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Short Story


By Dana Luery Shaw

Many had feared that the spirit blossoms would never return to Ionia, a sign of the imbalance still permeating the land and its people.


Many had feared that the spirit blossoms would never return to Ionia, a sign of the imbalance still permeating the land and its people. Much of a generation had come of age without the spirit blossoms, without the festival.

But Paskoma had learned over a lifetime that, no matter how long the blossoms were away, they always came back.

Now, for the first time since the war began, there were fresh buds upon the spirit trees, delicate and pearlescent and perfuming the air with a biting sweetness. Paskoma remembered the last festival well. It had arrived just a few summers after the birth of her granddaughter. She and her husband Okerei drank the spirit tea together and spoke with their lost loved ones, making sure that they remained well and showing them that they were remembered. It was a way to let go, to find peace, and to move forward after loss. Then their loved ones returned to the spirit realm, content knowing that the family would continue thriving.

This time, though, Okerei would not be by her side. He had died fighting against the Noxians shortly after they first invaded. There was so much to tell him. So much to ask.

But first, she needed to get things ready.

Paskoma’s teahouse did not have a name. Visitors to Weh'le were able to identify it by the distinctive teapot sculpture outside the front door. Back when Paskoma built the teahouse, she’d asked a talented woodweaver to create it out of different trees that bloomed different colors depending on the season. Presently, the teapot was a vibrant fuschia, half covered in blush-pink lanterns.

“Ituren?” Paskoma called into the teahouse. “I need your expertise.” He was tall and able to hang the lanterns on the higher branches.

“I am with you, my love.” A man of few words, Ituren placed the lanterns where Paskoma pointed, smiling down at her all the while. But it was a sad smile. A worried smile.

Ituren had been Paskoma’s love and companion since the last days of the war. But without the spirit blossom festival, they had never been able to commune with the spirit of Paskuma’s husband. Okerei had never been able to give his blessing to them, and so Paskoma did not feel able to marry again. Ituren was patient and understanding, having lost his wife half a lifetime ago, but he worried. Paskoma did her best to reassure him, but truthfully she wasn’t certain what she would do if Okerei did not approve.

After they hung the lanterns, Paskoma and Ituren readied the guest rooms and the common areas: washing the floors with wine, placing two candles in front of all the mirrors, and dividing the rooms for the onfall of paying guests they were expecting for the festival. They had started early in the morning, but the golden light of late afternoon shone on them when they heard a knock at the door. “May past joys bloom, Emai!” came a familiar voice.

Ituren and Paskoma shared a confused look as they both responded with the traditional “And present sorrows wilt.” That voice sounded so similar to that of Turasi, Paskoma’s daughter, but it couldn’t be. Turasi lived in Siatueh, a village on the other side of the bay, nearly a month’s journey across the mountains.

But when the door opened, it was Turasi who stepped in. Her smile was just like her father’s. Paskuma rushed to her daughter and hugged her tightly. “Turasi, I didn’t know you would be coming! What a lovely surprise. Where’s Satokka? Where’s Kumohi?”

“Satokka is just outside with our things. Kumohi… decided to stay in the village.” Paskoma recognized the tightness in Turasi’s voice as she spoke of her husband. “We wanted to surprise you, for the spirit blossom festival. So Satokka can meet her o-fa.”

Ituren looked at Turasi with a question in his eyes. “The buds only came out this past week.”

Turasi frowned, ready to reply, when a lanky young woman with a dour expression kicked open the door and pulled a wooden trunk into the room. Ituren bent down to help, but she waved him away. Turasi gave her daughter an exasperated look. “Satokka, let Ituren help you.”

“I can do it myself.” Without another word, Satokka dropped the trunk in the middle of the floor and went back outside.

Paskoma turned back to Turasi. “You’re here for the festival?”

Hesitation, then a nod. “Yes. We’re here for the festival.”

