Last week I heard that one of the oldest and most iconic stores in the city was preparing to close up shop for good, and was going to sell off the old, hand-drawn signs they had been collecting for more than half a century. So on Monday, at the request of others, I found myself standing in a line that stretched from the store’s front doors, down to the far corner of the block, then around the block to the next corner, and then around the block again almost to a 3rd corner. As a result of forgetting about daylight savings time, I showed up late, and was in the last section of the line. It took 7 hours to get into the store, and once inside it was discovered that the line continued up to the 2nd floor, so that it was another hour before I could get to the signs. Once on the 2nd floor, we were told that they were limiting each customer to 3 signs and 3 original prints of newspaper ads, and that there was another line, just as slow, to get to the checkout, where there was only 1 woman taking cash, and an artist signing everything. In the end, I spent over 9 hours standing in line to buy things I didn’t want for someone who thought they were getting to be something completely different. But I bought them anyway, and I even got them signed and authenticated.
A woman next to me in checkout line said, by way of explanation, “We only planned on being here for two hours.” She waved her cardboard price signs in the direction of a man, utterly defeated, who was slumped over and half asleep on top of a discarded plastic milk crate. “After about three hours, though, we had gone too far, and now it’s nearly eleven o’clock, and we’re still waiting to get out.”
Another woman walks over and asks if she can cut in front of us to the checkout, since she has to catch the last bus home. She had only been planning to be here for 45 minutes. The most tragic person I met that day was the girl who stood in front of me, clutching a small cloth grocery bag in her hands as she shivered quietly in the afternoon chill. It was 5 and a half hours after we met that we got close enough to the front doors for her to realize that the store was still open for regular shoppers, who didn’t have to wait in line at all. She practically curtsied at the police officer who got someone to unlock the door for her.
The man himself once said that, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Ain’t that the truth.
I have a few Souls left over from my last failed journey through the New Londo Ruins. I invest them in an upgraded talisman to increase the potency of my healing spell, and a point in endurance, because who doesn’t like a good round number?
I don’t know what it was, exactly, that made me enter the flooded shrine instead of going straight down the elevator to Blighttown. Something about that crow just seemed more interesting than it had before. Somehow, I’d knocked loose old ideas in my mind. Or trying to divert my attention from the task at hand ended up focusing it in places I been looking at before. For whatever reason, I had the overwhelming urge to go over to the crow and see if it had anything new for me.
As soon as I set foot in the shrine, I hear very load snoring. There is text on my screen and everything. I look around, but find nothing. The guy at the bonfire is still awake, and still useless. The cleric is still awake, and still whining about me not paying him off earlier. Where could it be coming from? I search high and low, and even fall down to the graveyard a couple of times. After I think I’ve exhausted every place I can poke my head into, I focus on the crow again. I know it wasn’t the crow who was snoring, but I had already been thinking about the only thing I’d ever been told about that big black bird: it picked up some guy who was curled into a ball. Could it be that the crow has grabbed someone and dropped them in the shrine? I start to look up.
Above the crow, in an upper tier of the ruined shrine, I spot a nest.
That’s something. Would a crow have dropped someone into its nest? As food, maybe? It’s the only part of the shrine I haven’t checked yet, or at least the only part I can see. I start looking for a way up.
There are stairs up there. If I can get to them, I should be able to climb to the nest. I find the highest point in the shrine that I can get to normally, which is an open platform across from the roof of the building the cleric hangs out in. While looking for a way across, I notice that there is a loot body on the roof.
Now I’m really curious. But how do I get there? If I jump from this spot I can only land on the small ledge running around the outside of the building, too low to get onto the roof. At least too low in video game logic; there is no reason that someone with my upper-body strength couldn’t pull themselves over a chest-high wall. However, that’s the world I live in, so I have to find another way. I circle the outside of the building, and confirm that the stairs near the nest are intact.
With no way to get higher than I am, which means no way to jump onto the roof with the body, I decide to reverse the problem. So far, Dark Souls has been a game more about going sideways, or just falling down, rather than climbing. Perhaps I need to get to the nest the same way the guy I’m trying to find would have: I need the crow to carry me.
I consider my options. The crow doesn’t respond to communication. It doesn’t respond to damage. It doesn’t seem to, at least. I pull out a bow and start pew-pewing. It stays in place, ignoring my attacks, until it reaches critically low health. Then it squawks and takes off, heading in the general direction of Undead Burg.
