The gaslamps that lit the circuit roads through Piltover had a unique way of casting shadows on the sidewalks. Caitlyn had noticed this before, but something about the realization tonight made sense to her. Caitlyn’s mother was a revered scholar of old techmaturgy and had tried to impress many of its secrets and principles onto her at a young age. A majority of these secrets she never understood, but there was a particular theory that stuck out to her now known simply as The Balance.
At the moment it came to her she felt a little self-loathing for being so closed to the fact that The Balance might actually help solve this case (or am I just that desperate?, she asked herself). Tonight it was unusually warm in Piltover, and she took a long pause from her mission to admire the fumbling hexagonal beauty of the city. Beyond the sidewalks lined with trees, the city skyline traced a silhouette that she thought looked like the spine of a glassy monster.
Buildings as tall as mountains cast a faint radiance underneath the stars, making it difficult to see the night sky and the moon. Ghostly spindles of steam rose into the dusk, and every now and then she could hear the staccato phluph-shlunk of pistons in the factories of the eastern Industrial District.
She moved slowly off the dark sidewalk into the shadows of a few trees, and it was here that she assembled her rifle.
Caitlyn had practiced this motion many times before. She lifted the flute-like barrel of the weapon in her hands and twisted it, watching its engravings cast their familiar chrome sheen, ensuring its weight. She fastened the barrel to an intricate scope with a telescopic line of mirrors designed for maximum precision. She blew a particle of dust from the largest one, and once pristine, she fitted the butt of the rifle with a jam of her palm.
The weapon locked and she heard its fragile inner structure of counterweights and miniscule cogs breathe life, a sound like the faintest whipping wings of a hummingbird. It was a sound that made her smile there in the damp dark, surrounded by the unknown in a city that had been a part of her since she was just a little girl.
This is a different place now, she thought, as she took a deep breath and brought her eye carefully to the scope. She used the pale light of the moon to focus the lenses.
The Balance was a principle of Runeterran magic whose origins were unknown. It suggested that every being on the planet was born at a specific place on the grand lever, an unstable line of rich power. At either end of the lever, the two primary sources of all magical energy (light and shadow) worked to influence the direction in which the lever swayed.
This magical activity was thought to be a cosmic experience, one that existed on a level much wider and much higher than any actual being on Runeterra could fathom. Everyone on the planet was consequently more in-tune with a specific source of energy, depending on their proximity to light or to shadow. The oldest beings of the planet used the menageries of energy created from the mixing of these two powers to physically alter the world around them. The earliest magicians manipulated The Balance on a microscopic scale to cast illusions of themselves, turn into giants, and even go invisible.
She remembered these particular nighttime stories vividly. A cold breeze caught a flywheel in her gun, and the fine disturbance of the aether created around the weapon caused her to twitch—just enough to shake the scope of the rifle.
A flash of moonlight glinted from one of the inner mirrors, and in the split second that it reflected she saw something move further down the pitch black road ahead of her. In her mind, the musky shadows of her thoughts were punctured by the bright fire of adrenaline, and the inner energy exploded in her chest. She resisted the urge to scream, and instead broke her concentration and set the rifle down in the grass.
She was sweating. She dared not close her eyes, but she did take a few seconds to breathe. ‘Breathe,’ she remembered her mother saying. ‘All it takes is but a breath to truly reach your inner focus. And my girl, your inner focus is the source of all the magics in all the worlds you could imagine.’ So she breathed.
The wind around her felt like paint. As the sweat on her face cooled, the air seemed to pull the umbral pastels of the grass and the dark sky into a single blurry line that made it difficult to see. But this part of finding the inner focus, of seeking out and clutching the strand of energy that had made her a prodigy as a child, was always the most difficult. In her mind she swam through the liquid nightdream, clawing and clutching as the shadows began to darken and the violets and indigoes of the night got warmer and warmer until she was in a twilight state of nightmare that made her cry out.
It was a sensation like fire on her leg that ripped her out of the drunk fantasy that had crept upon her, but it did not happen lightly. The shadows around her turned into water, and then into the walls of a funnel through which she fell as fast as a stone in air. She fell and spiraled and hurt until she felt the wind on her shoulders. Then Piltover reformed around her and her breathing, although sharp, began to slow. She was back.
But how long had it been? She looked down at her leg and noticed the putrescent remains of something mushy and organic, like a pumpkin or a melon, that she had stepped on. A fine verdigris mist was still pouring from its insides as she grabbed her gun and limped very slowly down the dark road. After a few paces, she found another grassy alcove. Breathe, she heard her mother say. Just breathe, and you will find it. For a moment in the dark, she breathed again. At the peripheries of her vision, Piltover’s glossy lights—made opaque and fantasmagoric by the steam exhaust of the city’s vaporous heart—pulsed like fireflies.
