|WHERE NIGHTMARES DWELL|
In a town plagued by nightmares, can even the best and bravest of Demacia bring back the light?
How long had it been since Lux had come north to Fossbarrow?
She wasn’t sure, but guessed it was around seven years. Garen had just left to begin his training with the Dauntless Vanguard, and the rest of the family had come north to honor the tomb of great grandfather Fossian. Lux remembered complaining about the incessant rain as they made their way along winding paths through the crags and gullies of the forest to her ancestor’s tomb. She’d been expecting a marble mausoleum like the Hall of Valor, but was disappointed to learn it was little more than a grassy mound nestled at the foot of a soaring cliff face. A marble slab set into the base of the mound depicted the legend of her illustrious forebear; Fossian and the demon falling from the cliff, her great grandfather mortally wounded, the nightmarish entity with a Demacian blade piercing its black heart.
It had rained then, and it was raining now. An icy, northern deluge fresh off the dogtooth mountains that separated Demacia from the Freljord. A storm was brewing in that frozen realm, breaking on the far side of the peaks to fall on verdant swathes of Demacian pine bent by hostile winds. To the west and east, the mountains receded into an azure haze, the sky dark and threatening, like one of her brother’s saltier moods. North, the forested haunches of the highlands were craggy with cliffs and plunging chasms. Dangerous lands; home to fell creatures and wild beasts of all descriptions.
Lux had set off into the north two weeks ago; Demacia to Edessa, then to Pinara and on to Lissus. Lissus to Velorus, and finally to High Silvermere, the City of Raptors. A night with her family at their home at the foot of Knight’s Rock, then out into Demacia’s northwest marches. Almost immediately, the character of the people and villages began to change as the heartland of Demacia fell behind her like a pennant torn from the haft of a banner-pole.
Rolling, fertile plains gave way to windswept hinterlands dotted with gorse and thistle. Silverwing raptors screeched overhead, invisible as they dueled in the clouds. The air grew colder, freighted with the deep ice of the Freljord, and the walls of each settlement grew higher with every mile she rode. It had been a long and tiring journey to Fossbarrow, but she was here, and Lux allowed herself a small smile.
“We’ll be at the temple soon, Starfire,” she said, reaching down to rub her horse’s mane.
“They’ll have grain and a warm stable for you, I promise.”
The horse shook its head and snorted, stamping its feet with impatience. Lux kicked back her heels and walked her tired mount along the rutted track leading to Fossbarrow’s main gate.
The town occupied the banks of the Serpentrion, a thundering river that rose in the mountains and snaked to the western coast. The town’s walls of polished granite followed the line of the hills, and the buildings within were wrought from stone, seasoned timber and bottle green roof tiles. The tower of a Lightbringer temple rose in the east, the brazier within its steeple a welcome light in the gathering dusk.
Lux pulled back the hood of her blue cloak and shook her hair free. Long and golden, it framed a youthful face of high cheekbones and ocean blue eyes that sparkled with determination. She unfastened the leather thong securing her staff to the saddle, and held its lacquered gold and ebony haft loosely at her side. Two men appeared on the tower above the iron-bound gate, each armed with a powerful longbow of ash and yew.
“Hold, traveler,” said one of the guards. “The gate’s closed until morning.”
“My name is Luxanna Crownguard,” she said. “As you say, it is late, but I’ve come a long way to pay my respects to my great grandfather. I’d be in your debt if you’d allow me entry.”
The man squinted through the gloom, his eyes widening as he recognized her. It had been years since she’d come to Fossbarrow, but Garen always said that once people laid eyes on Lux, they never forgot her.
“Lady Crownguard! Forgive me!” he cried, turning to address the men below. “Open the gates.”
Lux eased Starfire forward as the solid timbers of the gate lifted into the stone of the barbican with a clatter of heavy iron chains. As soon as it had risen enough, Lux rode under it to find a hastily assembled honor guard awaiting her – ten men in leather breastplates and blue cloaks secured with silver pins in the shape of winged swords.
They were proud Demacian soldiers, though their shoulders were curiously slumped and their eyes haunted with exhaustion.
“Welcome to Fossbarrow,” said the same man who’d spoken to her from the tower. “This is a great honor, my lady. Magistrate Giselle will be relieved to know you are here. May I offer you a detachment of soldiers to escort you to her home?”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” said Lux, wondering at the man’s choice of the word relieved. “I’ve arranged accommodation with Mistress Pernille at the Lightbringer temple.”
She made to ride on, but sensed the guard’s desire to say something and gently pulled Starfire’s reins. “Lady Crownguard,” said the guard. “Are you here to end our nightmare?”
The Lightbringer temple was warm and dry, and with Starfire settled in the stables, she’d spoken at length with Mistress Pernille in the main hall. Rumors of dark magic in the forests and crags around Fossbarrow had reached the Lightbringers in the capital of Demacia, and Radiant Kahina had sent Lux to investigate.
Lux had sensed a dark undercurrent as soon as she’d entered the town, a creeping sensation of being watched from the shadows. The few townsfolk she’d seen on the streets walked with leaden steps, their bodies weary.
