The smell of dried blood that stained the humid air made it difficult to breathe. The Howling Marsh was only two days away from the military camp that was set only a few hours away from the Noxian borders, and the weather was not ideal. Heat, chilly wind, muddy ground and most importantly – mosquitoes. Garen hated mosquitoes more than anything. He would rather get stabbed repeatedly in the foot than having to deal with mosquitoes. The captain stood still next to the only torch providing vision of the empty, devastated fields before him. The sky was dark and clouds hid the moonlight, otherwise he wouldn’t even have allowed that torch to be lit. There was no reason to let the Noxians know where his soldiers rested.
Heavy footsteps signaled the approach of one of his men and Garen diverted his unblinking gaze from the wastelands.
“Officer Spiritmight,” he greeted the young man to his right. “Do you bring any news?”
“Prince Jarvan IV established an audiopathic communication with us,” the young nobleman explained, “he, once again, asks if his presence is needed.”
Garen shook his head. “Once again, tell him we don’t need him on the battlefield. The last time he engaged in a skirmish against Noxians he was abducted, and only when we thought he was dead did he come back to Court – with a half-dragon at that,” the blue-eyed man reminded the younger officer.
Spiritmight chuckled at that, only to be rewarded with a glare.
“Summoner Nashahago sent a letter on behalf of the Institute,” the officer said with a straight face. “He wishes to remind the Kingdom that any political adversity should be discussed and sorted out within the League.”
A mosquito buzzed into Garen’s ear and the captain swatted it away, growling. “Tell that boar-sized excuse of a man that this is nothing close to a ‘political adversity’. Noxian cutthroats attacked several Demacian villages, crossing our borders and violating the Institute’s Terms of Peace. We are hereby protecting said villages from any potential threat,” he dictated in a firm tone.
Spiritmight stared at the ground like a reprimanded child, and looked hesitant. “How… How am I supposed to tell Summoner Nashahago?”
Garen could feel the fatigue taking over him. “Demacian tongue or common tongue. Unless you prefer Ur-Noxian.”
“I mean,” the young man scratched his hairy chin, “do we call him a boar-sized excuse of a man in our reply?”
The captain nearly snapped his neck while turning fully to stare at the lower ranked soldier. “No, are you stupid?”
“Ye—no, Sir.” Spiritmight straightened his back. “I will be on my way.” After a polite salute gesture, he backed into the nearest tent while Garen was left to deal with his sleepy state.
Deciding that a walk into what was left of the nearest forest would soothe his nerves, even if that meant having to deal with more bugs and tripping over dried leaves and cracking tree branches. Garen wandered aimlessly for ten minutes, although to him it felt like hours. His mind was going over and over the events of the last two days, when he went from organizing peaceful meetings with the Freljord’s representatives to leading unexperienced officers into the wastelands that separated his kingdom from the Noxian Empire. He didn’t have any high hopes if a battle was to break through within the next few days, especially since Lady Buvelle told him earlier that day that about twenty-five men were severely injured. His troops were small, and he had no idea how many Noxians lurked out there. Contrary to what he told the young Spiritmight, he wished Jarvan was there, but he wouldn’t risk his prince’s life once again.
Feeling the need to stretch his sore legs, Garen came to a stop next to an ill tree with rotting exposed roots. He was about to bend his right knee when cold steel punctured the side of his neck and a very familiar scent reached his nostrils.
His heart started beating a little faster than usual, faster than when he fought on the battlefield, but he stood perfectly still. Any slight movement would cause the blade to puncture his neck. He had been there before.
“What do you want?” he whispered, seeing his breath in the cold and trying to focus only on it.
A slim figure hanging upside down from the nearest branch smoothly landed behind him and sheathed the dagger that menaced to slice his throat. Garen turned around slowly, his narrowed eyes looking down at the small woman who casually leaned against the tree she fell from. Her straight, long auburn hair looked black, so did her dark green eyes. Wearing the same outfit as usual, her body was covered in leather, except for the parts she purposely left bare to taunt the male eye. Daggers and knives were strapped around her strong thighs. Every time he looked at her, he felt like he wasn’t wearing any armor and that his broadsword would never be enough to spare his life.
The woman gave him a lopsided smile, crossing her arms under her breasts for good measure. “You killed one of my companions yesterday.”
Garen scoffed, trying to ease the tension in his body. “I killed many of those.”
“This one would have come back to Noxus Prime earlier this evening,” she pursued, “and would have taken me out.”
