“LET GO OF ME!” Ahri beat against Pantheon’s chest as he sprinted down the Institute’s stairwell to its lower depths. Tear streamed down her face, as she pleaded over and over, but the man behind the implacable helmet was not moved. Without a word, he kept on carrying her and Annie down to where Zilean had commanded them to go, without missing a step. His footsteps clattered noisily against the stone steps as the three descended deeper and deeper into the darkness.
“LET GO!” Ahri screamed, “GO BACK AND HELP ZILEAN!”
“I cannot.” His voice carried an edge of fear to it. “We would have died.”
Pantheon thought back to the skirmish in the Great Hall…
“No, you’re staying right here,” growled Rengar, who leapt from the shadows. With a tremendous heave, threw his three-headed bola straight at Ahri. The missile spun through the air for a second, before wrapping themselves tightly around the fox’s ankles. Ahri gave a shout of annoyance as her feet, combined with her thick purple summoner robes, caused her to trip. She fell to her knees in a heap, as Rengar, the Pridestalker charged from her flank.
Even a beast, thought Pantheon as he drew his spear, appears to disgrace the Art of War!
“Don’t move, fox!” Pantheon leveled his spear at Ahri, who looked at him uncertainly at where he was aiming.
“Pantheon, what are…?”
“Trust me! Huoh!”
The Rakkor flung his spear so quickly it seemed as if the javelin leapt out of his hands. The spear flew through the air, then buried itself right between Ahri’s ankles, severing the bonds of Rengar’s Bolas in a single cut. She quite understandably scrambled back in shock.
Ahri leapt to her feet, summoning her orb in a blink.
“You…” She circled the Pridestalker, who had stopped once he saw Ahri was free of her bonds. “You’re the new one, aren’t you? Why are you helping them?”
“I don’t know what I am,” Rengar growled back, the Pridestalker had grown up not knowing his biological parents. His father, a legendary hunter, was the only family the Pridestalker had ever known. The only family, besides the hundreds of skulls that adorned his den back in the Plague Jungles. “But I know that YOU’RE prey!”
“Pretty confident, aren’t you?” Ahri nodded to Pantheon, who circled to Rengar’s back. “There are three of us here.”
“NO!” Zilean yelled, desperate, “Hurry and run!”
Rengar’s face split in what some people would swear, days after the event, was the Pridestalker’s attempt at a smile.
LeBlanc appeared behind Ahri, laughing.
“He’s not alone.”
Master Heian sat with the Starchild, Soraka, in an unused side room of the Institute. The enormous man dwarfed both the stool he slouched on, and the woman treating him, but he did not make a sound. The Starchild, coldly and reluctantly, swept her Crescent over the Wuju master’s injuries. There were few. Of all of his wounds, by far the worst was the one left by Master Yi’s Dragon Slaying strike. The perfect cut from the rips in Space and Time had made a vacuum cut in Heian’s side, preventing the sides of the wound from closing naturally. The cells had been broken down on a molecular level. Soraka had to spend a great deal more energy than she’d like to pull back the lips of the gaping wound. The flesh squelched noisily as she willed the folds of meat together, and sealed it with her healing magic. She didn’t care to make it any less painful for the Master; the sensation must have been excruciating, but Heian accepted the treatment wordlessly.
He was fighting all this time with THAT in him? Soraka pondered in disbelief. She was almost impressed. She saw what the master had done to the blood mage Vladimir, and she could scarcely believe that the same man that had ended the Hemomancer was the one with his guts nearly slipping out of his hardened body.
“Done,” Soraka said tersely, and she quickly rose to leave. She spun around, and started marching back to her guard, her hands held out in front of her. “Take me back already,” Soraka snapped to the guard, “There are still patients that I need to care for. Ones you created.” Once the guard had snapped on the mana burning chains once more, Soraka started marching as quickly as she could out the door.
“Thank you.” Heian said, without looking up. Soraka stopped only for a moment. Then she left.
Master Heian then reached for his sword. He slowly got up, testing the new muscle. He was pleased. Then, he let his chi, his very aura, spill out into the world around him. Because of what the Starchild had done for him, he was feeling merciful. He would give those three scurrying mice… advance warning.
