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Short Story

Sisterhood of War Part 2: The Unquiet Dead

By Ian St. Martin

She cannot breathe.

Lore

She cannot breathe.

Her eyes are open, but there is nothing but a heavy, suffocating blackness. It crushes down on her. Her breath smothering. She draws in a slow, rasping breath. It fills her nose with the scents of blood and offal, a slaughterhouse stink. There is something else too, something thin, caustic, and sharp, coiling its way toward her lungs.

The weight around her shifts. She hears something heavy tumble away, the muffled sound of lifeless limbs slapping into mud. The darkness wanes in patches, giving texture to her prison. Bloodied rags. Shattered plate. Cold, abused flesh.

Bodies. She is buried under bodies.

The urge to fight, to escape and survive, rises all-consuming. Adrenaline rushes through exhausted veins. She struggles, wrenching from side to side to force a cavity between herself and the mass. She sees a hairline crack, the faintest trickle of light spilling in. Hope feeds her frenzy. She scratches and claws. Eyesight blurring, rasping breath as she tears the gap wider.

Her hand punches free. Cold air floods in, gulping it into her lungs, but that toxic, bitter something comes with it again. She gags as it coats her tongue, spilling down her throat. She pushes out an arm, beginning to haul herself out.

Her head and arm are free. Gasping for breath but her lungs are twin lanterns ablaze. She can see the ground churned to mire, patches of it burning azure and silver, strewn with the dead. A felled tree’s trunk reaches out for its lost branches, the leaves screaming in tongues. The battle is over.

She glimpses shapes wandering through pale, boiling fog. Creatures gather in the aftermath, wicked birds and gaunt dogs. The dead are carrion now. The vanquished, food.

There is a body just ahead of her, the one she had heard fall away from atop the mound. A boy sprawled out on the ground, his armor broken open, the protection it once offered him gone.

A dog feeds. The boy shudders like a marionette from the roving muzzle. She tries to shout, to drive the beast away, but razors line her throat. The fog covers everything in its acrid and corrosive touch. The boy’s head lolls to the side, the eyes meeting hers glazed over and lifeless.

Then he blinks.

Arrel sat up, placing her hands against the ground to stop her head from spinning. The smell of wet earth and grass asserted themselves over the blood and sour air of the dream. Rainwater trickled down through gaps in the tent over her head.

She looked to her side and found Second sitting there, watching Arrel intently with her helm in his jaws. She stared at the drakehound for a moment, blinking away the afterimages of a starving beast’s maw lined with gore. She gestured, and he padded closer, releasing the helmet into her hands as the flap to the tent was pulled open a fraction.

“Mistress,” came a familiar voice from outside. “It’s time.”

Arrel replaced the helm, taking a slow, rasping breath and ignoring the pain it stitched down into her lungs before standing up. The damp fabric of her bedroll squelched beneath her feet as she stooped to leave her tent and stepped out into the rain. First trailed behind the tracker, joining the other three of the pack that waited outside as they followed obediently in her wake.

Erath stepped back from the tent, eyeing Arrel carefully. Hers had not been a silent sleep, and they had been getting worse since they had left Fae’lor.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“Strike the tent,” the tracker replied. Arrel looked out across a small clearing in the wooded hills they had chosen to make camp, shrouded in a gentle rain that glittered and shone with every color of the rainbow. Some of the drops struck the ground as rain should, others winked in the air like tiny stars, dissolving in a mote of light with the soft chime of a distant bell.

She hated Ionia Crest icon.png Ionia, and it pursued Arrel even into her dreams. She could swear, grasping back at the images, that Riven's Riven's body was among the dead. It would have been so much simpler, if that were true.

Arrel looked back over her shoulder at Erath. “Has she kept the scent?”

The blade squire nodded once. “The runesmith’s blade runesmith’s blade still sings to her.”

“Then I’ll range ahead,” said Arrel, already walking.

“No need,” said Erath. “Teneff and I found a village up nearby, we aim to stop there for supplies.”

Arrel grunted, fists clenching as she came to a halt. “We ought to avoid them. We are not welcome here.”

“Our provisions are growing scarce,” said Erath. “Teneff and I will go alone. She thinks Marit, Henrietta, and your hounds will attract attention we don’t desire. We shall return quickly and then be on our path again.”

After a few moments, Arrel gave a nod.

Erath did not know the name of the village. Like so much of Ionia, he simply assumed it would be something unknowably poetic, like a secret whispered between friends he could neither hear nor understand.

He had thought the rain would make it easier to conceal themselves. The group of them had discarded as much Noxian gear as possible when they left Fae'lor, to avoid notice of both the locals and the empire as they conducted their mission, but they were still strangers in a strange land. As he followed Teneff down the muddy thoroughfare of the village, Erath felt every pair of eyes on him, dissuading him of any pretense of camouflage.

“Stay close to me,” said Teneff, her gruff tones affecting a calm Erath attempted to adopt, though he didn’t feel it. Both of them were armed, but that was not unusual for anyone in Navori. Though Erath was beginning to come to the realization that not every weapon was one that he could see.

“Hold on,” whispered Teneff, and the pair faded back to lean against the wall of a tea house. There was a scuffle developing ahead, a handful of warriors edged in red surrounding an Ionian elder. A small crowd of onlookers was gathering.

“What are they doing here?” said Erath, his eyes locked to the Noxian soldiers.

“We have an outpost not far to the south,” said Teneff quietly. “This might just be a patrol, or a reprisal sweep if we got hit in the night by a Brotherhood raid.”

The pair moved closer, skirting around the periphery of the people who were watching the confrontation. Erath tugged his hood down further over his head, his fingers brushing against the bone pendant around his neck, then down to check the short blade at his belt. They stopped once they came close enough for the shouting to become words.

“I come from festival,” the old man was trying to explain, his lips fighting to pronounce the Va-Noxian. “In Weh'le.”

“Weh’le,” repeated the lead soldier. “That’s pretty far.” He eyed a paper-wrapped bundle the old man held.

“T-tea.” The Ionian clutched the parcel to his chest protectively. “This tea, this blossom tea.”

The soldier’s eyes narrowed. “All the way to Weh’le and back, for tea?”

“I’ve heard of that festival,” remarked another of the Noxians. “It’s their death feast.”

“Celebrating war heroes?” The lead Noxian took a step closer to the man. “Reminisce a little, dig up some old hurts—people can get crazy ideas in their heads doing that.”

“Like setting fire to a stockade last night,” offered another soldier.

