Vladimir

“If the sky could be burnt down to its purest form, its purest colors, it would be nothing more than a stale and endless grey. It would be nothing but the sound of the grey seas that churned at the beginning of time, when the Tidecallers first raised their staves at the Great Moon and moved entire islands. For you see, underneath the azure blood of the sky is a soul stretched beyond its capacity to hold water. Runeterra is dry, her blood is all gone.”

I don’t get it, Vladimir said. He was just a boy and these were matters in which he had no business, matters folded away in stained parchment, hidden in the shadows of libraries that even starved moths dared not approach.  And yet he was curious.

Inside, his heart fluttered every time his master brought it up—the blood of things, of birds and yellowgrass and the flowers; the moon, the sun, the earth, the sky. All of these things, the master called them, had a blood that ran through. It was a network of bloods, of dark wills all coming together but feeding into the same stale, endless grey soul of the wide monster that hid behind the sky.

The master never talked about the monster.

I want to know more, Vladimir said. To which the master replied, “You already know enough.”

Hemomancy was an art that the ancients passed down to the Common Man through a set of grimoires known as the Blood Books, but Vladimir had never read from those. They were long-lost now, just tales on the tongues of the ancient sires passed down through generations of blood monks, whispered beneath the holy smoke of black incense.

The truth was that blood magic was dying, and Vladimir seemed an appropriate dial on which to continue its legacy. The elder monk always liked to think that Vladimir was a son of absence rather than a son of Noxus, but he had watched the boy grow from a child of the world into an astute disciple of blood magic quite quickly. In truth, it scared him. But the fear of the absolute power locked inside the young boy was completely eclipsed by the prospect of carrying on something ancient and special, an art that was indeed important to the fundamental balance of Runeterra itself.

The monk stared at the pacing boy for a long time.  He watched how the gray light that filled the open front door of the temple turned Vladimir into a silhouette. His sleepy eyes rolled back and forth, pondering the shadows cast by the high walls, pondering what the world would do when they found out that the legacy had been passed on. He sighed. It was a great, old sound, and it reminded Vladimir of the way leaves scrape when they are trapped in the oaken hollows during autumn nights.

“You must have respect,” the monk said, barely moving. In the dim grey light, Vladimir thought he looked like a statue. “Blood magic is by its very nature consumptive. If you are not careful, its dark will shall take you. You will become nothing but a blackened husk if you do not have respect,” the monk breathed.

I understand, Vladimir said.

“You don’t.” The monk raised his right hand sharply, the deep purple bloodsilk coiled around his arm wrapping upwards toward his shoulder like an adder. The monk’s eyes glowed with a radiant purple energy.

Vladimir felt his muscles clench. He could not move. The sire had used a magic more powerful than his own to bind him, and he could do nothing but look helplessly at his master, the monk, an idol of blood and power, an icon of the last of the blood magicians. Vladimir could feel the essence of his master, but every moment he realized more and more of the man’s consciousness, he felt more pain.

“There will come a time when you will be faced with a choice,” he said solemnly. He did not relinquish his grip on Vladimir’s soul, on his essence. The monk just watched as he writhed in pain. There was no remorse in his eyes. “To have the knowledge of hemomancy is an honor only you will know. And how you choose to spread its touch to the world is up to you, but hear me: it is not your place to impress The Balance. Leave that to the nightshades.” As he mentioned the nightshades, the monk’s eyes went wide and Vladimir screamed as the soul shackles tightened.

Stop it, Vladimir said. If you do not. Stop—it. He paused.

The monk barreled on. “An ancient blood, an ancient magic! It is the lust of all blood, to reach and wrap her fingers around the very coils of Runeterra and squeeze her dry!” Suddenly the monk gasped, caught in his words.

Vladimir had broken the shackles. Suddenly he could move against the master’s hold, and he finally understood what he had to do. He lifted his left arm, a conductor, and suddenly the monk’s eyes began to bleed, red and burning and scorching—yet beautiful, as the ancient art had portrayed Liandry. Oh, how beautiful he thought she was—

The monk screamed. Small beads of blood appeared on his forehead, then through his robes, dotting the fabric as if an artist all its own. Vladimir closed his eyes and moved the tides of his master’s essence, consuming him, understanding all that he had to offer. All that the grimoires had to offer.

The monk melted away like wax, dripping to the floor, his bones clinking as trinkets and vials did in the purses of Noxian apothecaries. Vladimir stepped backwards, raising his arms in unison, and his master’s blood flowed around him. It whirled through the air, a ribbon of crimson essence encircling him, imbuing him with new life.

Let it all out, he whispered.

Then there was silence in the temple, except for the heavy, prismatic drone of grey. Of the monster that he knew was watching him from behind the sky.

                                                ____________________________

Vladimir sighed deeply, resentfully. He sighed the way his master had sighed back then in the temple, like a crinkled yellow leaf against an oak so old that it might have known the first tree spirits. He remembered those stories now. Somewhere on Runeterra there was a world filled with fairies and energy mongers that could walk between the seams of this plane and their own. Many travelers fell victim to their games (some of which were more sinister than others), but for the most part they were pacific.

