UPDATE: Chapter 10 is up, 64k word count.
Going to try again with this story, this time with a (hopefully) more interesting beginning and a different title. I've already spent a lot of time on it, so it would be a waste to just give up on it now. This fic will center around Twisted Fate, but we'll be seeing interactions with many more champions before the end. (And if you'd like to see him interact with a champion in particular on his journey, let me know and I'll see what I can do. I already have a lot of encounters lined up.) Graves will be the main and most visible antagonist for the first half of the story.
As always, helpful critique and comments in general are welcome. This is as much an experiment with technique and practice with writing as it is a pleasure activity for me, so I do appreciate feedback.
Fanfiction.net link: Starts at Chapter 1
My Other Stories:
The Weight of Responsibility(About Caitlyn and Vi)
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Chapter 1: Ruin
The hideaway was damp and filled with the musty smell of mold, the relic of a time when Piltover was outright hostile to gypsies, back before Caitlyn became the city's sheriff. It was an underground chamber built beneath a large forest, using the massive roots of its trees as support columns, a place where a band of gypsies could easily hide their women and children if bandits, crime lords, or even Piltovan law enforcement came looking for trouble. The chamber had not been used or even opened in many years, but it suited Twisted Fate's needs for the moment. Light from a small lantern illuminated the corner of the chamber that he'd seated himself in, throwing areas behind the tree roots into masses of confusing shadow.
Twisted Fate wrapped a clean length of bandage around the knuckles of his right hand, taking one loose end in his still-bleeding left hand and the other in his teeth to tie it off. He winced when the bandages slipped painfully as he pulled them tight. In his anger he'd repeatedly bashed his fists against one of the larger tree roots that made up the support columns of the hideaway, and unfortunately they had proved to be just as rough and covered in bark as the actual trunks were. With the bleeding staunched on his right hand, Twisted Fate did the same to his left, working a bit more carefully this time to avoid making the bandages slip.
Once his knuckles had been seen to, Fate leaned back against the root he was sitting in front of with a long sigh. He was dressed in a blue denim shirt, black vest, and blue jeans with brown cowboy boots, casual wear since he'd been on leave from his duty to the League for two more days. Weary gloom haunted his pale blue eyes; it had been hard, having to remember the living hell he'd experienced in the wake of the massacre, but being blamed for the very event that ruined his life twenty years ago was far worse.
The League would be looking for him, as well as Graves and probably Caitlyn too, now that he'd disappeared. Graves was a guarantee for sure, as well as that dark mage... He couldn't let any of them find him, especially the League. The cards had told him the League would cause his death if they found out about his connection to the massacre, and he wasn't going to let them catch him now that they knew so much about it.
One week prior to his current predicament, a chance encounter had led to Caitlyn getting a confession out of him with a truth potion, and then she'd wanted to help solve his case... He'd been a fool to believe Caitlyn could help. The entire contents of that same case file—new information and all—somehow ended up in the hands of the Zaunite press just a week after she found out, but it was worse than just a leak. Somewhere along the line between the Archives and the Zaunite press, his eyewitness report had been changed to a confession of guilt for being involved in carrying out the massacre. It was a blow that made him burn with fury whenever he thought about it, and he would gladly kill whoever was responsible. Twisted Fate didn't know whether Caitlyn was involved with that leak or not, but wasn't taking any chances with her. He should have known better than to trust a sheriff of Piltover, even if she wasn't like her crooked predecessor at all. Maybe the city as a whole was just bad luck for him.
They would be searching the Piltovan countryside soon, if they hadn't started already. He'd made only one jump with Gate, so he wasn't beyond where they would be looking just yet. He had to be in or beyond the Ironspine Mountains to stay out of Piltover's reach. Luckily this hideaway had not caved in and revealed itself in its long years of disuse, and the thick foliage that had grown around its entrances made it even harder to find now than ever before. Twisted Fate would be safely hidden as long as he stayed here, and even if it was somehow found he could easily leave in a hurry.
Twisted Fate's injured knuckles throbbed as he sat there and planed his next move. The lands beyond the Great Barrier were not as densely populated as those to its north, there would be less people to look for him down there. That seemed like his best bet for the time being. He could easily get there within a few days if he paced himself and didn't waste magic. And after that...
The lack of a better, more permanent plan bothered Twisted Fate, but he would have to make due until he came up with something. None of his pursuers would give up the hunt anytime soon, that was for sure, but he could survive on what he had packed in his bag of holding for quite a while if he was smart. It had everything he needed in case anything unexpected happened, and it was something he brought with him everywhere—you never knew what problems life might throw your way.
After checking his bandages again, Twisted Fate retrieved a small rune stone that produced a soft red glow from his bag and placed it beside him before extinguishing the lantern and putting it away. He didn't know if he would be able to get any sleep at all, but it was worth a try. Rest was needed in order to get to the Ironspike Mountains in the morning. Twisted Fate lowered himself to the dusty floor, pulled his hat down over his eyes, and did his best to make himself relax.
Anyone who said that holding the station of sheriff in Piltover didn't pay well was either lying or kidding himself. Caitlyn's study was finely furnished in shades of deep brown and red, giving it a warm, cozy feel even on the coldest of winter's nights. Shelves of dark hardwood stocked with books on law and other similar subjects lined the walls, interrupted only by the two large windows that looked out over the City of Progress, which now gleamed in the darkness of late evening. A lamp set on the large mahogany desk that ruled the study, along with two fine chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, provided light for Caitlyn to pace by.
Caitlyn herself was about ready to kick a table over. They had been making such progress with the case, they had even identified who the culprit was, and now everything was ruined thanks to the rats over in Zaun getting their greedy mitts on the case files. Just the fact that it was Zaun's press reporting the information from the leak first was an extra slap in the face, but that wasn't the worst of the situation. The fact that someone had changed the files to make Twisted Fate directly involved with the massacre made Caitlyn herself look bad as well, and the League had already succeeded in getting her suspended from her duties as sheriff so they could investigate the matter themselves. She had lost a lot of credibility because of this, and the Piltovan government had even gone so far as to confiscate her rifle and equipment and place her under house arrest until further notice.
It wasn't just the leak and the outright lie that the press had taken as the truth that galled her, though. Before the events of the past week, Caitlyn had always thought of Twisted Fate as nothing more than a shallow, petty crook and nothing more. It was the way a lot of people thought of him, especially after hearing that he'd sold out Graves in exchange for his magical abilities. What Caitlyn had learned in the past week had forced her to re-evaluate her view of Twisted Fate—the crook was a mask that Fate wore to hide himself. Like his signature hat, it was the first thing you expected to see and the last you would ever think to look past, a well-made cover that Caitlyn had unintentionally torn clean off during the course of her investigations. It was the fact that she had developed feelings for the man behind the mask that made her heart jump whenever she thought about it, and Fate's disappearance had only served to put her further on edge, both from worry and from anger over his having so little faith in her.
With a deep frown and a slight blush, Caitlyn leaned against the front of her desk and did her best to shove the thought of her new-found feelings for Twisted Fate away. It was a distraction she didn't want to deal with, especially with the mess she had to clean up. The citizens of Piltover were calling for blood, but not Caitlyn's—they had already gotten it into their heads that Twisted Fate was responsible for corrupting their beloved sheriff, and she had come upon the terrible realization that they would likely try to kill him if he ever showed himself in the city again. Really, she couldn't blame him for leaving with how Piltover had become so ugly with hate practically overnight.
Caitlyn pushed off her desk and began pacing again. She would have to escape, since she was under house arrest. True justice required a bit of rule breaking this time, though she hated the thought of further destroying her credibility by disobeying the government of Piltover and the League. Graves was first on her list of suspects when it came to the leak and drastic change in the case files, but she had to have solid proof of his guilt before trying to make a case against him.
Unnoticed in the darkness just beyond Caitlyn's window, a shadow shifted and began to glide away. Pale moonlight glinted off red-tinted glass as the Night Hunter went on her way, having finished her observation of the former Sheriff of Piltover.
An upstate coffee shop in Piltover was one of the last places most would expect to see Graves. The place bustled even at this late hour, with most of the patrons discussing the main news of the day in barely-restrained whispers. A caffeinated drink was just fine with Graves for now, he wanted to savor these moments in complete sobriety. He took a big gulp of his coffee and grinned as he set the newspaper down on the table, casually eavesdropping on the conversations around him.
“—can you believe the League never knew about this?”
“—knew the guy was rotten, but I never thought he'd be capable of something so evil.”
“I can't believe he got Miss Caitlyn into so much trouble. He'd better not show his face around these parts ever again!”
“—always knew those gypsies were trouble, don't know why the League let trash like him join in the first place.”
It was like music to his ears. Piltover had been in an uproar ever since news broke about Twisted Fate having a direct hand in the murder of his own family, and the subsequent scandal surrounding Sheriff Caitlyn as a result had only served to make the public even angrier. The story would have drummed up sympathy for Twisted Fate if released in its unaltered form, so Graves had gone through and made a few choice modifications before anonymously sending it to the Zaunite press. He'd read the whole file cover to cover before changing anything and Twisted Fate's all-consuming desire for magic made sense now, but he still had to pay for what he had done to Graves. Loyalty, even among criminals, wasn't something to simply toss away like a piece of trash in the face of a tempting prize.
Twisted Fate would be laying low for a while, given his completely ruined reputation and his reported wariness of the League should information on his past ever get out. Graves wondered if the Card Master had fallen out of practice with the disguises the two once used while still working as conmen, and his grin widened as he anticipated finding him again. It wouldn't be as easy as finding Twisted Fate at the League had been, but his ex-partner's habits had not changed all that much over the years, which meant he would find the Card Master again sooner or later. He already had a few good ideas lined up for making Twisted Fate suffer even more, and he was eager to set his plans in motion. Having a chat with Dr. Xavier Rath over in Zaun would have to be the first item on his list. He had to find out whether the rumors about the scientist's tendency toward inhumane experimentation were true.
“Well. You look happy tonight, Malcom Graves.”
Graves looked up to find Jayce standing over him, the famous Mercury Hammer strapped securely to the inventor's back. Jayce's face held a barely-contained anger that was doubtless a result of the news of the day.
“Well it ain't every day you get to see someone you hate suffer,” Graves replied with a smirk, raising his coffee in a toast to Twisted Fate's misfortune and future demise. “I s'pose you're real angry about all this just like everyone else, right?”
Jayce looked away with a scowl. “I should've known something was wrong when they started spending so much time together,” his voice was gruff as he spoke. He was angry over Caitlyn supposedly being duped or bewitched, sure, but it wasn't that alone that made him so angry—Vi was also held under suspicion and had been detained after she protested Caitlyn's temporary removal from service.
“But you were too gentlemanly to say anything about it, weren't ya?” Graves said smoothly. He knew an easily-played fool when he saw one, and Jayce could make a valuable ally somewhere down the road. The Outlaw took another gulp of coffee and set his cup back down on the table. It tasted wonderfully vibrant tonight, a product of his good mood.
Jayce affirmed Graves's statement with his silence, though the Outlaw knew it wasn't just a “gentlemanly” attitude that kept the inventor from speaking up. It was a good bet that Jayce had respected Caitlyn too much to say anything, and had therefore been unwilling to take such a risk despite his suspicions.
Graves allowed a few moments to pass before he spoke again. “You gonna go hunt him down?” he asked, sounding like he was only half-interested.
“I would if he were easier to find. I'm afraid it would be a waste of time if I were to go after him,” Jayce replied, taking a seat across from Graves when the Outlaw gave the invitation with a nod of his head. “And I assume you'll start looking for him soon?”
“That's right,” Graves leaned back in his chair, undaunted by the amount of work it would take to find Twisted Fate again. “He can't hide from me forever. His teleportation might be a new trick, but otherwise he hasn't changed all that much from when I knew him.”
