control it. It wracked her body like a virus, causing her to go into spasm.”
“Oh Din…” Nebekah whispered.
“And soon, she began to cough up blood. It splattered everywhere. Especially around her lips. She looked like one of those silly village courtesans with their face paint.”
“It got to the point where Miral hardly had the strength to stand. She had to be guided by the arms. And when she wanted to address the Pride, two Deltas had to hold her up to keep her from crumpling like a rag doll.”
Nebekah could feel her throat tighten, as she thought of her proud, powerful sister, a woman of immense strength and fortitude. The image of Miral needing help to stand or walk pained her, sending intense regret for her second thoughts on the matter of revenge. Heat rose behind her eyes, but she could not cry. She would not give Petaleen the satisfaction of making her weak as well. No, she would live as Miral would have wanted her to live. Powerful. Determined.
The flap to the tent waved as Sapphia stepped in, bent over low. Behind her, a small Delta warrior followed, gripping a curved blade tightly and keeping it pointed to Sapphia’s back. Sapphia, for her own part, barely spared her escort a glance. Instead, she turned to face Nebekah. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” Nebekah said numbly.
“Oh, that’s believable,” Sapphia droned.
“Shut up, Kodiak,” Deidre sneered.
Sapphia ignored the barb. “Nebekah,” she said firmly, “have you come to your senses yet?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Deidre snapped.
Again, Sapphia ignored her. “You’re a woman of peace, Nebekah. Please tell me that hasn’t changed.”
“My sister is dead,” Nebekah told her sharply. “Murdered by one of her own people. That changes things.”
“Only if you let it,” Sapphia insisted. “Are you really going to allow yourself to lead your people down this path?”
“And what path is that?”
“A path of destruction,” she said. “A path of war.”
“I must do what I must do,” Nebekah mumbled.
“Do you really believe that?”
“Stop causing trouble, Kodiak,” Deidre hissed.
She reached out, putting a hand on Nebekah’s shoulder. “Nebekah…” she started.
Violently, Nebekah shrugged the hand away. “This is a personal matter,” she snapped.
“I know it’s personal,” Sapphia continued. “And you’re in danger of losing your personal sense of self.”
“That is my decision to make then, isn’t it?”
“I guess so. But I think you’re making the wrong choice.”
“She doesn’t care what you think,” Deidre cut in.
Sapphia shrugged absently. “You just want her to follow your lead.”
“Miral must be avenged,” she barked.
“This isn’t your mother, Nebekah!”
Nebekah looked at her, poison in her gaze. “How dare you…” she hissed violently.
“Remember that,” Sapphia continued. “This isn’t the same thing.”
“Leave my mother out of this. It’s not about her. It’s about stopping an assassin.”
“And revenge. There is more to this than a simple assassination,” Sapphia said with a small sigh. “I wish you’d keep that in mind, Nebekah.”
A part of Nebekah wanted to heed Sapphia’s warning. After all, she knew where she had come from and what she and the others had faced so far. But every time that small bit of her spoke up, a larger, angrier part reminded her of her duty to her fallen friend. Again, the image of Miral, weak and debilitated flashed across her imagination, echoing Deidre’s words. Perhaps she would lose herself, but she didn’t care any more. She couldn’t afford to care. There were things in the world more important than her childish belief in peace. She understood that now. And now, it was time to let childish things go. What had to be done, she would do.
Link had never felt so nervous walking through the halls of the Jaguar stronghold. The first surprise had appeared when he arrived at the front entrance, to find it flanked by guards with swords drawn. He was used to the occasional honor guard, usually leaning in boredom against the side of the gate, but this was different. They regarded him with skepticism, doubtlessly recalling the fact that he was a friend of Nebekah. Of course, the odds were that they had no idea where Nebekah stood on the matter. She was still missing, apparently presumed dead. Link’s connection with her was not enough for them to out and out open hostilities.
He was escorted into the gates and paraded across the grounds. As they went, he swept his gaze from side to side, hoping to see some small, familiar comfort. The sweltering blaze of the afternoon sun beat down on Link’s shoulders, causing beads of sweat to form across his broad. Adding to the stress of the whole civil war, Link had been upset to find that Tyro and Mika were not in the village. No one had seen them and it was a festival day, celebrating the dedication of a new, gold statue to Din, so everyone was out and about, dancing and laughing, throwing papers streamers and rose petals into the air with wild abandon. But there was no sign of Mika or Tyro. Well, when it rained, it poured, he supposed.
Through the stone and wood hallways of the stronghold, Link and his escorts marched. Nothing was really different, but the tint of war made everything much scarier to Link. The somber oak statues of Din, normally warm and friendly, seemed sinister and seductive, as if the very light around them had changed somehow, though of course Link knew that wasn’t true. Still, he longed desperately for his sword, taken at the front gate. It was just his imagination. He had simply seen too much. Now every shadow was cruel. Again, the demons of his past laughed at him, but he shut them up good and proper. There were more important matters to think about now.
The doors to the Alpha’s receiving chamber were open. Link had been in the room many times before, but it had always been Miral who greeted him, smiling with arms wide open, winking to Nebekah at her side. A pale pink carpet covered the path from the entrance to a dais, on which an elaborate throne, carved of ivory, waited. As Link began to walk his path, he gazed back and forth at the Delta warriors lining either side of the walkway, ready to jump and slaughter him at the slightest indication of trouble. Steeling his resolve, Link turned his gaze forward.
Standing at the very edge of the platform was an older woman who Link immediately took to be Petaleen. She was not a woman to be trifled with, he could tell that right away. Yet, as he looked at her, he sensed something familiar. He couldn’t quite place it, but something about her reminded him of…what was it? He just couldn’t say for sure. There was just something about the curve of her chin, the color of her hair, that made him feel unnaturally comfortable.
“Alpha,” the escort called from the doorway, “Link, honorary Delta of the Dragon Pride.”
Link crossed his wrists before his chest as he had seen so many times in the past. “Alpha,” he said with a respectful bow.
“The Hero of Time,” Petaleen said, stepping down from her dais. “I’ve seen you before.”
“Yes, I’ve always counted the Jaguar Pride as my friends,” Link told her carefully.
“I wish you could have come to us in better times,” Petaleen replied. There was a certain curtness to her voice that gave Link the creeps. For some reason, he sensed that she did not want to speaking to him at all, but he couldn’t fathom why.
“The times are the reason that I’ve come,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“This civil war of yours,” Link explained cautiously. “It’s the reason why I’m here now.” There was no sense in getting into the details of the Twinrova sisters and the Gerudo Topaz. That would have to wait for more peaceful times. For now, it was best to keep things as simple as possible.
“Who do you come representing?” she asked piercingly.
“He came from the village,” Link’s escort called.
Link decided to run with it. “Yes. Naturally, a civil war among the Jaguar will effect everyone in the surrounding area. Kakariko included.”
“And you come with concern for your fellow Hylians?”
“I come with my concern for my friends,” he answered. “Both the Hylians and the Jaguar Pride.”
“Your concern is touching,” Petaleen said without an ounce of sincerity in her voice.
“Have I done something wrong?” Link wondered politely.
“Your gender disgusts me,” Petaleen replied.
Inwardly, Link sighed. So Petaleen was one of those Gerudo. No wonder she was a prime suspect in a coup. After all, the Jaguar got along with men all too well under Miral’s leadership. Link decided the best course of action was not to engage her on the gender front. It was best to keep to the subject and get out as quickly as possible, all the time hoping that she somehow forgot about the fact that he happened to be male. “I come representing both the men and the women of Kakariko,” he said. “We want information. We want to know what this war is about.”
“This war,” Petaleen said sharply, “is a matter of Gerudo honor. You would not understand.”
“Please,” Link said, “give me some information to take back to the village. Tell me why you’ve started this war.”
Petaleen stared at him, her blue eyes searing into his face. “I did not start any war,” she insisted.
