Taliyah had almost forgotten how much she’d missed the furnace heat of Shurima – the sweat and crush of hundreds of people pushing, cursing, haggling and speaking with such passion and speed that outsiders often thought they were fighting.
In all her travels, she’d never found anywhere with the sheer bustle and energy of her homeland. Ionia was wondrous, and the frozen landscapes of the Freljord were stunning in their own way, but the blazing sun of Shurima melted them from her memory as she set foot on the stone wharf of Bel’zhun.
The connection she felt with this land’s bedrock surged through her like one of Babajan’s spiced teas. She’d been grinning from ear to ear as she climbed the steps from the docks, and even passing beneath the black stone of a Noxtoraa couldn’t dampen her spirits.
Taliyah hadn’t stayed long in Bel’zhun. The Noxian warships in the harbor made her too nervous and brought back bad memories. She remained just long enough to buy supplies and catch the latest market-stall rumors carried from the deep desert by trade caravans. Most of it was conflicting and fantastical; visions of sand warriors, blizzards of lightning from clear skies and rivers flowing where no water had run for as far back as anyone could remember.
For the sake of some friendly faces, she left Bel’zhun in the company of a heavily armed caravan of Nerimazeth silk-merchants heading south to Kenethet. She’d endured the rolling motion of the caravan long enough to reach the bone-souks of that notorious city on the northern borders of the Sai before striking out on her own. The caravan master - a whip-thin woman named Shamara, with eyes like polished jet - advised against traveling farther south, but Taliyah told her that her family needed her, and there were no more warnings.
From Kenethet, she pushed ever south, following the winding arc of what people were once again calling the Mother of Life, a great river said to have its source in the capital of the ancient Shuriman empire. With no one around, she could make much better time, traveling with the rock as her steed, and riding its leading edge as she shaped it beneath her in sweeping waves that carried her ever southward toward Vekaura, a city she’d been told was half buried in the sand creeping out from the Sai.
Shamara had dismissed it as little more than a tribal camp built on the ruins of an abandoned city, a meeting place for weary travelers and wandering nomads. But even from a mile away, Taliyah saw she’d been misled; Vekaura was reborn.
If only she hadn’t found the dying woman.
The city’s souk was awash with color and noise. Pungent air rolled down the arched, canvas-awninged street in a wave, freighted with the sound of furious haggling, and the smell of tangy spices and roasted meat. Taliyah pushed her way through the crowds, ignoring the merchants’ extravagant promises and pleas to think of their starving children. A hand grasped her robes, seeking to pull her toward a stall laden with racks of spitted desert vermin, but she pulled away.
Hundreds of people thronged the wide street leading to the broken walls of the city. Aromatic smoke drifted like fog from the bubbling pipes of the old men sitting in doorways like wizened sages. She saw the tribal markings of Barbae, Zagayah and Yesheje, though there were dozens more she didn’t know. Tribesmen who would have sworn enemies back when she’d left Shurima, now walked side by side like brothers in arms.
“A lot’s changed since I’ve been gone,” she whispered to herself.
She had what she’d come for and needed to get back to the ruined building she’d chosen on the eastern edge of the city. She didn’t want to linger any longer than was necessary, but she’d made a promise to keep the injured woman safe, and her mother had always taught her never to break a promise. The Great Weaver took a dim view of such people.
The roughly-woven bag over her shoulder was filled with food; cured meats, oats, bread and cheese, along with two skins of water. More than she would need, but it wasn’t all for her. The gold sewn into the linings of her robes was almost gone, but she knew she wasn’t far now. She had no way of knowing for certain, but felt sure her every step was bringing her nearer to the warm embrace of her mother and father. After that, she wouldn’t need gold, she’d have all she needed right there in the tent with her.
So lost in that pleasant future was Taliyah, that she didn’t notice the big man until she ran into him. She bounced off his unmoving body and landed flat on her backside.
It had felt like walking into a cliff, not an inch of give in it. The people in the souk seemed to know that better than her. They flowed around him like water around a rock in a stream. He was dressed from head to foot in tattered robes that did little to conceal his enormous bulk and height. He held fast to a long, cloth-wrapped staff, its wide head bound in rags. Perhaps he needed it because she saw his legs were strangely angled.
“Excuse me,” she said, looking up, “I didn’t see you.”
He looked down at her, his face hidden in the shadows of an elongated cowl, but didn’t answer. He held out his hand, the fingers swathed in bandages like a plague victim. Taliyah hesitated for only moment, and took the proffered hand.