Jayce appeared to be thinking something over, and Graves could almost hear the wheels turning inside the inventor's head. It would be nice if he could persuade the man to provide him with a few new gadgets to use on his hunt. “If I were to come up with a few gadgets to help neutralize his abilities, would you care to use them?”
“Of course,” Graves replied graciously. Inwardly, he grinned like a wolf stalking an unattended flock of sheep. He wouldn't put it past Jayce to make those gadgets more painful for Twisted Fate than they needed to be. It looked like this hunt would turn out to be even more fun than Graves had anticipated.
“Come by my lab tomorrow,” Jayce already had a small leather notebook and a pen out. He jotted down the address to his lab, tore the page from the book, and passed the paper to to Graves. “I'll see what I can do.”
Twisted Fate woke to the sensation of a large stag beetle crawling across his neck. It was irritating to say the least, but not enough so to merit smashing the poor insect, and Fate flicked it off as he sat up. He retrieved a small timekeeper from his breast pocket and checked the hour. It was nearly dawn, he'd managed to sleep for around seven hours before waking. An unpleasant tingling feeling had settled over his body while he slept, like a static-filled blanket had been dropped on top of him. It made him nervous now, since he had no ready explanation for its presence, and he started to climb to his feet.
Something scratched against the hard earth floor of the hideaway, and Twisted Fate paused as he listened for it again, his heart racing. Surely they hadn't caught up with him already. He hoped it was just an animal inspecting the recent disturbance in the underground chamber. Even a cougar or some other predator would be preferable—predatory animals didn't throw magic in your face or try to lynch you for pissing them off.
The scratching came again a few seconds later, this time noticeably closer to Twisted Fate and off to his right. Slowly he picked up the glow stone and held it a bit higher to throw light on whatever the intruder might be. He squinted into the darkness, then leaped to his feet as a large form loomed out of the black backdrop of the chamber. Shock almost made him drop the glow stone, and he fumbled with it briefly before getting a tighter hold on it, careful to keep his eyes on whatever was approaching him all the while.
It was too big to be a bear, and its shape seemed wrong—the bulkiness of the shoulders and legs matched, but the head was far too big. Twisted Fate could feel his stomach knotting up from fear as he backed away from the thing, and his heart sank when a second and third loomed out of the darkness to lumber toward him as well. The carved edge of a rune glinted in the faint red glow of his light stone, confirming his fear. These things were constructs, man-made and run by magic, but they were unlike any he had seen before, much more organic in shape and structure than the angular robots he was used to seeing.
The nearest construct slowly moved its head from side to side, apparently sizing him up. Another opened its mouth slightly and closed it again, displaying jaws that could easily crush a fully-grown draft horse. Even as Twisted Fate began to back toward the root stand behind him, the two constructs following the lead were spreading out to cut off his escape. It meant they possessed well-written programming or were being directly controlled by their creator.
Carefully, Fate began to slip himself between the roots, putting the tangle between himself and the constructs. He couldn't rush Gate, one slip-up could easily lead to disaster if he wasn't lucky. If you made a mistake with teleportation magic or used it recklessly, you usually wound up dead inside a wall or some other solid object. It was only pure luck that had allowed him to survive the very first time he used it.
Twisted Fate could hear constructs on all sides now. He wedged himself as far back into the mass of roots as he could, until his shoulder blades touched the cold dirt of the wall behind him. It would take a while even for three sets of those massive jaws to make it through a mess like this, plenty of time to prepare his Gate properly. He tucked the glow stone into a pocket on his vest, plunging himself and the constructs into darkness. In a cramped space like this, he felt more comfortable leaving both of his hands free for casting the spell.
Even as Twisted Fate began the spell, it felt more difficult than it had just eight hours earlier. He forced his way through it regardless, he had no chance against opponents like these in a normal fight. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the spell was almost finished. Twisted Fate braced himself against the roots, ready to step through the Gate once it opened.
The spell died just before the Gate was able to form itself completely. Fear nearly choked him as he felt the magic fade and slip from his control. This had never happened to him before, his magic had never failed him like this. Twisted Fate broke out into a cold sweat as he began the spell again, unwilling to accept defeat just yet.
On all sides the constructs began to move, clamping their massive jaws onto the tree roots in front of them and tearing them away. Wood splintered and screamed, seeming to curse the constructs as they steadily worked inward to where Twisted Fate was hidden. It would only take them a few minutes to get all the way through.
This time the Gate worked. Twisted Fate could sense it hanging in the air before him, even though he couldn't see it. For some reason it wasn't visible this time.
Frenzied activity exploded on all sides as the constructs increased their speed. They had sensed the Gate and were trying to reach Twisted Fate in time to keep him from using it. The sound of snapping and splintering wood was deafening, and some of the roots were rent with such violence that they showered Twisted Fate with dirt and wood fragments.
The construct to his right managed to snag one of its triangular teeth on Twisted Fate's pant leg and began to pull him out of his hiding place, moving slowly and steadily to avoid ripping it and losing its hold on him. Twisted Fate clutched at a large root over his head and wrenched his leg back, ripping the fabric of his jeans on the construct's tooth to free himself. Another lunged in to grab him as he jumped through the Gate.
In an instant Twisted Fate found himself staring up at the fading stars of predawn, framed by the leaves of the large shrub he'd landed in. The unpleasant tingling sensation he'd noticed earlier was gone, replaced by the pain of a battered body and cramped muscles. He realized that the constructs must have been carrying a spatial distortion field with them, a techmaturgical invention made specifically to disrupt or prevent the use of teleportation magic. He'd read about the terrible consequences of using teleportation within a distortion field, some left bits of themselves behind while others arrived at their destination as piles of flesh and bone. Just the thought of what could have happened to him made his stomach turn. He was lucky to be alive.
Twisted Fate tried to sit up, but he only managed to lift his knees a few inches before he collapsed again. It felt like everything was there, the pain in every limb and muscle certainly confirmed that. Landing in the bush was another stroke of luck, since it would hide him from anyone passing nearby. The only complaint he had was that the bush possessed a great many thorns and had already managed to scratch him up in quite a few places, adding the sting of the small cuts on top of his pain-stricken muscles. He took the thorns as a warning to avoid trying something so stupid again and waited for the pain in his body to ease up.
“Useless,” Dr. Rath grumbled, glaring down at the bloodied man at his feet. The test subject had once been an inmate at Zaun's main penitentiary, and was purchased by Dr. Rath when the scientist had found that the man possessed some small amount of the illusive probability magic. Blood ran from the man's eyes, nose, mouth and ears as a result of severe internal damage, and it was clear that he would not live much longer. “Healing magic won't work anymore. Dispose of him,” with a dismissive wave of his hand, Dr. Rath turned from the dying man and began to make his way to the door.
“Dr. Rath, Dr. Rath!” the assistant was so excited that he nearly tripped over himself as he dashed through the door to stop before his superior. “The—gkhah...” he wheezed and gasped for breath as Dr. Rath waited for him to continue.
“Well? Out with it!” Dr. Rath snapped impatiently. He still had the results of the experiment to log, disappointing though they were.
“The Probability Distortion Detector just picked up a massive reading from somewhere on this continent,” the assistant said, having finally managed to get his breath back.
Dr. Rath's face lit up instantly, the disappointing results of his last experiment entirely forgotten. Without another word to his assistant, Dr. Rath rushed past and made his way to the PDD.
The Probability Distortion Detector was a machine of Dr. Rath's own design, made specifically to measure the effects of probability magic on the natural forces of Runeterra. Since its completion several months prior, it had not picked up anything of note. It had detected a few minor fluctuations at best, but for the most part it remained quiet, its stylus scratching away at the usual rhythm of random chance. To any normal person it would have looked like a needlessly complex seismograph, one that had just detected a major earthquake from how the stylus whipped across the paper.
“Excellent,” Dr. Rath lifted the long length of paper as it came out of the machine and examined the lines with great enthusiasm. “It must've been him, no one else could produce a disruption this large.” The scientist continued to mumble to himself as his assistant looked on.
Dr. Rath was startled out of his examination by the voice of his assistant. It took him a few moments to realize what the man was asking about, and his face took on the expression of utmost disdain. “You haven't been here long, have you?” he asked.
“I started last month, sir,” the assistant replied, unsure as to whether he was in trouble or not.
“Twisted Fate,” Dr. Rath said flatly as he straightened, PDD paper still in hand. “As you may be aware, I have experimented with artificially granting powerless individuals the ability to use magic before.”
“And were unsuccessful in almost every case.”
“That's right. All cases save for one, in fact. We hadn't yet developed the tools to confirm the presence of probability magic in an individual, and he escaped before we realized what a catch he was. It was only when we tested a blood sample of his after the fact that we confirmed that, and by then he was protected by the League of Legends and untouchable by the likes of us.” Dr. Rath's fingers tightened around the strip of paper, causing it to crumple slightly.
The assistant's face brightened, and he retrieved the morning paper from a pocket in his lab coat. “He might not be so untouchable now, sir.”
Dr. Rath accepted the newspaper and spotted the story on the first page. “So he's gone on the run. It shouldn't be difficult to make him disappear entirely.”
Chapter 2: Border Patrol
Tryndamere watched the sun rise over the still-distant Ironspike Mountains as his men broke camp. He was seated near the top of a massive pine, an easy climb for someone of his strength. Sometimes it was nice to just sit back and watch the sun rise. The sapphire gems embedded in his armor and sword hilt blazed in the early morning light, hinting at their magical properties.
Word had come of suspicious activity occurring all along the southern and eastern borders of Freljord in recent weeks. Tryndamere had been reviewing the border guard of the Ironspike region at the time, and had insisted that he accompany the guard to see what the disturbance might be for himself. The reports claimed that strange massive creatures were being sighted all along the border, but there had been no attacks thus far. Hopefully gathering more information on them would help to prevent such an event from ever taking place in the future.
The Barbarian King glanced back at the camp and noted that his men were almost finished packing the horses. They were steeds of the sturdy tundra breed, spirited as they were strong and with a shaggy stockiness to match. He made his way down the tree trunk and dropped from the lowest branch as a hawk swooped into the camp. It was one of Ashe's pets, specially trained to deliver messages and hunt small game for its master while out in the field.
With an ear-splitting screech the hawk flew over to Tryndamere and landed on his offered gauntlet, where it waited somewhat impatiently for him to remove its message from the scroll case on its back. Tryndamere undid the clasp that held the case shut and pulled the message free. The hawk flew off immediately after Tryndamere took the message, and he didn't pay it another thought as he unrolled the parchment.
It was a letter from Ashe, with clippings from yesterday's edition of the Piltover Times rolled inside it. Tryndamere took a seat beneath the tree he'd climbed earlier and set the clippings aside for the moment so he could read her letter.
Twisted Fate has gone rogue and left the League. They have authorized the use of force in capturing him, and I am certain that they will owe Freljord a few favors in the event that we bring him in. But political favor is not the only reason I am sending this letter to you. After you read the story I sent with this letter, I am sure that you will take great pleasure in bringing him down. I wish you the best of luck.
Tryndamere set the letter aside and began reading the newspaper clippings Ashe had sent with it. His expression darkened as he read the article, and his eyes were hard and focused once he had finished.
One of the border guards approached Tryndamere and gave him a short bow of respect. “Your orders, my king?”
“We head to Steelgate Pass. Twisted Fate is wanted by the League and he might be passing through there on his way through the Ironspike Mountains,” Tryndamere replied as he got to his feet. Though in the long years since his clan's extermination he had been unable to avenge himself on the Noxian scum who had killed them, he would find great pleasure in bringing down someone who had inflicted the same on his own people. The fact that he would be snatching a League favor out of Noxus's grasp was a nice bonus as well.