It didn’t matter that she wasn’t being honest. Paskoma could tell from the circles under her daughter’s eyes that she needed to be allowed her time. She knelt at the stove to light a small fire before looking back up at her daughter with an encouraging smile. “Then we will make sure this festival is one to remember.”

Long ago, the world was perfectly balanced. It was as an enormous tree full of life, with each branch, each leaf, each bloom carefully and thoughtfully positioned so that the sun and rain could nourish them all. The people, the animals, and the spirits were at peace. There was no word for “war” because there had never been battles or bloodshed.

One day, the Gatekeeper and the Collector crossed paths. The Collector saw how many spirits the Gatekeeper had led through the spirit realm to peace and happiness, and he grew jealous of her

“Wait. The Gatekeeper? You mean the Fox.”

Ituren paused in his retelling of the old tale at Satokka’s interruption. He had enlisted her help in burying all of the blades in the house—the kitchen knives, his saw and sickle, and the rusted sword Paskoma had inherited from her aunt.

“I have heard people say the Gatekeeper is a fox, or a dog, or perhaps a leopard,” Ituren said with a smile. Satokka hadn’t spoken much in the days since she and Turasi had arrived. Ituren had hoped that a task and a story would help loosen her tongue. “Do you picture her as a fox?”

Satokka rolled her eyes. “I’m not a child. You don’t have to speak to me like that.”

They continued digging in silence.

Ituren was patient. He could wait.

“When Fa-ir tells the stories,” Satokka said slowly, “he just calls her the Fox. So… she’s a fox.”

“I like to think of her as an otter,” Ituren said softly. He had always thought of the spirit realm as an endless river full of currents that could pull you off of your path, with a nimble otter showing the newly arrived spirits how to navigate treacherous waters.

Satokka stole a sideways look at him. “You can keep going,” she mumbled. “I still want to know why you bury these.”

Ituren cleared his throat and began to speak again.

The Collector grew envious of all the spirits that the Gatekeeper had helped find peace, and so he devised a plan. He took two of his strongest, loudest bells and melted them down. Then, over twelve nights, he hammered them into two blades. Into the first, he poured some of his Jealousy. Into the second, he poured some of his Obsession. Then, when spring began, he let the spirits of those swords bloom in the physical realm, and the swords grew from the ground like saplings.

Saplings. That was what the two Brothers thought the blades were when they stumbled across them in the forest.

The Brothers were the best of friends, perfectly loyal to one another and understanding of their roles in the world. The Elder would one day inherit their father’s own famed sword and lands, while the Younger would inherit their father’s ship. Both believed they would be great heroes, one at home and one abroad. One spring, they found the two sword-saplings growing in the forest. Neither of the Brothers had ever seen a tree grow so shiny, or so sharp. Together, they chopped them down, each shouldering one to bring back to their home.

Little did they know that this would be the last thing they would ever do together as Brothers while they remained alive. For as they walked home, the strange sap from the swords began to flow onto their necks, filling them with horrible thoughts and feelings… those of the Collector. Though they did not become enemies that day, they would eventually bring those blades together, a clanging of bells that would sound throughout the physical and spirit realms as nothing had before.

Satokka frowned. “That’s not how it happened. The Brothers make the swords themselves. They melt down their father’s sword after he dies, each thought that the other had the better blade. That’s why they went to war. The ‘Collector’ had nothing to do with it.”

Wiping the dirt from his hands, Ituren looked down at the hole he had just created in the guest room floor. The roots of the room grew thick and healthy. With just a little pressure, he was able to carefully slide the first blade beneath those roots. “These are old stories,” he said, “told and retold hundreds and thousands of times over many, many lifetimes. I’m sure we each get part of it right. This is the version I know best.”

Satokka considered for a moment as she idly ran her finger over the rusted sword. “So you bury these blades because of the Brothers?”

“Yes. When brothers cannot take up arms against one another, they do not fight. It ensures a peaceful festival, one where we let go of past strife. And look.” Ituren pointed to the sickle, lodged beneath another root. “If you give them over to roots that are grown in peace, the blades cannot grow as the sword-saplings did, rooted in violence.”

