The sky was flaming red; it reminded Ornstein of the war against the dragons, of walls of fire coming towards him and his men, consuming many, and of the fire burning up the arch trees until only ash remained. The memory barely made it to the surface of his consciousness. He had long since stopped feeling the heat.
The dragons were long gone; there were other monsters in the world now, other dangers to fight and fear. Instead of fire and stone it was darkness that threatened the land, and darkness lay in the mouth of the cave he was looking at, along with so many others, not knowing what would emerge from it, holding on to their weapons.
They did not know if anything would emerge from it at all. Every now and then, very rarely, he thought he heard a scream coming from the inside – an inhuman howl that could stem from pain or from despair. But he was never certain. None of the others reacted in any way that indicated they heard anything at all. He wanted to go in there, had, in fact, tried to enter that chasm of blackness that seemed to spill out onto the rock and the fallen leaves, but the soldiers had held him back. Those men that were, by all rights, under his command. He had held back his anger. Perhaps a part of him had not truly wanted to go in there and see what the darkness was hiding. Now, however, after a full day of waiting and watching, he could no longer bear the uncertainty.
How long would they stand here before they decided that nothing was ever going to join them from that place? Would they simply post some guards and then return to Anor Londo and their respective duties, avoiding this cave until it had faded from memory and whatever may or may not have transpired beyond their vision had faded into myth?
Ornstein had been the last to arrive. A day after everyone else; a day too late. He had come as soon as word had reached him, and now he wondered how he had missed this when clearly it had not been a moment's decision, an action of spontaneous whim. The ten knights whose silver armor gleamed red in the light of the setting sun were here with a purpose; to step in should things not go as planned, and prevent worse. Without careful planning and precaution, they would not have been here at all.
The anger he felt was directed at many people, and at the circumstances surrounding them. Had he known, he would have prevented this and none of them would be here, but could he have convinced them, in the long run, that that was better, if he had no alternative to offer? The near future would decide this, he thought with bitterness. An all-consuming disaster would prove him right. There would be a high price to pay if he wanted everyone to wish he had been listened to.
As the shadows grew longer, the black mouth seemed to yawn ever wider, releasing darkness into the world. The sun was setting on more than this day.
Then movement, before another night had descended upon them in full. The shadows shifted and formed into a gray shade, emerging from the blackness like a ghost. Ornstein tightened the grip around his spear, ready to strike should he have to. The great gray creature stopped beside the cave, watching them; not aggressive but wary – ready to strike should the need arise, just like them.
A humanoid shape followed mere seconds later, peeling from the dark like a wraith. The fading light made it hard to see, but what they saw emerging from the cave, so much was clear, was not the howling beast they had feared but merely a man; tired, wary, dragging his steps every so slightly, but upright, and, for all they could tell, sane.
No words were spoken, however, though Ornstein had hoped for them. He found himself mute as well, silenced by relief, wariness, and newly awoken fury. The man at the cave seemed to look at them from underneath his hood and lifted his hand, as if to ward off the attack they were yet ready to unleash upon him and his companion. Even now, the Dark appeared to be clinging to him.
It was a long time, or so it felt, before he made his way over to were Ornstein was waiting and refusing to walk a single step towards him. The other knights were dismissed with silent gestures – by both of them, and yet they lingered nearby, not certain they were not needed after all, or perhaps dissatisfied with the level of knowledge they had been granted by this short scene after two days of waiting and dread.
Ornstein could not blame them, nor did he approve. For the moment he ignored their presence; the distance and the trees between them shielding him and his friend from immediate view being enough for him. He had no energy to care about anything that was not this man now sinking to his knees before him, either asking for forgiveness, or for understanding, or simply too tired to stand. His companion was, as always, by his side, and Ornstein could not bring himself to react to her presence either, no matter how much he wanted her gone.
She was always there by his side, always – and no matter how much damage she did, no matter what the repercussions, that never changed. Ornstein despised her. They despised each other.
She growled, but did nothing to stop him when he slid the hood off the head of her friend and looked into a face that was almost deadly pale, with dark veins prominent underneath translucent skin, and shadows underneath the eyes like coal.
“Artorias,” he said, with not as much anger as he wanted to convey and more sadness than he wanted to admit to. “You fool.”
It had been many, many years since Ornstein had first laid eyes on the younger knight; or at least since the day he had first laid eyes on him and seen him. Chances were that they had met before, passed on the streets of Anor Londo, or brushed past one another in the halls of the cathedral during one of the official events hosted by the family of Lord Gwyn, that Artorias had attended, as it would have been an affront not to, as representative of his family of lesser lords. In fact, Ornstein knew from many a conversation late at night that Artorias had seen him several times in those halls and during the tournaments hosted every few years for the amusements of both lords and humans alike, but it was not until the war against the demons of the underground realm of Izalith, now lost to fire and earth, that Ornstein saw him as well.