“Yes sir,” the barbarian grunted, nodding and returning to the horses.
Tryndamere tucked the letter and clippings into his belt and strode toward the horses. He felt alive, the anticipation of the battle to come coursing through him as he walked. Mages could be tricky to fight, but his armor and his blade had been enchanted against most magics as well as enhancing his strength and speed. The challenge was getting him excited, and his steed snorted and pawed the at the loam of the forest floor in response to his master's elevated mood. The Barbarian King's horse was dark gray like a storm cloud and larger than his fellows, bred and trained for battle.
“To Steelgate,” Tryndamere barked as he pulled himself into the saddle. His horse let out a shrill challenge to match his master's battle lust and raced off at Tryndamere's urging, galloping at the head of the border guard group.
Pain and exhaustion made movement difficult. Twisted Fate had managed to move his head to look around at the bush he was concealed in during the few hours he'd lain there, and he could see his hat caught on a branch just above him. He was grateful for that, since he had a strong emotional attachment to that hat. It had been with him since he first joined the League, and was similar in style to one that had been worn by a mentor of his from many years ago.
Twisted Fate sat up slowly as he tried to avoid tearing himself up on the bush's thorns and took his hat from where it hung. There was no way to get out of the bush without simply plowing through it, so Twisted Fate jammed his hat onto his head and shoved his way out of the bush. He was rewarded with a great many more cuts than he'd gotten already, but at least it was over and he could get going again.
The bush was just a few yards from the main road leading to Steelgate Pass, and Twisted Fate could see its gravel-covered length stretching out of sight beyond another stand of bushes. Forest-covered foothills stretched out beneath him and eventually flattened out into the plain that the city of Piltover had been built upon. He looked down at himself and grumbled quietly; his shirt and vest had been ruined by the bush's thorns. The jeans had fared better since they were made of tougher fabric, but they were ripped from the golem trying to drag him away and looked ratty because of that.
It still hurt to move, and walking was especially painful due to the bruising on the bottoms of his feet. He may have survived through teleporting out of the distortion field, but the event had certainly not been kind to him either. Twisted Fate retrieved a health potion from his bag and downed it in a single gulp. The taste was familiar, chalky with a little bit of fruity flavor. They were the same the League used, as he'd been careful to buy his own supply from the same skillful apothecary. He would leave it at one for now and see how much he could recover from it. His magic responded sluggishly when he reached for it, and he decided to play it safe to avoid having to rely on it before he recovered properly.
Following the road was simple enough, even at the five yards that Twisted Fate kept between himself and its edge in order to stay out of sight. His body pained him greatly despite having taken a health potion, and he stopped often to rest and stretch his muscles. The potion had reduced the most severe bruising from what he could see when he looked at his arms. It was a relief since the nastier bruises had been worrying him.
Around noon Twisted Fate found a creek with water flowing in its bed. It was low since it was the height of summer at the moment, but the water came from the mountains and was still cool and clear. The sloped wall surrounding the creek was easy enough to navigate even with aching feet, and once down Twisted Fate seated himself on a large bolder and dipped his feet into the gurgling waters while he ate a lunch of dried beef and cheese.
As he ate, his thoughts drifted back to the ordeal he had experienced just that morning, and he wondered why the three golems had not simply charged him rather than approaching him so cautiously. It occurred to him that they may have been trying to avoid causing him unnecessary harm, but the thought puzzled him. He hadn't expected the League to be gentle in trying to capture him, and he always assumed that the dark mage simply wanted him dead. They were the only two organizations he could think of that would employ such creations. The fact that one of the constructs had opted for snagging his clothing rather than clamping its powerful jaws onto his leg also hinted at their less-than-deadly intent.
Twisted Fate finished the last of his lunch and rinsed his hands in the creek. He scooted back on the bolder and pulled his feet from the water, rubbing them dry with a towel from his bag before slipping into a pair of dark brown travel boots. The coolness of the water helped his feet to feel better, but they still ached whenever he walked. He climbed back out of the creek and continued on his way.
Judging by the growing slope in the landscape, Twisted Fate still had a ways to go before he got into the Ironspike Mountains themselves. It would be a long trek by foot just to get to Steelgate Pass, and then he would have to find a way around the main exit in order to avoid the border guard that was stationed there year-round. Hopefully his magic would be settled enough by then to simply skip past the guards once he got there.
Several groups on horseback passed on the road and a zeppelin droned overhead on its way to Piltover, but Twisted Fate managed to stay hidden as he climbed toward the pass. The higher elevation was starting to effect him by the time he stopped for the night. He was halfway to the pass now, and it would take at least two more days to get past the border.
Caitlyn dropped into her chair with a long sigh. The Piltovan government was taking no chances with her captivity, as if they had known she would try to escape. Security was so tight that it would take help from the outside just to get near her front door without alerting the guards.
The former sheriff of Piltover brooded quietly on what she could try next when a guard entered her study. She looked up in surprise when she saw him, and raised an eyebrow when she spotted the elderly gentleman who followed him. Caitlyn waited impatiently as the guard tipped his hat to the gentleman and stepped outside the study, closing the door behind himself.
“To whom do I owe the pleasure?” Caitlyn asked politely. She got to her feet as the man approached her desk, offering a hand for him to shake in greeting.
The man bowed over Caitlyn's outstretched hand rather than shaking it. He wore a simple dark gray suit with a red tie, and possessed a head full of white hair despite his old age. “I am Alton Wesson, caretaker of Aravon estate,” he said in a soft, slightly gravely voice. “I have come to help you.”
“Really?” Caitlyn withdrew her hand, her voice full of doubt. “And how will you manage that?”
“You truly believe that Twisted Fate is innocent of the crimes he stands accused of?”
The question caught Caitlyn off-guard. So far no one had bothered to listen to her reasons for believing in Twisted Fate's innocence and had merely assumed that she'd been blackmailed or bewitched into keeping his crimes a secret. “Of course I do. I wrote everything I learned about him in the file myself, but someone stole it from the archives and changed it before sending it to the press.”
Wesson nodded, satisfied with her answer. “I had hoped so.” He suddenly pulled his timekeeper out of a vest pocket and noted the hour. “Time is short. Be ready at midnight in three days' time. I will explain everything then.” The elderly gentleman bowed to Caitlyn in farewell and left before she could question him further, nodding to the guard as he opened the study door.
As expected, Steelgate Pass was well-guarded and possessed even more men than usual. Twisted Fate watched the guards from the safety of a nearby thicket and weighed his options. His magic responded promptly when he tugged at it, but it was still weaker than usual. If he used Gate to skip over the pass, he likely wouldn't have the magical power necessary to use it again for the next few days. He let out a grumbling sigh and wished—not for the first time—that he hadn't agreed to the magic drawing at the university just a few days prior. They had offered to analyze his magic and tell him where he could effectively expand his power, so of course he'd jumped at the chance since he hadn't thought he would need it for several days at least. If he had been at full power he could have easily skipped over Steelgate Pass all the way from Piltover instead of having to stop at the hideaway where he was jumped by the three golems.
Twisted Fate backed out of the thicket and walked south, away from the pass. Once he was well out of sight of the guards, he began preparing Gate. Illusory cards in a shade of bright emerald green flashed around him as the Gate reached completion, a sure sign that it was unfettered and working properly this time. Twisted Fate took a step forward and was instantly transported to the other side of the Ironspike Mountains.
“Well, how fortunate.”
That was the problem with a blind teleport. You could get the spell to put you down on solid ground, but there was no guarantee that there wouldn't be something unpleasant waiting for you on the other side. Twisted Fate rolled his eyes and mentally kicked himself, making a note to keep his Gate from being so flashy from then on as he looked around at the group of Freljord barbarians that currently surrounded him. The Gate had managed to put him down right smack in the middle of Tryndamere's camp. He spotted Tryndamere directly in front of him, polished armor blazing in the mid-afternoon sun.
“Hah. So what'll it be, Tryndamere? A duel or a twenty-to-one fight?” Twisted Fate said nonchalantly, pulling his hat a bit lower over his eyes.
“They're for when you try to run,” Tryndamere growled, gesturing at his men. The king of Freljord was tense, but he grinned with a bloody eagerness for battle that Twisted Fate had rarely seen before. “Draw your weapons, for what little good they'll do you.”
Twisted Fate reached into a vest pocket and pulled out a single card, an eight of spades with an odd yellow sheen to it. He was in a real fix now, Gate was out of the question both because he would be stopped before it was fully cast and because he was too worn out to even use it again. If he could somehow break through the line of barbarians, he might be able to hide himself in the surrounding forest and lose Tryndamere there. The playing card's yellow sheen became a glow as Twisted Fate infused it with magic.
Tryndamere brought his blade up and rocked slightly in his stance, then surged forward in a blur of flesh and armor.
The card flashed brilliant gold as it struck Tryndamere's armored shoulder and shattered, but the barbarian kept coming. There was barely enough time for Twisted Fate to stumble to his right before Tryndamere was on him, laying him out flat with a single sweep of his arm. He rolled away from Tryndamere and jumped to his feet, bruised ribs throbbing from the strike.
“I thought you'd be more fun than this,” Tryndamere said, his barking laugh taunting Twisted Fate's weakness. “What's the matter? You didn't expect me to have enchanted armor?”
Twisted Fate tried not to rise to the bait; saying something to get Tryndamere truly angry would only make the barbarian more difficult to deal with. He took a red-tinted card in his right hand and a bundle of cards in his left as an unpleasant thought occurred to him. Tryndamere was restraining himself in this fight, trying to avoid dicing Twisted Fate up despite his obvious eagerness to hurt him. If Twisted Fate lost this fight he would be dragged back to the League in chains to eventually die at their hands, just as the cards had told him.
Seeing that Twisted Fate had drawn more cards, Tryndamere mockingly dropped into a wider stance and prepared to charge. He was on the move even as Twisted Fate's arm whipped out to throw the cards, blade slicing through the air in wide arcs as he attacked them. The blade's Magic Breaker enchantments made quick work of Fate's cards, diffusing their magic and rendering them completely useless as they fell in shimmering pieces around him.
Tryndamere's blade rose again as he came within swinging distance of Twisted Fate. He noted with some disappointment that the Card Master was unusually sluggish today, but there was no reason to go completely easy on him. With a deceptively delicate flick of his blade, Tryndamere traced a bloody line across Twisted Fate's chest, running from his left collar bone to right hip.
The Card Master leaped back as Tryndamere finished the cut, glancing down at his bloodied shirt and vest before looking up at Tryndamere again. It seemed Tryndamere was aware of his weakened state and was still intent on drawing out the fight despite that. The barbarians would grab him the moment he tried to set foot outside their ring, unless he forced a few of them to move. He switched tactics. “Do you enjoy fighting someone who can't keep up? Or is it that you can't handle anyone who actually can?”
“Now you start talking. Are you angry that I ruined your clothes? There really wasn't much left to do to achieve that,” Tryndamere replied, after a brief moment of heightened interest in his opponent. “I won't lie. I am enjoying this, but not because you're weak,” he flipped his blade, so he could swing at Fate with the flat. “You're no better than the Noxian scum who slaughtered my family, and worse because you slew your own flesh and blood for power. And look at where it's brought you now!” Tryndamere punctuated his verbal jab with a swing of his blade, catching Twisted Fate on the left shoulder blade with a loud smack as the Card Master tried to avoid it. “I will make sure that you pay for your crimes,” he added, straightening as Twisted Fate dashed away from him.
Twisted Fate ran to the other side of the ring, putting the mountain range at his back. His entire body shook, not from fear or pain, but from pure barely-contained anger. In his flight from Piltover he'd managed to partially forget what little he'd read in the paper the morning the news broke—he'd lacked the courage to read the whole thing.