“I said RUN ALREADY!” ZIlean screamed, but still the four fought. Pantheon blocked a savage looping cut from Rengar’s axe, and responded in kind with a bash with his massive shield that sent the Pridestalker stumbling back, whining. Rengar looked up, growling. He raised his weapons again, and crouched lower.
The Pridestalker roared.
LeBlanc kept sending Sigil of Silence after Sigil of Silence rocketing towards Ahri, each of which barely missed their mark. Ahri leaped back, further and further, with each sigil, knowing full well that if even one of those magical sigils struck her, all of her magic would be stripped away, and she would be left temporarily powerless.
“Watch closely,” LeBlanc said. In a flash, she disappeared, and Ahri lost her. She spun around, but LeBlanc was already behind her, the Deceiver’s fanciful staff aimed directly at her back. “Too closely,” She smirked. Her sigil erupted from her staff, and caught Ahri right in the back.
With a burst, Ahri was flung forwards, and she was sent sprawling onto the stone floor. Her black hair spilled out of her purple hood as it slipped off, revealing her pointy fox ears. Ahri slowly got up on all fours.
“What a cute voice,” LeBlanc blasted Ahri again, drawing out her scream. “I’m jealous. My voice is a bit too low to really get the boys.”
Ahri looked up, her eyes narrowed, her mouth open and teeth bared in anger.
“Oh? Still defiant? Just how are you going to get out of this one, my dear?”
Ahri’s snarl disappeared, replaced by a smirk.
“Simple,” Ahri choked out, the silence still wreaking havoc on her voice, “like I said: there are there of us here.”
Annie’s demon bear burst into form behind LeBlanc. Slowly, the Deceiver turned around, her face blank. Behind her, Tibbers loomed, completely covering the Deceiver in its shadow. The intense heat from its flaming body blew LeBlanc’s hair back, and scorched her eyes, making her quint. LeBlanc gave a little cry of surprise.
“Woah, that’s like, not even fair—Hey!”
Tibber swung at her, and she only very narrowly avoided being mauled by teleporting back to her mark left on the ground before.
“Frickin’ bears” LeBlanc muttered, as Ahri’s orb spun at her and between bear punches and flying foxfires, she was forced back.
Rengar charged forwards, crude axe in one hand, and arm-mounted claws on the other. With his axe, he wrenched aside Pantheon’s shield, locking their arms together. With his claws, he pushed aside the Rakkor’s spear, leaving nothing in between them. With brute strength, the Pridestalker was starting to force Pantheon down. Rengar lunged forwards as far as he could snapping with his vicious snout. With each bite, the beast grew closer and closer to Pantheon’s throat.
“F*cking!” Pantheon managed to squeeze out in between dodges of Rengar bite, “*******! You disgrace the Art of War!”
The Rakkor swept his leg up, and kneed Rengar hard in the stomach. The Pridestalker was lifted off the ground an inch, right before Pantheon swept his head forwards, smashing the metal bridge of his noseguard into Rengar’s face. The Pridestalker stepped back, whining, and clawing at his face.
“And now! Your fate is--”
A faint voice cut into the room. The sound was soft, as if it were from very far away.
“Sealed, is it?”
The Rakkor trod on centuries of martial doctrine, and took his eyes off the enemy, to gaze down the length of the Great Hall. At the very far end, nearly a half-mile away, strode a figure. He was incredibly tall, and bare-chested. Thick, baggy pants grounded his figure from so far away. On his back was a ten-foot long sword, forged completely from dense black metal.
Master Heian was coming.
Even from so far away, Pantheon could sense the man’s presence. The Rakkor, proud and mighty, felt fear for only the second time in his life. The first, of course, was the day Leona underwent the Rite of Kor, and only by the grace of the gods was she saved. But this time, the fear was primal, and terrifying unlike any other.
He would die, Pantheon realized, if he fought against the man with that dreadful aura, that aura that could be felt even from such an insane distance.
He did not fear death, no true Rakkor did. But he would have many regrets if he was taken to the Shadow Lands now. If he stayed, he would not die a glorious death, he would only be slain like a dog in an instant. If he stayed, he would never to guide his friends to their goal. If he stayed, he would never share bread with Leona again.
“Ahri, Annie.” Pantheon’s helm swiveled around, completely ignoring the slowly recovering Rengar in front of him. He faced the two ladies in front of him, who had stopped to look at him. “We must go.”
“Good idea,” whispered Heian from afar, and Pantheon felt yet another chill run up his spine.
