Despite the provocative imagery and creative editing, the opening sequence is fairly straightforward. A man had been trudging through a forest during a heavy storm where he had at one point collapsed. He serves as a generic stand-in for our player character prior to selecting our appearance and class, and so I shall refer to him as us. The reason that we are undertaking this journey seems to be because of the Undead curse afflicting us, which is causing us to lose our minds. This is represented by us reaching out to a gray-scale memory of a mother with a baby in an otherwise unremarkable room beginning to break down due to a faint dark haze enveloping it. This desire to hold on drives us back to our feet and continue onward, but cutting back to the memory shows that the process is only accelerating — the room begins to crumble, a fruit falls off a table as it soils, the mother’s skin begins to melt away all her distinguishing features.
All of this seems to be the result of a black miasma emanating from a swirling black vortex on the left side of our upper back, bringing to mind the dark hole at the core of the Darksign. Indeed, we manifest a similar hole in the exact same spot after hollowing, as do other Hollows whose backs are exposed. This seems to have replaced the roots which also grew out of a Hollow’s heart area, albeit from the chest, in the original Dark Souls. (DS1) Considering that not every Hollow manifested these heart roots in the game prior, it is completely feasible for the Darksign to manifest differently in different people as well. As to why we now see this manifestation exclusively, it is likely a creative decision by the developers — who deliberately tried to make their sequel different — and not reflective of any substantive changes between the two games’ events. (Dark Souls III reaffirms this by bringing back the heart roots) It is thus our humanity leaking from the Darksign’s hole that is devouring this memory along with our soul containing it.
While some have suggested that this is a memory of the our wife and child, it is more likely a recollection of our mother with us as a newborn. The Japanese description for Homeward notes that cursed Undead gradually lose their memories until they eventually even forget their own births, an obvious allusion to the cinematic. Ignoring the realism of us remembering our own birth, the underlying message is clear: the world of man rejects Undead and often casts them out due to their inevitable hollowing, just like in DS1. The Darksign will leave us nowhere to go for relief, not our birthplace, not anywhere. This excludes the Undead bonfires, of course. How fitting then that we apparently came across a quaint home in the forest where we sought shelter inside for a short reprieve from the rain. We soon discovered that we have intruded upon the home of an old woman. We are provided no insight into what transpires between her and us, but we soon prepared to head back out based on the storm still raging outside just as we are about to place our hand on the doorknob. Only, something stops us.
Miracle that returns to the last bonfire rested at. Originally a thing to make returning home possible.
Those who have received the curse will gradually lose their memories. They will eventually forget even their own births, and only the bonfire will become their place to go.
The old woman suddenly asks if we have seen “that” land in our dreams. This is the point when the cinematic’s narration begins, and our reaction suggests that she is right. We have been having such dreams, and they are implicitly what spurred us to embark on our journey. Now that she has our attention, the old woman rattles on about this place being home to the power of souls that can restore our sanity. This is echoed by various characters in-game, all of whom speak of souls as if they are a foreign concept in the world of man. Even still, many have traveled to this land in the hopes of gathering powerful souls to satiate the curse. The old woman then begins expositing about the inevitable fate for humans who manifest the Darksign, almost as if trying to scare us off from becoming a mindless, soul-starved beast. While we are presumably aware of all this considering the reality of undeath in the world of man, we turn back to face this cryptic old crone and hear more. And why wouldn’t we? Just who is this woman, and why does she know so much about our situation?
You saw them in a dream, too, didn’t you? Things about that lost land. There seems to be a power called “souls” capable of calling back man’s reason there. They lose everything. Humans the “sign” has appeared on. It’s proof of the curse. The Darksign. Your past, future, and even your light. Once you eventually can’t remember what you even lost, you’ll become something not human. A beast that simply greedily devours souls… a Hollow.
While her location and the spinning wheel she works with are obvious allusions to the spirit seer of Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Throne of Blood, the old woman herself isn’t so fantastical. Milibeth notes that there were once four sisters among the Fire Keepers living in Things Betwixt, though one had already left by the time she became their housekeeper. And based on her similar age and hooded robe, the old woman is this fourth sister. This makes sense, as Morrel makes a comment about us and all the other Undead that visit them being “inspired by that old woman”, implying that she is familiar with the crone in the forest. This is further supported by the old woman’s initial question, which is worded to suggest that we aren’t alone in having these peculiar dreams. In conclusion, she is a Fire Keeper who left her sisters in order to help guide Undead like ourselves to our desired destination. This explains the old woman’s ensuing elaboration on the land of our dreams, Drangleic.