He wondered if she would want to hear the rest of his tale, but decided not to chance losing the silk-thin connection they were developing. Instead, he held out his hand for the sword.

Satokka clutched it to her chest protectively. “No. I’ll bury it. Just show me where.”

That was good enough.

Ituren showed Satokka how best to dig beneath the roots without disturbing them. They moved through the house, burying blades under the roots of each room, and giving the women the opportunity to talk seriously for the first time since they arrived.

After dinner, while Ituren and Satokka went off to bury the blades, Paskoma and Turasi uncorked the good wine. It had a rich cocoa-plum taste that lingered on the tongue and made real conversation with a reluctant speaker just a little bit easier. Three glasses in, Turasi was spinning her wine in the cup, watching the firelight dance in the liquid.

“Turasi?” A pause as Paskoma weighed how to ask. Turasi brought her eyes to meet her mother’s. “Why did Kumohi stay in your village? Why didn’t he join you and Satokka for the festival?”

Turasi didn’t want to talk about this yet, Paskoma knew, but they had been at the teahouse for three days now. She needed to know if this was the sort of trouble that could have followed them to Weh’le, if there was something she or Ituren would have to do to ensure they would be safe. Especially during the festival, with all of these strangers in town.

With a sigh, Turasi began. “There are Noxian ships that sail through the bay, to trade with Siatueh and the other villages along the cliffs. They are very… careful. Trying to make sure we know that they aren’t going to do anything. Hurt anyone.” She held her cup so tightly in her hands that Paskoma feared the glass would shatter. “But some of the other folks in Siatueh swear they have seen those same Noxians aground, surveying the area or sending their birds to do it for them. They don’t think the Noxians will ever let go of their designs on Ionia.”

Paskoma nodded. The invasion began after similar surveys, so she understood why it would make her daughter nervous. “And Kumohi?”

“Kumohi has not seen it with his own eyes, no. But he trusts the word of our friends and neighbors who have.”

“So he wanted to stay to confirm the sightings.”

“Not exactly.” Turasi’s hands shook as she took a long sip of wine. “They want the Noxians gone, Emai. They climb aboard the ships and toss everything that isn’t nailed down. For now, that is all they do, but…” She trailed off.

“A resistance.” Okerei had been a part of such efforts before.

“The Noxians have taken notice. They’re sending more ships. Ships with soldiers. I knew it was time to leave.” Turasi hugged her knees. “Kumohi disagreed.”

Paskoma stood and pressed a gentle kiss to Turasi’s forehead, dropping her hands to cover her daughter’s. “It is lovely having you and Satokka around. You do not have to leave once the festival is over.”

A ragged whisper, wet with tears. “Emai—”

“No.” She squeezed Turasi’s hands. “I don’t want to lose anyone else I love to war. Stay.”

Satokka tried to keep on task as she walked through the marketplace the next day. Ituren was to pick up decorative bells to replace a few broken ones, and Satokka had just picked up the two masks her o-ma had commissioned for her and her mother. The plan had been to run the errand, get back to Ituren, and go home. Well. To the teahouse.

But she was entranced by everything that was on display for the festival. The robes, the cakes, the flowers… She had been very young at the last spirit blossom festival, and she couldn’t remember much.

The cake stand had just caught her attention when she spotted an enormous puppet show just past it. The theatre, a large wooden wall on wheels with a translucent paper center, was set up in the middle of the square. Puppeteers moved intricately cut paper puppets as a fire mage created the light for the shadows. A narrator stood in front, explaining the story to a captivated audience as the puppets enacted it.

“And so the spirit of Despair asked our heroine Tsetsegua, ‘Do you truly believe you can find him?’ Tsetsegua nodded, knowing that to speak her hopes in front of Despair would make them fade into nothing.”