“What…” Ahri’s face scrunched up. “Are you talking about, Pan? We’re BEATING THEM!”
“You don’t understand… He’s coming.”
Pantheon turned to the shackled Zilean, who was trembling. He could feel the master’s presence, too.
“He’s coming, and if we stay here, we will all die.”
“Ugh…” LeBlanc gripped onto her staff. She was slightly wounded, but her swagger and cockiness was still there. She was not beat yet. “If you run, my pretty little fox, we’ll kill your precious Zilean here.”
“You!” Ahri turned, and snarled. “Keep Grandpa out of this!”
“Oh, you call him Grandpa?” LeBlanc let out a high laugh. “How very touching. All the more reason not to run, yes?”
Pantheon walked up to Ahri, and put a hand on her shoulder. He barely had to lift his hand to do it. He could see the horror in Ahri’s eyes at LeBlanc’s proclamation, and he could see the fire in her eyes. But he could also feel the horror in his gut. The fire is easier to extinguish, Pantheon judged, but not by much.
“Ahri. Something is coming, and it… it’ll destroy us.”
The fox did not speak. She simply stood, silent, staring into the ground as if she intended to melt it. Everything feel quiet as she contemplated what Pantheon had said.
“So you’re saying, ‘leave Zilean’” Ahri said, coldly. “Leave Grandpa to die. Because something’s coming.”
“Yes…” Zilean breathed, hoarse with desperation.
“Yes,” Pantheon’s silence said, as he felt the weight in his gut grow heaver and heavier.
“Fine,” Ahri stated bluntly, to practically everyone’s surprise. “Fine.” She turned to fixed Pantheon with her strongest stare. “Something coming, right?” She seemed to shrink into herself for a moment. Her shoulders tensed, and her hair rose a bit.
“Foxes’ can’t love, you know that?" Ahri shook with rage. Her tails started swirling out in every direction. "When I first came here, in the inside, I was a fox, even though I looked human."
Her fists clenched.
"Yi rescued me. I became human because I love. So tell me... tell me how could I even THINK about leaving Grandpa here, then?! BECAUSE I’M NOT A FOX! I LOVE HIM!”
Ahri exploded, howling.
“SOMETHING’S COMING?! THEN I’LL KILL IT! I’LL KILL HIM, I’LL KILL THEM ALL!!” Ahri turned and scraemed to the sky, leaving all bystanders to believe that she had gone insane. They weren’t wrong. Pantheon could see a spark of flame in her eyes, and for a second, he saw her potential. He believed her. For Zilean… for everything, she would destroy the world. A twinge ran up his spine.
Then, his good sense took over, so he stepped forward, clubbed Ahri lightly with his shield, and caught her. Ahri slumped forwards, stunned.
Pantheon hefted Ahri onto his shoulders.
“Oi, where do you think you’re going?” LeBlanc called out, twirling her staff.
“You think we’re just going to let you walk out?” Rengar growled, his face still broken and bleeding.
Pantheon stood stoically, faced with the two foes. He was burdened, having picked up Ahri, and now Annie, in his arms. Could he actually escape?
“Guess again!” Rengar roared, and the Pridestalker leapt at Pantheon, clearly seeking revenge for his facial injury.
What must never be underestimated is a Rakkor’s pride. No matter how squashed it is, they have an overwhelming culture of dominance. To even consider the idea of retreat was heresy, yet Pantheon emerged as an actual advocate for it. His pride, Pantheon’s honor as a Rakkor, was beaten and suppressed in interest of self-preservation, because to live, he would have to resist the instinct to charge head-long into Master Heian. He suppressed his very identity.
Yet his pride still lived, and laid waiting eagerly for a chance to break out.
All of the Rakkor’s frustration at having to run away, all of the indignation and injuries to his pride that the Rakkor suffered, exploded in the manifested form of Pantheon’s whirling shield. Pantheon took every bit of disgrace lodged in his heart, smashed Rengar’s face in with it. Rengar dropped to a knee, while the Rakkor turned away.
Pantheon tilted his helmet at LeBlanc. Cold, hard eyes drilled into the Deceiver, daring her to try to stop him, too.
Well? Will you?
“Oh, I won’t,” LeBlanc said, waving. “He will.”
