Chapter Fifteen: The Fall of the Four (Part Three)
They say you don't know its value until it is gone. Certainly, I know this to be true right now, cast into the darkness as I am - broken and nearly-buried. My life is seeping out onto the floor, and no amount of patchwork repair can keep it alive inside me. The cold embrace of death looms above me, choosing not to appear with his sickle and cloak but with a plethora of cracked, red, piercing eyes that scathe me to the soul. Manus cackles once more, his unfathomably-long limb crashing down upon my ribcage once again, and reducing my vision to simple colour. If my lips could move, I may have begged for mercy, helpless and defeated as I well and truly am. As it is, my saviour is the last creature upon this earth that I ever wanted to see again.
"Leave him be, Manus. He is finished now."
The brutish, hideously-deformed shaman steps back from me, respectful of his overlord. Kaathe slithers so as to face me, his eyes striking me down and creating an undesirable image - what I fear will be my last ever.
"You have come so far, and fought so well, brave sir Artorias. The man who would drop his shield to protect a friend, the man who would absorb the brunt of incoming attacks to protect innocents. Your soul is revealed. May you sleep well."
My breathing has become spasmodic, and in a few moments, will have stopped altogether. Dark clouds gather at the edges of my vision, ready to burst and sweep me away for good.
I hear familiar voices calling to me from some far off place from which I know I shall never return. Hesitantly at first, I start to let myself follow them. It just seems so much easier. Let there be no more pain, no more suffering.
Ciaran. Oh, Ciaran.
Friends. Comrades. Forgive me. For I have availed you nothing.
"The abyss has him now."
I could cut this jester's throat right now. Whatever could he mean, apart from his obvious intent to inflict us harm? But he does know more, I feel it, and he will tell us. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
'Chester' chuckles, his face and features completely invisible beneath his over-exuberant top hat. "Look at you. The fabled knights of Gwyn. Back home, the three of you are just myths created by and clung to by naive fools. To think, I have not only spoken with you, but down to you. Ha!"
Ornstein loses his patience, and jams the point of his spear against Chester's throat. "Our friend is down there. Tell us what you know."
He stops laughing immediately, his hand darting towards an array of throwing knives strung on his belt. My Tracer is flying through the air before he can so much as brush a hilt. "Don't even think about it," I advise. His fingers falter.
"The noble hero passed by me not long ago, with an oversized dog in his wake. I do not belong here; I am simply a traveller." For some altogether insidious reason, he stifles another deep laugh after he finishes. I am really starting to despise this fool. Would he still be laughing with my Tracer in his gut?
"You're lucky that we don't have time to deal with you," Ornstein warns, lowering his weapon. "Don't be here when I return."
I look with confusion at the golden knight. "I? You mean 'we'."
"No," he replies. "I will investigate the Township. You and Gough should scope out the Royal Wood. It is not unfeasible that he should have come back this way without this geezer noticing."
The giant agrees, rumbling an "Aye", but I am not convinced.
"Ornstein, please." I reach out and touch his shoulder plating as gently as I can. "Walking alone has not produced favourable results in the not-so-distant past."
"No," he admits. "But we have little choice here. Our friend is on trouble, and I for one will not allow the opportunity to miss out on saving him."
"Don't argue. I am still your Captain. Go."
I swallow my urge to retort, and nod to indicate my relent. "Bring him home, Ornstein."
The first thing I hear upon entering the courtyard of Oolacile's township is a blood-curdling scream. A good start, that's for sure. I soon find the source of the sound, a human lying on his back in a puddle of black liquid. Eerily, the liquid appears to be climbing his body, seeping into his skin, and discolouring it with bulging black veins. His mouth opens, and a choked attempt to speak emerges from a swollen tongue. I doubt there is much that I may do for him now, and I can hardly stand the sound of his screams, so I do him a last favour, stabbing him in the throat with my lightning-charged spear. He goes still.