That’s something. I wonder what I’m supposed to do. I walk over to where it had been perched, but there’s nothing new. It hasn’t left me a nice rope I could use to climb higher, or a set of hidden stairs. I sit down at the bonfire to make the crow reappear. Should I try to follow it? I attack the crow again, this time with my club, so I can be close enough to see its flight path. It flies toward Undead Burg again, and gets lost from sight before I can make anything else out.
Following it from here seems impractical if I take the direct route. But I think about where the crow might go, if limited to places that a player could reasonably get to. Someplace up high, obviously. Where is the highest place I can quickly access from here? The church roof in Undead Parish. All I need to do is take the elevator up, climb a couple of ladders, and I’m there. The crow isn’t, though, so I check the bell tower as well. Nothing new in there, except that apparently I can absolve myself of 25000 Souls worth of sins. What have I been doing that’s so wrong? The murders in the woods? The curses? Unless being a sinner starts to actually have an effect I can notice, I don’t see the point in wasting that many Souls. Finally, I check in with Andre, even though there’s no way he could see a crow from where he’s working. On a whim, I spend my last 2000 Souls on a repair kit. Turns out, it’s not a single use item. It disappears from the buy menu. That’s nice. Next, I can buy the weapon and armour upgrade kits, when I have the extra Souls.
The crow is back, which suggests to me that I’m actually not supposed to go after it. I didn’t use a bonfire, which is supposed to be how I reset the position of enemies and NPCs (which of those is the crow?), and it returned anyway. Was it because I entered a new area, or because of a timer? Either could work, but I’m leaning toward a timer right now, because there are no loading screens in Dark Souls that suggest a hard transition from area to area.
While descending in the elevator from Undead Parish, I noticed a fairly substantial amount of open air before I reached the bottom. The kind of open air that is begging to be leapt into. I take the elevator back to the top, then down again (I’m thinking that I don’t want to lose the elevator on the way up, but I notice that another platform passes with every use, so there’s always one at the top and one at the bottom.), and as soon as I see natural sunlight, I dive off the platform. I fall a long way, and take plenty of damage, but with my new talisman I can heal myself to full with a single miracle.
It’s too far to jump to the roof with the body from here, even though I’m high enough. I look around for other options. I see nicely rounded, moss-covered pile of stone blocks not too far away. If I could jump to that maybe I would be close enough to the ruined shrine wall to gain access. I try for it, but can’t stick the landing. It’s a little too far, and the slope at the top is more than I expected. I am momentarily defeated, but I take the elevator and jump onto the roof again anyway, because it does feel like progress. I had entertained the idea that maybe I have to fall down from somewhere even higher, like the giant tree and its branches that shade the entirety of Firelink Shrine, but from up here I can see that there’s no other exit onto the branches, no higher place that I could be coming from. This roof is the highest point I can reach, so there has to be a route from here.
This time, I aim my jump directly for the arch leading to the window. It’s a narrow landing spot, but I make it.
I go through the window and find stairs, invisible from the ground, that curve around the back of the shrine’s wall and up to the nest.
The nest itself holds no sleeping man, only a pair of huge speckled eggs.
I think this is where I reached the point of no return. What had begun with the simple impulse to find the source of some snoring was not going to end until I had solved the completely different mystery of what exactly this crow was up to.
In the nest I am given a clue: a prompt asks me if I’d like to curl up into a ball. I am once again reminded of the only information I’d ever been given about the crow: it carried away a guy who had been curled into a ball. The weirdness of that finally sets in. Why would anyone specifically mention that the crow’s victim had been curled into a ball when carried off? It seems like a completely normal reaction for a defenceless person, upon being attacked by a giant crow, to get as small as they can, to squat down and cover their heads with their hands. It’s a reactive posture meant to make themselves less of a target, and to protect their head from the crow’s talons. Now I see that it wasn’t an incidental detail, but instead I was being told that a man was carried off by the crow because he curled himself into a ball. It was proactive.
So I step into the nest and curl into a ball.
Apparently the crow needs more of an incentive than a mysterious person stomping around next to its eggs. How do I attract its attention? With what I’ve been presented, the most obvious action is to pull out my club and try to smash an eggs. I bet the crow would notice that.
But there are limits to the crimes an Undead might commit while banished in Lordran, and one of those limits is spilling a half-formed giant baby crow out of its shell so that I can watch it gasp and squirm, see its skinny, featherless body shiver and twitch, before its milky eyes roll back and it dies. My club goes right through the eggs, and I slip out of the nest and fall to the ground below.
