Our Lord and Liege, knowest thou of a maid named Anri?
She is known to me indeed. I find I owe her much aid, and intend to repay mine debt to her in time. We have become fast friends over the course of our respective journeys.
She is hollow, much like thyself.
And yet she too clings to her humanity, Yuria. I shall not give up on her yet, and neither shall she, before Aldrich’s cinders lie strewn upon his throne. She is far too strong-willed.
Yes, and it is for that purpose I shall make this proposal to thee.
What proposal dost thou speak of?
Knowest thou of wedlock? Of its purpose?
Very little. I must remind thee that I am a mere knight. I haven’t the schooling of-
-speak not of the assassin. It troubles me enough that thou woulds’t not rid us of him.
He’s friendly enough, Yuria. I will not kill someone who’s given me no cause.
There’s a brief moment of silence but for the creak of steel joints echoing throughout the small tunnel beneath Firelink shrine. Eventually, the knight continues, the same note of firm irritation lingering in her voice.
As you were saying?
Indeed, then. It is a contract of souls, a binding of the two, even, permitted only to those slated to produce something greater than themselves. It shall allow you to draw strength from each other, and in time, shall grant thee the necessary power to usher in the birth of a new kingdom, or thus Londor hopes.
And what does this have to do with Anri?
A fellow of mine guides her at this moment. When the time is ripe, thou mayst make thy salutations. For what Lord taketh no spouse?
Thou would have me perform this strange ritual with Anri? Wherefore Anri?
It is as thou spoke. She has a strength similar to thine, though weaker by a part. Thy good deeds to come require such a strength. Besides, her presence does not seem objectionable to thee in the least.
Be on thy way, then. And worry not too greatly about it.
Irithyll is cold and unforgiving beneath its picturesque appearance, but there’s a refreshing novelty to be found. Snow is altogether a new experience for her, she’s sure, even with little to nothing in the way of memories from her life before her first death. The way it dances across the colorful lights in the sky is enchanting.
Even still, she barely has time to take in the vista before an impossible number of teeth sink in around her abdomen and she’s thrown against the stonework of the bridge. The gentle stinging of countless falling pinpricks is the last sensation she feels before returning to the ash.
Between the impossibly fast beasts and the whirling patrols of dancing knights, she’s cursing Sulyvhan’s name within hours. There’s a soft light ahead – not the unfamiliar glimmer of the colorful sky or the eerie dancing of enchanted light, but the warm glow of flickering flame, and she darts off towards the derelict church in hope of some salvation. She is pleasantly surprised to find not only a bonfire, already lit, but a familiar knight tending to the embers as well.
Still clad in full plate, Anri sits, poking half-heartedly at the sputtering flame with her sword. Her face is far messier than the Ashen One’s ever seen it – smeared with dirt and ichor, like she’s tried to wipe it clean and only made it worse in the process. Glancing down, sure enough, her tabard is damp in a streak of sweat and blood. Her resolute expression, gazing dejectedly into the fire, is enough cause to suspect she’s only confirmed what her friend informed her of even without the tell-tale musty scent of the underground lake. She doesn’t even move, and it’s so unlike Anri, even jovial as she usually is, to have her back to both entrances. There’s no possibility that she’s merely putting such faith in the flame to protect her. Not now.
Not after what became of Horace.
Yuria’s right. She can see it, the hollowing’s there, creeping in at the edges of her face. The dark streaks climb just behind her ears, and she so desperately wants to brush the stray strands of hair framing her face back to cover the winding marks.
Instead, she clears her throat and shoves the thought aside. Anri? I am glad to see thee outside of Carthus.
The knight in question finally looks up, and even the flames in her eyes burn low – now mere embers, threatening nothingness. Her voice carries the heavy weight of resignation, though there is still Anri’s distinct brand of sincere enthusiasm underneath, even in spite of everything. It makes her heart stutter, just for a beat.
Oh. I thought it might be thee. Good to see thee too.
The church echoes with the rough grinding of dirty plate, joints crusted over with the remnants of her own dried blood, as she sits beside Anri. It’s followed immediately by the clatter of her helmet against the stone of the church floor, and she shakes out her helmet hair, the sweaty locks eventually coming to rest against her cheeks before she brushes them back behind an ear.
Even as wretched as her friend looks, it is so, so good to see a familiar face after slogging through the hellscape of Irithyll.
It’s not like thee to sit thus unguarded.
Anri smiles softly to herself, before looking down at her hands.
Perhaps. I’ve never lacked another to stand sentinel, though.
She remembers the sensation of Horace’s halberd piercing her lung, the sting of the hot, murky water splashing across the wound, and flushes with guilt as her mind’s eye flashes to his body, floating lifelessly in the muck.
