The Fire Keeper

It was called The Sunken City. Its original name had been forgotten, swallowed whole and drowned by the gaping maw of the swamp, leaving only the raw bones of the settlement and occasionally coughing up the half-digested corpses of the inhabitants.

Artorias rose out of the swamp through the shallower waters and onto firmer earth. The wooden walkways of The Sunken City had mostly rotted away, and the huts and shacks had fallen from their stilts into the mud long ago. The sparseness of the trees and the occasional scrape of Artorias' boots against buried bones and bodies preserved by the swamp's juices were the only indicator that he was moving in the right direction. The Sunken City had been the last reported sighting of the dragon Ansgar. It appeared there was still a Fire Keeper surviving alone in the ruins, maintaining the sacred bonfire. So long as its flames burned she would not die, and so long as she lived, it would never burn out. Of course, she could still be killed, but there was almost no point in murdering a fire keeper except to harvest her soul as an undead, and Artorias, being very much living, had no interest in such a thing. He only needed the fire keeper in order to continue tracking the dragon. With any luck, he would only be a day behind it, and her information would allow him to catch up if he travelled through the night. With the sun already starting to set over the Great Swamp and larger insects coming out in their droves, Artorias continued to plough onward, deeper into the heart of the swamp.

By the time he reached the bonfire the sky was burnt dry and blackening at the edges, blue dyes running down over the horizon. The fire keeper was a slight creature, cowled and robed all in thick, mud-stained garments which completely masked her body but somehow left a sense of overwhelming emptiness about them. Unlike the fire keepers in the land of Astora, however, she still had her tongue.

"Ah, come. Sit."

The bonfire was tiny, a few ankle high flames lingering over a pile of ash. Artorias' shadow scrawled itself over the walls of the little shack as he approached. He unslung his greatsword and shield from his back and lay them by his side, then drew his knees up and sat heavily before the fire keeper.

"You are here for the dragon, aren't you? He sweeps overhead daily now. You need not wait long. His nest is near and he hunts this whole region. If this swamp were not the very cradle of pyromancy, the dragonfire would have made it barren and bare. But the Great Swamp is stronger than that."

Artorias said nothing. This was more than he had hoped for. If that dragon had made its nest nearby, he need not chase it any longer. He could even allow a day or so of rest in preparation for the hunt proper. For pyromancy, and any other magic arts, he cared little, and was happy to let the fire keeper blather on about her occult practices as long as she did not prevent his progress.

"Tell me your name, traveller. I am Wren , fire keeper of the Great Swamp bonfire, in what you now call The Sunken City." Her voice was a flickering whisper, a mirror of the flames she guarded.

"Artorias. Knight." His voice was deep and clear and wholly out of place in the sounds of the swamp.

"I see you are of few words, Artorias, Knight. Then I shall not waste your time. You are here to hunt the dragon named in our lands as Akaash. If you continue to travel north west from here, you will find his nest. It used to be the shrine to nature for all the pyromancers of this settlement, for all pyromancy is drawn from nature. The shrine is raised above the water level, and the dragon blackened the land there with its fire. It sleeps atop the shrine's carcass by night. It is not half a day's travel from here. But, know you were not the first to try, and that the others' bones feed this very bonfire around which you are seated."

"I am not like the others." Artorias stood, picking up his sword and shield in hand. "I shan't be hunting the dragon tonight, I intend to rest nearby. I trust I will be safe here." His voice only carried a thin edge of threat.

"I am a fire keeper, and the bonfire is for rest. No harm will come to you if you choose to stay here and recover yourself. I have my pyromancy and can very well defend this place if called upon. I'll have you know, I took on the dragon myself. I was not victorious, but thanks to the power of my flame, I was able to survive its fiery onslaught and return here. I do not think my powers are to be sniffed at." A small chuckle escaped her lips at this, as if to return Artorias' threat.

Artorias nodded in her direction to acknowledge her meaning. Trust went both ways. The sacred bonfires were fuelled by bones, and she could easily harvest a sleeping traveller to feed the flames as well as he may murder her for her valuable soul. This was a risk all fire keepers ran in protecting travellers. Artorias and Wren had forged an unspoken pact through threat of mutual destruction. It was in neither of their interests to fight one another.

Assured of his safety for the night, Artorias turned to leave, find another shack to sleep in.

"Knight Artorias!" He stopped as Wren called him. "You may want to know that you are not the only one resting here tonight, and I cannot guarantee no hostilities between travellers under the protection of my flames."

Artorias answered her with silence and then continued on his way, leaving the fire keeper to her vigil. Between those hunting dragons, it would not do to waste time and energy killing each other. Ansgar was the prize, and any knight or warrior would need to preserve their resources for that battle, rather than risk death at the edge of Artorias' sword. It was not a fight to the death but a race to the finish. The first to reach the dragon's nest would be the one with the right to do battle. For tonight, Artorias would sleep easy. Tomorrow, the real hunt, would begin.

The End

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