I know this is likely to render meaningless the lives of many a reader, but you gaze upon the fifth-to-last Dark Souls Diary.
“Steerpike!” You cry. “No! Please for the love of all that is good and/or holy, say it’s not true! You have already written twenty thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight words, words we neither solicited nor enjoyed! Your own mother has asked you to stop! Say that we don’t have to read five more of these before the torment can end! We beg you Steerpike, just type this: ‘and then I did a bunch of other stuff and won the end forever.’ Wouldn’t that be a pithy closing?”
That actually would be pretty clever.
Dark Souls Diaries: Deaths 898-931
One time, there was the first thing that ever died. Think about that. The very first thing in all the boundless universe that ever died. Ever. Maybe it was just a single cell, who knows, but something, somewhere, was first. You must imagine that whatever it had been in life, in death some unconscionable power would be inferred upon it.
In the world of Dark Souls, that first thing is Gravelord Nito, and it holds the second Lord’s Soul. Conveniently, it’s also not too far from where I’m standing, cosmically speaking.
If you head down some crumbling stone steps from Firelink Shrine, sort of to the left of Kingseeker Frampt’s hole, under the beady gaze of Sparkly the Crow, you come eventually to a graveyard. Tilted headstones perch on a stark cliff, packed so close together that the dead underneath must be cuddling. Perhaps that’s why so many of them claw their way out of the ground when you approach, clacking skeletally toward you and brandishing swords.
I visited the graveyard briefly, about 700 deaths ago, and almost immediately placed a leg on either side of my tail and slunk back up the steps. The place was wholly out of my league. But I’m level 95-ish now; and more importantly, there aren’t that many places left unexplored. Logic dictates that one of the three remaining Lords must lurk somewhere down there.
I can’t recall who told me, in-game, about Gravelord Nito. Was it Kingseeker Frampt? The giant snake-dog thing was fast asleep when I got back from the Duke’s Archive and he looked so peaceful I didn’t have the heart to wake him up. Maybe in an earlier conversation. All I knew was that Nito’s the “first of the dead,” and that I’d find it in the Tomb of the Giants. Graveyards seem a likely place to find Gravelords (and tombs, giant and otherwise), so that’s where I went. Turns out it was only the beginning. All the gleam and glitter of Anor Londo, all the stately burled wood and musty books of the Duke’s Archive were about to give way to a decidedly gloomier realm.
An interesting fact about skeletons: if you don’t kill them with a Holy weapon, they reassemble themselves and come at you again. Naturally I don’t have a Holy weapon. A while back I swapped out my Black Knight’s Sword +5 for the Great Lord’s Sword, a hulking blade thought to have once been owned by Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, who lit the first campfires. It’s many things, but Holy is not one of them. By the time I reached the Catacombs, the entrance of which lies several tiers of graveyard down from where I’d originally visited, there was a small army of skeletons chasing me.
I kicked as many as would let me off the cliff – that seemed to do for them and was amusing too – then headed in, and holy hell am I glad I didn’t wander into the Catacombs earlier. That place is not for the timid. Hordes of skeletons large and small, exploding spirits that resemble scarier versions of those skull things from DOOM, magic-flinging necromancers, and an assortment of ancient traps all bring swift and repeated death, usually by falling. The Catacombs go deep, there are few railings, and my enemies loved nothing more than to knock me into the void or, if no void was available, into deadly forests of spikes.
A few more lever-pulling puzzles reminiscent of those in the Duke’s Archive had some bridges rotated so they were spike-side down and thus safe to cross. Like the catacombs in in old European cities, this place is a labyrinth of hand-carved tunnels with burial niches often stacked three-high; bunk beds for the dead. Most contain mouldering ruins, but sometimes those ruins sit up, grab a sword or bow or some other weapon they were ceremonially put to rest with, and go to town like their grave’s being robbed.
I can’t blame them. I’d be angry too if after this whole shitty, pointless life came to an end I wasn’t even able to be dead in privacy. To be dead and roommates with like 1,000 other people would grate at my nerves to the point where I’d probably attack on sight too. When I go, bury me alone in a nice carpeted room with a bigscreen TV, broadband, a rockin’ PC, Kindle Fire for books and magazines, and maybe an Aerogarden so I can grow my own vegetables.
