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Unstable Matters: the Journal of Zac

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MSN00100

Recruiter

08-14-2014

Chapter 11: I.S.C.P. (Part 4 Cont.)

A large space in the form of a staff room, far bigger than he had imagined possible appeared, causing Zac to gape silently. The ceiling inside could measure two levels tall, and were being held up by four separate round pillars spiral shaped carvings in them. There was an oil painting hanging above a wall mounted fireplace, and the curtains draped on both left and right windows at the opposite end of the room gave a solemn feeling that was hard to tell if they were antiques. Even the ceiling lights (and their covers) had similar carvings that showed the delicate skill of the craftsman. All the furniture showed some form of balance, and yet, a luxury that one might mistake to be nobility in a palace.

Despite looking antique, it had no resemblance to any designs he had seen in his life. Zac was overwhelmed by this scene that could only be described as Noxian as he remained stunned. Certain parts of the Institute had an antique feel, but it was different. If the Institute of War could be described as being based on luxury, this would give goose bumps while looking like it was meant to intimidate others. An expression of culture and class strictly unique to the upper crust of Noxus. It did not make Zac feel fear or uneasy, just weird as he stared at the anomaly sitting right in front of him.

“I was told that this room is a replica of the first command center put together by the high command. Sometimes you have to accept other people’s kind intentions, regardless of your own preferences.”

From the distance it was hard to tell who exactly was behind the desk stationed all the way across the room. Was it the armored robes, or the roughly aged man wrapped in them speaking? Swain continued as he stared at the silent Zac, who continued to walk toward his desk with Darius now at his side behind him.

“Although it doesn’t actually fit my tastes, I think adaptation is one of the required qualities of a leader.”

Before Zac could respond, he could feel Swain’s stare go past him and right at Darius’. “I know these last weeks have been tough on you, my old friend. You do not have to accompany us here.”

On hearing this, Darius answered, “Yes, Grand General.” His heavy voice echoed through the room. Without another word spoken, and without even a parting glance, Darius walked out of the room leaving Zac and Swain alone.

Jericho Swain. The Grand General of Noxus, and leader of the Noxian High Command. Although he had orchestrated the meeting, it felt surreal having a private audience with one of the most respected and feared men on the entire Valoran continent. How suddenly things could change, when only hours ago he had been verbally abused like a child and sampled like he was some sort of dessert gelatin. Maybe it was the nature of the Institute of War itself that caused such things to happen. Some sort of power to make the big world a little bit smaller.

“What is it? Please take a seat.”

The unexpectedly earnest voice came from behind the mask, causing Zac’s mind to rid itself of its arranged thoughts. There wasn’t anything else he could say or do, so walked over and sat on the sofa beside a brick fireplace mounted into the wall. A soldier wearing a white servant uniform immediately closed in and poured red tea into the teacup on the table. As the servant left without looking at him, Zac sensed that there was another stare looking at him.

Emilia LeBlanc, Matron of the Black Rose Society, stood behind Swain shaded by the lack of sun coming from the large windows behind her. Despite her wild and flashy fashion sense, her presence was covered by Swain in front of her. So much so that Zac had not noticed her until then. Perhaps she was deliberately trying to keep a low profile as she stood behind him. Either way, the stare LeBlanc was giving him was exceptionally tight when compared to Swain’s, intimidating Zac a little. The servant walked out of the room, and the ones left to talk to were him and Swain.

Still sitting at his desk in front of him, Swain did not say anything. He put his arms on the table, locking his fists and using them to support his chin, giving a machine-like stare at Zac. He could not tell what either stares were looking for, and instead of being fearful, he found himself wanting to know what kind of people they were, and how they intended to deal with him.

“Did you know I was coming?” Zac asked.

“What will you say if I did? Is it strange to have tea with people who have killed you, and you have killed in turn? Young Zac.”

There was a hint of ridicule in his voice, and both of their stares continued to cling onto him. Zac understood that his body and mind were being probed, and reacted simply by reaching for the tea in front of him and putting it to his lips. The flavor and aroma tasted familiar, and even the heat as well. “Hmm. Good response.” Swain’s voice could be heard clearly.

Swain casually got up, making his way around his own desk slowly and got closer to where Zac was sitting. Zac’s eye was caught by the black rose in a vase, the only decoration on the desk of the Grand General. Up till now, the black rose had been swallowed by the presence of the master tactician and deceiver behind him. In this room that was covered with artificial things, this was an unnatural colored flower that asserted itself in his mind more than anything else.

“It is good that we can finally meet in a more formal setting. Although I did not extend an invitation, I had hoped you would make the effort to come here.”

Swain stood in front of Zac and reached his right hand out, while Zac hurriedly look back at him. He was about to inadvertently respond to Swain, only to clench his hand that was about to reach out. No, don’t fall into his pace.

Zac felt a pulsating pain from his temples as he said cautiously, “It might be rude to ask, but is that mask is really used for hiding a wound?”

Swain showed an unexpected expression on his face as he put his hand away. LeBlanc over his shoulder gave a more menacing glare, and Zac stared straight at the eyes of the master tactician.

“If that’s not the case, I would like to see your face.”

“You dare…!” LeBlanc muttered as she stepped forward, but Swain raised his free hand to stop her.

“It’s alright, Matron. I know this young man is just talking about basic etiquette.”

LeBlanc stopped in her tracks, her resentful and testing stare unrelenting despite Swain’s words.

“I suppose everything I wear is part of a fashion statement. I might say it can be considered a method of propaganda, since I have an image to maintain. Sometimes I wonder if I’m scrutinized more at the Institute of War than in my own homeland.”

Reaching up with the same hands he had used to stop LeBlanc, he pulled at the fabric covering his face firmly. Dragging it simply and cleanly down to his neck, he revealed a nose bridge that formed with nice lines and not as worn and aged as the rest of his body. What seemed the most outstanding, was that everything below his cheekbones reflected nothing similar to the rest of his body. The body of a man who had crossed countless battlefields, and subjected himself to different arcane magics of all types. The rumor about Noxian officers dabbling in necromancy to extend their natural lives crossed Zac’s mind, but he decided to shelve it for another day.

“I forgot to take it off because no one would honestly ask like you have. My apologies.”

Swain reached his hand out again. This time, there was no reason to refuse as Zac extending his own to shake firmly. The hand under the glove felt rather hard, causing Zac to remember the first impression of a wooden doll or puppet, Or maybe it was simply that he was still worried about getting up caught in the other party’s pace. Zac decided to control himself, again, as he held back from letting his thoughts drift further.

Swain stepped back towards his table, and spoke, “There’s still a lot about you I do not understand. I was not expecting you to be so comfortable accepting my offer, when we spoke earlier. Maybe I’ve underestimated your strength of character, but I find it very strange how quick you were to accept.”

“I see where you’re coming from, so please let me make it clear. I have no stance on anything we talked about.” Zac sat back down slowly, making sure to gingerly pick up the small tea cup from its saucer without spilling its contents. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m just filling my obligations as an independent Champion in the League.”

Swain stared at Zac curiously, scratching his chin as he did. “Is that so?”

He did not let go of the moment, narrowing his eyes and continuing, “But what if you were already planning on accepting my offer because someone had put you up to it. That would fit your view of things, but could mean a lot of problems for me. How about that?”

“Do I have a duty to answer that?”

Zac’s heart had raced for a second when Swain had revealed what he already knew, and he mentally kicked himself for his clumsiness. Less than stellar response aside, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the master tactician probably had people shadowing him throughout the Institute. Ironically, Swain had probably pieced together the truth accidentally when he had been with Luxanna briefly yesterday afternoon. A classic mistake of wrong evidence leading to the correct conclusion.

Sharp footsteps could be heard as LeBlanc started walking towards him. Her hand was gripped on her staff, with the multi-faceted crystals dimly glowing. Her expression wore her old poker face, but behind it he could sense her killing intent. On and off the Fields of Justice, Zac often saw monsters and people alike showing such an expression with the powers to commit to it. As he felt this icy feeling from the bottom of his gut, Swain interjected, “That’s enough, Emilia.”

