Time had lost meaning. Garen couldn't tell if he was hot or cold. He couldn't see the person directly before him. Her image changed with every thought while borrowed voices masked her words.
All he could manage was a growl.
"What are you doing?"
"I am toying with your mind, Garen. I am manipulating your consciousness, forging your memories, and pulling you into realities that have not happened yet, and perhaps never will. I am altering the very thing that makes you, you."
The voice was his mother, Katarina, or the beggar he had passed four months ago.
"No," he growled. His head ached. A wave of pain passed over him.
Lilia Crownguard turned away from the mirror in her bedroom. Gold and white tapestries flanked blinded windows. Whatever sheened the wooden floor reflected the entire scene above. Garen was standing in the doorway, clutching the mail in his hands and fidgeting underneath his dress uniform.
"You asked for the mail," he repeated.
Her eyes returned to the mirror, and she repeated a gesture usually reserved for servants.
"Read it to me, darling. I just want to finish tidying myself up."
Garen approached the table she had indicated, and let all but one parcel fall there. His eyes raised to watch her as he slid the envelope open with a finger. Lilia was comparing two earrings, an onyx rose against the family emblem, as if deciding who to be. Garen's eyes fell back to the letter, and paused on the intact seal. He had broken it just a second ago, but here it was. Garen's glance at his hand lingered, and he realized with a shock that he had one finger too many. He flexed the six digits into a fist, feeling in the air a sudden presence of paranoia, and his gaze turned over his shoulder to another mirror. But he did not meet his reflection. There was the image he had seen before, of his mother choosing her attire. But the woman there was not his mother.
Garen lashed out with his fist and struck her. He was no longer at home, or warm. The woman he'd struck fell backwards into snow, and Garen was on his feet in an instant. The winds of Freljord lashed against his face without introduction, and he dove headlong into them, tackling the woman as she tried to stand. She spun in his grip like a snake of the Serpentine, eyes blazing purple and hair glowing white like holy frost. She was his sister, Luxanna. Garen struck another blow against her face. She was Princess Ashe, the Frost Archer. Another hit. She was Katarina, naked and writhing beneath him in the Kalamanda mud. Another strike dispelled the illusion. He was back in the snow, pinning a woman he didn't recognize.
Her teeth were stained red with blood, nose crooked and eyes crossed. Even with an enemy, Garen knew restraint. His fist held, cocked high and ready should she want a second round. But her eyes refocused into a satisfied look. And when her glare met his again, she laughed.
Garen was not holding a woman prisoner in the snow below him. He was gripping a boulder, the blood from his knuckles forming the curvature of her smile. Her laugh sounded again from a safe distance behind him.
"Man is free at the moment he wishes to be," she whispered.
Her voice had no accent, no language, and no qualities. Garen rose to his feet and drew his sword as he turned to her, wary of punching another rock.
"What are you doing to me?" he called. "What are you?"
Garen's words died in the howling wind of a Freljordian blizzard, and the cold snapped at his bones before she answered.
"One more time," her voice whispered.
"Most humans can't resist. But too much depends on it. You can't let him do this to you. It might be impossible, but you have to resist, Crownguard."
She approached him, a single step that left no mark in the snow.
"You have to resist."
"You have to," his mother chided. "Because I said so, before you ask."
Lilia turned down the hallway of her estate, past the Crownguard lineage of portraits. Garen followed her, ignoring the gazes of dead relatives and fidgeting with an empty envelope. The broken seal of a black rose peeked up at him. No. He wasn't here. Garen flexed his hand, feeling a grip with six fingers.
Freljord. Ice. The woman was standing face-to-face with him now. She seemed a few inches taller, having the advantage of not sinking in the snow like a mortal would. Garen gripped her by the collar of her trench coat. Her words interrupted his thoughts.
"Man is free at the moment he wishes to be. Can you remember that?"
Her breath had no warmth. It did not fog in the air. But she gave him a scarlet ribbon, woven from a cloth he probably couldn't afford. She tucked it into his armor.
"Resist, Garen. Your humanity demands it."
And her presence concluded with her words. The cold replaced her, and Garen was suddenly crouched into a ball, feeling the warmth on his skin stolen away by a greedy climate. All around him was the same swirling white of a snow-blind existence. He couldn't tell up from down or real from not. All that grounded him to the reality of Freljord was the cold loneliness of nature's negligence. But he wasn't naked. Snow survivalism triggered in his mind, and he moved through the motions he'd learned as a Commando. Shelter. Fire. Voices?
Two black shapes emerged from The White, both wearing Noxian trench coats. And he knew the voices.
"Quiet, Talon. I sense fear."
Garen waved, and then ducked low while they rushed to his side and slid into cover by the rock.
Mayfield kept watch while Talon produced an extra cloak for Garen to don.
"I figured you went AWOL or died," Talon whispered. He took a peek over the boulder before adding, "You've been out here for two days? You're tougher than I thought."
Talon had answered himself.
Garen could only ask, "Two days? What?"
Mayfield remembered his presence suddenly.
"You armed, Crownguard?"
Garen gripped his sword and nodded.
