Oh ye of little faith. Seriously, though, I've been rewriting the story from chapter one onwards, and I'm almost done. I just realized that you guys have been getting nothing in the mean time. So here.
When Katarina's mother fell "ill" to the public, the family lost its reputation for impeccable health. So puking was a new experience to Katarina, as was the sickness of an intense fear. She knew it wasn't the rocking of the boat. Her summer in Bilgewater had proved an affinity for the sea. It might have been the stench or the month-long journey, she thought. But none of those turned her stomach. It turned when she thought of the land before her, and of the bloody melees that she never wanted to see again or be part of. The image of blades arrayed against her was stronger than any tide in her guts. She hurled again, mostly into the bucket between her knees.
Riven was above deck, hair in the breeze and idealism beaming from a golden heart, no doubt inspiring the people under her command. So Katarina's only company was the reflected eyes of a stowaway. One of the thousands of nine-tailed foxes in Zaun had caught a ride home.
Light routed the shadows, and the fox retreated into them. Katarina had hoped that the excitement of land would save her the embarrassment of company. Instead, she felt a reassuring hand.
Riven sat beside her, a timid smile faltering.
"Hey. We're in this together, you know."
Katarina nodded. But they weren't. To Riven, this was a simple issue. Ionia had spied on Noxus. Demacia had attacked. Soldiers would carry swords into war and walk away with titles. She didn't know what horrors awaited them off the charted map.
She didn't know about Operation Thorn. Katarina had been called into Nirmal Raedsel's office again, to discuss the matter of Scarlet and Gold. She noted that the bookshelf had been repaired after she was pinned to it, and she noted the purple top hat of the ambassador of Piltover.
"Sheriff Caitlyn, if you please."
"Lieutenant Katarina Du Couteau."
They had locked eyes for another moment before she explained.
"Sorry," Katarina blurted, "The- the last time we met, it wasn't you. A light mage-"
"So I've heard."
Caitlyn's smiles and nods were curt.
"The matter at hand- Nirmal Raedsel, I'm not familiar with your title."
"Nirmal is fine," he murmured.
Raedsel had stood from his chair for the ambassador. All of them sat now. Caitlyn nodded her appreciation.
"Nirmal then. You should remember from a briefing that Operation Thorn designated two targets: Scarlet and Gold. Mayfield himself was too dangerous, and we lost some people as a result."
Nirmal Raedsel shot a glance to Katarina. It had taken her a moment to realize, but as Caitlyn carried on, Katarina understood she was standing at her trial. Operation Thorn had been an inter-state project to identify and kill everyone that the Black Rose had supporting Mayfield. And Caitlyn, the long arm of Piltover's infamous law, had decided on who 'Scarlet' and 'Gold' were.
"To be perfectly honest, Nirmal, I don't believe they have any idea who they are."
Caitlyn sighed. Katarina reserved all emotion.
"They aren't agents of the Black Rose. They are people that Black Rose agents have control over."
Caitlyn waited for Nirmal to ask, "In your opinion as a law enforcer…"
"Katarina is innocent. Clueless, I'd say."
Nirmal nodded, almost satisfied, but remained in the conversation as a question. He was eyeing the terse movements and expressions of the sheriff.
"That concludes the investigation, then? You shot Mayfield and…"
Nirmal's eyes had fallen to the report on his desk, where he frowned.
"Correct me if I am wrong, Ambassador. We agreed that all evidence would be held by Noxus. You… There's an autopsy here, but we didn't receive a body."
He glared over the rim of his reading glasses, but met an equally angry stare. He was not the only person frowning.
"Allow me to remind you of another agreement," Caitlyn hissed, "All parties will share all information relevant to the investigation."
Nirmal set down his briefing and began flipping through the autopsy report. Pictures accompanied it, each too blurry to be useful.
"So he's not local," Nirmal murmured. "We didn't think that was relevant. Awful photography, by the-"
"He's not human!" the sheriff snarled.
"You don't get a body, Nirmal, because half-way into the autopsy he sat up, had a go at me, and escaped into the darkness- literally merged into a shadow in a locked room and disappeared."