A red-tinted card whistled as he hurled it to the ground with enough force to leave it sticking edge-up out of the loam. “My crimes?” he snarled, raising his head to look Tryndamere in the eye. “If being too weak to protect my family is a crime, then you're just as guilty as I am, Tryndamere.”
“How dare you compare yourself to me,” Tryndamere snapped, taking his sword in both hands as he prepared to charge Twisted Fate again. “Don't bother trying to surrender. You're in this fight until my blade or that wound drops you, whichever comes first.” Tryndamere surged forward, kicking up a spray of dirt and pine needles as he charged his enemy.
The card that Twisted Fate had stuck in the loam just a few moments before flashed to life, wrapping glowing red tendrils of magic around Tryndamere's legs as he stepped on it. Tryndamere pulled against the magic's effects even as his armor's enchantments began to break it up, regaining momentum as he neared Twisted Fate. The magic released him suddenly, sooner than he had anticipated. Tryndamere realized what Twisted Fate was planning as he careened toward the Card Master and the line of barbarians behind him.
Twisted Fate sidestepped at just the right moment, smirking as Tryndamere rushed past.
The two barbarians who had been standing behind Twisted Fate were forced to jump to either side in order to avoid Tryndamere, leaving a large gap in the circle.
With the way opened, Twisted Fate vaulted over Tryndamere and dashed toward the dense forest of the Ironspike Mountains.
“Stop him!” Tryndamere thundered as he leaped to his feet.
The barbarians were on the move instantly, raising blades and bows that they had held ready throughout the fight. An arrow whizzed past and struck a tree trunk just to Twisted Fate's right as he entered the cover of the trees.
The cut that ran along his chest burned fiercely as he ran, almost drowning out the pain of his other injuries, but Twisted Fate forced himself to keep going. He'd spotted horses in their camp just after his arrival, and he had to get to terrain that the animals couldn't cross before Tryndamere and his men caught up with him.
Angry shouts and curses echoed through the mountain forest as Twisted Fate wove through the trees, pausing only long enough to take a potion for his wound. He winced as the shallow cut closed itself, leaving a nasty ache behind. Running would be easier now, and he wouldn't be leaving a blood trail for Tryndamere to follow now that it was closed.
A few more minutes' running brought him to a near-sheer cliff about twenty feet high that ran several hundred feet to either side, a perfect obstacle to keep Tryndamere from following him on horseback. Twisted Fate cast a glance behind him toward the clamor of the hunting barbarians and began to climb. Hand holds were easy to find, as the cliff was overgrown with wines and determined trees, and soon Twisted Fate had reached the halfway point. His bruised shoulder and ribs ached fiercely as he used the muscles to pull himself up and navigate the climb, but he pushed them out of his thoughts and continued on until he reached the top.
The small forested plateau above the cliff was a welcome sight. Twisted Fate stumbled away from the cliff and collapsed to catch his breath. The barbarians and their horses had reached the ground below him now, and Twisted Fate listened to Tryndamere barking orders for a few moments before forcing himself to rise and carry on. He was able to reach the cover of a stand of rugged shrubs by the time Tryndamere scaled the cliff himself.
Large gray slabs of rock lay strewn throughout the trees, creating temporary breaks in the forest as the foliage grew around and sought to break them apart with its roots. A few minutes' running brought Twisted Fate to a wide river that cut through the landscape as it made its way down the mountain. Loose pebbles that made up the riverbank scattered in all directions as Twisted Fate slid to a halt. The river would provide a perfect way to lose Tryndamere for good.
Twisted Fate waded into the river's chilling water and started walking with the current, keeping near the shore on the opposite side to avoid leaving tracks. The steady rumble of the waters was the only thing he could hear, completely drowning out the distant shouts of Tryndamere and his men. He traveled this way until the river took him out of sight from where he had entered it, then climbed up onto the bank and continued to follow it from the cover of the forest. The soggy clothes and lingering chill from the river slowed Twisted Fate's progress, but he was relieved to not have to deal with Tryndamere for a few days at least.
(Continued in next post.)
Tryndamere and his men lost Twisted Fate's trail several times in the forest, and it went completely cold once they reached the river. He waded through its waters to check the woods on the other side, in case Twisted Fate had gone that way himself. There was no trace of the Card Master in the woods beyond the river, but something else caught Tryndamere's attention.
Massive claw marks marred the mossy loam of the forest floor, their length and depth giving testament to the size of the creature that had made them. Judging by the size of the prints, Tryndamere guessed that the beasts that made them were over eight feet tall and very heavy. It was the first proof he'd actually seen of the strange creatures that had been moving around the borders of Freljord. They were unlike any prints he'd seen before, with too much claw to be made by a bear or wolf. Dragons were doubtful as well since their rough scales and spines would have left marks in the tree trunks as well, and it appeared that such had not happened to these trees.
Something big moved through the trees nearby, showering Tryndamere with torrent of dead sticks and old leaves. Tryndamere leaped to his feet and drew his sword, fixing his eyes on the patch of tall shrubs that hid whatever it was from view. The movement ceased and a minute dragged by in silence, each moment seeming like an eternity as Tryndamere waited for whatever it was to emerge.
The bushes exploded as a massive gray construct burst through them, sharp teeth bared as it charged Tryndamere. It was bulky, with a large vaguely bear-like head and thick tail for balance. Runes were visible all over its body, which was also covered in long spines.
Tryndamere leaped backward, landing nimbly on a large tree root as he analyzed his enemy. The spines would make it difficult to land a hit without being hurt himself, he'd have to cut them off before he could get at the construct's body.
With a silent roar the construct took a swipe at Tryndamere with its claws. Tryndamere parried the blow, the sheer physical power behind the golem's strike making him stagger slightly before he ducked behind the tree. The construct might have strength on its side, but its bulk would make it difficult to maneuver in dense forest like this.
“King Tryndamere!” One of Tryndamere's men had crossed the river to see what all the commotion was, and Tryndamere could see several more barbarians climbing out of the water behind him. They were all directly in the construct's sights.
“Get out of here!” Tryndamere bellowed as the construct charged the hapless barbarian.
The border guard stumbled backward, caught between the charging golem and the river, then dashed upstream.
Tryndamere sprinted after it to defend the guard, and was forced to jump back when the construct turned on him again. The construct lumbered to the right, keeping Tryndamere in its sights as it cut him off from the forest. It had succeeded in luring Tryndamere into territory where it had the advantage.
This surprised Tryndamere. He hadn't expected it to be capable of complex instructions, let alone battle strategy. With the river at his back and the construct standing squarely between himself and the forest, he had no choice but to fight it in the open where it would have the advantage.
The construct surged forward, claws extended and mouth gaping as it tried to pin Tryndamere with its front paws.
Tryndamere leaped to his right as a spray of small pebbles from the construct's blow pelted him and charged its left shoulder. Even slicing off a few of the spines would make the construct less dangerous. With a flash of his blade, Tryndamere severed a cluster of spines and evaded the construct as it swung at him again.
An arrow whizzed over Tryndamere's head and bounced off the construct's neck without even scratching its hide. More followed, but they were just as ineffective as the first, and soon the ground beneath the golem's feet was littered with broken arrows. The construct ignored Tryndamere's men; they weren't a threat as the Barbarian King himself was. It lunged in again, this time keeping its paws wide in an attempt to hem Tryndamere in before pinning him to the ground.
Again Tryndamere dodged the blow, this time dashing to his left and aiming his attack at the construct's other shoulder.
It was already whirling to face him as he left the ground in a leap, and he was unable to avoid its attack while in midair. The construct's paw hit him square in the chest, slamming him to the ground with enough force to make him slide backwards through the loose rocks until he hit the water.
Tryndamere coughed and rolled to his side as the construct's paw slammed into the shallows where he had been only moments before, throwing up a huge spray of water. So it was not only able to use strategy and single out the highest-threat target, it could also learn from its mistakes and compensate the next time the enemy attacked. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with air again, and got to his feet. It felt like a few of his ribs had been bruised from the construct's blow, maybe even cracked in a few places. Tryndamere got himself back out of the water and waited for the construct's next attack. A throwing ax ricocheted off the construct's head almost hit Tryndamere in the face, forcing him to raise his blade to knock it away.
The construct took full advantage of Tryndamere's momentary distraction and surged in, throwing its entire body at him.
Instead of trying to get out from under the construct, Tryndamere chose to do the unexpected. He planted his feet on the riverbank and impaled the construct on his blade as it came down on him. Spines on the construct's chest sliced up Tryndamere's arms, but the damage he'd been able to cause in return was considerable. He may have even hit the construct's energy core, in which case it would be weakening constantly if it continued to fight him.
Magical discharge shimmered over Tryndamere's blade as the construct pulled back, energy leaking from the damaged area as it retreated. It crouched for a few moments, calculating its chances of success with the damage it had taken. The construct whirled and dashed back into the forest, scattering small pebbles in all directions as it left the riverbank.
Tryndamere only lowered his sword once the sound of the construct's massive paws faded completely into the forest. He raised a hand to his chest, touching the bruise that now colored it. The gashes caused by the construct's spines stung fiercely, oozing blood as he moved. If all the big creatures were like that construct, it would be bad news for Freljord and any other city-state territory they'd infiltrated. Just one was a hand full, and Freljord's government had received reports of dozens of such monsters entering the territory through their borders. Tryndamere would have blamed Noxus for the constructs, save for the fact that they were coming in through the border that Freljord shared with Demacia's territories as well. Hopefully the League would have answers.
“So that's what we're up against?” One of the border guards had come to stand next to Tryndamere, massive longbow still held in his hands. The man was young, with dirty blonde hair and a thin beard. This had probably been the first dose of major action he'd ever had while on border patrol. “Have you seen anything like it before?”
“Not exactly,” Tryndamere replied, turning to wade to the other side of the river. “Come, we have to get word of this to Ashe and the League.”
“What about Twisted Fate?” the border guard asked. He hesitated on the bank, waiting for Tryndamere's answer as he scanned the trees for danger.
“My people's safety is more important than that rat,” Tryndamere replied, suddenly tired. He would have to send word to Ashe from the nearest border outpost. Hopefully her hawk was resting there after delivering her letter, it would be faster than any ground messenger he could send.
“Do you think it was trying to protect him?” the guard followed him across the river, struggling slightly against the current where Tryndamere still held strong.
“Even if that's what it was trying to do we still need to fall back. That thing may very well be summoning reinforcements even as we speak, and I can't hold off more than two.” Tryndamere's frown deepened; it had been a long while since anything outside the League had been able to strain him like this.
The guard started to wade faster, drawing closer to Tryndamere. He didn't want to face any more constructs either, and the thought of having to fight a group of them was an unpleasant one.
Someone handed Tryndamere a potion as he emerged from the river. It took care of the worst of his cuts, sealing them up and leaving a sharp stinging sensation behind. He'd have to check in with a healer at the outpost as well so he could get back to Ashe as quickly as possible. “You may have won this round, Twisted Fate,” he grumbled. “But next time you won't be so lucky.”
@Deimus144: Don't worry, I'm not planning to give this up anytime soon.
Chapter 3: Respite
The sun had just touched the crest of the Ironspike peaks when Twisted Fate decided to call it a night. His legs shook with exhaustion as he paused beneath a large pine to catch his breath. There was no way in hell he'd be sleeping on the ground tonight, he wouldn't be awake in time to defend himself if something found him in this state.
Twisted Fate glanced up at the tree he was standing next to. It was of a respectable size, large enough at its base that over five people would be needed to encircle its girth with their arms. Branches thrust outward in rough rings along its trunk, the lowest starting at about six feet above Twisted Fate's head. The citizens of Freljord called them sentinel pines due to their handiness as sentry towers, provided you could get up into their branches, of course.
