Aleorn was an Ashen like any other: lost, forlorn, alone in all things. His Darksign was the bond of his servitude, and like many before him, he sought to erase it; for while it was the exultant glory of life everlasting, it was also the cold, cruel shackles that bound him.
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. Fingers of iron clanked against his palm; nails nigging into his flesh. 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.”
Aleorn smashed a fist of iron against a gaunt hollow, feeling its bones shatter like porcelain, its flesh tearing and sloughing away. The monster crumpled where it stood, dust fanning out from its crushed features, dark blood pooling around the ruin atop its withered neck.
“A potent blow” Or’do called; his resonant voice losing no volume despite the formidable distance it crossed. Or’do stood near the Dancer’s gate, hands cupped around his mouth to magnify his words. At the stairs’ end, where a secnod gate loomed, several hollows lay in scorched ruin, the force of Aleorn’s flows nearly severing their heads, the impact alone cracking armour of boiled leather, turning it and the body beneath into crumpled heaps that lay dark and melancholy upon the stones. “Yet you can do better.”
In the days since the Keeper’s death, Aleorn had not drawn upon her powers, at least not by conscious design. While he sensed not her strength, he felt his reservoir of souls diminish slightly with each blow. In an exchange of some sort, the Cinder within him flared with life and his attack gained cataclysmic force, yet the lives within him were burned away. No flame could burn without fuel, however, and the price was far outweighed by the reward.
I cannot do this. Aleorn nodded silently, sinking into a pugilist’s stance. On the ground before him, the slain hollow twitched, glowing from within as if a bonfire had been kindled among its ribs. Its chest exploded, flame and gore erupting as clawed fingers thrust forth, yellowed nails digging into the stones with sickening shrieks. Another hollow dragged itself into Aleorn’s world, drawn from one parallel by Or’do’s baffling power. Aleorn knew not how his comrade did this, and in truth, he cared little.
Her death has strengthened me. His fist crashed home, flattening the creature’s face with a reverberating crunch!
He turned dark eyes to the hill’s crest where Or’do stood, nodding his approval.
“Better still! One more, then we test thy newfound might upon a creature of more adequate strength.”
Aleorn bent in a half bow, unconsciously wreathing his hands in serpents of fire as he pivoted back to the many times reborn hollow. He wove fingers strong and cruel as steel into a two handed fist, and with its immense power staved in the hollow’s grey scalp before it had taken so much as a single step into its new world, a single breath of blood clogged air. It collapsed sidelong, thin wisps of smoke trailing from its seared flesh.
Without warning, the fog door vanished, recoiling as if burned, its absence revealing the broad, empty chamber beyond. Aleorn was quite familiar with the Boreal Valley’s Champion, Vordt; yet he was all the same caught off guard when in a whirlwind of polar fury lunged out of that chamber, falling upon Aleorn in a steel edged dervish. A reflexive swipe of his flaming hand flipped a rather surprised Vordt aside, hurling him against the far wall with terrible force. Yet even as his body shattered, the Lord was reborn, bursting frmo the ruin of his predecessor. Aleorn blocked the monster’s slashing mace – which dwarfed even the largest of men – upon his upraised forearm, twisting beneath and driving his iron fist between those eyes of arctic blue, crushing Vordt’s ursine features and freeing another twin from its cocoon of steel and bone.
Or’do looked on grimly, arms folded behind his back. Troublesome thoughts swirled like angered locusts caged within his skull. Slaying the Keeper was uneeded; even now her strength alone was not what fueled those cataclysmic blows. Aleorn could never learn of this deception; it would destroy him as now blade ever could.
Below, Vordt fell again, yet almost as quickly was in a geyser of gore and frigid wind born afresh. Each time he rose it was with greater strength; having been drawn from a plane parallel where stronger beasts dwelt.
As he observed the seemingly endless battle, Or’do’s mind strayed into ever darker reaches of the hell behind his pale eyes. Aleorn had wept, true sorrow clear upon his bleak features, yet it should not be possible; the mere fact he had returned defied logic. No Ashen was capable of slaying the Keeper however mad or apathetic they were; she would merely rise again, hiding well her disdain beneath a mask of concern. Yet there was no duplicity in Aleorn’s eyes; few Ashen pursued deception as it was, for what one desired could be taken by force more effectively than guile; the oft broken Patches attested to that.
