The valley lay quiet in the sunshine. It had been raining earlier; the grass was still wet. Sif moved through it gingerly, while Artorias followed more slowly, taking in the smell and the washed out quality of the light. While he had always preferred the outside to the dark of the cave, he now felt an actual sense of relief after leaving New Londo for the first time ever.
There was no sign of the Dark here, no trace left by the Darkwraiths. Sif could only sense the faintest of scents, already fading. It told her something had been here, but not where it had gone, and the trace was quickly lost.
Artorias stopped on one of the bridges and looked down the crevice. Even further down he could make out out the outer edges of a village established in this place only thirty years ago. Having come to this part of Lordran's territory without asking, taking this plot of land without permission, the humans settling there had invited the anger of Anor Londo, and it had taken Artorias much effort to prevent a conflict that would have ended with the human settlement being unceremoniously wiped off the map. To this day they were grateful for his intervention, and he had never been able to make them understand that it was Ornstein more than him they owed their lives to.
His mind wandered back to that day, briefly. He could not allow himself to be distracted. Sif whined softly beside him and he agreed silently. They should go down and see if anything was amiss. No word had reached them about anything unsavory going on in the village or the surrounding fields, and he was certain that the people would send word, as they had asked for his support before, in various things. But they were close to New Londo, and it was possible they had heard something.
Or had stories of farmers that had left for their fields and never come back...
While the place was easily within view, getting there was considerably harder. There was no direct way to the other side of the canyon from where they were, so Artorias and Sif had to go up to the Royal Wood and then past Oolacile to make it down to the village. It was an area they were well familiar with, and they made use of the opportunity to stop at the sanctuary and talk to Elizabeth, the sentient mushroom. The wise old creature had not heard of anything related to the Abyss in her woods and around them, which made it all the more likely that they were making this trip in vain, but Artorias decided to keep going anyway.
They lost more than a day through this detour, but there had been nothing in New Londo that gave them any clue. If they could not find an access point, their best hope to find out where the dark servants came from was to stay close to New Londo and catch them in their ambush. He would be able to to defend the people of the city like that, but it would be much better if it never came to another attack.
They stopped briefly at one of the outer houses of Oolacile, trading one of the gold coins Artorias always carried with him for emergencies for food. They did not enter the township itself, however, as the narrow walkways and steep stairs were difficult to navigate for Sif and uncomfortable to walk for Artorias' long legs. Oolacile was a purely human town, with no concessions made for people as tall as him. Most of all, however, he was not comfortable with the attention he arose every time he was spotted by the people not used to seeing someone like him, although they were very familiar with creatures like Sif, or Alvina.
They spend the night in a shallow cave up the path, with Artorias dozing lightly while Sif kept her senses out to the dark.
Nothing happened upon them in the night and they left before daybreak. They reached the village in the light of dawn; the houses lay silently in the gray light of a clouded sunrise. There was no light inside the windows, no one in the streets. These were farmers; they always left for the fields at the first light of day this time of year. Perhaps they were all already gone.
Artorias did not believe it, and beside him, Sif growled softly.
They entered the village slowly, cautiously. No one came to great them. Both had their swords ready by the time they reached the small square all the houses were positioned around, and Artorias had his shield out, telling his companion to say behind him as he slowly opened the door of the village elder's residence.
Nothing attacked them when they entered, nothing came at them from the back. The house was empty. It felt empty. There was no dust gathering on the furniture, but everything had a sense of having been undisturbed for a while.
There were no upturned chairs, or half-eaten dinners on the table. Neither had essentials been removed from the shelves. Orolf's coat and hat hung on a hook beside the door.
The elder had been old the last time Artorias had seen him. Perhaps he had died recently. Perhaps no one was out today because they were in mourning. Or he had died, and the others had abandoned the village, leaving his things behind.
Surely, the entire population could not have simply disappeared without Elizabeth knowing about it.
They checked another house after that, and then another. All of them were undisturbed, all of them were empty.
Artorias would look for them in the fields. They might have left very early today, or worked through the night, or their bodies were hidden in the crops and the grass.
His sword and shield were still up when they walked down the main street towards the end of town. A figure was standing between the last two houses, half turned away but perfectly still, as if waiting for them. Artorias could make out the bone-white face, the dark rings around the eyes that gave it a skull-like appearance, the dark, corroded armor, with the silver gloves the only thing that stood out. In the still air, he could hear it snicker.
