Part 3!! Thanks for the encouragement, guise!!
START OF PART 3
Heavy lumbering steps echoed throughout an ever-winding stairwell of dull obsidian squares, a pair of massive cracked leather boots trudging inexorably to the top of the tower. The black stairwell was dimly lit and, although clean enough, smelled of old dust and oily torches. Logic dictated that the stone steps and walls would bear a hint of cold to reflect the frigid winter winds howling outside. However, they were anything but, as a throbbing warmth emanated from the stone surfaces, drifting over the stolid hardened features and melting the snowflakes that clung to the eyelashes of Darius, the Hand of Noxus.
An organic heat, Darius thought to himself, as he brushed away the tickling moisture from his eyes. Like the innate body heat of a creature, not the windy drafts of a mechanical furnace. The belly of a beast, perhaps. A beast with scales of black obsidian.
These thoughts often crossed his mind whenever he ascended this stairwell. On occasion, he wanted to ask his master if, indeed, this tower was somehow alive. But he never asked. At best, the question was irrelevant and posed no purpose other than to serve as idle conversation; and both he and his master hated idle conversation. At worst, his master would consider the question to be one with an ulterior motive, which was the furthest from the truth, and not the impression that Darius would ever want to give.
Besides, Darius was pretty sure he knew the answer already.
After a couple more minutes of trudging, he finally reached the top of the stairwell to face a large, single, and simple cast-iron door whose front bore the engraved image of a six-eyed raven in mid-screech. The lighting was best here, illuminating every little horrid detail of the raven monstrosity's mutated face and its wormy plumage. The heat of the beast was strongest here. Sweltering. Suffocating.
He had not knocked yet, but he knew that his presence was already known. The walls were featureless, yet he felt their lidless eyes, unblinking like those of the raven on the door. They watched his every move, searching for something false. Because even though Darius was his most loyal champion, loyalty could be such a fleeting thing in Noxus.
With the walls watching him, Darius knocked anyway. Force of habit.
The voice of his master was muted and calm from behind the door: “Come in.”
Darius reached forward with a gloved leather hand to pull open the heavy iron door on its silent hinges, and he stepped into the personal chambers of Jericho Swain, the Grand General of Noxus.
The main room of Swain's chambers was cool and refreshing in atmosphere, nothing like the unnerving stairwell. It was also astonishingly simple for a man of such power and influence. Serving as both lobby and living room, the room's only signs of grandiose indulgence happened to be the trio of incredibly expensive rugs spread about the obsidian floor. The walls bore no showy coat-of-arms or giant trophies of war and hunt. Four framed smallish photographs and portraits of various people adorned the walls instead, one per wall, centered. Darius did not know who these people were. He had never bothered to ask.
Although, there was that one ancient photograph of a lady who bore more than a passing resemblance to the mysterious LeBlanc of the Black Rose, in both countenance and costume. The picture reeked of romantic sentiment, from the unusually ornate frame of wooden flowers, to the soft and playful smile on the woman's face. That one definitely had Darius raising an internal eyebrow or two.
Either way, he was not here to chit chat about long lost or long dead girlfriends. He saluted his general, bringing his right fist to his sternum with an audible thump and sharply bowing his head.
“Sir. You called for me?”
“I did. Please, sit down, Darius of Gilead.”
That archaic manner of greeting, referring to a man's home territory. One of Swain's peculiarities.
Darius did as asked, slowly seating his mammoth frame onto the only chair available to him, a sturdy oak stool with a plush rose silken cushion on top. The stool squeaked and groaned, complaining about the burdensome weight of him and the giant axe which he bore on his back. He was not in his battle armor, but he always carried his axe wherever he went. Even here, within the bastion of Noxus' capital city, among comrades. Because, again, allegiances were a fleeting thing in Noxus.
Jericho Swain sat across the room from Darius, relaxing in a black leather armchair with shiny mahogany legs. Swain's luxuriant jade and golden robes were a jarring contrast to the spartan decor of his private quarters, but the rich silk and jewelry served a practical purpose. Displays of opulence and privilege mattered, unfortunately, when in the company of Noxian nobility and royalty.
