“The order of the world is thus: those with wisdom lead, those with power build, and those with courage serve.”
All the man knew was that he was no longer in pain. And this, in itself, struck him like a nightmare.
He opened his eyes. The skies were gray. Everything was gray. He didn’t know where he was, and he couldn’t guess. All he knew was that he was no longer in that place, that place of the long nights, where each moment stretched a thousand years, where he was sliced open and dismembered and force-fed and pulled apart and destroyed and reassembled, inch by inch, only to have it done to him again. And again. And again.
Until now. This time, he had been regurgitated, but not eaten once more. He was out of that place, he was far from the throat of the dark god, and he was not sure if that was a good thing.
He sat up. He could not know if this was another scheme by the ancient one, yet another attempt to make him think he had escaped, only to rein him back into horrors worse than those that had come before. He had to prepare himself.
He closed his eyes, summoning the images, making sure they were still a part of him—somewhere deep inside him, he found them lingering, precious and untouched. He still had his defense, his shield against the shadows, a comfort to fall back on when they came to slit his tongue and break his teeth. He used it when he found himself begging for mercy, begging the ancient one to forgive him for a crime he did not remember committing.
The visions were idle, wonderful things, harmless and comforting, bewildering, meaningless, and yet somehow sacred. Sometimes, when he played them through his mind, he could escape the teeth biting, the claws ripping, the brands burning and the baths of boiling blood, drowning him again and again.
Of course, the ancient one and its many appendages tried to wrestle the images from him. They tried to distort them, to ruin them the same way they had ruined his memories and mind, but the visions did not belong to him—and so they did not belong to the dark god, either. The fires of hell could not quite touch them, he knew, or else hungry darkness would’ve already taken them hostage—destroying them, warping them, replacing them with evil, twisted counterparts. The old god would’ve stolen those visions away, replacing each smile with a scream of pain, each touch with a torture, each word with terrifying syllables of its own name, playing over and over, inviting new suffering with each repetition.
No, the dreams were not his. They belonged to someone he did not know.
Because when he extended his hand in the visions, it was white—much different than his own, or at least what started off as his hand before it was skinned and burned and peeled away from him, from the nail beds down to the bones. The hands he had in the dreams were strong and kind—he loved everything they did, and he loved them more because he knew they were not his own. There was a woman he adored, with a strong jaw and stern eyes, and her sister, giggling and dancing with a flute at her lips, and there was a mother and a father, embracing in a garden, there was a little blonde girl whose laugh rattled the windows of their house, even a man who looked strangely like himself. It may have been himself, or a brother, or a son, or a stranger. It was hard for him to know what he truly looked like. He had only ever glimpsed himself as a reflection in the eye of the god who devoured him, endlessly, his face contorted in a scream of agony.
He blinked. That was all gone now. He was alone, and he was intact. There was no sign of the dark god, though he knew better than to discard the possibility of its return.
He raised his hands, looking them over. Brown skin, with all his fingers, all his nails. Attached to arms without fractures, a brown stomach with the viscera still inside, unharmed genitalia, long legs, bones unbroken, unburned, two functioning feet. He dared to stand.
He was ankle deep in warm water, gray, smooth as glass. It stretched infinitely, in every direction, and he did not know where to go. If anywhere.
He felt a ripple in the water behind him. He turned, and saw a woman he did not recognize. She was dressed in clothes much like those he saw in his visions, form-fitting and handmade, composed of dark blues and purples, half concealed by a thick cloak. A small knife was tucked into her waistband, her hair was drawn up above her brown forehead, and her face bore red markings he could not read. He had no idea who she was, but she was somehow familiar to him, warm and welcoming.
“Take my cloak,” she said. She shrugged it from her shoulders and threw it over his. He flinched, expecting pain, expecting a trick, but the cloak did not constrain him, it did not wrap around his throat, it did not turn to thorns or attempt to melt into him and peel away his skin. It only dangled harmlessly over his nakedness, still warm from her shoulders.
“Somehow I knew I would find you like this,” she said. “Stripped bare in every sense of the word.”
