The Third Beginning

The cinematic opens with a massive desert littered with half-buried ruins. The narration informs us that we are looking at Lothric, which the Japanese subtitles further clarify to be where the homelands of the Lords of Cinder “drift” to. Indeed, we can see pilgrims journeying at the foot of the castle city, and the surrounding ruins are all places we eventually visit in-game — namely Irithyll, Farron Keep, and the Anor Londo cathedral. As to how and why these drifting lands ended up in this particular kingdom, its High Priestess Emma clarifies that they have since “stagnated” at the foot of the castle, a rather pertinent detail. To drift, or nagaretsuku, (流れ着く) essentially means to arrive with the flow; in this case, the flow of spacetime.

The Kings of Kindling aren’t in this castle. They have all returned. To their former homelands which have drifted to the foot of this castle and stagnated…

Unlike previous games where characters or items — such as the White Sign Soapstone — related about the flow of time stagnating in the given setting, Dark Souls III (DS3) asserts that Lothric is where “all” has stagnated. It is no longer just the intersection of different times at the same space, but also the intersection of different spaces at the same time. Lands from different parts of the world have suddenly appeared in this region, replacing or overlapping with what existed there before. And not just in terms of places. Everything is now being affected, and these effects go beyond simple translocation.

Online play dedicated item. Writes a white summon sign for cooperation.

If you are summoned to another world as a spirit body from the sign and win that area’s final battle, you can acquire the power of fire.

It is a means for fireless ashes to help each other in the land of Lothric where all has stagnated.

Looking closely at the bones of various skeletons, we see that what flesh remains has turned to stone while the bones themselves have often sprouted tree branches or roots. Some bodies in the Undead Settlement also exhibit this petrification and dendrofication. With regards to the latter, we find similarly strange trees in Lothric, originally adulating Hollows if their appearance and surrounding venerators are any indication. These human trees also have peculiar flora sprouting at their base, which can be found throughout the city, especially around the pilgrims lying dead in the church plaza. The dendrofication doesn’t just occur with the dead though, as some Lothric Knights in the Dreg Heap and Darkwraiths are overgrown with roots, matted head roots even replacing the latter’s hoods. Since we can see that a chaos demon and archdragon have also petrified but not dendrofied, the latter probably relates to humanity; indeed, roots have always commonly sprouted from the hearts of Hollows, and trace amounts of dark souls can feasibly lace the earth of human lands. But no previous game had petrification occurring at seemingly random or dendrofication manifesting to this degree, so they must be another byproduct of the world’s stagnation.

Time and space have always been inexorably linked, so this escalation in spatial changes is the logical outcome of fire’s perpetual waning. The presence of the First Flame was the implied cause behind such stagnation in Dark Souls (DS1) and Dark Souls II, (DS2) so it would naturally be responsible for this phenomenon as well. The source of all fire has apparently moved to a new part of the world, only this time drawing other lands outside the spacetime bubble over with it. This likewise confirms the implications behind seemingly random parts of Lordran being found all around Drangleic — the prequel was already exhibiting early signs of the stagnant flow of time spreading to space, and its continuation into the present era has only exacerbated it. Like the parts of Lordran in Drangleic, what lands do drift seems to be random, as is where they will end up and when they will appear. But the eventual outcome is that everything in the world will be dragged into the bubble, and we see this result play out in-game.

The Dreg Heap is more accurately the “Drift”, with fukidamari (吹き溜まり) referring literally to piles blown in. But rather than leaves or snow carried on water or wind, this area has accumulated every land around the earth, pooling them all together at world’s end. The stone-humped hag confirms that this stagnation is a sign of the Age of Fire coming to an end, and Lapp further indicates that not all of these lands come from the same age. In fact, we see remnants of both DS1’s Firelink Shrine and DS2’s Earthen Peak among the ruins of the Dreg Heap. Both areas could have been dragged into this temporal melting pot at any point following the events of their respective game, and both are unlikely to have survived the natural passage of time leading up to DS3’s events. Every land will eventually be drawn in, and this stagnation culminates into that same desert during the final sequence of the The Ringed City DLC. We are therefore introduced to a future of what shall be and arguably already is.

If the First Flame is now in Lothric, then it is only natural that the land has also become the new location for the firelinking ritual — a new Firelink Shrine even existing beside Lothric Castle. And if far-off lands are then sporadically appearing all around this kingdom, it is no surprise that some are home to Lords of Cinder; at least some of these stagnant lands must have produced individuals worthy of linking the fire. Whatever their individual reasons for contributing to the cause, these firelinkers were numerous enough to change public perception of the region, though our journey in-game proves that not every neighboring area had actually become home to a Lord. Even still, these lands are now part of the desert that pilgrims traverse in hopes of reaching the drift’s nexus, apparently following a “prophecy” — literally the “previous words” (予言) — that fire is fading as the Lords go without thrones.

