A moment to catch my breath and get my bearings.
I am underneath a waterfall, at the back of the keep that runs parallel to the woods of Huntsman’s Copse. Underneath my feet is a carpet of old, broken bones, some of which belong to the Skeleton Lords and their minions. They’re all dead. Again . . . again. It’s not complicated, but it is life in Drangleic.
At the back of the room is a hallway, and after a sharp turn I’m back outside.
What I find is a raised bridge and a switch. The sound of the rushing waterfall is beginning to fade. I pull the switch, the bridge drops into place.
Even as I cross the bridge, I realize that I’m leaving the Copse and likely headed to another area. What of the large coliseum across the keep’s broken bridge? It looks big from the outside, but it might be optional, or another path altogether. I still have it in mind as my next destination, but, what, am I not going to see the other side before doubling back? Of course I am, so I cross, and start up a path into the grey mountain.
But imagine my consternation when, after only a few steps into this new path, which curves up and right between steep rock faces, I hear the grinding and thud of something heavy and metal. Already knowing what I’ll see, I turn back and find that the bridge has raised itself. No switch is in sight, and there also seems to be an invisible wall blocking me from getting any closer.
Not quite an invisible wall, but odd clipping with the rocks on the left side of the path. With some jumping, and by hugging the right wall, I’m able to get around it. Still not getting me up to the bridge, though. I can’t go back that way.
So I turn and start up the path once more. On the way, I pass an old skeleton huddled in a shallow corner, hands covering its face. Yeah, we’ve all had one of those days.
At the crest is a ladder leading down. Continuing the established trend, as soon as I get onto it, I fall down. It’s broken, and though I can swing a hammer that’s bigger than I am, lifting my arms above my shoulders to pull myself onto a broken ladder is out of the question. I am now double stuck.
Another moment of stock-taking. No trees in sight, and I’ve been steadily moving up into the mountains. I’m out of the Copse for sure, and with no immediate way back to a bonfire, aside from a homeward bone. Fortunately, I have 4 flask charges left from the boss fight, which is not so bad, and a few lifegems in my pocket. I know I’m morel likely to encounter a bonfire than something that can kill me, but it doesn’t pay to be incautious.
I pop an effigy, then heal up with a lifegem.
Huntsman’s Copse’s moonless night has given way by now to a sickly mid-morning. The mood is set by a kind of pallor coming from sunlight filtered through the thick, smoggy haze that covers the sky out here. I soon pass an abandoned wagon, more skeletons, all centred around a shallow pool of green slime. The wind starts to rise, and thunder cracks out from somewhere ahead. Nowhere yet have I found such evidence of the land itself being poisoned by Drangleic’s doom.
There was a man writhing on the wet, leafy ground outside the tent, a spear still stuck through his chest. He was one of the Lord’s Hollowed wranglers, fresh from the day’s Undead hunt. They’d called the Priest to deal with an emergency, but he wasn’t sure what he could do to help this man, even as he bent down to get a closer look at the wound. Was that the Lord’s spear?
“Not him,” said the runner who had led the Priest from the keep. “Inside.”
The tent was large enough for most of the Lord’s personal entourage to sit or stand in comfortably at the same time, and was where they gathered for meals before and after the hunts. Nothing like that was going on now. Instead, at a large table near the centre of the tent, a crowd of men were struggling to hold someone down as flat as they could.
His ears filled with the men’s cursing, the Priest smelled fear and lingering death. A dark smear on the ground ran from the entrance to the table over to the table, which was slick with the same black blood. The Priest approached, only to recoil as he saw who the men were holding down.
Fighting and snapping wildly at any limbs that came close was a Hollowed young man dressed in old, worn clothes with faded patterns. They must have been something to look at, once, and expensive. It still wore its harness, and the chain lead clanked against the table whenever the Hollowed thrashed its head. As the Priest closed, the Hollowed turned its Soulless dead eyes on him and redoubled its efforts to get away from the wranglers.
“What is this?” asked the Priest.
“The Lord’s hound,” said the runner from behind the Priest. He wasn’t about to get any closer than he had to, even with a dozen men pressing down on the Hollowed. “You need to get to work.”