He had not been expecting this. “My mistake,” he mumbled quickly. “What I mean to say is –”
“Is that what the villagers think? Do they take me for a usurper?”
“It’s difficult to say, considering our lack of information.”
Petaleen rolled her eyes. “Typical. Filling in the blanks without any information.”
“Why don’t you set the record straight?”
“Our Alpha, Alpha Miral,” she paused. “An Alpha is a leader.”
“Our Alpha was murdered,” she said darkly.
“Murdered,” Link repeated. That much he already knew from his encounter with the rebels. Somehow, he sensed that the story was about to change abruptly. “By whom?”
“By an underling named Deidre.”
“Deidre,” Link repeated. Somehow, he was not at all surprised. It made perfect sense for the leaders of each camp to blame the other.
“An honorless sow,” Petaleen spat angrily.
“There’s rarely honor in murder,” Link commented.
“There are times when murder is justified. But even if she had been given a good reason for killing Miral, her continued actions are beyond redeeming.”
“What do you mean?”
“She leads a camp of rebels against me now. They’re somewhere on our northern border. Those worthless excuses for Gerudo do worse than kill their own sisters. They steal the bodies of the dead. And deny them proper burial.”
Link suddenly blinked. “Your dead are missing?” he asked, without adding that Deidre’s were missing too.
“Are you taking her dead as well?”
Petaleen looked highly offended. “Of course not!” she cried. “I would never do such a thing.”
His mind raced, trying to say what he wanted to say without actually saying it. “You know, we’ve seen no funeral pyres. They can usually be seen from the village at night.”
“So? I assume your followers are killing hers every bit as much as she’s killing yours.”
“If there are no funeral pyres, doesn’t that mean that her dead are missing too?” he asked.
This caught Petaleen off guard. Even the Deltas, stiff at attention along the walls, seemed to pause to consider his words. “It is…possible,” Petaleen admitted after a long and heavy pause.
“If your dead are missing and their dead are missing,” Link continued, “doesn’t that mean that there’s a third party in play?”
“It might. But what does that matter?”
“What does it matter? It means that someone, or something, is benefiting from your carnage.”
“Why would someone steal dead bodies unless there was something to be gained from it?”
“There may be something to what you say,” she murmured.
“Alpha,” he said, taking a step forward. The guards around the room stiffened. Link knew a second step would not be acceptable. “Alpha, if there is someone benefiting from your war, I urge you not to continue it.”
“It was not my doing in the first place,” Petaleen told him. “Deidre is the one who started it by killing Miral. I will not extend the olive branch to her now. There will be no peace while she lives.”
“There must be something more to all of it, someone manipulating things. Please, listen to me. At the very least, you can hold off on attacks until there’s further information.”
“And where will this information come from?”
“I will be more than happy to investigate the disappearance of your dead,” Link volunteered.
“Why would you do this?”
“Because as I value the Jaguar as my friends, I have no desire to see sisters fighting against sisters.
Another heavy silence fell as Petaleen considered Link’s words. “Well,” she finally said, “you seem to speak with earnest.”
“I do, Alpha.”
“Then I will grant you a temporary ceasefire.” She held up her hand before anyone could interrupt. “Long enough for you to deliver a message to the rebels up north.”
“What is that message?” Link asked eagerly.
“The message is this: Surrender and live, or stand against me and die. I am the Alpha now and I will not tolerate murderers and their followers.”
Link’s heart sank. Somehow, he had allowed himself to hope for better. Still, a ceasefire, however temporary, was certainly a start. Unfortunately, the web was becoming even more tangled than before. Deidre blamed Petaleen for Miral’s death. Petaleen blamed Deidre. Someone or something was sitting back and letting this war take place, slipping away with bodies for an unknown purpose. Link sensed that whoever that entity was, and he had several guesses as to who, was the source of the conflict. And Miral’s true murderer.
A long time ago, following the death of her mother, Nebekah had developed a certain nervous habit. She was careful about it, keeping it to herself as much as possible. The fact was that in all that time, no one had ever noticed it, except for Link. But Link wasn’t here now, so Nebekah felt free to indulge. As she paced the length of the tent, she lavished the opportunity to chew on the heel of her palm. There was absolutely no explanation for where this particular nervous tick had come from, but Nebekah had been doing it for years now, mostly in secret.
She wasn’t alone, admittedly. Sapphia had made herself quite at home, sitting in a corner of the tent and watching her like a hawk. At first, Nebekah had merely assumed that Sapphia’s continued presence was simply a matter of Sapphia trying to avoid Deidre, who was busy rallying the troops. But as time wore on and Sapphia continued her incessant babble about Nebekah’s peaceful nature, Nebekah became convinced that Sapphia was keeping an eye on her. And she didn’t like that, not one bit.
“Have you ever tried meditation?” Sapphia continued her current line of thought. “Just lying there and opening your mind up to the universe?”
“No,” Nebekah huffed, turning around and ramming the heel of her palm into her teeth again.
“Hmmmm. Some people find it very relaxing. I never had the patience for it though.”
Nebekah wasn’t surprised; however, she didn’t say anything. Instead, she continued to pace. Deidre’s description of Miral’s final days was still ringing in her ears, giving her a terrible headache. Doubtlessly, it was entirely psychosomatic, but knowing that didn’t help much. The guilt was just overwhelming. She should have been there. She should never have allowed Link to lead her on this foolish quest to reassemble the Gerudo Topaz. She should have stayed at home.
“You could have been killed too,” Sapphia said quietly.
“What?” Nebekah asked, turning around to look at her.
“If you had stayed to defend Miral. You could have been killed too.”
“How did you know what I was thinking?”
Sapphia shrugged. “I’m very intuitive. I’ve always been able to guess at these things. I can always tell you what Tyro is thinking. Of course, he’s about as deep as a bowl of pudding.”
“What’s Tyro usually thinking?”
“He’s usually thinking about Mika’s –”
“Beta!” the flap to the tent flew open. Two young trainees came running in, their faces dusted with sand, evidence of a long trek through the Valley. The one who spoke, Nebekah recognized immediately as Sandya, one of the trainees for whom she had been responsible. She noted that Sandya had not been in attendance at her speech, assuming command and had thought her one of the traitors. She was pleased to see that she was wrong.
“Sandya,” she said, walking over to the girls.
“Thank Din you’re alive!” Sandya cried.
“What is it?” Nebekah asked, putting her hands on Sandya’s shoulders as the trainee caught her breath. “What’s wrong?”
“We were out scouting by the southern ridge,” Sandya explained quickly. “Deidre posted us there this morning.”
“Easy does it,” Nebekah told them. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Sapphia rise to her feet. “What’s the matter?”
“We saw something,” Sandya said hurriedly. “We were going to come back and tell Deidre, but then she told us that you were still alive and that we should report to you instead.”
“What did you see?”
“Heading across the terrain…he was going straight for the fortress, no question about it.”
“Who? Who was heading for the fortress?”
“Your friend,” Sandya blurted. “The Hylian boy with blond hair. The Hero of…Something.”
“Link?” Nebekah asked.
“Yes! Yes, that’s the one,” Sandya told her with a nod. “Link was heading to the fortress.”
Slowly, Nebekah released Sandya’s shoulders. She turned and walked away from the girl, chewing on the heel of her palm. “Link,” she repeated slowly.
“Nebekah,” Sapphia said. “Don’t overreact.”
She turned to look at the Kodiak. “What?”
“Link is just going to talk to them, that’s all. He’s not switching sides. He just wants to –”
“You knew about this?” Nebekah interrupted.
“Well…” Sapphia floundered. “Yes, but I –”
“Enough,” Nebekah cut her off. She turned to look back at the scouts. “He was heading in the direction of the fortress?”
“Yes,” Sandya said.
“Gather up the other scouts,” she instructed. “Make sure they all know what Link looks like. And then, I want you to go out and look for him. He’s bound to leave the fortress at some point. I want him brought to me immediately.”
“Yes, Beta,” Sandya said with a nod. She paused. “I mean, Alpha.”
