Vladimir Art is Life
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Short Story

Art is Life

By Graham McNeill

Nights in Noxus were never silent.


Lore

Nights in Noxus were never silent.

You couldn’t cram so many thousands of people from all across the empire into one place and expect quiet.

Desert marching songs from the Zagayah enclave drifted from their tented pavilions by the water, and the martial clashing of blades echoed from a nearby Reckoner’s arena. Drakehounds corralled in an iron-walled enclosure howled as they caught the scent of slaughtered livestock from the northern kill yards.

The cries of widowed spouses, grief-stricken mothers, or nightmare-wracked veterans were a nightly chorus to accompany the roars of drunken soldiers and the promises of street hawkers who plied their trade best in the darkness.

No, the nights in Noxus were never silent.

Except here.

This part of Noxus was deathly quiet.

Maura held her pack of brushes, paints, and charcoals close to her chest as she felt the din of the Noxian night fade. The lack of sound was so sudden, so shocking, that she stopped in the middle of the street—never normally a good idea—and looked around.

The street was in an older, wealthier district of Noxus known as Mortoraa, or Iron Gate, but was otherwise unremarkable. The light of a full moon reflected from its paving of irregular cobbles like scores of watching eyes, and the buildings to either side were well built with stone blocks that spoke of an experienced hand, perhaps that of a warmason. Maura saw a tall shrine at the end of a side street, where three armored figures knelt before the obsidian WolfSquare wolf within its pillared vault. They looked up in unison, and Maura hurried on, knowing it was unwise to attract the notice of men who prayed in the dark with swords.

She shouldn’t be out here in the dark.

Tahvo had warned her not to go, but she’d seen the serpent in his eyes and knew it wasn’t fear for her safety that moved him, but envy. He had always believed himself to be the best painter in their little circle. That she had been selected for this commission instead of him cut deep. When the crisply folded and elegantly written letter had arrived at their shared studio, Cerise and Konrad had been elated, begging her to remember everything she could, while Zurka simply told her to be sure her brushes were clean.

“Do you think you’ll get to speak to him?” Cerise had asked as Maura opened the door to hear the drifting echoes of the night bell fading over the harbor. The idea of venturing out into the darkness filled Maura with equal parts dread and excitement.

“He’s sitting for a portrait, so I suppose I shall have to,” she’d answered, pointing to the darkened sky. “We’ll need to discuss what manner of painting he wants, especially since I won’t have natural light.”

“Strange that he wants his portrait done at night, eh?” said Konrad, wide awake and wearing his blanket like a cloak.

“I wonder what he sounds like,” added Cerise.

“Just like everyone else,” snapped Tahvo, rolling over and wadding his threadbare pillow. “He’s not a god, you know. He’s just a man. Now, will you all just shut up? I’m trying to sleep.”

Cerise ran over and kissed her. “Good luck,” she giggled. “Come back and tell us… everything, no matter how sordid.”

Maura’s smile had faltered, but she nodded. “I will. I promise.”

The directions to her new patron’s mansion were exceptionally specific. Not simply in her eventual destination, but in the precise route she must take to get there. Maura knew the geography of the capital well, having walked its streets for days when hunger gnawed her belly. Or when they couldn’t pool enough commission money, and the owner of their studio kicked them out until they’d earned enough to pay what was owed.

This part of town, though, was a growing mystery to her. She’d known the mansion was here, of course—everyone in Noxus knew where he lived, though few could recall ever going there. With every step she took, Maura felt like she’d wandered into a strange city in a newly-conquered land. The streets felt unfamiliar—narrower and more threatening, as if each twist and turn brought the walls closer and closer until they would eventually crush her. She hurried on through the unnerving quiet, craving a source of fresh light—a boundary lantern perhaps, or a low-burning candle in an upper window, set to guide a night-calling suitor.

But there was no illumination beyond that of the moon. Her heartbeat and pace quickened as she heard what could be a soft footfall behind her, or the sigh of an expectant breath.

Turning a sharp corner, Maura found herself in a circular plaza with a fountain gurgling at its center. In a city as cramped as this, where people lived cheek by jowl and space was at a premium, such extravagance was almost unheard of.

She circled the fountain’s pool, its water silver in the moonlight, admiring the sculpted realism of its carved centerpiece. Hammered from crude iron, it represented a MordekaiserSquare headless warrior encased in thick war-plate, and bearing a Mace of Spades spiked mace.

Water spilled from the neck of the statue, and Maura felt a chill as she realized who it was intended to represent.

