Chamberlain Varius was not having a good day. The tall, lean head of the de Couteau house was receiving an honored guest, and he had some bad news to break.
He stood inside a grand chamber in the house of General de Couteau, dispassionately observing the preparations of the housemages scurrying around the large, domed room. Sigils adorned the marble floors, bordering an ornate nine-pointed arcanogram which spanned most of the centre of the room. At each point knelt a hunched figure, shrouded in robes, muttering unintelligibly and making eldritch gestures which could just as easily have been nervous tics. Noxus was a dangerous city in which to live, and the de Cocteau house was known for expecting the highest of standards. Varius surveyed the wretched magi, raising an eyebrow at the sight of one hooded woman visibly drooling. These were not talented wizards, and the exertion of translocation often had long-lasting implications on their state of mind. He made a mental note to have the woman replaced, and perhaps flogged as punishment for her insensibility. Imperfection could not be tolerated in the house of de Couteau.
Jirard Varius had been Chamberlain of his Master’s house for nearly 30 years, and it showed. His military service comprised a distinguished term serving as head of General de Couteau’s own personal cabal of assassins and spies, co-ordinating intelligence missions with a ruthless efficiency. It was rumoured that the Head Chamberlain himself had taken on those missions of the most critical importance, disposing of his Lord’s targets with merciless attention to detail, changing positions only after receiving a severe and incapacitating injury to his left arm. While no witnesses could ever be found to substantiate this gossip, his capability was self-evident. Promotion in the upper echelons of Noxan society tended to coincide with the premature death of the previous holder of the position. Varius’ long tenure as head of house had been previously unheard of, and several of his more ambitious underlings had met with mysterious deaths or unexplained disappearances. The day would come, he reflected, when one of his brighter protegés would succeed in securing his position, and he would spend his last moments proud to have trained such an individual. Until then, Jirard Varius would rule his master’s house with an iron fist.
Varius turned his attention to the centre of the room. The chanting had intensified, and a sickly green light was beginning to fill the room. The personal discipline of the Head Chamberlain was legendary, but even Varius had to admit to himself that he was nervous. It had been a while since his Lady had been summoned to the house, and he knew her irritation at being drawn away from the front. Noxus was a nation constantly at war, and the current conflicts in Demacia were occupying a fair amount of his Lady’s attention - as was the leader, the feared Lord Garen. She would not appreciate the distraction, but there was no helping it. Varius sighed.
“Complete the ritual. Bring our mistress home.”
The sickly light intensified, and the housemages groaned with the effort of finishing the translocation. With a shudder, each of the nine mages bowed wretchedly, pressing their foreheads to the points of the sigil. As they did so, the indentations in the floor began to fill with a viscous green liquid, running from the tips of each of the nine points of the sigil towards the centre, which bore the crest of the de Couteau. Varius noted that the drooling mage from earlier had begun to sob desperately into the floor, and he revised his earlier decision. Her mind had broken; she would need to be put down. She would no longer be of any use.
As the green energy made its way to the de Couteau crest, a column of green light burst from the centre of the room. Varius narrowed his eyes and peered into the light as the silhouette of a figure began to emerge. Drifting gradually into focus, the Head Chamberlain watched as his Lady came into view - tall, slender, and with a head of long, startlingly red hair which was bound behind her head in a spartan ponytail - her one display of vanity. Her leather armour was worn with use, but obviously designed more for stealth than open combat, and there were knives of differing lengths and sizes strapped to sheaths all over her body. Her face had never been beautiful, but there was a certain striking handsomeness to it that that was somehow only accentuated by the long, deep scar that ran from her forehead, down her left cheek and finished at the jawline. Her left eye was clouded, and though magic had restored her sight in the wake of her injury, it had not been able to duplicate the flinty blue which was its natural colour. As the figure came more clearly into focus, however, both eyes with fixed on the Head Chamberlain with a ferocious steel.
Varius bowed his head. “My Lady Katarina. Welcome home.”
The lady stepped out of the circle and gave the Chamberlain a curt nod. “Varius.” A good sign - she seemed impatient, but not furious at the summoning. Varius relaxed, but only a fraction.
“Please, walk with me.”
They exited the room of summoning as the servants rushed in from a side door to revive the swooning housemages. Varius and the lady Katarina strode down a magnificent hallway, with ornate chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling and a blood-red carpet sweeping across the floor. As they strode down the halls, the ancestors of the de Couteau family gazed at them with haughty disdain from ancient portraits. Varius had never cared much for the room - as a former assassin, he disliked being watched.
“I trust the war effort is proceeding as planned?”
“Don’t waste time with trivialities, Varius” she snapped. “What in the League’s name did you summon me for?”
The head chamberlain blinked. “You didn’t receive the message?”
“Your messenger received an arrow to the face shortly after arriving. I knew enough to expect the summons, but he wasn’t carrying a note and our necromancers couldn’t get him to talk with a shattered jaw. Sometimes I wonder what we pay them for.”