Swain's cane was next to him, attached to a tall bronze stand that served as both a cane holder and a perch for his pet raven. The raven was currently on top of the perch, long snake tongue protruding and waggling from its open mouth, its six red repulsive eyes fixated on Darius. Six translucent inflamed pimples filled with infected poison, Darius mused to himself, as his own stony gaze met the raven's insolent eyes head on. God, he hated that bird.
Darius felt Swain's amused eyes on him, and he looked to his Grand General. The older man's face was hard, harder than even the face of Darius. Darius was in his late 30's and a veteran of countless battles and duels; yet, next to his general, he still felt like a pup freshly weaned from his mother's teat. The tumultuous history of Noxus' last four decades had left indelible markings on Swain's craggy face, deep etches and grooves telling an epic tale of conquest, betrayal, cruelty, and death. So much death.
And yet, despite all this, Swain's face managed to express something akin to mirth, as he waved nonchalantly to his bird.
“His gaze is rude, but he means no harm. Believe it or not, he actually likes you.”
Swain's jovial gesture soothed the irritation within Darius, as Darius' face cracked open with a thin smile. “Eh.” The smile vanished. And he looked to the only pieces of furniture between him and Swain: two small bronze tripods, each with a large milky white crystal globe resting on top. “Were you watching something on the holo crystals?”
A brief nod. “Yes, I am. And I wanted you to watch them also, so I called you here.” He gestured to the holo crystal to his left. “Here, we have a public relations function for the League, hosted within the capital of Demacia, and going on as we speak.”
“Oh. The League.” Darius could not hide the derision within his voice. The League and their precious mock battles, attempting to unify the world and do away with true war. What a bunch of stinking tripe.
He glowered at the specified holo crystal. “Looks like quite the gathering. I see... Demacians, Ionians... yordles...” His eyes squinted at the sight of a tall red-headed woman in lustrous golden armor. “... and a Rakkor?” Darius looked to Swain now. “Odd. I was under the impression that the Rakkor hated these social functions even more than we did.”
“Historically, they avoid such functions like the plague. But not this one. She has attended every single public relations function since she became a champion two months ago.” Swain's face was unreadable, his eyes calmly watching his most valuable soldier. “Interesting, yes?”
“Yes, it is.” Darius muttered under his breath as he watched Leona smile graciously and shake hands with a Demacian nobleman. “She certainly seems more sociable than the other Rakkor champion.”
“Ha ha ha. Oh yes, she is.” Swain gruffly laughed as both he and Darius took a moment to recall the time when Pantheon, during his one and only League function, wasted no time in picking a fight with Garen, nearly starting a ballroom-wide brawl. Needless to say, Pantheon was never again invited to a League function after that incident.
Speaking of Garen, the Demacian fool now barged into view on the holo crystal, practically falling over his feet in his eagerness to introduce himself to Leona. Darius snorted in disdain as Garen sheepishly smiled, scratching his head and apologizing profusely for the champagne he had just spilled all over the floor before her.
Darius dryly observed, “Wow. He really wants to get inside her pants.”
Swain wore a twisted smile as he gruffly chuckled again. “But of course he does. We know all too well about Garen's weakness for fiery redheads, yes?”
Darius laughed openly at that one. “Yes. Yes, we do.”
Leona was handling Garen's awkwardly blatant courtship attempts with a graceful smile and complete aplomb, while a scowling Lux hovered in the background, apparently unhappy with the manner in which her brother was embarrassing himself...
“She joined the League less than two months ago, and she instantly became one of the most popular champions.” Swain was no longer smiling as he reclined back in his armchair, forefinger resting against temple. “Women adore her for her strength, beauty, and elegance. Men adore her also, although...” He nodded to the holo crystal, where the Demacian crystal operator had zoomed up close onto Garen's enchanted face. “They adore her mostly for her beauty, I suppose.”
“Well, to be fair, she is a handsome woman.”
“True.” Swain did not care to continue this line of conversation, and he switched tracks. “She is not just Rakkor, however. She belongs to a subsect of the Rakkor called the Solari. Do you know who the Solari are?”
Darius shrugged. “All I know is that they are some sort of Rakkor cult that worships the sun as their deity.”
