* * *
The fire licks an iron, blackened, scorched. For a moment, I simply breathe, watching it. High over crumbling walls, the crow turns a shining eye my way.
There's a burning pain in my back, but it's fading. It is embers soon, overtaken by the weight of armor on my shoulders, the pull of the sword at my hip.
I grit my teeth, and stand. The greaves on my legs rattle – I was too thin. Nearly skeletal. I scrub a gloved hand across my face, and the leather rasps across scarred tissue. I remember, I think, that someone told me I was lovely once. Someone . . . I can't recall who. Their eyes had been warm. Bright and laughing. I remember that.
Here, the small breeze barely stirs the grass in the clearing, though I can hear it whistling through holes in the stone on the hill.
The warrior is watching me, his face ruddy in the firelight. His hands are still. His shoulders are broad under his chainmail, but they are slumped in defeat. He is always here, staring across the fire.
“Oh, your face!” he says this time. “You're practically Hollow.”
I say nothing. I may have forgotten how to speak, in a cold stone cell – not being sure, I do not chance it.
I shake my head. I need to move on. But . . . which way was I going? Where had I been, before I woke at the fire?
The bell. I was to ring the bell.
The warrior watches as I pass. He makes no move to follow. He never does.
How many times have I gone this way? How many times have I . . .
It hardly matters. I am to ring the bell.
* * *
The fire licks an iron, blackened, scorched. For a moment, I cannot breathe, watching it. A memory of water, cold as graves, closes over my head. I stand convulsively, reaching for sky – but this is smooth stone I stand on, and this is air I breathe.
The sound of Andre's anvil steadies me. clang I'd try again. I wasn't done yet. I wasn't . . . clang What was next?
I pull a black sprite from my pack, clutch it in hands that shake. clang
The sprite's energy floods through me. More fully human, I can think again.
I remember the sound of the great bell tolling, the weight of it pulling at my shoulders, lifting me to my toes.
Lordran itself had shifted with its song. It was waiting now.
But I wasn't ready yet.
I shiver, here above Andre's forge, in the warmth of the fire. It is a long trek back to the water, and what I lost there. A long trek in the dark.
But before that . . . I square my shoulders, and settle my shield more firmly on my arm. Down the stairs, past Andre clang, who nods, silent. His eyes are watchful – he's seen many like me.
Now, I run, as lightning sizzles past my head. I run, and the demon is too slow to catch me. I can see the flowers, glowing in the garden behind its faceless form. I run for them.
* * *
The fire licks an iron, blackened, scorched. For a moment, I hang my head. I suppose I am relieved. It is safe enough here to catch my breath.
But the ground I sit on smells of rot. Beyond the mouth of this sewer all is putrid and dying. Diseased and befouled.
I take off my glove and adjust the ring around my boney finger. It leaves a rusty smudge on the ruined flesh of my hand.
Once more, I think. Once more, into the muck.
It isn't far. The ring keeps the mire from pulling at my legs, lets me run past the foolish cragspiders. I can ignore the mosquitoes. They are endless anyway. Like this whole place, endlessly dying.
It is easy enough to dodge the guards on the hill of ash and twisted roots. Easy enough to dive into the cave. I give the pitiful worshipers a wide berth – they don't seem to notice my passing.
Beyond them, in the suffocating warmth, she is waiting through the fog. I raise my sword, and enter once more.
* * *
The fire licks an iron, blackened, scorched. For a moment, I clutch my sword – she looks so much like Quelaag, with the legs and the heavy, swaying body, but the pale girl who tends this flame is harmless. Helpless. I do not tell her just how vulnerable she is now – it would be pointlessly cruel, if she could understand me at all.
I am not so far gone.
I am not.
I rang the second bell – the thought comes again, and rocks me. What now is there to do? What purpose is there past the ringing of the bells? I had tried the path down, into the hellish glow of the Demon Ruins, but the path is blocked by golden, impenetrable light.
I should go back to the shrine. To the sky and the grass – to the crow with her great wings and the warrior with his dead eyes. Perhaps he knew where I could go, now that the bells were rung. Perhaps he would tell me. Perhaps the crow would lift me up again, and plant me at some new place.
But to go back, through parasites and plague, through the dregs of a dying world, infested and lost . . . I've rung the bells. What more is there for me?
* * *
The iron stands alone, blackened and scorched, in a cold pile of ash. I stare, for a long time. But there is no mistake. There is no fire.
The long trek to Andre's forge seems insurmountable. And what if that flame was dead as well? I don't know what magic feeds the fires once they're lit. All I did was ring the bells, as I was tasked.
Across the clearing, the warrior sits, listless. “Did you ring the second bell?” he asks. “That is incredible, I must say.” He sounds preoccupied. Disinterested.
Which way do I go now? I want to ask. What happened to the fire? But I cannot make myself speak.
There is a path to the left, that leads to despair – through the rattle of weapons and the rumble of bones.
There is a path to the right, that leads to familiar ruins – through fire and shuddering walls.
There is a path behind me, that leads to drowned ghosts – through oil slick waters and a creeping chill.
There is something stirring, behind the stone ruins, beneath the crow's nest.
The warrior complains of it, but I seek it out – something new has come. It's snoring.
* * *
The fire licks an iron, blackened and scorched, and for a moment I bow my head. It is not relief that washes through me. Not comfort. It is the sudden absence of an aching wrong, the surcease of pain after a dislocated bone is thrust back into place. Here, the fire burns.
clang Andre of Astora is working below. I have a sword for him to strengthen. A shield that needs repair. clang . . . . clang
Through the door beside the fire, at the other end of the bridge, the heavy gate is raised.
The gate is open.
The old snake told me what to do, and here, the way is clear. I can keep moving. While I am moving, I am myself.
While I have something to reach for, I will keep reaching. I will link the fires. I will not go Hollow.
I tell myself this, but I stand at the fire for a long time. The gate at the end of the bridge is open, a yawning maw with massive, rusted teeth.
Below me, Andre works at his anvil.