Varius’ mind raced, reassessing the situation. “I’m afraid I have some bad news, my Lady.”
“Drop the ‘My Lady’, Varius, you practically raised me. What bad news?”
“I’m afraid your sister has met with an... accident.”
Katarina stopped, turning to the head chamberlain, and for a second the vicious steel in her eye was replaced with a stricken fear. “Dolora?”
Varius coughed. “Dolora is well. I refer to the lady Cassiopeia.”
The fear was gone as fast as it had come, and the steel came back with a vengeance. “Oh.” she said with disdain as they resumed their path down the hallway. “I suppose my sister’s whoring has finally come back to bite her then.”
“In a manner of speaking” said the head chamberlain delicately. “There was an incident in court two days ago. Several of the servants were killed - dismembered, actually - and it will be a while before we can get the bloodstains off the walls.”
“So tell me Varius, which of my dear sister’s paramours went berserk this time?” Katarina’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Actually, the injuries were inflicted by the lady herself.”
Katarina raised a shattered eyebrow. “Cassiopeia can barely dress herself unaided, let alone dismember servants. What’s going on?”
“I think perhaps you should see for yourself. We had to sequester her in the dungeons. She put up quite a fight,” he added, his lips thinning. “I lost some talented men that day.”
“The dungeons?” she said, her eyes flaring. “You dared throw a daughter of de Couteau in our own dungeons?”
“My apologies, Katarina, but it was the only place we could keep her while she came to her senses. She’s quite dangerous at the moment, and I’d prefer not to lose any more members of my staff than necessary.” His tone was grim.
The lady’s discipline was impressive, Varius noted. The only sign of her confusions were the peculiar set to her jaw and the clenching of one gloved fist. Finally she spoke. “Take me to the dungeon, then. Let us visit my dear sister.”
They made their way down flights of stairs in silence, passing yet more long-dead family members upon the walls and barely noticing the servants who cringed and fawned as they passed. The house of de Couteau was as much a castle as it was a stately house, and Noxan politics were as such that the original architects had included a labyrinthine complex of cells and “specialised” rooms beneath the foundations. As they made their way deeper the carpet stopped, the elegant ceilings and walls replaced by roughly hewn stone and heavy oak doors. The ground underfoot was spread with sawdust, and there was a faint but sickening smell of old, dried blood. The smell, Varius remembered, always grew stronger as you went further down. Some of the grand oaken doors were ajar, and from inside the various rooms could be seen instruments of the business of the catacombs - savage hooks, blades rusted specifically for their purposes, and behind one door a grand rack, which held the desiccated and disfigured remains of its last occupant. Varius made a mental note to have the cleaning staff do something about the unsightly mess - corpses left to fester would just encourage rot in the wood of the rack.
They came at last to the end of the catacomb, which was marked with the de Couteau house’s most impenetrable guest room, saved only for visitors whose stay would be... protracted. The huge door was not made from oak but of finest steel, and the panels upon the front were marked with runes of binding and holding, carved by none other than the fallen deva Morgana centuries ago. Katarina stared at the door.
“Varius,” she said quietly, “what is the meaning of this?”
“Your sister is inside, my lady” he shrugged. “I will unlock the door, but it would be best if there were little light. Try not to look upon her face.”
Varius stepped forward and placed one lined, calloused had on the panel, which glowed red to his touch. The handprint burned on the panel as the door swung slowly open, and Katarina moved softly inside, her had pressed to a knife-hilt.
The room was dark, save only for a single candle which burned in the far corner of the room. Through the shadows it threw Katarina could make out the hard stone floor and a bare wooden cot at one end of the room. Katarina’s nightvision was excellent, but it took even her a few seconds to noticed the figure hunched in the corner of the room. Ignoring the chamberlain’s suggestion she moved to the far corner to retrieve the candle, and as the light moved she could hear the figure shift - a sound which reminded her oddly of sheets of paper moving against one another. She raised the candle and looked upon her sister by its flickering light.
Just after Katarina had left to go to war, her sister Cassiopeia had debuted in the courts of Noxus and had finally found her calling. Always ravishingly beautiful, even as a child, the youngest daughter of General de Couteau discovered that she was the absolute centre of attention and had relished every second. She had never missed an opportunity to attend functions, political and otherwise, and had become known as a trend setter and socialite, navigating the vicious social circles of Noxan high society with an almost frightening ease. She charmed, beguiled and flattered her way into the most insular gatherings and soon became the target of any number of ambassadors and dignitaries. The beauty of Cassiopeia de Couteau became legend in the circles of diplomatic relations, and she appeared to be an innocent beauty, a lone flower in the desolate ugliness that was Noxus.
She was, however, her father’s daughter. Ever loyal to the state, Cassiopeia had used her stunning presence to wheedle foreign intelligence from even the most taciturn of functionaries - Katarina had heard that her sister could be most persuasive. In a very real way, Cassiopeia had made herself a vital part of Noxan intelligence; and all she had to do was ***** herself out to Noxus’ enemies, Katarina reflected wryly. She and her sister had never seen eye to eye.
