Disclaimer: Dark Souls and its characters are the intellectual property of From Software.

Looking back, I'm aware of tiny continuity errors. I'll fix them when I have time!

Chapter 11

At long last, Nemeta, Quelana and Patches climbed their way out of the Archtree, and emerged into an unfamiliar landscape. Fortunately, night had fallen, and there was no sun in the sky to dazzle their eyes.

Quelana decided to rid herself of her bothersome servant. "Away with you," she said, inclining her head towards the vague outline of distant mountains. "May we never meet again. For your sake."

Patches, who had apparently resigned himself to a lifetime of servitude to this pitiless witch and her poison-tongued apprentice, could not keep the surprise from his face. "You're letting me go?" he said. "Do we forgive each other, then?"

"We are rapidly losing what little of our patience survived the voyage across Ash Lake," said Nemeta, darkly. Patches needed no more encouragement. He took off, Nemeta glaring at his back as he raced across the plains away from them. "Are you sure that was a wise decision, Mistress?"

Quelana gave the mildest of shrugs. "The world belongs to the tricksters, now. Let the snakes claim their dominion."

()()()()()()()()()()()

Nemeta and Quelana picked their way through the countryside. Mountains and forests gave way to marshes and grassland, which in turn gave way to farms and meadows, and then towns and villages, and, eventually, the towering walls of a sprawling, bustling city.

Too late, Quelana realized that Nemeta was leading her into a trap.

Too late, Quelana understood that Nemeta intended to subject her to horrors and humiliations more frightful than anything she had encountered in Lordran.

"I am not travelling around the world with Mistress looking like a vagabond!" Nemeta's arms were crossed, her eyes narrowed, her lips firmly pouted; this was a woman who would brook no argument.

"I am veiled from the sight of mortal men," said Quelana. She tried her best to infuse her voice with a dangerous edge, and was rather disgruntled at how unimpressed Nemeta seemed. "And even if they could see me, they would be far too distracted by the ghastly costumes you wear to even notice me!"

"It doesn't matter. I can see you perfectly. We're not in Blighttown any longer, Mistress."

Quelana relented with a sigh. "Very well."

Rummaging about in her chest – that remarkable feat of magical engineering into which books, food, and entire armouries' worth of weapons and armour vanished – Nemeta produced a small blade, a bottle of oil, and a bar of soap, passing them to Quelana.

Quelana peered in confusion at the items in her hands. "What in heavens do I need these for?"

Nemeta rolled her eyes. "We're among civilization, now, Mistress. There are certain...rituals that simply must be observed. Do not worry! Mark me, you'll grow to enjoy the feeling of smooth skin."

()()()()()()()()()()

Nemeta dragged Quelana to the merchants' quarter in the most affluent district of the city. First: the cordwainer. Quelana sat miserably in a chair as shoe after shoe was slipped onto her proffered foot, Nemeta pacing back and forth, gazing at the selection with an appraising eye.

Quelana, wistfully: "A thousand years, I lived, with the mud of the swamp beneath the soles of my feet."

"Yes," said Nemeta, cooly. "I imagine there was a lot of mutant excrement beneath the soles of your feet, also."

At last, they purchased some fifty pairs of boots, slippers, shoes and sandals – though Quelana could scarcely tell them all apart. As they left the establishment, Nemeta called happily over her shoulder: "Mistress, did you see how happy that shoemaker seemed, to have sold so many shoes in a single day?"

Behind her, Quelana tottered and staggered about, her heels an uncomfortable distance from the ground.

()()()()()()()()()()

Next, the dressmakers.

Nothing could prepare Quelana for the sheer, unbridled horror of the corset.

"Release me!" she croaked, her skin white and her voice strangled. "Undo these laces, or I shall find a blade and cut the thing off myself!"

"Now that I think of it," said Nemeta, a thoughtful finger to her lips, "corsets really go against everything pyromancy stands for, don't they?"

For an entire afternoon, Quelana trudged about in front of a mirror, fitted out in elaborate creations of velvet, taffeta and silk. It quickly became clear that Nemeta was highly, highly versed in the ways of fashion. Unfortunately, Quelana was not quite so knowledgeable, and so the hours began to melt into a frilly muddle of gowns, and collars, and hats, and laces, and ruffles, and sequins, and embroideries.

Nemeta purchased Quelana two dozen outfits; into the bottomless box they went. As they were leaving, Nemeta leaned into Quelana's ear, and whispered: "That was so embarrassing! I've spent so long in Lordran that I've fallen terribly behind on what's stylish! Those dressmakers were looking down their noses at me – they thought I was some country simpleton!"

()()()()()()()()()()()()()

Evening was already descending when Nemeta and Quelana entered the marketplace. Nemeta quickly purchased several armfuls of cosmetics, and then the pair set about finding a place to spend the night.

