He arrived at the camp only moments before the strategy council was to begin, flanked by a small honor guard, each handpicked from the Trifarian Legion. They remained at the entrance as I watched him approach.
Some men cast a shadow greater than themselves, but few could bring a darkness such as this, one that circled above us and hungrily cawed. In a way, the ravens that seemed to follow him around the camp were a grim reminder of every warrior’s fate, the tattered cloth in their beaks a match for the state of our own banners. Yet, as he strode into the remains of the war tent, I realized I had not prepared myself for how truly mortal he looked.
There was grey in his hair, framed by a crimson sky choking on ash. His battle-worn armor gave way to a functional coat, and he kept his arms tightly within its folds—as I imagined one of his lineage might. I smiled, for he was still, at his heart, a gentleman. He wore no signs of rank beyond the telltale scars of a soldier who had seen his share of bloodshed. There were many gathered now for the council who demanded more fear and respect, swaying their warhosts with powerful displays of strength. Each of them seemed more than capable of breaking the man before us.
But, somehow, this was the man who led us all. The Grand General of Noxus.
Looking at him, I could feel there was something I could not place, no matter how closely I looked. Something truly unknowable, perhaps? Perhaps it was because there was something unknowable about this man, that so many flocked to his side. Whatever the draw, Jericho Swain stood before us now, and it was far too late for me to turn back.
Five warhosts had marched onto the Rokrund Plain, but it had been only a matter of weeks before the locals had shattered our positions. They blasted through our hastily-constructed berms with explosive powder, mined from hills that seemed even more barren than those of home. Disaster had built upon disaster, until Swain himself had no choice but to intervene. I had made sure of that.
For months, I had prepared. I had sent warmasons deep into the mines. I had mapped every detail, every conceivable twist of the land… and the fates upon which Noxus now balanced, the whispers that gave each moment shape…
My ear itched at the memory of thewords. Of the moment she first commanded me, and gave voice to our plot.
Everything was in place. I had accounted for it all. Here, where the earth opened into a maze of canyons impossible to escape, I and I alone would determine the future of the empire.
After all, was that not what Swain had called upon this council to do?
“My trusted generals,” Swain said finally. The power in his voice rang out like the drawing of a blade. He paused, as if giving us a moment to test ourselves against its keen edge. “Tell me how Noxus may prevail.”
“There are twelve war-barques here, in the hills,” Leto began, pointing to a spot on the map already worn white by his attention, “each drawn by a basilisk. Send them before the warbands, and we’ll be marching over the enemy dead. Those beasts would rut with a hedge of rusty spears if we let them.”
He smiled, pleased at his own cunning, but Swain was more concerned with the wine being poured into his glass.
Will it be poison? his eyes seemed to ask, as he peered around the table. I stared at my reflection in his armor. I would betray nothing of my intent.
“We can scarcely control the basilisks ourselves,” Swain finally murmured, carefully regarding the fine Ionian vintage. “Imagine even a single explosive, dropped by a sapper within earshot of the beasts. And then tell me, in your imagination, who runs first—the basilisks with their tails between their legs? Or your vaunted warhost?”
“We scorch the earth then,” Maela petitioned before Leto could respond, the words flying wildly from her mouth. “Set fire to the pitch they’ve laid to burn on our advance. Drive them out of those damn mines.”
Swain sighed. “We came here for the very earth you would burn. Though I suppose it is too much to expect you to know the uses of saltpetre.” He swirled the wine in his glass, betraying a hint of disappointment. “All you have done so far is bury your own men with it.”
“The redblades are still sharp,” Jonat spat impatiently from the shadows where he lurked, the darkness seeming almost bright against his Shuriman skin. “We’ll enter the mines after dusk, take out their leaders. Clean or messy. Doesn’t matter.”
“An admirable strategy,” Swain laughed. “But those leaders are not soldiers. Not yet. Our enemy here merely follows whomever bellows the loudest. Kill one, and there will be three bellowing by morning.”
I laughed, nodding to the frowning leader of the redblades. “For a moment, I was afraid you’d find a way for us to actually win, Jonat.”
Silence fell around the table. The candles were burning low beside the maps.
This was my moment. Thewould be pleased. I would say her name as I sent our Grand General to oblivion.
“The truth is, you cannot win this battle,” I continued. “No one can fight death. Not even the ruler of Noxus. Darkwill showed us that.”
Swain and the others watched as I carefully drew the flint striker from my tunic. The fuse line was already in my other hand. Leto, aging hero of the Siege of Fenrath, bristled.
“Granth, what are you doing?” he growled, glancing down at the crude demolition charge I had carefully positioned under the table, barely an hour before. “You would threaten the Grand General? This is treason.”
Still, none of them dared approach me. I held the striker over the fuse, ready.
Except… someone was laughing. It took me a moment to realize who it was.
“And there, General Granth is the only one who has the right of it,” Swain chuckled, smoothing this wrinkles from his coat. “He alone understands. The rest of you, you see a battle and ask what you must do to avoid defeat. But some battles cannot be won. Sometimes, the only strategy is to burn. To charge into the flames, knowing full well you will die, but that twenty thousand march behind you. And that behind them, there is a greater power.”
He let his coat fall open, to reveal… To… reveal…
“Granth and I,” he said with a cruel smile, “we always look for what must be sacrificed in order to win.”
Maela lunged for my trembling hands. Leto too. But it was Swain’s inhuman grip that clamped around my throat, hefting me from the ground, the unlit fuse forgotten.
“If only you could tell her yourself how you failed,” the Grand General whispered, his voice rumbling with the wrath of eons. “If only she, too, could heed the wisdom of the dead.”
I tried to scream then, to confess it all. To somehow beg for forgiveness.
But there is nothing now, save for the soft murmur of whispers. I spill my secrets, this tale, into your ears. Fading like the rustling of wings, as the raven cries its carrion caw…
The story is a direct continuation of Thorns of the Black Rose.