Previous Update: Avalon
by CupcakeTrap (edited by pretty much everyone)
Special thanks to 501st Big Mike, Flaadym, Hexmage, RaptorAttacks, StormRevolver, TerraBooma, and Wizard996 for insights on portraying their in-universe characters.
It was the third day of November, and Harrows’ End couldn’t come fast enough for Lux.
She hadn’t slept well in weeks. Even sitting beside the warmest hearth, every breath she forced inside her lungs felt cold. The Harrowing air raked over her like ice-water over a bad tooth, shrill with death’s hisses and whispers. And what did people do? They started fires, and sang songs; they peddled their sweets and hot brews in the hallways of the Institute, tried to mask the horror with the too-thick scent of warm spices. Like smudging makeup over a corpse so that people could smile at the funeral and sigh about how peaceful she looks, just like she’s asleep, at least she isn’t in pain anymore. Lux was in pain; Lux was exhausted. Makeup on a corpse. Like that nightmare she kept having, about her makeup cracking like a doll’s porcelain shell, and her lifeless skin crumbling away as she scratched at it faster and faster, until she saw dry bone underneath. Turning to see Garen staring at her, knowing what he had to do. Holding his sword steady as hot tears filled his eyes. The bravest man in Demacia, her big brother, pleading no, please, no, not you. It always ended the same way. Do it. Soon it won’t even be me anymore. This isn’t your fault.
When she woke from these nightmares, her sweaty panic rapidly cooled to shame and embarrassment. How ridiculous. A bunch of self-pitying melodrama, she told herself. Just stress. You’re a smart girl, Lux; you should know better. Summoner Flan was a Platinum Circle inductee, a member of the Riotous Fists Clan, and a graduate of Piltover’s best medical academy. She was one of the best healers at the Institute, and it was ridiculous to doubt her abilities. She’d have noticed if her healing had somehow turned Lux into a zombie! Many of the Summoners and other magically sensitive individuals had reported nightmares and lingering psychic after-effects from the battle; the League investigation had indicated that the use of high-energy magic in a dimensional disruption zone had exposed them to Void and other harmful cosmic energies, which unsurprisingly did inflict some residual discomfort and confusion. But nothing permanent. Nothing Flan couldn’t cure.
She remembered the thick, scratchy pages of the well-worn Crownguard family copy of The Measured Tread. Even before she could understand the words, the scent and feel of the book’s parchment had soothed her. When in turmoil, your immediate self ceases to be your true self. Fly, then, to your reasoning self, and become reason.
Well, reason said she wasn’t a zombie, and she needed to calm down. She was getting tired of spending half her morning caking on makeup to hide the nailmarks. The irony, if that’s what that was, didn’t escape her.
But still. She’d been pretty far gone. That Zaunite death ray had blown a hole clean through her side. It was an artillery piece, meant to slaughter entire regiments. She was a Champion, but that didn’t make her invincible. The memorial banners hanging from the walls as part of the Harrowing decorations were proof of that. Priscilla. Averdrian. Blackblade. You might even say Champions had a way of getting themselves killed.
Was her fear so unreasonable? She wasn’t a zombie, but maybe something had gotten into her when she nearly fell through to the other side. She’d been close, and maybe even someone like Summoner Flan couldn’t bring her all the way back. Maybe she’d always have one foot in the grave. Maybe every Harrowing would be like this, forever. Not forever. Just until I join them for good.
She fidgeted with her fingers. The sickly-strong Harrowing air was sliding underneath her nails, curving along the side of her neck like the back of a knife, whispering around her, a raspy voice trying to drip a few horrible words into her ear. She turned her head, as though it would keep them out.
She had always liked the Harrowing when she was a little girl. Staying up late, eating cookies by the plateful beside the fire, warming her hands around big mugs of cider. Running around with Garen, swinging wooden swords at imaginary ghosts and zombies. She closed her eyes and tried to go back there. Her trembling fingers clasped the stone cup from the dining hall. The warmth coming through the half-empty cup was faint; she squeezed it tight, careful not to shatter it.
“I’m Luxanna Crownguard, and I’m here to punish evildoers! That means YOU, evil Lord Darkwill!”
Before us, the evil Lord Darkwill, as portrayed by a coat rack.
The crack and clatter of wooden swords against the metal post.
Me tackling the coatrack to the stone floor. The startlingly loud CLANG as it hits. Both of us going dead silent while we listen for a servant or our parents coming to discipline us for creating such a commotion. Relief when no one comes.
Garen planting one foot on the fallen Lord Coat Rack Darkwill, posing heroically.
“We got him!”
Garen turns to me with a mischievous grin. “But wait. This is all a trap. I’m a Noxian spy! Defend yourself, Lux!”
I scramble to my feet. “What?”
He lunges at me. “Die, Crownguard!”
I spring aside. “Garen, stop it!” I stumble until my back hits the wall. I don’t want to play anymore. I drop my sword. I don’t cry because I know he’ll call me a crybaby if I do.
“Such poor grip. Demacian fool! Now you will die!”
I scream as loud as I can. “GAREN!”
He takes a few lazy swings at the wall above my head, trying to scare me into picking up my sword again. “HA! HYAAA! I chopped off your head!”
I look down the hallway. “FATHER! MOTHER! GAREN IS BREAKING THE RULES!”
“Defend yourself. En garde!”
“Stop it, Garen! You’re a good guy!”
“I’m a Noxian spy! Swain used the crowmancy to turn me into a zombie!”
“NO HE DIDN’T! YOU’RE A GOOD GUY!”
I start crying. Like a crybaby.
The sharp sound of a real voice jolted Lux back to attention. The images from her memories lingered thickly, blocking her sight. Had she opened her eyes? It felt like dreaming about waking up.
“Happy Harrowing, Lux! Thought I’d check in on my patient.”
Lux blinked her eyes open, for real, and saw Summoner Flan smiling down at her. Another Summoner was with her, a blonde girl with her robes edged in dark Freljord blue instead of the usual gold. She was in the fight for Nyroth, then. She looked familiar.
It took only a moment for Lux to slip into her usual demeanor. The checklist flicked half-consciously through her mind. Back straight. Smile. Brighten the eyes, young lady. Nice full breath. Nice clear voice. Make them feel special. You’re pleasantly surprised to see them.
“Happy Harrowing, Summoner!” Lux chirped in reply, with the biggest smile she could manage.
“Feeling alright? I know the Harrowing has a way of opening up old wounds.”
Lux laughed. A few heads turned. “Oh, you know, a little sore sometimes,” she responded casually, placing a hand on her side. She looked at the other Summoner, and Flan took the cue.
Flan gestured to the girl beside her. “This is Summoner Livia Flaadym Arlyndris, of the Freljord. She trained under Lissandra herself before she joined the League.”
The Summoner looked positively starstruck. She grabbed handfuls of her robes and made an awkward attempt at a curtsy. “I’m honored to meet you, Lady Crownguard!”
Lux hastily shook her head. “Oh, gosh, no, Lady Crownguard is my mother! Just call me Lux.”
The Summoner nodded hastily. “I’m Flaadym.”
The girl’s eyes glittered. Here it comes.
“You’re such an inspiration to me. My mom bought me a poster of you for my bedroom when I was twelve. There was this old metal bar from a shed out back, and I used to twirl it around and pretend I was a light mage and we were fighting Noxians together.” The Summoner blushed, scrunching her shoulders in around herself and giggling a little. “Sorry, that probably sounds sooooo weird.”
Yep! “Oh, gosh! But I’m not even really a light mage myself. I’m not diploma’d; I joined the League before I got to the qualifying courses for the Schola Splendorum. That’s the—”
Summoner Flaadym interjected mid-sentence. “—the academy for the study of light magic in Demacia. I did my 25th level internship there. It was amazing. I wrote my entrance essay about you! I always wanted to be a Summoner, but they said there was no way until the Freljord became a member-state. Which never would have happened without Demacia’s help.” She was gushing at this point. “I know I’ll never be half as good at magic as you, Lux, and I’m just a novice Summoner, and you probably hear this all the time, but meeting you means so much to me!”