She hurried past the fountain towards a double gate of seasoned silverbark set in a black wall of red-veined marble. As the letter had promised, it stood ajar, and Maura eased herself between its heavy leaves.

The mansion within the walls had been built from a pale stone of a kind she hadn’t seen before—imposing without being monolithic, as a great many grand structures of Noxus often were. Nor, the more she studied it, did it adhere to any one particular style, but rather a collection of architectural movements that had come and gone over the centuries.

Foremost among such oddities was a rough stone tower rising over the main building, and this portion alone appeared out of place. It gave the impression that the mansion had been built around some ancient shaman’s lair. The effect should have been jarring, but Maura rather liked it, as though every aspect of the mansion offered a glimpse into a bygone age of the empire. Its windows were shuttered and dark, and the only light she saw was a soft crimson glow at the tower’s summit.

She followed a graveled path through an exquisite garden of elaborate topiary, carefully directed waterways, and strange looking flowers with exotic scents and startlingly vivid colors. This, together with the spacious plaza outside, suggested fabulous wealth. The idea that she had been chosen for this task sent a frisson of pleasurable warmth through her limbs.

Hundreds of colorful butterflies with curiously patterned wings flitted to and fro between the flowers. Such light and fragile creatures, yet so beautiful and capable of the most miraculous transformation. Maura had never seen butterflies at night, and she laughed with joy as one alighted on her palm. The tapered shape of its body and the patterning on its outstretched wings was uncannily similar to the winged-blade heraldry she saw flying on every Noxian flag. The butterfly fluttered its wings and flew away. Maura watched it circle and swoop with the others, amazed to see so many rare and wonderful creatures.

She let her fingers brush the colorful leaves as she passed, savoring the scents clinging to her fingertips and drifting up in motes of dust that glittered in the moonlight. She paused by a particularly beautiful bloom, one with flame-red petals so bright they took her breath away.

No red she had ever mixed from Shuriman cinnabar or Piltovan ochre had achieved such luster. Even the ruinously expensive Ionian vermillions were dull by comparison. She chewed her bottom lip as she considered what she was about to do, then reached out to pluck a number of petals from the nearest plant. The flower’s remaining petals immediately curled inwards, and the stem bent away from her as if in fear. Maura felt terrible guilt and looked up at the mansion to see if she had been observed, but the shuttered windows remained closed and lightless.

The front door stood open, and she paused at its threshold. The letter had told her to enter, but now that she was here, Maura felt a curious reluctance. Was this some trap, a means to lure her to some unspeakable fate? If so, it seemed needlessly elaborate. The notion felt absurd, and Maura chided herself for letting fear get in the way of what was likely to be the greatest opportunity of her life.

She took a breath, stepped across the threshold, and entered the mansion.

The vestibule was vaulted by dark and heavy timbers, with faded murals of the empire’s early, bloody days painted in the spaces between. To Maura’s left and right, wide openings revealed long galleries draped in shadow, making it difficult to tell who or what might be displayed. A long, curving staircase climbed to an upper mezzanine and a wide archway, but what lay beyond was impossible to make out. The vestibule was all but empty, save for what looked like a large, sheet-draped canvas upon an easel. Maura tentatively approached the covered canvas, wondering if this was to be where she would paint.

She hoped not. The light in here was ill-suited to portraiture. Where moonlight pooled on the herringbone floor, the space was bright, but elsewhere it was entirely dark, as though the light refused to approach those corners.

“Hello?” she said, and her voice echoed throughout the vestibule. “I have a letter…”

Her words lingered, and Maura sought in vain for any sign she wasn’t entirely alone in this strange house in the middle of the night.

“Hello?” she said again. “Is anyone here?”

“I am here,” said a voice.

Maura jumped. The words were cultured, masculine, and redolent with age. They seemed to drift down from above and be breathlessly whispered in her ear at the same time. She turned on the spot, searching for the speaker.

She was alone.

“Are you Vladimir?” she asked.

“I am, yes,” he replied, his voice freighted with deep melancholy as if the name itself were a source of torment. “You are the painter.”

“Yes. That’s me. I’m the painter,” she said, adding, “My name is Maura Betzenia. I’m the painter.”

She cursed her clumsiness before realizing his last words had not been a question.

“Good. I have been waiting a long time for you.”

“Oh. My apologies, sir. The letter said I wasn’t to leave until the harbor bell rang.”

“Indeed it did, and you have arrived precisely when you were supposed to,” said Vladimir, and this time Maura thought she saw a sliver of deeper black in the shadows. “It is I who am at fault, for I have been delaying sending for someone like you much too long. Vanity makes fools of us all, does it not?”

