The light is dying.
Above me, the sky fades to black as the sun sinks beneath the horizon, leaving ripples of dappled red trailing above it, the last warm echoes of the day. There is red trailing from me, too, from my armor, my sword. The last warm echoes of the lives I've taken today. In the first days I would work in the aftermath to cleanse myself of it, to wash and scour the blood and death away, but was never truly able to. After a time, I stopped trying.
I hear the swish of a crimson cloak as someone drops into the bulwark beside me. From the corner of my eye I see the markings of rank.
“Captain,” I say, beginning to stand.
“Please,” she waves me back. I forget that I lead my warriors now, that she and I are equals, but it feels false. She is nobility, I am an orphan sword.
I know her, the cavalry officer we've been escorting into the hills, some attempt to break the stalemate bleeding us white. Proud, skilled, furious. As though the eyes of our empire watch her every move. She considers me for a second. “You look like you need rest.”
I glance up. “They use bombs that mimic the sound of children screaming to rob us of our sleep, or they come by night to slit our throats, with only the stars to bear witness.”
The captain's eyes trail off, in thought. “I heard an officer from the Ninth cohort, saying that they can kill you through dreams.”
“Dreams?” I ask.
I exhale. “What do you do if they kill you in a dream?”
She shrugs, and offers me a tired grin. “Try not to remember it, I suppose.”
I hear no beast nearby, and know this one is never far from hers. “Where is your mount?”
Her face darkens. “That ground we took last week… Their witch…”
I swallow, closing my eyes for a moment to block the memory.
“Before she died,” she continues. “The witch whispered something to my steed, probably meant for me. A wasting disease. This morning he could not stand.”
“He was suffering, so I eased it.” She looks at me. “Are you suffering?”
I meet her gaze, and she chuckles softly.
“Relax, the empire needs you. I refer to that.”
She inclines her chin toward my sword, its massive blade sunk into the earth beside me, still trailing red.
“That blade is a gift,” she says, her words cautious. “I have seen you wield it with skill, but time can so often make a gift into a burden. You have been so strong through all this. If the burden you bear has become too heavy, I would carry it for you.”
“No.” My hand reflexively goes to it, its terrible weight reassuring. “This thing I carry is mine. I would wish it on no one else. Even as it breaks me.”
In silence she studies me, her eyes cold for a moment, before she smiles. “I meant no shame upon you—as I said, we need you. We have shed blood together here, and that act makes us sisters.”
A child's scream slices open the early night. It hangs, gouging the air with unnatural length. Sleep seems like a thing from another life, impossible here.
“This truly is a horrible place. Together, we'll make it better.” She rises, and presses a fist to her chest. “For Darkwill.”
“For Darkwill,” I return the salute. “Thank you, captain.”She shakes her head. “You can call me Marit.”
blinked sweat from her eyes. The sting brought her out of the memory, and back to the calm of the field. Her senses adjusted to now, the rich smell of earth and crops ready for harvest, the crisp spice on the air as the leaves turned crimson, the heat of the sun on her skin.
She walked between the rows of the crop, sunlight peeking in golden bars through broad leaves and stalks. For a moment Riven was a child again, growing up tending the fields, though the barley she grew in her youth didn't rise up past her head, or shimmer with the traceries of magic that suffused every part of the First Lands. Every few paces there would be a gap, the light flooding in to highlight a patch that had been harvested in stark relief, the prize portions of the crop that had already been taken to market. She paused each time, standing in the sun, allowing its heat to wash over her, as her insides twisted.
The sun had reached its zenith, the hottest part of the day. Riven drew a forearm across her brow, and tried to clear a parched throat. Her thoughts turned to water.
Emerging from between the stalks, she found Asa, his eyes kind as he waited for her with a skin in his hands. Riven had been distant from her adoptive father since they had returned from the market, wanting to give him his privacy to think, to feel.
To bury his wife.
“Soup will be ready soon,” he said. Then he looked down. “I think I made too much again. I forgot.”
Riven's eyes darted to the shrine they had built for Shava Konte, the closest thing she had ever had to a mother. “Forgive me, fair.”
“For what?” Asa tilted his head, regarding her.
“I should have gone alone to market,” Riven continued. “You weren't here when—”
“It is not upon your shoulders that the weight of the world be laid,” Asa shook his head slowly. “Nor the path that the stars turn in the heavens, or the dance that happens across the veil. Their accordances are great, they are beyond our influence.”
“Yet I still feel guilt.”
“Our responsibility rests upon our own actions, the choices made by our hearts.” Asa offered Riven the skin of water. “I know your heart, dyeda. It is pure.”
“Not all of it,” Riven took the skin, but her gaze lingered over the shrine. “I miss her, fair.”
“As do I,” Asa stood at her side. “Yet I do not grieve my beloved Shava, because she is not lost to us. She was at peace when we found her. No pain, and the fortune of passing in her sleep. I treasure her, as someone certain that when the blossoms return next, I will see her again.”
Riven felt a tear slide down her cheek. “Do you think her blossom will be hard to find?”
“My wife?” Asa smiled broadly. “I don't believe a single blossom can contain her spirit. That woman, she will be an orchard.”
Riven smiled, looking up at Asa but finding the joy had vanished from his face. She turned, following where he stared transfixed upon a small group of figures that had appeared in the distance.
