The Court etiquette required that low-ranking officers stood a thousand steps away from the Throne Room, while commanders could stand a hundred steps closer. As for captains, they were allowed to kneel a good fifty steps away depending on their request to the King. Garen’s body moved on autopilot as he entered the Grand Hall that separated the entrance of the Citadel of Dawn from the Throne Room. He didn’t need to count anymore, and knew exactly when to come to a halt. The palace of King Jarvan III was entirely made of petricite, as were most Demacian monuments and buildings. The pristine, white marble stone was the symbol of eternal purity and elegance and shone bright as the sunrays pierced through the colorful, stained glass windows. The cupola added a sense of greatness to the construction, and reminded men how small they were, how insignificant their existences were.
As the guards closed the heavy stone doors behind him, the noise made by the chatty nobles in the Grand Hall died out. Garen knew he could keep advancing as long as the guards on each side of the room pointed their spears at the ceiling. Finally, he saw the King raise his right hand and they immediately stood en garde.
Garen’s blue eyes were set on the scene before him. King Jarvan III was exchanging whispers with a summoner Garen didn’t recognize, and nodding away. To his right, his steward remained perfectly still, his golden armor glowing like it was empowered by magic, and if not for the greying hair, the captain would have never been able to tell Seneschal Xin Zhao’s age. The two men exchanged a brief look, and then Xin Zhao finally nodded at him, acknowledging his presence and rank, his long ponytail lolling to the side in the process.
“Crownguard,” the King finally spoke, signaling him to walk closer, the unknown summoner promptly leaving the room in silence and the guards lowering their weapons. “You may approach. How was your journey?”
Difficult, Garen wanted to reply, but instead he settled for, “All good, my King.”
The reality of it was that the moment Prince Jarvan IV showed up with League Summoner Nashahago, things had gone downhill for the most part. Although the two of them had raised a white banner as a sign of upcoming negotiations, the Noxian troops had marched back to their forts as winners – and they did win, as much as Garen hated admitting it. They won, not only because they outnumbered the Demacian forces, but also because he had been left unconscious in the dying forest of the Howling Marsh. The few men who survived had looked at him with either disappointment filling their eyes, or utter disbelief. It had been a long week of travel, and by the time he was home, the captain was met with more disdain. From his peers, and every noble of the Citadel. Word traveled fast in Demacia City, and no man could pretend to hold onto his secrets even upon death.
“I will be straightforward with you, Garen,” Jarvan III said in a strict tone, his dark brown eyes peering down at him. “I am very surprised but also profoundly disappointed given the events of last week.”
The Captain nodded at that, a few strands of brown hair falling over his forehead. “I understand, Your Majesty. So am I.”
“I do understand, however, that the Noxian troops went from being a handful of second-class assassins to organized military troops, which is something that neither of us could have predicted, since the Howling Marsh is essentially a wasteland with very minimal resources that are not worth fighting over,” the King recognized.
Garen could only nod at that. “Indeed. They sent well-trained soldiers to fight over a dusty land,” he worded differently, staring at the floor covered in crag fur. “But that doesn’t and will never justify my absence on the battlefield.”
King Jarvan III waved his hand and dismissed Garen’s statement. “I will not ask what happened, as such matters will be strictly looked over by the Council of War,” he explained. “This audience was needed for a different reason.”
The veteran soldier raised an eyebrow at that, tempted to ask why, when his lord stood up and abandoned his throne, his older figure towering over him from the pedestal. “The DSS Excursion was officially reported lost at sea this morning, which constitutes a major problem for us.”
Garen gasped, his mind immediately drifting to the number of men he had selected for the mission, when he remembered that the ship was bound from the Freljord. The goods traded were one of the numerous attempts to rekindle the friendship between the two nations, and before he was dispatched to the Howling Marsh, he had been organizing meetings with the Northern representatives to discuss trade treaties and freedom of persons. The DDS Excursion being lost at sea would only comfort the Demacian people into the idea that the Freljord didn’t want to join Demacia into any form of alliance.
“I want you to investigate, Garen,” the King commanded. “A ship of those dimensions doesn’t simply drown into freezing waters.”