Now what? I guess I’ll do the only thing that has ever gotten me a response, though it seems like a strange reaction for a crow under attack to abandon its nest, unless it really is trying to lead me away. I climb back up to the nest, then stand on the stairs opposite the crow and pull out my bow. I can’t get a target lock, even though it doesn’t seem that far, and I’m using a longbow which is supposed to be for sniping.
Then I remember the body on the roof. I jump down from the stairs, and after some weird sliding around, I get solid footing and loot the corpse. I pick up an Undead Asylum Key.
There’s a surprise. I had thought that the crow would carry me off in the direction it flew, toward Undead Burg, which I think was the opposite direction of the Asylum. I figured it would drop me somewhere high up, I would pick up an item or two, and then I’d have to make my way back, or use a return bone. Back to the Asylum, though? Well, there was that one door I couldn’t open on my way out. I could loot that corpse I couldn’t reach on the broken stairs. That’s about the same difference as any other secret alcove it would carry me to.
I attack the crow with my club again, and when it flies off I hop on the elevator, then onto the roof, then jump across to the shrine, run up the stairs, and curl up into a ball in the nest.
After a while, the crow comes back. A cutscene starts up. It grabs me, and carries me off. I am deposited in another nest.
Another surprise. I don’t remember a nest when I was leaving the Asylum. Maybe I’m in a different section of the Asylum, a different wing.
I look at the key I have. It says that an Undead who returns to the Asylum could be the hero who lets the prisoners free, or they could be a coward who just wants to escape Lordran. Which is it to be?
At the bottom of this peak is a gang of Undead who wave torches at me and try to burn the flesh from my body. Why would I want to free any of these assholes again?
I read the message on the ground. “Good job. Go straight ahead.” I am back where I started. I guess I’ll just pick up the item I couldn’t before and be off.
Through the doors and I’m in the hall where I fought the giant demon way back when. I see an Undead with a sword standing in the far corner. Looks like there are new enemies around, so getting that item will require at least a bit of effort.
Or maybe more than just a bit of effort. I take a few steps into the hall, and the floor collapses under me. I fall to the bottom, taking a lot of damage in the process as stone lands all around, and on top of, me. I am attacked by a giant demon. I look around the room. Is this the one I saw pacing outside my cell when I first broke loose? I have little time to react. I’m both flatfooted and injured, and I go down without much of a fight.
I return to the Asylum, and this time give the floor in the main hall a wide berth, and take the side passage down to the bonfire where I found my shield. I am startled again when I find the bonfire unusable. A sword-swinging Undead pounces on me from the stairs. I kill it, then rest at the bonfire.
I could keep going from here, up and around to the locked door, but I have a body to recover and a demon to kill.
My second bout with the demon doesn’t go much better than the first. Stray Undead fall from above, and the demon swings at me, but misses. I think I’m safe, but get caught in some sort of energy blast, then another. I die again, and I didn’t even recover my body.
I drop down again, and again I am killed by invisible blasts of energy. In the corner of the room I see a column of white light. Maybe I can get at the demon from there, and not have to fall down.
From the bonfire, I take the other exit, down the hallway where I had learned to use my shield against a lowly Undead archer. There is no archer this time, instead there is a large knight waiting for me. He looks like the Black Knights I’ve been fighting, but his armour is silvery white.
Maybe it’s just the light he’s standing in?
The battle is tougher than I expect. The knight fights with a sword and shield, similar to the Black Knight in Undead Burg, but in this tight space it’s harder to get around him when he leaves openings. I have to use the range of my pike to poke at him while he whiffs attacks, until I run out of space to retreat into, then I dodge past him and do it again, going the other way. Eventually, the knight dies, and I get a Red Titanite Chunk.
I am worried about my Estus flask consumption here. I figure that when it slips down to 5 charges again I’ll kindle the closest bonfire, if I haven’t already found my way out.
Up some more stairs, and I see an Undead knight wandering around. I realize that he’s the one who died and got me sent to Lordran in the first place. Even after I killed him, he’s still come back. Well, he’s not getting off so easy this time. I shove my pike through his stupid head, and pick up a Crest Shield. It is enchanted against magic damage. Seems like it would be helpful against the demon below.
Next, I look up the stairs. Sure enough, the metal ball is back. Did that little Undead spend all of this time shoving it back to the top, just so he could roll down on someone again? Too bad for him I’m only mostly dumb; there’s no way I’m falling for that trick twice.
I climb part way up the stairs, and when the ball starts rolling I hop off. It misses. I find the little jerk and kill him again, then kick his body over the ledge.
I go down to the courtyard and rest at the bonfire there. I wonder what has become of my old cell. I take the ladder down into the darkness, and see that the demon I was fighting is indeed the one I’d seen at the start of the game.
