It's still being read, so it's still being written. Chapter 19 is up on fanfiction and on Tormented Soil.
Chapter 6: Deep Strike
Garen ran, men trailing behind him with heads low and hands ready at their swords as their bodies rustled through the thick Kalamanda Grass. High above and to the south- Garen's right- the summit of mount Targon was shining in the glory of the sun. The sun had set a full hour beforehand for Garen's altitude, and the night sky was brilliant with stars on the half not gleaming in Targon's range. The stones in the quarry behind him reflected its glint on one side, and deep shadow on the other.
Garen had no eye for beauty at the moment. With a map and direction fresh in his mind, the task at hand seemed all too easy.
Go there. Kill a man. Come home.
The woman ahead of him stopped, hand balled into a fist behind her. Garen's unit, The Dauntless Vanguard, slid to a halt in the bushes beside her, staying low in the darkness of their shadows, waiting for the Team Leader's command. Garen was still adjusting to the leader not being him.
"Patrol," she whispered. Two fingers rose from her fist and beckoned Garen forward. She pointed between the reeds for him to see. "There." Sporadic rock formations and patches of untamed grass hid most of the view, but a mass of Noxian men was making no effort to hide its presence as it marched along a path about ten meters ahead of the Vanguard.
"And there," she added.
Garen followed her fingers to a group of three soldiers standing under a lamppost. The patrol stopped at the post to trade three men before moving on. Gravel and sand crunched under the Noxans' boots louder than the quiet breathing of the Vanguard. Even their shifting weight in the bushes was disguised by the soft, warm winds.
"We're taking this route back," the Team Leader grumbled.
"I don't want them to still be here when we do that. You three-" She indicated Garen and two men.
"Move up and take the post while we cover you. I want a silent takedown."
Garen nodded and shimmied forward in the brush with the other two in tow. The rest of the vanguard, meanwhile, fanned out around them to cover more of the road. The distance was closed quickly, revealing the cobblestone roadway that roamed a large circle around its unmapped forest to the village.
The Noxans were chatting amongst themselves. No one really expected Demacian troops to cross through a demilitarized zone to break a ceasefire. Garen especially hadn't expected to do it under the command of a civilian- a woman. He reached the edge of the brush and waited for the pat to signal his team was ready.
"Man, it's not right!" One of the Noxans yelled. His mouth carried.
Another, equally loud, voice responded, "Everyone spies. I don't see what's so special about Ionia."
"You want a spy in*your*house?"
"No! I'm just saying I don't see what a war's going to accomplish."
The third soldier stepped in, "It's about respect! These colors don't run! You seen Ionia? You know anything about that place? Let me tell you. They got no schools. They got no sewers. They got no government healthcare. They got no respect! You know what kids in Ionia do? They don't go to school, they go to temples. They get sick? They go to the temple. They're old enough to make a fist? They go to the temple and learn to kill. And now they send a kid to spy? On us? You think we should just let them do that to kids?"
"I don't think it's comparab-"
"Hey, screw that noise, man! You telling me- if you- if you saw a guy keeping his kid out of school- what, you'd do nothing?"
"I don't think I'd invade his house."
"Yeah? And who helps his kid, huh? You just sit by? Do nothing? Even when he sends his kid to spy on you? You do nothing? Yeah. Yeah, real smart. We'll just wait 'till*they*attack*us."
Garen felt the tap on his shoulder and traded glances with his men. The patrol was too far from their bush for a melee takedown. They had no daggers. Garen rattled the bush.
"It's about respec-"
"It is not about respect, don't even try that. We spy on them too."
"Oh, you're on their side!"
"I am no-"
Garen coughed and rattled the bush harder. No reaction.
"Look, you know how this world works? Darkwill said it himself-"
"What, you an anarchist? You think we'd be better off without a king, like Ionia? It's anarchy, man!"
Three silent thwacks struck flesh in unison. Garen saw the patrol fall, dead as their conversation, and suddenly felt the Team Leader at his side, her leather body suit making something less than silence in the reeds.