All the Bone Lords had their hounds. Hollowed that they whipped into submission and used to ferret out the Undead hiding in the forest. That was the macabre reality of the hunts, and why the Priest did not take part. But Hollowed were not in short supply, and when one died, finding a replacement was as simple as grabbing another Undead from the stocks and torturing him or her until the madness set in permanently. Undead were already less than human, even in the Church’s eyes. The Priest had made his personal protests against such barbarism, but the only response was laughter, if anyone bothered to acknowledge him at all. Never had the Priest worked miracles on a Hollowed, nor had anyone asked him to.
What made this one so special?
“Turn him over,” said the Priest.
After some struggling, they managed it. The wound ran the length of the Hollowed’s back, from shoulder blade to hip, and was deep enough that the Priest could see white bone in places. It continued to growl and snap as the Priest bent down for a closer look. Other hounds he had been around were not so anxious, as they were regularly beaten, to the point where they cowered away from ordinary humans. This one also had its teeth, which were the first things the torturers went for, along with fingernails.
“Can you save it?” asked the runner.
The answer turned out to be no, though the Priest did try. There was already too much blood lost by the time he’d arrived. After a final burst of strength, in which it managed to leave a deep scratch on the face of one man, and to bite off a couple of fingers from another, the Hollowed fell at the Priests feet. It curled into a ball and did not move again.
Outside the tent, the wrangler was dead, and the spear was gone. The Priest did not see the Lord anywhere that day.
Past the slime and I find an unarmed, human woman, sitting alone and cradling a skull. In the background is an enormous tower, covered in windmills, but also broken by age and disaster. Crows circle, and more thunder breaks. It’s the epicentre of whatever environmental catastrophe went down–is still ongoing. The sky above the tower looks fit to burst. And all I can think is, where’s the bonfire?
At the edge of the nearest cliff, I’m able to survey the land before the tower. A puss-coloured fog covers the ground, and if the colour wasn’t an obvious enough sign of danger, the heavy scattering of loot corpses is.
Almost-human creatures crawl through the mist, and a giant humanoid stands at attention with a rider on its back. It’s a scene that makes me ask again, where is the bonfire?
I turn to the woman. She is Chloanne, an orestone trader. The smith’s lost daughter? She tells me that she wanders Drangleic looking for rare ores, and doesn’t remember much else. As long as she’s willing to trade, her fuzzy memory is her own business.
Unfortunately, she must have spent most of her search parked on rocks, because she’s not impressing me with her inventory. Less than a dozen minor titanite shards, a bonfire ascetic, and a couple of spells. One of those is a hex that is basically Corpse Explosion, one of the best spells in any video game, ever, which is nice. I buy the lot, spending about 30,000 Souls. As a thank you, she hands over a twinkling titanite.
Chloanna warns me of the poison mists before I leave her be, and also that she’s done all she can here, and wants to head back to Majula. Hopefully she’ll pick up some new wares on the way.
Having unburdened myself of a good chunk of my carried Souls, I’m feeling like I can tempt fate a little, so I head down to get a closer look at the mists.
They look thicker from here than they did from above, and I get cold feet. Not that I wanted to go much further, but I could have dipped a toe. Might there be a special item needed to cross the trenches? Probably not. And where is that bonfire?
I back up, returning to the pool of green slime near the abandoned wagon. The skeleton splayed over its surface, as if death came from trying to drink, was already clue enough, but now that I’ve seen the green mists I’m sure this will poison me. Still, there’s something on the other side. I can see the entrance to a cave.
I wade through, and the slime coats me up to my thighs, staying on my legs once I’m on the other side. I roll a few times, an old Monster Hunter trick, to loosen the poison coating, and only once it’s gone does my poison bar start to tick down. At least it didn’t fill far enough to actually poison me. Does the rolling trick work? I take another dip in the slime, and time how long it takes for the poison to wear off without rolling. It’s the same, so that doesn’t work. Still, it was worth a try.
I rest at the bonfire. I am at the Poison Pool in Harvest Valley, which appears between Huntsman’s Copse and the Shrouded Woods. So where does that coliseum fit in?
From what I’ve seen of the place, it’s the wind that Harvest Valley, or the tower in it, is harvesting. Or, more accurately, the wind’s energy. For what? I’m a little curious, but no doubt its not to give the kingdom of Drangleic a reliable supply of bread and pastries. And if it is, that had better be some tasty bread to make up for clouds of flesh-melting toxic gas.
