By the time the sun had risen once again on the stretch of forest and the road beside it, Beshka had finished covering the surrounding area in snow and was already back inside, ushering the heroes up and awake alongside her sister, Sheba. Both gnarly old women herded them like cattle (Princess Zelda excluded) and out into the open air to the stables, where Juniper had been tending to Epona and exchanging a rather voiceless conversation with the mare. "There's no time like the present to get started with a plan," Beshka called. "And there's hardly any time for you lot to waste as it is," Sheba added, "and we're not going to be in this place for long."
Artima looked at the witches, "What will you two do?" Beshka cackled, "Once you head back to Salty Quartz, I'll finish covering your tracks and meet you there, my younger twin included." Sheba threw a heated glare at her sibling, and both began to squabble like buzzards over a carcass. "Let's get started while they're distracted," Avian muttered, and the rest of the group silently agreed and huddled closer to the stables. Epona poked her head out as Link stroked her muzzle and spoke soft words to her. Annabelle didn't bother to approach the two, giving them plenty of space, and looking over her shoulder to see Princess Zelda striding to the group gracefully, a hand clasped around the brooch that held her cloak together. Even in the waking hours she had an inner beauty that Annabelle both admired and envied, but she hosted nothing against the princess; she was royalty, after all. "I suppose we are leaving soon, then?" Annabelle nodded to the elder sister, "Yes, Your Highness; we'll be moving to Salty Quartz as soon as we make a plan as to what we're going to do after we get there."
Princess Zelda nodded, "I agree; it would be a waste of privacy if we didn't take the time here and now to collaborate and discover what resources we have with us. I have an idea as to what the Royal Armada will be left as, in these times of chaos and greed." Annabelle looked to Artima for answers, who waved her hand without looking as if sensing the girl's question. "The Royal Armada," she explained briefly, "is the entirety of the Royal Family's military forces; that includes Dusk Kingfishers, the Sheikah Tribes, and the Royal Guard. It's been said that the other races dedicated small amounts of forces in the past, such as the Komalian Naval Fleet, and the Darunian Siege Force, and that one was made of the rock-like Goron individuals that could carry a singular cannon in their massive arms at a time, and made up the bulk of breaking down enemy fortresses by barreling into them by rolling. Now, in times like these, neither of those races can be seen, and it's pointless to look to anyone else for now. With the numbers thinned, we can barely scrap together a platoon that will trust one another, now with the massacre at Royal Square and this sorceress meddling with everyone's head."
"What about the Sheikah? If they're anything like you, it's likely that maybe some of them survived." More than likely, Ourana voiced in Annabelle's head as she spoke, and Artima took a moment to pause and think over the suggestion. She looked doubtful. "It's possible, but the Sheikah have been gone for a while now, and my sister hasn't seen a single one since a little while before the attacks in Royal Square. If they're out there, they might stay hidden up to months at a time before bothering to show their faces again. Absolute secrecy is their best trait, and anything that remains undiscovered is a weapon for them to wield." Avian was nodding in agreement, however Ourana's spirit caused Annabelle to have a sense of hope, however she chose not to pursue it with the others. "We do not have a substantial force to call it an army, however every able ally and friend is one-man stronger to conquer the darkness," Princess Zelda said, and the others seemed slightly-emboldened by her determination. It's easy to agree with her; I'm glad she's not corrupted, Annabelle thought, and Ourana agreed, Indeed. One might think that her charisma is uncanny of a mortal, but she is touched by the gods, so it is not a surprise to me.
Link finished watering Epona and joined the group, standing next to Avian and pulling out the map he had of the countryside. "Salty Quartz is a good place to start for more information, since we've been here for a few days," he stated, "however there's little else we can do in this region. We might opt for heading to the south, see if the settlements around that area may know a thing or two." Avian and Artima exchanged looks and Princess Zelda's face clouded with a troubled mind. Annabelle remained clueless, however Ourana filled in the gaps. The region to the south is the Dropless Sea, as the spirit Valoon mentioned. That is where the next spirit to awaken should be, according to its words. Annabelle blinked; she had forgotten about their quest to not only recover the spirit's memories, but to awaken the spirits as well. She looked to Link and nodded. Princess Zelda commanded the attention of the group to her by placing an index finger on the portion left mainly blank. "We are at war with the tribes to the south," she explained, "it will be impossible to gather anything of use there, as far as allies go."