When the dark beasts started to move towards Lordran, driven by forces mentioned only in hushed voices to this day, knights from all over the realm followed Lord Gwyn's call to arms. Ornstein, well known across the lands for his skill and bravery in battle since the days of the dragons and one of the last knights to remember them raining fire from the sky, fought among many a skilled and brave young knight out of prove themselves in the presence of the Dragon Slayer of legend, and of Hawkeye Gough, always on the lookout for new, skilled archers to fill the gabs the last dragons had torn into the ranks of his greatarchers. Many of those young knights stood out, but none stood out quite as prominently as Artorias, who moved across the battlefields with grace and determination and soon proved to be invaluable in tight combat. Ornstein was certain that the only reason he had not noticed this knight in the earlier years was because he had never seen him with a sword in his hand before.
Even then, Artorias had wielded his greatsword one handed and with a strength well hidden by his lean frame, although Ornstein had inspected the weapon after their first battle side by side and found that it was not as heavy as it looked. His fast, strong blade and sturdy shield turned out to be the perfect addition to Ornstein's spear and lightning, and Gough's arrows, and when the first violent outburst of war was over, Ornstein invited him to stay in the capital with them, as part of Lord Gwyn's personal guard. Artorias' carefully worded and polite declination had felt like a personal rejection.
It was a long time before Artorias had joined them in Anor Londo, much longer than it had taken for Ornstein's resentment to fade. He wondered now, as he watched his old friend sink down onto the edge of an old and narrow wooden bed, how long it would take for this new anger to leave him, or if it, indeed, ever would.
They were in a hut in the woods when they should have been in the cathedral. Whoever this place had belonged to was gone; the rooms were empty but for the table, the bed, a few cabinets – things too big to take along. It had not been abandoned by a hasty retreat, or by death. Whoever had lived here had simply left, like whoever had lived in the next hut, beyond the crumbling stone wall to the south, had left. Everyone in this area had gone somewhere else, and there was no reason for it other than that there was no reason for them to stay.
People all over Lordran were leaving.
This place hadn't been empty for long. The walls hadn't yet begun to crumble, the roof was intact, offering shelter. A stack of blankets and tools on top of the table, as well as the certainty of his steps leading here told Ornstein that Artorias had spend the night in this hut before.
The walls of the city weren't far. If he could stay here, he could have stayed in Anor Londo with them. Ornstein did not examine the thought too closely. It held no surprise, anyway.
The blankets on the bed were crumbled, and the pale hairs sticking to them indicated that it was Sif more often than Artorias who rested on it. Or maybe they shared the spot. Ornstein had seen them nab often enough in a pile of limps and fur and usually on the floor. Even this simple homestead seemed like more luxury than Artorias would want if he had the chance to sleep outside between the trees.
But the forest was full of beasts, and not all of them were his friends. And if nothing else, this house offered a place to keep his things dry.
He probably had bases like this all over the woods, in empty houses left behind as more and more of the population abandoned the land.
Outside, night had fallen. A few candles lit the room. The windows were barred and covered in shutters; no one could see them. Ornstein took off his helmet for the first time in a day. He had worn it for longer than that before, but there was no need for it here. He didn't care if Artorias saw his face, he thought, but found himself staring at the wall, the empty shelf, not turning around as behind him the bed creaked.
There was rustling, then, at the other end of the room, and finally a whine. When Ornstein did turn, he saw Sif near the back door, looking at Artorias like she wanted to come closer but was kept away by Ornstein's presence. When she looked at Ornstein, she looked at him like she wanted him gone. He did not return her glare, though it was impossible to forget that she was there. This was the longest distance she had allowed to come between Artorias and herself since they left the cave an hour ago.
She had been there, in the dark, with their friend, and yet this was the outcome. If it had been Ornstein, things would have been different. They would not be here like this; they would both be able to go home. Ornstein would not have allowed any of this to happen, he thought bitterly, and in the knowledge that it had been Artorias' decision that he had made in full awareness of the consequences, and that nothing he would have said or done would have changed anything.
Short of throwing Artorias into the dungeon. If he had known that the decision had already been made he would have done so; he would have found a reason to put him in iron until he was too weak to walk. If he had sharp teeth like Sif, he would have buried them deep in his friend's flesh to keep him in place. Ornstein glared at the wolf and Sif looked back calmly, ignorantly. Capable of affection, no doubt, but just a dull beast in the end, with no awareness of what was at stake.