Her blood went cold. Her heart was stilled by an utter certainty within her, an inevitability she could no longer hope to hide from. The smell of a campfire welled in Riven's nose, the words of the mender they had met upon the road echoing sharply in her mind.“Fair,” said Riven, her hands clenching into fists. “Hide.”
“Farming,” Marit sighed. “Really.”
Erath followed the huntresses as they looked out across the stretch of land ahead of them. Great columns of natural stone lined the east, like the broken ribs of a long-dead god left exposed. To the west was forest, hued in a thousand shades of crimson, and nestled in between, a humble solitary farmstead.
“Perhaps the war truly did break her,” said Tifalenji. Her blade's hum had become a full-throated song as they traveled from the bleached site of the chemical attack. Now, here, it was felt rather than heard, a sensation that shivered the bones and caused gums to ache. “She seeks to grow and create, some kind of attempt to assuage her past.”
“She grows crops, nourishing them, and then she harvests them. Cuts them away and sells them,” Marit snorted. “I'm sure a poet could do something with that.”
“Remember,” grumbled Arrel, reaching down to scratch First's scalp. “We want her alive.”
“Alive,” echoed Marit. “Such a malleable term. How many limbs is 'alive'?”
“Marit…” warned Teneff.
“She betrayed us.” Marit glared down from atop Lady Henrietta. “Not the army, not even Noxus, us. No mercy for deserters and traitors. Or have you forgotten that?”
Teneff met her gaze. “I haven't forgotten. But we walk into this clear-headed, and we walk out back to the empire with her in chains. Understand?”
Erath listened, reaching for Talz and patting the basilisk's flank. He was outside of their conversation but still he felt a part of it, especially Marit's barb about deserters. Rather than anger at her, though, after all that had happened, he found himself agreeing with her. His father's betrayal was still lodged tightly in his chest, jagged and insistent.
Teneff lingered back a few steps, allowing Erath to catch up to her.
“I doubt she will come peaceably—there will almost certainly be a confrontation,” said the warrior, hefting the chains wound around her forearm.
“You sound excited at the prospect,” Erath replied.
Teneff gave a wry smile. “Just be prepared. Simply do as you did before, you acquitted yourself well in the last battle.”
“Was I supposed to sulk and be maudlin at the prospect of taking an enemy's life?” Erath scoffed. “What am I, some Demacian girl?”
As one, the women turned around and stared at him.
“What?” Erath looked at each of them. “I said Demacian.” They turned back around.
Arrel glanced at Tifalenji, scowling at the noise rippling from her sword. “Is that still necessary?”
“No.” The runesmith grinned. She ran a hand over her rune-etched blade, and the sound ceased. “We require the scent no longer. I can feel it myself, for the quarry is now in sight.”
The Noxians advanced upon the farm. Erath heard the huntresses mutter amongst themselves, the subdued talk of tactics on the march to war. Where they would stand, angles and landmarks, who would do what if the need for bloodletting arose, all discussed in a bored, almost horrifically calm manner. All the while their hands tightened over their weapons.
The huntresses spoke as though they were laying siege to a fortress, or meeting an entire army in the field. They were wary of Riven, mindful of the devastation she was capable of, filling Erath's head with a vision of a ruthless warrior queen wielding an enchanted sword, drenched in the blood of the slain enemies strewn around her.
It was a vision that he found hard to reconcile with the lonely farm they were approaching. There was serenity here, a pocket of calm tucked away from the grandeur and chaos Erath had encountered in Ionia along the way. He considered for a moment if it was the reality that his journey had reached its destination that was really jarring. He thought back to the Immortal Bastion, staring up at its towers what felt like a lifetime ago.
Whoever that Erath had been, the one here now was ready to do his duty to the empire, and bring this traitor to justice.
Talz grumbled, making a deep choking sound. Frowning, Erath peeled back the creature's gums, searching around and finally drawing his arm out, clutching a spittle-slick chicken bone.
“When did you have chicken?” he murmured.
Talz grunted. Erath stared at the beast for a moment. “Come on,” he said, giving a tug on the basilisk's reins before flinging the bone away.
A rough dirt road led to the farm. Erath studied the land as they approached, a house in the same woven, organic style inherent to Ionia, a barn big enough for an ox or two, a small plot with rows of grain, some patches of it already cut down and harvested. He made himself think like the huntresses did, like his training had taught him. Where could an ambush lie? Where was the best open ground for a fight, and where could we fall back to if that fight turned bad?
Erath saw no ambush, no band of farmers armed with whatever they had to protect their land. Only a woman, standing alone in muddy clothes at the end of the road.
The huntresses stopped a short distance from her, eyeing her carefully.
“Who is that?” Erath asked.
Teneff took a slow breath. “That is Riven.”
Erath blinked. “That's her?”
“That is her,” replied Arrel.
He looked closer. “She's not what I imagined.”
“Appearances aren't everything, manservant,” said Marit. “You look like an idiot, for example.” She mulled her words for a second. “Perhaps that is a bad example.”
“Where is it?”
All eyes turned to Tifalenji.
“What?” asked Teneff.
“Her blade,” the runesmith said through gritted teeth. “I sense it, not in one place but in many. Something is wrong.”