If he could just get halfway up the pine, the branches would be close enough together at the trunk to provide a place to lay without much risk of falling out of the tree. Foliage from the tree's neighbors would be enough to obscure him from sight at that height as well. Twisted Fate examined the lowest ring, going over ways to get to it in his head. Jumping was out of the question, the branches were much too high for that. Teleportation was a big no as well since he'd never tried it at short range going straight up and was too tired to concentrate properly anyway. A rope to pull himself up would be his best bet, provided he was still strong enough to lift himself.
Twisted Fate retrieved a length of rope from his bag and a metal hook to tie to its end. Tiredness made it hard to focus on the knot, but he finally managed to tie it off. The hook felt like a lead weight in his hand as he backed off to get a better shot at the branch.
The first throw bounced off the bottom of the lowest branch with a metallic clink and fell back to the forest floor. Twisted Fate sighed and picked it up for another try, doing his best to aim better this time. After a brief spin, he hurled the hook with enough force to get it to wrap around the lowest branch several times before burying its tip in the wood.
A few hard tugs confirmed that the rope would hold, digging the hook even deeper into the branch. Twisted Fate wrapped the rope around his right forearm to get a better grip, braced his legs against the rough bark of the trunk, and made his way up. Once he reached the lowest branch, he grabbed it with his left hand and began to pull himself up.
Tiredness made him bang his left shin on a neighboring branch as he lifted his legs up, but at least the hardest part was over. Now that he was in the tree it would be an easier climb, since the next ring of branches up was within reach. Twisted Fate worked at the hook, rocking it from side to side until he was finally able to pull it free. With the most obvious evidence of his climb coiled and stored away, Twisted Fate made his way farther up the tree, putting five more levels of branches between himself and the ground before he stopped.
Sentinel pines certainly had their uses. The tree's sap was incredibly sticky and covered his hands by the time he finished the climb, but Twisted Fate would be well hidden from anything passing by on the ground if he stayed here. He lashed his bedroll to the branches, his hands now clumsily from exhaustion. The sun had set beyond the Ironspike Mountains by the time he finished. After eating a cold dinner, Twisted Fate did his best to curl up in the uncomfortable roost and fell asleep.
The nigh life rose to go about their business as darkness shrouded the forest. Around midnight the creatures were interrupted by the sound of a large creature treading as carefully as it could through their domain. A construct with a vaguely reptilian shape and hard spikes moved through the trees, intent on reaching the mountains beyond.
“So do you think we'll see any more of those golem things?”
One of the older guards, a man in his forties with slight silver streaks in his mane of dark brown hair, eyed his younger comrade with annoyance. The blonde-haired barbarian had not stopped chattering since they got back to the safety of the outpost, and his constant talk had grown very irritating. The older guard was about to leave when he noticed an abnormally dark shadow near the barracks window.
“Good evening, boys,” Vayne's voice was smooth and casual as she stepped forward, startling the guards who had not noticed her.
“How long have you been there?” the chatty young barbarian spluttered, his eyes practically popping out of his head with surprise.
Vayne shrugged; the question wasn't important enough to answer. “I was wondering if you could give me some information on Twisted Fate, and the construct you encountered today,” she said, giving them a faint smile. Shauna Vayne was gifted with a lovely body, beautiful face, and smooth raven hair, but she was not a woman that men ever considered forging a relationship with. Some might hold secret fantasies about taming her formidable will and incredible strength, but the truth was that no man was worthy of a woman like Vayne. She was a cold, dangerous beauty that most men regarded as untouchable and few ever dared to approach.
Though they definitely appreciated a beautiful body like Vayne's, the barbarians were far more impressed with her combat abilities and the foes that she had defeated during her travels. Warrior women were not at all unheard of in Freljord, and it was easy to respect a skilled hunter like Vayne. Once they had overcome their initial surprise at suddenly discovering that she was in their midst, the guards were eager to share their observations with her.
Vayne jotted everything down in a small notebook, from the bruising noticed on Twisted Fate's exposed skin when he appeared in the barbarian camp to the number of quills counted on the golem's back. “Thank you. Your observations have been most insightful,” she said finally, tucking her notebook and pen away in a belt pouch. Vayne had almost reached the window when the blonde barbarian spoke up again.
“Miss Vayne, could you tell us of one of your adventures before you go?”
“Adventures?” Vayne's voice carried a hint of disdain as she said the word, and eyes became hard and focused as she turned her gaze on the young barbarian. “I may draw satisfaction from my work, but it is quite unlike the flippant joy experienced while indulging in the spirit of exploration,” she continued to stare down at him, then softened slightly when his face took on an apologetic expression. “My life is not one I would wish on anyone else. Let's leave it at that.” Vayne darted out the window without another word.
The barbarians crowded around the window, trying to catch a glimpse of Vayne as she left the outpost. A dark shadow streaked across the moonlit grounds and scaled the outer wall with no difficulty, disappearing from their sight as it dropped over the other side.
“Have you seen their like anywhere else?” Akali paced around the broken construct, her feet barely making a sound in the leaves of the forest floor. They had encountered two of the constructs while on their way to Freljord from Piltover, cat-like golems with long wicked claws and scythe-like fangs. The golems had put up a good fight despite being outnumbered, and had even managed to slash each of the ninjas at least once before going down.
Shen had taken the most damage of the three in defending them from the constructs' attacks. Despite the slashes that crossed his torso and arms, Shen stood tall as he examined the two carcasses and appeared completely unfazed by the pain from his wounds. “No, I have not,” he said finally, crossing his arms over his muscular chest.
“Who do you think made them?” Kennen leaped lightly from the ground to perch on the flank of one of the constructs, then crouched to examine one of its runes more closely. He scratched at its hide with the point of one of his shuriken and found that it had the consistency of hard stone even after its core had stopped powering the enchantments that covered its body.
The Eye of Twilight remained silent, instead striding over to the underbelly of the construct that Kennen was perched upon and kneeling to examine the damage he'd done to it. Shen had managed to slip beneath the construct's defenses and strike at the energy core that powered it. The blow had been difficult due to the thickness of the armor around the core and had cost him a few deep gashes in his back and legs, but in the end the attack had been successful and had allowed Akali and Kennen to clean up the last golem without much difficulty.
Shen was peering into the now-dark cavity when he felt something brush one of the gashes his right arm. He looked up to find Akali at his elbow. She plucked at the fabric around the cut and gave him a stern look from behind her mask, unhappy that he had not seen to himself yet. Shen sat back and began to remove his gear while Akali retrieved a medical kit that was hidden within the folds of her uniform.
Magic gave the kit storage space far beyond what its small size suggested, and soon Akali had provided Shen with a potion and began cleaning the cuts on his arms once he had taken it. Kennen hopped down from the golem's flank and began to help as well, bandaging and cleaning the injuries on Shen's left arm before tending to his own small cuts. Raw speed had allowed him to remain out of the constructs' reach for the most part, but they had still caught him a few times during their battle. Akali had acquired a few shallow cuts as well, and she saw to these once Shen was no longer bleeding.
The trio decided to keep their damaged uniforms on for now. Despite the rips and tears from their battle, the concealment and stealth enchantments on the garments were still functional and would serve them until they reached one of the many Kinkou sanctuaries hidden throughout the Valoran mainland. Reaching a sanctuary would also allow Shen to speak with the order's high council back on Ionia, and he was eager to ask that they search the Kinkou archives for information on the possible makers of the golems he and the others had just fought.
Shen was about to resume his inspection of the construct when something flickered within the gash that had felled the massive golem. He leaped to his feet and readied his blades as the two constructs began shifting, as if there were something alive within their skins. In a cloud of foul-smelling gray smoke, the two constructs abruptly degraded, melting and withering until their skeletal structures and crystalline cores were exposed. Once fully visible, the two cores cracked and split in an explosion of fragments. An unearthly shriek filled the forest as two globes of light rose from the broken cores and shot into the sky, vanishing from sight as they sped away through the jeweled black velvet of the night sky. With the cores now fully depleted, the skeletons of the golems collapsed into a fine dust and mixed with the remains of their other parts.
The triumvirate stood stock-still as they stared down at the fading remains of the two constructs, the unnerving chill of horror hanging over each of them. Kennen swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, and tucked the shuriken that he held tightly in his fingers away. Akali removed her left hand from Shen's shoulder and lowered the kama she held in the other. Shen sheathed his ninjato and flexed the shoulder Akali had put her hand on—her fingers had been gripped tightly enough to leave bruises.
“They're powered by souls,” Akali said, her voice filled with quiet horror as she stepped forward and sifted through the debris with the point of her kama.
Shen didn't reply. Now the startling intelligence of the constructs made sense. They were powered by a forbidden magic that imprisoned and manipulated souls, and from the reports that the Kinkou intelligence network had picked up from other city-state territories, there were hordes of them moving throughout the lands of Valoran. The maker of these golems was a power that could shatter the fragile balance that the Kinkou had sworn to protect.
“Let's get to one of the sanctuaries,” Shen said quietly. “We must contact the high council as well as the League.”
“Right,” Kennen's voice was husky, as the dryness had spread to his throat while he stared at the remains of the two constructs. The yordle coughed as quietly as possible and fell in next to Shen.
Akali put her kama away and turned her back on the two piles of dust and mud. Soon, the remains of the two golems would be indistinguishable from the soil surrounding them, a perfect way to keep their maker's secrets from falling into the hands of his enemies. She joined Shen and Kennen, and soon the three of them were racing through the trees and underbrush of the forest.
“Is this a coincidence, Shen?” Akali asked as the trio scaled a tree with ease and continued through the forest canopy for a few moments before returning to the ground. “These golems turn up just after Twisted Fate is declared a traitor and collaborator of the that animaturge, and we know he must have been the one who made them.”
Shen knew what Akali was getting at. Animaturgy was a magic that the Kinkou opposed due to the user's ability to gain power indefinitely as long as they assimilated the souls and bodies of other sentient beings, allowing them to grow out of control and eventually destroy the balance of power in Valoran if left unchecked. The League and Kinkou had coordinated in destroying all information on animaturgy save for a few essential volumes on fighting it, all of which were stored in the highest-security areas of the League's archives and the Kinkou's secret library. Through the years one particularly troublesome animaturge had managed to survive the culling and carry on his practice despite all attempts to capture and kill him. He had been quiet in recent years, but the golems were certainly his doing; there were no other magical disciplines that could bind souls to constructs so easily and with such power.
“It is certainly a possibility,” Shen replied. “We will see to capturing him once we have gotten word of the golems to the council.”
Kennen slowed, falling back to where the other two were after briefly racing ahead. “Are we taking him to the order, or the League once we get him?”
“The order first,” Shen replied, loping nimbly around a large bush with Kennen and rejoining Akali on the other side. “They will be able to extract the necessary information from him. His answers will determine whether or not he lives after that.”
Twisted Fate woke as the mid morning sun shone on his face. He winced and sat up, stiff joints clicking and tight muscles twinging with pain. After a brief and uncomfortable stretching session, Twisted Fate packed up his bedroll and made his way down the tree trunk. He managed to get down without slipping once, then tripped over one of the tree's massive roots and landed on a couple of spiky pine cones. Twisted Fate growled with annoyance as he got to his feet and gave one of the pine cones a good kick. It bounced off a nearby tree trunk and flew back at him, forcing him to duck in order to avoid being hit in the face.
The reverse luck had definitely taken effect. Whenever Twisted Fate was forced to rely on a large stroke of luck in order to survive death or serious injury, he would always suffer from misfortune for at least a week afterward, without fail. Such weeks were best spent laying low and taking no chances, a luxury that Twisted Fate couldn't quite afford at the moment. He hoped there was a town nearby, he needed to get to a place where he could rest up in safety before continuing on to the Great Barrier.
