More to come Soon™. To start with, here’s Demacia’s section of the epilogue, in current draft form. It follows after Secrets of Shurima. I hope it tides you over for another day, and keeps Sion from turning me into boot-liner.
The walls of the jail cell were thick stone, deeply enchanted by the League’s most skillful geomancers. Hexproofed cold-iron bars secured the entrance. These bars were the cell’s principal vulnerability, as a dart or arrow could be fired through them.
It was for this reason that Xin Zhao had positioned the table to give him clear sight of the cell’s barred entrance. His feet were planted, and his left hand rested on the far edge of the playing field, so that at a moment’s notice he could launch himself upright and bring the game-table forward to shield his king. It was good sturdy ironwood with a steel plate beneath the varnished surface. If an arrow or crossbow bolt did somehow pierce through, still Xin Zhao’s chest would be between the assassin and King Jarvan III, whom he had pledged to serve as chief seneschal for so long as he might live.
He had resolved that such would be his destiny, and his fate: he would forever be Xin Zhao, guardian of the crown. Such would his life amount to, in the final counting.
The King’s eyes were not on the board. He was looking to the hallway outside his cell, where stood nine guards at the strictest attention Xin Zhao had ever seen, even after so many years of service in a kingdom not known for laxity of etiquette. These particular jailguards were loyal Demacians all, and had volunteered to serve well beyond their usual hours of employment. The Ionian warden had granted their request. Zaun’s lawyers had been quite irate, but the Council had ruled that it saw no abuse of the warden’s discretion in permitting a particularly large number of guards to stand watch over the cell of a particularly important individual soon to stand trial facing particularly serious accusations.
And it was as well, for Malzahar himself was held in a cell barely fifty paces away. He had been unconscious for weeks. Though surrounded by the League’s strongest bindings and watched over by two Summoners, if he should break free…
King Jarvan looked back down to the board, then moved his Northern Cleric across the River to his Eastern Bulwark. The ceramic figure’s heavy golden base thunked against the varnished wood. His aged fingers trembled as he slipped the top card from the Weather Deck and turned it over.
He sighed. “Ah. I see it’s Summer Winds again.”
Xin Zhao looked into the old man’s weary eyes. There had been kings, even Demacian kings, who came to relish war, and sought to blood-stain their names on history’s cloth. In the lonely hours of the night, he had reflected upon what he might do should he find himself bound by his oath to the service of such a tyrant-king, for it was a warrior’s duty to be resolved in advance. To fail to act in a crucial moment on account of one’s unprepared mind was a form of negligence, and for a warrior negligence was an extreme thing.
Xin Zhao feared that one day he would be found negligent. One could make an oath not merely for one’s entire life but with one’s entire life, a commitment so profound that it came to contain the sum of one’s purpose and identity. One could at once make an oath and become that oath. Xin Zhao knew this because so he had done, when he was delivered from the arena and pledged his life to watching over the King of Demacia, whoever that might be. Whoever that might be.
Death is inevitable; one can only avoid defeat.
In the arena, Xin Zhao had come to see the truth, that at the end of every warrior’s journey comes a fight one cannot win. Or at least, a fight one cannot survive; in the proper semantics of The Measured Tread, one could speak of “victory” in death, but Xin Zhao had seen too many killings to ever be convinced that those last wretched moments did not signify defeat. No, he knew that one day he would face Death, and no matter how many other opponents he vanquished along the way, against Death he would lose.
A true Demacian’s oath is a pact with Death.
Most Demacians interpreted this proverb as simply an admonition to be willing to lay down one’s life to maintain one’s honor. But Xin Zhao found another meaning in those words. Every mortal, be they a warrior or a gardener, was slated to fight and lose a final duel with Death. Yet one who had made an oath such as his faced also a mortality of the spirit. For there was, for such a person, the possibility of a situation in which righteousness and justice would demand that one betray one’s oath, and in so doing destroy the entire content of one’s life. In this way, to make such an oath was to become mortal: to make a pact with Death. Though he felt a coward for it, he hoped that his duel with death would come before he was forced to decide either to protect a madman while millions perished, or to betray his oath and drive a spear through the heart of the king he had sworn to protect.
The King gazed down on the wisp of cloud painted upon the card’s face, forever drifting across a pale blue sky. “Summer Winds. Good for your Pegasus, I should imagine.”