“How?” He whispered. Even the Voidwalker’s band was noting more than a death sentence; the fatal blow Or’do could not bring himself to deliver. The ring permitted, or compelled rather, its wielder to etch the Void’s mark upon their foes, yet in so doing would excise the Flame’s brand. Aleorn should had fallen where he stood, severed from the Flame, his death as certain as that of a mortal deprived breath.
Unless he was already Voidborn.
“I tried to murder another Solitude Strider?” He felt a chill slither along his spine. “How did I fail to recognize one of my own kin?” Or’do asked the wind, yet he recieved an answer all the same, spoken in his own internal voice. Because he has not yet realized it himself.
Aleorn whirled beneath his foe’s mace, the air roaring, light dancing along its cruel edge. Flame seethed from his fist as pivoting still, he delivered a right hook that flattened the Boreal Gladiator’s face, his arm a blazing pillar, his eye cold and hard.
Or’do exhaled softly, his feature troubled. Initially, slaying the Fire Keeper was naught but a death sentence in the guise of a test of loyalty. This task however, was far from meaningless.
“Go on.” He closed fingers of iron around his forearm. “Show my thy true strength.”
Aleorn felt rage consuming him from within, its searing heat devouring his sanity, screaming for vengeance with its thousand baleful voices. Unbidden, a roar burst from his lips and instead of retreating when the mace came arching down from on high, he merely raised one hand overhead, and with blinding flash, thunderous report, caught it. His hand glowed like smelted iron, and like a dagger slicing fat, cleaved the weapon in two. Flame surged within him, gushing from his flesh in glowing scythes as he twisted beneath the shortened weapon, his hand a falling star that slid through the crouched Vordt’s throat, filling his lungs with ash and death.
Aleorn paused not a moment before clasping both hands overhead and with terrible force smashing Vordt’s skull like a gourd flung from great height. The Boreal Champion rose again, vapor hissing from its jaws, eyes of arctic blue shining like fractured sapphires.
Aleorn felt an alien power swell within him, clamping fingers of molten steel around his heart, crushing him from within.
His fist lashed out, his arm a silvered blur that roared through the air, hammering against Vordt’s jaw, a spiral of flame rolling out from the point of impact, a hurricane of light that ripped through flesh and ground bone to motes of dust. Yet still even as Vordt’s headless corpse slumped forward, clawed paws erupted from the ragged stump of its neck, screeching across the bloodied cobblestones and spraying long scythes of sparks in their wake.
Aleorn pivoted, adding momentum to his titanic strength. His hand was a blazing star set upon pedestal of glimmering marble; yet this time as Vordt was thrown back, lifted from the earth as Aleorn’s punch slammed home like a thunderbolt, a cyclone of dust and debris roaring past, the Ashen twisted closer, free hand engulfed in stark white mist. As Vordt slumped to the earth once again, Aleorn dashed forward, gloved palm crashing against the monster’s brow and from the terrible impact swelled a globe of swirling mist. Beneath his hand a Darksign appeared, yet its colours were wrong, white where they should be dark, its fringe unraveling like fraying rope. Vordt’s eyes widened in shock, then glittered with sudden depth as if a thousand thousand minds peered through those azure portals. Aleorn felt his heart lurch, siezed by phantom hands; that fear, that certainty had shone in the Keeper’s eyes. There was some significance in this, yet addled with hate and grief as he was, Aleorn could think of naught but all consuming rage.
Tilting his head back, he unleashed a roar of pain and despair tempered with suffering, made strong by his anger, sharpened by his anguish.
He is Voidborn Or’do thought, relief flowing through him. I am not alone after all.
In the days that followed, a thousand Lords were cast to the stones, cracked apart beneath blows swift as lightning, heavy as landslides. Or’do no longer seemed weary or distant, indeed at the fireside, when Lords lay slain, Or’do often joked in raucous tones, made of each moment a festival all its own.
Yet within his skull, dark thoughts reigned still. He does not yet know. He is lost and without purpose, an ember that fades in the gloom. Yet I cannot give him his true place, cannot bestow the mantle his very breath has earned. Aleorn must learn on his own the nature of his strength.
When they entered new worlds, neither the Keeper nor Vordt awaited, and slowly, as Aleorn became stronger, each Lord was wiped from the slate of Creation, Unmade upon every plane at once. Aleorn had noted the Lord’s absence with marked apathy, yet when he learned of the Keeper’s permanent death, it naerly destroyed him.
