Everything smelled of urine. From the mud around the river to the end of the main and only road that led to Kalamanda. The journey to the fishermen’s village had lasted a week. Normally, the Demacian forces would travel faster but after rumors on a League security garrison being attacked at the Mogron Pass, Garen had commanded the Demacian officers to proceed cautiously and to help the League reinforce its defenses. It was all about the nexuses found in Kalamanda, Garen reminded himself repeatedly during the journey. From city-states governments to desert lowlifes, everyone wanted their share of the magical crystals, or at least they wanted to see them with their own eyes. As far as he was concerned, Garen only wanted this mission to be over. He wasn’t good with words, yet he was supposed to convince the Mayor of Kalamanda that Demacia had all the requisites they needed to mine the nexuses and the gold that was found. At the same time, being done and over with Kalamanda would only mean one thing: to return home and face his engagement with Fiora Laurent. He was positive she loathed the idea more than he did, but if the Demacian Council was behind all the planning, it would be hard for them both to refuse. A part of him wished that the Demacian forces had been stuck at Mount Gargantuan, right within Mogron Pass. Dust and desolation would have been a hundred times better than the smell that permeated the village and the prospective of marrying a woman like Fiora Laurent.
Garen noted with a sigh of relief that the Mayor of Kalamanda, Anson Ridley, had already set up housing for the influx of people that was expected. What was not relieving in the least, on the other hand, was to learn that it was almost filled to its maximum capacity. Noxus had arrived before anyone else, as always, and they alone occupied two thirds of the territory. The Demacian camp was quickly set up in the northern part of the village, and the moment his tent was ready, Garen took off his armor plates in a hurry.
“Captain,” a young man called from outside. “The men are heating up some water to wash up. Everything should be ready in twenty minutes.”
Sighing, Garen walked out and greeted the young Spiritmight, noticing the way his face was still scarring from the last battle against Noxus. “Just bring me some liters of the coldest water you can find. I don’t see how anyone would want a hot bath after traveling through the Mogron Pass,” he ordered in a bored tone.
“Oh, and Spiritmight.”
“No Dauntless Vanguard and no captain titles around here,” he reminded the boy. “We shall keep it to lord commander and squire.”
Ignoring the confused look Spiritmight was giving him, Garen went back inside and took off the rest of his dirty clothes, scratching his growing beard. It was time to shave it too, he realized. The following day would be a busy one, and as much as he couldn’t afford it, all Garen wanted to do for the next few hours was to relax after a half-decent meal and get some rest. Even his men had started making fun of his eye bags and wrinkles. Soon they would start pulling at invisible white hair to force a smile upon his face.
It wasn’t long until Spiritmight brought him a very large water cask. Lifting it with just one arm and bringing it at the back of his tent, Garen proceeded to wash off the dirt of several travel days. It wasn’t exactly cold since the cask had been probably exposed to the sun for a couple hours, but Garen wasn’t about to complain. He once spent months without being able to even dream of a bath. This was luxury.
Standing in his birth suit, he opened the cask and immediately started washing his face, then grabbed an old rag to clean his intimate parts before emptying the cask all over his body. The chilly water woke him up as the sun started setting in the distance, and he felt rejuvenated. Droplets ran down the defined lines of his chest and fell between his legs. The scorching heat was already drying his skin, and strands of rebellious hair were falling over his forehead but for once in his life, he didn’t feel like taking care of his appearance. He was miles away from Demacia, from his family and from anyone who could say anything to him.
The Hasty Hammer Tavern stank even more than the entire village. The commander coughed heavily as he made his way inside, civilian clothes on and a tired look adorning his face. The tables were all taken by Demacian and Noxian officers who were busy luring some Kalamandan females to sit on their laps as they took refreshment. Garen dragged his feet to the counter, where he spotted a free stool. The bartender automatically served him a glass of some green beverage Garen had never seen before.
“Washes any thoughts away, Sir,” the bald man told him before he could even ask what it was.