Artorias was still sitting on the edge of the bed, his long legs folded at an odd angle as if he were too exhausted to move them into a more comfortable position. He had yet to take off his armor and would probably sleep in it if Ornstein were to allow it. Maybe he would. He was not here for this man's comfort. He didn't yet know if he would allow him to sleep at all.
How long would they stay here, in this place?
Like Ornstein's helmet, Artorias' hood was off, exposing his tired face that was drawn and marked in ways that would never go away. Ornstein wondered what the rest of his body looked like, but would not order him to expose himself. Surely the translucent paleness affected all of him, and the dark veins that ran over his cheeks and neck did not seem to stop whee his armor began. Artorias' eyes, circled by shadow, seemed larger than ever, even tired and heavy as they were. His hair was unchanged, just dirty, falling in heavy black strands past his shoulders. It was, even now, not nearly as long as it had been when they first met, and when they had last touched with no armor between them.
“There are stories, rumors circulating in the cities of the humans,” Ornstein said. He wanted to say so many things and did not know why he started here. “They speak of the spread of the Abyss, of the fall of New Londo. And of you. They believe that you will stop all this and save them.” He waited for Artorias to say something to that, but as so often, his fellow knight preferred to wait and see where he was going with this before making any kind of comment. Perhaps he simply had no energy left to spare for useless words.
“I can see how it would be tempting, in the face of so much faith in ones person, to live up to the legend,” Ornstein offered, when no reply came.
“A legend will not save anyone,” Artorias said, and Ornstein noted with relief, though he had not yet thought about this at all, that his voice hadn't changed in the least. A little rough, perhaps, like that of a man who had spend some time in the very recent past screaming.
“And you think you can.” It was meant as a question yet maybe it wasn't.
“I must try. How can I not? You know what will happen if the kings of New Londo cannot be stopped and the Abyss spreads further into the city, and beyond it.”
“The Abyss can be stopped by other means. The contamination of that place will not be allowed to poison any more of the land.”
“But at what price?”
“What price is this?” Ornstein snapped, his anger finally getting the better of him. “What makes you think this is an acceptable action to take?”
“I can fight the Darkwraiths that emerge into the world, but there are always more for any that I kill, and I cannot fight the servants of the Abyss at their root if I cannot touch it,” Artorias pointed out, calmly, tiredly. They had had this conversation before, but before it had been a matter of theory. A possible future, an abstract concept. Ornstein balled his hands into fists, the leather worked into his armor creaking.
“There is no reason for this to be your task.”
“I have made it my task long ago.”
“It is the humans who breach the Abyss again and again, letting it emerge and swallow everything around it. It is them threatened by it. Let them deal with it.”
“They cannot touch it either without it breaking them.”
“I do not care about them,” Ornstein hissed. “Let them perish of their own foolishness.”
“It would spread past their cities and into ours.”
“You do not know that.”
“You do not know that it will not.”
“I am willing to take that risk, and deal with it should the need arise. Desperate measures are for desperate times. A great ruler would not sacrifice his best knights for nothing.” Ornstein looked for any sign of guilt in Artorias' face and found none. “Pray tell, what do you expect Lord Gwyn to think of your rash and stupid action? Do you believe he will still be full of praise when he learns of it?”
Artorias said nothing in return, but the awaited reaction still did not come. Ornstein did not need long to understand what he was not saying, although he remained in denial until finally his old friend sighed and said it after all. “Lord Gwyn has known for a long time, Ornstein. I have discussed it with him, and he agrees that this is the only way.”
Ornstein was not even surprised. Shocked and disappointed and furious, but he had known that this was a distinct possibility. Gwyn would go out his way to protect all the people under his rule (except those who had angered him, a treacherous voice inside Ornstein whispered), even the human ones, and he had enough foresight to approach a problem that might one day threaten the city of the Lords itself as soon as he could rather that wait for things to get out of hand. He had no reason (nor did he have any right) to see things as Ornstein did, here. Still, that he would sacrifice Artorias, of all people, this coldly – or even just allow him to sacrifice himself, was chilling to discover.
“Of course,” he said. “Our lord must see the Abyss as much of a threat if he is willing to let it have you.”
“It is much of a threat, and you know it. Unhindered, it will slowly spread through all of Lordran until there is not a place left where a sane being, be they human or not, can exist, and all that are left to roam are the Abyss' own.”
“Creatures like you,” Ornstein said. “Is it not so?”
“If it were, the knights I took with me would have ended me before I could do any harm.”
Ornstein was not convinced that they would have. Artorias was stronger, better than any of them, and perhaps even than all of them together. And had he truly fallen to the influence of the Abyss, surely he would have attacked without mercy while those soldiers who admired him might have held back. It was good that Ornstein had been there. He would have taken care of his friend had he needed to. The same helpless anger he felt right now would have guided his spear.