Yes, indeed. That there is Lothric. The place where the homelands of the Kings of Kindling who have linked the fire drift to. That is why the pilgrims head north. And then, they know the meaning of the prophecy: “Fire darkens, and the Kings are throneless.”

Whether someone actually predicted these events or simply knew what was transpiring when these pilgrims set off for Lothric, it nonetheless implies that the pilgrims head north because it is the home of the firelinking and thus the First Flame. At the very least, we can see that their pilgrimage well predates the current state of the world, as their fallen bodies can be found littering the direct path to Lothric Castle as we explore the period predating the cinematic. But once the most recent pilgrims come upon the castle half-buried in a stagnant desert at world’s end, they realize what the prophecy meant — what the flame fading in the absence of enthroned Lords has led to. How then has Lords of Cinder not taking their thrones led to the slow destruction of the world as we knew it?

As the cinematic reveals, the bell of Firelink Shrine rings when the firelinking stops, rousing previous Lords of Cinder — a reference to the Bells of Awakening from DS1. We see each of these awakened Kings of Kindling rise from their coffins, suggesting that they were buried but not actually dead — only asleep. This comes with another revelation: there can be more than one Lord of Cinder at a time. Rather than simply replace one “King of Kindling” (薪の王) with another in a line of succession, Lothric’s iteration of the firelinking has apparently had at least some retain their bond to the First Flame, each keeping remnants of the fire that had once enveloped them within their bodies as seen in-game. The reason was apparently to prevent this very scenario where there was no firelinker from happening, making them a stopgap in case of emergencies. Their “thrones” seems to be both literal and figurative. Each has their own throne setup in Firelink Shrine, and taking the throne implies taking on the responsibilities of kingship along with it. By sitting in their thrones, the Lords of Cinder accept the duty required of them in this emergency.

When the firelinking ceases, the bell resounds. The old Kings of Kindling will awaken from their coffins. The holy man of the Deep, Eldritch. The Undead Corps of Farron, the Abyss Watchers. And the lonely king of the Capital of Sin, the giant Yhorm.

What that duty entails is to help delay the Age of Dark, but that can’t be the whole of it. If their mere existence helps tether the First Flame to reality, then there would be no need to wake them; just leave the backup batteries resting quietly in their coffins where they are safe and secure. Indeed, should we choose to snuff out the fire, the Fire Keeper notes that the ensuing darkness encompassing the world will eventually be interrupted by the small flames inherited by Lords of Cinder — other Kings of Kindling that were apparently never awakened and thus never encountered. The First Flame will survive, if only in pieces, so the Lords must serve another role in keeping the Age of Fire alive. That role is apparently to take part in a ritual sending the next firelinker to the Kiln of the First Flame.

The prospective Lord of Cinder kneels whilst grasping the coiled sword of Firelink Shrine’s bonfire, which sits within a bowl resembling the Lordvessel from DS1. The Fire Keeper overseeing the ritual then calls upon the Lords seated around them to sacrifice themselves for the new inheritor, their bodies burning up in flames as the light and heat are drained from the surroundings — even the nearby candles lighting the chamber. Once all the flame coalesces into the Fire Keeper’s hands, she rains the resulting ashes upon the firelinker, which sends us to the same bonfire in Firelink Shrine after it has become part of the Dreg Heap. From there, we can use the bonfire network to warp to the nearby Kiln of the First Flame from DS1 — although the original game’s ruined temple hasn’t survive the ages save for some pillars, the tree base it sat upon has. We essentially use the spatial-temporal link of the shrine bonfire in combination with the ashes from a sizable piece of the First Flame to arrive at a period where the two areas are most closely aligned in reality. This method is certainly less practical than the path to it in past games, but perhaps its architects foresaw the inevitability of this world state in the event that this emergency situation ever actually came to pass.

All the Kings have returned to their five thrones. All your power, it is the very proof of one to be King. Ashen one, please kneel to the helix sword of that bonfire before the kings. Let us perform the ceremony for inheriting their embers. In order to make you a true firelinking King.

Regardless, there is no other obvious means to reach the First Flame, forcing any would-be Lord of Cinder to rely on his or her predecessors in order to carry on their legacy. But the Kings ultimately reneged on their royal duties, abandoning their thrones. One exception is Ludleth, but that still leaves three Lords who we are tasked with bringing back, much to Hawkwood’s dismay. As he puts it, we are supposed to convince individuals who inherited their crowns for their power, not moral fiber. Who are we to demand a Lord return to his throne? We are liable to simply be slain on the spot, and in point of fact, all of them are hostile to our mere presence. But we need only the Kings’ flames, not their lives, so returning their kindled remains to their thrones suffices, much to Hawkwood’s shock.