“Beta will suffice for now,” Nebekah told her. “I haven’t avenged Miral’s death yet.”
“Go, tell the other scouts. And then get some rest. You two have had a long day. You’ve earned it.”
“Thank you, Beta,” Sandya said. She turned and gave a nod to her companion and together, the two of them walked back out through the flap of the tent.
“Nebekah…” Sapphia started at once.
“Don’t,” Nebekah told her, holding up a hand to keep her from continuing. “Don’t start with me.”
“He’s your friend, Nebekah.”
“I know that.”
“So why are you having him treated as the enemy?”
“He’s been in conference with the enemy,” Nebekah said. “That makes him an accomplice.”
“That’s insane Moblin logic!” Sapphia cried. “You know better than that. Link would never betray you.”
“I can’t be sure of that.”
“But he’s your friend.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Nebekah said.
“Why? Why not?”
“This is a war,” Nebekah told her. “And in a war, I must treat him the same way I would treat anyone spotted in enemy territory.”
“As an enemy.”
“Even though you know better.”
“I cannot give him the luxury of special treatment,” Nebekah explained. “He may be my friend, but I can’t treat him differently.”
“That’s not the Nebekah I know.”
“You don’t know me at all, Sapphia. We’ve only been together a short while. I’ve had a lifetime of experience you know nothing about.
“I know most of your experience has not been as a warrior,” Sapphia said. “You’re a trainer and a diplomat. You’ve never been a general. Not before now. You’re making it up as you go along.”
“I don’t have a choice,” Nebekah told her. “I will not allow my personal feelings to get involved in this matter.”
“But, aren’t your personal feelings what started it?”
Nebekah didn’t answer. She tried to fool herself into believing that she was above responding to such an absurd query, but the truth of the matter, one she could not deny, was that Sapphia had a valid point. Her friendship with Miral was the cause of this matter. She hated the fact that friendship had to be so complicated and absently began chewing on her hand again.
Tyro and Mika sat on opposite sides of the cell, about as far away from each other as they could get. Tyro rested his chin on his knees. From time to time, he would turn to her, opening his mouth to say something, but suddenly, his throat would dry up. Occasionally, he would manage to get out a squeak of some kind, but it would be silenced as the memory of her warm lips returned to him, once again rendering him completely silent. He couldn’t tell for sure, but he rather hoped that she was in the same straits. It would make him feel a bit less alone. Sometimes, he would steal a glance at her out of the corner of his eye. She seemed very pale and would be chewing on one of the wraps of her hair or else running her fingers through the crevices of the stone dungeon wall.
The wall was another matter of great distraction. In the last hour or so, it had been getting cooler. Sunset was approaching and with it, Tyro knew, his possible execution at the hand of his own mother. Vaguely, he wondered whether informing her of this fact would halt the execution, or merely serve to speed it up. She wasn’t the woman his father had told him about. That had been another lie. Another disparity between father and son that would never be rectified.
He knew he should have been afraid, but he wasn’t. Every time he thought of the immanent death facing him, somehow, his mind wandered back to Mika and how good it had felt to kiss her. He felt like a great fool now for fighting her so much. Perhaps that was a sign of attraction. He wasn’t entirely sure. He had been with girls, true, but that had been different somehow. They were pleasant distractions, but certainly nothing alluring or beautiful. Mika was another matter. She was so beautiful, so seductive, so strangely exotic yet still Hylian. Tyro had never encountered a woman quite like her before. And he might never again.
Again, he turned to her, trying to speak, but he knew well before the attempt that his throat would fail him. It was a great surprise to him, however, when Mika took the initiative. “Listen, Tyro…” she said carefully.
He swallowed. “Yes?”
“What just happened, it…”
“It didn’t mean anything. Did it?”
Tyro stared at her, trying to come up with the nerve to answer, to fight her, to contradict her. Somehow, he had lost his spine to stand up to her. “I…don’t know,” he said meekly, wishing with every word that he could cry ‘yes!’
“It couldn’t…have meant something.”
Mika shrugged. “We’re…scared. Alone. Looking for comfort, that’s all. It’s not…”
“Significant,” she said.
“Either of us would have taken comfort in anyone else in the cell. It just happened to be the two of us.”
He looked at her as the memory of her warmth spread across his chest. Somehow, it filled him with a new reserve of courage. “I’m not so sure about that,” he said.
“That it meant nothing.”
She frowned, her nose wrinkling in an irresistibly appealing way. “Did you…want it to mean something?”
“Well…” His heart was pounding in his chest, his palms clammy. He was living, breathing cliché, he knew that much. He was the sort of chap that he had often insulting and berated in his roguish past. But that didn’t matter. Finally, he understood that it really was no laughing matter. Not at all. “Yes,” he said. “I guess I do want it to mean something.”
“I…” but she trailed off suddenly.
At the end of the corridor, the two of them suddenly heard footsteps approaching. Tyro’s heart sank. No! Of all the times for death to come staring them in the face, why did it have to be this particular moment. This could have been the most important moment in his life. Tyro felt his eyes water up, not because of death so much as the missed opportunity. The missed opportunity to be something more to Mika than just a source of unwanted, extreme comfort. As he watched her, she rose to her feet, squaring her shoulders and facing the gate of the cell. She was unafraid to face death. And upon realizing this, every ounce of disdain he had ever felt for her turned to admiration and desire. Suddenly, even the most unpleasant parts of her, the hints of her Gerudo upbringing, made Tyro crave her all the more.
He rose, turning to face the bars as she did and hoping he could be half as brave. Although he expected to see the guards approaching at any minutes, their sharp blades ready to severe his pretty head, he was surprised to find himself facing an elderly woman wearing blue robes. Her face was full and round, her cheeks flushed a delicate, rosy pink. She was not young, not in the slightest, but rather a certain healthy and handsome matron with her light red hair intricately woven behind her head and the back of her neck. There was something familiar about her.
“Tiama?” Mika whispered in disbelief. He turned to look at her. She was slowly approaching the bars, her eyes blinking rapidly.
“You know her?” Tyro asked.
“She’s Tiama, the healer of Orca Pride.”
The woman on the other side of the cell laughed softly. There was nothing gentle or healing about her laugh. It was more of a quiet cackle that frayed Tyro’s nerves. “I’m afraid not,” she told them, shaking her head.
Mika scowled. “What?
“Oh dear,” the woman said, “you poor thing. So confused. Allow me to explain.” She raised a hand over her head. Tyro couldn’t exactly explain what happened, even as he watched it with his own eyes. What appeared to be a bright, red ball of liquid formed at the tips of her fingers. It traveled down her arm like a waterfall and along the way, it seemed to transform her. Her smooth, firm skin dissolved into folds of rotting and decaying wrinkles. The light red hair on her head became gray, stringy, and she seemed half bald. All the beauty of her face drained away to swallow, hollow cheeks, her eyes suddenly sunken in and bloodshot. A horrible smell emanated from this rotting hag, causing Tyro to take a step back, covering his mouth and nose.
“Who are you?” Mika demanded in horror.
“I am Kotake,” she said.
“Kotake?” Tyro repeated.
“One of the Twinrova sisters,” Mika explained quietly.
And it suddenly made sense. “You told them that we were coming,” Tyro exclaimed. “You’re the reason why we’re about to be executed.”
“I’m afraid so,” Kotake told them without a hint of remorse. “I’m very sorry, young ones, but I’m afraid that you simply have to die. There’s no choice for me in the matter, really.”
“You really are ruthless,” Mika hissed.
“I really am.”
“May Din curse you for the kin blood you’re about to spill,” Mika whispered. Beyond their sightlines, they could hear more footsteps. These had to be the executioners, the real ones.
Kotake leaned her head to one side. “To what are you referring?” she asked in genuine curiosity.
“Tyro is Alpha Petaleen’s son,” Mika growled. “You’re about to cause her to spill her own blood!”
