Black Winter Prologue

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Introduction

by CupcakeTrap

(Thanks to Rextreff and others for their review.)

bilgewater-graveyard-floating-tombs

(31 October, 26 CLE)

It was a cold, moonless night, and the Black Mist hung over the horizon. From the edge of the Gray Harbor, you could hear the waves washing into the pier, rocking the floating tombs. Barrels, cannons, bodies. Weighted by anchors, but raised by buoys. Trapped between two worlds. Forever floating, and forever sinking.

“Damn spooky way to get rid of bodies,” grumbled Teknis Taussen, the young HexKorps officer who’d come over with the thaumex and radio. He paused every few seconds to rub enough warmth and feeling back into his fingers to manipulate the device’s finicky controls. His endless chattering seemed to be a similar sort of compulsion. Like he was trying to keep himself company.

“I’m trying to imagine how that conversation went. ‘Hey, we live in Bilgewater, which turns into Spook Central once a year, so you know what we need? Let’s take a bunch of dead bodies and put them in freaky metal tombs and float them out at sea right where the Black Mist rolls in.’ Maybe that’s why it always hits here. Who runs the Bilgewater Burial Commission, anyway? Karthus?”

Summoner Caius “PONCHOGRANDE” Bannon stood beside a gray stone podium topped at about chest level with a bowl of rough-finished black iron. Red flame lapped black tar from the sides of the bowl. The invocation released images and feelings that dissolved before he could reduce them to thoughts. Ruminating on the broken fragments, he felt that something didn’t seem right, but you had to be careful about that on a night like this one. It was a common rookie mistake: vigilance soon turned to paranoia, and then to panic.

Then again, ignorance soon turned to … getting killed by the things you were ignoring. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Because there was something different this year. The divine energy from the Guardian’s Sea nexus had radically altered this place, and its position between the worlds of the living and of the dead. Usually, the spirits of the dead were drifting, almost aimless. This year, he couldn’t shake the feeling that—

—there. A dark shape. Above the others. Leading them on. Leading them where? There were gods of the dead. And things that could be even more dangerous in the modern world. The Void had its great demons. And then there was Aklathos of the Abyss, from the Nyroth reports. He began working out how to look closer without being infected himself. This was not a safe spell he was casting. Old magic, dangerous magic, for people who knew what they were doing.

The child’s voice cut into his thoughts. “And then, probably, someone else was like, ‘Hey, you know what’d make it even better? Creepy bells on top of the tombs.’ And then like, ‘Good point, Assistant Burial Commissioner Mordekaiser.’ You know?”

Poncho tightened his expression as he heard the anxious youth banter on. “Yeah. It’s pretty spooky,” he agreed, without taking his eyes from the flame.

Watch the shadows, Caius. The light draws the eye, then blinds it. The flame warms, then burns. It is only in a thing’s shadow that it is revealed. Only when the iron has cooled from the forge can it be grasped, and wielded. In the cold shadows, the blade holds its edge. Cold blade, cold edge. Cold blade, cold edge. Cold bla

“Look at these readings. Mist is still miles off, and the necro-band is lighting up the kilo-thaum range. I’m starting to think the center might be closer than we think.”

Poncho felt the kid looking his way, but didn’t look back. A tongue of flame vanished, and a chill came through. He thought he heard something from the other side.

“I mean, sure, I’m no Summoner, but I feel like I don’t need years at the Institute to learn that when that Mist hits those tombs it’s going to get spooky.”

Poncho kept his eyes softly focused on the bowl. You’d never survive the Institute, boy.

He heard the lapping of the waves on rusty iron tombs, and the plaintive tinkling of lonely silver bells atop their buoys. He saw the mournful rafts in the flickering shadow. He remembered Jendo, and Satha. Brave, ambitious—floating out there now, weighted down with flaking orange iron.

His jaw tensed as he heard Taussen continue. A veteran of the League, he knew better than to talk when it would do no good.

“So why stack a bunch of corpses up right on the coast, asking for them to be zombified? Why not just haul ‘em out and burn them?”

Raindrops pattered on Poncho’s skin. He could feel the cold even through his robes. Raining like it had been when they put Jendo out to sea, in the rusted old cannon from his wrecked ship.

“I’m being serious, Summoner.”