“Get me some Graggy Ice,” a third voice ordered. “Garen Crownguard?” the man asked, turning his head to the right. The moment the Commander nodded, the heavy man let out a throaty laugh. “It’s a pleasure. I’m Anson Ridley – Mayor Ridley,” he presented himself, offering a handshake.
“The pleasure is mine,” Garen greeted back.
The Mayor eyed his drink with disgust before he threw it over the counter. “Get this man some ale!” Leaning in, he whispered, “Don’t you ever try that. You will sit on a bedpan for the next month,” he confessed, before busting a gut.
Garen forced a smile on his lips before making a toast with the Mayor of Kalamanda. He noted the swollen, calloused hands of the man with interest and it took only a second for Ridley to start laughing again.
“Fisherman hands,” he said. “We are a very small village – hell, no one even knew Kalamanda existed before these two nexuses were found,” he told him with glinting grey eyes. “Not that anyone’s complaining here. We needed the extra activity. All we do is fish some Valoran trout.”
Garen smiled, cupping his drink with both hands and staring at the several cracks on the counter. He was surprised the thing hadn’t crumbled to pieces yet. “Sounds like a peaceful life to me.”
Anson Ridley gave him a sympathetic smile and place one of his large hands on Garen’s shoulder. “How is life in Demacia City, I always wondered,” he confessed, “until I realized that all that order, all those noble houses and the duties imposed to every citizen was a burden too heavy to lift even for someone who is used to carrying the heaviest casks of water and fish.” When the commander didn’t reply, Ridley went on, “Things are very simple here in Kalamanda. The Mayor is a fisherman and the fisherman is a mayor.”
“I am honored to be who I am,” Garen whispered back before gulping down his drink. “And I am honored to serve the people of Demacia.”
Ridley chuckled, patting his shoulder. “I am sure you are but Garen, remember this,” he said in a serious tone, his grey eyes piercing through his blue ones. “No people is worth the feeling you get when you teach your son how to swim or when you come home to rest in the arms of the woman you love. No people, no crown, nothing is worth more than that. We are just bones and flesh,” the old man reminded him, “and one day you might not die in battle, as you expect, but rotting in a bed waiting for the Void to come and get you. Wouldn’t you want to think of your happiest days, then?” he asked him, raising his eyebrows. “Wouldn’t you want to think of the day your sons called you father? The day your lady smiled at you for the first time?”
Garen shook his head at the man, failing to find the words to answer. Ridley laughed asthmatically before emptying his pint and standing up. “I will see you tomorrow, Lord Crownguard. Enjoy your stay in Kalamanda.”
Blue eyes stared at the empty pint in front of him. He was feeling dizzier than when he just arrived. Surely the tiredness and alcohol were taking their toll on him. As much as he wanted to take the Mayor’s words into consideration, he was a Crownguard. His family had served the King for generations and he had himself given everything to the kingdom. He had formed countless men to be the best soldiers Valoran could dream of, he had set up an example for other Demacians to follow and there was not a single act he had done without thinking of Demacia’s best interest. And he regretted none of it.
“I like the rugged look,” a familiar, feminine voice chimed in.
Garen directed his gaze to the ceiling before dropping some gold on top of the counter. “Have a good night,” he told the bartender.
The bald man looked unimpressed. “It’s on Anson. Goodnight.”
The woman beside him smirked. “I just arrived and you leave so rudely.” Turning to the bartender, she winked. “Graggy Ice.”
“Maybe you took your sweet time to come over, Katarina,” Garen pointed out, “but some of us have been traveling without even sleeping.”
Turning to face her, he didn’t expect to see her without her signature, iron-mixed leather jacket. She stood there with a tiny bustier holding her upper body and dagger-free pants that hugged her curves. The auburn-haired Noxian’s skin was reddish and sweaty due to the southern weather and for a reason unknown to him, she looked amused.
“I always take my sweet time,” she whispered.
He nearly choked on air. As he quickly glanced around to see if anyone had noticed whom he was talking to, Katarina shook her head and chugged down her drink in a less than feminine way.