A pall of fear hung over Fossbarrow, but it was worse than Lux imagined.
“It’s Magistrate Giselle’s son, Luca,” explained Mistress Pernille, a flaxen-haired woman in the pale robes of a Lightbringer healer.
“What about him?” asked Lux.
“He went missing two days ago,” explained Pernille. “And people are certain he’s been taken by a dark mage for some terrible purpose.”
“Why do they think that?”
“Ask me again in the morning,” said Pernille.
Lux awoke with a scream, her heart hammering in her chest and her breath coming in wheezing spikes. Terror filled her mind; a nightmare of clawed hooks dragging her beneath the earth, of fetid mud filling her mouth and darkness smothering her light forever. Lux blinked away the last afterimages, glimpsing retreating shadows out of the corner of her eye. Her mouth was filled with the taste of rancid milk, a sure sign of lingering magic, and she let spectral radiance build in her palms. Light filled the room, and with it, the last remnants of the nightmare was banished. Warmth suffused her, her skin shimmering with a haze of familiar iridescence.
She heard voices downstairs and clenched her fists. The light faded, leaving only the wan traces of daylight from the shuttered window to illuminate the room. Lux pressed her hands to the side of her head, as if seeking to push the awful visions from her mind. She tried to recall specific moments from the nightmare, but all that came was the reek of sour breath and a faceless darkness pressing down upon her.
Her mouth dry, Lux quickly dressed and lifted her staff from the corner of the room. She descended to the temple kitchen, and though she had little in the way of appetite, prepared a breakfast of bread and cheese. At her first bite, the taste of grave earth filled her mouth and she put the food aside.
“Now do you see?” asked Pernille, entering the kitchen and joining her at the table. The skin below Pernille’s eyes was purple with lack of sleep, her skin sallow without firelight to color it. Only now did Lux notice just how bone-weary Pernille was.
“What did you dream?” asked Lux.
“Nothing I want to relive by saying it out loud.”
Lux nodded slowly, “There’s something very wrong with this town.”
Starfire whinnied at the sight of her, his ears pressed flat against his skull and his eyes wide. He nuzzled her and she stroked his pearl white neck and shoulders.
“You too?” she said, and the horse tossed its mane.
Lux quickly saddled her mount and rode toward Fossbarrow’s northern gate. Dawn was already an hour old, but the town was still to fully come to life. No smoke rose from the forges, no smell of fresh bread wafted from the bakeries and only a very few sullen-looking merchants had their doors open for business. Demacians were hard-working, disciplined and industrious, so to see a frontier town so late to begin the day’s work was highly unusual. But if Fossbarrow’s people had endured a night like hers, she couldn’t blame them for being slow to rise.
She passed through the gate into the open ground before the town and let Starfire run to work out the stiffness in his muscles before turning onto the muddy road. The stallion had broken his leg many years ago, but it hadn’t impaired the speed of his gallop.
“Easy, boy,” said Lux as they rode into the forest.
The scent of pine and wildflowers hung heavy in the air, and Lux savored the heady, natural aroma of the northern climes. Sunlight pierced the leafy canopy in angled spars of light and the smell of wet mud sent a shiver up her spine as her nightmare briefly surfaced. She rode deeper into the forest, following the track as it wound its way further north. Lux lifted a hand from the reins and reached for a glittering sunbeam, feeling the magic within her stir at its touch. She let it come, feeling the light at the center of her being spread through her body like an elixir. Her world lit up as magic filled her senses, the colors of the forest unnaturally vivid and filled with life. She saw glittering motes of light drifting in the air, the breath of trees and the sighs of the earth. How incredible it was to see the world like this, alive to the energies flowing through every living thing. From blades of grass to the mighty ironbirch trees whose roots were said to reach the very heart of the world.
After an hour of riding through the iridescent forest, the road diverged at a crossroads, one path leading east; to a logging town if she remembered correctly, the other dropping west to a community built around a thriving silver mine. Her father owned a stake in the mine and her favorite cloak pin had been wrought from metal dug from its deep chasms. Between the two main routes lay a smaller pathway, all but invisible and suitable only for lone riders or those on foot.
Seven years ago she’d taken that path, and Lux wondered why she was reluctant to guide Starfire in that direction. She had no need to go that way, for her story of paying respects to her great grandfather was just that, a story. Lux closed her eyes and lifted her arms out to the side, letting the magic drift from her fingers and the glittering tip of her staff. She took a breath, filling her lungs with cold air and letting the light of the forest speak to her.
It spoke in contrasting hues of light and shadow, scintillating colors and vibrant illumination. She felt the light of distant stars drift down like mist, light that bathed other worlds and people. Where the light of Demacia fell into shadow, she flinched. Where it nourished something living, she was soothed. Lux turned in the saddle, her senses extended far beyond those of most other mortals, seeking the power that lay over the land like a curse. The sun was almost at its zenith, and she frowned as the quality of light in the forest trembled. She felt shadows where no shadows ought to dwell, hidden darkness where only light should exist. The breath caught in her throat, like a hand at her neck, and a sudden wave of dizziness swept over her. Her eyelids fluttered, drifting closed as if she were being pulled into a waking slumber.