What greeted her now, however, was pure shock. Gone was the flower of Noxus, the apple of her father’s eye. What greeted Katarina in the corner of that dungeon was a monster. Her sister’s arms were crossed over her breasts, and Katarina could see that her once-lovely hands had become talons, covered in scales up to the forearms. Her head was bowed, but where there had once been a luxurious mass of thick blond hair - inherited from their mother - there was only a hood of skin, covered in scales, resembling that of a cobra. The most dramatic change, however, was the tail. From the navel downwards, Cassiopeia’s leg’s had been fused, replaced with a long, emerald green snake’s tail that currently sat coiled in the corner. Even through her shock, Katarina noted with some satisfaction that her charming sister would never spread her legs again.
She looked upon the creature who had once been her sister. “Cassiopeia.”
The creature did not look up, instead remaining turned away, as if in shame. “Dear sssister” she said with a mocking tone in her voice. Katarina noted in revulsion that she lingered on the sibilance of the “s” sound, drawing it out. So she had a snake’s tongue, too, she thought to herself. No change there.
“What have you done to yourself?” she asked.
The snake-woman ignored her, instead making hissing noices and shaking her shoulders. At first Katarina thought she might have been sobbing, but when the figure raised its head the expression on her face was one of glee. Her face was as lovely as it had ever been, but her eyes held the vertical slit of a serpent, and her smile only barely concealed the long, dripping fangs of a king cobra. As Katarina looked into her sister’s eyes, she felt a shock run up her spine - her body stiffened and froze. Her instincts told her to move, and adrenaline rushed through her veins, but none of her limbs would obey her command. She could not even blink.
With a slow, sinuous movement Cassiopeia uncoiled herself and slithered across the hard floor towards her sister. Suddenly Katarina was gripped with fear - they had always hated one another, and now Katarina was helpless and her sister transformed. This would not end well.
Cassiopeia raised herself gracefully on her serpent’s tail, all the while keeping her gaze locked with her sister’s. “Did you come to gloat?” she asked mockingly. “Did you come to see the freak? The monster?” She laughed. “What a fool you were to come here, Katarina. All those years of judging me, all those years of being Daddy’s favourite, and you were always so aloof. So disdainful. So dreadfully superior.” She smiled again, revealing even more of those ivory-white fangs, dripping with clear liquid. “Look at you now.”
Katarina desperately cast around in her mind for some plan of action, but there was nothing she could do without the use of her limbs. She could not even speak. As her sister advanced upon her still form, her only thought was disappointment - that after all these years of war and combat, her hated sister would deny her the chance to die for Noxus.
And then suddenly the door opened and the figure of Varius appeared.
The distraction broke Cassiopeia’s gaze for only the slightest second, but a second was all Katarina needed. As her sister’s gaze paralysed the head chamberlain, she drove a fist into the side of Cassiopeia’s head, then while she was stunned grasped her by the shoulders and drove her knee deeply into her sister’s stomach.
Katarina looked sharply over at Varius, who was blinking with disorientation. “Go!” she barked, and both she and the chamberlain sprinted from the room where the snakewoman lay hunched over, retching onto the floor.
“Bar the door!” she ordered, and Varius sealed the runed iron door with a shaky palm. They walked quickly from the dungeon in silence until Cassiopeia’s screams had been swallowed entirely by the catacombs. They reached the exit of the dungeons and Varius bolted the door hastily, looking at his mistress.
“So, what now? Do we put her out of her misery?”
Katarina had been thinking, brow furrowed hard, but at the chamberlain’s voice she looked at him sharply.
“Kill her? Whatever for?”
“My dear Varius,” she said with a slow, grim smile, “my dear sister has finally developed a talent besides bedding incompetant flunkies. Her change in appearance seems to have brought with it some incredible abilities.” She paused. “That paralysing glare might have military applications. How did this happen?”
Varius was still shaken. “I - I believe she was ‘entertaining’ a young man from one of the tribes to the north. One of the servants swears that they were discussing state secrets, but he swore her to secrecy with some sort of bond. The mages believe that a curse was involved.”
Katarina nodded thoughtfully. “I’ve seen curses that could do something like this. I believe we owe that tribe a thank you. When my sister recovers her senses, have her sent to the village - as a diplomatic visit, of course.” Her look was vicious.
He gaped. “You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, I’m deadly serious,” she said with the same grim smile. “In cursing my sister those imbeciles might have just given us a great weapon. I’m willing to bet she’s poisonous too - let’s see how poisonous. Come now, Varius,” she said to the stupefied chamberlain, “my sister is many things, but she is a true daughter of Noxus. Who knows? In time, she may even come to prefer that form.”
And with that she made her way towards the door which lead to the translocation room. “Come, Varius. I have a war to get back to. My little sister has taken enough of my time today.” She stopped just before the door. “In fact, inform the League emissaries. She could use some training - the Fields of Justice will see to that.”
And with that she turned and walked away, sealing her sister’s fate.
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