Pressing his right fist to the left side of his chest, the captain was ready to obey. “Yes, my King.”
“Jarvan is already at the port, answering Summoner Nashahago’s questions for the Journal.”
Garen wanted to roll his eyes at that. That summoner was everywhere, all the time, never contributing to anything meaningful.
“There is more, of course,” the King announced, stepping down to place his hand on the captain’s shoulder, the rings on his fingers clashing with the steel of Garen’s armor. “High Councilor Vessaria Kolminye informed me that it will soon be revealed to the people that two nexuses have been found in the city of Kalamanda.”
“Nexuses?” Garen muttered.
“Indeed. The League, of course, wants to ensure that every nexus remains within the control of the Institute of War, for very understandable reasons,” Jarvan III elaborated. “I am positive that once the summoners in charge of inspecting the nexuses will be done with their work, city-states will fight for mining rights. You will be the commander in charge of the Demacian delegation when that time comes,” the King whispered, shaking him slightly.
Garen gulped, looking away for a slight moment. “Commander? Your Majesty, am I not to lead the Dauntless Vanguard anymore?”
Jarvan III chuckled, patting Garen’s shoulder. “I would never bestow such a humiliation upon House Crownguard. But you did leave the battlefield in the Howling Marsh, which lead to Commander Buvelle’s leg amputation. He would have been our best negotiator in Kalamanda. His sister Lestara demands a form of reprimand, and I do think it is deserved. Win over the mayor of Kalamanda, that is all you have to do,” the King informed him, staring into his eyes to make himself clear.
Garen understood exactly what it meant. As long as he kept up with his duties in the capital, he was the Captain of the Dauntless Vanguard, a decorated soldier and a respected nobleman, so that no one would speculate about him losing the rank he earned after years of hard and loyal service. However, he was forbidden to use the one title that truly defined him to introduce himself to foreign officials. After all, he had let down dozens of men, and many of them met their fates earlier than they should have.
He had barely passed the gardens of the Citadel when he heard loud screams and the sound of armed men bracing themselves. Right by the gates of the palace, a bearded, middle-aged man cloaked in brownish robes was being arrested. Garen couldn’t see his face; his auburn hair was so long and dirty it clung to his face like a wet curtain. The royal guards were patting his clothes, looking for weapons, when their captain drew her thin sword.
“Un poi arestez!” she ordered. “Now! Throw him in the dungeons,” she repeated, her throaty r’s giving away her identity faster than her tricolor uniform did.
“Is it really necessary?” Garen halted her men, “This man is a beggar. Why not bring him to the temple, where he would get food and a bath?”
The woman narrowed her piercing blue eyes at him. “You are not in charge here,” she stated. “To the dungeons,” she repeated for the third time to the men at her command.
The members of the King’s Guard hesitated for a moment, and missed the way the beggar’s eyes glinted at the sight of Garen or his furious escape in the thin shadows of midday as the two captains glared at each other. The man was long gone when they all realized what just happened, and Garen hated to admit that he found it amusing. Until the woman pointed her sword at him.
“This will be brought to Court,” she stated.
“Court it is, unless you’d rather settle this with a duel,” he replied, making a clear reference to the past events that tainted her family’s reputation, as well as to her Grand Duelist title. Garen bowed to her, in a way she probably thought was mocking. “Lady Fiora Laurent,” he greeted her, “it was a pleasure.”
Ignoring the noblewoman who was busy glaring at the back of his head, Garen stormed to the port, where he wouldn’t be excited to meet journalists and summoners.
The Immortal Bastion seemed impenetrable. The main palace in Noxus Prime stood at the peak of the city that had been built into the side of a mountain thousands of years ago. Riven was not quite sure of the history behind it; every time she gazed at the skies where the peak of Noxus Prime hid behind clouds, she found herself getting lost and hypnotized by the shadows dancing on the walls of the palace. From a distance, the foundations of the palace looked hollow and resembled the empty eye sockets of a gigantic skull, but as soon as it could be seen, the sunlight blinded her and Riven blinked the burn away. Each time she reopened her eyes, the illusion was gone. The bastion remained.