“You should slow down,” he advised her. “I thought you always took your sweet time?” Sighing at his own behavior, Garen decided it was about time he retreated inside his tent.
“Not always,” she answered, smiling at him for the first time.
The wind that blew from the southern parts of Ionia was surprisingly cold, while the faintest of sunrays could burn anyone’s skin. The unusual weather wasn’t hostile enough to deter the thousand ships that were about to hit the coasts of Shon-Xan, East of Navori. The Noxian forces had been in control of the southern territories of Ionia for years and it was only common sense that guided Chancellor Malek Hawkmoon to set sail for Shon-Xan. The last thing he wanted was to alert the Institute of War and its League of Legends, or to listen to more Demacian complaints about how unfair and immoral the Noxian High Command was.
The largest ship was only a few hours away from Shon-Xan, and the commanders of Noxus were already ordering their maids and stewards to gather their possessions. Riven stood still on the deck, her runic blade thrown over her shoulder. She could feel the back of her neck getting sweaty and it disgusted her to no end, but she wouldn’t look away from the unknown islands they were about to reach. She had sailed abroad before, many times if she recalled correctly, but she had heard many stories about Ionia and now she would see for herself if they were true. She had been waiting for this moment for over a month, considering the fact that they had stopped in Zaun first to let on board Noxus’ main allies.
“Enjoying the view?” a deep, masculine voice asked behind her.
Dropping the sword she held, Riven immediately turned around to salute her superior. “Sir—Chancellor Hawkmoon,” she blubbered, earning a laugh from the much older man.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you. Be careful with this,” he advised her, picking up the runic blade. “It was given to you for a reason.”
Riven gulped, nodding slowly. Malek Hawkmoon was probably the one man among the High Command she respected the most and looked up to in every occasion. He led many men across Valoran to conquer and spread the Noxian way of life with utter success. He scouted for the best youngsters to fight for the Empire of Noxus and trained them as well. And although he was one of the tallest men on Runeterra, sporting a large beard and glaring at everyone with his black eyes, he always spoke with kindness in his tone.
“Yes, Sir. I am very honored to have been granted this blade,” she whispered, staring at her feet.
Hawkmoon lifted her head by placing his index finger under her chin. “Careful Riven. Honor is for skinny Demacian boys. What you’ve got, you earned it with the strength that’s within you.”
The young woman pursed her lips, nodding frantically.
Sighing, the Chancellor wiped invisible dust off his black coat and rested his arms on the rail, glancing at the Zaunite men whispering and laughing on the lower deck. Riven followed his gaze, frowning when she recognized some of the so-called scientists that joined their cause.
Feeling bold, she cleared her throat. “Sir. May I ask why the Zaunites came to Ionia?”
Hawkmoon answered her question with a question of his own. “What are you afraid of, Riven?”
“I am not afraid.”
“Yes, you are. You stare at your own feet when you’re afraid of something.”
“I am not afraid,” the silver-haired woman tried to convince herself. “But I heard many things about Zaunite scientists. I know for a fact that they spread unknown substances all over Ionia several years ago.” She paused, waiting for a reaction that she never got. “A demonstration of strength is when one wins against someone who was able to defend themselves,” she continued. “How can anyone defend themselves against a substance that even we don’t know about?”
Hawkmoon smiled at her, straightening his back. “You are a smart woman, Riven,” he conceded. “Very smart, in fact,” he emphasized. “Perhaps you believe that what they say about us is true, that Noxian armies are evil and enslaving the most pacifist people on Runeterra.”
“I would never—”
“Let me clarify things a bit,” he went on, ignoring her outburst. “There is no pacifist continent or people. Humans aren’t pacifists with each other. Yordles aren’t either. The Angels of the Universe fought among their own people and so did the Ascended of Shurima. The Lord of the Reign of Iron wasn’t a pacifist either. He would have never ruled in the first place if that had been the case. The dragons in the skies burn each other alive and the creatures of the Marai try to drown their own kin.