Clearly, Oolacile is going the way of New Londo, and Izalith and Balder before it -which means I may not have long before the whole place comes crashing down. I'd better find Artorias, and fast.
Following the path through the city takes me to an elevator, which I hastily board. The stone tile seeps magical blue light, and my stomach drops as the mystical contraption lurches into life. I have only ridden the turnstile in Anor Londo once, much preferring the flighty rafters to the queasy rotation and shuddering - this trip proves to be like a second ride, with the whole descent spent eyes-closed and sat down so as to avoid emptying the contents of my guts.
Finally, there is a thud, and the motion of the elevator stops abruptly. I step off the plate in a daze, identifying my new surroundings as the entrance to the Dungeons. It is here where the corrupt and wicked of Oolacile are (probably 'were', now, considering my luck) kept locked away behind iron bars. It is also the lowest point in the city, so a natural place to start.
As I charge towards the steps, I feel the air around my head vibrate, and I duck just in time to avoid decapitation by a shadowy black projectile. A sorcery of some kind, it disperses upon contact with the wall. I cannot say I have ever seen anything like it - it was eerily similar to the construct of the ooze I saw earlier. Where could it have been derived from?
Hooting laughter shakes me from my trance. For a moment, I am certain that it is Chester, but this sound is far more maniacal, representing the screams of the insane locked away in the Northern Asylum. I look up, narrowly skipping away from a second blast. A mage standing upon a roof segment is responsible for its casting, a creature so grotesque and vivid that for a few dangerous seconds I can do nothing but gawp at it. Writhing tentacles emerge from its mouth, and its eyes (there are now more than two) are cracked and blood-red. Its arms are gruesomely warped in length, reaching my waist height at the very least. In its clawed fingers it holds a twisted branch - perhaps the remnants of an Oolacile Ivory Catalyst?
I am suddenly aware that the foul creature is lining up another shot, so I quickly summon a piercing lightning bolt through my Dragonslayer Spear. The creature throws its head back and howls as the electricity passes into its chest, lighting it up in a flash of gold. Then, it crumples, its body rolling from the roof to the floor in front of me. I can tell you, it was not a prettier sight up close.
More cackling. There are two more of these hideous creatures lurking round the corner. I run inside the Dungeon to face them head on, catching the first sorcerer before it can even register the blow. The second is smarter though, using the opportunity to levitate (I jest you not) backwards and out of harms way. From there, it launches a volley of smaller black orbs, all of which collide with me at full speed.
I feel my armour break apart and cave in. The beads slice open my body like it is made of butter. A swirl of darkness encompasses the world.
I am dead.
"Ornstein? No. Everyone despises him."
"Even Gwyn finds him repulsive. I heard he was awarded the rank of captain just to shut him up."
"Hopefully, he'll just fall over and die."
'What in Lordran was that?' is the first coherent thought I have when my out-of-body experience ends. I come to lying on my back on the Dungeon floor. Where I had visualised my spooling blood, there is nothing but the stone floor.
None of it was real. I still breathe.
The numbness that surges through my body starts to vanish as I rise to my feet painfully, pins and needles stabbing at my damaged flesh. My eyes dart to the sorcerer, who has presumed me for dead, and started to walk away, with his back to me. He is laughing, the sound reverberating in my ears, and grating at my nerves. Red mist overcomes me, and I prepare myself for a leaping strike.
Just then, as I am about to act, the far wall explodes, bricks and dust being flung far and wide across the room. I lose sight of the sorcerer, his form lost to me in the poor visual conditions.
That is, until his corpse lands with striking velocity at my feet, caked in its own black-green blood. The impact alarms me, and I jump back in fright, tripping over and falling down the steps outside. I land in a heap, my injuries now far more prominent than moments before. And still, I stand. An involuntary shiver runs down my spine, a result of my aggravated sixth sense gearing up.