Poncho’s hood concealed the involuntary twitch of his mouth. He focused on the shadowy shapes inside the divining bowl.

“I know, it should be obvious. I’m sure there’s some obvious reason I’m wrong. So what is it? I’d like to at least hear it. Why are we spending the Harrowing in front of a bunch of freaky floating tombs instead of torching dead bodies that are going to turn into zombies any minute now?”

Emotion bled through him into the flame. It flared, obliterating the shadows.

“Because they’re defending their home, and you ought to show some respect. Now shut up and work that ridiculous radio like you’re paid to.”

That shut the kid up, but the heavy rain kept coming. Poncho reached into his robe and produced a tightly folded triangle of cloth. He shook it out into a billowing poncho, and threw it on, obscuring the resplendent purple and gold of his Summoner robes with the cheap black fabric.

He pointed out to the floating tombs. “They’re not the ghosts you should be worried about. They’ve been out there for decades. They’re not zombies. And if you think torching a pile of bodies of people whose families put them out to sea decades ago doesn’t pose a risk of thaumic backlash—”

“Okay, I admit, I’m no expert in necromancy—”

Clearly.

And just then, a more delicate voice entered the conversation.

“Excuse me. I couldn’t help but overhear,” said Quin “Sodaman64” Stewardson, ambling over with an entire bottle of Demacian aqua felix in one hand and an obscenely tall glass in the other. The relative sizes of the bottle and the glass created much the same sense of alarm as would a tea setting with a bowl of sugar and a ladle.

Half-emptied, the once-heavy bottle now swayed as unsteadily as Soda did. He flopped down onto the crate that Taussen had unpacked his vivatronic thaumex scanner from, and slouched with drunken ease.

The drunken Summoner’s wild aura flashed against his peripheral senses like a recklessly brandished lantern.

“Glad you could join us, Soda. This young man here is called Taussen. And he’s got some breathtaking insights into solving the Black Mist problem. Starting with breaking the floating tombs and burning them in a pyre on the Gray Harbor.”

“Is that so,” Soda said, with exaggerated frowning sincerity, placing an overly familiar hand on Taussen’s shoulder. “Don’t let Poncho over there get you down, my good man. He’s just a bit cross this time of year. An old man like him has lost a lot of friends.”

Poncho smirked, then grunted and shake his head. Being called an old man used to make him sad. Now it was making him smirk. And that in turn seemed a terribly sad development.

“Thank you, Summoner,” Taussen mumbled.

“Let me tell you a little secret that might just cheer you up.” Sodaman made a show of looking to either side. He probably meant to lean subtly in, but in his present state he abruptly folded forward like a puppet that had just lost a string. He righted himself elegantly enough. Diplomacy was 20% protocol and 80% alcohol, after all. Summoners soon learned the art of elegant, or at least functional, inebriation. Treaties were signed by painfully sober heads of state in well-lit ceremonial halls, but the terms of those treaties were frequently drafted by people leaning on tables with their other hand for balance.

Soda went on. “We’re not…telling just anyone this. We want it to be a surprise. Morale’s very important, during the Mist. But I think I can tell you.”

Poncho actually had to stifle a laugh. The idea of a drunken Diamond-tier Summoner spilling League secrets on the docks was just the touch of absurdity he needed on this grim night.

“We’ve got reinforcements coming. Across the sea. From Nyroth. To meet the, you know, the ghost ships.”

“The what?”

“Oh, well,” Sodaman answered breezily, “there’ll probably be some ghost ships, yes.”

Sodaman continued on, heedless.

“Some ghost ships are, of course, to be expected. It’s a good news, bad news situation, there’s no getting around that. Let me go back a step and start with the bad news: there will be some ghost ships, naturally. But! From right here on the Gray Harbor, you’ll be one of the first to see…one of the first in over a thousand years to see…the Red Flag of Nyroth. The battle banner of the Nyrothian armada!”

Taussen did not seem sufficiently well-versed in Nyrothian history to display appropriate awe at this proclamation. Sodaman valiantly attempted to fill in the gaps.

“Conquerors of Neritum, before the cataclysm! Now coming to Bilgewater’s aid. It’s a truly historic event. You should write yourself a journal entry tonight, so you’ll remember it.” He paused, then urged, “You’ll want to remember it.”

