Untended Graves

Despite the change in lighting, the Untended Graves is recognizably the same area from the beginning of our journey. In fact, we can confirm that we have found our way back to the exact same location by warping to either after leaving items or souls to collect; even both of their bonfires are grouped under the same region category. The name itself complements this notion. Muenbochi (無縁墓地) typically refers to graveyards without relatives of the deceased, meaning that their graves receive no visitors to enjoy a family reunion during Obon — which includes cleaning, tending to, the graves. Even divorced from this Japanese festival’s customs, there is no denying that the Cemetery of Ash buries Undead warrior who have been cut-off from whatever family or homeland ties they may have once had, leaving them abandoned and neglected. In that case, to refer to it as the “unrelated graveyard” isn’t inaccurate. Why then use this other name for just our return to the area? Because of the added darkness shrouding it.

“Unrelated” holds further connotations in Buddhism, namely that the subject has no relation to the Buddha or Buddhist teachings and thus is beyond saving. Indeed, the first item we come across in the area is a shriving stone reminding us of cast-off shells, so to be lost without connection is very much the intended impression. And in the context of a sacred burial place for the potential future of firelinking, this double meaning would only apply if the area was consumed by unholy Dark. Indeed, the entire outdoor area is pitch-black, only a dozen or so meters visible around us. For there to not even be moonlight shining down from the sky, this cannot be an ordinary night but the true night: the Abyss. The fact that the shrine handmaid sells Artorias’ abyss-corrupted armor solely in the Untended Graves variant reinforces the implication. If so, then it begs the question of why this iteration of the Cemetery of Ash lies in total Dark when the other we can warp to at any time still looks perfectly normal. The answer is that this is no ordinary Abyss.

Aside from the gravekeepers already present in the Cemetery of Ash, the Untended Graves features gravekeepers only otherwise encountered at the Cathedral of the Deep. It is possible that this higher-level enemy is simply being reused for a higher-level area, but it is feasible for Lothric to employ more than just Undead priests to maintain the graveyard. At the very least, their bleed and burn fighting style might befit their duties. The Hollow gravekeepers possess meager armaments despite possessing miracle catalysts. Why? Perhaps because their healing miracles — if not their faith — wouldn’t hold out against the foes they were expected to face, and they lacked the aptitude or funding required for better equipment. And who would these threats be except the Undead they managed, beings who could at any point manifest the pus of man; Iudex Gundyr is but one example. In that case, training staff who can burn the pus or hemorrhage any viscous fluids from the body would be a worthwhile investment, hence their crossbows shoot fire bolts while a corpse in their vicinity carries firebombs.

The dogs encountered alongside these stronger gravekeepers bolster the notion. The breeds seen in-game all look skin and bones, some parts even stripped of any skin. Their weakness to the Hollowslayer Greatsword suggests hollowing the cause. Although odd when the Darksign is unique to humans, the man-eating pigs from Dark Souls II (DS2) prove that other races can share in the curse by incorporating cursed flesh they consume into their beings. In other words, the dogs in this game must be regularly chowing down on Undead for scraps, meaning that they are sicced on either the gravekeepers or the bodies they bury — why else bring dogs into a graveyard? With their attack hounds at the forefront, the gravekeepers could preempt with some sense of safety despite their circumstances, though the body language of some implies this to still be a mentally and emotionally draining duty. Indeed, there is only one dog left to be encountered in the Cemetery of Ash, as if all the others had already been put down.

On the whole, these various enemies could be placed in either cemetery iteration and fit the context, but the more challenging setups were limited to the Untended Graves. The same can be said for the two giant titanite lizards found where we encounter only one in the sunlit graveyard. A more nuanced example is the corvian storyteller preaching to others at our grave. The preacher doesn’t have a particular reason to be there, but he can be justified in any location where those rejected by the world and in despair might be found — as his flock proves, there are plenty who meet this criteria among the gravekeepers banished to duty. Then there are the Black Knights, whose entire M.O. is aimlessly wandering the world as ghost-possessed armor. The developers’ choice to include them in the Untended Graves specifically may be inspired by scrapped plans to have them replace the Silver Knights in the darker instance of Anor Londo in the original Dark Souls. (DS1) Either way, their appearance in the graveyard is feasible.

Armor of the Black Knights that wander the world.

It is said that they who served Oldest King Gwyn were burned by fire in pursuing the King’s firelinking, so henceforth continue wandering as ash.

