The darkening forest was full of beauty, but the girl saw none of it as she stomped along the winding path. Glowing flitterwings danced through the twilight, leaving trails of luminescence in their wake, but she swatted them out of her face, oblivious to their fleeting grace. Eyes downcast, she kicked a rock, sending it skidding over the roots twisting across her path, blind to the glorious sunset glimpsed through the canopy. The delicate violet petals of a blooming night-sable unfurled to release its glowing pollen into the warm evening, but she reached out and twisted the flower off its stem as she passed.
Her face burned with shame and anger. The scolding from her mother still lingered, and the laughter of her brother and the others seemed to follow her.
She paused, looking back at the broken petals on the path, and frowned. There was something strangely familiar about all of this… almost like she’d lived it before. She shook her head and continued on, deeper into the forest.
Finally, she stood before the sacred ghost-willow. Its limbs moved languidly, as if underwater, accompanied by the faint, musical whisper of bone chimes.
While the anger still coursed through her, hot and fierce, she closed her eyes and forced her fists to unclench. She breathed in, slowly, just as the old master had taught her, trying to push back her rage.
Something hit her, hard, in the back of the head, and she fell to her knees. She touched a hand where she’d been struck, and her fingers came away bloody. Then she heard the laughter, and her fury surged to the fore.
She stood and turned towards her brother and the others, her eyes dark and glaring. Her breathing was heavy and short, and her hands clenched into fists at her side once more, all the effort to calm herself a moment before lost in a flash of anger. As it built within her, compounding and growing like a malignant sickness, the air around her seemed to shimmer, and the ghost-willow began to fade and wither behind her. It wept red sap, its leaves curling and blackening.
Since time immemorial the magic of this land had nourished the ghost-willow, just as it in turn nourished the land and its people, but now it was dying, its supple limbs turning bone-dry and brittle, its roots curling in pain. Its chimes tolled a mournful death-rattle, but the girl didn’t hear it, lost in the moment of her seething fury.
As the ancient, primordial tree perished, the little girl began to lift off the ground, rising into the air. Three light-swallowing spheres of absolute darkness began to orbit around the child.
Her tormentors were not laughing now...
Kalan stood upon the battements of Fae’lor, looking across the narrow sea towards the mainland of the First Lands—what humans now called Ionia.
It was a dark, moonless night, but he saw as clearly as if it were daylight, the pupils of his feline eyes fully dilated. Occasionally, they caught the gleam of torch-light and reflected it back brightly; the mirrored eyes of a night predator.
Kalan was vastaya, of the ancient bloodline. His fur was russet-red and hung down his back in long, intricate, knotted braids that now had more than a few streaks of grey in them. His proud face was akin to that of a great hunting cat, and criss-crossed with scars from a lifetime of battle. The left side of that face was furless, and angry red welts bore evidence of the horrible burns he’d suffered as a young warrior. Curling horns sprouted from his temples, each engraved with spiralling runic patterns, and his three tails swished behind him, each covered in segmented plate. The armor he wore was Noxian dark iron, and he wore the trappings of his adopted empire with a scowl.
Some called him a traitor, both to Ionia and his vastayan heritage, but he didn’t care. What they thought didn’t matter.
The fortress of Fae’lor was built upon the westernmost island of Ionia. Highly defensible, this place had remained for centuries, standing against countless foes, before being finally overrun after a long siege during the Noxian invasion.
That was before Kalan had joined Noxus, before the fateful Battle of the Placidium when he’d pledged himself to Swain. Before he’d requested this post as governor of Fae’lor as reward for his service.
The Noxians laughed at him behind his back, he knew. He could have had a far more prestigious posting—but he had chosen Fae’lor, at the forgotten edge of the empire.
They didn’t understand, and that mattered nothing to him. He needed to be here.
Noxus had not won the war, of course… but nor had Ionia. Nevertheless, many seasons after the end of the campaign, Fae’lor remained under the invaders’ control.
Thirty-three warships were currently docked here, as well as perhaps half that number of trader vessels and merchant ships. Over a thousand warriors of Noxus—a mix of veteran warbands hailing from the far corners of the empire—were stationed here under his leadership.
A guard patrol stomped along the battlements. They saluted, fists crashing against breastplates, and he gave a nod in return. He didn’t fail to miss the dark looks they gave him as they marched by. They hated him almost as much as his own people did, but they feared and respected him, and that was enough.
He turned to look back across the sea once more, brooding on the past. Why was he here? It was a question he saw in the eyes of his subordinates every day, and one that crept up on him the darkest of nights, those nights when the forest, and the hunt, called to him. The answer was simple, however.
He remained here to keep watch over her.
