The swamp water swirled and swirled, twisting down in on itself in a circle; a spinning, vile, stew of green and brown mucky water. The little whirlpool picked up speed until a nearby twig was pulled in to breach the outer rim of the oval and bent inwards till it snapped in two and was lost beneath the surface. When the whirlpool's momentum tapered off and the spinning waned away—the waters growing still once more—Quelana saw her reflection atop the swamp lake, and the sudden sight of it was enough to make her gasp and stumble back from its edge.
How long had I been staring at it today? She thought, pinching her robes a bit tighter to her chest and pulling deep breaths to still her nerves. She'd found herself staring into the swamp waters often in the last few days, and though each time she caught herself doing so she vowed not to let it happen again, she'd always find herself peering down into the dying spin of the whirlpools sooner or later anyway; trapped, seemingly, in an endless cycle. But I suppose that's the thing about cycles, she thought, but if there was back-half to the saying, she could not recall it.
There was something wrong with her. Quelana had known it days earlier, but each new one that came and went, she felt it more and more profoundly within her chest, her heart, her head, her soul: something was very, very, wrong. Each morning she woke feeling listless and as hollow as the dead soldiers that stalked Lordran. Each afternoon her ill feelings climbed a crescendo till she could barely muster the energy or desire to move from her spot beneath the large pillar that overlooked the swamps. And each night that fell—when the dark came to drape across the lands, and only the dim light of distant fireflies burning in the skies overhead remained to warm the world—Quelana knew that sooner or later, the time would come when she stopped bothering to get up at all.
She stepped tentatively to the edge of the waters again and peered down to glimpse her reflection. The image of her face upon the warped surface was unnerving. Her eyes carried dark rims and the weight of the things looked enough to sag the corner's as well, giving her an utterly defeated look. She held them: eyes that had once been a vibrant shade of green, but in that moment, only carried a sickly, pale, color that looked entirely at home among the diseased shade of the swamps themselves.
Something was missing from her. Some vital piece that had been, perhaps, carved out and stolen from her very soul at the hands of a treacherous demon who'd invaded her dreams. And whatever the missing something was, she knew she could not carry on much longer without it. The emptiness it'd left behind in its wake was, somehow, the heaviest burden she could possibly imagine bearing. It'd bound her hands and feet in invisible shackles, and everyday, the chains felt shorter, the manacles tighter, and the simple act of moving about became an increasingly arduous endeavor. It was becoming ever more apparent as time passed that this was a test of willpower, and it was one which Quelana did not believe she could pass; not for very much longer, anyway.
She pried her eyes from the swamps, turned listlessly on her heel, and trudged back to lie down beneath the shade of her pillar. She stared blankly across the swamplands until she felt herself beginning to drift, closed her eyes, and fell asleep shortly after.
The next morning, she woke and flittered her eyes open, but did not lift her head from the dirty patch of earth around the pillar's base that had been her bedding. It had simply grown too difficult to do so. Instead, she rolled onto her back and stared into the pale fingers of sunlight, reaching forth from the Eastern horizon to claw life into the sky. The sight of it might've brought her hope and energy once—the sun was, after all, just a big ball of fire, and fire was the essence that fueled her soul—but it did not on that morning. All looking upon it did was reawaken the inane idea that had been relentlessly creeping into her head over the past few days; the idea that Quelana had had to vehemently cast aside time and time again when it arose, lest its madness grow vines around her mind and take hold.
Something within her wanted to leave Blighttown. She could not fathom why, or even how she would go about doing so, but a part of her desired it all the same. Perhaps some inner part of her that believed whatever she'd lost along the way might be found out there somewhere—beyond the surface, beyond the damp and dim lands of the swamp—and that it might be able to fill the bleak, gaping, void left in her chest, but how could she ever make such a journey? She did not have the courage, nor the knowhow, nor the bravery, to ever accomplish something so daring and bold as leaving the only home she'd ever known, and so each time the idea arose, it only brought with it more feelings of hopelessness and dread, and tightened those invisible shackles on her limbs just a bit more.
She rolled onto her side, squeezed her eyes shut, and resolved to waiting out the rest of the day unmoving from her carpet of dirt till the momentary reprieve of sleep came across her at again.
The next morning washed away the night, and with it came shafts of light filtering down into the swamps from above, and Quelana only wished she'd been born blind so they might not have awoken her at all. She did not bother opening her eyes that day, as she already knew what they would find: bleakness and sorrow and despair and nothing else. Instead, she spent the day toiling away at a newidea that had come to her in her dreams; an idea that had woken the realization that there were other ways to leave Blighttown then by walking out of it. Yes, she thought, other ways, and drifted back to sleep not long after.
She woke later into the blackness of night. There was a storm brewing overhead, rumbling its call across the sky and sending a light drizzle of rain down into Blighttown to bring the swamp waters alive; blossoming under the raindrops into a web of widening circles that twirled outward forever in an endless cycle. And that's the thing about cycles, Quelana thought, but, again, could not recall the rest of the phrase she'd come to think of as some mystic, elusive, incantation, nor cared enough to put in any effort to do so, and so resolved to close her eyes once more and make herself return to the land of slumber; the soft chatter of rain and storm singing in her ears as she drifted.
The following morning, she lifted from sleep to sit in the hazy lands of the post-storm swamps. The air was damp and draped over the earth a foot high off the water; casting Blighttown in a ghostly blanket of iridescent mists. Quelana watched them twist and swirl a while, but could not seem to focus the blank canvas of her mind into any one thought for long, and so laid back down shortly after to wait for sleep again. As she did, her eyes trailed long, sluggish, lines into the surrounding areas, searching for something that might aid her 'escape', for she knew she would have to make it soon or her misery would manifest into anger, and her anger would give way to rage, and Quelana would vanish and a bad thing would take her place. And she'd rather be a dead thing than a bad thing, and so vowed to 'solve' that problem soon. Soon, she thought. Soon.
That notion lingered as the lids of her eyes grew heavy, and before long, she slept again.
Time passed; she could not say how much.
At some point she woke, but did not bother moving, and ended up spending a long, long, time trapped in an ambivalent state of both consciousness and unconsciousness. She could both think and not think, hear and not hear, exist and not exist, and when the cloud of confusion finally lifted its veil, only one, clear, thought permeated all others, changing them, becoming them, consuming them: it was time to leave Blighttown.
