/mlp/ for Spring Babby Cup 2014
In the dark of night, hurried footsteps and shallow breaths ruled the air, emanating from a single man, crazed and confused. The man was running. Running from a monster.
His pace was fierce and his breath drew sharp gasps of air, his feet leading him through the forest to the dusty little village he called home. He needed to get there. Needed to be safe. He couldn't die here. Not like this.
The air was cold and the ground was hard. Simply walking on it made him freeze, and his dampened feet throbbed in the cold. But he still had to run. Couldn't die. Not like this. Not now.
What had gone so wrong? What could have possibly happened? The memory of the past flashed through his mind, the events moving by as fast as he was. Still behind him. That infernal noise, always behind him.
He had been out hunting in a party of ten, desperate for food after the long and harsh winter. The animals had scattered into unreachable holes and the vegetation had frozen into decay. The village of Kalamanda was left to survive on what few caravans made it through the raging war outside its borders, between the city-states of Demacia and Noxus. Tools had fallen into disrepair, leaving them to farm with what little they had and their bare hands. The situation was grave in Kalamanda, and his party was one of many sent out to change the fortune of their dying village after the spring had finally come. But even the desperation and hope of fighting men couldn't withstand the terror of what greeted them in the forests.
It had begun with a sound. A small, clamoring sound. Almost enough to make the men think they were going mad. The gentle chime of chains knocking against each other. They forged onward, not dissuaded from their task. But it just kept getting louder.
It had been an hour since they had left their village. They had caught a squirrel. It wasn't nearly enough to reach their quota, but implication of catching even one animal was a great morale boost indeed.
The man who had caught it felt so, anyways, and said with an adjustment of his undergarments, "Ey, lads, I'ma go take a wizz in the bushes over there. Hold up for a sec." And so he left, and so they waited. And waited. And waited. Until the dusk rapidly approached and there was no sign of him.
One of the men spoke up. "Well, where the 'ell is 'e?"
Another responded. "I have no idea. If he's deserted and taken off with the squirrel, we'll make sure he never sets foot in Kalamanda again. But if something's happened to him..." His face contorted in deep thought.
Another man spoke up too. "Go look for 'im. You know where we're going. Search a good while and come to the clearing about two miles away. We'll meet ya' there."
The hunter nodded in affirmation and took off towards the direction their wayward hunter had wandered off to. The rest of the group wandered deeper into the forest, looking for any meals to snatch up on their way to the clearing. The chains came back.
The night rapidly approached, and the party was tired. With all of their bags weighted down with as much meat as they could possibly fit, they weren't even concerned about looking for any other animals. Every individual was only concerned with getting to the clearing to retrieve the two other hunters. There was no energy in any of their bodies to pay attention to anything else. So when the finally arrived at the clearing, it shouldn't have been a surprise that only five of their number remained.
"Where the hell did they go?!" shouted one of the men.
"I don't know," responded another, "but where's the other two? They was supposed to meet us here, even if there was only going to be the one. Where're they?"
"I've got a very bad feeling about this..."
A dull scraping came from the trees in front of them, punctuated by those damnable chains. The five stopped in silence, the sounds getting louder as they drew closer. And closer. And closer. Until they...
The group let out a huge breath in relief.
"I don't know what the hell that was," one of them started, "but we'd better leave before a bear or something gets u-!" He was cut short by a rusty hook shooting from the tree cover and pulling him back with it, out of sight. The last indication of him came mere seconds later, in the shocked horror of the moment. The agonized shriek of a tortured man, cut abruptly short as soon as it had begun.
The time for calm was long over. "Let's get the fuck out of here!" a hunter panicked, pointing down the way they came. And as he started to run, the hook flared out and severed his head with one simple swipe of its razor-sharp edge. The others took his warning and ran. Ran as fast as their legs would take them.
Through the forest and towards Kalamanda they ran, paying no heed to their fellows or their fates. Screams pierced the night. They ran and ran, running until they dropped, until there was only one left. Screams no longer came from behind. Slaughter could no longer be heard and imagined. It was only him. And he kept running, his sanity fractured and close to breaking. He had seen his comrades murdered in front of his eyes, and he was about to be next. So when all was at its worst, when he was at his breaking point, the chains came to his ears once more.
How he wished for them to stop. For just a moment. Just a second. But they wouldn't. And they just kept getting louder.