"What have I missed?" he grumbled.
Two days, apparently. And two days in the company of three assassins was a lot.
"Too much," Talon chided.
"Let's see... uh... Piltover's Ambassador got recalled. He's being switched out. So we lost that vote. And Princess Sejuani and Ashe gathered the votes they needed to overrule our amendments. But someone lit a fire in the food stores, so the summit had to be canceled."
"A real tragedy," Mayfield added.
"I'm sure we had nothing to do with it," Garen growled.
"Well the summit isn't canceled," Talon answered. "The Frost Archer-"
Garen interrupted, "Who?"
"The- Ashe. The Frost Archer Princess. She declared last night that she could hunt up enough game to resume the summit by today. She's already returned about half of what she needs. Pretty incredible actually-"
Talon was cut short by a hiss. The trio ducked lower and huddled as Mayfield presented hand signals.
So they weren't here to rescue me, Garen realized. Ashe and her elite archers had wandered into the snow, but they weren't the only hunters around. The archers' footfalls became Mayfield's count, and as the treads reached their cover, the trio rose up at quarters too close to fire. The archers were wearing white, the Freljordian color for victory, Garen remembered. It was damn hard to see them in snow. But three women fell in the first strike. Garen had only enough time to process what he'd just done as Talon forced the fourth into a reversed head lock. A knife to her spine finished the job just as Ashe finished aiming. Garen took the arrow straight to his chest and down to the boulder behind him. Talon couldn't charge as fast as Ashe could draw. He took the second arrow, this one enchanted. A flash of ice left him frozen to the spot. But when Ashe had turned to kill Mayfield, she made the mistake of eye contact.
Garen couldn't move. His head had cracked against the boulder, and the arrow's shaft proved surprisingly debilitating. She'd hit somewhere near his heart and lungs; they were both working. But she had not hit Mayfield. Garen lay where he had fallen and remembered the position he had been in only a few moments before. Ashe's expression was blank, her aim answering gravity's call, while Mayfield simply stared at her.
A moment later, her grip released, and Mayfield approached to collect her bow, and push her over with one hand. Ashe fell in a daze, awake enough to catch herself with her arms, but seeming stunned. Mayfield circled around to her side, holding her gaze the whole way, only stopping to ask, "Do you feel divine?"
He lunged and drove a boot into her side.
Garen struggled to his elbows and shouted, "Hey! She's surrendered."
Mayfield waved dismissively, keeping his eyes on Ashe.
"Nose to the dirt, Paragon. Just follow your orders."
He kneeled to Ashe's chest and grabbed her chin to stop its lull to the side. Garen saw the look in their eyes, as if nothing else existed but the space between them. His musings were interrupted by their conversation.
"What do you see?" Mayfield whispered.
Ashe trembled for a moment, locked in his gaze, but her jaw clenched as she steeled herself.
"What are you?" she growled. And her arm reached up for his. But she couldn't secure a grip, as if her strength had been stolen.
Mayfield grinned, his nose pressing flush with hers.
"Would you believe me if I said I was a god?"
Ashe sneered "No" indignantly.
"Good," he answered. "We have something in common. Because we both know you didn't inherit a damn thing from Avarosa. You might be a good archer, but nothing more than your mortal instructors. You've envied other women's looks before. You bleed. You couldn't protect your sister. You can't even hunt on your own turf."
His hand jerked her gaze to the corpses nearby.
"That's your elite guard, right? They didn't last long. And help is not coming for you, Princess."
Ashe found her strength again, and her arms nearly broke his grip before the eye contact resumed. The trance consumed her effort, and Mayfield leaned down to whisper "Now listen closely."
Garen could not hear what was whispered afterward, but he could see as the contact between them changed. Their eyes danced as if fencing with lightning, and the stare was punctuated by the occasional jerk as Ashe would try to move. But whatever trance had been effected had precluded it, as if the two were trapped in the same dream.
It was a moment later that Ashe's eyes rolled back into her head, which plopped to the ground. Mayfield stood and turned to Garen.
"What are you waiting for? Let's get out of here. This place disgusts me."
Mayfield raised an arm to shield himself from the blizzard.
"I can't move," Garen grumbled back.
Mayfield approached and examined the arrow in Garen's chest.
"Huh. It's enchanted."
His hand wrapped around it and pulled hard before Garen could protest. The arrowhead had no anchors, just a pointed tip. Garen sighed in relief, and felt his strength return in a rush. He sat up to see the block of ice that Talon had become.
"Ectoplasm," Mayfield corrected.
Garen stood while Mayfield explained, "It isn't ice. It's ectoplasm emulating ice without the temperature. Mess with the Mass Field and you get errors- materia ex nihilo. It doesn't have any properties, like temperature. He's still alive."
Mayfield tapped on the block of not-ice. Talon blinked from within. Garen eyed the arrow that Mayfield had discarded. Ashe had aimed it between his organs. It had no anchor on its tip, so it could be safely removed. And here Talon was imprisoned by another enchantment.
"Non-lethal weapons," Garen muttered.
Mayfield cast a sideways glance and returned to his own puzzle.