“Is it vanity?” asked Maura, knowing the wealthier patrons liked to be flattered. “Or simply waiting for the right moment to capture the truth of your appearance?”

Laughter drifted down from above. Maura couldn’t decide if he thought she’d said something funny or was mocking her.

“I hear a variation of that every time,” said Vladimir. “And as to truth, well, that is a moveable feast. Tell me, did you like my garden?”

Maura sensed a trap in the question, and hesitated before answering.

“I did,” she said. “I had no idea you could grow anything that beautiful in Noxian soil.”

“You cannot,” said Vladimir with wry amusement. “Such thin soil produces only the hardiest specimens, ones that spread far and wide to drive out all others. But none of them could be called beautiful. The red flower you killed, it was a nightbloom.”

Maura felt her mouth go dry, but Vladimir appeared not to care what she had done.

“Nightblooms were once native to an island chain in the east, a blessed place of rare beauty and enlightenment,” he said. “I dwelled there for a time until it was destroyed, as all mortal endeavors ultimately must be. I took some seeds from a grove once tended by a temperamental nature spirit and brought them back to Valoran, where I was able to entice them to grow with a combination of blood and tears.”

“Don’t you mean blood, sweat, and tears?”

“My dear, what possible use would sweat be in growing a flower?”

Maura had no answer, but the musical cadence of his voice was seductive. She could listen to it all night. Maura shook off the velvet quality of Vladimir’s drifting voice and nodded towards the covered canvas.

“Is that where I am to paint?” she asked.

“No,” said Vladimir. “That was merely my first.”

“Your first what?”

“My first life,” he said as she lifted the edge of the sheet.

The painting had faded with the passage of time, its colors bleached by light, and the brushstrokes flattened. But the image was still powerful—a young man on the cusp of adulthood, armored in archaic-looking bronze plate and bearing a fluttering banner depicting a wickedly curved scythe blade. Much of the detail had been lost, but the boy’s blue eyes were still piercingly bright. The face was extraordinarily handsome, symmetrical and with a tilt of the head that captivated her gaze.

Maura leaned in and saw an army behind the young man, a host of hulking warriors too large to be human, too bestial to be real. Their outlines and features had faded with age, and Maura was thankful for that small mercy.

“This is you?” she asked, hoping he might appear to explain the portrait in person.

“Once, a long, long time ago,” said Vladimir, and Maura felt ice enter his words. “I was an unneeded heir of a long-vanished kingdom, in an age when gods made war on one another. Mortals were pawns in their world-spanning strife, and when the time came for my father to bend the knee to a living god, I was given up as a royal hostage. In theory, my father’s loyalty would be assured by the constant threat to my life. Should he break faith with his new master, I would be slain. But like all my father’s promises, it was empty. He cared nothing for me, and broke his oath within the year.”

The story Vladimir was telling was strange and fantastical, like the Shuriman myths Konrad told when they shared scare stories on the roof of the studio at night. Konrad’s tales were thinly veiled morality plays, but this… this had a weight of truth behind it, and felt uncontaminated by sentimentality.

“But instead of killing me, my new master had something altogether more amusing in mind. Amusing for him, at any rate. He offered me the chance to lead his armies against my father’s kingdom, an offer I gladly accepted. I destroyed my father’s city and presented his head to my master. I was a good and faithful hound on a leash.”

“You destroyed your own people? Why?”

Vladimir paused as though trying to decide if her question was serious.

“Because even if the god-warriors had not come, my father’s kingdom would never have been mine,” he said. “He had sons and heirs aplenty, and I would never have lived long enough to claim my birthright.”

“Why would your master make you do that?”

“I used to think it was because he saw a spark of greatness within me, or the potential to be something more than a mere mortal,” said Vladimir with a soft sigh that sent warm shivers down Maura’s spine. “But more likely he just thought it would be amusing to teach one of his mortal pets some tricks, as the mountebank teaches a monkey to dance around his stall, to attract the gullible.”

Maura looked back at the image of the young man in the picture, now seeing something dark lurking deeper in the eyes. A hint of cruelty perhaps, a glint of festering bitterness.

“What did he teach you?” asked Maura. As much as she wasn’t sure she wanted an answer, something in her needed to know.

“My master’s kind had the power to defy death—to sculpt flesh, blood, and bone into the most wondrous forms,” continued Vladimir. “He taught me something of their arts, magic he wielded as easily as breathing. But it took every scrap of my intellect and will to master even the simplest of cantrips. I was later to learn that teaching their secrets to mortals was forbidden under pain of death, but my master delighted in flaunting the mores of his kind.”