Yet in the forge of grief was he remade; when he recovered it was without warning and a power that eclipsed any he had displayed. Little did Or’do know: Aleorn no longer grieved, for he felt her presence at his side. She was within him reborn, and her forgiveness had healed the wounds he so long carried.
The Soul of Cinder rose, ironclad soles striking sparks from the stones as in ominous silence it advanced. Or’do and Aleorn stood just beyond the threshold, both wielding not but their fists; for any other weapon would be ground to dust beneath the force of their blows.
A thousand times had they fought this guardian, and a thousand Flames had they linked; yet this time, something was different. There was a palpable charge in the air as the Lord advanced, a titan in vestments of flame. Around its feet spiraled pools dark and cold; mist of ebony rising in long, curious tendrils.
It surged forward without warning, blade of bloody flame arching through the air, time seeming to slow as it batted aside their mighty fists, drove back the Voidborn with furious strokes. Relentless as a hurricane it advanced, sundering rock and setting the bare earth alight with the sheer, sinister heat of its blinding blade.
Thou hath reached a Nexus The Keeper’s voice rang in Aleorn’s mind, calm in spite of his mounting fear. A rift where those who tread upon path of solitude and shadow may at last grasp the extent of their err.
Aleorn ducked, yet the starlight blade came crashing down upon him, momentum halted and reversed with impossible speed; belying the monster’s unfathomable might.
Is this what thou sought? Aleorn pivoted where he stood, letting the Soul of Cinder strike naught but a protuberant stone, the blow showering him with sparks, shredding his calf with barbed shards.
You know what I sought. Turning still, dust and blood fanning out behind, he drove a fist strong as steel, unstoppable as a landslide, into the Soul’s stomach, receiving not faintest sign of discomfort, much less pain for his trouble. Solace from a life of torment and desolation. He darted aside, torn muscle trailing like ragged tassels from his torn leg, pain wracking his body, yet the movement spared him a devastating collision with the monster’s blade, the wind of its passing raking razor talons against his neck, heat searing his flesh, melting his armour.
And to that end I sacrificed the one thing in this world for which I cared.
He felt the Keeper smile, grim yet ever hopeful.
Thou knowest not thy comrade’s nature; yet it is between thy bodies shared.
A blade bright as dawn, chilling as dusk, sliced the air a finger’s breadth from his cheek, blinding him if only for a moment. The Keeper could speak, yet the effort taxed her greatly; he sensed whatever it was she wished to impart would either be lain bare now, or not at all.
What are we? Aleorn had lost track of his comrade, and was thus surprised when the Soul lurched, rocked by a siesmic impact. Or’do lunged beneath its slashing blade, ramming his fist into its gut, then darting out of its reach as without slightest wound, the Cinder’s champion turned in pursuit.
I know now whether he shares they power, only thy curse.
The Voidsign; thou art both sons of chaos, conceived to bring ruin and desolation. He felt her grimace, sorrow cold in her immaterial veins.
And I hid this from thine eyes, praying that thy nature would wither forgotten, would vanish if not attended. Anger, frustration, despair, stained her phantom voice. Mourn not the death I recieved, for it was duly earned.
No! Aleorn gritted his teeth, flame leaking between his lips. No one deserves the death I lavished upon you. I struck you down without mercy. I saw your heart break before I tore it apart.
When she did not respond, Aleorn knew that once again she had succumbed to the eternity of suffering within him, had faded like embers in cooling hearth. Then a whisper came weak and frail:
Slay this Aspect of Eternity, and from its death thou shalt learn the meaning of suffering; this is the toll that understanding demands.
Then she screamed, a horrible, weak, pitiful sound that resonated in his bones, and within them kindled the indomitable flame of rage. He lunged, fist of iron slamming against the monster’s ribs, bone bending, flexing beneath his knuckles, and from the point of impact a sinister Voidsign curled. Yet it did not fall, instead lunging toward him, strands of blood and ash unspooling from its crushed ribs, its sword a sunlight glimmer in the smog choked air as it bore down upon him. Without thinking, Aleorn threw himself to the side, one hand coming down upon the weapon’s flame cloaked plane, the other swiping up from below. Between his hands the sword cracked asunder, its midsection ground to dust beneath the impossible force of its unmaking.
