The weight Riven carries seems to hang in the air around her. The remnants of her Noxian armor are tarnished, they speak of her absence from duty. The broken she carries is, in itself, so massive that imagination falters to conceive of the original size.
The echo of battle lingers with her. It smolders in her eyes, tenses in her grip, and coils in her step. It never leaves her. She is there now still, in the midst of it, as she enters the marble doors.
Riven's fingers played along the edges of her blade's runic inscription - an idle habit, long deprived of meaning. Her thoughts went where they often went in darkness: to dark memories. She gritted her teeth. There was nothing quite so cutting as the recollection of a guilty mind.
She twitched, involuntarily, as the scene of her death unraveled before her.
A damp fog yawned across the valley floor sheepishly, as though reluctant to conceal the horrors of the day. The gagging stench would have betrayed its effort, had not the smell so thoroughly permeated the Ionian countryside. Death was now a permanent resident of the somber isle, and its purchase grew with every passing hour. After so many similar fields, Riven no longer took account of it.
Dusk was settling as the company marched on, the stamp of their boots thick and dull crossing the grimy stretch. Riven's own boots were becoming stained a deep brown by the mud. She felt a pang of nausea as she realized it wasn't rainwater that dampened the soil.
She forced the thought out of her head. There would be more fields, more fogs, more harrowing muck - she could process it all later. "Focus is essential", her drill instructor used to bark. "A lot happens in the chaos of battle, but you can only accomplish one thing at a time."
Now it was marching.
Fury Company had trudged for days to catch up with the rest of the 42nd Standard, and the dreary trail through the Zaunite Melters' aftermath was... messy. War was all about casualties, but the rising number of civilian losses was staggering. The High Command had expected the peace-loving Ionians to roll over and surrender in the face of Noxus' military juggernaut. Instead the resistance was fierce and unrelenting. For a society that preached pacifism, the Ionians didn't hesitate to get their hands dirty.
Riven was impressed.
This was a particularly grim scene. The Coeur Valley was one of the few passageways through which the Melters could cross the foothills of northern Shon-Xan. The Ionians had made a desperate stand there that morning, hoping to stem or slow the pace of Zaun's death machines. It was a telling failure for Ionia. They hadn't even managed to scramble half the forces Noxian intelligence had predicted, and ample countermeasures were taken long before the Melters attempted the pass. Still, for such a meager resistance, Riven couldn't help but notice the abundance of Noxian uniforms littered amongst the dead.
A day or two behind, the Noxian cleanup effort was requesting reinforcements.
Riven's attention was drawn to the path by the sound of advancing footsteps. Someone was approaching the group from the front. Riven raised her blade high, halting the company and eclipsing herself beneath it. It was a true Noxian weapon, built to instill fear at sight alone.
The figure emerged from the fog. It was a girl, a couple years older than Riven, stumbling as she walked. Her clothes were torn and matted with blood. When she saw the company, her eyes went wide.
"No no no no no", she muttered. "No more, please." She fell to her knees and started weeping.
Riven ordered two men to retrieve the girl. Handling civilians was a chore that had wearied the men over the past several weeks. They'd been trained to kill soldiers in battle, not to dispatch helpless bystanders. Ionia didn't even have a standing military.
Only the strong survive, Riven reminded herself.
The two soldiers reached the girl and stood to either side, each silently hoping the other would take the lead. Riven was about to intervene when the girl made a quick motion and a thin red mist appeared in front of her. The two soldiers crumpled, dead before they hit the ground.
"Ambush!" Her warning was lost amongst the cries of her soldiers. On all sides of the company, corpses were rising, weapons in hand, and charging into their ranks. Except they weren't dead. Their eyes were very much alive with hateful resolve. Riven remembered the intelligence reports: 'less than half' the expected opposition. It was a trap. The Ionians had planned this all along.
Already the rear guard was overtaken. Riven screamed for the unit to collapse to a defensive formation. The army needed to be warned. She drew a distress flare from her belt and fired into the darkening sky. Pale green light illuminated the entire valley.
One of the Ionians leapt out at Riven. She slashed upward, bisecting him lengthwise. The Ionians had the advantage, but Riven wasn't one to surrender. If they could defeat her in combat, they deserved this victory. The strong 'would' prevail.
The remaining Noxian soldiers tightened their ranks, backs to each other. Nearly half the company was already dead or dying. The Ionians were taking their time now, savoring the growing Noxian despair.
They were surrounded and outnumbered. Her men were tired, demoralized. The Ionians, by contrast, were fueled by their hate. She wondered how long they had lain there, amongst the bodies of fallen friends, waiting for this moment. She tightened her grip on the sword. One way or another, she would end this.
A blinding ball of light erupted thirty feet in front of her, sending Ionians flying. Riven spun, looking for a source, just as another explosion hit the edge of the Noxian circle. Riven's ears were ringing, all she could hear was her heartbeat. Noxian and Ionian soldiers were in chaos, some fighting, some running, some... clawing at their skin.
And then she realized it. The Melters had opened fire on them.
Only the strong survive, she repeated... but that was meaningless here. Nobody would survive. By all rights, the Ionians should have won this fight, but they too would die. How did this follow the Noxian way?
As she fled the cursed valley, explosions rocked the ground around her. Soldiers on both sides were subjected to horrific, unspeakable deaths. Something changed in her then. The conviction with which she charged boldly to war had evaporated, and without it she was... lost.
The memory neared its conclusion. Though she'd relived it a thousand times over, Riven never understood why that day went the way it did. She didn't know why Noxus depended on Zaun's horrific techmaturgy instead of its own military. She didn't know why she didn't see the ambush coming. She didn't know why she survived.
"Why do you want to join the League, Riven?" Behind her, the weeping girl stood, matted in blood, tears running down her cheeks. But the voice was out of place.
"This isn't right... " Riven started, but the valley around her was melting away. This was some kind of trick.
"Why do you want to join the League, Riven?"
"What are you---"
"Why do you want to join the League?" Impatience.
"I don't know!" Riven spat. She was stung by the invasion of her mind. She'd lived with this memory for years, but it was something she wouldn't, 'couldn't' share. She took a deep breath, "I fought for something once, but it was a lie." Spoken in her own voice, the words hurt to hear. "I still love Noxus, I never stopped. But now... I want to fight on my own terms."
"How does it feel, exposing your mind?"
Riven let the question turn in her mind. So many times she wanted to confide in someone, to let someone else shoulder the burden. But telling the story - even watching it through her own eyes - didn't ease the pain. It was hers alone, and some things could never be shared.
"Exposed or not, it changes nothing."
Then the girl was gone, and she was alone in the Institute. Her broken sword glowed dimly at her side. The illusion was invasive, but she'd almost forgotten the former heft of her sword. As if in response, a faint green outline played out from the shard, tracing the blade's former curve. She felt a sudden wash of reassurance. Perhaps she wasn't so lost after all.