Something far worse has entered the foray. Indeed, I can hear its breathing. And its footsteps. Heavy, clunking boots. Slowly, a figure begins to take shape through the dust. It appears to be hunched over in an unsettling fashion, as though its spine is missing, and unless I am mistaken, it is dragging a rather large sword along the ground.
As I watch, the figure emerges from the smoke at the top of the stairs. A figure wreathed in a cloak of black shadow, the same kind weaponised by the distorted Oolacile mages. The figure pauses at the sight of me, and slams the hilt of its sword upon the ground.
"No," I whisper. "No, it can't be."
Artorias throws his helmet from his shoulders, revealing the black, bulging veins that obscure his once-handsome face.
"Ornstein!" he speaks, his voice but a feeble representation of his once-renowned charisma. "Brother. You come for me."
Six words is all it takes to finish me.
The Royal Wood is like a palette of opposing colours. The sky burns bright orange, whilst green grass covers the ground, punctuated by jagged black crevices sunk deep into the ground. The scarecrow serfs carry on working as though nothing is wrong, snipping at the trees and grass and trying to avoid myself and Ciaran's line of sight. Enormous stone giants litter the landscape, watching over the workers with a gigantic stone hammer heaved upon their shoulders. I doubt that any of them have the mental faculty to realise what is happening to the garden.
The darkness is falling. Oolacile will be lost soon enough. The very ground appears to crack and crumble beneath my heavy feet - more so than usual - and I begin to ponder on the vertical length of the abyssal cracks.
As we pass over another hill, I can see the edge of the forest, and come to the realisation that Artorias cannot be here. We would have seen him.
I am about to turn back when a large whoosh ricochets against my ears, and a tidal volley of wind knocks against my face, overshadowed by the ominous sound of the beating of giant, bat-like wings. As I watch, calamity rises from beneath the bridge, its orange eye fixing me with unparalleled hatred. Instinctively I pull out my bow, and notch an arrow, ready to send my old foe back to his grave.
To my surprise, Kalameet makes no immediate attempt to attack, instead rebuking my threat with his cold, malicious tones. "Good morrow, my old friends Ciaran and Gough. It has been too long."
I continue to hold the arrow in aim at his head. "I see that you survived the Dragon War after all, Kalameet. Good, because I'd quite like to kill you myself."
"I survived your murder," he booms, tensing his claws, which I notice are spattered with scars. "But that's not why I am here. As I had foretold, you have driven your world into desecration, and despair. The abyss will rise up and consume the entire world. Soon, your beloved fire will fade... and only dark will remain. I see it as fitting that the last of the ancient dragons be witness to this spectacle. Care to join me in watching this world burn?"
"Over my dead body," Ciaran mutters.
"Ooh, I was really hoping that you would say that."
Artorias leaps at me. I expect the move, recognising it from training and sidestepping it for a swift downwards slash with my spear. But he predicts that too, blocking the blow and knocking it aside with his gauntleted fist. He starts running at me, greatsword extended, and I roll aside, dodging again as he spins around, trying to swipe at me.
The likelihood that my combat ability is being affected by my emotion does not even cross my mind, and I try to disarm my mind-washed friend with a stab at his legs which he jumps and counters with a horizontal sword smash that I barely avoid. I kick out, feeling my foot connect with his legs, but he doesn't fall, instead aiming a weighty slash at my torso. Without a shield, and at close range, the attack proves difficult to block, and I feel my armour start to buckle as I marginally do so.
Artorias starts to emit an animalistic roar, and the black cloud that orbits him starts to expand and intensify. Common sense tells me to step back, but I ignore it, taking the opportunity to (forgive me, brother) sever his sword arm with a hefty slice. The limb drops to the ground - still clutching the sword - in a surge of blood, crackling with charge. Artorias doesn't even stagger, instead launching an armada of punches that split my helmet in two and break my nose, sending me sprawling back with dizzying momentum. As my sight returns to me in a haze of blood, I see Artorias calmly pick up his severed arm from where it had fallen upon the ground, and replace it on his shoulder, where the shadows coil around it and accept it once more. Then, he retrieves his sword from the puddle, placing it in his shield arm (his shield is notably missing) and starting to walk over to where I have fallen. I try to stand, but then his foot connects with my ribs, and I feel every one of them break. My body soars through the air with ineffable acceleration, crashing against the wall and filling my mouth with silvery blood.
