Undead Matches

Beneath Priscilla’s old tower in Ariandel is a grave with a warrior’s sword, tended to by a gravekeeper. And from the Champion’s Bones acquired after the Gravetender is dead, this tombstone belongs to an Undead who began fighting as part of a competition of strength with other Undead. The gravekeeper was previously the champion’s page, yet he sits in the cold wearing only a loincloth, chain mail, leather gloves, and Dark Mask. Since he doesn’t possess the Dark Hand, the mask was most likely taken from a Darkwraith. But by a mere page, or by the champion in a match? A page would be expected to carry his master’s equipment on his behalf, and the champion was cremated, hence the “left bones” (遺骨) which have yet to “burn out”. The page might thus put on this armor, including the spoil of battle, to better serve his new role as gravekeeper; he did adopt the champion’s old arms.

Bone remains of the champion that still haven’t burned out. Burn in the ritual place bonfire and open the way to the Undead Competition.

Long ago, there was an Undead who began fighting. The fights for the sake of valuing your Undead nature and not losing your mind became the Competition before long. The merit of undeath is in the accumulation of death. It necessitates endless fighting.

Valorheart is a broad sword paired with a round shield bearing the face of a lion. The lion is commonly associated with having a brave heart as king of the beasts, so it is an appropriate symbol for the champion of an arena — even the term “champion” (王者) includes the kanji for king. But showcasing a heart of valor holds a deeper meaning for Undead. Recall that “losing heart” is a key part of hollowing, so a stout heart makes the cursed more resilient to the mental decay. That strength of will, however, could only be demonstrated after death. For that reason, the champion fought not just to win but to prove his resolve. To showcase undeath’s merits, he threw himself at opponent after opponent until either one fell, at which point they would return as either themselves or a mindless Hollow. “Death-defying battles prove a man’s character” was never truer than for them immortals. The choice was valor or cowardice. The champion came out a lion; the others, a hyena.

This lionization of death explains why he would take a liking to one foe’s skeletal mask: the New Londo knights’ old symbol of death was perfect for him to embody. A champion maintains bravery in the face of death. And with how often Undead might arrive in Ariandel, the champion doubtless had no shortage of death to face, though how many of his opponents were willing participants in these bouts is another question. His burial outside the corvian village and companionship with a wolf implies operating out in the wilderness, meaning that he most likely crossed paths with Undead who hadn’t integrated into painting society themselves — either because they were strays still trekking through tundra or similar loners refusing to assimilate into the peaceful village. Some, like a Darkwraith, might have been open to a duel, but it is possible that the champion didn’t care if whoever crossed his path refused. Regardless, his impetus to fight brought the death he sought. And win or lose initially, he always kept his head about him, beginning an endless cycle of competition.

Although Valorheart’s English description suggests that this fighting continued “without rest”, the Japanese text only claims that he kept doing it. The battles needed to be endless, but there would no doubt be reprieves between matches, if only because there couldn’t be an endless stream of opponents — or durability to his equipment. And so, breaking up this monotony must have been preparation between matches. One man did take on the task of keeping the champion battle ready before the next match. His position as a “page” specifically may imply that the master was once nobility; fancy weapons like Valorheart aren’t easy for a commoner to come by. But whatever his personal history, the champion did permit a companion to help with his never-ending mission. And even if he was nobility, his page is unlikely to have been a lifelong servant tagging along in conveniently contemporaneous undeath.

Champion’s Gravetender looks to be a sorcerer turned Undead, largely self-taught based on his repertoire of spells. His most basic sorcery is Strong Soul Arrow, a relatively advanced but ultimately straightforward art for any bearer of a simple wooden staff. His second spell is Homing Soulmass, suggesting that he learned at the Profaned Capital or at least from one of the lesser-known sources in the New World. And finally, he can cast Snap Freeze, one of Sulyvahn’s sorceries still being circulated in Ariandel. Altogether, this lineup gives the impression of an independent sorcerer scouring the world, or worlds, for their magical secrets, outside the confines of Vinheim. But one needs more than intelligence to survive a harsh world, as this now cursed undesirable in the painting learned quite well. In that case, becoming the champion’s page — a role in which the master normally provides the chore boy with tutelage in martial arts — shows how he was inspired by the warrior’s example, attempting to be close to his idol even when six feet under. He wouldn’t be the last either.