The man racked his brain for any memory of the young woman—he shuffled through the images of the faces he’d seen, the faces that had carried him through the darkest years of his torment. The closest approximation he could come up with was an old woman, squatting by a fire, wearing a soft smile. Her markings were similar, if not smoother with youth.
“I told you I wouldn’t forget you,” she said. “And I kept my word. You didn’t quite do the same, did you?”
“I… don’t know,” he managed to croak. He could not recognize his own voice. It was hoarse, new to him—he had never heard it before in anything but a scream or a desperate plea for mercy.
“You are an utter fool, you know,” she said. “But you’ve given up something very precious. You’ve destroyed a thousand wonderful things to give a gift to someone you love.”
“Who?” the man asked.
“I’ll show you.”
She stepped forward, and the featureless gray fell away. In its place was a world of blue, of green, of stone and starry sky and grass swaying in the night wind—the world of his visions, a world he knew wasn’t real.
Beneath his bare feet, smooth pebbles, above his head, trees swaying in the moonlight. Before him stretched a garden of shuddering blossoms, the names of which were lost to him, and three grand towers, polished and black as obsidian. He had seen this place before—he had dreamt of this garden, these towers, the halls and dungeons and silent animals. It was a place of both terror and contentment.
“This is where you died,” the young woman said, gesturing to a small building of moon-white stone, glowing under the branches of watchful trees. “This is where the Verdant Knight broke from the prison of his own death, and fell into the arms of his lover. This is the place where your name was spoken for the last time.”
“My name…” the man bit his lip. There was only one entity in the cursed world that had a name, and to speak it was to invite its torment.
“I was the only one to truly hear it,” the woman sighed. “I felt the ripples you’d made and knew that I could not let my promise to you remain unfulfilled. So here I am. Here we are, in the place where your story ended, and another’s began again.” She stepped across the garden path, toward one of the mighty towers. “I will give you credit where credit is due. You made a show of it. It didn’t take long until the entire castle gathered here, stunned that the laws of life and death, the unbreakable edicts of the goddesses themselves, had been overturned. There are still those who cannot believe it, many who think it simply an act of theatre to ensure the Crown and its miraculous deeds would never leave the mouths of the citizens. Whether the Verdant Knight had been mistakenly buried alive or whether by some godly power his life returned to him, Hyrule will never know.” When she flashed him a sad smile, something of a shiver ran down his spine. “No one will ever know but us.”
The man wasn’t sure what she was talking about. He did not know of this Verdant Knight, nor of the Crown. He did, however, know the pain of being buried alive.
“The poor man,” she continued. “He spent so many weeks in a state of shock everyone was quite sure death would reach up and snatch him again at any moment. But he pulled through. Slowly, he regained his mind. Painfully, he regained his body. It was a torturous year, and he might not have survived it had he not clung as tightly to the golden power of the gods as he did to life itself.” The woman stopped for a moment, face falling. “I watched him closely. For that year, and the years afterward. He fought so desperately, so earnestly, as he always had. It was almost as if he knew that his life had come at a great and terrible cost, though he did not know that cost, and he did not remember who paid it. Every memory of that dear friend fled from his mind, leaving behind only a ghost of a name, until that, too, disappeared.”
The man stopped to think for a moment. He felt as if he were on the edge of something, on the verge of a realization, or a revelation. Nothing came to him. “Who?”
“Come, I’ll reintroduce you.” His guide pulled him forward, and suddenly he felt a bare rug under his feet, he saw torches flickering along a quiet corridor. The darkness of the place frightened him—for a moment he suspected this woman was a servant of his own master, a spirit sent to drag him back down to hell, but as she led him toward a door at the end of the hall, she did so gently, kindly. Even if she had been sent to retrieve him, to play the last move in this little game the hungry god had set up for him, he had no choice but to follow her.
She led him through the door—she did not open it, she simply stepped through and pulled him after, tightening her grip on his fingers. He prepared himself for pain, but what he felt was firmness, urgency without agony.
They stepped into a large, candle-lit chamber. A canopied bed stood at its center; on one side a man sat upright, with his eyes closed, brow furrowed in thought. On the other, a woman plucked at an instrument, a vague facsimile of one he had seen in his visions.