The forest around her was suddenly silent. Not a breath of wind stirred the leaves of the trees, nor ruffled so much as a blade of grass. The silverwings were silent, the chatter of animals stilled. Lux heard the soft susurration of grave cloth being pulled tight. Sleep…
“No,” she said, gripping her staff, but the unnatural weariness slipped over her like a comfortable blanket, warm and enfolding. Lux’s head dropped and she closed her eyes for the briefest instant.
The snapping sound of a breaking branch and the scrape of metal flicked Lux’s eyes open. She drew in a great draught of air, the cold in her lungs jolting her awake again. She blinked shadows from her eyes and let out an icy breath as she drew her magic back into herself. She heard men on horseback, the jingle of bridle and trace, the rasp of metal on metal. Riders, armored for war. At least four, perhaps more.
Lux wasn’t scared. Not yet, and certainly not of men. Whatever darkness was lurking somewhere in the forest was a more immediate threat. Its strength was uncertain, its abilities feeling like someone testing the limits of what they could do. She pulled Starfire’s reins, turning him around and setting him athwart the paths, ready to face whatever was coming. Freljordian raiders? She was too far inland for reavers from the sea, and she’d have heard if one of the great mountain forts had fallen. Outlaws?
Perhaps. That, Lux could deal with. She let the magic simmer just beneath her fingertips, ready to unleash its power in destructive bolts of light.
The foliage in front of her parted, and five horsemen rode into view.
Powerful men, armored head to foot in gleaming warplate. They rode wide chested steeds of gray, none smaller than seventeen hands, and each caparisoned in cobalt blue. Four had their swords drawn, where the fifth had his golden-hilted blade sheathed in a lacquered blue scabbard across his back.
“Luxanna?” said this rider, his voice muffled by the visor of his helm.
Lux sighed as the knight removed his helmet to reveal dark hair and granite-hewn features that so embodied Demacia it was a wonder they weren’t yet on a coin.
“Garen,” sighed Lux.
Her brother had brought four of the Dauntless Vanguard.
Drawn from any other army, four warriors would be a paltry force, but every warrior of the Dauntless Vanguard was a hero, a legend with tales of valor etched into the metal of their swords. Their deeds were told and retold around tavern tables and hearthfires the length and breadth of Demacia.
Dark of hair and keen of eye was Diadoro, the bearded swordsman who’d held the Gates of Mourning against the armored host of the Trifarian Legion for an entire day. Flanking him was Sabator of Jandelle, the slayer of the hideous deepwyrm that woke every hundred years to feast, but which would now wake no more. Its fangs were hung in King Jarvan’s throne room, next to the newly mounted dragon skull brought by his son and his enigmatic companion.
Slighter, though no less striking was Varya, she who led the charge onto the decks of the sea-wolf fleet at Dawnhold. She set their ships ablaze and even wounded nigh unto death, cut down their berserk leader. Rodion, her twin brother, had sailed north to Frostheld and burned the Freljordian harbor city to the ground, so that no others would dare sail south to wreak havoc again.
Lux knew them all, but rolled her eyes at the thought of hearing their legends around a table tonight. Yes, they were heroes of Demacia and entirely worthy of respect, but hearing about Sabator climbing down the deepwyrm’s gullet for the tenth time, or how Varya beat a Grelmorn to death with a splintered oar was too much for Lux.
Garen came alongside her as they followed the road back to Fossbarrow. They’d circled the town until the light began to fade in search of the magistrate’s son or any sign of nefarious goings on, but had found nothing. Though any servant of darkness would have had plenty of time to run and hide, given the noise Garen and the Dauntless Vanguard were making. Five warriors in heavy warplate weren’t exactly stealthy, and, without her magic to aid her, Lux hadn’t been able to sense the source of the dark power she’d felt at the crossroads.
“You’re really here to visit great grandfather Fossian’s tomb?”
“I said so, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” replied Garen. “You did. I’m just surprised. I seem to recall mother saying you hated coming here last time.” “I’m surprised she remembered.”
“Oh, she remembered,” said Garen without looking at her. “When young Luxanna Crownguard doesn’t enjoy something, the skies darken, rainclouds empty and forest animals hide.”
“You make me sound like a spoiled brat.”
“You kind of were,” said Garen, his easy grin only partially robbing the comment of its sting. “You got away with things I’d have had a skelped backside for doing. Mother was always telling me not to pay attention to the things you did.”
The words hung between them, and Lux looked away, remembering not to underestimate her brother. People knew him as honest and direct, with a sound grasp of tactics and war stratagems, but few ever thought of him as subtle or cunning.
That, knew Lux, was a mistake. Yes, Garen was a simple warrior, but simple didn’t mean stupid.
“So what do you think’s happened to the boy?” asked Lux.
Garen ran a hand through his hair.
