A waxing crescent stared down at him from the dark sky as he moved through the streets of Demacia, and something about the way it blinked sleepily when clouds rolled past made him feel very out of place. It was like the heavy, somnolent eye of a lizard was scoping him, somehow judging him because it knew. It knew why he was here. It knew what he was going to do—what he had to do. It knew that, if not executed in the most precise and the most perfect manner possible, that he would be responsible for ruining not just one empire, but two empires. His heart shuddered at the thought, and for a split second suicide seemed a better alternative than this goddamned mission.
Then he pushed the thoughts away, as gently and as calmly as a mermaid might push the burning pyres of her family out into the open sea—a ritual which he had witnessed a long time ago when he was a child, but only once. His thoughts burned slowly off into infinity, until there was naught left inside him but a dense emptiness that made his stomach ache.
He rounded a dark corner and walked quickly down a dimly lit alley. At the end, there was a small door, above which hung a rickety signpost etched with block print that said INN. He looked left, looked right, looked ahead and behind. He felt the careful creases of his cloak, deep into the specially sewn pockets and hems that hid his weapons.
His blades were safe.
Inside, the pub was bright with life. There was a small cabaret happening in the corner furthest from the door, and a throng of pub-goers were sloshing their drinks and singing along (albeit out of tune) to the cranky melodies of an old piano, played by an unusually tall man in a jester costume whose hands were moving so quickly that Talon suspected he’d touched the tongue of a Valoran devil. Wouldn’t have been the first time he’d seen it, either.
Talon scoffed at the jester. He otherwise ignored the debauchery and moved to the bar, where he sat with an exasperated and tired sigh. The woman behind the bar, who was busy mixing potions and cocktails for other customers, smiled at him. “A moment, hun,” she said. She turned to serve a group of men, and Talon unabashedly admired her backside before the lights went dim. A small spotlight illuminated the stage of the cabaret. The piano music stopped, and the jester took the stage. He bowed very slowly, his long scarecrow legs somehow akimbo, the small bells on his hat jingling like the whispers of dark gypsies as he looked at the crowd, his face an alabaster mask of terror. He extended his arms to them and spoke in a hushed voice.
“Do you know the story of the little black cat? With eyes as wide marbles, tail bobbing this way and that? She walks beneath the moon with nothing but a fancy of the rat that’s plotting down her back a death she cannot see.” The jester skulked across the stage, swinging his spidery legs and arms, a puppet held on magical strings. Some members of the crowd ooohed and ahhed, but Talon wasn’t impressed. He turned back to the bar.
“Who doesn’t like a little bit of entertainment?” The woman behind the bar smiled, and Talon instantly forgot his hatred of jesters. Her eyes warmed him from the inside out.
“The work of jesters is not entertainment,” he said. “It’s the work of demons.”
She laughed. “What nonsense. Are you always such a downer?”
“I’ll have a brew,” he said, half scathingly, half dismissive, half trying to flirt and failing completely, half foolish.
“I know just the thing to take the edge off.” She turned to prepare his drink, and Talon admired her as she did so. I bet you know just the thing, he thought.
The jester went on, this time more loudly, so that Talon could not help but turn his attention back to the stage.
“The game of mouse and kitty cat, a battle fought for years, will end right here—right now!—tonight, as daggers cut through ears. It does not matter, hold your tongues, the black cat passes by; the mouse bites down and shakes the crown—die, die, die!”
In a rather dramatic and bizarre sequence, the jester took two daggers from his pockets and held them above his head for all to see. They were sharp. They glinted like the eyes of basilisks, with a low and irradiating purple light that was not of this world.
He moved around the stage, the spotlight flowing over his body, and began to juggle the daggers. There were thin crimson ribbons tethered to the hilts, and as the jester threw them over his head with a hand that might have been defter than his own, Talon could see that the fabric wasn’t moving like normal fabric should. As the jester caught the blades and pirouetted, the ribbons curled around his arms like rivers of blood, eventually blooming into longer shears that pooled down towards his ankles in gobs of wispy silk. The jester finally stopped and stared at the crowd, the ribbons puddling in a bloodtide around him, his eyes sunken and dark.
Then he screamed a high pitch scream and melodramatically plunged the daggers into his sides. He fell to the floor of the stage, re-enacting death as if he’d experienced it many times before. His wail sputtered like a candle under snow’s breath, and then he fell face first onto the planked floor. There was a small pop! and a red smoke whirled around the stage, clouding him.