I lie there, defeated beyond compare by the shell of my former friend, waiting for the blow which will finally end me.
But it doesn't come.
I see Artorias stepping over me with my only open eye, walking ruggedly into the distance, his movement somewhat reminiscent of a headless chicken.
But he does not come back for me. Neither does he even look at me.
I suppose that he thinks I am dead. But I'd like to think that perhaps he stopped because there was the slightest trace of humanity left in his soul, and he could not bear to kill me.
Somewhere in the distant, a bird starts to sing, and my mind, hopelessly disconnected from this world, floats to join it in bliss.
I loose the arrow, but Kalameet's eye flashes orange, his telekinesis grounding the projectile to a standstill. He starts to laugh. "Every day my hate has made me stronger. Yet, your archery has not improved in a hundred years!"
"Oh no?" I say, readying a second shot. "Try this."
With the black dragon revving up to incinerate me, I spin on my heel, firing an arrow straight at the cliffs behind whereupon he sits. The impact fissures the rock, and it starts to crumble - a direct hit. Kalameet does not even look as the cliff explodes across his back, showering his wings with huge chunks of rock that batter and bruise them. Kalameet roars, the stream of black fire tailing off at the end of his snout. With a snarl, he takes off rather clumsily, and I am instantly at arms to pursue him. Ciaran throws a knife in his wake, but the incompatible velocity prevents it from ever reaching its target.
"I need to find higher ground!" I shout to her, my eyes already set upon a nearby turret. "Go look for Ornstein."
She nods, wasting no time in following orders. Slowly, I make my way towards the turret, keeping my eyes trained on the black blur in the distance. When I reach the old stone structure, I ignore the minuscule wooden ladder, clearly designed for tiny human hands, and instead climb up the side. When at the top, I set the bottom of my bow into the ground, reload, and take aim at Kalameet.
The dragon soars across the Oolacilian skyline, drenching an entire bridge in calamitous fire. The bridge becomes an inferno in seconds, collapsing under the intense strain and disappearing into the unknown valleys below. I release my arrow and it holds true, sticking in the bat's hide and causing it to fall against a row of houses, blowing them to bits. I see his claws scrabbling to get a hold, and his wings in agonised pain trying to lift him asunder. Eventually, he loses the battle, slipping out of view, and disappearing down into the mists below.
"Good riddance," I say, turning to head back the way I came and go after Ciaran.
Then it all goes black.
I don't panic at first, expecting my vision to return at any second.
But then it doesn't. And then I start to panic. There is a horrid cackling coming from an unidentifiable direction, and I recognise it immediately.
"Chester!" I bellow. "What have you done?"
"Sorry old chap, but we can hardly have you dashing about all willy-nilly. You might kill someone!"
"Give me back my eyes!" I screech, my hands reaching in vain for the skinny body so that I may pulp the life out of it.
I hear a clicking, perhaps a clockwork mechanism of some kind, and then Chester is gone.
And I am without all.
I come to in the same position that I fell, which I only realise now was completely undignified. Standing up causes white-hot jolts of pain originating in my chest, but I clench my teeth and start to walk.
In my blurred vision I see streaks of orange dancing next to me. Of course, I don't smell the burning flesh, or see the black, billowing smoke. Screams are breaking out all around me, but I am indifferent to all of it.
A canine shape is coming towards me in the distance. Immediately, my thoughts arrive at Sif, and I start feverishly calling his name, as if years of antagonism between us will just fade to nothing in our time of need. But then his teeth sink into my fingers, and I see the scars all across its mangy fur, and I realise that I am actually looking at a deranged hunting dog. Sapped of my strength, I struggle to break the creatures jaw, eventually being forced to use both hands to achieve the end. The filthy dog falls dead, and its blood joins Artorias' on my fingers.