She rose to a stand in the soft, purple, pallet of the twilight hour and walked into the swamp, the waters closing in on her bare feet at once and wrapping her ankles in cold, heavy, fetters. She trudged forth without destination, only mildly aware of the faint buzzing of mosquitos to her left, and the rolling thunder of giants to her right. The waters slushed and sloshed as she forced her legs through them. They carried her to the base of a long, sloping, wall of weathered stone that crept up towards the surface in a maddeningly long ascent. Nestled up against it, a decaying corpse awaited.
It was curled into a ball of rotted flesh and tattered rags and here and there a yellowed and chipped bone poking out. There was no skin covering the skull that rested cradled in the thing's bony, blackened, fingers, and a gaping, toothless, mouth hung open on a slack jaw; forever gasping in horror at the world around it. Quelana crossed to the foul-smelling thing without bothering to wonder why, knelt, and reached for its waist. At a leather band there, a dagger was buckled into a hilt. Her fingers worked the buckle loose, and she drew the blade up to her eyes for examination. It was dull and a bit rusted, but she knew it would get the job done all the same. She pressed it into the soft triangle of flesh beneath her chin, and angled it back towards her throat.
Now push, she thought, squeezing her eyes closed and ignoring the warm tear trailing down her cheek. Just push and you're free. She did, asserting enough force for the dull tip of the blade to break her skin, and a single drop of blood leaked from within. Racing down her neck in a warm line, it did not feel entirely dissimilar from the way her tear felt upon her cheek, and for some reason the similarity made Quelana drop the blade at once and bury her face into her hands to sob. Tomorrow, a rationale voice shouted into her head to be heard over her tears. Tomorrow you will have the strength to drive the blade further and end your suffering, for you are a strong flame, and a strong flame does not waver; it only burns on till it can burn no more, then it's light ends, and it simply ceases to be. As you will cease to be, without pain. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.
She swiped her forearm across her eyes to clear her blurred vision, stood, and returned to her pillar. She collapsed beside it, curled up in the blanket of her own robes, and squeezed her eyes shut so tightly they hurt. She did not allow any thoughts to rise from the dark and pitiful well her head had become, and so before long, slept once more.
She dreamed of a young girl with chestnut brown hair, pretty blue eyes, and hands that were clasped together at her chest, pleading and imploring Quelana in desperate, soundless, prayer.
Quelana woke from the dream feeling utterly hollow, lifted her head, and looked across the waters to the corpse and the blade she'd left beside it. There was a cool breeze sweeping the swamps then, and it had sent the dead thing's tattered rags billowing in the air; as if waving a genial greeting towards her. Come on over, witch, it whispered on the wind's cry. Come on over and be free. She stared at the thing for a long, long, moment before deciding to heed the girl in her dream's warning, and not kill herself that day. Not yet. Maybe some other day, but not that one. The dream girl didn't want that. She laid back down. She slept.
More days came and went. Quelana could not muster the will or desire to lift herself up anymore, and so she spent them unmoving and indifferent to the world around her.
She was watching the swamp waters swirl again on one such day when the sounds of movement splashing nearer to her pillar pulled her attention raptly back towards the big lift: the one that carried travelers to and from the swamp. She listened only a moment before reaching the dreadful conclusion that someone was coming. She made herself stand and ready at once, ignoring the protests of her stiff and sore limbs. She wanted to die, but at her own hands, not at those of some treacherous assassin or craven thief that would plunder her corpse.
She took the turn around her pillar to wait and see who might be approaching when her eyes flicked once more, briefly, to a new whirlpool that had started cycling around endlessly near her feet, and just like that, the phrase that had been eluding her mind the last few days suddenly surfaced, complete once more. It played melodically in her head as she pulled her gaze from the water and stepped forth to see who approached: That's the thing about cycles - they always come back around again.
Across the infested plains of Blighttown, beyond the mucky green swamps and past the cracked, decaying, pillars that held up the world, she saw him coming; his gold suit of armor glinting and gleaming off his torch with every cautious step he took. The man and his armor looked ridiculous. Gold had no place in the swamps. The swamps were for dark things, like herself, and Quelana decided if the fool came within striking distance, she would melt that armor right off his body to teach him a lesson.
As he trudged through the swamps, Quelana came to the realization that the man in gold was not simply heading in her general direction, but that she herself seemed to be his goal. The eyeslits of his helm were locked forth onto her position as he came, and Quelana suddenly wished she had not so bravely decided to rise and meet the stranger. She glanced quickly behind her, drawing out a potential escape route if the golden knight rushed her, but by the time she'd returned her gaze to the man, he'd nearly crossed the gap between them.
You could've killed yourself, she thought as he traveled the last stretch of swamp before the pillar. But you didn't, and now your fate is linked to a man foolish and cocky enough as to wear a suit of golden armor. She felt heat on her fingertips; her inner flames eager to leap and protect her.
The golden knight halted his boots in the ankle-high muck at the rim of her pillar and stared. Quelana shook her hand loose from the heavy robes that cluttered around it to show him a lash of flame, commanded balefully forth across her pale fingertips. The knight did not seem afraid, though, and after a long moment, he reached for his helm and pulled it from his head.
The face unveiled beneath was handsome and drawn in hard lines, framed by a mane of dirty-blond hair, and housed eyes as grey as a lifeless sky. They were focused so intently upon her, however, Quelana tugged at her robes to try and better hide her own face; for the man looked as if he were trying to see, perhaps, into her very soul. She frowned as his eyes narrowed further, grew damp at the corners, took on a look of desperation, and then he was moving towards her with his hand held between them.
"Quelana…" He croaked, reaching for her.
"Get back!" She hissed, hoping to sound as intimidating as the lash of flames leaping from her fingers appeared. He knows your name. That means he knows what you are. She darted her eyes around the swamps, suddenly aware of how many shadowed hiding spots there were closing in around them. She snapped her eyes back on his and barred her teeth. "You stay away from me! Stop coming closer! Now!"
"Quelana, please," the man went on, another step advanced in her direction.
She commanded a thin pillar of flame to whip at the golden fool's face from her forefinger. It lashed across his cheek, but she'd left enough room not to burn him - not yet. "Now go!" She shouted. "Go or the next flame I send will claim your life!"
