[CENTER]Part One: A Tale[/CENTER]
The cloak was a brusque indigo, of a cloth thick and heavy enough to belong to the largest of grizzlies. That it was intended for the muscled men of the frozen norths meant it dragged at least a foot behind Ezreal's boots as he trudged through the camp. Stopping to shake the thing off for what felt like the tenth time in the last hour, he noticed a sentry staring at him with mistrusting eyes. No surprise there. Suspicion was one of the kinder looks he had received since his arrival on the plateau Sejuani's clan currently called home. Gathering the cloak to himself he moved on. It had seen little use before now according to his hostess, a notion which scarce surprised Ezreal. So far the Winter's Claw had proved a tribe wary of outsiders, a trait their would-be leader embodied heartily. He had only just left her tent, the largest amongst the nomadic clan, well stocked with the pelts of beasts both common and wondrous. He had received a rather impromptu lesson on what poor creature had been made into the oversized cloak he now bore.
"Vaelus!" the Winter's Wrath had called, her voice carrying through the confines of the tent, "Tell our little explorer how he wears royal fur!" When she had tipped the horn of ale against her lips she found it empty, and set it aside as another was brought forth. Ezreal was in awe of her fortitude; that horn had been the fifth this night, and the woman's cheeks were barely flush. When her eyes met his he realized he was staring, but before either of them could comment the tribesmen were hushing each other excitedly. All along the tent the northmen moved closer to the fire, eager to hear a tale many knew as well as how to swing their axe, or loose a javelin.
Vaelus was a splendid storyteller, recanting how the barbarian warlord Jogardis had denied the Winter's Claw passage through Crakder's Hall, one of the few traversible passages through the wicked Frostfang mountains. "Aye, now all know of Jogardis an' his daughters, those maces forged of the same metals as Tryndamere's own sword. Many a tale has come of 'em-" he had been interrupted by a raucous call of "Even more of his true daughters!", causing many clansmen to burst out in booming laughter, Vaelus included, though as it died he held up a spear anointed with ancient runes and declared "the next that interrupts gets to figure how to tell their young Vaelus the Voice took their tongues! Quiet, an' let me finish." He made a show of a menacing glare and, comfortably assured that all would hold their piece, he spoke on, his voice resuming a rhythmic cadence. "Jogardis, he what loved his daughters so, had recently conquered another tribe by the Hall. Tarel's lot, they were, an' an easy conquest for the Frostfyre Fangs. As it were, Jogardis had recently lost a wife, an' took his pick of Tarel's girls, his gift t'her of the fashion that he would spare the menfolk Tarel had, an' even take them on into his clan." Vaelus had looked about at the intent faces and proclaimed "Let's all have a horn to that, eh? To good lord Jogardis, whose mercies are few an' far, but great an' wise! May he live as long as the glaciers!"
All around him the Winter's Claw took up the cry, all but Sejuani, whose face seemed to belie that she had tasted something rotten (though, Ezreal had noticed, she did not hesitate to down a horn with the rest). Ezreal's spiced ale had been along the levels of what the children drank, but even still he refused to drain it, lest they insist he drink more. He would need a clear head on the morrow. When the toast was done, Vaelus wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and belched. "Enough of that! Now, most would see this act of kindness for what it was, a barbarian of valor winnin' a woman to his bed, but Tarel himself saw it as more ice being shoved down his furs. Bein' a weak warlord an' an even poorer warrior after Jogardis's daughters had their dance with his hands, Tarel sunk to trickery to get himself some revenge. On a night when the Fangs had been feastin' hard, the sneak crept his way into Jogardis's tent an' stole away with his lovely ladies. Fool as he was, he brought them up to the ol' yeti chieftain, Crakder himself, lookin' to trade'em in return for some of that ice magic to kill the warlord. 'Course, Crakder bein' spittin' distance from Jogardis and his Fangs, the yeti had the smarts to give Tarel back with about a body less o' weight to him, but Crakder's a miser as well as a king, an' that's rare steel that can hold up to the barbarian king's own. The ol' yeti told it to Jogardis that he was keepin' the daughters, as his due for lettin' the Fangs live in his pass."