Taussen nodded. Poncho could plainly read that his mind was still stuck on the part about ghost ships. His eyes flicked down and to either side, toward the edges of the Gray Harbor. The word harbor was surely receiving some emphasis in his mind. Ghost ships. Harbor. Hmm.

“I was one of the first to travel to Nyroth, you know,” Soda continued. “Say, would you like something to drink?”

Taussen shook his head. “No thanks, I’m wired on ThaumaKola.”

“Tisk tisk. Too much of that will ruin your health,” Soda chided. He studied his glass with furrowed brow, as though asking how much of it he wanted, then downed it all in one tilt.

“I know the Mist’s miles out, but the reports say it sneaks up on you.”

“That is some very good advice. I wrote an article on the mechanics of the Mist’s oceanic traversal my first year at the Institute. After all this is over, I’ll send you a copy. Now remind me again what your name was?”

 

The doors of the Map Room at the Institute of War were shut, and the chatter of dozens of Summoners filled the air. High Councilor Vessaria Kolminye herself was seated with her military advisors around a table bearing a full map of Valoran and Nyroth. Its border was carved with delicate runes that animated it with currents of thaumic energy, including an inky black patch drifting slowly across the ocean toward Bilgewater. Its borders swirled in upon themselves so continually that it was hard to distinguish these undulations from its general movement. Tendrils would sweep out nearly to the coastline, but then fold back into the mass many miles off shore.

On the other side of the room, a trio of Summoners were looking at a different map, encased in hexproofed glass and framed upon the wall.

“So what do you think of the map?”

“This is the one from the Guardian’s Sea nexus vault, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You know, I’d completely forgotten that Bel’zhun was right next to Piltover.”

The other Summoner laughed, albeit somewhat nervously. “Kind of makes you wonder what could make Valoran look like this.”

“Hey, don’t jinx us.”

“Really, though. Did you hear the estimates about the League? About how many realities, what percentage of realities, even have a League?”

A third Summoner stepped in. His accent was mildly Zaunite. “The self-importance of Summoners really knows no limits, does it?” he laughed. “You’re acting like a glorified water break in the war between Demacian and Noxus is a matter of cosmic importance. You look at a map where the entire continent has been twisted out of shape and your thought is wow, I wonder how this affects the League of Legends! There are Runeterras out there where everything’s boiling magma, or where yordles are the dominant species—”

“—I don’t know; have you seen the Bandle Merchant Guild white paper from last week? I’m starting to think yordles already are the dominant species around here.”

The interrupted Zaunite Summoner rolled his eyes. “I see our self-importance is matched only by our love for obnoxious policy wonk jokes about white papers. I bet that one slays at the Heart of Gold.”

A new voice entered the conversation.

“Did someone say policy wonk joke? It wasn’t about me, I hope.”

The Summoners turned to see High Councilor Kolminye behind them, pausing on her way to the exit. She’d been there since the early hours of the morning.

“Only indirectly, High Councilor.”

Another followed in. “We were just discussing the significance of this map, and the world it represents. I’d be curious to hear your opinion, High Councilor.”

She nodded, as though giving it some serious thought.

“I think it means we need to get a dossier going on these ‘Suns of Bel’zhun’. They might exist in our reality as well, and I’m sure there’s something in the League charter giving us jurisdiction over clumsy wordplay. Suns of Bel’zhun indeed.”

She smiled at the polite laughter that followed. “If you’ll excuse me, Summoners.”

She patted one of them on the shoulder as she went. “And I hope you’ll remember this is a classified area. If I catch you buying up parcels in Bel’zhun with the intention of cornering the extradimensional beachfront property market, I’m telling Internal Investigations.”

She swept past and exited through the main doors.

Over at the table, a couple Summoners discussed a weather pattern over the southern Freljord. A great snowstorm was crashing against the barrier between the Freljord and northern Demacia, gathering force as more magic blew down from the north.

“What’s that?”

“Massive blizzard. Synar’s looking into it. Something to do with the Guardian’s Sea nexus. Some old spirit is back, and it’s jamming up the weather pattern.”

“Some old spirit? The Ghoul? That’s necromantic energy mixed in there.”