Twisted Fate looked down at himself. A change of clothes was definitely in order, since his shirt and vest were ruined beyond repair and caked with dried blood. His jeans had only fared better because Tryndamere hadn't attacked his legs, but the blood on them would raise too many questions if he ran into someone on the road. Twisted Fate picked out a dark green shirt and new jeans from his bag and changed into them, stowing his ruined clothes in his bag to dispose of later.
With his wardrobe taken care of, Twisted Fate walked to the river and cleaned his face before ducking behind a clump of bushes. The mask always felt better if your face was relatively clean when you put it on. He seated himself on a large tree root and retrieved the mask from his bag, feeling grateful that he'd decided to buy the best model available, despite how expensive it had been. This mask was high-quality in that it was almost indistinguishable from the real thing once it was put on the wearer's face. Magic gave it incredible life-like quality and kept the wearer's face cool to prevent sweating, a feature that helped keep the mask comfortable and secured firmly to the face. The skin tone could also be adjusted before the mask was worn and realistic facial hair applied, giving the user a wide variety of faces to wear.
After a few moments of contemplation, Twisted Fate retrieved a light brown handlebar mustache and a short-haired wig of the same pale brown shade from his bag to use in the disguise. The mask accepted the mustache and held onto it even when Twisted Fate gave it a hard tug; its magic would keep it there until he removed the mask. Next Twisted Fate pinned up his long black hair, the very action reminding him of how Graves had always been nagging him to get it cut back when they were still partners. He wondered what Graves was up to now, and how close the Outlaw might be to discovering where he was. Twisted Fate sighed through his nose and shoved the thought of Graves out of his head. He would handle Graves when he turned up, no use worrying over it when there was nothing that could be done.
The mask was still a bit more pale than he wanted, too similar to his own natural skin tone. Twisted Fate pressed a finger to the inside of the mask and drew it downward, causing its skin to darken to a light tan. With the desired adjustments finished, Twisted Fate put the mask on, pressing it to his nose first and moving outward. It fit like a second skin and molded to his face as the sealing magic activated. He secured the wig next, then rubbed the appropriate shade of toner on his hands, arms, ears, and neck, using a small mirror from his bag to ensure that he covered every bit of exposed skin. A dark green fedora in a style only slightly out of fashion in Piltover finished the look.
Twisted Fate was now completely unrecognizable to the average civilian and most champions—only those who could sense and identify his particular magic would be able to recognize him with this disguise. He was about to set out when he noticed that he was still wearing the same boots. It was better to take no chances, just in case Tryndamere or one of the guards who had seen him the other day turned up. He tugged on a pair of black boots and tucked the brown pair in his bag.
A sense of relief swept over Twisted Fate as he returned to the river and began to follow it again. Knowing that no one would be able to recognize him on sight was wonderful, definitely an improvement from avoiding all contact and worrying that someone might catch him at any moment. Twisted Fate even managed a little spring in his step as he walked along the riverbank.
The first summoning attempt came around noon, as Twisted Fate was entering the western foothills of the Ironspike Mountains. Anger rolled off the summoner's consciousness like thick fog, making Twisted Fate flinch as it brushed up against his own mind. With a mental flick, he swatted the summoner away like an annoying fly and continued on. As long as he didn't allow the summoners to establish a mental connection, they wouldn't be able to summon him or determine his exact location.
Soon other summoners began attempting their own links, most of them radiating anger or simple curiosity. A few rare cases even gave off a feeling of sadness as they tried to establish the link, and Twisted Fate figured they must've been the ones who had at least partially liked him as a person before news broke on the massacre. The powerful emotion flying at him wore Twisted Fate out more quickly than usual, and the constant link attempts made it feel like there was a swarm of angry invisible bees flying around his head.
The attempts died down by early evening as the summoners gave up and moved on to other matters that required their attention. It was a relief, since Twisted Fate would need to put on a good act in order to walk into town without drawing suspicion. He could see it in the distance now, next to the river he was following, a good-sized town with sturdy buildings and a few shallow-bottomed boats pulled up on the shore. It was definitely big enough to have an inn, which meant he could look forward to a bath and a hot meal as well as a comfortable bed.
No one paid much attention to the lone traveler strolling into town, they were used to getting the occasional wanderer from Piltover and this one seemed no different. Twisted Fate got himself a room at the local inn and ordered a large dinner to be brought up to his room. Once the tray had arrived and the serving maid had gone back down to the ground floor, Twisted Fate locked the door and removed his mask with a sigh of relief. Quality mask or no, it was still uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time and he was glad to be out of it.
The dinner and bath were superb after days spent in the wilderness. Twisted Fate had forgotten what a luxury such things were while enjoying the security and steady pay provided by the League. He had truly taken such things for granted.
One final summon attempt arrived as Twisted Fate was climbing into bed. The summoner gave off an apologetic feeling, as if she were sorry to disturb him at such a late hour. The attitude was certainly different, but Twisted Fate swatted her away regardless. No exceptions, no matter how harmless the summoner might appear.
Many miles away, in the Institute of War main campus, a lone summoner flinched and set the focusing crystal on its pedestal. Long purple robes hung loosely on her thin frame, unadorned with special weave or oddly-colored hems, the mark of a summoner of normal status. She glanced around the chamber and made her way out after finding that it was still empty. The walk back to her station in the archives took her past the office of a senior summoner, who was currently being visited by a close friend.
The visitor shut the door more tightly as someone walked past, then returned to his seat before the senior summoner. He was an overweight, twitchy man, and his chair wobbled slightly as his leg bounced up and down with nervousness. “What'll we do, Quinton? It'll be death or life behind bars if the League finds out, and that's if Fate or his **** monster of a brother don't get to us first,” he spoke with a light Piltovan accent, his voice wavering from the fear that held him its firm, icy grip.
His comrade didn't seem quite so alarmed. “Is that all you came here to talk about, Radford?” Quinton asked, sounding somewhat bored with the whole meeting. His own accent was much more pronounced than Radford's, a result of more time spent among Piltover's citizens. “While it does appear that the two are collaborating, given the evidence, do you have any proof that either of them know of our hand in the murder?” He leaned back in his chair, throwing his lightly-muscled physique into sharper detail.
“Well, no... But you do know that Fanderboldt and the men he hired have all died or gone missing. One of them obviously knew enough to single them out,” despite his objections, Radford was beginning to calm down. His leg stopped bouncing, though he still quivered slightly from nerves.
“Yes, but even if one of them is responsible for those mishaps, we never gave Fanderboldt or his men our identities. I never trusted that jealous fool with something so important. We are nameless mages to anyone questioning them.” He stroked his full gray beard as he watched his companion. “What has you so jumpy all of a sudden? You weren't so hesitant when we did the deed years ago, and you were quite relieved when you heard that the massacre had taken place.”
“That was before I knew there was an animaturge involved. And to know that the two of them are Honavir's sons...” Radford dabbed at the sweat that had gathered on his forehead with one of his silver-cuffed sleeves.
Quinton sighed with annoyance and tossed Radford a handkerchief from his pocket. “You give Twisted Fate far too much credit. He is by far the weakest mage in the League, such is the price of not having been born with magic,” he said with a dismissive shake of his head. “Though there is a way we could turn this in our favor. I'm sure that Twisted Fate would be of at least some value to his brother, despite his obvious weakness as a mage. Perhaps we could use him as bait should the League ever acquire him.”
Radford nodded for Quinton to go on as he wiped his face with the handkerchief.
“Just think, if we eliminate the two of them we would be lauded as heroes and free of anyone who could expose us to the League. I should think a promotion would be in order for us at the very least should we succeed, on top of other benefits,” Quinton retrieved an ornate pipe from one of his desk drawers and began packing it with tobacco. “We can just sit back and relax while the others track down Twisted Fate. It'll be impossible for most to ignore such a big reward as the one the League is offering for his capture, it is only a matter of time.”
Caitlyn prepared for bed, doing her best to act as normally as possible. Tonight was the night that Alton had promised to get her out of the house and on the trail of whoever had broken into the House of Law's archives. She glanced at the grandfather clock in her living room as she sat down with a novel; ten twenty, only an hour and forty minutes until she was free.
Chapter 4: Out and Away
The guards hadn't noticed Caitlyn slip into a dark form-fitting suit of clothes before getting into bed. That was the advantage of the common decency the citizens of Piltover tried to uphold; her captors would never have observers on her changing room because of how rudely invasive it would be. Caitlyn tried to keep her excitement down as she waited for the minutes to tick by. It would be very soon now, just five minutes to go.
A part of Caitlyn still couldn't believe what she was about to do and tried to get her to reconsider accepting Alton's offer, but this was something she just couldn't leave alone. She had already invested too much in the case and in the victim to drop it now, and there was the matter of finding whoever had broken into the Archives and sullied her reputation as well. Her heart pounded as she waited for the clock to strike twelve, her body tense and aching to move.
Despite her readiness, the tolling of Piltover's central clock tower and her own grandfather clock still made Caitlyn jump when they rang through her home. Immediately after the final tone died away, Caitlyn heard the sounds of shouting outside—something had disturbed the guards. In a flurry of movement she threw the covers back and leaped from the bed, covering the distance between it and her bedroom door in little under a second. The hallway and stairs cost only a few moments and she was on the landing, listening and watching for the figures of the guards who might still be outside her home.
Guards still stood outside Caitlyn's front door, shifting uneasily on their feet and looking very agitated, but those at her kitchen window had run off to deal with whatever the disruption had been. Caitlyn unlocked the window with a quiet click and eased it open, allowing the first breath of fresh night air into her home. There was a small creak of the hinges as she pushed it completely open, and she paused as she waited for a guard to inspect the noise if they'd heard it. None came, and Caitlyn pulled herself easily onto the sill and dropped down to the ground beneath the window.
A distant clamor could still be heard in the direction most of the guards had run off in, and Caitlyn decided the best course of action would be to move in the opposite direction. She had just reached the corner of another side alley and taken cover in the shadows when she realized that her liberator had not told her what to do next. Caitlyn was planning her route to the Aravon Estate when someone tapped her on the shoulder.
The figure who had disturbed her jerked back as Caitlyn whirled on him, holding his hands up in a gesture of peace and leaning back on his heels. The cloak obscured most of his head, but Caitlyn caught a glimpse of bright blonde hair and the glint of goggles as he moved away. Combined with the slight figure, he could only be one person.
“Ezreal?” Caitlyn asked in a strained whisper, as she found it hard to believe that the Prodigal Explorer would care to get mixed up in this business. She squinted at him in the half-light, checking to see if she was mistaken.
Ezreal only held a finger to his lips and gave Caitlyn a quiet “shhh” in reply before gesturing for her to follow him. He then turned with a whirl of his cloak and made his way further down the alley they were hiding in.
Darkness closed around them as they walked farther away from the street lights, and Caitlyn began to find it difficult to navigate. After a few aggravated moments, she reached forward and found Ezreal's cloak in the darkness, keeping the folds of cloth in a firm grip to ensure that she wouldn't lose him.
However blind Caitlyn may have been, the lack of light didn't seem to bother Ezreal. He made his way forward as confidently as if the alley was lit by floodlights, and Caitlyn could feel sure that he wouldn't lead her into any walls at least. Ezreal paused, causing Caitlyn to almost run into him, and turned to where she figured one of the walls must be. The creak of dry hinges told her that he had opened something, most likely a pair of cellar doors. This time Ezreal took her by the hand and led her down a set of steps before returning to the entrance to shut the doors. Now safe from any who might spot them, Ezreal conjured a small globe of light with his glove and tossed it into the air above his head.