"It should entropy out, but I don't remember how long that's supposed to take. He had the Anti-magic powder on him. Huh. So how do we-"
The block suddenly melted, releasing a gasping and soaked Talon. By the time he stood, the stuff had evaporated from his clothing. Talon glanced around the carnage and nodded to Ashe.
"Where do we take her?"
"We leave her," Mayfield spat.
Talon traded a look with Garen.
"What? You changed her vote, right? Well she can't vote if she dies in a blizzard."
He scowled as Mayfield scooted past him to leave. They followed in silence, Garen contemplating the two days he was missing, and Talon staring daggers at Mayfield's back. But Mayfield's head lifted and turned over his shoulder, and he finally answered, "Avarosa only had one child."
Talon's glare turned to Garen as if to say "Can you believe this guy?"
Garen shrugged. Mayfield continued.
"The barbarians wanted to replace her child with one of their own. They're big on crib snatching to sneak into cultures. But the person they sent to do the job was afraid of tampering with a deity's baby. So he put two barbarian children into the crib. Naturally, the only sane thing left to do was raise them under the same roof and split the kingdom when they came of age. They've had to distinguish themselves at every stage of their life or face execution, possibly at the hands of their own followers. That's why the three tribes are at war. Two are impostors. One is a god."
The silence was potent enough for Garen to prod, "And you think the Frost Archer-"
The shutters of the Hextech inn were closed. Garen could see little of the little town of Rakelstrake as he waded through snow and wind, but the snow cleared to reveal another party as he entered the lobby.
Princess Mauvole was gearing up with several of her elite dervishers. Each wore furs over leather armor, and carried scimitars and kukri blades. Mauvole had just finished storing her blades as Garen entered.
"Check," she called.
"Team One ready."
"Ashe thinks she can hunt up more game than the best among us. What say you?"
Cheering followed the men and women of the Ice Dervish tribe as they exited. Garen brushed past them, trying to get farther into the warmth and to his room. The hearth sparked at his sins as he passed it, and his eyes rose from the loose ember to the painting above. The Freljordian Pantheon was still bearing down upon a woman gripping a black rose. The distraction was enough that Garen did not notice as he brushed past Mauvole, or as his hand slipped her a ribbon.
It was hours later, in his room, when he finally decided to commit something to paper. He was sitting at the edge of his bed, staring at a leather-bound diary on the dresser. His mother had demanded a report of every day. He was missing two, and in honesty, there was nothing he wanted anyone to know about what he had been up to. But he was a soldier. He would do what had to be done. So as he sat at the edge of his bed, under the mass of its blankets, he reached forward to grab his diary.
December 20th, 5 CLE
Garen spent a long time staring at that entry. Today was the 21st, and he had nothing to add. He wasn't sure how long he sat, but his bones had thawed and warmed, and his mind remained frozen. He was here on his mother's orders, but his mother had no rank over him. Talon was Noxian. Mayfield was an assassin taking orders from a Noxian secret society. The squabbles of barbarians in the North had nothing to do with Demacia.
"What am I doing?" he finally wondered.
"And who are you doing it for?"
Garen's head shot up to meet a dagger at his lips. Princess Mauvole had graced him with her presence.
"I have your room surrounded," she threatened. "All I have to do is scream."
She waited for Garen to nod before removing the blade. He had wondered, briefly, what it felt like to be Ashe.
"I guess I had it coming," he admitted.
Mauvole smirked, but her composure faltered and she gasped.
In the honest moment she answered, "Don't we all?"
But her admission ended there, and her composure returned. She had been gasping like that and speaking in quick breaths ever since her younger sister had disappeared, almost two weeks ago. Lissandra, Garen remembered.
"I don't know where they're keeping her," he mumbled. "I would tell you if I did."
"The Black Rose does not take prisoners," Mauvole breathed.
"My sister... is dead... Or will be."
Her blade sheathed, and Mauvole began unhooking the straps on her leather armor. Garen's inquisitive look stopped her.
"You asked... what you were doing," she supplied.
Garen's eyes skimmed her for answers, then fell to his blankets.
He watched as her hands reached into her armor and produced a red ribbon. The memory of slipping it to her came back. The memory of having it slipped to him followed.
"I have no idea what that means," he whispered.
"It means... she marked you... for me," Mauvole answered. "And I trust her."
Mauvole unstrapped her cuirass and hefted it over her shoulders with a pained series of grunts. Garen shrugged his blankets away, not sure if he should offer to help or be worried for his life. But he saw as Mauvole's eyes took note of the bandage on his torso, and the padding over Ashe's mark.
"Get up," she ordered.
And she turned her back for Garen to see the strings holding her tunic.
"... Or I will scream... and my guards... will kill you."
Her head turned to the side on her last breath. Garen nodded, and his fingers set to work stripping his enemy. He felt none of the rush Katarina had given. So it wasn't just the taboo. The thought shrugged away as his finger brushed Mauvole's skin. She gasped in pain, lurching away from him slightly. She rested a hand on the dresser nearby for support.