Then, as if it were a gift from the gods themselves, the lights of Kalamanda shone above the horizon. He was almost there. His body screamed, his lungs were depleted, but he had to try.
"Help!" he cried, hoping someone would hear him. "Help! Someone! Please!"
He ran faster, his legs close to giving out. His heart shot up. He could almost taste the ale of the Hardy Hammer Inn, when the sound stopped abruptly. He heaved in relief, and the taste came back. But the taste was different this time. Almost... coppery.
He was then pulled back by an incomprehensibly strong force, anchored by a gaping wound through his chest. When he reached his destination, he slammed into a tree, falling and painting the ground with his life fluids. He collapsed into a sunken heap of meat on the ground. No... He was so close...
With a Herculean effort, he crawled forward towards the light in his eyes, almost unbearably bright. Whether the light was from Kalamanda, he would have to find out. He felt something large and metal wrench itself from his body, only to be replaced by a cold, hard boot in his back. He struggled and moved for what seemed like hours, until, finally, his adrenaline burned and sputtered and left him without energy. It was done. He was finished.
After the boot was satisfied that the man would offer no more resistance, a hand dragged him gently and set him against the tree, almost caringly. The hand brushed his hair out of his drooping face, and forced his eyelids open to look at what had trapped him.
A skull, long and voracious, stared back, its mouth curled into a cruel smile. In a green, ethereal hand it held a lantern, illuminating the rest of its body. A long trenchcoat covered most of its features, with green smoke drifting from the collar like a raging inferno. The man knew what it was. Any youthful miscreant knew the god-awful nursery rhyme. He had only one thing to ask.
It said in a smooth, practiced voice, "Because you are valuable to me."
When the man's eyes shone with confusion, it continued. "What you are intrigues me. Who you are. Why you are. So, this is what I do." The thing suddenly grabbed the man's head, shoving its face towards him. "Do you know who I am, hunter?"
With a rasp, the hunter spoke. "The... Chain... Warden..." The creature looked satisfied.
"Just Thresh, between friends. After all, we're going to become very close, you and I. Bound in chains." It chuckled at its own joke.
Resignation turned to hatred, and the man summoned enough effort to spit blood on the thing's coat. To his dissatisfaction, the ghoulish reaper chuckled again. "That wasn't smart. After all, it's your eternity. Best to make a good impression." The creature picked up the hook that it had set down, linked with the rattling chain that began somewhere in the thing's coat.
With an effort that cost him his life, he feebly asked, "Where?" Thresh looked him straight in his slowly closing eyes and smiled a torturer's smile.
"To the Shadow Isles. Your soul is now mine." The man faded away from life, vaguely feeling himself lift up into the air before all went black and he was no more.
Jax. The Grandmaster-at-Arms.
Jax the Hero. Jax the Unknown. Jax the Champion. Jax the Liar. Jax the blablablabla. He'd had enough of titles for one life. Enough of the public's scrutinizing eye. Enough of war. Enough of death. He supposed that was why he was here, though. He could bear the fighting, as long as it rid himself of the latter, and the former, for that matter.
"Hey, Gragas! Another one! Hold up on the damn ice, though. It's like you want your drinks to be diluted trash."
"What was that, ya' three-fingered freak? I couldn't hear ya' from down there. Yer too light-weight."
"Yeah, yeah, you drunk pig. You're big enough to eat the keg. Now, hurry it up with the drinks. Some of us actually have other things to do that don't involve getting piss-drunk."
"Hah! Like you do more than that!"
"Hrm," Jax grunted, then sighed. He waited for his drink, downed it in one gulp, and let the fiery liquid rush down his throat. Then, with a single, swift movement, the purple-veiled champion slid off his chair and exited the bar.
Outside, the grand halls of the Institute of War awaited. Summoners and secretaries alike roamed about the busy walkways of the League headquarters, chattering and trading information amongst themselves. They all had somewhere to be. And so did Jax. The Grandmaster made to part the sea of bureaucrats.
In any other environment, the crowds would've parted like minnows to a shark for Jax, with fearful respect for his sheer size and intimidating appearance. Here, where champions came to-and-fro from all stretches of the world and beyond, the crowds parted in a different sort of respect for Jax. The sort of respect that came from knowing the man who singlehandedly took the League of Legends by storm, racking up a set of consecutive, fair wins that no other champion, Voidspawn or like, had or could ever match. The sort of respect that came from knowing that the man who could just as easily fight with no mercy, fought with a self-imposed handicap. The sort of respect that came with an air of reverence.