The crowd roared, raising their half-filled cups and shouting praises as the smoke crawled beneath the stage curtains and thinned away. A few people coughed as if expecting something more; others drank more from their glasses; others beat their chests together in singsong. The dramatic air of the jester’s performance dissipated as quickly as the smoke that had veiled his escape. Slowly, the din of supper plates, forks and knives and half-drunken revelry coalesced into an appropriate white noise that Talon was more used to in places like this. It was that ideal volume, the utopian symphony that allows one to have a private conversation, perhaps with a lover or a killer, about important matters of the heart and the soul. Matters of the blade.
“That man is too good,” the woman behind the bar said.
“That guy?” Talon raised his eyebrows. “Come on. That’s nothing but parlor magic.” He was halfway through his brew, which was a spicy concoction that tasted like apples and cinnamon and, strangely, like the kiss of a woman. He was beginning to feel better already.
“And I suppose you know real magic, huh?”
“I know a thing or two about blades, certainly,” Talon said, taking another swig from his drink.
Suddenly there was the sharp rap on the bar-top as the gleaming, dark blades of the jester’s daggers sunk themselves into the wood, the twin fangs of a shadowy serpent. The crimson ribbons woven around the butts of the weapons were behaving as normal silk, but that didn’t make Talon any less startled. Still, he did not move.
The jester coiled around Talon’s back, a finger tracing a trail over the shoulders of his cloak as he took a seat beside him at the bar.
“You know a thing or two, or two hundred,” the jester corrected. He tilted his head sideways and Talon heard his neck pop. “How many you got under there, man?”
“That’s none of your business—”
“Listen here,” the woman behind the bar said. “This is my business. Either you get those daggers out of my bar-top or I’ll put you out on your ass,” she snapped.
“My apologies, love,” the jester said. With a bored flicker of his wrist he scooped the daggers from the bar top and they were gone. They did not leave toothprints.
“So you’ve been to the Isles,” Talon said. He did everything he could to keep his cool, but it was taking an unusual amount of effort and discipline to keep from springing onto the clown and cutting his throat out.
“Been a lot of places, actually,” the jester said. He smiled and winked at the barista as she handed him a small glass filled with a blood red brew. “But not the Isles—” he sipped, savoring the sweet liquid. “Wouldn’t go there even if I could.”
“But the bloodsilk,” Talon was confused.
“Parlor magic,” the jester smiled. “What’s a man to do with a thousand blades in Demacia, hmm?”
“Whatever the hell he wants,” Talon said.
“I kinda don’t believe you,” the jester said. He chuckled, and to Talon the sound was odd. It was like a butterfly whose wings had been replaced by rusted chains. Every time it tried to fly, it rattled and scraped at the air instead of caressing it.
“Belief doesn’t save you from the blade,” Talon said with certainty.
“No,” the jester said thoughtfully, scratching his chin. “No it does not. Well—at least do it with this.” The jester reached into his robe and extracted one of the strange blades. He placed it in front of Talon, and this time the ribbon coiled into a tight spiral like the vines of an ancient plant. “But are you the rat, or are you the feline?” He quipped.
Before Talon could answer, there was a thunderous drone outside that shook the walls of the inn. A few clean mugs behind the bar toppled onto the floor, and the sound of their clatter made Talon move. He swiped the curious dagger with Slight of Hand, an old parlor trick that he’d learned in the sewers of True Noxus, and finished his drink. It was time.
The jester was leading people out of the bar, and everyone was laughing and merry. Since it was against Demacian code to take mugs of brew into the roads, the more daring downed the remainder of their drinks as quickly as possible before lazily swaggering out into the night. The rest of the rabble just brought their drinks out with them. Plebs, Talon thought.
Talon stood, but before he could go the woman at the bar grabbed him forcefully by the shoulder and turned him around.
“That man isn’t right in the head,” she said darkly. “Whatever you’re going to do, if anything happens to this inn, I swear to—”
He reached out and kissed her deeply.
She reacted faster than he thought she could. She slapped him so hard across the face that he reeled backwards, and his face turned hot with embarrassment. She picked up an empty mug and threw it square at his head. “Get out!” It barely missed. She went for another.
Talon, feeling an incredible rush of electricity in his chest, turned and ran from the inn, his right hand clasped tightly around the hilt of the jester’s dagger.
It was time indeed.
The piercing cry of a beast had caused the inn to quake and had shaken the rabble out of their drinking quarters like roaches. It pealed again over the darkness of the streets, and everything shook in place. As Talon whipped down the alley that led back to the main road, he ran into a wall of revelers watching the grim procession. He was aghast at what he saw.
On either side of the main road were at least fifty thousand soldiers, clad in heavy armor dyed a light sapphire, the color of a faded sky that has seen too many afternoons without rain. They marched with javelins twice their size, slamming the weapons onto the cobble road on the third beat of their hypnotically robotic motion. Every ten thousand soldiers or so into the parade there was a group of flag bearers and a color guard who moved like wraiths under the starlight. It was a clear evening in Demacia, but the fact that there were no clouds made Talon feel utterly exposed.