Satokka scowled. She had been lost in the beauty of the performance, but the story pulled her out of it. Tsetsegua wasn’t supposed to speak with Despair when she went to the spirit realm to find her lost love—Despair never spoke to anyone.

“Despair raised an eyebrow. ‘Perhaps I can help you. What is your name, mortal woman?’ Thinking quickly, Tsetsegua replied, ‘Nargui.’ No one. Now, Despair was bound to help Tsetsegua find the spirit of her lost love. And because Despair did not know her true name, Tsetsegua was safe from her wiles. For now.”

The stories her fa-ir told burned brightly in her mind as she observed this other, wrong version of the Tsetsegua tale. Satokka wished she could have stayed at Siatueh with her father. She would have been able to aid the resistance. She was tall and strong and could help throw Noxian goods into the sea. It was more than they deserved. She didn’t remember the time before the war, but Satokka knew something had been lost that Ionia had not yet reclaimed.

Disappointed, she turned to leave. But a larger crowd had started to form. One she wasn’t prepared for.

There were Noxians in Weh’le.

They were not wearing armor, they did not carry weapons, but there was always something in a Noxian’s expression that could identify them. An innate hostility, perhaps, or a sense that they were better than those around them.

But these Noxians—there were six of them, middle-aged or younger—were carrying themselves differently. They wore apologetic looks, as though they knew this festival was not meant for them. And yet here they were anyway. It made Satokka’s stomach turn.

The Ionians gave them a wide berth through the market. Whispers passed throughout the stalls, but not a soul told them they weren’t welcome. One of the younger Noxian women gave a hesitant grin. She held up a small bag of coins and started to walk to the cake stall.

Satokka looked around, waiting for someone to say something. To do something.

It would have to be her.

Satokka stared down the Noxian woman approaching the cakes until their gazes met. The woman held out her hand, as if to introduce herself.

Never breaking eye contact, Satokka spat at her feet.

A collective gasp shivered through the crowd. Satokka never saw how the Noxians reacted, because at that moment someone grabbed her roughly by the shoulder. She looked up—it was Ituren, bowing and apologizing for her actions as he led her away.

A small glance past Ituren as he rounded the corner showed Satokka that the Noxians were just… standing there. The woman she’d spat at looked lost. Pride rose in Satokka’s chest. Good. The Noxians should feel small.

They circled around the festival perimeter to lessen the chance that they might be followed. But Ituren had picked up new bells, and he jingled with every step. Finally Ituren threw the bells to the ground and led her back to the teahouse.

Before they entered the back door, Ituren spun to face Satokka. She blinked in surprise at his expression—she had never seen him look anything but cheerful or tired. But now, his eyes showed fear. “They came here in peace, to celebrate the festival with us, Satokka.” Ituren’s voice was never this sharp. “You did not have to do that.”

Satokka thought back to her father in Siatueh, to the resistance, to the Noxian soldiers making their way into her town at this very moment.

“Yes, I did.”

Turasi burst into the front room in a near panic and went straight to her mother. Paskoma had just handed a new guest a pot of tea, a clean set of sheets and towels, but she waved the woman on when she saw the terror and anger written on Turasi’s face.

“What is wrong?” Paskoma asked gently. Through gritted teeth, Turasi told the story of what happened to her daughter and Ituren at the marketplace. It had taken a while to get more out of Ituren than a sheepish apology for not bringing back any bells, and getting Satokka to speak about something she’d done wrong was like trying to wring water from a stone.

“I cannot believe she would do something so reckless, so dangerous!” Turasi had been so pleased to bring her family to the safety of Weh’le and her mother’s house. But not only were there Noxians in town, but Satokka had brought their attention to herself. That was the entire reason they had left Siatueh.

“She is nearly grown, Turasi. She is pushing her boundaries to see where they truly lie.”

“And that’s what will get her killed. Those Noxians… they may not have had weapons on them, but you know that every soldier who served in that army is a stone-hearted killer.”

