“I don’t understand,” General Granth mutters, nervously trying to smother the light from his lamp. “There’s nothing here. It’s a dead end.”
He stands at the threshold, framed by the dark stonework against the deeper darkness beyond it. He does not see the open gateway before him, nor the angular Ochnun inscriptions that surround it. He does not see the fragments of bone that litter the flagstones beneath his boots.
I smile, playing my part. “It is the simplest of things,” I tell him, “to hide in plain sight.”
The general turns, confusion and frustration written clearly upon his face. “Don’t play games with me, cousin! Do you have any idea what I’m risking, being down here? Or what would happen if we’re caught? These districts are forbidden, by order of the council—there are Legion patrols everywhere!”
This, at least, is true. Ever since the usurperseized control, he has kept the Immortal Bastion locked down. Officially, it is to protect the Trifarix against reprisals from those noble houses that opposed its creation.
Unofficially, he is daring men like Brannin Granth to expose themselves as his enemies.
“But they would not doubt your loyalty,” I reassure him. “A hero of the Gates of Mourning, no less. You are to be honored by command of the Grand General himself. What can they say to that? If we were spotted, you would not even need to run.”
His expression darkens. “Oh, you don’t run from the Trifarian Legion…”
I do not need to hear this thinly veiled propaganda again. In little more than a year, Swain has built a certain mystique around himself and the Hand of Noxus, and those that serve them both. It is a brilliant scheme, though it fills my heart with hatred to admit it.
Even so, I let Granth have his moment. It is why we are here.
His eyes fall to the ground. “We didn’t win the Gates of Mourning—the Legion did. That’s why Swain won’t attend the triumph. He knows we need not even have been there, damn him. He insults us with this pomp and ceremony, in front of all Noxus!”
I nod, laying a hand on Granth’s shoulder. “And that is why we will make him pay for everything he has done. You are a true Noxian, anyone can see that. I have told the others all about you, and they wish to meet you for themselves. She wishes to meet you.”
“I can’t meet anyone, cousin, if we can’t get inside.” He glances around. “Doesn’t the Black Ro—”
I recoil. “Do not use that name. It makes you sound like… well, as you said. Like you don’t understand.”
Pushing past him, I stride through the yawning mouth of the gate. He almost drops the lantern in surprise, seeing the entrance now, for the first time. Stumbling after me, Granth checks to make sure we are not being followed, then squints into the shadows of the passageway.
“Is it true?” he hisses. “What they say about her, is it true?”
I do not slow my pace. “Come. Find out for yourself.”
The Immortal Bastion is not a monument, as most Noxians believe. Nor is it merely a fortress, in the sense that the old tribes knew it.
The stone around us almost thrums with power, though Granth is mostly oblivious. I have seen it countless times, through the centuries—he knows something is not right, but feels it only as a lethargic drag on his limbs, and a whispering itch in the back of his brain. Few mortals last long when they are this close to the source. To his credit, he still has his wits about him, enough to reach for his dagger when a robed figure emerges from the gloom.
…I pass both of us, coming in the other direction. I look tired.
No matter. This will be concluded soon enough.
Granth eyes me suspiciously until I disappear from sight, then ambles to the side of the person he knows as his cousin.
“Hadrion, who are these people?” Granth asks, as more anonymous figures come and go. “I don’t recognize any of them. Are they the allies you spoke of, among the other houses?”
I sigh. It is disappointing that the finest military minds often cannot see what is right in front of them. “They are sympathetic to our family’s plight,” I reply, keeping the disdain from my voice. “We, all of us, are committed to the downfall of the usurper, and the restoration of the throne. It is better that you do not know their names, or their faces.”
He scoffs. “But how can we work together, if we—”
The words die on his lips as we turn the last corner.
We stand at the edge of the great well of souls, plunging down into the bedrock of Noxus, far deeper than the physical dimensions of the Bastion should even allow. A roiling miasma of cold blues and jealous greens swirls in the distance beneath us, underlighting the three bridges that span the gap.
There, between them, suspended against the madness, is a frightful, hulking silhouette that every Noxian knows only too well. Adepicted in every history book, and a thousand defaced statues scattered across the old city.
Granth takes half a step back. “It can't be…” he murmurs. “It… It can't…”
His voice is cracking. His eyes glisten with tears. I lean in over his shoulder, to whisper behind his ear.
“Do you see the truth of it, now? The truth behind the great empire of Noxus? So has it been for centuries, since the days of the first kings—no Grand General, no emperor or tyrant, can stand unless the mistress of the Immortal Bastion allows it. Many are those who would serve, though few prove worthy.”
I gently pluck the lantern from his trembling fingers, and guide him away from the sight that has so transfixed him, toward the veiled alcoves that line the passage on either side.
“Swain must fall. Our cabal is utterly committed to this, above all else, and we will sacrifice whatever we must to achieve it.”
On some level, Granth knows what he will see even before I pull back the shroud.
It is the dessicated body of his cousin, Hadrion. The younger man’s features are frozen in a deathly rictus, yet there is an unmistakable sense of peace about it.
“Your house was singled out most unfairly during the coup, Brannin Granth. Your father and his brothers were stripped of all they possessed, simply for remaining true to Boram Darkwill at the end. Hadrion gave his life gladly in pursuit of revenge. Will you honor that debt, and join us now, too?”
Granth sinks to his knees, looking up at me with fresh eyes. “You. You are her. You are the pale woman.”
He does not even flinch when a second pale woman appears at my side. We speak with the same voice. “I am everywhere. I am everyone. You know only what you need to know, and see what I want you to see.”
Jericho Swain is not the only one who can exaggerate his own legend.
A third pale woman steps out behind Granth, and then a fourth. Even so, he bows his head to me, no doubt convinced he finally understands. He does not need us to point out the empty alcove beside his cousin’s.
“With all my heart,” he swears, “and every drop of my noble blood, I will serve you, my lady. I will not rest until the pretender Swain is dead.”
This naive fool thinks he will be the one to land the killing blow. I will let him think that, for it suits my purpose, which is merely to probe the Grand General’s defenses.
I trace theof the cabal in the air above Granth’s head, marking him as my own. None who can see it will interfere with the plots we shall soon devise. “Rise then, proud son of the Noxii. Your pledge is heard and accepted. Together, we will be victorious, and your name will be celebrated as the savior of an empire.”