Vaelus had taken a deep swig from his horn, which Ezreal was grateful for. The man was as long-winded as they came, and the tale didn't seem to have an end in sight, though he was beginning to grasp its direction. The people of the Winter's Claw had been the opposite, sitting enthralled as the storyteller weaved the links together. "There it was, plain as day. If Jogardis wanted his daughters back, he had to storm Crakder's Keep-in-Coldspire, those tunnels froze deep and long into Coldspire, the Frostfang that overlooked the pass. Some says he might've tried too, though he'd be a fool t'bother. Gettin' to Crakder without Crakder wantin' gettin' was a fool's quest any day, an' when the fool didn' even have his own weapons, well, that's a poor fool for all. Was then as frost would have it that our lady come to Jogardis, demanding he let our lot through Crakder's Hall. Jogardis's toll' always light, if you was to ask him: Maybe a woman or two, a good blade, some meat from the pack, what have you. This time though, Jogardis gave Sejuani a look as cold as the tundras farther north than man are want to go, with as much fury as a blizzard in deep winter, an' he spoke of the crime against him." Vaelus drew his breath in deep, and when he spoke again he sounded almost lordly. "'Go up to where the yetis gather, ye wench of winter, an' gather Crakder, however you shall. Bring'im down to me, an' you an' yours are shall pass free through the Hall everafter.' So'n our warrior queen, our fair frostmaiden, she agrees, all spirit and fire. Ain't no easy way of making up the Coldspire, an' if any of you weren't not but green, you'd know the truth of it. No choice but to climb, sometimes on the tips of your toes, others with your body danglin' over falls as long as the ice is thick. Our girl don't care much though. She pulls herself up inch by inch, foot by foot, for three days and four nights, an' finally she's done, standin' high an' proud at the lip of the yeti's cavern.
"How long she searched she don't know, but those of us was keeping track marked a moonturn and one more 'fore Jogardis's horns ran across the tundra, three loud aaawwwwooooooooos tellin' us to make for the Hall. When we get there, our Sejuani's standin' harsh as you please over a frosty, flayed corpse, bigger'n two men standin' tip-toe on top of the other. Jogardis is watchin' a yeti lad clean his daughters all nice and neat-like, an' both of 'em are listenin' to another yeti spoutin' sorries like Jogardis was king of the north. This'n turns out to be Crakder's kin, new king of the Keep-in-Coldspire, as it were, an' to make his apology real sweet, he honeys it up with his lord father's fur, all sewed with yeti magic. An' there it is, mine clan." Vaelus rose and gestured with his rune-bedecked spear, thrusting the tip into the air a small score of feet from Ezreal's heart. "There be the Cloak of Crakder, a fool ol' yeti who wronged a warrior warlord by tryin' t' steal his daughters. The whole north's safer for it, an' the righteous wrath of winter herself, our chief Sejuani, she's the one who gets the thanks. May her nights be warmed by mate and flame, her days as cold as the corpses of her foes!" A shout that set Ezreal's ears to ringing followed, and he had left the great tent to make his way to the smaller one they had erected for him.
Before he made to enter his borrowed shelter he shook the snow from the heavy cloak, marveling at how not even a slight patch of damp affected the cloth. He would have to ask his fellow Champion why she never donned the thing, but most likely she would laugh at him for asking. If the woman knew one thing, it was how to be insulting. Inside his haven he found his supplies still intact and a bedroll of soft furs ready for him. He stripped of all but the gauntlet and made himself snug, adding the cloak atop the furs for even more relief from the savage cold of the north. As he lay with his eyes closed, he could not help but muse on his third day here in this land of ice and snow. Freljord is living proof that people are resilient and stupid. Maybe the two go hand-in-hand. Why don't they just move down into the south, to warmer lands, like Demacia, or Piltover, or even Zaun? He could not puzzle it out, and soon gave up the attempt. At least they're not Noxians, he consoled himself. I hate those guys.
She paused with her hand on the ivory handle, carved from a piece of a mammoth's tusk. A simple turn and she would enter Tryndamere's study, where her lord husband was no doubt deep in thought about all the recent calamities that had plagued them. That he would be furious she was certain, and with every right; she herself had oft found her nails digging into her palms in frustration. She resolved herself to whatever reception she might get and put weight on the door, easing it open lest her king be startled. Poking her head through the portal she spied the king of Freljord sitting before a large study table, the chair turned sideways so that he could stretch his legs. A few lit candles served to keep away the dark of night, though no fire lent the room warmth.
