Swain

As the stone wall closed behind him, Swain held his breath to admire the jet black darkness—for it was a different kind of shadow born from the absence of light, rather than the presence of it, that lurked here. In the artificial silence he could hear the fine sigh of winnowed bone dust, and it reminded him of the loose whispers of Shuriman scarabs as they probed through the sandy desert catacombs. Those catacombs were actually a place that he never wanted to return to, so as he released his breath he realized that he was, in fact, quite nervous. He was so nervous that he had entered True Noxus without even knowing he had done it.

His vulture squawked. The sound echoed three or four times before the high, arched walls of the tunnel swallowed it.

“Quiet,” Swain said.

His breathing was slow and arduous. It came from deep underneath his ribs, which he was certain were not working how they were supposed to be. But that was okay: he was beginning to feel a slow, expanding inner peace as he heard the stonewashed nocturne of rain above him. He did not move. His bird did not move.

Outside, dark clouds that glowed with hints of chrome and magenta were weaving storms over Noxus. Although it had been many hours since the initial fires had begun to die down, there were pockets of ember still flickering in places around the scorched expanse of the city like undead souls. As the rain started, several of these less resilient fires yawned into hazy strands of grey smoke. It was Mother Nature’s own sweeping, mysterious hand at work—and it was beautiful.

The rain poured and dripped over the burnt remains of buildings more ancient than the oldest noble families of the state. It trickled beneath the Gates of Jovus, an obsidian wall which formed a grand octagon around the Constabulary. Eight wide roads extended from each arm of the wall, a few leading far away from the capital to the savannahs where the dead yellowgrasses sang their haunting aubades. Some of these roads led to hills full of small homes, and further still to sprawling farmlands and terraces where busy farmers irrigated crop for the militia. A few roads led through seedy districts where women and young children were warned not to travel past dusk, yet some did anyway. Far from the city center, the rain formed beads on the warm glass windows of homes where small children were being tucked into bed. Tonight, their eyes were full with the smoky reflections of their brothers and sisters and friends as the rains washed away their cinders. The water and soot mixed to form black rivulets that snaked through the streets and into the sloping woods just north of the Constabulary.

The storm began to pick up, threshing the already crumbled remains of the Constabulary in its vigor. It had been the tallest (and arguably, the most impressive) structure in all of Noxus until tonight. It was fortified by natural, earthy fissures that traced a spiky network of crags and chasms around the perimeter. In the small holes and cliffs that time had carved into the rock, colorful vegetation grew in abundance, and in some places it had been cropped and manicured into impressive hanging gardens. It was nothing now but a broken tangle of dark history.

The rain collected and sluiced over the fractured stones of the building, down into the seemingly endless precipice that formed a ring around the site. It plummeted into the darkness, making hardly a sound except for the distant, misty hum of water droplets being torn apart by gravity into fog as they fell.

Many miles downward, the rain was decanted into a clean glass sphere held a few feet above the ground by a platinum dovetail. The sphere was only a quarter full, and was big enough for a person to bathe in. As the remains of the storm above trickled in drip by drip, the water would shiver and sing in a deep, sonorous way: a way that limned the absolute size and cavernousness of the tunnels sprawling around it. These tunnels contained the true Noxus, the place that even after many hundreds of years of civilization had still not been charted in history books. The place that, even now, Grand Generals feared.

For the people that lived on the surface, it was just a myth. It was something that grandfathers told children because they had nothing better to do than frighten them (but secretly, the kids liked it). It was something that people chose to ignore because it was easier to pretend that the infestation wasn’t real, to deal with the murders and the disappearances, than to destroy the root cause. Because at the root was evil itself, the grinning incarnate that reminds us each time we stare into its eyes that it is just a cloudy reflection of ourselves.

Swain nearly choked in the darkness as he realized he was holding his breath. He exhaled, and the sound was a sharp woosh that caused the vulture at his side to flap its wings.

“Quiet,” he breathed. He sat down. His eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness, but it was still impossible to see. He closed them and tried to regulate his breathing, to control the energy, the fear. He tried to forget about the loamy air of the tunnels. He focused on the clamoring din of the rain, his consciousness decomposing into liquid. Drip.