Deeming the conversation pointless, the captain of the Demacian Vanguard shrugged and was about to turn around and avoid the woman completely only to stop when he realized he didn’t want to leave his back exposed to a Noxian assassin.
“I would have been dancing by now,” she whispered in the shadows, though he could hear the smile in her voice.
Growing irritated at the current exchange, Garen barked, “I am sure many scumbags would be delighted to share your company. Now get lost, Katarina, or make your intentions clear.”
It had taken a lot of courage to say such words out loud, and his right hand hovered over the hilt of his broadsword. He never knew what to expect. A fight, meaningless banter, casual greetings – he never knew for sure.
“I was going to dance tonight but because of you, I can’t,” she stated in the upset voice of a spoiled child. “So now,” she went on, unsheathing her twin daggers, “you will make me dance.”
The moment her weapons collided with his broadsword, Garen admitted to himself that he was lying. He always knew what to expect from her. A duel. And although he was too prideful to ever say it, he was the one who started it all. He would always look for her whenever he had to confront the Noxian troops of the High Command, even when he couldn’t say for sure that she would be among the enemy’s soldiers. She was an assassin and a diplomat, not someone who obeyed someone else’s orders. And whenever he promised himself he would stop scrutinizing every Noxian camp hoping to catch the sight of her bright red hair, she would appear out of nowhere and ask him to deliver all the blows she could dodge.
This was no different.
As soon as he charged, his sword cut through the tree behind Katarina, who twirled above his head and landed in a crouching position a few feet away. She looked amused, but promptly dashed towards him while he tried to parry her next move, and ultimately failed. Her spiked boots pierced the front of his armor, and she vanished. Garen coughed and spit, trying to catch his breath, before she crushed his back with her weigh and they both landed on the ground. The vanguard captain felt the dirt stick to the left side of his face, but as soon as his head stopped spinning he threw the female assassin off his back and rolled around, his right hand fisting the hilt of his sword while his left held the redhead by the neck and pushed her into the ground.
She was coughing and her chest, which was only covered in a bustier, was heaving. He could slice her body apart right there, put a sword through her heart and end the entire charade. He didn’t want to look forward to meeting her anymore. It was unhealthy – for him, for the Crown, and for his country. His gaze slowly traveled up to where their eyes met and once again, she looked amused. She could die within the next minute, yet she was unaffected by that fact. The feel of her legs traveling up his sides threw him off and without realizing it, he untightened his hold on her neck.
“You would never do it,” she commented, darkened eyes glancing at his sword. “Rulebreaker.”
Garen’s blue eyes remained fixed on the family crest that was engraved on the hilt of his broadsword and he gritted his teeth. “This isn’t about me,” he said to himself, missing the sound of a blade being unsheathed.
“It’s about Demacia,” Katarina finished for him before using her legs to push him off of her with a strength he didn’t know she possessed.
Rolling backwards and jumping to her feet, she threw three knives at him, only one scratching his face.
“Looks like I missed,” she laughed, drawing three more blades from the inner pockets of her leather jacket.
Garen wiped away the spilled blood on his face and braced himself for her next attack, keeping his eyes on her challenging frown, as if it was a sight he wouldn’t get to see before a long time.
“Looks like I missed,” the auburn assassin stated before reaching for her bouncing knives.
The cloaked man perched on one of the few trees that still had leaves scowled before jumping off his post and landing on the ground without making a single noise. The last thing he needed was to let his presence known.
Yet another day had passed and he had learned nothing new. He silently blamed the High Command for that, having been dispatched to this wasteland that was contested by the Kingdom of Demacia. He would have ignored their summoning if the head of the House Du Couteau hadn’t promptly left before he could even ask where she was going. It was interesting to see that she had been instructed to fight for the Howling Marsh borders too.
By the time he was back at the camp, things were still the same as when he left. Assassins were drunk out of their minds and being loud as usual, while the warlords polished their weapons for the upcoming battle. Some were having a late supper, chopping the meat they had stolen from the slaughtered villagers. Upon passing by one of the tents, he heard loud, women’s screams and he could only imagine what was going on in there. The cloaked man gave the Demacian peasant women only a couple hours before their heads would be impaled on spikes to showcase the Noxian supremacy the following day. He quickly glanced at the crest embroidered on the tent and snorted upon recognizing it.