She brought the rifle into position again and adjusted the gun’s scope once more. She began to feel the familiar force around her weapon that the nanoscale electrodes in its core generated. It was like a fine static electricity that made the small hairs on the crest of her back stand, and at that moment it activated the pith of her inner focus. She locked on.
In the darkness she could see it moving. Every few seconds it rustled in the bushes, seeming to move underneath the shadows as if they were nothing but a satin curtain. Whatever it was, it was using The Balance to evade her. She was certain.
When the creature made the erratic mistake of passing beneath a patch of moonlight, her eyes focused and made sense of its shape: small, scurrying, and furry. Could it have been all along that a small rat was the answer she was looking for? The thought was preposterous to her.
Suddenly she heard a sharp scream that pierced the darkness, a wail from a creature that she had hunted before. It was a Yordle, and it had stepped on a trap that she had laid in these bushes one morning several months ago. Better to be prepared, she had thought at the time.
She clicked the trigger of the gun as the whining in its core grew louder and louder, like the sound of a microscopic laser on the brink of explosion. The weapon released a powerful kick that broke her stance, and it fired a single rapid bullet that flew from the barrel with a crack.
And that was when the focus took over, but only for just a second. Her eyes traced the trajectory and watched as the bullet grazed the Yordle’s shoulder, and the focus gave her a gentle night vision that made her eyes glow faintly. She saw a fine spray of blood fan away from the impact point, and the force of the bullet had sent the creature spinning at least ten feet away from where it was struck.
This was enough for her to take control of her body. She sprang to her feet, night vision fading, and ran down the road, leaving her gun behind. She felt the warm air grow colder as her legs carried her faster, lifting her hair and causing it to whip behind her. The Yordle was moving again, she could see it. It was on its feet.
She moved faster. She reached onto her belt and pulled a tiny ball bearing from it, which she threw in front of her like a marble. She continued to run.
As the bearing hit the pavement of the dark road, it grew and sprang forty-two tiny legs and zipped ahead, zigzagging from side to side like a bomb with absolutely no target, a jetstream of white light fanning in its wake. After a few seconds, the legs protracted outwards and stiffened. The ball clicked and a hollow solenoid, which flared out from the center like a supernova, wrapped itself along the outer edge and braided the rim of one of the most advanced traps in all of Piltover.
The Yordle screeched again as the trap, which had set itself far ahead of its path, latched onto its ankle, and it began to claw maniacally at the metal with little avail. She was catching up. The focus was gone, but she was finally catching up. She was finally going to solve the case that had plagued her for what felt like forever, and this Yordle was going to be but the first casualty if that’s what it took—she would take over Bandle City if she had to, all by herself—
She felt extreme pain in her legs again, and this time it overwhelmed her adrenaline. She fell to the ground, her hands and face itching and burning as the verdigris mist made the world around her drunk and fuzzy. She desperately pulled herself forward towards the Yordle, who was now only twenty yards away. The Yordle phased in and out of vision, blinking like the light on the sidewalks that faded when the wind blew the trees in the nighttime. She could see the Yordle screeching, struggling in pain, but she could hardly move anymore. Before she passed out, she saw the creature free itself and malinger into the deep darkness. It had finally left Piltover—and this time, it seemed like it would be for good.
As her heart rate slowed, a red light on her belt blinked twice and a distress signal reached the Police. Then the unconscious took over.
When she woke up, she only felt the heaviness of sedation. She was on a bed. Directly across from her a window covered by diaphanous shades was glowing in the sun. The window was open, and every now and then a calm wind with the scent of asepsis (and was that lilacs?) on its tongue would make the fabric puff and plume like a jellyfish. She giggled.
“And what the hell is so funny, huh?”
There was a woman sitting in a chair across the room, her legs folded and her arms crossed. Her platinum blonde hair glowed as bright as the curtains, and for a second (and only a second) Caitlyn thought she might have died and was being visited by some type of angel. Her mood changed completely when she realized it was just Janna, a good friend who had a tendency to be nosey.
“Oh,” Caitlyn said. “What kind of drugs do you have me on, anyway? I thought I was dead.”
“You were pretty much dead,” Janna said.
“Is this–?” Caitlyn lifted her arms, which were wrapped in some places with fine silk bandage that had bonded to her skin. In the filtered sunlight of the afternoon she thought it made her look like a fish. She frowned.
“You need to relax or you’ll only slow the healing. What were you even thinking?”
“Was it poison? Where are we?”
“It was a very unique poison,” Janna said matter-of-factly. She stood, and every part of her robe and hair seemed to be alive with white fire. Sometimes when the breeze that came in through the window turned gusty and violent, parts of her body would become translucent and hard to see. Caitlyn wasn’t sure if she was still feeling the effects of the poison or not, but Janna’s presence now made her feel uneasy.