“Nothing like that,” said the Ionian. Suddenly the packet he carried glimmered with a faint blue light. The Noxians sprang into combat postures, leveling their blades at the Ionian.

“That is magic,” barked the lead soldier. “That is a weapon!”

“No! This, this,” the old man struggled to find the words. “Ezari! Ezari, my… son. My wife, too old to go. I bring back for her, to see him.”

“More lies,” snarled a Noxian.

“Yeah, yeah, just like before,” another soldier hissed, her eyes glazed over with the scars of a hateful memory. “You all make nice, wait ’til our backs are turned before you whisper some curse and then boom! Boyod bursts into flame, Iddy’s legs gone, my friend Kron’s heart turned to salt in his chest! That’s what you do!”

“This is getting ugly,” murmured Erath. “What should we do?”

“Nothing,” answered Teneff, still brutally calm. “Not our fight.”

“Surrender the weapon,” snarled the lead Noxian, the haft of his axe creaking in his grip.

“Is no weapon,” the elder pleaded. He looked to the crowd, but their eyes were fixed on the blades carried by a dozen Noxian soldiers, and they did nothing to help him.

“You heard him,” barked another soldier. She advanced, snatching at the parcel. The two struggled over it, and Erath heard the sound of paper tearing.

The Ionian cried out, wordless anguish spilling from his lips as the tea scattered across the ground. He tried to save a measure of it, but the rain was already sweeping it from him.

“Ezari…” croaked the old man as he sank to his knees, watching the tea disintegrate into the mud. Every raindrop that struck the powdered leaves elicited a pulse of radiant blue, each successive one growing fainter and fainter until it finally washed away.

“Try something,” said the lead soldier to the crowd as the Noxians joined ranks and began to edge their way back. “Please. I’ll burn all this to ashes.”

Xiir!” the Ionian shrieked, his face turned up into the rain. “Xiir!”

Erath felt a hand grip his shoulder.

“We are leaving,” said Teneff, not taking her eyes from the soldiers as they marched the opposite way.

“Do you see those Ionians?” said Erath. “Our comrades won’t make it out of this town alive.”

“Not our fight,” Teneff said again. “You can sympathize for them on an empty stomach, blade squire. Now we’ll have to make due on the trail.”

“That word he was screaming,” said Erath, looking back over his shoulder as he followed after Teneff. “What does it mean?”

“Xiir,” Teneff repeated. “It is a curse that they use for those of us that come from ‘the Captive Lands’. It means locust.”

Tifalenji was waiting for them just outside of the village. The runesmith’s sword was drawn, and faint traceries of emerald light ghosted across the surface of the blade.

“What was all that?” she asked.

“Our outpost near here got hit last night,” said Teneff. “Probably the Navori Brotherhood. Looks like the warleader there sent out troops to track down leads, or just cause trouble for the locals.”

The runesmith absorbed her words for a moment. “Were you seen?”

“No,” Teneff replied. “And from reading the town, it didn’t seem wise to linger and seek out barter.”

“There speaks wisdom,” Tifalenji nodded. “Let us be off then.”

Erath accepted the reins for Talz, the group’s hulking basilisk, from the runesmith. Patting the side of the creature, he glimpsed Arrel and her drakehounds. The tracker looked haggard to him, but he had learned better than to pry.

“Where is Marit?” asked Teneff.

“She said that waiting for you all was boring, so she rode ahead,” said Tifalenji.

For a while they walked in silence, trudging through the ankle-deep mud and shimmering rain. Erath thought back to the village and the sequence of events that had unfolded. The anger, hatred, and fear he had seen on the faces of the Noxian soldiers. His hand strayed to the bone pendant around his neck.

“Teneff?”

The veteran looked back at him. “What’s on your mind?”

“It’s just, those villagers, all the Ionians. How can we convince them to join the empire like that?”

Teneff’s aspect darkened. She stopped, allowing Erath to catch up to her. “Do not judge your fellow Noxians, boy, until you have endured what they have endured, and seen what they have seen.”

Erath looked at Teneff.

“Each of them came here to bring the promise of the empire to those who they would call brethren,” she continued, “just as we did across Valoran, and in Shurima. This land is… different. It lays a great challenge upon the soul of every soldier in service to Noxus. We all strive to enlighten these people, to draw them to us and enrich us all by doing so, but it is not always a simple thing. Ionia is very much not a simple thing.”

“So much is different here,” Erath agreed. “Do Ionians really turn into flowers when they die?”

Tifalenji grunted. “A spirit blossom. The souls of the dead inhabit them, and when they bloom they call out to the living, if what I have been told is true.”

“That holds with what I know,” said Teneff.

“Is it only Ionians who inhabit the blossoms?” Erath asked Teneff.

“I know not, why?”

Erath reached under his jerkin, and took his pendant off. “During the war, all the fighters in our tribe came here. For years we heard nothing, until one day a woman came with this.” He held out the sliver of bone in his hands, lifting it up to show Teneff. “This is all that she said is left of my father. I wonder, could he be in one of the blossoms? Is his spirit still here, and could I find him?”

“Even if there were,” Tifalenji interjected, “we have no time for such fancies. I need you focused now. Remember why you are here, blade squire. The purpose each of us is bound to carry out. Put all else from your mind.”

Erath lowered his head. Unlike Tifalenji and the huntresses, his own purpose here felt elusive, a hard thing to balance against something as absolute as desertion. He dragged a thumb over the surface of the pendant. “Yes, mistress.”

Teneff looked back over her shoulder. “If your father died here, then he died a hero for Noxus. That is all that matters.”

Erath nodded, slowly slipping the cord and the pendant back around his neck.

Does the rain here ever stop?

Erath hauled one foot out of the mud, fighting to keep the mire from sucking the boot off him and only partially succeeding. Bouncing on one foot, he reached down to tug his boot up, shivering and at complete odds with the world surrounding him.

The shimmering color of the rainfall made everything like a dream in a wavering, queasy way. He heard creatures make calls from the branches of trees the color of summer sunsets, sounds that didn’t seem like they could come from an animal. Maybe it was the trees themselves that were calling, as their leaves waxed and waned from orange to indigo.

It was all so unreal.

The only thing that felt truly real to Erath at that moment was the grumbling of an empty stomach. He wished they had managed to barter with the villagers before the soldiers had rendered their chance impossible. The whole scene had sat wrong with him, scattering his mind with jagged, uncomfortable thoughts. Is that how war was fought here? Was that how his father had fought it?