Dark Souls Diaries: Deaths 932-954
As you proceed deeper into the Catacombs, the place gets ever more crumbly. It looks like some cisterns were dug here and there and have kind of merged with the corpse storage areas, and footing’s treacherous, so you have to watch your step in addition to keeping your guard up.
Thus was I depressed but unsurprised when the flagstones beneath my feet gave way, plunging me into a moldy clay brick tunnel filled with fetid, ankle-deep water and piled high with dessicated bones.
As I sat there shaking the stars away an enormous… thing came lumbering up.
Crap, thought I.
We looked at each other for a minute. Then it raised a giant pickaxe.
Goodbye, brain, thought I. I’ll miss you.
Then it turned and smashed a hole in the wall next to me. “Go away,” it said. “You’re spoiling my focus.”
Well screw you. It’s not like I asked to fall through your ceiling. But thank you for letting me keep my brain and all.
Who knew? There are undead zen blacksmiths in the bowels of the Catacombs. Rude, with poor customer service skills, but that’s not abnormal. Why yes, you may upgrade my Silver Knight Armor! Why yes, you may upgrade my Great Lord’s Sword! Why yes, I am running short on arrows!
I left him clanging away and headed through the hole he’d made me. In the cavern beyond, splashing through the runoff on the floor, I discovered an odd thing: almost like a ceilingless, standalone room. Climbing its wall from the outside I peered down into it. Candles, a collection of skeletons hanging from chains, more flooding… mountains of books rotting in the damp. Seath the Scaleless would be appalled.
I dropped down into the room and triggered a cutscene, which almost always means a boss fight. But this couldn’t be Gravelord Nito, I still haven’t found the Tomb of the Giants!
It wasn’t Gravelord Nito. It was the Pinwheel, a necromancer spirit:
Dies like a bitch. Just saying.
But he drops something very, very special – the Rite of Kindling, an ancient and powerful magic. With this, I’m no longer limited to getting just five or ten doses in my Estus Flask by camping. I can kindle the bonfires high enough that I’ll wake up with 15, even 20 doses.
In a game like Dark Souls, you can’t begin to imagine what a difference this will make. So my advice to you is this: the Catacombs are hard, but they’re not outrageous for mid-level characters. Get yourself down there and kill the Pinwheel as soon as humanly possible, because the sooner you have the Rite of Kindling, the easier your life will become.
Dark Souls Diaries: Deaths 955-984
Pinwheel down, I decided to give Gravelord Nito and the Tomb of the Giants a breather – it’s horrible down there, I’ll tell you about it later – and besides, there’s this thing on my to-do list that I’ve left undone for a just ridiculous span.
Great Grey Wolf Sif guards the grave of Artorias the Abysswalker, the ancient hero who vanished in Darkroot Garden centuries ago. They must have grown them bigger back then, because Artorias’s sword is twice as tall as me, and Sif wields it like she means business.
Wait, a wolf with a sword? Yes. Why she doesn’t use her claws and fangs I don’t know, but Great Grey Wolf Sif fights with a sword, and she does it well.
From Software’s boss design never gets old to me. They just seem to have such boundless imaginations, and always know how to take a fairly pedestrian encounter – with, say, a giant wolf – and turn it into something unique – like, say, a giant wolf with a sword.
It’s not clear to me what happened to Artorias the Abysswalker. Did Sif kill him? Is she a villain? Or was she a friend, a faithful companion who holds lonely vigil at his grave to keep strangers from defiling it? It certainly seems odd that she’d be using his sword unless they knew each other. Does she know that dozens of other heroes lost their lives, their minds, even their souls, here in Darkroot Garden, while trying to rescue Artorias? Their spirits still haunt this primeval wood.
The battle with Great Grey Wolf Sif is supposed to be one of the toughest in the game, at least, it is if you approach her when you’re supposed to. I am a good forty levels higher than that. I never meant to abandon Darkroot Garden unfinished, but I got distracted by Blighttown, then Sen’s Fortress, then Anor Londo, then the Painted World, then the Duke’s Archive, and all of a sudden it seems like a million years have passed and I’ve left this crucial task undone.