Aleorn wasted no time with awe or satisfaction, merely pivoted around the Aspect, foot sweeping its legs as he passed. In his hand an obsidian dagger gleamed, its edge alit with baleful luminescence. It hissed across the Soul’s throat as he twisted past, spilling a ragged fan of silken blood in its wake, then as if overcome with grief, exploded into wisps of black mist.
Shock clear upon its gaunt features, the Aspect collapsed, arms falling limp at its sides, ashen blood gushing from its sundered throat, splashing into its palms and pooling around it. Then, a disk of intricate, spiral runes swirled out from its ironclad knees as if it was into a spilt of oil that the Soul of Cinder had collapsed.
Mist dark and bleak as starless night, writhed from the flagstones, nebulous hands snaring both Voidborn with grip of iron. Their prison faded like a candle’s uncertain flame and in its wake crept Sleep, sister of Death, bearer of Oblivion. Beneath her phantom touch they crumpled, falling into the void below.
The Keeper was right, if only in part: truth did indeed wait in that silken shadow; yet so to did unspeakable pain. It was to a realm of fear and despair that they woke, a land of eternal night governed by twisted titans. As different as this place was, it all the same evoked a sense of familiarity; it to was home to a Shrine, if in purpose alone; a crumbling mansion tended by an immortal doll. Within waited Gehrman, Eldest of the Deep Champions; a formidable foe whose scythe of solemn moonlight took Aleorn’s head from his shoulders while Or’do was engrossed in his own travels. Distance mattered not, however, for he was Voidborn, and thus sensed when his brother’s bond was extinguished. Lord’s of Deep were able to effect Signs of Flame or Void; this Or’do realized only when he held the cold, ruined remains of his dearest friend.
Why does his loss pain me so? Or’do wept bitterly, bowing his weary head until his brow rested upon Aleorn’s motionless, crumbling chest. The answer was obvious, at least in the eyes of another; whether Aleorn realized it or not, he was the ember that warmed Or’do’s cold, solemn heart; he was a brother in arms whose quiet nature and reserved smile were brighter than the Sun itself.
Robbed of his Brand, Aleorn was no less mortal than ordinary man, yet as Or’do held his lost friend, watching through dark eyes as the Voidborn’s blood drifted into the emptiness around him, he noticed upon his comrade’s chest lay the Darksign, not the mark of Void, and it was this, not the Voidsign that had been erased.
Confused, Or’do drew a gloved finger across the pristine Voidsign, half expecting it to come away like damp paint. The Darksign granted a Voidborn greater strength, yet was not his bond to the world; it was little more than a blade or bow, a tool whose loss weakened but yet could not of itself destroy.
He laid a hand atop Aleorn’s silent breast, his own heart ripping itself in two, his vision filled with bright memories; the triumphs they shared, the sense of belonging Or’do had for so long languished without.
“What are you?” He whispered, voice cracking with sorrow. A Voidborn he could save, yet those who dwelt in the Dark, worshiped the Light, were naught but prey to him. Then a thought came, as troublesome as it was wonderous.
If I can steal Darksigns, perhaps I can bestow them as well He drew back his sleeve – gauntlets only shattered beneath the force of his blows – looking upon the dozen signs etched across his flesh with newfound hope.
You cannot. A voice whispered; it took him a moment to recognize it as his own. “You are a Flame that consumes, devouring without bestowing anything in return.”
Aleorn and Or’do stand upon an outcropping of stone, gazing into the chamber far below.
“Perhaps I should fetch a ladder” Or’do muttered.
“Who needs ladders,” Aleorn bounded off the edge, a grin upon his lips, flame unspooling from his limbs. “When you have these knees?!” He vanished into the void below, fading like a fallen torch.
“Aleorn?” Or’do leaned forward, as amused as he was concerned. From far below a thunderous impact boomed, grinding through stone, thrumming in his bones.
“I think I need new knees!” Aleorn called.
Or’do had laughed then, yet he only wept at the memory, for it was as warm and bright as he was cold and dark. In desperation he called out to the Void, pleading for salvation, straining with powers that now defied him. It was perhaps like attempting to bend one’s leg sideways; the muscles were capable, yet the mind rebelled, grappling with the traitorous body for every agonizing inch.
Aleorn sat at the bonfire’s edge, lost in sorrow and desolation. He knew now what terrible fate his fear had bestowed upon the Fire’s Keeper, and this knowledge seared him from within like molten edged caltrops rolling through his veins. There was about him a mantle of darkness, an emptiness in his eyes, a melancholy note to every word.