Whether or not they stray from the royal path, waking the Lords portends waking the unkindled. These “fireless ashes” (火の無き灰 or 火の無い灰) are Undead who couldn’t even become kindling for the First Flame. The Black Knights prove that spirits can live on after being turned to ash, and the Undead curse’s restoration of bodily damage would theoretically extend to becoming an ash pile. And so, unkindled are the end result of this failure to inherit the renowned mantle of Lord of Cinder, making no name for themselves on the world stage. However, this specific scenario seems to have a permanent effect upon the Undead’s very being. While unkindled look no different from ordinary Undead, several characters identify us as ash by our smell. Moreover, their bodies are implicitly cold from a lack of fire — ignoring the ring of fire intrinsic to the Darksign. Because of this, unkindled seem to seek what fire remains in the world by nature.

However, the Kings will surely abandon their thrones. And then, fireless ashes will come along. Nameless, cursed Undead who couldn’t even become kindling. But that’s the very reason why ashes seek embers.

Most embers, literally the “remaining fire”, (残り火) are clearly charred humanity retaining some of whatever flame had burned them. These are presumably also responsibly for embering our bodies when we defeat bosses, either Lords of Cinders or other “heirs of fire” whose powerful souls could potentially heat dark souls regardless of their individual affinities. Heated Dark would explain why embering our bodies increases max HP, health points which represent life power. Although these benefits are hardly a necessity, this may be due to game mechanics. Unlike past games, dying doesn’t cause us to hollow. However, fellow unkindled treat death the same as all other Undead, and most characters still assume that we have gone mad from hollowing if we attack them unprovoked. This suggests that our lack of hollowing is purely a liberty in game design. Unkindled may thus seek out embered dark souls in particular to help counteract the curse, similar to the role that humanity and human effigies played in the previous games; two birds, one stone.

Humanity (left) compared to an Ember (right)

But whether required or not, fireless ash are nonetheless drawn to the fire that remains. Fire has always captivated life from which it derives, but an unkindled’s fixation runs much deeper. Just as Dark follows light, ash follows fire, so it is only natural for unkindled ash — saved only by the quirks of a Dark curse — to chase after flame; one ending to the game even has us give into that nature. When the Fire Keeper begins to squelch the First Flame, we can take the remaining flame for ourselves by mercilessly backstabbing her — ripping it from her dying hands with a foot on her skull. The manner in which we raise up these pilfered embers along with the ominous repeat of the opening narration confirms our intentions. Ash seek embers, and we have been consumed by our desire to have all of fire. Rather than tie ourselves to the bonfire network, we have used the Fire Keeper to sever the First Flame from it via her own connection, allowing us to link the fire to us with no strings attached. Such is our treachery and our obsession, but we were only tempted because the Fire Keeper was there under the auspices of kickstarting the Age of Dark. Absent that development, an unkindled’s nature holds great potential for the firelinking.

For that reason, these failed firelinkers had been sealed and buried in the shrine graveyard like the Lords, only to be awakened after the Kings to try ascending the throne once again; they certainly have the numbers to produce at least one worthy inheritor. Unlike past games, Lords of Cinder seem to be in constant high demand. Countless Undead and non-Undead alike have apparently been thrown at the First Flame practically one after the other. Based on our potential backgrounds, these wannabe heroes include sorcerers of Vinheim, pyromancers of the Great Swamp, warriors of the North, and nondescript knights and mercenaries among others. Anyone willing to link the fire seems to have been permitted to, regardless of strength. The supply was simply too short to be picky, and the shrine is now overstocked with headstones to add to its ever-growing cemetery. Lothric’s desperation to keep up with the high turnover is understandable.

If we elect to link the fire, the flame we ultimately inherit is pathetic compared to the roaring blaze that engulfed the Chosen Undead in DS1. Although the Lords of Cinder prove that the First Flame still possesses tremendous power, its strength has clearly waned in spite of the ever-growing soul fueling it. This can be attributed, at least in part, to splitting fragments of the First Flame amongst the various Lords, but it nonetheless shows that inheriting the throne is no longer as bombastic an affair as it once was — for either the new king or the world order that he preserved. In fact, the stagnation resulting from this unnatural order likely correlates to the current inadequacy of the Flame.