Lux kept smiling as best she could. It wasn’t fair to take her stress out on this Flaadym girl. She seemed nice. And Lux really did respect her for overcoming adversity the way she must have done. The Freljord was so poor, and to be honest most everyone thought of them as a bunch of backward barbarians, and Lux agreed it was important for Demacia to help bring them into the international community and all that. But she didn’t want this right now. It was exhausting. She needed someone she could really open up to. She didn’t want to worry about crushing some girl’s dreams with a weary look or a misplaced word. She brightened her smile further.
“I’m so honored to meet you, Summoner Flaadym. The work you do is so important. People make so much out of being a Champion, but you’re the ones doing all that important research in the,” don’t say in the background, “all the important research that helps make Valoran a better place. Summoner Flan here saved my life in Shurima. I’d have been a goner for sure if she hadn’t!” She made a comically exaggerated noose-tugging “bleh I’m dead” sort of gesture. It sometimes surprised Lux just how easily she could split what she was feeling from the antics she performed outwardly. She didn’t even feel uncomfortable miming her grisly demise. It didn’t even feel like she was the one doing it.
Summoner Flaadym’s widened eyes showed a flash of genuine horror before she burst into forced, nervous laughter. Lux could see how much this girl she’d never met cared about her. Like the Demacian soldiers who threw themselves into combat with Viktor’s HexKorps machine-men, readily sacrificing their lives just to buy Lux the faintest sliver of a chance of survival. She’d wanted to…well, no, she’d felt compelled to visit their families. Jarvan forbade it. He said that sort of thing was simply not done, that it would insult their memory. They gave their lives for Demacia, as was their duty. To pretend that it was some special act, done voluntarily, would deny them their greatest honor, as soldiers of Demacia who were faithful even unto death. It felt wrong, but secretly, she was glad she wouldn’t have to face all those people, and try to talk about the men and women who’d died horrible, agonizing deaths because she was so special.
In the corner of her mind’s eye, on these cold Harrowing nights, Lux had caught faint glimpses of their faces. She didn’t know if they’d come to protect her or to haunt her.
“Speaking of me heroically saving your life,” Flan quipped, “Do you mind if I just…?” She was reaching into her satchel.
Lux shook her head quickly. “Not at all! Do I need to do anything?”
Flan took out a silver wand and a bit of red stone. “Nope! Don’t mind me.” She tapped the tip of the wand against the stone, and gave it a little flick. Lux felt a tingling spark of energy zipping around inside her.
Flaadym watched, entranced by Flan’s skill. Just as it was starting to get kind of weird, she met Lux’s eyes again. Her face turned tense. “Sorry. Should I go?”
Lux dismissed Flaadym’s anxious politeness with a wave of her hand. “Oh, no, please. Distract me a little so I don’t notice when Flan here starts sawing off my arm.” She smirked over at Flan, who seemed to see through the act, judging by her disapproving frown.
Her mind flicked over to a familiar telepathic frequency. Give me a break, Flan. What do you want me to do, have a breakdown in the middle of the Institute? The Herald would be all over that.
Flan met her thoughts, though not her eyes. This act you’re putting on—that you’re always putting on—is extremely dangerous in your present condition. The psychic dissonance is putting you under a lot of strain. You’re at real risk of mental fracture, maybe even auraphasic psychosis. How’d that be for a breakdown? The first rule of treating mages with arcane injuries is to remember that their magic is always working on themselves. You need rest and meditation, or you’re going to do severe damage to yourself. Actually, I should say you’re going to do some severe damage to ‘your self’. Ha! I should use that. Nice one, Me.
Summoner Flaadym spoke up again. “So, um, I was wondering, I’m mostly busy with Nyroth and everything, but maybe I could summon you for a practice match tonight? I’ve been practicing with your imprint a lot, in simulation matches, and I have some ideas for empowering your spells. I know you usually prefer to go with a Chalice early, but I was thinking, what about going right for Sorc Shoes? Or is that dumb? Sorry.”
Let the kid play with your imprint. There is no way you should be on the Rift before Harrows’ End.
Don’t worry, Flan. Wasn’t going to. She seems pretty sharp, though!
“Wow, I really wish I could, but I’m actually taking some time off from the Rift.” She winked at Flan. “Doctor’s orders. Actually, I’m probably leaving for home tomorrow morning.”
Lux winced at a sudden sting.
Flan gave her wand a twirl. It felt like a thin thread was being pulled out from between her ribs. “And done. You’re just about one hundred percent, but your humors are a bit off-kilter. A shot of serum C should do the trick. I can actually give it to you right now.”
Lux frowned a bit. They’d saved her life in Shurima, but these Piltovian pyrikhos serums…she didn’t much like the idea. She heard Flan had only managed to get her heart beating again by pumping her so full of the stuff that she started bleeding purple. Supposedly, it didn’t even have any Void resonance to it, because the refining process inverted the elemental substratum and left it much closer to the non-Void component of the pyrikhos, the old Shuriman enchantments from those floating pyramids. Still. How could anyone be certain about what this stuff did?
“Uh. Sure! That’d be great.”
Will it be great? What’re you shooting me up with, Flan?
Serum C. Actually, your aura’s at 16 Stricklers, and this’ll bring it down, which should bring your sanguine into collision with…let’s see. ‘Summoners, Always Remember to Change your Socks’…with your choleric.
Flan was already rummaging around in her satchel.
Uh, maybe you shouldn’t send your weird mnemonics through the link, Summoner. Not exactly inspiring confidence.
Top of my class at the Branton Academy for Caducial Sciences, little miss smarty skirt. It’s a good mnemonic. Everyone uses it. Anyway, yes, once all that sanguine hits all that choleric, you’re going to feel absolutely fantastic.
Summoner Flaadym spoke. “It’s so interesting, isn’t it? All this new healing magic Piltover’s come up with.”
Lux nodded absently.
And you’re sure this is real medicine, not something you bought out of the back of an alley in Zaun? How much Cho’gath snot is in it?
You’re going to be telling such better jokes once I hit you with this. You’ll think they’re funnier, anyway. And your soul will stop hemorrhaging, which is just gravy.
Flan leaned over and started rolling up the floppy sleeve of the soft, fuzzy sky blue sweater Lux was wearing. It was enchanted, and probably cost more than a horse; an entire village had chipped in to buy it for her after her victory in a match kept some Zaunite megacorp from setting up a techmaturgic refinery in the bay they fished from. “Just hold still a second…” She traced a quick pattern onto the side of Lux’s arm with her fingertip. A moment later, she felt a quick pinch as Flan gave her a little jab with a syringe and injected the serum.
Lux caught a glimpse of Ezreal walking down the hallway.
Flan smiled. “There we go. Now, be sure to get some good sleep tonight. And please resist the temptation to go out clubbing in Zaun, or downing a bunch of NoxiToxis, or sightseeing in Icathia. Because you’ll probably turn into an octopus! Ha, I might be kidding. Anyway, let me know if you get any weird symptoms, but that should cleanse the last of the stuff out of you.”
And seriously, Lux, take care of yourself. We care about you.
Lux got to her feet. She met Flan’s eyes with her fake megabright smile, and sensed a tinge of admonishment. The smile faded a little, with a feeling that made her think of her fingers being slowly pried off the handle of a knife.
“Thanks Flan.” She shook Flaadym’s hand. “Real nice meeting you, Summoner Flaadym. Best of luck in the League. I know you’ll make the Freljord proud. And happy…I hope you have a happy Harrows’ End.”
Flaadym seemed a little puzzled by the unorthodox wishes, but nodded back.
Lux snatched her coffee cup off the table and hastened over to Ezreal. She took a gulp as she ran, just to make sure it wouldn’t slosh and spill, and hopped a railing to intercept him. She was actually starting to feel better already. That shot had really done the trick.
Ezreal grinned. “Hey Lux. Looking for me?”
She smirked back, setting a hand on her hip. “Actually, yes.” She arched a critical eyebrow at his cocky tone, but she couldn’t stop the excitement from showing through. So full of himself. He’d have had that beaten out of him real fast in Demacia. But he wasn’t from Demacia. He was from the City of Progress. “Come on.”
Soon, they were up on the balcony overlooking the enormous steps that led to the main entrance of the Institute. It was virtually deserted. They split a box of yordle doughnuts that Ezreal had picked up from a vendor in the hallway: crispy-fried with a sprinkle of rainbow sugar on top and nutmeg cream in the center.