Quelana would have been happy to sleep in an alleyway; Nemeta insisted upon the finest room at the most luxurious inn they could find. In a fireplace in the corner, they built a raging fire, and then Nemeta seated her Mistress in front of a mirror, and began arranging the cosmetics on the dresser before them.

Nemeta daubed kohl around Quelana's eyes. She powered her face, sprinkled perfume about her neck and shoulders, and wondered aloud whether her lips would be better red, or purple.

Quelana stared into the mirror. "I don't recognize my own reflection," she said.

Nemeta nodded. "Cosmetics can be so overwhelming," said Nemeta. "You have much to learn, my student."

Nemeta began to absent-mindedly run a brush through Quelana's hair. There was a faraway glaze in her eyes, as she wondered what styles she should attempt.

"Nemeta?" said Quelana, at last.

Nemeta emerged from her reverie, and looked down. "Mistress?"

Quelana gazed at her pupil's reflection. She said nothing, for a moment.

"Do you miss your dolls?" she said, at last.

()()()()()()()()()()()

"It could take us several months to get to Vinheim," said Nemeta. "The cellars beneath my father's house are very large. I'm sure he can hide us both down there with all the barrels of wine."

Quelana listened to this, and did not reply.

Quelana knew that Nemeta's parents had watched their daughter die of the plague. She knew that they had watched their child dragged from her home as an Undead, and exiled to the Asylum.

Quelana also knew that, if Nemeta returned to her family, she would watch as they were punished for the decision she had made, her refusal to link the Flame. Not even a woman as strong as Nemeta could protect her family from a world that was falling apart.

But Quelana kept her silence. As Nemeta had said, it would take them several months to reach Vinheim. Hopefully, Nemeta would come to some realizations upon the way.

()()()()()()()()()()()

After eight days of travelling, Quelana and Nemeta saw the vague shape of a farmhouse, standing a couple of miles off the road.

"Perhaps they can give us food and shelter," said Nemeta. She gave Quelana a rather severe look. "Aren't you glad I brought you shopping? If you were dressed in your old rags, they'd shut the door in our face."

They crossed the plain, passing over a wide expanse of grass. As they neared the place, they began to notice that the windows were shattered, and the front door wrenched off its frame, nothing but eerie darkness within. From the far end of the farm, from the shadows of a rickety wooden shed, came the sound of a cow grunting and moaning in pain.

"Hollows?" muttered Quelana, peering warily around the fields.

"Could be bandits," said Nemeta, a tad hopefully.

Inside the farmhouse, a family had been slaughtered. Their corpses were strewn across the floor, flies having long settled upon the flesh.

Back outside, Quelana undid the rope around the cow's neck. "Go! You are free! Shoo!"

The beast simply stood and lowed, mournful, helpless. Nemeta never had any experience with cows, and Quelana had hardly ever encountered such creatures, and so neither of them realized that the creature was languishing in agonizing pain because no one had been around to milk it for days.

"We will have to be on our guard," said Quelana, as they left the farmhouse behind. "These lands are unsafe."

()()()()()()()()()()

Nemeta and Quelana disappeared across the plain. They had not explored the farmhouse thoroughly enough. The farmer and his wife had hidden their youngest child, a girl of eight years, underneath the floorboards to protect her. When father was slain, his body fell upon the trapdoor, and his daughter was unable to shift his weight and free herself. She had perished of hunger several days later.

As Nemeta and Quelana investigated the building, they did not realize that a Hollow was staring up at them through the gaps in the floorboards. They departed, and the little Hollow remained in the darkness, silent, unmoving, gazing mindlessly into the blackness.

()()()()()()()()()()()

Naturally, Nemeta eventually accepted that she could not return to her family. She fell into a wretched melancholy, isolating herself in an inn for a week, desiring nothing but to sleep and eat, Quelana suddenly finding herself in the role of caretaker.

As some feeble consolation, Quelana suggested that they travel the world. "I spent a thousand years in Blighttown," she said. "I have an awful lot of inactivity to make up for."

In time, Quelana succeeded in rousing Nemeta from her black mood, and the pair set off on their journey. Together, they visited Astora, and Thorolund, and Carim, and Zena, and the ruins of ancient Balder.

Many, many years later, Quelana would grimly note that this was a very unwise decision.

What foolishness compels a woman who has damned the world, to travel the world as it comes asunder?

()()()()()()()()()()()()

After a year, the countryside was teeming with Hollows.

The learned men of the great human civilizations realized that the Darksign was appearing with far greater frequency. Where once one in ten human beings became Undead upon death, now one in nine, and then one in eight, and then one in seven.

What could be causing this? The sorcerers and the clerics observed the Darksign spreading across the realms, and wondered.