"Garen, I remember explaining to you that this mission would be safe and easy-*only*if it happens*quickly." Vayne reloaded her wrist-bow. "And we're on the Noxus side of the line now."
She cocked the bow emphatically.
"We leave the patrol, and the road."
She rounded on Garen silently.
"Mam, the jungle's an unnecessary risk. We can take the road and the patrol."
She watched him, silently, before nodding.
"Quickly then. Take the other side of the road. At the next post, you'll get ahead of them and initiate on my signal."
Garen turned and picked three men with hand signals. They scurried from the cover, across the road, and paused only a moment in the far bush while Garen waited for the pat on his shoulder to confirm the team had made it. They surged forward, matching Vayne's team as they caught up to the Noxian column. The breeze had dropped to nothing, turning the enemy march into a deafening crunch and shuffle. Garen slowed his pace as his team overtook the back row of the patrol. More chatting. More inanity. Another post appeared from the darkness, and the column stopped. Garen took a knee and waited. He was a full eight strides from the closest Noxan. In the bushes opposite him, behind the column, Vayne's glasses reflected a light. She was nodding at him.
Garen's burst from the bush as his voice rang out. "DEMACIA!"
The cry of the first Noxan terrified the rest; his last word was screamed under the certainty of death- "NO" and a dull squish.
Five Noxans fell to Garen's Vanguards in the next instant. Vayne's bolts felled the sergeant and the one man fast enough to escape. A few breaths later the column was a pile.
"We stick to the road," Vayne conceded.
The rest of the Vanguard burst from the bush, following her point again down a trail into the heart of Noxus.
Garen was smirking inwardly.
Go here. Kill a man. Come back. Quickly.
Vayne dropped a halt again. Garen and the Vanguard took knees in a wedge formation around her. She pointed into the darkness ahead, where a giant stone spearman stood guard, one of the ancient road sentries that pocked Valoran's landscape. Garen nodded to her. "What?"
"It's active. Why is it active?"
Garen peered. The statue, a massive stone construct depicting an armor-clad spear man, was active. At this range it was barely visible, but a slight glow emanated from the eyes and the tip of his upturned spear.
Dive a Turret. Go there. Kill a man. Come home.
"Jungle?" Garen whispered.
Vayne thought, her mind rumbling through contingencies and maps. Kalamanda's forest "The Jungle" was not one of the wooded glades of Demacia. It wasn't actually mapped. And it would increase mission failure chance by a full twenty percent.
Stick to the plan; stick to the road.
Vayne motioned toward it.
"I want to get closer, first," she grumbled. "This is intel."
The Vanguard resumed motion, scurrying closer to something that was most certainly not in the plan. As shadows cleared and darkness receded, they saw for certain that the towering monolith's weapon was charged, ready to strike a deadly burst at any foe who threatened its road. It was powered for the first time in several hundred years. Vayne checked her shoulders when they stopped again, just out of range.
"Time." Vayne was a curt woman by habit and short on it at the moment.
A Vanguard to her left whispered, "10 minutes in."
Two milestones behind.
Mission failure chance up five percent.
Tables and charts flew through her mind. The Jungle was an option only if it saved six minutes. It would still cost a predicted two casualties. The plan dictated a mission abort at three casualties, eighteen minutes, or eighty percent failure chance.
Garen had seen the same tables and the same charts.
Survive Jungle. Go there. Kill man. Survive Jungle again. Come home.
And no one wanted to carry the brute through jungle.
Vayne pulled a sound-ward from her utility belt and clipped it to her ear. Ward silence would end at fifteen minutes, coinciding with the Demacian Military's strike on the town. Kalamanda Village would be Demacian territory when the sun rose.
