The winter weather was the most hostile in Noxus Prime since the capital of the Empire was carved into a mountain. Inches of snow covered the Noxtoraas at the entrances of the city and the streets had turned into ice. Despite the rough weather, every district was crowded, from the Ivory Ward to the Bleak Academy, and the Noxians celebrated with beet wine, singing and drumming around the General’s Memorial. Two weeks prior the Crown Prince of Demacia had been captured and exhibited around the capital as the trophy that should have been brought before the Memorial and into the Immortal Bastion.
The Empire of Noxus had claimed in front of the Institute of War representatives that the imprisonment of Prince Jarvan IV had been nothing but self-defense, since the Prince had himself attacked a Noxian camp near the Demacian border. It had been Jarvan IV’s initiative to attack Noxian soldiers who didn’t cross the Demacian borders, accusing Noxus of raiding the farmlands of Demacia.
Garen threw the Noxian newspaper on the ground, his cloaked figure guarding the alleyway that led to the Ivory Ward district, waiting for his men to safely make it past the Western Noxtoraa. That gateway was barely guarded; the two officers in charge of inspecting travelers being high on wine. Garen thought it was quite ironic that rescuing the Prince was becoming less complicated thanks to the Prince himself. Too busy with festivities, the Noxian officers were less cautious about who came in and out, figuring they were only Noxians traveling to the capital, curiosity motivating their actions.
Garen’s blue eyes quickly glanced back at the newspaper he just threw, reminding himself of the day he could possibly die: 23 December 11 CLE. He was still young, he realized. And dying in Noxus Prime wasn’t gratifying at all. However, he had to try to get the Prince out of the lion’s den. The Institute of War had been around for only ten years approximately, and they weren’t exactly fast with their way of handling things.
He moved swiftly past the buildings of the Ivory Ward, the streets that went uphill leading him directly to the Immortal Bastion. The men of the Dauntless Vanguard who followed him, disguised as officers from Rockrund and the Basilich strongly believed he had a plan when he actually didn’t. His only plan was to get past the elevating platform that led the Noxian generals to their headquarters and into the dungeons. The bloodshed would be a sight, he realized. By the time they would arrive at the bottom of the bastion, the High Command would have already called the Raedsel Guards, the most dangerous warlords of Valoran. Or at least, they thought they were.
Garen had formed the Dauntless Vanguard himself. He taught his men how to fight and when to fight. Demacian forces were known in Runeterra for winning the most unlikely battles. They were always outnumbered, but a Demacian fighter was worth twenty times a Noxian soldier.
As he expected, penetrating the Immortal Bastion wasn’t as hard as everyone thought. The guards at the elevating platform he killed himself in a couple of seconds. As the lookouts rang the alarms from the peaks of the mountain, Garen ordered his men to break into the dungeons, and so they smashed the iron gates as if they were made of paper.
The Captain himself was about to head in when a blade pierced the side of his face. Garen wiped away the blood, turning around to see where his foe was, especially since he didn’t hear anything.
A young girl who couldn’t have been older than fifteen stood there, clad in black leather from head to toe, several daggers strapped on her thighs and twin, curved blades in her hands. Her long, crimson hair reached past her bottom, and her attire left little to the imagination. Her hair was neatly parted to the side, softly curtaining her body.
“You have some balls,” she stated. “I guess I will have to cut them off,” she spoke in the common tongue.
Garen charged her without hesitation, using the weight of his broadsword to spin before her, landing his attack. She crossed her blades, trying to block it, but the impact broke her swords in two. She looked surprised for a split second before jumping into the air, her daggers bouncing around him, some embedding themselves into his armor. He removed them quickly, throwing them on the floor as if they had offended him, and he charged her as soon as she landed on the ground. The moment he was close enough to slice her in two, she disappeared, and his blue eyes darted around to catch a glimpse of her. The swordswoman was on his shoulders, blade in hand to assassinate him, but he tightened his fist around her wrist and threw her on the stone ground. The Captain brandished his broadsword with both hands and struck, but she was quick to react, and rolled to the side before jumping back on her feet, agile as a feline. As they both recovered from that quick exchange of blows, a long, red strand fell between them.
The girl blinked, staring at the strand that was hers as it landed at her feet. She then brought one hand to the side of her face, quickly coming to the realization that he had cut several inches of her hair.
Garen tried to take advantage of her being distracted and charged again, but she met his every blow. If he slashed, she would blink; if he pushed, she would roll forward; if he punched, she would kick. He had no idea how long their fight had been going on, but he grew worried when his men didn’t come down from the dungeon towers. The Raedsel Guards never once showed up either, and he was beginning to think that this was just a show to amuse the High Command, and that his men were all dead.
