The first thing Garen felt was drowsiness, then pain, then stench. He opened his eyes, slowly shaking away the drowsiness and pain. The stench was not his to shake off, however. He eyed his surroundings, slowly taking in his predicament. His mind awoke just enough to get a grasp of the situation.
He was in a prison cell… a Noxian prison cell.
He tried getting up, but he noticed the heavy pig iron chains tied to his arms and legs. He was chained in a kneeling position, no doubt to prevent him from reacting and escaping fast enough. He heard the flickers of a torch nearby, which brought just enough light on his bars to notice his cell was a solitary. He knew exactly what that meant to an enemy of Noxus.
His mind tried to recall what brought about this situation; the rebellion in Demacia, mages fighting the knights, him leading the Dauntless Vanguard against their leader and symbol, Sylas. The last thing he remembered was him charging at Sylas before both their forces were ambushed and his last sensation was a sharp pain in his exposed shoulder. Then… nothing. Only a dreamless sleep. Before he could try and break free, he heard a door opening and light footsteps accompanied by heavy ones approaching. He looked up to see four Noxian soldiers and a red-haired assassin who he knew all too well.
"I thought I told Swain I need no escort."
"Apologies, Lady Du Couteau, but the Grand General insisted."
"Why? Who doesn't he trust this time, me or him?" The red-haired assassin known as Katarina Du Couteau pointed one of her daggers at him. Garen finally put the pieces together, looking to the ground with disappointment at himself and worry about his home.
"It's only for protection, my lady." Another soldier attempted to soother her, but she put her other dagger at her throat without even looking.
"I'll ignore that this once. Leave us be and stand by the door. You know how many knocks it is and in what order." She threatened. The soldier saluted as soon as Katarina's dagger was away from her throat. The soldiers then exited, shutting the door with a heavy clang, a staple of Noxian doorways.
She took out a key from her jacket pocket and opened the locks to his cell. He heard her footsteps edge closer until she was right in front of him.
"Not even gonna look at me?" She asked. It wasn't venomous, nor was it sarcastic. It was just a question.
"Why, you need a reason to feel guilty?" His question, however, was laced with venom.
"You don't think I already do?"
"I honestly don't." This time, it wasn't sarcasm, but the venom was stronger.
"You did the same to me. Now that I have done it to you-"
"I came back for you, damn it!" She wasn't talking about the imprisonment. It happened when he captured her; after she tried to get free by cutting a wooden bridge they were both on, she, he and many of his soldiers plunged into a deep ravine. After that, however, they were forced to work together to fight off a massive beast that was both angry and hungry. It cornered them, she managed to escape and Garen was left to fight alone… or so he thought. She came back for him, although she never said why. She still escaped afterwards, however.
"I should've chased you. I was weak then and I am chained now."
"Well, good for you, 'cause now you know how I felt that day, dragging you behind me."
"I was expecting a knife in the back. You delivered, it seems, and in a perfect fashion." He still didn't look up. It was worse than a silent treatment or anything her father, Swain or even Talon did to her. She still didn't know why. She knelt down, face to his head.
"Why did you come here, Katarina? What do you want?" He sounded exhausted all of a sudden, like he was tired of dealing with her.
"Grand General Swain has ordered your execution." It was meant to shock him.
"There's a surprise." It did not.
"Along with one other prisoner. I still can't believe we caught her, though…"
"Who?" He managed to mask the unease in his voice; his mind immediately thought of Lux.
"A very willful Ionian blade witch. You haven't even heard of her, probably. Come to think of it, you don't need to." At least it wasn't Lux. She got up.
"I petitioned for the General to free you."
"Why?" This one managed a shock out of him, although it was subtle.
"You're more useful to m- us… alive. Before you even start, the General managed to extract some of your mind's secrets. Most of it useless junk about you, your prince and your sister, although that bit about the mage rebellion peaked interest." This was alarming; if Swain had that power, what else could he find out?