“In this case, 'clan' would be a more appropriate word than 'cult'. The Rakkor view the Solari as those who have been enlightened, and although it seems they do not communicate often, the Rakkor heed the words of the Solari as divine guidance.” The holo crystal switched back to Leona, who was trying her best to excuse herself from Garen's presence. “And as the champion of the Solari, this Leona wields a great deal of influence over both the Rakkor and the Solari.”
Darius didn't know what to say, other than to simply nod and grunt in affirmation. Swain was obviously trying to make a point here, but Darius couldn't yet see what he was driving at...
Swain continued. “You know of the Rakkor's Rite of Kor, yes?”
“Yes, I do.”
“A reporter asked her recently about the Rakkor's infamous ceremony, and although she was not forthcoming with details, she did make it clear that she did not kill her opponent when given the chance.”
“Oh?” Darius raised a brow at that. “But isn't that the whole point of their rite? Culling the weak within their crop of youngsters?”
“It is. However, she said that she does not believe in senseless killing.”
“So she is something of a pacifist who happens to carry a shield and a sword.”
“One might say that.” Swain then gestured with his free hand to the other holo crystal. “And then we have the other Rakkor champion. The one named Pantheon.”
Darius looked to the other crystal, where the highlights of a recent League match were being shown. Apparently the number one highlight of the day was that of a gleeful Pantheon dropkicking the yordle champion Teemo across a river.
“He is a formidable adversary,” Darius intoned. “One of the strongest foes I have faced in the League.”
“Even for a Rakkor, he is quite the brute, isn't he? In terms of sheer physical prowess, he probably has no equal in the League, I think.”
Darius chafed a little at Swain's assessment, since he thought pretty damn highly of himself and his own physical abilities. But he had to admit, there were certainly things which Pantheon could do that Darius could only dream of - the most obvious being the unique ability of Pantheon to launch himself over anything short of a mountain peak. Even considering the relic footwear which he most certainly wore, his leaping feats were awe inspiring, bordering on ludicrous. Something no one had ever done before, even the other Rakkor champions who preceded Pantheon.
“He is much more of a typical Rakkor champion than Leona is,” Swain continued. “Pugnacious. Insociable. Warmongering. Much like his predecessor, Jagen.”
“Mmm.” Darius nodded.
“So.” Swain sat up straight in his armchair, fingers intertwined before his stomach. “We have two Rakkor champions. Leona and Pantheon. Now, I ask you this. Judging from what you have seen so far, which one poses the bigger threat to Noxus?”
The burly soldier had no initial response to Swain's pop quiz, utterly tongue tied as he squeezed his eyes in confusion at the unexpected question. For all of Rakkor's chest thumping and Noxus' imperialistic tendencies, the number of clashes between the two nations were actually very few in number over the years. The Rakkor made their home in a remote mountain range of little strategic importance, which meant Noxus had little incentive to stick their nose into the rocky valley known as the Tiger's Den. Darius himself had never fought a Rakkor outside of the League's Summoners Rift. He knew at most four men, or maybe five, who had clashed with the Rakkor on an actual battlefield (Swain being one of them).
Darius postponed his answer by asking Swain a question of his own: “Why do you ask this, Grand General? Do you expect the Rakkor to declare war on us in the near future?”
“No, I do not.”
Swain's answer only served to confuse Darius even further as to why this was even a subject worth discussing. His face scrunched so that his lower lip disappeared under his upper lip, and he finally said, “Well, having crossed swords with both Pantheon and Leona...” Purely a figure of speech on his part, of course, regarding the crossing of swords (Darius' weapon of choice was his monstrous battle axe, not some measly sword). “I would say that Pantheon is the more formidable warrior. And although they both fight with the ferocity of lions, he possesses a manic blood lust which she seems to lack. And in terms of foreign relations, he is far more aggressive and hostile.”
Darius sat up on his stool now, confident in his reasoning as he declared, “I say Pantheon is the more dangerous of the two.”
All it took was one look at Swain's still face. The Grand General bore no smile or frown, but his disappointment was palpable, nonetheless. The irrepressible red heat of embarrassment spread throughout Darius' neck and face, as he quickly said, “You believe Leona to be the more dangerous.”