But that’s for another time.
I warp to Majula. Chloanna is now resting outside the blacksmith’s workshop.
Naturally, she doesn’t have a single new item for sale, but she does have more to talk about. She claims the blacksmith, who she is sure is Hollowed, looks like her father. Like Maughlin, they are from Volgen. For his part, Lenigrast is content having his daughter within eyesight, whether she’ll talk to him or not. I talk to her again, but get nothing else out of her. The least she could do is lend me some of her supposed expertise on orestones and give me a few clues about what they do. But, no. I’m on my own there. C’est la Drangleic.
She is now playing with a skeletal foot. As you do.
I burn my sublime bone dust at the bonfire, raising my flask to +4, and give the Estus shard to the Emerald Herald, which means 9 charges. Not a bad haul.
Looking to spend the rest of my Souls, I see Maughlin and buy more pieces of Alya’s armour set, then some Royal Guard armour with what I have left. I figure I should get what I can from him before he goes completely nuts.
I visit the cartographer next.
He claims to also be from Mirrah, and claims that he’s recently seen a man notorious for being a murderer back in his hometown. There’s not much of a description beyond that, but what he does give me matches Creighton, the guy I set free in Hunstman’s Copse. A murderer on the hunt for Pate, the lying, backstabbing thief. I’ll wait to see how that plays out, but so far Chreighton has been a slightly rude to me, while Pate was either leading me into a trap, or warning me of one. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt there, since he gave me an item.
I offer up my Awestones. I want to hit the next level of devotion, see what I get, and possibly experiment with another Covenant, if only to see what makes the Company of Champions special. I’ve figured out that I can’t summon help, and that I can collect Awestones, but there must be more to it than that.
Warping back to Huntsman’s Copse, I fight my way to the rope bridge. I’m finally ready to cross it and see what’s on the other side. On the way, I recover some prisoner’s tatters. Light armour with no defence, but it raises item find rates.
My plan is to cross the bridge, see what the next area is, then decide where I want to go. Will it survive first contact with the enemy?
“What do you see when you look at me?” asked the Bone Lord.
The Priest considered the question. They stood on the bridge between the keep and the sadistic coliseum. It was near midnight, and dark as only a moonless night could be. Below, in the forest, short lines of torches moved in long loops like flightless firebugs. The Lord’s men checking on the Undead prisoners in preparation for the morning’s hunt. It was only the Lord’s personal summon that had the Priest out here, as it was late in the year and he’d begun to feel the night’s chill more keenly. He wanted to be back in his tiny room with a candle and a book.
“Another man waiting for his turn at the gallows,” said the Priest.
The Lord turned toward him, but his face was only an impression under the deep shadows of his hood, and impossible to read. “You surprise me, Priest. Where are your words of comfort and inspiration?”
“Only a fool blunts his blade against armour he cannot pierce.”
“Aphorisms, then?” said the Lord with a snort. “May I have a verse as well? Anything to save you from having to think your own thoughts.”
His own thoughts. Countless years of received wisdom. All the words in every tome he’d read, or could read. The lectures and sermons. The life he’d lived. The Priest could not recall the last time sleep had come easily or without interruption. His own thoughts were so petty under all that weight. If a man could solve these problems, then surely one would have.
“I could not save him,” said the Priest at last. “I am sorry.”
The Lord turned back to watch the lights. “It’s not over yet.”
It’s never over, thought the Priest, so long as there is worse to come.
The Hollowed I saw hanging from the bridge take their sweet time getting up, and don’t do much once they’re on the bridge. I knock them down and keep moving.
What I find on the other side is the red spirit of a heavy knight guarding a big fog gate. Not sure what else I expected.
He is slow, but strong enough to be dangerous. After taking a hit, I land a backstab and try to use the knockdown time to chug from my flask. It doesn’t work out well, as he jumps to his feet much quicker than expected, and smashes me into the ground, killing me. Oops.
After using another effigy, I do take him down, though it’s more trouble than it should have been, and more than it’s worth. He gives over a paltry amount of Souls and no items.