The soldiers passed one by one, slamming their javelins, moving forward through the thick inner city towards the glittering light of Castle Demacia, Serrahn, The Westward Light. Every so often there was a shrill cry that would cause the revelers to hush as crickets sometimes do when perturbed. It was the harsh, valiant cry of a dragon, and as it passed, Talon felt his heart sink.
The beast was twenty feet tall. It eyes were enormous malachite slits, pierced in their center by a white elliptical bolt that moved madly back and forth as if in perpetual rage. As the dragon’s eyelids shut it reminded Talon of the moon, of the way its light bored right down into the stuff deep at the center of his soul.
A ridge of horns fluted upwards across its nostrils, radiating over its eyebrows and meeting at the apex of its skull in a trident of dark, spiky bones. Its wings were smooth and its body was thin, more a brother to the wurms than the true dragons of ancient times, and its great scarlet beard was braided and strewn with roses. Despite its size, it moved with the gracefulness and discipline of an accomplished dancer. Instead of walking, it hovered just above the ground, its body curling and sidewinding to stay aloft.
Atop the beast was a man that many people in these parts of Demacia did not believe even existed. It was the man (at least, they rumored) responsible for the recent plague that had blighted the harvest and killed half the sheep on the southern farms. This was the man who made them live in slums, the man responsible for high taxes and food shortages and for the underbelly they had to drink from if they expected to make it through the chilly nights of the coming frost season. Of course, the noblemen and women of the empire did not mind him at all.
Jarvan the Third, son of the Chortled King, Lord Commander of Demacia and The Fourth Dragonslayer, a man who wrote himself into legend. The individuals watching his procession were not sure whether to be angry or astounded to see him atop such a creature, let alone to see him at all. He wore a platinum crown fixed in the center with the largest piece of fire opal most of these common folk would ever see in their entire lives. He spoke to them as he passed, his long brown hair fluttering behind him as the dragon screeched and flapped its wings, small sonic disturbances pushing revelers backwards onto their drunken asses. When he spoke, his voice was magnified, and Talon listened.
“We are at war!” He shouted. The sky seemed to shake at his words.
“War is not a time for revelry! It is a time for reflection. It is a time when the just men and women of Demacia must decide who they fight for. I do not mean that for whom they take up their swords and burning pickaxes!” He raised his fist at the dark sky and the dragon roared, a green-tinged plume of fire exploding from its mouth.
“I mean for whom you take up your hearts. For whom gave you shelter and safety! Make no mistake, citizens of Demacia: rich or poor, believe what rumors you want. You live in Demacia and Demacian you will forever be!
Tonight, Noxus be damned! I will not turn from the Gates of Jovus until I am dead or the Constabulary is mine! Who dares defy my will?”
There was absolute, stunned silence from the crowd. The soldiers marched onwards and the dragon cried out once more, breathing ghostly flames that lit up the night sky. With that, Jarvan the Third pointed forward and the dragon moved again. A line of soldiers followed in his wake, their javelin hilts a metronome so precise it made Talon question his manhood.
I am the rat, he mused. The rabble had grown raucous. People were fighting around him, and occasionally he had to dodge an elbow or someone’s skull or a shoe or a shiv—it was madness incarnate. He eventually broke free of the commotion and followed the procession. He moved through people whispering treason, past wenches hiding in the shadows of their patrons. War? He heard one woman say through tears.
He looked down at the jester’s blade, allured by the gentle violet light it emitted. It was hard to see if you weren’t looking closely enough—which is what Talon preferred anyway. He slipped beneath the veil of darkness, a lonely mouse tracing the cat’s scent, moving slowly and methodically. The domed rooftops of Demacia’s consular buildings brought back memories for him, of a time when he was younger and the streets had rolled out before his eyes and heart like a welcoming mat made of cobble. Nobody had known who he was then, just as they had no idea who he was tonight, who he would become once it was over.
As the procession rounded the final bend in the road, Talon quietly drifted towards an armor-clad soldier who had strayed behind to relieve himself.
It did not take much to snap the man’s neck and steal his armor. Talon moved into formation.
Only a handful of soldiers were allowed through the main gates of Serrahn, but Talon had managed to slip inside along with the king’s protectorate. It was a route that he had practiced over, and over, and over again for the last ten years.
The troupe was led by two knights who were much taller, and much wider, than all the others. They moved through the central foyer, up the vined spiral staircase that led to the glass chamber of the Solari, their king in tow. Jarvan III’s dragon took off into the night sky and roared, a distant rumbling behind the clouds.