I press onward, even though every step that I take now causes me more pain than could possibly be imagined.
Still, I walk.
I walk when the ground is but inches wide.
I walk when the stone parts to reveal green grass.
I walk until the orange sky is no longer above me, but below, and my eyes are sinking into the back of my head.
I dropped my spear a while back. It doesn't matter. All of the Dragonslayer Cult carry identical weapons. I may receive another from the royal blacksmith, as I have done over the countless years wherein my spear constantly broke and shattered in combat. It doesn't matter.
I fall upon my knees, blackness starting to swirl in the corners of my eyes.
Of all the things to think about, my lost spear is the contemplation that I die thinking of.
I found Ornstein's body not long after the bridge was destroyed. The Lion died alone, and for this, I could not forgive myself. No 'one deserves to die alone. In accordance with his wishes, I disposed of it by tossing it in the river below. Ornstein had always made it very clear that he did not want his unique armour coveted by thieves. I had to look away as his golden torso descended into the sinkhole, a lump the size of a Lloyd's Talisman stuck in my throat, choking me.
When I did not find Artorias or Gough along the way, I had to presume the worst of all three of them.
I spent that night in the Oolacile Sanctuary, my sleep occasionally interrupted by the sound of the Guardian dismembering another intruder. On my visits to Oolacile in the past, I had much preferred the company of the chimera to that of the humans, who had arguably much more bite.
When the sun rose again (which I had betted against happening at all) I set out for Oolacile Township, in the hope that I would find Artorias and Gough safe and well. Breaking the news about Ornstein would not be easy.
And it was there that I found Artorias' body.
From that point on, my mind would no longer co-operate with my body, resisting my attempts to seize any sort of control over myself. I dragged Artorias out to the cliff, and let his body join Ornstein's in the river. No 'one would so much as touch them - that much I was sure of.
What a waste of life. Why had Artorias come here? To throw his life away? To throw all their lives away?
I constructed a makeshift grave from the rock scattered by Kalameet in yesterday's scramble. Officially, this small tombstone marked them both, but in my eyes, it was solely for Artorias. Representing Gough with the puny-sized stone would have been a disservice to his memory - in this way, I doubt that I could ever have found a rock large enough.
I just sat there for hours. Perhaps days. Just thinking.
Then, it happened.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up like needles, and a shiver went down my spine. A shadow appeared along the floor in front of me.
I knew for sure in that very moment that I was now in the presence of Artorias' killer.
I turn to look, expecting an immortal demon with no physical, damageable properties. Instead, I was met with a creature of flesh and blood. Just like me. It is dressed somewhat peculiarly, with a gigantic wooden treasure chest headpiece being the standout feature. I contemplate rushing them, using quick cleaves of my Gold and Silver Tracers to disembowel and decapitate. But the will to fight is no longer within me.
Then I sense it.
"Is that not the soul of the man who fell on this spot?" I ask, watching as the figure nods tentatively. "He was a dear friend. I wish to pay tribute to him with that soul. Would you be willing to part with it?"
The chest-head looks puzzled with my offer. He looks down at the ground as if considering, and then, having reached his decision, seizes the black-hued soul in his palm, and crushes it, dissolving its unique contents alongside my spirit.
Indecisiveness freezes me to the spot, and the fiend turns his back and walks away into the distance of the Oolacile ruins. My brain orders me to follow, whilst my legs refuse to cooperate. By the time I have regained my senses, the Dark Lord is long gone.
But now, here in the Kiln, I have found him again. At the very end of the world. And I have lost. His Moonlight Greatsword glints off of the fading sunlight as he raises it to deliver the sealing blow.
As my mind retreats from its walk amongst my memories, it slowly settles in to die.