The Undead became much too numerous for the domains of man to control. No longer was it practical to corral the Undead, and imprison them. Rapidly, the asylums became overcrowded, and then fell into chaos, overrun with Hollows. Many kingdoms quickly recognized that it was wiser to simply slaughter Undead as soon as their curse was revealed.

Hordes of revenants stalked the forests, and the valleys, and the mountains, and – most crucially of all – the roads. Merchants found need of hiring bands of mercenaries to protect their caravans as they trundled from realm to realm. The cities found themselves besieged by throngs of refugees from the countryside, farmers and fishermen and hunters and woodcutters fleeing their homes and seeking safety from the Hollows.

After five years, humanity retreated entirely behind the walls of their cities. The portcullises were lowered, the drawbridges raised, and the lands beyond were relinquished to the Undead.

()()()()()()()()()()()

"This is all my doing."

The words hung in the blackness, and Nemeta wished at once that she had kept silent.

She should have kept her thoughts to herself. She should have let her thoughts echo and rumble around within her skull, where they could bother no one else.

The mattress shifted beneath her, and then Quelana gathered Nemeta up in her arms, slinging a leg over her as though she needed to imprison her beneath as much weight as possible. In the dark, she sought out Nemeta's mouth, kissing her upon her eyelid, then her nose, then her lips.

"They have none to blame but themselves," Quelana said, drawing Nemeta's head underneath her chin and lazily stroking her hair. Her voice was groggy and lethargic, but Quelana had rehearsed these arguments so many times before. "How many thieves and charlatans would have gone unpunished, had you not condemned them? Think of all the liars, and the murderers, and the degenerates, and the traitors, all now brought to account, because of you."

()()()()()()()()()()

Nemeta wondered what became of Sieglinde and Laurentius.

Perhaps Sieglinde was safely nestled within one of the fortress cities of Catarina. How unhappy could circumstances be, really, if she was among the ranks of her onion-helmeted comrades?

Nemeta hoped that Laurentius had not fallen into the hands of the humans, and been dragged off to an asylum. Hopefully, he had eventually realized that the Sun would not be returning, and disappeared into the wilderness, to make the most of what little time the world had left.

()()()()()()()()()()()

Over two hundred years ago, Quelana had a pupil – Salaman, the Master Pyromancer. It was in large part due to Salaman that Quelana's pyromancy escaped Lordran, and spread to the various regions of the world.

Salaman, in turn, had students of his own. The most skilled and accomplished, Carmina, pioneered new directions for the art of pyromancy. Where, before, pyromancy largely involved the crafting, shaping, and manipulation of fire, Carmina discovered ways of harnessing the power of the pyromancer's own inner workings. Carmina could compel the blood in her veins to boil and rage, filling her with an unnatural strength. She could command the water in her flesh to flow over the surface of her skin and shield her from great heat.

One day, Nemeta decided that she must create her own pyromancies. She discovered that she was sick of cosmetics, and dresses, and dolls, and jewels, and porcelain, and cheesecakes, and stuffed animals.

Well, not entirely sick...but she found them increasingly unfulfilling.

Nemeta realized that she was nothing more than Quelana's least significant student. That was Nemeta's great legacy – she would never be the Queen of Sunlight, the Lord of Cinder. She would never amount to anything more than the pupil of Quelana that was not named 'Salaman'.

Nemeta needed to contrive her own art of fire. Her own masterpiece. She needed to devise a pyromancy that would serve as a monument to her life, a pyromancy by which people would remember her.

Of course, in a century or so, there probably wouldn't be any people left to remember her, but that was immaterial.

Salaman had been remembered for the Great Fireball. Carmina had been remembered for Iron Flesh. Nemeta would briefly be remembered for...

...for what?

What sort of pyromancy could Nemeta create? What form would it take?

How could Nemeta distinguish herself?

()()()()()()()()()()()()

After nine years, Seath returned.

Through the efforts of the six-eyed sorcerers, a cult had infested the realm of Carim. They recruited many acolytes, and corrupted them with their master's books – his pestilent, infectious words. Seath's madness took root in the minds of mortals, and now the treacherous creature was no longer a dragon, but an incorporeal, malevolent will, holding sway over vulnerable human souls.

Seath took leadership of the countless hundreds of thousands of Hollows plaguing the countryside. Now united under the rule of an immortal despot, the Hollows presented a far more dire threat to the strongholds of man.

Carim was overwhelmed by legions of ravenous Undead. The Hollows swarmed the cities, gorging themselves upon the souls of the helpless and innocent. Most horrifying of all: survivors spoke of dungeons and prisons in which victims, chained and tortured, were purposely tainted with Seath's insanity.

After twelve years, Catarina and Astora fell.

After thirteen years, Thorolund was overrun.

After fourteen years, Vinheim was destroyed.

()()()()()()()()()()()

"I am blessed to have met you," said Quelana. "I have never been so happy. I have never been so content. Thank you. Thank you dearly."