Her tense-looking brows forced out wrinkles as she stopped herself grudgingly. She then turned her back to both of them, a prideful display that was meant to doubly show her disdain for him. The first impression Zac had of LeBlanc seemed relatively spot on, as did the choice words Ahri had used earlier.

Swain waited to make sure LeBlanc’s temper had been satiated, and continued, “You don’t have a duty to answer.”

“However, we still want information on your goals. It’s because you are willing to babysit two of my subordinates that we’re speaking in this gentle manner. I hope you remember this.”

It was an obviously threatening line, but it seemed more insulting than anything else. A personal joke between the two of them, symbolic of the fact that they were using each other to their own ends. Remembering his original goal in this meeting, Zac clenched his sweaty hands and answered, “Someone once told me that the Institute of War would never last. That humans from different cultures are incapable of cooperation, even for their own survival. I want to prove her wrong.”

Zac watched Swain glance back at LeBlanc momentarily, perhaps wondering if Swain thought he was referring to her. Frowning doubtfully, he scratched his chin in thought once more.

“The League of Legends is the most cooperative initiative humanity has made in our history,” Swain merely continued without wavering. “For someone to not believe in it, they are either cynical or distrust humans themselves.”

“I wish it were that simple,” Zac sighed, unwilling to say any more on the subject. Having had more time to think about it in hindsight, everything that had happened in Sinful Succulence a day ago had been strangely surreal. The fact that Morgana had opened up to him so suddenly for their first real meeting stood out as the most peculiar fact. Maybe there was something about immortal angels that caused them to spill their guts out to mortals who were willing to sit silently and listen.

“Then, do you believe what the angels say?”

Again, Swain already knew exactly what he had been referring to without Zac having said anything more incriminating. Swain stared at the speechless Zac as he gradually continued.

“It’s no secret that the power the Institute of War wields is in part from knowledge brought by those two angels. Do you believe that, perhaps in secret, we owe the stability of our world to them, and we should take their word on such matters?”

“Well… I don’t know,” Zac was forced to admit. “I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them have knowledge or information that could cause our world to collapse. Since they are immortal, their kind could have destroyed this world a long time ago.”

“You would think so, wouldn’t you? I’m sure the angels have had their fair share of conquests over lesser creatures in their own world. I find it hard to believe that humans, who have such short life spans, are responsible for mediating peace between their kind.”

That was something he had never considered. The stories about all of the different Champions that took part in the League ranged from dreadful horrors to feats of fantasy. Most of the stories he knew had to be taken with a grain of salt, considering the Institute of War constantly worked to build up the reputation of its Champions to legendary levels of fame and notoriety. But thinking about it now, assuming Morgana had been telling the truth, how had the Institute of War crossed between dimensions and stopped a civil war between beings who were superior to humans in almost every way?

“I understand that everything that goes on in the Institute of War shouldn’t be taken for face value. I also know that the collective powers investing in Institute all have something they want to gain in return for their time and money. I just feel that, while it’s not perfect, the Institute of War and the League can last to uphold the ideals that caused its founding.”

Zac would never have thought of saying such things when he was with Ahri or Riven before, and he was shocked that he was expressing himself so fluidly like this.

“Hmm. You see the Institute of War as a vessel then? Something that carries with it the thoughts of intellectuals who were trying to prevent the destruction of this world.” Swain began to walk back with a stroll-like pace to his desk. “Such a wish is more than possible, I would say. Although discerning the intentions of others isn’t as simple as memorizing a timeline of past events. In the future, I’d advise you to remember that Noxians were not always a people who worshipped the military lifestyle. As I said before, I think adaptation is one of the required qualities of a leader.”

That unexpected line was tossed at Zac so casually that it caused him to answer back with only silence. Seating himself at his desk slowly, LeBlanc had followed him back to stand a step behind him in the shadows.

“You still have a lot to learn, young man. I hope you’ll be open to understand more about us. After that, I’ll be grateful if you can be of outstanding assistance to us.”

As soon as Swain had finished, the doors behind them opened up with Darius entering the room once more. Seeing that his time was up, Zac made an effort to finish the last of the tea served to him before getting up to leave. Before walking out he glanced one more time at the black rose, the lone flower sitting idle behind the two humans responsible for its symbolic might.

“I wish you luck on your journey, young man,” was the last thing Swain said to Zac before he left the room. He was unable to tell if those words were meant to be sincere, when LeBlanc just behind Swain was still staring at him with a cold and heinous look in her eyes.

As the door closed behind him, LeBlanc inadvertently sighed. She checked herself for giving into the strange pressure she had felt. Still feeling a little enraged at the lack of respect that had been done right in front of her, she asked Swain, “Was that alright?”

“This is a test for him as well. Let us see if he passes or fails it on his own.”

Swain answered with an emotionless expression. Despite everything that had happened, including the changes to their lives from living in the Institute as Champions, their thoughts could still connect. LeBlanc felt relieved by how she could feel what Swain was thinking, and recalled that it was not the same when Zac had been around. Maybe that was what she had felt antagonized by. Incensed by having something she liked taken away from her without warning or knowing why. He never bothered to even introduce me when that thing was around…

“I’m more concerned about Demacia’s movements compared to this. According to how the situation goes, we may have to open negotiations with Zaun again.”

LeBlanc did not know if her feelings had reached Swain who stated some pragmatic things. “You mean about investing in hextech?” she asked.

“Our demand for innovative weapons will be reduced in the future. Once we stop showing favoritism to Zaun, they might begin to get desperate. Then it’s only a matter of time before the political partnership they offer us disappears in turn.”

“You mean that Demacia will ask Piltover to do something?”

“That is a very high possibility. I don’t trust Zaun to have enough foresight to plan out security for their future. That city-state and all of its inhabitants could become cancerous for Noxus in the future.”

If we’re renegotiating our contracts with Zaun, then it must mean he’s going to go through with the changes we went over. Less funding for mindless projects of empty headed scholars, and the delusions of mad scientists. A revival of the magical arts and sciences in Noxus, and a blow to the order of red-blooded fools. The time to shed the sheepskin of the stale and rotting nobility is here. The time for the Black Rose to revive has arrived! LeBlanc secretly held back the rising sensation in her heart as she stared at this man who was the king of their world. The boy who she had known and been forced to part with so many years ago. Now she was a woman, and he was a man. Together, it seemed like they were finally ready to begin shaping the world together.

Swain took the black rose and put it near his lips, lowering his head as he continued, “How is the investigation of the Order of the Shadows going?”

“We’re using the information the Institute of War provided. We’ve made some interesting discoveries.”

“The Master of Shadows and the Dark Sovereign, you mean? It’s strange, isn’t it?”

LeBlanc though she could smell of the rose from where she was standing. “Hmm?”

At that moment, Swain stood up and said, “The Institute said that those two have begun working together recently. There’s nothing in their common history that implies that either Zed or Syndra would put aside their pride to work together. I want our intelligence group to hurry up with their analysis. I have a hunch about something else I’ll need them to investigate.”

Swain slowly handed over the black rose in his hands over to LeBlanc, who began following behind him as he went to leave. She could see his shoulders were showing fatigue, even underneath the fabric and armor of his robes. “I’ll be sure to tell them for you.” LeBlanc straightened her back out of respect as she watched Swain leave from his office.

Once his back disappeared from the closing doors and out of sight, LeBlanc finally looked back at the rose she received.

The black roses her order had named itself after were an unnatural phenomenon in the world. The result of the ancient arcane magic the land around Noxus had been tainted with, in the days before the city-state had formed an identity. They were hard to obtain from so far way, even a single stalk of rose. This one had been ordered from a florist in the surrounding city, one of many brought in from Noxus to be seen if they could be cultivated near to the Institute of War. She had begun making an effort to put a new rose on Swain’s table at least twice a week. I wonder if Swain noticed that I’m the one who chose the vase too? LeBlanc suddenly thought as she turned her stare back to the vase that was standing there in a lonely manner.

“He’s so tired, and yet wants to bear so much responsibility…”

Again, LeBlanc looked back at the rose in her hands. The deep black pedals that represented the endless potential of magic cultivated by humans. Our color… The color of the abyss that burns in our bodies. This is the color of people who have seen the potential of magic, and live in this world with destiny on their backs.