“It was a Yordle,” Caitlyn said.
“Yes. And it eluded you.”
“It eluded everyone. It was special.”
“And now it is gone,” Janna said quietly. Her face turned solemn. “You were assigned to this case by the Council because they thought you were the best in Piltover. But it is gone now,” she repeated.
“Big deal. I hit it. It’s not going very far. You think a Yordle with one leg and half its shoulder missing is going to make it through the mountains? I don’t think so.”
“I think you overestimate your shot,” Janna said. “But this is so much bigger than you or me or your gun.”
“Did they get my gun back?” Caitlyn asked.
Janna just glared at her. “Fine. Come with me, then,” she said sternly. She exited the infirmary room and walked outside into the heavy afternoon sun.
Caitlyn stood from the bed and the whitewashed world around her wobbled. She had to grab onto a small table nearby to keep her balance while the stars in front of her eyes faded. As she did her best to keep from getting sick, she felt angry and annoyed at Janna for leaving her here, for medicating with her such a heavy prescription, and for admonishing her about the case the Council had passed onto her a couple months ago. That’s not her business, she thought, as she corrected her posture and shuffled slowly towards the exit that led outside. As she stepped into the sunlight, she instantly knew where they were: just outside the city limits at the Temple of Grey, a holy place of worship for people of Janna’s magical order. The temple was a glass building shaped like a spire, and it was built just north of Piltover along the western edge of the Bay of Ghosts, across which she could see the wafting smoke of Zaun.
The sun was blinding, but she was barefoot and the grass on her feet was a welcome, calming hand. Janna was standing on a large gazebo at the end of a glass path that stretched out into the bay. Caitlyn stepped onto the path, which was just big enough for her to walk down without fear that she might drift into tranquil twilight and fall into the glittering water.
When she reached the gazebo, the smell of sea salt was overwhelming. Caitlyn leaned on the wraparound baluster next to Janna and looked down at the green water. She saw small fish dancing in puddles of reflected sunlight, and occasionally one would jump out of the water, leaving a flourishing rainbow trail of mist behind it. Her eyes traced their mercurial movements as long as she could before she became dizzy.
“Appreciate it while you can,” Janna whispered. Caitlyn thought her friend’s eyes looked distant, almost lost.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The case. The Council knew that if the Yordle got away there would be problems. Big problems. They knew if it left Piltover that they would never see the stone again, and that they’d have to prepare for war. So they looked for the most esteemed detective, the most skilled hunter they knew—you. And you never fail, Cait, that’s the thing. Not once.”
“I didn’t fail,” Caitlyn tried to say, but Janna interrupted her.
“You didn’t catch it. That Yordle has the Dusk Emerald, which it took from a holy site.”
“So it has a stone,” Caitlyn said, shrugging her shoulders. “Big deal. The Council has lost some money. They’ll certainly live.”
“How ignorant are you?” Janna asked. “You don’t have to follow the Book of Runes to know how important the history of these gems is. These are powerful stones.”
Caitlyn had a sinking feeling in her stomach when, through the fog of the medication, she realized that it was possible that the Council had withheld information from her. But why would they tell Janna, of all people, and not her? How was that fair? Janna wasn’t any better—
“We must hurry,” Janna said, alarmed.
Suddenly Caitlyn felt herself being pulled from the ground. Janna’s body began to glow and fade, and a malicious wind came over the gazebo. It slashed the waters around them and made the surface of the bay misty and choppy. Thick clouds rolled in over the sun, casting the water in a fleeting moment of green shadows that made it look much more dangerous than before.
Caitlyn floated above the gazebo, at least five feet from the floor, dangling over the angry water. Janna floated beside her, her eyes aglow with a bright white radiance that made her look otherworldly. Caitlyn knew that Janna was a special magician of unusual prowess, but she had never seen the woman actually use her magic. She felt a strange sensation as an iridescent spherical orb formed around them, seemingly wrought straight from the wind itself, pulled from the veins of the air currents that flowed above the water. The sphere encapsulated them. Caitlyn felt an incredible rush of gravitational force as the sphere crashed through the surface of the water and plummeted towards the bottom of the bay.
She did not have time to make sense of the situation. She watched above her as the shattered surface of the water fell further and further away, lost in a shimmering stream of bubbles and turbulence caused by the object. No water from outside was able to get in, and when Caitlyn reached out to touch the concave inner walls they were cold and thin, almost like fabric.
Behind the magical barrier, her eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness of the depths. The orb slowed. She could feel the medication wearing off, and a dull, throbbing pain was beginning to replace the haze of the sedatives.