The sort of respect that Jax wished would just go away.
He hadn't made it halfway across the room from the champion-owned and operated bar-lounge when a youthful summoner, engrossed in a stack of papers, plowed head-first into Jax and fell to the floor in surprise. His purple hood fell back to reveal that the mage was indeed young, with hair barely beginning to even grace his chin. Jax sighed for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. He reached out a hand to help the summoner up.
"Here, kid. Watch where you're going."
The mage, without looking up, took his hand and papers and accepted Jax's aid. "Thank you, sir. Sorry, I was just studying for an upcoming Summoning. I wasn't really paying atte-!" When his eyes traveled up to see who had helped him, the summoner's heart jumped into his throat. "Y-you're..."
"Yeah, yeah. No autographs, kid."
"Yeah, I know, disappointing. Now, run along. You have a match to get to, and so do I. We both have a timetable to keep." Jax brushed the summoner's shoulder off with dust and continued on his way, leaving the awestruck summoner stuttering behind him.
Everywhere he went, it seemed, the heavily trafficked halls of the Institute of War proved easy to walk, and he reached his summoning room at last. Without bated breath, he stepped through the marble portal to see four of his peers lazing about, waiting for their match to begin.
The first was Katarina. The "Sinister Blade". Sinister his ass. She was an assassin. He would've been hard-pressed to find an assassin who wasn't sinister in some way. Plus, he heard that she was going soft. No recent hits. No military campaigns for Noxus. Disappearing from the available roster for days on end. Along with that one Demacian, coincidentally. If that what people viewed as sinister, he wondered what he would've been viewed as back in the day.
The second was a Miss Sarah Fortune. Jax didn't buy the hogwash about her uniting the whole of Bilgewater. Yeah, great. Use lying, cheating and murder to unite a bunch of liars, cheaters and murderers. A fair cause. He scoffed. Another self-righteous white knight with their head in the clouds. Or in the ocean, rather.
The third, the Steam Golem of Zaun: the esteemed Blitzcrank. What could he say about the robot? Caught the short end of natural rights, when it came into sentience. When Zaun was involved, Jax had no doubts as to why. Thing was harmless enough, unless in a match with it. Then, it could secure your death or life, depending on whose side you were on. Jax hoped he could get more of the latter, this time. Sometimes, he thought it might have been best to let that crazy cyborg-man finish up the golem's programming.
And the last: the ever-placid Nasus. Curator of The League's Library. In all his days, Jax had never seen the jackal lose his cool. But he seemed close to it, right about then. Jax was no expert on aliens, but he could still tell if one was nervous, apparently. And Nasus was certainly that. Jax walked towards him first.
He laid a hand on his armored shoulder, making the massive champion jump. Must've been bad, whatever it was. "You alright?"
Nasus, upon seeing who it was, sighed and nodded. He said in a booming, smooth voice, "Ah, Jax. My apologies. I've been... distracted, as of late."
With any other person, the immortal might have passed on the explanation. But experience had taught Nasus well that Jax was more than a mere musclehead. Time and time again, the champion was astounded by the endless pool of knowledge Jax displayed when on the subject of magic, and he never ceased to disappoint. He knew far more than he let on. Regardless, Nasus elaborated. "It is... a ritual. A cure. A cure for madness."
"For madness? Your brother?"
Nasus nodded. "Indeed. My brother suffers the cruelest fate my foolishness could ever bestow, and I am... eager to right it. The rage Renekton harbors will never be dismissed, so long as the jaws of time have even the slightest morsel of evil within the cracks of its teeth. I hope to cure him with the powerful magic of the summoners so that he can rejoin my side once more as the being he once was."
"The summoners are a carefully selected group of highly trained and talented mages. Why are you nervous?"
"This ritual. The reliability of it is... tenuous. At best. This is an unrefined field of magic, and it has the potential to either cure my brother completely, or..." Jax's posture told the soul-eater to continue. Nasus swallowed the knot in his throat as he said the next words. "Destroy his mind irrevocably. I would be forced to kill him, out of mercy, and I will be left alone. Alone with the sands, as the last of my kind on this world." His eyes hardened. "Do you see, Grandmaster? This is the event that will define the rest of my life and I am powerless to intervene. I am trusting my brother's life to fate, when I am the one who left him in its hands so long ago. What else can I do but worry?"