LeBlanc could not control her impulse, as she crushed the stem of the rose.

“He actually let that...thing...see his real face!”

The blood dripped from her fist, flowing down the stem and staining the floor.


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MSN00100

Recruiter

08-20-2014

There might be a slight delay in the last part of I.S.C.P. being posted later this week. Unfortunately there are some more important things in real life that need to be completed before online hobbies. Thank you for your consideration in advance, and as always, questions and comments are welcome.


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MSN00100

Recruiter

09-18-2014

As some people following this have probably guessed, I've hit a bit of a snag in my writing. I hope I'll be able to fix where I'm stuck soon, which means the next chapter should be up here before the end of this week.


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HuuurrrDuuurrr

Junior Member

09-18-2014

Don't know if you even care in the slightest about constructive criticism or not but I got some. The personality you give Zac is extremely cynical and unfriendly, never would've imagined that reading his lore and his in-game dialogue. What made you choose this for Zac? One of Zac's defining traits is that he's sillier than most champions.


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MSN00100

Recruiter

09-19-2014

Quote:
HuuurrrDuuurrr:
Don't know if you even care in the slightest about constructive criticism or not but I got some. The personality you give Zac is extremely cynical and unfriendly, never would've imagined that reading his lore and his in-game dialogue. What made you choose this for Zac? One of Zac's defining traits is that he's sillier than most champions.


You're very right on that point. Zac has an optimistic macho-tough-guy attitude that runs contrary with what someone would assume from his outer appearance. All and all it's a clever and simple part of his character which I want to work with.

But consider this: Zac grew up knowing that he was a bio-weapon constructed to destroy. But in a twist, he was given a childhood because of his scientist parents trying to raise him like a human. Now that he's a Champion in the League, he's always face to face with the cruel world he was taken away from. He's someone who gives off vibes that he sees the world as black and white, even though he's a living example that the world isn't.

I've made Zac a little more cynical than I should have, perhaps, for the beginning of this story. This is because the Institute of War is a very depressing and stagnant environment. Try to imagine being around other Champions with all of their own agendas, knowing that anything they do has some sort of ulterior motive. Most Champions are fighting for reasons that they're absolutely willing to die for, which of course means that they're willing to kill you for it too. In a world like that, always being friendly to everyone is a tall order.

No matter what happens though, he will stay true to his character and believe in the possibility in people to do good. That's what I intend, anyway. Once he leaves the stagnant walls of the Institute, I hope I can brighten his personality more. In fact, I had been worrying a lot that I was making him too cynical in recent chapters. You pointing this out to me has helped me a lot, and given some perspective on how to justify his behavior.


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runesage86

Junior Member

09-24-2014

I've always thought of Zac as the sort of fun loving character, kind hearted, and wants to protect those who cant help themselves (Make him meet up with Braum Please!)However, the cynical Zac is also interesting.
All of the stories in this forum change how I look at champions.
Please write more! I love this story.


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MSN00100

Recruiter

10-05-2014

Unstable Matters Chapter 12: Sophism

Who was it who wrote that time leads us to forget?

I guess the only ones who say things like that are either optimists, or people who have been shown the truth and are familiar with the concept of utter despair. In either case, it would be important to remember that words are both vague and multifaceted, and they rarely convey the truth. In the first entry I wrote, I promised that I would spin a story with my words. One that deserved to be handed down until the end of time, filled with lessons that have been told throughout countless generations.

A lot of fairy tales are designed in ways that teach lessons listeners can understand. Like having heroes go through rigorous trials to become something greater. Or some unfortunate soul having to go through a lot of trial and error before understanding some greater meaning from their failures.

The things that assail humans on Valoran are often born out of something frightfully simple like their own existences. Maybe Morgana was right when she said that humans are creatures of sorrow. When you consider that the only freedom granted to a protagonist in a story is the wild hope that they'll be freed from the complications of life, anyone would cry out with shock and sorrow in realizing that problems like that are inherent only to mankind.

Very soon the second generation of humans born after the founding of the Institute of War will enter this world.

It was believed that centralizing the knowledge and power of Valoran into a single neutral educational institution might open up the opportunity to save the world. The same world that had long since been at the mercy of mankind's destructive tendencies.

But even after such a monumental organization was founded, mankind's continued adherence to petty divisions and classifications meant that wars of class, race, and territory would not come to an end. Perhaps the founders of the Institute, being scholars, wizards, and philosophers, predicted this. They designed the Institute of War in such a way that it would fan the flames of conflict between those of different class, different religion, and different lines of thought in a more productive way. Sowing the seeds of a new type of conflict. A new way in a new world for mankind to act out its primal instincts...

And so, history on Runeterra has come to a standstill.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Zac stared at the perfectly waxed sheen of Draven's moustache, and decided to change the subject. "Um, is there a reason you're asking me all of this?"

"Listen, don't take it personally kid, but from my perspective you don't know zip about the ways of the world," Draven said, laughing and patting him on the arm as he did. Zac had run into the Glorious Executioner while being lead back to the entrance of the Noxian Quarter by Darius, and for some reason, was being subjected to an endless bombardment of new questions. "I don't understand what's going on here myself, but I don't think you're leveling with me."

"Really?"

"Really. I mean, Swain choose you? And not me? You aren't known for your incredible charm and charisma," Draven said, pulling at his vest proudly. "Like me."

"I don't know either. He's acting like I'm something special, right? But I haven't had any special training or something that makes me stronger off the Fields of Justice.

"Well, then how come everyone else received direct orders from the Grand General himself concerning you? Normally Champions are just checked at the entrance for their identity and cleared to come inside. Don't you think it's a little odd that Swain personally ordered me and my brother to look out for you?"

That was news to him. Zac mulled over the hinted implications in Draven's words in silence, taking note of the look Darius was shooting him. The older of the Noxian brothers wasn't the type to say anything more than what was necessary, ever, but that look meant that those last few words were something that shouldn't have been said.

"Heh. Maybe it's because I've killed all of you so many times in League matches."

"Don't play me for the fool, kid." Zac noted how Draven was getting visibly angry.

"I'm not. I don't have any kind of crazy powers that are being held back by the magic those Summoners use, and even if someone told me I did, I wouldn't believe them.

But…" Zac seemed to suddenly recall something. "But what if I did…?"

"Ah, whatever! Just forget I said anything," Draven conceded, throwing his arms up in the air in an exaggerated display of frustration. "But hey, about something more important; how did you get those two beauties to come with you?"

"Who?" Zac asked. "You mean Ahri and Riven?"

"Yeah! Duuuuh! When I heard that they were here, I couldn't believe it!" Draven exclaimed. "The only time that smoking hot succubus ever talks with anyone is when she's planning on eating their soul! And Riven? No one even knows where she goes when she's not fighting in the League! She's like a hermit, or some ****. What the hell did you say to get those two to come along with you!?"

Zac found himself taken aback, and at a loss for words. Ignoring the dramatization, he had been comfortable with the idea that Ahri, Riven, and himself had been getting along because of their mutual use for each other. But that was something that wouldn't last forever. He had assumed that their friendly relations with each other had been centered on that fact, but what if that wasn't the case? Was he making it harder on himself by being so coolly distanced? There was no reason to believe that even if everyone had ulterior motives, that they would be running against his own.

In spite of it all, he almost laughed. It was funny that he was stopping to reconsider different life-altering perspectives, only from the vague implication that he was starting an accidental harem.

Before he could think of something disarming to say back to Draven, Darius stopped and raised a steel fist for them too. Without Zac realizing it, they had already arrived back at the large wooden doors that preserved the Ivory Barracks from the rest of the Institute. Reaching under the plates of his armor, he pulled out a small envelope that was pinned closed by a red wax seal. Then he said in a flat voice, "These are yours to keep, for your eyes only. It has all of the information you'll need about your mission inside. What you share is up to you."

Zac found himself smiling as he took the envelope from Darius. "Really? Thanks for the information." It dawned on him that since he had no place to hide the envelop on his person, he was probably being set up for Ahri and Riven to see it too.