All that had given his life purpose was now stripped from it; Or’do was the last sliver of hope left in his squalid life, yet he was the force guiding Aleorn’s hand; Or’do’s will had cut short the Keeper’s false life, severed her link to the Flame and cast her forevermore into the abyss that lurked in the shadows beyond life.
Or’do gritted his teeth, staring skyward with eyes that burned like coals set in his skull. His fingernails dug into his palms, blood welling up around them like pools of dark oil.
“It hurts, does it not?” Or’do knelt at his comrade’s side. “I made you do this. Her death is my fault not yours.”
“I wish I could hate you.” Aleorn turned eyes of cold, dark fire upon his friend. “Yet I cannot.”
“I deserve whatever wrath you can muster.”
“Not this time.” Those fierce eyes dimmed, turning bleak and hollow with anguish. “You asked of me, yet I could have defied you.”
“Why did you not?”
Aleorn faltered, and deep in those melancholy eyes, in the depths of his dark soul, something broke. “Because I was afraid.”
Or’do slammed a bloody hand against his comrade’s motionless chest, staining the sundered Darksign with his steaming life. Tears seared his cheeks like rivulets of molten steel, glittering softly in the fitful life.
“I betrayed you.” He whispered. “And you forgave me still.” His voice fractured, rent asunder beneath the weight of despair. “I do not deserve your kindness.”
“Cling to hope, my friend.” Pain tore through his body like a whirlwind of razor edged blades.
“For no matter how dim its embers are,” Upon his chest the Voidsign glowed, its light somehow conveying emptiness like none mankind could fathom, its pale white radiance prophesying a day when the world was forevermore clad in mist and silence.
“For it is always warmer than despair.” Or’do screamed in a harrowing mixture of pain and sorrow, the Void’s brand flaring brighter until to look upon it was to ensure blindness, and silken mist rose from its shimmering perimeters.
One of his stolen Darksigns blazed with light, Or’do’s flesh shivering and rippling beneath its flame kissed shores. Slowly, it faded, leaving a disk shaped scar upon his skin; the sigil of Flame’s dominion melting into long threads black as starless night that flowed along his forearm, spooling around his fingers, digging barbed edges into Aleorn’s crumbling body. The Ashen’s Darksign remained wounded and inert, yet a hand’s span beneath it, a point just above where the leftmost kidney rested, a new Sign branded itself upon his flesh.
At once, Aleorn’s eyes snapped open, breath rushing into his lungs, blood flooding his veins, the parts of his body that had shattered and drifted away instantly reforming. Confusion clouded his eyes only briefly before being replaced with icy sorrow.
“You sacrificed your sign for me.” His voice was choked, empty. “How are you still at my side?”
He did not ask why. Or’do thought. Because he knows that if I fell, he would do the same.
“The Flame sustains my life, yet does not command it. I admit, without the Cycle’s brand, death is permanent; it was but a small sacrifice however, for it brought you back to my side.” He chose his words carefully, not certain why it was that he felt his nature was best concealed rather than spoken of, only that there was something strange about his companion, a Voidborn who was bound not by the Unmaking but the Maker.
Aleorn’s eyes grew hard and keen as flint.
“Then I shall let no harm befall you.”
In the days that followed, Aleorn did all he could do uphold that pledge; they were trapped in the heart of the Deep Sea, a series of dungeons whose mouldering depths typically opened only with the whisper of a chalice. Within these foul walls thousands of Ancients languished, and only with their death could freedom be attained.
Sacrificing the Darksign had diminished Or’do’s strength, if by a nigh imperceptible margin: his blows still resonated in the stones, his wounds still healed almost as swiftly as they were produced. From Cinder, from Void, and from Deep could Or’do draw strength, yet as they progressed, it became clear that Aleorn could not do the same. He grew frail and weak, his breaths flecked with blood, his steps faltering, legs barely able to hold him aloft.
Or’do felt a pain worse even than that of tearing free his Darksign, a crippling sense of helplessness as his friend died before his eyes. They had almost reached the lair of the Pthumerian Queen, Enlightened Lord of the Deep; yet Aleorn seemed unable to press on any further. He crumpled there upon the stones, laid prone before the rugged portcullis that stood vigil over Dee’s slumbering soverign, and with trembling, delerious voice begged of Or’do perhaps the one thing he could not grant.
