Ok, so originally this was only going to be half of the Freljord chapter, but that would make it too long.
Freljord, the last chance, could be described as a land of unexploited combat potential due it's complicated alliance systems. The banner of Tryndamere united the Tribe of The Frost Archer, lead by queen Ashe, and the Tribe of The Ice Dervish. However the Winter's Claw clan was in opposition of this alliance, as Sejuani was against the idea of a Freljord associating with the League. Thus there was a strong chance that Noxus would find supporters within Freljord itself. And then there were the Ursine, formally allied with the Tribe Confederacy, but living rather remotely and independently up in the North. Whether they would answer the call for war, was unpredictable.
Up until now, it's hard terrain and unforgiving weather kept the noxian army away from Freljord, being designated as a last high priority target on the mainland. Shortly after the united forces of Zaun and Noxus overran and took control of Piltover the decision to move against Freljord was made.
The country in it's current state had almost no chance to repel the noxian army, without the help of the Ursine, and possibly fighting against their own kind under Sejuani's leadership. Right now the only good weapon Freljord had against Noxus was it's winter. The cruel weather slows an army's movement and makes logistics and background support painfully difficult. It drains the soldiers' morale and requires an entirely different tactical approach in battle. However with Sejuani on their side, the latter problem could be eased.
That is why Shen considered it to be of extreme importance to warn Tryndamere of the coming invasion, because he believed that with Swain and Darius dead, and with enough preparations Freljord could hold out.
"And what then?" - asked Akali - "Let's say we stop them at Rakelstake. What do we do after it?"
The small tavern room was silent. It was well past dusk, and Shen was sitting at the edge of his bed, with Kennen on his right, and Akali on a chair in front of him. They rented the room because an official quarantine was applied and outgoing caravans were blocked for a day.
"I don't know." - Shen sighed - "But it's definitely better than a smooth takeover by Noxus. Maybe we could call for Ionia's help and form a triple alliance with Piltover."
"What if they overhear us?" - asked Kennen silently.
"Those angry merchants downstairs make too much noise for that. But you're right. We should be more cautious. Let's change the subject" - Shen replied.
"The doors locked, right?" - asked Akali.
"Yes, I locked it." - came Shen's answer.
"Actually, why are we even here?" - Kennen brought up the question - "We could have gotten out of town too. It would be safer."
"It might be safer, but it would be too slow. We have to leave with the first caravan going North. Otherwise we won't make it in time, we simply can't afford to go by foot." - Shen explained.
"Saw any we can take?" - Shen asked back.
"Ehm... no. Well, those with the caravan, but they are far too well guarded I guess."
"So we're stuck." - Akali concluded - "We better use this time the best we can, which is a good night's rest."
She laid down on her bed, fully clothed, but still wrapped a blanket around her body. Shen nodded and lay down on his back, hands crossed on his chest and so they tried to rest.
At the earliest dawn Shen was already awake, walking the misty streets of the outskirts alone. He already purchased some old traveling cloaks to keep them warm when they travel further north. He walked past the small, empty marketplace looking for carriages or any other means of transportation. Soon he spotted people gathering around the warehouse.
Walking closer he saw cargo loaded onto horses and carts. He figured merchants must be scared, because now in this state of chaos, and since martial law was announced, authorities are probably going to seize property and confiscate goods. Many people feared for their lives and so even in this earliest of hours several men were trying to secure places on outbound caravans. That was part of the reason why Shen also came early, the other part was to avoid attention.
He quickly picked the most desperate looking merchant who would probably start earliest and wouldn't ask too many questions after he heard the word "money".
"Heading north?" - he asked in his calm, seemingly uninterested tone.
"What's it to you?" - asked back the merchant, nervously rubbing his old brown coat, not even looking at Shen. His eyes where fixed on the lads loading crates onto his old, creaking horse carriage.
"As it is to everyone else. As it is to you." - Shen answered quietly - "It's not safe for honest men here anymore. Me and a friend of mine are forced to leave, and I would pay you to take us north."
"Honest men huh?" - the man said, now facing Shen with a bitter smile - "I don't suppose you want to trick me then, right? But honest men pay honorably you know."