The two soldiers guarding the inner doors stepped forward to open them for them, and Zac took his first steps back outside. A rush of wind hit his face, and for some reason the air outside of the Ivory Barracks seemed hotter than inside.

"The convoy leaving the city for Zaun will head out at noon sharp. Be there early."

Darius and Draven stayed inside, and before he could even say anything back the doors were closed behind him. His hands were still sweating; small drops of himself rolling down the back of his hands that were reabsorbed the second they were almost pulled away by gravity. It was a lot of take in; everything Swain has said and his own thoughts on everyone else's strange behavior. But in spite of it all, he felt confident that he had put up a good enough act to secure their own safe passage across Runeterra, so long as they proved to be useful.

Grasping the small envelope in his large slimy palms, Zac looked it over. The red wax seal had some sort of symbol printed into it, something related to its origin. Other than that it seemed too light to be carrying of any serious significance, so without thinking much about it, he pushed it right into the center of his chest for safe keeping until he could open it later.

Walking down the path and through the iron gates at the entrance, Zac was ripped from his thoughts from an angry shout.

"Back off! I'm warning you!"

Ahri could feel the warm burning of her own magic in her open palm. A voice inside of her kicked herself for putting so much time into mastering her orb of deception, and not finding ways to make her fox fire more lethal. Compared to the spells of other mages in the Institute, it was nothing but a party trick that would only sting most of the monsters that lived around her.

Unfortunately, judging by the stupid smirk on Warwick's ugly face, the wolf-man hadn't been too phased from being hit with a fireball right into the side of his head.

"Feisty today, aren't you?" Warwick's jowls peeled back a little, in what she could only assume was some sort of amused sneer. Ignoring his own singed fur, he licked the outside of his own canines hungrily. "You shouldn't have done that, fox."

"**** off, you animal!" Ahri shot back angrily. She glanced down at where Riven had been knocked to the floor, and could see the blood running from her face where Warwick had taken a swipe at her. Despite being attacked, she hadn't made any moves to unsheathe her broken rune blade. "Who the hell do you think you are!? Attacking someone like that!"

Warwick let out a deep chuckle, and Ahri could feel her blood boiling. She had grown a thick skin to many things ever since she had started learning about her humanity, but there was something about men like Warwick she despised.

He was someone who took one of the most basic laws of the natural world, and perverted it with human arrogance. Calling himself a great hunter, while whoring himself out to the powers around him in return for their protection. There was something disgusting and hypocritical about it, which was completely different from other champions like Rengar or Nidalee.

"She's a soldier, isn't she?" Warwick said, he wicked smile growing when he noticed the blood dripping from Riven's face. "You should always stay on your guard when you're in enemy territory. Didn't they ever teach her that?"

In a blink of an eye Ahri pitched the fireball in her hand as hard as she could at him. But the eyes of the Blood Hunter saw it coming the second time. Warwick swung out with his claws, and struck the blazing flame down against the ground. The fireball burst with a loud pop, the magic flames fizzling out on impact in a bright flash. Just as fast as he had struck Riven, Warwick closed the distance between himself and Ahri.

Ahri put her arms up in reflex, to guard against the expected strike. But that sharpened steel swipe never came. Instead, Warwick grabbed onto her wrists with both of his hands. He pried her arms apart, pulling her closer to him as he did and blowing a hot puff of air from his nostrils right into her exposed face.

"I said you shouldn't have done that, fox," he growled, tightening his grip around her wrists as she struggled against him. Strength for strength, her own petite frame was no match for his. His wicked grin grew from the smell of fear, as he watched her wince away from him as he pulled her closer. "What can an animal like you do against a great hunter like me?"

"You're more of an animal than me!" Ahri spat, disgusted by the smell of fetid meat on his breath that was coming from every word he spoke. "You damn monster!"

"I can see the fire in your eyes, and the fear in your heart. I love it when my prey struggles." Warwick laughed, and Ahri felt her spine shiver in revulsion. He continued to laugh, even as she started kicking against his legs to free herself from his clutches. "I used to take a lot more living trophies, you know. How about becoming a part of my collection?"

Without warning, he felt her stop her fighting against him. Her arms went limp, but he kept his grip firm on her. Looking down at the ground, Ahri said something as quiet as a whisper on the wind.

"Speak up fox," Warwick demanded, moving closer so that they were almost nose to nose. He could smell the flowery perfume she had applied to herself in the morning, and licked his jowls in wonderment if she would taste just as lovely.

"Warwick, the big strong human hunter," Ahri mumbled, her tone neutral of any intent.

"Groveling will get you nowhere," he sneered. "If you're going to beg, then get on your knees and beg like the beast you are."

"Warwick, Warwick, Warwick…"

"What!?"

"Warwick," Ahri said one last time, finally looking back up at him. She beamed the biggest smile her face would allow at him, readying herself for what she wanted to say.

"Go **** yourself."

She threw herself forward, spitting at him and hitting him right between the eyes.

"You *****!" Warwick roared, letting go of her to wipe her spit out from his eyes. But before she could do anything with her freedom, he raised a leg and swiftly struck her.

Ahri felt the air in her lungs fly right out of her even before she hit the ground, kicked by the full weight of the mutant human's strength. She was coughing and gasping for breath at the same time, a violent and painful exchange as she clutched her stomach where she had been struck. The stone floor of the Institute didn't help matters, and she could feel her knee and shoulder that she had landed on throbbing in pain.

"You think you're funny, do you!?" Warwick demanded. Furiously wiping his eyes clean, his own spit flew freely in the air as he shouted at her. "No one disrespects me! I'll teach you what it means to be a hunter's prey!"

Watching like a spectator, Zac felt his own jaw hanging slack at what had just happened right in front of him. His legs felt like he had just been hit by the cold steel magic wave the randiun's omen shield could make. A voice inside of him wanted to run over to Ahri and Riven, not even thinking about Warwick. Beating him up would come later. Or sooner. The order of events wouldn't really matter.

But… What if it was a trap?

What was Warwick doing outside of the Noxian quarter of the Institute of War? Why had he just attacked Riven out of the blue when there were steep penalties for Champion fights outside of the Fields of Justice? Why weren't either of the guards posted outside of the Noxian quarter doing anything? Why was this happening just after he had met with Swain? Why—

"Hey."

Zac looked over his shoulder in surprise, ripping out of his thoughts that had been spiraling out of control. He was met by a far too familiar face touched by a unique scar and hugged by crimson red hair.

Katarina Du Couteau had her arms crossed over her chest, and all he could do was stare back dumbly as she spoke again.

"What's the matter with you?" she asked. He could sense what she was implying, the agitation in her voice directed at his frozen composure. Without warning she reached around her back, grabbing one of her signature blades and holding it out in an offering to him.

"Aren't you a man? Go do what you have to do."

For a second he considered taking what she was offering: a chance to walk the easiest route of all. The most absolute and conclusive of all his options; bringing a swift and sharp death to someone who, admittedly, had it coming. No arguing philosophies with a madman, or debating ethics with a beast. He didn't have to make it painful, or draw it out into something more dramatic than it should be. In one swift stroke, Warwick would bleed out like any other living creature in the Institute, albeit the more human-like ones.

Yes, for a second he considered taking what she was offering.

But only for a second.

Turning his back to her, he started walking over to where Warwick still screaming threats at Ahri who was on the ground. Katarina stayed silent, uncrossing her arms and holding an open palm out to the two soldiers at the front gates who had watching and waiting for her orders. The message was clear; since he had turned down her generous offer, she wanted to see what would happen.

Still unnoticed, she watched as Zac get right behind the oblivious wolf-man and raise his foot into the air. The green goo of his body seemed to condense, forming taut muscle-like curves. Without warning, he brought it down hard against Warwick's arched ankle, snapping it in two.

Like a sack of bricks Warwick collapsed onto the floor, letting out a primal howl in pain. He whipped himself around, snarling like a wild animal as he held his broken ankle in his blue furred hands. His red eyes widened when he saw who had suddenly attacked him.

"You—! I'll kill you for—"

Zac reached out, lifting the wolf-man up by the blue fur on his chest. He held him, pulling him up off of the ground and putting his snout inches from his face. "I want you to remember something, blood hunter," Zac said, staring Warwick in the eyes and ignoring his efforts to claw at his arm to get free.

