“Seven times,” said Ysard Tomyri, straining to keep her voice level and face neutral.
Captain Oditz did not answer his first officer immediately, his attention consumed by the maps and reports covering his desk, or at least feigning as much. It was Oditz who had summoned her and, like so much else in their short service together, making her stand at attention in his quarters aboard the Kironya was, above all else, a display of power.
“I request audience with high command,” said Ysard, unwilling to play the captain's game this time.
“I speak for high command here, Commander Tomyri,” said Oditz, not looking up. “A fact you seem either ignorant of, or unwilling to accept.”
“Seven times,” said Ysard again. “I have requested audience, not to plead or beg, but to promise.”
“Promise?” the Captain looked up from the spread of parchments, finally glancing at Ysard.
“Yes,” she answered. “To promise them the glory that I shall win for them, the lands and peoples I will bring, by word or by blood, into the empire. There are expansions being mobilized, envoys being sent out from our borders to secure new lands for Noxus each day. I can win those for them. All that I require is a command.”
“We have spoken of this before,” Oditz muttered. “Seven times now, as you know. It is high command that decides how to interpret the will of the Trifarix—not their subordinates.”
Ysard stiffened. Frustration frayed her patience. “When Captain Hurad fell to the pirates off the coast of Ruug, it was I who led the Kironya's crew to victory, not you. It was I who led the boarding action to seize the corsairs' ship, and when the last of them fell it was my name that was cheered. It felt right. After such a victory I expected—”
“What?” asked Oditz. “Your own command? After beating a rabble of underfed Freljordians back into the sea? You think it is you who should be sitting here, rather than myself. And because it isn't, you superseded my authority to request audience with high command yourself.”
Calmly, Captain Oditz set down his quill and rose from his chair. He towered over Ysard, the light catching the old scars etched upon his features from a lifetime of war. “I would have seen you stripped of rank and thrown into the Reckoner pits for your lack of respect, Commander Tomyri,” he said stiffly. “But it seems that fate has intervened on your behalf.”
He produced a scroll and extended it to her sharply.
The seal around the scroll had been broken, its contents already read by Oditz or his assistants, as was their right.
“Take it. And get out.”
After an instant of surprised hesitation, Ysard reached for the message. She saluted and hurried to her quarters, unfurling it and quickly reading over its contents.
It was as though a galvanizing stream of molten steel had been poured from a crucible into her heart. Ysard felt providence in the wind, for the first time at her back. Finally, her skills would be given their full range.
She had been ordered to the capital. At last, a command was hers.
The harbor was a bustling throng of activity. Merchants, traders and dockworkers crowded alongside fleet crews embarking and disembarking from ships in a constant stream. Rare beasts let out keening wails from within iron cages, destined for the arenas for sport, or the homes of the elite to join their exotic collections. Shipments of foods from all corners of Runeterra were being offloaded from trading vessels and distributed to feed the countless citizens of Ysard's barren homeland. It was a breathtaking scene, a living estuary where new goods, cultures, and ideas flowed into the empire, expanding it, enriching it, and making it stronger.
All of this, and the sprawling city beyond, sat in the shadow of the Immortal Bastion. Ysard gazed upon the grandeur of the ancient structure from a harbor road, its immeasurably high walls and towers draped with the banners of the empire. There was no better manifestation of Noxus' power—the very power that surged within her heart.
Ysard spared a few more moments to take in the vibrant scene around her, before her face set in a curt expression and the efficient mind of a commander took hold of her thoughts.
A grand expedition awaited her, and she moved with haste to where her ship was moored.
The Ardentius appeared to Ysard like a vessel washed up from another, earlier time, and it bore the scars to match. Wounds accumulated across decades of service pockmarked and spread across her hull like spiderwebs, from the battered iron speartip of her prow to the creaking timber of her aftcastle. These smaller frigates served as escorts for larger warships like the Kironya. They were designed to be ground to splinters against enemy pickets, and to soak up fire as interdictors, to be expended to their last ounce of usefulness before being scuttled or left to sink. To Ysard's eyes, either fate seemed likely for the Ardentius.