He said nothing of that.
“It was a good thing,” Artorias said, “that Sif stayed with me. I send her away but she came back when it was too late for me to do anything about it. There was a time when I nearly lost myself but the fear of hurting her helped me fight the call of the Dark.”
“And the danger is over now?” Ornstein asked, unwilling to acknowledge the role the gray wolf had played in saving his friend. “You will not turn one day and become an agent of the dark when there no longer is any reason for you not to?”
Artorias shook his head. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back, the very picture of exhaustion.
“How can you be sure?”
“I know it. The process is over and this is what I am going to be. I do not know how contact with the Abyss itself is going to affect me, but as it is, its influence on me is quite different. I lack the ability to put it into words.”
“But it did change you.”
“That it did. It is quite like something alien and incomprehensible inside me that does not at all agree with my nature. You know how the Abyss is linked with humanity; I am utterly incompatible with it and yet here it is. Something that does not belong, but will have to be tolerated.”
Ornstein could only suspect the great discomfort covered by the simple words. His mind traveled back in time to one night after Artorias had returned from New Londo, barely holding onto his composure after what little of the Abyss he had touched through its creatures had pulled on his mind and body for too long. “And you will have to bear it until the Abyss is defeated for good and its influence driven out of the world entirely,” he mused. “It seems like a just punishment to me.”
Again, Artorias said nothing. The way he looked at Ornstein changed, however, ever so slightly. Now he did look guilty, maybe regretful.
“You do not believe the Abyss can ever be erased,” Ornstein guessed, dread building deep inside him, on top of the anger and the fear.
“It cannot be,” Artorias confirmed. “Not from the world and not from its servants. It can only be driven back and sealed away.”
“So this is forever. You cannot return. So what will you do if the Abyss is defeated, in whatever way possible?”
“I will leave,” Artorias said, vaguely. “But I fear it may never be defeated for good. It will always be there, ready to return. Like life and death, light and dark, it is a part of this world.”
“Like a deadly sickness is part of a living body.”
“Not unlike that. Maybe it serves no purpose that is any good, but it is there and I feel it is too deeply rooted to ever go away without breaking all the world with it.”
“Then why fight it in the first place? You sacrificed yourself for nothing!”
“Every being, be it human or lord or beast of the forest, will die eventually. Why not throw yourself off a cliff?”
Ornstein crossed the distance to the bed in three long strides. Sif lifted her head, alarmed, when he grabbed the tainted blue cowl around Artorias' neck and pulled him up until their faces were almost touching. “You sacrificed yourself for nothing,” he repeated, all his anger and desperation pouring into his words and into his grip. “It wasn't worth it and you always knew that. By Lord Gwyn, I hope you suffer!”
Sif now sprang to her feet, and a dark growl escaped her throat like a warning. Artorias, however, gave no response beyond closing his eyes in apparent resignation. What could he have said, anyway?
When Ornstein emerged from the house hours later, he was wearing his helmet again, his face hidden behind the mask of a golden lion that now was all he wanted the world to see. He left Artorias in fitful slumber, still encased in his armor and guarded by Sif, and he stepped outside to find himself met by the massive shadow of a silent sentinel between the trees at the edge of this clearing. The helmet and the dark hid the other's features, but the massive sword that made Artorias' long blade seem fragile and was an ill choice of weapon for the woods gave him away, as did the fact that this knight was the single last person in this land that Ornstein wanted to see at this moment and in this place.
He did not like the implications of it, but found quickly that he no longer cared about them as he once did. They had become meaningless.
Sir Ulfwen nodded his head in greeting; a gesture of respect that Ornstein found difficult to return and in the end did not. If the other knight was offended, he did not show it. Ornstein had to remind himself that this man was not his enemy and never had been. He was loyal to Lord Gwyn. Without doubt that was why he was here.
“Knight Artorias will not return to Anor Londo in the foreseeable future,” Ornstein told him. “He is, however, healthy and ready to resume his duties in New Londo. There is no reason to worry.” Or to linger here.
Ulfwen nodded his acknowledgment. He never had much to say, not to Ornstein anyway, and the Dragon Slayer was not overly interested in talking to him. The other knight left, to tell Gwyn whatever it was he would tell him about Ornstein and Artorias and the hut, and Ornstein left as well, at a slower pace, not eager to get anywhere, just eager to get away.
He thought he saw the shadow of a great feline moving through the trees nearby but knew there was no danger from them here; not for Artorias, anyway. He ignored it, and after a while it seemed satisfied to ignore him as well.