Jax stood in silence for but a second, but his mind wandered through ages of the past, streaming past with visions of glory, loss, love, death, and every human emotion ever comprehended. In an instant, Jax knew all there was to say, yet there was only one thing to say.
"'Trust in your peers as you would trust in yourself.' Isn't that what you told me, a while back?" Nasus' eyes lit up ever so slightly.
"I wouldn't have guessed you would've remembered. You were so busy in being the whole team-"
"-that I forgot that I even had a team." Jax finished. "Yeah. I did. You'd be surprised at what I remember. The point is, you need to trust those around you. When you can't do things alone, you trust them and give them what you can, and they'll get you through. You've done far enough for the summoners with your brother. Now, it's time for you to do the same for us. Can you do that?"
Nasus' mouth curled into a smile. He stood from his sitting position, towering over Jax, and shook his hand. "Yes. I believe I can."
"That's what I thought, you big lug. Now, get on the platform. We have to get the sunmoners in our heads, first."
Renewed with energy, the two champions walked to the rest of the group, standing atop the intricate, stone summoner platform, with its duplicate located somewhere in their arena of choice.
"Done with your pep talk?" Katarina asked impatiently.
"Yeah, cut the snark, girlie," Jax replied, patiently awaiting his mental invasion. "I doubt your summoner wants to hear any of that."
"Who's to say he would? And besides, it's rather difficult not to be when you're bleeding from a dozen different wounds and the summoner refuses to return to the platform, on account of some inane task or another."
"Who's to say blood will only be coming from wounds, in your case?" Jax and Sarah snickered.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"THAT WAS A MENSTRUATION JEST, MEANT TO ALLUDE TO THE HORMONAL ASPECTS OF THE FEMALE MENSTRUAL CYCLE, SUCH AS A BITTER OR IRRITATED MOOD. THIS HAS BEEN DEEMED TO BE APPROPRIATELY HUMOROUS TO ALL BUT THE RECIEVING PARTY. HA HA HA HA."
"Thank you, Blitzcrank," the assassin said through gritted teeth, her face's expression betraying her words' meaning.
"CASE-IN-POINT," the robot intoned. Katarina made a rebuttal, but Jax hadn't caught it. He had already sat down and blocked out the outside to make way for his summoner.
And... there it was. The telltale feeling of having another conscious mind in yours. The pre-fight synchronization. And Jax did not like who was there.
"Hey, is this working? Is this Jax?" a voice spoke from his head, unmistakably from the summoner who Jax ran into not five minutes prior.
"Yeah, hello. What are you doing, kid?" he transmitted back.
"Summoning! I'm your summoner for today. The others said you were great with... inexperienced summoners, so I signed myself on for your next scheduled match, and here we are! I'm rather keen on seeing those forests get turned over to Ionia anyways." Jax hadn't even read what case his team was representing. "It was just a coincidence that we bumped into each other. Sorry about that. I was really distracted, because I think I've found something that could give us the edge in the match!"
"Yeah, kid? What is it?" Jax asked, not holding his breath. Always the newbies. Ever since that one kid...
"Look. I trust you're familiar with the time it takes to synchronize with a champion? And with the bit of magic we ourselves can lend to the fight?" The summoner gave Jax no time to respond. "Well, using a new summoning technique that I've created, I can lend a bit of my magic to dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes for me to interface with you, giving us the tactical and reactionary advantage over our opponents!" Jax wasn't very impressed.
"Did this yourself, huh?"
"Yep! Me and me alone!"
"And this is your... what? Tenth? Twelfth match?"
"My second! My first was with Graves, and he wasn't too happy with how I was performing, so I went to work on this for my second match!"
"So, this is your first time using this technique?"
"A completely new summoning method, one that could potentially upset the balance of the entire League, and you're trying it out your second match, with me."
"Uh... yeah, that's pretty much spot-on."
"You're sure this will work?"
"Oh, yeah! It's been months since my last match with Graves! I worked out every single variable, with every single available quantum transmat equation I could find! It's flawless."
"Well, there were a few books..."
"Gods preserve me."
"Nonono! It's fine, it'll all be fine! L-look! The match is starting! Clear your head, and get lots of air. This'll only take a second."
Jax took his advice and sat still on the hard floor, waiting.
"Thirty seconds until summoning!" a regal, female voice sounded through the room.