The crew on its deck was little better. A motley assortment of grubby men and women labored together in a disordered rabble, spending more time exchanging insults and threats than loading provisions or cargo. They numbered no more than sixty, nearly a skeleton crew. Ysard's lips pulled back from her teeth in disgust.
Ysard forced the sneer from her face. The tools she had been given were lowly, but no matter. It would make the conquests she won with them all the greater.
“You there,” she called out to a taskmaster, causing him to turn from the assembled crew he was ordering around. He turned, straightening the collar of his beaten leather storm coat, and approached with an easy, confident grin that set Ysard's teeth on edge.
“See that the cargo and crew are readied for departure immediately,” said Ysard tersely. “I intend for my ship to be at sail with no further delays.”
“Your ship?” The man's voice was a gritty baritone. He frowned for an instant, before realization dawned upon him. “Ah, so you're the Noxian prodigy I've been stuck with. You can get your ship running as you like, and if you'll quit pestering we'll be off as soon as I have the rest of my things.”
“You dare,” Ysard reddened at his impudence, her hand closing on the hilt of the ornate sword at her hip. “Give me your name.”
“Ordylon,” the man answered, apparently unconcerned. “Friends call me Niander, though.”
“Niander Ordylon,” Ysard repeated the name. She looked at the heavy crates being loaded onto the Ardentius, marked as carrying harnesses, bola nets and cage housings. “The Beastmaster?”
“Ah, so you have heard of me.”
There were few in the capital who hadn't. Even though she had spent precious little time at the arenas—there was an empire to fight for, after all—Ysard knew the name Ordylon was synonymous with theatrical displays of deadly creatures battling to the roar of the crowd.
What was he doing here?
Ysard recovered her composure. “I was not informed in my orders that you would be coming aboard.”
“Well, here I am.” He handed Ysard a scroll bearing the sigil of Captain Oditz. Ordylon noticed her scowl and flashed her a toothy, conspiratorial grin. “Looks like we'll be shipmates.”
Ysard stood at the bow of her frigate, scanning the horizon. Upon setting sail, the ship had filed into the queue of vessels seeking passage through the mouth of the river and out into the ocean. Hours of waiting had led to a brusque and thorough inspection by the soldiers manning the fortified installations that secured entry into Noxus by sea, but after they had checked every inch of the Ardentius and pored over Ysard's orders no fewer than six separate times, she had been given clearance to depart.
Ysard had seen the ocean many times, but never on a ship under her own command. It was always as shocking to her as it was beautiful, a boundless plane of deep blue, separated from the sky by a delicate blur of heat from the midday sun.
And now, somewhere ahead of them, Ysard's destiny awaited. A new land to explore, conquer, and usher into the Noxian empire.
She had earned a taste of glory, won by the edge of her sword, but it was hardly a feat that would echo throughout eternity. And try as she might to forget it, Ysard always carried a shard of the reclusive street urchin inside, never fully giving herself to the collective, never truly trusting any but herself.
Until Ysard had that, she would know no rest.
She looked back over her shoulder at the sound of heavy bootsteps on the deck. Seeing the Beastmaster approaching, she made a last quick note in a worn leather journal before closing it and placing it in a pocket of her coat.
“Quite the sight, eh?” said Ordylon, leaning his knuckles against the railing.
Ysard bristled. “Why are you here?”
“I needed a ship.”
“This is my ship,” said Ysard. “And my expedition. Remember that and we'll have no problems.”
Ordylon shrugged. “Play soldier all you like. All that matters to me is that we get there in one piece, and you keep out of my way while I find what I'm looking for.”
Ysard turned to him. “And that is?”
“A monster, my dear.” He smiled. “A spectacular one. Something that will keep me off my deathbed.”
Three weeks on the open ocean brought them at last to the outermost edge of the Serpentine Delta. Dozens of landmasses dotted the area, from tiny patches of sand and scrub barely fit to stand upon, to islands large enough to house villages. The archipelago stood as the gateway to the southern continent of Shurima, and the unexplored regions in its eastern reaches.
The waterways were filled with small boats and rafts, fishermen and local traders seeking to barter. The arrival of a Noxian vessel, even an escort like the Ardentius, was a rare event and cause of much commotion. Few of the people living on the rivers of the archipelago would pass up a chance to barter like this.