Caitlyn finally had Nirmal's attention. He was speechless.
"And the camera works fine," she spat, "Just not when it's pointed at him. We were trying to show you the scars on his back- two vertical scars, as if someone had removed a pair of wings."
"You damn well better have the physician corroborate this," Nirmal interjected.
"He's dead," Caitlyn snapped. "When that thing woke up, it grabbed the doctor by his collar and said something to him. They kept eye contact for a moment, and then the doctor began hallucinating. I attempted to stop Mayfield. And we found the doctor an hour later, with his eyes in his hands."
Caitlyn finished just as Nirmal reached the last photo. His eyes peeked up to Caitlyn, and he asked.
"What did Mayfield say to the physician?"
Katarina was trying to lean forward and see the picture. Caitlyn's answer drew her back.
"An empty place where light keeps pace,
and where the ocean's deep.
I dwell in these and 'neath the trees,
and where the bodies sleep."
Katarina leaned into the photograph. This one was clear, of a doctor planted face-first against a wall, his body slumped in death. In each hand he held a bloody eye,and he had used the blood to write his last word in blood: "Darkness."
Katarina puked again, and the bucket between her legs swirled. Reading Garen's feelings for her was enough for one week. But checking her shoulder for the mailman of death was too much. Riven had left her with encouraging words and an admission of fear. She had thankfully left more intimate topics to stew on their own. Now it was Captain Ferro who came to visit her.
His presence had grown less and less intimidating as she grew more confident in her ability to fight. But then she had feared his unassailable strength, and now he sat cross-legged, and deflated against the wall beside her. When he removed his helmet, Katarina felt that he had never scared her more. Because she could see now, that he was not certain on his own. It wasn't until he met her eyes that his posture seemed to return.
"You look terrified, Kat. You're seriously considering jumping off the boat and swimming back, right?"
He laughed with her.
"I actually tried to abandon at DelGarde," he confided. "Fortunately, we were outflanked and a goddess of luck had taken an interest in me. I killed about ten pikemen at a breach in the fort, and used their bodies to seal it. Got a promotion on the spot."
He grimaced at the memory.
"And then I cried for a long time. Puberty's like that."
He looked to Katarina, and his enthusiasm faded as he realized he wasn't helping.
"You aren't a Lieutenant because I think you're good at it," he blurted.
Katarina just felt hurt now. She sucked spilled vomit back from her nose and tried to swallow it. Ferro clarified, "I let you be a lieutenant because I know my other two picks can't handle being a Captain. Jerry doesn't know restraint, and Riven…"
They shared a chuckle.
"Yeah. She's a big softie," Katarina hummed.
"Just don't let it go to your head," Ferro murmured. He was speaking to the darkness in front of them.
"After we hit that beach, who knows what kind of people you'll be. A lot of things happen to you in battle. You're going to lose a part of yourself in that breach," he whispered.
She watched Ferro blink out of a memory. He nodded up the stairs- "out there-" and then he pulled a parcel from his pocket. It had been wrapped in a Zaunite bag. "That's plastic," Ferro mumbled.
Katarina held it up, a question. Ferro laughed.
"It's a letter to my family. They live at the base of the Ironspike Mountains... If they still own the farm. I never kept in touch."
Katarina had grown accustomed to the inhuman growl Ferro's helmet produced. Hearing him speak as a mortal was heartbreaking.
"I've had a good run."
He stood and replaced his helmet.
"I think you will, too."
Running was a good metaphor. Katarina was having trouble keeping up. A week before deployment, her father had pulled the last of his strings, just to get her away from boot camp for a day.
"Kat, you're a dog right now," he apologized. "That's my fault. But you won't be forever. I'll fix it. In the mean time, you need to stay up to speed."
They boarded an elevator and didn't stop climbing when they passed Zaun's smog. Katarina found herself backing against the wall while the tower at Killik Naval Yard shrank below her. This was a suite atop the highest building in the world, and it played host to people of that standing. Katarina was forced to wear a visitor's badge, "And Mr. Du Couteau must accompany you at all times," and the two of them paced along the most luxurious interior Katarina had ever seen. Janitors with security clearances mopped emerald floors and polished the gem-laden nipples of statues. Katarina balked at every new display of wealth and power until she finally mustered the courage to whisper, "Where are we?"