Villain or loyal hound, fighting Sif is a sad thing. Wolves are beautiful animals, even when they’re trying to kill you. Her yelps of pain when my blows struck home, I felt those in my bones. Near the south end of her health bar, she stumbled and then scrambled back, favoring one paw and whimpering piteously. She was hurt, and frightened, and she knew she was beaten. At that point it became a matter of putting a suffering animal out of its misery, regardless of its behavior even moments ago. At the end, Sif, the Great Grey Wolf, guardian of the Covenant of Artorias, was put down by a blow from my sword.
I have killed a lot of things on this journey, a journey that is beginning to end. Some have been so hideous they’d keep you up at night. Some have made me recoil in horrified revulsion. Some attacked me first. Some asked me not to attack them. Some were once good people damned to a cursed fate, having lost their souls and thus with nothing to guide them. Ultimately Great Grey Wolf Sif’s passing made me sad because though I had to do it, though she was the aggressor, and would have given me no quarter, she was also the first – the only – thing I’ve encountered beautiful enough that her absence will diminish the world. Snap, snap, puppy.
I was already in the neighborhood, so with an introspective heart I trudged a little further on down the path into the fog-wreathed Darkroot Basin, an immense valley cleft by a raging river. Various tributaries run off into the lowlands, forming deep still pools, and in one of these lurks the Darkroot Hydra.
Here’s one of those creatures I don’t mind putting an end to. Defeating the hydra, with all those stupid heads, is made more challenging by the fact that there’s a dropoff in its lake. Unless you’re very good with ranged combat you’re gonna have to wade in there and go toe-to-head with the thing. And unless you are a hydra yourself, in which case you’d have difficulty operating the controller, you’re going to have to figure out a way to keep an eye on each of nine heads plus the lake floor. It took some doing.
It was in the interest of completion that I went after Darkroot Hydra, but I needed the Covenant of Artorias. He was called “the Abysswalker” for a reason, and I happen to know that soon I’m gonna have to go walking there myself. But with it done, there was no further excuse to avoid the Tomb of the Giants. Gravelord Nito awaits. It may have been dead first, but it’s about to be dead again, aw yeah what up hooooooooo
I went there.
Dark Souls Diaries: Deaths 985-1,012
At the far end of the Pinwheel’s chamber is a ladder leading up into the blackness. Beyond lies the Tomb of the Giants. Which looks like this:
It’s not normal darkness. I am in the realm of Gravelord Nito, the first thing that ever died. Even Prism Stones are useless, and I rely on those things for sounding depths, marking my trail, and accidentally throwing when I mean to use my Orange Soapstone but have forgotten to switch off them. This darkness is the absolute darkness of the dead’s first. Navigating this place without magical light is impossible, and options are limited. There is a light spell, but I’ve never found it; that leaves me with the Skull Lantern. They come tied to the beards of Catacombs Necromancers, who are generally unwilling to give them away, but as it happened I was able to shave one. Hold it out and you’ve got a sad little ring of light that’ll let you see – at best – ten feet in front of you. It’s DOOM 3 all over again.
Remember how Kingseeker Frampt, the giant snake-dog thing, doesn’t have any hands and thus has to carry stuff in his mouth?
He wouldn’t last a second in the Tomb of the Giants. I’m not doing much better, honestly. I only have these two stupid hands, not four like I really need, or eight which would be even better; using the Skull Lantern means my shield hand is occupied. That means no shield. And for me, in a Souls game, no shield means my ass has been physically removed and nailed to a Kicking Wall, where it is kicked.
I’d do okay against the horrors in the Tomb of the Giants if I just had a shield, I’m sure of it. As is they smack me around like a whimpering tetherball.
Some interesting encounters down here. I ran into a young lady – Rhea of Thorolund – who I’d met at Firelink Shrine and then utterly forgotten about. God, there are so many characters in Dark Souls, I’ve been irresponsible in that aspect of the game. There are stories and people here.
Rhea of Thorolund is high up the food chain in her homeland. Petrus, one of the very first people I met at Firelink, mentioned that he was there waiting for her. Later on she turned up with two very stern-looking bodyguards, who indicated she was on some kind of seriously dangerous god-crazy pilgrimage to somewhere. One of the guards asked if I’d like to come along, but he wanted to charge me for the privilege. Glad I didn’t take him up on it; I was about 12th level when I got the offer and my ass would have been physically removed and given to villains who would then hand it back to me, repeatedly, and in an unkind way.