Janna’s eyes were still glowing, but not nearly as intensely as before. Although it was obvious to Caitlyn that maintaining the magic of the orb was enervating Janna, she remained silent. After a while of floating in the dark abyss, Janna finally spoke. As she did, the orb began to float down a gentle gully, at the bottom of which was a tiny glimmering light. “We don’t have much time,” she said.
Caitlyn could see the shadows of giant sea beasts roaming outside the orb, and they frightened her. Janna stared into the dark water as they continued downwards. “They’re already looking for us,” Janna said.
“The Council. You can’t go back to Piltover.”
“The hell if I can’t! Piltover is my city,” Caitlyn snapped.
“They’ll kill you.”
The orb stopped at the base of an enormous stone structure. The light they had been following was much brighter now, and she could see that it was coming from a gem embedded in what appeared to be a giant set of doors. It was somewhat hard to make out, but in the murky darkness she could also see strange symbols and images of mermen and mermaids worshipping what was obviously a god. It looked like a cross between a dragon, a seahorse, and a wyvern. It had a large fin that that fanned down the back of its head like war regalia.
“The Ancestors of Runeterra lived many thousands of years ago,” Janna said softly as she admired the light of the gem and the stone carvings behind it. “They were a kind and very gentle species, and spent their lives roaming the distant edges of the realm to collect information. Since they had neither the capacity nor the drive for war, they did science. They eventually perfected their understanding of the elements of life and ultimately used them to create beautiful ancient civilizations full of art, energy, progress, and magic.
“When the last of the Ancestors died away, the knowledge of that time and of their magics died as well—at least, that was what everyone thought until the first grimoire was found.
I discovered it here by accident, miles and miles under the Bay of Ghosts, when I was just a girl. But I never came here physically. It was always in dreams, and it called out to me for years and years as I wandered the streets of Zaun. When I found the book, it taught me marvelous things about the world, about magic, about the beauty and sublimity and importance of the air. But I was too young to comprehend the full scale of the magic, and it changed me forever.”
She went quiet. “I never asked for this responsibility,” Janna said.
Caitlyn had been listening intently. Things were starting to make sense to her. “No one asks for responsibility,” Caitlyn said. “A lot of times, it just happens and you don’t have a choice.”
“I suppose,” Janna said. “But the Council is oppressive. Abusive, even. Secretive. They want the power in the grimoires for themselves.”
“So there’s more of these things? How many?”
“Who knows,” Janna said. “But they had the Dusk Emerald. Gems are capable of holding almost infinite amounts of magical energy because of their structure. The Council believes that the Emerald is a dowsing rod for another grimoire—they must have been right,” she mused. “It was stolen quite purposefully. But by a Yordle—that I don’t understand.”
“What do the grimoires contain?”
“Knowledge,” Janna said. “This temple—” she lifted her arm and pointed at the door behind the glowing crystal in the water, “was built on top of the grimoire of wind. Its text contains all kinds of ancient information about the art of the zephyrs.” She motioned to the orb around them. “Some of this knowledge is more destructive, of course—that is the primary concern of the Council. Several of the Ancestors still sleep on Runeterra, and wanton usage of the grimoires and their gems could reawaken them.”
“But why wasn’t I told—”
“Better for you not to know,” Janna said. “And me—well, I’m just an advisor. Who knows what they’d do if they found out I was sharing information. Their logic is that the detective’s job is to catch the bad guy, not question where her money comes from. Besides, you come from a family of techmaturgists. What could you understand about magic?”
Caitlyn scoffed. “Take me back to the surface,” she said. Her body hurt.
There was suddenly a violent explosion far away. Beneath the dark water of the bay, it sounded like the mouth of a whale had opened up and was inhaling the world from beneath the sea. The look in Janna’s eyes was stagnant, and this frightened Caitlyn further. “Take me back to the surface,” she repeated.
The rumbling grew louder. A shockwave of bright energy whirled over them, the outer edge of an expanding ring of sand and ethereal light that fractured against the sphere like broken glass. The gem that had provided them with a semblance of light was flickering, and the energy inside it died away as the shockwave lit the bottom of the bay like mercuruy lightning. Janna’s eyes closed, and suddenly Caitlyn could feel the pressure of the Bay of Ghosts pressing on her from every corner. “The balance has shifted,” Janna said, horrified.
She opened her mouth to scream as the walls of the iridescent vanguard imploded. Janna’s body faded away into a glowing vortex of ink that dispersed throughout the dark water. It bobbed for a moment in the shadows, then vanished in a spiral of bubbles.
Caitlyn screamed, but the heaviness of the water was too much. It filled her lungs. As the waters consumed her, she could feel riptides created by something colossal swimming very close to her body.
A sharp current caught her foot and she was dragged down into the abyss.