Ezreal had made a show of taking a sack of gold coins with an enormous Bilgewater insignia painted on it—his bonus for a recent Pentakill while fighting for the maritime city in a non-Nyroth match—and slapping an uncounted but obviously more-than-sufficient handful into the little fuzzball’s paw before asking for a box of her very finest doughnuts for himself and the young lady Champion. Lux’s cheeks had turned brighter red than the candied cherries on the cupcakes the ecstatic yordle merchant had added into the hand-…the paw-picked box.
“So right after that match with the Pentakill, Piltover called, and I was like, sure, count me in. Except they gave me this Wood Tier clown of a Summoner. He said he thought he saw a ward in the brush, and I thought, sure, I’ll take a look. Well, seems like the Summoner can’t tell a ward from a Rengar. I shifted away from the bola, ran past the golems, knifecat’s right behind me, Malphite and Jinx are coming at me from the other side, and I’m like, hey, Summoner, a little help, this ward is chasing me with a knife.”
Ezreal glowered. “So in a true display of skill, he Flashed me right into a wall. And he was all, ‘Sorry, sorry, here!’ and he threw a Heal on top of it. And I was like, ‘thanks, pal, that’s really going to turn this one-v-three around.’ Let’s just say I started aiming my own skillshots after that.”
Lux laughed. “Oh, he was probably trying his best.”
Ezreal rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, I brought his teammates a stack of Unskilled report forms and told them he could really use some constructive criticism.”
Lux picked up another doughnut. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but her appetite was coming back after that last shot. She took a bite. “Do those actually ever get looked at?”
Ezreal shrugged. “They should. Piltover lost the patent on vivatronic amps to a bunch of Zaunite sleazoids over that match. And I got stabbed by a big cat with a knife.”
Lux giggled despite herself. “Mrowr!” She did her best Rengar impression, which mostly involved making little claws with her hands. She snarled and deepened her voice. “A fitting prize!” She batted at Ezreal’s shoulder a few times.
And then she started laughing hysterically. You weren’t wrong, Flan. This stuff is great!
Ezreal gave her a poke in the forehead. “Easy on the sugar, Laser Girl.”
She straightened her shoulders in finishing school style and inclined her head rather imperiously. “Your request is denied.” She popped the last bit of doughnut into her mouth and brushed her hands off against each other.
“So.” She took a breath and got a little more serious. “I was thinking of going back to Demacia for the rest of the Harrowing. Maybe you could come along.”
Ezreal shook his head. “Better idea.” He glanced around. After confirming that the rest of the balcony was empty, he continued in a conspiratorial murmur, leaning close. This initially had Lux pretty excited, but that soon turned to dismay as she listened to his ridiculously dangerous plan, very stingy on the romance and very heavy on the mummies. “I called in some favors from Shon-Xan and got permission to check out the Twilight Codex in the closed archives. Guess what happened last time there was a dimensional disturbance just before the Harrowing.”
Lux tensed. “This really isn’t sounding like a better idea.” She laughed anxiously. “This is sounding like the opposite of a good idea.”
Ezreal kept going. “The last time there was a dimensional thing right before the Harrowing was two hundred years before the founding of the League.” A “dimensional thing”? Really, Ezreal? “It happened during a Rune War in Shurima. You know how the Shurimans would hide things in pocket dimensions inside those pyramids? Summoners have gone nuts trying to crack them open, but you just can’t do it without the key-spells. Everyone who knew the key-spells died hundred and hundreds of years ago. But guess who’s buried in those tombs next to the pocket dimension apertures?”
Lux was finding this zany idea less zany and more terrifying by the minute. Did you sleep through the Champion’s Oath or what, Ezreal? This is insane! The Council’s done playing around with trespasses into Shurima!
He continued. “There’s this Pilt Summoner, Mx’zi. Definitely a rule-bender. I got him to take a look at some of the diagrams from the codex. He says a few of the pyramids are lined up juuuuust right to channel dimensional dissonance—”
“—you mean dimensional distortion,” she corrected.
“Right, sure, the distortion, it’ll go right through the tombs inside. The dream-hexes the Shurimans created for the mummies, for their fancy afterlives or whatever, need a really stable energy source to keep going for all eternity, like they’re supposed to. Leylines are the most stable energy source there is. They’re worked so deep into the ether-whatever that it takes a Rune War to knock ‘em loose. Or…a Void rift.”
He grinned. Lux usually liked his cockiness, and even his brashness. It was the sort of thing only an individualistic society like Piltover could produce. But she couldn’t believe he was serious about this.
“Mx’zi says the Void rift probably loosened some of those leylines up, enough that the Harrowing won’t just flow past them this year. Some of those mummies are gonna start talking in their sleep. There you go. Dimensional key-spells. And they said it couldn’t be done.”
She stopped him there. “First, even opening those pyramids is illegal. Second, it’s illegal for a reason.”
Ezreal shrugged. “What’s the worst that could happen? Right. Another Nefara. But that’s where you come in. You’ve got all those purification spells memorized. Didn’t you write half of them yourself? Any spooky mummies get out of line, you blast ‘em.”
Lux wanted to smack him. “Ezreal, listen to yourself! No! The Harrowing is no laughing matter. And definitely not this year.” She felt a chill. This serum isn’t all fun and games either. “Not for you.”
Ezreal glanced down at Lux’s mug of coffee, now mostly gone cold. “No laughing matter. Right. From the girl drinking a Black Mist cappuccino.”
Lux pursed her lips and frowned at the cup. “Is that what this is? I didn’t notice.” How morbid. She shook her head. “Listen. Coffee is one thing. But I’m not fooling around, Ezreal.”
He scowled back at her. “I’m not scared of some dusty old mummies.”
Lux fixed him with a cold stare. Piltovians, always so full of themselves. He doesn’t even know what’s coming for him.
“Forget the mummies!” He jerked back, startled to hear her shouting at him. Good. You should be scared, you idiot. “How many people do you think you killed in Shurima?”
He folded his arms. “I don’t know. Not enough.”
She gave him a good long glare, then drank her cold coffee. “This Harrowing won’t be easy on you.”
He looked out into the distance. “I’m fine. I did what I had to do. I wasn’t even in my right mind. I barely remember what happened after…what happened.”
After he thought he’d watched me die.
She spoke quietly. “It’s not about what you remember. It’s about what they remember.”
They were both silent for a while.
Ezreal looked at her. “You’ve always been weird about the Harrowing. I thought it was just a Demacian thing. You get all moody. Come on, it’s supposed to be fun. As long as you’re not in Bilgewater. Sucks to be those guys.”
“I killed a Champion before I ever was one.” Lux’s heart jumped. She didn’t realize what she’d said until she’d said it. It just came out.
Ezreal seemed as shocked as one would expect.
She couldn’t stop. “I was scouting the Noxian border. She saw me. Arix. Her memorial banner’s in the hall right now. 17 CLE. She snared my leg with her chain. She was about to yank me off my feet. She had her knife in her other hand ready to throw. She looked at me and I knew I was dead. I hit her with everything I had. I think the spell almost killed me.”
Lux swallowed. “Her eyes were just white. Wide open, and white. She wasn’t breathing. Not even twitching, and the bodies usually twitched. She was the deadest thing I’d ever seen.”
Ezreal shrugged, trying to play it off as no big deal. “She was about to kill you. Gotta do what you gotta do.”
“You’re a real idiot sometimes, Ez.” Lux wrapped her arms around herself. “I don’t feel guilty. I’d do it again. I’m glad she’s dead. She was a monster. But every Harrowing since, she comes for me. There were plenty of others. I’m a Crownguard; of course there were plenty of others.” She thought of him, and the life he’d had, and felt anger, maybe jealousy. “I’d killed people before I was old enough to drink in Piltover. Believe me, I’d gotten over it. There were lots of others before her. But she’s the one who comes every year.”
Ezreal stared. “Can’t you…I don’t know, exorcise her or whatever?”
Lux shook. “You think I haven’t tried? There’s a reason I know all that banishing magic we used in Shurima. I went through the whole alphabet of exorcism spells trying to get rid of her. It’s hard to make anything work during the Harrowing. Maybe it’s because she’s a Champion.”