Talon stole away from the others. Instead of entering the illuminated chamber, he took a small passage just to the left that was quiet and empty. He took off the armor, relieved of its weight and its ugliness. He brushed his fingers along the familiar wood of the wall, along the small scratches and marks he had carved into it during his excursions inside Serrahn. There was a small, steepled crawlspace a few yards down the hall, and he stepped inside.
After a few moments of climbing, he came to a familiar plot between the walls just large enough to stand amongst the rafters. From here, he had a perfect view of the counselors’ meeting happening below. He was a bat in the rafters, and the cobwebs seemed to welcome him back.
The room itself was quite crowded.
As the king entered, everyone stood and then bowed in unison until Jarvan waved his hand. “Please,” he said gently. This was not the same war horseman that had processed through the streets of his kingdom on a dragon. This was the diplomatic man, the man who has indeed killed with a sword but who has also killed equally as many a foe with words.
Talon seethed as he watched the counselors convene.
“Father,” Prince Jarvan said as the room began to settle. “We have ambassadors from every corner of Valoran, from Bandle to Piltover. We have several of the noble house Crownguard, including Luxanna; house Vayne, the honored heroes Quinn and Valor. The seneschal is currently scouting the grounds,” he said wearily.
“I want him here,” the king said simply. A knight in sapphire armor immediately left the room to fetch him.
“If I may, your majesty?” A woman spoke up from the back, and the room went quiet as she stood. Talon watched her from the rafters, utterly bewildered by the way she moved—by the effortlessness of her steps, the calm of her motion. She moved as darkness, or moonlight, or fireflies move: with purpose, yet without aim.
The prince gave her an indignant look for interrupting his attendance, and the king seemed to revel in this. “Proceed,” he said to the woman.
Shauna Vayne moved into the deep halos of light that were cast by the artwork on the ceiling of the chamber. She wore shades as red as waratah, and if Talon stared hard enough he thought he could see her eyes moving this way and that behind the lenses, scoping out the individuals in the room. She did not see him.
Her hair was tied into a tight bun, but a single raven strand hung down in front of her pale face. She wore a large crossbow on her back, and had not bothered to lay the weapon at the entrance. The king did not seem to care.
“There are tragedies for which we can sometimes never attain revenge,” she said, looking from person to person, but speaking directly at the king. “We currently know two things: that the constabulary in Noxus has fallen, and that our Demacian spies there are unreachable. Valor has spotted no activity on the outer roads. This can only mean it was an isolated incident,” she suggested.
A wanton clamor erupted among several of the members, but the king just raised his hand and silence fell again. Shauna continued.
“You are right to believe that we are at war,” she said. Talon noticed the way her clothes fit her body perfectly, the way the leather wraps around her breasts produced a matte sheen as she adjusted her glasses and occasionally pivoted on her heels, pacing the length of the chamber. “But we are not at war with Noxus. We are at war with something much greater. We are at war with evil—the very thing that conspires in the fingertips of witches and warlocks, but which controls even their clouded souls.”
Talon turned his head curiously. He could feel the jester’s blade burning in his hand, but it was not a painful sort of feeling.
It was almost as if Shauna had sensed the blade. She paused and looked up at the rafters for a moment, lost in thought or perhaps searching, smelling him. Then she turned back to the king.
“Whoever—whatever—destroyed the Constabulary is our real foe. I am afraid to speculate that we are as blind as our enemy in this one. Noxus is just a pawn, and if we’re not careful, we will be made pawns, too.”
The king nodded in understanding.
“What are you suggesting, Shauna?” The prince asked.
“This will not be a war fought only with the weapons in our hands,” she said quietly. “This will be a game of magic blacker than any you have ever imagined. You might have the physical fortitude of the Justicar’s Way, but I’m afraid you are unprepared for another rune war. A dragon’s breath cannot overcome black fire.”
“Then let the will of Demacia overcome it,” the king said, standing. “I will not be bent by the prospect of the arcane.”
“You would put the entire world in jeopardy for the mantle of Noxus?” She asked, and Talon could hear the distaste, the astonishment, in her voice.
“I would,” he said, smiling. “But that’s why we’re all here, aren’t we? I am a just man with a crown. Let the majority decide what is right.”
“I’m afraid what is right and what must happen are two very different things,” Shauna said.
“Silence.” The king raised his hand.
Talon had had enough. He took a deep breath, the jester’s dagger trembling in his hand as he broke through the rafters, tearing across the bottom quadrant of the glass mosaic of the Solari. The artwork exploded into a million glittering pieces of glass, raining from the ceiling, and in the split second that Talon moved it was impossible for anyone to distinguish between what reflected light was coming from the shards and what was coming from the exactitude of his bladed dance.
He moved with the swift, calculated, cold precision of a man who has waited all his days to repay the debt of a second life. His time had come.