A strange, bell-like sound pealed, waspish and alien and minor in the shadows. He could actually see it this time. Another droplet of rainwater hit the surface of the liquid in the sphere, resonating, spreading, filling the edges of the bowl with vibrations. Then the circumference of his vision began to tear and peel away, slowly and with purpose, like fire boring through stitches of dry parchment. He tried to remember how the story went in history class—

Four hundred thousand square kilometers of rolling hills and savannahs and fertile valleys, long ago settled by the ancients who tamed the savannah lions and the carrion reaper eagles that guarded the open skies—that’s what Noxus was, a testament of power whose earliest heralds used their strength to dominate, manipulate, and harvest the land. This idea, that power over the environment was beautiful and natural, had crystalized into the soul around which ancient Noxian society was built.

This idea percolated through time, picking up progressive nuances and leaving behind outmoded practices that did not work, branching into a network of gnarled cultural traditions that helped paint the mask of Noxian identity. About four hundred years ago the state of Noxus was declared and the Constabulary was built, ushering in an era of dynastic militaristic leadership where rule was routinely decided through brutal battles between legendary warlords. And yet, Noxians still built something beautiful on the surface: a city full of rich art, strong ideals, and an unnatural introversion that bordered on narcissism.

About one hundred years after the establishment of the Constabulary and its satellite paramilitary, the citizens of Noxus had grown a bustling capital city laden with the responsibilities of economy: rampant poverty, rebellion, black markets, plagues, bribery, guilds, assassins … it was a way of life that spun a spider web of spice traders and bootleggers around the reaching, horizontal heartbeat of the Constabulary: a building so tall and so mighty that the War Room at its pinnacle was always hidden above a thick morass of clouds. The city attracted geniuses and lesser people from all walks of life in Valoran from pariah magicians, to coinmasters seeking profit and aspiring thieves.

It was around this time of cultural diffusion that the philosophical foundations were set in Noxus that grew into the Dark Sisterhood, a collection of covens that started the political conversation which, ultimately, grew into a resistance movement against the military juntas of the time. The most prominent factions in the Sisterhood were actually secret societies whose members were not public, but whose leaders everyone knew to be cunning women of immense magical prowess. The fabled Black Rose, though not as outspoken about its political agenda as other covens, is speculated to have been responsible for several major historical events that helped shape Noxus into what it is today. The covens worked tirelessly to influence political events and shape the social conscience of Noxus, and as they became more prominent they attracted more attention—most notably from the richest noble bloodlines of the capital, including the Du Couteaus, the Vesyls, and the Orastances. It was a time of high socio-political uncertainty for Noxus, and at the height of the tension between the upper class, the military elite, and the restless covens, many innocent people died.

The legendary story of Genevieve Jovus—the woman responsible for creating, and indeed perpetuating, the dark city beneath Noxus—came from this time. A militia farmer, she took up her husband’s armor and shield and challenged Grand General Huron to a battle for the Constabulary when officers of his special force killed her son; and much to the surprise of everyone at the time, Genevieve slayed General Huron in melee combat. She is still the only woman to have ever ruled Noxus, and she ruled it for eighty treacherous years—a reign that is, even today, twice as long as Grand General Frocquan’s, the next longest.

Scholars and historians agree that while Grand General Jovus brought strength to the cultural backbone of Noxus, her hatred for the military backbone of the government that glittered through her legislation actually hurt the state. She passed laws, burned others, and instituted regimes throughout the empire that set its military accomplishments back many years.

She completely gutted the old paramilitary force. She took funds and loot that had been saved by legacies of powerful rulers and dispersed them to internal programs that did not improve the brawn of Noxus, but that did strengthen its theaters, its hospitals, its markets, its centers for music and laughter. But her most atrocious feat (as so written by political and war historians that came after her) was to condemn the one-hundred thousand members of General Huron’s military regime to dig tunnels underneath the city until they were nothing left but skeletons. It was their punishment for all the people they had made suffer, she decreed, and she intended for them all to die.

But such was not the case. For eighty years these men, women, and children labored with shovels and pickaxes in the shadows beneath Noxus. They dug until their hands bled, until they could no longer forage for food in the northern hills and had resorted to eating each other. Some of these prisoners were powerful magicians stripped of their force, but who promised that they would get revenge on Jovus. They knew that it would take a long time before their prayers were heard, for one didn’t become a Grand General of Noxus without also being a survivor, but they could wait.