“Please, Or’do.” Aleorn lay limply upon the stones; a marionette with severed strings, his hand cold and feeble in Or’do’s desperate grasp.”I need to see the Sun again,” He whispered, dark eyes closing in weariness and surrender.
“One last time.”
Or’do’s heart sank and he felt his throat constrict, crushed by the iron hand of sorrow.
“You shall see the Sun again.” He felt the lie heavy upon his tongue, scalding his lips as it passed. “Once and forevermore.”
Aleorn smiled, slumping back against the stones, his breath shallow and eyes closed. There was upon his face a peace like none his troubled life and permitted; a certainty that his eternal suffering would end. When Or’do rose, it was with the ominous languor of a tidal wave, lightning convulsing in his dark eyes, his fingernails slicing into his palm as he clenched fists of iron. In spite of the Darksign, his comrade had perished; his body eroded by the Deep Sea as dunes of sand were swept away beneath tempestuous winds.
There was but one way to escape Gehrman’s prison: slay the Sovereign of the Deep. Gehrman had cast them here in certainty that they would never emerge, that they could never again threaten this strange land’s true Lord.
He had erred. Or’do had fought scores of Unkindled, tore their Darksigns from withered flesh and made of them an immense cache of power. The claim of frailty he had made was intended only to pacify his comrade; an Ashen could not long survive without the Flame’s Brand, a certitude with which Aleorn would be well acquainted, and without such claims, his vitality would a suspicion foster.
This realm’s ruler must fall, for such was the price of his friend’s survival. Some part of him rebelled as he brushed bloodied fingers against the gate of fog, having already passed through the portcullis, shouldering through it without pause or resistance. He sensed beyond the Servitor of Deep that lounged beyond; it was unquestionably powerful, stronger perhaps than anything he had faced in his long, tortured life.
Yet it stood between him and the joy of friendship made stronger by the pain it endured. There was a terrible sense of foreboding about that chamber, yet he cared not. Through the mist he passed without another breath wasted in hesitation. For perhaps the first time in his sordid existence, it was neither greed nor disdain that raised his flame wreathed fists, but fear for another.
And perhaps that is why this of all battles was to be his undoing.
The Pthumerian Queen would to many be a horrifying sight indeed: her features pale and gaunt, eyes sunken and hollow with anguish. Her vestments of white clung to the swell of her stomach, indicating that a child dwelt within and perhaps this was the source of her anguish: the Deep Sea would soon roll forth, devouring the world beyond, and her child would be the heir to the shattered ruin it left behind.
She stepped forward, head bowed, hands clasped as if in prayer; tendrils of darkness visible only to Or’do’s Voidborn eyes welling up from the ground around her, encircling her like a her like a dead flower’s brittle, crumpling petals.
Aleorn’s breath hissing softly, faintly, his gaze distant. Or’do lunged, slashing wildly, stiffened fingers ripping through her flesh, smashing bone into coarse dust, spinning her where she stood and spraying long crescents of blood across the stones. The Pthumerian Queen made no attempt to evade, merely suffered the blow, let its impact resonate through her, a hushed grunt her only complaint.
Aleorn laughing, his eyes sparkling in the firelight.
Fury crashed over him like a tidal wave of ice and fire.
Aleorn thrusting a fist heavenward, a cry of triumph ringing through the still air.
Or’do’s fist rained upon her, swift as wind, heavy as a rushing avalanche. Even now, battered and bleeding, the Queen showed no trace of fear, only sorrow, only remorse for what she had done.
What she must do.
In his anger, Or’do had become blind to the nebulous mist surrounding her, had suppressed his warrior’s instincts,and thereby allowed his guard to fall. The Queen wasted no time with her retaliation.
Razor edged tendrils slashed through him, impaling every organ, splintering his ribcage and shattering his spine. Blood clogged his throat, coppery and warm, spilling over his lips along with a strangled gasp. Nearly four dozen vipers of mist and steel had pierced him, and now they were all that held him aloft. Every Darksign and the mark of the Unmaking was sundered, and their pain tore through him like a thousand cruelly edged glaives.
“I care not where we are.” Aleorn gestured to the snowy hills of Ariandel. “Only the company in which I travel gives my life meaning.”
