He was not quite hollow – his gaunt yet human features attested to that – yet he strode nigh senselessly through the bitter realms, for his was a life neither lightened by purpose nor driven by hate, but something far different and altogether worse: empty. Aleorn has no reason to live, and therefore he drew breath, his heart beat, his eyes glowed with life, yet he was no more alive than a carving of stone.
Then, he found purpose and hope again, a fellow Ashen garbed in the golden raiment of the Sunlight covenant. Twice he appeared before Aleorn, yet it was not until the Cinder Lords lay slain that he offered to remain by Aleorn’s side indefinitely. Aleorn assented without pause, for this was a chance to again know friendship, joy, and meaning; and these were more valuable to him than all the souls in Lordran. The Ashen adventured for a time, laying low even the mightiest of foes, sharing cries of triumph, and laughter once forgotten. These days were the most previous of all,
and like all things that we love,
Fate was all too happy to destroy it.
There was about Or’do a strangeness, a mysterious feeling of wrongness that defied reason; his infectious grin and easy laughter quickly dispelled the notion, yet it was always quick to return. Aleorn forcibly ignored it however, for he feared more than anything the loss of his only friend.
Lords fell and worlds were conquered, yet of course nothing changed. Or’do, distant at first, grew closer, warmer, yet the darkness around him only deepened. Then at last he revealed his secret, his smile fading and eyes cold, shadow clinging to him in spite of the bonfire’s comforting glow.
“There is no point in all this.” He murmured, gaze downcast, studying the embers.
“Of course there is.” Aleorn knew his words were hollow; they fell cold and empty from his lips, how could they ring any differently in the ears of his friend?
“No, and not even you believe that. Each world is only a gateway to the next, every foe a marionette that rises again as soon as our back is turned.”
Aleorn sensed that Or’do was goading him, that there was a response for which he yearned, but one of which he could not speak.
What does he want? He thought, confused.
“The cycle enslaves us.” Haunted eyes locked with Aleorn’s. “But I know how to end it.”
Aleorn felt a surge of frost pour through his veins. “Why?! If you end the cycle, return the void that lay before,” He trailed off. “So many would perish.”
“Aye.” Or’do’s eyes darkened. “I thought you would say as much.”
“But countless more would suffer if the cycle persisted!” Aleorn blurted; he did not believe the words he spoke, yet he forced them past his lips all the same. At first he did not realize why he cast forth the lie, yet of course when he reflected upon this moment in the dark days that followed, he knew at once the reason for his deception: fear. Not of Or’do, but of losing him.
Through this world of pain and darkness he had long stumbled, despair consuming him, devouring with flame cold as ice. He was hollowed not by madness, but anguish, for there was naught but pain in this world bleak and grey. Then this warrior of Sunlight has risen from the stones, beckoned to another solemn hour, yet jubilant as if each step was itself a wondrous thing, that all in this world merited laughter and hope. Aleorn was stunned by this outlandish man; it was not for some time before he realized that Or’do was his impeccable twin – if in appearance alone. Perhaps in his desperation, he had created the very saviour for which he had so long yearned.
Perhaps Or’do created him.
That infectious laugh and easy smile was to him a light brighter than the Sun itself and thrice so warm. Even these few days had mended his soul, had given him back the hope he had for so long yearned. To lose Or’do was to become again that dark warrior who stumbled through endless war, raising his eyes to the heavens only when he wept.
He was a man enslaved, bound as much by friendship as fear.
“I owe the Flame nothing” I cannot become that man again “It stripped away my identity, made of me a mindless wraith.”
“True, yet if you quench the Flame, eliminate the Darkness, your darksign will fade, and with it so shall you.” Or’do did not meet his eyes as he spoke, seemingly ashamed or perhaps mistrustful.
“When the cycle ends, so shall thy life.”
“What I have no is not life.” Aleorn stared into his hands, as if there lay an etching of awesome profundity upon his palms. “I am lost, mad, besieged with despair.” He looked up, locking eyes with Or’do. “But you have given me something to fight for, restored the purpose I lost so long ago.”
“Then you would renounce the Flame?”
I cannot be alone again “Yes.” He murmured. I cannot endure the despair, the solitude. “I forsake the Flame, as it has forsaken me.”
“Good.” Or’do sounded relieved. “Then I’ve a task for you.”
“Name it!” Aleorn flinched. Not so eager he chastised.
“Return to your shrine, and slay its Keeper.”
Aleorn stopped short. “Why?”
“She is a servant of the cycle, exists to ensure its continuity; need you a reason beyond that?”
Yes “No,” He lied. “I merely wondered at the reason.”
Or’do softened. “I do not command you, Aleorn, merely pose a request; those can be denied, my friend. Yet until you slay her, you will be unable to gain the power I have.”