“Nope. Well. Yes on the energy, but no on the Ghoul; it’s some other one, down south. Well. We’re expecting activity from the Ghoul as well, it being the Harrowing and all. I don’t know. There’s a dossier in the stack over there. Pretty thin, though. The Council’s already looked at it. It’ll make for some interesting papers in a few months, but it’s not worth drawing resources from the Mist defense.”

“Looks like it’s getting worse. There are settlements in that mess?”

“Yeah. I think so.”

“Can’t we spare anyone else to do something about it?”

“Synar knows what he’s doing with extradimensional phenomena. Flash a little Institute purple-and-gold and the villages should keep it together long enough for this to blow over. Besides, I hear the Frostguard is sending a team out to find the source.”

LissandraSplash

 

“You killed them all,” Lissandra said, reproachfully.

“Liss..lissandra…” rasped the last surviving Frostguard warrior, before she heard him slide down the side of the ice cave into the snow. She felt his life fade, and though none would ever know, it hurt her.

All of them,” she repeated, advancing on the presence ahead. She smelled his blood-wetted fur, and the stench of old primitive magic that clung to his aura.

The Ursine god spoke. “I am Metok of the Gate.”

“No one remembers you.”

The straps of his breastplate creaked as he fastened them. “I shall face the Ghoul once more.”

“How sad, for a god to have to recite his own dogma.”

“I am Metok!” he shouted back. “I face the Ghoul. I guard the souls of the dying against fear.”

He paused there. Lissandra heard his feet scratch the ice as he turned about to face her. “Your warriors prayed to me, in the end. The Ghoul came for them, and my roar drove it back.”

“You’ll not find me so easily converted.”

He charged. His footfall against the snow was quite physical. He was possessing this ursine’s corporeal body, and his divine magic seemed to lag behind its movement. He wasn’t used to the tempo of reality yet.

She waited, motionless, listening to the heavy footfall, not the deceptive numinous magic. She held still until she heard a silence where a thud should have been, telling her that he’d leapt for the kill.

She moved aside, and readied a spell. But this close, his suppressed divinity surged through his physical form. She’d forgotten this kind of magic, long ago, and forgotten how it moved. Out of the swirling fast-slow cloud of ether came a very real claw, which slashed her across her outstretched arm. Her spell broke apart, and the blow knocked her away to the side.

She started to turn back to him. The rotation was blocked by great jaws closing around her other arm. Biting hard enough, no doubt, to snap tree trunks. Yet when they broke her pale skin, they stopped cold.

She turned her head to find him. She found his filthy scent, and cast him to the ground, wrapped in chains of ice.

He tugged her down with him, his jaws still fixed around her arm. She sank to one knee beside him. He snarled and clenched his teeth. It hurt her not.

She seized the scruff of his neck and jerked her arm free. Entombed in the ice, he gnashed impotently at the frozen air between them.

“What are you?” he snarled.

Lissandra listened to the last heartbeat of her last warrior. Only once it was stilled did she speak—for even ghosts could bear secrets.

A spell glanced off her, turned aside unconsciously, before she could even sense its nature. Old magic, divine magic, powerful magic, but seeking a human weakness that it could not find on her.

“What are you?! Name yourself!”

Lissandra extended her senses back to the bodies of the slain Frostguard warriors. Their spirits had gone. She curled her lip, and indulged the fury building inside her. A clenching of her fist snapped the chains tight around him, squeezing him until he could barely rasp out a breath.

“I am Iceborn,” she whispered.

He wheezed, contemptuously. “And I, am Metok, of the-”

She roared over his crushed voice. “You are an animal!

She flexed her hand open into curved talons of ice, and held it aloft.

“The savage runts of Ursus made you, out of their barbaric superstitions and their lust for blood. They were primitives who destroyed what they could never understand.”

“I stop the Ghoul! My gate stands against the Northern Wind!”

Praying to yourself, again? Pitiful wretch.

“Yes, and you’ll face the Ghoul one more time.”

She tightened her grip around his throat and tugged his head up. He gnashed at her forearm, but his teeth could find no purchase. She raised her free hand above her head, and slashed down to his eyes.

She struck him sightless.

While he was still howling, she shouted down at him, gripping his knotted fur tight. His disgusting hot blood flowed over her hands, but she held fast. “I’ll leave you to the Ghoul. Listen closely for his footsteps. Struggle as hard as you can. Die a good Ursine death. And then be forgotten.”