For a moment he was overwhelmed by the thought that the fairy world was just one of many, a tiny eddy, a skip in the heartbeat of reality that alluded to something greater than he could understand. It was thoughts like this: the wide, poisonous thoughts of the monster behind the sky, that made him question whether or not his decision to own the blood’s way was the right one.

He sat at a table hidden from the main passageways of True Noxus, covered by a thick awning draped with moth-eaten fabric. Deeper into the limestone alcove there were more tables and chairs, some strewn with empty ale mugs. There was a single torch that held a small, dying flame; though it provided a deep orange light, it seemed to suck the warmth out of the area around him rather than provide any. Vladimir had never been to this particular spot before, and he certainly didn’t like it, but there was no better alternative. He had felt the Constabulary fall. He felt the restless souls that were burning or dead, or dying, in the city above him. He did not feel any pain for them. Instead, he felt urgency and restlessness.

Vladimir had very few real friends, but in Boram he had seen a certain darkness that inspired him. Were the rumors true? Had Boram lived for centuries? Was he an immortal walking amongst ghosts, breathing whispers into their ears, battling the throne of light over and over again back in time?

Vladimir chuckled to himself in the semidarkness of True Noxus’s cellars. Do immortal men get assassinated and throw their states into political ruin? No, they do not, he thought indignantly. Boram was a man just like all the rest of the General’s Council, and though Vladimir had known there was something special about him, Boram had his flaws that made him susceptible to a greater cunning than his own.

“General? You made it.” Vladimir said. He did not stand.

In the distance Jericho emerged from the shadows, limping, his face caked with dirt and blood. He looked tired and old, sunken, hollowed—as if he had visited the haggard widows in the northern hills of Noxus. Swain approached him, apprehensive at first, and then more quickly once he affirmed that they were alone.

Jericho sat in the chair across from Vladimir. “It wasn’t supposed to go this way,” he said. The vulture preened her wings in the dark.

“You don’t say,” Vladimir said. “It’s nice to see you alive, too, Jericho. Drink and rest yourself before we talk.”

“How could she ruin something that took this long to plan?”

“Perhaps it wasn’t intentional,” Vladimir said.

“Nonsense. With her, it’s always intentional. It’s always personal. It’s always about her.”

“Sounds like a personal problem,” Vladimir said.

“Don’t be foolish. We have to act quickly.”

Vladimir straightened his back and leaned forward, his eyes full of ruby depth. “It would be foolish to act so quickly, Jericho. Have you lost your senses?”

“Have you seen Noxus?” Swain asked. He did not bend. His voice had an unerring infallibility that almost scared him. “You haven’t seen them—smelled them­­—burning alive, have you? You move blood, so you know death? You are still just a boy, and I recall, an advocate for the resurrection of Noxus.” He paused. Jericho’s eyes were already characteristically dark, but now Vladimir could see in them a pitless energy that came from somewhere he did not know. “Or am I wrong in that assumption, blood monk?”

“I am an advocate,” Vladimir said. “But your word means nothing down here. You don’t understand what I’ve had to do to keep this operation going.”

“And for that you will be rewarded,” Jericho said, settling back in his seat and folding his arms over his chest. “Noxus rewards its sons and daughters who take up its mantle in the name of dominion. This is what has defined us since before the Darkwills came to impress their stupidity on everybody. What happened when Boram preached his ‘immortal’ will on us?”

Vladimir only grinned, exposing polished, manicured teeth that looked designed especially for the consumption of things hard to chew. “Then we must move quickly,” he affirmed. “The resurrection of our scion will be difficult. I worry of the stagnation his mind has had to endure all these years.”

“This time will be different,” Swain said. “He is … malleable.”

“And how do you figure that?” Vladimir asked, as if in challenge.

“Because Boram collected grimoires.” At Vladimir’s surprised look, Swain smirked and continued. “It was necromancy,” he said. “Imperfect necromancy. The kind that only animates, that does not mend the sinews of the conscious.”

“Of course,” Vladimir said, throwing his hands up. “Necromancy and blood magic share ancestral channels. But necromancy to resurrect the scion? That sounds improper.”

“This is Boram Darkwill we’re talking about. Proper is a better description for a whore. Boram had plans for Keiran. He would murder his own blood before giving up the High Command.”

“But did you read through the books?” Vladimir asked, his eyebrows raised.

Swain shook his head. “Locked by a magic greater than me. But the blood ritual will still be had. We will awaken the scion.”

“Perhaps I should try,” Vladimir suggested.

 “A magic greater than me is also greater than you,” Swain said.

Vladimir rolled his eyes.

Amidst their conversation, neither of them had noticed that the air around the limestone alcove had gotten heavier. Neither of them noticed that the light from the torch was dimming, flickering its last breaths of glowing life. Neither of them noticed that the shadows were growing darker, that they were moving, billowing.

“Where is my bird?” Swain asked.

Before Vladimir had the time to answer a harsh screech filled the alcove. Swain’s vulture flapped its wings futilely in the dark, squawking, beating at whatever had filled the space of the shadows by the main tunnel that led through True Noxus. It was fighting something much larger than itself, and it was losing. Every so often they could hear the flap of wings; the snap of her beak; the tearing of flesh.