“You” Aleorn thought. Thy peculiar manner of speech has already begun to corrupt me; could this be another – albeit subtle – act of defiance against the flame? “How will her murder strengthen me when she is the means by which I glean nourishment from devoured souls?”
Or’do extended a hand, and upon his palm black fire curled, hardening into a ring blacker than starless skies, baleful as gleaming steel. “You like I have reached the pinnacle of Ashen might; no matter how many souls you offer, she can strengthen you no further. You are in her eyes a blade honed to perfection; yet if you take her soul upon yourself, I can teach you to unlock your strength without her.”
I cannot “Is her death necessary?”
“Yes. Without it, the cycle will not end, for your potential will remain forever untapped. And, since she serves the cycle, if she learns of our treachery, our progress will be at least slowed by her attempts to stop us.”
She was the first creature to smile when she looked upon me. Her kindness gave me hope, if only for a moment. “If such is the price of ending our torment.” Aleorn rose. I sought for so long to repay her, yet now I must end her life; how can I do something so deplorable?
“It is.” Or’do rested a hand on his comrade’s shoulder. “Slaying her is the first step toward freedom, the first riven link that causes the chain to fail.”
Forgive me. Aleorn’s heart turned cold, his eyes hard as flint. My fear is too great. He nodded, then placed a hand on the coiled sword’s pommel, willing himself back to the nearest thing he had to a home. As the world faded, he felt part of himself darken with it. It is for the best, he thought. My betrayal would pain her more than steel ever could.
Why do I toy with him? Or’do rose, not banished from Aleorn’s world even when he himself had left it. Why can I not bring myself to destroy him as I have so many others? Absently, he scratched at his left forearm where two dozen stolen Darksigns lay.
I am a child of void. He closed his eyes as if this alone would quench the cold fire devouring his heart. I exist to slay their kind, to end the cycle and return the reign of emptiness forevermore.[/i Fingers of iron clanked against his palm; nails nigging into his flesh. [i]So why does it pain me? He raised his eyes heavenward. Why do I hesitate? Black flames rippled along his forearm, fanning around his trembling fist, dripping like blood from his knuckles.
Why do I care for him? A flash of memory, cold anguish crushing his heart.
Or’do lying on the stones, his body crumbling, his Voidsign sheared in two. The Soul of Cinder towers over him, blade held out wide, edge slick with his spilt life. Fear siezed him, yet he could not muster the strength to do anything more than raise a trembling hand. He watched with dimming eyes as the Soul drew back to strike, its gaze impassive, deadly.
In desperation he cried out to the Void as a child screams for its mother; he felt the wounded Sign, seared by Light, corrupted with Flame’s smouldering brand, spasm and convulse, straining to answer his plaintive cry. His vision turned black, then became speckled with points of light like bloodred stars: fallen Ashen whose corpses had not yet faded. The glimmering blade swept down from on high, hissing through the air like a striking viper, trailing a mist of glowing embers that stared upon him in silent condemnation. Its chill edge bit flesh, its frost slicing through him and bringing with it a world barren, black, and cold.
He woke with a start, leaping to his feet, stumbling as the unfamiliar legs betrayed him. A body he had stolen, a vessel whose master had departed. Or’do raised hands that were not his own, and stared into their worn palms. Sorrow drove its fingers of ice and fire into his heart, tearing from him the last spark of hope. Already kneeling, he had not far to fall when he collapsed, and with last breath pleaded Death take him.
Leather creaked as Or’do clenched his fist, bones grinding, tendons straining. Blood welled around his fingertips, staining black cloth a shade darker still. In that moment, I cared not for the fate of any beyond myself, but I knew at once what it was like for all those I had killed. Agony keen and fierce smote him like a tide of shattered glass. I gave no thought to your fate, perhaps I believed your false life would end at my hand like so many before you. Even when I rose upon your legs, took a breath with your lungs, I felt not the palest shade of remorse. He straightened, forcibly casting off guilt’s leaden mantle. And that is how it should be.
The Shrine seemed dour where once it was welcoming; its darkness deeper, its Bonfire dim and fitful. Light flared from the pile of smoulder bones, and amid those radiant tendrils, iron suddenly gleamed.
Aleorn rose smoothly, Or’do’s ring shimmering upon his fingers, gleaming like spilled blood as he closed his hand into a fist; yet try as he might, he could not summon the hatred that once fueled him. Ten steps he took, each heavy as crumbling towers, his heart growing colder with each beat, his eyes darker with each thought that flickered within.
When I stumbled here, the Soul of Gundyr burning within me, I was lost and afraid. He knelt before her, hand raised palm upward. I knew naught but pain and cruelty. Luminescence pale and innocent as virgin snow blazed in his hand; souls without their sovereign, straining to answer the Keeper’s call.
Then I looked upon you, my heart dark and barren, my world a tempest of blood and steel. He looked up, breaking his reverent stance.