"No one ****s with my team."

Zac reeled his right arm back as far as it would stretch, molding his fingers into a solid fist before launching them forward. Katarina watched in some satisfaction as Zac's fist, as big as her head, collided with the side of Warwick's face knocking the mutant human into the air.

Still on the ground and winded from the blow to her stomach, Ahri looked up to see the body of her attacker fly over her. Warwick's body slammed against the ground, still traveling with enough momentum that he bounced on impact before slamming into a nearby wall. With all of his limbs crumpled in different directions, she knew the single blow had either knocked him out or outright killed him.

"Huh. Not exactly what I had in mind, but still satisfying," Katarina said, clapping her hands slowly and walking over to Warwick's body. Ruthlessly, she gave him a strong kick into his side. There was a small pool of blood forming from where Zac's fist had caved in the side of Warwick's face.

"Pathetic. Once a great hunter, now nothing but a slobbering animal."

In war there were always brave young individuals who distinguished themselves and soared in the ranks. For a city-state like Noxus that was always fighting someone or some group somewhere, there always laid the endless potential for fame and glory on the chaos of an open battlefield.

Katarina Du Couteau, unlike Riven, Sion, Urgot, Swain, or Darius, was not one such individual. Her destiny was to be the same as many of her fellow Champions, but different at the same time.

The ascent through the core ranks of Noxus' military assassins had not been without its ceremonial falterings and sundry spiteful amusements, as Zac had read deep in the Institute's archives. She had been trained to walk, then to run, and then how to kill from her birth. Incredible talents aside, Katarina had always held an edge over her contemporaries, since her family lineage had been core part of the Noxian military nobility for over a century. Her social class as the daughter of nobility had only been buffered by her incredible talent before the days of the League. Katarina Du Couteau was guarded, loyal, calculated, methodically mendacious, and an all-around professional in just about everything she was assigned to do.

But that was before the Institute of War and the League of Legends that followed. Before the end of global wars, before the conspiracy around her family, before the destruction of the Darkwill lineage, and before the internal military revolution in Noxus.

What remained of the strong willed woman who was famous worldwide for her blood-red hair and skill with a sword? The living ghost of the old military order in Noxus.

What did she fight for? Did she hold a grudge against Swain for sweeping her father aside in his ambitions? Was she even aware of the deeper conspiracy involving the Black Rose? Or when it came to political ideals, was she more flexible than she let on?

These were the questions his mind begged him to ask, but at the same time, knew would never be answered.

"Well, here you are bringing trouble to my doorstep. Care to explain yourself, Jumbo?"

"I was invited, actually." Zac walked over to Katarina's side to see what damage he had wrought for himself. He glanced down at Warwick, noting the number of teeth missing from his mouth that was still bleeding freely. "Trouble tends to find me, regardless though."

"Ahh, that's right," Katarina said, snapping her fingers thoughtfully. The sword she had offered him had already been slipped back into its sheath strapped over her back. "They mentioned you were going to show up. I'm surprised you found the courage to."

"That's funny, actually," said Zac, choosing ignore the insult thrown his way. "Who is 'they' in your case?"

"Who else? Swain, of course."

"That's very funny then, because Swain made it clear that this wasn't something he wanted everyone to know about," Zac lied, trying to sound as earnest as he could despite that fact. "But then he goes and meets me in a semi-public place. From the way Darius was acting, I was wondering if he even bothered to tell you about it."

"I know. Trust me when I say that it was a test to see if you could keep things a secret. That's how he does things."

"Then he gave me no chance to pass it."

"Well, unlike the master bird-brain, I choose to trust Champions I get stuck with. Without trust, what else is there? I don't do the whole shadowy chess master bull****," Katarina explained reasonably, albeit with the harsh abrasiveness that she was known for. "I'll give you proof of that right now. You should know that all of the hextech communication devices in your apartment have been bugged."

Zac caught his breath, stunned by the sudden amount of frank honesty. "How the hell do you know that?"

"Because I did it. Remember that you left before me?" She rolled her eyes at him, frowning at his inability to keep up. "There, see? There haven't been any recordings from the wards, because you didn't use anything last night. You went with that vixen to her home to do god knows what."

"****, I don't know what I know." Zac soaked up the disagreeable intelligence with a prolonged groan.

"Look on the bright side, kid. Now you'll always think about these things. The Institute is always watching us, so why wouldn't things like your mail, magic devices, travel papers, and bank accounts be monitored by someone?"

"Katarina, how do you know all of this?"

"You can call me Kat, Zac. Everyone else does."

"How do you know all of this, Katarina?"

Furrowing her brow from his stubborn unwillingness to cooperate, she turned and snapped to the guards who had been hovering behind them the whole time awkwardly. "You two! Dump him somewhere else! I don't care where, just get his Zaunite stink away from our home!" She then turned back to him, after looking over him and seeing that Ahri was helping Riven stop the bleeding from the scrapes across her face.

"For the last year I've been in charge of a lot of deals for Noxus in the shadows of this world. Important deals. So imagine my surprise when I'm suddenly told that, not only will I be delivering something incredibly important to a group that hates our guts, but, I'll be doing it with three Champions from the Institute who have no business getting involved in our business."

"You're worried about being set up? Even with your immunity?"

Katarina narrowed her eyes, closing the gap between them and giving him a hard stare.

"Answer my questions first, and maybe I'll answer some of yours. Okay?" she asked, her voice low and cold.

Refusing to be intimidated, Zac pressed back in a harder manner. "I don't know what he told you, but I'll say it again to you. I'm here because I want to preserve the peace. Riven and Ahri are with me because they can help me do that."

"How convenient. Your story about world peace I could buy, and maybe even the idea of that fox being helpful. But her?" Katarina crossed her arms, with one hand jabbing a sharp finger in the direction of Riven. "Our dirty laundry that's been in plain sight for the world to watch ever since she showed up? Your timing is a little too convenient for me."

"What's it to you?" he felt compelled to ask. "She's never had an opinion on anything about Noxus other than her distaste for Zaun. That's more in line with what Swain is turning to now, isn't it?"

"I don't care about that. It isn't about politics, it's about our reputation. I'm not stupid; I'm damn well aware that most of the Champions from my homeland are never a part of popular pick combinations these summoners are coming up with all of the time. Your Battle Bunny over there, however, is one very popular pick. And not just because her ass looks good in a skin tight costume."

"...You're telling me you're jealous, Kitty Kat?"

Katarina gave him an amused sneer, scoffing loudly as she did. "Don't be stupid. It's bad enough that she's a deserter from our elite forces. Do you expect me to be happy working with her outside of the Institute?"

Zac felt himself grimacing tightly, now knowing that the white-haired exile wasn't something Katarina had any intention of letting go of. When he had met with Swain only minutes earlier, Zac had wondered if something would be said about his choice of accomplices, tasteless or otherwise. But Swain hadn't even brushed the subject, and in hindsight, maybe it was his lackluster answers and behavior in front of Swain had said enough. When it came to Noxians with power, nothing was safe to assume. Realizing it now, he had underestimated how much freedom Katarina had in operations she led, despite that they were all undoubtedly handed down by Swain at the very top of the High Command.

He stayed silently, pretending to think about what she had said while weighing his own options. Mentioning anything about the I.S.C.P. and Riven was out of the question. Hell, he didn't have a full grasp as to why Riven herself seemed so obsessed over the idea of coming with him. The fact that she was letting Ahri mess around with her for the entire morning only contributed to how determined she seemed to be. It really was nothing short of an obsession, now that he thought about it more.

If he didn't even know why she was coming with him, what could he promise Katarina?

"If I promise to keep her on a short leash, would that be enough?"

"I want more than that. She's a loose end, and I won't have that in my operation." Katarina stopped and looked back toward Riven, her eyes reflecting someone deep in thought. But Zac knew better; the assassin already had something in mind, and was eyeing up Riven as she rehearsed how to say it to him in her head.

"I'm not sure what you're looking for here. I'm not her commander or something like that."

"How about this? Give her to me. You and the fox can do whatever it is you two have been doing, and I'll take care of our lost property myself."

