He was always looking‒and it was obvious, even behind the golden mask‒as if to draw her notice, to stoke her fear.
Lautrec of Carim had not been Anastacia’s only tormentor during these long, silent years in her stony cage, but he was certainly the most persistent. He knew who she was, and why she was here‒ at least as her story had been told by the church, shuffled into the records somewhere up in what was now only known as the Undead Parish. There the caretakers had long gone Hollow, and there Lautrec himself had been found languishing in a cell for a crime he constantly downplayed as “trespassing” and “poking around”.
“Did they make you watch?” He sounded like he’d have really liked to have known, for reasons unrelated to eliciting any sort of response, or getting under her skin.
Anastacia wished she'd never known that so many like Lautrec existed, with this sickness in place of a soul. And whether he stayed or let her be was of little consequence, in the end. He could not reach her in this cage, though he had tried many times to tempt her closer to the bars. Did she want the release of death? Freedom at last from her miserable duty? He would make it quick and painless. Did she miss being touched? He'd lifted the face of his helmet, enough to reveal perfect teeth and a clean-shaven jawline, flicked his tongue over the long fingers of one ungloved hand in lurid suggestion.
But he wasn't the first to have tried that, either‒passers-by looking for anything to use for their own interests were a minor terror over the decades‒some having caught a glimpse of her pretty face, many believing the vestal virgin myth surrounding her station. The Fire Keeper had kept the crawling disgust in her stomach to herself, outwardly unmoved, statuesque‒ curled in her posture of penitence. Any reaction would only be taken as encouragement. She was to tend the fire‒ in silence, in suffering, in solitude.
Although lately she had been much less alone.
Footsteps from above sounded in a familiar, irregular cadence, plate armor over leather boots, and whether it was the strange, kindly intrusiveness of this newcomer who had recently arrived seeking an answer to the Undead Curse, or the fact that Lautrec recoiled in irritation as the footfalls paused inevitably above them, Anastacia could only feel relief.
"Use the fucking stairs." Lautrec's wasted words nevertheless conveyed his annoyance.
The figure that landed in front of Anastacia's cell, having jumped over a low wall from the level above, was far too light on its feet for the amount of gear it sported. Mostly plate, with a dented, ribbed cuirass, armed with a sword and dagger. Just another Undead warrior for Lordran to break and spit out. Straightening, they dug about in one of their many pouches, and something like a voice came from within the closed bascinet helm they wore, muffled and indistinct.
Lautrec, now reaching the end of his patience, tapped angrily on the face of his own helm, and made an even angrier flipping motion with his other hand. They had had this conversation before. The armored figure finally complied, pushing the visor of their helmet open.
"Hey, sorry! I'm still not used to this thing,"‒a woman's voice‒ but rough, rambunctious. An old scar, deep and vicious, ran over the edge of her mouth, cutting through smiling lips, disappearing under her chin.
"You could solve that problem by not talking."
A good-humored flash of teeth, then a flash of gleaming gold as she pulled two Sunlight Medals from a pouch.
"He gave me one, too!" If you listened hard enough, she may have sounded giddy. She held one up to the light, pressing her lips to her prize in celebratory delight. Anastacia wondered how she could tell the identical tokens apart. The Fire Keeper had seen Lautrec hand her the other.
" Congratulations ." Lautrec hissed. But she had already turned away, dropping to sit cross-legged before speaking past the iron bars into Anastacia's cell.
"So a farmer buys a young cock‒ do not interrupt me!" She yelled this sudden warning straight upwards, pointing an accusatory finger directly at Laurentius, who had appeared overhead at some point after her arrival. Her pyromancy teacher raised both hands to indicate acquiescence, and stayed where he was. They could discuss whether the silent, unresponsive Fire Keeper cared much for all this unsolicited interaction later.
“So this farmer gets a young cock, because he’s got six dozen chickens.”
“Why so specific‒” Lautrec heckled, resigned to being part of her captive audience. He had heard this would-be comedian try even less interesting openings. He was ignored.
“Six dozen, and the cock’s done fucking all of them by noon. After lunch, the farmer looks out the window and the cock’s moved onto fucking all the ducks and geese, as well. This takes him quite awhile. Alas! In the late afternoon, the farmer finds his newly-purchased cock lying lifelessly on the ground, with a flock of vultures circling above him.”