“If I had to guess, I’d say he’s run away from home,” he said. “Or decided to have an adventure and gotten lost somewhere in the forest.”
“You don’t think a dark mage has taken him?”
“It’s certainly possible, but Varya and Rodian rode through this way only six months ago, and saw no evidence of unnatural magicks.”
Lux nodded and asked, “Have you spent a night in Fossbarrow?”
“No,” answered Garen, as they rode into sight of the town. “Why do you ask?”
“There’s something going on down there,” said Sabator, his hand shielding his eyes from the setting sun.
Garen’s eyes snapped to where his warrior was pointing, and all levity fell from his face. His entire posture changed, muscles taut and ready for action, his eyes utterly focused. The warriors of the Dauntless Vanguard formed up alongside him, ready to move in an instant.
“What it is?” said Lux.
An angry looking crowd was hounding a stumbling man through the streets toward the market square. She couldn’t hear what they were shouting, but she didn’t need to hear the words to feel their anger and fear.
“Vanguard! We ride,” said Garen, raking his spurs back.
Starfire was a fast horse, but even he was no match for a grain-fed Demacian war-steed. By the time Lux rode through the gates, the sound of yelling voices echoed through the town. Starfire’s flanks were lathered with sweat and his iron-shod hooves struck sparks from the cobbles. Lux hauled her mount to a halt as she entered the crowded market square and leapt from his back as she saw a scene she’d witnessed too many times throughout Demacia.
“No, no, no...” she muttered, seeing two guards drag a weeping man onto the auction platform normally used during the buying and selling of livestock. The man’s clothes were soaked in blood and he wailed piteously. A woman with the ermine-trimmed robes and bronze wings of a Demacian magistrate stood before him, presumably Magistrate Giselle. Hundreds of Fossbarrow’s townsfolk filled the square, yelling and screaming at the man. The intensity of their hate was palpable, and Lux felt her magic drawn to the surface of her skin. She quelled the rising light and pushed her way through the crowd, seeing Garen at the foot of the steps leading onto the auction platform.
“Aldo Dayan,” said Magistrate Giselle, her voice ragged with emotion. “I name thee murderer and consort of a dark mage!”
“No!” cried the man. “You don’t understand! They were monsters! I saw them, their real faces! Darkness. Only Darkness!”
“Confession!” cried Giselle.
The crowd screamed in response, a swelling lust for vengeance erupting from every throat. They looked set to rush the auction platform to tear Aldo Dayan limb from limb, and perhaps they would have but for the four warriors of the Dauntless Vanguard standing with their swords drawn at its edge.
“What’s going on? What happened?” asked Lux as she reached Garen’s side.
Garen didn’t look at her, his eyes fixed on the kneeling man.
“He murdered his wife and children in their beds, then ran out onto the streets and attacked his neighbors. He split three people with an axe before they were able to restrain him.”
“Why would he do that?”
Finally Garen turned to look at her. “Why do you think? There must be a mage nearby. A darkness holds sway here. Only the dark influence of a sorcerer could drive a loyal Demacian citizen to commit such heinous acts.”
Lux bit back an angry retort and pushed past Garen. She climbed the steps of the platform and marched over to the kneeling man.
“Lady Crownguard? What are you doing?” demanded Giselle.
Lux ignored her and lifted the man’s head. His face was bruised, one eye swollen shut from the heavy blow of a cudgel or fist. Blood and snot ran freely from his nose and ropes of drool hung from his split lip.
“Look at me,” she said, and the man’s good eye tried to focus on her. The white of his eye was bloodshot and purple edged, the eye of a man who had not slept in days.
“Goodman Dayan, tell me why you killed your family,” said Lux. “Why did you attack your neighbors?”
“Not them. No. I saw. Weren’t them, they was... monsters...” sobbed the man. “Darkness clothed in skin. Among us the whole time! I woke and I saw their true faces! So I killed them! I had to do it. I had to!”
She looked up as Magistrate Giselle appeared at Lux’s shoulder. Lux saw a soul-aching grief etched in the woman’s face. The last two days had aged her ten years. The magistrate stared down in disgust at Aldo Dayan, her fists clenched at her sides.
“Did you kill my Luca?” she said, her voice wracked with sorrow. “Did you kill my son? Just because he was different?”
Baying cries for vengeance rose from the crowd as the sun sank into the west and the shadows lengthened. Handfuls of mud and dung pelted Aldo Dayan as his former friends and neighbors called for his death. He thrashed in the grip of the guards, frothing at the mouth and spitting bloody saliva.
“I had to kill them!” he screamed, staring defiantly at his accusers. “It weren’t them. Just darkness, only darkness. It could be one of you too!”
Lux turned back to Magistrate Giselle.
“What did you mean when you said your son was different?”
Giselle’s grief was all-consuming, but Lux saw past it to a secret shame beneath. The magistrate’s eyes were bloodshot and ringed with dark smudges of exhaustion, yet even that couldn’t hide the same look she’d seen in her mother’s eyes whenever Lux’s powers had gotten the better of her as a youngster. It was the same look she sometimes saw in her brother’s eyes when he thought she wasn’t looking.