A pair of dark-clad figures—one female, one male—emerged from the sea, unseen, and as silent as death. Swiftly, moving like spiders, they scaled the near-vertical hull of the warship Crimson Huntress, and slunk over its gunwale. Their blades glinted, and the ship’s night wardens were silently dispatched, one after another, without any alarm being sounded.
Within moments, all five Noxians were dead, their lifeblood leaking out onto the deck.
“Neatly done, little brother,” said one of the pair, now crouched in the shadow of the upper deck. Of her face, only her eyes and the swirling indigo tattoos that surrounded them were visible.
“I had a passably decent teacher,” replied the other. He too was fully clad in black and crouched in shadow, though in place of his sister’s swirling tattoos, his skin was a solid block of etched flesh.
“Passably decent, Okin?” she replied, one eyebrow rising.
“No need to feed your ego, Sirik,” her brother replied.
“Enough fooling around,” said Sirik. She opened a black leather pouch at her hip and delicately removed an object, tightly bound in waxed leather. She unwrapped it, gingerly, revealing a fist-sized, black crystal.
“Is it dry?” whispered Okin.
In answer, Sirik gently shook the crystal. A hint of an orange glow lit it from within for a brief moment, like a fanned ember.
“It would seem so. I’ll find a suitable place for it,” she said, nodding to the nearby door leading below deck. “You signal the others.”
Okin nodded. Sirik ghosted below deck, and her brother moved silently back to the gunwale. He leaned over the edge and beckoned. Seven other black-clad figures rose from the dark water below, climbing soundlessly up onto the deck of the ship, hugging the shadows.
They were the dispossessed—the last remaining warriors who had served here at the fortress of Fae’lor, before the Noxians had wrested it from them. The shame of that defeat still burned in their hearts, as did the desire to see every Noxian pushed from their ancestral homelands.
Once all were on deck, they waited a moment for Sirik, who emerged after a few minutes.
“It is done,” she said.
The nine dispossessed Ionians flowed over the ship’s side, following the leading pair. They moved as fluidly as water, and ran lightly along the stone dock towards the fortress of Fae’lor.
From shadow to shadow they darted, like specters, until they reached the first wall. Hugging the darkness, they remained utterly motionless as a patrol marched by, the Noxian warriors speaking in their guttural language and laughing, utterly oblivious to the nigh-invisible Ionians crouched mere feet away.
As soon as the patrol turned a corner, the infiltrators snapped into motion once more, climbing the sheer surface of the wall, moving swiftly, hand-over-hand. They made it look easy, like climbing a ladder, though in truth there were virtually no handholds.
Sirik reached the crenellations first. She peered over, then ducked swiftly back and went perfectly still, clinging one-handed to the battlements. The others below her froze, then hurriedly climbed to join her as she made a series of swift hand-movements. She made a fist, before climbing atop the wall, joined by her brother, Okin. None of the Noxians saw the pair of Ionians ghosting along behind them, hopping lightly across the top of the battlements in their wake.
Then Sirik and Okin leapt among the enemy, and the four guards were killed before a single one drew a blade.
The last of them clutched his throat, blood welling beneath his hand, and teetered on the edge of the wall. Sirik grabbed him, like a lover enfolding her paramour in her arms, and lowered him gently to the ground; if he’d fallen, the sound would undoubtedly have raised the alarm.
Two other guards nearby were swiftly dispatched, silently and without mercy, as the other Ionians came over the wall. Then, as one, the nine moved on, darting across an open courtyard and scaling a second, inner wall.
Each of them knew their target, and each knew the precise layout of the fortress, for it had been their own people who had constructed it. The Noxians were merely its current occupants.
They scrambled up the inner wall, and flowed over the parapet, their timing almost preternatural as they avoided two pairs of a sentries atop the wall. They ducked into the shadow of the jutting stone bluff Fae’lor abutted, and became as one with the darkness.
That was when a shout sounded, echoing up from the docks.
Okin cursed under his breath. “They know we’re here,” he hissed.
“I had hoped to be further in before they discovered the first body,” said Sirik, “but this changes nothing. We continue as planned.”
The first shout was echoed by others, and a bell began to toll, sounding out across the fortress.
“Time for our distraction,” said Sirik. She closed her eyes and silenced her inner thoughts. In her mind’s eye, she saw the black crystal she’d secreted below the deck of the Noxian warship, and she reached out to it, fanning it to life.
She was no conjurer or soul-mage, but like many of her people, she could feel and subtly manipulate the magic of the land in minor, fairly insignificant ways. Hers was just a small, common gift, akin to that of the farmers of her village who spun a little magic into their crops. To outsiders this was shocking, but among her people, such simple gifts were not at all unusual, nor regarded as anything to be held in awe. It was like being able to whistle, or curl your tongue—some people could do it, others couldn’t.