Swain nodded with absolute certainty. “She is. As a matter of fact, she is the most dangerous Rakkor champion to ever grace the League.”
Darius wanted to know. “What makes you think this? She behaves so differently from a typical Rakkor, yet she is the most dangerous of them all?”
“You have just answered yourself, Darius. She is dangerous precisely because she does not have the mindset of a typical Rakkor. However, to understand the danger she poses, let us discuss the shortcomings of the Rakkor first.” Swain sank into his chair now, his intertwined fingers flexing gently. “Tell me, Darius, why we have always considered the Rakkor to be a relative non factor despite their reputation for military prowess?”
Darius knew the answer to the question, of course; he had been an exceptional student during his years at the military academy, devouring all the textbooks he came across. “The Rakkor are fearsome warriors, but they have never been a major threat to us for two reasons. They are isolationist by nature, and their numbers are perpetually limited due to their constant self-purging of inferior genetics. They excel in small skirmishes and guerilla warfare, but they simply do not have the numbers to overwhelm us or another similarly large nation like Demacia.”
“Well stated. Now, consider the mindset of someone like Leona, who clearly disagrees with Rakkor's current policies on both domestic and foreign fronts. She opposes the Rite of Kor. She embraces all opportunities to open dialogues with other nations. And because her people hail her as a virtual deity, the Rakkor elders will never disown her, at least not openly, for her behavior.
“So, if you were in her shoes, Darius, what would you do?”
Darius finally started to see what Swain was driving at. “I would attempt to use my influence and status to change the policies of Rakkor.” He sat back now on his stool with a loud creak. “But this is all speculation on your part, Grand General. So far, all she has done is hobnob and mingle like a socialite at League functions. She has yet to declare any actual foreign policy announcements during those gatherings.”
“True. There is no guarantee that her exchanging pleasantries with blue-balled Demacian idiots is a surefire harbinger of her leading the Rakkor out of the dark ages. And it would be exceedingly difficult for her to go against two thousand years of tradition and change the ways of a culture as narrow-minded as the Rakkor. But I believe that she will try. She will try to lead them out of the Tiger's den and the dark ages they live in; and if she is successful, mark my words, an enlightened Rakkor nation would become an extreme threat to Noxus.
“And let us not beat around the bush. Although the Rakkor have been killing themselves off like savages for many centuries, they did achieve their end goal of genetic superiority. They truly have culled the weak from their bloodlines, and as a result, the average Rakkor is made of sterner stuff than the average Noxian or Demacian. If the Rite of Kor were to be abolished, and their numbers were to drastically increase over the next two hundred or three hundred years?”
Darius felt genuine unease for the first time since entering the living and breathing tower of Swain, and again, he answered a question of Swain's with his own question: “And if she reaches out to forge an alliance with Demacia...”
As if on cue, Swain's ears picked out something from the ongoing muted sounds of the holo crystal broadcasting the League function, and he held up a gnarled hand, its curled fingers predisposed to the shape of his cane's knobby handle.
Darius held still as the holo crystal issued forth the excited voice of an unseen reporter. “... In a stunning development, we have learned that Leona of the Solari has proposed to open the first ever trade route between Rakkor and Demacia! Details are still coming in, but Prince Jarvan the Fourth has shown great interest in the proposal, and...”
Swain and Darius ignored the reporter's voice as the holo crystal zoomed in on Leona's serious smile as she waved her hands around, describing something in great length to a thoughtful-looking Jarvan IV, the prince nodding occasionally...
The Hand of Noxus's face steeled in consternation. “It is unfolding exactly as you predicted, Grand General. Even as we speak, she is literally paving the road towards a political alliance with Demacia.”
Swain nodded. “It is as I feared.” He sighed as he rested the back of his head against his chair. “Tell the Royal Council that I will be coming down shortly. We immediately begin to make plans to march for Rakkor. And our top priority is - ”
Darius swiftly stood up with a grim nod, his stool groaning one last time. “I will bring her pretty head to you myself.”
The general and his raven nodded in unison as he reached forward to wave a hand over the holo crystal, and the holo crystal started to die out... the last image being that of a smiling Leona, slowly fading away into nothingness...