At once, Kotake turned to look at Tyro, her beady eyes shining. “Is that so?” she mused. Tyro nodded vaguely. “Well,” Kotake murmured, more to herself than to the others. “We can’t have that.” She held her hand over her head again and a second ball of red liquid formed. This one traveled down her arm and seemed to reverse the previous one. Kotake’s form was once again changed into that of Tiama, pink and dimples, no trace of decay.
The two guards they had heard approaching appeared. As Tyro had imagined, they brandished large, sharp swords, these forged out of gold, probably specially reserved for decapitations. Both of them seemed surprised to see Kotake or Tiama or whatever she was. “What are you doing down here, mother?” one of the guards asked.
“I came to see my Alpha’s child one last time,” Kotake told her. “And right glad I am that I did. You’ve captured the wrong one!”
“Wrong one?” the guard said.
“This isn’t the one who came to kill Petaleen on behalf of the Beta!” Kotake cried. “Alpha Medea has two daughters. This one is Mika! She came here with a message for me. The one you were supposed to capture is Alcia!”
Mika looked at Tyro. “What?” she mouthed, as if he could possibly have some answer.
“You didn’t tell us there were two!” the guard shouted.
“Well, that is my mistake. But you cannot kill these prisoners. They’re completely innocent. Meanwhile, the girl trying to kill your Alpha is still at large somewhere.”
The guards exchanged bewildered looks. “Well,” the first one said, “I suppose we’d better take them up to the Alpha and explain all this.”
“You’re right,” the second one agreed. “You’ll have to come with us, mother.” But when they looked back, the old woman had vanished.
“Where did she go?” the first guard demanded of the prisoners.
Both Mika and Tyro shrugged. “I don’t know,” Mika said numbly.
“What do we do?” the second guard asked the first.
“Take them to the Alpha,” the first replied. “I won’t have Din cursing us for spilling innocent blood.”
“I hate this place, I hate this place, I hate this place,” Link chanted with every step as he hurried through the Valley. He had not anticipated his trek taking this long. Now, the sun was setting and he still hadn’t reached the camp. He had no food, no blankets, and no flint to make a fire. The odds seemed increasingly likely that he would starve and freeze before he managed to make it to the camp. Angrily, he cursed his own shortsightedness. Still, he supposed, he was lucky to be alive at all. Something told him Petaleen was not a patient woman. He had tested her limits enough.
Despite his fear of starvation and hypothermia, Link wasn’t particularly looking forward to arriving back at the camp either. He could only hope Sapphia had had more luck in dealing with Nebekah. She might be the only thing standing between the Jaguar and total elimination, on irony for a Kodiak. Link had no idea what her resolve was like, but prayed she could handle the situation. He made a mental note too. If he survived the ordeal he would make a point of getting to know her better. Let the demons giggle, he wanted to know her feelings toward the former Alpha male of the Kodiak Pride and what she had done during his seven years of sleep.
Link paused, turning around to get his bearings. He knew he was close, but frankly, he still felt a bit lost. He rubbed the back of his neck and turned around. His heart nearly came bursting out of his chest when he fond himself face to face with Deidre. She was standing idly behind him, having changed into a set of silvery robes that wafted gently in the breeze. “Deidre!” he yelped, clapping a hand over his chest. “You nearly gave me a heart attack.”
She regarded him curiously for a moment. “You’re Nebekah’s friend,” she finally said in a soft, echoic voice.
“Yeah, although I don’t know how to handle her when you keep getting her all riled up.”
“Over there!” a voice from beyond the ridge called. Link turned around to see a swarm of Jaguar rebels rushing down upon him. Most of them, he noticed, couldn’t have been older than sixteen, but they all brandished weapons, currently pointed in his direction.
“Hey!” he cried, holding ups hands up. “Easy! Easy, I’m on your side? Remember? Tell them, Deidre.” He expected a prompt response, but absolutely none came. Tentatively, Link looked over his shoulder. It was then he realized that Deidre had vanished. He turned back to the angry scouts with their weapons pointed at him. “Did you just see?”
“See who?” one of them sneered.
“Ignore him!” another called. “He’s just trying to distract us.”
“No!” Link insisted. “She was just here.”
“You need to come with us,” a scout told him, planting a hand on his shoulder and pointing a sword at his throat. A glance at her hand told Link that her grip was sloppy. He could easily have reached over his shoulder and drawn his sword, knocking her blade out of her hand, but he wasn’t here for a fight.
“What do you want with me?” Link asked. “I told you already, I’m on your side. I’m here with Nebekah.”
“Beta Nebekah sent us to find you,” the girl explained.
“That’s her business. Move!”
The young girls paraded Link over the ridge. He kept looking back over his shoulder, expecting Deidre to pop up from behind a stone and shout ‘surprise’ but rather to his chagrin, she did not appear. Had it finally happened? Had Link lost his mind completely? It wouldn’t surprise him all that much. But just the same, he was certain he had seen her. And he was equally certain that Gerudo Gammas didn’t just vanish into thin air. Well, at least he could take comfort in the fact that he no longer needed to fear getting lost. He would certainly not starve or freeze to death. He might, however, end up impaled.
Before too long, the rebel camp appeared, arrayed before them. Link was marched through the briar barrier, past several surprised onlookers. He wondered, vaguely, which surprised them more; the fact that he had returned or the fact that the girls had apparently captured him. It didn’t matter, but Link didn’t want to think of what was waiting for him back in the tents. Why would Nebekah send scouts out looking for him as if he were an enemy?
The tent flap was lifted and Link was shoved, none too gently, into the tent. Sitting on the floor were Nebekah, Sapphia, and Deidre. All three of them looked up as he entered, with varying degrees of surprise registering on their faces. Link tried to catch Sapphia’s eyes, to somehow gage exactly what was going on, but before he could, Nebekah stood up and walked over to him with a fire blazing in her eyes that he didn’t like one bit.
Link decided to speak first. “Nebekah, I –”
But Nebekah clapped a hand over his mouth, pulling his jaw shut with surprising strength. “What were you doing?” She removed her hand.
“Nothing, I was just –”
Again, she stopped him. “I know that you were seen going into enemy territory, Link.”
He grabbed her wrist, removing her hand from his face. “Enemy territory?” he sputtered. “I went to the stronghold.”
“So you admit it.”
“Why? Why did you go there?”
“To talk,” Link said in exasperation.
“Yes. You know, make sound as your lips move.”
“Don’t mock her!” Deidre sneered.
“Nebekah,” Link said firmly, “Listen to me. I went there to try and talk some sense into Petaleen. That’s it. I wasn’t giving up secrets, I wasn’t revealing the location of the camp. I just wanted to talk. There’s something fishing going on here. The dead of Petaleen’s forces are –”
“Why should I believe you?” Nebekah interrupted, mercifully without gagging him again.
Link sighed. “Nebekah, you know me. You’ve known me for a long time. And you know that I would rather die than betray a friend.”
She was silent for a moment. “True.”
“I would never do anything to hurt you, I swear it. I swear it on…” he floundered for something, “I swear it on my word as an honorary Dragon Delta. You never had to send those scouts out to find me.”
“These are hard times,” Nebekah said, finally backing down.
“I know,” he told her. “I know.” He turned to glance at Deidre. “Thanks for all your help, by the way.”
Deidre blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“When I ran into you out on the field, you could have told your scouts not to be so rude.”
“On the field?” Deidre repeated. “What are you talking about?”
Link gestured over his shoulder. “When I saw you out there. Right before I was arrested.”
Sapphia rose to her feet. “Link,” she said, “you’re clearly confused.”
“I’m not confused!” he replied.
“Yes, you are,” Sapphia told him, suddenly speaking as though she were addressing a toddler. “Because you couldn’t possibly have seen Deidre out in the Valley.”
“Because she hasn’t left the camp.”
“That’s right!” Deidre shouted.
In an overly friendly sort of gesture, Sapphia wrapped her arm around Link’s shoulders. “I think a little walk ought to clear your head,” she said.