Walking from her cabin onto the main deck, Ysard found the hull of her ship was surrounded by the natives. Men and women stood and clamored from their rocking boats, holding up bundles of fish and a myriad different trinkets to tempt the naval soldiery and crew looking down from the railings. Ordylon was down amongst them, chattering away in their native tongue as his trappers bartered and compared the local knowledge with their maps.
“We don't have time for this,” said Ysard. For a brief moment she allowed the thought of turning the ship's guns upon the boats and sampans blocking their way to linger in her mind, but dismissed it quickly. It would have been an unnecessary expenditure of the expedition's already meager resources, and the locals were of more value to her alive.
“Relax,” Ordylon called up to her, inspecting a piece of intricately carved wood before tossing it back to a disappointed trader. “Waters get dangerous past this point. Don't be so quick to turn away a friendly face.”
Ysard wouldn't budge. “We take on provisions, fresh water, and a guide. No one goes ashore.”
Ordylon gave an irritatingly sincere salute before continuing his conversation with the locals. Ysard put the Beastmaster from her mind, seeing to the cadre of Noxian naval soldiers aboard and ensuring that they stayed vigilant at points across the ship. As she finished inspecting the ship's cannons and their gunners she saw Ordylon hauling a man up from a sampan onto the deck.
“Found us a guide,” said Ordylon, leaning down as the man spoke to him in the local tongue. “He says welcome to the Serpentine, and that he can take us upriver.”
“Good,” Ysard said quickly, eager to be underway.
The guide spoke again to Ordylon. “But he asks, why do we go up the river?” said the master trapper. “Why do you seek to go there?”
“Tell him,” said Ysard, “that once we are done, it will belong to Noxus.”
After restocking their provisions with an odd assortment of local fruits and preserved fish, the expedition sailed on past the floating trading post. The archipelago condensed, the labyrinthine paths between the islands shrinking until the only route available to the Ardentius was a wide, dark river leading deeper into the jungle.
Days passed in an uneventful stretch, as true, untouched wilderness confronted them. Ysard's heart swelled with pride at the thought that she and her crew were the first Noxians ever to see this untamed wilderness. There was beauty here, vibrant plant life that exploded with lush towering trees swathed in dazzling, multicolored blooms.
There was something else here, too.
As their river guide hesitantly led them ever deeper, pointing out landmarks and keeping the ship clear of reefs and shallows, an itch took hold of Ysard—first imagined, then more real and insistent. A gloom permeated every inch around the river, as if it were all drowned in a shadow that could not be seen, only felt.
Ysard found that her hand would stray to the blade at her hip without thinking. She would draw her hand away before deliberately crossing her arms over her chest and forcing her mind to focus.
But the silent horror remained, saturating everything she could see.
Ysard saw to her command to remain sharp, consulting with the ship's navigator as he worked to chart the course of the river, followed by an inspection of the ship's stores. She climbed back up to the main deck, picking a rat-weevil out of her ration of Bloodcliffs hardtack, when she heard shouting.
“What is it?” she demanded as she climbed onto the main deck.
Ordylon listened to the guide. “He says he will go no further.”
Ysard frowned. “Why here?” She looked around, the river and jungle no different than anywhere else in the past days. Yet the riverman was panicking, as though they had broken some invisible boundary they were never meant to cross.
The little man gestured frantically to the crew around him. He pointed to the patches of red, weeping flesh on their bodies. Ysard had noticed the affliction spreading amongst the crew, despite her efforts to divine its source. She even found signs of it on herself.
“It is the jungle,” Ordylon translated as the guide ranted. “He says it is punishing us. It will not let us in.”
Cowardly little thing, thought Ysard.
She looked at Ordylon. “So be it. Get him off my ship now, throw him overboard if you have to. We aren't turning back now.”
The Ardentius sailed on, now more than a week's travel into the interior. The past days had seen no wind to fill her sails, not even a slight breeze to carry her forward. On Ysard's command, teams of the crew had disembarked, wading to their shoulders as they strained to haul the frigate on with ropes and heavy chains. The effort was enormous, and with the treachery of the river's shifting banks, the crew continued on after finding the current with nine fewer souls than it had started with.