Pantheon’s eyes widened, as he realized who LeBlanc was talking about. The Rakkor turned to face Master Heian, now only a hundred feet away.
“You should have run...” Master Heian called out, his sword now at his side. “When you had the chance.”
The Rakkor took an involuntary step back. Normally, with such a dangerous opponent, the Rakkor would skirt outside of the enemy’s kill radius, and formulate a strategy from behind the safety of his shield. But there was the problem. Heian’s kill radius, Pantheon sensed, enveloped them three or four times in. There was nowhere to run. Before Pantheon could even think of what to do next, Master Heian leapt, and in the blink of an eye, the Wuju master had covered more than half the hundred feet between them, his sword already flying through the air. The Rakkor could only raise his hand, a last act of futility before his swift, dark end—
The Rakkor waited.
It never came.
To the side, Zilean crushed the sapphire crystal in his hands, giving the aged wizard, for an instant, a small burst of power. He slowly got up. The Chronokeeper raised his shackled hands. His palms started glowing, and with the last of his power, Zilean stopped everything. Absolutely. Everything.
Master Heian hung suspended in mid-air, his long beard frozen in a twisted trail behind him. LeBlanc was in the middle of launching a sigil of silence straight at Pantheon’s back. If the Dark Wuju master did not kill the Rakkor, the Deceiver wanted to make sure that she would. Crimson drops of blood floated like red pearls; streaming from Rengar’s broken face. Pantheon stared about at the spectacle. He turned to the Chronokeeper, the only other being in the world that was not suspended in mid-motion. Zilean was lying in a heap in the midst of a world of statues. He had spent the last of his energy to freeze time. The Artisan of War wasted no time with empty thanks. With speed rivaling Master Yi’s, the Rakkor sped away from the certain death that awaited them in the hall, and on the edge of Master Heian’s sword.
To Master Heian, it seemed as if the Rakkor had simply disappeared. No, more than that. The huge man had simply popped out of existence. The abrupt disappearance of Heian’s target caused an excessively loud SNAP as the air rushed into back into the hole where Pantheon just was. His target gone, Heian dropped lightly back onto the stone floor. His gaze travelled to the Mage of Time, Zilean. The frail old man lay in a bundled heap on the ground, exhausted. The shattered remains of a sapphire lay twinkling like glass on the stone.
LeBlanc strode up the Zilean, a forced grimace on her face.
“Old fart had a trick up his sleeve.” She pulled the Chronokeeper up by the collar, pulling the limp man up until she was looking face-to face with him. “I’m impressed, Chronokeeper. You managed a spell even with those mana burning chains. We might have to do something special for someone as dangerous as you.”
LeBlanc leaned in closer, until Zilean could feel her rose scented breath on his face. “You won’t enjoy it,” She hissed.
“I don’t care,” Zilean breathed back, “Ahri… she’s safe now.” At this, LeBlanc stood up, and turned to the injured Pridestalker. Rengar was impatiently sniffing about, aggravated.
“Rengar.” LeBlanc ordered, eyes narrowed. “Grab some other champions to go with you, and prove the Chronokeeper wrong.” Rengar growled in affirmation, and slunk back into the shadows. It was clear as day that the Pridestalker was thirsty for revenge.
Good, LeBlanc noted, it’ll make him that much more dangerous.
“Master,” LeBlanc picked up her staff, and twirled it in her hand. “Will we have to alter the plan?”
“….” Master Heian sheathed his sword, slinging it back over his back. “No. Continue gathering the Nexi, and corrupting the champions. We move forwards.” The Wuju master strode out the hall. He would not fail.
“And as for you--” LeBlanc raised her staff as she snapped at Zilean—
“I’m sorry.” Her tears were gone. Her rage spent. Ahri got up. The three were sitting on the steps of the cavernous stairwell to the depths of the Institute. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, and turned to face her friends. “I’m sorry, Grandpa. I’m sorry, Annie. I’m sorry, Pantheon.”
Her companions wordlessly accepted her apologies. They got up, too.
“Let’s go to the Phoenix Sun.”
She had decided. She would seize her destiny that Yi and ZIlean had set before her. She would make the sacrifices of all of her friends and loved ones worth something. She would become the Phoenix Sun. But instead of breaking out of the Institute, there would be a change in plans.
Once she could, she would rescue Zilean.
“Wait for me, Grandpa. I'm coming"
They plunged into the depths.