“I don’t need to clear my head,” Link answered.
“Yes, you do,” Sapphia said.
“Uh huh.” She gave him a very pointed look, careful to conceal it from Deidre and Nebekah behind her.
“Oh,” Link muttered.
“Come on, let’s take a walk.” Sapphia steered Link back to the tent flap. He allowed her to direct him, but quickly glanced back over his shoulder at Deidre and Nebekah. Nebekah was looking vaguely perplexed, but Deidre looked furious. There was no doubt in Link’s mind that the conversation would be about Nebekah’s misplaced trust in him, just as soon as he was out of earshot. What he wondered more, however, was what direction the conversation with Sapphia would take. He had a feeling he had just stumbled upon a rather important development.
For the second time, Mika and Tyro were forcibly led into the Alpha’s receiving chamber. It was evident from the moment they stepped inside that no one ever expected to see them alive again. Severed heads, perhaps, but not living entities still capable of thought and speech. Petaleen, who had been consulting with one of her scouts, turned to look up at them with an expression of such distaste that Mika could hardly blame Tyro’s nerve for failing. This was not a maternal woman.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Petaleen demanded of the guards and executioners leading them.
“There’s been a mistake, Alpha,” the first guard said.
“We’ve captured the wrong girl,” the second added.
“Wrong girl?” Petaleen repeated. “What are you talking about?”
“The Orca healer told us.”
“Told you what?”
“Alpha Medea has two daughters. This one and another one. This is the wrong one. It’s the other one who’s after you.”
Petaleen folded her arms. “Well, it would have been nice if she had told us before.”
The first guard nodded in agreement. “It was a mistake, she was most distraught.”
“I see,” Petaleen fumed.
“It’s lucky we found out before we killed them,” the second guard concluded a bit stupidly.
“Yes,” Petaleen said dryly. She turned to look at Mika. “What’s your lineage?” she demanded.
Mika sighed angrily. “I am Mika, daughter of Medea who is Alpha of the Orca Pride,” she repeated. “And I told you before that I am no assassin.”
Petaleen ignored this final barb, turning instead, back to the guards. “And what did Tiama tell you the name of the assassin was?”
“Alcia,” the second guard explained. “Who is also a daughter of Alpha Medea, apparently.”
“Scouts,” Petaleen called to the warriors lining the room. “Go out and see if you can’t find this Alcia before she decides to murder me?”
In unison, all of the guards saluted. As they began to march out of the room, Mika stepped forward. “Alpha,” she said crisply, “you won’t find her. Alcia’s been dead for some time now.”
“Oh,” the first guard piped, “is that why you came here?”
“What do you mean?” Petaleen barked.
“Tiama told us that she came to deliver a message.”
“That woman is not Tiama of Orca Pride,” Mika snapped.
“What do you mean?” Petaleen asked.
“She’s Kotake,” Tyro said softly.
Petaleen’s eyebrows shot up. “A man who dares to speak in my presence knows the name of one of the Twinrova sisters?”
“My friends and I have been on a quest to stop the Twinrova sisters,” Mika explained.
“The Twinrova sisters are dead,” Petaleen replied.
“No,” Mika said. “They’re still alive. Or they’ve come back to life. Either way, they’ve been causing great mischief for the other Prides and I think that now they’re playing with Jaguar Pride.”
“Well, that would explain why you were shouting their name as you were led from the chamber,” Petaleen said dryly.
“Tiama does not leave Orca territory. That woman was Kotake,” Mika told her, hoping that perhaps she would listen.
“I have little evidence of that, other than your word.”
“Why won’t you believe me?” Mika asked.
“I find it difficult to take the word of a Gerudo who considers a man to be her friend,” Petaleen answered.
Mika turned to look at Tyro. He stood silently by, his hands folded behind his back, looking down at the floor. In that moment, she could understand him more clearly than ever before. After such a long time hating the Gerudo, now he had discovered that his own mother, the woman who had given birth to him, was one of them. She finally understood why he hadn’t said anything about it and why he never would. The fiction that had been his mother was gone. This reality would never bring that back for him. And for the first time, she felt her heart call out to him with the tender pity she had never allowed herself to feel for the man she thought killed Alcia.
“That is your loss,” Mika said quietly. “I have learned to appreciate the qualities men can bring to life.”
“And what qualities are those?” Petaleen asked with a bit of a cruel laugh in her voice.
“The same qualities that any Gerudo can possess,” Mika responded. “Heroics, courage, intelligence. I am fortunate enough to have two men that I am able to call my friends.”
“Two?” Petaleen repeated. “How quaint. Who’s the other, if I may be so bold as to ask?”
“My brother,” Mika replied.
“Brother? You are an Alpha’s daughter.”
“I am a Thin Blood,” Mika told her proudly. “And I have two heritages I can call my own, Gerudo and Hylian. And I am proud to call the Hero of Time my brother. He is a good man who –”
“The Hero of Time?” Petaleen interrupted.
“That’s his name.”
“Hmmm…” Petaleen mused. “Interesting that your brother should pay me a visit without asking of your whereabouts.”
Mika blinked. “Link was here?”
“A few hours ago. He came as an ambassador of peace, begging me to end this conflict.”
“If he came as an ambassador, then he speaks true,” Mika insisted. “Link is a trusted friend to Nebekah and he –”
Petaleen took one step down from the dais. “Nebekah is alive?”
“She’s a member of our fellowship,” Mika said. “She’s been helping us to stop Twinrova.”
“And where is she now?”
“I don’t know,” Mika said slowly, a scowl forming on her face. “You’ve had us locked up in a dungeon.”
“She wouldn’t, by chance, be among the rebels trying to take my title as Jaguar Alpha?”
“I…” And Mika could say nothing more. It was only too late that she had realized her mistake.
“So, Link is working with the rebels,” Petaleen muttered. “I knew it. He’s betrayed me.”
“Betrayed you?” Tyro said suddenly. “How?”
“You keep your man’s tongue silent in my presence,” Petaleen barked to Mika. She then turned to the remaining warriors in the room. “The ceasefire has been called off. It was a trick. The rebels are doubtlessly mounting an attack, hoping that I’ll have laid down arms. We must prepare to march against them. Tonight.”
“I’m sure that’s not true!” Mika cried.
“Enough. I’ve heard enough out of you. I shall spare your life, as I wrongfully imprisoned you, but I will have no more trouble. I want you and your man out of my fortress now. And should I ever see the two of you again, I will not hesitate to kill you on the spot.”
And with that, Petaleen turned her back on them, effectively dismissing them. Mika took a step forward, about to speak, to urge Petaleen to believe in the Twinrova sisters, but she suddenly felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned to see Tyro who gently shook his head. She opened her mouth to object, but he quietly shook his head, his face set in a steely resolve she had never really seen before today. Touching his wrist lightly, she nodded and together, the two of them slowly made their way from the room, ignored as Petaleen called out various marching orders to the remaining Jaguar in attendance. There would be no grand send off, but that was to be expected.
Quietly, the two of them slipped out of the room. They walked through the eerily silent halls, their footsteps echoing behind them. Mika hung her head, watching her feet as she went. Her frustration was bubbling furiously, but she had managed to hold her tongue for once. She could only hope, now that the others could sort this out because, from her position she could do nothing but watch. Mika hated feeling so helpless. Angrily, she chewed on one of her hair wraps. It had come undone now, a flash of blond hair peeking out from the threads. She realized, strangely, that it was the same color as Link’s hair.
There was no real thought put into the journey. Somehow, Mika and Tyro’s feet knew the way and guided them through the corridors to the grand entrance of the Jaguar Pride, a door that had always been open to strangers and misfits, a door that had once been open to Petaleen, a Thin Blood who longed to be a Gerudo. Wars never opened doors though. They only closed them. Yet, as Mika and Tyro silently made their way through, Mika found her hand in Tyro’s hand and felt another kind of door, one in her heart, opening.