He’d never said an unkind word to her in their brief acquaintance. He’d only grunted to her in the cave, same as always, and she hadn’t even expected him to be hollow at first, so the first sweep across her face took her entirely by surprise, and it was all over before she could even process, and-
There will be time for guilt later, when her friend isn’t so upset that she’s leaving her back open to any random hollow.
He was dear to thee, was he not?
He was my oldest friend. I’ve known him since I was a child. After Aldrich destroyed the orphanage, it was just the two of us.
I’m so sorry.
Don’t be. I… I think perhaps it is better, now. At least he is at rest. I hate to think of him wandering down there… Alone in the dark. Neither of us are- were, I should say, much used to that.
If thou dost not wish to speak of-
The Ashen One pauses as Anri shakes her head.
At least Aldrich didn’t take him from me too.
Her voice is laced with a bitter flame: purposeful, but painful to hear. There is a brief moment of silence, but for the fire crackling before the pair. Eventually Anri grumbles about being rid of her dirty armor, and a cacophony of clanks echo across the walls of the tiny chapel, like church bells, echoing through the tower that climbs almost endlessly above them, as the two knights doff their plate and mail. Anri looks even more a mess now, but a better kind – less wretched and more well-worked. She’s clad in a soft off-white tunic and leather pants, still stained with sweat and some blood from a couple blows that managed to catch her at the seams, her bun now hanging in a long, partially undone braid.
She’s absolutely stunning.
They sit in silence for a moment, sharing in the daily ritual of maintaining their weapons, content in each other’s company. Even so, there is a stiffness to Anri’s movement that she is unused to seeing, in what brief visits they shared in the shrine.
Aldrich took everything else from me, you know? My home, however so much a home as it was, my few friends. Astora remained, but it did nothing. We were parentless, forsaken. There was nothing to miss, and therefore no sin.
I wake up every day and think, how lucky I am, to be able to claim to shoulder the duty to drag his wretched corpse to the fire. Though I give thee better odds, after all. It was thee who brought Farron’s Legion to heel.
She can feel her face reddening, flush with guilt as well as praise.
I have accomplished nothing.
…I wouldn’t put it that harshly, Anri. You made it this far.
You are brave, indeed, to face your duty alone. I would do well to learn from you.
I have no want of companionship, between thy welcome presence and that of the Firekeeper.
It is Anri’s turn to blush, now, and the Ashen One can’t help but grin before she quickly changes the subject.
I did wish to speak with thee about something, though. Didst thou speak with Yuria of late? Has she made any propositions towards thee?
Anri smirks. Strangely enough, faceless women don’t do it for me.
Not that kind of proposition, you ass. Still, faceless men, then?
I apologize. That was in poor taste.
No, regardless, I prefer women that I can visibly admire. A helmet is well and good in combat, but it should add allure rather than hide it altogether. I don’t think I’ve ever seen our “Lady of Londor” without it.
She laughs softly in agreement. Alas, her attempts at seduction may perhaps not be so far off. Yuria spoke to me of thee not too long ago.
Gods forbid, I should hate to have to turn her down.
She mentioned a convoluted ceremony, something to do with souls, and Londor, and others. She mentioned a fellow of hers guiding thee. She really has spoken to you of none of it?
I must admit, I haven’t given her much opportunity to speak with me thus far. My time at the shrine has been brief and in dialogue with few.
I would be guarded, then. I suspect she will seek thee out shortly, and although she seems sincere, I still cannot shake the image of her before poor Yoel and wonder what her game is.
He seemed sweet.
There’s a pause, and Anri looks at her, searching for something in her face, until she can’t bear the look.
Come here. Thy hair’s all askew. May I fix it for thee?
As you wish.
Anri shuffles closer, and they sit in comfortable silence as the Ashen One undoes Anri's braid, carding gently through her soft, sweat-damp hair. Soon she too almost forgets the harsh fierceness of this land, mind solely wrapped up in the warmth of the woman before her.
She forgets herself, and reaches for the stray strand against Anri’s neck. Her fingers brush warm skin, and Anri flinches and grabs the hand.
She cannot bear to speak of this, it cannot happen, she will not stand idly by and let Anri relinquish herself to this world that takes and takes and takes from her, from her and everyone in it, and-
-and Anri’s soft, callused palm presses hers to her neck, covering the creeping traitorous lines, and she buries her face in the woman’s hair, and it smells so deeply of her, of sweat and blood and Anri.
They stay there like that for a while, each clinging to the other in a tight and wordless embrace, weighed down by the emotions they cannot bring themselves to articulate.