There is another of those silvery knights down here, standing guard in front of my old cell.
This knight is an exact clone of the other, fighting with the same sword and shield style. He dies the same way, and drops another Red Titanite Chunk and a Black Knight Sword. Guess they’re still part of the same gang, and I’m not caught in the middle of a Black and White Knight turf war.
The sword does a lot of damage, and even weighs less than my pike. It seems fitting to carry it around next to a giant demon when it was originally made to fight demons. In fact, it’s still covered with blood that I hope to be demon blood.
In my cell is another corpse, propped up against the wall, but without shackles. The door is still unlocked, even open. Was he trying to escape when the Black Knight showed up? Was the knight looking for me and found him instead? He is holding a peculiar doll, an item that I can’t see the use for right now. It was once owned by an abomination who ended up in a painted world? One of your standard abused little girls with super powers narratives, I suppose. It’s sure to come in handy at some point.
Now I want to find the alternate route into the demon’s lair. While leaving the dungeon, I check the bent iron bars between me and the giant creature. Near the stairs I see a complete opening, large enough to fit through. I can’t make it from this end, but I think I see the rungs of a ladder. I could get up to there if I were already in with the demon; it’s an exit, not the entrance I want.
I test my new sword out on the Undead between me and the locked door. Its damage is nice and its normal attacks swing in wide, comfortable arcs that aren’t too slow. As with the Black Knight Axe, the heavy attacks are beyond awkward, but I probably wouldn’t need to use them anyway.
There is little noticeable difference between the Undead here now and the ones I clubbed down on my way out of the Asylum, except that there are two shielded soldiers guarding the locked door now, one with a spear. Neither of them take more than a single chop from my new sword.
And what do I get for all of this trouble? A Rusted Iron Ring. “Improves balance on poor footing.” Apparently it’s useful in swamps. It had better be, considering the hoops I had to take to find it.
That seems to be it. I find no other new paths, no alternate route to the demon. I guess I’ll have to do it the hard way.
I land again on the great pile of loot that the demon is guarding. Has it been taking these from the Undead inmates? Is this somehow a payment for its guard duty, even though it’s not doing much guarding locked away in this room. I suppose it looks intimidating, pacing back and forth over the pile of gold coins. The Asylum is supposed to be massive, but I’ve only seen this tiny section of it. Maybe this is some sort of maximum security or isolation ward. Maybe the demon is just big and dumb and only cares about the acquisition of more gold, because gold is shiny. Doesn’t matter to me much, since I can only spend Souls.
The battle is simple enough now that I can defend myself from the demon’s magical attacks. I still take my time with it because I become convinced that the way its tail wags is inviting a chopping. Even though I stick to the demon’s ass like a bad case of piles, and only attack it from behind, the tail never drops off.
I pick up a Titanite Slab. Reinforces normal weapons to +15. Does that bypass the Divine or Enchanted route? I can just get normal +damage now? Is it a one-time use item, or do I give it to a blacksmith as an alternative to Embers.
I use the ladder I saw before, but there’s nothing on the ledge. I think I should find the other exit, the one blocked by the white light, but soon realize that it was the ladder that had been blocked off by the white light, and it’s the only way out. I guess my time at the Asylum is over for good. I return to the nest, curl into a ball, and wait for the crow to take me back to Lordran.
Back at the Firelink Shrine, I sit and think about what I’ve been through. Why did I return to the Asylum? To pick up the doll, and the Titanite Slab, I guess. I didn’t do any heroic rescuing. I wouldn’t want to set any of those Undead free anyway.
I finally take the time to consider the implications of Undead and Hollowed. I have to remember that those conditions are only points on a scale. Every Undead becomes Hollowed eventually, or so I’ve been told.
What is the Asylum, in the big picture view. My current perspective is that of an Undead on the inside, and all references to the Asylum, and Lordran itself, are negative. The Asylum is a bad place. It is heroic to free Undead from it. But, is it really?
Here is what I know: for whatever reason, humans in this world can become Undead. It’s a curse of some sort. Does it happen to everyone, eventually? I don’t think so. There is a clear difference made between Undead and non-Undead. I think about the conditions the Undead are left in, at the Asylum. They’re obviously terrible, but why is that? Are normal humans so evil that they would go out of their way to make the Asylum as unbearable a place as possible? What about the roving bands of Undead hunters outside Lordran? Clearly, most humans hate the Undead. They are similar to lepers in how they are regarded, but with the key difference being that the Church also hates Undead, while the Church often took pity on lepers and looked after them when society had abandoned them to die alone.