Mist shrouded the river, obscuring it from view. The primordial treeline swelled, branching over the water to link the opposite banks in an ever-deepening canopy that closed in and stole away all but the barest trace of light. Ysard had the distinct sensation that the ship was moving downward, not forward, into the dark heart of this unexplored land.
The jungle was swallowing them.
Rain had come without warning, and carried on for days, somehow piercing the impenetrable canopy of the jungle to soak the Ardentius and her crew to the bone. It was as though this place was actively seeking to unravel them, punishing intruders for daring to cross into its domain. The crew believed as much.
The departure of their river guide hung over the crew with the oppression of a stormcloud. The most superstitious of them muttered, seeing dark omens in every tree and in the shape of each ripple the frigate's hull cast across the dark water of the river. Even the most cynical of the naval soldiers were on edge, only able to hear such ramblings for so long before they began to see patterns themselves.
Ysard knew in her heart it would not be long before the tension cracked some of them, and examples would have to be made. Sooner than she had thought, and hoped, she was proven right.
“Turn the ship around!” came a panicked cry. “Now!”
“Easy now, Kross,” said Ordylon, straining to keep his voice calm.
“This is a death ship. A cursed ship.” The trapper hurried toward Ordylon, seizing him by the lapels of his storm coat. “You all heard the riverman—nothing ever comes back from this jungle. Nothing!”
Ordylon flicked his gaze over the surrounding crew, heavy beads of condensation dripping from the wide frayed brim of his hat. He saw it in their eyes, Kross' words reflected in each of them.
“No more of that,” he snapped, shoving Kross back. “We'll have no talk of curses here. Get yourself together.”
“We have to turn back,” the crazed trapper begged, eyes wild as he repeated the plea again and again. “We have to—”
Kross never finished his sentence. He gasped, hard, as a sword's tip emerged from between his ribs. Then he toppled to the deck.
Ysard cleaned her blade. Sometimes, being right was a heavy burden to bear.
“I've hunted beside that man longer than you've been alive,” Ordylon snarled. “What gives you the right—”
“We don't stop,” said Ysard coldly. “Not for anything, or anyone.”
A grinding crash threw Ysard from her bunk. She scrambled to her feet, buckling on her weapons and sprinting out onto the deck.
The end of the river had come abruptly. The inlet looked as though the tangles of vines and slick trees had engulfed the water, fed by a fan of streams that trickled out of the jungle, or flowed up from beneath the muddy ground.
“The river has choked out,” said Ordylon, gesturing to the wall of trees confronting the ship. “We'll have to turn around. Find another branch.”
Ysard raised her spyglass, scanning ahead. Hauling the Ardentius around to find another route would take time she didn't have. Looking at her collected soldiers and senior crew, Ysard doubted the weary and shaken survivors would be capable of moving the ship in such a way.
Ten had died in the past days—another one by execution for refusing to man his post, and six to the strange, infectious disease afflicting them. Three had simply vanished in the night, those taking their shifts finding no trace when dawn arrived.
“We keep a skeleton crew aboard and strike out from here,” said Ysard to the assembled ranks. “We will either find something of worth to claim for the empire, or establish an outpost to launch further expeditions inland. Armsman Starm, distribute blades to the shore party.”
Starm hesitated. “Commander… No crossbows? No powder bombs?”
Ysard drew her sword and addressed the entire party. “Such weapons will be useless in the undergrowth. We do this the old way.” She glanced at Ordylon, who had gathered his hunting party around him. “This is what you came for, is it not, Beastmaster?”
The master trapper was somehow still his confident, boisterous self, even after the ordeal of the river passage. “We're after a big one, boys,” he said. “Bring everything we need to bag one and keep it, spread the load amongst us all, and be ready to move when the commander's lads step off. We stick with them.”
His men dispersing, Ysard approached Ordylon. “I'm surprised to see us in accord for once.”
The jungle was brutal. No other word came to Ysard's mind. For all the river's trials, it had been paradise compared to this.