The tower's glow died suddenly, an arcane hiccup natural to any complex machine that has been left idle for too long. Vayne, ever the opportunist, stood and sprinted toward it, legs and posture opening from stealth to speed. She reached the base and pointed at the fastest man to catch up. "Boost me." He took a knee and cupped his hands while she stepped up him, grabbing on to the stone spearman's knee and hoisting herself up to the statue's waist. Garen caught up to his men at the base and watched as Vayne swooped onto its arm. She scuttled from there up its shoulder, finally leaping onto the spear hand without losing any momentum. She drew the larger crossbow from her back, a two-inch thick steel bolt already loaded, and aimed it at the spear's center, where the shaft met the head. The stone sundered under the blow where the arrow lodged, and Vayne re-slung her crossbow. She jumped onto the bolt, leveraging it against the stone with her weight.
The eyes of the statue began to glow.
Vayne jumped and landed hard on the bolt. The crack echoed too far for comfort, but the stone was breaking. The eyes glowed brighter, gradually rising to their former luminescence. Vayne jumped, landing another blow and another crack, this time visible, along the spear. The spearhead flickered, only barely connected to its dying magical flow. With a final jam, she saw the crack split around the haft's circumference, separating the head and tumbling it to the road below. Garen dodged the falling missile just in time. If the cracks were loud, the thump was deafening.
Mission failure chance at fifty-five percent.
Vayne jumped down, landing in a tumble and coming up running. The need to move was obvious. Vanguard forming in around her, they took another hundred meters on the road before the sound of a Noxian patrol ahead sent them to a ditch on the south side. The Noxans passed in a hurry, twenty men strong, running to investigate the thump. Vayne was out of the bush as soon as they were gone. They would have to outmaneuver that patrol on the way back, which meant jungle.
Mission failure chance at seventy-five percent.
Vayne accelerated to a full sprint, Vanguard catching up behind her as they passed the remains of a destroyed turret, its platform reduced to the lifeless stone that used to hold magic. The road was still curving, the steady right handed motion bringing them around the jungle and towards the village. Less than a minute later they slid into brush. Garen kept his breath below a pant as he crept up to Vayne's side, peeking out onto the houses and tavern nearby.
"Welcome to Noxus," he heard her breathe. They were now ahead of schedule, no men down, with conditions back at only sixty percent against.
Garen smiled to his nine finest brothers-in-arms, noticing the path directly to their right. Where the brush ended, a mass of warning signs had been erected.
Jungle is forbidden to non-military!
Do not follow strange lights!
Disembodied voices lie!
And on each was a skull.
Vayne held up a hand with three fingers, the look on her face foreign to what the team had already seen. She waived forward at the houses and tavern, beckoning Garen and two men to follow her out of the bush, figures hunched low as they crossed the twenty meters to a pile of firewood, leapfrogging from there to the wall of the tavern. Otherwise, they were without cover. Pressing up against the rear wall, they saw it had no features. No windows or ventilation where another building would have had some. The houses down the row held the same anomalies, probably due to the jungle.
Vayne held up a hand for Garen, signaling something that he couldn't understand in the silence. She tapped her ear. Silence. Garen pressed his head against the tavern wall. Silence, in a Noxian tavern, at Noxian tea time. Vayne's fist told Garen to wait while she circled the building. Garen did not like waiting without orders or line of sight. Gripping his sword and breathing in the silent darkness, he whispered a verse from the Measured Tread. Repetition brought solace until Vayne returned, her perpetually upset face sterner than usual.
"The tavern's been commandeered," she whispered. "He's inside."
She paused a beat. "Along with the entire Noxian High Command. I saw Darkwill, Du Couteau, his daughter, and some monks. Ten Crimson Blades with them. We wait 'till wards go loud, then request orders."
The Vanguard had not been authorized to strike those targets, or engage in that much strength. Vayne nodded into the darkness. "And if that fox gets close enough, grab it and kill it. It's been giving away our position all night." Garen followed her gaze to two glowing eyes in the darkness. The fox stopped, a paw frozen in motion, and stared.
"Nine-tails are good luck, mam," Garen whispered back.