Caitlyn blinked as her eyes became used to the light again. They were in a fairly large wine cellar, from the look of the barrels stacked by the walls or resting on their sides in corners. She turned to Ezreal once she was finished examining the cellar, only to find that he was already making his way to its farthest corner. “Ezreal,” Caitlyn said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“People can still hear us,” Ezreal whispered, again gesturing for her to be quiet. He continued on to the farthest corner of the cellar, where the barrels were so large that they needed to be set on their sides to fit without touching the ceiling. Immediately he selected the second from the end and pulled its top off, revealing a set of stairs that descended into even deeper darkness. Ezreal turned again and gestured for her to follow, then started down the stairs himself, the conjured light still floating just above his head.
Caitlyn entered the secret passageway and pulled the hidden door shut behind her, then hurried down the stairs after Ezreal. They were in the Piltover Underground now, a sprawling network of chambers and tunnels that Ezreal himself had first mapped out in detail many years ago. It only made sense that he would know the network like the back of his hand. A damp chill hung in the air even during the height of summer, and Caitlyn shivered slightly as the cold set into her skin.
“We can talk now,” Ezreal quipped as she reached him at the bottom of the stairs.
“What are you doing here?” Caitlyn blurted out the question that had been on her mind ever since Ezreal found her in the alley.
“Helping you escape, what else?” Ezreal replied with a shrug.
“But why? You actually believe me?”
“Well yeah, we're friends, right? I don't believe you could be duped or bewitched or anything so easily,” Ezreal started walking down the tunnel as he spoke, and Caitlyn had no choice but to follow him to keep talking. “Alton's a good friend of mine, too, but I didn't need much convincing to begin with.”
Caitlyn was about to tell Ezreal that she didn't think friendship was a good enough reason to disbelieve everyone else when he spoke up again.
“And I think everyone's using this as an excuse to hate on gypsies. I dunno why, it's not like they're even around Piltover anymore. I found stories that they used to be really vicious and all a long time ago, but I can't even tell if that's true since it could just be the bias again,” Ezreal seemed to be partially musing aloud to himself as much as talking to Caitlyn, though as long as it got her answers she didn't particularly mind. “And then you get these rumors about the black magic they supposedly use, even though I can't find evidence of that, either... They get blamed for a lot, but I can't find enough proof that it was really them most of the time. I get that normal people are afraid of the unknown and all that, but you can only use that excuse up to a certain point.” He glanced back at Caitlyn. “Am I still making sense?”
“Yes, actually,” Caitlyn replied. “The previous Sheriff had quite the hatred for them, from what I've read in the Archives. I suppose the sentiment died down somewhat after the local gypsies were killed, but it's certainly back now.”
“They don't even let me use my government funding to research their history. Even though we might discover more parts of our own earliest history through their records,” Ezreal grumbled. He sighed; the quest for knowledge was always the greatest thrill for him, and one of his pet peeves was having to deal with people who tried to prevent him from doing just that. “That's how I met Alton. He's made some big contributions that allowed me to start researching their history more, and we became friends shortly after he offered to fund me.”
Caitlyn found the answer to be satisfactory, at least. “So why are you so interested in gypsy history?” she asked, taking care to step around the same puddle that Ezreal had just plowed through.
Surprisingly, Ezreal did not answer right away. “I want to find the true history,” his voice held a certain degree of reverence when he finally spoke. “A historical record unclouded by the bias of the city-states, a way to know exactly where we came from. The knowledge has been lost for thousands of years, but I've made it my mission to find it.”
“So you're hoping that as outside observers the gypsies may have a more dependable record than us, at least when it comes to the more unsavory bits that our historians might cover up.”
“Pretty much,” Ezreal replied, casting a glance at her over his shoulder. “Unfortunately I haven't been very successful in finding the missing pieces so far, but I'm hoping my next expedition will turn up something worthwhile.”
The rest of the journey passed in relative silence as Ezreal led Caitlyn to the Aravon Estate. Caitlyn herself was quite lost by the time Ezreal stopped by a branch in the tunnel marked by the letters “HW” and led her through it. After ten feet of level ground, the tunnel began to slope upwards and eventually ended in a flight of stairs carved out of the earth itself. In the light cast by Ezreal's magic lantern, Caitlyn could see that the end of the tunnel was embraced by the roots of a large tree of some sort, and the stairs ended at a wall made of pale wood.
Ezreal reached the top of the stairs and ran the fingers of his gloved hand along the wall's surface. A thin seam appeared on the wood's smooth surface, tracing the shape of a doorway that two people could easily fit through. The new door responded to the light push Ezreal applied to it with his hand, revealing a canopy of slim leaves and whip-like boughs beyond.
“Did you make this, Ezreal?” Caitlyn asked as she examined the door more closely. She knew that only a magic user of some sort would be able to shape it so well without leaving the tree vulnerable to disease.
“No, it's been here for a long time,” Ezreal stepped aside and let Caitlyn pass. He blinked, and slapped a hand to his forehead. “Damn, I got an appointment I have to get to! I gotta get going, later Caitlyn!” He promptly shut the door as soon as Caitlyn was out, preventing her from even giving him a quick thank you before he was gone.
With the willow door shut, Caitlyn found it impossible to even tell that there had been an entrance there in the first place. Whoever had made it was extremely skilled, and Caitlyn found herself wondering what the door had originally been used for. With Ezreal gone and the door hidden, there was nowhere to go but forward. Caitlyn dusted a bit of dirt off one sleeve and parted the curtain of willow boughs to find the expansive grounds of the Aravon estate.
Moonlight bathed the landscape before her, giving Caitlyn a good view of her surroundings even at this late hour. The grounds had been well-kept at some point in the past, but they were overgrown and wild now. The house itself seemed to be in better condition from what she could see of it, and a single light shone from one of the ground floor windows.
Caitlyn stepped out of the willow's foliage and started toward the main house. A cobblestone path wound past the willow and the pond it stood beside, and she followed it toward the light. The grounds were completely silent, without the slightest breath of wind to stir its bushes and trees. It was strange to one accustomed to the constant sounds of a busy city, but Caitlyn found reason to be grateful for the silence. She would be more likely to hear any potential attackers who might be trying to sneak up on her.
The door beside the lit window opened as Caitlyn approached, revealing the familiar countenance of Alton Wesson. He gave Caitlyn a grateful smile as he turned and retrieved the lantern that had been lighting the window. “Thank you for coming. I trust you had a safe journey?”
“Yes, Ezreal makes for an excellent guide,” Caitlyn replied, somewhat perplexed at Alton's gratitude. It made her wonder what personal stakes Alton might have in the occurrences of the past few days, and she made a mental note to ask him about it sometime in the near future.
“Good, good,” Alton turned and started to make his way down the hallway beyond the door, gesturing for Caitlyn to follow.
Caitlyn shut the door behind herself and followed Alton into the depths of the Aravon household. From what she could remember of the history surrounding the estate, the owners had died a few decades ago, rich but heir-less, and had left the entirety of their fortune to Alton. Everything was relatively clean and free of dust, more well-kept than the gardens, but the style of the decorations was fairly out of date.
“So, Mr. Wesson,” Caitlyn began as they turned into a larger hall lined with portraits of Aravon family members. “What's your game? What do you intend to get out of this?”
Alton slowed his pace slightly. “It is a long story... But to put it simply, I believe what you have said about Twisted Fate's character and I would like to give you the opportunity to set things right.”
“You and I both know that's not all,” Caitlyn's voice was a bit sharper than she would have liked, but unfinished explanations and secrets just wouldn't cut it at the moment.
The caretaker did not reply, instead hurrying down the hall to one portrait in particular. He stopped before it and lifted the lantern. “Does she look at all familiar to you?” Alton asked, his gray eyes watching Caitlyn carefully.
Caitlyn shot him a slight glare since he seemed to be changing the subject, and glanced up at the painting. The portrait's subject was a young woman with shining black hair, pale smooth skin and blue eyes. A beam of moonlight from one of the hall's windows slanted across the subject's face, revealing her features in greater detail. At first Caitlyn found nothing that she recognized, but after further examination, she realized that the eyes really caught her. She had seen eyes like that before, deep blue streaked with silver, colors that together would make the eyes appear pale blue from a distance, but she couldn't quite remember where.
“Yes...” Caitlyn said slowly, still trying to place where she had seen that eye color before. “The eyes strike me as familiar, but I can't quite place them.” She turned her eyes back to Alton. “But that still doesn't tell me what else you're in this for.”
“It's embarrassing...” he said, almost too quietly for Caitlyn to hear. “I believe Twisted Fate may be someone I've been looking for,” he turned from the painting and started down the hall again. “I don't know what I'll do if I'm wrong... But to find out, Twisted Fate must survive and be proven innocent.”
Caitlyn hurried after Alton as he led her down the hall. She leaned to her right to get a look at Alton's face, and noticed that his eyes were sad and distant, his cheeks and forehead slightly flushed with embarrassment. “You would potentially risk the safety of Piltover and Valoran on a hope?” she prodded. While Alton did seem candid enough, it wouldn't hurt to needle at least a little more information out of him.
Alton stopped with a loud sigh, his shoulders drooping with the outward rush of air as the arm holding the lantern dropped to his side. “Yes, it's selfish. Perhaps insane, even. All I have are intuition and the word of a long-time friend, as well as the faith I have in my Sheriff's abilities,” melancholy hung heavy in Alton's voice as he stared at the rug a few feet in front of him.
The question had been a bit out of line, and Caitlyn felt embarrassed for having pushed Alton that way. She would make up for it by seeing if he was right. “Well, we'd best be on our way, then,” she offered.
The lantern arm rose again, and Alton nodded. Silence stretched between them as he led her down the hall again.
“So what's next?” Caitlyn asked as they approached a staircase.
“I'm taking you to one of the bedrooms so you can find a disguise,” Alton replied. He began to make his way up the stairs, still fairly nimble despite his obvious age. “I cannot properly equip you without drawing unwanted attention to myself, so I will send you to George. He'll be able to provide all the equipment you need without giving us away.”
Caitlyn nodded. It made sense to do it that way, since Alton wouldn’t be able to help her again if he was in prison.
“Unfortunately everything I have is rather out of date, but I believe you'll be able to make do,” Alton added. He put a hand to the banister to steady himself as they reached the top of the stairs.
“So who is this George fellow?” Caitlyn kept pace with Alton easily as he led her down a smaller hallway that was lined with bedroom doors. “A friend of yours, right?”
“We've known each other for ten years at least,” Alton brought them to a halt at the end of the hallway and opened the door on their right. “He owns the casino outside of Piltover.”
“That's right... The owner of the Golden Gun, I've met with him a few times before,” Caitlyn said. George Connor ran a tight ship—he obeyed all laws and restrictions that Piltover placed on him in exchange for having his business in their territory and ensured that his customers were kept very safe with a well-armed guard force. An extra order or so of guard equipment wouldn't rouse much suspicion, as he was known to be very cautious when it came to those who might try to take advantage of his success or his customers. She entered the bedroom and Alton shut the door politely behind her.
Caitlyn found the light switch, revealing a beautifully furnished and well-kept bedroom. Deep blue cloth and rich brown hardwood furniture gave the room a calm feel, with a few silver decorations to light things up here and there. Every surface was spotless, dusted and polished by a loving hand, but the room felt empty. It was obvious that its original occupant had been gone for a very long time.
A look in the closet revealed that all the clothes it contained were out of date, just as Alton had said, but Caitlyn found a few pieces that were simple enough to pass as inconspicuous in modern day Piltover. She chose a simple light gown of pale green, a pair of light brown leather slippers, a white overcoat, and a veiled bonnet in a shade of green to match the dress. Once changed, Caitlyn tied her long hair up in a bun and settled the bonnet over it. The dark clothing Caitlyn had worn for her trip through the Underground was tucked into a brown leather purse to spare Alton the trouble of disposing of them himself.
When Caitlyn emerged from the bedroom, her disguise as a young sweetheart out to meet her love at the casino was complete. Alton quickly looked over her disguise and nodded in approval. “Do you know how to get to the hourly carriages that go to the casino?” he asked as he led her downstairs once again.
