(Critiques welcome and approved! More to come.)
(Update status: Chapter 3 added.)
Every night, the moon shines on Runeterra.
Pale beams of reflected sunlight lance through the void of space, probing for weakness in the blanket of clouds. A few bold moonbeams streak past, lighting a small gleam in the dewy grass of Summoner's Rift. A small nest of glittering black beetles scuttles nearby, their carapaces bright in the flickering light of a torch. One burrows down into the grass, through soft loam and fertile soil, down away from moonbeams and torch alike. Below the beetle warrens, the waters of the river seep into the cold earth, icy and remote as it pools on the bedrock beneath the soil. Pure frigid water trickles through a small crack in the bedrock into a cavern below.
In the deeps of the cavern, silent, invisible in the dark, a wide stone dais lay in a still pool. On the dais lies a man, twisted in the throes of restless sleep, and as he tosses and turns, the world trembles with foreboding.
And he dreams.
The main library of the Institute of War, is, by tradition, a quiet place. Even if it were not tradition, the vast arched halls littered with detailed tapestries, rich rugs, and dust laden bookshelves reaching towards the ceiling tended to muffle those few who lacked vocal restraint. Still, it was only in whispers that Marl argued with his tutor across a small stone table, on which rested a single folder.
"...hardly been effective, has it? I mean, look at the Kalamanda incident. Not only did we fail to prevent conflict, we couldn't even keep official League champions out of it! We could have destroyed the last of the brackern completely by accident! It's a wonder Skarner puts up with us at all. How long will it be until he realizes how little actually gets resolved here?"
His tutor, an elderly master summoner by the name of Dox, looked at him with a mild expression mostly concealed by an excess of silvery facial hair. "Well, I'm sure the High Council of Equity will be delighted to hear that they're- how did you put it? - 'A collection of old bones with hot gas trapped inside.' " A small sigh ruffled Dox's mustache in a way that might have been comical had Marl not known that the old man could have destroyed the room with the barest effort. "I'm surprised at you, Marl. You may be fairly new, but you've been here long enough to see the kind of power the champions wield. Are you trying to tell me that you would rather see them loose upon the world, free of any restricting laws or bindings? It may not be a perfect system, but I'm sure the Council has considered all of your points, probably a great deal more than you have. If they had a better solution, I'm sure they'd use it."
Marl snorted. "When was the last time the council actually made any changes? Oh, right- five years ago, before Councilor Ashram's disappearance. Nothing since. Five years, Master Dox, and the rumors still abound in my classes of junior summoners. People are starting to think that someone, or something, has made the council lose their nerve." Marl searched Dox's face for any signs of reaction, but the man was doing an excellent impersonation of a marble bust. Well, a very hairy marble bust.
Something in the slant of Dox's bushy eyebrows shifted to indicate thoughtfulness. "I have heard the rumors," he admitted after a moment's silence. Another sigh ruffled his mustache. "It's not just the junior summoners that have their doubts. The questions around Ashram's... departure... were not answered satisfactorily for any of us." Dox toyed with the folder on the table for a minute, then pushed it across to Marl. "Better men than you have struggled to find answers; better men than you have suffered for it. Unless you also wish to disappear, I suggest you spend less time questioning your superiors, and more time preparing for your new assignment."
Marl flipped open the folder, rapidly scanning the contents. "Not that I'm sad to see the back of the instruction circuit, but archaeology? Shouldn't you be foisting this off on Ezreal? At least he has some interest."
Dox snorted loudly. "Ezreal? That fop is a reckless hazard and a disgrace to the subject. He's an adventurer, not an archaeologist- he's better suited to the League than he ever was to studies of any type. As to why you-" Dox pushed himself to his feet as he spoke, and Marl quickly followed suit "-believe me, it wasn't my choice. Still, Councilor Relivash wants everyone we can spare on this dig, especially anyone with magical aptitude. Pick a few of your best students and head to the dig; I expect you to be there by tomorrow afternoon at the latest."
Marl weighed the possibilities in his mind. At least it will be something different... Still, I was hoping for an assignment to champion control... He blinked. "Wait, see me there? Are you on this too, Doxy?"