“Well she isn't wielding it,” said Marit. “That is surprising. Maybe she's beaten it into a plowshare.”
Tifalenji glared at Marit. The rider chuckled, though there was no mirth in it.
“I know, I hope not either.”
For a few moments, nobody said anything. Riven stood before the door to her farmhouse, the huntresses arrayed before her. Erath stayed a pace behind with Talz, peering between the women to see what was happening.
The silence stretched, untenable, and finally broke.
“Hello, sister,” called Teneff.
“Teneff.” Riven's voice was low, almost soft but with an edge of sadness. Erath detected no rage in it, no fear, only pain. Anguish coated the speaking of her former comrade's name. Riven's eyes flicked quickly to the other Noxians, taking each of them in before settling on the tracker and her hounds. “Arrel. Pups have grown.”
Arrel inclined her head.
“So she does remember the life she cast aside,” Marit exclaimed, looking to the other huntresses, then back at Riven. “The ones she betrayed.”
Surprise flickered over Riven's features at hearing the masked woman's voice. “Marit?”
“Scars and all,” the rider sneered. Lady Henrietta hissed. “Surely you must have known this day would come.”
Riven let out a breath. “It was a matter of time, I suppose.”
Teneff took a step forward. “And now, that time is here. You are alone?”
“Yes,” she answered.
Arrel's eyes narrowed. “Should we believe you?”
“There was another,” Riven gestured to a death shrine beside the farmhouse door. Erath could see it was newly made. “She passed, now it's only me.” Her eyes grew hard. “What do you want?”
“You, Riven,” said Marit, leaning down from the saddle. “We have come for you.”
Erath could see Riven visibly tense. The bands of lean muscle in her arms twitched, fingers tightening around the grip of a sword she wasn't holding. The blade squire's hand dropped to rest on the pommel of his sheathed falchion.
“Do you plan on giving us any trouble, sister?” Teneff allowed the barbed chain in his hand to slacken, the heavy iron hook striking the ground with a thud. “Remembering who you really are?”
“I'm not that person anymore,” Riven said quietly. “That is all far behind me.”
“Not far enough,” said Arrel.
Silence held for a handful of heartbeats, radiating with tension. Erath looked between the huntresses and Riven, waiting for either of them to make the first move, for the traitor's blade to magically manifest in her hand and furious combat to begin.
“Well,” said Marit, surprising Erath by swinging her leg over and dismounting from Lady Henrietta, handing him the reins. “Are you going to be a polite host and invite us in? We have so much catching up to do.”
Riven was still for a moment, before she stepped back beside the open door, gesturing inside. “Please.”
The huntresses stepped over the threshold and into the farmhouse, each setting their weapons down beside the door. “Stay,” Arrel bade her hounds, and the trio huffed and whined before sitting on either side of the entrance. Erath made to follow them, only to find Tifalenji's hand on his arm.“Not you,” the runesmith murmured, her fingers digging into his flesh. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes darted about. Erath noticed her head tilt slightly, as though she were straining to hear a sound just beyond earshot. “You will come with me.”
Riven watched as the huntresses seated themselves at the table, the three of them together on one side. Waves of emotion rolled out of them, crashing against her in a storm of alarm, dread—and in some small corner of her, relief.
These were the women she served beside, the sisters she made in fire and blood. The essence of them was clear to her, but each had changed, overlaid with scars she never saw inflicted. Riven knew that she had changed as well, the span of the table a rift yawning between them. They were almost like strangers, wearing masks of the comrades she used to know.
Marit was literally wearing a mask. She caught Riven staring at it.
“Oh, this?” The rider reached back, undoing the clasps behind her head. She pulled the mask free, and Riven's heart sank at the sight.
“What's the matter, sister?” Marit leaned forward. “Don't remember what happened? The fire, the screams? You were there, after all.”
Riven's eyes stung. “What happened to you, Marit?”
“I survived.” Marit's ruined visage twisted in a cruel lipless grin. “Hmm, perhaps if you had stuck around, you would know.”
Riven looked away. “I thought you all were dead.” The words were genuine, until this day they had been fact to her, now she couldn't tell if she was uttering them to convince the huntresses, or herself.
“We aren't,” croaked Arrel, clearing her throat painfully. “How hard did you look?”
“It all happened so quickly,” said Riven, lost in the memory. “Emystan, when she fired on us—”
“Do not speak that name to me,” snarled Teneff. Marit shot the warrior a glance. Teneff rose. “And do not seek to cast blame upon others. You ran.”
“What do you remember,” said Arrel, coughing wetly, “of that day?”
Riven closed her eyes. Broken images flashed across her mind, her ears swelling with fire and screams. Her nose stung from burnt flesh and poison. Agony, pressure, fingers clawing at her boots, begging her to save them. But she couldn't.
“Little,” Riven finally replied. “Fragments, here and there. I don't know how I lived, something with my sword.”
“You do look quite unscathed,” said Marit.
“I am not,” Riven said firmly. “I have my scars.”“We all do,” said Teneff. She locked her withering gaze upon Riven. “Why did you run?”
Erath followed close behind Tifalenji, the runesmith moving as though in a trance. Sweat trickled down Tifalenji's face as she walked, eyes closed, the tip of her sword flicking and waving in the air as its runes glimmered and pulsed. Erath spared a glance back at the farmhouse, wondering what was happening inside, and nearly collided with Tifalenji as she came to a halt outside the barn.