And that is the point. All these enemies could be present at any time in the graveyard’s history. They simply aren’t when we explore it at the beginning of the game. In that case, perhaps the Untended Graves is the cemetery at a different time, or times. Indeed, the dark version has another corpse in the grave we awaken in. We loot our Ashen Estus Flask from a dead knight identical in armor and pose to DS1’s Oscar, yet we loot the soul of a heartbroken knight from a more generic corpse right behind the other’s location. The Chaos Blade can be looted from a corpse in the same location as the sword master who uses it as a cooperator, even if the master in question hasn’t yet been killed. Andre’s hammer is left on his anvil within the shrine but will still use it even when taken. And finally, the shrine’s coiled sword is in decrepit pieces when the bonfire is still burning. If we kill Yoel or Yuria before they complete their respective parts in our ascendence to Lord of Hollows, a generic corpse with the Hollow’s Ashes can be collected near Yoel’s location in the shrine. These events are not consistent.

All these contradictions can be resolved, however, if our experience in the Untended Graves is past or future. The corpse in our grave may have been awakened and killed by the corvians preaching over it before we were interred. We may take the knight’s soul after he is killed but before he has reawakened a Hollow, put down for good after only a few more steps forward. The sword master may eventually die, by will or by circumstance, at the shrine regardless of our actions in the now, especially since he manages to survive defeat at our hands. Andre’s hammer might be put down after he has finally finished his duty as the shrine blacksmith. The coiled sword might be taken from the ruined shrine seen in the future Dreg Heap. Yoel’s body may have turned to ash after being moved aside, out of the way, sometime after we have left for the Soul of Cinder. In this scenario, anything within our limited sight at a given moment could be a different point in time, the darkness masking each patch of past or future from each other.

The souls found in each individual area reinforce the notion. The gravekeepers of Untended Graves carry the souls of deserted corpses, likely pilfered from the graves they keep — some do wield bandit knives and “underhanded” throwing daggers, after all. Meanwhile, the gravekeepers of Cemetery of Ash only carry fading souls. Deserted corpse souls do exist, as demonstrated by the one acquired off a cadaver at the Cemetery. In that case, why the discrepancy? Time. Souls, like the flame they spawned from, slowly lose power over time until they eventually go out. Therefore, we can presume that the dead would eventually come to possess “going-out souls” (消えかけのソウル) given enough time. For the corpses of weak unkindled ash abandoned in the Untended Graves, this time would be relatively short. And so, whether that timeframe be in terms of years or centuries, the gravekeepers in Untended Graves must be graverobbing at an earlier period in Lothric history than their Cemetery counterparts.

Souls of a Deserted Corpse (left, center) compared to Fading Soul (right)

And finally, we can confirm the involvement of time travel thanks to the shrine handmaid. Although in the same location in both instances, the handmaid in the Untended Graves fails to recognize us. Instead, she acts as if we have strayed into the shrine before the Bell of Awakening was even rung, mildly astonished that we even know her role as a merchant — though she will satiate our greed for doing business, regardless. Her wares are also entirely different, but this could, again, be a simple “reward” for reaching this secret location with no direct narrative implications. Nonetheless, we can still be certain that this is the shrine handmaid of a time before our awakening. If our first dialogue with her is in the Untended Graves, then her dialogue at Firelink Shrine in the Cemetery of Ash changes. Instead of the normal greeting, she is surprised to see us, clearly remembering our previous encounter. Although she brushes it off, it is clear that we met the handmaid before the beginning of the game from the Untended Graves.

Well, well, an oddity to even have. What is a stray doing here when the bell hasn’t even rung?… But, you are somehow aware of an old hag’s role. Do you have some business with the old hag?

Oh, this is a greedy stray.

… Oh, you are…… Ah, ’tis nothing, ashen one.

If light is time and Dark is space, then causality would theoretically be null in the Abyss, every event in that space potentially occurring at any or all points. However, we normally only see such patchwork of time-space outside the Abyss, namely the “other worlds” which randomly overlap to connect people of different times in the same space. And that stagnation of the flow of time is a byproduct of the First Flame waning. Therefore, we can infer that the Untended Graves isn’t caught in the typical manifestation of the Dark. Rather, it must be enveloped by the truest Abyss: the Dark left when the entire world loses the light of Flame. In that case, it makes sense to see the principle behind other worlds taken to its most extreme. People and things from various points in the Cemetery of Ash’s long history have slipped into the end point in time itself, intersecting in much the same way as time and space does in the Dreg Heap. This, naturally, includes us, too.