She felt sick. “The first few years it was just her eyes, staring at me whenever I shut mine. Two years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and there was a dead girl sitting on my bed. If I ever have a heart attack during the Harrowing as an old lady, that’ll be what it was.”
Ezreal moved closer. She didn’t move away. “How’d you beat her?”
Lux picked up the box of doughnuts between them and set them on the other side of her. They were nice doughnuts. She’d want some later. “I didn’t. I don’t think she can hurt…touch me. She tells me I cheated her. She tells me she wants another fight. She says it was a cheap shot. I tell her she’s dead and I’m glad she is. I tell her she’s a sadistic killer and my only regret is that I didn’t get to make her suffer so she’d know what it was like. She gets in my head. I start talking like her. What really creeps me out is when she starts talking like me. The more I say to her, the more real she gets, but I can’t stop myself. Pretty soon she’s searching me for something. She wants something I have. It’s horrible.”
She wearily made a twirling motion with one finger, illustrating a wrapping chain. “Her chain. I think it was her chain around my leg. It was enchanted black iron. I think it might have conducted something. Cute, huh. Physical connection. Ethereal connection. With an actual chain that exists on both planes. You’ve got a stable enchantment below, and a burst-magic phenomenon above. Bet that would make a good journal article on thaumadynamics.”
Ezreal hesitantly put a hand on her shoulder. He has no idea what I’m talking about. Not the arcane theory, definitely. And just as definitely not the rest. Fighting’s a game for him. Well, he’s going to have to grow up this year.
Lux shook her head. “Sorry. This shot Flan gave me, it’s doing things to my head. But really. I can deal with … Arix. It’s you I’m worried about. I’m not getting into all this because I need sympathy or anything. It’s part of being a soldier. I just don’t think you’re even close to ready for what might be coming for you.”
Ezreal grinned nervously. “So, maybe not Shurima.”
Lux grinned back. “It doesn’t have to be Demacia. What about Piltover? Or there’s always Ionia. Or we could just—”
The door to the balcony creaked open. They hastily moved a bit further apart.
Shuffling footsteps heralded the arrival of Yorick Mori. He paused beside them as he passed. “Master Ezreal. Lady Lux. I continue to anticipate your future business.” He continued on his way until he reached the balcony’s railing.
They sat in silence as he gazed down upon the steps leading up to the Institute’s main entrance. Minutes passed before he grunted to himself, turned, and left the way he came. The door swung shut behind him.
Ezreal shuddered. “That guy creeps me out.”
Lux shrugged back. “He’s not so bad.”
Ezreal arched an eyebrow. “Reeeeally.”
Lux poked around inside the box of doughnuts. She grasped one of the crispy-sweet confections and gingerly broke off a piece. “I’ve got ghosts for him to bury.”
She popped the bit of doughnut into her mouth. She swallowed, then rinsed the greasy crumbs down with a drink of tepid coffee. As the sun began to set, she swept the frosting off her teeth with a brush of her tongue, and took another drink. “So do you.”
She swirled the cup around, contemplating the last half-inch still swishing inside, then held it up for a toast. “Here’s to Yorick Mori.” She tossed it back and set the cup down beside the box of doughnuts. She found herself smiling.
She looked back at Ezreal. Smug, naive, impetuous, brave.
You’re dead, Arix. I’m not.
She grabbed him by the sleeve and tugged him into her for a kiss.
I hope you’re watching.
Freezing rain beat down on Bilgewater as the Black Mist approached on the horizon. It was the height of the Harrowing, and night would fall any minute now. It was, in short, a great time to go looking for spectral manifestations big enough to provide a good test for this new gear.
Summoner Wizard99^6 swept his thaumex back and forth, trying to get the waveform display to resolve into something intelligible. “I’m starting to think this thing’s miscalibrated.” He looked over his shoulder at Sam. “Let me see yours.”
Summoner Sam “Terra” Asoni came over and held out his thaumex reader. The screens were showing the same distorted pattern.
“Could be an aftershock distortion phenomenon. That’d explain everything except the theta-band artifacts,” Wizard mused. He saw a woman peering at him from her doorway, and jogged over. “Excuse me! Excuse me, ma’am!”
She started to close the door. He ran faster.
“Ma’am! Just one question! We’re from the Institute!”
She hesitated long enough for him to make it to her doorstep, panting a bit. He took a few hasty breaths and adjusted the straps over his shoulders that secured his vivatronic accelerator cannon’s amplifier unit on his back. He held up a finger, as if to ask for just one more moment.
He noticed her eyes flick down to the purple and gold pin on his lapel. He found that people were always willing to talk to a Summoner, either out of respect for the important role they played in preserving Valoran’s peace, or because they were always a bit paranoid that they might go off and do something foolish. The mistrust of the general public for mages such as Summoners was a significant social problem, Wizard99^6 believed, and he hoped to make a positive impression here.
“…you a Summoner?” she asked him, quirking an eyebrow.
He nodded, and tapped his nametag. He wore it because he often got tired of spelling it out. It read “Wizard99^6, Smnr.” in friendly stamped letters with hextech phosphorizing highlights to make them comfortably readable even in dimly lit conditions.
“Wizard Nine Nine to the Sixth, ma’am. An uncommon name, I agree, but my own belief is that the League’s naming-book reached out to me and we together created a profoundly suitable alias. You see, I’m a librarian at Xelnor. Library science is founded upon organization through numerical identification schemes, and as such categorization was in fact my specialty as a student there, I determined it would be fitting to adopt such an identifier for myself. By using the common noun ‘Wizard’, with a distinctive numerical identifier subsequently, I direct the emphasis to the latter rather than the former, playfully subverting norms of nomenclature and social custom. I am certain that the book and I devised this together in a flash of psychic inspiration, and take as further evidence that I do not remember anything of the sort—residual amnesia being a common symptom of intense psychic interaction.”
She looked between the nametag and him a few times. She frowned, rather wearily, in the manner of someone encountering just what they’d expected.
“I take from your expression the impression, if you’ll forgive my verbal jocularity with regard to being impressed by what you express, that you think I might be a bit strange, and if so, guilty as charged, but I did have a question for you, of considerable importance.”
She nodded. “Sure.” She even smiled a little. “How can I be of service, sir?”
She sees that we are here to help, and responds favorably. The beginning of a positive interaction on behalf of the Institute.
Wizard99^6 held up his thaumex screen. “Have you experienced any of the following within the past twenty-four hours: unexplained tremors, hallucinations, pyrokinetic phenomena such as spontaneous combustion, physical transformation, or time dilation?”
She was about to speak when he held up a finger again. “Ah ha! Excuse me.” He looked over at Sam, who had walked over. “This is a teaching moment, young Summoner. Do not neglect the importance of on-site interviews and qualitative impressions.” Sam nodded back, and the two of them looked at the woman in the doorway again.
She waited a moment, and when neither of them said anything, she answered. “Can’t say I have, sir.” She gestured above, indicating a small copper trinket in the shape of a shield, quite firmly embedded in the lintel. “My sister’s working at the Institute. As a cook, you know. She brought that back when she visited the other week. Says it’s from Demacia. Supposed to keep the Mist out. Working so far. Must be keeping the tremors and whatsits away.”
Sam took advantage of his considerable height to reach up and wave his thaumex past the shield. He furrowed his brow, then carefully pressed a button on the blinking device. Silver runes briefly flashed into view on the shield’s face.
The woman frowned up at him. “…something the matter?”
Sam smiled anxiously. “Um. You might want to have a backup plan, too.”
Wizard99^6 interjected. “We’ve taken up enough of this good citizen’s time, young Summoner Asoni. A good evening to you, ma’am.”
She seemed to have a further question. “What are those big boxes on your backs? With all the tubes?”
Sam responded helpfully. “They’re vivatronic accelerator cannon amplifier units, ma’am. Well, mostly. This part here,” he awkwardly half-turned and knocked on one of the metal boxes attached to the unit, “is a collimator and phase discriminator.”
The woman seemed to fix on one word in particular. “Cannon? That’s a cannon?”
“And it’s very, very safe,” Wizard99^6 added. “Unless you’re a ghost, ghoul, specter, or possibly a revenant, though we haven’t tested that presumably heterogeneous category with sufficient rigor to come to any firm conclusions. But in short, very safe! Safety certification granted, provisionally. Good evening.”