“Yes, I know where the nearest one should be,” Caitlyn replied. She lowered the veil over her face and followed Alton down the hall. Silence settled over them once again, and Caitlyn thought of what lay ahead as they walked. Just one more meeting and she would be free to investigate the leak, likely with high quality equipment to help her on her way as well. Things were looking up, and it wasn't as if she could be picky with the help she got.
“I didn’t mean to be so... Harsh, earlier,” Caitlyn began as they reached the stairs.
Alton gave her a weak chuckle in reply and glanced at her over one shoulder. “It is alright. Personally, I’m glad that you are questioning our help. Anyone under an enchantment would have taken the help without question and left without a word otherwise,” he turned his attention back to navigating the staircase.
“So they would,” Caitlyn said with a small smile.
The walk to one of the estate’s many side gates was uneventful and uninteresting, as the two did not talk much. Caitlyn gave Alton a small wave of farewell as she stepped out onto the road, eager to be on her way.
“Stay safe,” Alton whispered. “And be sure to show this to one of the guards when you get there,” he produced a gold coin printed with the casino’s logo from a breast pocket. “They will take you straight to George when they see it.”
“Right,” Caitlyn accepted the coin and tucked it into her purse. “Thank you, Alton.”
Alton gave her a genuine smile in reply and shut the gate with a loud creak and rusty click. Now alone and with only the light of the moon and a few faraway lamps to see by, Caitlyn got her bearings and began to make her way toward the Golden Gun’s hourly carriage.
Caitlyn arrived at the carriage’s waiting area just as the vehicle came to a halt before it. She had picked shoes that were relatively comfortable and had experienced little difficulty on her way there as a result, but she accepted the arm of a courteous young gentleman when it was offered to her all the same. The part had to be properly played, after all. Caitlyn returned the man’s politeness with a meek “thank you” and took a seat on one of the carriage’s cushioned benches.
Golden Gun Casino still used horses to move their carriages, partly for the fact that the techarriages commonly used on the paved streets of Piltover could not yet survive the rougher roads outside the city, and also for the sheer novelty of having them. To people well used to mechanically-driven carriages, horses were a refreshing change, especially when they were as well-groomed and bred as the beasts that the Golden Gun used. Caitlyn kept one eye on the rest of the passengers as she thought of what would come after the meeting with George. Investigations would have to start in Zaun, as much as she hated the thought of having to go to that wretched, stinking trash heap of a city-state. Once more information on whoever had given over the files was revealed, Caitlyn would be able to track the problem to its source. And after that... Well, the guilty parties would be in for a very bad day, to say the least.
The carriage traveled swiftly enough, and it entered the front driveway of the casino within half an hour of its departure from Piltover. There were still a few guests out and about despite the extreme lateness of the hour, as well as a healthy number of guards about to keep the peace. Caitlyn stepped off the carriage and made her way over to one, taking the coin from her purse as she did.
“Excuse me,” she said politely as she offered the coin.
The man gave Caitlyn a nod of greeting and examined the coin. “Welcome to the Golden Gun,” he said once he’d conducted a satisfactory inspection of the gold piece. “I’ll take you right up.”
Due to the lateness of the hour the casino was not as loud or crowded as it usually would be, though there were definitely a few night owls trying their luck at the slots and games. Caitlyn noticed quite a few spotters spread among the gamblers as she followed the guard; George didn't appreciate cheaters in his casino. The main floor was lit up with warm gold lights and glittered with the shine of hardwood game tables and the metal of the slot machines. It was more flashy than Caitlyn remembered it, likely because good business had allowed George to upgrade the equipment and improve his decorations.
The guard led Caitlyn through the main floor and past several restaurants and shops before he finally came to a halt in front of a single door marked Staff Only. The hallway beyond was much less showy than the public parts of the casino, and the quiet that enveloped them as the guard shut the door was a bit of a shock after the clamor of the main floor. Think carpet dulled the noise of their footsteps as the guard continued down the hall.
A flight of stairs and a few more hallways brought Caitlyn to a halt before a pair of large hardwood double doors, which were polished to a shine and obviously belonged to someone very important. They opened before the guard could knock, and Ezreal emerged from the room beyond. He was deep in thought about whatever he had been discussing, so much so that he didn’t recognize Caitlyn as he walked past her and treated her as a stranger, giving her and the guard a polite nod and distracted hello as he left. Caitlyn spotted the familiar gleam in his eye that meant he would be departing on another adventure soon, and she wondered what he was off to discover this time.
The guard knocked on the still-open door to ask permission to enter. “Someone to see you, Mr. Connor.”
“Is it a woman?” the playful voice that answered possessed a distinct southern drawl not unlike Twisted Fate’s, marking the man who owned it as a foreigner.
“Yes, Mr. Connor,” the guard replied.
“Good, send her in.”
Caitlyn stepped forward before the guard could tell her to go in, and the doors shut with a quiet click once she was inside. “Good evening, Mr. Connor,” Caitlyn lifted the veil that covered her face. “I’ve been told that you want to help me.”
“Yes, I do indeed. And please, call me George,” George gave Caitlyn a jovial, if fake, smile. He got up from behind the large desk he was sitting at, opened one of its drawers, and set the bag he had taken from it on the desktop. "I gathered up everything I could think of in the way of essentials, but I'll let you have the final say on what goes."
George reached behind his desk again and hit a series of hidden switches. The wall behind him slid back and opened to reveal a room that could easily pass for a small armory. "Have your pick, my lady," he gestured at the weapons and gear with a flourish.
Caitlyn set her hands on her hips and eyed the display. She had to admit that the variety and quality of the equipment was impressive, and there was even one gun model present that had been released only the previous week. “You don’t mess about when it comes to weaponry,” Caitlyn said as she walked into the hidden room. “Are you expecting me to fight a war or two?” she teased.
“You could be going into hostile territory,” George gave her a genuine grin this time. “Like Zaun for example, so I packed a little extra.”
“Well I can’t say I don’t appreciate it,” Caitlyn gave him a faint smile in return as she selected one of the sniper rifles and looked it over. The gun was top quality, well-balanced and not overly heavy; a serviceable replacement for her own custom rifle. “So, George... Why’ve you decided to cast your lot in with me? You’re not worried that the accusations might be true?” she gave him a sidelong glance as she set the rifle down on a counter and picked up a revolver.
“No,” George’s reply was short and more than a little ill-tempered. The suggestion had obviously hit a nerve, and Caitlyn could see the frustration displayed plainly on his face. “I know Twisted Fate, he’s felt nothin’ but pain over the loss of his family.”
Caitlyn turned, so she could face George head-on. “How long have you known him?” she asked, a tone of genuine interest in her voice.
“We met about twenty years ago,” George replied without missing a beat. “He was twelve, at the time. I reckon it’d been under a week since the massacre happened when I got to him...” He focused his gaze on the floor a few feet in front of him as his eyes took on the faraway look of one temporarily lost in memory.
“What was he like?” Caitlyn set the handgun down on the counter and leaned against its edge.
“Just about the saddest damn kid you’d ever meet,” George leaned against the counter opposite Caitlyn and folded his arms over his chest. “Completely withdrawn, didn’t trust anyone, barely even talked. I’m still surprised he agreed to come along with me at all. Maybe he was desperate, maybe he figured he could run away if things turned sour, but luckily they didn’t.”
“You didn’t try taking him to live with other gypsies? There are several other groups scattered around Valoran as I recall,” Caitlyn pushed off her counter and returned to examining the equipment, this time selecting a combat knife from the collection and keeping one ear on George all the while.
“That was the first thing I tried,” George growled. “Got him to the nearest gypsy tribe I could find,” there was a rising ire in his voice, and Caitlyn could feel the anger rolling off him even with her back turned. “But instead of taking him in, instead of helping one of her own, their mystic decided to banish him. A child of twelve for gods’ sake! Forbade him from coming into contact with other gypsies ever again all because she thought he was cursed or bad luck or some other nonsense,” he spat the final word as if its very existence offended him and fell into a fuming silence.
The knife made a quiet schlick as Caitlyn sheathed it. “They banished him,” the statement was one of disbelief rather than an affirmation; Caitlyn considered such an act to be unusually cruel as well. “And I suppose you fully took him in after that?”
“Of course. What else could I do?” George had calmed somewhat, but it was obvious that he was still lingering on the banishment.
“Right. And you taught him how to be a con artist as well, didn’t you?” Caitlyn turned to George again, this time with a cheeky smile on her face. “I always suspected what you used to be, but I never investigated since you were playing by the rules and acting as a positive influence on society with your personal charities.”
(Continued in next post.)
(Continued from previous post.)
George held his hands up in defeat. “Felt like it was all I could do at that point. He stayed with me for six years, then decided to strike out on his own. The casino was just built by then, if you remember. I tried to get him to stay, but he refused to listen.”
“Was it his idea to keep your connection a secret?” Caitlyn had moved on to another part of the room, this time examining some high-quality masks that could be used in undercover work.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” George replied. “He said he didn’t want our connection complicating things. I had no idea what he was up to until he became a League champion, and I’ve been following him from a distance ever since,” he said quietly.
Caitlyn could sense the hurt in his voice at Twisted Fate’s long absence and wondered what the Card Master’s reasons may have been. She gave George a humorless half-laugh after a few moments of thought. “Well I expect you’ll finally get that reunion once this is all over,” she set the mask down on the counter. “So how do you and Alton Wesson know each other?”
“I go pay my respects to Fate’s family every now and then,” George moved aside so Caitlyn could get at the equipment behind him. “Alton does the same. We happened to meet one day a few years ago, started talking. I let it slip that I’d met a young boy who survived but didn’t tell him everything else; Fate was very specific in telling me to keep quiet about the whole thing. I don’t know if Fate is really who Alton’s looking for, I couldn’t bring myself to crush his hope like that.”
“We’ll find the truth of it,” Caitlyn gave George a reassuring smile, then reached for the bag of holding that he had set on the counter behind him. It was made of dark brown leather and created to look like a light saddle bag, the kind that could easily be folded up and stowed in a large pocket or other bag if need be.
George moved it out of her reach just before she could pick it up. “Sorry, forgot to give you yours,” he removed a similar bag of a lighter color from a pocket in his jacket and handed it to her. “The other’s for Fate, in case he needs it.”
Caitlyn nodded and accepted the bag; it was a good idea to send one along for Fate as well. One could never be too prepared. “I’ll see that he gets it if we meet up again.”
Final selection of Caitlyn’s equipment went quickly as she knew what she would likely need along the way. Once properly supplied, Caitlyn tucked both bags of holding into her purse and bid George farewell. “I’ll see what I can do about Twisted Fate’s situation. But you should remember that my current priority is to find who stole the case files.”
“Be careful over in Zaun. There’s no guarantee that they’ll just ship you back to the League if they think they can get away with more,” George cautioned.
“Don’t worry about me,” Caitlyn quipped as she lowered the veil of her bonnet over her face. “I am the woman who cleaned up Piltover when it was overrun by crime lords,” she gave him a wave of farewell and let herself out.
Soon she was seated in a private carriage—courtesy of George—that would take her to a town near the southern border of Piltover’s territories. She would find her way into Zaun from there and start her investigations. The excitement of the night began to weigh on her, and Caitlyn decided to review what had taken place before she could allow herself to fall into a light sleep. Her thoughts settled on the portrait of the young woman, and Caitlyn again tried to remember where she had seen eyes of that color before. It was only once Caitlyn had begun to drift off to sleep that she finally remembered; she had seen that eye color just a week before, during the interrogation of Twisted Fate.
A/N: I'd like to say a big thank you to Grand Viper for editing and encouraging/inspiring me to get this chapter done. Hopefully they will be more frequent from now on, sorry for the long wait.
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