The buildings of the Dreg Heap are bathed in ash, and the later desert is essentially one giant ash pile. Even before then, we can come across a number of corpses which have been reduced to mostly ash, some of whom are characters we kill. Their bodies end up as ashen remains regardless of whether we slay them with fire, so their ultimate state isn’t due to conventional burning. In fact, we can spot one dead wyvern turning to ash before our very eyes on Lothric’s city walls. Spontaneous cinification would also explain why various “corpses” of Lothric Knights are simply empty suits of armor save for lots of dust. Like the aforementioned petrification and dendrofication, certain living bodies are turning to ash likely as a result of the stagnation. Time has only exacerbated this process, extending its effects to nonliving things until practically everything has broken down into the substance. The only question is why turn to ash specifically.

The dull green glass comprising Estus Flasks have been occasionally mixed with ash to fashion a new kind of bottle. Naturally, the Estus collected in this dull grey vessel goes cold, turning from yellow to blue. But rather than nullify the effects of a bonfire’s liquid heat, this Ashen Estus Flask only changes its properties. Instead of restoring HP, cold Estus restores FP: focus points which Andre’s Japanese dialogue clarifies to reflect our willpower. As a matter of fact, the stat governing FP — attunement — has actually changed from past games; while the number of memory slots for spells were originally decided by “memorization power”, (記憶力) they are now determined by “concentration power”. (集中力) Will is the defining factor for life, and our ability to focus that will toward a singular goal affects how many complex arts we can remember and perform at a given time. Nevertheless, the fact that ash turns a bonfire’s physical healing powers into mental restoration implies that it is more metaphysical in nature.

If you find those Est fragment things, bring them to my place. Because I can enhance either of your two Est bottles. Those are you guys’ treasure, what supports your life and will, right?

Consider what ash is: mostly-mineral residue resulting from flame burning its fuel, something that was once but is no longer affected by fire. Indeed, combining Estus flask glass — which derives from Fire Keeper souls — with ash causes crystallization, so some mineral element must be involved. Things turn to ash because fire has largely drained them of the Disparity that they possess, thereby reverting them to mostly mineral form. In that case, the world’s progressive cinification is arguably an increasingly more common form of its petrification. But this requires a reason for everything becoming ash and not rock. Ash exists because fire existed. That fire brought irrevocable differences to the universe, making the world’s primal state of pure rock impossible. And so, total petrification cannot be the end state of the universe. Although rock may occasionally manifest, the world must ultimately become a mineral reflecting the onetime effects of flame. This metaphysical byproduct of a reality deprived of its Disparity is ash.

Regular Estus flask glass (left) compared to ashen variant (right)

With this understanding comes another revelation: the First Flame is losing its hold over the universe. Certainly, the world has been in a proverbial “night” due to the light of fire waning since before DS1, with firelinking doing nothing to alleviate this curse upon man. However, the rise of Dark is itself an effect of fire, the natural consequence of light first flaring up — interconnected even if diametrically opposed. Eternal night offsetting temporary day is simply the nature of the Disparity inherit to flame. But perpetuating the dying Flame has forced its light and heat to continue affecting the universe beyond their natural limits. In their weakened state, the Dark forever approaches yet never reaches its destination, and the continuation of this twilight era has only further deteriorated the First Flame’s efficacy. Fire has effectively burned through what it can in the universe, gradually destroying the world that it had helped create. Now firelinking is virtually impotent, requiring evermore fuel to preserve a flame that should have died out long ago.

Of course, the system set up by the gods will never allow it, now willing to even use ash to keep the Flame alive — the irony. And every cog in this system plays its part. This includes our Fire Keeper, who takes a silver mask from an altar in the midst of some sort of ritual at Firelink Shrine. After putting on the mask, she looks up as if amazed to see the light peeking through the windows shining upon her face, and her in-game dialogue confirms that she is in fact blind. The mask apparently substitutes for her sensory organs, magical energy on the backside amassing into a vortex at the nasal bridge area to presumably grant her vision. This isn’t unique to her, as we learn that all Fire Keepers have had their eyes removed after the “first” — specifically the first in DS3’s era considering that this wasn’t the case for any Keeper in past games. The reason is because this first of her line had a vision of firelinking ending and fire along with it, leaving the world in eternal darkness.