A cry of rage tore from Artorias' throat as he raised his sword and leaped almost the entire distance to the Darkwraith. His foe was ready for him, but the moment he touched the ground, Artorias jumped to the left, into the gab between two houses, and his sword stuck the two other Darkwraiths that had been lying in ambush there. The one who had been acting as bait now came for him, Dark swirling round his hand, but Sif reached him first, her blessed blade easily cutting through his armor and flesh.
Three more were hiding between the houses, but they did not make it far. Only one got to complete a swing of his blade, and it bounced off Artorias' shield ineffectively.
This could not have been a deliberate trap specifically for Artorias and Sif; the servants of the Dark had to know by now that a handful of Darkwraiths were no challenge for them. Artorias suspected that they had simply been nearby and decided to wait for them here, try their luck. Perhaps they had been recently turned, were feeling overconfident in their new powers. He removed their masks, to see if he recognized any of the faces beneath, but they seemed to have lost all of their individuality in death, or perhaps before.
They made their way to the fields even more cautious than before. Nothing more attacked them. They found the body of a child, just beginning to decompose, at the foot of the rocks that eventually blended back into the cliff, but no indication of what had killed her. After searching the area, including the path back up into the rock, and finding nothing, Artorias wrapped the dead girl into his cape and carried her back to the village where they dug a small grave in the cemetery that had not been there long enough to hold many graves and would likely never hold any more.
Afterward, Artorias summoned a crow and send word of their discovery back to Anor Londo, and to New Londo as well. They made it back to Oolacile before nightfall, where Elizabeth was dismayed to hear what had happened. None of her messengers had been anywhere near the village in a while; none that came back, anyway. She grew worried now. A merchant from the township, however, had gone there to trade with the villagers only three days ago, she reported, and found everyone alive and well.
The sky was darkening more and more, and the setting sun was not the only reason. An hour after they left Elizabeth behind in her sanctuary, Artorias and Sif were walking through the pouring rain. They would continue walking until they were back in New Londo. It would make no difference for the people of the village, but images of a new raid on the city would not let Artorias slow down.
Alvina found them as they neared the elevator down to the valley. In the dark and the rain, she was but a shadow beside Sif, easily keeping up with them despite her massive stature. She hissed about things moving through the forest and how she wanted them gone, but they were never in one place long enough to kill. Artorias asked her about all she had seen or heard; he did not ask about the village, knowing that she would have told him about it had she known. The area had been a blind spot for a few days she informed him. She had not paid it any heed, as there was not much going on there most of the time. He asked about more blind spots and she could not name any.
“Thou woulst not remember it,” she said in her yowling voice, “but this feels much like the early days of the Fire, when traces of Dark still lingered in this world. It appears that the Flame is fading rapidly indeed. Thy kind would do well to keep it burning or all who depend on it will fade as well.”
“Will that drive away the Dark?” Artroias asked her.
“Who knows? It disappeared before, but was never gone, as though knowest. Mayhaps this is the time the Dark finally claims the world for its own again. I shalt hope not. I do know that as long as the Fire is fading, the Abyss will grow stronger.”
Alvina was ancient. She was as old as Gywn, had been there for the dawn of the Age of Fire, and even she had no true advice for stopping the Abyss. What Artorias took from her words was that the Abyss was ultimately unstoppable.
Their only hope was relighting the Flame, and so far, nothing that had been tried had been successful in any way. The Fire was not mere flame, it was tied intrinsically to the structure of this world. Perhaps it was fading because the world was moving on. Perhaps the Dark was unstoppable because it was moving in to take its natural place in the new age. But since all and everything he knew and had sworn to protect depended on the Fire, Artorias could not let that happen without a fight.
No one could. But the attempts were getting increasingly desperate and not going anywhere. Everyone was afraid, getting more afraid the more inevitable the end appeared to be. Recently, there had been talk that Gravelord Nito ought to use his Lord Soul to reignite the Flame, just as the Witch of Izalith had once used hers to create a flame of her own. Artorias could not imagine what that would happen if he did. Perhaps it would work. Perhaps it would go catastrophically wrong, or create a new form of Chaos.
A far as he knew, however, the First of the Dead had no interest in obeying the call of the masses. Likely, that was for the best.
They had reached the elevator and Alvina stayed behind, asking them to report to her if they learned anything of import. It seemed everyone wanted Artorias to report to them these days, but he owed her, and knew she needed all the information she could get to keep her forest safe.
They reached New Londo around midday, when the sun, now strong again, was beginning to make wearing an armor very uncomfortable. None the less, the cool dark cave holding the city brought no relief.