He recognized them both. They were much different from their counterparts in his visions, but he knew them, he knew them dearly. He had kissed the woman’s face a thousand times, and the man’s he’d seen in the reflections of glass and water, in the gentle eyes of others.
“That is Link, the Verdant Knight, captain of the queen’s guard,” the guide said. “He is a strong, capable leader, said to be utterly fearless. But he cannot sleep for the nightmares. He dreams every night of being trapped in a tomb, unable to escape. When he wakes up screaming, Impa tries to comfort him with her harp. He is deaf, but he appreciates the effort.”
Impa. The man thought he recognized the name, but it was buried too deep in the unreality of dreams for him to know for sure. All he knew is that his heart ached at the sight of her, at the sight of both of them.
“Sometimes it can be challenging for him—when Impa plays the harp, when she reaches out to correct the queen’s fingering or position, his smile will fade a little. But he still enjoys watching the strings, he enjoys their movements, the rocking motions of a well-played tune. His deafness does not hamper his appreciation for good music. And he does have one aid available to him, a broken sliver of metal he wears at his side. When it needs to, it can send a message to him, a silent vibration, when there is something it thinks he should know.”
The tormented man approached Link, lingering by his bedside, taking in his strong, scarred jaw, the golden beard that curled over his chin.
“But that blade, like he, is not what it once was,” the woman continued. “And it may never be again. It is a part of a precious whole, the pieces of which are guarded in havens around the nation. Pieces which you had once collected, and crafted into a beautiful sword for him. Sadly, you had to temper it with another blade’s imperfect steel. It broke apart when it was needed most.”
The man was fairly sure she was lying to him. He had crafted nothing. He remembered nothing.
“But that is in the past. That particular battle is long over, and there are many more to fight.” The guide shifted, smiling, as Link’s blue eyes followed the harp strings, wrinkled at their edges with years of laughter and tears. “Impa is only grateful that somehow, he survived. Every day she wakes up next to him, and considers that fact a miracle. She has been waiting for nearly twenty years for this dream to end. She is sharp, she is suspicious. She cannot escape the feeling that this world is not quite real, it is not quite the way it should be. As if there is some integral part of her life that is missing, and if only she could find it, she could awaken. Sometimes, when she senses my presence, she will ask for her elder’s help, she will ask for an eye that can see the truth. But I cannot assist her as much as I would like to. After all, she is not a deadseer. Our last deadseer died nearly two decades ago.” The woman paused for a moment. “Look, do you see that sword on the wall?”
He followed her eyes to a long, silver blade, as thick as the tendrils the dark one used to cut his thighs from his hips, or his head from his shoulders.
“Every day, since she lost her proclivity for her harp’s magic, Impa has sat and polished that sword. She looks over every inch of it, she grips the hilt and examines the years of use. She cannot say why, but she suspects someone may have wielded it while she chose to use another weapon, but she cannot recall whom. There is no way someone could’ve stolen it from under her watch, or her father’s. She has not been able to answer that question to her satisfaction as of yet. So she spends a few minutes every day staring at that length of steel, hoping it will reflect some memory she has lost.”
The woman smiled, strolling forward to stand beside the bed, basking in the beautiful sounds emanating from the instrument. “Impa knows that something is awry in this land, and she is right. The triforce is fading. Day by day, the power of the triumvirate wanes, and their blessings are few and far between. Link is sure it is because they had taken the power for themselves without knowing how to wield it. In truth it is because the goddesses have been gravely insulted. The balance of their cycle has been disrupted.” The woman glanced up, eyes sharp, perhaps with malice, perhaps with mischief. “The years have been difficult. The eruption of Death Mountain has left a coat of ash over the land. Harvests are not what they used to be. The rivers have been poisoned with volcanic runoff, and the people of Eldin have not had a place to call home for nearly twenty years now. The Zora have not returned, and likely never will.
“But with this unprecedented struggle comes unprecedented solidarity. Hyrule is in a constant state of begging for and giving out assistance. Ordona has helped the Eldine survivors plough what few fields remain. Faron has supplied enough wheat from its northern farms to feed the Capital through the winters. The Gerudo Territories have lent aid and gold to the most devastated Hyrulean communities, though they too are suffering. Hyrule is closer to true unity than it has been in hundreds of years.