"Not happening," Zac said immediately, shaking his head. Everything he had said in protest to Kolminye a day ago was starting to come back to him, and the idea of leaving Riven in Katarina's hospitality didn't sit well without having to use his imagination. "I'm more than aware about her past and what you think of her, but I'm letting her come along for a reason. I need to keep her close to me."

"Really. And what reason is that? Huh? Don't tell me you like staring at her ass too." Katarina gave him a disgusted frown, crossing her arms over her chest once more.

Zac glanced back at Ahri and Riven, then to the two Summoner guards who were leaving with Warwick's body dragging between them. He needed an excuse, desperately.

Or maybe something better.

A distraction; something that would cause Katarina to doubt what she already knew, whether it was true or not. Anything that could make it seem like he would be an asset, and not a liability.

Then it hit him. If his left hand was going to cause problems, why not solve it with his right?

"Ahri is being used as a puppet," Zac whispered with a sense of urgency, but just loud enough for Katarina to hear. "LeBlanc wants to use her to sabotage your mission, and get in better graces with Swain."

"What—!?" For only a fraction of a second, the confident facade Katarina always sported fell. But as fast as it had fallen it was back up, and replaced by something...else. Her face then darkened as she reached up, grabbing him by his lower jaw and bending him down just enough so that they were even.

"You're lying," Katarina hissed. Her voice had the sting of pure undiluted acid, and knew that he had touched on something more than a simple sore point. "You have some damn nerve, trying to throw me off by using her name."

"You think so? I've run into some coincidences myself over the last couple of days," Zac said, continuing to talk despite his lower jaw being stretched out like rubber. "For the last two weeks, I know LeBlanc has been teaching Ahri in private for nothing in return. Then out of the blue, she shows up and wants to come with me on this mission with you. She's claiming that she's doing it because of a love for Ionia, but does she really look like the kind that risks her neck in philanthropic acts?"

Zac watched Katarina's jaw move, as if she were chewing on something tough and leathery. Maybe it meant that she understood now what kind of position he was in too. Caught in an intersection of intents by a lot of powerful people they both couldn't say no to. The mental storm still raging in her head, she glared at him again before looking back to Ahri once more.

Somehow her angry scowl only got deeper.


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MSN00100

Recruiter

10-05-2014

Chapter 12: Sophism (Cont.)

"What does this have to do with Riven?"

"I need her to keep track of Ahri, because you can't stop that fox from doing anything once she's off that ship," Zac said. "You may be in charge of everything on the Garuda, but the moment we make landfall anywhere it's open season for trouble to come knocking."

"If you don't trust her, then why did you choose her?"

"I didn't have a say in that. Some head honcho Institute Summoner wanted an independent Ionian Champion to tag along, and I got stuck with her."

"If I can't keep track of her, how the hell is Riven going to do that?"

"She will. If you're going to trust me, then trust me on that."

"...This isn't over," Katarina threatened, letting him go suddenly. She then shoved her way past him, and walked over to talk to where Riven and Ahri still were. Out of the line of fire, Zac rubbed his own jaw sorely to make sure that it hadn't been deformed from her iron grip. As he did, he felt someone gently tap him on the shoulder from behind.

"What did you say to her?" Ahri asked, her cheeks puffed out in a huff. Her tails behind her were fluffed out, waving about like angry snakes.

"Just the usual ****. Use your imagination," Zac muttered frankly, unable to hear what Katarina was saying to Riven from where they were standing. "What did she say to you?"

"She told me to 'screw'."

"What? Screw?"

"Yeah! Just like this!" Ahri jerked her thumb over her shoulder in a clean and simple motion. "Just like that! The nerve of that *****, talking like I'm one of her toy soldiers…"

"Don't take it to heart. I said a couple of things that ruffled her feathers," Zac admitted humbly, noting that whatever Katarina and Riven were talking about hadn't come to blows yet.

"How is she? Nothing too serious, right?"

"Who? Riven? Of course she's fine. It could have been worse, but she still had the reflexes of a soldier," Ahri said, waving her hand dismissively. "Why don't you ask her yourself if you're concerned?"

"I'll get around to it," Zac said, looking back at the iron gates that lead deeper into the Noxian Quarter. With everything that had happened, the grounds around them were still strangely silent. "Right now, I just want to get as far away from here while we still can. This place isn't safe for us."

He watched her turn to look toward where the pair of Noxian Summoners had dragged off Warwick's body. There was a small trail of blood drops that stained the hard stone floor, like some macabre trail markings. He wondered for a second if her delicate sensibilities had been stunned by the violent display, but then remembered how stupid such a thought was in consideration to who he was talking to and where. Without him realizing it, he had walked into a surreal blend of what was expected on a Field of Justice, and the world Riven had described in her accusations a night ago.

"You really did a number of him," Ahri said quietly, in a way that made Zac wonder if she had gotten her fill of violence for one day.

"He had it coming. Katarina will vouch for me on that. How are you feeling?" Zac asked with concern.

Ahri placed a hand over her stomach. The pain from the blow had already subsided, and maybe there would be a bruise there tomorrow. She considered asking to go to one of the many doctors' offices in the Institute, but not if it would complicate preparing for their mission tomorrow. In hindsight her injury was hardly anything to complain about, since there were a million and one worse ways she had been injured when fighting on a Field of Justice.

What had struck her more than anything else, and still remained like a lingering regret in her mind, was the energy that had been knocked out of her. The blow had been underhanded and dirty, coming from someone who probably had a lot of experience attacking his targets in dirty ways. But the feeling of helplessness afterward, unable to even force herself to stand up or shout, was more bitter than her own bile that she had swallowed back down. Yes, bitter was the word for it. She was bitter over how much weaker her own body felt without the magic of the Institute behind her.

"I'll be fine. He caught me off guard, that's all," Ahri said, maybe trying to convince herself too.

"What about Riven?"

"What about her?"

"...Is she alright?"

Ahri looked at him oddly, in a way Zac wasn't sure why. "You asked me that already. I told you that it wasn't that bad, remember?"

"...No, I don't," Zac admitted, rubbing his temples gingerly for a few seconds.

Zac was dumbfounded by his own momentary lapse in memory. His head was throbbing in a pain that wasn't quite a pain. Was it regret? He was hardly the type that bothered to think twice about everything he did, for better or for worse, but was the sudden fog clouding his mind coming from guilt? Five minutes ago he never would have thought to hold back against Warwick, after seeing what he had done to Ahri and Riven. Katarina's timely antagonism aside, had the assassin's words actually goaded him into his swift and brutal response?

Items and artifacts aside, the magic runes and mastery spells Summoners could choose from before fights began were responsible for the strength different champions wielded. Off the Fields of Justice, however, many formidable champions were not nearly as strong. Warwick had always been one of those types he had figured for being durable off the Fields, with the magic Summoners employed giving him more lethality on it.

Where had the power he had drawn from come from? That strength that let him break bones and knock Warwick aside with ease. It was surprising how easily he had defeated the mutant human, almost as if he were still on a Field of Justice.

Maybe I'm just stronger than I look, Zac thought to himself, balling his hand into a fist once more.

Ahri watched him flex his open palm, noting how his own eyes seemed fixated on opening and closing the palm on his hands. Open. Closed. Open. Closed. Like someone awakening from a long sleep, or warming up for some sort of exercise.

"...Feeling guilty about something?" she asked, after waiting a moment to see if he would stop.

"You can tell?"

She was watching him in a studious way that he was starting to become accustomed to. Maybe because he couldn't sense any sneaky intent behind it. It was just that there was something distinctly Ahri-like about it, that just wouldn't be the same with people like Riven or Katarina. Maybe it was just the difference between a trained soldier and someone who was self-taught.

"I guessed. You shouldn't second guess yourself when it comes to saving others."

"It's not that," Zac denied, still regretting his indecision to immediately confront Warwick from before. "I just hope that what I did doesn't come to bite us in the ass later."

"When you make a big omelet, you can't worry about an egg or two. Right?"

"...Yeah, I get what you mean," Zac said quietly, a sneaky feeling of déjà vu running past him. Ahri winked at him in a unsubtle assertion of her wit.