He hefted his pack into a comfortable carrying position and continued down the road. “Come along, Summoner Asoni.”
Smart young fellow, but he has a lot to learn about interactions with the public! I shall make a point to advise him further during this internship.
Sam peered through the rain as they walked. He noticed a gang of shotgun-toting militiamen standing under an awning, speaking to Demacian soldiers wearing silver plate armor. He’d heard that Lucian had brought the Purifiers to Bilgewater to shore up the defenses. They’d had to get special permission from the Council for it, after what had happened in Shurima. He thought about asking Wizard99^6 about it, but seeing as the senior Summoner had fought for Zaun, he worried it might turn a bit awkward.
Sam was worried by all the anti-Zaun posters he saw in Piltover these days. And all the recruitment pitches that went with them, for the new army they were building. Zaun built the HexKorps, so Piltover needed something to match it, they’d said. But Zaun, or at least certain people from Zaun, had also bombed Piltover and killed thousands of people—did that mean Piltover had to do the same? He’d seen how Demacians and Noxians looked at each other. Absolute pitch-black hatred. For generations. He didn’t see how it could ever be different, with all that blood spilled between them. Was that how Piltover and Zaun were going to end up? He hoped that science and reason would win out in the end, but sometimes he worried quite a lot. He’d written his application essay for this internship about the importance of cooperation between the two states, and he’d meant every word.
He looked over to smile at Wizard99^6, to reassure himself. The Zaunite Summoner smiled back, albeit somewhat distractedly. You can’t judge a whole civilization by what a few crooked megacorp execs did. Well, you can, and people did, but you shouldn’t.
He had asked earlier why there weren’t more troops in the streets, seeing as they were expecting quite a lot of undead to swarm the city any day now—couldn’t the other nations put their differences aside to help Bilgewater at a time like this? If the Mist was spreading, shouldn’t everyone want to get their troops some experience dealing with it?
He’d been told that the problem was more tactical than political: that those who were killed by the undead tended to rise as undead themselves. So, it stood to reason that sending a small number of elite troops was a much better idea than deploying a rank-and-file army that would just feed the enemy more undead. And then, Wizard99^6 had explained, there was the matter of morale. Fresh recruits were likely to panic under the effects of the Mist. For both reasons, quality rather than quantity was the order of the day.
“Everyone seems really calm,” he commented to Wizard99^6 as they came to their agreed rendezvous point near the docks. It was nice to get under an awning and out of the rain.
“Indeed they do.” Wizard99^6 unzipped a waterproof pocket on his heavy raincoat and took out a small notebook, into which he began adding in records of his recent observations.
“It doesn’t seem all that different from Piltover.”
Wizard99^6 squinted at the page in front of him. “Well, they say people are people, wherever you go.”
“I guess I just thought people would be more panicky.”
“The Mist isn’t here yet. And it probably won’t hit the coast for another, oh, another two days. Although who’s to say? It’s a highly chaotic phenomenon.”
“But it could hit anytime, right? I’d just expect everyone to, I don’t know, run away. Like that lady we talked to; why isn’t she visiting her sister at the Institute?”
“You should have asked her. It might have been educational.”
“I didn’t want to be rude.”
Wizard99^6 looked up from his logbook. “If you worry more about rudeness than ignorance, young man, I fear you’ll not go as far as I suspect your prodigious intellect could take you. And that would be quite a shame.”
“But I mean, she might die.”
“And here you are with a vivatronic accelerator apparatus strapped to your back in the middle of Bilgewater with the Black Mist within sight of the coast. And before that, you were on Nyroth, a mysterious continent with a highly volatile thaumic matrix and no shortage of lethal threats. You might die yourself, young man. Why aren’t you visiting family at the Institute? Assuming you have any at the Institute. If not, insert an analogous referent for what I assure you was a largely rhetorical question.”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s all just pretty new to me.”
“Given your tender age, Summoner Asoni, I assume you have not had any military experience.”
“Me? No. Definitely not.”
“Let me pass onto you, then, a lesson I’ve learned through many years of interaction with members of the soldiering profession. Situations such as this one—that is to say, situations involving a constant threat of mortal danger that only very sporadically manifests as an acute crisis—generally inflict two independently and combinatorially deleterious effects on those immersed therein: fatigue, and boredom.”
Sam frowned in confusion. It didn’t make a lot of sense to him. Boredom? How could this be boring? But as he thought about it, that woman’s expression did seem like that. Bored. Tired. Waiting. Almost like she was hoping that the Mist would hit shore.
He thought about it a bit more while Wizard99^6 tidied up his journal. “Well, at least people are here to help. Demacians. Piltovians. Zaunites. Noxians. I think some, Ionians, too. And us, I guess?”
Wizard99^6 nodded. He returned his logbook to his pocket as he glimpsed Summoners Amsel and Storm approaching. “There’s also the concrete matter of looting. If she left, she might not have much to return to, I fear! Particularly with the local constabulary pressed into service as a militia force, leaving precious little time or energy for the investigation of burglaries.”
Sam looked around. He’d been feeling uneasy for a while now, here at the Bilgewater docks at night. He didn’t really know what “street smart” meant, but he gathered it involved looking around a lot and being careful. So, he looked around a lot. “You don’t think anyone’s going to try to rob us or anything, right?”
Wizard99^6 smiled and waved to the other two Summoners as they approached. “That would be a most unfortunate mistake on their part, and quite possibly a lethal one.” He wrung out his unkempt blond hair and flipped his hood back over his head before stepping back out into the rain. Sam dutifully followed.
“Summoner Amsel and Summoner Storm, right?” he asked Wizard99^6.
“Hex and Revolver.”
“Just Revolver? Or ‘Revolver’ Storm?”
“Storm Revolver, actually. Oddly enough; I confess I had grown so thoroughly accustomed to the most uncustomary grammar of the League’s record book that this particular peculiarity had evaded my notice. The record book possesses a mind of its own, and if you ask me, the translation spells are becoming rather eccentric. An unsurprising occurrence, which one would expect from a single tome however well enchanted which has minted so many spell-names. I have a paper on that which I really should complete one of these days. It concerns the number four hundred and twenty, which seems to have a strange numerological significance; the record book continues to insert it quite arbitrarily into Summoners’ official arcane names. I must say I count myself fortunate that my chosen name went through without the book inserting any oddities or distortions. Perhaps it was fond of the numerical component? I have spent many years caring for books; I like to think that this book perhaps meant to return the favor with an accurate transcription. Yet in the final accounting such niceties are functionless form, the essential function being the establishment of multilinguistically stable spell-names by which a Summoner may be unambiguously referred—summoned, if you will, though I’m not sure I would—by invocations in any tongue mundane or arcane.”
Sam, having gained further insight into the nom de guerre of his friend xXnoScope420Xx, asked a further question. “Are they random? I’d heard they have meaning, but I can’t quite puzzle out what ‘TerraBooma’ might mean. And what about Summoner Amsel? Hex? Did she get good marks in Hexes or something?”
“I do recall that she got very good results in a practical display of hexcraft involving one particular hex and one particular instructor who became more cautious about surprise demonstrations in subsequent years. I would not be too quick to ascribe foresight to a record book, young Summoner. One does wonder at the demented banality that would cause one to name a Summoner ‘Hex’.”
The four of them met at the cross-street before Sam could ask any further questions.
Summoner Liesel “Hexmage” Amsel, the captain of the clipper that had brought them here, spoke first. “So where’re the spooks at?” She hooked her hands under the straps of her VAC. “Storm here didn’t think it’d be prudish to try these things out on the gulls.”
Summoner Revolver spoke up, in a tense Piltovian accent. “Prudent.” It sounded like he might have been from around Sam’s neighborhood.
Hex jerked a thumb back at him. “See what I mean?” A gull squawked overhead, and she glared up at it with both eyes: one natural, one the hextech sort that Viktor’s acolytes often had installed. “Bunch’a flying rats.” There was no mistaking the downtown Zaunite twang on her vowels. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted up at the circling birds. “SCRAM!”