Sirik deepened her breathing, and intensified her silent entreaties, encouraging the fyrestone to do what was it its nature to do.
Her gift might have been minor, but the effect of it as she nudged the crystal to life was not. That had more to do with the volatile nature of the fyrestone crystal than any innate power of her own, of course, but nevertheless, the result was impressive.
In the harbor below, the Noxian warship Crimson Huntress exploded, lighting up the night in a billowing fireball. Soldiers who were responding to Fae’lor’s warning bells stopped in their tracks, turning towards sudden inferno.
Sirik opened her eyes. “Let’s go,” she said.
Kalan stalked onto the stone dock, flanked by guards, his three tails swishing dangerously.
“The work of Ionian saboteurs, I would guess, my lord,” said a nervous-looking officer, trotting to keep up with Kalan’s long strides. “A black powder detonation, most likely.”
Kalan halted and frowned deeply as he surveyed the mayhem on the docks.
The Crimson Huntress was no more, reduced to the waterline. What timbers remained still burned. Three other nearby vessels were ablaze, and while crews worked to put out the flames, Kalan could see at a glance that at least one of them was a lost cause, and he snarled in frustration, exposing his teeth.
“We’ve secured the docks, and a thorough search of all other ships is currently underway,” said the nervous officer. “If there are more explosives, they will be found.”
Kalan ignored him, eyes narrowed. He dropped to one knee and scratched at the ground, then lifted his hand to his nose, sniffing.
“If they are still here, lord, we’ll find them,” said the officer, clearly uncomfortable with his superior’s silence. “I’d guess they are long gone, though.”
Kalan stood, and looked back along the dock, away from the sea, towards the towering walls.
“A cowardly act,” the officer remarked. “They know they can’t take us in a siege, so they try to hurt us in other ways. But we will not be deterred! We are Noxus! We—”
“Be silent,” growled Kalan. He was looking at the officer for the first time now, his yellow eyes unblinking. The man paled under his gaze, and seemed to shrink a little, like a toad retreating into its hole. “It was fyrestone, not blackpowder. And they are still here. This was not an act of cowards.”
The officer gaped silently, like a landed fish. “No?” he managed, finally, his voice little more than a squeak.
“No.” Kalan swung away from him, and strode back towards the fortress of Fae’lor. “This is a distraction.”
Kalan seethed. He would deal with that fool later. Right now, he had something far more important to focus on.
“They are going for the Dreaming Pool,” he snarled.
Sirik kept her hand clamped across the Noxian’s mouth until his struggles ceased, then dropped his lifeless body to the ground. She wiped her bloody dagger clean on his tunic and glanced around to see her brother and the others deal with the remaining Noxians within the lower level of the tower.
They were close, now. A rocky bluff reached up to the night sky in the courtyard beyond their position, and Sirik’s eyes were drawn to its peak. A jutting structure, blotting out the stars, marked their target.
Tolling bells were sounding the alarm, echoing all across Fae’lor.
Sirik led the way out into the courtyard, breaking from the tower and sprinting towards the stone steps carved into the bluff. She didn’t care who saw them now. The time for subterfuge was passed. Now speed was the best ally.
Shouts erupted from above, and arrows chased the Ionians as they darted across the open space. None hit home, skidding off the cobbled stone at their feet. A handful of guards emerged from a nearby gate, rushing to intercept them. Sirik and her companions didn’t even slow as they drew weapons; curved swords, sickles, poisoned darts and bladed fans. In a heartbeat they were among the Noxians, sliding under and somersaulting over heavy blows, dancing through them, blades wreaking a bloody toll.
The first of the Ionians fell, then, hacked down by a heavy halberd blow to the neck. Sirik pushed her instant pang of grief within, and pushed on, breaking through the enemy with her brother at her side, leaving a handful of them bleeding in their wake.
They reached the carved, uneven steps—far older than the fortress itself—and began sprinting up, toward the peak, taking the stairs three at a time. Votive lanterns carved into the rock on either side of the stairs remained dark.
Before Noxus had taken this holy place, those would never have remained unlit, day or night.
Another Ionian fell, two arrows thudding into his chest. Without a sound, he toppled from the path, falling to the courtyard below. On and on, the remaining Ionians ran, climbing the spiralling path encircling the stone bluff towards its peak. More arrows clattered against the rock wall beside them, but thankfully no more of her companions were struck.