Nemeta was only vaguely aware of the bedsheets and blankets twisted about her.

She was only peripherally cognizant of Quelana's arms, wrapped tightly around her torso.

She was only distantly conscious of Quelana's mouth, planting kisses upon her cheek and earlobe.

Only dimly, did she acknowledge the hands that clasped her own, the fingers entwined with hers.

Only faintly, did she hear Quelana's voice, whispers and murmurs and more than a hint of pleading.

For Nemeta, there was nothing but endless, encompassing blackness.

"I cannot return to how things were, you know," Quelana said, her voice deathly low. "Despite everything, I imagined that I would miss Blighttown. It was my home. But I fear the place, now, truthfully. It comes to me in my dreams. I...I dream that I never left. That I am damned to remain there for eternity. That you never existed. That I never knew my beloved Nemeta."

Nemeta barely heard her. She was adrift in an empty void.

All around her, ghostly apparitions flickered to life, and vanished just as quickly.

Visions of Astora, aflame.

Thorolund and Catarina, in rubble.

Vinheim, in ruins.

In her delirium, Nemeta saw Laurentius, languishing in an Undead Asylum, trapped in a lightless place filled with Hollows.

She saw Sieglinde, who had watched her father perish, and now was forced to watch her homeland trodden to dust.

She saw her parents and brothers, and a multitude of deranged monsters massing at their door.

"Speak to me, my love," Quelana said. "I beseech you. I only wish for you to be happy. Anything at all."

()()()()()()()()()()()

Nemeta and Quelana could only wander the world for so long. Eventually, the wilds became too perilous, even for pyromancers as formidable as they.

They took refuge in a deserted castle at the edge of a forest. Several years earlier, one might have described the place as 'secluded' – of course, circumstances being as they were now, everywhere in the world was rather solitary. Surprisingly, they found the edifice in good repair – clearly, the inhabitants had fled for the illusory security of the cities. There had been little looting; Hollows cared for souls, not treasure.

()()()()()()()()()()()

Ensconced in her new home, Quelana's life became rather...uneventful. She slept until long after the sun had risen. She drank the wine that had been left in the cellar. She hunted rabbits and deer around the forest, making sure that the pantry was well-stocked. She sustained the enchantments that kept Nemeta and herself concealed from the attentions of Seath's Hollows – they found that they had few visitors.

By contrast, Nemeta had become utterly consumed with her little 'project'.

Late one morning, Quelana wandered into the large loft that Nemeta had appropriated for her experiments. It was in this place that Nemeta was attempting to craft her own unique pyromancy; at any moment, Quelana was expecting the entire castle to go up in flames.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," Nemeta said, not looking up from her work.

"I lived for a thousand years in the Blighttown swamp," Quelana replied. "When you have spent a millennium sleeping fitfully for four or five hours a day, then I will accept your cheek."

Quelana stood over Nemeta's shoulder, and peered down at the collection of objects on the table before her.

There was the White Sign Soapstone, given to her by that eccentric warrior, Solaire of Astora. I wonder what became of him, Nemeta sometimes wondered. Did he ever find his Sun? Fourteen years ago, the White Sign Soapstone had allowed Nemeta to travel to other worlds, worlds almost exactly similar to her own, but always with some significant differences.

It seemed useless, now.

There was the Yellow Sign Soapstone. In Lordran, this had allowed Nemeta to send messages to other realities.

There was the Book of the Guilty, whose pages seemed to fill with writing of its own accord, detailing the sins of individuals from other realms of existence. I remember that man, Oswald of Carim, thought Nemeta. I fought Gravelord Nito, and found the enormous pile of skeletons only slightly more unsettling...

"How fares your research?" Quelana asked.

Nemeta gave a growl of frustration, and slumped in her chair. "Slowly," she said. "The thing is...the thing is...all those years ago, when I was still in Lordran, sometimes strange writing would appear on the ground, invitations to another world. And if I accepted the invitation, I would be pulled into that world. And I never even questioned it! I never asked, 'why?'! Why in Lordran did all these dimensions exist together? Why, in Lodran, did all of these, these continuities, these continuums, become tangled together?"

Quelana shrugged. "In Lordran, the flow of time was distorted..."

"But why?"

Quelana felt something she had not experienced in years: the sting of uselessness when a teacher is unable to answer her student's question. "What relevance does this have to pyromancy?" she asked.

Nemeta suddenly became conspicuously hesistant. "Well..." she said. "You see...there is a theory I am ruminating upon..."

Nemeta took a deep breath, and then spoke: "In the Age of Ancients, the world was unformed, shrouded with mist. A land of grey crags, towering trees and ageless, everlasting dragons. Then came Fire, and with Fire came..."

Nemeta motioned for Quelana to complete the sentence. "Disparity," she said.