Xin Zhao considered the board, making his choice by instinct while his thoughts advanced further along their path. He wondered if the King himself had made such a defining oath, and thereby forever bound his purpose and identity to some greater cause: to Demacia, or to peace under the League, or to the rule of law. If so, did he fear the coming of such an impossible dilemma, where righteousness demanded one act and his oath another? Or had such a moment already come? In Shurima, he had violated the League’s most sacred law, breaking the peace with brutal force, risking the ruin of Demacia and its lasting dishonor. Before that, he had dispatched the royal navy to obliterate the great Noxian fleet en route to Shon-Xan. Those ships had carried soldiers intent on murder and destruction, yes, but also starving refugees, tens of thousands of them, intent on nothing more than survival. One could say that “every Noxian is a soldier”, but not with complete conviction, not while looking at hungry little children gazing across the water at a new land, wondering with wide young eyes if they might at last find something good to eat there. Fulfilling Demacia’s vow to Ionia, and its pledge to thwart the murderous schemes of Noxus, had meant breaking its vow that the downtrodden would always have cause to rejoice at the sight of the Demacian flag. For Ionia, the navy’s arrival had brought deliverance from a new Noxian invasion, from a new reign of slaughter and torment. But for those refugees, that flag had brought terror and death.
Xin Zhao moved his Pegasus into the Glade, and collected two sapphire tokens from the King’s side of the board. “The Azure strategy does favor Pegasi, sire,” he replied with a small bow of his head. He considered the King’s lined visage, and wondered if he was looking at a broken man, a man who had betrayed his defining purpose and lost his self. One would think that such a loss would manifest plainly. But perhaps not: perhaps one could become a hollow thing with an unmarred outer facade.
The heavy door leading into the hallway swung open and thunked against the stone. The warden nodded to the doorman and came to Jarvan’s cell. He bowed deeply, with the refined grace of an Ionian of good upbringing from an age now past.
“Your Majesty. A visitor prays for an audience.”
The King studied the warden for a moment. “Zaun sends still more lawyers and news-men?”
The warden shook his head. “Dame Therese Buvelle.”
The King’s face brightened. This meant, of course, that Demacia had prevailed in the great tournament: the motion to commute her sentence would never have carried otherwise. “We bid her most welcome.”
The warden bowed once more, and went to retrieve her. Xin Zhao rose from the game table.
Therese Buvelle arrived wearing the same armor that had been taken from her and locked away all those years ago, when she had been captured defending the ancient Ionian city of Kurama during the first Noxian invasion and tried as an unlawful Demacian intervenor. She wore no weapons, but there was no mistaking her warrior’s bearing. As one, the jailguards saluted one of Demacia’s greatest living heroes.
Slowly, deliberately, she lowered herself to one knee and bowed her head. Xin Zhao suspected that this was a moment for which she had been preparing over all those years of captivity. But even if so, surely she had expected it to take place in a royal hall, not a jail.
“Your Majesty. How shall I serve Valoran?”
The King rose and approached the cell’s barred entrance. Xin Zhao followed by his side. “Rise, Dame Therese of House Buvelle, defender of Kurama, hero of the realm.” At his word, she stood.
Even as the King spoke her praises, Xin Zhao studied her closely. She could have been an imposter, a Black Rose assassin. So long as she stood within striking distance of the King, that was all he could allow himself to consider. So his oath demanded.
“And hear my first command. Return to Demacia. Go to the Buvelle lands, and be there received with all honor. Stand beneath the stars with a cup of wine in your hand and a hot summer wind in your face, and be a reminder to all that, though it be first scorned, righteousness may yet come to be rewarded with happiness.”
The sadness in her eyes deepened to hear her King speak such words from behind jail bars, but she smiled still. “So I shall, sire, and presently. And then?”
The King set his face with determination. “And then go to my son and serve … and serve Demacia.”
She bowed her head. His next question brought her eyes back to his face.
“What news from the Fields?”
She frowned slightly. “The great tournament is won, and handily. Yet … the balances still favor Zaun. There is yet time for — ”
The door swung open again, and Miss Sarah Fortune strode through. Her pistols were missing, and she carried instead a jail tumbler, the glass variety which could be superheated and purity-hexed to ensure the total absence of poisons and tinctures. It was full to the brim with a measure of water. Xin Zhao distantly admired the athletic precision of the Champion’s movements: though her impatient strut wobbled the water to the tumbler’s lip, subtle tilts of her wrist matched the oscillations so that not a drop was spilled on her way to the cell just to the right of Jarvan’s, into which Gangplank had been placed earlier this morning.
Miss Fortune wrapped the fingers of her left hand around an iron bar and leaned forward. Her voice was enticingly warm as she purred through the bars. “You’ve got a visitor.”
Xin Zhao heard the indistinct murmuring of a man more than half asleep and still full drunk. Then he saw Miss Fortune sneer and jerk the tumbler forward. He heard a splash, followed by a startled gasp and a hacking, waterlogged cough.
“THE DEPTHS TAKE YE!” Gangplank wheezed. “YE FEVER-FACED HARPY!”
Miss Fortune glared. “Snooping around the Icathian Archives, without a permit. Are you trying to have Bilgewater expelled from the League?!”
Gangplank coughed and harrumphed. He spat throatily; a slimy sound smacked against the stone floor.