“In here,” she murmured. “Something.”
Erath's curiosity peaked. They had succeeded in tracking the traitor down by following the runic magic infused within her sword, so it had to be here somewhere, hidden away. After witnessing what Tifalenji was able to do with her own weapon, the blade squire was eager to see such a powerful relic first hand.
The barn was small, occupied only by a thin-ribbed ox munching contentedly on straw in a stall. Erath thought back to Talz and Lady Henrietta where he had hitched them outside, happy he had not chosen to house them here. Talz was far too big, and likely to bring the structure down, while Lady Henrietta would have taken an interest in the ox… and it was a lot of work to clean all that jewelry.
The tip of Tifalenji's sword stopped abruptly over a heap of straw. “There,” she breathed, stooping down. “A pox on her life, to keep a blade like hers in a place like this.”
Tifalenji dug, her fingers clawing away at heaps of straw and dried grass. Finally she held her blade over it, whispering a sharp string of syllables that boiled the chaff away, revealing a flat piece of metal, about the size of Erath's fist. He could make out a portion of a rune, etched into the dark material, cut off by the edge of the fragment where it appeared to have been shattered from the whole.
“No,” Tifalenji's breath caught in her throat as she touched it. “No, no, no…”
Erath took a step back, feeling the runesmith's rage rolling off her like a heat haze. “Is that part of the sword? How could something of such power be broken?”
“She did it.” A tear streaked down Tifalenji's face as her fingers closed over the shard. “She actually did it.”
Erath looked back at the farmhouse, thinking of the deserter inside with the huntresses. What had happened to this woman?Tifalenji bolted upright and rounded on Erath in a single swift motion, her eyes smoldering. “There are more pieces like this,” she hissed. “I can feel them, and you and I are going to find them. Every single one.”
Riven ladled soup into bowls, placing one in front of each of the huntresses before filling one for herself.
“You certainly made a lot,” Marit remarked, glancing at the large pot simmering over the fire. “You must have quite the appetite, Riv.”
Riven swallowed a spoonful of broth. “I eat some of it fresh. The rest can sit over the fire for a week or so.”
Marit stirred the contents of her bowl. “How quaint.”
“You didn't answer me,” Teneff pressed, her food untouched. “Tell me why you abandoned everything you had pledged your life to. You owe us that much.”
Riven stopped eating, placing her spoon on the table. “I was an orphan. Father died fighting far from home, I was never told where. Mother died having me. When Noxus called, I leapt at the chance—not for adventure, or a desire to spill blood.” She looked at the huntresses. “For family. For a chance to finally feel like I belonged somewhere. That changed that day in Navori, when the rain caught fire set by those we called ally.”
Riven took a breath, fighting to keep the memory from resurfacing. “We didn't mean anything to them. We never did.”
“Noxus is not the same empire that you abandoned,” said Teneff. “It has evolved. Changed. Darkwill is dead, the nobility torn down.”
Riven noticed Marit's eyes narrow, her mask of scar tissue twitch involuntarily.
“The empire is now a place where any with the strength to thrive can do so,” Teneff continued. “Where we all work as one to bring the same freedom and meaning to everywhere the sun touches.”
Riven considered her words. “If this new Noxus is some different place, then why does it still care about me?”
“We care about you,” said Arrel.
“We all thought you were dead,” added Marit. “A fallen hero. And instead we had to learn from others that you not only are alive, but have turned your back on those who would have died for you.”“I met a mender here,” said Riven. “A healer of broken things, pottery, stone. She would sing to them, play charms, help guide the edges back to one another to become one again. She told me the spirits within all things want to be whole, but I don't know if I believe that. I believe, sometimes, that which is broken cannot be pieced back together. It can't go back. It is irreparable, and that is how it should stay. How it must stay.”
As Tifalenji roved around the farm, murmuring to herself as she hunted for more fragments, Erath approached the door to the cellar on her instructions. He stopped beside the death shrine that had been recently built, studying the graceful architecture of the small structure.
For a moment he thought to search it for a fragment, but found himself unwilling to risk desecrating the shrine. Tifalenji had found other shards of the blade, mourning each discovery like the body of a dear friend. If she detected one within the shrine, Erath had no doubt the runesmith would not share his misgivings.
Erath had heard nothing from within the farmhouse. No shouts, no sounds of violence. He was intensely curious to know what was happening inside, where the huntresses would find the answers that had driven them across Ionia to find Riven, but knew well enough he was not welcome there. What occurred within those walls was between the four sisters, and nobody else.
Yet Erath could not help but wonder how long it would stay that way.
Squatting down, he took hold of the cellar door and swung it up and open. Cool, moist air wafted up toward him, revealing a set of rough stone steps leading down into the gloom. Peering into the dark, Erath wished he had his own runeblade, for no other reason than to light the way.
Instead, he relied on more traditional methods, walking over to Talz. After checking both his and Lady Henrietta's hitchings, making sure both strong creatures would be unable to break loose and cause him even more trouble, Erath used the materials borne on the basilisk's back to fashion himself a small torch.