Marcus stopped at a marble door with two panthers inlaid on the front. He introduced himself to it, and added his daughter's name, and the door responded with a smooth and bodiless voice.
"Welcome to the Summoners' League. If you are visiting from the Institute of War, please declare so now."
Marcus waited in silence, and a moment later, the door opened for a conference room. He guided Katarina through the doors, which became a wall as soon as they closed. Katarina glared around the room, ignoring the others present as she sought exits.
"It's magic," Marcus whispered. "Just take a seat."
The circular assembly was attended by Summoners from all schools. Katarina saw a pyromancer rubbing elbows with an artificer, and then a face she recognized. Sander Grieve sat opposite her at the circular table. Beside him, a woman in beige robes wore the Sigil of Revival on her shoulders, and the seal of Demacia on her lapel: Lessa Carin. Katarina had nearly killed her in Kalamanda. The summoner's hard feelings were focused to Grieve, at her side. But everyone's attention fell to the table's center as the lights dimmed. The presentation began with a single gasp. Katarina had never seen a hologram, but she recognized the island of Ionia.
A hooded figure stood from the table. The speaker did not lower her hood, but she bore the emblem of Noxus- the old Noxus, its citizens wrapped in the blooming rose of an onyx monarchy. The voice from that hood snapped and cooed like a woman in charge, and Katarina looked to her father for confirmation.
"Thank you for your patience, summoners," the speaker began. And Emilia LeBlanc dropped her hood to absolutely no one's surprise. Katarina sat very rigid in her chair, eyeing her father for guidance. He was distracted by the headlines of a tabloid he'd brought. The Matron of the Black Rose continued, and the summoners around her seemed perfectly content with that.
"The planning committees for all of the recognized nations have reported success for this planning cycle. I'd like to start with a congratulation for everyone, and I look forward to five more years of success. Zaun, especially, has made great progress on the rocketry program, although we will have to discuss externalities. That's for another meeting. Today, please direct your attention to the map of Ionia.
"The Kinkou monastery has been the center of order and balance within the Ionian archipelago since the end of the last rune war. It was established, largely funded, and formally recognized by the Summoners' League as 'Asset 34.' You can find it under that title in your briefings."
Summoners flipped through packets on the table.
"Unfortunately, the monastery has fallen to an unknown force, plunging the surrounding area into chaos. Without a strong military presence, bandits are rising up and terrorizing the locals. The League must authorize a peacekeeping force to reestablish order in the Ionian Isles. We also have reason to believe that the Kinkou monastery's arcaneum was not properly secured before the raid. Missing items of note include mostly museum pieces, but a bounty has been declared for the safe return of two blades: Sange and Yasha."
A Zaunite in bronze robes raised a mechanical hand.
"Who declared it?"
"That was our interior department," Piltover answered. "The state archaeologist thinks it has something to do with The Ancients. It's out of my power."
The silence that descended drew the stares of all to a council of five summoners who sat together. They were murmuring too low to be heard. The conversation ended with a shrug and four nods before one leaned forward to declare,
"The League made a commitment to stability in Ionia and invested a large sum of resources specifically into the people of the Kinkou order. As strategic allies, we do owe it to them to see the dream of an Ionia at peace made real. However, as a peace organization, we have no forces to deploy, nor the funds to raise them. And without the financial backing of major nations, we lack the credibility with the public necessary to make such a proclamation."
The speaker for the League folded his hands and waited. Zaun was the first to answer.
"Zaun is willing to commit marketing expertise and up to half of the financing," the cyborg asserted.
"Noxian citizens have expressed an interest in global affairs after the incident at Kalamanda," Grieve added, "and we are ready to extend our protection to the people of Ionia."
"We will match Zaun coin for coin," Piltover confirmed.
The Summoners of the league traded glances. Shrugs and quips were exchanged. Katarina felt shocked by the rapid pace of lies and decisions from them, but she saw across the table that she was not alone. Lessa Carin sat glowering and silent beneath her hood. Grieve's weakness was his ego, and Katarina could see the necromancer make some cruel comment under his breath for the Demacian's benefit.