"Unfortunately, that was as far as he got. You have a, as the Grand General himself put it, strong, tenacious and irritating mind, even when unconscious. I thought that-"
She sighed. His stubbornness reminded Katarina of herself. They crossed paths, blades and destinies, but they always pulled in different directions, directions they thought were best for each other, but they were only the best for themselves. She thought many times and was even advised by Cassiopeia and Talon to let him go.
So why couldn't she?
"I'm trying to help you, dammit. Come tomorrow, your head is getting separated from your neck in front of all of Noxus Prime and being sent back to Demacia. I'm trying to stop that, so quit being a dickhead and help me help you." Just like before, she was slowly getting irritated at his pride and honor. He knew every Demacian would rather die than surrender and Garen was their paragon, especially in that regard. She hoped that his sense and survival instincts might have a little more hold over him after the ordeal. They did not.
"He'll never agree and you know it. I'll never agree and you know it. Stop wasting your time on things you'll never have." That one cut the air, sharper than any dagger she had. Somewhere beneath the surface of her soul, a small part of her selfish zeal poked out. It looked through her eyes at his exposed nape, whispering at her to pull out her daggers and carry out the sentence right here. It would be true satisfaction. She silenced and drowned it quickly, lest it take over her. The last time she let that happen, Talon gave her a scar on her father's orders. She already stood higher than both of them, but she could still fall prey to her former self.
"Why did you come back?" He asked. It wasn't venomous or sarcastic. It was just a question, one she had no answer to, for herself, Garen or anybody else.
"I don't know, OK? I just… thought that was the right thing back then."
"And what about now?" Another simple question with no answer.
"I'm not so sure."
"Neither am I." He sighed. She looked down, hoping to see his face. She didn't want to beg, to bend knee and search for his eyes. She hated to admit it, but he was more stubborn than her in that regard.
"Garen, I don't thi-"
"I have nothing more to say to you, Katarina. Leave me be." He sealed both his own fate and a part of hers. The selfish part was back again, its second wind trying to wrest control of her body, judging by her hands moving towards her daggers. She knew the only way to quiet it down was to appease it, even if by a small bit. She drew them and sliced at the bars with her full strength, almost slicing through them. She didn't care who watched anymore.
"I hope your head rots before your sister or your prince even see the damn thing." She opened the door forcefully and shut it all the same, leaving with her head low. Only in that moment did it cool off, leaving her thoughts clear. Swain knew Garen would never submit. It was the only reason he allowed the visit. The guards were only a ruse for her to not turn back; Swain knew she might have second thoughts if not tested and tempted. His intention was to make her see with her own eyes what she had agreed to… what she had accomplished in doing for Noxus. It both brought pride and sickened her to her stomach.
With the final sound of the door being shut, Garen knew the next one would be his last. To say he was at peace was a lie. He worried about home, his family, Jarvan… so distant, far away to a city of white, blue and gold. He thought of the forests of Silvermere, sprawling out beneath the high city, the tamed raptors circling above the clouds, screeching with pride and stretching their wings. He envied them sometimes, having all that freedom and natural loyalty to their own kind. Humans were never that simple. He thought of the rivers running through the countryside, towns, villages and farmlands thriving along their shores. He remembered running through the forests and along the shores, dragging or giving a piggyback to Lux.
'No.' He halted his thought, calm and content. He wanted to have something for when closed his eyes one last time. He saved the few memories of Lux smiling at him for last.
Irelia awoke, taking in a deep breath; the stench passed quickly, but her lungs still needed time to get used to it. She was chained down, her head enveloped by magic-distorting circlet with strange runes. She could think straight, but could focus her will and couldn't find her blades. She took in her surroundings; a runic cell, with the same symbols as the ones on her circlet and her bonds, which she noticed on her wrists and ankles. She was facing the wall, with what little light she had coming from behind her. She tried prying and pulling, but every pull merely tightened the grip until she stopped struggling, at which point it loosened.
