Prologue to Lines in the Sand
This lays out the essential backstory of Arc VII: Lines in the Sand.
There is a saying among Shurimans—that the past is not behind us, but beneath us; that the past is not something we walk away from, but the very ground upon which we tread.
Perhaps it would be wise, Summoner, to consider what lies beneath your feet.
The Rune Wars
Runeterra is highly charged with magic, much of it flowing through subterranean leylines which form nexuses where they meet. Celestial beings brought the secrets of magic to mortals, whereby mortal mages learned to direct the energy that radiated out from Runeterra’s leylines and nexuses to extend their perception and impose their will upon the world, albeit with only a fraction of the power that elemental spirits and other innately magical creatures could wield. But jealous mortals soon devised runes that could tear leylines open, and rune spells resilient enough to channel such immense power directly. These spells could sunder armies, level mountains—reshape reality itself.
The Rune Wars began when warring factions turned their rune magic against one another. Never before had Runeterra seen such devastation. The first casualties were the elementals and other magical beings who had taught mortals the ways of magic long ago. The Rune Wars disrupted the leylines that sustained these creatures, and turned the arcanosphere toxic. Some mortals spoke out against this madness, but the leaders of these factions saw no alternative—if they did not use rune magic, they would swiftly be destroyed by those who did.
Shurima was one of the few civilizations to escape this dilemma. Its mastery of elemental magic allowed it to forge defensive enchantments, amplifying the natural flow of magic rather than distorting it, that would repel even rune spells. With these defenses in place, it managed to maintain neutrality at a time when all of Valoran was at war. Shurima refined its magic still further, until it could bridge the gap between the mortal and celestial realms to transform its greatest heroes into the immortal Ascended. Under the protection of these semi-divine guardians, more than a match for Champions empowered with rune magic, Shurima survived even after the aftershocks of the Rune Wars distorted its internal arcanosphere and blasted it with solar energy, searing Shurima into a desert.
But century after century the Rune Wars grew only more intense. It seemed only a matter of time before Shurima would pay the price for its principles, and fall before the ruthless might of the rune mages.
The fall of Shurima
Two thousand years ago, Emperor Azir resolved that he would not be content for his epitaph to be that he delayed the inevitable. He declared that he would become the first Ascended Emperor of Shurima, that he might save Shurima from the pettiness and shortsightedness of mortal rule. The rune mages could work spells of unconscionable destructive force; Shurima’s walls could hold them back, for a time. The rune mages could give Champions godlike power; the ritual of Ascension could create guardians capable of defeating these Champions in battle, or at least, so far they had not failed. Always matching, always delaying, never surpassing. Azir would change that. The rune mages could access great power, but they were mortal men and women, whose short lives and dim perceptions doomed them to errors of emotion, and a selfish contempt for all that might happen after they had passed beyond the veil. So too it was for the Emperors of Shurima. But rune magic gave power, not wisdom, not immortality. A Shurima ruled by an Ascended Emperor might truly endure forever.
Many Shurimans sacrificed their lives in attempts to kill Azir, fearing that he would become an immortal, inhuman tyrant worse than the rune mages beyond their walls. And many Shurimans sacrificed their lives to save Azir from these assassins, believing he was Shurima’s only hope for something more than survival. But in the end, Azir was betrayed by the Magus known as Xerath, who sought Ascension for himself. The enchantments holding the cascade of cosmic energy in alignment shattered. The blast destroyed the Shuriman capital, killing the Emperor and his court.
Shurima’s mighty walls crumbled. As Shurima’s defenses fell, the armies of the Magelords and the Protectorate tore through the remnants of this once great Empire. They plundered heedlessly until at last they set upon one another amid the ruins. What little remained of Shurima’s greatness perished in a storm of runespells.
The destruction of Shurima poses a difficult question for arcane theorists. It is known that there is tremendous power in the concept of a nation. (Some scholars argue that, in a hypothetical world in which magic were heavily suppressed, nations like Noxus or Demacia would be swiftly conquered by Piltover or Zaun—in a theoretically perfect null-magic zone, it is argued that a Piltovian rifle would easily pierce plate armor.) But is this “nation-power” the result of mortal convictions, or is it an independently existing force that itself creates belief? Has Shurima ceased to exist? If not, where has all that power gone? The artifacts that lie within Shuriman ruins, and the protective spells that still resist attempts to invade those ruins—are these the last embers of a dying fire, or the manifestations of an indestructible force driving back into the mortal realm?