"Tryndamere," she called to him softly, but for a moment she received no response. A harsh sigh escaped the warrior's lips as he stared at her from beneath his thick brows. She made no move to approach until he beckoned her closer with a curt wave. "My queen," he spoke as she drew near, his voice barely more than a whisper, tight with stress and a dwindling supply of patience, "What is it?" She stopped alongside the table, taking the quill off of his open journal that she might have something to fidget with. As always, the presence of the former barbarian king filled her with apprehension. The rumors of their marriage being for political stakes were all too true. Their loveless union was tenuous at best, and most nights one or the other found ways to be out of their bedchamber when evening was upon them. "My liege, have you heard from our guests how much longer they plan to remain?" Tryndamere growled low in his throat, a primal noise she hadn't heard since... She shook her head and hoped he would not notice her blush. This is no time to think of your wedding night, she chided herself, bringing her mind back to the matter at hand.
"-one week, but Gragas says at least seven more days before he can return to the Iceflow. The workers are taking much longer on the construction of his headquarters than he would have thought, which is what he gets for making such a failure of his meeting with the Cold Carvers. Though the commercial has been finished, Morgana intends to visit for a while longer, which has Rolaran's stink all over it. The man sticks to the woman as if she were the last fire in a blizzard!" The king ground his teeth in frustration. Ashe decided it best to avoid that subject; Morgana had overheard Tryndamere warning the young warlord not to interfere, and for that reason alone the wench had asked him to be her escort through Freljord. The king had tried to refute her in Rolaran's stead, but Ashe had intervened, so as not to offend Gragas. The Rabble Rouser was quite insistent that Morgana had to be his actress, for she had 'that certain somethin' that makes tha' good boys all bad for'er". Ashe could not see what quality that was, but their business partner was adamant, and she had found herself asking the Fallen Angel to act on Gragas's behalf during a meeting on the Rift.
"Even if she should stay, it makes no matter. Once this commercial is finished we can be done with all of this nonsense. It is the rat that I want removed from Freljord." Gragas had laid out the plans for his advertisement without naming any names after their initial meeting: He would call the Freljord beverages Graggy Frost, and the first result of this line would be Tundra Tempered. They would have a female champion on a small ice platform, surrounded by the freezing waters of the arctic. At the edge of water would be one of "the squishier lot, da ones ya know got no fortitude with jus' a look", and at the beckoning of the girl he would try to cross, only "ta get all froze up an' pop back up as an ice block, ha!" The girl would laugh, then Gragas would emerge from off-transmitter bearing a flagon, which "da weakling downs right quick, an' suddenly BAM, there's a flash, an' standin' there's a big, handsome champion, one who tha ladies get all flush about! It'd be me, if I weren' already in da scene as tha wise-bringer o' brew, ha!" The initial casting had consisted of Lux, Fiddlesticks, and Twisted Fate, but Garen Crownguard had refused to allow either near his sister. None of the males proposed as substitutes suited Garen's tastes, and despite Gragas's hefty offer, the Demacian never relented. "It'll be better with ma second pick, anyhow," Gragas had assured them.
His second choice had been Morgana, who's only stipulation had been that Kayle could never feature in a Graggy advertisement without being the target of some prank. Ashe had personally not thought it much of a problem, considering Kayle would most likely never consent to acting in such a thing anyway, but had kept her silence. The handsome male had been changed from Twisted Fate, whom canceled once Lux was proved unhireable, to Graves, who took the role to spite Fate. That was when Gragas had made his new proposal for the weak male: Twitch, the Plague Rat. Ashe had refused vehemently to let the thing anywhere near her city-state, but after a few hefty price offers, Tryndamere had convinced her to allow it, stating that Freljord needed the money, and that the advertisement would not take long to shoot. That had been three weeks ago, and Gragas had just two days prior decided on a prime location. Graves and Morgana had shot their scene first, as it was less technical and more straightforward: Graves taking a swig of Graggy Frost after the 'transformation' from Twitch then breathing out across the water. A carefully aimed frost shot made the water appear to freeze before him, and he walked across the new path to pick Morgana up, and hold her in his arms just before she turned to the transmitter to her lustily ask, "Are you Tundra Tempered?" All in all, it seemed quite classless to Ashe, but Gragas had assured her that it "would get tha people talkin', ya?" The plague rat had been bumbling through his part since, and while the hextechnicals assured everyone that the footage was as good as it was going to be, Gragas kept demanding Twitch go through the part over.