Erath’s boots struck hard ground, and he breathed out a moment’s relief at the prospect of being free of the mud. He stretched the muscles in his arms as he led Talz forward across the stretch of pale stone ahead of them.

As he walked, Erath took notice of the ground, seeing subtle shapes and lines that were somehow familiar to him. There was something intentional about the rock beneath his feet. An artfulness, even. His eyes grew wide.

They were walking across a pair of cupped hands rendered from stone, half buried in the earth. Much of them was hidden beneath the surface, but the palms alone were wide enough to span a courtyard. Erath wondered about the size of the person they would be connected to, and where they might have come from.

“I would like to know how anyone could make such a thing,” said Erath.

“I’m rather more keen to know who could have destroyed it,” replied Tifalenji, her face stern as her gaze drifted over the scars and fissures where immense fingers had once been. “Or what.”

“Hold,” Arrel warned, a low guttural chorus of snarls issuing from her hounds.

She pointed.

There was something lying in the center of the hands. It was a small shape, mewling softly in the rain. Erath pawed water from his eyes, squinting as he went nearer to it. Every time he blinked it was a different color.

“Careful,” said the runesmith. Her eyes were on their surroundings, wary as she slowly drew her sword in a low rasp of steel.

Curiosity pulled Erath forward. The creature was small, a little less than the length of his falchion’s blade. He glimpsed both feathers and scales, short coiling fronds that grasped feebly at the air and raised nubs that might one day sprout what appeared to be wings. The blade squire knelt, finding himself saying the same phrase he had repeated again and again ever since he had first set foot in Ionia.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” murmured Erath. He reached toward the creature. “Hey, little one. You hungry?”

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“No, no, no,” breathed Teneff, her eyes darting to and fro like the runesmith’s. “No, no, no.”

Erath blinked. “But, what if it’s hurt? This is just a baby.”

“Exactly,” Teneff agreed. Erath heard the links of her chain unravel from her arm. “Where do you think the mother is, then?”

Something detached from the trees beside them. The already chilly air grew colder. Erath’s breath caught in his throat as a massive form revealed itself, and the rain began to fall upward.

Like the tiny, helpless thing they had found it was part bird, part beast, and part sea creature. Grown to its full size, though, every facet was heightened to a fully monstrous extent. The baby’s grasping fronds were, on the “mother”, tentacles thick as a man’s arm, the subtle bumps razored talons. Half its form seemed to ripple in and out of solidity, as though it existed only partially in the same reality that Erath did.

A deafening shriek slashed out from the forest of teeth and eyes that could have counted as the thing’s face. Erath cried out in pain, clamping his hands over his ears. The creature beat the rows of multicolored wings upon its back, buffeting Erath away from its progeny.

“Back!” Teneff roared, not to the creature but to Erath. “Keep Talz safe!”

Erath’s falchion was drawn but he did as she said, watching as Teneff spun her chain until it blurred into a blackened spiked arc. Arrel had ghosted behind the thing, her hounds slavering as they waited for her to unleash them. Tifalenji was chanting an uncanny litany that drew blood from her nose as her blade shuddered with emerald light.

The beast screamed again, and was attacked from three sides.

Arrel made a sharp series of hand gestures, and her hounds leapt upon the creature. Fangs and claws tore into its rippling hide. It writhed, twisting and undulating as it fought to shake them loose. The pack was hurled to the ground, but Third came away with a wing in his jaws.

Fr-ah deh-AHK!” Tifalenji bellowed, her blade trailing a constellation of burning jade as she swung. A pair of tentacles came free in a welter of incandescent blue blood, blurring into smears of dirty light before vanishing with a snap of air pressure. The oozing stumps twitched for a moment before sprouting, each appendage lost replaced by three new ones that formed like the branching limbs of a tree.

Teneff charged. The beast wailed, lashing at her advance and raking the heavy pauldron on her left shoulder with its talons. She dipped her head behind the armor plating as a shower of sparks danced over her. She let loose her chain in a whirl of snapping links and it crashed against its flesh, but was quickly overwhelmed by slithering tentacles. The serpentine appendages pulled, seeking to yank Teneff off her feet, but she dug in her heels and held fast. She spun the short blade in her other hand, driving it into the creature’s flank again and again until the stone became slick with gore.

The beast beat its wings, sending Teneff flying back. Her chain, still embedded in the creature’s side, snapped taut, wrenching her shoulder at an unnatural angle. With a bellow of pain she released her hold on its barbed links, hurtling backward to crash against the stone.

Erath sprang toward Teneff, but was warded off by her outstretched hand. She glared back at him, her face a mask of blood from a gash across her forehead. Tifalenji launched herself at the monster, another incantation flowing from her lips, but she was smashed from the air by a clutch of tentacles.

Every fiber of Erath’s being screamed at him to move, to do something. He shot Talz a glance, and set his jaw. It was time to pull his weight.

Scrambling up the side of the basilisk, Erath took a tight hold of the reins and drove his heels into Talz’s flanks. The beast lumbered forward with a throaty grunt. Erath rode forward, placing himself between the creature and Teneff. A tentacle flicked at his face and he brought up his falchion in a blur of steel, slicing it away.

Blood pounded in Erath’s ears as he deflected another slashing limb, making ready to charge. He pushed forward, slicing into a swarm of tentacles assailing him.

“Stay clear of my manservant, beast!” came a voice from behind the creature.

The sleek, agile silhouette of Lady Henrietta appeared from between the trees. The reptilian steed dashed forward, eager to coat her jewelry in a fresh kill. Seated upon her back, the masked figure of Marit laughed in equal eagerness, the blade of her glaive singing as it cut the air.

With another piercing shriek the creature whirled around to face Marit in a disjointed, boneless spin.

“Yes, that’s the spirit!” She flung out her glaive until she gripped the very end of it. She leaned back, spinning the spear in a wide arc before swinging it in closer. The blade slashed upward alongside the beast, shearing away an entire shoal of tentacles and two wings. The creature recoiled, and Marit hopped up to stand in a crouch on Henrietta’s saddle. Using her weapon for balance, she leapt up into the air before landing on the monster’s back.

Clutching at a tentacle with her free hand, Marit scrambled up atop the beast as it bucked and rolled in a frenzied attempt to dislodge her. With a battle cry she plunged the tip of her glaive down into the base of the monster’s skull, and answered the steaming jets of glowing blood that splashed her with a sharp twist. The creature’s ear-splitting hiss was cut abruptly short as its limbs went slack and it toppled heavily to the ground. The rain fell normally again.