“Excuse me.” Both women turned, startled. It was the new guest new guest, standing in the doorway of her room. She was tall, with dark hair and unusual amber eyes partly obscured by the hood of her cloak. “You’re talking about warriors in Weh’le?”

“Yes, exactly,” Turasi said, disconcerted. She hadn’t noticed that they had walked toward the new guest as they spoke. The air around the woman seemed to shimmer strangely, moving differently around her than the rest of the teahouse. For a moment, Turasi wondered if she might be dreaming. “They’re trained in the ways of war. And they need to leave, but I don’t—”

“Oh, no,” the guest interrupted with a good-natured smile. “You misunderstand me. I am in search of someone who could serve as a protector. A guard. Any strong fighters in town could be persuaded to join me, if you only point me in their direction.”

“No.” Paskoma’s voice was clear and insistent. “I refuse to allow anyone dangerous to stay here during the festival. If you insist upon finding yourself a guard, then I will have to insist you find a different teahouse.” She held her hands out, ready for the guest to return her linens.

Instead the guest laughed airily, charmed by Paskoma. “This is the best teahouse in town, is it not? I am not going to stay somewhere inferior if I can help it. I will respect your wishes and not bring anyone dangerous through those doors.”

With a wink, she disappeared into her room. Paskoma let out a sigh and turned back to her daughter. “She will be fine, Turasi. Satokka is too smart to make herself a target for long.”

Turasi nodded. The words stuck in her throat, but she smiled at her mother. She forgot how soothing it could be to let her mother take care of her, sinking back into the roles they played during Turasi’s childhood.

There were differences, of course. When she was a child, Turasi never saw anything of her parents’ worries or fears. They were strong and ever-present, like the mountains or the sea. It wasn’t until after her father died that Turasi saw her mother lost or uncertain.

And now, with the spirit blossoms set to bloom soon, that uncertainty around Okerei had returned. What would her mother do if she didn’t get the answer she was looking for?

But then, Turasi wasn’t sure Paskoma knew what answer she truly wanted.

Satokka had never seen such a meal before in her entire life. To celebrate the first night of the festival, Paskoma cooked up a feast for the twenty or so people lodging at the teahouse. So Satokka filled her plate and her belly and did what she had come to enjoy most while staying with her grandmother: talking with and listening to the other guests.

Everyone wore their masks or costumes. Turasi instructed Satokka to wear her own mask out at the festival, and to never take it off. The Noxians could be watching, ready to retaliate. But Satokka didn’t mind. She loved her mask. It was intricate, with large ornate horns and eyes that twisted down the face into a wicked grin. This was the face of the Taker, the little girl who was there at the moment of every death.

During dinner, Satokka got into a heated discussion about the Taker with the amber-eyed guest. The woman was dressed like the Fox—or the Gatekeeper, as they called her in Weh’le—with lifelike fuzzy ears atop her head and markings like whiskers drawn across her face.

“But the Taker is the one who is actually there when a person dies,” Satokka insisted. “So it makes more sense for her to guide spirits to the spirit realm.”

“So then why,” the guest asked in an amused drawl, “do we remove the sharpest tooth in a person’s mouth and place it in their palm when they die? It isn’t for the Taker, I know that much.”

Satokka shrugged. “It’s payment, to cross the veil.”

“Who do they pay it to? Who would have use for those teeth? The Khumaia.”

“The what?”

“Your Gatekeeper. She wears each tooth she is given on an endless necklace, to understand the life of the spirit she leads down to the spirit realm. By the time they arrive, she knows whether the spirit will follow her peaceful path or Rakhsasum’s path of torment, even if the spirit does not know yet. She will do everything she can to help those destined for pain, but their fate is unveiled in that tooth.”

“Really?” Satokka had grown used to the differences in the stories between Weh’le and Siatueh over the last couple of weeks. Now, she looked forward to all of the tales she would tell her father when she saw him next.

The woman giggled. “No. I made it up.”