The young woman made her way past the gates where her two-hour climb would begin. The several guards watching over the capital ignored her as she took heavy steps towards the residence of the Grand General. Fully clothed in blood-colored leather and iron plates protecting her vital points, the silver-haired soldier wondered what the Immortal Bastion looked like inside. She had only once been allowed in the hall, and it was for the Iron Ceremony that enrolled promising soldiers who passed the heavy Noxian training. Weeks with barely any food and sparring that lasted for entire days. Riven had never suffered more than during those days, but it earned her the respect of the masters-at-arms and a dutiful position among the ranks of the military.
She was greeted by an elderly guard as soon as she bowed before the elevating platform that would grant her access to the main quarters of the Immortal Bastion, and she was then escorted all the way to the Grand Chambers. Riven was surprised to see very few guards and generals, although she figured most of them stood silently in the shadows, keeping an eye on each other and ready to raise their axes at the slightest misstep.
It took another solid half-an-hour to ascend from the Hall of Pride to the chambers where Grand General Darkwill held his meetings. She was told by the commander to proceed on her own, and as soon as he was done, he disappeared in the darkness of the hallway. Riven didn’t even see his emerald and gold robes glint in the far distance where the daylight still pierced through the stained-glass windows of the fortress.
The end of the hallway was a mere wall, and the young woman stood still, confused and looking around for a door. A part of her dreaded this encounter, thinking that maybe she wasn’t going to be rewarded at all, and that this was all a cover-up for her homicide. Riven quickly disregarded that thought however – she believed in her Empire, as she believed in her leaders. The Grand General would come.
The crimson-eyed woman jumped slightly when she heard a wall slide somewhere behind her and the moment she turned around, Boram Darkwill was in sight. He was wearing his iron helmet and full armor, the spikes on his shoulders adding to the large mace he brandished. He was a fearsome, large man. His long, red cape touched the floor and a mysterious red light was burning inside the helmeted skull at the tip of his weapon.
Riven unsheathed her long sword, pointing it at the ceilings that were so high she couldn’t see them before she knelt and set the sword down on the black stone floor. “Forever strong,” she recited in a firm tone.
“Forever strong,” the Grand General repeated, pointing his axe at her. “Rise, soldier. And follow me,” he ordered, his hoarse voice sounding metallic through his helmet.
Riven followed him into a room that was bigger than the marketplace of the Ivory Ward. Half of it was occupied by an iron table, an older version of the Valoran continent carved on its surface. At the far end of the room was an oddly-shaped chair. It was a large one, made of black iron with spiky cushions, but the back of it was slim and there was no armrest. Statues stood on each side of the chair – a hooded person on the left and a disfigured minotaur on the right. The only source of light came from a chandelier that was hanging so low, Riven could have sworn it was hovering over their heads rather than attached to the ceiling. The room was cold overall and she wouldn’t have been too surprised to see the dead rise from the floor.
“Remind me your name, soldier,” Darkwill finally said, breaking the silence.
She nodded, folding her arms behind her back. “I come from the streets. I know no other name.”
“Only Riven,” the leader of Noxus whispered, facing away from her. “For the past five years, you have proven the world that the Noxian way of life isn’t made of ideals but of real and fair achievements”, he said as he set his mace aside. “Only the strong hold the power in their hands,” he reminded her, turning around, “and arise to greatness,” he finished, brushing his fingers against Riven’s chin. “The people have idolized you. Celebrated your date of birth – raised their cups of beet wine for your victories,” he whispered.
Riven gulped, feeling highly intimidated, until the Grand General took a step backwards and flicked his fingers. A woman emerged from the shadows, a sheathed weapon in her arms. Riven shivered at the sight of her. She was as pale as the moonlight and her black eye makeup made her look even paler. Her short black hair framed her slim face, and she was barely clothed. Her upper body was mostly naked, and her half skirt covered only her right leg. Her black and gold cape waved behind her as she walked forward to offer Riven the weapon.
“Brandish it,” Darkwill ordered.
Riven tore her eyes away from the Pale Woman and fisted he hilt of the sword presented to her. She unsheathed it and swung it before her, gasping upon realizing how heavy and broad it was. The blade was darker that the Iron Table, and ancient symbols were engraved on it, faded green hues emanating from the sword.