We enter the Untended Graves by dispelling an illusory wall at the back of the temple within the Consumed King’s Garden, but close inspection of the ruins overhead reveals the area beyond to already be shrouded in darkness from the moment we enter the chamber. We can also confirm that this isn’t some special path to the dimension specifically since we can spy the same passage in the rock face from the Cemetery of Ash. Given the continued importance of both the garden and cemetery ruins, illusion magic is the perfect solution for Lothric to hide entrance to its firelinking system while keeping it relatively easy to access. In other words, whether due to luck or fate, we had most likely just happened to be passing through when the space was distorted in time. DS2 had already established how seamless the transition between dimensions can be even when one exists in the gaps of reality. We are simply another element that slipped through the cracks, or got dragged in.

This isn’t to say that Lothric is ignorant of this dimension. In fact, the kingdom is making use of it. The Queen of Lothric leaves holy relics inside the ignored graves for the unkindled, specifically the dark version according to the Hidden Blessing’s description. It is possible that the text is simply playing on the fact that both are technically the same cemetery; it can also tie into the magic sealing everyone in their coffins. While remaining unchanged during our slumber can be credited to the unique nature of unkindled and Lords of Cinder, the actual slumber cannot. We simply remain comatose until the shrine bell rouses us, as if it dispels some magic which kept us sleeping in our graves. Rest and eternal rest tend to be associated with darkness, so perhaps the Abyss is somehow utilized in the sealing process, keeping us from being easily awoken without the intended sound. The shrine has definitely used the dark world to bind people in other contexts.

Holy water that the Queen of Lothric is considered to have blessed.

Completely recovers FP.

In Lothric, there is a graveyard that no one visits. It is said that at this dark place, where warriors with no homeland rest, she wished a blessing upon them.

The shrine handmaid encountered in Untended Graves warns that remaining in the present darkness will have us “captured” by a curse just like “that girl”. This is in obvious reference to the Fire Keeper, who Ludleth similarly says is captured for the sake of firelinking. The imprisonment seems to be alluding to immortality, as the Fire Keeper herself acknowledges that she cannot die after inexplicably returning from death by our own hand. She isn’t alone either, as Ludleth, Andre, and the handmaid herself exhibit similar immortality when slain. Eternal life is, of course, a quality seen in Dark curses, so one could theoretically find their souls tied to the life-eating darkness if left in its midst, granting immortality as a byproduct. In that case, it would only require the afflicted stave off the Dark from devouring the soul. But this requires some degree of experimentation, intention. And so, we can be certain that the shrine’s permanent staff were cursed per some protocol in Lothric’s firelinking system.

If you don’t want to be captured by the curse, there is no point in staying too long. It is currently dark, and even when no one is around, fire goes out quietly… Or is it already too late for you? Just like for that girl. Heheheh… heheh.

Ah, don’t you look too down on the Fire Keeper. That one is the same as you: captured for firelinking.

… Forgive me. I cannot die. So please, ashen one, allow me to serve you. Seeking and taking back the Kings who abandoned their thrones. For that, please use me.

Although this creates a solid foundation for the ritual when all else is falling apart, it nonetheless implies that the “holy” forces for good were using a kind of “unholy” Dark magic. Indeed, the swirling vortex on the back of the Fire Keeper’s silver mask looks pitch-black like the Dark. However, the description for the Blindfold Mask insists that the crown resembles it only in shape, not in dark enchantment. Therefore, this shadowy power granting the Keepers the ability to distinguish their surroundings without eyes must relate to a power merely close to the Dark, in appearance if not in nature. The Darkmoon, with its close association with the Dark satisfies these requirements. If Darkmoon talismans are compatible with the dark miracles, then Darkmoon magic can surely create darkness of mask “crowns” to substitute for the light of eyes without it being true Dark — the Darkmoon capital of Irithyll is no stranger to silvery metalworks either. In fact, we can be certain that the Boreal Valley’s direct involvement in the firelinking is a concept from the earliest period of development.

Blindfold mask of unknown origin. Line of sight is ensured by small cracks. Boosts might of dark attacks, but damage by the Dark will also become greater.

That of purple iron in some ways resembles the Fire Keeper’s crown, but it is just the shape.