“The farmer yells from his window: ‘ Serves you right, you horny bastard! ’” At this point the storyteller reclined on the ground, one of her arms falling through the bars, and held a finger up to her scarred lips. “But the cock cracks one eye open.”
“ ‘ShhHHhHhh ,’ whispers the cock. ‘ They’re about to land! ’”
A soft snort erupted from above them, and even Lautrec dissolved into strange wheezing laughter. But the storyteller watched only Anastacia, with laughing smoke-grey eyes, just visible under the visor. Though she did not move her head, the Fire Keeper sniffed in mock disapproval, and cast her eyes to the side. It was acknowledgement, more than she had ever remembered affording anyone since her imprisonment, aside from one other. It was trust, because the warrior’s gauntleted hand lay nestled in the dingy fabric of her robes, two inches from her own, and she could touch it if she wanted to.
“You need to move away from the bars,” it was the faintest of whispers, so faint Anastacia thought she might have imagined it. But the urgent expression that passed across the other woman’s scarred features was no illusion. Before Anastacia could comply, the warrior retracted her hand, and when she stretched it out again, it held one of her Sunlight Medals, which she placed on the stone floor in front of the Fire Keeper.
It was the one most recently gifted to her‒ glowing softly in the dark, warm with cheer and affection. This Anastacia knew, and then she wondered how.
"My most prized possession, as thanks for your watchful care."
Lautrec barked a harsh laugh as Anastacia shifted at her slow, faltering pace away from the offered token, out of reach‒out of anyone's reach‒and the Undead warrior smiled, unseen by all but the Fire Keeper, in encouragement and approval.
"You would find more willing reciprocity from a rock, although it comes as no surprise that someone like you prefers women‒"
"Gratefulness is real for most of us, Lautrec." Her cheer did not waver, and the rakish eyebrow she jaunted in Anastacia’s direction almost broke the Fire Keeper’s stoic facade.
"I've heard it called that, too!" He could have stopped there and saved himself what followed, but such was Lautrec's need to wrest some form of power over yet another that he could not seem to faze, floundering in his impotence since he had had to plead with this stranger for release from his long imprisonment. And then the tumble from the roof‒
“Is that why he’s so eager to offer aid? Your ‘Knight of Sunlight’‒is that blustering fool getting his highs from the misplaced worship of the easily-impressed?”
“Is he getting more?”
The Undead warrior was up and across the space between them so quickly that Lautrec did not have time to draw a weapon, because her foot was on his chest and both his hands were occupied with bracing himself against crumbling stone pillars, his entire upper half angled over a ledge with his back to nothing but a bright sun and a howling wind and an endless fall.
“You’ve been having an awful time of it and I get that you’re cynical, but I’m just not in the mood to listen to you insult the kindest soul to walk this earth. Although...”
Then, in a moment of extreme lack of consideration given the position she had put him in, she appeared distracted by her own thoughts. This did not help Lautrec any, because his one attempt to move resulted in him being pushed even further backwards, as if it were reflex.
“Although I wouldn’t say no if he asked really nicely.”
“Get off of me!”
There was a moment where the incident may have been averted had she paid more attention, before Laurentius shouted a warning as the brick came loose in Lautrec’s left hand and his right hand slipped‒but that moment passed.
Later‒upon his painful waking at a bonfire‒Lautrec of Carim would remember one thing most prominently in the moment that he lost all purchase on anything solid and went plummeting through the sun-drenched sky, something just visible through the rusty iron bars. Anastacia had moved‒raised thin fingers to her delicate mouth, which was curved in a tiny, wicked smile.
"Oh, shit!" Lautrec's murderer darted for the stairs in genuine panic. "Shit!!"
It would be a good few minutes or so of trying to look past the mists below before she would suck a sharp breath through her teeth and leave the problem for later. But she didn't return that day, and neither did Lautrec.
In Anastacia's pocket, the Sunlight Medal clinked a merry sound against another she had acquired a much longer time ago.
Time passed in Firelink Shrine, in the strange way that it did and yet didn't. Over still, serene ruins the sun shone as if on a new morning, no matter the hours that went by. A new face arrived by the fire Anastacia tended‒ a sorcerer out of Vinheim, although he soon disappeared below to explore.
The second bell rang, a clarion call.