Vladimir’s sourceless laughter echoed around her, yet there was no mirth to the sound.

“He couldn’t help challenging convention, and in the end, it was his undoing.”

“He died?” she asked.

“Yes. When one of his kind betrayed them, their power over this world was broken. My master’s enemies united against him, and he looked to me to lead his armies in his defense. Instead, I killed him and drank in a measure of his power, for I had not forgotten the many cruelties he had inflicted upon me over the years. Taking his life was my first step on a road far longer than I ever could have imagined. A boon and a curse in one bloody gift.”

Maura heard the relish in Vladimir’s tone, but also sadness, as if the mark this murder had cut on his soul had never truly left him. Did he feel guilt at this killing, or was he simply trying to manipulate her emotions?

Not being able to see him made it that much harder to divine his intent.

“But enough of this painting,” said Vladimir. “It is vital, yes, but only one of my accumulated lives. If you are to immortalize this one, you must see the others I have experienced over the years before we can truly begin.”

Maura turned to the stairs as the shadows draping their length retreated like a soft, black tide. She licked her lips, conscious again that she was alone in this echoing mansion with Vladimir, a man who had just admitted to murdering his father and his monstrous mentor.

“Hesitation? Really?” he said. “You have come this far. And I have already bared so much of my soul to you.”

Maura knew he was goading her into climbing the stairs. That alone ought to make her leave and return to her friends. But as much as she knew she should be afraid, part of her thrilled to be the center of Vladimir’s attention, to feel the power of his gaze upon her.

“Come to me,” he continued. “See what it is I ask of you. And then, if you feel the task is too great and choose to leave, I will not stop you.”

“No,” she said. “I want to know it all.”

The archway atop the mezzanine led into a wide corridor of dark stone that was so shockingly cold, it took Maura’s breath away. Fixed to the dark walls were row upon row of lacquered wooden boards.

And pinned to these boards were many thousands of butterflies with spread wings.

Sadness touched Maura. “What is this?”

“One of my collections,” said Vladimir, his voice coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. It drew her onwards along the corridor.

“Why did you kill them?”

“To study them. Why else? These creatures live such short lives. To end them a moment sooner is no great loss.”

“The butterfly might disagree.”

“But look at what each death taught me.”

“What do you mean?”

“The butterflies you saw in the garden? They exist nowhere else in nature. They are unique because I made them so. With will and knowledge, I have wrought entire species into being.”

“How is that possible?”

“Because, like the gods, I choose which ones live and which ones die.”

Maura reached out to the nearest pinned butterfly, one with vivid crimson circles on the larger part of its wings. As soon as her finger brushed the insect’s body, its wings disintegrated and the rest of it crumbled like ancient, flaking paint.

A cold wind sighed past Maura, and she stepped back in alarm as a cascade of dissolution swept across the pinned specimens. Scores, then hundreds of butterflies crumbled to powder that spun in the air like ash and cinders stirred from a banked fire. She cried out and rushed down the corridor, frantically waving her hands to brush the dust from her face. It grazed the skin beneath her clothes, and she spat as she tasted the grit of insect bodies in her mouth, felt it gather in her ears.

She stopped and opened her eyes as she felt the quality of sound and light change. She rubbed dust from her face, seeing she had entered into a wide, circular chamber.

Maura took a moment to look around and regain her composure, brushing the last of the dust from her face and clothes. The walls of the chamber were primitively cut stone, and she guessed she stood within the base of the ancient tower. A rough-hewn staircase corkscrewed its way up the interior walls, and strange, ruby light fell in shimmering veils from somewhere high above. The air smelled of hot metal, like the iron winds carried from the bulk forges that fed the empire’s insatiable hunger for armor and weapons.

The circular walls were hung with portraits, and she moved cautiously around the gallery’s circumference, studying each painting in turn. No two were alike in their framing or style, ranging from crude abstracts to renderings so lifelike it was as if a real face were imprisoned within the warp and weft of the canvas. She recognized the styles of some, the work of masters of the craft who had lived centuries ago.

Where the painting in the vestibule was that of a young man in his prime, these were a mixture of the same individual, but at very different times in his life.

One showed him in his middle years, still fit and hearty, but with a bitter cast to his eyes. Another was a portrait of a man so aged and ravaged that Maura wasn’t even sure it had been painted while its subject was alive. Yet another depicted him bloodily wounded in the aftermath of a great battle before a titanic statue of ivory stone.