Could Shurima return?
The founding of the League
When the League was founded, Shurima was a barren wasteland divided up by millennia of treaties and colonial occupation zones. Some Shurimans urged the Council to accept their nation as a member-state, undoing this tangle of old treaties and recognizing their right to sovereignty. But the Council had its hands full trying to hold the nascent League (and its quarrelsome member-states) together, and had no political capital to spare on such an idealistic undertaking. Instead, it placed Shurima under a protectorate regime that rationalized and oversaw the existing claims rather than negating them. Its primary concern was to restrict further attempts to extract Rune Wars-era magic from the Floating Pyramids and other Shuriman ruins.
The Tomb of the Emperors
In 15 CLE, Cassiopeia Du Couteau discovered the true location of the fabled Tomb of the Emperors, and (with the “help” of a mercenary named Sivir) broke the warding enchantment that lay over it. (This most illegal endeavor proved rather less lucrative than she had hoped.) A Summoner of the League, operating undercover, had spotted Cassiopeia’s expedition and followed her to the tomb. When he sensed the seal breaking, he dashed inside and found Cassiopeia amidst blood-splattered ruins. She turned on him, and he beheld her frightful visage. Her gaze petrified his body, and her scream blasted it into dust.
Sivir regained consciousness to see Cassiopeia fleeing from the tomb. She felt something terrible permeating the cavern around her, the smell of death and madness. And a word: Renekton. She did not know what the word meant, but it filled her with dread. And another, Xerath, not hateful, almost beautiful, but cold, distant, bearing her no kindness, indifferent to her existence. With each stab of pain, a jagged maw closing around her body, slitted eyes piercing her mind, pronouncing her guilty of sin unforgivable. Renekton. With each fall of her heavy eyelids, a starry darkness so vast that it could swallow all that she ever was or might ever be. Xerath. They were coming.
With trembling hands, Sivir wrapped her shawl over her wound, and forced herself to her feet. This was somebody else’s tomb, and she’d be damned if she’d die in it. Her pack animal. She had a vial of Ionian elixir in her pack. She just had to get there, to her dear, sweet, loyal camel, Zham, waiting for her outside with a vial of silver elixir, cool as starlight, that would heal her. But with each agonizing step, it became harder to distinguish between the choice to sink down and close her eyes and the choice to get that elixir: either way, it wouldn’t hurt anymore. Still, despite the pain, something would not allow her to stop. As she dragged herself forward, she asked what it was. Anger. Her anger. A beacon of hatred for that treacherous Noxian, burning through the haze of pain. She wanted Sivir dead, and so Sivir was going to live. That, she told herself, was what was keeping her going.
But when she staggered out into the sun, she saw the animals had slipped their tethers. She looked off into the distance, and saw Zham, the most treacherous camel in the whole damned desert, staring dumbly back at her from a patch of brush a hundred paces away. She ground her teeth, and with what little strength the blazing sun lent her shaking body, she set after it. She forgot about Cassiopeia entirely as she grimaced at that stupid animal, drooling as it gnawed on the shrub at its feet. Her vision began to fade. In her line of work, she’d seen a lot of people staggering off with mortal wounds like hers, and she’d never seen one make it half so far as she’d already walked. At fifty paces, the camel turned lazily about and, even as she swore beneath her raspy breath that she would wring its neck, began to walk away. She gripped her blade and hurled it. At this close of a range, she’d reliably pierced Demacian plate armor, and slashed heads from their necks with a flick of her wrist, but now her blade fell short, sinking into the sand a few feet in front of the brush and sticking there. And though that something kept her walking long past the point at which she should have succumbed, it was not until she reached where her blade had landed that she too at once lost her strength and fell to the sand—on the very spot where the last Emperor of Shurima had perished thousands of years ago. The last thing she felt before the darkness claimed her was her lifeblood gushing out through her bandage into the hot sand below.