But the man did not go. Instead, he pulled two long, curving, blades from sheaths at his golden hips, swung them out to his sides, and dropped them to land entrenched in the muds, innocuous and docile. He stepped forward again.
"If you take one more step, I will burn you, knight," Quelana told him, not allowing his act of self-disarming to placate her guard so easily. "Do you hear me, you fool? Turn around now and go back to whatever hole you crawled from and leave me be! You have no business here!"
"Quelana, please listen to me," he began, his voice trembling like a solitary leaf upon a dying tree, "I don't want to harm you. I don't want-"
"Everyone wants something," she interjected, glowering fiercely down at the man.
The words, for whatever reason, gave him pause. Consternation rearranged into hope upon his face and he swallowed with, what looked like, a great deal of effort. When he spoke, the words came soft and reverent: "Let me hold you just once. Just once, Quelana. You can handle that. You're a strong flame. And a strong flame doesn't waver, does it?"
"What did you say to me!?" She hissed incredulously.
The knight stepped closer. "Would you listen to a story?"
"Stop where you are!"
He did not. "It's a story about a knight and a witch and a cycle that spins on forever around them, trapping their souls in a perpetual state of unrest. A cycle that they nearly destroyed and escaped after a long, long, journey to do so, but that the heartbroken knight threw away at the last moment to save the witch whom he'd fallen in love with… but had died only moments before."
Quelana hadn't even realized she'd been backing up until her shoulder blades collided against the hard stone of the pillar at her rear. Her hands joined together instinctively, her fingers fanning to give a wide berth on the flames she was ready to douse her pursuer in. "I'm warning you! You stay away from me! I will-"
"But when the cycle came back around," the man went on, still nearing, "the knight returned to it with his mind and knowledge still in tact. He returned to it because of a sister he'd so foolishly spent his adult life pursuing with the intent of acting out some childhood vengeance upon had taken his place in the closing moments of the world. His sister erased herself from existence… so the knight's own could go on - could come back." Tears swelled more prominently upon his grey eyes. "And the knight struggled very painfully with this for a long time… until he drew to the conclusion that his sister's sacrifice would not have to be wasted simply on him."
"I… you… don't…" Quelana meant to continue threatening the man, but his words had enamored her and turned her own slow and sluggish.
He was practically atop her by then; his eyes still locked so intently on her own, she could do nothing but hold them and gape. He went on, "So the knight set out once more. To find the… friends he'd made… and the witch he loved very dearly… and to set right the last wrong he could with the gift of life his sister had bestowed upon him."
There was a twinkling of familiarity in the man's face then. She pulled a breath, stammered, reached for him, "You…"
"Quelana," Lautrec said, taking hold of her grasping hands. "I made your eldest sister a promise once. A promise I intend to keep. I love you. And, if you'll allow it, I'll see you from this world yet. To the ocean, to the final gate of fog… and to whatever might lie beyond."
She reached for him and took him in her arms and pressed her face to his chest, and then her eyes were clamped shut and her hands balled to fists and tears streamed from her eyes in relentless torrents. She could hardly speak, hardly think, hardly breath, but she was aware of one thing above all others: the missing piece of her was filled once more, the memories of another life flooding her mind, and the burden of despair was lifted from her soul at once - for she was in Lautrec's arms again, and in one another's embrace, everything was alright in the world.
It was a long time before either of them spoke. They seemed to reach a tacit agreement to simply hold one another and be content in the silent, warm, embrace of each other's arms. When Quelana at last mustered the will to pull away from Lautrec, glimpsing his face for only a moment was enough to make her squeeze herself to him once more; fearful she might lose him again if they grew too far apart. His hands were in her hair, as they had been so often in another life, and the rise and fall of his chest with her cheek pressed against it was about the most comforting thing Quelana could have possibly imagined. She spoke softly from a throat that had gone coarse and dry, "How is this possible?"
"Ana," his answer came simply enough.
She swallowed, breathed, composed herself enough to ask another question: "I don't understand, Lautrec… what do you mean 'Ana'? What did she do?"
"I… don't know. Solaire and I… we killed Logan. Then I had to defeat Solaire to stop him from lighting the bonfire so that Abby could light it in his place, and you could return. It was as the Everlasting Dragon said: after Abby lit the bonfire, the cycle came back around, and some darkness came forth to remove me from it forever. But Ana was there… maybe it was the reason she had clung to this world and her soul lingered beside me for so long… so that she could… could watch over me. Protect me."
Quelana swiped at her eyes, but could not release herself from Lautrec's chest; she didn't think she had the strength to stand on her own just yet. She felt as if a second life that some other version of herself had lived had suddenly collided against her own, and the two were swirling about, trying to find just the right way to align with one another in harmony instead of dissonance. It made her head swim. After a long moment, she managed to ask, "Ana's gone, then?"
Profound sorrow stirred within her as she croaked, "…and Abby?"
"Abby got her wish, Quelana," he said, tightening his arms just a bit more around her. "The girl wanted to give herself to Lordran to bring an end to the darkness Logan had stirred up, and that is what she did. My sister's sacrifice is the reason I'm standing here, but Abby's is the reason any of us are."
Quelana squeezed her eyes shut and pulled a breath through her trembling lips. She thought of the blue-eyed girl who'd come to her in her dream, silently pleading for Quelana not to take her own life; perhaps one last act of kindness from her friend, and her sister… Abby.
After a long, tearful, moment of silence, thinking on the girl and their brief, but binding, time together, Quelana's eyes floated past Lautrec's shoulder, to the mound of webbing encasing a dark, cavernous, tunnel that wound deeper into the earth, and a new flood of memory washed over her. "If the cycle has come back around… that means… my sisters… they live again."
"They never wanted you to return to Izalith," Lautrec said. "They wanted you to leave, Quelana. Leave Izalith, leave Blighttown… leave Lordran."
"Leave Lordran…" she echoed, the concept so strange and foreign in her mind, she could barely make sense of it. She, at last, had the strength to pull herself from him enough to hold his eyes; eyes she recalled looking upon in her dying moments in the 'other' life and had provided some sense of comfort in her passing. "But the cycle, Lautrec. I thought we were meant to break it. Not… not flee from it."