He lifted her up with barely any effort at all, and she saw a gleam of gold beneath the dusty fabric of his robes before he clasped his hands back within his sleeves.
“Thank you,” said Taliyah.
“You should watch your step, little one,” he said, his voice heavily accented and strangely resonant, as if coming from a depthless well of sadness within him. “Shurima is a dangerous place now.”
He watched the young girl run off through the souk, and turned back toward the cracked walls of Vekaura. The giant blocks only reached his head, and the courses higher were formed of sun-baked bricks painted to match. To the people of Vekaura it must look impressive, but to his eyes it was a poor copy of the real thing.
He strode through the gateway, looking up at the crudely fitted stone overhead. A water vendor, standing in the midst of a brass contraption of spinning wheels that dispensed gritty water into bottles of green glass, looked up as he passed.
“Water? Fresh from the Mother of-” said the vendor, but the words died in his throat at the sight the towering form before him.
He knew he should keep moving. The words scrawled in blood on the walls of the Astrologer’s Tower had guided him here, and the magus would also be drawn to this place. He sensed the presence of one of the Ascended Bloodline in Vekaura, one who could trace their lineage back to the days before the empire that stretched from ocean to ocean and beyond was brought to ruin. To find that person before his enemy would be crucial, for the blood of Ancient Shurima was both rare and potent. It had brought Azir back from oblivion; and in the wrong hands, could bring doom to the reborn Shurima.
Yes, he should keep moving – but he did not.
“You trade among ghosts of the past,” he said.
“Ghosts?” said the vendor, his voice wavering in fear.
“This archway,” he said, jabbing his staff toward the roof of the arch. Dust fell in veils through the cracks from the men walking on the ramparts above. “Exiled craftsmen from lost Icathia built it. Each stone was cut and fitted with such precision that not a drop of mortar was required to lock it in place.”
“I...I did not know that.”
“You mortals forget the past and consign to legend that which ought to be remembered,” he said, the bitterness of centuries lost in the deep desert threatening to become violent anger. “Did I not build the Great Library to guard against such failures of remembrance?”
“Please, great lord,” said the water vendor, pressing his back to the wall of the gateway. “You speak of myths of ancient times.”
“To you, but when I first came here, the walls were newly raised, two hundred feet of polished marble, every stone pristine and veined with gold. My brother and I entered the city in triumph at the head of ten thousand gold-armored soldiers with burnished spears. We marched through this gateway to the cheers of the city’s people.”
He let out a rumbling sigh before continuing, “A year later, it was all gone. It was the end of everything. Or perhaps it was the beginning. I have turned from the world so long I can no longer tell.”
The water vendor paled, squinting in an attempt to penetrate the darkness beneath his cowl. The man’s eyes widened.
“You’re the Lost Son of the Desert!” said the vendor. “You’re… Nasus.”
“I am,” he said, turning away and entering the city, “but there is another far more lost than I.”
Nasus followed the crowds moving through the city toward the temple at its heart, trying not to notice their stares. His bulk alone would attract attention, but the water vendor would by now have spread his identity far and wide. Shurima had always been a place of secrets, none of which cared to remain buried for long. By the time he reached the center of the city, he’d be surprised if the entire population did not know his name. Yes, it had been foolish to stop, but the vendor’s lack of regard for history offended the scholar in Nasus.
Like the wall and gateway, Vekaura’s interior was a shadow of its former glory. Azir’s mother had been born here, and the young emperor had been lavish in his gifts to its people. Stepped gardens and flowers brought from every corner of the empire garlanded its structures in vivid colors and wondrous scents. Its towers gleamed with silver and jade, and cool water flowed from the great temple, running along great aqueducts in the naive belief its bounty would never end.
The passing millennia had worn the city down to its exposed skeleton of stone, its once magnificent structures reduced to ruins. Those ruins had been built upon over the last few centuries by those who still clung to the old ways, believing their future might be saved by revering the past. As Nasus followed the growing crowds, he saw only crude imitations of an all but forgotten memory.
Buildings planned by master craftsmen were now crooked parodies of their former glory. Walls once fashioned from square-cut granite were built over in timber and crudely shaped blocks. The city’s original outline was still there, but Nasus felt like he was moving through a nightmare, where once familiar surroundings were skewed in new and strange forms, where everything was twisted from its original form in ways designed to unsettle.
He heard muttering voices around him, his name spoken in hushed whispers, but he ignored them, finally turning a corner and entering the open plaza at the heart of the city. His clawed hands clenched into fists at the sight of what the citizens of Vekaura had raised in the heart of their rebuilt city.