“From what I can remember, it’s so we can celebrate the age of the person who died. The ground down tooth of a wise elder, the sharp youthfulness of a soldier cut down in her prime.” She paused and smiled at Satokka. “But I like telling stories that haven’t been told.”

When it was time for dessert, Satokka excitedly ate the cakes that Ituren had spent the last two days baking for this night. They were a little burnt on the bottom, but the sweet sticky center was full of flavor.

Ituren passed around the cakes by hand, starting with Satokka and ending on the guest with the excellent costume ears. The guest put her hand on Ituren’s forearm and looked deep into his eyes as she quietly asked him a question.

Satokka watched as Ituren’s eyes lost focus Ituren’s eyes lost focus, then he nodded, saying, “Of course. Anyone you would want to house here is welcome, whether they are skilled with a blade or not. We do not discriminate here.”

The guest squeezed his arm in appreciation. “Thank you. You should let your wife know, she might not be as understanding as you are.”

Again he nodded, but Satokka noticed when Ituren turned to go back into the kitchen that his eyes weren’t their usual color. For just a moment, so briefly that it could have been a trick of the light, his normally dark brown eyes were the same shade of amber-gold as the fox-eared woman sitting beside her.

As the last rays of the sun disappeared over the water, the spirit blossoms, now in full bloom, began to glow in the moonlight. The festival-goers let out a cheer—finally, after all this time, the blossoms had truly returned. They lit the lanterns on the march up to the temple in the mountains, a warm and cheerful light to counter the eerie silver of the flowers upon the branches.

Paskoma wished she felt as elated as everyone else. After the feast, she and a masked Satokka had dressed in their finery and gone out in search of Okerei’s blossom, the one that would allow her to connect to his spirit and speak with him. In the past, it had never taken long for Paskoma to find the flower she was looking for. There was always a tether, it was said, between the still-beating heart of those alive and the still heart of their loved ones.

This time, though… there were so many spirits upon the trees.

She had never seen the branches so full, so bountiful. Some whispered that Ionians were not the only ones upon the trees, that the Noxians had poisoned their festival even in death. The cawing of ravens in the distance seemed to confirm their fears. Paskoma didn’t believe that. There was a simpler explanation. There were just so many who needed to come back now, more than ever before. The trees were heavy with the hopes of those trying to connect.

And she had not yet found Okerei.

She feared him lost, or not yet at peace, or simply not desiring to speak with her. Perhaps their link had been severed after so long apart.

Paskoma kept smiling through the tears that threatened to spill and encouraged Satokka to keep looking. She would not let her granddaughter’s first spirit blossom festival be ruined by her own grief. This was supposed to be a celebration, and she knew it was important that Satokka learn to understand the joy to be found in these reunions.

Turasi and Ituren joined them after they finished clearing away the feast. “Have you found Fa-ir yet?” Turasi asked as she slipped on her own mask, a beautifully painted Tsetsegua with tears carved into her cheeks. Paskoma shook her head, her throat too tight to speak. “Then Satokka and I will continue to look. Why don’t you rest for a moment?”

Paskoma allowed Ituren to lead her to a bench, where she sat and observed. She saw families crying over pots of spirit tea, begging their loved ones to stay just a little longer. She saw children playing soldier with sticks for swords, a seriousness to their expression that ought not be there. She saw the worry and the whispers from those around the festival who listened to the ravens and stared at the spirit trees with distrust and contempt.

This was not the spirit blossom festival she remembered. She wondered if it ever would be again.

Her eye was drawn away from the festival by the new and patterned sounds of drums in the distance, the blazing of flames on a nearby mountaintop. Paskoma’s hand went to her chest—she knew this sound. She had heard it after fierce battles, when the Noxians burned their dead on enormous pyres.

“I wish,” she sighed, “we did not have to spend so much time looking to the past.”

“Is that not what the festival is about?”