“A hunger for learnin’ be me only crime,” he quipped back. “Pardon me misplacin’ me library carrrrd.”
Xin Zhao looked Miss Fortune’s way. “Next time, bring more water. At least a bucket, for so fully ripened a stench.”
Gangplank roared. “Be that a Demacian I hear? To what hell comes I, that has whores and hall monitors alike for tormentors!?”
“Shut up!” Miss Fortune snapped. She flicked the same glare at Xin Zhao for a moment, adding, “And you shut up!” before returning to Gangplank. “This was exactly the excuse that they needed for a Council warrant to go prying up the floorboards in Bilgewater. You’d better pray that Noxus can kill that motion in committee.”
Gangplank yawned in the careless, broad way of inebriates. “Aarrrrharrrharrr. Hall monitors. Tis a pity Vayne be not here. Whores and librarians alike, that would be a fine turn o’ phr—”
“I said SHUT UP!” Miss Fortune’s eyes flared. She hurled the glass against the flagstones with a Champion’s strength; it burst into motes too small to see. She seized the bars with both hands, as though wringing a neck. The cold iron hissed, as her anger brought little flecks of residual Summoning magic forth from her veins. The muscles in her bared arms flexed murderously as she twisted her grip back and forth. Xin Zhao was somewhat surprised not to hear the bars begin to bend. So much of her anger was directed into her fists that when she spoke next, her voice came out eerily soft, even sweet.
“I wanted to have you thrown out of the League. I wanted Nami in your place in the Bilgewater delegation. I’m still writing the petition to the Council. But if they find anything that jeopardizes our standing here, I won’t need to finish it, because I’ll have your filthy pox-ridden carcass hauled out to the docks at midnight, and I’ll give a dozen orphaned sons and daughters who have you to thank for it a few lengths of pipe and some hungry,” her voice sank to a low moan, “hungry dogs.”
There was a cold pause.
Gangplank answered. “Load’a rubbish. I ain’t had the pox since I started on me citrus regimen.”
Miss Fortune twitched. Xin Zhao thought a vein on her forehead would burst. Her eyes narrowed, and she whispered liquid murder. “And then I’ll have whatever’s left mopped off the edge of the pier, and your filth will pollute Bilgewater for the last time.”
She slowly uncurled her fingers from the bars. She looked over at the astonished face of King Jarvan III, and smiled with a flourishing bow. “Your Highness. The Jewelers’ Guild thanks you for your generous offer of naval escort to Ionia, and most gratefully accepts. We hope—”
“REHT’KON AL TRAZARA! INVOH REHT’KON KADORES REHT’KON!”
An Icathian curse. For the first time, Xin Zhao heard such vile sorcery spoken but felt not the slightest tingle of arcane effect. It must be dampened. Malzahar? No, a different voice …
The King stumbled back in surprise, and Xin Zhao moved in front of him. The guards unsheathed their swords and turned to look down the hall, away from Miss Fortune.
“Blade!” barked Dame Therese, with a palm outstretched. The guard beside her instantly rendered her his weapon, which she gripped and brought down into a half-crouched stance.
Down the hall, the same voice that had chanted the eerie invocation began to scream incoherently.
Miss Fortune settled back, resting one hand on her hip. “He’s safe in his cell,” she scoffed.
The lunatic voice drifted back into intelligibility. “REHT’KON! REHT’KON!”
Dame Therese eased up from her fighting stance. “So he is.” She looked back to Xin Zhao. “Tis only the mad Summoner, Thomas Gnox. His cell holds fast.”
“There are no Summoners! There IS no LEAGUE! No Summoners! No League! No! No! No! There never were!”
One of the guards sheathed his weapon and shook his head. “What madness is this?”
Dame Therese returned her borrowed weapon to its owner. “They say he stared too long into the sky, when the Void came. A fine Summoner, once. An esteemed brother of the Riotous Fists Clan. To have fallen to such black villainy … the sight chills my blood; yea, twists my guts.”
Summoner Thomas Gnox. Yes. Xin Zhao recalled the panic and commotion, which had reached even into this jail, when his dark plot had been exposed. An Icathian bio-hex, enchanted into the great nexus of Summoner’s Rift. Had the scheme not been thwarted, it was said that it would have latched onto the minds of the next Summoners who came to the Rift, from there spreading through the aether from one Summoner to the next and to the next, incubating for days before erupting all at once with lethal effect.
The mad Summoner’s palms slapped the stone of his cell.
“Never were! There never were!”
His voice broke into sobs.
King Jarvan III exhaled a deep sigh, bringing one shaky palm to his head. “That poor man is insane.”
Just as calm returned, malevolent laughter echoed through the halls. Xin Zhao heard Malzahar speak.
“Oh, no! Not insane! Not madness! Prophecy! So shall it be. He speaks the future.” He cackled. “Yes! O Runeterra, your time shall come! The League of Legends shall fall!”