"Yes! Disparity! Cold and heat, life and death, light and dark...but also...change. There was no time before the Fire came. Everything was still. Everything was lifeless. That is why the Everlasting Dragons were Everlasting – they were immortal because there was no such thing as time, no beginning or end! And then the Flame began to burn, and the clocks began to tick..."

"What if the reason that time seemed so...confused...in Lordran was that the First Flame was beginning to die out? If the First Flame was the source of Disparity, the source of time, then perhaps when the Flame began to weaken, time began to...sicken? All these alternate timelines became jumbled and disordered because time itself was slowly dying."

"Well, it is something to consider," said Quelana, "but I still don't understand how this theory concerns pyromancy."

"Pyromancy is the art of invoking and manipulating fire," said Nemeta. "Fire creates time. If you can control the fire, then you can control..."

Nemeta's voice trailed off. Quelana goggled at her with a mixture of astonishment and incredulity, and Nemeta couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence.

()()()()()()()()()()()

After fifteen years, the Stone Dragons revealed themselves to the world.

Seath should never have revealed himself. He should have remained hidden in a dark, remote hole for the rest of eternity. He should have concealed himself so well that there was no chance of his presence ever being discovered.

But Seath did not hide. He had sent his Hollow legions to conquer humankind, and so it was that the Stone Dragons learned that the fiend that had betrayed and eradicated their revered ancestors was still alive.

The Stone Dragons descended upon Carim.

Seath was convinced that he was indestructible. By now, his derangement had poisoned tens of thousands of minds, droves of men, women and children fallen beneath his thrall. In order to destroy Seath, one would have to slaughter every living being in Carim, just to ensure that his demented obsessions did not survive. The Stone Dragons could butcher his Hollows all they wished; they could not harm him, not in any meaningful way.

It was only as the Stone Dragons set upon his domain that Seath realized his miscalculation.

Carim ceased to be. Mountains, plains, lakes, forests, ruined cities; all were devoured. Every living being in the realm – every mortal human languishing in dungeons or cowering in caves – met instant oblivion, Seath's madness vanishing with them.

Carim disappeared from the world, and in its place, an unmoving, impenetrable, forbidding expanse of grey fog.

By the warmth of the flames were the Dragons banished from their dominion.

By the return of the cold mists was their strength rediscovered.

()()()()()()()()()()()

"You are not to blame for any of this," Quelana hissed.

Nemeta was forcing her fist into her mouth; Quelana seized her by the wrist and lowered her arms to her side, then drew her into a tighter embrace.

"You are not to blame for the fact that the Flame is dying," she said. Nemeta snivelled and gagged and moaned and mewled into Quelana's shoulder, trails of snot working into the fabric of her dress. "You are not to blame for the fact that Seath was a tyrant. You are not to blame for the fact that the Dragons destroyed an entire people. You played no part in any of this, can't you see that?"

When it was safe to move, Quelana took Nemeta's face in her hands, and pressed a kiss against her forehead. Her left cheek. Her nose. Her right cheek. Her mouth. Her chin.

"I wish you could see yourself as I do," she said. "You are not a coward. You are not a traitor. You are not a disappointment. You are not a failure. You are a wonderful, clever, beautiful woman, and you give me such happiness. You are the most extraordinary gift I have ever received. Every day I give thanks that I have you."

Nemeta sniffed, and then succeeded in mustering a smile. "At least one person is enjoying the end of the world," she said.

()()()()()()()()()()()

Quelana and Nemeta realized that their pyromancy was beginning to wane.

The blasts of flame with which they battled their adversaries became less and less potent. It became increasingly difficult to shroud themselves from the awareness of the roving Hollows. Soon enough, they were forced to fortify their dwelling by physical means, assembling barricades at doors and sealing windows with bricks and cement.

"Well, it was to be expected," said Quelana. "The First Flame is dying a lingering death. It was only a matter of time before our pyromancy was affected."

()()()()()()()()()()()

The messages started to reappear.

They found them on the ground, and on the walls, and in the ceiling. Glowing inscriptions, sent from parallel worlds. Some of them took the form of warnings, informing Quelana and Nemeta of the presence of nearby hazards.

HOLLOW HIDING AROUND CORNER

BEWARE POWERFUL DEMON

HOLLOWS NUMEROUS IN THIS AREA

Other times, the people responsible for the messages seemed to want nothing more than to complain about their lots.

PLEASE HELP

TOO MANY

I COULD NOT SAVE THEM

"Well," said Quelana. "How do we explain this?"

"Time is unravelling," said Nemeta. "Well, it's been unravelling for about two decades, now, ever since the Flame began to go out. But our own little corner of the fabric is only now beginning to look threadbare."

()()()()()()()()()()()

After twenty years, the last human civilization fell.

Humanity was broken and scattered, now. Groups of nomads eked out a meagre existence in the wilderness, their numbers dwindling each year. Hollows staggered and stumbled mindlessly – relentlessly – across deserts and wastelands, in search of souls.