Sam found his eyes drawn to the dark green edging on Storm Revolver’s robes. It struck him as a bit strange that a Summoner pledged for the Shadow Isles would come here to fight the Mist, at least at first, but it made more sense as he thought about it. No Shadow Isles Champions had been seen leading the Mist since its induction to the League during the Ceruleana dispute. It’d be an act of war, wouldn’t it? And the Mist was a natural phenomenon, not a spell; it wasn’t anyone’s fault, really.
“So about those spooks,” Hex asked Wizard. “They’re hitting tomorrow or the day after, yeah? How many are we talking about? As many as last year? Think there’ll be anything big enough to survive the VAC streams long enough to bottle ‘em up?”
Wizard99^6 took out his thaumex and began fiddling with the knobs. “There’s a great deal of background distortion, and the ambient energy level is rather high, but my revised estimate is that we may have three or four days to go: the waveform cohesion is almost nil.”
He paused. “Was almost nil. A moment ago.” He lifted the thaumex up and squinted at the display as he tuned a dial. “Hm. That appears to no longer be the case.”
Storm cast a wary glance around the deserted street. “What’s the delta?”
Wizard99^6 continued to watch the display, no longer making any adjustments. “Friends, I must apologize. That is an excellent question, plainly apropos, and normally within a few moments’ calculation by resort to elementary thaumadynamic principles.”
Storm reached into his coat. “So what’s the bloody delta?” he repeated, rather more urgently.
Sam noticed that it was getting very windy.
Wizard99^6 did not take his eyes from the display. “I’m afraid I cannot say.”
Storm drew his namesake hextech revolver from his coat. “And why is that?” His eyes searched the alleys and side streets that fed into the boulevard they stood upon.
“Because I am terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.”
Storm took out his own thaumex and switched it on. The transceivers instantly spat sparks. His thumb drew down a dial on the side, and he stared at the display, seeming to be checking and double-checking some horrifying impossibility. He nodded once to himself, the way Piltovians of refinement often do when confirming the presence of mortal danger, then shut down his thaumex and placed it back inside his coat.
Hex looked his way. “How bad are we talking, Storm?”
Storm flicked out the cylinder of his revolver and tapped one of the chambered rounds. “This bad.” He slapped the cylinder back into place, pulled the hammer, and shot skyward. A golden flash illuminated the night sky: the alarm code.
Sam felt himself shaking. He looked out to the horizon. The Black Mist was still far away. At least a day away.
He heard screams and shouts. Answering signal-flashes appeared on the other side of the boulevard, which marked the beginning of the zone assigned to Noxus and Zaun.
The other three unhooked their VACs and flicked on the power. He reached up beside his head and grasped his.
The Mist was moving faster. He thought about a pendulum, about how, for a given configuration, a pendulum would always take the same time to complete a swing, no matter how high or how low it began. Big fast sweeps, little slow sweeps; either way, the final duration was inevitable and unchangeable.
He unhooked his VAC from its holster and switched it on. It got heavier when activated.
Or like a sunset. The sun took so long to move across the sky, but once it began to set, it vanished out of sight in minutes. It was dark now. Not much moonlight, either. He hadn’t even noticed.
Someone screamed inside the house behind him. He turned and saw thick black mist climbing up the walls.
Storm Revolver took a step forward. “It has been an honor. To give one’s life in the pursuit of progress and a brighter tomorrow is an honor indeed.”
Sam swallowed. “I’m with you, sir.” He wasn’t as scared as he thought he’d be.
Hex groaned. “Enough outa you Pilts.” She pushed her way past them and kicked the door wide open with her boot. She sidestepped through and slammed her cannon’s activation panel, launching forth a wild spiral of sparking purple energy.
“WOOOOOOOOO! HEY NINES! THEY WORK! THEY REALLY WORK!” She laughed. “HAVE A LOAD’A THIS YA SPOOKY SPOOKS!”
Wizard99^6 seemed to have recovered his senses. He gave Sam a shrug and, with a broad grin, said what Sam would later recall as an exceptionally Zaunite expression. Not the words, which he’d heard all over, but the intensity with which they were spoken.
“This should be very interesting!”
Yorick Mori looked over the stylized arcane map of Runeterra on the pedestal before him. The room hissed with the ghostly echoes of distant magic, emanating from the bejeweled map to rebound off the shielded alabaster walls. The null-magic barriers in the walls locked out even the tiniest scrap of external spell-power, leaving only the energy of the map and Yorick himself. Perfect for a teleportation spell, if you were a Champion or a Summoner with enough arcane strength and self-cohesion. A Summoner had told Yorick, during his first tour of the Institute, that ordinary mortals would likely be pulled apart, their spirits dissolving into the noise. Something about a gruesome illustration of the importance of ambient magic as a stabilizing factor. Yorick was not much interested in the Summoner’s excited theorizing. He liked to think of himself as well grounded.
Yorick discerned three distinct plates that together made up the map. The first plate showed Valoran itself. Yorick could sense its well-worn age. It was covered in fine lines, tracing out every leyline that criss-crossed Valoran. There were other annotations and decorations which Yorick could not identify. What did catch his attention were the gemstones embedded in the map to mark major cities and other places of interest to the Champions and Summoners of the League: Demacia, Noxus, Piltover, all the rest. The next plate, in the upper left, principally depicted the Shadow Isles. A dusky green emerald glowed as he looked upon it. He heard the whispers of lost spirits through the gemstone’s facets.
Please Yorick, I’m so tired.
Let me rest. I can’t walk another step.
I have information of interest to you. Can we make an arrangement?
Where’s my dad? Mister?
Yorick, come back, please. It’s my turn.
Between the Isles and the coast of the Freljord, a storm-gray gem flecked with silver and blue marked the island of Ceruleana.
And to the south of Ceruleana was the newest plate, depicting the chaotic currents of the Conqueror’s Sea, and the land of Nyroth, with a single aquamarine crystal attuned to the Port of Stormhaven in the northern Monsku region. Yorick pressed his palm against its sharp-edged face, and felt a familiar but always peculiar sensation as the enchantments took him back to Nyroth.
A Summoner named Raptirius Atthaex was waiting for him, crouched beside the fireplace. Despite the obfuscation of his voluminous purple robe, Yorick could see that his legs bent in rather a different way than legs usually did. His posture seemed somehow consistent with his scaly snouted face and the long row of sharp pointed teeth within his jaws, though he could not quite place exactly what it was he resembled. Those teeth were presently occupied with the task of ripping bits of flesh and fur from the corpse of a rabbit that the Summoner held grasped between his claws. The time-darkened stains on the once-shimmering fabric of his robe indicated that Raptirius had partaken of many such meals in the past.
Raptirius appeared wary that Yorick might insist on interrupting his meal. He did not. He had some time.
A short while later, Raptirius led Yorick through the ancient evergreen forests, beneath the steady cold rain, to the place he had mentioned in his letter. (Ruminating about the Summoner’s clawed hands, Yorick speculated that the letter had been dictated.)
The Summoner paused, craning his head to sniff the cold air. “Yes. The Screaming Grove.” He nodded ahead. “That way.”
Yorick answered with a grunt. “Wonder what they’ve got to scream about.” He hefted his shovel and smashed aside a thick tree branch lying in his way.
They soon arrived at this Screaming Grove, and what Yorick saw was not promising. A sea of blurred humanoid shapes, trapped in a twisted net of sticky, barbed ethereal strands. This would be slow digging. Very slow. And while he’d worked in noisy conditions before, these screams he found particularly hard to ignore.
Grumbling to himself, Yorick limped over for a closer look. “Go get Karthus.” He would share in this toil. Yorick figured that whatever souls they hacked out would still count toward his quota. Though perhaps, he mused darkly, at a reduced rate.
He scraped away a bit of dirt, and found a gaunt, hazy face beneath, tangled up in the warped…“matrix”, the robes had called it, when they talked about it. Which they did. Almost constantly.
Yeah. Real fascinating. Don’t see you out here digging.
Yorick struck the sharp blade of his shovel against one of the tendrils. The face below screamed in some kind of gibberish Nyroth-language. Funny; he could usually work out what dead people were saying, wherever they were from. No clue with this guy.
He paused, glaring down at the ghost. “You’re welcome.” He struck again. The strand snapped, but two more slithered out from the ground to replace it.