A leaked screenshot from this initial period features one of the giant royal guards from DS1 in the background, among the ruins of the Consumed King’s Garden. If these ruins are what remains of Lothric’s original firelinking facility, then the sentinel’s presence would imply that the Anor Londo royalty had been directly overseeing firelink management from the start. And, of course, Anor Londo was replaced by Irithyll, where its old royals were continuing to operate. This leaves no doubt that FromSoftware had always imagined the Darkmoon capital having a heavy hand in Lothric’s most holy ritual — its influence both there and across the wider world is presumably why the leak highlights our trespass in the garden for a scrapped bounty mechanic. And if they are responsible for the Fire Keepers’ crowns, then this would make Irithyll the Fire Keepers’ mask provider probably from the very start. The situation with the first Fire Keeper reaffirms this implication.

In the corner of Firelink Shrine normally taken up by Irina the prospective Fire Keeper, we find the corpse of an actual Fire Keeper, identifiable by her robes. The body is posed as if laid to rest in this corner of the building, much like the Fire Keeper entombed in New Londo in DS1. More notable are the eyes we can extract from this cadaver. The fact that these ocular organs belong to the “first” Fire Keeper and are found in sockets visibly covered in a black wax make for an obvious callback to the Maiden in Black. And like that Fire Keeper in Demon’s Souls, this one was clearly feared by her handlers. Melting wax with flame makes it a potential medium for fire’s power and thereby sealing the Dark, which may explain the color. They also hid the body behind illusory walls from every entrance, including an informal entry point through a break in the real walls. This is the behavior of people in a rush to conceal her existence. Ludleth says as much when reminiscing about the woman. They were afraid of how her vision might be used as proof of firelinking’s futility, and so covered up the incident.

… Ah, so you found her, did you? And you discovered the dark eyes within her, am I right?… How nostalgic. Back then, we could do nothing but hide them. It is a story of so long ago…

In that case, why inter her in the high-traffic shrine when the bell tower houses the Fire Keepers’ dedicated tomb? Because it didn’t yet exist. Recall that the current shrine doubles as a mortuary handling all aspects of burial. If the building was contemporary with the first Keeper, then it most likely was just a funeral parlor when the firelinking ritual was being performed in the royal garden and later the Cemetery of Ash. And an isolated custodian facility out back behind the shrine proper makes for the perfect hiding spot, a location few would traffic but could be easily monitored by trusted personnel; it was also the ideal burial place for firelink personal on its own. But as the dead continued to pile up, the gravekeepers had to add or renovate the bell tower to bury the Fire Keepers. As we can see, even that has become overcrowded as of the present era, where there is so little space that the mortuary had to become the new ritual site. In short, the first Keeper would have never been discovered had her time-space not coincidentally slipped into the dark dimension during the course of our exploration.

Key to the half-broken tower at the back of the ritual place. Beyond it connects to the bell tower.

The bell tower is an old graveyard for Fire Keepers, and it is said that a Fire Keeper who has finished her entire role finally obtains the darkness of repose.

As for her successors, they were treated with no less fear, even after death. All the bodies haphazardly piled at the bottom of the bell tower have the same black wax dried over their eyes. Was this simply a precaution, or have all Fire Keepers invariably suffered from similar issues with the Dark? Between the dark-adjacent magic granting them “sight” and the darkness of their nonfunctional eyes deprived of light, it is certainly possible. We do see that Filianore, in the course of her long repose, has had growths begin developing beneath her eye lids — in other words, where all her actual eyes see is darkness. If that is a risk of shuteye for eons, then blinding the Fire Keepers might only delay their vision and resulting flirtations with impiety. Either way, the women are evidently replaced before any such issue arises, the corpses’ grey hair indicating that at least those who aren’t Undead live a full life of service. Once their duty ends, they can enjoy the final darkness of eternal rest.

This last point shows that Lothric and Irithyll aren’t opposed to the Fire Keepers experiencing the Dark in itself, only visions which show firelinking give way to total darkness. After all, Fire Keepers are intimately familiar with the Dark, and that includes the Dark without as well as within. At the top of the bell tower, beneath the bell, lies the corpse of another Keeper. She looks to have simply collapsed on the spot after climbing the tower. And given that no one has moved the body even when the bell has recently rung, we can presume that she is the bell-ringer. Cut content confirms a lever for ringing the bell was present up there earlier in development. While the corpse looks far too decayed, this and other details can be attributed to the developers reusing the same model as the Fire Keepers formally buried for consistency. This is reinforced by the fact that her body still possesses a soul, other Keeper souls unobtainable and presumably all taken from their bodies to fashion Estus Flasks. What’s more, this one soul’s description notes that the owner had specifically returned from the Abyss.