The two of them could feel the exhaustion crawl into their bodies, sweaty faces and deadly stares refusing to let go. She would falter here and there, but he wouldn’t stand up from time to time.
“Garen!” Jarvan’s voice reached his ears.
He turned around, dropping his sword, and spotted the Crown Prince being dragged out by the Dauntless Vanguard.
“Let’s go, Captain!” one of the soldiers that carried the Prince said with urgency.
The red-haired teen let out an angry roar, blinking on top of him and coming down heavily, her knees meeting his face full on. Garen felt his nose crack, and his foggy mind registered the sight of her daggers, when a man interrupted her assault.
Garen held his bloody nose, feeling his men trying to drag him away, but failing to do so. The assassin still held a dagger to his throat, her chest heaving and her eyes teary, but she slowly fell back, as the tall, auburn man behind her ordered. His face was scarred and his uniform spoke decades of services to the High Command.
“Let them,” the General ordered her. “The Grand General will not send the Raedsels. The Institute of War was clear about this, as Swain was too.” His emerald eyes stared at the bloodied captain in front of him, then at the disheveled Crown Prince. “Farewell, Prince Jarvan,” he spoke quietly, before grabbing the red-haired woman by the upper arm. “Come now, Katarina.”
“Yes, Father,” the woman obeyed, her glare still directed at Garen.
The Citadel of Dawn was busy with the loading of carriages and readying the horses. Kalamanda was several weeks away from Demacia City, so the Valor Knights had to get prepped as fast as possible. The King had reunited his vassals and rangers from all the protectorates of the Kingdom, and made a clear announcement at the Grand Plaza around the time of dawn. The citizens of Demacia City had cheered the entire court and the military forces.
Councilor Vessaria Kolminye had spoken to him the moment the news reached her from Kalamanda. High Concilor Heywan Relivash, head of the Institute of War, had informed her about the recent discoveries regarding the disaster in Kalamanda. A Noxian soldier was found dead right where the initial fault point of the collapse was. The sabotage would be known everywhere in Valoran overnight, and King Jarvan III decided it was about time that he handled things himself. The entire Kalamanda situation had gone beyond the simple negotiation stage, and if Noxus had in mind to harm his people more than they already did, he would remind them of the way he deprived them of their General many years ago.
Vessaria stood right beside him as he waited for his horse to be saddled properly, her long purple robes grazing the floor. “His Highness is still establishing new plans for the restoration of the mausoleum, thinking it would be best to erect a monument in memory of the fallen civilians,” she explained in her quiet tone, her dark eyes staring at the King intently.
“Bring him here,” he ordered. “He knows very well it is time to leave. I will not tolerate any further nonsense from that boy.”
The Councilor nodded, and headed back into the Citadel of Dawn. King Jarvan III mounted his horse and gestured his Seneschal Xin Zhao to send word to the troops that they would leave first. The Captain of the Royal Guards, Fiora Laurent, was already ordering her men to start marching, the White Rose of her House flying high as the bannermen kicked their horses into a regular pace.
The rulers of Demacia City left the moment the Crown Prince rode fast to catch up with his father on the King’s Path, the Houses Spiritmight, Buvelle and Laurent giving the right directions to the protectorate representatives and magistrates. Jarvan’s piercing blue eyes glanced back at the high balconies of the Citadel, smiling to himself when a blazing fire erupted, and a wide, winged dragon took flight and roared into the skies. Deep down, he had always known it wouldn’t take long until Shyvana ignored his requests of discretion. He only hoped she did send an audiopathic message to Garen first—he really had to made sure his friend knew the entire court would soon be in Kalamanda. The Demacian Council was left alone to deliberate and rule in the absence of the King and his son, but at least the Dauntless Vanguard was still keeping their capital safe.
Jarvan fisted the necklace dangling around his neck, kissing the crest carved into the golden pendant—a hooded maiden rising from an altar.
The southern forests of Navori were no more. By the time her garrison arrived, Riven was left with only molten ground and corpses. The smoke clouded all her surroundings, and it was so thick and dark that the skies were invisible. She guessed this was the reason why Invetia Varn and Chancellor Hawkmoon only left her with a few men and a bunch of Zaunite scientists led by the Mad Chemist, a dramatically skinny man who called himself Singed.
Much to her surprise, Hawkmoon hadn’t commented the death of the Elder at Shon-Xan Sword School. Apparently, the Ionian Dutchess and the Shojin Monk had proven to be incredibly well-versed with diplomacy and military strategy—so well-versed that the Captain of the Guard met Hawkmoon’s troops with a variety of fighters and archers who protected the Placidium until they finally presented the Institute of War’s decree. Noxus had to leave.