A sun temple built of chiseled sandstone and bare rock. Raised by human hands to human scale, it was a child’s recreation of the titanic structure that sat at the heart of the Shuriman empire. The Grand Temple had been the envy of Valoran and the architects of distant kings had traveled thousands of miles to see it. And this was how it was insultingly remembered?
The walls were black and gleamed like basalt, but Nasus could see the uneven joints between panels where they had been fixed to the rough stone beneath. A sun disc gleamed atop the temple, but even from here Nasus could see it was not fashioned from gold, but wrought from alloyed bronze and copper. Nor did it float like the disc beneath which Nasus had been transformed into his current form. Instead, braided ropes tied to asymmetrical pillars on either side of the disc held it aloft.
Part of Nasus wanted to rage against these people, to hate them for building this ugly remembrance of the empire he and countless others had fought and bled to win. He wanted to shake them and tell them what they despoiled by building upon the grandeur of the past. But they did not know what he knew, had not seen what he had seen, and he could not make them understand.
A feather-robed hierophant stood before the disc, arms raised in supplication, though his words were lost in the city’s noise.
Was this the one he had come to find?
He crossed the plaza toward the temple with purposeful strides, seeing irregular steps cut into each of its four corners. Two warriors armored in form-fitting strips of bronze and feathered helms molded to represent beasts stood guarding the approaches to the stairs; they turned at the sight of him. Nasus faltered as he recognized who their helms were intended to represent. Both had elongated snouts; one in crude imitation of crocodilian jaws, the other with its visor molded into a snarling jackal’s head.
They leveled their spears as he approached, but he read their shock as he cast off his robe and stood to his full height. For too long he had wandered the world of mortals hunched over and ashamed, seeking to hide his stature. For too long he had hidden himself away, paying his penance in bleak isolation, but his days of concealment were over. Nasus had no desire to keep his true face hidden any longer.
Towering over the guards, Nasus was a figure of might and magic, an Ascended being from an age when such heroes still walked amongst mortals. His body had been raised up by the magic of the sun disc and remade, his withered, dying flesh transformed into a jackal-headed demigod of obsidian flesh. Banded golden armor, tarnished with age and hung with votive strips embossed with sigils of Shurima, enfolded his chest and shoulders. He reached up and tore the cloth bindings from his staff to reveal his long hafted war-axe. Its edge glittered in anticipation, the ocean blue gemstone at its heart drinking in the sunlight.
“Stand aside,” he said.
The guards quailed in fear, but stood their ground. Nasus sighed and spun his axe in a looping arc. The end caught the first guard on an upward stroke and hurled him back thirty yards. His reverse stroke drove the second into the dust, leaving him groaning in pain as Nasus set a clawed foot on the bottom step.
He climbed toward the summit where the sun gleamed on the beaten metal of the disc. As he climbed, he looked beyond Vekaura’s crumbling city walls. An unbroken sea of barren dunes stretched to the horizon on three sides. On the city’s eastern flank, the land steadily rose into the haunches of rugged foothills of stubborn earth, upon which grew hardy desert palms and thick stands of bhanavar trees whose roots plunged hundreds of meters below the sand to find water.
The sight of Shurima as this empty desert saddened Nasus, thinking back to when the Mother of Life had nourished the land and it had bloomed with life and vitality. Perhaps Azir would bring life to Shurima once again, perhaps not, which made his task of finding the one who bore the bloodline all the more vital.
Other guards were moving to the top of the temple, shouting in a language that owed a debt to Ancient Shuriman, but had none of the beauty and complexity of that lost tongue.
Nasus remembered the pain and fear he’d felt during his final ascent of the Great Temple in preparation for his Ascension ritual. The wasting sickness had left him too weak to climb and he’d been carried in the arms of his younger brother. By the time they reached the summit, the sun was almost at its zenith and his life was pouring out of him like the sands of a broken hourglass. He’d begged Renekton to go, to leave him to meet the sun alone, but Renekton simply shook his head and whispered their last shared words as mortals before the sun disc took them both into Ascension.
“I will be with you until the end.”
Even now, those words still had the power to wound him, cutting deeper than any blade. As a mortal, Renekton was unpredictable; sometimes prone to violence and cruelty, but equally capable of great nobility and courage. The power Ascension granted him had made him mighty, and in the end, it had been Renekton who wrestled the treacherous magus into the Tomb of Emperors and sacrificed himself to save Shurima.
Had anything they did that day saved Shurima? Azir had died, murdered by his boyhood friend, and the city was destroyed as the unchecked magic of the broken Ascension ritual buried it beneath the desert sands. He relived the moment he sealed the doors of the tomb behind Renekton and Xerath every day, knowing there had been no other choice, but burdened by crushing guilt nonetheless.