“This runic blade is yours, Riven,” the Grand General declared. “Now and forever. Repeat it.”
“Now and forever,” the soldier whispered, her eyes growing wet as she stared at the green light that made her weapon shine in the darkness.
“It is nothing like other long swords,” he explained, placing a gloved hand on the blade. “It was forged by the wisest masters of Noxus and made for the one general bound to bring Noxus at the top of the known world.”
Riven nearly choked on a sob, finding it harder by the second to keep her emotions in check. Of all things, she didn’t expect to be awarded with such a treasure and rank. “The Empire…” she whispered, “is the only reason for my existence,” she confessed, her crimson eyes staring into Darkwill’s.
“The Empire,” he repeated, placing both hands on her shoulders, “exists because of people like us. As we wither, the Empire remains, which is why it needs to keep growing. You will sail to Ionia and stabilize the situation we have encountered in the Southern isles. Chancellor Hawkmoon will fill you in.”
Riven’s body was shaking with fear and excitement, but her lips curved up and she nodded.
“You’re holding everything you need after all.”
Long fingernails drummed against the Iron Table. The room was entirely dark since the Grand General had left to rest in his private chambers, feeling ill. The Pale Woman hummed to herself a melody only she knew while toying with her golden staff, light brown eyes staring at the purple crystals hovering at the tip. It seemed to her that the Grand General was growing weaker with each passing day. She would have to keep track of that.
“How did the meeting go?” a muffled voice asked from behind her.
She didn’t need to turn around to figure out who it was. There was only another person besides her that could penetrate the Immortal Bastion with or without granted access. The Master Tactician.
“Just as planned,” she said, shrugging. “The Poster Child was sent to Ionia, runic blade in hand.”
“You sound bored, Evaine.”
The woman turned around, narrowing her eyes at the man whose face was half covered. The limping man kept his crimson eyes on the Pale Woman’s face, studying her like a book.
“Your great plan doesn’t seem as flawless as you claim it to be, if you ask me,” she answered, glaring back at him and scrutinizing his every movement and he laughed and placed his clawed hands on the table she was leaning against.
“Thousands of years ago,” the balding man began, “the men battled for supremacy over Valoran. War bands, tribes and other archaic forms of communities fought over lands covered in dust and blood but there was one man,” he paused, smirking over his high collared robes, “there was one man who was able to defeat every warlord who dared glance at him.” He tapped his temple with a clawed finger. “Wits. Intelligence brought him glory.”
Evaine scoffed. “Or sorcery,” she corrected.
The Master Tactician only laughed at that. “Never one without the other, my dear,” he pointed out. “The warlord in question was the embodiment of strength. He would march for days clad in an iron armor that was heavier than his mace, no matter the weather, no matter the fatigue. He wouldn’t stop marching until he held Valoran tight in his fist,” he told the Pale Woman, slamming his fist against the Iron Table for good measure. “He wouldn’t sleep until his bastion was complete, nor would he eat until he tasted his enemy’s bowels. And that,” he paused, raising his head to stare into the darkness that hid the ceiling, “was only the beginning of the Reign of Iron.”
“There will never be another Reign of Iron,” Evaine commented, raising an eyebrow at him. “These are times of peace, overall.”
The Master Tactician ignored her completely, focusing his gaze on the iron table once again, his clawed fingers tracing the engraved roads and city-states. “This table was forged from the iron melted by dragonfyre,” he told her quietly. “And if a man can rule over dragons, is there anything he cannot control?” he asked her.
Evaine remained silent, shifting her own gaze to the old Valoran map.
“This isn’t about restoring the Reign of Iron, Evaine,” he declared, limping closer until his lips brushed against her ear. “It’s about destroying the Reign of Dawn,” he chuckled into her ear. “So next time you empty a vial of the hemomancer’s brew into Darkwill’s beet wine, make sure you empty it all,” he whispered menacingly. “Or I will feed your eyes to Beatrice.”
“Where is that obnoxious raven anyway?” the Pale Woman asked, faking a cool demeanor.
“She found the one person who whispers in the dragon’s ear. You can imagine how curious I am right now.”