They rounded the curve at speed. A flash of metal in the night was all the warning Sirik had, and she threw herself instinctively into a roll. A heavy spear, thrown with great force, sliced scant inches over her to strike one of her companions behind. It took him in the chest and lifted him off his feet, hurling him off the bluff.
Two guards stood before the entrance to the shrine at the top of the bluff. Both were immense slabs of muscle and heavy black armor, with huge shields and heavy, jagged cleavers clutched in their brutish fists.
The six remaining Ionians attacked as one, sprinting, leaping and somersaulting towards the towering Noxians, blades glinting.
Moving at speed, Sirik ran up onto the side of the bluff, taking two steps across its vertical surface before leaping off, her short blades seeking the neck of the first guard, even as her brother attacked low. Okin rolled under a heavy swinging blow and came up behind the Noxian, slashing a backhanded blow across his foe’s leg, making him stumble. Sirik speared through the air, leading with her blades, carving a pair of deep furrows through the solid meat of the Noxian’s neck.
Still, he did not fall, and as Sirik landed lightly in a low crouch, one hand touching the ground for balance, the injured warrior roared and smashed one of the dispossessed Ionians to the ground with the flat of his tower shield. Before Sirik could intervene, the brute slammed the ridge of that shield down onto her fallen comrade’s neck, killing him instantly.
The other Noxian was proving equally difficult to put down, bellowing like a wounded bull and flailing about wildly, even as she bled from wounds that would have killed most, lesser individuals.
Okin hacked into the Noxian’s ribs, just to the side of her heavy breastplate, and danced aside as his enemy turned on him. Sirik darted in then, landing another strike, and as her enemy swung in her direction, another of her companions did likewise, hitting the Noxian from behind. They fought like a pack mercilessly taking down large prey, and at last the other Noxian dropped to her knees, lifeblood leaking out onto the stones. She stayed upright for a moment more, spitting curses, then fell facedown and was still.
Her companion roared in grief and anger, and hacked one of the dispossessed down with a brutal sweep of his cleaver. Then he ran to his fallen comrade, dropping to his knees and cradling her in his huge arms. All the fight had gone out of him, and he let out a terrible, anguished wail to the night sky.
Okin and the others encircled him to land the killing blow, but Sirik shook her head. “Leave him be,” she said. “Come. Let’s finish this.”
The Noxian didn’t understand her words, but recognized their intent. He looked up with grief-filled eyes, and regained his feet, picking up his blade. Then, with a cry, he launched himself at Sirik. He was cut down before he went more than a few steps—as he’d likely expected—and he dropped beside the other Noxian. With his last breath, he reached out to her, then went limp.
His death saddened Sirik, for all that he was an enemy. Were they kin, these two? Lovers? Friends? With a deep breath, she pushed those feelings aside, so as to focus on the task at hand.
With a silent nod, she led the four remaining dispossessed Ionians into the shrine known to her people as the Dael’eh Ahira—the Dreaming Pool.
Fae’lor was not originally intended as a fortress. Far from it, it was once a center of tranquility and guidance, where gifted young Ionians came, from far and wide, to learn how better to harness their own innate gifts. All that had ended years before Sirik had been born, and the island that had once been teeming with life, study and peace, became little more than a barren prison. Barely any vegetation grew on the island around the fortress now—only dry, brittle thorn-bushes and ghost-gray lichen was able to thrive. Birds and other wildlife, so abundant on the nearby islands, also shunned it now, except for the dark, hateful crows and ravens that had come with the Noxians.
For all of Sirik’s time here, before the invasion, she and other guards had stood sentinel, watching over the Dael’eh Ahira. It was their duty to ensure that the one held within it was never released.
Sirik led the way down into the darkness within the rock, holding aloft a glass sphere filled with glowing flitterwings to light the way. She shivered, skin prickling, as the temperature dropped the deeper they went.
The stone steps were slick with moisture, but she picked her way down swiftly, for it would not be long before the Noxians arrived in overwhelming force. None of them had expected to make it back from this mission; all that mattered was completing the task they’d come to achieve, and ending the threat imprisoned down here within the Dreaming Pool once and for all.
They reached the deepest point of the Dael’eh Ahira, finally, sliding down the uneven rocks the final ten feet, and landed with a splash in the shallow waters below.
Once, this shrine had been beautiful, but disaster had brought the cavern down in years past.
Here was imprisoned the one they had guarded for so many years.
The one Sirik now came to kill.
Kalan leapt toward the top of the the stone bluff in powerful bounds, clearing ten steps with each one, quickly outpacing his soldiers. He arrived at the peak alone, and growled in frustration as he saw the corpses there: two Noxian, two Ionian.
Without waiting for his warriors, he plunged into the Dael’eh Ahira. Into the darkness he descended, his feline eyes instantly adjusting. He could taste the scent of the humans on the air, leading him on.