The Noxians collected themselves, joining together in a loose circle around the dead creature. Erath climbed down from Talz’s back, still wary of sheathing his blade as he imagined the beast rising once more.

Marit ripped her glaive loose with a grunt muffled by her leather mask. “I believe I am beginning to grow a touch weary of being your personal savior, runesmith.”

“That creature,” said Tifalenji. “It came from the other realm.”

“Indeed?” Marit raised an eyebrow. “Well, whatever part of it that is in this realm is dead.”

The runesmith looked up at the rider. “When all this is finished, I shall craft you a weapon as savage as your spirit.”

Marit matched her gaze. “I may just hold you to that.”

“Well met, Marit,” Teneff dipped her head.

“Yes,” Erath nodded hastily. “Thank you.”

Arrel said nothing.

“Of course,” Marit’s eyes smiled, and she gave a theatrical bow. “I’ll be damned if I have to endure any more of this adventure without the hired help.” She glanced back at the monster’s corpse. “Do you think this thing is good eating, or bursting with some ghastly poison?”

“You want to try it?” scoffed Arrel. “Be our guest. Only fair as it is your kill, after all.”

“I see,” Marit tilted her head. “What about the little one?”

The Noxians all turned their attention to the smaller creature. Raising its head, the tiny monster trilled. It shivered for a moment before bursting into a cloud of snowflakes, which each then became a sound, and then nothing.

Erath stared at the now empty space, releasing a breath slowly through his nose. “Someone tell me again, why do we want this place?”

“The veil is thin here,” said Tifalenji, cuffing the trickle of blood from her upper lip as she sheathed her sword. “This land teems with the bizarre. Ignore it.”

“This land is nothing but bizarre,” Erath muttered.

Marit stepped gingerly onto the skull of the dead creature, snapping her fingers to draw Henrietta close. Sinking her glaive into the earth, she pushed down on the end of the haft, using it like a vault to swing herself over onto the saddle once more.

“How long have you been up in that saddle, eh?” teased Teneff. “Why don’t you give Lady Henrietta a rest?”

Marit scoffed. “I’m not touching Ionia any more than is absolutely necessary, thank you.”

“Sounds like an awful long time to hold one’s piss,” Teneff grinned.

“Hmm, well I’ve some jars stashed away here somewhere, if you’re in need of a fresh batch?” Marit began to rummage through her saddle pouches. Erath’s shoulders shook as he stifled a laugh.

“Can we not?” asked Tifalenji, looking at both women in exasperation.

Teneff shook her head. “You are no fun, runesmith.”

“No fun at all,” echoed Marit. She looked to Erath, eyes narrowing into slits of cruel slyness.

“Now, manservant, I don’t completely hate you yet, so whilst we are on the subject, a word of warning as you care for Lady Henrietta. Her urine is highly acidic, so no matter how desperate and overcome with thirst you might find yourself on our travels, you must look elsewhere, understand?”

“Why?” Erath chuckled. “Is that what happened to your face?”

Marit visibly tensed. Her eyes flashed wide for an instant, fingers digging into the haft of her glaive. “No,” she said coldly, winding Henrietta’s reins around her free hand and riding off without another word.

The color drained from Erath’s face. “I—”

“Let it be,” Teneff shook her head. “Just bide back a distance from her for a while.”

Erath’s heart sank as he dragged himself back to Talz. After all this time, he had felt the faintest idea of being part of the group, of belonging. Now he felt it spill out between his fingers, like the elder Ionian’s tea.

He had been so close, and he ruined it.

The next week’s trek had been calm, or at least as calm as the wilds of Ionia could be to an outsider. The rains had ceased, and Erath savored marching over dry land for a change. The absence of bone-deep cold and the other miseries brought to a soldier by mud allowed him to truly see the natural splendour of Ionia in all its wondrous, breathtaking glory.

Everything was in subtle motion, from the dancing of the birds to the gentle sway of the multicolored trees. Even the chase between the predator and its prey, glimpsed for only an instant at a time in the spaces between the trees, unfolded in a sort of graceful harmony. It was as though they were all moving in concert to some silent melody that was just beyond Erath’s ability to experience, a wider world he inhabited, but couldn’t see.

They had been proceeding along the course of an immense river ever since they made landfall on Navori, never straying out of sight from its banks for too long. Not only had it served as a source of food and fresh water, but as a guide deeper into the interior, as the huntresses followed the eerie song that radiated from Tifalenji’s blade.

“Night soon,” said Teneff, glancing over at the runesmith.

Tifalenji’s eyes darted up at the swollen silver crescent of the moon, barely visible in the reddening sky. Erath thought he saw a moment of frustration flash across her features, before they become impassive and unreadable once more. “We’ll stop here, then.” She looked at Erath. “Make camp.”

“Second,” murmured Arrel. The hound presented himself. “Find Marit, bring her back.”

Second chuffed and turned, sprinting away into the deepening dusk. Marit had ridden ahead of the group since the incident after killing the creature, the thought sending a twist of regret in Erath’s gut.

“I’ll go get some wood for a fire,” said Erath, drawing a hatchet from where it hung off Talz’s back.

“Take care in how you do,” warned Teneff. “The trees here are alive.”

Erath frowned. “Aren’t all trees alive?”

“She means they’ll-kill-you alive,” said Arrel.

Erath’s frown deepened.

Night had fully descended, wrapping the world in a blanket of twinkling black velvet, by the time Erath had collected enough firewood. After the battle against the creature, he had opted to collect scattered branches from the ground rather than chop a fresh one loose and risk awakening some vicious animus within the tree that would seek one of his limbs to balance the scales.

He returned to the campsite and made a fire. Once he was satisfied the embers were growing into a healthy flame, he slung a cooking pot and weighted net over his shoulder and made for the river. After checking how light their provision sacks had become, he hoped to return to camp with a fish.

The minutes stretched by as he crouched on the river bank, staring into its glassy black surface. His pulse quickened as he saw motion in the water, and he flung out the net, cinching it tight and hauling it back onto land. The net wriggled and leapt with a captive carp.

Breathing out a sigh of relieved triumph, Erath filled the pot with clear river water and dropped the carp inside.

He walked back to camp, his step much lighter than when he had set off as he thanked the fish for its devoted service to the Noxian empire.

“It’s ready,” said Erath as he portioned the soup out in each warrior’s tin cup. He was careful to drag the ladle across the bottom of the pot every time. When he had handed out the last cup he poured what was left for himself, and took a seat near the fire.