Gradually, the invitations began to materialize. Quelana and Nemeta crossed into other worlds, and aided strangers in battle against Hollows and Demons.

It was the only way they could get to see human faces, these days, other than their own.

()()()()()()()()()()()

At long last, Nemeta crafted her own pyromancy.

When Quelana awoke one morning, Nemeta summoned her into the loft. There, a fiery clock face floated in thin air, numbers smouldering with a blue glow, hands wreathed in orange flame. Nemeta stood to the side, smirking in triumph, her eyes alight. "I call it Temporal Distortion," she said.

Quelana stood and stared in amazement. "You've learned to manipulate time," she breathed.

Nemeta nodded, and then seemed somewhat resentful. "Of course, the only reason I was able to create this pyromancy is because time has become so disordered. I never would have accomplished anything if things were normal."

Quelana, long having learned that Nemeta needed every victory she could find, dismissed her misgivings. "This is outstanding! You...you've surpassed Salaman! You've surpassed me!"

"Yes," said Nemeta, grimacing. "Pity there isn't much left of humanity left to tell me how magnificent I am."

Quelana's face fell. "You have me, don't you?"

Nemeta dutifully brightened her expression. "Of course, my love, for which I am eternally grateful."

Attention returned to the blazing clock. "How precisely does it work?" asked Quelana.

"It can still time, so that it makes you feel as if you're moving through water," she said, "It can make you fast as a bolt of lightning. It can carry you into the future, or into the past."

"Fascinating."

Nemeta gazed at the clock, and as Quelana studied her expression, an extremely disquieting emptiness seeped into her eyes. "Just think," she said. "With this pyromancy, I can travel all the way back to Lordran, in the past. I could jump on the flames. I could do what was expected of me. Everything that has happened to this world would be undone."

Quelana's smile faded, and her shoulders sagged. A image entered her mind: Nemeta, in her loft, in the dead of night, staring at her clock, trying to gather enough courage to sacrifice herself, waiting for Quelana to wake and persuade her otherwise.

Quelana sighed deeply. She closed the distance between them, and leaned in close; respectful, but insistent. "Nemeta," she said, her voice low. "I think I shall grow to hate this pyromancy, more than anything in this world, if something awful were to happen to you."

Nemeta stared for a moment at the floor, but then met Quelana's eyes. "You're the only person in the world I haven't hurt, my love," she muttered.

()()()()()()()()()()()

Slowly, the sun diminished.

Each time it appeared above the horizon and climbed the sky, it seemed somehow less glorious, less vibrant. The shadows lengthened, and then began to lose their definition. Plants shrivelled and died, the forest beyond the castle withering away. The light of day became increasingly feeble, until Nemeta and Quelana found themselves living in a constant, listless gloom.

A bitter chill enveloped the world. Snow drifted in on the winds, the entire landscape becoming enveloped in a shroud of ice. Still the Hollows marched, their rotten limbs freezing and breaking off.

The pyromancers did their best to remain warm, though their flames were now almost pitiably weak. They wrapped themselves up as well they could, the clothes that they had purchased all those years ago tattered and worn.

()()()()()()()()()

In the last few years, Quelana and Nemeta seldom spoke.

There wasn't much to talk about. One can have only so many conversations about snow, and snare traps, and firewood.

They smiled at one another in the mornings.

They held hands.

They sat together in silence, and neither of them felt the need to say anything at all.

()()()()()()()()()

Just as Nemeta had predicted the return of the Soul Signs, and the unravelling of time, so too had she anticipated Quelana's death.

Quelana had prolonged her life through her pyromancy. But the fires were dying out.

The flames that she brought to bear against Hollows were now weak and ineffective. Nemeta insisted that she accompany her each time she ventured into the forest. When they did go into the woods together, Nemeta soon found that Quelana could walk no more than a few miles before she needed to sit and rest.

The cold troubled Quelana greatly. During the day, she brooded in front of a roaring fire. At night, she slept beneath a mound of sheets and blankets.

The weight of more than a thousand years was pressing down upon her.

Quelana became increasingly frail, and Nemeta accepted that she would probably be caring for her for the rest of her days. Something of a surprise, then, when she awoke one afternoon to find that Quelana was gone.

The bed was empty. The main hall. The study. The kitchen. The cellars. The attics.

In the loft, on her desk, Nemeta discovered a letter.

I may be a coward, but even a coward still has her pride.

I will not be a burden, least of all to you. You will not be required to dress me. You will not be required to bathe me. I will not impose upon you to feed me, or tidy up my mess, or carry me, as one would a cripple.

I am venturing into the forest. I expect I shan't get far. Please, do not follow me. You will allow me to live my final few days in dignity, won't you?

I shall do my best to conceal myself. When you are out wandering in the woods, I hope you do not stumble across me. I shall hide myself as well as I can.