Rhea was alone and crying when I found her. She hadn’t spoken to me back at Firelink (she was too Important), but you take a person, strip them of their bodyguards, and leave them alone in the sepulchral blackness of the Tomb of the Giants, they get pretty fucking chatty when a friendly person comes along, Important or no.
Turns out Rhea’s two bodyguards, Nico and Vince, had gone Hollow on her. They’d become undead and lost their souls, and were now lurking somewhere in the darkness ahead. She warned me about them and indicated that they’d probably prefer an honest death. After making sure she was safe for the moment I went forward and granted them that. Rhea, sad but grateful, told me she’d make her own way out of the Tomb of the Giants. I never saw her again.
I also met Patches the Hyena. Remember him? I remember him. He pushed me into a hole in another life, in Demon’s Souls. He’s a liar and a thief and he tricks people for fun, and that shit ain’t welcome in a place as dangerous as Lordran. He tried it again this time around, but you know what they say… fool me once.
Unfooled, I like to think that Patches finally reconsidered his worldview just as I was withdrawing – slowly – my Great Lord’s Sword from his liver. Not really too sorry about that, pal.
Dark Souls Diaries: Deaths 1,013-1,043
This is it.
Eventually everything’s gotta end – as Gravelord Nito is uniquely positioned to demonstrate, being the first thing to ever die – and thus did the pitch coal blackness of the Tomb of the Giants finally give way to the normal gloom of just a regular old underground cavern.
You can see the Demon Ruins from here. That’s how deep I’ve gone. I am, as Thénardier might intone, a breath away from Hell.
You get accustomed to the smell.
And it’s disturbing down here. Gravelord Nito is waited upon by what I imagine are its successors in death. I am swarmed by the skeletons of infants, chittering as they sweep from black nooks down into the icy water and up my greaves. I wave my arms, flapping frantically to shoo them off. Swinging a sword at infants isn’t something I’d normally endorse, but in this case I don’t even pause. Less awful and more dangerous are servants of the Pinwheel, which erupt out of bone piles and seem quite intent on avenging their master.
And then there’s Gravelord Nito itself, the first of the dead. I couldn’t locate a nice intro-only video, so settle for this. It’s narrated by a fellow with a pleasant accent I can’t place. I’m tempted to say French but it doesn’t sound exactly right. Belgian? Anyway, you need to wait to about 1:40 to see Gravelord Nito, but I’m at the mercy of YouTube.
You reach a point – and I might have mentioned this before – you reach a point in Dark Souls where you know you can finish. This is one of the many masterful structures in the game. In Demon’s Souls you can hit a wall where, mechanically, it’s almost impossible to make more forward progress. You’ve mismanaged your build, you’ve got the wrong weapons, what have you. In Dark Souls that doesn’t seem to happen.
Once you get through Anor Londo, you can finish. Physically it’s about the halfway point; emotionally it’s the beginning of the end. You feel it. You know that past that threshold, completion is possible. In your grasp. Not easy, not guaranteed – you’re looking at a good 40 more hours – but yeah, you see the light.
So battling with Gravelord Nito, with all its attendant skeletons that just refused to crapping stay down when I pummeled them, avoiding its blade and its magic, dancing in close for a strike or two when it seems safe… fighting the first thing that ever died is lent just a glimmer of comfort, because deep in your heart, you know it: you’re not there yet, but you’ve completed some symbolic passage.
Lacking a divine weapon the fight was not easy. Its skeletal minions put themselves back together time and again. The cavern was crowded with the dead. Hell, I’m one of them. I’m not some living paragon; this is Lordran, we’re all dead here. The Dark Ring keeps us motile but don’t let it slip your mind, friend: you’re dead. They’re dead. It’s a matter of degrees.
Gravelord Nito was the first thing to die. And it was also the last thing to die, down in that dank cavern. Goes round, comes round. With its fall, the skeleton courtiers broke apart, and there, glimmering in ankle-deep water that had touched the First Death, was another Lord’s Soul.
If he’s awake, maybe I’ll get some more exuberant roaring from Kingseeker Frampt on account of this.
Send an email to the author of this post at Steerpike@tap-repeatedly.com.