Her clothes fell away in a silence that was becoming uncomfortable. But what they revealed was far more than that. Mauvole was injured. Her skin had been so bruised and battered that entire veins were visible by the splotches their hemorrhaging had left. She had no right to be alive in such a condition, or had done nothing so horrible as to deserve it. Or perhaps that was what she meant before, that she had earned this.
"They wanted my vote. They tortured me," she confided. "But that was... not enough."
She turned to face him again, and leaned back against the dresser, cautiously letting her posture relax. She had more flab than a goddess could admit in public, but more burdens than any mortal could carry.
"If I may," Garen murmured. "Which one?"
Mauvole's brow flicked.
"Talon or Mayfield? Which one did this?"
He felt in his expression the certainty that he had done something horribly wrong, and that now he needed the courage to admit it, and to put it right. Treason by letter, and virtue by spirit. But when Mauvole reached for his hand, Garen saw pity in her expression.
"Your fist, please," she whispered.
His fingers balled and his knuckles protruded, and her hand raised his to her bared chest. What Garen saw there fit suddenly into an image he hated. Four bruises lined along her breast and exploded through veins where her breast met her sternum. Her hand pulled his fist forward, and his knuckles nestled tight against the marks they had left.
"You don't remember, do you?" she whispered.
Garen had no answer.
"So it is true," she breathed.
Garen pulled his fist away, dreading the contact.
"What? What is?"
"Everything she said. The prophecies are true. The Nattligen have come. The True Daughter... will be revealed. The Voi-"
Her eyes fell closed, and she had to steel herself against the pain of speaking, and when they reopened, she had the clarity in her pupils of a prophet.
"Garen. I am not the True Daughter of Avarosa. Avarosa's child never would have fallen to such disgrace. I have known for so long, and I have to accept it now, but I must keep fighting. Do you understand what would happen to my people if I were to say such a thing?"
Garen shrugged as sympathetically as possible.
"They would become outcasts. They would be branded heretics. My younger sisters would all be hunted and killed, even by their own subjects, branded traitors and barbarians. Sejuani's marauders would butcher the men of my tribe and subject my sisters to the most unforgivable cruelties. So I must be a goddess. For my people, I must. I hope you will forgive me someday for this lie, but I do not believe I will be alive to see it."
Garen shook his head.
"They need you alive to vote their way."
"I won't," she whispered.
"But, your sister-"
"But my people."
She let the thought settle in silence.
"My hunters have finished... restocking the food stores. The summit will resume today. Find my sister and free her... before I give my vote, and if there is a heaven for us... I will barter anything for your entry."
She placed a hand against his chest with her thumb tucked against her palm. It had significance, but Garen was completely lost in local custom. He placed a hand over hers.
"I... I don't know where she is. I don't know how to help you. Can't you... If you die, won't your people realize that you aren't a goddess?"
The question should have been obvious to him, but just as he thought that, the answer became more obvious. Avarosa had died six-hundred years ago. Ashe, Sejuani, and Mauvole were separated from her by twelve generations of women who all died at some point.
"No," was Mauvole's summary. "But above all else, the people must believe that I might be a goddess."
Garen nodded, but was struck suddenly with the thought of Ashe's arrows.
"You said Sejuani would kill and... be horrible to your people. What about Ashe?"
Mauvole shook her head.
"I don't know."
"Isn't it worth a shot?" Garen egged. "Isn't that chance worth peace among the three tribes?"
Mauvole's expression was pity again, the same face she had worn when she saw his ignorance before.
"Do you have a sister, Garen? Would you trust her life with an enemy that had been sworn against you since birth?"
Garen did not hear her words. He saw them as images. He saw Luxanna at home with him, retelling the story of Katarina's mercy. He saw the scar on Katarina's face in Kalamanda.
"Yes," he answered. "I did. And..."
He had to think for a moment, but he remembered how the battle turned. He remembered looking for his sister in a pub by the front lines. He remembered Katarina's grace as she fell through the window and coated the room with daggers- the beauty he saw even as she felled his friends. He remembered raising his sword too slowly, and seeing her aim hesitate, and knowing that she had missed by design.
"And I would trust her again," he finished.
If Mauvole's faith had stunned him before, she seemed absolutely flabbergasted by his.
"You can't ask me to-"
"You are asking me to commit treason," he answered. "And I will. For your people and for my conscience. Because virtue exists only in secret."
She did not recognize the motto of the Commandos, but she saw its merit.
"Thank you," she whispered. "For your strength."
Garen had little time to lose. Minutes later, he was fully armed in the lobby, on his way to knowledge. Talon was holding Lissandra somewhere. But Mayfield was waiting in the lobby, his gaze focused on the portrait above the fire. After two weeks, his fascination with it had not died. Garen stopped at his side, facing the door and waiting for a comment on his actions.
"You're upset, Garen. Go ahead."
"Where is Lissandra being held?"
Garen had little patience left for the roundabout explanations Mayfield occasionally deigned to provide. There would be no negotiation. He said it in his tone. Mayfield's response lacked any concern, and carried suspicion in its stead.
"Talon is holding her in a homeless shelter down the street."
