The sun had already receded somewhere behind the looming cliffs. The wind howled in the shadows they cast, the cold biting at us. Sejuani seemed to shrink even farther into her furs. I pulled my own pelt tighter. Ahead of us in the distance, none of the three girls seemed particularly affected by it. Ashe only had a cloak to ward against the cold. How could she bear it?
Sejuani stopped with a gasp.
Following her gaze upwards I realized what she was staring at. The cliff's face wasn't sheer as it first appeared. Instead, great portions of it seemed to be hollowed out. In these spaces were great formations of rock, cut in such a way that they could only be manmade. Buildings. Tall and massive buildings that neither of us had ever seen before, other than the Crystal Hall. And more of them than we could count. Following the cliff face in either direction showed more hollowed spaces and more buildings. A great city.
A great, dark, dead city.
There were no lights or people to be seen. No flags or banners. Silence.
"We read about the city surrounding the Crystal Hall," said Sejuani. "There were no details about it though. I thought Rakelstake was that city."
The thought hadn't occurred to me. The scroll describing the Crystal Hall only had a passing reference to the city, instead describing the splendor of the Hall itself.
"Freljord was once a great kingdom," Sejuani continued, "this must have been where its people lived. It doesn't look like anyone lives here now, does it?"
"No, it does not."
"Can you imagine--"
Sejuani's voice trailed off as we continued forward again. By the time we caught up to the other girls the shadows were deepening and the day's warmth beginning to fade.
"You two are so slow!" Lissandra whined as soon as we were close enough to hear. Her voice shattered the calming silence that had accompanied us. "It's freezing!"
"Cut them some slack," said Orianna.
"Don't you talk to me like that! I'll have you banished!"
"She's so rude, Ashe!"
"You're being petty. Come on, we'll miss the best part if we don't hurry."
Lissandra shot Orianna a glare that said this wasn't over, then the girls continued on. Carved into the cliff face was a ramp that doubled back on itself as it rose from the floor to the cavernous space far above. As we got to the ramp, Ashe turned and grinned at us.
"I'll take a shortcut."
With no further warning Ashe bounded up the cliff wall, climbing with a grace and agility neither of us had seen before.
"She always does this," said Lissandra matter-of-factly. "Let's go. It's a long walk."
"You all can go; I've got to try this for myself! Ashe! I'll race you!" The girl from Piltover sprinted to the wall, taking the same path up Ashe did at first, and then scrambling from hold to hold as best she could. Ashe's motions were practiced and precise; she knew exactly where she was going. Had Orianna also known the route, she may have been even quicker than the Ice Archer. We left them to their race as we followed Lissandra up the ramp. To my surprise, Sejuani spoke to her.
"What is this place?" It was hardly more than a breath, but Lissandra turned her head to acknowledge the question.
"This used to be Freljord. This. The city, the Crystal Hall. A kingdom to rival Demacia and Noxus. That was long ago."
The somber tone of Lissandra's voice had caught both of us off guard.
"People used to live here, right?" inquired Sejuani. "Instead of traveling the land?"
"It must be hard to imagine for you and Ashe, but yes. The Ice Dervishes, we still spend most of our time here. We maintain the Hall as best we can. There are too few of us to do anything about the city, though."
"Why doesn't everyone live here?"
"How would we all find food in this one area? Even the Ice Dervishes have to roam and hunt for part of the year. Mother says that's why the old kingdom fell. The land itself died, and the people fought each other for what was left."
"The land died?"
Sejuani's sudden courage left her when the question went unanswered. We rounded the turn, all three of us contenting ourselves with watching the two girls continue their climb. They shouted to each other on occasion, but I couldn't determine what they were saying from this distance. Ashe was so far ahead of her challenger that her pace had become relaxed. She was shouting directions to Orianna, I realized then. The machinist's daughter scrambled--at times desperately--maintaining nothing more than a tenuous grip on the cliff face as she still tried to catch up. When Ashe reached the top, she leaned over the edge and continued shouting over the edge. With Ashe's help, Orianna's movements became less frantic. She darted up the last few feet, flung her arms to the sky and let out a triumphant shout as Ashe clapped for her. The competitors shared a hug and then sat along the edge until we'd caught up to them.