Breathe in, breathe out. Relax. Nasus came to mind.
"Twenty seconds until summoning!"
Can't go wrong, won't go wrong. Practiced and refined. Those summoners with Renekton.
"Ten seconds until summoning!"
Second match. With him.
Why did it always have to be him?
Jax felt himself whip through space itself, tearing through the gaps between dimensions and back into his own. All was normal, until he felt a tiny snake of energy carefully edge its way towards him, causing minor ripples that had the potential to become big problems. Slowly but steadily, the snake came towards him, getting closer and closer, until...
Bang! Three blobs of energy smashed into Jax at the same time, sending the snake flying and the space around them rippling in disturbance. The four sources of energy went careening away from Valoran, away from Runeterra, and, eventually, away from their solar system. Being drawn into another tide of energy that seemed to be sucking energy in. Bringing something back.
The four crashed with a sickening warp.
"Always there, brother! Pain everlasting! Purification through fire! A reckoning with steel!"
"The time has come, brother. Time for me to get you back. And time for you to be freed."
"It will never stop! The corruption of man will never stop its cancerous growth! A tumor on the purity of life! I will cut it out! Every single cell! Limb from limb!"
"I know you would, Renekton."
Nasus walked out of his brother's magical cell, shutting the enchanted door behind him and sighing deeply. Even after all this time, the pain in his heart never ceased. When all the failures in his life came to life in front of his eyes, it was all he could do to stop himself from breaking down.
He turned to the summoner watching his daily ritual of meeting with his brother, who turned to him in turn.
"Have the preparations been made?"
"Indeed they have. My summoners have been readying for weeks on end. We only await your command."
"Good. Then do it. I want to watch."
The summoner frowned slightly. "There isn't anything to watch. There's one burst of energy, then he falls asleep, then we await the results. It will take at least a few hours for the end result to become clear, and you have a match in a few minutes."
Nasus stared at the human with contempt. "It can wait. I want to watch this procedure. He is my brother, and he deserves my presence."
"And he got it. You were there when he was awake, and you'll be here when he wakes up. Let us do our duty, and you do yours. Get your mind off this whole thing. It'll take no longer than an hour, and you'll still have plenty of that fun waiting time to look forward to."
Nasus nearly exploded in silent fury at the man's audacity. "I have waited for a decade for my brother, and I would wait a thousand more to see him well. I. Will. Wait."
"You jeopardize this ritual by your being here! Can't you see it? Your brother writhes in rage at the very thought of you! We need him as docile as possible, and we only allowed your visit because of your damned insistence! You have contributed far more than we could've done alone for your brother, now let us see this through. You must go."
Nasus' anger could have destroyed the Institute of War with a single word, but he refused to let it out. The fury of a soul-eater was dangerous, indeed, and the immortal had spent much time refining his abilities. And, thankfully, his patience. "I... suppose if there is nothing more I can do. You've kept a close watch on him for all the time he's been here, and I know that I can expect no less from you. Very well, I will attend this match. I will return shortly after to my brother's side, and then, I will not leave until he is relieved of his burden." Nasus walked away from the large holding area of the Institute, dragging the great doors closed behind him. Alone, he whispered to the one person who could hear him. "One way or another." Faintly, he could hear Renekton roar from behind him.
After he had left, the summoner turned to his colleagues and silently signaled for them to get into position. It would take a few minutes for Renekton to calm down, then they would start. They had taken great precautions in enchanting the cell to hold the great butcher, including the foresight in allowing it to be easily receptive to their magic. Such reception they would use to channel their magic into Renekton's body, hopefully reversing a lifetime's worth of corruption and anger. The chronomage himself had worked with the summoners and Nasus, working to create the spell that would, in theory, revert a mind back to a past state while still retaining any cerebral growth the subject might have obtained. They had tested incredibly early versions of the spell on criminals, with mixed results, but many advances had been made since then, and they were as ready for Renekton as they would ever be. What could go wrong, the optimistics of them asked.
They channeled as one, each summoner feeling the energy build up around them as they worked in tandem. It was as if an enormous pressure had formed in the room, and everyone could feel its crushing influence. Then, in the span of a millisecond, they collapsed it all on Renekton.
The soul-eater roared and thrashed in fury, feeling the assault on his mind and working desperately to fight it. A soul-eater's mind was more than a match for any feeble human's mind; his creators had made sure of that. But the combined power of the summoners was enough to keep Renekton down, and continue to funnel their energies into Renekton's body.