Garen waited a brief moment for the catch. There had to be something wrong with the information. Garen knew the other two didn't trust him. They knew that he didn't need to know, and they would ask why he was asking. But Mayfield's attention stayed on the painting.
There it was. Mayfield checked a Hextech pocket watch and mumbled, "He released her two minutes ago."
And his gaze returned to the painting. Mayfield's jaw chewed a few times, then settled.
"Let me guess. Mauvole changed her vote," he mused.
Garen drew his sword while Mayfield finished, "and she thinks we'll kill her sister."
Garen was readying to charge when Mayfield finally looked away from the painting.
"People are just flames to be blotted out," he whispered. "No point crying over one or two."
Then, in a louder voice, "But no."
"We need Lissandra. We have her vote. Now if only we could put her in her sister's position. If only there was someone to make an example of."
Mayfield punctuated the last sentence with a subtle twitch in his eyes. Garen felt the world around him loosen, as if a pillow had delivered a concussion.
"Do me a favor, Garen. Go finish what you started with Mauvole."
Garen felt the pain wrack his mind. The world shimmied as if trying to escape from him. But he steeled himself against it, and the wave passed. He glared back into Mayfield's eyes and growled, "No."
Mayfield's expression dropped. Whatever he had done, had been doing for two weeks, had suddenly failed.
"Let's make an example of you," Garen finished.
But his words were covered by the door and whoever kicked it in. Ashe had returned from the storm, her all-white garb replaced with black and gold. And she had learned. A quicksilver sash was tied over her eyes. Her bow was already drawn and aimed. Two arrows were loaded.
"Let's make an example of you two then," she growled.
Mayfield dodged his. Garen, behind him, was not so lucky. And he noted with a bite that Mayfield had been wrong about the temperature. Ice, or ectoplasm, was as cold as it was confining. Garen was a brick of cold.
Mayfield found cover behind a couch, but Ashe seemed to know this, her nose and ears pricked high and tense.
"I always thought the Nattligen were a myth," she called.
Her feet were strafing around the cover, bow ready for the next sound.
Mafyield had pulled a Hextech revolver from his coat. A shot to the roof dropped a chandelier. Ashe scrambled back towards the door while Mayfield changed position and Garen panicked in place. Hextech torches cascaded and shattered against the wooden floor, arcane jets of power sparking and flowing out of them as they cracked. The only other sources of light now were the few torches on the walls. The window shutters had been closed against the blizzard.
"You didn't study the myths very well, then," Mayfield answered.
Ashe regained her stance and trained an arrow on his voice, somewhere out of Garen's sight. Mayfield cooed to her from the shadows.
"There are five ways to get into your head, Princess. The eyes are just one of them."
What followed was a rattle, like that on a snake. Mayfield was spinning the cartridge on his revolver.
"No," he whispered.
"You didn't study the myths. If you had, you wouldn't have come here all alone."
His voice swallowed the last lights in the room, and as the hypnotic paranoia overtook them, the techmaturgical lanterns along the wall sputtered and dimmed into a deathly black.
The revolver's rattle didn't come from where his voice had. He continued speaking from corners and nooks that crossed each other in the room.
"I wouldn't need your ears, either," he cooed.
"Just a meal properly cooked for your taste, or a light stroke against the hairs of your spine."
Footsteps sprinted across the hallway without an owner. The painting shifted on the wall, and a ribbon fell loose from behind it. Ashe's aim was adjusting to these and the wisps of unnatural wind stoking the fire, but she couldn't chase every phantom. Her breathing calmed and steadied under discipline, and her aim relaxed as she tried to filter them out. She jerked again, suddenly, and Garen saw in the peripheries of his vision that Mauvole had entered the lobby from the rear.
"She isn't alone," Mauvole wheezed.
Mayfield's voice had utterly changed. Now it was as if the darkness was laughing, its echoes bouncing on a room made larger by shadow.
Garen, meanwhile, felt the ice around him warming. The enchantment had worn off. It melted in a single deluge, and he sprinted to cover in the arm of the couch. Mayfield was nowhere to be seen. But the rattle sounded again, this time behind Ashe. She swiveled on a heel, and Garen saw from under her aim as the door of the Hextech Inn slammed shut. The wall torches sparked back to life. Mayfield had run. Garen stood, arms raised, and Ashe was on him in an instant. Another arrow, this one paralysis, struck through his bandage into the same hole as before.
Garen groaned a harmony up from the floor as the wound sang a melody in his nerves.
Ashe appeared above him, her eyes still covered by the sash. She had worn it around her waist during ceremonies. Her nose twitched while she took aim at Mauvole.
"Garen Crownguard," she snorted.
"I used to think goddesses were a myth," he tried.
The sash covered her eyes, but Ashe's lips spread into a satisfied smile. She corrected it sharply.
"You can't flatter your way out of this, Crownguard. What business does Demacia have with my people?"
"I was tricked. It's the Black Rose. I don't know what they want."
In the Commando's, he had received a little torture training. It went like this: "There are two kinds of torturers, those who want information, and those who want to torture. Everyone breaks eventually. Your call."
Garen was pondering its wisdom as Ashe pondered his words.
"Where is my sister?" she finally asked.