He shook his head. "I saw things no man has ever seen, Quelana. I stood at the very core of existence itself after Abby lit that bonfire. I glimpsed worlds beyond ours, the world of our Creators, of our 'Gods'. And I was wrong. We were all wrong. The cycle… it isn't a prison." He lifted his gaze skywards, as if looking for the Gods themselves amidst the stand of white, puffy, clouds lumbering along the eastern winds. "It's a place for them. Our Gods. A place for them to enter and to watch and to share and to love. We can't break the cycle… because the cycle was never meant to be broken. It was meant to spin on. Forever. For them."
Quelana could only watch the clouds alongside him, a sense of awe and wonder stirring within her, making her feel small and insignificant, but liberated all the same. Do they watch us now? She wondered. Do they see our struggles? Hear our voices? Read our thoughts?
"I've told the rest as much," Lautrec said after a long moment of quiet.
She faced him, her brow raised. "The rest?"
"I awoke their minds to this reality the same as yours," he explained. "A gift of mine, I suppose, from Ana. I'm sorry I came for you last. I wanted to make sure of… well, a number of things. Most of all, I wanted to be sure you'd be safe. And that the rest would not attempt to harm or stop you." He turned towards the great lift that carried its platforms up out of the swamp. "They're waiting now to see us off."
"See us off… to where, Lautrec?"
He turned back on her, slipped one hand around her own, and the other grazed its knuckles across her cheek. "Come on."
And without further deliberations, he backed up and tugged gently at her hand. Quelana hesitated only slightly, but her feet were following his soon enough, for she trusted and loved the man leading them more than anything she'd ever had in her life, and knew wherever he might take her, she'd be safe with Lautrec at her side.
As she fell in under his arm, Lautrec squeezing her tight to his body, Quelana glanced back behind them to cast one last, longing, gaze at her little spot in Blighttown; a spot she now knew she'd never see again.
The sun was hanging low, nestled amidst the western stand of mountaintops on the horizon by the time they reached the Firelink Shrine. Lordran was settling down to dusk, radiant orange light clawing across the sloping hills of grass; a cool and quiet breeze shuffling down from the Burg to send patchy lands of sprouted flowers dancing in its embrace; the air taking on an aromatic fragrance that soothed the soul. Quelana held her eyes skyward as she ascended the curve of stairs that wound their way up around the shrine's perimeter. She could hardly believe it was the same sky she recalled looking upon last in her 'other' life. Then, it had been plagued with a darkness and a maddening twist of foreboding clouds with jagged teeth of lightning crackling about its hull. Now, though… now it was a serene and placid portrait of pastels: light blue breaking to a soft violet, streaked with pretty lines of orange and red sunlight.
As she looked upon it, a thought stole across her mind that brought about a profound sense of inner-peace: Lordran has survived, she realized.The cold and the dark and the mad sorcerer's attempts to enslave it for his own greedy desires… it has survived. It has lived on. And its sun shines brighter than it ever had. She smiled wistfully, laid her head against Lautrec's shoulder, and walked on in his arms. If you could only see it now, Abby; it is a portrait right out of one of your book's stories.
Before they'd breached the last stretch of stairs, a soft chatter drifting to them from above, Lautrec halted them, and Quelana looked to see the bars of the underground prison Ana had been held in beneath the bonfire. Within: Anastacia herself, her knees folded under her, her face blank and staring.
"Lautrec," Quelana shouted and tugged at his arm so fiercely, he lost his balance. "Your sister! She-"
"It's not her."
Lautrec slipped from her grasp, moved to the bars, and knelt before them. He poked his arm through and laid his hand on Ana's knee-
-only it did notland on Ana's knee, it passed right through as if she were not there at all, and the firekeeper herself wavered, as if nothing more than a living reflection of a dream. When Lautrec turned back to Quelana, sadness gripped his face. "She's just an illusion now. No different than Gwynevere in Anor Londo." He faced the ethereal portrait housed within the cell again and sighed. "Would you leave me with this… illusion, anyway? I just need a moment. The others are waiting above."
Quelana looked between the two of them: an older sister who was nothing more then than a ghost, and her little brother, a knight who'd walked through hell and back and, with his sibling's aid, lived to tell the tale; such cold distance between them for most their lives, but bookended by warmth that had ended just as soon as it'd begun. There was something so utterly tragic about that, she felt her cheek warm as a fresh tear trailed from her eye. When Lautrec's gaze returned to hers, Quelana simply bowed, and continued the climb of stairs to leave him alone with the sister he'd never be alone with again.
She reached the stair's end and found herself with the bonfire and nothing else, though she could hear that chattering of voices drifting near from beyond the stand of stone pillars and buildings that flanked the quiet scene's outer rim. She crossed to the fire and looked down on it, her thoughts returning to her own sisters still living in Izalith, and the tragic tale she supposed their relationship told as well.
She was only just beginning to consider finding someone to send and tell them she'd gone once her and Lautrec had when a familiar voice called to her from afar: "Aye Siwmae, Lady Quelana."
She spun on her heel and found a short man with a mop of auburn hair and a smile plastered across his freckled face from ear-to-ear. "Domhnall," she breathed the word with such relief, when a soft drumming of laughter followed, she had to pause and catch her breath.
The merchant crossed to her and threw his arms around her at once. "Oh, my good witch, your pretty face is a sight for sore eyes indeed!" He chuckled and pulled back just enough to fix her with a mischievous grin. "Tell me, my lady: have you missed my pretty face as well, though?"
"Very much," she said, swiping at her eyes. "Very much, Domhnall." And she wrapped him up in her arms again immediately. "You remember? Everything that happened?"
"Aye," he said. "Lautrec… something lives within that man now. Something that makes you remember. He needed only but come near to me and it all came back around like a, well, heh, a cycle, I suppose. I remember dying. Wasn't very pleasant, in truth." Quelana was ready to express her sympathies until Dom's laughter let her know he was able to find the humor in it all; even with something as morbid as his own death. "I've been killed and risen back up, my lady! Don't worry for me! I'm a bloody God now!"
And they both had a laugh at that, though when Quelana leaned away and found his eyes, they were as rheumy as her own, and all the two of them could do was hold one another once again.
It wasn't long after when the rest of them came, and with them came such a vehement and uncontrollably swelling of emotion within her, Quelana several times found herself wondering if it all wasn't but some wonderful dream she'd stumbled into.