The spell continued for several minutes, never waning, until the lead summoner noticed a slight anomaly in the magical apparatus all the summoners operated on. Whether it was summoning, or spells integrated with the structure like this one, all magic was confined to the same web of energy that made it possible for synchronized casting. The various summoners pondered this momentarily, and their concern grew greater as it snaked irritatingly close to their string of energy. Closer and closer it went, until they eventually realized...
"It's going to interfere with the spell matrix!" a summoner exclaimed in realization. Panic grew throughout the group, and before they could stop channeling, the energy intertwined with their retreating magics and reacted spectacularly. It was as if several tendrils of webs had caught fire and burned like a sun before going out in a second. When the light had dissipated, the summoners had only themselves and an empty cell to greet them.
"Renekton is gone!" One of the summoners exclaimed, and the rest looked up in horror to confirm the statement. Inside the chamber, rune-protected and magically sealed to the point of obsession, Renekton was nowhere to be seen. All that remained was a dull, smoking set of chains and a blackened circle on the floor.
The entire room erupted with sound. What happened? What would the Institute do? What would happen to them? What had breached their defenses?
And all the lead summoner could think of, through all the confusion, was, "What would Nasus think?"
High in the skies above Demacia, stone wings with the techmaturgic prowess of a thousand years' research running through its veins beat through the air like a dragon -- slow, yet purposeful. The wings belonged to a creature the size of a large wyvern, though it was no ordinary creature. It was the creation of who was once the most skilled artificer in all of Demacia: the craftsman Durand.
He was once the most in-demand artisan in his field, moving from city-state to city-state to grant those with Demacia's favor with great, lumbering guardians of stone and metal. They never tired. Never rested. And those who attacked the settlements were met with a swift, cold death. Such was the efficiency of Durand, whose creations could topple a Noxian squadron single-handedly.
Unfortunately, these automatons suffered a problem. They were never truly sentient. They could never and would never bend their will to the Demacian command, making them unsuited for anything other than their programmed purpose: to defend Demacia and all its colonies. Durand was always trying to improve upon his work, one golem at a time. And, each time, the creations became more and more ingenious, capable of guarding their quarries in more clever and cunning ways. But still, they lacked thought. True, rational thought. But the artificer kept trying, such as he was, as an artist, of sorts. Using a testing canvas before he moved on to true pieces. Then, he perished. Assassinated by the enemies of his home country. Through the creature's defense, just atop a nondescript cliff overlooking Demacia, the path home clearly visible.
The automaton could clearly remember his master's words: "Look, there, Galio. Home. Finally. How I've missed it. And don't lie. You know I hate it when you do. I know you've missed it too." And those were the last words he had spoken, before the blade of a Noxian pierced his throat.
And here he had come again, to the site of his master's death. Galio, the blank canvas. Durand's magnum opus. His greatest creation... and his greatest failure.
Galio flapped his wings harder and harder to slow his descent before stopping beside an old, rickety bridge that crossed a gap in the cliff edge. Funny, the gargoyle mused. That bridge was in good condition last I had seen it. Truth be told, he hadn't a clue how long time had passed since Durand had died. Such was how engrossed he was in his own misery.
And there, he saw it. Right beside the large, stone marker that he had called his perch for so many years. A small, gray stone tablet, and a bed of dirt beside it. He had always deserved better, his master. But since the earth had long since claimed Durand, and his bones were likely as frail as the particles of dirt atop them, Galio had always felt it best to leave him where he lay. He couldn't bear to open new wounds.
The Grave of Durand, Master Artificer. That was what the gravestone read, carved an inch deep. Galio had done it all himself. After he had driven the assassins away, he dug the grave, carved the stone -- all of it. He did it himself, and buried what he didn't use with his master. And then he hadn't been back since. He didn't know why. Perhaps, with the newly forged truce between Noxus and Demacia, Galio had found himself irritatingly low on diplomatic matters to settle in the Rift. So, of all times, he felt that now was as good a time as any to visit, as it were. Visit the monument to his shame.