Ashe realized her mind was drifting again, and from how tight-lipped Tryndamere sat, she could tell he had asked her a question. "I apologize, I cannot find myself this night." Her king did not quite roll his eyes as he asked "What has he done this time?" She had to reign in her anger to respond. "'What have I caught him at this time' is the better question. My handmaids are missing undergarments, the larder is suddenly beset with food found half-eaten and rotting, and hardly a day passes where you do not hear the children shriek when he pops out of nowhere to frighten them! Gragas and you both swore to me that he would be kept under close watch yet he has ranged from the middles of the streets to the dungeons with nary a warning for anyone in between!" She could see her husband's ire rising as his muscles visibly tightened. "I have heard much of this and more, but what do you want us to do? Besides bring the blade down and end the nuisance, which is the only way to stop his sneaking about. You have watched him walk into a shadow in a room and never come out, only to pop up hours later at the dinner table. We have both faced his cowardice on the Fields. The rat is slippery, there's naught to do for it."
"Tell Gragas I want this thing done elsewhere then. You know how he disregards me, so it is for you to make him see reason. They call him the plague rat for a reason, Tryndamere! Our people are getting sick, don't you see? Little Jera, she's been bedridden since he arrived! Sellen the Crone, who has not many winters left, and Strong Lulter, oh Sisters, Lulter, he's covered in sores and his breathing makes whistles, his throat is so swelled! What if it spreads? What then? We have never had strong healing, you know that, it is resilience the north is famed for, and our people are... my people, are..." She realized she was crying when the warrior pulled her down into his lap, placing his arms around her protectively. To another culture it would have been intimate, but here, in this place where cold ruled, the warmth of another was more comforting than anything else. Fire was their light and life, and for the first time since they had wed, Ashe realized that Tryndamere was taking the role of her flame. "I will have him removed, my lady, by order or by my sword. This will not persist in our land, and I will send a letter and a rider to the Institute demanding they send us healers to make our people right again. We will not lose all over that fat man's folly, I swear to you." They stayed like that for long moments before, but when Ashe pulled away, she found a slight resistance before her king released her. Their eyes met, and just then he started to say "Ashe, I-".
A purple light filled the room, dark and ominous. A heavy breathing was heard through the filter, and streaks of the Rift came unbound and re-sealed beneath the man's heavy robes. Floating a full foot off the ground, the Voidwalker Kassadin emerged through the doorway, two barbarian warriors running after him, though the men looked worn. "My lieges, I apologize," began the older of the two, but Ashe waved a hand to silence him. "We know this man well, warrior. He is difficult to catch even with his power obstructed on the Fields." She turned to the intruder, noticing with alarm fresh gouges across his bare chest and arms, a broken breathing tube, and a stump where his left horn once resided. It was Tryndamere who demanded "Why are you here, creature?" Before Kassadin could give voice to any insult he might have felt, Ashe interjected. "What happened?" The yellow glow of his eyes through the slits in his helmet seemed dimmed, and the man's proud stance was given lie by the regret in his voice when he announced, "I failed."
The world was purples and shimmering white-gold. The heavy cloak he had worn to be was knotted at his waist, billowing behind and around him as he gained ground with plodding steps. The ground was solid fog, each footfall an uncertainty, yet he knew he would never fall through. All around the was strands of mist in various shades of purple, vibrant violets against amethyst hues, and even more shades for which he knew no names. Against his skin was a white-gold glow, producing a faint light that did naught to illuminate his destination. The glow was brightest at his left hand, near-blinding to look at, :Annoying: and so he trudged along with one eye closed. Even still he knew he would not lose the path.