Taking a second to breathe and collect himself, he looked at how Katarina and Riven seemed to still be talking. From what he could see the two of them seemed to be getting along swimmingly. Which, thinking about it, was probably a worse sign than anything else.

"So… What did you and Swain talk about? And what's that in your chest?"

It was an honest question; one that he had been dreading answering. With everything that had unfolded so suddenly, he had never even gotten a second to think of how what he was going to tell Riven and Ahri about meeting with Swain. Before he could think of something to deflect her curiosity, she quickly lashed out with a second strike.

"Don't you trust me?"

Ahri stuck her tongue out at him playfully, trying to defuse some of the overwhelming animosity that was hanging over him. It was probably safe to surmise that something new had happened to add to the weird happenings in the night before. Met with an awkward silence in waiting for her answer, she let out a loud pitying sigh, before crossing her arms behind her back and beginning to walk in a slow circle around him.

"You still don't trust me with the truth? Or are you afraid of something?"

"It's not like that," Zac tried to deny, that feeling of déjà vu starting to turn rotten in his gut. He watched Ahri put a single finger to her lips, slowly reaching out to do the same to him with her other hand. After another moment of waiting, she removed her finger from her own lips when she spoke.

"Smile."

Zac looked down at her, blinking in surprise. She looked back up with him with sympathetic eyes and her own slim smile.

"I like it better when you smile. Or when you tell jokes," Ahri said decisively, after a moment had passed. She had stopped her pacing, finger still touching his lips, and still staring at him straight in his eyes. "I told you before, didn't I? You shouldn't be so serious. With a face like that, Riven will never open up to you."

"But I'm n—"

He felt Ahri push her finger more firmly against his lips.

"Hush. Don't be ashamed of your fear. I know there is a lot riding on this, and it's a lot more than you're willing to tell me. But you shouldn't push away your friends because they know you're afraid. Trust me on that."

"Friends, huh?" Zac asked, suddenly aware of the cynical bitterness that seemed to unintendedly permeate from his own voice. "Is that what we are? Is that what you call it?"

Ahri blinked at his tone, her finger still on his lips, and turned her head at him ever so slightly.

"Of course we are. Don't you think so too?"

At that moment everything around Zac seemed strange. Like he was standing between two waterlogged realities. His head was still throbbing from the mystery pain, but he felt himself in awe at Ahri's rapturous contentment. She seemed like some sort of being out of a dream, incapable of being bruised or suppressed by the miserable world around them. He envied that maturity more than she would ever know, and wondering how she had acquired such strength put a dread in him that felt unsurmountable.

"...I'm sorry," Zac apologized after a little, after realizing how he was treating her.

"Don't apologize, silly." Ahri winked encouragingly at him again, dragging her finger nail down his chin in a slow and deliberate manner. "Let's just blame the Institute and call it even, okay? Now… How about you take a guess at what they're talking about," Ahri said, looking around him. Zac twisted his neck around, enough to see that Katarina was still talking to Riven some distance behind him.

"I don't know. What do Noxians talk about?"

"What do—? Hmm… Maybe, fighting and...stuff?" Ahri scratched her head and shrugged. Noticing his look of amusement from her own lame answer, she puffed her cheeks up at him threateningly. "What!? Do I look like I would know!?"

"I don't know. You know a lot of things," Zac conceded, scratching the back of his head and looking away. Hearing Ahri let out a loud bull-like snort, he almost laughed in spite of himself. Even though he had no muscles or nerves to speak of, he really could feel his entire self-calming down as he did. It was as if some sort of great burden he hadn't realized he had been carrying had been lifted from his shoulders.

"Maybe they're making some sort of master plan. Something to overthrow Swain, and make Katarina the leader of Noxus?"

"Then it's a good thing we're on this mission together," Zac said, trying not to laugh at the idea. "If the future leader of Noxus owes us, maybe we could use it to do some good."

"For whom?"

"That's the real question, isn't it?" Zac gave a self-effacing laugh. He was slowly realizing that there was a lot between them that was not necessary to put into words. "If I'm going to become manipulative and deceitful, then I might as well do it for a good cause."

"You know… I wasn't really sure you liked me, until today." Ahri revealed with a touch of timid grace. He watched her edge even closer to him, in barely noticeable manner.

"Well, we're in this together," said Zac evasively, "and what are friends for?"

"Funny, I was just thinking the same thing. Because, there is something you can do for me, in return for trying to sell me out to Katarina," Ahri explained, and Zac visibly winced.

"You heard that, huh."

"My ears just don't frame my face. I can hear what Kat and Riven are talking about too."

"...Ugh, I'm sorry. Again."

"Sorry that you used me to distract a psychotic killer? Or sorry that I caught you?"

"Honestly? Both," Zac admitted, looking away in shame. Ahri sighed, shaking her head at him and covering her face with the palm of her hand.

"Oh, Zac. My dear sweet secret weapon," she bemoaned dramatically. "Leave the treachery and backstabbing to people who know how. Okay? Not having a good poker face can get us both killed out there."

"Yes ma'am. I bow to your superior experience in the art of seduction and manipulation." He grinned at her, and she returned his expression too.

"I'm going to hold you to that, you know. Learning to lie isn't just something you can pick up overnight. And I mean what I said before, I want to see you smile more too," Ahri added, by which Zac understood her to mean that his misery was contagious. "You can't be happy if you have to be on your guard all of the time. A life like that isn't...natural. It's too easy to lose yourself in this...this…"

"A world away from the world?" Zac ventured to suggest.

"Yeah, something like that," Ahri said. "Come to think of it, I don't want to be nosey, but… Do you have a home to go to?"

"Home?" Zac pretended to ponder. That was something he did not want to touch on, for a lot of reasons. One of them being, namely, that both of his parents were still wanted fugitives in Zaun for absconding him during his youth. Protection and amnesty for them had been one of the things promised to him in exchange for his loyalty to the Institute of War, but that didn't mean that it was something open for casual discussion.

"Not really. I'm just...here...all of the time. Why do you ask?"

"I thought so. I was thinking before, about what we were talking about yesterday. No Champions really live here, well, excluding the monsters," she continued. "Everyone has some place they go back to. Some place to call home; an escape from the suffocating pressure of the Institute. Maybe we need to find you one too?"

"You sound like you have an idea already in mind."

"Maybe," Ahri teased. "All in due time, my dear friend. All in due time."

"So wait, if what you said was true…" Zac looked over his shoulder, and pointed a finger toward Katarina and Riven across his own waist. "I want to know; what do Noxians talk about?"

"Do you listen to yourself? You should have more faith in your friends, mister." Ahri said, slapping him on the arm lightly. "Shame on you. Don't you think Riven would tell us if we just asked? And don't you think I would have said something if it was anything important?"

"...Yeah, I guess you're right," Zac conceded, after thinking about it. "I'm just trying to play it safe, you know? I don't want to be sold as a test subject to some Zaunite lunatic so Riven go back to being in Noxus' good graces."

She shot him a glower, before hitting him on the same arm much harder. "You see? That's what I'm talking about! What's gotten into you?" she demanded. "How can you call yourself a friend when you don't even trust her?"

"Who said we're friends?" Zac said back. Ahri scoffed, and he knew that she was going to lay into him for acting like an immature child.

"She told me. Riven told me you were both friends when I asked about it this morning. Got anything smart to say about that, Zac?"

He wanted to say something back. Something to point out the irrefutable proof he had that everything in the world around them was twisted and warped. People who told the truth were treacherous, and people who lied were selfish, but trustworthy. Good causes often fell short, and terrible people got what they wanted for longer than they deserved. Again, the sense of déjà vu was coming back to him. His tongue felt fat in his own mouth and, unable to think of anything smart to say back, he chose to stay silent.

"That's what I thought," Ahri said, a little too smugly for his liking. "Now, when you ask what Riven was talking about with Katarina, I expect you to believe what she has to say. Do you understand me?"

"Have we had this conversation before?" Zac asked testily, sulking as he looked away.

"No, I would have remembered it if it was important," Ahri said, and he saw the slightest smug smirk tugging at her lips. "Now be nice, and remember what I told you. Here she comes."