"Did you see me?" Orianna beamed.
"Now that you know the way up, you might beat the princess next time," I said with a smile of my own.
"She might," Ashe admitted. "Though it'll take more than one climb to get it all down. We're almost there."
"Wow, this isn't it?" Orianna was already bouncing from foot to foot. "It's so beautiful here."
Orianna was right. The view was absolutely spectacular. The Crystal Hall glistened in the light. Just as yellows and oranges had begun to tint the snow, they also gave the structure dominating the valley a dazzling array of colors.
"I know a better spot, but we should really hurry. Come!"
Ashe started into a jog, which the other girls matched. Sejuani and I had no choice but to follow.
The carved stone of the ramp became a paved street crossing a wide and empty cavern. A marketplace, perhaps, where goods were exchanged with traders coming up the ramp. Ahead of us, Ashe and Orianna exchanged a glance and both broke into a sprint. Orianna's laughter, a sound of pure joy echoed throughout. I could not resist the smile that came to my lips. Lissandra sped up to catch them. Sejuani did too, but she was already running near to her full speed just to keep up. I kept pace with her as we followed Lissandra.
We continued down the street as buildings now lined it. Most of them were far taller than anything in Rakelstake, and carved directly out of the stone. A few of the buildings extended all the way to the cavern's ceiling, massive pillars hollowed out and dotted with windows. One such structure was our destination. It rested at the edge of the cliff and rose to a distance I couldn't grasp. We were already so high up.
"Is this it?" asked Sejuani. She was breathing heavily. So was I, I realized.
"Not yet." Ashe pointed up towards the ceiling before disappearing in the pillar's doorway.
Inside, Lissandra produced a crystal that emitted just enough of a light to see the stair spiraling to somewhere overhead. The floor was covered in debris, remains of wooden furniture most prevalent. Above us, the fading daylight streamed in through several windows. We climbed in silence until we emerged into a new room. The debris here was even thicker, and there were no more stairs. A single window facing the valley provided light for us.
"What now?" said Orianna. I wondered the same thing, for there seemed to be nowhere else to go from here.
For the briefest moment, the idea that Sejuani and I had been betrayed crossed my mind. Then Lissandra held her light up towards a portion of the wall.
"There used to be a wooden staircase here. It leads up to a balcony. Some kind of lookout point, I guess." Ashe traced her fingers across the wall as I fought down the initial wave of panic. "There's grooves in the wall here going all the way up. It's a bit of a climb, but nothing like the cliff wall. Come on, it's almost sunset."
Ashe scaled the wall effortlessly, reaching the balcony's ledge and hoisting Orianna up, who'd followed right behind. Sejuani followed Lissandra and I was last, but we had only made it part of the way up by the time Lissandra reached the top.
Sejuani tried twice to reach for the next groove. Unsuccessful, she simply clung to the wall.
"I can't reach it," said Sejuani dejectedly. "I want to go back down."
"Are you sure?"
Ashe and Lissandra appeared in the balcony's entrance, looking down at us, Lissandra thrusting the glowing crystal out in front of her.
"What's taking so long?" called Ashe.
I answered when Sejuani didn't. "She can't reach the next one. We're just going to wait down here. We can see through the window anyway."
I started to guide Sejuani's feet back down. In the light cast down by Lissandra's crystal, I could see that her eyes were tightly closed.
"You see? I told you she couldn't make it," Lissandra declared mockingly. "She's too small! Too weak! Everyone knows it, too! Even her mother was weak!"
Despite Lissandra's laughter I could hear the sob emanate from Sejuani.
"Lissandra. That's cruel," said Ashe sternly, before calling down to us, "If you two want to wait, that's fine. We won't be long."
Orianna appeared at the ledge, pushing past Lissandra.
"Sejuani! You can do it!"
My princess, trembling, froze, looked up.
"It's too far," she whimpered.