Padding silently into the gloom, Kalan began the hunt.
The darkening forest was full of beauty, but the girl saw none of it as she stomped along the winding path.
Glowing flitterwings danced through the twilight, leaving trails of luminescence in their wake, but she swatted them out of her face, oblivious to their fleeting grace. Eyes downcast, she kicked a rock, sending it skidding over the roots twisting across her path, blind to the glorious sunset glimpsed through the canopy. The delicate violet petals of a blooming night-sable unfurled to release its glowing pollen into the warm evening, but she reached out and twisted the flower off its stem as she passed.
Her face burned with shame and anger. The scolding from her mother still lingered, and the laughter of her brother and the others seemed to follow her.
She paused, looking back at the broken petals on the path, and frowned. There was something strangely familiar about all of this… almost like she’d—
Dark shapes appeared in her peripheral vision, and she looked around, trying to see them clearly. There were four of them, but she could only just make them out if she didn’t look directly at them.
Her brow furrowed in confusion. This wasn’t how it was meant to be.
Something was very wrong.
Sirik and her three companions stood in a circle, looking down into a deeper section of the water. A woman lay there, beneath the surface, her pure white hair, long and flowing, drifting around her languidly.
Syndra. That was her name; a byword for destruction, for giving in to your darkest fears and anger. A name still cursed throughout the provinces.
Sirik pulled off the dark hood hiding her face and tossed it aside. The delicate, indigo tattoos surrounding her eyes seemed to writhe in the shifting light emitted by the flitterwings in the glass sphere she held aloft. The others removed their head-coverings as well. All of them bore similar tattoos upon their faces, tattoos that marked them as guardians of Fae’lor. All of them looked down at Syndra, their expressions hard.
The roots of an ancient tree—the only thing holding the immense stones from crashing down upon this already half-collapsed cavern—curled around her limbs. They might have been cradling her, like a protective mother, or holding her down, trapping her, depending on your point of view. She could easily have been mistaken for being dead but for the steady rise and fall of her chest as she breathed the water.
Syndra didn’t look at all dangerous, but Sirik knew well how deceiving such an impression was. This one had been responsible for the destruction of the once-peaceful temple at the heart of Fae’lor. She had only been contained when the spirit of the land itself had drawn her down here, pulling her in and ensnaring her within this strange, suspended existence.
Sirik had once voiced aloud her confusion as to why they let Syndra live. Why not just end her life, and end the threat of her waking from her slumber? Her old master had smiled, and asked her why, if the land wanted her dead, did it sustain her? Sirik had no answer to that, not then and certainly not now. Her old master talked of balance, but he was dead, killed by a Noxian blade, along with almost all of those who had served here as this slumbering woman’s jailors, yet the one they had guarded still lived. Where was the balance in that?
As long as she lived, Syndra was a threat, yet that threat was contained while she and the others had stood watch over the Dael’eh Ahira. Now that it was within Noxian control, however… The fools would likely release her, either accidentally or in some ill-advised attempt to utilize her destructive power.
No, that danger was too great to risk. Syndra must die. Tonight.
Sirik tossed her flitterwing-filled glow-globe to her brother and stepped into the deeper pool, blade drawn.
“Wait,” said Okin.
“We have no time, brother,” said Sirik. “The Noxians will be upon us momentarily. We must end this now.”
“But she may be our best weapon against them.”
Sirik froze, then turned slowly towards her brother, her expression one of disbelief.
“She is Ionian, after all,” continued Okin. “She could be a great ally. With her, we could push Noxus from Ionia, once and for all!”
“And what then, brother? You think she could be controlled?”
“We wouldn’t need to control her.” Okin stepped forward, his voice full of passion. “We could strike against Noxus, in its heartland! We could—”
“You are a fool, brother,” Sirik interrupted him, her voice thick with derision. She turned away, and began to wade towards the motionless figure of Syndra.
“I can’t let you do that, sister. We can’t let you.”
It was only then Sirik realized her brother and her other two companions had fanned out around her, weapons drawn. “You can’t let me?” she said.
“Don’t make us do this, sister.”
Her gaze flicked between them, judging their distance from her, and whether she would be able to kill Syndra before they reached her. It would be close.
“I’m not making you do anything,” she said. “We came here to end a threat to Ionia—not unleash it.”
“This could be our chance to—”
“No,” said Sirik. “Don’t you see? This sort of division within Ionia is killing us, and it’s playing into the Noxians’ hands. We are all divided, arguing and working against each other, when we need to pull together.”
“So work with us,” begged Okin.