There is nothing more to say.

Remember me.

()()()()()()()()()

The snows continued to fall. The Sun shrank in the sky, and the winter endured for years.

Great mounds of snow accumulated against the castle walls. Doors and windows became frosted and stuck. Sometimes, the snow towered nine or ten feet; taller than Nemeta.

Apparently, she thought, the choice was whether I wished to burn in flames for eternity, or spend eternity entombed in ice.

"Apparently," she said, "the choice was whether I wished to burn in flames for eternity, or spend eternity entombed in ice."

()()()()()()()()()

After thirty years, one could stare at the Sun for hours, and never go blind.

Nemeta was fifty-three years old, now. There were blotches of red across her nose and cheeks, where blood vessels had burst. Crow's feet at the corner of her eyes. Her hair was almost entirely grey.

Occasionally, she studied herself in the mirror. She seemed as cold as the stones in the walls, as lifeless as the skeletal trees.

()()()()()()()()()

Quelana was gone, but Nemeta still had her flame. Their flame.

It was her only companion, now.

Nemeta sat in the most comfortable chair in her study, and lost herself, peering for hours into the dancing fire.

Nemeta crawled into bed, enveloping herself in layer upon layer of blankets, and in the darkness within, there was nothing but that glowing spark.

She would never hear Quelana's voice again. She would never hold her close, never feel her touch...but she was with her, in some way.

When the guilt rose up and threatened to engulf her, Nemeta turned to her flame, and Quelana whispered comfortingly into her ear.

When Nemeta's mother and father, and her brothers, and Sieglinde, and Laurentius, and Andrei, and all the people of Carim, came to her in her nightmares, howling and screaming, Nemeta hurried to her flame, and Quelana gazed adoringly upon her.

When the loneliness became too much, Nemeta retreated to her flame, and Quelana hushed and shushed her, luring her to sleep.

()()()()()()()()()()

Nemeta knew that, with a simple decision, a simple act of will, she could undo all of this.

With her pyromancy of time, she could travel back to Lordran. She could return to the moment when she forsook the duty that had been foisted upon her. She could cast herself upon the fire. She could link the Flame. The Darksign would be banished. The Sun would not go out. The human race would be restored, and reclaim the world. All of her friends would remember her as a heroine.

Quelana would live again.

Nemeta summoned the clock. It hung in the air, its hands slowly turning.

Nemeta sat, and stared. What was stopping her?

"I am no longer a frightened, selfish, self-centred girl," she scoffed. "I'm a broken old woman."

The future had nothing in store for her. Ha! When Quelana had originally revealed Gwynevere's deception to her, Nemeta had been so indignant. How dare Gwynevere make such demands of a young woman who has barely tasted life! There was so much she wanted to do, so much she wanted to experience!

What experiences were left to Nemeta, now?

She had travelled the world...and watched it gobbled by madness.

She had created the most powerful pyromancy in all of human history...and none would even know.

She had shared a life with the woman she loved...and then lost her.

"Why not sacrifice myself?" she asked. "Why am I remaining here? Have I not had my fill of this?"

Naturally, no answer came.

Releasing an unsteady breath, Nemeta bowed her head. With a wave of her fingers, the clock disappeared. She would not be journeying to the past. She would be remain in this accursed castle a little longer.

Nemeta sat for several minutes, not moving at all. A trapped draft whistled and whined throughout the passages and halls of the castle. Outside, the winds rushed and howled over the forest and hills.

Nemeta stretched out her hand, and her flame took form in her palm.

She closed her eyes, and allowed the ghostly echoes of Quelana's voice to wash over her.

She was not a coward.

She was not a disappointment.

()()()()()()()()()

No Chosen Undead came to replace Nemeta.

Some managed to ring the Bells of Awakening. Many of them perished in Sen's Fortress. None succeeded in filling the Lordvessel.

Of course, as the years went on, and the Darksign propagated, fewer and fewer Undead made the pilgrimage to Lordran. When Astora, Thorolund and Vinheim were destroyed, the Way of White devolved from being the most powerful church on the continent, to no more than a fragile, scattered cult. Eventually, the snows came, and Lordran was enwreathed by the same veil of ice that was slowly enveloping the entire world.

()()()()()()()()()

For a thousand years, Gwyn understood nothing but the unpitying inferno of the Kiln.

For a thousand years, Gwyn understood nothing but the limitless hunger of the First Flame.

For a thousand years, Gwyn understood nothing but the fire sating itself upon his flesh.

For a thousand years, Gwyn understood nothing but the fire lapping at his soul.

When the end came, and Lord Gwyn's strength was almost spent, was he granted a moment of clarity?

Did he realize that he was about to die?

Did he comprehend that his spirit could sustain the Flame no longer?

Did he wonder as to the fate of the kingdom that he had left behind, so many years ago?