“How can these all be you?” she asked.

The answer drifted down in the veils of red light.

“I do not live as you do. The gift carried in my former master’s blood changed me forever. I thought you understood that?”

“I do. I mean, I think I do.”

“The paintings around you are moments of my many lives. Not all great moments, I have come to realize, and captured by journeymen for the most part. In the earliest days of my existence I was arrogant enough to believe my every deed was worthy of such commemoration, but now…”

“But now?” asked Maura, when he didn’t continue.

“Now I only commit the renewal of my life to canvas amid events that mark turning points in the affairs of the world. Climb the steps, and see what I mean.”

Maura found her circuit of the gallery had brought her to the base of the stairs, as though her every step had led her to this point. Not just tonight, but every moment since she had first picked up a brush and painted the animals on her mother’s farm in Krexor.

“Why me?” she asked. “Why am I here? There are other artists in Noxus better than me.”

A soft chuckle drifted around her.

“Such modesty. Yes, it is true there are artists more technically proficient than you,” said Vladimir. “Your jealous colleague, Tahvo, for example, understands perspective better than you ever will. Young Cerise’s use of color is outstanding, and the stoic Zurka has an eye for detail that makes his work endlessly fascinating. Konrad, however, will never be more than a dabbler, but you already know this.”

“You know my friends?” she said.

“Of course. Did you think I chose you at random?”

“I don’t know. How did you choose me?”

“To capture such a transformative moment, I required someone whose heart and soul goes into their work, an artist truly worthy of the name. That is why you are here, Maura Betzenia. Because every brushstroke is personal to you. Every mark on the canvas, every choice of color has meaning. You understand the heart of a painting, and willingly give something of your soul to capture the life it represents.”

Maura had heard the flattery of patrons and the empty praise of her fellow painters before, but Vladimir’s words were utterly sincere. He meant every word, and her heart lifted to hear such affirmation.

“Why now? What’s so special about this moment in time that you want your portrait painted? What was it you said? You only have a painting done at a turning point in the affairs of the world…”

Vladimir’s voice seemed to coil around her as he spoke.

“And such a moment is upon us. I have dwelled here for such a long time, Maura. Long enough to oust the Iron Revenant from his Immortal Bastion, long enough to see the many rulers who came after him claw their way to power over the corpses of their brothers before treacherous ambition brought them low. Long enough to know the canker that lurks at the empire’s heart—a midnight flower with roots in old and corrupt soil. We have danced, LeBlancSquare she and I—oh, how we have danced in blood over the centuries, but the tempo of the music has changed, and the dance nears its end. This parade of fools I walk among, this life… it is unsuited for what must come next.”

“I don’t understand. What is coming next?”

“At almost any other time before, I could have answered that with certainty,” continued Vladimir. “But now…? I do not know. All I know is that I must change to face it. I have been passive for too long, and allowed flunkies and hangers-on to fawn over my every whim. But now I am ready to take what is mine, that which was for so long denied me—a kingdom of my own. This is immortality, Maura. Mine and yours.”

“Immortality…?”

“Of course. Is it not by the warriors’ deeds and artists’ craft that they achieve immortality? The legacy of their work lives on beyond the feeble span of mortal lives. Demacia reveres the warriors who founded it in the martial tenets to which they dogmatically cleave. Great works of literature set down thousands of years ago might still be performed, and sculptures freed from blocks of marble in the ages before the Rune Wars are still viewed with awe by those who can find them.”

Maura sensed with complete clarity that to climb these stairs would be committing to something irrevocable, something final. How many other artists had stood where she was right now? How many had lifted their foot and placed it on the first step?

How many had come back down?

How many had turned and walked away?

Maura could leave now, of that she was certain. Vladimir was not lying to her. If she chose to leave, she had no doubt she would arrive back at the studio unharmed. But how could she face each day from now until the Wolf or the Lamb came for her, knowing she had lacked the courage to take this one chance to create something incredible?

“Maura,” said Vladimir, and this time his silken voice was right before her.

She looked up, and there he was.

Silhouetted against the red light drifting down from above, his form slender and cursive. White hair streamed behind him, and swarms of crimson-winged butterflies filled the air above.

His eyes, once rendered in vivid blue, were now a smoldering red.

They pulsed in time with her heartbeat.

He reached out to her, and his slender fingers were elegantly tapered, with long nails like glittering talons.

“So, shall immortality be our legacy?” asked Vladimir.

“Yes,” she said. “It shall.”

Maura took his hand, and together they climbed the staircase into the veils of crimson.

References

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