“Of course, many have died, but many more have survived, thanks to the efforts of the queen and her advisors. Though the blessings of the golden goddesses have waned, the keepers of their power have stayed strong. They have used what little they have left to heal, to rebuild, to serve their countrymen. The Verdant Knight and the queen’s greatest advisor both have traveled this land, perhaps even more extensively than they had when they were young, putting down threats, restoring what was lost, rebuilding bridges. I would not have put the power of the gods in anyone’s hands but those three.”
Impa finished her song. Link, seeing that her fingers had left the strings, leaned over and tickled her ear with his beard. She smiled, wearily, and kissed his nose. A golden spark popped between them as skin touched skin.
“They are considering giving up the gods’ power altogether,” the woman continued, perhaps with a hint of sadness. “Of burying it away, of seeking out the realm of silence where it had been hidden for decades, safely out of harm’s way. Impa is particularly fond of this idea. She does not appreciate the burden of her bloodline, and even more so she does not find it constructive to hide the fact. No one knows how the queen’s advisor managed to steal the artifact from the Mandrag’s corpse, or how she can keep its destructive energy subdued so well. But the ministers talk, of course. Everyone has their own rumors they prefer to cultivate. No one knows the truth but Impa, her sister, her husband, and the queen. Not even the rest of their family is aware of it.”
The woman laughed a little at the man’s look of utter confusion. She averted her eyes as Link stroked Impa’s face, leaving a small glow of light on her skin.
“One thing the whole palace knows, however, is that lovemaking between these two is something of a dangerous affair. The gods’ powers strike against one another like flint, when they’re that close. The first time they tried to conceive a child, they nearly brought down half the north wing.” The woman’s smile grew as Impa leaned over the bedside table to extinguish the candle. “They had to learn sex all over again, the poor souls.”
The couple retreated under the covers, enveloped in shadow. The man’s eyes did not need to adjust to the dark; he had lived in darkness for so long. He could make out every breath, every movement, every strand of gray hair on the lovers’ heads, the slender lines of their tattoos moving as they kissed.
He longed for them. He wanted to reach out to them, to feel a touch other than violence. But the woman led him quietly away, leaving Link and Impa in one another’s arms.
“I know them,” the man said. “I know them so well, and I don’t know them at all. I… feel for them.”
“You love them. That’s what you’re trying to say.” The woman smiled. “And they once loved you, too. They are together now because of you, Palo.”
Palo. He supposed the name must’ve been his, though it didn’t ring a bell.
“Though, of course, they do not know it. They cannot remember you. When either of them try to speak of the day Link rose from his tomb, their words are muddled, their tongues tied. And so that moment belongs in the realm of fantasy, of ballads—oh, the bards love to sing of the Verdant Knight in their ballads. It can get tedious, really.” She looked over at him, as if for a reaction. “You’ve achieved something no one else has before, Palo. And no one, gods willing, will ever achieve again. It is an abomination. You have thrown the entirety of the sacred realm into chaos, you have interrupted the cycle of the gods. You have sullied the Eternal River of the world.”
Palo—or the man who thought he might’ve been Palo—glanced back one last time at the couple. His heart ached with the effort of rising and sinking at once. “This is an abomination?”
“It is, but it is a joyful one,” the woman answered. “Come, meet their daughter.”
She stepped through the door once more, back into the hall. They slipped under the cracks, through the pores in wood and stone as easily as through air. They floated down the corridor in silence, into a room lit bright with calm moonlight.
A young woman lay sleeping on the bed, arms folded under her, bare back muscled with use. At her bedside lay a collection of spears, each sharper and deadlier than the last. Palo almost flinched to look at them—he had seen too many things like them before, carving into his flesh, digging into his bones.
“She has just turned eighteen,” his guide said. “Her warrior’s tattoos are still fresh from her mother’s needle. On the morrow she will go to the desert and study spearmanship in the school of Nabru ahn-Molgud. I suspect she will stay there. Her parents have not told her of her heritage, but each day she looks to the west, longing for a land she has never known. Perhaps it is the influence of her mother’s triforce on her.”
The man called Palo approached the young warrior. He could not see her face, only the back of her head, short-cropped and adorned with curls.