They had to fight through it, hacking and cutting into the solid mass of vines and thick vegetation. There was no air to breathe—only a thick, humid fog that stung the throat and eyes. It wasn't long before exhaustion set in.
Ysard had a dreadful sense of being watched, from both everywhere and nowhere at once, and one by one men began to disappear from the rearguard and flanks. Most vanished in silence, but a few were torn into the undergrowth with a scream, crying out for help.
Within hours, Ysard's force of thirty naval soldiers and trappers had been whittled down by half.
“Stay together!” she shouted, cuffing the pouring sweat from her eyes. She struggled to focus, her head buzzing and her flesh burning from the red patches that now covered her torso and limbs. She couldn't stop now. She wouldn't stop now. They had to keep moving.
A call rang out from the forward scout, and Ysard trudged to the head of the column. There was a small break in the jungle ahead, with a shallow pool of black, turgid water at its center. It was cramped, but still blessedly open compared to their trek thus far.
“Don't touch that water,” Ysard ordered her soldiers, in spite of her own thirst. “We rest for now. But be ready to move.”
Sitting down, Ysard looked up to see Ordylon, holding out a battered tin flask to her. After a moment, she grudgingly took it as he sank down beside her. Ysard glanced at him, seeing the poise that he had held throughout their voyage beginning to fray.
“Don't get too sentimental.” said the trapper. “With or without you, I'd be here, in this accursed place. I've got no choice.”
Ysard frowned at him. Looking to see that his men were out of earshot, Ordylon leaned in close.
“My business is bankrupt,” he whispered. “What little coin I had was spent bringing me here, one last chance to save my name. Either I bring back a beast that packs the arenas and pays off my debts, or I don't come back at all.”
Ordylon sighed, taking the flask back and taking a short pull.
“So. What brought you here?”
“Duty,” answered Ysard, looking out into the jungle. “When I return from here, having brought this place into Noxus, they will name it after me. The noble name of Tomyri used to mean something… before Grand General, and his purges. My conquest will echo through history, a legacy for all time.”
“They said you were vain,” Ordylon chuckled. “I suppose they reached their fill of it, arranging this fool's errand. I see what they meant now,” he said with a curious softness. “And for that, I am sorry.”
“Wait,” Ysard frowned as she sought the meaning in his words, before the sound of splashing water broke her respite. “I said stay away from it!” she snapped.
“That isn't us,” said Ordylon, gazing into the jungle.
Ysard looked at the pool, seeing the trees above shaking in its reflection. Branches snapped loose to crash down to the ground and into the water.
Then she heard it.
A pounding tread, accompanied by the sound of trees cracking, and a low, wet rumble. A shape began to resolve from the jungle, shoving its way through the dense vegetation to rear an enormous, fanged head.
Ysard froze. She had seen basilisks before—as mounts for riders, or beasts of burden. She had seen adults so large they could smash down the walls of besieged cities.
This one was larger.
The creature glared down at them, and loosed a roar loud enough to throw those standing from their feet.
The triumphant voice jarred Ysard from her shock. She turned to see the Beastmaster, snapping together a harpoon and bola as he grinned up at the monster.
“Come on now, you beautiful thing!” Ordylon bellowed, madness creeping into his voice as he brandished the tools of his trade. “Let's see who's bigger, you or me!”
Ysard felt the ground quake beneath her with every step the monster took, strong enough to nearly throw her from her feet. She heard the basilisk's primal roar, and the screams of men, knowing that the famed Beastmaster's was among them.
But she didn't look back to see what happened to him. She was too busy sprinting in the opposite direction.
Ysard finally skidded to a halt at the edge of a clearing in the jungle, placing a hand against a tree for support as she fought to catch her breath. She could no longer hear the commotion of Ordylon and the basilisk, but she could imagine what had happened in the end. She looked up after several deep lungfuls of air, taking stock of what remained of her command.
There were six of them in total, including herself. Ragged, drained and terrified, only three of them still carrying weapons. Ordylon's trappers had stayed with their employer until the end. Despair struck Ysard like a physical blow, and she fought to keep from sinking to her knees.