For my next feat, I get myself killed jumping for a loot corpse on a ledge near the bridge. The red spirit is gone when I come back, which is something.
The corpse holds a Fireseed.
I walk up to the fog gate. It’s every kind of suspicious. Is this whole thing a boss fight, or only the first area? I use my magic weapon buff before going through.
If a question asked has both a good answer and a bad one, it’s nearly guaranteed that that asking it about Drangleic will net you the one you don’t want. What I mean to say is that, yes, it’s a boss fight. Of course it’s a boss fight.
A cut-scene plays, in with a skeleton pulls a switch, which opens a gate. Ghastly zombified horses charge through the opening, pulling a big Skeleton Lord on a chariot. Long spikes are fixed to the wheel axles, perfect for cutting down anyone unlucky enough to be standing on the ground. Which, in this case, is me.
When the cut-scene ends, I’m standing in a long, curved hall. A loot corpse is directly ahead, and I can hear the charging beat of hoofs approaching. It’s instantly apparent that the space between the walls is narrow enough to only fit the chariot and its spikes. I’m going to be run over if I don’t do something right now
Skeletons begin to pop up at me as I look around for some place to get cover. I can see the chariot coming. It’s too late. So I do what I can, and brace for impact.
Somehow, I survive, but with only a sliver of health. The skeletons were crushed as well, but not do death. I can still hear the horses, stomping around for another pass. I retreat, trying to get space from the skeletons so I can heal. Maybe I can roll past the blades, if I hug the wall?
I fall into a pit cut across the length of the track and die. Great.
Back for more, and I go forward instead of back. I find small alcoves to duck into when the chariot passes–rolling doesn’t work, and neither does blocking–but it’s not helping me keep the skeletons off my back.
They gang up on me, break my guard and drain my stamina, and I die again.
Fight the skeletons, get into the alcove, then come out to finish them off once the chariot passes. Only, they don’t stay dead. I kill them again, dodging the chariot, and press onward. I loot a Fading Soul from a nearby corpse, and then see light shining out from an alcove ahead and on my left. A necromancer, casting the raise dead spell on the skeletons.
Space is tight, and skeletons are club work. I don’t have time to apply my buffs, but I do have the time to invade the necromancer’s personal space and put an end to her. Wait for the chariot to pass, finish the skeletons off for good. Keep moving.
Another corpse, another alcove. Now there are skeleton archers pecking away at me. I turn to raise my shield, with my back in the alcove. The archer is directly across from me. Maybe it was the pivot that did it, or the shield’s hurtbox. Either way, I’m out too far, and the chariot crushes me. Now that I’m Hollowed, I don’t have enough health to survive a direct hit, and I die.
One of the guards on the way to the bridge drops a bloody whip. Lower damage gain than a normal whip, but it has bleed damage. All useless when fighting skeletons.
Now that I’ve got it figured out, I take it slow and steady. I use an effigy as well, to shore my health up. Each set of alcoves comes with another necromancer and stronger skeletons. Archers, then the armored fighters. I don’t have enough time, or stamina, to kill every skeleton and still make it to an alcove. But if I leave them alone, they will rush in there with me and kill me without the chariot’s help. So I thump them just enough to get them off my back, sprint to the necromancer, kill her, and make sure to clean up before getting to the next set. All while avoiding the chariot.
Soon, I have rounded the top of what must be an oval-shaped track. There’s a fog gate ahead, and a switch.
I wait for the chariot to pass, then pull the switch. The same gate that opened in the cut-scene closes, barring the chariot’s path. This is it.
The chariot hits the gate without slowing, crashing through in a heap of clattering bones and metal. Thrown clear, the rider disappears, and I’m fighting the horses. That’s a surprise, but I roll with it.
Things are going well. What I thought was two horses is really a single horse with two heads, so it’s not like I’m worried about getting attacked from behind. It has a charge that’s unblockable, but not too damaging. I think I’ve got it in the bag, which is always when it turns pear-shaped.
With little warning, both heads are belching a thick, black fog at me. Without the time or space to dodge effectively, I raise my shield. The dark breath eats through my guard, and within moments, I’m dead.
I go through the process again. One of the necromancers drops a black mask, which informing me that they’re all women. It takes a couple more tries to get back to the chariot, now that I’m Hollowed again. I die while retreating from the skeletons early on, and once while hiding in an alcove with no enemies around. Must have been an arrow I didn’t see coming.