Swain whipped up from his chair and limped towards the sounds, but he was instantly pushed backwards by a strong force that sent him reeling into a table. He smashed his already injured leg and cried out in pain, buckling to the floor. It seemed to amplify all the other pain in his body.

Vladimir moved with the grace of all the blood monks before him.  He stood and walked in front of the Grand General, his eyes focusing on the movements in the darkness. The vulture had given up and was no longer screeching or moving, but whatever had killed it was still lurking in the shadows. “General,” Vladimir said, never taking his eyes off the small pathway that led from the main tunnel to their alcove. “Are you all right?

“I’m fine,” Swain snapped. He tried to stand but couldn’t.

“Right.”

The same force that had knocked Swain asunder didn’t have the same effect on Vladimir. Instead of pushing him backwards, it caused his robes of bloodsilk to quaver and wisk around him, and the fabric danced in response to the magical force. Then there was a sound like broken static and glass, and the direction of the force changed. It pulled instead of pushed, and although a few empty bottles of ale were sucked into the darkness, Vladimir didn’t move. Swain held onto a table that was hammered into the ground.

The shadows whirled around themselves and coalesced into the inky silhouette of a woman. She had deep purple eyes. She wore a veil that covered her face. It seemed to drip down onto her feet as she walked, like the murk of a squid fountain. She appeared from the shadows as if she had been born from them, and she had a pair of wings that stretched over her back. They demanded deference.

“You do not bring their kind into True Noxus,” she said. She threw the vulture’s skull past Vladimir and it bounced off Swain’s foot.

“State your business, Beatrice,” Vladimir said.

“Pardon?” she said delicately, smiling beneath her veil. She moved forward and circled around Vladimir, occasionally glancing over at Swain with her malevolent gaze, as if daring him to move from the floor. Sometimes she would ruffle her wings and black feathers would sway to the ground.

Swain looked broken.

“Why are you here?” Vladimir asked, irritated.

Beatrice traced her fingers along the line of Vladimir’s jaw, causing him to close his eyes in allure for just a moment. “Le Blanc sends regards,” she said slowly. “You have had cover for nearly an entire day and yet still our scion is sleeping. Every moment that he sleeps is another that the Sisterhood weeps,” she said.

“Screw the sisterhood,” Swain barked. “She wasn’t supposed to obliterate the Constabul—”

Before he could finish, Beatrice’s form faded and then re-emerged from the shadows as something different, a raven made of umbrae, as if she had painted herself anew in the dark. She flew around the ceiling of the alcove, extinguishing the last of the torch fire. She swooped down once or twice, snapping her beak at Swain and tearing his flesh. He could only defend himself with his forearms. She landed in front of the General, putting a gap of shadows between him and Vladimir. The young blood magician tried to move at her, but she was emanating a force that would not allow him to pass.

She lifted her wings and beat them in the darkness, and this time the force actually pushed Vladimir backwards.

She spoke:

“We have waited so long for this day, prepared so meticulously and so carefully that you could not even fathom what I would do to you, to the General!, to Noxus!, if this went against our plans. Do you have any idea how long the scion’s blood goes back? How far into the web of our beautiful state it sleeps? Of course you do not. I would not expect such imbecile men to understand the intricacies of a true plot.”

She swept one of her wings across the alcove and a strong wind whistled through the stone nooks.

“We have waited too long. You two grew up sucking the tits of your mothers while the Sisterhood threaded the cogs of your destiny today. You have no choice but to comply. Otherwise you will be ruined.”

She laughed, the terrible cacophony of a mad woman and a dying raven. It made Swain’s ears bleed, and Vladimir crumbled to his knees.

He had encountered Beatrice before. Sometimes she was a coin robbing hag, hobbling through the darkness, cradling a candle made of Darkflower wax at the end of its life. She was a beggar with spoiled teeth that sold medicine for gold. But most of the time she was just a quiet woman beneath a black veil, moving through the shadows—with the shadows, as the shadows.

Beatrice raised her wings and screamed one final time. Swain’s body rose from the floor of the alcove, surrounded by shadows. They whirled and twisted, refracting darkness into itself, creating an absence of energy, a void that linked directly to the Fulcrum of The Balance itself.

Swain’s body jerked several times. The shadows glittered, moving fast as a school of fish, synchronized beneath sunbeams in the tropics of Kumungu. Then they were the wind, coils and tendrils, a cursive script written from a zephyr. They were the carrion ravens, the soul of the scion, the true son of Noxus. The birds made of umbrae flapped and dripped around him in a hurricane, and he felt his heart, his essence, completely reaved, completely jailed behind the deep reflection of the raven evermore.

“Awaken the scion,” she said. The shadows dispersed. Swain fell to the ground, small rivers of blood coming from his eyes and ears. He blinked once, twice. He saw Vladimir unconscious. But most of all, he saw life. He saw the Scion. A large raven walked past his face and stared into his eyes.

Awaken the scion, it said. The raven’s cry pierced the dark of True Noxus, and Swain faded.