Mauvole stepped in to his aide, but Garen spoke first.
"They just released Lissandra. I didn't know they took your sister in her place," he answered. "But they were holding Lissandra at a homeless shelter down the street."
The door opened again, and Ashe pivoted to meet the newest arrival. Mauvole's hand readied throwing daggers. Garen could lift his head enough to see a large, fur hat pause under threat in the entry. The emblem of the People's State of Piltover was pinned to it, and the woman beneath wore the symbol as her expression. She took a moment to think before concluding,
"Her Holiness of Freljord, Princess... Ashe... and Mauvole."
Ashe waited a moment, sorting the voice.
"Your accent... The new Diplomat from Piltover?"
Her bowstring tightened. The Piltover woman glared and answered,
"Let's be serious. The negotiations have ended. But, yes. Madame Sheriff Caitlyn, representative of the People's State of Piltover, Enforcer General, and Flame of the Revolution, if you prefer complete titles."
"I don't," Ashe snapped.
"Then Sheriff Caitlyn, if you please."
She tipped her hat to the sash over Ashe's eyes, and unslung a rifle from her shoulder. Garen recognized it as the infamous Snayperskaya Piltover Kalashnikov. Caitlyn recognized him.
She was done with introductions.
"Making more friends, no doubt," Mauvole breathed. Her head tilted to Garen.
"A homeless shelter on this street, you said?"
Garen nodded. Ashe's blinded gaze had lingered on Caitlyn for a moment, but she turned it down to Garen.
"All three of Freljord's tribes know what you've done here," she whispered. "But only I will give you a chance to redeem your nation. I don't imagine Demacia would receive you kindly if stories about their Paragon's evils were to follow you home."
She let the thought sprout in Garen's head.
"So if I was you," she finished, "I would help me find my sister."
She relaxed her bow and removed the arrow from Garen's chest. He sat up too fast for his health, now embarrassed to see his chest-bandage bleeding.
"We have to hurry," he grunted.
Caitlyn, Sherrif of Piltover, grinned.
"I love a good chase."
"Agreed," Ashe hummed.
Human nature stirred the blizzard into an ice-hell. Garen's blood was freezing against his chest as soon as he left the hotel. Running was the only option for warmth, and Mayfield had a head start. Even Piltover shivered under her layers of winter gear. Mauvole wore a straight face through her pain. Ashe wore nothing but a cloth tunic, black and gold, that ended above her knees.
"It's unusually cold," she observed.
Garen kept running, following a blinded woman through a blizzard, and hoping that at least his core would warm up. Caitlyn kept lifting her rifle, looking ahead through the optics. Garen turned a chide over his shoulder and shouted to be heard over the storm.
"I don't think a scope's going to help in this."
Caitlyn's expression was too cold to react.
"Three lifesigns! Two hundred meters!" she called.
And she dropped prone.
"One of them is running. The second is holding the third hostage."
Caitlyn's hand flashed up to the arcane optic enhancements on her weapon's top rail. She made an adjustment, precise and quick, and relaxed back into a firing position. The other three hesitated at her side.
"Crownguard. Quickly. Who's taller, Mayfield or Talon?"
Her eye stayed on the scope while Garen hesitated.
"Talon, but barely."
"Ashe, call out to your sister. I'm lining up the shot."
Ashe's voice split the blizzard as if commanding it to part. Garen found himself believing uncomfortable things about her. Her sister's voice responded weaker. It wasn't a second later that the Kalashnikov entered the conversation. Caitlyn grinned.
Weeks later, his sister smiled. It was a smile of expectation and hope. It was a contrast to reality. Garen stirred the thought in his glass and glanced around his audience. Luxanna had another young friend, and his mother had invited General Laurent's daughter again. They were standing in the Crownguard Gardens, away from the older dignitaries and their play of civility.
"What happened next? Ugh, Garen you always do this. You get us to the good part and you stop."
Luxanna frowned with all of her might. Garen didn't see. He had sought Fiora's reaction, and was now caught in battle with her eyes.
Her accent managed to ask, "Iz your sizter always zo easily impressed?"
Garen only glared.
"Does the story sound impressive to you?"
Usually he would have waited for an answer. But the conversation was in their eyes. She was nudging him, finding places too tender for him and poking hard, trying to break him.
"Non," she snapped. "Iz- how do you say- fantastique?"
How do you say... As if she didn't often visit the common folk or use their vulgar language. Fiora was raised with the tongue of nobles, and she wouldn't let anyone forget it.
Luxanna demanded an answer. Her outburst stole the attention from General Laurent's joke a few bushes over, and Luxanna blushed under the questioning glances of Demacia's top brass.
"Talon escaped. I just left."
"Zo you 'ave zee diary?"
Fiora's hand extended to him.
"No," Garen growled. "I handed it to Princess Ashe as a sign of goodwill."
A contemptuous "hm" accompanied her look. Garen was drawn back to her, a confident glare his only defense against her unsatisfied inspections.
"No, Garen. Not that! Did she kill the bad guy? Did he die?"
But Luxanna's demands were interrupted by a summons from Lilia. She stomped away, her friend in tow.