Riven was nearly satisfied that the Chancellor had arrived too late. But the stubborn man still ordered her to take a small garrison into the surrounding lands of the Placidium, where she was to guard their camps. Apparently, Hawkmoon was positive that the Ionian Resistance would try to eradicate the Noxians during the night, either with the use of wild magic or by sending famed assassins from the Northwest.
Most of the late evening was spent trying to ignore the mocking laughter of her peers. She was so strong, they said, so strong she managed to break a runic weapon. They weren’t taking this guard seriously, she figured, as she sat by the fire, not even wincing when one of the soldiers threw a rabbit bone at her after finishing his food. Riven’s crimson eyes glanced back and forth at the Zaunite scientists that whispered in a foreign language, then at the low-ranking officers that only knew how to make fun of her.
She didn’t know why she was there anymore. The entire purpose of this mission was to lead and conquer a territory that was already prepared to receive them, a territory that was full on protected by the League itself. Riven had raided and killed, and was then sent to guard a devastated forest at the back of the Noxian camp.
As the fire died out and the obnoxious laughter of her peers turned into loud snoring, Riven grabbed her broken blade, wondering why she bothered keeping it. It had only brought her misery, as if it was never hers to begin with.
“They’re here,” she heard one of the Zaunites say.
The silver-haired fighter frowned, looking around, and seeing nothing.
Several seconds passed before arrows rained down the skies and Riven barely had the time to raise her sword, shielding herself with the magic that the blade still channeled, and an arrow pierced her leg. She winced, and shouted at her fellow soldiers to wake up, only to realize they were already dead. Arrows had found their way into their eye sockets and chests, and Ionian archers surrounded her and the Zaunites. Some of them fell first as the Ionians fired several arrows at once, and Riven watched in slow motion as death crawled towards her like a snake in a pit.
Her enemies were wearing masks of animals and mythical creatures she didn’t even recognize, and she turned around, in the direction of the Noxian camp, only to realize that it was completely gone. Her heavy breathing had her suffocating, and her crimson eyes stared back at The Mad Chemist who sat at ease near the fire that had died out.
The skinny, bald Zaunite held a large barrel, and he coughed under his mask. His entire body was shaking, and Riven stared at him in horror. At first, she believed he was having a stroke, but then it became clear to her.
He was laughing.
The Mad Chemist laughed and cried, caressing his barrel and bringing the shied mounted on his right arm down, shattering the glass container. Green liquid oozed out, smoke and gas spreading faster than magma down the cracks of a volcano. It was so sticky Riven’s feet remained grounded, and she coughed blood. The bodies of the fallen soldiers around her were already dissolving, the smell of acid consuming their flesh and bones causing her to throw up, while the Ionians screamed and tried running away, some of them cutting off the limbs that had been grounded by the Zaunite liquid.
Riven could already feel her feet burning from the spot where she was grounded, so she took off her boots, covering her mouth and nose with the other hand, and shielded her way out of the massacre. The Mad Chemist seemed to be after her and she would have normally had no trouble escaping, if she wasn’t slowed by the chemical poison. His scrawny eyes were glinting in the night and one skeletal hand reached out to her but she raised her runic blade in a defensive manner, blinking a couple times when she noticed the Zaunite’s stunned look, as if she had knocked him out for a moment.
The former poster child of Noxus dragged her bare feet across the devastated forest, coughing blood and feeling dizzy, never once stopping to look behind her. She felt splinters and arrowheads piercing her feet, but she had to keep going. And going.
Until her knees gave out and her head hit the trunk of a tree. Her skull cracked, and blood ran down her pale face.
The now black waters of Kalamanda sparkled with moonlight. Katarina stared at her reflection, sighing when the only feature that could be clearly seen even in the depth of the night was the scar on her right eye, ever the reminder of how she never thought things through before acting or saying anything. Her green eyes seemed black, as well as her hair, which had grown a lot over the past few months. She toyed with a long strand that framed the side of her face and inspected it before unsheathing one of the daggers strapped on her thigh and cut it, leaving only an awkward bang falling over her face. She curled the strand around her fingers, caressing it, before throwing it in the waters before her.
“Do you often do that?” a familiar raucous voice asked behind her.
“Every month, for nine years,” she answered in an annoyed tone, glancing at Garen’s reflection. “Do you just happen to be walking by? Everyone is asleep.”
“I was looking for you,” he said, crossing his arms behind his back as she stood up, never turning around. “I do owe you an apology for the things I said to you.”