She rose up, and with a sweep of her hand brought the bodies of her slain Frostguard out of the cave. She followed the grim procession.

She heard him speak after her. “Your men died well.”

She stopped only a moment, at the mouth of the cave. “You’ll die a blind fool.”

Outside, she placed the bodies in her sled. She felt something walking behind her, past her, to the cave. The dense divine magic of the cave soon blocked its aura as it vanished inside. For reasons both practical and sentimental, she waited long enough to hear the choked roar and the wet rending sounds before she set off back to the village.

Already, the frozen winds that the Ursine guardian had held back were blowing south to the Serpentine, bringing the ice with them.

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“Synar’s reporting some sort of change.”

“I see it. The storm’s blowing through. Into Demacia.”

“Veering east of Demacia.” Pause. “Coming right toward us, actually.”

“Relax. It’ll dissipate. Ice magic like that can’t last outside the Freljord for long.”

“Yeah. I finished all thirty Levels too, you know.”

“Good job, Summoner.”

“Thanks. Your praise means the world to me.”

“Did you find the name of that other spirit, by the way? In the file?”

Paper rustled, as the Summoner held up a sheet of parchment from a field journal. Snow had melted against the page, blotching the ink here and there.

“It’s only written once, in the original report…and it got smudged out.”

“Hm. Put one of the new kids on it after the Mist is over. Better to fix it now while it’s still on our minds.”

“Sure. So what’s going on with the Mist? Are we getting—wait, what was that?”

One of the tendrils brushing past the coast had seemingly just become the new center. The entire mass shifted, and the Mist filled Bilgewater. More than that, it had soaked through Bilgewater, and was flowing through across the Guardian’s Sea toward Noxus and Icathia.

Actually, if you looked at it closely, you could see that it was moving right toward the Institute of War.

bilgewater-harrowing

 

The Mist was so far away, and then it was so close. It was on the horizon, distant and intriguing, proceeding along so as to strike shore in approximately 24 hours, and then within seconds it was there, thick and enveloping, pouring on so swiftly as to leave no time for escape.

The Mist swept up the floating tombs and hurled them into the pier. Iron sarcophagi smashed timbers and broke apart. Noxian devotees of the Lunari charged forward with moonsilver blades to meet the horrors that emerged. The air reeked of decay, and damp, broken wood, and the sick warmth of rusted iron.

Reanimated corpses oozed out of these broken tombs, putrified flesh and phantasmic shadow concealing bony claws. Harrowed souls hungry for life, desperate to tear into life and embrace its fading warmth.

Summoner Sodaman64 staggered up to his feet. His bottle slipped out of his weak fingers and shattered on the wet wood below.

“I wish I could say I can’t believe you’d show up to a Harrowing drunk, Soda,” Poncho snarled. “I wish I could, but I can’t.”

“Ohhh, I’m tipsy at worst,” Soda mumbled, as Lunari cultists rushed past to meet the revenants.

“The tombs!” cried Taussen.

“So you were right!” Poncho snapped. “No reason to brag.”

The sea sank, and surged. A wave crashed over the docks, knocking Poncho onto his back. When he looked up, a skeleton in rusted armor towered over the other undead. A Noxian cultist swung a moonsilver axe at the monster—it struck him dead with its gauntleted fist.

Poncho squared off with an advancing zombie. He got a look at it, let the instinctive horror go through him and ebb away. When his hand steadied, he blasted it to wisps of smoke. His hextech pistol whirred and auto-loaded the next round.

“Taussen! You have a weapon!” he barked at the trembling young man by his side.

Taussen fumbled at his belt, and both hands came up clasped desperately around a HexKorps bolter. He looked up and saw the armored revenant drawing a notched cutlass, raising it overhead. In a frozen instant, he must have known that he had only one shot. He began to raise his pistol…

Lady Luck surveyed the game board. She looked at the figure of Taussen, and reached out to remove him from play.

The Gambler approached. “He should have a chance.”

“Him, really?” Lady Luck asked, arching a brow. She was very good at that eyebrow thing.

The Gambler held out her hand. She opened it, and in her palm rested a single die. “Three nights now, his best friend has prayed to you for his return.”

“You’ve meddled too much lately.”

“Prayed with all his heart,” she said, using one of those tones of hers that the Lady frequently softened for.

