There were not enough tents.
The village of Kalamanda was covered in smoke and grime, and the waters surrounding it were dark and full of debris. Villagers whose lives had been spared by the mine collapse were trying to help their peers as well as their guests, regardless of their city-state of origin. The children were the most proactive helpers, running around with bandages and trout soup, and the women were given the harsh task of amputating rotting limbs.
Garen woke up in a straw bed in the middle of several damaged tents, bandages around his forehead and a gash in his thigh. Someone had mixed herbs for his bandages and they were still burning in a pot right next to him. The commander ignored the medication and secured a mediocre bandage around his thigh before grabbing the only pair of pants he could find. He doubted it was his since the garment was absurdly tight around his calves, but he guessed it would do for the meantime.
He didn’t remember falling asleep. He had dragged both his squire Spiritmight and Katarina Du Couteau away from Kalamanda Hall and all the way to the nearest camp, which was a Noxian camp at that time. He now realized that Noxians, Demacians and Piltoverites were all in the same place, having found shelter in the outskirts of the village. Garen had absolutely no clue as to where Katarina and Spiritmight were, so he limped his way around the camp, blue eyes scanning the entire area. He doubted anything serious happened to them, but he still wanted to make sure.
Garen’s throat was so dry and his head was pounding, so when he spotted what looked like an old tavern, way smaller and older than the Hasty Hammer, he immediately went in. A familiar redhead was sitting at the counter alone, her ripped clothes signaling that she hadn’t gone back to her own tent either since the mine collapse. She was drinking a hot beverage that smelled of mint and didn’t even acknowledge his presence.
Sitting down next to her, he ordered water along with whatever food was left, and glanced at her petite body. “How are you feeling?”
“Not too many scratches,” she replied quietly, bringing the old brown mug to her lips. “The miners worked for the Loadstone Mining Consortium,” Katarina told him. “Isn’t that the mining company owned by the Lightbringers?”
Garen nodded slowly before emptying his tall glass of water. “Are they dead?”
The Noxian assassin shook her head. “Trapped, it seems. The news already reached Piltover and Ionia. Everyone here seems to think something went wrong with the Zaunite machinery to begin with.”
“What do you think?” he prodded, sliding the dish he was served to offer her some, but she waved her hand, having no appetite whatsoever, especially not when it came to dried trout.
Katarina shrugged, rubbing the bags under her eyes. “I don’t believe in accidents,” she told him spitefully.
When he gave no answer to that statement, the assassin glanced at the bartender who was retreating at the back of the tavern and parted her lips.
“When we were in that shattered hall,” she gulped, “all I could think of was my sister,” she confessed. “We were never close, in honesty, we never were. When I was young I had this… short, dark hair that bothered me while she had the long, curly, chestnut hair of our mother and the bright green eyes of our father.
“She was just a normal child, you know? The daughter that slept with a teddy bear—which was missing an eye because of me, the kid that pulled pranks on the maids… I was never really interested in what she did, and when our father brought home a child from the streets, a boy who didn’t remember his name or his age, someone who only followed my father around, I completely forgot I had a sister. I spent every day in my father’s weapon room with Talon.
“Cassiopeia grew up to become the most beautiful woman inNoxus. Men from all over Valoran traveled to Noxus Prime in hopes of spending one night with her—even to just touch her hand. She was so tall and so gracious, and there was no man who could keep a secret from her.
“One day, she collided with a diplomat from the Freljord—short after rumors on the barbarian northerners seeking an alliance within the Freljord, which didn’t bode well with anyone from the High Command who had personal interests in the North. When Cassiopeia came back, her beauty had vanished, and so had her humanity,” Katarina elaborated with anger rocking her vocal chords.
Tightening her hands around the empty mug from where she drank, she went on, “My sister locked herself in the hidden cells of our mansion after committing the ugliest massacre I had ever seen, the shred limbs of our mains littering the floors, and eventually she disappeared.
“When I saw the roof crumble, ready to split your head in two, I thought, ‘I’m going to die. I’m going to die and up to this day I still wasn’t able to do anything for my younger sister,” she concluded, one shaky hand covering her mouth as she tried to stop talking.
Garen was staring at her with a deep frown marking his features, faint wrinkles on his forehead. He felt guilty for not feeling the way she felt about the possibility of never seeing her sibling again. The Demacian looked away, his blue eyes staring at his hands on the counter and cracking his fingers while he found the right words to express his feelings.