I feel the same. Or’do realized. “Oh come now, Aleorn, surely I do not mean that much. I am but a phantom to aid you, nothing more.”
“You are far more than that. Had I not met you, I would wander still, mindless and frail. You freed me from that waking slumber, gave my life meaning again. For that I shall forevermore in your debt be.”
But you did the same for me.
Or’do wept a single tear as the ashen tendrils slid back, retracting with a damp hiss. He felt no pain when he crumpled, vision dark and body distant, only a terrible cold and a sorrow keener than the blades that laid him low.
Aleorn slammed an iron palm against the ground, cracks spiraling out from the impact. Or’do had not cried out when he fell, yet Aleorn sensed his peril all the same. Conflagrance! Flame wrapped around his body, curling over his armour like affectionate serpents.
My weakness has already eneded the life of one I loved. He stood, eyes bright as stars, smoke rising from his smouldering flesh. The Cinder within his breast had grown cold and dark, for he had but few souls with which to stoke it. Yet he cared no longer for his own fate; it mattered not whether he lived or fell, only that his cowardice would not claim the life of his dearest friend.
He flung the last of his souls into the Cinder, and let its inferno devour him.
As Or’do lay, life pooling around him like spilled oil, he felt a sudden warmth fall over him, a light at the fringe of his vision. His world snapped back into focus as Aleorn surged past, streaking toward the Deep’s Queen like a falling star, lightning flashing from his limbs, exploding beneath his feet. Evert step bore him nearly fifteen paces, hurling him forward with roaring force of an almighty gale.
His fist came up, flame trailing behind in a long, ragged edged fan, ash swirling around his emaciated frame. The Queen smiled sadly, sunken eyes dark as starlit seas. She gestured, slashing the air, and invisible to Aleorn’s Ashen eyes, a halo of keen edged tendrils rose around him, and like a flower spurned by light, its crescent petals snapped closed.
“Aleorn!” Or’do managed only half the word before his voice failed him and blood rather than breath spurted over his lips. He could do no more than watch as his comrade charged headlong into certain death.
Aleorn had not time to register his death before it was upon him. With soft hiss and moist crack the thin blades tore through him, his own momentum forcing them deep, shattering his bones, sundering brands of Flame and Void alike. He stood frozen, blood leaking from his thousand wounds. Then, in the oblivion of instant death, he heard the Keeper’s voice.
“Do not give up, Ashen One. For our kind death is seldom the end.”
“I feel strange.” He murmured, not realizing that he lacked a voice with which to speak. “Different somehow.”
“You are suspended between undeath and the fate it was spared you.” She faltered. “You are not of the Flame, Aleorn. I knew your true nature, and I-” He sensed her discomfort, her regret. “I hid if from you.”
“The same reason I forgave you when at his behest you slew me. When I looked upon you I saw the torment on your face, the pain in your soul. I knew that the truth would destroy you, that if you hunted down the Ashen, alienated the denizens of these endless worlds, you would become far worse than hollow: a sane man pleading the Gods to strike him mad, if only to ease his suffering.
Yet the life I gave you was no better; you suffered still, yearned for the purpose I denied you. Then, you found Or’do, and for the first time in so long, you smiled. I realized then how wrong I was to deny you the joy of purpose, and when you came to destroy me, I knew my death was duly earned.”
“No one deserved the death I gave you.”
“I lack time to debate this!” The Keeper’s voice cracked and only now did Aleorn sense the pain within it. “You are neither Ashen, nor a child of Void, but something far stronger, something that can end the cycle or let it persist until time’s wheel grinds to a halt.”
“What am I?”
“To Or’do, the Champion of Unmaking”
He felt her smile fall upon him, warm and soothing as sunlight. “The Heir of Cinder.”
Aleorn slashed a hand across the spears that held him aloft, striding forward even as they fell away. A single flaming tear traced his jaw, curling around his forearm in a thin wisp of fire. It flowed between his fingers, lengthening into a long, slender blade of piercing light edged in solemn darkness. Lacrimosa the weapon’s name rang through his skull, a one words chorus over the slow thunder of his laboring heart.
What? Or’do felt a surge of hope then, as his comrade took one slow step toward the Queen, scythes of flame taering through his flesh, wisps of the Unmaking’s coarse, grey mist hissing from his wounds.
Aleorn sank into a sprinter’s low stance, Lacrimosa’s shores of starless oblivion darkling before him.