All come here. Those like you. Probably inspired by that old woman. Am I right? Heh heh.
Aside from detailing that it was an old kingdom situated somewhere far to the north, the only notable detail she provides is that it is beyond a “noble wall”. (貴壁) There is evidently some sort of barrier separating Drangleic from the world of man, one which the Fire Keeper holds in rather high esteem. This wall most likely refers to a time bubble. In DS1, Lordran was a land that had been uniquely encased in one such bubble, resulting in distortions in time and space that we could rectify through summoning. In comparison, Drangleic is a land exhibiting the same stagnation of the flow of time that remains unseen elsewhere, so it would naturally be within a similar bubble. With Lordran, this bubble was the implicit byproduct of the First Flame waning from that region, and the Throne of Want affirms that said flame is now located somewhere deep below Drangleic. In that case, it is natural for an old woman who spent a good portion of her life preserving fire to speak so highly of space warped by the flame. And this time bubble can most certainly be viewed as a kind of wall.
In a land to the far north, beyond a noble wall, there is a country of old, once built in the name of a great king. Its name back then was “Drangleig” if I recall correctly. You ought to already know of it. No, it’s fine even if you don’t. You will arrive at its ruined gates. Whether you want to or not.
According to the Dark Souls II Collector’s Edition Strategy Guide, Things Betwixt is a small dimensional rift bridging Drangleic and the rest of the world. This is why the area is called a “gap” or “interspace cave” (隙間の洞) and has such irrational geography relative to the rest of the game world. This dark cavern is a distorted space, and we can see the massive breach in the cave we pass through to reach the world beyond. And yet once we formally enter Drangleic proper, we can look back to find neither the enormous crack nor the massive cavern behind us, only a rift in a relatively small crag. This is proof that we had just passed through a gap in spacetime. Though the narrow passage we traverse out of makes it seem as if we simply passed through completely ordinary space, it was us crossing a divide between dimensions.
That being the case, no character ever mentions passing through a peculiar spatial gap to reach Drangleic, though some do mention trekking across mountains. This claim is odd since the continent is surrounded by ocean on all but one side. And while this eastern and southern hinterlands are arguably mountainous, they are also the exact opposite of the southwestern region where we encounter most characters, even those who hail from the east. However, the cave we explore is an overgrown old forest atop hilly and mountainous islands in an underground lake, so that may be what they are actually referring to. The rift hasn’t stopped ships from sailing to and from the kingdom either, but this was true for the characters who made the trek to Lordran as well, and we were always ferried to and from there by a giant crow without issue. If these lands are in time bubbles, then there must be some transition point where the space warps as you cross the border.
Therefore, we can confidently conclude that Things Betwixt is the border for this time bubble and the noble wall that the Fire Keeper is referring to. Less clear is if she or her sisters have ever actually been there, as the old woman recalls Drangleic’s name like it is a name she wouldn’t readily know despite pointing many there before. It may seem odd then that she expects us to have heard about a kingdom that she had described as murky and forgotten only moments earlier, but this a product of the localization. The old woman initially only says that the land is “lost” in terms of being ruined, missing, or otherwise gone in the Japanese script, an accurate description of Drangleic’s current state. Likewise, her later comment is simply stating that we should know about the kingdom but that it doesn’t really matter if we do, implying that Drangleic is relatively famous in this region’s history. The actual meat of the hag’s monologuing is that we will go to its ruined gate “without really knowing why.”
Some have inferred from this that we are being unconsciously drawn to Drangleic given that some characters can’t explain why they have come there, but this is entirely off-base. Their dialogue makes it clear that they have either unknowingly turned Undead or forgotten that they did as a direct result of hollowing, some even forgetting that they met us by the end of their respective questlines. These characters weren’t being subtly controlled to travel to Drangleic, they had heard the rumors of the land having the power to keep them from turning into monsters and lost their memories following their arrival. Her actual phrasing is whether we want to or not, which accurately points out our lack of agency in this decision. This is why Shanalotte uses the same phrase to describe our inevitable arrival at the Dragon Shrine as we follow the path of a firelinker. We either pursue this one lead to solve the negative effects of our curse or we die. Our preference is irrelevant. And foreknowledge about this cruel reality is the motive behind the crone’s ensuing ominous grin.