“I never once thought of my sister,” he whispered in shame. “I should have,” he said. “I should have.
“She was taken away from home when she was only thirteen—my mother had summoned the royal guards for suspected use of magic. She was only thirteen,” he repeated. “I never saw her again. I received some letters, although I can’t be sure she ever received mine.”
Garen shifted his body weight, trying to ease the pain in his thigh, and turned to fully face the woman beside him. “We didn’t die,” he commented. “You will see your sister again.”
Katarina turned her head to look back at him, dark green eyes scanning his face as if to find out whether he was telling the truth or not. “Who is making this promise?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. “The Demacian commander who was ready to execute me for allegedly attacking his capital, or the man who dragged me out of death’s embrace?”
The left side of his mouth curved up for a split second. “Just Garen Crownguard,” he answered. “Just Garen Crownguard to Katarina Du Couteau.”
The redhead stood up, ready to leave when she heard the entrance door crack open. Both she and Garen turned around, spotting a skinny young man with a pile of documents in his arms. Katarina recognized him in a heartbeat; he was the dark-haired squire that followed Garen everywhere, always with a distressed look on his face.
“Sir,” Spiritmight greeted. “My Lady,” he then added.
The assassin tried not to laugh at his antics. “What are you, Crownguard’s fiancée?” she teased, tapping her foot on the floor. “I swear I see you every day.”
Spiritmight didn’t understand the joke. “My Lady,” he said, “My Lord commander is engaged to Captain Fiora Laurent.”
Katarina’s dark eyebrows shot up in sheer curiosity, glancing back at the Demacian who still sat at the counter, rubbing his temples and shaking his head, as if he were annoyed by the entire conversation altogether.
“Is that so?” she pondered out loud, smirking at the two men. “Your Crown Prince must feel very unsafe if he would have a Crownguard marry the Captain of the Royal Guards,” she taunted.
“What do you want, Spiritmight?” Garen asked, changing the subject of a conversation he really didn’t want to have.
The young squire fiddled with his papers, some documents falling on the ground and he failed to collect them as he moved clumsily in his armor. Spiritmight explained that the Demacian miners were not all dead, and that they were already organizing themselves for an immediate rescue. However, the damage done by the mine collapse was so extended that Demacians alone couldn’t quickly secure the area. It seemed that Ionia and Piltover were already making plans to send aid, and Garen let out a sigh of relief.
Katarina rolled her eyes at them, slowly going back to her usual self. “There will never be enough Piltoverites and Ionians,” she reasoned. “Noxians were unarmed during the collapse,” she reminded them. “We will explain to the silly Demacian people what safety practices are and send the rightful aid workers,” she pridefully declared before walking out of the tavern in boldness, leaving a flabbergasted squire behind her, as well as an astonished commander.
“I still don’t understand why you decided to come all the way up here,” a very annoyed, bored blonde woman complained as she stared at the wide tree branches above her head.
Her travel companion was inspecting the entire area from his perch, like an eagle on the top of a hill, and she was being ignored.
“Talon,” she called his name. “Can you come down already?” she protested, placing her fists on her hips.
The Noxian assassin who had dragged her past The Crossing all the way inside the hinterlands of Demacia sighed loudly. “Can you keep quiet sometimes?” he argued back.
After their intense exchange at the tavern a few days prior to their climb, Luxanna told him how Uwendale was, in her opinion, a good place to start looking. The Protectorate of Uwendale was known for their hunters and rangers, ready to fight any wild, monster-like animal that smelled the human preys living in the mountains. Luxanna said rangers saw everything and everyone, keeping records even on people they wouldn’t capture unless they committed a crime of any sort. She then blabbered about the Tale of The Hero and Her Hammer, which was supposed to have its origins in Uwendale, but he had stopped listening at that point.
“You know,” Luxanna kept talking, “all this escaping the Circle of The Illuminators and traveling around Demacia—my mentors are probably calling me the new Black Rose now,” she told him with a happy giggle as she sat down on the grass and started flicking some white flowers that grew at the base of the tree where Talon was perched.
“Who is this Black Rose person?” Talon asked without actually caring about the answer, knowing that she would have started telling him yet another story anyway.