Soul of a certain Fire Keeper said to have returned from the Abyss once.

It is said that she preserved the bonfire as well as served one hero, even soothing and accepting their dark hole. Thus, that soul became corrupted.

And so, the Fire Keeper’s soul is to be harbored in another Fire Keeper.

Evidently, this Fire Keeper entered an Abyss at some point, and likely willingly. Following her return, she demonstrated the power to absorb and thereby pacify the curse of the Dark Sigil manifest in the hero she served. This resulted in her soul becoming corrupted, which we can see in how withered and gangly it currently is compared to its ilk in DS1 — the Japanese name reaffirms that this is because it is a “corrupted Fire Keeper Soul”, (穢れた火防女の魂) not those normal ones. Fire Keepers already show the ability to absorb and manipulate souls within their own special souls replete with humanity, so doing the same with humanity itself isn’t too odd. But how convenient that she gains this power after returning from the Abyss, which didn’t corrupt her like the dark she later assimilated did. What Abyss could a Fire Keeper confined to an isolated shrine possibly find herself within? The one Abyss the shrine would make use of, the dark dimension of Untended Graves.

In all likelihood, this Fire Keeper entered the dark world after seeing that the prospective firelinker she guided bore the Dark Sigil. Having “maintained” the bonfire she personifies, her loyalty to the Age of Fire superseded her service to the hero, unlike how ours reacts when met with our decision to betray the cause. Once she discovered a means to exorcise this curse from her champion, she left as easily as she came. But curses can only be redirected, and the dark was clearly too taxing for a woman whose soul is already overburdened by countless dark souls. It is only when this soul is absorbed by our Fire Keeper that we see its unique abilities used without obvious issue; the synergy of two such unique souls able to curtail the corruption. Alone, it began eating away at her essence. But there was more work to be done. Lothric’s firelinking system soon ceased operation, and the corrupted Keeper dutifully rang the bell to awaken the Lords of Cinder and then the unkindled ash. Assuming that the bell which stirs us is the last, she dies soon after, her soul too deteriorated to remain tethered to the body.

Fire Keeper Soul (left) compared to Corrupted Fire Keeper Soul (right)

This makes the woman the predecessor to our current Fire Keeper. Indeed, the Fire Keeper struggles to find her words when first presented with the corrupted soul, behavior otherwise only matched when surprisingly gifted functional eyes she was deprived of. Yet she doesn’t question why we want her to take this soul or how to use it, only respectfully apologizing to the owner and wishing her the “guidance of fire” the same as us — absorbing it is arguably desecrating the dead not even given a proper burial. If our Fire Keeper was personally acquainted with this previous Keeper, then her hesitant but unquestioning reaction is understandable. She is suddenly reunited with a possible mentor she last “saw” heading to ring the bell knowing she likely wouldn’t return because of the curse. At the very least, the shrine handmaid confirms that she too has been to the dark version of Firelink Shrine prior to taking her crown whilst the bell tolled.

… Ashen one, this…… resembles inside of me… And that is exactly why this will dwell within me. She too will surely forgive me for it. For we are Fire Keepers. Forgive me. May you have the guidance of fire.

Clearly, Fire Keepers are allowed to know about and even access the dark world, though whether they understand the full implications behind it is another matter. After all, both Untended Graves and the Fire Keeper eyes’ vision is inarguable proof that the Age of Fire’s end is a foregone conclusion. When suspicious of our dedication to firelinking, Andre reminds us to have “hope” in spite of our cursed mission, reasoning that it is because things are so dire that we must continue fighting for everyone. Pretty rhetoric, but deluded in the face of inevitability. The forces in Irithyll and Lothric running the firelinking may be too delusional to acknowledge this reality, but the Age of Dark will occur and, in some sense, already has. In that case, to draw on the power of this dark future for their emergency system to delay it is the most perverse of ironies, making their attempts to hide the truth all the more damning. Naïve hopes won’t stay the universe’s logical end point forever. Fire will fade and only Dark will remain. The only question is how much damage is done before we get there.

So, don’t forget. You’re fighting for fire and everyone… Same as me. Even if the mission’s like a curse, that’s exactly why we do it. That’s what you call “hope”, isn’t it?