Avian looked to the princess, "What exactly are we gathering an army for at this time, Your Highness? We do not know of our enemy's whereabouts, and it would draw more attention than we need and put you and Arty in danger--mostly you, but still..." He trailed off and the others found wisdom in his statement, Princess Zelda nodding sympathetically. "I understand that, Darkcaster, and I'm thankful that you mentioned it. I am operating blindly as it is and with too few allies that can take up arms in case the sorceress is planning for a full-on siege of Hyrule. She has conquered the Circle's bureaucratic mind, and has successfully brainwashed a massive portion of the Royal Guard into believing that the only way to save the world is to topple the government and build a new system. However, this system is not several minds working together. It will be a singular, tyrannical ruling and it will crumble to dust. However, our adversary is not interested in the concept of ruling and holding onto it. I believe she wishes to wipe the slate clean and start anew in the ashes of the fallen."
"For what purpose?" Annabelle asked, however with Ourana's thoughts she felt she already knew the answer. Princess Zelda looked to the silver-haired girl and sighed gently, "Control, revenge, anything to mark the world and reign supreme in however she sees fit. I do not know the endgame to her plan, but this is the best hypothesis I can come up with, as I have traveled from area to area, town to town, seeing the aftermath of her storm. I do know that she hates Hyrule and what it represents, but that does not explain her persistence with you specifically." All eyes turned on Annabelle, who face their gaze equally and slowly as she brooded over Zelda's words. "It is possible that by devulging her brainwashing technique she hopes to win over all resistance in this land for equal measure, until the point of which you cannot turn to anyone for help, and you will be defenseless."
"I'd have no choice but to give in," Annabelle stated and Ourana followed it up with her privately, She aims to break my spirit, however that will be impossible to do. I am not mortal; I can wait longer if I must, and I can keep running.
In my body? Annabelle inquired, somewhat afraid that Ourana would plan to run anytime soon, and the spirit replied, If I must. There is very little other option, and I've already proven again and again that I can assume direct control at any given time I wish. Annabelle turned her purple eyes back to face the others, who were looking at one another for answers. The girl sighed and shook her head, "It isn't easy, and so far everything has been falling apart wherever I go. As far as I'm concerned, her plan is a crafty and effective one; there are times when I really feel like giving in so everyone else can be safe."
"Annabelle," Artima began, but Avian cut her off. Link's eyes were focused on Annabelle, and Juniper had joined the crowd to stand at her side, concern reflecting in his gaze. "Still, all this death and destruction can't have been for nothing; I have a brother, alone and possibly dead, somewhere out there because I failed to protect him. I owe him sanctity and the biggest apology a sister could ever give the last of her family. Something has to be done so that this villain doesn't have every piece fall into place, that much I can do." She looked to Link, Ourana's words echoing in her mind, and she looked back to the map. "If the Royal Family has been at war with the settlements to the south, then it's best if the princess doesn't tread there. Instead, she should probably remain incognito and go alone, with someone who can protect her." She looked up at Link, "I think you should take her wherever she feels is safest, and hosts the best ears for rallying support." Princess Zelda nodded approvingly, looking to the hunter. Link looked taken aback and surprised, about to voice his objection, however everyone else seemed in favor of Annabelle's wording. "I am the only one that can wield the blade at this point in time, and perhaps I can find a way to undo the spell that you are cursed by," Zelda explained, and the hunter submitted to her words in defeat. Artima nodded, "Yeah, Bee has a point there, Link; you're the best swordsman we've got here, and my sister could use all the protection she can get. He may have to change his look to keep anyone from recognizing him, but I can take care of disguises. I'll be with Annabelle, so don't worry!"
All were in for a shock as Annabelle once again shook her head, "I'm afraid I can't have you with me either, Artima; even though the Royal Family is at war with the south, we need contact there to see if there truly are any allies that will support the Princess' cause. You're part of the Royal Family, but nobody has heard of you yet, so you could mix with the crowds or hide wherever you can and gather intel and then give it to Sheba through the amulet." Annabelle could feel Ourana betray a hint of smugness as the girl's eyebrows went up, "H-How do you know it does that?" Sheba looked equally interested and began to burst into laughter as she and her sister watched from a short distance. "I didn't, but Ourana mentioned it to me before. It didn't seem relevant at the time." She pointed back at the map, "Artima can take Juniper and close the distance there; there's enough landscape between the Dropless Sea and here that Artima wouldn't have to go very far on her own without his support, and I can't help but feel he would draw attention if he uses either form."
Juniper nodded, "I would be foreign enough to likely be seen as something to be hunted, or to be bargained for. I am unfamiliar with the customs as they are today with the people in the Dropless Sea, however the ancient Deku Tree hosts a wisdom that stretched before I was a thought, and from what I know, they are barters and traders and have a one-track mind when it comes to valuables. I would be very much at risk of being attacked or kidnapped and held for ransom for the highest bidders in this form, or hunted for game in my animal guise." Artima voiced her concerns on other forms he could take, to which they both agreed they would solve it later. Annabelle was surprised that they had agreed so quickly, and she thought she could feel a presence pulling deviously at her conscience and guiding her words to convince the others. However, whatever she attempted to focus on vanished and she found herself speaking almost immediately after. "I'm sure that Artima could use her skills and find ways to obtain information without upsetting the natives or alerting them to her presence. Perhaps they've been touched with all that has been happening and may need assistance from outsiders."