Tarkus came first, the big mountain of his black armor lumbering up over the top of the slope, though when his eyes found her and his big, hearty, smile filled his big, hearty, face, there was nothing 'imposing' about the man at all. He barreled down at Domhnall and her and pried Dom away long enough to squeeze Quelana in his tree-trunk arms himself; a boom of laughter erupting from his belly to fill the shrine with its warmth. Behind him, Andre and Rhea came next; the smith offering an amicable nod of his grey-maned head from afar; the priestess rushing to Quelana and taking her hands in her own as a greeting spilled from her comely lips and she began garrulously spewing forth a dozen things at once, though Quelana didn't mind: she was only happy to have the privilege to hear Rhea's voice again at all.
"Where's Rickert, Rhea?" Quelana asked when she able to sneak a word in; surprised at how meek her own voice sounded now that it had been worn down by her emotions. She'd never spilled so many tears in her whole life as she had since Lautrec came to her.
It was Tarkus who answered with a shake of his head. "Rickert's off on some fool's quest, as usual. Trying to prove something he can't prove."
"He'll be back," Rhea assured her. "Before… well… before you leave, Quelana."
Leave. The word pulled her eyes briefly towards the ocean, and to the wall of pale fog looming on the horizon beyond.
Sieglinde came next, and beside her, a large man in a round casing of iron armor. Sieglinde guided him near, Andre stepping aside to drape his muscular arm over the woman's tall shoulders. "Lady Quelana," Sieglinde greeted with a bow.
"Sieglinde," Quelana returned. "You… Lautrec has… 'woken' you, as well? All of you?"
"Aye," Andre growled. "Yer knight's been busy, witch. He's put his little 'gift' in half the damned world by now." Andre scratched at his beard. "S'ppose he done it fer you. Give ya a proper send-off 'n what have ya." He looked to Sieglinde and some of the old gruffness left the smith's face. "But, rememberin' what happened before… well, it comes with its own benefits," he said a bit more softly and squeezed Sieg's shoulder.
Sieglinde turned her smile from Andre to the round man beside her. "Quelana, this is my father, Siegmeyer."
The man, Siegmeyer, bowed vivaciously, and when his head lifted again, the face upon it beamed with pride. "My daughter speaks very highly of you, my lady. Tis an honor to meet you."
Quelana was searching for words to reply to the jovial man with when a familiar bald head came bobbing over the top of the slope, and a moment later, Patches drew to a halt at its peak, sticking the tip of his spear into the grass at his feet and sending a nod of recognition Quelana's way. She had only just returned it when the red-headed archer, Pharis, stepped beside him, and the two grasped hands, though there was look of deep longing in the woman's pale-blue eyes as she held them on Quelana.
"Even those two?" Quelana asked quietly.
"Lautrec seems to figure its better if we all remember than if we all don't," Domhnall explained. "After all, once you two go, it'll be up to us to keep a close watch on Logan and make sure that sinister, vile, man doesn't ever try anything like he tried in the last, erm… well, 'cycle'."
"Logan," Quelana croaked, in the warmth and joy upon seeing all the familiar faces she'd come to think of as her friends, she'd forgotten the mad sorcerer had likely returned as well. "Where is he?"
"Locked up nice and tight in Sen's Fortress where the bastard belongs," Tarkus answered. "And he ain't getting out anytime soon. Petrus is there watching on him, but after you go, I'll be heading back myself." The big man smirked and cracked his knuckles. "And I get bored sometimes roamin' about the top of the fortress. Might have to go and 'check in' on him every now and then. Ha!"
"Tarkus," Rhea said casting a stern look of admonishment the big man's way.
Comically, Tarkus actually shrunk away from the priestess. "Well, maybe just a few times, then."
Rhea's mouth went lopsided as she tugged at her maiden's robe. "Well… maybe a few," she acquiesced, and Tarkus' laughter filled the shrine again.
As happy as she was to be in the presence of those she'd believed had perished for good, Quelana could not help but notice a rather large absentee from their numbers. Her eyes found Domhnall's and narrowed. "Dom… where is Solaire?"
"Oh, he's around somewhere," Dom explained, casting a sweep of his gaze across the looming walls of stone around them. "With our new Chosen."
"Well, it is the point of a new cycle, Lady Quelana," Rhea explained. "Of course there's a new Chosen. He's a young boy. Smart. Eager to learn. Handsome."
"Rhea." It was Tarkus' turn to admonish the priestess.
Rhea rolled her eyes. "But not as handsome as Rickert. Happy, Tarkus?"
"Better," Tarkus answered with a grin, and Quelana could not help but admire his and Rickert's friendship.
"So the Chosen is a young man…" Quelana said, lowering her eyes to stare back into the flames. She could not help but wonder if Lautrec's theories had been true when he'd voiced them so long ago, and that some Chosen came back to Lordran, even after lighting or not lighting the bonfire at the Kiln. Will you ever return, Abby, or was our cycle too unique to allow such a thing?
"Yes, Solaire's taken quite the liking to the boy," Dom went on, breaking the silence. "The two of them have been neigh inseparable since meeting up." He leaned near and grinned. "Even slayed a few demons, those two did."
"Then Solaire… he's not angry?" Quelana asked; she'd been fearing the moment him and Lautrec met up since Lautrec confessed to 'defeating' him in the Kiln.
"Angry!?" Tarkus exclaimed. "I haven't seen Solaire this full life of since… well, since a long time. He's got a sword in his hand and the sun on his back and a friend to bask in it with. What more could a man want?"
Relief washed over Quelana at once. "I feared he might be upset with Lautrec, for… well, for the way things turned out to be."
"Ah, but all things must be the way they are, my lady, or else they would not be at all."
Quelana turned towards the voice. There, coming slowly down the hill awash in the setting sun's red and gold warmth, Solaire approached; his helm cradled in the nook of his arm; his face joyous and as bright as the sun itself. His smile widened as Quelana moved to meet him, and, though she'd thought she'd spent every last tear in her body, a few more blurred her eyes again as they found one another's embrace.
"Solaire," she whispered, squeezing him against her.
"My lady," he returned. "The Sun shines just a bit brighter with your beauty radiating beneath it."
She pulled away from him, but, as it was with Domhnall, the two of them only laughed upon glimpsing one another's tear-streaked eyes and joined together once more.