That ring is proof of the King. If you have that proof, you will be able to open the King’s Gate and struggle on. Onto that place on the eastern end… You are one clad in the curse. If you are one who links… then you will be there at any rate. Whether you want to or not.
This fatalistic message is a key element of the game’s narrative. Countless references and queries about what we want are peppered throughout the entire script juxtaposed to the predetermined path we follow out of habit or necessity. As the old woman next prophesizes, we will burn ourselves many times in our efforts to regain agency over our lives. This doubles as a meta reference to the countless deaths the average player will endure to conquer the game’s difficulty and became central to its marketing. Strowen makes a similar allusion, and the game’s very tagline is to “go beyond death”, or “kindle despair”. (絶望を焚べよ) The old woman, however, muses that our suffering is because the cursed are unforgivable, not just that it is their “fate”. Undeath isn’t permitted in the current world order, so she poetically links even the arbitrary circumstances behind our deaths to a conscious shunning of the Darksign. And as the old woman had prophesized, we do find our way to Drangleic.
And then, like a winged insect captivated by light, you’ll burn yourself. Many, many times over… Well, they won’t be forgiven. The “cursed”.
We eventually take a boat across a lake in a forest, possibly the same forest from the earlier sequence. At the other end are ruins to what was once a large castle, with the only prominent parts remaining being the main gateway and some interior pillars and arches. More shadowy ruins can be seen further in the background, emphasizing the sheer scale of this complex. But once we step through the gateway, skeletons litter the ground around us, and countless more can be briefly spotted at the bottom of the lake. One particular skull has a glowing insect that takes flight as soon as we approach, with more lingering around a lone tree at the center of this ruined atrium. They appear to be brightbugs, which inhabit the watery areas leading up to the Undead Crypt and comfort the dead there. This implies that these skeletons are Undead that perished at this location and relatively recently given their exposure. Were they fellow travelers who were also trying to reach this place? But why there, and how come they are dead? Surrounding the bones, the aforementioned tree stands alone in this ruined castle. Was the fort built to safeguard this tree or did it come after? In either case, one must question its significance.
The tree has nary a single leaf despite the lush forest surrounding it, making its tangle of branches resemble more the Witchtree Branch than anything — such trees do grow in old forests according to the staff’s description. And if it is a tree with great magic power, then there is only one relevant to this situation: Quella. The Spirit Tree Shields reference a fable of a cowardly boy who meets a talking tree in his dreams, which later turns into a shield to give the child power. This story seems to be the basis for the god of dreams Quella, whose original name Nera (ネラ) possibly derives from the Japanese ne (寝 or 寐) meaning “lie down” or “sleep”. The so-called “spirit tree” is actually dubbed a “holy tree” (聖樹) in the shields’ names and a “sacred tree” (神樹) in their actual descriptions. Sacred trees, or shinju, are typically located on sacred ground or vessels for the spirit of a deity, meaning it is likely Quella himself or at least an avatar acting on his behalf — similar to the serpent of the god of greed, Zinder.
Assuming the story is true, then Quella may simply be a witchtree or similar such flora that had inadvertently gotten itself deified. The White Ring has received Quella’s divine protection and makes the wearer take on a spirit form identical to summoned white phantoms. This suggests two things of note. One, that the tree has interacted with humans directly enough to imbue a ring with its magic power and pass it on. And two, that it has powers related to time-space manipulation performed with soapstone summons. This latter point makes sense considering the tree’s ability to materialize in the world of another human’s dreams. A dream space is normally exclusive to the soul conceptualizing it, but it is theoretically possible for another soul to manifest itself there in a spirit body similar to phantoms invading a corporeal world. Quella may thus be regularly exploring various dreamworlds where it can perform otherwise unseen feats via powerful magic. And what if humans then sought out what they considered to be a holy tree and built a stronghold to protect it and make use of its divine power?