“Look!” one of the soldiers called out, pointing with his sword. Ysard peered into the clearing, and saw it. An arching shape, overgrown by vines, but still utterly alien in this stifling environment.
It was stone. A structure. They hurried toward it, creepers and brambles snapping as they crossed the break in the undergrowth.
The building was simple, an austere construction completely overrun by the jungle. Thick vines wound through the crumbling stone, likely the only things keeping it standing. It seemed unnaturally overgrown, as though this place was actively seeking to subsume it, and grind it to dust.
The survivors split up, searching in and around the squat cube of plant-choked stone. Ysard stopped before it, a feeling she could not define welling up in her throat. She ripped away the clinging tangle of vines covering the surface, seeing the script chiselled into the stone—in a language she had known all her life.
“This…” Her tongue went thick and dry as she struggled to form the words. “It… It's a Noxtoraa.”
Revelations came at Ysard in a queasy tide. They were not the first of the empire to come here. There had been others, and from her own journey and the state of this outpost, their fate was clear. As was hers.
She had been sent here to die.
Given a command she was desperate to undertake, leading her to the edge of the world and a place that none had ever returned from. Ysard had given every fiber of her being to forging a legacy.
Instead, she now stood on the precipice of striking the Tomyri name from the face of history, in this suffocating wilderness.
There was nothing for them in the abandoned outpost. Ysard lead the other survivors back into the jungle, hacking a new path through the dense undergrowth. To their fevered minds, it seemed like fresh roots and creepers were winding back into place even as they passed.
When they happened upon the Ardentius, it was almost by accident. They practically ran into its prow.
Vegetation had consumed the frigate, even filling over the inlet around it. It almost appeared as though the vessel itself had somehow grown out of the jungle. Ysard saw shapes sticking up from the deck like broken pillars.
Her blood went cold.
The crew. They had been devoured and overgrown just as the ship had been. Each man and woman was on their feet, like statues covered in vines.
“The jungle,” she stammered. “It's taken it.”
Panic began to take hold of the remaining soldiers. “What do we do?” Armsman Starm shouted. “What do we do?”
“We make for the river,” murmured Ysard. “Find our way to the bank. Follow it back to the delta.”
“There's no way we can make it out of here on foot. You saw what happened to the others, commander. The jungle—”
“Damn the jungle!' she snapped. “It is trees and vines, insects and beasts. You are a soldier of Noxus. There is nothing here that can defeat you.”
Ysard wasn't certain she believed the words herself. Something was different about this place. There existed some dark, impossible presence here, something that even the might of the empire was unable to tame.
But she would not yield to despair.
“If you want to die here, alone and unremembered, then so be it.” She gathered the last of her strength. “I will not accept such a fate. Any with the strength to follow me, come. This place will not be the end of Ysard Tomyri.”
The low grumble from his stomach, and thoughts of his family waiting at home in the village, had lashed the boy's focus to his line as he squatted on the riverbank.
He was rewarded with a firm tug. The boy gave a whoop of relieved triumph as he hauled the fish from the water, wriggling and glistening in the light.
He didn't notice the shape floating toward him until it was an oar's length away.
The boy frowned, the fish in his basket forgotten as the object came closer. He waded out into the soft riverbed, taking hold of it and taking it back with him onto the bank. Driftwood had many uses in the village, and could be traded away... if he could drag it back home.
But it wasn't driftwood. The boy gasped as he saw a face staring up through layers of creepers and moss.
It was a dead person, though the boy could not tell if it was man or woman. It reminded him of the preserved elders the village exposed each year for the ancestor feasts. It was clad in scraps of dark, battered armour, edged in tarnished red, adorned with a rusted symbol that meant nothing to the boy.
Something was clutched in its gnarled, lifeless hands. With a strain of effort he tugged it free.
It was a small book, tightly wrapped in sodden, worn leather.
As the boy turned the journal over in his hands, the corpse burst open, and a snarl of bright green vines slowly slithered out from it. A glittering cloud of spores rose from the cavity, and the boy flinched away, coughing.
Book in hand, the boy ran, scratching at the insistent itch that had started on the back of his neck, all thoughts of fish forgotten as he fled for home.