"Whatever it is, I'll find out," Artima stated and Princess Zelda nodded, however she looked worriedly at her sister and bit her lip. Link looked at Annabelle, "Where does that leave you?" Annabelle turned around and faced the mountains. "I will be going to the Frost Heights to see if there's anything up there that can truly help me in gathering Ourana's memories. It wouldn't help anyone if I kept wandering around in any other direction, and since we're already here, it's the best option to take." She turned around to face the others, "Once I am finished in the Heights, I may need to descend and see what the facility on the other side will be all about; it's the best chance for finding William and seeing what the sorceress is plotting there."
Princess Zelda narrowed her eyes, "Absolutely not! It is far too dangerous and could be crawling with any sort of dark minion she has put into play, perhaps even new creations that we have yet to discover." Annabelle shook her head, "I didn't suggest infiltrating it, Your Highness; I'm implying that I scout it from a distance to see what it is made up of, and then retreat back here to Salty Quartz. I'll head south to find where Artima and Juniper are and group up with them."
Avian stepped forward as the princess began to sift through Annabelle's plan to look for flaws. He placed his hand on Annabelle's shoulder, forcing her to meet his gaze. "While I'm sure that Ourana has more surprises than she lets on to allow you to do extraordinary things, Bee, it's ill-advised you take on this task alone. You're going to need someone who can navigate terrain and survive the cold in the mountains while remaining virtually unseen. I'll be going with you." Just as I planned, Ourana said, and understanding dawned upon Annabelle: whatever she had been thinking was a subtle hint that Ourana had planted in the back of her mind, assuming a minimal amount of control over the girl's mind to concoct a plan that would have everyone agreeing with it, all for the sake of getting what she wanted. Anger surged through Annabelle, however she couldn't stop herself from nodding her head and speaking her consent. "We're going to have to get some furs from Salty Quartz and more supplies to keep warm," Avian added and the others nodded mutely. Zelda took a few spare moments to herself before nodding, "Very well. We can't afford the enemy to capture Annabelle, so a scouting mission should be everything that you two decide to do. Just make sure you make it back down the mountain safely."
Juniper looked to Annabelle, his thoughts mingling with hers. I could feel her presence pushing against your thoughts; you are reluctant to leave the others, but at the same time, you feel conflicted by staying. Was your fight to protect Link difficult?
Annabelle looked at the earth, feeling a small pang of guilt for her anger with the spirit. In truth, I can't afford to depend on anyone anymore to protect me or to let themselves be a shield for me. I have to know if I have it in me to stand alone, strong and confident, like the rest of you. This could be the opportunity that I need to break away and find where I fit in with this quest. So far it's been mainly about protecting the princesses, securing the peace, and finding Ourana's memories. If we split up and find separate goals, we could settle everyone's problems in the end, and I can't help but feel we're running out of time. I'm getting anxious with every passing hour.
The Kokiri tilted his head to the side. It could be, he suggested, that the spirit is coaxing your emotions into feeling anxious so that you move quicker towards its agenda, however I understand your own reasons for doing this. I'll speak with you again before you go.
I'd appreciate that, Annabelle replied with some relief and faced the group again. The group had agreed with Ourana's plan, unbeknownst that it was the spirit pulling the strings, however that hadn't kept the two twin sorceresses from coming closer and each having a keen eye on Annabelle, uncomfortable grins across their faces when the girl chanced a look. Princess Zelda was deducing minor details that would help each in their quest, and she turned once more to Annabelle. "I do have a suggestion as to your method of transportation, Annabelle; Link and I need to remain hidden, and if he should have Epona with him, anyone that we cross paths with could potentially guess the riders' identities, so we will need to give Epona to you."
A fierce whinny of protest blasted from the mare's nostrils behind them and the group flinched at the clear message behind it. Annabelle looked at Zelda, "While that's understandable, maybe it's best if someone else take Epona." Avian looked at the girl, "But nobody else can use her, Bee; Artima has Juniper and Link will have a different horse." Zelda looked up at the mountains, "It's granted that she is not as sheer-footed as Juniper, however the mountains would be the last place anyone would look for her, and by extension, us. Her saddle and supplies can be traded to our steed while the supplies you need to climb can be given to her. She is strong and fierce, and more than capable of making the journey. It isn't the first time a horse would have crossed the Heights." Juniper and Link both nodded and went to calm the horse while Annabelle conceded with defeat at Zelda's point. Artima frowned, "Juniper would be a better choice, but the fact remains that his deer form doesn't have a coat thick enough to brave the cold up there, not to mention he can't transform into anything that usually lives in that portion of the region." Annabelle nodded, finding wisdom in the pairing of the two sisters and smiled to herself. They may have had a rocky reunion, but one can't deny with a choice that they both support.
