She knows she ought to turn around, head deeper into Lothric Castle, as her duty demands, but the dark passage beyond the remains of wretched Oceiros sparks something in her that she hasn’t felt since the heavy toll of the bell that woke her from death itself.
Curiosity, perhaps. A compulsion, maybe. Something to cling to, at least.
She gives in, if only because feeling something again reminds her that she’s still human, or perhaps even keeps her that way.
The Untended Graves disturb her deeply.
She’s not supposed to be there, for one. She’s supposed to be in Lothric Castle, searching for a prince amidst whatever horrors the consumed king cooked up in his depravity.
(She’s afraid what she’ll find. Corruption she can handle, but the way Oceiros spoke was deeply unsettling in another manner entirely.)
The unmarked grave that she lightly brushes the tips of her gloves along is another. She remembers crawling out of it, and what she recalls as faint sun-baked stains on the lid are now fresh, and she almost wishes she didn’t know how they got there. Time is out of joint, more so than ever.
The darkness is a third.
There is no vista, no warmly lit mountain ranges adorned with the ornate stonework of Lothric palace, no sun reflecting off the distant fog.
There is no warmth of the sun here – only numbness. The shadow seeps into her bones with an unfamiliar chill, and she shivers in her embered wrappings. She can’t even make out the familiar cobbled tower. The only light aside from the sparks of her soul, fluttering off her armor, is a single, flickering lantern below.
And that’s the fourth. Gundyr.
It puts things into perspective – the incomprehensible rage in his eyes, even as the abyss clawed its way across the skin of his back and out of his skull, a faint glow of recognition and even jealousy. He knew her, even then.
Because she was the one who struck him down.
It’s not even the guilt that gets her, but the notion that she could have easily been in his place. To wake to no bell, to a flame already extinguished, purposeless and abandoned thrice, unkindled and left to rot?
It’s no wonder the Abyss wormed its way into his soul.
And yet, Gundyr was the light she saw in the distance. The small lantern was his, there’s nothing coming from the shrine, and she doesn’t want to fight but he moved towards her with a fire she’s till now only seen in Horace’s face, the anger and frustration of a man with nothing left, until all that remained was a soul and the hot blood of a dead man who will be denied even the peace that comes with dying.
She should not have come here.
The abandoned shrine should not chill her so. If anything, it should encourage her to persevere, commit tenfold to her duty, rekindle her craving for the warmth of flame and desire to prevent this from ever coming to pass.
Yet, she cannot shake the sensation that something lingers here, calling her towards it.
Perhaps it is her fire-keeper.
She does not find any trace of one – dead or alive, and it frustrates her needlessly. There is a hammer here, a coiled sword there, but no sign of what became of her lover’s predecessor.
She refuses to imagine what it’d have been like to awaken alone, devoid of comforting guidance, of reassurance, of purpose. She cannot.
Someone must always keep the flame.
She knows the twisting corners of this place all too well, and blocks out the handmaiden’s warnings of not lingering to scour the dusty corners. She will not leave without knowing what became of the keeper of firelink shrine. There must be something, some trace, some echo of a soul that she can bring back and share with the firekeeper, some comfort in knowing she’s not entirely alone.
Perhaps she went hollow. Can fire keepers even go hollow?
She’d have found a body with Gundyr, in that case. Or perhaps not, if she died before he woke. Either way, there must be something. A scrap of clothing, perhaps, like the cape in the tower.
The handmaiden’s snickering is both comforting and disturbing amidst the uncomfortable clanking of the dark, armored figures patrolling above the musty hallways.
Nothing, and yet, she can feel the faint sensation of magic, averting her gaze, a wall where there isn’t, and… there.
A body lies in what she’s come to know as Irina’s small corner of study, adorned in familiar garb, but also not – there is no crown, no covering, and-
A pair of dark eyes sit amidst the withering face, untarnished by rot and grime, where she is so used to seeing none. She leans forward, tentatively, extending her arm to gently brush the rotting hair away, to get a better look, and the body crumbles to ash beneath her.
There is not even a soul to carry. Somebody else must have claimed it.
But the eyes remain, little flecks of her own ember uncannily reflected, flickering, in their surface.
Perhaps they hold answers. She must ask.
She cannot bring these to the handmaiden. She can barely face her today, hear her sneering voice, the cruel giggles of the pitch-black nightmare still fresh in her mind. They seem too private a thing to share, anyhow. They’re nobody’s business but the firekeeper’s.