“Her mother is so proud of her. She does not play music like Impa, but she is quicker than her mother was at that age, she is fierce, she has her father’s stout heart and much of his guidance. Link does not want to see his daughter go, but he knows the value of a long journey. He hopes she will return a better woman, a better fighter, a kinder, more knowledgeable soul. He knows she will. Watching her grow has been one of his greatest joys. When she was born he wept like a child. He was reminded once again why he had been gifted his life. He stared into the face of his daughter, and he almost saw you. I know it.”
“Did he?” Palo asked. His heart rose a little. He remembered that small face, a dream face, lifting it in his pale hands and kissing its forehead, lingering to take in the strange, phenomenal smell of a newborn life.
“Link is now quite sure the face he saw in his daughter was, in fact, her aunt’s. She does share the curly hair, the wide smile, the emotional intensity. You cannot tell now, but she has been weeping for most of the day. She is afraid to leave her home, afraid to leave her castle, her friends, her family, her sister. But Zelda has promised to write her each and every day. The queen is the only one who knows how afraid she is—even her mother has not seen her cry the way Zee has. They are inseparable. The day she was born, Zelda played the harp deep into the night, composing a lullaby for her. They love one another so fiercely, like Impa and Talm love one another.”
“Talm?” Palo asked. He knew now she had been the one with the bright eyes, with the dancing feet and the flute.
“Royal playwright and mother of five. She took a hiatus from politics to compose several controversial productions—her latest incorporated a horse onstage, and that caused quite a stir. I haven’t managed to see it myself yet. I’ve been traveling quite a bit.” They stepped back into the hall. A wary cat arched its back and fluffed its tail at their passing. “An early production of The Great Ordish Misadventure posits that the man responsible for Ordona’s mysterious defeat of the Mandrag was not the necromancer who was historically credited, but an unknown and unthanked Sheikah man. When she was asked why she sought to use art to change history, she only shrugged and said she had no idea.”
The woman glanced over her shoulder at Palo, grinning as if he should know what she spoke of. He didn’t.
“There is more than one artist in this family,” she said, leading him across the hall, to the biggest room. When they stepped through the door, lamplight glowed in his vision. At the desk, under a curtained window, a young woman was furiously writing a letter.
“She is always writing, this one,” said Palo’s guide. “She keeps several diaries and has composed more treatises than the world can keep track of. She is working on a novel.” The woman laughed. “Sometimes she lets the gods’ power take over her writing hand, and she’ll stay up all night, spraying ink in every direction. She is still like how she was as a child—she can never stop saying things, whether she is speaking or writing or signing to her father. They can talk for hours in complete silence.”
The woman motioned to the paper on the desk, rapidly filling with streaks of black ink.
“That’s her first letter to her sister. She plans to slip it into the carriage as she leaves. Zelda herself plans to disappear soon after. She has told no one of this, not even her parents, but she intends to adopt Sheikah garb and travel to the ruins of the village where she was raised. She does not know the way, but knows that all Sheikah can find their way back home. I suspect she will cause quite a stir when her guard finds her gone.”
“What… happened to her village?” the man dared to ask.
“Our village. Terrible things, Palo. I was murdered there, as were Zelda’s first parents. Impa and Link lost many loved ones there, and Talm lost her ability to walk. What remains of the village is scant, but I have seen it myself—it was relatively sheltered by the slopes of its mother mountain... Many of the houses still stand, my cave is untouched, full of artifacts and treasures of my people. Our people. Your home is still there, though it has fallen into disrepair, and is inhabited only by ghosts. The hot springs still bubble up the hill, their waters have slowly cleared of ash, and the forest is gradually starting to regrow around the village. In another twenty years it might look like the place it had once been. But who knows. The future is so uncertain.”
The woman took Palo’s hand and squeezed it. It made him flinch, but there was something remarkably comforting about her touch.
“I have no doubt Link and Impa will one day go back as well. But they do not want to stir up those shadows now. They might wait until they are nearly too old for the climb, but they will make it. And they will see their village, they will see Irma’s house and her garden, and they will find the deer and the wolf sleeping in the empty hearths. They may find a small fire burning in my cave, telling them that not all is lost. They will remember the many festivals and weddings, the births and the tattooing ceremonies. They will find a box of firegrass you left behind. They will find evidence of you, and they will wonder; they will search their minds for you and find nothing. They have been doing it for nearly twenty years already, and they cannot find you. Your images have been erased, your written name struck from the records of time. There is an odd hole in their lives, as if part of a painting has been rubbed away.”