"I do, as long as you remain just as honorable." - Shen said calmly.
After a quick breath, the merchant answered with fast words, obviously being uneasy and in a hurry.
"I do as long as there is money in it. It's the two of you?"
"Yes, just the two of us."
"Four gold coins ... LOAD THOSE CRATES ALREADY!!" - he shouted at the workers.
"We could buy horses off that..." - Shen said quietly.
"Well go ahead then! Come on! Many a great steed around here, all for sale!" - the man almost shouted back at him, he was talking so loudly as he went to the second carriage in his old convoy to check on the wheels. Shen followed him.
"Okay. When do we start?"
"I want a gold coin right here in my hand and we're starting in thirty minutes." - he said as he made sure the wheel was properly attached - "WHAT'S WITH THE HORSES BOYS?! CALM THE *****ES DOWN, DID THEY GET WATER!?" - he shouted over to front of the caravan.
"Alright, here it is." - said Shen as he handed over the coin.
"We won't wait for you!" - the trader finished as he stormed off towards the warehouse, coin in hand.
Shen quickly headed back to the tavern which was mostly filled with people in the mercantile trade seemingly turning it into a tradehouse, as angry and frustrated whispers of merchants could be heard all over the lower level of the building. Everyone seemed anxious and most people looked like they are preparing to leave. Curses and whispers, kept quiet and low.
"... they took all my horses, I swear I had to buy this bony assed mule for a diamond as big as my fist ..."
Shen ignored them as he headed upstairs, quickly entering their room. He found Akali awake doing a few quick morning exercises.
"I've arranged for a caravan to take us north." - he said quickly and quietly - "We're going right now, it is already prepared and will leave in a few minutes." - then he turned to Kennen - "Sorry lad, but you'll be traveling under the cloak."
Kennen moaned in disappointment but Akali wasted no time picking him up and covering him under one of the newly purchased capes.
"Lead the way." - she said.
Once back at the caravan, they climbed onto the last carriage, the third one, which creaked desperately as they got onto it. Not ten minutes later the merchant already familiar to Shen ran the last check on the carts. Shen quickly handed him the remaining gold coins without pulling his nerves, as there was really no need for delay. Kennen was hidden well and was not noticed.
Moments later the caravan rolled out, hastily leaving the Outskirts of Noxus behind. Their company on the carriage wasn't more than a few crates, so a couple of hours later, by Akali's suggestion they let Kennen out of cover so he could get some fresh air. Which there was plenty of, as the atmosphere got considerably better since they left the city behind.
The dirt road the caravan was following was constantly going uphill, and it also got narrower as it headed to the North. Emerging from the dry wastelands at the foot of the mountain, now faint green trees started to appear on the side of the road, mostly short evergreens with yellowish grass under them. Dry bushes and mountain flowers also dotted the rocky hillside.
The clouds too got thinner at first, letting the sunrays shine directly at the cooling landscape. After hours of travel, as dusk was approaching the narrow path widened, leading to a wonderful mountain highland, a little island of a grass pool between a deep chasm to the east and the rocky steep slopes of the west.
"Shen, did you ask where exactly are we going?" - asked Akali with a tone tired from a day of traveling.
"To the north, that's enough for us. Even if it's not getting us all the way to Rakelstake we still had to take it." - Shen answered, his voice a lot less weary.
"It wouldn't have hurt to ask though..."
"The merchant was frustrated, he had no time to waste. I didn't want to pull his nerves, unnecessarily."
"I can hear birds singing, among the trees..." - Akali whispered dreamily - "Just like back in our forests."
"Eventually we will come home." - Shen answered quietly but with a warm tone - "Once we ensured it's safety."
"Seems so far away now... we lived too long in the Institute. Our place is in Ionia."
Shen smiled, but did not answer. No more words were said in the following hours, only the monotonous creaking of the carriage as it rolled forward on the road, surrounded by the dancing rays of the descending western sun. As the caravan progressed, mist started to settle on the highlands, and it got thicker with every passing mile. Eventually, when two hours later they arrived at a small mountain village, the wetness of the air could be felt and smelled, a little like after a heavy rain. The sunlight was very dim at this late hour, further damped by the fog.