“Rose was a very powerful mage who was born before the unification of the Kingdom,” the blonde woman answered. “Back then, magic ruled over Runeterra, and the Circle of Illuminators was the first and only order who focused on the arcane arts, believing an order of archmages would be able to keep the beasts and the dragons at bay, and fight against the Iron Ruler.
“Rose was the first woman to become a part of that order, and she was immediately feared. The Circle only knew time controllers and masters of the elements—they had never seen a space controller before,” Luxanna went on, occasionally glancing up to see if Talon was still listening, since she knew he was often annoyed by her antics and passion for storytelling.
“Space controller,” Talon repeated from his spot, where he still scanned the area with narrowed eyes, “that just sounds silly.”
“It isn’t,” the younger woman fought back. “She could distort space to the point where she could blink from a place to another, and created illusions across the several dimensions she passed through,” Luxanna elaborated, tying a small bouquet of tiny white flowers to pass the time. “But Rose knew the other Illuminators feared her and tried to channel her powers into a staff that would have been kept away for as long as her intentions remained unclear.
“So, Rose waited until the new moon came, so that light wouldn’t protect the establishment and every door would remain visible to her. First, she chained the Master of Elements to a different dimension, and then used similar glowing chains to strangle the Time Controller to death, before ripping his face and putting it on. She deceived the guards in the Staff Room, but only for a minute.
“Upon noticing the blood running down her neck, they attacked her, but it was too late—the staff was hers, and all her powers were restored. The moment she tried to blink into a different dimension to escape her fate, one of the guards slashed her side with his spear and she escaped with a mortal wound. Many say that she died alone, in a faraway dimension, while others claim that she survived through the centuries, abandoning her human body. Gone were her long, jet black hair and bright red lips. The Black Rose became an entity that lasts forever and that will persecute every Time Controller and Master of Elements that will stand in her way,” Luxanna concluded her tale, shivering herself at the thought of the Black Rose.
She was only met with silence, and she wondered whether Talon had listened to her at all. Something behind her moved, the sound of feet stomping the grass causing her to frown and stand up. When Luxanna turned around, her ears caught the firing of an arrow that pierced her clothes, and all of sudden she was pinned to the tree behind her. She gasped loudly as her back hit the trunk. Talon was in front of her in an instant, his shoulder-length hair wild and messy from his descent, the lower half of his face hidden by a red scarf.
A woman stood in front of them, a legendary azurite eagle perched on her right arm while she brandished a crossbow with her left hand. Her armor was nothing like what Luxanna was used to seeing—form fitting and entirely made of gold and dark blue mail. It seemed a lot lighter than the traditional Demacian armor, and the eagle that stared at her and Talon with its yellow eyes curtained the knight with its majestic wings.
“The girl’s with me,” Talon told the winged knight.
“Move and Val will go for the eyes,” she threatened him.
The legendary eagle spread its wings wide, leaving its perch and flying closer to the trapped pair, flapping its wings as it examined the masked assassin before him and tilting its head. Val then took flight, rustling the leaves around them and disappearing beneath the clouds. Talon smirked under his scarf, guessing that the large bird had smelled the steel of his mounted blade.
“Your beast needs training,” he told the woman who only had a crossbow to defend herself.
“Val is not a beast,” she countered, her posture less offensive. “Who are you two? This isn’t the main road to Uwendale. Honest people give their names and walk down the main roads.”
“You shot me!” Luxanna reminded her from her spot. “You could’ve been politer too.”
The knight glanced at her, examining her features. “I didn’t harm you. Have we met before?”
“I doubt it. She was like a temple maiden for over ten years,” Talon answered for Luxanna, ignoring the insults that were being thrown at him for his comment.
The knight didn’t seem convinced, but eventually relented. “My name is Quinn. I am the ranger of Uwendale. You are both welcome to stay at what used to be my parents’ house, if you will.”
Talon narrowed his eyes at her before removing the arrow from Luxanna’s shoulder, who complained about the hole in her cloak.
“Talon,” he replied, ignoring Luxanna’s startled look as he undisclosed his identity to the woman. “This is Luxanna Crown-something,” he added with a faint shrug.
“Crownguard,” the blonde muttered.
Quinn’s face nearly lightened up. “Interesting. Please follow me.”