"Zuch a brat," were Fiora's parting words. Luxanna could only scowl over her shoulder as a response.
Fiora met Garen's disapproving comment with a glare that meant "do you disagree?"
He wouldn't give her the satisfaction of being right.
"Don't you have any stories I can disbelieve?"
He regretted it when Fiora smirked.
"I vould tell you drivel about gods, but... well..."
The smirk widened. And when her lips spread, Garen saw a playful tongue dart across her teeth. He sighed.
"You're a duelist, right? I heard you had a victory yesterday. Tell me about-"
"I have no equal."
Parry. Riposte. Garen sipped his drink, keeping eye contact. He would not give her the pleasure of being correct.
"So you shamed him? Or was this for money?"
"To the death."
A blade cut her lips, and they curled in glee. In her excitement, she had forgotten to stress the accent. Something about Freljord had kept Garen cold for the whole week it took him to travel back; He felt it again now.
He felt it hours later, when he knocked in his mother's doorway. She turned away from her mirror.
A moment of shock struck him. His eyes lowered to the mail in his hands, and past that to his reflection in perfectly sheened wood floors. Deja Vu. But there was no point sharing it.
His journal was sitting on an end table.
"You asked for the mail," he mumbled.
Lilia's eyes returned to the mirror, and she repeated a gesture usually reserved for servants. She was too busy changing outfits to address him.
"Read it to me, darling. I just want to finish tidying myself up."
Garen approached the end table she had indicated, and let all but one parcel fall there. He opened it with a finger and read aloud something he wasn't hearing. How had that diary gotten here?
"I'm not very interested in General Laurent's advances, darling. Go ahead and burn that one. Next."
Garen complied with a flick of his wrist, and read again in a voice that didn't reach his mind. Who else traveled from Freljord to Demacia? How long had she had the diary? Had she read it yet? Garen's voice caught in his throat as she approached her dresser. Lilia passed the journal to set her tiara on a pillow in a gilded box.
When he resumed, she interrupted, "No, you were right. I can read that later. Before you go on..."
Garen set the letter aside and paused.
"Before you go on..." Lilia continued. "What is your aversion to women?"
Garen blinked over the assumption.
"Well, Luxanna managed to find a boy she likes. And she had several chasing after her at the academy. I can assure you I put an end to that."
Lilia was inspecting herself in the mirror, so Garen was still free from her attention in one sense. He cast a scowl without thinking.
"A boy? You mean Talon? He's a Noxian assassin by the way."
"And you are a Demacian assassin," she chimed. "But yes, lust for the enemy is treason. Luxanna is going on another tour of Noxus, by the way. I hope you enjoyed Freljord. She nearly begged me for that trip. Wanted to see Freljord's men. You... gave a very... thorough description of the men in Freljord."
Her eyes flashed to the journal. Garen eyed it as well, wondering suddenly what was in it. She had never asked him to hand his over, so she must have received this one in advance of his arrival. Who had forged this? He caught the accusation in his throat. Whatever was in this diary would probably not get him hanged. The truth could.
"You and Jarvan were very close as children," she suggested.
"And whose fault is that?" Garen couldn't talk about the diary. An accusation was his only defense.
"Just an observation," his mother mumbled. "Go on with the mail."
Garen panicked as he reached for the third. The emblem of a rose stared up at him in black ink. His finger ran through the seal, and it split. Garen had seen photographs before, in the Commandos. He had taken a few himself. So he knew what he was holding. And he had been present when it was taken. He was in it, actually. Garen flexed a grip with five fingers. This had to be a dream- a nightmare. The picture was taken in front of the Bilgewater Embassy- when Katarina had been calling for the guards to stop him and General Laurent from leaving- when she had tripped and he had caught her. In the picture, she was staring into his eyes, weight on his chest, with a leg popped behind her. Her bottom lip was tucked, mouth open and reaching for his.
Garen's eyes rose to meet his mother. She was watching him in the mirror.
"Explain," she ordered.
"She was drunk," he supplied.
"Apparently, I'm a homosexual." Garen tossed the photograph onto the table. "Besides, should I have stabbed her in front of an embassy?"
Lilia turned from the mirror to face him, and bit her lower lip as an illustration.
"Do you know why girls do that, darling?"
Garen had lost patience in the topic.
"If I remember correctly, it was the phonetic 'f.' She was yelling 'Fu-'"
A diamond cracked against his cheekbone, drawing blood along his face. He finished the word silently.
"You aren't a man, Garen. Fortunately, you have a mother."
"Fffffortunately," he egged.
"You will kill Katarina Du Couteau. You will marry a Demacian noble. You will thank me someday."
She finished the assertions at her door, and stood beside it, waiting for Garen to open it. He obliged, holding the doorknob in a grip that could crush her throat, and stepped aside for her to pass.
The judgmental glares of the Crownguard lineage bore down on him as they paced. A little past Falren Crownguard, Lilia spoke again.
"I am leaving home for the week."
Garen thanked whatever gods had managed that. She did not speak again until they reached the entryway.