“It is true, Zaunite scientists have used biochemical substances against the Ionian resistance, and other chemicals that Ionian people never came across before. It killed them in an instant,” he admitted. “But do you think that Ionians don’t have their own dark magic to begin with?
“Ionia is an ancient continent, filled with wild magic and its people know no restrictions. They would use their knowledge against you, the foreigner, no matter how good or bad your intentions are. And believe me, Riven,” he concluded, looking back at her, “you don’t want any of that magic to even graze your skin.”
She had never felt stupider in her entire life. She was a veteran soldier by then, yet she had to be reminded of what war really was. Hawkmoon was right. Noxus had armies and forged weapons, but not everyone played by the same rules. The southern regions of Ionia belonged to Noxus but if Ionia was to contest their rights on said regions… “Or maybe not,” Riven whispered to herself.
Crimson eyes slowly looked back up. “We’re not here to ensure Ionia doesn’t try to get back Galrin, Navori and Shon-Xan,” she reasoned out loud. “We came to conquer. Again.”
Eyes filled with pride, Hawkmoon placed his hand on her shoulder. “A conquest that ends is no conquest.” Turning heels, he asked her one last question. “Anything else troubling your young mind?”
Anxiety started eating at her upon realizing she had been sent to execute whoever stood in Noxus’ way. The runic blade had been empowered with magic she wasn’t sure she could control and it was her duty to brandish it. The mad scientists of Zaun would be at her command for as long as they stayed in Ionia but most importantly, no one knew they were here to continue where Noxus had left off seven years ago. Riven didn’t think there was still a part of her that was profoundly naïve until that very moment. Reaching inside her back pocket, she fisted the letter she meant to send earlier. She had to send it now more than ever.
“A raven,” she replied. “I would like to know if we still have a raven.”
Hawkmoon motioned her to give him whatever message she wanted to deliver.
Looking away in the distance, she handed him the folded piece of paper.
The Chancellor eyed the letter twice, his eyes blinking back and forth between her face and the message.
“Talon,” he read out loud. “I hope you can forgive me for how we parted ways. I understand your duties and while I carry out my own, I promise to help you look for Marcus even from where I am. Your friend, Riven,” he finished with a grunt.
Riven felt her cheeks flood with color and she remained silent as the authoritative man stepped closer. In a much different, colder tone, he warned her, “This is a family of traitors. Marcus Du Couteau isn’t the kind of man who disappears in the blink of an eye. He is a traitor to the High Command. So are his daughters and so is his right hand,” he declared, tearing the letter in shreds and causing Riven to stiffen before him. “Now I must ask. Are you a traitor too, Riven?”
Gulping silently, she whispered back, “No.”
Hawkmoon narrowed his black eyes at her before leaving to retreat in his own cabin. He was glad they still had two ravens on the ship, he realized. He would have the time to draft two letters before their arrival in Ionia. One was for his wife.
The other one was for the High Command.
Talon let out a flow of curses the moment he removed his boots and dropped them in the opaque waters of the Serpentine River. These had been the most annoying three weeks of his life. It would have been easier to travel through the Marshes of Kaladoun, South of Demacia, but that was the Institute of War’s territory. Shorter routes meant a higher risk of being recognized. So instead, Talon had settled for the haunting shadows of the Marshes and its muddy, dirty lands and disgusting waters. The very end of the Serpentine River was narrow and not too deep, so his plan was to swim to the other side and finally reach Demacian territory. His blades wouldn’t appreciate the water but it was the only solution. Plus, he could use a bath.
The brown-haired man stripped down to the minimal requirements of decency and shoved his clothes inside his leather bag without folding them. He then laced his boots to the straps of his bag and entered the river. The water wasn’t cold at all and Talon thanked the blazing sun for that. It was going to be at least a thirty-minute swim and he didn’t want to risk catching a cold that would compromise his mission.
“Where ya goin’ lad?”
Talon’s back stiffened. He had just put his clothes back on and he was starving. The swim hadn’t been easy at all, with all the weeds and fallen branches under the waters. He had scratched several parts of his body.