The village was small, maybe ten or fifteen wooden buildings altogether, but had huge open space around it, where other caravans and carriages were already packed off, most obviously arriving from Noxus. Many small trading posts were set up where merchants exchanged the goods they managed to salvage from the city.
When the carriage finally stopped, Shen and Akali slowly got off of it to stretch their limbs. Akali also shook Kennen until he was awake and helped him off. After all a carriage is tall for a yordle, especially for a tired and disoriented one who might easily fall on his face in an attempt to jump down.
"Akali, stay here with Kennen for now, the caravan probably stays for the night, but we can never be sure. I'll ask our little trader."
Shen headed off to the front of the caravan and quickly found the robed merchant, as he was talking to another person, a local for first sight.
"We stay for night?"
"Yes." - he grunted back - "Of course we do. In fact, not just for the night, but for a few days it seems."
"Days? Why? What's the problem?" - Shen asked back.
"Welcome to the village of Mistfall, lad!" - the trader answered with a sarcastic voice.
"And so? I don't yet see why would this village be so comfortable to stay for days in it."
"Don't bother me with this ****!" - came the frustrated answer - "I won't waste time on your ignorance. Go ask the damn locals."
Shen returned to his companions, but before he could speak Akali sensed his unease.
"Something's wrong?" - she asked.
"They stay for too long, days." - Shen sighed - "And they wouldn't tell why. Said I should ask the locals."
"So what do we do? Head out on our own?" - Akali asked calmly.
"Probably. But we need rest now. We still got money left, so take a few silvers and buy some food. There must be plenty judging from the number of caravans here. I'll try to find a place to stay for the night."
"What about me?" - asked Kennen - "Do I still need to hide?"
"I don't think they would attack you here, people around seem to have bigger problems now, but just in case, try to stay out of sight as much as you can, okay."
"Fine. I'll go with Akali."
While the two headed off to the trading posts Shen made his way into the village. Among the few buildings - many of them were built from full logs - he quickly found the largest and, as always, that turned out to be the tavern. He headed in and tried to find the innkeeper. The building was rather crowded with caravan workers and the traders themselves, so Shen had to wait a while until he could talk to the bartender.
"A usual drink?" - he asked.
"I would be more interested in a room for the night." - Shen answered.
"That's no good, we're full. Sorry but you'll have to sleep with the caravan outside."
"Shame. But why are they staying for days? What takes so long around here?"
"We have few guides to lead them through the fog. Usually it's enough for the little traffic we get here, but not with this many around."
"Guides? You mean the fog around here is permanent?"
"Our village is called Mistfall for good reason, sir. First time here aye? Well this place is called the Fogcloak highland, because it is covered in mist so thick you can't see five feet ahead of ya. That is the case at least further up north, but this is where it starts to get difficult to follow the road, at Mistfall."
"The wonders this world has..." - whispered Shen angrily to himself, then said aloud - "Thank you then. I'll be on my way."
Returning to the caravan site, Shen found Akali near the carriage they traveled with, eating what appeared to be bread and cheese with Kennen.
"Bad news." - he sighed as he sat down near them - "We have to go by foot, and the fog will only get worse. Also, it appears to be magical nature, as it seems to have been here so long that special guides were trained to lead caravans through it. Apparently, that's why so many of them are stuck here. There aren't enough of them."
"Maybe it's some sort of curse." - guessed Akali.
"Whatever it is, we won't have time to try and lift it. Let alone make sure it's a curse."
"I suppose we're going through it without a guide, right?" - asked Kennen.
"We have no other option. Now we need rest, for it seems tomorrow will be a hard day."
"It's not like the night will be easy in this cold..." - grunted Kennen as he pulled a blanket onto himself.
Early in the morning the group headed out, picking a slight northeastern direction judged by the position of the rising sun, and made their way into the cloud of fog, or as the locals called it, the 'cloak'. Ten minutes after they left the village behind, they already couldn't see farther than their own feet. At first they could still maintain direction based on the sun, but later the mist became too dense to tell the sun's exact position.