Ludleth notices, because of course he does, how can he not? Her detour betrayed her the moment she asked him to draw out what could be had in the younger Gundyr’s soul.
She doesn’t expect anything other than mild intrigue, really, perhaps some questions about where she found such a soul twice over.
The truth of his lordship shocks her almost as much as his ability to instantly determine the source of her unease. He speaks of darkness, betrayal, a world destitute of fire where the unkindled woke too late, forcing himself to fill too-large shoes, her shoes, now.
I will’d myself Lord to paint a new vision.
She nods meekly at his confession, uncertain what to make of it. A moment, then two, before the shriveled man eventually breaks the silence yet again with a hesitant voice.
Mayhap I should apprise thee… Of what the thin light of these eyes might reveal to the eyeless Firekeeper. Scenes of betrayal, things never intended for her ken…
Another tentative pause.
Visions of… this age’s end…
The pieces of the puzzle slide in together.
Perhaps that made Ludleth what he was.
The Firekeeper thanks her, at first, for the eyes, her brow furrowed in surprised curiosity, and gives her a small kiss on the temple, as she always does when her Unkindled One brings trinkets.
She went to Orbeck, once, and asked if he had any enchantments that might preserve the delicate flowers she’d plucked from the Undead Settlement. He shook his head, but taught her how to press the petals between pages of the tomes she brought in.
The Firekeeper delighted in the present of the small book almost as much as the story her champion told:
I could not help but be reminded of the beauty that blooms amidst the rot and terror, and wondered how flowers could still grow amidst the bed of such a foul monstrosity.
The Firekeeper laughed at that, she remembers.
They reminded me of thee – not the rot, mind thee, but the blossom amidst the sadness. Thou art one of the few lights amidst this grave duty of mine.
After being rewarded with the sweetest blush, she’d always made sure to bring something back for the Firekeeper. Iridescent pebbles from Irithyll, rare clippings of green from Farron Keep, even ever-burning candles from the depths of the Catacombs of Carthus, among other small, beautiful trinkets. After all, she was bound in her duty to seek the Lords. The Firekeeper was bound to tend the flame.
She deserved a better reminder of the purpose of her captivity than impending dark alone.
The Firekeeper approaches her to thank her again for the gift, but there is a pallor to her face, a downcast look about her, that suggests something is troubling her much in the same way that the Ashen One is herself.
She has not looked at them yet, not truly, and of course she hasn’t. She knows this isn’t a mere trinket – both of them do – but instead a choice.
The Firekeeper isn’t used to having such things, choices.
And this is no little choice. How could it be? Dark-touched eyes, taken from a forsaken place, a wretched past but an even more haunting possibility, in which both of their duties went unfulfilled.
In which their duties were abandoned.
A world without fire.
Both of them know firekeepers are forbidden eyes not simply because eyes permit sight.
Ashen one, is this truly thy wish?
Is this what they’re going to do now? Play at making choices based on individual perceptions rather than blind obedience, consider the possibility that their purpose is for naught, twisted and warped by the greed of man, the sins of Gwyn, the foulest atrocities committed in the name of preserving the flame?
She thinks on Oceiros, and shudders.
Perhaps it is best, to simply entertain the notion of a world without flame.
The firekeeper nods, and they are bound in solidarity.
The eyes are grisly upon the altar, still whole, still alight with the faintest flicker of a reflection of the embers licking at the edges of her armor.
It is rare to convince the firekeeper to remove her circlet. Even when the two of them are alone, wrapped in each other’s warmth, her lover prefers the comfort of concealment. She doesn’t blame her, nor does she take offence, but the scars do not disturb her. Of course, the circlet is more for the firekeeper’s sake than her own. The scars dredge up old memories, just as the burning sigil embedded in her own chest is a reminder of more horror than it appears. She’s content to let it be, and her lover is grateful for it.
Now, her lover, her guide, stands before her, bare-faced and exposed. She wonders at the fact that the woman standing before her, despite having experienced such cruelty in and for the sake of fire, not only manages to tolerate the embers flickering within her knight, but finds herself even still drawn to the flame.
The firekeeper extends her arm, shivering despite the warmth of the shrine around them, and then her hand begins to gleam with the familiar glow that the Ashen One is so used to.