For the sake of science, I try using my magic shield buff instead of my weapon buff. It doesn’t last nearly as long, but it helps when I’m cowering in an alcove and the skeletons are beating on me. I take down the necromancers, pull the switch, wait for the chariot, and, now that I’m prepared, do battle with the demonic horse, paying particular attention to breath attacks.
This time, it dies.
I gain 19,000 Souls and another Skeleton Lord’s Soul. Nice enough, I suppose.
Walking through the now-dead-for-good hall, I come across the Skeleton Lord’s mangled body. Poor guy didn’t stand a chance.
I’ve come full circle, to the other side of the pit I died in the first time. I loot a corpse there.
The fog gate near the switch has dissipated, showing stairs leading up.
At the top is a shorter hall with a bonfire. Glittering dust motes fill the air, and a strange little man stands in a cage of candles near the far wall.
Opposite him are a collection of statues. The Skeleton Lords, in heavy robes and carrying a scythe in one hand and scales in the other. Ostentatious maybe, but I can’t fault them for living their dreams right to the end.
I speak with the little guy. He asks if I have a lust for blood, and won’t talk further unless I tell him yes. What’s the harm in looking? Or denying all the death I cause? It’s another Covenant, so when he asks me to give myself over to Nahr Alma, then if I’d like to join the Brotherhood of Blood, I back out. Likely a PvP thing, anyway. But he did manage to get me yelling about bathing in pools of fresh blood, so I’m not about to forget him.
After resting at the bonfire, I look around some more. I can’t find any other paths, so there’s nothing else to do here. Unless the little guy is guarding something, in which case it will have to wait. Too bad, because I wanted to see those big weapons up close.
Before leaving, I walk around the edge of the stairs and loot cracked red eye orbs from a corpse. Already have a million of those.
Back to Majula, where I spend my Souls, upgrading the club to +6. I could go for +7, but that would require a titanite chunk, and I only need one more of those to upgrade my spear. Without a ready source, I have to ration them. The rest of my Souls go to Maughlin, buying more armour. If I clean him out, what will he do?
Which is where I’m stopping today. Truth is, most of it is carryover from yesterday anyway, and I have to think about where I’m going next.
When the Priest next saw the Bone Lord, he was not alone.
A woman, bent over with age and wearing a long, black robe, sat next to him at his breakfast table. The Priest had taken to eating alone, but was curious about the new arrivals after the previous night’s commotion. Now that he saw who it was, the curiosity turned into a cold rage at the pit of his stomach.
“This is your solution?” he demanded, interrupting the Lord before he could say a word. “Consorting with death itself?”
The old necromancer began to cackle softly. The Lord spoke. “There are aspects of death that are beyond your petty Gods, preacher. Do not presume so much after you have failed so completely yourself.”
The rage softened, collapsing in on itself as the Preacher realized that he was already on the outside. “You do not know what you are getting into, my Lord. Necromancy is–.”
“It is our only link to the true death,” said the old woman. Her voice was the sound of a rusty hinge, and made him shiver involuntarily. “And to true power.”
“Will you sit here and tell me again of prayer and a good heart?” asked the Lord. “After I have lost everything I might pray for, and the only reasons I had to be good? I do not need to be told once more that I cannot change the past, or that it is not my fault.” The Lord’s plate crashed to the floor as he raised an accusing finger at the Priest. “I do not care anymore.”
“Then what do you hope to accomplish by selling your Soul to the darkness?” asked the Priest.
The look on the Lord’s face then etched itself into the Priest’s memory until his own death. He saw eyes that had plumbed the depths of despair and found no bottom, and the madness that had inspired. “I wish you luck, then.”
He left the keep that afternoon. He might have stood by while the Lord worked his dark arts. He’d seen enough evil in that place already. But when the Lord spoke to him after breakfast, tried again to explain himself without the crone at his side, the Priest realized that it was only out of pity. Now he was the lost Soul that needed comfort and preaching. That was more than he could bear.
“Which of us has truly lost hope?” asked the Lord, and the Priest could not answer.
But worse than that, he could not say for certain that hope was something worth having anymore.