Now able to see, he descended the cellar steps. He played the light of his torch in front of him, only able to clearly determine what existed inside its flickering glow. The vague impressions of stacks of sackcloth, shelves lined with sealed jars made of clay and stone, farmer's tools.
Erath heard a noise—a short, sharp rustle in the dark.
Immediately his knife was in his hand. The cellar was cramped, the quarters too tight for his falchion. He froze, straining his hearing, and slowly moved his torch around him.
The light granted shape and texture wherever Erath brought it. He focused on the location of the sound, his breathing low and even, as steady as his grip on his knife. Then he came to an abrupt halt, as he discovered the light of the torch glittering back in a pair of wide, frightened eyes.It was no runic blade fragment. It was a man.
“Do you think we will accept that?” Marit had still not touched her food, her mind on anything but her appetite. “After what we endured to find you, the blood we spilled? You think we will just turn around and leave you be, like nothing ever happened?”
“Much has happened,” Riven slowly shook her head. “Too much. Go back and tell them I'm dead. There is truth enough in that, the Riven you knew is dead. I'm someone else, someone broken who this land still holds to account.”
“That is a lie,” rasped Arrel. “We are the ones who hold you to account.”
“It is your life here that is the lie, Riven,” said Teneff. “You cannot run away from this, not anymore. Be the Noxian we once knew, our sister. Return with us to the empire, stand tall and finally face justice. If you truly see yourself as broken, home is where you will find the last piece to make you whole again.”
Marit gave a crooked grin. “They may not even execute you.”
“Much has changed,” Arrel said. “But the soul of Noxus has not. Join us, and put a knee to the ground. Or stand against us, and we'll put you underneath it.”
Teneff shot her comrades an angry look, before turning back to Riven. “Embrace the new Noxus, devote yourself to the empire and be reaffirmed in its eyes, and they will value your strength. I know it's still within you, Riven. It is not too late for you.”
Riven looked away. She hesitated, hearing a truth in their words she did not want to acknowledge. What if Noxus was different? After everything that had happened, was there still a life for her there? And now that the empire had found her, would they ever stop?
Riven looked at each of her sisters, adamant in their mission. What would she have to do to stop them? And if they failed in their task, Noxus would just send more. How many innocent lives would be lost before they finally tore her away from this place?
Submission loomed heavy in her heart. Go with them, it said. Let no more Ionian blood be shed because of you. No more people dying before their time for the sake of your soul.
People like Asa. Your fair.
“Riven! Come out, now!”
The four women jolted at the voice from outside the farmhouse. Riven stood, and the huntresses followed suit, their postures growing taut.
“What is this?” she asked.Teneff glanced at Arrel and Marit, then back at Riven. “Let's go find out.”
Erath watched Riven appear from inside the farmhouse, flanked by the huntresses. They stepped into the daylight, finding him and Tifalenji standing there, their weapons drawn, with the Ionian man Erath had discovered kneeling between them.
“Dyeda,” gasped Asa.
“Fair!” Riven started toward him, stopping short as Tifalenji rested her rune blade against the man's throat. “Release him,” she demanded. “He has no part in this!”
“Your deception has made him a part.” Tifalenji's face was hard, her eyes cold. “Now we can dispense with the tears of reunion and get to the true matter at hand.”
Erath looked to Tifalenji. Riven's eyes narrowed. “What?”
“I have someone you want,” said the runesmith, indicating Asa. “And you have something I need.” She showed Riven the broken fragments in her other hand. “Bring it to me.”
Riven hesitated, her eyes flashing between Tifalenji and Asa.
“I grow weary of these games,” snarled Tifalenji, pressing her blade hard enough for Erath to see a trickle of blood from Asa's throat. “I am not asking, and you know of what I speak. Bring it to me, now… or there will be another death shrine, here.”
The moment stretched as Riven looked to Asa. Erath maintained his calm, carefully studying Riven. He watched her push a breath out between her teeth, and slowly turn back to the farmhouse.
“Ensure she does not flee,” commanded Tifalenji. Arrel gestured to First, and the drakehound loped around behind the farmhouse, while the other two guarded the front corners of the structure.
“What is this, runesmith?” said Teneff. She looked at Erath. “Who is this man?”
“I found him in the—”
“Be silent,” snapped Tifalenji. “This is my business.”
Riven reappeared, stepping out into the field carrying something wrapped in a blanket. All eyes were fixed upon it, especially Tifalenji's.
“Show me,” the runesmith ordered. “Now.”
Her face tight, Riven slowly unwound the blanket, letting it fall to reveal the hilt and crossguard of an enormous broadsword. A jagged portion of the blade was still attached to it, like a chipped tooth, inscribed with the same runic script Erath had seen on the fragments they had collected.
“Damn you,” Tifalenji breathed, her voice shaking at the sight of it. Her fingers tightened around the blade fragments. “Do you have any idea what you have done?”
“This sword was entrusted to me,” said Riven, her slender fingers slowly closing around its leather-bound grip. “It is my responsibility, and no other's. Let him go.”
“It should have never gone to you,” hissed Tifalenji. “Too long has that mistake gone uncorrected, but no longer. Surrender it now.”
Holding the sword, even broken, Riven seemed stronger. Erath could see the defiance growing within her.
“You cannot have it,” said Riven. “This weapon will never return to those who forged it. I will not allow that to come to pass.”