When the rumbling and activity settled, Anastacia sat straighter, ears straining, awaiting the return of their Chosen Undead. It had been a very long while since anyone had made it this far.
Footsteps from above, plate armor and a light, irregular step. The footfalls stopped in their usual place, somewhere above the Fire Keeper's prison, but what followed was the sound of a body thudding against stone, and an almost voiceless groan. A wet splat sounded outside the bars, and the ground there darkened with blood‒ at first a few spots, and then a torrent, puddling as it sluiced down the wall.
For the first time in all her cautious years, Anastacia felt a new terror well up inside her, one that moved her to drag herself on her useless, mangled legs, into the light cast through the bars of her cell, reaching to grasp the cold iron. If she could get up against the widest opening, perhaps she could see‒ perhaps she could help‒
The Fire Keeper flinched backwards as an armored form dropped directly in front of her, a too-familiar silhouette. It was not‒was never going to be‒far enough. In her head she screamed curses at herself for her foolishness. To be so blinded by her emotional attachment, the first connection she had felt‒had wanted to feel‒in a very long time. The golden gauntlet reached in, easily snaring her by the front of her tattered cowl.
“Not who you were expecting?” Lautrec’s velvet hiss sounded too eerily calm in his triumph, strangely replete. He was streaked with blood, and it coated his gleaming, curved weapon as well.
Not hers! Anastasia thought. Laurentius . He had been hovering near the bonfire, as he often did, only moments ago, fragments of his thoughts drifting like bright embers as he passed reverent fingers through the flames. From the amount of blood seeping into her cell, it could not be long before he would have to be resurrected.
Something told her he might soon not have a bonfire to return to.
She steeled herself‒ the power she had been made a vessel for was greatly coveted, and Lautrec's intentions were clear to anyone who would listen to him slaver over what passed for currency here in Lordran. For how much her dogged refusal to acknowledge his efforts had seemed to anger him, her end would likely not be a painless one. She was prepared.
Until the bloodied gauntlet, tepid and slick, slipped under her clothing.
When she lurched away from his touch, her lips curling off her teeth in outrage, he shifted his unkindly grip to her hair instead. Further enraged by this attempt to subdue her, Anastacia doubled her struggle‒ ripping flaxen strands from both Lautrec's fist and their roots in her stinging scalp. But the golden knight had no taunts, no mockery‒ only this silent, relentless purpose as he tore the failing fabric of her aged robe from between her own fingers.
Just under the surface of her skin, the unique soul she harbored writhed‒ hideously worming, veining black across her pale chest and engorged with the offerings of decades past. She thought she heard Lautrec sigh at the sight of it, a sound melding greed and reverence, and then he lifted his blade.
In the slow minutes that followed, the Fire Keeper would learn that she hadn't been wrong at all about Lautrec's unquenched ire. He used no words to express it‒ carving it in flesh, claiming it in entrails, extracting it in her small gasps of pain as he excised his prize from its vessel.
Drawing from the smoldering defiance that clawed its stubborn way up between undulating spikes of agony, and despite her lack of a tongue, as he cut into a lung Anastacia gathered in her cheek the blood that pooled in her mouth, and spat it upon Lautrec’s face plate.
With death came the relative bliss of being suddenly removed from her suffering. Her first death? No, her soul had been everyone else's anchor. She would not be returning the way the others did. But it was soon to be made apparent to Anastacia that a Fire Keeper was afforded a different privilege.
She had never known the voice that spoke to her on the precipice of darkness, and while she expected that voice to perhaps have sounded more...certain, authoritative‒ at least it seemed earnest enough.
Faithful Fire Keeper, thou hast served dutifully, and thou shalt be avenged.
If the voice had offered rescue, Anastacia would have declined. But retribution! This she wanted for herself, and for the ones who surely had come before her.
Maiden of Ash, name thy champion.
She trembled with an edged joy to think that the last thing Lautrec of Carim would ever see would be laughing smoke-grey eyes. Her answer welled up to fill the now empty cavity in her breast‒triumphant and sure‒and with whatever voice this was she had been given, Anastacia screamed it into the ether before accepting oblivion.
Leuchtend of Catarina!
Cradled in what was left of the Fire Keeper when her physical form dissolved, a black eye opened‒unseen, unnoticed‒watching with cold and certain judgement as Lautrec, posture suddenly furtive, palmed his prize and took his leave.