“Three or less,” Lady Luck agreed, wearily.

The Gambler tossed the tiny die into the air. It spun, turned slow, then struck the board and clattered fast.

It came up three.

The Gambler smiled. She flourished a bow.

…and as the cutlass arced down he placed his one shot squarely into the faceplate of the armored skeleton. It recoiled, and he threw himself aside. The blade bit the cold deck.

Sodaman staggered over. “Excuse me, Deceased Sir or Madam,” he began.

“SODA!” Poncho barked. He fired his pistol’s last two loaded rounds. They skipped off the creature’s rusted pauldrons.

He dropped the pistol, and began to ready a spell he knew would come a little too late.

The skeleton lashed out to seize him, when Soda’s bare hand shot up and grabbed it by the bony neck.

“IGNANS VINCULO!”

Soda was instantly transformed from a shambling drunk into a statue of cold resolve. Flames whirled around the armored skeleton, then cinched into the bone and metal.

“I BIND THEE, BURNING!”

Constricted by flame, the undead creature shrieked until the bands of flame tightened and consumed it. The spell seared it to ash, which fell to the dock.

Poncho stared. I thought he was a Teleport guy. That was the thing about Diamond-tiers: their second-best spell could still end you.

Soda straightened his posture, and his robe. “Ahem.”

Poncho looked him over, skeptically.

Soda frowned. “I’m fine,” he said. “Just burned off my buzz.” He paused, glancing mournfully down at the broken shards of the only mostly-empty bottle, then took a flask from inside his robes.

Soda began unscrewing the flask’s cap. “Only one thing to do about that, I g—”

Poncho shot him a glare. “Soda!”

Soda sighed. “Yes, yes. I know. We have enough spirits here tonight already.”

He looked at Poncho, whose stern face refused to acknowledge the jest.

Meanwhile, Taussen had shaken off the fear, and was working his radio. “The Mist has hit the mainland!”

The pier swayed.

The two Summoners were already looking out at the ocean.

The sea rose.

Footsteps pattered toward them from the temple. Diana was charging out, glowing with reflected moonlight.

An undead serpent broke the waves. It turned on the temple, and its jaws opened with a baying cry. It snapped forward toward the temple itself.

Diana leapt to intercept it from the side, blade low but arcing up with her.

Taussen started yelling something.

Poncho saw it start to turn on Diana. All those hours fighting Baron paid off.

kshPOWWWww

His Flash spell took her up and over the bite. She drifted like a feather in the moonlight, blade turning until it took on the moon’s full brightness, then crashed down into its head with a staggering blow.

Poncho’s memory urged forward the words he had missed, from Taussen.

“It’s hit the Institute!”

The Mist was streaming over the pier now in a howling gale that billowed his namesake poncho and blew freezing rain into his face. Through it all, he saw Soda standing with Taussen.

“What was that?” Soda demanded of Taussen.

“It went right through Noxus! The Institute’s under attack!”

Instituteofwar_small

Heavy pounding against her sealed door jarred Vessaria from sleep. She fumbled through the sheets, which had wrapped around her, and managed to sit up. Her thoughts progressed no further than I’m not dreaming before a flash brought a figure into view.

Katarina held a dagger at the ready. The two of them shared a meaningful look.

And then Katarina turned around and snapped the dagger into the wall. The blade drove through a runic carving, and the strongest seal collapsed.

A moment later, the door crashed down. Lee Sin walked through and bowed. “Worry not.”

“You and Katarina du Couteau just forced your way into my bedroom. I assume I’m supposed to worry some.” There were, unaccountably, no laughs. “What’s going on?”

“Storm from the Freljord intersected the Mist at the Institute. Defenses are holding, but this room and the rest of this wing are flooding with thanic radiation. We need to get you to safety, High Councilor.”

Katarina reached back for her dagger.

“I wouldn’t,” Vessaria Kolminye cautioned her, as she threw the covers aside and stood. “Cross-enchantment,” she explained.

Katarina took her advice, and left it stuck in the wall. “We should hurry.”

Kolminye went into her closet.

“We should hurry, High Councilor,” Katarina repeated. “This is a dangerous area.”

“If it’s as bad as you say,” Kolminye replied, pulling a loose robe on over her nightgown, “Then lives may depend on projecting composure and normality. Me giving orders in my nightgown will project something very different.”