Sirik pointed at the motionless figure of Syndra. “She is a greater threat to this land than Noxus. It’s a foolish act of desperation to think otherwise.”
“Just stop being so stubborn, for once in your life!”
“You’re not going to convince me, brother,” she said. “So what now. You’re going to kill me?”
“Please, don’t let it come to that,” said Okin.
The four of them stood frozen for a second, none quite ready to escalate the situation just yet.
Then a shadow detached itself from the surrounding darkness, and sprang at them with lethal intent.
Sirik gave a shout of warning and lurched forward. The move surprised Okin and their other two companions, who raised weapons, thinking she was attacking. One flung a pair of throwing blades with a sweep of his arm, the move instinctual and reactionary.
Sirik swayed aside from the first dagger, but the second struck home, imbedding itself deep in the meat of her shoulder, making her hiss in pain as she stumbled backwards, falling awkwardly in the water.
Too late, Sirik’s attacker realized the real threat was behind him. The Ionian was lifted from his feet, a blade bursting from his chest, having been driven completely through him. Then he was hurled aside, and the shadowy attacker moved on, abandoning his sword and turning on Okin.
It was a vastaya, garbed in Noxian armor, and he roared, lips curling back to reveal his predator’s teeth. The sound reverberated painfully within the cavern.
Sirik recognized him, of course, as she struggled to regain her feet. This was Kalan, reviled traitor of the Placidium, who had turned away from his people and Ionia to join the enemy. He’d been given Fae’lor as his prize, a bone thrown to a loyal and subservient pet. She and her brother had lost more than a few friends at his hands.
“Noxian lickspittle!” said Okin, crouched low, blade at the ready. “You betrayed our people! You betrayed Ionia!”
Kalan gave a bitter laugh as he padded in towards Okin. He flexed his hands, and long talons emerged from his fingertips, as well as along the ridge of his forearms.
“There is no Ionia,” snarled the vastayan warrior. “There never was. A thousand mortal cultures are scattered across the First Lands, each with their own beliefs, customs, history and feuds. Your people have never been unified, never stood as one.”
“Then perhaps it is time that changed,” said Okin. “Though you have chosen the losing side.”
“Losing? The war is far from over, child,” said Kalan.
With a grimace, Sirik tore the throwing dagger from her shoulder, her blood leaking out into the water like a crimson ribbon wafting in a breeze. She tossed it deftly into the air, spinning it end over end, and caught it by its blade. With a swift flick of her wrist, she hurled it at the betrayer closing in on Okin.
It took him in the side of the neck, sinking deep, though Sirik cursed herself, for her aim was slightly off. It was not a killing blow. Nevertheless, Okin and their last companion took advantage of the moment, leaping in to strike.
Okin dashed forward, lunging, but his strike was turned aside by the flat of Kalan’s hand, who then knocked him away with a sharp kick. Their last companion came in fast from the flank, bladed fans slicing through the air, but the vastaya, even injured, was too fast, and too powerful.
He swayed aside, first one way, then the next, as the fan-blades sliced at him. Then, he lunged forward and grabbed his foe by the tunic with both hands, and slammed her head-first into a wall. An awful crack sounded as her neck broke.
Kalan’s yellow cat eyes turned back to Okin.
Sirik was too far away to help, she knew that instantly. Instead, she turned and began to slog back towards Syndra. She would do what she came to do. She had not expected to escape this venture with her life anyway, but she was determined their deaths would not be in vain.
She heard her brother shout in defiance, and the vastaya roar, but she dared not look back. She plunged deeper into the water, and reached down, fingers closing around Syndra’s throat. Her skin was warm to the touch. In her other hand, Sirik’s blade drew back for the killing blow.
This wasn’t how it was meant to be.
Something was very wrong.
The girl could still hear the sounds of the night forest around her. She could still see the ferns and twisted roots, and the last colors of the sunset beyond the thick canopy overhead.
But at the same time, she could hear shouts and roars, though they were muffled, as if she was hearing them from a distance… or from underwater?
For a moment, she felt her throat filled with liquid, and a sudden panic rose within her. She was drowning! But no, that was impossible. She was here, a child in the twilight forest outside her village. She was nowhere near water.
A shadowy form appeared before her, like a night-terror given insubstantial form. She felt a sudden constriction around her throat, and she struggled for breath.
Her eyes flickered. She glimpsed a young woman, her face covered in twisting tattoos. The vision was strange, and vague, however, as if she were looking at this person through water. A hand gripped her throat, choking her, and a blade was raised, ready to plunge down into—
She was back in the forest. She was having some kind of awful waking dream. She’d just run here, shame and anger coloring her cheeks. She was going to the ghost-willow, to calm the rage surging within her.
