The Masks of the Worldwalker
The undertow of Noxus never took lightly to strangers, which was good news for him. Jeir’ak had spent years watching how Noxians dressed, how they ate their soup, washed their clothes, tended to their sick. Though he’d been all around Runeterra and back again, it was Noxians that fascinated him the most, but he could never quite put his finger on why.
It might have been the way that he blended into the undercurrent that made him feel most comfortable. He moved down a dark alley filled shoulder-to-shoulder with revelers. Some were drunk; some were trying to get away from the drunk; some were trying to get drunk. But their state didn’t matter: what mattered is that they didn’t notice when he bumped into them, and so he moved through the celebration unseen, a ghost behind a mask that was not his, following the constantly thinning trail of a woman’s perfume.
She was way ahead of him.
He moved as quickly as he could, shuffling past skirmishes, pushing drunk people aside so that he could keep up. But she was fast—faster than any woman he had ever seen before. She darted in between couples, past burly men, through throngs of people yelling at one another, their breath and bodies warmed by what he could only assume was the rum of pirates. Sickening, he thought, as he struggled to catch up.
The woman rounded a corner, a flicker of crimson hair the only indication that she had slipped away for good. Jeir’ak stopped running, it was no use.
“You have a peculiar face,” a small woman said to him. She spoke from behind the counter of a wooden hut just off the main road.
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” She motioned him over to her hut in the shadows, away from the stream of people. “Come closer.”
“Are you sure?”
“Come closer,” she repeated.
Jeir’ak stepped towards her. He grinned behind the mask, reveling in his own game. When he was close enough to look into her eyes, he stopped and stared at her with the curiosity of a newborn.
“You know,” she said darkly, “Noxus does not fear your kind.”
“My kind?” Jeir’ak asked.
“The kind born from its shadows. The kind that comes from the gutters,” she whispered. “I can tell you’ve lived a long time.” She exposed two small, diamond vials from beneath the counter, poured out the contents into a small bowl, and pestled them. The substance inside crunched and bubbled.
“I can help you catch her,” she said, smiling in the dark.
“How is that?” Jeir’ak asked.
“Come closer,” she said.
What is chasing me?
She had been chased before. She had been chased through alleys like this, in sewers more crowded, in woods more dense with trees. In every single instance she had escaped because she was the quickest woman in the world. She knew that very well. Yet something about whoever or whatever was pursuing her this time actually scared her.
It was not because she was afraid of fighting. It was because she could actually hear the thing that was chasing her, deep in the back of her head. She didn’t have to look behind to know that he was close, because she could hear his darkness talking, could feel it creeping up on her neck.
She curled her arms together and dove beneath the legs of a tall man. He didn’t seem to notice. She fluttered in between the revelers, her deep red hair tracing fine wisps like bloodsilk in front of her face as she pranced and dashed in calculated acrobatics.
It’s giving up. But this only made her move faster.
She blurred around a corner and ran for her life, farther and farther away from the dark voices that had been following. They faded off beneath the roar of the Noxian streets. She stopped. She looked up at the night sky, her breath a cloud in the cool air. What was that?
It didn’t matter anymore. She continued outside the city limits down a dark trail. There was no light here.
Eventually the trail became thick with forest, and she welcomed the moon’s cold light, listening to things that played in the mossy shadows. This was the Noxus that she remembered as a little girl, the Noxus she wanted back. Blue-green firebugs pulsed under her quiet steps, as if scribbling their own path back home. For a moment she considered turning back, if only because she was nostalgic—not nostalgic to go home, of course, but nostalgic for the adrenaline. She wanted to know what was chasing her.
For hours she moved through the dark, careful not to step on any of the firebugs. There was an old legend that the Darkwill elders used to tell about what happened to the sad wandering travelers that accidentally crushed them. The firebugs were, in fact, messengers to the fairy realm, and the last thing that you ever wanted to deal with (at least, the elders had said) was an angered fairy or, all things forbid, an angry tree from that place.
She came upon a stone road lined with Darkflower bushes. What little of the moon was left shone from behind dim clouds, and the flowers danced and ululated in the strangest way.
In his age he had forgotten about the smell of Noxian medicine, so he was grateful to this hag—this apothecary—who sat before him mixing potions. He smiled beneath the mask because he knew that she believed she was old, she was wise, she had lived so many years that no knowledge of the world could have possibly escaped her. The trouble with this thinking, of course, was that it made the hag blind to the quanta of new generations that had sprung up around her, alienating her from new information simply because she didn’t know how to understand it.
The smell had a sound quality to it. It smelled like juniper and pine, roasted and rolled over molten diamonds and brushed with Shuriman sand. As the hag moved the pestle round, the substance began to emit a dark, black light. It threw angular shards of shadow on her chin the way a fire’s shadow plays on the hearth, making her look much warmer and kinder and younger than she actually was. Her eyes glistened.
“Tell me,” she said, “What does Liandry have that you do not?”
This surprised him. “Don’t pretend you know anything about that,” he said. “You speak her name as if you have met her, as if you have ever been granted a single moment to look into her eyes.”
“Oh, I have seen through those eyes.”
“What do you know of that?”
She snapped her fingers and exhaled sharply. A glittering dust spewed from the bowl and bloomed in his face, causing him to stumble backwards. “I know the shape of the limitless horizon that was cast from the Great Nothing,” she whispered. In the dark her face changed, not the old and withered face of a hag but the countenance of a goddess, pale, white, pristine like glass. Her eyes were a virtuous garnet and they blazed as she moved towards him. “And I remember what you did when the rest of us sang our faces into life.”
“Liandry?” Jeir’ak growled and an ethereal disturbance ruptured around them. It caused the earth beneath them to resonate and groan, shaking loose stones and pebbles at their feet. The force caught Liandry by surprise and she backed away, poising defensively, knowingly. Jeir’ak cleared his face of the fog and simply stared. “All of this time you have been … brewing medicines?”
“Among other things,” she said. “And what have you been doing besides ruining time’s fragile needlework?”
“Where you see fragility, I see foundation,” Jeir’ak said.
“Nonsense. Your nonsense morals and intuitions are what led to the Divide in the first place. For that, you will never be forgiven.” Suddenly she felt a forceful pull. Liandry blinked in and out of reality and reappeared behind the counter, except she was just an old hag and her face looked particularly hollow in the dark. He could see the wrinkles on her face and the deep impressions that age had made on her face. It intrigued him.
“Do not underestimate the magic of mere humans,” the hag said. She laughed. Her teeth were rotted and she coughed and sputtered, but this all seemed to be a part of the gesture. “What differentiates humans from gods?” The hag asked.
“You can’t compare them because the gods are better than you,” he said.
“What differentiates humans from gods?” The hag asked again.
Jeir’ak remained silent. The woman’s feeble medicine had worn off, and he suddenly felt a great urge to strike, to consume the darkness and roam free as the nightshade. But he only smiled, coiling the dark strands of the nightshade’s consciousness together on itself.
“The difference is simple,” he said. “Humans think the gods up, and the gods think the humans down.”
“But who’s writing the story?” The hag asked.
“Not as old as you think, are you?” He laughed and moved on his way up the dark road.