The old man grimaced. "Master Dox to you, snippet. Yes, much to my misfortune. Councilor Relivash felt you needed some experienced oversight, and I must have looked to happy where I was." The elder's voice suddenly dropped to a serious note. "Runeterra is older than anyone knows, Marl. There are things hidden away in the earth so old that they make mountains look young. Don't take this assignment lightly."
"They'd still be hard pressed to be older than you, Doxy!" Before the older man could reply, he gave a quick bow, and darted for the exit. If he was going to be stuck on the dig under Summoner's Rift, at least he had a day's reprieve to do some heavy drinking first.
"I'm drunk," Den stated with great solemnity.
In fairness to her, this was quite an achievement- not being drunk, but being able to make a statement at all, let alone an intelligible one. Gragas may not have been known for being personable or attractive, but he certainly knew how to brew a potent vat of... whatever it was that he brewed. It was expensive, but worth every penny, as any one of her twelve drinking companions would have testified to, had any been conscious.
Groggily, Den groped about for her bag. It took her several minutes, but she finally found it, hanging from her shoulder. Giving it a disapproving frown, she fumbled open the latch and peered blearily inside. Shiny yellow coins twinkled in abundance in the dim light of the tavern. She stared at them with fascination, weaving her head back and forth, watching the twinkles shift. A brief tap on her shoulder caused her to whirl around- an a rather difficult and disastrous effort, considering she was seated in a high backed chair, an she was fairly certain there was someone sleeping on her legs. She shot an angry and irritated up from the floor at the looming figure of the barkeep, who looked as though he regularly tried out for cart lifting competitions.
"Excuse me, madame, but I'm afraid I must ask for payment now." After a moment of thought, she pulled herself upright by the thankfully sturdy pants of the barkeep and surveyed the chaos. Much to her pleasant surprise, the table had a fairly large stack of assorted coinage in it's middle. Beaming, she swept it into her pack, only losing about a quarter of it on the floor. She forlornly watched a stray gold coin roll into a far corner, debating the value of exerting any effort to chase it. In the end, she just gave weak hand seizure that might have been intended as a magnanimous wave, and mumbled "Keep th' change." With that, she stumbled aimlessly across the floor towards the door, luckily failing to cause permanent damage to herself or the other patrons despite her best efforts.
Outside the tavern, the waxing moon had just risen. The grassy plains bordering the road extended far into the night, empty except for the tavern and its supporting buildings. The road itself was deserted except for a lone black cloaked horseman just drawing reign next to the stable. Den wandered absently towards the stable, staring with great amusement at a little red star she decided really ought to be named Berny. She drew lazily to a stop when she heard a deep voice emanating from the rider.
"Excuse me. I am rather new to these parts, and I was hoping you could provide me with some directions. You see, I am looking for an archaeologist..."
Den threw out a stopping hand, and then tried to lean nonchalantly against the rider's horse, which neatly sidestepped and rather spoiled the gesture. Den carried on unfazed. "Whelp, y'need go no further then, do ya? Den Malleny, archolologist 'xtrodinaire, atchurservice!" With that, she promptly passed out on the ground.
Marl was irritated.
This was not an uncommon occurrence; he had joined the League as a summoner at the promise of wealth, power, and adventure beyond his wildest imaginings; in its place, all he found was bureaucracy and hypocrisy. The league claimed that it saved the world from magical self destruction- and yet they did dangerous research into powerful artifacts, and regularly ended up summoning powerful beings from far off worlds, sometimes even other planes of existence. It was, in Marl's opinion, only a matter of time before the league itself brought down the destruction it worked so hard to prevent.
Still, if the destruction of Valoran was an inevitability, there was nowhere safer to be than the Institute of War, home to all the most powerful magic wielders in, quite literally, all of the universe. Even if the planet were torn asunder, he suspected the institute would remain. So he stayed and studied, a good little summoner, obeying every order.
That didn't mean he had to enjoy it.
