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Short Story

The Second Grave

By Jared Rosen

Rell thought about the Null often.

Lore

Rell thought about the Null often.

She didn’t want to, of course. But the thoughts were intrusive and the road was long, and most of the time there wasn’t much to do besides drift back into those unhappy memories as she rode her shifting metal steed from one rumor to the next. Hours and hours of silence, and then, always, killing.

This time, she was far in the outskirts of Noxian territory, following whispers of another Null child being secreted over the border.

"Null." Rell winced. Even the shape of that word hurt, and she silently swore to herself as she braced against nothing, shaking off the weight of it. Then the pain turned to anger. Then the anger turned to rage.

Noxus had made the Null—and made her. And now, in their immeasurable cowardice, the Noxians couldn’t bear to look. Better to take the Null far, far away, so Noxus could go back to being glorious.

Rell hated this ugly country, filled with its stupid, ugly people. She hated its bleak, strip-mined mountains, their ore gobbled up in Boram Darkwill’s foreign wars. She hated its cracked, rotten soil, used up for ration crops and then left exposed to the wind. Now the only thing that grew anywhere was the green-brown moss that seemed to cake every inch of uninhabited land, populated mostly by carnivorous lizards the size of a house.

What a hideous, naïve place, she thought. So obsessed with its meritocracies, so consumed by constant expansion, that it could not and would not see what it had already become. The Black Rose and their experiments were just a symptom of its deeper sickness. Rell would tear it all down—she’d save the Null, then destroy the Empire brick by brick, even if she had to do it alone. Just like she’d ripped apart the academy.

Then the boulder hit her, and for just a moment, everything was quiet.

Rell had not known many of her classmates long. Most of the promising ones had been forced to fight her in “exhibition matches” to “test her strength”. She didn’t realize until much, much later that whatever shape they were in after, the instructors whisked them away, extracting their magic with essence-absorbing, stone-like sigils and leaving them Null forever.

She remembered some of the kids, but the rest were a pastiche of faces punctuated by extreme pain, from the fights themselves, to the horrific, hours-long sigil grafting process that gave their power to her.

The other students very quickly grew to fear her—hate her, even... and in that way, Rell was always alone.

All save for one.

Gabriel was a boy whose soft eyes and kind voice were not a product of Noxus, but some other far-flung locale that Rell could only scarcely imagine. He understood Rell and had an odd magic that allowed him to shape dirt into tiny fauna—the animals and birds of his homeland, dancing and playing for Rell’s amusement. Though he seemed sad to be so far from his family, the two found comfort in each other’s friendship—Gabriel spending many of his nights comforting Rell as she recovered from the academy’s abuse.

It was simply a matter of time before they would face one another in combat, and while Rell seemed hopeful, Gabriel knew what was coming. Yet for a while, at least, the two could pretend.

Rell awoke to the din of a warband that cautiously approached her, checking if she was dead.

Unfortunately for them, she was not.

Rell rose with the shattered metal plates of her steed, her titanic lance finding her hand as raw, molten ore poured upward from the ground and into the monstrous weapon. Her mount reformed, pulsating with the heat of a thousand furnaces. Raw iron contorted into shape, seizing itself into the jagged silhouette of a stallion, and Rell leapt upon its back.

She counted five opponents, including a minotaur perched on a pile of large, jagged stones—probably the same kind that hit her—and then one more. A thin man in a dusty white coat clumsily tried to escape across the vast nothing of Noxian wilderness.

Instructor Lukas. The man who’d brought Gabriel to the academy, and the man who took him away.

Though Rell would fight anyone who stood in her path, she had a special rule for her old instructors: no questions asked, and no answers given. She wouldn’t make an exception for this one.

Rell’s stallion charged forward as if it had escaped a dark, distant nightmare, and like the hammer of a scorned god, Rell’s lance slammed into the first soldier who stepped in her way. It was a weapon not made for piercing, but for crushing, and as the soldier’s eyes widened in horror, the last thing that went through his mind was his helmet.

A second fighter attempted to impale Rell’s mount, but her spear snapped between its steaming plates, and Rell swatted her far into the distance—a deformed lump of scrap metal and flesh landing several yards away.

Two crossbowmen, now much less confident than before, tried to beat a hasty retreat. Rell leapt into the air, her steed itself forming around her into a thick suit of impenetrable black armor, and she brought herself down upon them as the earth ripped open beneath her boundless rage.

The minotaur’s rocks may have worked in a sortie, but even his great hunks of volcanic stone shattered against Rell’s armor as she slowly marched toward him. A dark knight, utterly unstoppable, who felled the great creature with a single blow.

She turned her attention to her old instructor.

Lukas felt the gentle pull of his former student, before chunks of superheated slag ripped him from the mossy dirt and into a whirlwind of jagged debris surrounding Rell. It was a storm of metal, heat, and hatred, and all he could whimper before the end was a panicked “Gabriel’s at the camp!” Rell crushed Lukas instantly, his broken form pounded so deeply into the ground that even the basilisks would have trouble digging out his corpse.

Then the storm stopped, the slag fell away, and everything was quiet once more.

True to the instructor’s last words, Gabriel was concealed in a tent within a grassy ravine where the ground had given way and created a wide, shallow indentation in the land. The perfect place to hide a camp.

He was dead long before Rell found him. Malnutrition.

Nullification didn’t just steal the magic of its intended victim—it sundered their soul apart, leaving a glassy-eyed husk that didn’t want anything, barely spoke, couldn’t remember, and never dreamed. A small handful had to be fed, but some Rose-aligned warbands simply chose to neglect this task out of resentment for the job.

Rell looked at Gabriel... at the form wrapped in canvas who once made tiny animals leap from the ground to make her laugh when she was in pain. Digging her lance into the earth, she forced its dark metal out of her hand, then upward, then around him until his body was covered. A simple grave to mark her friend’s passing, but an indestructible one decorated with crude animals forever frozen in steel.

She closed her eyes as she rode off, trying to remember Gabriel as he once was, but all Rell could see were the basilisks feasting on the dead, and her fist closing around a pale woman’s throat.

References