Many people died carving out the tunnels, but many lived, too—in fact, they thrived. General Jovus had exiled these people from the capital city limits, so they had to find food in the darkness of the tunnels when the woods became scarce. At first they subsisted on rats and the very few mushrooms that grew down there which weren’t poisonous. But eventually they formed groups: the nimblest and the quickest of hand banded as thieves, and under the pall of night they would steal spices, bread, vegetables, and chickens from the market vendors in the city. A few of the more unstable-minded prisoners took to killing anyone they could, and went on murderous rampages in the streets of the surface Noxian city before they were axed down in the name of Jovus.

Over the course of many decades, Jovus’s prisoners began digging with their own intentions contrary to the lady General’s. They had established several guilds within their group who helped bring food and riches from the world above to help sustain life below. Eventually, they carved homes and meeting spaces right into the tunnel walls themselves. They used the sap of the Darkflower beneath the dirt to forge thousands of candles, and by the soft firelight they formed their own society that fed off the Noxus on the surface.

Jovus ignored her advisors when they tried to describe the situation with a flick of her wrist, famously saying ‘Let them taste the death they served to me and my son.’ Towards the final twenty years of her reign she had lost most of her sanity, but this just turned out to be more of a reason not to question her decisions. The surface city continued to grow and sprawl outwards and upwards at the time of her death, which was quiet. By the time she passed, Noxus had grown so large that it eclipsed the city below.

When General Doranna took over and began the long restoration process of righting Jovus’s wrongs, he hardly had the faculty to deal with the wound under the city that had festered into its own civilization of marauders, assassins, and necromancers. By that time, the Noxus below the city and the Noxus above existed in a very fragile symbiosis that was to remain undisturbed by major political forces for the next three hundred years. And so was born what people under the city called True Noxus, a place of dark tunnels and equally dark magicians who often bartered with their lives rather than with coins.

Swain knew the history—he knew it well. As he opened his eyes in the dark tunnel that had been carved by prisoners of a mad ruler, he noticed that his breathing was calm. He had never actually been farther than the assassin’s cove in which he now sat. It was really just a giant mouth of rocks about fifteen feet high that smiled an open-toothed smirk at him.

Grand Generals especially were not welcome in True Noxus, but he had come here once under guise when he needed a job done in Demacia (and of course, that job had been successful—Noxian assassins were known to be some of the most merciless and elusive people in all of Valoran). But the General’s territory was above the ground, not below it. Here, everyone was the same. Nobody cared who he was, and nobody would respect him.

As he stood, he was suddenly okay with that fact. But this acceptance did not make him feel any less nervous. Why did I come here? He wondered somewhere far away in his head.

He moved down the dark tunnel, slowly, careful not to mistake the sound of his vulture for a predator. Although he preferred to have her perched on his shoulder (it helped counterbalance the weight of his bad leg), he knew that she was more apt to defend him from the ground in here. He was thinking about the small amount of comfort that she made him feel when he bumped into something that moved sharply in response to his weight.

He took a step back. The vulture screeched and flapped her wings restlessly.

“Bloodsilk?” A raspy voice said from the shadows. Two very large, yellow eyes opened up in the dark, and they glowed with a bioluminescence that bathed the area around them in a nuclear haze. Swain dared not take his eyes from the figure in front of him, who was just as tall and bulky as he was, but occasionally his eyes toured the walls of the tunnel, and he could see the large dens that Jovus’s prisoners had carved for sleeping. The vulture finally settled her tantrum and flew up into the cobwebs of a small alcove above them.

“Bloodsilk,” Swain said.

“You been to the Isles?” The creature asked, ignoring the bird. It took a step forward and the light that came from its eyes shined like the lost opals of the Guardian’s Sea, opals he used to pick up with his family on the Noxus shore when he was a child. Its eyes changed from a murky yellow to an acid green, and back to yellow again. Although the light from the creature illuminated the space around it, nothing could penetrate the dark beneath its hood. The folds of its voluminous cloak billowed as it moved.

“What’s it to you?”

The creature raised one of its arms sharply, the robe falling to its elbow and revealing a long, twig-like appendage with five fingers at the end that looked like branches. It rubbed its pointer finger and thumb together. “What’re you buyin, rich man?”

“What’re you selling?” Swain asked.

The creature actually smiled beneath the hood, and Swain could see that it had sharper, and a much greater quantity of teeth than he would have preferred. In a flourish it opened its cloak, exposing all kinds of knickknacks and trinkets. “I got shivs and poisons, rats, rubies and sapphires, Darkin blood. Don’t pretend I don’t know who you are.”