Now Xerath and Renekton were free. Azir had somehow conquered death to become one of the Ascended, and by his will was Shurima reborn. The ancient city had risen from its desert sepulcher and cast off the weary dust of its millennial slumber. But if the tales coming out of the desert were true, the Renekton Nasus had known and loved was gone. Now he was little more than a maddened killer that slaughtered without mercy in the name of vengeance.
“And I put you there,” said Nasus.
He reached the summit, and tried to set aside thoughts of what his brother had become; a monster that roared the name of Nasus over the burning sands of the desert.
A monster he would eventually have to face.
Nasus reached the top of the temple structure, the strips of votive paper fluttering from his arms and belt. He planted the haft of his axe on the rough stone and took a moment to survey his surroundings.
Sunlight reflected from the sun disc in splintered angles, the finish of its metal rough and unpolished. The braided ropes were painfully obvious up close, and the crudity of what Vekaura’s people had built was all too apparent. The roof was bare of ornamentation; no great dais carved with the celestial vault or cardinal winds, no etchings of the heroes who had Ascended upon its sacred surface.
Ten warriors in dusty cloaks and overlapping strips of bronze armor stood between Nasus and the hierophant. The priest was a tall, slender man in a long robe of iridescent feathers with wide, wing-like sleeves and a cowl that resembled an ebon beak. The face beneath the cowl was patrician, stern and unforgiving.
Just like Azir.
“You are Nasus?” said the hierophant. The man’s voice was deep and imposing, almost regal, but Nasus heard his fear. It was one thing to claim to be descended from gods, quite another to meet one.
“That you have to ask tells me I have been away for too long. Yes, I am Nasus, but, more importantly, who are you?”
The hierophant stood taller, puffing out his chest like a preening bird in mating season. “I am Azrahir Thelamu, Scion of the Hawk Emperor, First Voice of Vekaura, the Illuminated One, He Who Walks in Light and Keeper of the Sacred Fire. Bringer of the Dawn and-”
“Scion of the Hawk Emperor?” interrupted Nasus. “You claim lineage from Emperor Azir?”
“I do not claim it, it is who I am,” snapped the hierophant, a measure of confidence returning. “Now tell me what you want.”
Nasus nodded and spun his axe, holding it in both hands, horizontal to the ground.
“Your blood,” said Nasus.
He slammed the butt of his long-hafted axe against the stonework, and a cloud of sand lifted from the roof. It hung there in shimmering veils, spinning in a slow circle around the hierophant and his warriors.
“What are you doing?” demanded the priest.
“I told you, I need to see your blood.”
In the blink of an eye, the circling sand became a roaring hurricane. The warriors raised their arms to shield their faces from the whipping sandstorm and the hierophant bent double, blinded and choking on windblown dust. The sandstorm howled with all the fury of deep desert winds that could strip a flock of Eka’Sul to the bone in minutes. Armor was no protection, the sand penetrating every nook and cranny to reach the skin below and scour it raw. The sun disc swung back and forth in the winds Nasus conjured, its supporting ropes pulling taut on the iron rings fitted to the stonework.
Nasus let the fury of the sands fill him, his limbs surging with power and his body swelling as the desert’s wrath manifested within his dark flesh. His form loomed and grew, towering and monstrous like the first Ascended were said to be.
He attacked without warning, bludgeoning his way through the guards and smashing them aside with the haft of his axe or the flat of his blade. He had no wish to kill these men, they were sons of Shurima after all, but they were in his way.
He stepped over their writhing, groaning bodies toward the hierophant. The man lay curled in a ball, his bloodied hands held up to protect his face. Nasus reached down and lifted him by the scruff of the neck as easily as a hound might carry a pup. The hierophant’s feet dangled a yard off the ground as Nasus held him to his face.
The hierophant’s skin was red raw where the sand had scoured him, and tears of blood ran down his cheeks. Nasus moved closer to the sun disc. It wasn’t the real thing, wasn’t even gold, but it reflected the light of the sun and that would have to be enough.
“You say you are of the line of Azir?” he said. “Now we will see if that is true.”
He pressed the hierophant’s face against the sun disc, and the man screamed as the scorching metal burned his exposed skin. Nasus dropped the whimpering man and stared at the hissing blood running down the disc in red rivulets. The blood was already drying to a brown crust, and the scent of it filled his nostrils.
“Your blood is not that of the Ascended Bloodline,” said Nasus sadly. “You are not who I seek.”