And so, the tree before us is most likely Quella, with the ruins being part of a kind of sanctum now long lost. By almost every indication, we are nowhere near the northern country across the sea. There are brightbugs otherwise only seen at the Undead Crypt, but they may have spread across the wider region at some point, and there are several instances in Drangleic’s history when such an event could have occurred. There is thereby no reason to think that this castle and its surrounding ruins were constructed by the kingdom we seek. Whoever did has since died, but stories and worship of their god have survived. And this god is likely responsible for the dreams leading us to this place. If one can intrude upon a dreamworld and freely mold a non-corporeal form within it, then said consciousness could theoretically have as much of an influence upon the dream itself as the dreamer’s mind does. In that case, conjuring images of a place we have never seen and showing us our way to it wouldn’t be too hard for a tree with impressive magic power, and it explains the sheer number of Undead there.
As to why a tree is concerned with Undead linking the First Flame, the Name-engraved Ring uses the graphic of an angel to represent the god of dreams. This is unlikely to relate to the tree being considered an avatar or messenger of the actual god since the same is true for the serpent of Zinder, who is instead represented by a pig. Therefore, the icon of an angel probably has nothing to do with the tree being an avatar, servant, or messenger of Quella and everything to do with Quella the tree acting as an agent of the Anor Londo gods. Said deities are the main proponents for the firelinking ritual and the mission for Undead to perform it. This makes anyone facilitating the mission the equivalent to biblical agents acting on behalf of God. (an idea later expanded upon in Dark Souls III) With that in mind, Quella can be considered an angel for the gods of Anor Londo. Even so, there is no evidence that it is acting with their input, so why has it taken up this role in their absence? It may be something as simple as this evidently intelligent tree not wanting a world without sunlight.
Whether the god of dreams is acting independent of the Fire Keeper or is collaborating with her, they have ultimately succeeded in leading us to these ruins. The brightbugs begin to swarm us in apparent recognition of our curse, but when we look back up after examining them, we see a blood moon in the night sky. This is in stark contrast to the Darkmoon previously seen looming overhead only moments prior, although that crescent body had been slowly obscured by the clouds when we passed through the ruined gateway. This makes it possible for what we see to not be all that it seems. Lunar eclipses have historically been considered ill omens, and the moon is never again portrayed in-game with this ominous hue. This suggests that it is the byproduct of some magical phenomenon occurring specifically at the ruins rather than anything of greater cosmological significance. Indeed, the brightbugs go wild immediately after it appears, flying through the gateway and lighting its torches as they pass. They gather over the lake just off the shore, as if anticipating what happens.
Reflected in the lake is the castle, only mostly unruined. Its restored gates soon unleashes a dark grey fog and a swarm of black hazes with it. These turbulent clouds quickly fly down toward the spot the brightbugs have swarmed and burst up and out of it following a brief flash of blue light at the point of transition. This scatters the brightbugs frantically chasing after them. One such cloud soars by the torchlight and reveals another skeleton beneath the shroud of fog. Taken together, these are the spirits of yet more Undead that the insects had sensed coming, cursed by their Dark souls even after death. Perhaps our arrival has disturbed their rest, or perhaps they were stirred by Quella.
The fact that these spirits pour out of a replica castle mirrored on the surface of an otherwise ordinary lake during a blood moon implies a magical origin, and the only parties present are the tree, the spirits, and us. Given the god of dream’s established manipulation of time and space, it is possible that the tree had created a dimension connected to the lake’s surface similar to DS1’s portal to the painting world — the Dark Souls II: Design Works even suggests that what we see reflected is the past or some kind of other world. This world was fashioned as a perfect reflection of the original fortress, frozen in time. Quella then sealed these Undead spirits it had led there within this space, apparently for this very occasion.
The dark spirits swarming overhead seem to create a whirlpool leading to a pitch black abyss. Perhaps staring at this dark hole is why our Darksign has such a strong reaction to it, but it nonetheless reminds us of why have come this far. We take a cautious step forward and soon after plunge into this dark maw. When we next wake, we are at Things Betwixt, making this whirlpool a wormhole to Drangleic. This is probably why the brightbugs all fly down the portal, sensing the continent full of Undead on the other side. Consequently, this wormhole might be the end result of these spirits’ resentment over never reaching the land of deliverance Quella had planted in their dreams. Like the principles behind the Homeward Bone, these strong emotions have created a pathway to the place the souls imagine, though whether they are trying to assist us is debatable. All of this seems to have thereby been set up by Quella to shorten the trek for future Undead like ourselves. The Fire Keeper is aware of this system and so helps those struggling along in at least their corner of the world, and our cursed soul is simply along for the ride.