Obviously there was no trace of any kind road they could follow, the land was fully inhabited by wild yellowish grass, a few small lonely trees and rocks with overgrown mosses. Of course, the real density of trees was hard to tell, because they could only be seen once you were about to bump into it. And most of it looked rather similar to top it off. At one point Shen was so certain that he had already passed near such a tree that he marked it with his blade.
After hours of painful roaming the wind finally strengthened up enough for Shen to be able to establish a sense of direction based on it, judging the wind to be most likely southeastern based on the highland's situation.
"They could have placed signs here." - said Kennen, breaking the silence of traveling.
"And then what would guides do for a living?" - Shen asked back - "You know it's not always worth it to make some people's job easier..."
"They can't be that greedy..."
"It's also probably too much work for such a small village. Besides no one would actually spot those signs in this damn fog."
"I think we were spotted though..." - whispered Akali - "I heard footsteps."
They froze and listened. Shen focused, sharpening his senses, trying to catch even the slightest noise. There was the noise of the wind, few leaves rustling, the sound of birds flying high above the fog. Nothing for seconds, but then suddenly he could see gravel that rolled down the slope.
Immediately Shen darted towards the direction and now he could definitely hear footsteps, as if scared, trying to avoid him. The steps got louder now, coming form just a few meters away and though Shen followed them, he suspected it tried to lure him somewhere, intentionally becoming easier to detect. Moments later he felt a presence to his left but it was followed by a soft whisper on Akali's voice, identifying her.
The sound of the steps suddenly died down but silent rustling could be heard from multiple places, indicating a group of enemies just a few meters away from them, but covered by the fog. Shen and Akali now had their backs against each other with Kennen watching other directions. They started moving towards the rustling and spotted a silhouette appearing in the mist.
Understanding the slightest gesture of Shen's hand Akali quickly threw one of her kamas at it, but no voice followed the sound of impact. However an other noise could be heard, as if someone fell, and more gravel came rolling down. They approached the silhouette which turned out to be a small bare tree, Akali's kama standing out of it's core, and one of it's branches had a red sleeve tied on it.
"It's probably a meeting point, hence the mark." - Shen whispered.
"What are they waiting for..." - Akali muttered nervously.
Just as she spoke there was a very slight shift in the fog a few feet away and Shen's blade flashed as it flew right in it's direction not a moment later. The silence of the land was torn apart by a wild painful scream, a few unsure steps and a thud followed as the body hit the ground. Shen darted right towards it and found his victim, a masked guy in full leather armor with a lot of knives and pouches on his outfit.
Just as he was about to recover his blade he felt a shift in the air, or not even in the air, he just felt something is going to happen. He let his body decide what to do, allowing his instincts to take over him, which caused him to spin around while protecting his neck area with his wrist bracer. His senses were correct and he blocked with his arm, pushing the weapon aside he kicked the attacker in the stomach to stop his charge and as he was forced to bent forward by the pain Shen impaled him with his katana.
Akali was now out of his sight but he could hear steel clashing just a few meters away in the fog, sounds of kicks and punches. Shen's instincts warned him again and he rolled sideways towards the first corpse, recovering his blade as he stoop up and concluding that his second attacker barely missed him from behind. Shen was quick to dash forward and cut his throat.
On his left Akali emerged from the fog, backing away from two opponents of similar outfit. Shen parried a blow for her with his left arm bracer, grasped the opponent's hand and with a quick twist broke his elbow and then he carried out a deadly followthrough. Akali hooked her kama into her enemy's sword attempting to disarm him but Shen did not see the outcome as he turned again to block a thrust from behind.
Because the man shifted the balance of his sword Shen failed to push the blade properly aside after the block and therefore could not execute a proper counterattack as his enemy braced and parried. Shen delivered cuts and slashes with both katanas from multiple directions but his opponent was quick to parry, he dodged forward after a block and kicked Shen's left thigh to weaken his legwork.
The move broke Shen's focus for a moment and he didn't move his blade into position for blocking the right handed attack aimed at his jugular so he ducked instead and doing so allowed him a strike at the opponent's arm. Although wounded, the man turned his failed sword slash into a roundhouse kick instead as Shen's head was no low enough.