Fire Keepers are essentially their bonfires personified, part of a network which has the First Flame as its hub. If their bodies are extensions of the Flame, then it is theoretically possible for them to see what the fire “sees” through their link. And light governs time, so the most powerful fire from which all light originated would glimpse much, both past and future. Unsurprisingly then, the Fire Keeper describes the Flame’s surviving embers among the darkness — a potential window into the future for those bound to the bonfire. In short, the firs Keeper had, perhaps by mere happenstance, foresaw the world’s ultimate fate. In momentarily becoming an avatar for the Flame as it exists in this future, her eyes were afflicted by the all-encompassing darkness — turning the balls a cold, shadowy blue and the pupils into black holes leaking the Dark. This affliction seems to have cemented the link between these eyes and this period in particular, since providing them to our Fire Keeper automatically presents her with the same vision. They are forever portals to that time, and confirm the inevitable end of the Age of Fire.

Naturally, all god-fearing men perceive this premonition to be an awful betrayal of everything they stand for. Worse yet, the Fire Keeper mentions that such darkness will captivate her, an obvious callback to the nostalgic yearning every human feels for the Dark sealed at the core of their being. Considering that Fire Keepers only receive their black uniform after coming to “love” the dark souls nibbling beneath their skin, they couldn’t be in a more riskier position. And so, the powers that be have deprived subsequent Fire Keepers of their eyes, though this is apparently just their function rather than the eyeballs themselves as seen with Irina. In their place, they receive that silver mask, allowing the Fire Keeper to track our position even if we magically silence our footsteps. These women can therefore perform their sacred duties without issue.

Finally, we are introduced to the Soul of Cinder, or the “Kings’ Incarnation”. (王たちの化身) Rather than just a Lord of Cinder, this entity arose from the composite soul of all the Lords of Cinder. These Lords incarnate fight as one to protect the fire, wielding the very coiled sword used to link it — even using the power of that flame to change its form and thus their fighting style to those of another Lord, such as Gwyn. While this would imply that the soul of Gwyn running amok in DS2 was merely a fragment, the development in itself is no surprise. With every Lord of Cinder being buried at Firelink Shrine with only a piece of the First Flame, something has to have been left at the Kiln to fuel the rest. Moreover, DS2 already proved that powerful souls can maintain their autonomy after death as well as coalesce into one due to their shared will despite varying lifetimes and backgrounds. After directly absorbing the souls of Gwyn, the Chosen Undead, the Bearer of the Curse, and countless more with strong wills, there is no individual — only the Lords personified into a singular being, a collective consciousness united by their shared desire to preserve fire.

Soul of the Kings. One of the atypical souls tinged with power.

Can either acquire a vast amount of souls by using it or extract its power via molding.

The soul of the Kings who have linked the First Flame since Oldest King of Kindling Gwyn probably birthed an incarnation that protects fire at some point.

Whenever the souls formed their own entity during the endless firelinkings — quite long ago based on the number of weapons left stabbed in the ground at the Kiln — this incarnation became the cornerstone for the current system. Each prospective firelinker would face the Soul of Cinder, their final trial before inheriting the First Flame. And after a successful firelinking, the new Lord was soon sealed away, presumably leaving behind part of their soul to add to the collective. The souls’ strong wills eventually repossessed their fallen host body, and the process would repeat all over again. Whoever this host was, the body was decked out to befit its possessor. A knight’s helm half-molded into a crown, a cuirass shaped into a ribcage, a quality surcoat and mantle draped over the metal; idolized as it was, this incarnation is unsurprisingly equated to a god, with the Fire Keeper referring to it specifically as the old gods of Lordran — the Kiln which this collective lords over is still technically part of the Old World.

Great Kings of Kindling. Presently fire darkens, and the Kings are throneless. Please entrust your fire to the one who links. And then, he will kill them. The old gods of Lordran who linked the First Flame.

Helmet of the god-like “incarnation” of the Kings of Kindling who linked the First Flame.

It looks like a knight’s helmet, hideously burned and contorted, and a grotesque crown is molded on the back of the head as well.

This is an indication of the great firelinking and its Kings. Even though it is already no more than an empty husk.

It is this Soul of Cinder who we see dragging a corpse — an Unkindled if the accompanying narration is any indication — past a bonfire in the final sequence. Based on the surrounding stone architecture and ash in the air, the setting is Firelink Shrine. If so, it suggests that the Lords’ incarnation personally brings back these failures, perhaps even implying that unkindled can also result from the boss slaying challengers with the coiled sword bearing the First Flame. However, this corpse-dragger is wielding an ordinary sword matching the style of the armor, so this may not even be the same character. The Soul of Cinder is portrayed with various swords in official artwork, and the character even takes on the role of the player in some concept art. Indeed, the cinematic ends with this entity kneeling whilst showered with ashes the same as us during the Kiln ritual, only grasping said ordinary sword. This final sequence may thus be designed to be more artistically provocative than narratively informative — presenting a duality between the one who pursues firelinking and the one who ultimately attains it.