What is the difference between a leper and an Undead? A leper is a victim of a horrible disease, and is unpleasant to look at and be around, but is little danger to others. Undead are also unpleasant to look at and be around, and are initially no danger to others, but every Undead is a ticking time bomb waiting for the day they become Hollowed. But, before they become Hollowed, they are still sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, children and friends. What happened to turn everyone against them? It was probably the Church that began it, and the first thing they would do to prepare for a crusade would be to establish their target as others, to strip them of their humanity and debase them, so they become easier to abuse, to kill, to destroy. What better way is there to take away a person’s humanity than to point out that they have literally lost their Humanity, as a real, essential quality.
“That person you once knew,” shouts the priest from his pulpit, “who was your most intimate friend–the lover you whispered all of your secrets to, the father that raised you from birth–is just a Hollow shell. A shell that once contained the Soul you love, but contains it no longer. They have lost what made them them.” He smashes his holy book down, slightly opened so that it catches more air and the noise it makes puts an emphasis on his words, as if the gods themselves were adding their consent. “There can be no remorse or hesitation when dealing with the Undead. Look at their faces, into their eyes, and see that they are not who you think they are.” He raises an arm with a fervent energy, and points at a woman in the crowd. “Dry your tears! I was there when we buried your husband! Dry your tears, I said! I read the rites, before you and the gods!” He shakes his head. “I do not blame you. I do not blame myself; there is nothing more we could have done, or can do.” The woman nods, still staring at the dusty floor. Around her, murmurs of sympathetic agreement. “You know where he is, don’t you? You must take me to him. You do not have to be there when we . . . remove him; I would not wish that upon you after the pain you have already suffered. It is not your fault! We will take him–no, not him; he is gone already. We will take it away from here, and you will never have to see it again. It will never again speak to you with that liar’s tongue. Nothing it has ever said to you since it became Undead has been a truth. Nothing.” She finally raises her head far enough to look into the priest’s face. Her eyes are red and glistening with the tears. Her sleeves are damp where she tried to wipe away the evidence. She sees in the priest a passion, something she lost the day her husband died. Perhaps he is right. She begins to speak, but the priest cuts her off, firmly. “Say no more, child, for there is no more to be said. Remember the grieving you have already done, and dry your tears. Point us in his direction, and this will all be over.”
Even for those who initially sympathized with the Undead, how long before the Hollowed changed their minds? The Undead are vampires of the Soul, and perhaps they would eventually suck the world dry, whether they wanted to or not.
Though there are obvious and practical reasons for humans to want to get rid of the Undead, there is, perhaps, a subtler reason for how they are treated, one that everyone feels eventually, even if they aren’t able to put it into words.
I think about all of the Undead I have met in Lordran, the ones that aren’t yet Hollowed. Besides being a drab, morose bunch, they all share the same qualities of inaction and repetition. Even I am incapable of direct action in many cases. I am apparently unable to even form and utter my own thoughts. I am led through the land at the whim of others, going this way and that because it’s all I can do in the circumstances, not because it’s really what I want. I have no agency of my own, only instructions to follow. Could be that’s a product of Lordran, but maybe not. Maybe the loss of a Soul is also the loss of some ultimate spark within. I imagine a land of Undead, not yet Hollowed, and wonder what they would do. Is Undeath the continuation of life, but the death of the imagination, the death of what makes life worth living? Are the Undead akin to the zombies of philosophy? Would the Church even be wrong in saying that they are shells? Does a normal human look at the Undead and see not just the curse, but also something that is fundamentally wrong: the uncanny valley of the Soul? I imagine speaking to the Undead is a lot like speaking to a set of programmes designed to respond in ways that the human it had been would. The program would never be perfect, eventually flaws would become more and more apparent, and cycling of responses would be more and more unsettling. It would be even worse if the Undead was someone you once loved.
What does being the saviour of Undead mean? It has to be more than setting them free from an Asylum, or from Lodran. It has to be a final release, a freedom from Undeath, and from the threat of becoming Hollowed. A restoration of the Soul, of Humanity in the real sense, and of a life that has intrinsic meaning once again. If that is what I’m fighting for, then I welcome it. If this is merely an elaborate con, then I will be as unhappy as I am capable of being.
(And of course it’s all conjecture based on barely anything, but sometimes you have a lot of time to think, and the mind goes where it pleases.)
But either way, I’ve been standing in line too long to stop now.
I decide to rest now. Today, I accomplished something.
The only thing I’m left to wonder about is who the hell was snoring?