“Bloodcliffs pigs. Figures,” he muttered, making his way towards the hill where he had planted his own tent. His brown eyes narrowed at the sight of a soldier munching on rabbit legs. The moron even lighted up a fire, he noticed.
As he came closer, he immediately recognized the uniform of the female soldier. Black, iron-mixed leather made to be tightfitting and resistant. A red cape covered her shoulders, and the spikes from her boots were shining under the fire light. She wasn’t wearing her helmet though, so her short silver hair gave away her identity. Scrunching his nose, he ignored her presence and was about to retreat in his tent when she greeted him.
He rolled his eyes and turned around. “Riven.”
“You’re not wearing your Crimson Elite uniform,” she stated, wiping her hands on her pants.
“Katarina wasn’t either,” he countered.
The silver-haired woman laughed heartily, resting her hands on her hips. “Katarina wasn’t even assigned to this mission.”
Talon’s eyebrows shot up before he quickly cleared his throat and looked away, hoping the woman staring at him didn’t catch that. Sadly, she did.
“Why are you so surprised? Did she tell you she was?”
“No,” he spat, grabbing the cup of ale that was resting near the rabbit bones. “Mind your own business.”
Riven shook her head before proceeding to put out the fire. “You know,” she started, grabbing the nearest bucket full of muddy water, “you can chug my drink but you have to wear your uniform.”
“It’s uncomfortable. Besides,” he said, throwing the empty cup away, “I’m no poster child of Noxus. The people I kill don’t need to know me,” he mocked, avoiding the woman’s deep look.
“Tomorrow will be my last battle here in Valoran,” she whispered with a sense of achievement in her voice, looking away from the assassin’s face. “I just wanted to fight with a companion by my side,” she confessed humbly.
Riven sat on the ground cross-legged when she received no answer, and rested on her lap the broadsword that was taller and heavier than her. Talon watched with a frown marking his features as she inspected the blade to see if there was any dirt in need of removal. She had just put out the fire, yet there she was, eyes closed and fingertips brushing against every inch of the blade.
“What happens after tomorrow?” he asked quietly, a part of him feeling ashamed of interrupting her ritual.
“I am not sure,” the soldier whispered back.
“Have you said goodbye to Kat?”
“I couldn’t reach her,” Riven answered while patting her pockets for a small vial containing oils, “so I left her a note.”
Talon nodded, even though she couldn’t see it. He was once again about to go and rest when she called his name. “What now?” he muttered.
The Crimson Elite soldier slowly stood up, swinging her sword over her shoulder and stared into his eyes. Her piercing look made him feel uncomfortable, but he held his ground, flinching only when she placed her hand on his shoulder.
“Join the ranks of the military,” she said in a serious tone. “You’re a great warrior. I mean it. You could become a general – a great one at that.”
Talon’s only response was shrugging her hand off his shoulder.
“Talon,” she called his name again. “Marcus will not come back. We both know what happened.”
“We don’t know shit,” he shouted in her face, causing her to jump. “You don’t know shit,” he then whispered, pointing his finger at her, and she could feel his breath on her face as he stood so close and – for the first time – so angry.
Riven could only stare at his back as he left, the chilly wind causing his hood to fall and revealing long, chestnut hair. The woman sighed, placing a hand on her chest and trying to calm down after he scared the wits out of her. What went through the man’s head was simply beyond her comprehension. He had been blessed with a unique fighting style and the knowledge of a renowned noble house trained in the arts of assassination, and Riven was positive he had the charisma to lead men into battle. Yet Talon remained true to his initial goals, all meant to serve the General Marcus Du Couteau, even if said general had been missing for months.
The silver-haired, pride of Noxus decided to stop dwelling on it, and went back to her ritual. For some reason, she thought as she oiled her dusty blade, she felt that tomorrow would be the last day she would use her broadsword ever again.
Battle cries roared in the distance and Garen’s eyes shot open. As he sat up from the ground, pain hammered through his skull and he let out a loud groan. His sullied fingers brushed through his light brown hair and he felt dried blood on the back of his head. His cheek stung as well, a friendly reminder of his last encounter with Katarina. The blazing sun had left him dehydrated and the fact that it shone so high could mean only one thing: the Noxians had attacked while he was unconscious in the remnants of the forest.
Garen chuckled at his own stupidity. It figured that the Du Couteau had had more in mind than a sparring session. She had probably hit his head hard enough to make him pass out, leaving his troops disorganized and unable to form properly against a surprise attack.