Was he allowed a fleeting vision of his queen, his children, to send him on his way?

Or was Gwyn nothing more than a husk, a mindless, charred shell? Incapable of curiosity, or concern, or reason, or fear, or desire, or love, or sadness? A spectre, left with nothing but blind, unknowing fury?

Gwyn died, surrounded by ashes. The final few embers of the Flame glowed a while, and then faded away.

The Age of Fire had ended.

()()()()()()()()()

Nemeta knew at once that something was wrong.

There was an emptiness inside her. A sickening, terrifying absence where something should rightfully be.

Her flame was gone. Quelana's flame.

A part of Quelana's spirit had been burning within Nemeta for decades. It was her comfort, her confidante, her strength, her solace, her drug.

Nothing but a void remained, now.

Nemeta did not realize that her eyes were bulging. Nemeta did not realize that she was breathing heavily, gulping at the air and forcing it out in frantic, frightened gasps.

"Heavens, no," she moaned. "Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no..."

Her palm was turned upwards. Her voice warped by sobs, she pleaded for the flame to come. This was nothing more than a mistake. She was merely imagining its loss. She had misplaced it, somehow. Despite her years, she was still a silly, absent-minded girl.

"Quelana," she whimpered. "Quelana. Quelana. Quelana."

Outside, the snow billowed and flurried around the valley. The winds blew, and for a brief instant their clamour was joined by the screams of a lonely old woman.

()()()()()()()()()

The Sun gave one final burst of light, and then was no more.

All the colour fled from the world.

All existence was immersed in grey fog.

Time ground to a halt. Billions upon billions of flakes of snow hung suspended in the air.

Unspeaking, unmoving, the Stone Dragons sat upon their perches high above the land, and surveyed their realm.

()()()()()()()()()

The memories preyed on Nemeta.

Nemeta remembered Rhea. She could vividly recall the pall that had been placed over her corpse, and the impression of her face through the fabric. Nemeta had failed to protect her, failed to defend her from Seath's barbarous whims. She hadn't been able to spare a moment to care for her; she was too busy pursuing a destiny that she would eventually abandon.

Nemeta thought of Anastacia. Oh, what a sadistic prank Nemeta had played upon her! Poor, innocent Anastacia, wishing for death so dearly, and instead Nemeta gave her this.

Nemeta remembered Laurentius, more of a gentlemen than all the sorcerers and clerics and nobles and scholars that disdained him combined. For her entire life, Nemeta had managed to delude herself that he had safely evaded capture and imprisonment in the Undead Asylum. But she could deceive herself no longer. He had ended his days among the Hollows; how could it be otherwise?

Nemeta's mind turned to Sieglinde. Oh, how she hoped Sieglinde had perished in Seath's initial conquest of Catarina. If Seath had managed to capture her, if he had recognized her as one of the Undead that had originally vanquished him...perhaps he had invaded Catarina with the sole purpose of finding her...

Nemeta remembered Astora, and Carim, and Thorolund, and Zena. On her travels, she had visited cathedrals, and libraries, and art galleries, and palaces, and castles, and mausoleums, and marketplaces, and monuments, and universities. She had met so many different people, and she knew that all of these people had been murdered at the hands of soulless Hollows.

Nemeta thought of her mother, her father, and her brothers. Had it been Nemeta's purpose in this world to fill their days with as much misery as possible? How joyful their lives would be if she had never been born. How much anguish they would have been spared if they had never known her.

Nemeta thought of Quelana. Her teacher, her friend, her companion, her lover, her co-conspirator, her soothing flame in the dark.

Nemeta's eyes were eternally open, but she could see nothing. The fog would not allow her. She was Everlasting, now, a perfect, immutable statue that would endure forever. Nemeta peered into the murk, desperately searching.

A spark of fire, she thought. Just the tiniest spark of fire. All I need is a little flicker. Just a lick of flame, and I will have enough to fuel my pyromancy. Just a flash of fire, and I can travel back in time. I can return to Lordran. I can make the right choice. I can link the Flame.

Quelana will come back to life.

They all will.

Sieglinde can go and live in wonderful castles with her knight friends.

Laurentius can enjoy nature and worship his flames.

Anastacia can have her death. She won't be trapped in this hell, with nothing but her thoughts to torment her.

Mother and father will not be punished for the sin of having me.

All those poor people will be spared.

I'll do it. I'll do it in an instant.

I'll throw myself into the fires. I'll burn for a thousand years – I do not mind. It's what I wish for. It's what I wish for!

Nemeta's face was a stony, impassive mask. Empty eyes gazed ceaselessly into the mist, seeking out the slightest hint, the merest suggestion, of fire.

Just a spark. All I need is a spark. I'll be happy to do it. This isn't what I want. This isn't what I want.

Just a spark.

Just a spark.

THE END