“No.” She turned to look at the trees, her back to the flames. “It is about letting go of the past, and moving forward into the future. So many people forget that.” Though she could not see it, Paskoma thought she could feel the heat of the fire lapping at her, threatening to engulf her, her family, everything around her, all that was and all that would come. “And this feels different.”

“Different in what way?”

“Does this look like letting go?” Paskoma asked, sorrow in her voice as she gestured around them. “Or does it look like we are holding on to something so tightly that it’s bound to come back?”

A warm hand enveloped her own. She looked up into Ituren’s eyes as he spoke softly to her.

“You are upset that we have not found Okerei’s blossom yet.”

A tear coursed down her cheek. “I… everything is different. The spirit blossoms have returned, but can we return to how we were before? Can anything be made right?”

Ituren squeezed her hand gently. “There is still time. We will find him, my love. Your heart’s tether to him was—is—the strongest I have ever seen. You will speak to him and see that, though some things may change, others never will. He will always love you, as you will always love him. And whatever his answer may be…” He paused as he brought her palm to his lips. “Speaking with him will bring you and your family peace. And that is all I want for you.”

Paskoma’s tight smile softened into something real as she gazed at the man she had loved for so long. She squeezed his hand in return. “Our family, Ituren.”

He closed his eyes before tears could come and placed her hand over his chest. She could feel the beating of his heart beneath her fingertips, strong and steady and alive.

For the first time, she knew what she wanted. Regardless of what Okerei would say.

She was ready to let go of the past, and move forward into her future, with Ituren at her side.

The six Noxians tried to keep their ceremony private, but it demanded attention, an insistence that all honor the fallen of Noxus. They had traveled from a small island in the middle of the bay to celebrate the dead in the Ionian way, but had been turned away from the spirit blossom festival at Weh’le earlier in the week. So they had to keep the traditions of their own people and remember the dead the only way they knew how. Though the Noxians had brought little with them on the journey, the remembrance ceremony was easy to improvise.

Laurna beat the Wolf Wolf drum, Giotto and Samtha stoked the fire, Helia and Arnaut built the effigies from fallen pieces of timber and twine. Jacrut tossed Samtha’s uneaten festival cake onto the coals. No one felt right eating it after the marketplace incident and so it became the first offering, lending the air a burnt honey scent. Then, with the dramatic flair that came from a noble upbringing and a priestly training, Jacrut threw the effigies atop the flames.

“We send these souls into the sky,” Jacrut intoned, his voice ringing out in the clear, still night. “So that their ashes may fall over all the world.”

“May their deaths bring Noxus across the seas,” the others murmured.

“May their bodies nourish the soil so that we may grow.”

“May they not have died in vain.”

“And may their souls—”

Jacrut stopped suddenly as a huge burst of wind fed the flames, spiraling them toward the stars. It overwhelmed him for a moment, driving him to silence.

This was the promise of Noxus. A flame that would burn everything in its path, even its own people. He and his comrades had realized this even before the war finished. They were all deserters trying to make a life for themselves tucked away from those they had abandoned and those they had hurt.

No one wanted them.

This was not Noxus. This was not their land, and he was unsure if their gods could hear them here. Was unsure if he wanted them to hear. He knew the prayers, yes, but he wasn’t sure he still believed in them.

The blossoms on the spirit trees glowed, almost pulsing in the light of the fire. Jacrut swallowed hard. No, this was not Noxus. This was something beautiful, dangerous, terrifying. They were what made him nervous. The blossoms, blooming for the first time since the war.

Because if the gods weren’t watching, that meant the only eyes on them were the spirits of Ionians. People he and his comrades had killed, people who had no reason to feel anything toward them other than rage and resentment.

People he hoped they would not have to fight against again. Because they had all seen the ships, the soldiers. They knew what it meant. What they didn’t know, was what it would mean for them. For their lives in Ionia. For their service to Noxus.

“May their souls find rest among our ancestors,” he croaked out, his throat dry, “and lend us their strength for the battles to come.”

He did not want the spirits to hear his prayers.