Eventually Anri shifts in her arms, and the Ashen One pulls back just enough to let her, staring at the floor, unable to engage with this moment of brief weakness, betraying the tiny spark of hollowing she knows has taken root deep within her, where her own soul would be if she had one-
-and Anri’s eyes meet her own, and they’re tear-streaked like hers are, and she’s so overwhelmed by emotion that she can’t quite tell who moves first as their lips gently meet. Anri grabs the arm that she’s been holding her tight with and clutches it to her like her life depends on it, still holding the errant hand that brushed her neck, lacing her fingers with it, and it’s wonderful.
She loses herself in the softness of Anri’s lips, the strange press of damp cheek to her own, the heat of her mouth, the warmth of her hands, pressing tighter against her own, until she can feel the sturdy muscle of Anri’s abdomen through the cotton tunic beneath her hand, and she flushes at the strength of the woman in her arms, allowing herself to enjoy this moment while she can.
Anri slides her hand higher now, to her chest, and she’s got such strength that the Ashen One can feel the outline of her pectorals even beneath the softness of her breast. She pulls Anri closer, into her lap, now, to continue kissing her properly, and Anri shifts again, twisting around now in her arms until they’re face to face. Anri’s soft leather pants ride up the hems of her own tunic as they wrap around her torso, gripping her back as she chases Anri’s tongue. Her hand, which Anri’s released from her neck, snakes its way up to clutch at the other knight’s hair, the half-finished braid now forgotten, dragging her fingers along Anri’s scalp in time with the motions of their mouths.
Anri relinquishes the hand over her breast only to slip her own beneath the Ashen One’s tunic and lift, pulling the sweaty fabric over her head, forcing her to let go of Anri for a split second before their hands are back on each other and she’s pulling Anri’s off in kind, and she’s lost in the motion of hands, the press of skin against skin, the sensation of Anri’s mouth moving along her cheekbone behind her ear, down to bite gently at her neck, and she hisses at the idea of Anri finding a similar curling darkness there before she’s swept up in the sensation of hands against scars, Anri’s calloused fingertips brushing over the marks the hounds bit into her earlier today on the bridge, across the spot Horace tore through her ribs, her own thumb sweeping over a long-faded mark a blade left across Anri’s breast, and she’s overwhelmed at the tide of emotion she can no longer hold back.
She wants. She wants so many things. She wants this knight in her lap to stay there forever, to bury her face deep in her skin so hard that they can’t tell each other apart again.
She wants to help her forget what they’ve done, what she’s done, if only for a little while. She wants to be selfish, and wrap herself up in her and never leave, Lords be damned.
She wants to see her come apart from the touch of her tongue, sprawled out on the stone floor, writhing.
So she lowers her mouth to Anri’s stomach, and submits herself to her purpose.
Hours later, they lie together in various stages of undress, the harsh stone warmed by the heat of their bodies, watching the lights flicker across the horizon in the distance, the snow falling gently over the church graveyard.
The snow is beautiful.
The Ashen One holds her closer for just a moment longer before speaking, pressing her face to a mark she’s left on Anri’s shoulder just to taste the newly familiar salt of her skin again.
It truly is, is it not? Is there much snow, in Astora? I’m afraid this is the only time I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing it, myself.
I believe so.
The firelight flickers across their discarded armor. They’re a mess, the pair of them, but they’ve always been. For once, the gentle ache of healing bruises is a welcome one.
She shifts, reluctant to withdraw, but knows she must. As much as they wish it, they cannot tarry here forever. Sooner or later, they must return to their duty.
I should be on my way. I’d welcome thy company.
I need a bit longer in front of the flame, I think. I still don’t feel entirely myself. Perhaps I’ll pay the shrine a visit.
Of course. Then allow me to propose the following – while Aldrich’s carcass may be thine, I shall claim the Pontiff’s and then meet thee at Firelink? I could kill him a thousand times over for whatever foul sorcery of his birthed those damned hounds.
Anri chuckles, turning to gently run a finger over the freshly scarred tooth marks littered across the Ashen One’s torso before turning to meet her eye, and – oh – her eyes are bright again, flickering flames, alight and playful, yet burning with resolve and something akin to indignation.
I might meet you there. I should like a piece of the mastermind myself.
She armors up, piece by piece, in between a few soft kisses, eventually extricating herself from the other knight, who pulls on her tunic on and returns, languid, to lie for a while before the warm fire.
As the Ashen One leaves, face still warm with affection, she could have sworn she saw the faintest shimmer amidst the eerie collection of statues. She smiles, and thinks it nothing more than the glimmer of snow in the wind.
There is light in Irithyll after all, for so cold a place.
(Later, Anri sees it too, but she’s still only clad in her mere tunic, her sword still by the altar where a wayward foot knocked it, and then she sees nothing at all.)