“Then he will die,” said Tifalenji simply. “And so will you. Even desecrated as it is, the blade is what is important. You are nothing but a parasite, clutching for its radiance to give meaning to a broken, worthless existence.”
“So, this was never about me.” Riven shot an accusing glare at the huntresses. “Was it?”
Erath stared at Tifalenji. Were they really only here for a blade?
“Your life was forfeit the moment you turned against my masters, and the blade ceased to be wielded to their purpose,” Tifalenji seethed. “You died in that moment of betrayal, Riven. I am merely here to take back what is ours.”
“You mean to kill her?” Teneff stepped forward, the chains of her hook rattling. “This was not what we agreed upon, runesmith.”
Arrel gestured, and her trio of hounds rushed around her, snarling.
“You'll defy me now?” Tifalenji scoffed. “You have deserted, soldiers. Return to Noxus without my protection and you will be executed—or do as I say, and live. There is no alternative.”
Teneff and Arrel turned, watching Marit as she walked to the door of the farmhouse and retrieved her glaive. Riven watched as she passed her by, going to stand at Tifalenji's side.
“Rune-witch,” said Marit. “You promised me a blade when all this was done. But I am feeling impatient, I think I'll just have Riven's instead.”
“Prove your worth, then,” said Tifalenji. “Strike her down and take it from her, and it shall be yours.”
“Marit, listen to me,” Teneff pleaded. “We cannot do this. We all agreed, she must return to Noxus to face justice.”
“I'll be Noxus' justice!” Marit snapped, leveling her glaive at Riven. “That sword always should have been mine, you never possessed the strength to do what needed to be done with it. With the blade reforged, and wielded by my hands, I will rise—my name and lineage will not die forgotten in the darkness. All that was stolen from me will be restored, won back by the edge of that blade!”
Erath studied the two women, watching the sunlight play across the gleaming edge of Marit's glaive.
“Look at you.” Marit spat on the ground before Riven. “A broken sword, for a shell of a woman. Could you have even lifted it now?”
Tifalenji cried out as the shards whipped from her hand, leaving it bloody. The fragments sliced through the air toward Riven, shimmering with emerald light. Weaving above her, the broken segments came together, bound by crackling runic energy into an immense, fractured union.
“Lift it?” Riven spun the massive blade once, kicking up dust and bits of gravel into the air. “Oh, yes, my sister. I can still lift it.”
Marit's gruesome visage twisted in a smile as she sank into a fighting stance. “My whole life was taken from me, you threw yours away. Come on, then! The blood we spilled to find you… You owe me this, Riv!”
Teneff took a step toward Tifalenji, with Arrel at her side. “Do not interfere,” the runesmith hissed, raising her sword. She shot a glance at Erath, and gestured to the old man. “Hold him.”
Erath laid a hand on the Ionian's shoulder, his falchion in his other fist. He tried to split his attention between ensuring the man didn't run, and the alarming division forming between Teneff, Arrel, and Tifalenji.
What if he had to choose a side?
Erath's mind raced at the prospect. What would he choose? Marit's vindication against betrayal? Teneff's steadfast duty to the empire? Or the safety of Tifalenji's authority, despite her secrets?
Would the ones he rejected try to kill him? Could he kill them?
All this while the conflict was poised to begin in front of him, and Erath was unable to take his eyes off Riven's incredible blade.
“Marit, sister, do not do this,” Riven said through gritted teeth. “Don't make me kill you.”
Marit spun her glaive. “Don't worry, Riven. You won't.”
The two began to circle. Erath took note of their postures, Marit fluid and aggressive, Riven stoic and reserved. Their weapons occupied the space between them, the edges flicking and making tiny circles but never touching…
…until, finally, Marit struck.
Sensing an opening, the rider leapt forward, her glaive a whirling blur of steel. Riven backpedaled, using the hulking length and width of her sword's blade to deflect the flurry of blows in showers of sparks and emerald runic energy. Marit sidestepped, throwing out the haft of her glaive against Riven's sword to knock it aside, and lunged for her throat.
Crying out, Riven swept her blade in an arc, sending a gale of lashing wind at Marit and hurling her away. Marit skidded back, her free hand digging into the earth to slow herself.
“Cute,” she said with a grin. She rose, and began her attack anew.
As they progressed, Erath noticed Riven's defensive guise begin to slip. Something was awakening within her, the warrior spirit that had made her one of the deadliest soldiers in Noxus. Slash by slash, strike after parry, she ceased to be on the back foot. Erath began to see something overtake her features, replacing calm.
He saw rage.
Riven started attacking. Her runeblade made a sizzling thrum as it chopped and slashed against Marit's defenses. Marit's scarred features twisted in concentration as she used every bit of her incredible skill to ward off Riven's assault—but every counter was swept aside, every attempt to spin inside Riven's guard rebuffed.
For the first time, Erath considered that Marit could lose. In the shade of a massive tree, its leaves red as blood, Riven was winning.
The two were sheened in sweat. Marit's movements had lost their grace as exhaustion set in, with an edge of desperation. Where Marit was fading, Riven surged, her eyes smoldering as she delivered increasingly powerful blows. Throwing Marit back against the tree, Riven raised her sword for an overhead strike. Marit brought up the haft of her glaive, and Riven's blade cleaved it in half.