The champion also apparently befriended a wolf. Despite the localization labeling it a “lone” wolf, the Champion’s Bone’s description actually refers to the page as a mere single individual. The fact that the wolf is willing to stay with both the champion and his gravetender proves the beast no loner, as does his current pack. During our first two possible encounters with the now great wolf in the snowfield, it is surrounded by many smaller wolves. Such lupines also accompany the Gravetender as he loiters before the grave, the great wolf joining the fray mid-battle. The great wolf has clearly fostered a community out in the wild since the champion’s death, all while not forgetting to return the favor to the Undead by cooperating with the page as their master’s gravekeepers. As to the favor for this pack leader, it was likely the motivation to become an alpha in the first place.

Arms once utilized by the champion of the Undead Competition. One of the special twin blade weapons combining a broad sword and a lion shield.

The champion just kept battling and ultimately lost himself. It is said that then only his lone page and a wolf stayed by him forever.

Like Artorias and Sif, the champion would have much to show a wolf apparently drawn to his strength and tenacity. Valorheart’s skill is a shield bash accompanied by a lion’s roar. Even if an illusion of the mind, it demonstrates the ferocity behind the champion’s attacks, attributable to his courageous heart. That beast king nature would be charming to a young wolf forced to compete for dominance among its kin and lagging — facial scars mark the labors to reach the top. Tagging along with the champion thus presented a teaching opportunity. The parallel with Sif is especially relevant given that the Gravetender Great Wolf likely repurposed elements from the cut Old Wolf of Farron boss fight. The boss’ charge attacks are fairly basic save for the cold air they kick up, the wolf using the painting world’s winds to great effect when making an escape or “roaring” with frost breath. It is easy to see that element substituting for a sword swung in its jaws. In other words, FromSoftware more than likely recycled their concept of a great wolf gravekeeper for DLC. And with that comes the idea of carrying on a hero’s legacy.

This brings the subject back to the grave, proof that the champion finally met his match. His final rest, however, might not even be due to losing heart. Even in death, the champion’s leftover bones grasp at a blue cloth with a golden lion crest, perhaps the last remnant of a surcoat worn over the chain mail. Throwing the rest in the bonfire likewise allow us to warp to other Undead and initiate a match. The man’s will still lingers strong. And yet despite that tenacity to fight and prove his lion heart, the champion now is just ash and bones. Was this a formal cremation, in an ice-cold world, with a ground burial? Or was he so thoroughly burned by his opponent that not even his Darksign had the power to restore his body past a certain point? The latter would explain why the Gravetender wears no pants — they were incinerated. As the arm cuff depicted in the menu graphic shows, metal withstands flames better than cloth, the page only needing silky leather gloves to wield a sword for battle. The champion thus may have never had the opportunity to hollow proper; his souls simply hit their limit.

Whatever the specifics, death by burning narrows his opponents to one: Dunnel. The champion’s grave was erected beneath the tower where the madman lurks. The fact that he can invade as a mad spirit also betrays the red eye orb in his possession — something easily gained from a Darkwraith in the Undead Matches, much like the champion’s mask. And most importantly, a chaos pyromancer can bring the heat to reduce an Undead to ashes. With how Dunnel uses invasions as an outlet for his grief, the Undead Matches were liable to serve a similar capacity beforehand. And once he was finally up against the champion, the underdog came out on top. Shocking at this probably was, the titleholder’s lackeys seem to have taken their idol’s defeat in stride. Their master was not the prophesied unkindled, and he went out exactly as he would have wanted.

No matter the accolades, the champion was still an Undead undesirable with no place to belong in the outside world. All bearers of the curse root their will in a mission of purpose; the champion’s brave will was paradoxically based on proving said brave will, leaving no end to the  mission. However, having no limiting factor also meant that the number of triumphs could never be good enough. He had to keep fighting and dying, or else actually succumb to despair — he could inspire others but not himself. That being the case, total defeat on his own terms is perhaps the best end he could ask for. His hangers-on need only clean up after Dunnel’s victory and bury the remains on the spot — no going far with ash in a windy valley. After that, they decided to stay and protect it. If the champion cannot remain immortal, then his memory can. And should we ruin even that, then at least the competition he started might live on.