"In my stead, the house needs a feminine presence. General Laurent's daughter has elected to stay over for the duration. She's waiting for you, by the way."
"Wh- Fiora? Where?"
Lilia's head tilted, as if the answer was obvious.
"You know. That room above the study with the armillary in it."
Garen made the connection instantly.
"You mean... the room Luxanna and I were conceived in?"
Luxanna had been made aware yesterday, somehow, and wanted to know what the word meant. Lilia smiled.
"Yes. Now kiss your mother goodbye. It is very rude to keep a lady waiting."
The parting was brisk. The walk, like carrying explosives over his head in the Howling Marshes. His knock at the door, something in-between panic and discipline. Fiora was standing at the window in her dueling outfit. She had worn a dress earlier, but now she wanted to fence, and he was the only opponent available. Her gaze lilted over the Crownguard estate when she bade him to enter.
Garen's gaze was elsewhere. Across the room from Fiora's window was a portrait of his mother looking slightly pleased. But Fiora drew his attention back. She untied her dueling cape and tossed it across the feet of the bed, then walked there- she walked as if performing art instead of labor- and turned her back to him.
"Would you be so kind?"
Her head turned to the side, peering over her exposed shoulder at him. The cape had hidden a series of laces tying her outfit across the back, not unlike Mauvole's tunic- too similar, in fact. Garen eyed the portrait of his mother. Its disposition was steadily improving. He approached, wary, and let his fingers rest against the back of her neck. Finally, a reaction. Her eyes refocused, and the hairs of her neck flexed. But she stifled her gasp. He untied the first lace, realizing suddenly that it was made for far smaller fingers. Fiora's hands were resting on her hips- tiny by comparison.
"There," he murmured.
He saw her response struggle in her throat- her posture left it exposed.
The laces crossed down her back, almost to her waist. Garen foresaw events proceeding likewise. But she was probably teasing. He placed a finger between the next cross and pulled it loose.
"All of them," Fiora whispered.
Garen eyed the portrait again. His mother's hand-sans-presence was typical. He pulled the rest of the laces loose with no attempt at gentleness, and turned to leave. But her words held him.
"I will be here for a week, Garen."
"It's rude to leave a guest, no?" she tried.
His mother's portrait suddenly clicked in his mind. She had set this up intentionally. It was a test. He would bed Fiora, or he had committed High Treason with Katarina. He couldn't leave this situation. In the moment he took to find a witty response, he heard her clothing fall.
"Zere is no man who can resist me."
Her tone was smug. She was stating a fact, rather than seducing him.
"I do." Another fact.
Garen had nothing to back it up with. Because he would. Why?
"Anozer woman, perhaps?"
His eyes turned to the portrait.
"A voman you can not 'ave, perhaps? Beautiful and deadly, no?"
Garen turned to face her, to engage her in the eye contact she savored. She was poking again, around places she knew would hurt, trying to prove the lie. And he had nothing to back it up. He could only fight her with a confident glare. She was smiling at the anger she had invoked, but stoic.
"Is zere enough man in you for an 'onest compliment?"
Fiora's eyes rolled. "Ha! Beauty ends. What of my mind?"
Garen stifled his emotions. She was leading him.
"You stripped naked to have me appreciate your mind?"
"Clozing is a facade for zee self. But my body cannot lie. Now tell me, vhat of my mind?"
Garen circled around Fiora to the window, lining her up below the portrait. He turned away to see the gardens.
"I want to say..."
"Do not tell me vhat you vant to say. Zay it."
"You're rude. You act like you're better than everyone. You don't ignore what everyone says, but you discard it."
He sighed into the wind.
He thought, not understanding, but finally realized what she meant.
"Vhat do you zink of my mind?" she repeated.
He turned back to her as he spoke, stopping when he realized she has moved. Her finger pressed against his lips.
"Don't tell me with your words," she whispered.
Her posture rose, exposing her body, still posed as if wielding a rapier.
Garen had been pushed too far. He advanced into her, fuming, and she backpedaled to the dresser, stopping just short of her back touching it. Her finger stayed on his lips the whole time. Her footwork had no equal.
Garen's fury had no equal. His hands reached up, and she seemed shocked for a moment- not scared or alarmed, but suddenly aware of how easily he could manhandle her. Garen's arms rose over her, past her head and he grabbed the portrait and tore it from the wall, dropping it behind the dresser. Fiora's eyes were wide with lust. Her posture straightened again, her chin rising to expose her neck, and her mouth extended to his as a prompt.
"You are more of a man than any-"
Garen pressed his finger against her lips. She gasped- she was aroused. Garen felt only anger. Who the hell was this woman, coming into his house and demanding attention at the point of her insults? Maybe she needed a taste of her own medicine.
"Don't tell me with your words," he growled.
She held his gaze, trying desperately to probe his eyes. She had to find uncertainty, or something she could grip to lead him by. But she only met the power of a man unleashed by provocations.
Slowly, her lips parted to speak. But he was tired of her words. His finger pressed through her lips, and she took him into her mouth, and sucked.
A/N: For a more explicit telling of the event, check out "Pleasure of Satisfaction" by WaddleBuff.