Glancing over his shoulder, he spotted an old fisherman wearing old rags as clothes. He was missing nearly all his teeth and his squinty eyes looked at him with curiosity.
“You fishing here?” Talon asked.
“Aye,” the old man answered with a toothless smile. “It’s a wonderful day for fishing. It rained yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that.”
Talon smiled back at the old man, getting up to stretch his legs. He patted the man’s shoulder, apologizing for his behavior.
“Sorry for taking up space. I was just enjoying my swim.”
“It’s all good lad, this ain’t my property,” the fisherman answered with a deep laugh. When Talon didn’t let go of his shoulder, the old man glanced behind him and asked, “Did ya… swim from over there to here?”
Talon’s smile never faded, and he nodded, reveling in the way the old man’s eyes were slowly filled with terror.
“You… a Noxian?” he asked, gulping. “Please, I don’t have nothing. I am here for the fish… to bring it to the docks… in Demacia City.”
Talon raised his hands in a defensive manner, his dark eyes never leaving the man’s frightened expression. “I’m not here to take anything from you. Is that yours?” he asked, eyeing the cart a few feet away from them.
The fisherman let out a sigh of relief, nodding. “Aye, lad. My cart. For fish.” The toothless smile was back. “I am happy to see you’re nothing like what people say about Noxians,” he confessed. “I always tell my wife, ‘don’t worry about those lads, it doesn’t matter where they’re from. What really matters is what’s in their hearts’. Eh, that’s what I say.” He turned around to point at his cart. “Lemme give you a ride. Hop on, lad. Ya must be hungry. There’s a village nearby.”
Talon watched the old man limp his way to the cart and reached inside his left sleeve.
It all happened in an instant. One moment he stood there, the next he was on top of the man’s back, his pointed blade deeply embedded in the fisherman’s neck. The old man coughed blood and his tongue lolled out as he choked and his lungs slowly filled with blood.
“You should’ve listened to your wife,” Talon whispered as the lifeless body fell to the ground.
After hours of dragging that cart full of fish Talon regretted killing the old man. Anyone who wasn’t an assassin always thought that it was an exciting lifestyle, that the only requirement was to remove those who stood between the assassin and their objective, but it was a permanent disguise made for stupid situations. Hours of preparation for only a couple seconds of assassination. He recalled arguing over this with Riven during one of the Crimson Elite’s trainings. If only she could see him drag the forsaken cart while smelling of rotten fish.
Talon walked for three days and two nights through several villages, asking everyone he met if they had seen a man with shoulder-length hair and an auburn beard. No one had. Upon his arrival in Demacia City, Talon dropped the cart at the docks and crumbled to the ground from exhaustion. He leaned against a petricite bench, staring into space and trying not to vomit at his own smell. He glanced at every Demacian that walked past him, wondering if he had been wrong this entire time. He had been looking for Marcus everywhere and if the rumors were true, he had to have been in Demacia at some point or another.
Talon was starting to believe that Riven was right. Marcus wasn’t coming back.
“Your fish is all rotten and stinky, boy,” a Demacian officer told him with disgust printed all over his face.
Talon rolled his eyes. “I know.”
“Why are you bringing it here, then?”
Brown eyes stared at the gold, white and blue uniform and sighed. “I’m looking for a man with an auburn beard and mid-length hair,” he whispered. “Looks like a beggar.”
The Demacian officer frowned, scratching his blonde moustache. “Why?”
Talon looked at his dirtied clothes and then glanced at the stolen cart, slowly standing up. “I, uh… That man killed my father. We were going to bring the fresh fish to the capital when that beggar killed him and stole half of what we fished,” the assassin elaborated. “I came here for justice.”
“I think I saw him,” a third voice chimed in. “The Captain of King’s Guard arrested a beggar that looked like that some time ago, but he escaped,” another officer explained, dropping what he was doing to join in the conversation.
Talon’s eyes narrowed. “He escaped?”