He stumbled upon raising to his feet, coughing and clearing his dry throat. He didn’t even bother looking around as he knew Katarina was long gone and so were the pieces of evidence that she had been there. He limped his way out of the forest, following strictly the sounds of clashing steel and he damned himself every minute he wasted in getting out of there.
The moment the battlefield was in sight, he felt like living a pure nightmare. The Noxian troops outnumbered his in an abysmal way, and he could see the injured Demacian soldiers being either dragged away from the slaughter by his own men or impaled on the Noxian banners, their blood adorning the Axe emblem. The Noxian warlords who didn’t even need to enter the combat zone drummed away Death To The King, a clear reference to the day Jarvan I was murdered.
Garen dragged his sword behind him, feeling utterly useless and defeated, when a familiar voice reached his ears.
He was being shaken, but his eyes were set on the massacre before him.
It was Spiritmight, he knew it. But Lady Buvelle was soaked in blood, trying to keep the bowels of a teenaged soldier from sprouting over the ground, unable to whisper comforting words since she was mute.
“Captain, are you alright? You’re covered in blood,” the officer shouted in panic. “What happened to you, Sir?”
He could feel the young man trying to wash away the blood from his face with a wet cloth. “Talk to me, Spiritmight,” he ordered, his voice anything but authoritative.
“They attacked before dawn, Sir,” the young man said while handing a flask to his superior. “Who led the charge was unclear, Sir, although I have personally seen the red cloaked figures.”
That made literally no sense to Garen. Why would the High Command send the Crimson Elite in these wastelands?
As if reading his thoughts, Spiritmight went on, “I think it is all about sending a message, Sir.”
Garen grabbed the water flask that was being handed to him and chugged half of it before spitting the contents. It tasted like piss. Clearing his throat, he walked past the officer and set his eyes on the red cloaked figure that was sending his men flying across the battlefield.
“I have my own message,” he declared before charging deep into battle.
He ran past the dying men and sent to the ground the frail Noxians who dared attack him simply by shoving them away with his broad shoulders. He lifted his sword with both his hands and swung precisely to aim at the Crimson Elite soldier who, surprisingly enough, dashed to the side and his weapon hit the ground with a deafening clang.
The Demacian captain didn’t let himself get distracted though. He charged once more, spinning his sword to slash through the nearby scums wanting to assassinate him and he smirked when he finally hit the one fighter that mattered. Still, she was fast to recover from that and dashed towards him, swinging her own broadsword and knocking him in mid-air. She was about to strike again, but he countered with a swing of his own, their blades pulsating when pressed against each other. He could clearly see her face now; crimson eyes and strands of silver hair poking through her helmet – it was Noxus’ poster child, Riven. He had heard many stories about her, but never once faced her in battle, up until this day.
“Nice cut, Captain,” she commented, eying his injured cheek.
“You sent her,” he accused the warlady, “and took advantage of it.”
The Noxian fighter chuckled at that, shaking her head. “I didn’t. But I would have, if I had known about your cute little crush.” She smacked her lips at his annoyed glare. “Don’t worry, Crownguard. Your secret is safe with me,” she promised before leaping into the air, swinging her sword once more.
Garen spun away from her attack, and was taken aback when he heard a loud cry behind him.
It was Spiritmight, charging with a spear and without a shield to protect his frail body, with the intent of killing the woman before them. Garen immediately blocked his path and shoved his elbow into the youngster’s stomach, causing him to fall to his knees. He wasn’t going to let the boy suicide. Riven was one of the scariest soldiers Noxus had ever produced, he would give her that.
Unprepared for her next assault, the Vanguard Captain was sent a few feet away in the blink of an eye. She was ready to finish him, jumping into the air, the tip of her blade pointed at his forehead, when he rolled to the side and pushed himself up to strike back, impaling his sword deep into her shoulder, causing her to drop her sword.
“Death is inevitable; one can only avoid defeat,” he recited.
Garen pressed the heel of his boot against her chest, ready to finish her off and put an end to her pathetic Noxian life when a loud horn ended the fight altogether.
Dropping his weapon to the ground, the Demacian captain fell to his knees. He didn’t even need to turn around to know who blew the horn. Neither did the other soldiers on the battle field. It took less than a minute for half the battlefield to fall into an acknowledging form of silence. When Garen finally dared to raise his head, he was met by the sight of his prince, Jarvan IV, holding a white banner, and marching next to a burly man clothed in purple robes, Summoner Nashahago.
The League was here.