After the meeting, Marcus had no clarification to offer. He finished reading his paper in the elevator down, and had only this to say: "I hope that was informative."
The confining stench of a military ship was comforting now. Katarina wanted to stay in the stink and murk for a very long time, and she didn't want thoughts about the world outside to bother her. But a glance to her side shattered the illusion. Captain Ferro had a real dedication to cheering her up. And when he removed himself, he left a letter in his wake. Her father's seal split open, and she skimmed another brief comment of his.
"Hopefully you haven't inherited my anxiety or foolhardiness. I have to apologize again. You are not supposed to be on a ship to the killing fields. You are too far out of my plan for me to protect you now. Your mission is to survive until I can reassign you. Disobey every order to the contrary."
Katarina stared in disbelief, then decided that it was exactly the reprieve she needed. Her father had just told her that none of this was her fault, and that she just had to stay alive. That was the only part that scared her. But she hadn't hid in a hole from Garen, and she certainly wouldn't shy now from strangers. She kicked the bucket away and stood, slowly, due to her armor. Light pads covered her body, and a steel helmet protected her head, or was supposed to. She checked the leather sheathe of her sword, and the hoppers at her sides. There were no other excuses to stall, so she didn't.
Sunlight gave her the scowl she needed. Her sergeants had been waiting, and saluted her presence.
"Mam, the men are worried. Do you want to talk to them?"
"Mam, I'm pretty worried, myself."
Katarina could see why. The Ionians had lined the shores with a welcoming party for their saviors. But instead of fruit baskets, they had pikes and swords.
"Well," Katarina thought aloud, "First amphibious assault in history goes to Fury Company."
Captain Ferro was at her side with a telescope.
"15th Regulars, Echo Company, Last week in Freljord. A Captain named Swain took one of his platoons around a barbarian castle, forded the moat, and scaled the wall before anyone realized he was missing."
Ferro closed the telescope and smiled at the thought.
"How'd that work out?" a sergeant asked.
"Another overwhelming victory for Noxas," he lied.
The sergeants' non-plussed glares confirmed what Ferro's smile hid. Katarina swallowed the lie, and made it her own. She turned to the sergeants and ordered, "You heard him. It's a proven tactic. Go reassure the men."
This would be her last silent moment with Ferro. She used it to glare at him.
"You can be honest," she accused.
Ferro laughed like a drum.
"Death beckons, my fellows. Let us cast our lots and feed the crows. And may the highest roller live to collect his earnings."
He did not put a name to the quote. Katarina didn't care to ask.
"Should we be organizing, Captain?"
"Absolutely," Ferro purred. "I want your platoon at the front, Kat. Jerry at the back."
Katarina sighed. She had spent days more than anyone else studying a very different plan.
"I know," Ferro added, "but you aren't the only obligation I have. This company is my baby, and victory is my wife. If you've got to stay alive, you might make a bad move. I want a vicious bastard like Jerry at the back to keep your platoon moving forward. Don't worry. I'll be right beside you."
His smile had seemed strange before, but now it fell into place. This was not the excited bloodlust he had worn at the thought of war. Ferro was content. Ferro was preparing to die.
"What obligation?" Katarina blurted. "Why do you have an obligation to me?"
"You're under my command."
He was lying, she could tell. But he wouldn't budge on it. Ferro's odd behavior pawed at her mind like the soft purr his augmented voice had taken on. He was content, he was protecting her, and he was entrusting her with his last will and testament.
She shared the darkness below deck now. Four companies of the 42nd standard stood ready to charge. The ship's bow creaked as the water grew shallow, and the loading ramp jiggled as its restraints came loose. Katarina turned to Ferro. He had been very serious about staying at her side.
"Why do you think you're going to die, Captain?"
She knew he would lie, but it felt right to ask.
"Everyone has to, right?" he mumbled.
"Why today? And why do I have to live?"
She saw him grappling with what he could and could not say. And just has the door dropped, Ferro scrambled the words,
"Transcendence is not refused."