“Link,” Sapphia hissed as she led him out of earshot of the Jaguar rebel camp, “Deidre hasn’t left. She’s been with Nebekah, plotting their great and glorious revenge on Petaleen.”
“Well, I saw her,” Link insisted. “Out beyond the ridge, I swear. Only she wasn’t wearing that brown thing. She was dressed in silver.”
Sapphia shook her head. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“You think I don’t know that?” he cried.
“Why don’t you show me where you saw her?”
“Okay, follow me.” And Link began to retrace his steps through the Valley, a fairly easy task during the day, when footsteps could be made out, but a bit more daunting at night.
“How did your visit with Alpha Petaleen go?” Sapphia asked as she followed after him.
“Not good,” Link answered, pausing to scan the horizon for a familiar plain or rock formation.
“She won’t back down. She offered the rebels a choice: Surrender or die. Not the most unique of options.”
“Decidedly not,” Sapphia agreed.
Link turned around suddenly to face her. “Sapphia,” he said urgently. How could he have for gotten?”
“Their dead are missing too.”
He nodded. “Petaleen told me. Their dead are missing too. They blame the other side, of course.”
“Did you tell her about their dead?”
“Yes, but that didn’t seem to convince them that someone else was behind this whole thing.”
“Not just someone,” Sapphia said softly. “The Twinrova sisters.”
“Yeah, I guess, but…”
Link scowled. “Well, I just can’t figure it out.”
“What would the Twinrova sisters want with a lot of Jaguar bodies?”
“It isn’t the bodies,” an echoic voice called. “It’s the blood.”
Both Link and Sapphia whirled around. Standing off to one side, they saw Deidre, as Link had seen her before, draped in silver robes and looking windswept. “Deidre?” Link asked. “I don’t understand. What are you trying to pull here? Are you changing behind the rock?”
“I’m afraid not,” Deidre said softly.
“Holy Din,” Sapphia whispered.
Link turned to look at her. “What? What is it?”
Sapphia didn’t answer. Instead, she stepped forward, walking over to Sapphia. She stopped short and held up her hand, her palm facing the other woman. Slowly, she pressed her hand forward toward Deidre’s shoulder. Her hand slipped right through Deidre’s skin as if she weren’t even there. “She’s a ghost,” Sapphia hissed, turning back to Link.
“You don’t need to whisper,” Deidre said. “I’m aware of the fact.”
“I don’t understand,” Link mumbled, stepping forward and running his own hand straight through Deidre’s arm. “We just saw you back at camp.”
“That’s not me,” Deidre said quietly.
“I was run through, trying to defend Miral,” she explained. “My body was the first one snatched.”
“Petaleen accuses you of killing Miral,” Link told her.
Deidre nodded. “Yes, I was the one assigned to protect her. She was found dead and I was nowhere near. It was a logical conclusion. Just as it as a logical conclusion to blame Petaleen, who first found the body.”
“But neither of you did it?” Sapphia questioned.
“No,” Deidre answered, shaking her head as her willowy hair danced in an imaginary breeze.
“Kotake,” Deidre said.
“Should have seen that one coming,” Link muttered.
“She killed Miral in order to start a civil war amongst the Jaguar.”
“Why?” Link asked. “To stop us from getting the Topaz?”
“No. It had nothing to do with you.”
“It’s about blood.”
“You said that before. About the bodies.”
“The Twinrova sisters require ample amounts of blood.”
“No better place to find that than a civil war,” Sapphia spat bitterly. If there was one thing Link had observed about the Kodiak Beta, it was that she seemed to detest infighting amongst the Gerudo.
“Yes. The Twinrova sisters are collecting the bodies of the fallen and draining their blood.”
“But why?” Link implored. “What do they need the blood?”
“They are attempting to restore their youth. Their power.”
“And blood is the way to do it?”
“Like the Saber Tooth,” Sapphia murmured. “Do you remember what Nebekah told us?”
Link racked his brain for a moment. “Yes,” he said suddenly, “they bathe in the blood of their fallen foes because they believe it gives them beauty.”
“And the Saber Tooth as a whole are a very beautiful race.”
“So you’re saying that Kotake and Koume started this whole feud so they could take a beauty bath?”
“Yes,” Deidre answered. “And it has having consequences far beyond civil war,” she added.
Link rubbed the back of his neck. “What do you mean?”
“When bodies are taken,” she explained with a touch of sadness, “they cannot be mourned. And when a body is not properly mourned, then the spirit cannot cross over to the afterlife.”
For a moment, Link and Sapphia both quietly stared at Deidre. Link wondered if she was in pain, suffering in this state of being. He had never thought of it before. “Like you,” he whispered.
“And all of my fallen sisters on either side,” Deidre said with a nod. “The civil war is having cosmic consequences beyond measure.”
“We really need to stop it,” Sapphia said.
“I agree,” Link muttered. “But I just don’t know how.”
“Time is running short,” Deidre told them.
“What do you mean?”
“Petaleen’s forces have begun to march on the rebel camp. Soon, the rebel scouts will report this. The rebels will lead their own charge. The two sides of this conflict will clash tonight.”
“And if we don’t stop it,” Link finished, “then the Twinrova sisters will have a whole mess of bodies.” He felt his throat dry up. “It could make them absolutely unstoppable.”
“The more blood,” Deidre said, “the more power. And kindred blood is always potent when spilled by kindred.”
In the distance, Link suddenly heard the muted cry of a ram’s horn from the rebel camp. “A call to arms,” Sapphia said.
“Then the news has spread.”
“There’s no way we can talk Nebekah out of this,” Link grumbled. “Deidre…the fake Deidre…has poisoned her mind.” He blinked, suddenly feeling like the stupidest man on earth. “That’s one of them, isn’t it? That’s one of the Twinrova sisters, assuming your form!”
Sapphia stared at him in disbelief. “It can’t be.”
Deidre, however, nodded. “That is Koume. With Miral’s blood and mine, she has become powerful enough to attain a youthful form. With each body, her staying power grows.” Deidre looked pained. “You must stop tonight’s battle.”
Link sighed. “Yeah. But we can’t do it alone.”
“What do you mean?” Sapphia asked. “Who else do we have to call on?”
Instead of answering, Link turned to Deidre again. “Deidre,” he said. “How many of your sisters are in this spectral form?”
“About forty,” she said. “Why?”
“Can you find them?”
“Good. Because we’re going to need your help. Now, one more question.”
“What is it?”
“Where are the two forces likely to meet?”
Deidre shrugged. “The dried up river bed.”
Link grabbed Sapphia’s hand with such alacrity, that she cried out in surprise. “Come on,” he told her, already taking off at a sprint. “We’ve got there!”
The call to arms had been sounded on Nebekah’s orders. She the stood in the midst of the chaos, listening to the deep, mellow call of the horn as her warriors dressed her for battle. This was a right reserved for the Alphas, but granted to her by Deidre in the wake of the disaster. After all, she now marched as the acting Alpha of the Pride. The rightful Alpha. She carried at her side a silver chakram that had once belonged to Miral. On her head, her long red dreadlocks were adorned with a helmet that had been passed down through the generations of Alphas, etched with prowling jaguars, their muscles tense and ready for battle.
The enemy forces could be seen now, approaching on the opposite side of the river bed where they were almost certain to clash. Nebekah’s eyes scanned the ranks, seeking out Petaleen. Sure enough, the vile woman was there, leading her army. Rage filled Nebekah’s heart as she saw Miral’s Shard hanging from a gold chain around Petaleen’s neck. By all rights, it belonged to her now. Then again, Nebekah would rather it still belonged to Miral. Now, her murderer wore it, a thought that galled Nebekah.
“Revenge,” Deidre whispered into her ear as they continued their steady march to battle.
“Revenge,” Nebekah repeated. Vaguely, she found herself wondering how many people might fall in this battle. It was discouraging to think that women so loyal to Miral would perish before her death was avenged. Link had disappeared, which was more the pity, as Nebekah would have enjoyed charging into battle with the Hero of Time at her side. A brief pang of paranoia gripped her throat. She examined the enemy ranks again, but was relieved to see that Link had not defected. She scolded herself for question his character. She knew better, knew exactly what Link was: A friend, no matter what, to the very end.