He hadn't like teaching- students were ignorant, overeager, highly critical, and often mind-numbingly thick headed. He'd lost count of the number of time his students had nearly killed themselves or a classmate by trying something out of their league or by simply botching a mundane spell. Still, at least while he was teaching he had access to all the comforts of the Institute- good accommodations, an ample serving staff, reasonable hours, and excellent food. The League was nothing if not generous to its employees.
Here, though, at the 'Great Dig', as everyone who'd never been there called it, he was hard pressed to find running water, let alone the comforts of the Institute. The roughly hewn quarters were damp and drafty. Sleep was unattainable, as the sounds of work echoed down the tunnels at all hours of the day and night. He couldn't even be sure when it was day; the entire excavation was underground at this point, seeing as it was too far below the earth to be opened to the air. At points, the digging even dropped below the bedrock level.
And on top of it all, he still had to put up with his students.
"No, no, no! Coralene, you call that a minion?" He gestured with frustration at an ugly, squat creature, resembling a mottled purple slug. "It doesn't even have arms! How in this festering cesspool of a hell are you expecting it to dig?"
The object of his wrath, a ditzy young blonde, seemed on the verge of tears. Jed, one of her peers with a more than professional interest, came to her defense. "Cut her some slack, hey? We've down here for a week, sir, and we've barely made any progress. She was just trying a new approach- corroding the rock, rather than-"
"A new approach?! Are you insane?" At this, Coralene really did burst into tears. Marl almost felt bad for her. Almost. "Do you have any idea how long it takes to create a working summoning ritual? How dangerous it can be to try a new spell without proper safeguards? I've been practicing magic since you were in diapers, and even I would hesitate making a new spell without at least two Masters with me. You're lucky you didn't bury us all under ten thousand pounds of rock and dirt!" He brushed aside her defender, seizing her by the collar, and dragging her to the edge of a nearby stair. He gestured out into the massive underground valley that was the excavation, towering buildings and arching bridges only barely illuminated by the occasional torch or magical light. "This city has been buried under the earth for ten thousand years at the least! Did you ever stop to wonder why? Why there are skeletons all through the city, sitting just like life, like nothing happened? This place didn't fall to neglect, pestilence, or an invading army- it was sunk straight into the earth, all at once, people and all. And you want to know more?" He stared into her tear blurred eyes, willing his expression to remain stern. "It wasn't an enemy that did it. We have their records- they found a city beneath them, too. There was an artifact, a powerful artifact, activated by the use of magic, that sank them. And this city, they found that artifact, experimented with it, on it, and shared that fate. Two cities, two civilizations- advanced and powerful people, gone, because they were too reckless."
Coralene had collapsed against a nearby building, sobbing wildly. Marl felt sick with himself, but it was all true, and he had no desire to be buried alive. He waved a hand of dismissal as Jed collected her, shooting him an angry glare. That one was too defiant for his own good... Marl would have had him reprimanded, but quite frankly, Jed was the only one of his students that showed much promise of ever being something more.
Something bumped Marl's leg, making him jump. He looked down, then sighed; it was the gruesome minion, blundering mindlessly about. He noted with bleak humor that the trail it left behind was eating through the rock surface of the floor. It wasn't a bad idea, really, he thought to himself. But the fool girl should have taken it to me. This place is littered with old magic... Evil magic. The people who lived here were not a kind people, nor the people before them. That kind of magic is better left alone, but since we have to be here, I'll take no chances. He made a brief arcane gesture, and the minion flickered out of existence.
The sound of labored breathing made Marl turn once more. A portly summoner crested the stair, puffing with exertion. Nergle, or Nerple, or something like that- the man had been one of Marl's fellow instructors before he'd been drafted; Marl never really kept track. He gave a mental sigh and waited for the man to speak.
After a few more heaving breaths, the man spoke up. "Uh, Marl, Master Dox has requested your presence at the Dome. He said, that we, uh, have a real archaeologist on the job now... So... New orders and all that... Some lady named Den, Den Malleny." The man slumped to the wall where Carlene had so recently been crying. "I'll be coming along too just as soon as I catch my breath."
They really are desperate if they're falling to drafting that lout. He may be a decent summoner, but he's in no shape to be working on a dig. "Alright, see you there. Just have to collect a few of my things." Time to meet the new boss.
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