The trio made its way down the main road that led to the ranger town where huts were made of stone and lean towers guarded the entire territory of the protectorate, Val shadowing them as he followed his companion.
The Hall of Pride was entirely lit with large torches adorning the walls, the Raedsel Guards standing still in their emerald and golden armor. The only sound that echoed through the Hall was the Master Tactician’s footsteps, the occasional click of his cane joining in. The collar of his golden coat hid his throat and mouth and the light the torches emitted reflected on the bald spots of his head.
A taller, broader general exited the room he was heading to, his armor making a ruckus. Darius acknowledged the Master Tactician, who had recently been named general as well, by nodding at the man. A strand of greying hair fell over his forehead as he did so and the two men came to a halt as they finally came face-to-face.
General Swain reached inside his golden coat and handed a sealed message to the veteran of war standing in front of him. “Invetia Varn,” he simply said. “The Grand General already gave his own seal of approval regarding the contents of her message. I reckon you still remember her?”
Darius’ serious expression turned into one of pure hatred at the mention of the Basilich steward but he simply grabbed the sealed letter, nodding again.
“Good,” Swain added. “Noxus Prime rejoiced at the news of the High Command finding a successor to General Du Couteau and upon seeing the Grand General surrounded by his advisors again. We do not need any child of Noxus tarnishing our reputation to the Fareast.”
“LeBlanc has requested your presence in the Tower of Nightfall,” Darius informed him. “I will add my own seal to this before sending it,” he added, glancing at the letter.
Swain nodded, his squinty crimson eyes glowing in the dark. “I will see you tonight at the Fleshing Arena. Your brother has quite an audience,” he casually changed the topic before taking a turn to the left, heading to the elevating platform that would take him to the Tower of Nightfall.
The tower was shaped into a large, spiky mace, its base so unstable no one ever used it for fear of a possible collapse. It had been abandoned a long time ago, but Swain knew that his pale companion often used it for her own twisted reasons. Swain stopped at the entrance, whistling low.
Beatrice flew past him, then around him, before finding a spot where to rest. The amethyst raven settled on Swain’s left shoulder, tilting her head whenever she heard a sound that Swain didn’t emit.
The Tower of Nightfall was barely lit, a small purple fire burning in the right corner. The air was cold and stained with the stench of excrements and blood. Old military maps were being eaten away by mice and chains rattled the floor. A man was crying and begging for mercy, although no one was there to listen to him. He wore ripped brown pants and no shirt, and a ripped Demacian cape was sprawled at his feet. He was bound to the stonewall behind him, the chains soaked with his blood.
Swain felt the touch of LeBlanc’s hand on his upper arm as she emerged from the shadows, her glowing staff in hand and a satisfied smile on her face. Her light-brown eyes glanced at the man who suffered at their feet and Swain smiled under his collar.
“Is this him?”
The Pale Woman nodded. “Thom Garvin.”
Swain walked up to the Demacian prisoner, hitting his legs with his pointed cane. The prisoner cried and begged again, shivering and spasming, shaking his head as if it would remove the blindfold.
“You caused the mine collapse in Kalamanda,” the General stated in a croaky voice.
“No!” Garvin screamed. “No, I didn’t! I swear it! Please… Please, let me go,” he sobbed. “I will say the truth to the King.”
LeBlanc chuckled behind Swain.
“Your King will hear you,” he reassured the prisoner. “I promise you.”
Turning heels and coming to a silent agreement with the Pale Woman, General Swain limped out of the Tower of Nightfall, Beatrice crowing on his shoulder and LeBlanc curling her hand around his elbow.
“Petal and Thorn?” he asked.
“They’re both bringing Seed back to the Immortal Bastion,” she answered with an excited glint in her eyes.
Swain hummed in response, nodding away his contentment. The sun was setting behind the highest towers of the Immortal Bastion, the red and orange hues casting haunting shadows on the iron grounds. “How long has it been,” he asked the woman on his arm, “since all the members of the Black Rose reunited?”
LeBlanc puckered her lips, slender fingers playing with her short black hair. “So long that even as the Matron, I can’t recall our last reunion.”
She turned to fully face him, a tempting smile adorning her red lips. Swain placed his clawed fingers under her chin, nearly piercing her skin.
“Don’t be too cocky, Evaine,” he warned her. “Don’t be too cocky.”