“You'll never escape what makes you broken, Riven,” Marit smiled coldly, throwing away the lower half of her weapon. “No matter where you go, it will always be with you.”
Marit lunged with her broken glaive. Roaring, Riven drove her own blade forward. Blood burst around it, snapping and burning to a mist against the runes as she ran Marit through, pinning her to the tree.
In an instant, Riven's eyes widened. She tore the blade back and Marit slowly slid to the ground, clutching her chest but unable to stem the flow of blood spilling over her fingers.
The rage vanished from Riven's face as she beheld Marit. Her grip on her sword slackened. “Sister, forgive me.”
Marit stared up at Riven, blood trickling down the corner of her mouth. Her strength fading, Marit used the last of it to seize the collar of Riven's shirt, hauling her down close to look her in the eye.
“No,” Marit hissed, the contempt in the word costing her what life she had remaining to her as she slumped into the dirt.
Silence descended. The shock radiated through all present, especially Erath. Marit had always seemed invincible to him, surviving the chemical attack that had disfigured her, triumphing in every battle across their journey. He could not fathom that he had just watched her fall.
And for what? he thought. What are we really doing here?
“Regrettable,” said Tifalenji, “but not unexpected.”
Riven recoiled as her blade was torn from her exhausted grasp, whirling her around to see the runesmith now holding it, wielding a runeblade in each hand.
“Through all of this, on the path here, I truly debated whether to let you live after I had taken back what is ours. But after this…” She tightened her grip on Riven's blade. “…sacrilege, I cannot leave here while your heart still beats.”
“Enough!” cried Teneff, and she and Arrel advanced on Tifalenji. Asa whimpered at the sight, struggling to be free of Erath's grip.
The runesmith crossed her blades and swung them out, punching the huntresses from their feet in a storm of energy. Arrel's hounds bayed, charging to their master's defense. Tifalenji uttered a verse and the three were suspended in mid-air, sealed inside capsules of runic energy. Erath watched the scene play out, his heart climbing into his throat, the grip of his falchion growing slick in his hand.
“You think you can stop this now?” Tifalenji roared. “Nothing will stop it! I will kill every single one of you and sleep peacefully tonight, for I am righteous, and you all are—”
The air was driven from Tifalenji's lungs as the tip of a blade emerged from her chest. For an instant the runesmith sagged, as though weightless, before she began to fall. The twin runeblades tumbled from lifeless fingers, and the bloodied falchion held her up for a second before it was pulled free, revealing Erath holding it behind her.
The drakehounds dropped to the ground, dazed but unharmed. Arrel and Teneff hauled themselves to their feet, staring at Erath in surprise, as though looking at him for the first time.
“No more betrayal,” whispered Erath. “No more secrets. After everything we've been through, everything questioned and twisted, all that is constant is honor. Our duty to Noxus.”
Teneff stepped forward. Riven watched her stoop down, and retrieve both runeblades. Riven's had fallen apart once more, the pieces scattered over the ground. Arrel collected them, before the two huntresses stood over Riven.
“He's right,” said Teneff. She eyed Riven not with vengeance or hate, but grim resolve. “Honor is all that we have. I gave my oath to Noxus that you would see justice, sister. I will see that carried out.”
“Just leave us be,” Asa croaked, tears streaming down his face. “You do not have to take her.”
Erath looked to the huntresses, to Riven. Would there be further bloodshed before this was done?
“I will go.”
“Dyeda, no…” Asa pleaded, shocked to hear those words coming from Riven's mouth.
Riven released a shuddering breath. “No more, fair—no more will suffer here because of me. Our responsibility rests upon our own actions, the choices made by our hearts.” She looked at him. “This is my choice.”
Asa's mouth opened, then closed. He breathed, shakily, and stood tall. “Wherever you go, whatever you do, you will always be my dyeda. Always.”
“You will always be here, fair.” Riven's hand fell to her heart. She looked up at Teneff. “Leave him in peace, and I will go with you.”
Teneff was still for a moment, before dipping her head a fraction. “I swear it.” She nodded to Erath, and the blade squire immediately released Asa.
The Ionian stood shakily, a look from Riven leaving him to hang his head as he stumbled toward the farmhouse. Asa slid down against the doorway, racked with sobs as he watched Teneff put Riven in chains.
Erath's mind suddenly went to the beasts. He whirled around, relieved to see Talz still hitched in place, eating grass without a care in the world.
But Lady Henrietta had slipped her reins.
Panic surged in Erath's chest, until he saw she hadn't gone far. He found the reptilian steed in the shade of the tree, trying to awaken Marit with gentle nudges from her snout. Slowly, carefully, he closed the distance to them.
Henrietta hissed at Erath, baring her fangs and putting herself between him and Marit's body as he reached out.
“I know,” Erath whispered, gently running a hand down Henrietta's neck. “I know.”
Henrietta hissed again, softer this time. Erath reached for her reins, and the beast did not pull away.
Arrel finally gave voice to the question in all their heads. “How will this end? The runesmith is dead, her mandate does nothing for us now.”
“She died on the route of her expedition.” Teneff stared at Tifalenji's body. “In service to the empire. In her name we continued on, and succeeded in her task, bringing a fugitive to justice.”