No, she’d already done that. She’d done that over and over, hundreds and thousands of times. Reliving that moment, again and again.
What if this was the dream, and the other vision was real?
The darkness of Syndra’s hatred and anger surged within her.
And she woke from her endless dream.
Sirik saw Syndra’s eyes snap open.
With a desperate cry, she stabbed down with her blade, but struck nothing, for she was hauled into the air by some sudden, unseen force. She struggled against it, flailing wildly, but might as well have been trying to fight the rising tide. She was as helpless as a kitten in the mouth of its mother.
Syndra slipped free of the twisting roots that had ensnared her limbs for so many years, and emerged, gasping. Water streamed off her as she rose into the air, hovering several feet above the surface of the pool, shimmering and pulsing beneath her. Dark power radiated from one hand as she kept Sirik held aloft, floating helplessly, and her eyes burned with cold fire.
As Sirik watched, both horrified and fascinated, a helm—or perhaps a crown—grew into existence upon Syndra’s head. It coiled around her brow, like darkness given life, to form a pair of tall, curving horns. A bead of pure shadow formed at its center, becoming as hard as a gemstone, and burning with the same power that bled from her in waves.
Sirik twisted in the air as her brother Okin broke from Kalan’s grasp. As he did so, he saw Syndra, his expression one of awe. For his part, the vastaya looked almost as stunned, feline lips curled back in a hiss, his eyes wide.
With a horrible, sucking sound, three orbs of utter darkness materialised in the air around Syndra, and began to slowly orbit her. They seemed to swallow the scant light in the cavern, and pull at Sirik’s soul, a vile sensation of loathing and despair clutching at her.
“How long?” Syndra demanded, her voice cracked and unsteady from lack of use. “How long have I been imprisoned here?”
“Years,” spat Sirik. “Decades. We should have killed you long ago.”
She felt Syndra’s hatred surge as a painful stab within her, and she gasped. Then Syndra snarled in fury, and with a gesture sent Sirik hurtling across the cavern.
She smashed against a wall some twenty feet distant, and fell heavily, splashing painfully to the floor. Then Syndra’s dark gaze turned upon Okin and the Noxian creature.
Sirik grimaced in pain. Her left leg and more than one rib were broken, she judged, wincing as she struggled to push herself upright. She cried out as she saw her brother Okin stumble forward into the water, holding his hands up in entreaty.
“No, brother…” she managed, weakly.
“I am not your enemy!” Okin called out. “We are both children of Ionia! Join us!”
Syndra looked down upon him, her gaze radiating power.
“The Noxians attacked our lands, and slaughtered our people!” he continued. “We pushed them back, but they still have a foothold in our ancestral lands. They are not done with us yet! Ionia is divided, and vulnerable! You must help! Help us fight against this new tyranny!”
“I do not know who these Noxians are that you speak of,” Syndra replied. “But if they killed my people, then perhaps I owe them thanks. The only tyranny I experienced was at the hands of those I once called kin.”
Okin’s face was mask of horror, perhaps finally realizing his own foolishness, and he slumped to his knees, defeated.
With a sickening tearing sound, Syndra conjured another dark sphere—all of her bitterness, resentment and anger made manifest. It hovered above her hand, slowly spinning.
“And if you are Ionian, then you are my enemy,” she mused.
Sirik screamed, but there was nothing she could do. With a flick of her wrist, Syndra sent the orb hurtling toward, then through, her brother. He gasped, all the color draining from his flesh, and sank beneath the waters.
Kalan attacked then, leaping from the shadows, claws extended, but another gesture from Syndra sent the three spheres surrounding her hurtling from their orbits towards him, throwing him backward.
“You…” said Syndra, tilting her head to the side, as if trying to place him. “I recognize your soul. You shadowed my dreams.” Her expression darkened even more. “You were my jailor. You… You kept me here.”
From her position, Sirik saw the vastaya push himself to one knee.
“You are an abomination,” he hissed.
Syndra’s hand stabbed out, and the snarling creature was lifted into the air.
The waters of the Dreaming Pool were churning, and Sirik stared in wonder as the roots that had held Syndra began reaching out to reclaim her.
“Kill me, then!” Kalan snarled. “But do so in the knowledge that you will never find peace. Wherever you are, you will be hated and hunted. You will never live free.”
“Kill you?” said Syndra, her lip curling in rage. “No. That would be too clean an end for you.”
With a sweep of her arm, Syndra sent Kalan hurling down into the waters, into the grasp of the writhing roots. They clamped around his limbs reflexively, holding him under. He screamed, air bubbles billowing around him… and then went still.