Lots of ways to count. Might be number of souls. Might have something to do with years. Maybe they count extra the longer they’re stuck. Maybe they don’t count as much as the fresh ones.
He paused. Maybe someone could give a guy a hint. No answer. There never was. He got back to digging.
The strands hardened in the daylight, and became softer at night. Around midnight, for a few minutes, he could work the shovel beneath the souls and sort of pry them out a bit. Outside of that window, they’d fight him, twist away, cling to their torment.
This better be worth extra, or I’m a chump. Maybe there’s a list. Gotta get ten thousand of these, another ten thousand of those. Maybe I need more Nyrothians. Maybe I’m already over-quota for Valoran.
Meanwhile, Karthus did his singing while his Summoners laid out the books, drew the circles, lit the candles. Seemed like a bunch of nonsense to Yorick, except he always did like the candles. The candles were nice.
The shade spoke. “Kaistos kal xenei, dulcosa, dulcosa.”
Yorick grunted as he planted his foot on the back of the shovel to drive it through the hard ground. “Got two words for you to learn.”
He leaned his weight against the shovel. It wouldn’t budge. He drew it a few inches out of the ground, to a less ambitious depth, and tried again. He felt the leverage start to do its thing. The ground cracked.
He fastened his grip tighter around the shovel’s haft and flung the shovelful of clay aside. Ether-strands snapped like roots.
He leaned forward to let his lantern shine into the hole. The coppery light illuminated a pool of arcane energy, welling up like groundwater. He dipped his shovel in and splashed it over the tough bits to soften them up a little.
The shade began to coalesce. “M-or-i?”
You better be worth extra.
Yorick heard Raptirius Atthaex creep closer. He was just glancing over that way when he heard the Summoner’s reedy voice eagerly chiming in. “YAAAHRECK MAAARI!”
“SHUT UP!” He smacked the robed lizard-creature with the flat of his shovel.
Raptirius recoiled, whimpering.
It was another two days of the most grueling job Yorick had ever done, worse than that glacier in the Freljord, the one with the bears, before Yorick had dug this dumb sod a halfway presentable grave.
Karthus drifted over. Chanting Summoners swinging censers followed in his wake. Those, Yorick didn’t care for. The smoke made him itch.
Karthus took his place. Yorick only recognized one of the Summoners with him: Michelus Magnus, a Demacian who’d been a soldier before he put on the fancy robes. Not a lot of Demacians fighting for the Isles. While Karthus was doing his preparations, Yorick studied the Summoner more closely. He could sense the death coming off him, which wasn’t an uncommon thing for soldiers, but there was something else. He turned to cast a bit more light from his lantern that way, and he saw it. His gut. He’d taken a bad wound there, and whoever patched him up wasn’t any Demacian: his insides had been reanimated with necromancy. Yorick couldn’t tell who’d done it; might have been a Noxian patch-job from somebody who wanted to keep a prisoner alive long enough to question, or maybe Mordekaiser had raised up some of his fallen comrades and caught his wound with the same spell. Magic got screwy around Summoners. They made real fussy corpses, too. Chatty.
Karthus spoke up at last. “Awaken, child. Gaze upon this world one final time. Reveal to us the secrets of Nyroth.”
The ghost began to speak, not in any ordinary Valoranian tongue, or in Nyrothian, but in an older language that Yorick and Karthus both well understood. Yorick had heard Summoners refer to it by many different names, most of which he couldn’t remember. The Institute types called it Thanic, mostly. Noxians called it Cadaverian, and that word always left a bad taste in Yorick’s mouth. As far as Yorick was concerned, it was Dead People Talk.
He told them about how he ended up dead like this, which Yorick had noticed was a pretty common topic among dead folks. It was the middle of the night. There used to be a tavern here. This guy was playing some kind of game that involved tossing rocks in mugs of ale. It sounded like he was winning; Yorick figured he was happy to go out on a high note. He’d just lobbed one of the stones, aiming for a mug, when the whole room went day-bright, as though it had gone from night to noon in less time than it took for the rock to land. The ground shook, the floorboards split, and he was sucked down into the mud, where he drowned in darkness.
They started losing him. Karthus did something that brought him back from the brink.
Seems this guy was a student at one of the universities in Monsku. Great. More mages. Weren’t nearly enough mages here. He started going on about Nyroth, and where it came from; Yorick heard the scratchy sounds of Summoners furiously scribbling down notes on parchment.
There was a great nexus in the center of Nyroth—though at first, there wasn’t any Nyroth there at all. Just the nexus. It pulled ten other nexuses toward itself. They balanced each other out, and settled into a ring. There was a lot of energy around here, which is what caused all the storms, and the shipwrecks. Yorick did remember a few souls of sailors from around here saying something about an island, but he’d been in a hurry and hadn’t paid much attention. The Nyrothian said that the nexuses had tapped into all that wild magic from the storms and aimed it inward to the big nexus in Yoroth, at the center of Nyroth. Long story short, sounded like that magic was enough to lift the nexuses up out of the sea, and to bring a bunch of rock and dirt with them. Something technical-sounding about elemental magic, yadda yadda, the magic made the dirt into more dirt, and eventually you had Nyroth and ten islands.
Yorick started losing interest around this point, and found his attention drifting to the grave. Wasn’t quite right. He started doing a little extra work on the sides. Maybe there were points for style. Even if not, he took pride in his work. He didn’t like the rough job he’d had to do here. Toughest ground he’d ever dug. And all things considered, he thought people deserved, or at least ought to get, a decent grave.
He gave it a little more depth in the center. Added a bit of room for the feet. Meanwhile, Karthus and his Summoners were talking about fancy magic theory. The phrase “nexus resonance” kept coming up. He took another look at the grave. Pretty good work, all things considered. That’s the value of experience. Can always trust Yorick Mori to dig a good grave. To make the most of a lousy situation and bad dirt.
Yorick checked his pocket watch. Still running after all these years. He’d bought it from Old Lady Tamo for nineteen palms. Probably the best deal he ever got. It’d always been magically self-setting, and it had gotten smarter with age, just like him. Always told the right time. And now it told him it was forty-seven minutes past four in the morning.
Karthus turned the pages of the heavy tome he held cradled in his arm. The Demacian Summoner hastened to present him with a slender quill, and held up a pot of midnight blue ink.
Karthus clasped the quill in his bony fingers, and looked down. “Tell me your name, child.”
“Xeos Roani. … wait. Provisional Graduate Xeos Roani, of the Monsku Surveyor’s College. Can you fit all that?”
“Provisional Graduate Xeos Roani, of the Monsku Surveyor’s College,” Karthus repeated. Yorick watched the shade’s face relax. He wasn’t a sentimental kind of guy, but it was a nice thing to see.
“Thank you,” the ghost whispered. “And thank you, Yorick Mori.”
Yorick rested his shovel on his shoulder. “I appreciate your business.”
Karthus returned the quill to the Summoner attending him, who placed it back inside its obsidian case, careful not to tinge his fingers with the ink.
Karthus raised his scepter, and silence fell.
“Hear now your requiem.”
Hex grinned right back at the grinning skeletal figures clawing their way out from the Mist as she blasted them with a full-intensity VAC beam. She was laughing like a madwoman, but her glee (and no small amount of honest terror) only further accelerated her thoughts. The red sparks that popped off the musty old bones before they blew apart were consistent with necromantic sub-field collapse, as one would expect from a Class II or Class III necromantic construct exposed to such a high-powered beam. Very fun, very loud, very effective at removing dangerous skellies from this person’s living room, regrettably ineffective at securing any specimens worth carting back to the lab.
She was distracted by the thought of how she might go about scraping some ectoplasm from one of those femurs now scattered about the floor when everything went dark and the breath gushed out of her lungs. She could still hear distant, muffled sound, and she thought she felt her heart pounding where her chest should be, and the suggestion of little mechanical whirs from her hextech right eye, but everything else was a strangely comforting void.
She would later spend a lot of time wondering what kind of craziness was responsible for the thought that followed: Hey, this ain’t so bad.
It was only when she felt herself hit the floor in a rather unfortunately angled way, and pain shot up her back, that she realized she was still distinctly part of the corporeal realm, and, a moment later, that there was something wrapped around her face.