“What did you mean?” she asked again.
“Nothing,” said Giselle. “I didn’t mean anything.”
Lux had heard such deflections before, and suddenly knew exactly how the magistrate’s son was different. “I’ve heard enough,” said Garen as he strode onto the platform, his long, sunsteel sword hissing from its scabbard. The blade glinted in the twilight, its edge unimaginably sharp.
“Garen, no,” said Lux. “There’s something more going on here. Let me speak with him.”
“He is a monster,” said Garen, spinning his sword up onto his shoulder. “Even if he is not a servant of evil, he is a murderer. There can be only one punishment. Magistrate?”
Giselle looked away from Lux, her eyes wet with tears. She nodded.
“Aldo Dayan, I declare you guilty, and call upon Garen Crownguard of the Dauntless Vanguard to dispense Demacian justice.”
The man lifted his head, and Lux’s eyes narrowed as she felt a prickling sensation of...something pass through him. A whisper of a lurking presence. It slithered away before she could be sure, but a breath of frigid air raised her hackles.
Dyan’s limbs spasmed, like a deranged roadside wanderer afflicted with the tremoring sickness. He whispered something, rasping and faint, as Garen lifted his warblade to deliver the executioner’s strike. Dyan’s last words were all but lost in the roars of approval coming from the crowd, but Lux finally pieced them together as Garen’s sword swept down.
The light is fading...
“Wait!” she cried.
Garen’s blade clove the man’s head from his body in one titanic blow to a roar of approval from the crowd. The body dropped to the platform, twin arcs of blood jetting from the stump of his neck. The head rolled to Giselle’s feet as coiling smoke poured from Aldo Dyan’s corpse like black bile oozing from a charnel pit. The magistrate recoiled in shock as a phantom form of wicked claws and searing eyes erupted from the dead man’s skull.
The spectral darkness launched itself at the magistrate with a cackle of spite. She screamed as it passed through her before dissipating like wind-scattered cinders. Lux felt the breath of the thing’s demise, an energy so vile, so hateful and so inhumanly evil, that it beggared belief. Magistrate Giselle collapsed, her flesh ashen, weeping in terror.
Lux dropped to one knee as myriad visions of horror arose within her; choking fears of being buried alive, of being driven from Demacia by her brother, of a thousand ways to die a slow and painful death. The light within her fought these terrible sights, and Lux’s breath shimmered with motes of light as she spat the taste of death from her mouth.
Garen spoke in a whisper, and it took her a moment to figure out how she could possibly have heard him over the cheering crowd. Lux turned from the sobbing magistrate, and felt magic race around her body in a surge tide. The crowd stood utterly silent.
“Lux, what’s going on?” said Garen.
Lux blinked away the abhorrent images still searing her mind and followed Garen’s gaze as the warriors of the Dauntless Vanguard rushed to stand with their leader.
Then, one after another, the people of Fossbarrow fell to the ground, as if the life had simply fled their bodies. Lux clenched her teeth and pushed herself to her feet.
The sun had all but vanished behind Fossbarrow’s western wall and her mouth fell open as she saw black, vaporous shapes lift from the town’s unconscious inhabitants. No two were alike, and Lux saw an assembling host of demons in Noxian armor, vast spiders, many-headed serpents, towering demon-warriors with frost axes, great drakes with teeth like obsidian daggers and scores of things that defied sane description.
“Sorcery,” declared Garen.
The shadow creatures closed on the platform, sliding through the air without a sound. An oncoming tide of nightmarish horrors.
“What are they?” asked Varya.
“The darkest nightmares of Fossbarrow’s people given form,” said Lux. “How can you know that?” demanded Sabator.
“I just do,” said Lux, knowing she couldn’t stay here to fight. Her skills would be best employed elsewhere, and the Dauntless Vanguard could hold their own here. She placed her thumb and forefinger against her bottom lip and whistled a summoning note before turning to Garen.
“I know how to stop this,” she said.
“How?” said Garen, without taking his eyes off the approaching demon host.
“Never mind how,” said Lux. “Just... try not to die before I get back.”
Lux ran to the edge of the platform as Starfire galloped through the creatures. Her steed passed unmolested, its dreams and nightmares of no interest to the power now abroad in Fossbarrow. Lux leapt from the platform and grabbed Starfire’s mane, swinging onto his back in one smooth motion.
“Where are you going?” demanded Garen.
The horse reared and Lux twisted in the saddle to answer her brother.
“I told you,” she shouted. “I’m going to pay my respects to great grandfather Fossian!”
Garen watched his sister gallop through the dark host, carefully navigating a path through the town’s fallen inhabitants. Grasping claws of demon creatures reached for her, but she and Starfire evaded every attack. Lux rode clear of the monstrous host, and paused just long enough to lift her gold-topped staff to him.
“For Demacia!” she shouted.
The Dauntless Vanguard clashed their swords against their shields.
“For Demacia!” they answered as one.