“That is what you will tell them?” asked Arrel.
Teneff was unmoving. “That is the truth.”
“Well, then,” said Arrel. “You and the blade squire seem to have everything in order.”
Erath looked at the tracker, realization dawning. “You aren't coming with us.”
“This was important.” Arrel shook her head, handing Teneff the shards of Riven's blade. “But it is done, and I serve Noxus better on my own.”
Teneff slowly extended a hand. “Until we meet again, sister.”
Arrel looked at it for a moment, before grasping it, wrist to wrist. “Until then.” She gestured and her hounds padded to her side, as they began to walk the dirt road away from the farm.
“Just the two of us, then,” said Erath, watching Arrel disappear.
“You aren't coming either,” said Teneff.
Erath stared at her, at Riven, confused.
“This duty is mine alone now,” she said. “My search is over—but not yours.” She nodded to Lady Henrietta. “Now go. Find your betrayer.”
At first, Erath said nothing. After witnessing Riven's power he didn't want to leave Teneff alone with her, but he knew in his heart that it was the right choice. And she was right, there was something left that he had to do here.
Erath straightened, hammering a fist proudly against his chest. “For Noxus.”
Teneff returned the salute. “For Noxus.”
Erath helped Teneff drape Marit's body in her family's standard, and load it onto Talz before retrieving his own things. “Grow big and strong, Talz,” he patted Talz's flank. “Keep Ten out of trouble.”
The basilisk swung his head playfully, nearly knocking Erath off his feet. He smiled, feeling his eyes sting. He turned away, wiping away a tear with his thumb, and turned to Lady Henrietta.
Inching toward her, Erath pictured every person he had witnessed Lady Henrietta kill. Every shriek of reptilian fury, every strangled cry ripped from the throats of her prey. Every time he had cleaned the gore from her jewelry. Softly humming he approached, reached out, and gently ran a hand over her scaly hide. She twitched, but did not recoil from him. Encouraged, he tested her reins, and after a moment Erath climbed into the saddle on Lady Henrietta's back.She accepted him.
Riven and Teneff watched Erath ride away down the road. Riven's manacles clinked, and she realized this was the second time she had been dragged from the farm in chains. She remembered how she had felt then—the fear and the panic, allowing it to wash over her and ebb away. It would not be the same as it was before. This time was different, but so was she.
Teneff turned to Riven. “You are my captive, but you are also my sister. I will treat you with respect due. Are you ready?”
Riven exhaled, sparing one last look at Asa and the home she would never see again, and gave a nod. “Yes.”“Good.” Teneff helped Riven onto Talz's back, looking out at the long road ahead of them. “To Noxus.”
Erath rode through the night. After the hardships of the journey to find Riven on foot, the speed of covering ground with Lady Henrietta was exhilarating. Were his purpose different, he would have allowed the joy of riding to overwhelm him. But his heart was heavy, like a stone sitting in his chest, as the distance to his destination whittled away to nothing.
The natural stockade did not open for him. Erath drew his falchion, clashing it against his armor.
“I am Jobin's son!” Erath bellowed. “Let him show himself, or stand aside so that I might face him.”
After a few moments' silence, the barrier peeled apart wide enough to admit him. He trotted into the village, feeling the frightened eyes of Ionians and wayward Noxians upon him.
“Jobin!” Erath called. “Father, face me!”
“Peace!” An elder emerged from the crowd. Erath recognized him as the old man who had watched over the site of the chemical attack. “Be at peace, my child. I will take you to him.”
Exhaling, Erath sheathed his falchion, and dismounted Lady Henrietta. The elder led Erath to Jobin's hut, and the two entered. Ionians gathered a distance from Henrietta, singing calming melodies. Henrietta spat at them.
The hut was dark. The Ionian lit a few candles, granting enough illumination for Erath to see the shape at the center of the room, draped in a shroud.
“Your father,” said the elder.
Erath drew a breath. He knelt, trying to keep his hands from shaking as he drew back the shroud, revealing the pale, cold face of his father. It was scarred, bruised, and discolored.
“Why did you return?” asked the Ionian.
“I came,” Erath's voice shook, “to hear why he betrayed me and my companions to the Brotherhood.”
“Betray?” Sadness flooded the elder's features. “My child, he did not.”
Erath's eyes fell over the wounds, taking in every bruise, tracing every laceration.
“The Brotherhood came not long after you departed,” said the Ionian. “They demanded we reveal your path. He defied them, and for his defiance he endured torture. They took his life.”
Erath barely heard the words. His breath caught in his throat. Emotions collided over him. His journey. Denied from fighting for his tribe, enduring the hardships to find his place in another. Discovering their own broken family. Seeing it torn apart and pieced back together.
He touched his father's face. A tear fell, striking Jobin's cheek. The weight in Erath's chest vanished, the stone melting away beneath warmth.
“You could stay,” the elder ventured. “We would welcome Jobin's son here. Wait for the blossom festival to come once more.”
“No,” Erath shook his head. “His spirit is at peace with me.”
The Ionian stepped back, dipping his head in understanding.
“Help me wrap him,” said Erath, taking hold of the shawl. “He's coming with me.”
“Where will you take him?” asked the elder.Erath looked at the Ionian, and smiled. “Home.”