Zac and Ahri watched Katarina pat Riven on the shoulder, in a way that seemed far too personable and familiar for an assassin who looked down on the world. Without even sparing a glance his way, Katarina strutted back into the Noxian Quarter of the Institute of War, pushing the giant iron gates behind her and slamming them shut.

He noticed Riven was still looking at the solid steel doors that Katarina had disappeared behind as she made her way back over to them. The bandage on her cheek was stained with an all too familiar red, which was barely beginning to bleed through the other side. He could see the dried blood caked on the palm of her hand, the same hand she has probably used to try and stop her bleeding, and felt his guts pitch in guilt at the sight of it.

"How are you feeling?"

"I've been better," Riven said, putting her bloody palm against the bandage over her cheek. He watched her turn and look at the bleeding trail Warwick had left behind, the nasty sight not having been cleaned up yet. "What about you? Did you really knock him out with that hit?"

"Yeah, well, I almost strained a muscle doing it, but I think I'll live," Zac joked, but Riven didn't seem to find it funny.

"You didn't have to do it."

"I think he deserved it."

"I'm not saying that. I'm saying that you didn't have to get involved," said Riven, and Zac wondered if what he was sensing was a hint of resentment. "If he holds a grudge against you, it could be a problem in the future when we head to Zaun."

"Then I'll just have to do it again. Or you'll just have to return the favor, and beat him up for me," Zac said, giving her a nonchalant shrug as he did. "How about that?"

"We both owe you for today," Ahri said, speaking up and stepping around from behind Zac purposefully before Riven could respond. "But I'm sure there will be a lot of changes to pay you back. For better, or for worse."

"Yeah. What she said," Zac agreed, with those five words leaving his mouth in a strange way that he desperately hoped would not come back to haunt them. He listened to Riven say the same words in agreement, smiling faintly too. It was good to see. Knocking out Warwick had felt different. It was as if his anger had been directed not only at his enemy in front of him, but also the whole trail of sins and failings that had allowed them to flourish. A punch in the right direction for a right reason.

"If Katarina gave you an earful, I hope you aren't taking it seriously. She's jealous of you, you know."

Riven looked at him oddly. "What makes you think that?" she asked, as Ahri began to work silently at straightening out Riven's clothes that had been dirtied and messed up.

"Take my word for it," he continued matter-of-factly, "and don't ask me how I know. Maybe it's just that you're a better fighter than her. Or that you can beat a lot of opponents her kind of fighting doesn't stand a chance against. Whatever it is, she's probably going to be a pain until we can work over her ego."

"It makes sense if you think about it," Ahri chimed in, gently but forcefully patting down Riven to get the dirt and dust out from her clothes. "Have you ever heard the story about the frog that leaves the pond for the ocean? The frog leaves the pond for new waters, but the frogs left behind that only know about their own pond can't understand what else is in the world. To them, the frog leaving is either foolish for leaving or something to be envied for having the courage to leave."

"Yeah, it's like that," Zac agreed. "The way I see it, Kitty Kat is like a living ghost; chained to the earth by the expectations of people who are long dead."

"...You make her sound like a tragic figure if you put it that way," Ahri remarked, mildly impressed by his ability to eloquently put to words what she had been thinking too.

"Maybe she is, in some way," Zac rubbed his own chin in consideration. "But that doesn't change the fact that she's an arrogant pain in our asses."

"Yeah, she is. But she's strong Zac, really strong," Riven said, the smile he had worked hard for disappearing, replacing by something foreboding. She was stopped from continuing briefly by Ahri, who had forced her to lift up her arms so that she could clean there too.

"She doesn't look like it, but I know Katarina is weaker on the Fields of Justice than off it. A lot of assassins in the Crimson Elite are strong, but they only know how to assassinate targets. Quick and clean kills, usually by traps or by surprise. But not her; she knows to how fight with just about anything she can hold in her hands. We have to be careful."

"I was wondering about that. Better safe than sorry, right?"

"Yeah, because… There's a chance it's going to get...complicated. Really complicated."

Zac felt himself swallow, in spite of trying to put on a strong showing. "As in…?"

"There's going to be bloodshed. Probably. A lot of it." Riven explained. "Katarina wants to make sure that we won't—"

"Get in her way when she's knee deep in bodies?" Zac interrupted, and he felt one of Ahri's tails strike him against his knee with a measured degree of force. "Well, someone is going to have to fight whether we like it or not. It's sad to say, but a lot of scumbags aren't going to be scared off just because we're champions. So it might as well be us, because whether we say yes or no it's going to happen, right?"

"...That's one way to look at it," Riven said neutrally. "I guess whatever helps you sleep at night."

"That's my line. How about you? Any problems with using that big blade of yours for Noxus again?"

Riven stayed silent, reaching around to her side where her broken rune blade stood out oddly in its sheath against the outfit Ahri had dressed her in earlier. He watched her gently brush the steel plates reinforcing the handle of the weapon, with an almost fearful reverence, and felt another one of Ahri's tails hit him on his leg for a second time.

"I don't know. I never thought I would be doing something like this again, and definitely not for my homeland. But you said it yourself; someone has to fight whether we like it or not. Maybe it's some sort of twisted fate that it's going to be me."

"Not you, us. And if that card scamming gypsy is a god in disguise, then he isn't worth believing in," Zac remarked dryly. "We're only being asked to protect whatever is on that ship. Katarina isn't going to wage war against all of Ionia with a single iron freighter for her fleet. All Noxus wants right now is money."

"Money, right. You know it's never that simple, right?"

"Of course, but we can play the fool long enough to find out what Katarina is really being sent after. Hell, I'm starting to think that we're not really here to help her at all."

"You too, huh?"

"Yeah. Nothing is adding up here, and that's what worries me."

"Hey, how about an explanation for people who aren't good with international politics?" Ahri asked, raising her hand in the air now that she was done with her impromptu grooming inspection. "And maybe we should do it somewhere that isn't right outside the home of the people we don't trust?"

"Yeah, let's get out of here," Zac muttered, turning to leave. He watched Riven glance at the Noxian Quarter briefly, with an unreadable look on her face. If he wasn't sure about anything, then maybe he wouldn't be so alone after all. Before, his only real precious hope was that he and the people he cared about would survive another day. Tomorrow would be the same, but there always was that chance that it wouldn't.

"So, what's the plan?"

"That's the question everyone asks," Zac remarked, being pulled alongside Ahri who had looped her arms around both his and Riven's and was pulling them along like an escort. "It's also the question that's the most unanswered."

"So you don't have one?"

"Like hell we do," said Riven, who was letting Ahri pull her along too. "We didn't even know the name of the ship we are getting on until yesterday. Even then, I think we're decoys in this strategy—the distraction." It was a point on which the three seemed to agree.

"So the first order of business," Zac decided, "is to find out why we were chosen in the first place."

"Right," Ahri agreed, "and the second order should be to find out what the stakes are."

"And then we'll decide what we want to do about this mess," Riven finished, subtly trying to loosen Ahri's grip on her arm. "The real problem is going to be Katarina. Because you know she looks down on all of us like we're just in her way."

"Ahh, who cares about her? Like I'm going to be shown up by a has-been assassin! I'm taking this trip all the way to Ionia, and nothin's gonna stop me!" Ahri declared, raising her arms in the air still intertwined with theirs too. Although not sharing her enthusiasm, Riven and Zac still found themselves humbly agreeing with her.

"Just wait and see, world! Nothing is going to stop us!"

"Don't jinx it," Zac said without thinking, and jumped a little when he was whipped by all nine of Ahri's tails for his wisecrack.

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(Author's Note: I hereby dedicate this chapter to character development. Because without it, I can't advance the stalled plot.)


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geogio13

Member

10-06-2014

It is a shame that they are closing the forums so we have to use the new Boards. Will the story continue there?


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MSN00100

Recruiter

10-06-2014

Quote:
geogio13:
It is a shame that they are closing the forums so we have to use the new Boards. Will the story continue there?


Yeah, pretty much. I don't know the layout of the new boards, so it might get buried or something. But I've made it a bit of a personal vendetta to complete this story from start to finish.