I flinched when you met my gaze, Aleorn closed his hand, rising calmly, slowly, a tidal wave whose langour belies its might. But you smiled all the same. His hands shook, the ring’s power screaming to be unleashed. My world became warm and bright again. He clenched his fist tighter.
But you are a servant of the cycle, the reason for my suffering. Aleorn called to the ring, and at once it responded: strength surged through him, thrumming in his veins like four hearts beating in unision.
The cycle ends here. His heart felt as though its would tear itself asunder.
She was the only creature in all my travels to smile when she looked upon me. He wavered, yet the ring’s power would not be denied. Before he registered the movement he had werathed his hand in black fire, and thrust it into the space between her breasts, ripping through flesh and bone with so little resistance it seemed he struck nothing mroe than air. She gasped in pain and slumped against him, features contorted in agony. Around his arm, upon her flesh, a strange symbol appeared: a halo of white that reached with wispy arms in all directions – the Voidsign, a brand that would end the Keeper’s life, and prevent her from ever rising again. She cried out, and sorrow overwhelmed him, freezing his blood, stealing his strength.
Both collapsed to the stones, Aleorn tearing his hand from her crushed chest, holding her close as life fled.
This is how I repay her kindness? Her breaths – shuddering and weak – misted against his breastplate. What have I done?!
He felt her trembling in his embrace, shivering like a withered leaf upon long dead branch. She slumped against him, slimp and frail, her face pressed against his neck, her skin pale and cold. Then he felt her lips curve into the same gentle smile that once brightened his world, yet now only thrust it deeper into darkness.
She struggled to speak, and while the words had not breath to grant them substance, they smote him as if wrought of stone: “I forgive you, Ashen One.”
Then she was gone, and Aleorn was alone with his despair. He held her lifeless frame until all warmth had fled, and even still he clutched her, his shattered heart cold and hollow, its fractures deepening with each labored beat.
He knew not how much time had passed before he rose, carrying her from the Shrine like an infant curled in his arms. In the same grave from whence he had risen, he laid the one creature whose death had ever pained him, praying that she would find a more lasting rest there than he had.
“I’ve sacrificed you, that I might grow stronger, that I would never again feel the agony of loneliness.” He knelt beside the makeshift tomb, eyes closed and tears glimmering on their fringes.
“You forgive me,” He buried his face in his hands. “But I can never forgive myself.”
When Aleorn returned, it was in a mantle of darkness cold and heavy as lead. If he was surprised to find Or’do waiting for him unbidden, he hid it well, for he merely fell to his knees at the bonfire’s side, and stared into its glowing embers.
“It is done,” He rasped. “The Keeper’s soul is mine.”
“It hurt, did it not?” Or’do’s words were soft, kind. He knelt at his comrade’s side. “Her death pains you.”
“Yes,” Aleorn whispered. “I’ve killed thousands, devoured entire nation’s worth of souls, yet her death,” His voice broke and he turned plaintive eyes upon his companion. “Why does it torment me?”
“Because she was kind where so many were cruel. In a world bleak and dark, her smile was a breath of warmth and peace, a solace fleeting but no less lovely.”
“When we stride on to the next of these countless worlds, we shall find there another precisely as she was.” Aleorn wrung his hands, gaze haunted. “Her loss is temporary.”
“Strange, is it not?” Or’do rested a hand on Aleorn’s shoulder. “Flame sustains us, yet lies still burn our mouths.”
Aleorn looked up, confused.
“There will always be more Flames, and Keepers to attend them; yet none can replace what we have destroyed, not as she was. Our lonely hearts clung to the hope she represented, and any other bearing her face, speaking her voice, will be more insult than comfort.”
“Then why did we destroy her?!” A flash of light in his weary eyes. “Why did you demand that I take her life?”
Or’do merely gestured to the obsidian ring. “You have taken her soul, have you not yet used it?”
Aleorn shook his head. “How could I?”
To this he received a knowing nod.
“The pain will fade. You have done what was needed; pray claim thy reward, lest it wither forgotten.”
Upon his finger the ring gleamed, eagerly awaiting his decision, seeming to grow warm against his flesh, as if it were a thing alive, furious and desperate, struggling weakly. Indeed, he felt a faint pulse from it, light as the Keeper’s final breath. Sorrow washed over him once more, and he crumbled beneath its suffocating weight.
“I cannot.” He whispered. “Every time I try, I see her smile, watch again as it turns cold and still with death.”
“I understand.” Or’do silenced him with an upraised hand. “Torment yourself no more then.”
Aleorn nodded gratefully.
“Are you ready for one last fight?” Or’d asked, receiving a confused look by way of reply. “One last battle as an Ashen,” he clarified, “before you become something far stronger.”
“When I become that of which you speak, will I feel this agony still?”
“No, you will be consumed with unimaginable power, and in its razor edged tempest lose yourself if only for a moment.
A fist tightened in determination, a pall of darkness clouding once bright eyes. “Then let us be on our way.”