Lux turned her horse and galloped from the town. Garen rolled his shoulders in anticipation of the rigor of close-quarters battle and lifted his sword.
“Lockstep!” he yelled, and his warriors took up their battle stance. Varya and Rodion stood to his left, Sabator and Diadoro to his right.
“We are the Dauntless Vanguard,” said Garen, lowering his sword so its quillons framed his piercing eyes. “Let courage and a keen eye guide your blades.”
Oil black demon-hounds were the first to reach the platform, leaping upward with tearing fangs and flashing teeth. Garen and the Dauntless Vanguard met them with shields locked and blades bared. A hammering wall of iron beat them back. Though their enemies were wrought from shadow and spite, they fought with ferocious strength and skill. Garen stepped in and thrust his blade into a writhing beast’s haunches, tearing through to where its spine ought to be. The monster’s form exploded into black dust with a shriek of anguish.
Garen spun his sword up and pulled back in an oblique turn. His sword deflected another beast’s snapping jaw. He rolled his wrists and lowered his shoulder into its attack. He pushed the thing back and down. He stamped its chest and the beast roared as it burst apart. Garen’s sword snapped back up to block a crushing blow from what looked like the silhouette of a towering Freljordian warrior. The impact drove him to his knees.
“I will fight as long as I stand!” he said through gritted teeth, straightening his legs with a roar and hammering his pommel into the savage warrior’s horned skull. Ashes burst from the demon and Garen spun to drive his sword into the belly of another beast.
Sabator decapitated a slavering hound as Diadoro slammed his shield down on a hissing serpent, severing its body in half. Varya hammered the hilt of her sword into the snapping fangs of a faceless demon warrior as Rodion drove his sword into his twin’s foe.
With every killing blow, the shadow creature burst into amber-limned ashes. Garen’s sword flashed and the silver blade plunged into the body of a scorpion-like monster.
A slash of dark talons came at Garen’s head. Sabator’s shield parried the attack. Varya chopped her blade through the monster’s legs and it burst apart. A hideous, limping creature hurled itself at Rodian, and he thrust his blade hard into its featureless face. It screeched as it died. But for every shadow they destroyed, more always took their place.
“Back to back!” roared Garen, and the pauldrons of the five warriors clashed together.
They fought shoulder to shoulder in a circle of steel, a beacon of light against the darkness.
“Show them the strength of Demacia!”
Lux rode hard through the forest, trees flashing past to either side in a blur. Light shone from the splayed tip of her staff, illuminating her path with blazing radiance. It was reckless to gallop through the forest at such speed, even with her light as a guide, but the nightmares assailing Garen and the Dauntless Vanguard would keep coming. Human imaginations were a depthless well of nightmares; fear of death, fear of infirmity or fear of the loss of a loved one.
She followed the route she had taken only this morning, letting the power of her magic flow into Starfire to grant him sight beyond measure. Lux and her mount flew through the night, eventually reaching the crossroads where the roads diverged. Ignoring the roads east and west, Starfire leapt the overgrown bracken that all but obscured the path north.
The path to great-grandfather Fossian’s tomb.
Even with her light and her mount’s surefootedness, Lux was forced to slow her pace as the path wound its way through steep-sided gullies and up rocky glens. The closer she came to the tomb, the more the landscape began to change, taking on an altogether different character – like something from a tale told to frighten small children. The trees wept a sickly black sap, their branches gnarled and twisted into clawed hands that plucked at her hair and cloak. Gaps in the boles of trees resembled fanged mouths, and venomous spiders spun cloying webs in their high branches. The ground underfoot became spongy and damp with brackish pools of stagnant water – like a grove abandoned by one of the fae folk.
Starfire stopped before the entrance to a shadow-wreathed clearing and threw back his head, nostrils flaring in fear. “Easy, boy,” she said. “Fossian’s tomb is just ahead. Only a few more steps.”
But the horse would not be cajoled into another inch forward.
“Fine,” said Lux. “I’ll go myself.”
She slid off the horse’s back and entered the clearing with her staff held high. Its light guttered like a lantern in a storm, but gave off just enough illumination for her to see.
The mound of Fossian’s tomb was a shallow hill of grass that looked black in the gloom, its summit crowned with a rough cairn of stacked stone. Dark smoke drifted into a sky that swirled with images of ancient horrors awaiting their time to claim the world. Dark lines snaked across the great stone slab telling of Fossian’s deeds. A young boy, no more than twelve or thirteen sat cross-legged before it, his thin body swaying as if in a trance. Tendrils of black smoke coiled from the tomb, wrapped around his neck like strangling vines. “Luca?” said Lux.
The boy’s swaying ceased at the sound of her voice.
He turned to face Lux, and she faltered at the sight of his soulless, black eyes. A cruel grin split his face. “Not anymore,” he said.
A looming spider with hook-bladed legs reared over Garen, its bloated belly rippling with distended eyes and snapping jaws. He split its thorax and kicked the flailing creature from the platform even as its body disintegrated.