"No it's not!"
Freeing her leg from my guiding hand, Sejuani reset her foot in its position and stared at her goal.
"You can do it," I said, echoing Orianna's encouragement.
Sejuani nodded in response. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she lunged for the next groove, flinging her left hand towards it.
With a panicked yelp, Sejuani scrambled to regain her balance. Only my hand to her back and all of my strength prevented her from falling.
Sejuani again clung to the wall, sobbing.
"I can't. I can't," she repeated between wavering breaths.
"That's not true! Don't say it because it's not true!" The urgency, the anger in Orianna's voice demanded Sejuani's attention. She looked up again.
"No!" Orianna shouted. "You can do this!"
Sejuani glanced back towards me, helplessly, as if waiting for permission to give up. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks. She turned the same helpless look on Orianna. Ashe watched without emotion. Lissandra seemed delighted at Sejuani's expression.
"I believe in you!"
Those four words, spoken with such conviction and sincerity. Perhaps that's all she ever needed was someone to believe in her, because Sejuani leapt for the next purchase in the stone. She found it, and again only my free hand to hold her up gave her enough time to regain her footing.
"I knew you could do it!" exclaimed Orianna, clapping her hands. "Keep going!"
Both of us fighting exhaustion now, we continued our climb. I stayed just behind my princess, one arm pressed to her back whenever I could. Orianna continued to shout encouragement, and then Ashe did too. Lissandra went back out on the balcony.
When we neared the top, Sejuani took Orianna's outstretched hand and I took Ashe's. It was then I realized how badly my arms and legs ached. The sensation was somehow satisfying, though. Both Sejuani and I collapsed to the balcony's floor, but we'd made it.
"I'm sorry," said Ashe abruptly.
The four of us sat on the balcony railing, legs dangling over the side as we watched the vale and the Crystal Hall erupt first into yellows, then oranges, then purples. Shadow and shimmering light danced across the valley as the Crystal Hall captured and projected the sunset in all directions. It was everything the scrolls said it was and more. A look at Ashe and Lissandra's faces said that this view never ceased to be amazing. Only after this display did anyone find words.
"I didn't realize it would be so hard on you," she explained, "that wasn't our intent."
Lissandra's silence implied otherwise. When Sejuani offered no response, Ashe continued.
"Lissandra and I found this spot a couple of years ago. She was probably about your age and I had to help her the same way your handmaiden helped you." Ashe ignored Lissandra's scoff. "We come back often because it's so beautiful, then we spend the night so we can see the sunrise too. Don't worry. Princess Mauvole already informed the man you came with. I just wanted to show you this place."
"I understand," said Sejuani.
"If I may ask," I interrupted as politely as possible, "you said you're here often. Isn't the gathering only once a year?"
"Yes, but the elders of each tribe are in contact with each other for longer than the gathering. Diplomatic stuff, so I'm here. Especially with the--" Ashe stopped herself, exchanging a conspicuous glance with Lissandra. "The point is I've been here fairly often lately."
"Lissandra said we can't all stay here because the land died." I can't decide if Sejuani simply did not notice Ashe's pause, or if she used against Ashe, knowing the older princess would embrace the change of subject and satisfy her curiosity.
"All of the wars in the south. Your tribe must have similar tales. The land froze over. What few crops we could grow died. The animals starved. The people starved. The ones who didn't leave were forced to leave the city and roam. We do this every year, and hope we find enough food to survive. It's all because of the wars people fought."
"The War of the Three Sisters was fought after the land froze," said Lissandra without looking towards any of us. She spoke softly and in a measured tones, reciting the story perhaps more to herself than to us. "The old king died and his three daughters vied for the remnants of the kingdom. The war never came to an official conclusion; the factions had to stop fighting each other to hunt for food and build shelters."
"We've been trying to survive ever since."
"That sounds horrible," said Orianna. "I had no idea life here was like that. No one in Piltover does, I don't think. Is food here really that scarce?"
The sound of claws clicking on stone somewhere below us answered the question better than any of us could.
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