Palo lowered his ghostly head.
“But do not despair. Your greatest fear has always been to be left behind, to be forgotten. But you are in good company, my child. We will all be forgotten one day. You, and me, Impa and Talm and little Zee. Irma and Talporom, Nabru and the Galinedh, Ganond and his legacy. Even the Verdant Knight will slip back into history with the rest of the heroes he’s never heard of. No one will talk anymore of this uprising, or the King or the little usurper queen. No one will talk of Kakariko or the Eldin War, of a shattered sword left to rust in the halls of abandoned temples. When the world plunges back into the darkness of its own birth, everything will be forgotten. Ourselves, our deeds, our gods. Even the legends we have kept alive for thousands of years will die one day, growing ever distant with time until they, like us, fade into meaninglessness.”
She led him away from the queen, too absorbed in her own writing to notice their ghostly auras. “Yet here we are now. While we still linger, while the world still struggles to survive, we need not forget.”
The woman turned to look at Palo, and he saw something in it he recognized, a glint of firelight, perhaps, a whorl of smoke.
“I see you are absorbing all I say,” she smiled, “but to no avail. I suppose I should begin at the beginning. Let me tell you a story, Palo. It will be long, but I want you to listen for all of it. Here—I’ll tell you as we walk. It will be a long journey home, but we can find our way.”
He let her tug him down the hall, toward the window and the clear night beyond. When he stepped out, floating in the cool air, he saw the sky, the infinite stars, a bright moon, faceless, benign. A strange, joyful relief overcame him as the woman led him down toward the castle grounds, toward the stables.
“Here we are, where everything started. Quiet your mind, my young specter. Let yourself hear not the breath of wind through grass, nor the chirrup of birds. This story begins in silence.”
So, that's it. This is it. I'm finally done. As many years have passed in writing this story as have passed within the story. It's a monster, but I'm so, so glad to have all of you on board with me for the duration. Love y'all. Thank you for being here, leaving thoughts and comments, thank you for your encouragement and critiques, and thank you for being human.
Please find enclosed some extra art that I've done over the years and years I've written this absolute unit. Some is bad, some is better. Some is concept art I did in late 2014, before I ever even started off on this thing. I don't know how many people actually want to see this stuff but I've gotta put it somewhere. I figure at the end of it all is a good place for it to go. It reminds me of how much I've put into this giant, and how much I've enjoyed it. I'm not gonna lie, I will miss this story. It always lent me something to do, a goal to strive for. I'm going to miss everyone in it, and I'm going to miss everyone reading it. And no matter how many years pass between me and this fiction, I won't forget it.
Our roster and current cover for this story on ff.net
For some reason I just want to draw friends cuddling? It's just a thing I guess. A thing I crave, a thing that COVID has stolen from me.
Link's brand--I got a request for an image of it a while back, but I think the image disappeared off the face of the internet for some reason, so here it be.
An illustration of Palo and the elder that didn't make it into its originally intended chapter. I think it was because I rearranged some chapters and POVs and it felt awkward to try to fit it in. Or maybe I thought I shouldn't be encouraging people to hotbox their grandmas. But now it's 2020, hotbox everyone to escape this insane hell.
Original sketch for the cover of this to be put on ff.net.
This is the first sketch I did when I decided that yes, I did want Link to wear real armor at some point.
Everyone was cute once. This one is super, super old holy hell. This was before I decided that Talm had curly hair!
This is another one dredged up from the depths of the folder-maze on my computer, for when I had way more Sheikah still alive, and I wanted to keep track of their tattoos and what they meant.
This one is also from deep in the folders of yore. Intended to be an illustration of Link's final dream before he dies. Which was my original intention. Until Palo interfered.
Last but not least, the two warrior women I cannot ever stop drawing. Not now not never. The gargantuan spirit of Nabru will probably follow me forever and I wouldn't want it any other way.