Katarina simply shrugged in return.
“I also wanted to ask you to tell me the truth—about why you left Kalamanda to begin with.”
“All of this happened a while ago,” she reminded him, “and you come up with questions now?” She looked at him, a serious look marking her features. “Because I sent aid to the Demacian miners some weeks ago?”
The commander shifted uneasily, preferring to remain silent.
“I never wanted to be here,” she told him. “Like I never wanted to go to the Institute last month,” she explained, closing her eyes for a bit as the warm Kalamandan breeze grazed her face. “You never read the newspaper, do you?”
“I tend to throw them,” he said sheepishly, blinking away. “In Demacia City, you don’t exactly need the news to know what is going on.”
“Right,” she sighed. “Well, the Institute was prompted to organize a rematch within the League of Legends for the Ionian situation,” she explained, “and I was summoned to fight for Noxus. We lost, obviously, which is why no one even seems to care about the East anymore,” Katarina said with disdain. She rubbed her forehead, repeating, “I just don’t want to be here.”
The blue-eyed commander tilted his head, trying to understand what she meant, but didn’t feel like prodding too much. “Your negotiation skills were undoubtedly a good reason to send you here,” he whispered, hoping the compliment was masked enough.
It seemed it wasn’t, since she smirked, massaging her temples. “I was sent here to stay away from the people who want to get rid of every Noxian noble house,” the assassin told him bluntly.
Garen’s eyes widened and he furrowed his brow, walking up to her, his eyes searching hers. “What did you say?”
Her fiery green eyes bore into his. “Nearly every heir of Noxus’ noble houses disappeared under very mysterious circumstances,” she spoke incisively, “the heir of House Arron was assassinated, and my father has been missing for nearly a year. And while I was on my way to the Institute of War, I was accused of leading a campaign to violently retrieve the remains of General Sion in Demacia City, causing hundreds of people to die.
“Whoever they are, they knew very well that after the Institute’s call I would return to a village filled with Demacians who would want me lying down there,” she spat angrily, pointing at the black waters for good measure.
Garen shook his head in disbelief, looking at anything but her face. “I—why?” he sighed out, starting to pace around her.
“Some are born powerful, some others aren’t,” Katarina sighed out, “that also works in Demacia.”
He vehemently rejected that. “Don’t you dare make that kind of comparison—we do have a monarchy,” he conceded, “but whoever needs protection, even from the rulers themselves, can seek it.”
Katarina grunted, crossing her arms under her breasts. “Of course,” she sarcastically replied. “I shall promptly knock at a Noxian general’s door now and ask for shelter while someone is setting up traps in my deserted manor,” she mocked, bringing her hands together as if she was praying.
The sound of a sword being unsheathed caused her to quickly look back at Garen, who had laid his weapon at her feet while he kneeled before her, a determined look on his face.
Katarina immediately glanced around, wondering if anyone had woken up by now and saw them. “Stand up,” she whispered. “Stand. Up.”
“For as long as it may serve you,” he vowed, “this blade will be raised against whoever tries to strike you or your family down,” Garen promised. “Honor is but an empty word if a man doesn’t step forward himself to fight for those who can’t.”
Katarina crouched in front of him, since he wouldn’t stand up. “I can fight,” she bit back.
“You wouldn’t be here if you could,” he reminded her.
Running her fingers through her hair, Katarina flipped her mane to one side, shaking her head at him. “I don’t even—what do Demacian ladies even do when someone drops a blade at their feet?” she inquired.
“Uh,” he paused. “Generally, they promise something too. You know, it is supposed to be an agreement.”
Katarina slowly nodded, biting the inside of her cheek. “There isn’t much I can promise you,” she confessed. “Other than my loyalty and faithfulness.”
They both blinked at that, trying to process the meaning of her side of the deal.
“In the broad sense, of course,” she added.
“Yes,” he immediately added himself. “And what does a Noxian do in front of a promise of loyalty and faithfulness?” Garen asked himself, wondering if he could stand up.
“Nothing?” he asked, flabbergasted.
The red-haired woman puffed, giving up, and ran her hand through her hair again. “Generally, he marries her.”
Their eyes met again, and during their silent exchange they often glanced into space, waiting for the other to speak first.
“Stand up, sure,” Garen quickly added, the two of them rising from their respective spots moving awkwardly and bumping heads.
Katarina began laughing, bringing the back of her left hand to her mouth as she tried to keep quiet as to not wake up the entire village. She nearly lost her balance when she stumbled over Garen’s broadsword but he placed a hand on her shoulder, and the other one on the side of her face.