The Dark Lord pauses, most probably to take a celebratory gesture, and then I feel the whoosh of air as the blade parts my soft flesh and spills my warm blood across the floor. Again, and again, he smashes, breaking my bones and eviscerating my flesh. There is no mercy, no escape from this.
In my delirium, I start to picture my lost friends standing around me. Gough. Ornstein. Artorias. What cruelty permitted me to survive that day whilst all of them had ceased to be?
In my last seconds, I see Artorias, feel his soft hand upon my cheek, beckoning me in, telling me stories of how he has traversed the dark, and made it his slave. He tells me; shows me. I can be there with him too. But it's a long way down.
I weigh up the options, the positives and the negatives. I see all of my memories flood past me again in a flash, taunting me. Finally, I take one last look back at the way that I have came, and then happily take the plunge to join him.
Truly, we are better without it.
Yes, it is.
This story could not have continued without the support of my dedicated readers and reviewers. I would like to give a special thanks to ParagonEmil and EarthScraper for their continued support throughout this train wreck. Thanks br0s! :D
Have a fantastic christmas, everyone!
For the last time,
What's that? You still want MOAR?! (You probably don't, but whatever). This is one of those "after-credits teases" I've heard so much about :)
The Silver Knight froze to the spot as he saw the body lying on the podium, and instantly identified it. His look of despair was caught by Gwyndolin, who tried to even it out with a conciliatory smile.
"My lord," the Knight murmured. "It cannot be him."
"I'm afraid it is," Gwyndolin replied, his tentacled limbs curling and retracting unnervingly as he spoke. "His body was the only one that we were able to recover, but it seems likely that his fellow knights perished as well."
The knight could bear looking at his fallen hero any longer, and broke the gaze. "Why are you showing me this?" he asked softly.
"To inspire you. You are the captain of the knights, am I correct?"
"And am I also correct in saying that you do not respect me sufficiently enough to see me as the rightful commander of your legions?"
A pause. "You are."
"Then you will not argue with me. Anor Londo needs protectors in the absence of its rulers. One day, the fire will return and the sunlight with it. Until that day, I must fulfil my father's legacy as he wished, and safeguard his city."
The knight saw the strange object that seemed to wriggle in Gwyndolin's hands, and came to a haunting realisation. "Is that... Havel's black ember?"
"A fraction of it," Gwyndolin confirmed, casting a quick look of admiration unto the viscous black mass. "Gwyn would have you believe that he had the whole ember - and its creator - condemned to the Painted prison. But I have managed to salvage a piece of it. It is far too valuable a resource to go unused."
The knight was unsure of how to feel. Mostly, he was horrified, but a part of him longed for a return to the Anor Londo order of old, where the sun rose every day and life was blissful. The knights of Gwyn had been missing for months, but only now was he certain that none would ever return to the golden city in one piece. Through whatever means available, he was determined that he should fight for this revival.
Gwyndolin raised his Darkmoon staff to the dim candlelight, crushing the shard of ember into its wooden tip. The reaction was instantaneous, with the wood turning bright white along the edges as the imbalance was catalysed. The knight stood back, watching asphyxiated with a rare fusion of terror and awe. When the transformation was complete, Gwyndolin gently tapped the now-sizzling tip against the cranium of the fallen body's helmet.
Slowly, a transfer of energy took place, with a dark mass of energy passing from the staff into the disjointed suit of armour.
When the process was complete, Gwyndolin took a slithery step back to inspect his handiwork. For a moment, it looked certain to have failed, with no movement arising from the body. Sighing, he took up the enormous spear that lay by it's side, but in the midst of doing so, was jolted aside as the previously-immobile corpse lifted its arm and curled its fingers around the spear.
Gwyndolin smiled, pleased that his experiment had prevailed, and hopeful for the future of his own design.
The silver knight dropped his shield and sword in disbelief, and turned and ran from the room.
The candles in the room blew out in unison. A silence descended upon the long hall.
And Ornstein's eyes flickered open.