The end. It struck Nebekah, at that very moment, that she might be facing her own death. She didn’t mind it so much. Since her early childhood, she had been indoctrinated with the notion of her own morality. To die was simply a matter of course. What really mattered wasn’t the when so much as the how of it. She would gladly sacrifice her life for the honor of Miral or another good friend. It frustrated her, however, to think of departing the mortal coil without avenging this terrible wrong. There was nothing scarier than leaving unfinished business behind her.
By this point, Nebekah could clearly make out the faces of her enemy, bathed silver in the moonlight. She knew each and everyone of them. Most, she had even grown up with and trained to become a warrior alongside. As they stared at her now, they were like strangers, phantom, glossy eyes gazing out of familiar heads, ready to do the bidding of their blood thirsty, usurping leader. Petaleen raised an arm and her army came to a halt on the far bank of the river. Nebekah followed suit. With a single gesture, her ranks stopped, glaring across the dried river bed.
“Your orders?” Deidre asked, standing stiffly at attention beside Nebekah, never taking her eyes off of the opposing army.
“Wait,” Nebekah mumbled.
“Wait!?” Deidre cried, a bit too loudly. In a quieter sotto, she leaned in and muttered, “Are you mad?”
“Let her make the first move,” Nebekah said softly.
“Beta Nebekah,” Petaleen called from across the river.
Nebekah took a step forward, over the indignant squawk of Deidre. “Petaleen,” she said coldly.
“I am glad to see you alive,” Petaleen said. “And deeply sorry to see you marching against me.”
“I must do what I must do,” Nebekah told her gruffly.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Petaleen said.
Petaleen nodded gravely. “So be it. Tomorrow morning will be a lucky day for the vultures.” She leaned her head to one side. “May you die quickly,” she said sympathetically.
“And may you die the slowest, most painful death imaginable,” Nebekah replied. She spat into the river bed.
“So be it.” Petaleen balled her hand into a fist, shooting it forward in the direction of the rebels. “Attack!”
Nebekah repeated the gesture. “Attack!” she shouted to her warriors.
“Ya!” the Gerudo on either side roared.
“Stop!!!” a third voice shouted, but it was too late. The opposing forces began to close in on the river bed. Nebekah, for all of her determination, hesitated a moment and in that moment, she realized who had called for a halt. Link and Sapphia were racing down the river bed, waving their arms wildly in the air and attempting, fruitlessly, to shoo back the opposite ranks. They would be crushed!
“Get out of the way, Link!” Nebekah screamed, but her cries were lost under the steady pounding of feet. Any second now, the two sides would converge in the middle, destroying anything in the path.
“Stop fighting!” Sapphia cried.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Link continued, going pink in the face. “Pull back! Pull back!”
“He’s insane!” Deidre exclaimed. But what happened next proved quite to the contrary.
Nebekah wasn’t entirely sure what happened, but somehow, the air around the two of them seemed to ripple, like the surface of a glossy lake. It was so fast that she didn’t know what to think of it, but one minute, Link and Sapphia were standing alone and in the next, the entire river bed was flooded, not with water, but with dozens and dozens of women dressed in flowing, silvery garments, their hair waving as though there were a gale, though there was none. The shock took a moment to set in, but in about two seconds, everyone on the field had seen the strangers and came to a crashing halt on opposite sides.
“Well,” Link muttered, “That’s more like it.”
Excited and agitated whispers began to arise from the assembled warriors. Nebekah, for her own part, found herself examining the strange women. They were Gerudos of Jaguar Pride, all of them ones that she had taken for traitors, but who she now saw marched with no one. How had they appeared so suddenly? She scanned their faces and immediately spotted one who looked exactly like Deidre. She didn’t look like Deidre, she was Deidre. But how could that be? As Nebekah turned to one side, she saw Deidre standing there, looking every bit as confused as all the others.
“Look!” Sapphia shouted. “Look on the faces of your dead!”
“These are the victims of a trick!” Link added. “They were killed, not by your hate, but by the workings of the Twinrova sisters!”
“Impossible!” Petaleen declared, taking a step forward to the specters. “This is some kind of magic trick. They can’t be ghosts.”
“Why not?” Sapphia asked.
Petaleen pointed to the Deidre beside Nebekah. Everyone turned in unison to stare at her. A few even took steps back. But Link immediately stepped forward, marching out of the bed and straight to the woman. “Show yourself,” he growled, drawing his sword from behind his back.
“What are you doing?” Nebekah hissed to him.
“This isn’t Deidre,” Link said, pointing his blade at her chest. He gestured over his shoulder. “That is.”
Nebekah turned to look at the phantom Deidre. She nodded mournfully. “It’s the truth,” she said. Her voice was distant and echoic, causing all of the Gerudo to shudder in surprise.
“You’re the real Deidre?” Nebekah wondered.
“No!” the other Deidre called.
Confused, Nebekah looked back and forth. “How do I know?”
“Don’t listen to her,” the Deidre Link was pointing his sword at called. “She’s some kind of illusion.”
The phantom Deidre merely smiled. “Your mother Elena,” she said softly, “had a filly named Vantika that she never broke because she admired the horse’s spirit so much.”
And Nebekah immediately knew who was telling the truth. She whirled around on the woman in Link’s aim, drawing the chakram and pointing the sharp ring directly at her. “Who are you?”
“She’s the one who killed Miral,” Link said. He turned to look over his shoulder at the other side. “This is the cause of your war!”
The flesh and blood Deidre began laughing. She clapped her hands slowly, a cruel smile on her face. “Oh really,” Sapphia muttered, “You’re not actually going to do the sarcastic clapping thing, are you?”
“Well done, Hero,” the false front said, glaring at Link.
“Who are you?” Nebekah barked.
“Perhaps I should show you.” Deidre held her hand up. What appeared to be a bright, red ball of liquid formed at the tips of her fingers. Nebekah felt queasy at once because it looked like blood. It traveled down Deidre’s arm like a waterfall and along the way, it transformed her. Her smooth, firm skin dissolved into folds of rotting and decaying wrinkles. The red hair on her head became gray, stringy, and she seemed half bald. All the beauty of her face drained away to swallow, hollow cheeks, her eyes suddenly sunken in and bloodshot.
Every last one of the Gerudo, regardless of what side they were on, took a step back in revulsion, gasping and inhaling the rotting smell emanating from the creature. Everyone except Link, who kept his sword trained on her. “This is Koume,” he said coldly.
“Glad you remember me, kid,” she cackled. “You give me far too much credit though. Kotake killed Miral. I just dabbled in some vanity spells.”
“Enough talk. Fight me.”
Koume shook her head, smiling mildly. “Afraid not, Hero. Your death has already been determined. And it won’t be today.”
“Fight me!” he cried.
Instead, Koume turned to look at the Jaguar. “I owe you ladies thanks,” she said. “Without your help, my sister and I could not have been restored to our great power. I thank you for the war and I thank you for all the blood it has supplied. Best of luck to you in the future.”
“Get her!” Petaleen shouted, but it was already too late. Koume, with her great power restored, vanished like a bubble on the point of a needle, leaving the stunned warriors without their target.
In the silence that followed, Link threw his sword down to the ground, letting it hit with a dull thud. He turned and looked at Nebekah. As their eyes met, meaning flooded through Nebekah’s chest. She felt like a fool. She had been used and betrayed and manipulated. And the worst part was that he had known. The entire time, he had tried to warn her, but she hadn’t bothered to listen. She had been too obsessed with revenge. But now, now was her opportunity to make things right.
Nebekah threw Miral’s chakram down to the ground. “Throw down your weapons,” she ordered the others. They exchanged uncertain looks. “Do it!” she snapped and the warriors obeyed.”