"Solaire! Solaire!" A youthful voice trailed down the hill after the Knight of Sunlight.
Solaire angled his head back and answered, "Here, John! I'm here!"
A moment later, a young man in boiled leathers, with an unkempt tangle of brow hair on his head, and a rather blunt-looking shortsword, came running up to the crest of the hill. He leaned upon his knees, catching his wind as his eyes darted between Quelana and Solaire. He unfolded, casting a shrewd look down up them. "Solaire… who is this?"
Solaire turned from the young man to Quelana and a wistful smile took his face. "This… is a very dear friend of mine."
Quelana squeezed the knight's hand appreciatively as the boy, John, came cautiously down the hillside to join beside them. He examined her from head-to-toe before scratching at his chin and offering an indifferent shrug of his shoulders. "I'm John," he introduced himself tersely before turning on Solaire and saying, "Are we going back now? I've got an idea about how to better handle those Gargoyles on the bell tower. If I draw them left and you come up on their flank-"
Solaire lifted a hand to halt the boy, but his expression was amicable enough as he spoke. "In time, John. In time. For now, I'd like to spend a few moments with my friends. Surely, our adventure can wait just a little longer, can't it?"
The young man sighed and shifted his weight back and forth a few times before answering. "Well… alright. But then you'll come back with me, right? I need you, Solaire."
Something passed over Solaire's face then that Quelana just barely caught before it was gone. It was, perhaps, an ephemeral flash of deep, deep, pride and self-worth, one that only accompanied a person who was valued very dearly by another. But Solaire did not express this clandestine realization nor did he wear it ostentatiously as some badge of pride; he only bowed his head to the Chosen Undead and clapped him on the shoulder. "Of course I'll come back with you, John. Of course." He faced Quelana. "But first, let us catch up a bit."
And so they did.
The lot of them gathered around the bonfire as the sun sunk further into the western sea; a golden teardrop falling into the vast basin of water and spreading its light forth along the shimmering waves like the fingers of a giant, reaching out to cradle the world in warmth. Solaire seated himself and John went running off to 'explore' the surrounding area and 'make it safe'. They all shared a hearty laugh when he'd gone and Domhnall made a remark about the boy being as 'eager to adventure as Andre is eager to eat'. Andre growled as Andre was wont to do, but Sieglinde planted a kiss on the clearing of cheek in his forest of beard, and the smith's annoyance vanished at once. Tarkus started after on a tale about Logan begging him to be released from his cell in Sen's Fortress, and acted out a rather crude gesture as his 'reply' to the mad sorcerer's mad begging. Even Patches and Pharis drifted nearer to the circle as the laughter swelled, and Quelana saw ore than once the two of them squeezed each other's hands appreciatively. They had both lost someone when Ben fell to Logan's deceptions—Patches, a friend, and Pharis… perhaps something more—but in their shared loss, it appeared as if they'd at least found one another.
Lautrec came climbing up from the lower cliffside and the chatter waned away at once. Quelana looked from his reddened eyes to Solaire's and, though she'd been assured there was no animosity between the two, could not quell a feeling of trepidation stirring in the pit of her stomach. Solaire rose to his feet and crossed to his fellow knight. Lautrec stepped forth, and a conversation unspoken seemed to pass between them—perhaps some knight's joint understanding—before Solaire offered his hand and Lautrec shook it. The tension in the group vanished after that, and both knights joined in the circle; Solaire returning to his seat; Lautrec taking Quelana in between his arms and kissing at her cheek.
"Are you alright?" She whispered back to him.
"I've said my goodbyes to Ana. I'm at peace with her and… wherever she is… I imagine she's at peace with me." He paused a moment before adding. "I suppose that's one cycle we did break."
She leaned back to kiss his lips. He rested his head against hers and fell silent.
Rhea was just getting the conversation going again by recounting the first moments of her 'reawakening' in Lautrec's presence when Pharis yelped and both her and Patches went stumbling back into each other's arms; the bald man hoisting up his spear at once.
Just like that, the circle drew each and every weapon they carried—and that, Quelana thought, turned out to be quite a lot—and spun on the threat Pharis and Patches had clearly seen.
There, coming stomping up over the hillside, a small, blue, wyvern appeared; its scaled wings flapping up to its sides in an impressive display that momentarily blanketed the sky at its rear. The drake screeched and craned its long neck towards them; beady, dark, eyes darting from person to person.
"No!" A voice trailed behind it. "Charles! No! Charles! Sit! SIT, I say! Sit, Charles!"
"Charles?" Tarkus echoed, and then the color drained from his face. "Oh… oh, you've got to be kidding me."
Rickert appeared beside the wyvern a moment later, the young man throwing his hands up frantically in the path of the small dragon's eyes to pull its attention his way. "Charles! Sit down, you fool of a beast, sit down"
The wyvern growled and flapped its wings defiantly until Rickert stuck an authoritative finger in the creature's face and commanded as loud as he could for the beast to behave. The wyvern held the young man's gaze a moment before groaning again, beating its wings one final time, and finally—miraculously—obeying. It rested back on its haunches and folded its blue wings down against its body.
Rickert spun on the group, smiling the broadest smile Quelana had ever seen. His eyes found Tarkus and he pointed across the gap at his large friend. "Ha! I told you, Cradlebreaker! I told you, didn't I!?"
"A damned pet dragon…" Tarkus muttered, shaking his head with stunned incredulity. "I don't believe it."
"Believe it, Cradlebreaker!" Rickert cheered. "And say the words! Say 'em! We made a bet and you lost the bet and its time for me to collect on the bet, so say 'em!"
Tarkus looked utterly defeated as he threw up his arms and said, "Rickert is stronger than me."
"That's right! You hear that, Ray? You're going to marry a man stronger than a Cradlebreaker! How about that!?"
"Marry you?" Rhea questioned, but the slight lift at the corner of her lips betrayed her dumbfounded tone.
"Marry me?" Rickert echoed. "Well, if you're going to propose, I suppose I accept, Ray, but you'll have to fetch me a fairly nice ring. I am quite the catch, after all, with my cradle-breaking strength and my pet dragon." The wyvern groaned and Rickert shushed it and soon enough, the lot of them were laughing again.