For a while no one spoke, each of them content to enjoy the comforts of a hot meal and the crackling warmth of the fire. Erath was no exception, happy to fill his belly and give rest to sore feet and tired muscles.

For that brief span of time, nothing else mattered.

Each of the Noxians did their best to attempt some relaxation. Arrel was surrounded by her hounds, carefully inspecting their claws and teeth. Tifalenji had walked a short distance away, sitting cross legged beneath the light of the moon as she chanted and wrapped her levitating blade in magic. Teneff had taken out a battered pipe, slowly breathing out quivering rings of blue-grey smoke that crackled in the firelight.

“You still use that thing, Ten?” Marit looked down from where she lounged atop Lady Henrietta’s back. “You do know that stuff will kill you.”

Teneff shook her head. “This won’t be what kills me. Besides, I’m not allowing myself to die until this business is done.”

Erath felt everyone’s thoughts coalesce, and cleared his throat. Teneff looked at him.

“This person we’ve been sent to find,” said Erath.

Riven Riven,” said Arrel softly.

“You all knew her?”

Tifalenji allowed her sword to drop into her hands. “Only by reputation.”

“I shed blood alongside her, when first we came to these shores,” said Teneff, staring into the flames. “Tough little thing, you wouldn’t guess it by looking at her but she could haul a pair of legionaries down to her level, each by an ear. That sword of hers, took incredible strength to even lift it.”

“Let alone the dancing she could do,” added Marit.

Erath noticed the runesmith out of the corner of his eye, regarding Teneff carefully at the mention of the blade. The uncomfortable thought rose in his mind of how little he truly knew about Tifalenji, and how thoroughly his life depended on her now.

“She was quiet at first,” said Marit, “mostly kept to herself.”

“But stand together in the line with someone,” continued Teneff, “forge that bond with iron and blood…”

“You become sisters,” Arrel finished.

Silence descended, the three huntresses lost amidst their thoughts.

“Why did she stay here?” said Marit, a thin edge creeping into the words. “All these years, everything that’s happened. Why did she betray us?”

“We don’t know what happened,” said Teneff.

Marit snorted. “Don’t play the imbecile, Ten. It does not suit you.”

“You think I don’t seek to bring her to account?” Teneff stood and rounded on Marit. “Why else am I here?”

“Years, she’s been here,” Marit replied, unmoving. “Years. Every opportunity to report back, and she didn’t. She is a deserter, and theirs is a weakness we cannot abide. A treachery we cannot forgive. We are here to seek vengeance.”

“Don’t call it vengeance,” said Arrel. “This will be justice.”

“Call it whatever you wish,” Marit replied. “Riven made her choice, and we are the consequence.”

Erath tried to sleep, but despite his exhaustion it eluded him. He had seen the power the huntresses wielded when they worked together. Who was this person who was able to divide them without even being there? Who was Riven, who had left such a mark on each of them?

The questions swirled around his head, though they slowly began to sink down beneath a promise of rest, before it was shattered by a voice.

“Up!”

Erath stirred. It was Teneff, standing watch.

“Get up!” she bellowed again, clanging her short sword against her armor. “The river is flooding!”

The Noxians scrambled to their feet. Erath turned to look at the riverbank, and his blood ran cold.

Something had roiled the current, transforming it from a peaceful flow into a riot of churning rapids. Erath saw human faces take shape in the foaming walls of rushing water, boiling into being and mouthing silent, enraged curses before dissolving back. All the while it rose toward them, devouring the bank inch by inch.

The river wasn’t flooding. It was alive.

“Get to the treeline!” barked Tifalenji.

Teneff was already running. Marit had only to spin into a riding position on Lady Henrietta before they were darting for the trees. Erath’s first thought was Talz.

He hurried to the basilisk, taking hold of whatever he could from the camp as the ground beneath him turned to a marshy quagmire. Water rushed over his boots as he reached the massive reptile. He looked back just in time to see another great swell smash down over Arrel.

And it looked like it had hands.

Prying out the stakes rooting Talz in place, Erath started climbing onto his back before the basilisk charged. Erath clung to the straps and rigging on the beast’s flank for dear life as the water surged after them. He hauled himself up, his legs swinging free, head ducking as equipment, tools and what remained of their food supply tore loose.

They made it to the trees, and Erath climbed as the water battered them. Talz clawed himself up to his hind legs to keep his head above the surface, each fresh surge crashing higher up his back and neck. Erath looked back. Teneff and Marit were clear, but Arrel and her hounds were caught in the swamp their camp had become, slowly being sucked back into the river.

Erath braced as another swell struck him like a hail of stones. The tree next to him sagged, nearly snapping from its trunk. He looked from the tree to back at Arrel, and dropped down into water that reached his waist.

Grabbing the hatchet from Talz, he swung, chopping into the wet bark of the ailing tree. He swore he heard some mournful note rasp from its leaves as it finally broke, smashing down at an angle toward the river. Erath watched a cluster of shapes approach it.

Arrel’s hounds. They were paddling in a circle around her, dragging her up onto the tree. But there were only three of them.

The waters began to recede as the first light of day broke through the foliage in bars of copper and gold. They glittered across the water. A horrific sound, like a dirge being played by a drowning man, filled the air as the tide slid back into the river.

Marit galloped back, and Teneff climbed down, all of them converging on Arrel and the fallen tree. She had followed the bank, scanning the becalmed waters with her pack.

“Second!” she called, pausing. “Second…”

“He was carried beneath the water, Arrel,” said Teneff. She laid a tentative hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

Arrel’s hand shook. She balled them into fists and set her jaw into a hard line.

“We’re wasting time here,” the tracker croaked, shrugging off Teneff’s hand. She stood, sharply gesturing to bring the other hounds from their somber watch on the riverbank. Fourth lingered a second longer than the others, but a glare from Arrel brought him trotting to her.

Erath flinched as the sunlight faded. He held out his hand, feeling heavy drops as they struck his palm. Their short reprieve from the rain was over.

Within minutes the sun was gone, hidden behind heavy black stormclouds. The rain was joined by howling gales, whipping the downpour into twisting sheets of freezing water. The cold sliced through Erath to the bone. He could barely see an arm’s length in front of his face. It even forced Marit to dismount from Lady Henrietta.

Tifalenji held her sword aloft. With a whisper, the blade burst with emerald flame, forcing back the storm’s blinding winds a fraction. Teneff retrieved a length of rope from Talz, looping it around each of their waists to bind them together.

Leaning into the wind and lashing rain, the Noxians wandered forward behind Tifalenji, a tiny capsule of green light in the maelstrom. Time blurred for Erath as he trudged on. He couldn’t tell if it had been minutes or hours before Tifalenji spoke up.