Vayne scowled. "It's a magical malady- a freak of nature. And it's giving away our position." Garen turned to signal one of the Vanguard in the bush by the road, but the fox had already disappeared. A slam toward the front of the tavern knocked silence out of the Vanguard.
"You've had too much, Sion," a female called.
A rolling, flatulent expletive rumbled from the throat of a brute. Target acquired.
"Just take the night off. You've done a lot of hard work," the female consoled.
Sion belched another expletive and mumbled something unintelligible.
"Now," the female threatened.
Sion belched more dishonest oaths and began thumping unsteadily toward the back of the tavern.
"Handle a piss, Kat. High arse 'mand," was grumbled.
Vayne caught on to his direction and signaled Garen and his men back to the bush. She made it half-way and slid into cover behind the firewood pile. Sion, the dumb, unlucky ******* that he was, shambled his way toward the jungle. The stench of alcohol seemed to be stalking him, but Vayne could only smell the magic in his blood. No longer human, no longer pure. Garen gaped when he finally saw his target. Sion, the backbone of Noxian morale, the brute of their forces, was impossibly large for a human. Muscles rippled over muscles as he staggered and slipped his way past the wood pile toward the jungle. A slip of his feet redirected him at the Vanguard's bush.
"Good place as any," he mumbled to no one in particular.
Vayne emerged from the wood pile behind him and gave him only the click of her crossbow as warning. Sion's head lifted in confusion, his hands still reaching for his pants, when the bolt pierced his neck and sent him forward into ten drawn blades. Sion the Brute was no more. Barring unfortunate incidents, the Vanguard would join the main force with his head on a pike before the hour was through. The color guard drew butcher's knives and made quick work discarding the brute's arm and legs. The head would go on a stick and the torso would go to Vayne for whatever she had wanted it for.
"Leave the limbs here," she whispered. "Wards up?"
The man with the chronometer nodded.
"Ten seconds, mam."
Vayne nodded back.
"Alright. Start moving."
The Dauntless Vanguard rose, corpse divided amongst four men and stowed away in their packs, and passed the warning signs into unmapped territory.
Target down and mid-extraction, outflanked and presence revealed, their failure chance was now at a comfortable sixty percent. And suddenly, in perfect time with wards lighting in the darkness around the town, Mount Targon gleamed its last light of the night, casting away the sun and blinding the town.
Vayne's headset ward finally whispered to life, arcane static humming tunes from other worlds while the device focused. Quiet murmurs began echoing just loud enough for the men to hear,
"This is Jarvan Lightshield the Third, your king. Your brothers stand ready at their posts to retake what it rightfully ours, to reclaim the honor of Demacia and to expel the foul presence of Noxus from this sacred place! To grant mercy is to pronounce guilt! Today, we bring only Justice! General Laurent will guide you now. I go to the front."
Vayne signaled another halt and dropped to the ground, spreading out a map from her pack. She keyed her ear-ward. "Command, this is Pincushion, reporting mission success. Extracting to way point Lima. Additional for artillery: Tertiary Targets One, Five, and Seven are concentrated at grid squares..." Her finger drew a bead on the map. "Coco four and Buri four. Low collateral."
Garen spotted the mutant fox's eyes behind them again. It had stopped about ten meters away, still curious and cautious. Another voice responded over Vayne's earpiece.
"Pincushion, this is Jarvan the Fourth speaking. Artillery is behind schedule. Are you at full strength?"
"Affirmative." She didn't check.
"Vayne, take who you need and extract. Your contract's fulfilled. Leave any men you don't need behind with Garen. And hand off your ward to him."
She gestured at the corpse-flag color guard, mumbling, "You're with me."
She tossed her earpiece to Garen and parted with, "don't let the fox get you killed."
Garen fumbled the ear-ward to his head.
"I'm here, sir."
"Good. How many men do you have?"
He checked, "Five, sir."
Outflanked. Jungling. Enemy aware of presence. Half strength.
Mission failure chance above ninety percent.
"You have a new objective. Katarina Du Couteau."