The move was successful as he managed to kick Shen's cheek, but ninja's backward roll absorbed a lot of the power and allowed him to maintain consciousness. Shen stood up and blinked a few times, bracing for the next attack. His enemy tried to follow through but the cut on his right hand took some of his agility and during a block Shen managed to push the blade out of balance and landed another successful cut on his opponent's arm and carrying the move forward he slashed his right waist with his other katana. The man dodged the third attack and changed hands, taking the sword in his left.
Shen waited for him to attack, hoping that with his less dexterous arm he will expose himself by doing so. His plan worked, his enemy's left handed attack was easy to block with one blade but the slash was followed by a desperate kick at the stomach that Shen dodged by stepping aside and as his opponent's leg touched the ground he literally stepped into his knee, brutally breaking it. He then thrust his left katana into his enemy's stomach while blocking the last threat with the right, left the blade embedded as he stepped back and cut the flesh of the man's neck with his right katana.
He took a deep breath and looked up, searching for his companions, but he couldn't see anyone in the fog.
"AKALI!" - he shouted to signal his position.
"He's over there!" - he could hear Akali talking to Kennen - "WE'RE HERE!"
"I think I killed their leader!" - Shen shouted back - "I don't want to lose him, come here!"
Akali's silhouette soon appeared and she came into visible distance with Kennen right behind him. Although she had many visible cuts on her, she did not suffer any vital injuries.
"I think we had them all." - she said, slightly panting.
"You sure you killed him?" - asked Kennen pointing at the man, as he suddenly moved slightly.
Shen realized he missed the neck artery and the man was still alive so he knelt down to him and removed his hood, then closed his eyes for a second.
"Talon..." - he recognized the dying man - "How did you know we were here?"
"Hah... a little bird told me..." - he coughed.
"I'm asking for serious." - Shen said coldly, gripping the hilt of the blade embedded into Talon's stomach, ready to cause him pain if need be.
"Arhh... and so I ... answer! Swain's little ... raven." - he was coughing up a lot of blood and it took great effort for him to speak, but he continued - "No matter ... what you do ... the king will ... fall."
"Just as you have failed, so will the others." - Shen answered calmly and sliced Talon's throat.
Shen recovered his blades, cleaned them and sheathed them, then he stood up.
"It seems he gathered a merry band of assassins by now." - commented Akali.
"Not nearly trained well enough, though." - Kennen added.
"We should follow these bandit's trail. Something tells me it will lead us out of the fog." - said Shen.
"Shen you have a nasty bruise on your face. Are you okay?" - Akali asked with concern in her voice. Shen raised his hand and gently touched his own cheek.
"Yeah I took a kick. But nothing broken, it will heal. What about you?"
"I could use a few bandages. Some of these cuts are bleeding. But this fine yordle saved me from a lot more with those precise knife throws" - Akali answered with a smile.
"We have plenty of cloth. Cut some for yourself. You can try and collect your knives, Kennen. I will try to find out which direction these thugs came from."
"Let's just not lose each other in the fog."
"We'll shout if we can't find the others."
A few minutes later they were ready to move and Shen was relatively sure he had found the direction where the attackers came from based on footprints and traces. After a couple of hours the trail led them to a great mountain chasm, the edge of the highland and curiously, the edge of the 'cloak' as well, since there was no fog above the chasm.
They decided to follow the edge as it made it much easier to know which direction they are going and also since it was the edge of the fog cloud, much of the eastern sky was still clearly visible. The path eventually lead deeper into the mountains, ascending above the highland and leading to rocky, difficult terrain.
They decided that between harder terrain and unnaturally dense fog, the mountain was still the lesser evil as at least they still knew which direction they are going. As night fell they made camp among the dry rocks and spent the night there, eating what they bought back in Mistfall. Sleeping on cold, bare rocks was another story, but they all knew these were no times of luxury.
As did the altitude rise so did the temperature decrease and soon even those few roots and weeds disappeared that gave some variance to the rocky landscape. Snowy mountainpeaks also appeared in the distance as they finally left the fog behind for good. Following two days of slow and difficult travel they could finally see the tundra of Freljord at the foot of the hills.