“We have to stop,” she roared over the wind.

“Look!” Marit pointed with her glaive. “There’s light up ahead!”

Erath could make out the faintest cluster of lights, like a constellation in the heavens.

“This is wild country,” warned Teneff. “It could be bandits, or a Brotherhood camp for all we know.”

“Then we kill them all,” hissed Marit. “The rune-witch is right. We have no supplies, and if we do not take shelter, this storm will end us.”

Teneff spat out a mouthful of rainwater, and nodded. Together they fought the storm, putting one foot ahead of the other, until they reached the lights.

The trees overhead formed an overhang, absorbing the worst of the storm. A village materialized before them, small and isolated amidst the woods. It looked like an extension of the forest itself, the tall, thin dwellings appearing woven and sculpted. They could just see them over a wall of intertwined branches barring their way, as though the land itself had formed a stockade. The branches shuddered, peeling apart enough to create a small passage.

A dozen men and women stepped through the opening. They wore hand-spun robes, faces hidden behind hoods raised against the storm. The huntresses noted the axes and swords in their hands, the broad slab-like blades chipped and worn. The battered remnants of armor plating they were clad in.

The huntresses formed a line, with Erath and Talz behind them.

“Those are Noxian weapons,” said Teneff.

“And those are Noxians carrying them,” added Arrel.

As one they sank into battle postures. Arrel’s hounds snarled.

“Lower your weapons,” said the lead villager in perfect Va-Noxian. He pulled back his hood to reveal a scarred face, his dark hair and beard shot through with streaks of silver. “We don’t want a fight.”

“Well, you are deserters,” sneered Marit. She spat upon the ground.

“Remember what’s behind us,” Teneff grumbled under her breath.

“Realize what’s in front of us!” Marit snapped.

“Stop!” Erath pushed his way between the huntresses. There was something about the man, hearing his voice. He stepped forth with trembling hands. He regarded the lead Noxian with wide eyes.

A single tear descended the curve of his cheek.

“Father?”

The man led Erath out of the storm into one of the huts, passing onlookers, Noxian and Ionian alike, their faces expressing a spectrum of shock and anger to fear. Erath followed him, as though in a trance, struggling to believe that this was Jobin, his father.

Alive.

“You look like you’ve missed a meal or two,” said Jobin. The two sat down around a fire pit. Jobin opened a steaming pot, scooping out a measure of rice into a pair of wooden bowls and handing Erath one. “My son, what are you doing here?”

They talked, of Erath’s journey, of home. He omitted much, careful as he spoke with a man he thought was dead.

When they were done, Jobin’s eyes gleamed in the firelight. “Look at you. You’re a man now. My little enhasyi.” He paused. “How is your mother?”

“Still mourning you,” Erath said, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice. He removed the bone pendant from his neck. “Who even is this?”

“Me,” Jobin raised a hand, showing where one finger ended in a stump. “A sacrifice we all sent back, that we hoped might bring you peace.”

“Peace,” Erath exhaled the word.

After weeks traversing a realm of wild magic, of illusion and the uncanny, he had to ask the obvious question.

“Are you real?”

Jobin leaned forward. “What?”

“Are you real?” Erath said again. “Or a spell to make it appear my father is not truly dead? If it is deception I would thank you, I truly would, for all that the alternative would mean.”

For a few moments, neither spoke. The silence stretched.

“The world used to be so small,” said Jobin, finally. “You never knew it. We tended our herds, we traded with our neighbors, we raised families. We had simple lives and we were happy. Then the empire came, and our little world became so much bigger, and so much darker.”

He glanced out the door of the hut. “Being here, seeing this place, it brought me back to that.”

“And that was worth treachery?” asked Erath.

“Against what?” Jobin looked back at him. “Against some distant ruler I would never meet, pushing markers across maps? Those markers are people, Erath. Noxian people, Ionian people. We should have never begun this war.”

“But we are stronger together,” Erath insisted. “Noxus didn’t put us in chains, it set us free. No more herds growing thinner every year, no more raids from those same neighbors. And we can do the same here. You’ve been gone a long time, it isn’t the Noxus you remember. We’ve truly become part of something greater.”

“I don’t believe much has changed,” Jobin shook his head. “We came here believing what you believe, that this place needed Noxus. ’Rath, I don’t think they need our help, and they don’t need our rule, but we can coexist. I didn’t have to kill them, to become family. Once I understood that, I knew I couldn’t return.”

Erath processed his father’s words, and hung his head. “Everything you taught me was a lie.”

“I’m sorry, my son.” Jobin laid a hand on Erath’s shoulder. “I was deceived myself by it. But there is always time for something different. Something better. There is a place for you, here.”

“A lie,” Erath repeated. Slowly, he looked up. “So why should I believe you now?”

Jobin visibly sagged. “My son…”

“No,” Erath’s eyes were hard. “You don’t get to do that. You lost a finger, I lost you! And now you sit there and preach, as you hide in the woods? We had an excuse before we joined the empire, of being blind to the wider world. We don’t have that ignorance anymore. Now you are either working to unite the world, to make it better, or you’re running.”

Erath stood.

“I’m not running.”

Erath and Jobin emerged from the hut. The blade squire looked up, seeing the clouds thinning through the canopy of the trees. The rain had slackened as well.

“Think upon what I’ve said, my son,” said Jobin.

“I have,” Erath replied, stepping away to stand beside the huntresses.

Jobin swallowed, and cleared his throat. “We have offered you shelter. Now that the storm is passing, we will offer you a portion of our harvest. We ask in return only that you leave us in peace, and forget you ever found this place.”

Teneff eyed the runesmith. She tilted her head, and the huntresses stepped back to confer amongst themselves.

“The only question worth asking,” said Marit, “is if we kill them all.”

“His father is among them,” Teneff nodded toward Erath.

“His father is a traitor,” Marit replied.

“He isn’t the only one,” said Arrel. “Close to half of this village are Noxian… or were.”

“Scared of getting your hounds dirty?” Marit ran a finger down the edge of her glaive.

“Slaughtering cowards and villagers finds us Riven how?” the tracker retorted.

Erath looked to Tifalenji. The runesmith held the lives of these villagers—the life of his father—in her hands. For the life of him, Erath couldn’t decide what he wanted her to say, and that more than anything turned his heart to a lead weight in his chest. The huntresses studied her too, trying to parse her impassive features for her judgment.