The young man sauntered down to join the circle, fighting off a series of playful blows from Tarkus, and the group launched back into their chatter. The conversation was, at times, capricious, as it leapt from person to person and everyone seemed to have something to say about the 'cycle' they'd come from. Patches complained of having his hand smashed to bits by Kirk, though Quelana was quick to point out that had happened only after he'd thrown Lautrec from the Burg bridge. Nervous, reedy, laughter trickled from the Hyena's lips then as his eyes gave a cursory glance to the knight with his arms draped around Quelana, but Lautrec did not stir, he only tightened his hold on her a bit and kissed at her neck, and Quelana could not help but wonder, Have you finally tamed that angry beast that lived in your for so long, Lautrec? But, then again, she supposed she'd have a long, long, time to ascertain that answer.
Tarkus talked of the Archives, of the inner turmoil that had stirred up in the days of Logan's iron grip upon the inhabitants, and his control over the golems, and as he did, the man's anger rose and rose. Rhea, however, was quick to point out that all the lives that had been lost at the mad sorcerer's hands were returned to them now in this 'new cycle', and that seemed to bring about a joint sense of relief upon their little group.
Andre spoke wistfully of the chapel and their brief time there, and—after a bit of coercing from Sieglinde—even admitted to enjoying cooking up all those lukewarm stews of his for everyone to feast on. Domhnall made a jest about Lautrec only willing to drink the stews down after he'd told him they were made with 'half wine'. The group got a good laugh out of that, and Quelana even heard Lautrec himself make some throaty noise that might have been his approval.
As the sun finally lowered enough to kiss the ocean, the chatter still went on. Quelana did not mind; the voices of the people she'd came to know as 'friends' was as comforting as Lautrec's arms around her waist, and she could have listened to it for the rest of her days, in truth, and been happy. Her eyes found Solaire's though—who'd been mostly quiet throughout the conversation, choosing instead to listen along with a faint smile playing at the corner's of his mouth—and when the Knight of Sunlight looked her way, she saw a sadness there that she understood at once: it was almost over. They could talk and talk and draw it out for as long as they could, but it would never last forever, and soon enough… the end would creep upon them.
"Solaire!' The young Chosen's voice wailed from afar. "I found a wyvern! Come on!"
"Don't attack it!" Rickert pleaded, and laughter filled their circle again.
Solaire rose to his feet and dusted loose dirt from his greaves. "I suppose that's my calling," he told them with a smile.
Quelana leaned back to kiss Lautrec's cheek before slipping from his arms and rising to join the Knight of Sunlight. "I'll walk with you."
Solaire bowed his assent, angled his elbow out from his body, and allowed Quelana to slip her own in beside it. Together they walked for the hillside, sunlight beating upon their backs.
"I won't see you again, Solaire," Quelana said when they'd put enough space on the bonfire and the group. "I suppose this time it truly is goodbye."
"Oh, it's never truly goodbye, my lady," Solaire replied, halting in his tracks, and spinning on his heel to take her arms in his. "Look there," he said, nodding to the West. Quelana did, and found the setting sun blazing brilliant red streaks across the ocean. When she returned her gaze to him, Solaire's smile had broadened. "Wherever that boat Lautrec has told me of takes you… you need only look upon the Sun, my lady, and know that some place, somewhere, it shines on me as it shines on you… and in that way, we will never be far apart."
She swiped at her eyes and forced a smile against her sadness. "Yes… I suppose that is true."
"Come on, Solaire!" John called from the top of the hill.
Solaire glanced back at the young man and stared. "Breaking the cycle…" a short chuckle slipped through his lips. "I should've realized a long, long, time ago how foolhardy that was. Lautrec, I suppose, is the one whose opened my eyes to that now. My place was never as 'Lordran's Savior' or… or anything else. My place is here. With the Chosen Undead. At their side. Now… and always." He turned rheumy eyes on Quelana and squeezed her hands just a bit tighter. "He told me he saw the Gods, you know."
"I know," Quelana said; the task of speaking difficult through the tight channel of her throat.
"He said… he said that they don't look all that much different from you or I."
"If you so happen to meet one in your travels, Lady Quelana," Solaire said as he released her arms and began turning back to head up the hillside. "Be sure to give them my thanks. This world was created for them… and I've taken quite a fondness to it. Goodbye, Quelana."
The last image she had of the Knight of Sunlight was one that made her proud of having the privilege to have known the man. He joined in at the Chosen Undead's side and drew his sword, and the two of them went venturing off deeper into Lordran, and Quelana knew in that moment that even when she was gone, the world would be alright, for Solaire would be at the side of Chosen, no mater how many cycles came and went, then… and always.
When she joined back up with the group around the bonfire, the chatter went on for a bit longer, but the tides of change were in the air, and Quelana thought every one of them felt it: it was time to be moving on.
When the last bit of laughter trailed away, and the silence fell heavy in its wake, Lautrec stood and looked to each of them gathered around the bonfire in turn. "You all have my thanks for coming." He faced Quelana. "But its time to go."
Go. Quelana glanced towards the ocean and felt her breath come ragged against her throat. She put a hand to her brow as the world spun and forced herself calm. Shortly after, though, they were coming to her, and she had no more time to be afraid, for then was the time for goodbyes. Tarkus wrapped her up in his arms just as tightly as when he'd first met her at the Archives, so long ago in some other life. Rhea and Rickert kissed at her hands and squeezed her between them. Andre and Sieglinde came behind them to bid farewell. Even Patches came forth to bow his head in respect before turning and sauntering back off to Pharis. Domhnall came last, and when the two of them pulled away from a teary-eyed embrace, Quelana halted him with a hand on his forearm.
"Quelana?" The merchant questioned.
"Domhnall… if in the next cycle or… or ten cycles from now, or a hundred cycles… if a Chosen truly can return to Lordran, and a young girl with brown hair and pretty blue eyes-"
Domhnall lifted a hand to halt her and when he smiled, a tear rolled his freckled cheek. "I will be sure to tell Abby you said you miss her… and you love her very much."
"Thank you, Domhnall," she croaked, and had to practically throw herself back into his arms to stave off another bout of crippling sadness.
When they parted, he flashed his toothy grin once more, turned, and trailed off to join the others, and only Lautrec and herself remained at the bonfire.
Lautrec was standing at the cliffside, staring out into the sea as the sinking sun stretched its last light up to claw red and gold fingers across his face and chest. Quelana stepped beside him, sniffling, and slipped under his arm. He wrapped her in it and pulled her to his chest, and for a while, they only stood there and stared out at their destination: the final veil of fog.