Sirik stared defiantly at Syndra, knowing that she likely had only moments to live, but to her surprise, the powerful sorceress paid her no mind. Instead, Syndra turned her attention skyward. Both hands were wreathed in dark energy, and with a shout she lifted them high. The stone cracked, and a tumble of dust and rocks fell into the pool, sending crazy ripples spreading out in all directions.
With a violent cutting motion of her arms and a deafening boom, Syndra ripped apart the rock overhead. Huge chunks of stone fell around her, crashing down with titanic force, and Sirik pushed herself backwards desperately, each movement sending searing pain flaring up her leg and side.
Stars blinked in the sky far above, and Syndra began to rise, floating up towards freedom. She glanced back down, once, toward the motionless, submerged figure of Kalan, ensnared by roots.
“Your turn to dream, jailor,” she whispered, and with a sweep of her arms, she entombed him completely beneath the fallen rocks.
Wincing with every movement, Sirik crawled further away, certain she would be crushed at any moment…
The island rumbled, as if wracked by an earthquake. It went on for what seemed like an eternity.
And, when it finally ceased, an unnerving silence fell across Fae’lor.
Sirik crawled from the gloom, breathing in fresh air, and stared about her, eyes wide in shock. Easily half of the fortress was gone.
Her gaze drifted up. At first, she saw nothing but darkness where there should have been stars. With a sharp intake of air, she realized she was looking at the silhouette of the greatest towers and ramparts hanging against the night sky. It hadn’t collapsed into the sea—it had been ripped from the island, and lifted toward the heavens.
She stared, her mouth gaping. She had known Syndra was powerful, but this? This was power she could never have imagined.
As Sirik watched, frozen by the sight, she saw one of the Noxian warships moored in the harbor below lifted from the sea. Men tumbled from its deck like so many ants, falling to their deaths on the rocks below, as the ship was lifted ever higher. Then it fell, smashing back down upon two other vessels, crushing them to splinters. The destruction was catastrophic.
The ruined castle in the sky began to drift northwards. Alone at the sundered peak of the Dael’eh Ahira, Sirik watched it go, until the first rays of dawn crept over the horizon.
The import of the night weighed upon her heavily. Her brother, and the last of the guardians of Fae’lor were dead. All but her.
And while the destruction wrought against the Noxians this night would have been cause for great rejoicing at any other time, her heart was heavy.
Syndra was back in the world.
They had failed.
Kalan knelt, motionless and silent, as he waited for theto speak. She was a curious creature, violet-skinned, and with a pearlescent single horn growing from her forehead. Some may have mistaken her for one of his bloodline, the children of the Vastayashai’rei, but any of the kin would know otherwise.
The seer was of a people older even than his ancestors.
When she opened her eyes—those strange, kind, golden-flecked eyes that saw far more than they should—he saw they were tinged with sadness, and his heart sank.
“You are faced with an impossible choice,” she said, her voice as quiet as the rustle of autumn leaves. “Then tell me what I must do,” said Kalan.
“That is not for me to say. Two paths lie before you, but you can only take one. I warn you, though—both lead to tragedy and sadness.”
Kalan didn’t blink. “Tell me.”
“The first path. You fight the invaders. At the Placidium of Navori, a great battle will be fought. While it will be bloody, you will be victorious. You will be proclaimed a hero. You and your heartlight live in peace for many years. You are happy. And yet, you are destined to outlive both your cubs, who will be taken before their time.”
Kalan took a deep breath. “And the other?” he said.
“You fight alongside the enemy. You never see your heartlight again, nor your children. They call you traitor, and curse your name. Your path is one of darkness, and bitterness, and revilement. You will be hated by your kin, and despised by your invader allies. After they are defeated at the Placidium, you must stand vigil on the isle of Fae’lor, guarding over the place of dreaming. And there you will stay.”
“And my little ones?”
“They live. They prosper. If not in this land, then another. But you will never look upon their faces again, and if you ever deviate from this dark path, they will be lost.”
Kalan nodded, and pushed himself to his feet. Sadness threatened to drag him down, but he suppressed it, pushing it deep inside himself.
As he looked around, taking in the details of the seer’s shrine, he felt that there was something strangely familiar about it… a vague sense that he’d been here before, that he’d felt this awful sense of grief and loss more than once.
He shook his head. To be trapped in this accursed moment forever? Now, that would be a fate far worse than death.
“I am sorry, my child,” said the seer. “It is a terrible choice you must make.”
“No,” said Kalan. “The choice is a simple one.”
- This short story was leaked on July 17, 2018 together with From the Ashes, 27 days ahead of time.
- The original name for this story was "The Dreaming Cave" before it changed to "The Dreaming Pool" on the official release date.