Teneff rested a hand on her chain. “What’s it to be, then?”

“We move on,” Tifalenji stated. “Our task is to find one deserter, and these are not her.” She eyed Marit. “It is not a discussion.”

“As you wish,” she shrugged, walking back to her mount. Tifalenji looked sternly upon Erath.

“Were the circumstances different, I would not condone leaving them here alive.”

“I understand,” Erath replied.

“Now make haste,” ordered Tifalenji. “Time is against us, and you know what lies ahead.”

The huntresses gathered and began the march out of the village. Erath spared a final look back as they passed through the unfolding stockade, then touched Teneff’s arm. “What lies ahead?”

Her face turned grim, and her eyes distant. “The place where all this started.”

They marched in silence, though troubled thoughts made it feel as though Erath were pushing his way through a crowd. He couldn’t reconcile the man who raised him with the one he discovered living in that village. A son is raised in the image of his father, but does he end up the same person?

The bone pendant around his neck grated against his chest.

The landscape changed, growing more arid and dry, as did the dispositions of the huntresses. Postures stiffened, reflexes had them twitching at the slightest sound, and all three had their weapons drawn, clutched in white-knuckle grips. Erath could smell a faintly acrid tang in the air.

The Noxians crested a hill, and witnessed a dusty expanse of dessicated plains ahead. A marker was erected at the border to the plain, little more than a stone totem marked with Ionian script. He could not decipher it, but the meaning behind it was clear to Erath.

It was a warning, to stay away.

They found an old man sitting by the marker. Quietly he hummed to himself, flicking a necklace of chimes he wore looped around his shoulders. His eyes grew wide as the Noxians approached, and using a cane for support, he slowly pushed himself to his feet.

“Travelers,” he raised a hand. “I have no part in any quarrel, and serve no master. I keep vigil here, at the threshold of a terrible place, to ward off those who might seek to cross.”

The huntresses were silent. Erath had never seen such tension radiating from them. Tifalenji stepped forward.

“We wish no harm to you, gatekeeper,” she said. “But do not seek to bar our passage.”

“I beg you,” the Ionian clasped his tiny hands together, “go no further. You cannot imagine the pain that occurred here.”

“We don’t have to,” answered Teneff, as she walked past.

Erath followed, passing the dejected Ionian by. “I will sing for you,” said the gatekeeper. “For your pain.”

The first step onto the dusty plain, and Erath felt like he had been transported somewhere alien, even for Ionia. It was absolutely devoid of life. The ground had a sickly, greenish tint, and the air was sour, stinging his nose and throat. His eyes and lips tingled.

A profound sense of loss emanated from the earth like a haze, stabbing into Erath.

Teneff stopped, slowly taking in the landscape.

“This is where it happened.”

“It was here,” breathed Tifalenji, the runes along her blade pulsing. She blinked. “She was here.”

“We had been fighting for years,” said Teneff. “Everything ground to a stalemate. They said they had a way to break through, brought us some mad Zaunite mad Zaunite and his concoction.”

“Chemical fire,” Arrel murmured.

“Something so caustic it would strip the life out of anything it touched,” said Marit. “We were safeguarding the payload, moving it up to the line, when it all went wrong.”

Erath looked from one huntress to the next as their words flowed over each other.

“We were ambushed…”

“…so many of them…”

“Riven called out for support…”

“They couldn’t have known where we were.”

“They fired—”

“—and the jars ignited.”

Marit reached behind her head, undoing the clasps that kept her mask in place. The straps slackened, came loose, and Erath swallowed.

Her entire face and skull was a mass of hairless, glossy red scar tissue. Erath had seen things killed by burns, the way the flesh looked afterward, but this was different. Black veins threaded the tissue like cobwebs. Erath could not fathom what pain she must endure, even now.

Only her eyes remained unscathed. She looked at Erath, holding his gaze in cold silence.

Arrel removed her own helm. Erath glimpsed wounds around her lips and neck. The tracker hacked and spat a gobbet of blood phlegm.

She must have breathed it in, Erath realized.

“It was chaos,” said Teneff. “Comrades, enemies, boiling away, screaming themselves dead. I never saw Riven again. I believed that she died here, like all the rest.” She looked at Erath. “Do you understand? If we can find her, the thought that we can make something good from all this—”

Then she stopped, her eyes on the horizon. Erath looked, seeing a group of figures appear on the hill. They were Ionian, clad in lightweight armor and festooned with blades of all kinds. Their faces were hidden behind masks and hoods the color of dark iron.

“Calm is the ocean before the storm,” shouted one of the Ionians. “Stand to account, xiir! If any are to control this land, it will be us.”

“Navori Brotherhood,” Teneff bared her teeth, speaking the words like a curse.

“Full warparty,” said Marit, her voice calm and level despite an edge for the violence sure to come.

“The village you stole from,” said the Brotherhood warrior, spreading his arms wide. “They were all so eager to speak of you. To help us fulfill our promise.”

Erath’s blood ran cold.

“We should have killed them,” Marit snarled, rage twisting the ruin of her face as she pulled her mask back on. A light rain began to fall from the iron-gray sky.

“This forsaken rain,” hissed Arrel.

The Brotherhood warrior took a step down the hill. “We promised to find you, the xiir, wherever you might be in the First Lands. We promised to hunt you, stalk you, to cleanse our homeland of those who have destroyed the balance between the twin realms.”

The Ionians roared, raising weapons, many of which coursed and shivered with magic.

“We make these promises to all those you have taken before their time, those whose limbs you have taken, whose peaceful dreams you have stolen and replaced with terror and broken memory. These promises we will keep, so long as our hearts beat life within us!”

A dozen warriors descended the hill, coming within a handful of paces of the Noxians with weapons ready.

“Tell me,” said the Ionian. “What will you promise?”

Teneff breathed, slowly shut her eyes and opened them. “I promise… to make this hurt.”

“You promise blood, then,” the warrior smiled beneath his hood. “We accept.”

Teneff roared, hurling her hooked chain. It struck one of the Brotherhood in the temple. The force of the blow smashed him to the ground. Teneff stomped on his chest, tearing the hook free in a spray of blood. More flecked from the hook as she spun it again.

Arrel flung out her hand and her hounds attacked. First tackled one of them, clamping down around the woman’s neck. The drakehound shook savagely, wrenching her body back and forth until she went limp, then moved on to another.

The two groups closed into melee. Tifalenji thrust her sword into an Ionian’s midsection. She spat a curse and the blade ignited, setting the man ablaze with screaming jade flame. Marit strafed through their midst. Her glaive was a blur, never ceasing as it cut, stabbed and slashed in tandem with Lady Henrietta’s snapping jaws.