"What do you think will happen?" She finally asked into the silence. "When we… pass beyond it."
"The Everlasting Dragon said we'd just be 'gone'," he answered.
"Gone," he repeated. "I don't know what it means, but it can't be all that bad, can it?"
She reached for his chin and gently moved it towards her till their eyes met. "I'm afraid, Lautrec."
He nodded. "So am I." His eyes lifted to the horizon, and the twin fires of the setting sun burned in the grey wells of his pupils. "So let's go be afraid together."
And without further hesitation: they did.
They followed a narrow path that wound down the cliffside and ended at a thin stretch of shore, and they came upon the boat just as the last bit of sun was racing long lines across the waters it sat on. It was a small, white, thing, bowed at the center, tapered at the ends, two lengthy oars nestled in grooves at its sides, their broad paddles floating carelessly atop the water at the boat's flanks. A small length of rope was tethering it to a stake stuck in the muddy shallows near land, but Lautrec was quick to slip a shotel from its sheath and slice the tethering loose. The boat rocked a bit back and forth, as if testing its newfound freedom, before settling again and lying still in wait.
He turned to face her, and Quelana tried exerting every bit of willpower she had to stop her hands from trembling, but was unsuccessful. Lautrec stepped before her and cupped her shaking hands in his own, running his fingers against her knuckles down to her wrists. "It's okay," he whispered. "I'll be right there with you, Quelana. I won't let anything bad happen to you. Not ever."
"Yes… I know," she croaked, but had to press her face to his chest to hide a fresh trail of tears. "I know. I'm ready." But are you ready to be 'gone'? A voice welled up from her soul and sent her hands trembling again.
"Yes," she said, swiping at her eyes and pulling a deep breath. "Let's go, then."
She stepped forward, her bare feet dipping into the cool waters of Lordran's great ocean only momentarily before Lautrec took hold of the boat and swung its broad side around for them to board. He took her hand and Quelana hoisted herself up over the boat's edge to stand atop the soft, wooden, planks of its flooring. Lautrec climbed in after her a moment later, shuffled around her, and lowered to the vessel's sole crossboard that stretched across the hull as a seat. Quelana lowered herself to sit between his legs and laid her trembling hands on the boat's sides. Lautrec leaned near to her, kissed her neck below the ear, and whispered again, "It's okay.", and that helped.
Then the sound of the oars breaking against the water echoed off the cliffside and Quelana's breath felt shallow and queer in her chest until she squeezed her eyes shut and imagined herself back in Blighttown where it was dark and safe. The smell of salt water filled her nose and the oars went on slapping at the water's surface, and there was no hiding her terror then, for even her knees were shaking against one another.
"Do you want me to turn back?" Lautrec asked over her shoulder.
"No," she answered at once. "This feels right. This is… this is what we have to do. This is what I know a part of me has always wanted to do. As my sisters knew before me… Go on rowing, Lautrec. I'm afraid, but I'll manage. I'll manage."
And she did. With every great slush of water and forward thrust of momentum—though her eyes were closed—Quelana could feel their little boat drifting further and further out into the ocean, and the safety and comfort of land shrinking further and further away behind them. The steady motion of Lautrec's arms rowing forth and pinching just slightly at her shoulders grew comforting, though, and the rhythmic sounds of the ocean tide drumming against the boat's belly played like soft music in her ears, and soon enough, she found the courage to open her eyes once again.
The sight that met her stole her breath away, though not out of fear or trepidation, but out of awe and wonder at the majesty swirling up before her. They were far out to sea by then, and it seemed as if that swollen belly of the setting sun had grown ten-fold more pregnant since she'd last glimpsed it. It sat on the horizon beside them, tracing a wide red arch up into the sky and setting the water they drifted on ablaze. Quelana made her eyes move to that water, and atop it she saw shimmering colors swirling about like the mists that blanketed the post-storm swamps of Blighttown: iridescent and warm and beautiful. When Lautrec rowed the oars forth, the colors broke into a splash of even more colors, and it appeared as if the whole ocean was opening up to show them the wonders that lied beneath.
And looming up over them in a great, pale, castle, the wall of fog awaited. It had looked large and imposing enough from the shoreline, but there floating at its feet, the sight was maddeningly enormous and dizzying to look upon. Quelana made herself look upon it all the same, though, and when her fears came crawling forth from her chest, she waited them out until they passed, for she was a strong flame and she would not waver. A wind broke from the direction of the sun, and when it swirled over them, it howled like some great, feral, beast awoken from ancient slumber, and Lordran's final fog gate shimmered and flashed not unlike the ocean itself.
When it settled, however, a calm and serene quiet befell their little boat, as if the fog's final attempt to scare them off had failed, and the great beast had resolved itself to letting them pass.
And then Quelana turned back on Lautrec and their eyes met and she wondered how she could have been so silly in the first place to be afraid at all. She reached for his face, cupped his chin, kissed at his lips. They were warm and soft and she loved him very much in that moment and knew she would for all the moments that were yet to come in their lives.
And then she looked beyond him, back towards the shoreline and towards Lordran, but there was no more shoreline, and there was no more Lordran, for the world had been swallowed up whole by the great, white, castle around them, and only the fog remained.
And then Lautrec released the oars, for there was no point in rowing any longer, as their part of the journey was over, and the fog's part was set to begin. His arms free, he wrapped Quelana in them and hugged her to his chest and she was thankful for that, for she knew he loved her as much as she loved him, and in one another's embrace, everything was alright in the world.
And then they went very, very, quiet, and only the soft, distant, sounds of the waters under the boat stirring against the hull played faintly in their ears, and that was alright too.
And then the fog swelled up on the air around them so greatly, it grew as ubiquitous and omnipresent as the air itself, and everything began to fade into the soft, sweet, curtains of mists until Quelana knew even Lautrec and herself resembled nothing more than little splotches of paint against a great, sprawling, canvas; or insects come to rest on the blossoming wings of a tulip; or small, black, squiggles fading away on a blank sheet of paper - as if they were nothing more than the final words of a long, long, story, that had reached its conclusion at last.
…and then they were gone.
Breaking the Cycle
4/13/13 - 1/7/14