“Hurry Link!” Ezlo exclaims. “Zelda doesn’t have much time left! One more chime of that bell and Vaati’s evil ceremony will be complete!”
Link grits his teeth against both Ezlo’s nagging (as if he needed to be reminded that his best friend was in peril of being pulverized) and the weight of a Darknut’s sword. The armor of one is lying in a heap a few feet away, but two others are now trying to back him into a corner, and they’re almost succeeding. Link’s eyes strain for an opening — There! As one of the Darknuts raises its sword to cleave him in two, he darts under its arm, successfully dodging the enormous blade. It slams down and embeds itself in the ground instead of in his body. Link twists around to slash at the Darknut’s exposed back and it falls, the enchanted armor now limp and empty.
His success doesn’t last. The second Darknut instantly takes the opportunity to swing its blade into a horizontal slash, which Link doesn’t have the time nor space to dodge. He takes the full force of the blow to his shield arm with a shout, as pain explodes in his shoulder. His sword swings wildly, knocking the Darknut’s head off with a clang. That doesn’t slow it down, though — The Darknut thunders forward, relentless, each step echoing through its hollow body. Link is forced on the defensive. He has to dodge instead of block to avoid further injury, and it costs him more ground with each step. As time relentlessly ticks on, Link racks his brain for a way to end this fight quickly. In a flash of clarity, he reaches into his bag and fumbles for the item he needs.
In a second, the bomb disappears into the Darknut’s neck opening, clattering against the inside of its breastplate. Link curls into a ball and braces his shield with his sword arm, praying that he might survive the blast. The explosion rocks the room, hurling shards of armor in every direction. Link slides several feet across the room, and eventually hits the wall with a thump.
At first, Link thinks the explosion’s reverb is taking a long time to die out.
Then he realizes that it isn’t a reverb. The explosion drowned out a much deadlier sound — the third bell chime. Vaati’s ceremony is almost complete.
Link flings himself to his feet, hurling his body towards the final door. With all his might, he throws his body against the heavy stone gate, pushing and heaving until finally, it gives. It swings open just as Vaati turns to look at him, a wicked, evil, terrifyingly satisfied look on his face. Behind him, Link’s eyes land on Zelda, her stone face cold and grey.
As he watches, her face seems to soften. It crumbles. A crack forms beneath her eye, from which awful gray sand begings to leak, then pour. Her face sloughs steadily away, gray sand cascading down her cheeks in a mockery of tears. Her body seems to slump — the stone, thinnest at her waist, is weakening and has cracked along her midriff. Her top half slides diagonally, tipping and finally toppling to the floor. It instantly disintegrates into more of that horrible gray sand, her skirt soon joining the pile of ashen rubble at the base of the altar.
Link’s arms and head and heart feel heavy, like stone.
Vaati’s smug laughter seems to filter in from far away.
Link doesn’t remember most of the fight. Not the details, anyway — only vague impressions of increasingly horrifying and monstrous forms throwing everything they had at him. Still, they were no match for the monster raging in his belly all the while, screaming and raging and sobbing that he should have been faster, that he’s useless and slow and weak, that she’s dead and it’s his fault, but since Link can’t fight himself, Vaati is a good enough target for his fury instead .
The next thing he remembers clearly is kneeling in the courtyard of the castle, staring at a ruby red hat encrusted with gold. Vaati is gone.
Firm hands squeeze his shoulders. He feels the tension draining from his body, along with the last dregs of his remaining energy. He’s boneless. His body tips forward, and the person holding him upright comes around to look him in the face.
It’s an old man in green robes. His nose is crooked and his beard is long and white. He’s saying something, and Link tries to listen.
“— a just heart must wear the cap, to put everything right again.”
It sounds like Ezlo. Something in Link cracks, and suddenly his throat and eyes and heart begin to burn. He falls into Ezlo’s arms and starts to sob. Tears stream down his face, his lungs aching with the effort of breathing. Ezlo holds him firmly, rocking them in place for a few moments.
“There isn’t much time,” He whispers urgently, sadly. He pushes Link away to look into his eyes. “The Minish portal will soon close. You must don the cap, and then everything will be alright. I promise.”
Link wants desperately for it to be true. He chokes out one last sob, nods, and reaches out a shaky hand for the hat. Ezlo takes the hand in his own and places the hat on Link’s head personally. Link wishes with all his heart, and thinks with all his might. The hat grows lighter on is head, and he has to close his eyes against the flash of light all around him.
When he opens them, the air is clear of dust and the courtyard is once again pristine. The grass is perfectly clipped and the stone is so polished it practically shines.
He looks around desperately, his breathing erratic and painful. Is she here? He feels a hand on his cheek and swings his head around. It’s Ezlo. He looks heartbroken — his mouth is moving again, and Link crumples. He can’t make out Ezlo’s words beyond the ringing still echoing in his ears, but he doesn’t need to hear him to know what Ezlo is saying.
Zelda is gone.
Link’s heart cracks in two, crumbling to dust just like his best friend. The awful scene sticks in his mind, flashing on the backs of his eyelids with every blink. It plays in his head over and over, each time tearing him open anew. Ezlo is shaking him, talking to him. His voice is frantic and sad. Link tries to look at him, but his eyes are still full of tears, and Ezlo’s face floats as a distorted ball of color.
“My boy…” he breathes, and his voice, wavering and wet with tears of his own, meets Link’s ears with crystal clarity. “You have been the bravest and strongest of us all. I have grown to love and care for you as if you were my own. But the Minish portal is closing. Link, do you understand? I have to go now. I love you. You have done great things. I am so proud of you, Link.”
Link doesn’t say anything, can’t say anything. He gasps for breath, his lungs utterly crushed with the weight of everything. He can’t even move, his face frozen, agape in horror as tears stream down his face. It’s all too much, too painful — he didn’t know so much pain was possible. He sobs like a child, grabs at Ezlo’s robe with weak, trembling hands. They slip through his grasp easily, like sand through a sieve, and suddenly, with another flash of light, Ezlo is gone.
Knights stream into the courtyard, and Link finally lets go. His eyes roll back into his head, and he succumbs to the darkness.
Four wakes up in his bedroll. He’s drenched in sweat and tangled in his blankets, breaths heaving. With great effort, he forces himself to sit up. His shoulder aches with an old injury, and his chest feels empty and hollow. Numbly, he notices that his face is wet with tears as well as sweat. He can practically feel his eyebags, heavy and dark.
He turns towards the crackling of a campfire and sees Wild on watch. Four crawls out of his bedroll and drags himself to the fire, across from the Champion.
Wild pokes the fire with the blade of a rusty sword. “Nightmare?”
Four shakes his head. “Not really,” he manages. “Just an old memory.”
“Oh,” Wild says. “Do you… wanna talk about it? I happen to have some experience in that department.”
Four barks a bitter laugh and stares into Wild’s eyes, a challenge. “You ever feel like a failure?” he asks, knowing the answer already. His words are cruel, but they’re the only ones he can find.
Wild raises an eyebrow — the scarred, left one. “You could say that,” He answers casually. He’s not upset, or offended. Four almost wanted him to be.
Four averts his gaze, ashamed. “Yeah. Well, let’s just say you’ve got some pretty good competition.”
Four wraps his arms around himself and doesn’t say anything more. Wild doesn’t ask. They sit in silence until the fire burns to embers. Wild adds another log. Hours later, the sun rises, washing their camp in warm, golden light.
But Four’s skin still feels as cold as stone.