He is not the Champion Or’do realized. Yet neither is he the Heir.
“By the strength of Void,” Aleorn’s voice was rough, grating. The Queen cared not for theatrics, however; a simple slash of her arm sent vipers of mist arcing toward him, and in spite of himself Or’do cringed, expecting but not relishing his comrade’s violent demise. Yet Aleorn, even badly wounded as he was, whirled forward in a tempest of soot and cinder, his blade a silvered gleam that wove pewter strands through the air, ripping through tendrils of mist and grinding across the stones below, molten earth fanning out in its wake.
“The sorrow of a fading Flame” Aleorn surged forward, every step flinging him some ten paces, each blood flecked breath glittering like embers in the smoke clogged air. Now, the Queen did retreat, desperately slashing with keen edged crescents that bit only air, or clashed with and shattered upon tempered steel.
“And the fury of their clash,” Upon his breast a new sigil blazed to life as if branded from within: a disk of shadow filled with wisps of pale mist. “Shall you be destroyed!”
Or’do’s vision turned black, his life long gone from his veins; yet it was with a smile that his life ended, for the last portrait his eyes painted was of Aleorn, tears of fire streaming from his angular face, blade of light and shadow fading into a long, indistinct blur as it cleaved the Queen from hip to shoulder, ignoring her outstretched hand and the web of mist that armoured her. For once in his long life, Or’do was truly happy: this time his hate, his greed, his worthlessness had not claimed a life, but elevated it.
And that meant more to him than all the souls in these foul lands.
No sooner had the Deep’s Queen fallen, than the dungeon was crumbling away, tiles fading int ofrail stalks and pale bloom, arched ceiling shattering to reveal heavens grey and bleak. Gehrman, Lord of the Deep, stared on in shock, fear, and perhaps awe as Aleorn strode forth, eyes dark and downcast, bloodied sword thrust out wide, black tendrils weeping from its edge.
Or’do falling, a strange peace softening his features. Aleorn gritted his teeth, blood pouring over his lips as shards of ivory sliced his mouth, teeth shattering like porcelain.
Or’do lying in his arms as the world fades. Gehrman barely registered the movement as Aleorn rushed forth, blade shrieking as it arced in from below. It was primal reflex and nothing more that tugged the Deep Lord’s scythe into the weapon’s path, their clash reverberating through the still air. Steel grated against steel, cracks spiraling along Gehrman’s blade. Now, and for perhaps the first time he felt true, abject terror: here was a foe whose power so dwarfed his own that even the earth charred and cracked beneath him, the Lord’s flesh sloughing away.
His scythe shattered into a blizzard of starlight fragments, and a mere breath later, Aleorn’s blade tore him asunder, snapping his spine like a brittle twig. At once, the Deep Sea vanished, replaced with the Kiln’s familiar scent of char and despair, its earth no longer clad in grasses but in stark grey sands. When Gehrman opened his mouth in a scream of horrible pain, Lacrimosa glided over his lips and vanished into his throat, connecting his severed boy with a thin column of steel.
Ignescence! Flame coursed through Gehrman’s veins, igniting his bones, smoke spurting from his eyes, fire gushing frmo his shredding flesh.
Aleorn released the embedded blade and fell to his knees as if in reverence. Tears of flame streaked his features with molten rivulets, their heat and light a stark contrast to his frigid, barren heart. The only friend he had known now lay dead upon the stones, granted a long deserved and hard won peace, yet Aleorn wanted only to take it from him.
He rose, leaving the impromptu bonfire and staggering into the darkness, motes of light and ribbons of ember speckled ash drifting from his stooped, beleaguered frame. Aleorn knelt at his comrade’s side, backlit by the steady glow of ravenous flame, and took Or’do’s hand in his own, closing his eyes and bowing his head as if this alone would wake his dearest friend.
Slowly, a glimmering tear traced his jaw, falling like a bead of still molten glass and bursting upon his comrade’s motionless chest.
“Do not weep for me.” Or’do whispered. “I do not deserve it.”
Aleorn opened his mouth in protest, yet Or’do interjected: “I am tired.” He sounded confused, dazed. “Allow me a moment’s rest,” his eyes closed to faintly glowing crescents, a smile still upon his bloodied lips. “And when I wake we shall be together again.”
Then he was gone, and Aleorn wept until the world rotted to nothing around him.
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