Legs braced, Garen felt a searing cold in the muscle of his shoulder as a black claw plunged through his pauldron. The metal did not buckle or crack. The claw passed through unimpeded, and Garen felt a sickening revulsion spread through him. He smelled rank grave dirt; the reek of fetid earth over a centuries-old sepulchre. He fought through the pain as he had always been trained to do.
Rodion fell as a hooking blade slid under his guard and plunged into his side. He cried out in pain, his shield lowering.
“Straighten up!” yelled Garen. “Shake the pain.”
Rodian straightened, chastened at his lapse, as the shadow creatures barged one another in their frenzy to reach the Dauntless Vanguard.
“They never stop coming!” cried Varya.
“Then we never stop fighting!” answered Garen.
Though she wanted nothing more than to flee this haunted clearing, Lux walked toward the young boy. His eyes rippled with darkness, nightmares waiting to be born from the rich loam of human frailty. She felt a cold, calculating intelligence appraise her.
Luca nodded and smoothly rose to his feet. Muttering shadows gathered at the edge of the clearing, monsters and terrors lurking just out of sight as they moved to surround her.
“You have nightmares aplenty,” he said. “I think I’ll crack your skull open with a rock to scoop them out.” “Luca, this isn’t you,” she said.
“Tell me, who do you think it is?”
“The demon in that tomb,” said Lux. “I don’t think it was as dead as people thought when they buried Fossian.” Luca grinned, his mouth spreading so wide the skin at the corners of his mouth tore. Rivulets of blood ran down his chin.
“Not dead at all,” he said. “Just sleeping. Healing. Renewing. Preparing.”
“Preparing for what?” said Lux, forcing herself to take another step forward.
The boy tutted and wagged an admonishing finger. Lux froze, unable to take another step.
“Now, now,” he said, bending to pick up a sharpened stone. “Let me cut out a nightmare first.”
“Luca,” said Lux, unable to move, but still able to speak. “You have to fight it. I know you can. You have magic within you. I know you have, that’s why you ran away isn’t it? That’s why you came here, to be next to someone who defeated a demon.”
The thing wearing the flesh of the boy laughed, and the grass withered around it at the sound.
“His tears were like water in a desert,” it said, coming forward and circling her as if seeing where best he might crack her skull open. “They woke me, nourished me. I had slept for so long I had forgotten just how sweet the suffering of mortals tasted.”
The boy reached out and stroked her cheek. His touch sent a cold spike of terror through Lux. He lifted his finger away, and a smoky thread followed. She gagged as the fear of drowning filled her. A tear rolled down her cheek. “I made him sleep, and his dreams were ripe with horrors to be made real,” said the boy.
“His power is slight, a glowing ember compared to the furnace that burns in your flesh. It gave me little in the way of real substance, but childish fears are a banquet after I had gone so long without. Demacia is a terror to his kind. To your kind.”
Lux felt her magic retreat from this creature, the darkness filling the clearing pressing her light down into little more than a spark. But even a single spark could begin a conflagration that would devour an entire forest. “They hated him. Luca knew that. You mortals are always so quick to fear the things you don’t understand. So easy to fan those flames and draw forth the most exquisite visions of terror.”
Lux flexed her fingers, the motion painful. But pain meant she had control. She used it.
She nursed the building spark within her, kept it apart from her terror, and let it seep slowly back into her body. “Luca, please,” she said, forcing each word out. “You have to fight it. Don’t let it use you.”
The boy laughed. “He can’t hear you. And even if he could, you know he’s right to fear what his own people would do if they discovered the truth. That he is the very thing they hate. A mage. You of all people should know how that feels.”
Pain spread along Lux’s arms, and moved through her chest. The boy’s black eyes narrowed as he sensed the buildup of magic.
“I know all too well,” she said. “But I do not let fear define me.”
Lux thrust her staff toward the boy with a scream of pain. Her limbs burned, and the blow was clumsy. The boy jumped back; too slow. The golden tip of the staff brushed the skin of his cheek.
The moment of connection was fleeting, but it was enough.
The Dauntless Vanguard fought with brutally efficient sword cuts and battering blows from their shields, but they could not fight forever.
Eventually, the shadows would drag them down.
A pack of squirming things with grasping arms attacked from the left, fouling Diadoro’s swings with their bodies. A blow glanced off his shield and hammered into his shoulder guard. He grunted and punched his sword into the belly of a dark-fleshed beast with the head of a dragon.
“Step in!” admonished Sabator. “Keep them at bay!”
Garen threw a sword cut into the writhing darkness, a backstroke to the guts and a thrust to the chest. In deep and twist. Don’t stop moving. Movement to the right, a howling insect-like skull with fangs like daggers. He slashed it in the eyes. It screamed and burst apart in smoke and cinders.
Two more came at him. No room to swing. Another pommel strike, stove in the first’s chest. Stab the other in the belly, blade out. The monsters withdrew. Garen stepped back, level with Varya and Rodion. Each was slathered from helm to greaves in ash.
“We hold the line,” said Garen.
“For how long?” asked Diadoro.
Garen looked to the north, where a distant light shone in the forest.