She couldn’t feel her arms, but she thought arm-swingy thoughts, and felt distant thuds about where her hands ought to have been impacting.
She heard the faint suggestion of words such as ten percent power, zero orthogonality and a moment later got a nasty jolt of transdimensional whiplash and regained her senses.
“HIT IT!” Storm Revolver shouted.
She sniffed, and recoiled at the scent of burning hair. She started half-lucidly batting at the side of her head, aiming to put it out. The deduction that it was her own hair occurred more or less sub-consciously after many years of experience in Zaunite laboratories, where the importance of prompt results was given due appreciation and fire was hailed as the great accelerator. Her own hair burned with a piquant, perhaps citrusy, undertone.
“NATURALLY!” Nines proclaimed quite euphorically as he aimed his VAC above her head.
She glanced up—
EYES AND TEETH EYES AND TEETH EYES AND TEETH
—and with a shriek she hurled herself down onto the floor. She started fumbling for her VAC while the shambling flopping mass of eyes and teeth and eyes and teeth and eyes and teeth and eyes and eyes and teeth and teeth and TEETH—
A VAC beam slapped the horrifying monstrosity which was just on my face, how was that on my face, did it eat my face into the opposite wall.
She scrambled to her feet and, in a hateful flash of quite ingenious intuition, flicked the diversion matrix control to about two-thirds up before she gave the freaky face-eating spook a dose of Zaunite technology.
“DID YOU EAT MY FACE?! DID YOU EAT MY DAMN FACE?!” she shouted at the thing as it writhed and oozed. All those teeth. Were some of them coming out of the thing’s eyes?
“Perhaps vigorously exfoliated!” Nines commented as he moved closer, careful to keep the beam angle just right. He took a moment to squint at her, but the closer examination did not seem to change his appraisal.
“You’re telling me THAT’S a ghost?!”
“So it would appear!”
“Whaddya mean appear? It’s got teeth comin’ out of its eyes! What kinda ghost has freaking teeth out of its eyes!?” Her thoughts had started to slip toward potential article titles, and all the fancy lab gear she could acquire with the proceeds from a corporate publication, when she noticed that it also had eyes in its teeth, and almost lost her ship-board lunch.
A man’s voice wailed from upstairs. “HELP! HELP! PLEASE! HELP!”
The poncy Pilt, Storm, dashed past her to the stairs.
The ghost-blob-teeth-thing started to slide and shimmer out from under the beams. She dialed back her phase-gain, but that just made it worse.
“Hey, Booma, if your face isn’t getting eaten, you wanna do something about this spook?”
He piped up almost at once. A little too fast.
She felt the room’s manapool fall to her feet. Not even remotely what I meant.
When she saw the red-orange particle cloud flickering down toward the ghost, she yanked her VAC beam away, let go of the firing control, and hit the deck just before the manashock.
She glanced at the smoky smear where the thing had been, then looked over to see the Pilt kid’s hand trembling. Who teaches ferox to a sub-30?
“What are they teaching you brats these days?” A moment of dread lifted her eyes to the ceiling. She saw only a few wispy shapes swirling in the corner. She blasted them mostly to settle her nerves. “We didn’t have you strap all those vials of ectobinder to your arms because they match your shiny blue eyes.”
“An impressive display nonetheless, young Summoner!” Shut up, Nines.
“I coulda published on that. Kid buys me lunch.” She jogged to the stairs, and gestured for Nines and the kid to follow her. “You tell me what kinda thing that ain’t got an apostrophe in its name has eye-teeth and, ugggghh, teeth-eyes, and flops around like that.”
“A Void presence in the Mist would be a most exciting find! A shame we were not able to secure further readings.”
“I’m very sorry about that, ma’am.”
She slowed as she reached the last part of the stairs, taking each step carefully, eyes traversing the ceiling for any further tooth-eyed wrigglers. “Ehh, not the worst thing to set on fire. Just take it easy on the elemental master-hexes, Archsummoner.” Hex was no wuss, but she also knew better than to cast a high-pull spell like that around a high-capacity unchecked manapool. Beaming energy through a device like a VAC, that was one thing; casting it naked was using yourself as an indicator strip.
Speaking of, she thought about switching on the amp in her hextech eye. The threat recognition subcogitator might just pick up on the next nasty surprise before it was literally on top of her. On the other hand, she didn’t like the idea of opening up another pathway for this Mist stuff to get into her head.
They found Storm Revolver in the room at the top of the stairs, both palms outretched, with an anti-magic sphere hovering in front of each. A trembling old man cowered at his feet. Storm was using the spheres as impromptu deflection foci to ward back a trio of shadowy figures.
She couldn’t tell if they were ghosts or not. They looked solid. Kinda. Something told her that hitting them with a beam wasn’t a great idea. They had that twistiness that she associated with Summoners, or at least with well-educated mages. The kind of devious aura that could toss a kill-hex right back into your face.
They started speaking.
“Which of you will bring us our war?”
“We have traveled far.”
“From the Isles.”
“To find our war.”
“Take their minds.”
“Hold them fast.”
Skeletal footsteps rattled up the stairs. Hex’s eyes caught on a shadow in the corner of the room. A terrible stench hit her just as she saw a ghoul shambling forth, fingers splayed out to grab her.
Well that’s a whole lotta nope.
She blasted the lurching corpse with her VAC. It thrashed in the beam’s grip, but it wasn’t coming apart like the skeletons had. And she had the eeriest feeling something was breathing down her neck.
She snapped her eyes back over her shoulder. The shadowy figures were only a little closer, but they were working their way around Storm Revolver’s defensive field. She did not want to find out what kind of hex they’d send through the maze once they found the path to her aura.
Back down the stairs. We can deal with skellies.
“Booma, grab that guy and get moving. Nines, clear the stairs.”
A thought nagged her. Still no specimens.
She heard movement behind her. She really hoped it was the Pilt kid helping the old man up while Nines took point.
“A most expedient sol—”
The door flung shut. There was a flash as Nines fired his VAC at it, but it didn’t sound like it worked.
Okay, new plan.
She took a breath, released the firing control of her VAC, and acutely aware of how few footsteps separated her from the ghoul she wheeled about and took aim for the nearest specter. She found herself startled by how far the shadow-thing had worked its magic toward her; it was like spinning about to find a needlepoint right in front of your eye.
She fired. The counterspell hurled the energy stream around into the center of her chest, and checked her back into the wall beside the door. The housing of her VAC unit was, fortunately, very sturdy.
She raised her hand to sign a hexscreen, but the tingles running down her arm told her that the VAC beam had depolarized her. She couldn’t draw enough magic to conjure a Clarity right now.
“What kinda necro can counterspell hextech!?” she exclaimed, before something seized in her chest and she fell into a coughing fit.
Nines was warily traversing the figures with the barrel of his VAC. The kid was doing the same, while the old man shuddered in the corner, murmuring some kind of prayer, and Storm was visibly losing his grip on those anti-magic barriers.
Well. I can’t hit them with a focused beam. But their spell-grip is so narrow…their area defense is probably almost nil. We need something broad spectrum.
The obvious, awful idea occurred to her.
“Plan C. Yeah?”
“Dear me. How exciting.”
She put on a broad smile. “Hey, spooks! So what’s your deal, eh? Unfinished business, right?”
They were dead—ha!—silent as they crept closer. One of them slid a bony claw from its shadow-robe and snatched hold of an ethereal thread. A tug brought Storm Revolver to his knees.
She dropped the gain on her VAC. They wouldn’t need much power at all for this. They wouldn’t survive much power for this. Every Rosen of power they put into the beams was just going to blow back at them. This was all about harmonic disruption at minimal amplitude.
“Well, we’re about to finish it for ya!”
The three of them aimed high and fired. Like she figured, the liches or whatever they were had their spell-grip so finely tuned to their immediate angles of attack that they couldn’t have done anything about the beam if they tried.
She saw the ghoul bearing down on her out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t look. What was the point of looking?
While Storm Revolver struggled to hold the spooks back, the three of them swept their beams toward the same point.
And then they crossed the streams.
When she came to, Viktor was waving a beam-wand back and forth over her face. She was looking up at the white ceilings of the Institute, and, a quick pat reassured her, she still had her face on.
Next Update: Daeyux