It brings to mind countless memories of comforting touches, the familiar texture of burn-scarred hands upon her forehead, a warm sensation, strength, flame.
And less dutiful memories as well. The sensation of calloused, shivering fingers brushing over her temple, arms wrapped delicately around her neck. Soft lips against her cheek, and then her own lips, the cold metal outline of a circlet against the bridge of her nose. The warmth of another body against her own.
Shaking the memories away, she watches the eyes dissolve into the same soft light, which now surrounds her firekeeper’s face as well as her hands.
Newly-restored eyelids flicker open as the firekeeper collapses in on herself, and the Ashen One barely manages to catch her in time.
The familiar texture of her burn-scarred hands, clinging to the skin of her shoulder where her tunic slipped, is comforting. The Ashen One pulls her into an embrace, and the pair sit there for some time, deep within the shrine, as the firekeeper stares off into the darkness.
The shrine continues about its business. Irina paces the remains of the old tower, reciting the contents of old tomes to herself as always. The clanks of Andre’s handiwork echo through the hallways where Cornyx and Orbeck sit, adding their own sound of rifling through papers and the occasional chime of a spell striking the old stonework. No sound comes from Karla’s corner, though she’s always been a quiet one. The handmaiden murmurs to herself amidst her needlework, with a small smirk that only Ludleth manages to catch. The pygmy remains upon his throne, smiling back in their shared secret.
Eventually, the firekeeper speaks.
‘tis different to what is seen when stripped of vision.
In the far distance, I sense the presence of tiny flames.
Light in the darkness, after all. Perhaps such an alternative is not as hopeless as it first seemed.
Are we to do this, then?
She thinks on Oceiros, and shoves him from her mind. She focuses on the Dancer instead, stripped of her autonomy, forced into servitude by a cold man who sought to further the very end she now deliberates on.
Perhaps there will always be evil men, willing to co-opt whatever goodness can be wrought from the world.
It matters not. She was bound much in the same way as the Dancer, to the flame rather than the dark.
Nobody else shall be.
She will not continue this cycle. Each age seeks to outdo the last in its cruelty, and no more atrocities will be committed in the name of the fire.
Her eyes are open now, and they will not close again.
Until the day of thy grand betrayal, then.
Dost thou remember anything of thy life before the bell tolled?
But a little. I know I was a knight. From where, I cannot say.
The two sit side by side, curled into each other on the steps of the shrine. It is quieter, now. Hawkwood is gone, Orbeck departed, and Leonhard slain. The severity of the situation has cast somewhat of a pall on the place along with a pervasive curious anticipation – every inhabitant knows that but one lord remains. The world as they know it – dying as it is – will change irrevocably with a simple dusting of ash.
There is something, though.
Oh? What is it, then?
A fragment of a song. I have tried, in vain, to remember the rest, but it eludes my recollection.
Would’st thou sing it for me?
My voice is not trained, and I fear I’d embarrass myself in front of thee.
It has been a very long time since last I heard any melody. Neither the Maiden nor Ludleth are partial to singing. It would be most welcome.
Your voice is an art of its own. I enjoy the sound of it, and perhaps I know something of the song.
If thou insist.
Ludleth watches the pair clumsily waltz around the shrine bonfire with mild amusement and a pang of something he can’t quite place. Guilt? Envy?
He truly cannot say.
Perhaps it is pride.
Firekeeper, I am wondering about something. Thou art extremely familiar with souls.
Indeed, for that is my purpose, besides kindling the flame.
I think I have one. A soul.
What brought this to thy mind?
Gundyr had a soul.
Thou told’st me, by the time thou battled him, the corruption of the abyss had taken hold. Perhaps it belonged to whatever frightful abomination puppeteered the man.
I fear thou art wrong. When I found them, the eyes, that is-
The old shrine I spoke of, the timeless one. I fought him as he was. He had a soul.
Anri has a soul, and he is equally unkindled.
Thou told me he perished.
Indeed. But I carry him with me, still. His soul stands out. Without it, I may not have had the strength to battle Aldrich.
…There is something on thy mind, is there not?
Do I have a soul?
There is a brightness to thee, an admirable strength.
The Firekeeper smiles, the edge of her lip curling in a manner the Ashen One has come to recognize as playful.
Indeed. Extremely admirable.
The doubt clears from her mind as she leans forward to kiss the smirk off her Firekeeper’s face.
They will forge a better world from the ashes of this one.