“Throw down your weapons,” Petaleen ordered on the other side. Her followers all dropped swords, bows, and spears to the ground.
“You and you,” Link said, pointing first to Petaleen and then to Nebekah. “Come to the river bed now.”
Wordlessly, Nebekah obeyed. When Petaleen saw her doing so, she too started to make her way through the ranks to the dried up bed. “Link!” someone called out of the crowd on Petaleen’s side. Nebekah turned to watch as Mika and Tyro appeared, shoving confused Deltas out of the way.
“Tyro! Mika!” Sapphia exclaimed, rushing to meet them.
“What’s going on?” Mika asked.
“In a minute,” Sapphia told her.
By now, both Nebekah and Petaleen had come to Link. “All right,” he told them firmly. “Now I want you two to shake hands and call off this war.”
“No man gives me orders,” Petaleen said haughtily.
“Do you want to supply Twinrova with a mountain pile of bodies?” he asked coolly. “Do what I say.”
Nebekah thrust her hand forward. After a moment, Petaleen did likewise. They clasped each other around the wrist and shook. “Peace?” Nebekah asked.
Petaleen nodded. “Peace.”
It was the kind of signal the others had clearly been waiting for. At once, a flood of warriors descended from either side, as the two sides of the war reunited with their loved ones from the opposite side. There was a great deal of commotion, of crying and hugging and sobs of rejoicing. Nebekah stood where she was, gripping Petaleen’s arm. As she looked into Petaleen’s eyes, she realized that while Petaleen might be many things, she was not the murderer. She was staring into a sister’s eyes, not the eyes of someone she was meant to kill. Now, at least, she knew who the real enemy was. She had seen Koume.
Mika had crept over to Link’s side. The two of them hugged, somewhat awkwardly. “What’s going on?” Mika whispered. “Who are these?” she gestured to the ghosts.
Nebekah had almost forgotten about them! “I don’t understand how they came back,” she said to Link.
“Without bodies, they could not be properly mourned,” Sapphia explained casually. “You all were too busy trying to slaughter each other to give them the proper burial rites.”
“A funeral should be held,” Nebekah said.
Petaleen nodded. “Agreed. A pyre for each of the dead, to be properly mourned and set off.” She scowled. “You know, this means that you’re technically the proper Alpha of the Pride.” She reached up behind her head and unclasped the thick gold chain, handing over the Shard to Nebekah.
Nebekah took it, holding it carefully. For a moment, she stared silently, remembering all the times when she and Miral would sneak into the chambers of Miral’s mother to steal glances at it, knowing full that one day, it would be long to Miral. She had never dreamed it would belong to her. “I will take this,” she said thickly, “but I leave Jaguar Pride in your care.”
“What?” Petaleen asked.
“I want you to watch over our people. Be Alpha.”
“What about you?”
“I have to avenge Miral’s death,” she said. “And now, I know who the murderer is. I need to help Link defeat the Twinrova sisters.”
“I understand,” Petaleen told her. “The Pride will be waiting for you when you come back.”
“Take everyone home,” Nebekah said gently, managing a small smile.
At once, Petaleen turned her attention to the warriors, busy reuniting. Nebekah made her way over to Link and the others, turning over the Jaguar Shard in her hands. As the moonlight glinted off of the chain, she caught sight of an inscription in the Hylian text. Immediately, she handed it over to Link. “What does it say?”
Link took the chain, angling it to read. “It says, ‘…everyone who wants it can find it…’”
Tyro frowned. “‘One thing stands between the stone and the grave……it cannot be held, yet it can fill the air…everyone who wants it can find it…’ Not very specific, is it?”
“No,” Sapphia agreed. “But we’ll figure it out.”
Nebekah looked at Tyro and Mika. She noticed, strangely, that they seemed to be holding hands. Mika followed her gaze and quickly yanked her hand free of Tyro’s hand. “Where have you two been?” Nebekah asked them.
“It’s a long story,” Mika said. She turned to Link. “What do we do now?”
“We need to get moving,” Link said. “Twinrova is more powerful than ever now. And no offense, Nebekah, but I don’t particularly want to linger around Jaguar territory right now. Petaleen really doesn’t like men.”
“I know,” Nebekah sighed.
“What is her problem?”
“No one really knows,” Nebekah admitted.
“I think we should find out,” Mika said.
Tyro shook his head slightly. “Not worth it.”
Raising an eyebrow, Nebekah looked back and forth between the two of them. “Well, I’ll want to hear all about what you’ve been up to.”
“Not worth it,” Mika said. And with that, she walked away, heading up the stretch of the river bed.
“What she said,” Tyro muttered, following her.
Sapphia pursed her lips. “Is it just me, or are those two getting weirder?” Without waiting for an answer, she followed.
Link turned to look at Nebekah. “Are you okay?” he asked her.
“No,” she said. “But I will be.”
“You really scared me back there.”
“I know. I really scared myself, too.”
“I’ve never seen you like that before.”
“Miral meant the world to me,” Nebekah said. “She was my best friend.”
“But I want you to know something else.”
“If anyone ever hurt you, I’d do the exact same thing. Because as much as my Gerudo friends mean to me, sometimes I think that I care for you even more.” She paused. “Blondie.”
An enormous smile spread over Link’s face. “I love you, Nebekah.”
“I love you too. In a completely asexual sort of way.”
Laughing softly, Nebekah clapped a hand to Link’s back. Together, the two of them headed out, following Sapphia, Tyro, and Mika. Behind her, Nebekah could hear great rejoicing and she knew that her people would be all right. They had overcome a terrible trick by Twinrova. Nebekah, and the others, would see to it that the sisters never did this to them, to any Gerudo, again.
When Koume returned to the ice palace, she found Kotake busily at work, burning the pale remains of the drained Jaguar dead. There was an intense, overzealous look to her sunken and yellow eyes, telling Koume that she took no note of the fact that her fire was so hot it was blue and that it was slowly melting the wall she stood by. Sighing in particular annoyance, Koume held out her hands to the wall and, with relative ease, repaired the damage.
“Koume!” Kotake called in surprise as the blue glow of Koume’s power hit the wall beside her.
“I’m back,” Koume said.
“Wonderful, wonderful. I’m almost done with these.”
“The plan went awry. The Jaguar caught me before they could engage in the slaughter.”
“We have enough to last us for awhile,” Kotake said merrily.
Folding her arms across her chest, Koume stared at her sister. “You’re in a good mood,” she said, “considering the fact that your brilliant plan failed.”
“You lose some,” Kotake chirped, “and you win some.”
“Mother used to say that.”
“She did, didn’t she?”
“And did we win?”
“Oh, I would certainly say so,” Kotake replied.
“The blood we gathered won’t last forever.”
“It doesn’t have to last forever. Ganondorf’s return is coming much sooner than we could ever have hoped.”
“Far be it for me to question you,” Koume mumbled.
“Everything is falling into place, sister.” Kotake seemed satisfied with the charred remains, because she pulled her arms back and the fire stopped abruptly, leaving behind a pile of black ashes on the pristine ground.
“I wish I could share your optimism.”
“Don’t you worry your pretty little head over a minor set-back,” Kotake told her, striding over.
“I do have one question though.”
“What is it?”
“Back in the Jaguar stronghold, you had two of the fellowship at your mercy. You could have done away with them easily.”
“Mika and Tyro, yes.”
“Well…why didn’t you?”
“Why didn’t you have them killed? You’ve never, ever hesitated to kill anyone before.”
Kotake smiled, her old, yellowing teeth gleaming at her sister. “We’re going to need them after all,” she said.
“I learned something very interesting while I was visiting with them. Very interesting indeed.”
“Tyro is the son of Petaleen.”
Koume shrugged. “So?”
“Dullard,” Kotake moaned with a longsuffering sigh.
“What? He’s the son of the usurper.”
“He’s the son of an Alpha.”
For a moment, Koume was silent. “The son of an Alpha,” she repeated at long last.
“Then that means…”
She blinked. “We must tell the vessel.”
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