“Oh yeah,” the second officer laughed, waving goodbye to the people he was talking to previously. “Captain Laurent was arresting him, and then the Captain of the Dauntless Vanguard contested her actions and that was the perfect time for the stinky fellow to run away.”
“We will report what happened to your father,” the blonde officer assured Talon. “That man will eventually be arrested.”
“You are welcome to stay for free at Fossian’s, the tavern down this road,” the other Demacian said, pointing at the main street. “Justice will be delivered.”
“But throw the fish first.”
The tavern was the first place Talon visited after discovering that Marcus had indeed been in Demacia recently. There was no way it was just a coincidence. If he had almost been arrested by a royal guard, he had been lurking around the royal castle. Talon wanted to think about it all very carefully, but first he needed a real bath and to wash his clothes. Being all stinky and dirty would only draw attention in Demacia City.
It was nearly past curfew time when Talon finished his meal. It was disgusting, to say the least. Demacians ate a lot of fish covered in wheat, and the sauce was just dirty water. It was the first time he complained about a free meal, even though he had seen worse in the past. Before Marcus took him in. Talon guessed he was becoming too much like Katarina, always complaining about something.
The moon shone high in the sky, and Talon grabbed the first opportunity he was presented with to leave the tavern without being seen. Going out past curfew was an offense in the capital, but it was also his best chance to explore every corner without being asked who he was and what he was doing. He stayed away from the Grand Plaza and the Citadel, figuring that he wouldn’t find anything or anyone there.
Demacian streets at night were deserted and filled with light. It was very hard not to be seen, so Talon had to be even more careful and stay alert. He could hear some officers on patrol, whispering to each other as to not wake up anyone.
“What a fucking boring city,” Talon whispered to himself, fixing his hood.
Every building and every house looked exactly the same; white and polished. Not even a dog was barking. It was like walking through a city where everyone had been frozen in time. For a moment, the clouds covered the moon in the sky, and Talon blinked at the sight before him. A tall structure slowly appeared as the moonlight faded and Talon rushed towards it like a moth to a flame. It looked like a temple, several towers were erected around a dome but there were no doors. Talon walked quietly to the nearest window he spotted and he was surprised to see that it didn’t need to be forced. Surely no one expected unwanted visitors to come in since the entire structure was hidden.
The brown-haired assassin crawled inside one of the towers, his jaw dropping at what was inside. Sparkling blue crystals levitated, forming a circle in the middle of the room to create light, and several books were left open on the wooden tables. Vials and pots, some empty and some filled with unknown green liquid, were scattered around the room. Talon walked closer to the nearest table, where three books and several notes had been left by someone who had obviously been studying.
The books were all written in a language that Talon didn’t understand. His gloved hands flipped some of the pages, until he found the drawing of a creature that looked like a winged demon and another of an iron-clad figure riding a dragon. Talon jumped slightly when the tables started shaking, the crystals that illuminated the room turning black as the moonlight filled the room with light again.
Something cracked behind him and he immediately turned around, only to realize that he was alone.
He had to get out of there.
He palmed the mounted blade on his arm, double-checking his surroundings to make sure no one had seen him. He was nearing the window when the tables began shaking again, and the crystals illuminated the room once more as the moonlight faded. The clouds were cloaking the skies once again and that was when he saw her.
A frightened woman who looked like a twelve-year-old appeared by the window, staring at him in horror. Talon immediately grabbed her by the throat to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating, and pressed his blade to her neck.
“H-how did you get in?” she whispered in utter shock. “This place cannot be seen.”
“Seems like everything can be seen once the light fades away,” he whispered back menacingly. “Your name?”
“I’m – my name,” she whined, “my name is Anna.”
Talon licked his lips, shaking his head. “Anna?”
She nodded quickly.
The hooded man tightened his fist around her neck, his blade starting to draw blood. “Let’s try again. What is your name? And what the fuck is this place?” He swore she was about to cry, but he wanted his answers.
“Luxanna,” she said quietly. “Luxanna Crownguard. And these are the headquarters of the Circle of the Illuminators.”