She remembered fighting on the shores of Navori, the local fishing villages still in flames, families running and screaming. What little warriors they had left were no match for the assault. She fought them off alone, almost cutting them all down… until they revealed themselves. The new Grand General, his most trusted subordinate and the monster juggernaut of a man they thought they killed. She was alone, but the villagers depended on her. She never gave up… and neither did they until she couldn't fight them off anymore and was overwhelmed.
Before she could recollect or try anything else, she heard footsteps and a door opening and shutting behind her.
"You've grown, little Blade-Witch."
That voice… she remembered his voice. The voice that condemned countless of her people to death, that ordered the assault on the Placidium and that screamed when she took his arm. He walked before her, standing tall and proud, yet dour and stern. He revealed his left arm, replaced with strange eldritch energy, roiling and hungry but for what she couldn't tell.
"Am I to seek revenge for my poor departed arm? If anything, girl, you did me a favor." He said, tone seasoned with amusement and sense of irony.
"Get me out of these chains and I'll do you another one with your neck." She returned the insult.
"Charming. Unfortunately for you, I need it for my head to function. It's the only one that's worth anything in this empire."
"Oh, I'm sure there are plenty others with some humanity left in them. Oh wait. I forgot. It's Noxus. There's nothing human here, only dust and pretensions of strength." That one got a chuckle out of him.
"Pretensions? Very well, little Blade-Witch. Tell me what strength is." He knelt down, his chuckle over and dourness returned. He looked at her like she was almost dry refuse. She couldn't fathom how someone so antisocial- no, downright sociopathic could rule over a whole empire. Maybe it was a staple of all Noxian rulers.
"I'd explain, but what can be explained in one sentence would take a lifetime for you to understand. Judging by your whitening hair and wrinkles on your… everywhere, you don't have that kind of time. So I won't even bother." She wanted to spit in his face, but she was dehydrated.
"Acting defiant because you don't know the answer? It appears I was mistaken earlier. You haven't grown at all, little girl. You're still that child at the Placidium, yelling like a spoiled brat for freedom. I learned much that day, when I crawled, bleeding through the dirt with a ravenous demon gnawing at my very thoughts. I learned about strength." He grabbed her with his demonic arm by the neck.
"Strength is not an illusion, child. Nor is it passion, stone, steel and flesh. It is will, pure and simple. It is the will to sacrifice, to do what others cannot and to show them that they will never be your equals… that is strength. That is Noxus." His stern face did not change, not even in the low red light shimmering from his arm. Neither did her determination.
"And those few sentences, 'Grand General', are the reasons why you will never understand true strength and why you and all of Noxus will never escape this hollowness of might. Like I said, I won't bother. Now, if you're done gloating, either kill me or let me go so I can kill you. Even if I don't, someone else will." The first parts were a mix of pity and threats, but the last part was spoken with such conviction that is sounded like a fact to him, something that unnerved him even now. He didn't show it on his face, as he trained to all those years ago. His hand, however, loosed her neck.
"Pity. I was hoping to extract more information, but it seems your mind will not give me anymore. No matter. Come tomorrow, your head, along with the Demacian's, is getting sent home. The rest of you is getting fed to the drake hounds." One part of that sentence caught her attention.
"The pieces are finally in place, little girl. All I have to is wait my turn. And neither of you has much time left. Noxus' victory is all but assured over both of your irksome nations. I must admit, though, you both put up quite the fight." He stood up, dusting himself off.
"But now, it is time for Noxus to strike the final blow. Both of you resisted me even when unconscious. Your minds and wills were strong, but you are defeated, worn out and bowed. Your fates are inevitable. Fitting that they should be intertwined." He walked out of sight, opening the door.
"Farewell, little girl. I'm glad we met that day." With a tiny, almost unnoticeable merriment in his voice, he shut the doors. She breathed out, sighing out of relief. She didn't steel her will to stand defiant.
It was to conceal the fact that she had hid a small shard of her emblem under her armor. It would have been troublesome if he were to extract that secret from her.
'Yes, General. Your turn is next. But that won't be the end of the game.'