The Ascension of Azir
From the dying warrior’s wound flowed imperial blood. The sand glowed with the ancient magic released from the tomb, and when the veil between life and death parted to receive Sivir’s spirit, another spirit instead came forth and led her back. Azir, restored to life, took the dying daughter of Shurima into his arms and bore her to where the Oasis of the Dawn had once been, in the shadow of the Tomb of the Emperors, before the Sun Disc’s unforgiving rays had burned it away in what was to have been his Ascension. He knelt upon the dry sand, and, through tears, begged the waters of life to shine once more, for her. The Oasis of the Dawn welled up around them, and Azir lowered Sivir into its healing waters, restoring her to life. Their eyes met, and they shared a vision of Shurima’s return, the Sun Disc ascending above the ruins, raising the imperial city up from dust. Sivir recoiled from the immensity of the sight, but Azir resolved that it would be so. He would save them all. In that instant of selfless resolve, Azir’s Ascension was fulfilled.
Far away, Nasus sensed this disturbance, and set out for the Tomb of the Emperors.
Renekton and Xerath
As Sivir crawled out onto the sand, a tremor shook the tomb, and the waters that lapped against its side. Renekton’s fractured spirit turned the pure water black as he cried out for new flesh to contain its fury. Renekton, resurrected in rage, burst forth from the Oasis and struck. Azir turned the blow aside with the haft of his spear, and commanded Sivir to run. (Lest there be any doubt: she most certainly did.)
Renekton declared Azir guilty of recklessness and stupidity, arrogance and presumption. But for all he spoke of vengeance, in truth it was pain that drove him on. For thousands of years, he had been bound up inside that tomb with Xerath, driven beyond madness by the unnatural, fractured resonance of his Ascended being, yet helpless to strike out at something so vast and shapeless. Azir had Ascended by the same ritual, however separated by the passage of mortal time. Renekton had emerged from captivity desperate for freedom from the pain, but Azir’s very existence emanated the same horrible screech. For thousands of years, he had lashed out uselessly against Xerath; he now poured all that desperate violence out against Azir. He would make it stop. He had to make it stop.
The sun drifted down as they fought. As the sky darkened, Azir’s strength ebbed, and Xerath’s diffuse energies began to coalesce.
Nasus found them locked in combat, the Emperor whose hubris had destroyed Shurima, and the brother who had dragged Xerath into the tomb and commanded Nasus to seal them both inside, saving Valoran at an unimaginable price. Renekton called to him to come to his aid and strike Azir down, as he deserved. But Nasus saw that it was not to be. He came between them and threw Renekton back.
His brother’s betrayal broke Renekton’s rage—all that he had left. Xerath’s presence spread out from the tomb, and Renekton could withstand the psychic assault no longer. He fled, mad beyond thought or reason, until he fell upon the site of an occult temple, sanctified in blood by a war cult that he and Nasus had hunted almost to extinction long ago. The very same temple to which Xerath had lured them, away from the capital, before Azir’s Ascension, ensuring that they would be too late when that fateful day came. Renekton could not bear the agony any longer. In his madness, he saw there was only one escape—to renounce his very being, to forsake the Guardian that he was, and to reconsecrate himself to this cult of blood. He howled the vile incantations that he had heard on the cultists’ lips before he and his brother had slain them, and the altar of red stone surged up from the sand. One swing of his weapon broke it in two, and a font of blood spewed forth, washing away all that he was and had sacrificed to be. He found a bloodlust so pure that, at last, he could escape the pain. Renekton, the Butcher of the Sands, arose.
Azir sensed Xerath’s return, and asked Nasus what could be done to stop it. Nasus made no answer, save to swing his staff overhead and strike one great blow against the walls of the tomb. The stone shattered down to the broken sarcophagus at its core, and the tomb crashed down. Xerath, lost in exultation, sensed it too late. He was trapped, half-formed, jagged fragments of the sarcophagus fused to his shapeless being. It would not long hold him, but perhaps it would for a time suppress the fullness of his terrible power.
Azir commended Nasus for his loyalty. Nasus looked down upon the rubble, and ordered Azir to be gone from his sight. Azir’s anger rose, and he commanded Nasus to face his Emperor.
Nasus stood motionless, and answered in a voice cold with contempt.
“Shurima is dust, and knows no Emperor. By what power do you presume to command me, Azir? I have seen your subjects wail and fall to dust. The armies you once commanded have crumbled into the sand beneath your feet. They would die for their Emperor, but will they stand for you now? Then begone, and speak no more of this.”
When delegates of the League arrived later that night to investigate the immense disturbance, they found Nasus standing over the ruins. What lay beneath was held down by many tons of rubble, suffused with a tangle of strange and otherworldly magics. Nasus admonished them that any mortal mage foolish enough to reach out into that twisted matrix would surely be torn apart. What was within would come forth one day, all too soon.