“As long as Lux needs,” said Garen with a warning glance.
And the shadows came at them again.
Lux poured her light into Luca, and blinding radiance exploded through the clearing. The monster within the young boy was torn loose from his flesh with a howling screech of fury and desperation. White fire enfolded her, becoming everything around them. The darkness fled before Lux’s awesome power, its shadow banished by the incandescence of her light. The growing radiance kept growing until the forest and the tomb were nowhere to be seen, only an endless expanse of pale nothingness. Sitting in front of her was a young boy with his knees drawn up to his chest. He looked up, and his eyes were those of a small, frightened child.
“Can you help me?” he said.
“I can,” said Lux, walking over and sitting next to him. “But you have to come back with me.”
He shook his head. “I can’t. I’m too scared. The nightmare-man is out there.”
“Yes he is, but together we can beat him,” she said. “I’ll help you.”
“If you’ll let me,” said Lux with a smile. “I know what you’re going through, how you’re afraid of what’ll happen if people know what you can do. Trust me, I’ve been through it as well. But you don’t have to be afraid. What’s inside you? It’s not evil. It’s not darkness. It’s light. It’s a light I can help you control.”
She held out her hand.
“You promise?” he said.
“I promise,” said Lux. “You’re not alone, Luca.”
The boy gripped her hand like a drowning man grasping a rope.
The light swelled again, impossibly bright, and when it faded, Lux saw the clearing was just as she remembered it from seven years ago. Green grass, a hillock with a stone cairn and a slab describing Fossian’s deeds. The darkness that had so transformed the forest was now absent. The clawed trees were nothing more than ordinary trees, the sky a midnight blue vault of twinkling stars. The sound of night-hunting birds echoed from the forest canopy.
Luca still held her hand and smiled up at her.
“Is he gone, the nightmare-man?”
“I think so,” she said, feeling the bitter taste of dark power diminish. “For now at least. I think maybe it’s not in the tomb anymore, but it’s gone from here. That’s what’s important right now.”
“Can we go home now?” asked Luca.
“Yes,” said Lux. “We can go home.”
Numbing cold filled Garen. His limbs were leaden, pierced through by shadow claws.
Ice running in his veins chilled him to the very heart of his soul as his vision grayed.
Sabator and Diadoro were down, skin darkening. Rodion was on his knees, a clawed hand at his throat. Varya fought on, her shield arm hanging uselessly at her side, but her sword arm still strong.
Garen tasted ash and despair. He had never known defeat. Not like this. Even when he once believed Jarvan was dead, he’d found the will to continue. Now, his life was being sapped with every breath.
A towering figure reared up before him, a horned demon with an axe of darkness. It looked like a savage warrior he had slain many years ago. Garen raised his sword, ready to die with a Demacian war-cry on his lips.
A summer wind blew. The brightness in the northern sky shone like a new-risen sun.
The shadow creatures vanished, blown like scraps of charred leaves in a hurricane. The wind and the strange radiance spread across the town square like daybreak, and the shadows fled before it.
Garen let out a breath, barely able to believe he still could. Rodion sucked in a lungful of air as Sabator and Diadoro picked themselves up from the ground. They looked around, amazed, as the last remaining shadows were banished and the townsfolk began to stir.
“What happened?” gasped Varya.
“Lux,” said Garen.
With Luca reunited with his grateful mother and detailed instructions left with Mistress Pernille of the Lightbringers on his further education, Lux and Garen rode toward Fossbarrow’s south gate at the head of the Dauntless Vanguard. Their mood was subdued, and a palpable guilt hung over every person they passed on their way from the town. None of Fossbarrow’s inhabitants could remember anything after the execution, but all knew they had played a part in a man’s death.
“May the Veiled Lady welcome you to her breast,” said Lux as they passed Aldo Dayan’s burial procession.
“Do you really think he deserves such mercy?” said Garen. “He killed innocents.”
“That’s true,” agreed Lux, “but do you understand why?”
“Does it matter? He was guilty of a crime and paid the price.”
“Of course it matters. Aldo Dayan was their friend and neighbor,” said Lux. “They drank beer with him in the tavern, shared jokes with him on the street. Their sons and daughters played with his children. In their rush to judgement, any chance of understanding what caused his murderous acts was lost.”
Garen kept his gaze fixed on the road ahead.
“They don’t want understanding,” he said at last. “They don’t need it.”
“How can you say that?”
“We live in a world that does not allow for such nuances, Lux. Demacia is beset on all sides by terrible foes; savage tribes in the north, a rapacious empire in the east and the power of dark mages who threaten the very fabric of our realm. We deal in absolutes by necessity. Allowing doubt to cloud our judgement leaves us vulnerable. And I cannot allow us to become vulnerable.”
“Even at such a cost?”
“Even so,” agreed Garen. “It’s is why I do what I do.”
“For Demacia,” said Garen."
Featured Champions Modifica
In order of appearance:
- For a detailed look, see For Demacia.
- For Demacia serves as the first main event to re-introduce Demacia into the new canon.