Swain ignored him. “Darkin blood?”

“Yea,” the creature said, shaking its head. “No big deal. They come ‘round here all the time and yea, I happen to got some blood. What’s it to you?”

“The Darkin have been extinct since the Second Rune War,” Swain said, matter-of-factly. “Nine hundred years ago.”

“This is Darkin blood,” the creature said, picking a small red vial from a pocket and twisting it in its hands. It closed its cloak tightly and stepped backwards, almost as if to cower away from Swain.

Swain felt the energy of his magical attunement begin to open its hand inside him. “I hate liars,” he said. In the very dim light of the creature’s eyes he seemed to grow. The shadows that his bloodsilk cast on the walls were almost quivering, as if they were cobras preempting venomous justice. “You would lie to me?”

The rains outside picked up again, much harder now, and far below the two of them another droplet of rain collected on the decanter and burst, tumbling into the reflecting pool below. It resonated with an odd hum that Swain could hear in the recesses of his inner ear, like a mosquito singing a song of perish in a hurricane. It made him step backwards.

The creature tilted its head, curious. “You upset the Gods,” it said. “Listen to them.”

“That’s nothing but rain,” Swain snapped.

“Rain? What is rain?” The creature asked. It took a small step backwards while Swain was disoriented. His bird noticed this, and she screeched and flapped her wings, making the creature flinch.

The winds howled over the tunnels, and since they were still close to the entrance they could hear rocks and debris that the gales threw against the stone doors. Another drop of rainwater collected far below and fell into the sphere’s reflecting pool, a distant tremolo.

“You see?” The creature said. “You upset the Gods, and now they’re talkin’ to you.”

“You can hear that?” Swain said, taking a step towards the creature.

“Oh yes,” it said. “About as much as this is Darkin blood.” It laughed, blinking its eyes almost uncontrollably, casting the cellar in faded strobes of energy. “But I’m a liar and I can hear it so, if you can hear it too then you must be a liar!”

“What do you hear?”

“This … rain, you call it,” the creature said. “We hear it always. I never been to the surface myself, nuh uh. But I hear this, this rain, all the time, and I don’t ever disobey.”

“The rain is not what I hear,” Swain said, almost disappointed.

“You’re too confusin’,” the creature said. “And you’re a bigot. You will die down here, General.” It lowered its voice. “I can give you some poison that will do the job if you want to make it easier on yourself—”

Swain moved faster than the riddlesome creature and clutched it by its neck in a sweep of his arm. With an unusual amount of force that he was not aware he still had, he pinned the creature against the wall and brought his face close to its. Its breath smelled terrible. It clawed at his face and shoulders, kicking, attempting to bat him away. But Swain was stronger, and the pain of its retaliation hardly rendered.

“What’s in the glass?” He said.

“Your life, General,” the creature said through feral, spit-ridden rasps. “That’s in the glass: your life. The Gods are speaking to you and you are not listening, and you will die down here in True Noxus. You are just a puppet and the glass is your master,” the creature said.

Swain dropped the creature as another flat hum shook him from inside his head. He leaned against the wall as it scampered away, laughing, its eyes blinking in and out of existence.

“Don’t worry, General,” it said. “You best be certain everyone knows you’re here and you ain’t gettin’ out.” It fixed its hood and fumbled off into the darkness.

Swain regained his stance. His bird alighted from the stone den above them, a trail of mossy cobwebs and feathers settling in her wake. In the time that he had spent coming in and out of what felt like reality, he noticed that his eyes had adjusted to the dark—and that, in fact, it seemed now to be its own kind of off-gray light. He could see the shadows of hanging rope above him, and he could see that the rope extended far, far ahead of him down a wide tunnel. The rain had stopped.

Although Swain was a man whose historical knowledge of his state was unmatched by any of his closest and most intelligent advisors of the Council, he felt ashamed that he did not know more about “True” Noxus, and he felt completely like a foreigner. His bird flapped her wings and settled on his shoulder, and her weight was comfortable.

He began to walk down the dark tunnel. The psalms of Jovus’s prisoners rose around him in a white noise that sounded an awful lot like the airsong beneath the eaves of scarab ailerons as they slalomed through the intense silence of Shurima’s crypts.

And though beautiful it was, the thought was most unwelcome.