"Well, if you're done wasting daylight," Sheba's voice sneered behind them and forced the remaining party to face her. "You kids need to get a move on out of here, if you're going to save anything," Beshka voiced and both witches hobbled towards the road. "We'll be waiting for you in Salty Quartz," they synchronized and disappeared into a cloud of steam as the ice and fire mixed together. When it cleared, not a trace was left. They're even more effective when they're together, Annabelle realized and surveyed the others. Artima and Zelda were talking, Avian was keeping watch on the road, and Link was calming Epona with Juniper's help. She went back to the hut and began to secure their provisions, rolling up blankets and taking the last of the provisions they had left in the hut. Her eyes fell on her bag and she felt a tug at her midsection as she thought of the tome and tablet that both sat huddled together in it. She picked it up and placed it over her shoulder, carrying out supplies and roping them together into manageable bundles with the others as they prepared to move out. Link had gone back to the map and rolled it up, placing it within his tunic. He turned slightly as he heard Annabelle coming and ushered he privately over to the side. "I have to say, this plan of yours is almost unbelieveably-sound," he stated. "It almost doesn't make sense that it actually works," Annabelle admitted. He placed a hand on her shoulder and offered an intent but friendly gaze, "You can't continue to look down on yourself all the time, Annabelle. I'm sure that even without the spirit speaking its thoughts through you, you could still come up with someone that would suit everyone's needs." Annabelle blushed and hung her head with shame, "You knew about that too?"
The hunter forced her to look at him, concern in his eyes. "I couldn't sense or feel it, and I had to take a guess at what was going on. You've been so concerned with pleasing us that you're forsaking yourself to the whims of this spirit, which I sense may prove more than it seems when you've found what you're looking for in the Heights. You have a mind of your own, Annabelle, that much I saw when Ourana reached out to me."
He nodded, "She understood that she can't afford to lose you and broke me free of my mental chains with your help and determination. She may have a quest, but you make up the integrity to do it. Don't sell yourself so short, and don't throw your life away. You've changed a lot over the course of our travels together, and you mean a great deal to everyone here. You have that effect on people, Annabelle, despite what the enemy tells you." Annabelle felt tears coming to her eyes and she blinked them away, breathing smoothly to calm herself. "I know, and I want to do my part and help everyone out. You've all done too much for me already, and I've caused so much trouble that I feel that this is also a way for me to make up for my mistakes and stupid outbursts in the past. I'm so sorry, Link, I really am."
"The past is the past, Annabelle; we're all still here, and we all trust one another. You've been a reason to bring us together and to further discover what limits we can test in ourselves. These challenges are brought to us for a reason, and when this is over, they can be put to good use. Just make sure you keep us in mind while you go off into the Heights, Annabelle; it's the most dangerous road that any of us would have to take, and we're worried for your safety. That's what led me to think that it was Ourana's influence that was causing you to come forward with a plan that would suit everyone's needs, but pull you out of our safety."
The girl shook her head, "But that's just it; I need to find another way to defend myself! Ourana won't extend her power to me anymore unless she's the one in control." Link's expression was blanketed with confusion and held a small trace of alarm, "What happened? Are you hurt?" Annabelle sighed, "No; I had a bit of an emotional outburst when I went looking for you, and I pushed myself beyond my limits to get you back. It almost feels like a sort of spiritual scarring, and Ourana doesn't trust me to make wise decisions without endangering herself too. I feel like she has a point, and she advised I seek your help before I head out on my journey."
"What do you need?" Link took his hand off her shoulder as she explained the necessity of learning to fence. He nodded, "I'll see what I can do to teach you the basics of swordplay, though even I didn't have a teacher for it. It came to me naturally, so I'll teach you what I know. We'll get you a blade of your own for you to work with until you can use your powers again and remain in-control with Ourana. We need you, Annabelle, and we need the spirit's power. We still don't know much about the spirit and it hasn't done anything to give us a reason to trust that it will make the best decision for us." Annabelle nodded in agreement and looked down the road as the group began to form and move out. Link looked at the rest of the party and then back at the girl, taking her wrist as she was distracted and led her behind him. "I'll do whatever I can for you, Annabelle, before I let you go venturing into the unknown without me," he promised, and Annabelle raised her head to look at him. A warmth spread through her as the hunter led her to the group, saddled up, and led the way down the path and back to Salty Quartz.