Galio bowed his head in respect under the shade of the trees, his chiseled chin almost scraping against the dirt in deference. Whatever Durand had done to give him emotions, he had done a damned good job on "sorrow". Slowly but surely, the gargoyle reached for the headstone and pulled it from its ditch, only to find what he was looking for: a large, brown satchel, filled with an artificer's tools of the trade. Enchanting stones, hammers, chisels, portable spell matrices; it was everything an artificer needed to make their own living creation. What interested him was Durand's secret box. A small thing -- he could crush it in his palm -- and Durand would never let anyone see inside it. His last secret. And it would die with him; Galio would see to that. At the bottom of the bag, the gargoyle scooped up the box and clutched it tightly in his palm. If he died, they would have to get a mining crew to get the box out of his claws. Then, closing the bag and rolling the stone back into place, Galio gave a longing look towards his master's final resting place and lumbered over to the stone pedestal and took his place there, just as he had long ago.
He stood there for a long time, gazing into the sunset and contemplating the present, when eventually, he said, "'A guardian is always prepared.' You told me that. Long ago. And I betrayed even that oath. I wasn't fast enough. Wasn't strong enough. I could argue your workmanship or your skill in your craft, but we both know that would be just scapegoating. You gave me life for a reason: to be better than the rest. And I failed to be that, despite everything. So I've come to make amends. And to say goodbye.
"I failed to protect you in life, so I will protect you in death. Your secrets shall die with me, and not even the forces of the Void itself will keep me from my duty. You may not have peace for as long as your disappointment lives, but I will at least give you this. Goodbye, Durand. Master." And, with that, Galio took flight, and began to make his way back to the Institute.
Halfway there, Galio felt a strange stirring in the claw that housed the box. "Strange" turned to full-on "nerve-wracking" and the box began to glow and vibrate with urgency as they neared the Institute. Galio was enough an expert in his role to know what it was doing; it was detecting magic. An absurd amount, judging by the rattling it was making. But Galio refused to let go, keeping his promise to his architect. Though the rattling shook his stone claw and the light that it made pierced his vision, the sentinel's grip kept firm.
When it began to glow so brightly it blinded him, Galio let his infallible memory lead the way. When it began to shake so violently he felt pebbles chipping from his body, Galio steeled his resolve. When its energies began to melt through the stone and metal plating of his body, he summoned his magical capabilities to keep it contained. Closer and closer he came to the Institute of War, until, like an immovable object to an unstoppable force, when the box began dragging him through galaxies and across dimensions, Galio did naught but hold on and let it go where it pleased.
Because a guardian was always prepared for his charge. Even if it meant paying with his life.
The sun rose in the east, as it always did. The morning roosters crowed to the fields, and the workers poured themselves coffee and ate their morning breakfast.
But in the throne room of Canterlot, capital of Equestria, the day had begun many hours prior.
Princess Celestia, regal in her majesty and as radiant as the sun, had gone through so many piles of paperwork that she could swear her horn was getting tired. And she still had a few to go.
As the diarch of the day, she naturally got the short end of the workload stick in comparison to her sister's. Which meant she got an infinite number of proposals in her court while she multitasked on the proposals in paper. So it was for this reason, after dealing with dozens of politicians and bureaucrats already, she got her hopes up for a guard who burst through the door, hurried and panting. Her hopes came crashing down soon after.
"News from Northern Equestria! Uh... your highness." The guard was sweating beneath his golden armor. The news had to be important.
"Yes?" she inquired calmly.
"I am simply to tell you that it has returned."
She gasped out of shock. Of all times, now? She turned quickly to another guard.
"Find Princess Cadence and Shining Armor."
The guard nodded resolutely. "Yes, your highness."
Celestia took up a letter and began to write. My dearest Twilight...
"Your highness, a moment?" An old, wise voice came from her side. It was her advisor. The unicorn Noteworthy. He had served through thick and thin, so she regarded him with much respect and deference towards some parts of his judgement.
"Yes, Noteworthy? What is it?"
"Do you feel it, Princess? The air is... different, somehow."
Celestia regarded her environment for a moment. "Yes, I do. But wouldn't you agree that is because of our recent... developement?"
"Yes, perhaps. But this doesn't feel... Equestrian. It is strange."
"Noted, my dear advisor, but I hardly think we can afford to allocate further resources to this other presence, provided it is tangible. We have our hooves full with this predicament as it is."
"Very well. As you were, princess." And he returned to his stack of papers.
Celestia returned to her letter, but it halfway through it when she felt a nagging in the back of her mind. Like Noteworthy was onto something. Like maybe this strange feeling actually had merit.
Like there was something else in Equestria.