He had walked for time immeasurable; in this place, there was no way to keep track. His bare feet had left no trace in the thick fog, and though his cloak was moving, there was no wind here. It doesn't even feel like I'm breathing... He could not hold on to the thought however; there was more distance to cover. :Close-close, so-very...Close. Faster.: What is that? Where am I? The answers were not important, so long as they kept moving. Movement was freedom. :We are close-close, closer still. Faster.: We? These whispers... He could see it now, the doors carved of obsidian, washed in the white-gold glow that enveloped his body. The glow was getting brighter, the purple mists darker in contrast, nearly black, and all of them sinister. It formed countless faces, many in anguish, others in ecstasy, and at least a few in all expression in between, though it was the blank expressions among them that gave him pause. We- No, I, I shouldn't be here. :Closer then close. Faster!:
The doors were engraved with runes, an ancient language he did not recognize. They were covered in a thin sheet of ice, lending the black material's natural shine an eerie, unsettling sheen. His feet came to a stop on their own just within arm's reach, though he wanted to be much farther back. Away, he thought desperately. I need to get away! His feet refused the command, planted firmly in a deep drift of snow. Snow? He looked around, his neck at least obeying his wishes, and discovered that while the faces remained, he was now in the arctic north once again. A towering mountain of ice and rock crowned the doors, as imposing as the dread that had settled in his guts. :We know how, we know... And we are close... Close... Sososososo CLOSE!: His left hand started to raise, the blinding light giving life to the runic symbols. As the ice melted before the glow he knew something terrible was happening. NO! he roared, but it was only in his mind, and as the bright white met the stark black the mountain itself seemed to shudder. Slowly, slowly, the doors crept open, revealing a darkness more horrible than any he had ever experienced. From within the whispers cut deep into his mind, corrupt voices speaking into his very being. :We know the way, and we are close... ccccloosssse... close...:
A burst of arcane magic tore through his tent as Ezreal screamed himself awake, leaving a hole of ruin in the fabric larger than a man. The great cloak of Crakder was not directly hit, though the pressure of the blast had blown it clear out of the tent, and the various supplies Ezreal had stored within were now in varied states of disarray. The one chest that mattered most had been hit directly, containing his research on these dreams that had plagued him for the last six days. He watched disheartened as the few scraps of paper that had not been annihilated blew about in a flurry, carried away by the biting wind. With a bitter sigh he rose and dressed, then hurried out to gather up his cloak. When the few Winter's Claw who cared enough to brave their hang-overs called their queries he spoke a half-hearted apology and withdrew. Try as he might, the dream would not stay in his head, random bits of obscure images that never fit together, and always the need to get closer, the certainty that something was beckoning him. It was nostalgic in a way that made him queasy, but he did not have long to dwell.
The heavy crunch of boots crushing snow outside his tent was the only warning he was allowed before Sejuani threw open the flap and strode inside. "A fine way to treat a gift," she remarked with a snort as she eyed the hole, but Ezreal could not find it in him to apologize. He looked to the gauntlet and wondered why he felt goosebumps when he laid eyes on it. His hostess would not let him off that easy. "When I allowed you to take this little expedition so deep into Winter's Claw land, I did not give you leave to do what you would with my property. I cannot have some child throwing spells around in camp for no purpose." He was sure the look she was leveling at him was stern, but he could not bring himself to meet it. His research was gone and the dreams persisted, no matter how much 'closer' he got, though he was never sure what he was getting closer to. Sejuani gave a grunt of anger, striding forward to lift Ezreal bodily from the floor. "Be man enough to at least say how this came about," she demanded. He held the gauntlet up for the world to see, the gem on its back giving off a slight radiance. "Call it a malfunction. There's no need to worry, we'll handle it."
She released him and took a step back. "As you will. All I shall say is that I don't need any disasters happening in camp." As she turned away Ezreal was struck with a sudden desire to ask, "Hey, did any of the sentries..." He paused to swallow. It was a stupid question, he was sure. She would only give him an odd look, tell him the answer he expected, then leave the tent thinking him both foreign and foolish. Still though, the need to know had always been his drive, though he delayed with, "Well first, sorry about the tent. You've been great, and I appreciate you bringing me this far." Sejuani's features relaxed a bit, and he took the opportunity to plunge right in. "But I was wondering, have the sentries reported anything... you know, strange, recently? At night, I mean?" The mirth that came to her eyes alerted him to the nature of her response before she delivered it. "Afraid of a savage yeti come to gobble you up in your sleep? Or maybe a snow bear, come to eat all that fresh southling meat? No, the sentries have given the same report they always give: Not enough to do, too many hours to do it. Now that you know that you're all the safer, you should pack up. One of the wives of the Winter's Claw shall see to your tent, but I want you ready to move on within the hour." She did not wait for an answer as she strode confidently through the tent flap.
Ezreal sighed in relief while clenching a fist in frustration. Geez, she could at least have shown us some respect. The gem in the back of his left hand let out a small burst, more light than energy, causing him to exclaim in surprise. It's never done that before. A fragment of an image came to his mind unbidden, a glowing, golden rune against a backdrop of pure black. A wave of uncertainty washed over Ezreal, a foreboding instinct that came right from his gut and threatened his confidence in making this expedition. It's too late to turn back now, he chided himself. And besides, we're already so close. All we need to do is get a bit closer.
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