Erath watched the opening strikes. This place had awakened something in them, unleashed a rage that they had crushed down deep within themselves for years. The runesmith had waded in, knowing the only way to achieve her goal was to eliminate the Ionians in her way. Talz’s reins slipped from his hand, replaced by his falchion.

Teneff locked blades with the Brotherhood leader, their faces inches apart.

“This ground pains you,” he taunted. “The xiir you lost, would you like to see them again?”

As if on command, a young Ionian who had remained halfway down the hill began to sing. It was a lilting, haunting melody, a tune that no living thing should be able to make. It stilled the Noxians for an instant, the absolute wrongness of it.

Erath’s footing slipped as the earth shook. Tiny things appeared up from the ground, like seedlings but pulsing with a sickly, intermittent unlight. Erath realized after a moment that they were fingers.

Soon hands emerged, arms bursting through the soil. Insubstantial silhouettes of ragged men and women clawed their way up from below, dressed in incorporeal rags of Noxian garb, all radiating the same cold spectral darkness.

“The dead here are not at peace,” hissed the Ionian, grappling with Teneff.

“Madness,” Teneff snarled.

The Brotherhood warrior leapt back, drawing a blade. “And you will join them!”

The youth continued to sing, and more pale phantoms clawed their way up from the earth. Erath found himself surrounded, and slashed out in a wide arc. The spirits boiled away at his blade’s touch, only to resolve like a sickened wind. He struck again, carving an opening to see the wider battle.

The Brotherhood numbers were thinning from the fury of the huntresses, but the dead were massing, dredged back into being by that hellish melody. Erath recoiled, sensing that even these Ionian’s kin would condemn the evil they were unleashing. They had but moments until they were overwhelmed, and it had to be stopped.

He made for the hill. A Brotherhood warrior leapt in his path, wielding a pair of long daggers. Shouting an Ionian curse, he lunged at Erath. The blade squire parried the first dagger going low for his gut, but saw the flash of the second seeking his throat. He backpedaled, losing his balance and falling to the ground.

The Ionian dived atop him. His mask slipped free, revealing a young determined face trying to drive one of the daggers into Erath’s chest. His falchion had slipped from his grasp in the fall. He fought the man, gripping his wrists as the dagger’s tip pierced his flesh. With a roar of pain and anger, Erath rolled, reversing the positions as he drew his knife.

Erath dropped his weight down, driving the knife into the Ionian’s gut. Grunting, he twisted it sharply, and felt the strength leave the Ionian’s grip. Tugging the blade free he collected his falchion and stepped over the dying man.

Rain and blood turned the ground to mire. Erath ran, weaving between clashes of blades and the moaning hordes of lost Noxians reaching for him. Their touch numbed his flesh, as though they were filling his veins with ice water. He gasped for breath as his side was raked by translucent claws.

The singer’s eyes were closed, the lids twitching as he wept blood. Trickles of ruby issued from his nose, ears, and lips as he stood transfixed and dirged. He didn’t see Erath coming. The blade squire surged forward, pushing against cold, grasping hands. He was bent double, crying out in agony as one climbed on top of him. He thrust himself upright, throwing the ghoul back. Breathless, his vision narrowing like a collapsing tunnel, he charged forward and with the last of his strength brought his blade down.

The Ionian’s song fell silent as he collapsed, his lifeblood emptying out from where Erath’s blade had split him from collar to sternum. The phantoms shrieked, their forms elongating as they were drawn violently back down into the earth. Within moments, all that remained of them was a pale, sickly fog, and the echoing cries of the unquiet dead.

Erath turned, stumbling like a drunkard as he returned to the fight still raging below. The Navori Brotherhood warparty was down to their final warriors. They had clearly chosen to die rather than flee, save for one. Arrel’s hounds ran him down, and tore him apart. Lady Henrietta feasted, her jewelry stained crimson. Blood sizzled and snapped where it touched the runes of Tifalenji’s blade.

Erath arrived in time to see Teneff with the leader of the warriors. She had encircled his neck with her chain and drove his face into the quagmire, a boot on his back as she watched him suffocate.

All of them bled from a dozen wounds. Teneff looked up at Erath as he approached. She stood up straight sharply, snapping the Ionian’s neck, and stumbled back. She sank to one knee, overcome by the bone-deep exhaustion of prolonged fighting hand to hand.

Erath looked down. The earth fizzed and fumed wherever blood had seeped into it. His skin burned from the dust, already reddened and peeling.

“Insanity,” snapped Marit, flinging blood from her glaive. “Ionians claim to revere the dead, and yet do this?”

“We aren’t their dead,” murmured Arrel. “Even still…”

Insanity,” Marit repeated.

“We can’t stay here,” panted Tifalenji. “The toxin is still in the ground. And who knows what further ruin their necromancy has wrought.” She stood beside Teneff.

“I had almost hoped to see Riven among them,” she said, looking up at the runesmith. “I had wished that you were wrong.”

The runesmith offered her hand. “I am not.”

After a moment, Teneff took it.

For once the rain was a blessing. Cool and cleansing, it washed the blood and poisoned earth from their bodies as they left the site of the chemical attack behind. They could all see the runesmith’s sword was shining now, humming to her.

“She’s close,” Tifalenji whispered, eyes locked to the runes. “So very close.”

She nodded to Marit and Arrel, and the two began ranging ahead.

Erath felt his chest as they walked. Gingerly avoiding his dagger wound, he pulled his pendant out from under his jerkin, rubbing a thumb slowly over its surface. “He gave us up. My father gave us up.”

“He may have been coerced,” said Teneff. After a while she shook her head. “It doesn’t really matter.”

“I was only a child. They told me that he died, he’s gone, he’s never coming back, I’ll never see him again. Then I do see him, and everything I knew about him was a lie.” He looked at Teneff, taking a shaking breath. “What do I do with that?”

Teneff reflected for a moment. “You can let him go.”

Erath cuffed away a tear. “How does that help, after everything?

“It’s not about helping everything.” She gripped his shoulder. “Just you. So long as Noxus endures, you will always have a family, Erath.”

Erath paused. He let the words and memories of the past days wash over him. Exhaling, he pulled at the pendant until the cord around his neck snapped. He stared down at it, and slowly tilted his palm until the sliver of bone fell to the ground.

Without looking back he jogged off to catch up to the others, as the pendant quickly vanished beneath the earth.

Trivia

References

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