She kicked off her slippers, slid into the first pair of shoes that came to hand, and followed them to the Map Room.

Inside, Kolminye found the situation grim. She looked over a map-model of the Institute itself, wheeled over on a separate table. So much of the land was blanketed in Mist, which swirled in a blizzard around the Institute, that the map’s enchantments were flickering out of alignment.

She pointed. “Are the Archives compromised?”

Summoner Michelus Magnus, a Demacian who was rumored to have been patched up by necromancy some time ago, answered her. “We should have a report any minute now. It was very sudden, High Councilor.” He spoke tensely, and not just because he was Demacian. He knew he was telling her what she very much did not want to hear: we’re not sure what’s going on with all those magical superweapons in the basement.

Her heart squeezed, and her vision throbbed. She forced herself to hold a neutral expression, though she doubted anyone looking at her would be fooled.

While she was searching for words, the door opened, and a Summoner came through. His hood was drawn back, and his robe was torn. He was cradling one of his arms with the other.

She rose to her feet, and looked hard at him. “Either you have a report on the Archives or I swear that I’m going down there myself.” Her voice betrayed no suggestion of hyperbole, nor was there any to betray.

He nodded quickly. “The Archives are secure, High Councilor.” He paused. “At great cost, they are secure.”

Worth any cost, she told herself.

“Thank you, Summoner,” she said. She nodded to a guard. “Get him to the infirmary.”

She returned to her seat. “So what happened?”

“There was some kind of disturbance in the Freljord,” said a Summoner she didn’t recognize. He opened up a file, and flipped to a map showing the southern region of the Freljord. “It seems like some sort of natural barrier suddenly gave out, and a storm came blasting through to the Institute. Shortly after that, the Mist went straight through Bilgewater, through Noxus, and intersected the storm here, at the Institute.”

“Any signs that this was caused intentionally?”

“Not at this time, High Councilor. It seems that a natural phenomenon in the Freljord triggered a shift in the Mist. Or, well, vice versa.”

She nodded. With magic this powerful, as they said, sometimes the effect came before the cause.

She returned to the map. “What do we have on its way?”

Michelus answered. “A Noxian team of two hundred will be here within the hour. There’s a fifty-strong Zaunite rapid response unit already on site, making its way through the blizzard. Demacia will have five hundred here by day’s end.”

Kolminye surveyed the map of the Institute. She recognized the pattern of personnel movements and enchantment activations. Specifically, she recognized them from the defense protocols meant to be invoked if either Noxus or Demacia decided to begin a new Rune War by raiding the Institute’s archives and armories the ancient weapons which it was the League’s mission to ensure never again saw the light of day. It was the open and public re-enactment of schemes that before she had only ever discussed with a small handful of trusted advisors.

“The Warden wants permission to lead a force into the tunnels and exorcise them.”

Kolminye nodded. “Granted, but she isn’t leading it herself. Tell her to stay where she is to monitor the situation. Send someone else.” She smiled thinly. “Though her valorous offer is noted.”

She turned back to the map. The dark blizzard centered on the Institute was dispersing outward. Inky waves drifted toward Piltover, Zaun, Demacia. The Institute was possibly the most secure location in Valoran, when it came to arcane threats. No, the real crisis would come when the Mist spread out to the civilian population centers.

Now is not the time for League meddling.

She took a sheet of paper and a quill.

“As High Councilor of the League of Legends, Vessaria Kolminye hereby releases from active duty the Summoner corps, save such exceptions as may be designated by the Council.

She flourished a signature, sprinkled a bit of pounce over the wet ink, and nodded to her secretary. “The seal, if you would.”

He handed her the heavy gold cylinder, which she inked on the pad and struck against the parchment.

It wasn’t an order she liked giving: surrendering power in the middle of a crisis. But there would be sharp disagreements ahead, and there was no time to hammer out a common plan of action. Trying to hold on here would strain the League to the breaking point.

She handed the paper back to her secretary. “Distribute this,” she told him.

He read it over, and over. “Yes, High Councilor.”

She looked over her assembled officials. “And convene a gathering of the ambassadors.” She paused. “The rest of you, get to work. I want to know if this was our fault.”


Next: Introduction

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