He narrowed his eyes as he saw a radiant blue glow reflected on the surface of the disc from something in the far distance.
Nasus turned and looked to the horizon. A cloud gathered there, dust kicked up by the feet of marching men. Nasus saw the glitter of sunlight on speartips and armor through the dust. He heard the beating of war drums and the skirl of battle horns. Lumbering beasts emerged from the dust clouds, braying war-creatures yoked with knotted ropes and directed by groups of men armed with barbed goads. Protected by calcified skin plates and armed with curling horn-tusks, the beasts were living battering rams easily capable of smashing down Vekaura’s already ruined walls.
Behind the war-beasts, a host of tribal warbands advanced on the city beneath a wide variety of carved totems. Five hundred warriors at least; light skirmishers, whooping horse-archers, and fighting men bearing scale shields and heavy axes. Nasus felt the touch of a dominating will upon them, knowing that many of these tribes would normally tear each other’s throats out on sight.
Nasus felt the presence of ancient magic and the taste of metal flooded his jaws. His every sense heightened. He heard the babble of hundreds of voices from below, saw every imperfection in the bronze disc and felt every grain of sand beneath his splay-clawed feet. A sharp smell of blood, only recently staunched, stung his nostrils. It carried the faint trace of elder days and distant echoes of an age thought lost forever. It called to him from somewhere in the east of the city, at its very edge where the ruins merged with the hills.
The bearer of this awakening magic floated above the host; a being of crackling energy and dark power bound by chains of cold iron and the shards of an ancient sarcophagus. A traitor to Shurima and the architect of the ancient empire’s doom.
“Xerath,” said Nasus.
The ruined house on the eastern edge of Vekaura was crumbling, without much of a roof, and ankle deep in sand, but it had four walls and overhanging trees that offered shade during the hottest part of the day. Taliyah’s pack was propped up in the corner, ready to go as it always was. Skins of water and goat’s milk hung from its side, and enough dried meat to last her a couple of weeks had been packed alongside clothes and pouches of rocks and pebbles gathered from all over Valoran.
Taliyah knelt beside the injured woman lying in the shade and lifted the bandage from her side. She winced at the sight of crusted blood around the stitches she’d used to seal the deep wound. It looked like a sword cut, but she couldn’t be sure. Taliyah had stripped the woman’s armor and bathed her as best she could. Apart from the near-mortal wound in her side, the woman’s body was a map of pale scar tissue. All earned in a life of battle, and all but one to the fore. Whoever this woman was, only one of her enemies had not met her face to face. Taliyah replaced the bandage and her patient grunted in pain, her sleeping body trying to heal after the Great Weaver alone knew how much she’d suffered out in the desert.
“You’re a fighter,” said Taliyah, “I can tell that about you, so fight for your life.”
Taliyah had no idea if the woman heard what she said, but maybe her words could help the woman’s spirit find its way back to her body. In any case, it felt good to talk to someone; even if they didn’t answer back – unless you counted fevered mutterings about emperors and being dead.
Since leaving Yasuo in Ionia, Taliyah had tried to keep to herself, always on the move and never staying in any one place longer than necessary. She’d already stayed in Vekaura longer than she’d planned. This was supposed to be a quick stop to buy fresh supplies, but she couldn’t leave while the woman was still unconscious. The urge to find her family was all but overwhelming, but the Great Weaver taught that everyone was bound together in the warp and weft of life. To leave one thread to fray would, in time, affect them all. So Taliyah had stayed to honor her promise to the wounded woman, though every moment not spent trying to reach her family chafed her soul.
Taliyah brushed dark hair from the woman’s fevered brow and studied her face, trying to imagine how she had come to be wounded and half buried in sand dune on the edges of the Sai. She was pretty, but had a hard edge to her not even unconsciousness could entirely soften. Her skin had the tanned sun-weathered texture of a native-born Shuriman, and when her eyes would occasionally flutter open, Taliyah saw they were a piercing blue.
She let out a sigh and said, “Well, I don’t think there’s a lot I can do until you wake up.”
Taliyah heard a thudding boom coming from the west. She moved to the window as she heard the unmistakable sound of rocks grinding on rocks. At first she thought it was an earthquake, but this was more like an avalanche, and she’d seen a fair few of them in her time. Given what she’d seen of the buildings in Vekaura, it wouldn’t surprise her if this was the sound of one falling down. She hoped nobody was hurt.
“What’s going on...? Where am I?”
Taliyah turned at the sound of the woman’s voice. She was sitting up, looking around her and reaching for something.
“You’re in Vekaura,” said Taliyah. “I found you outside, bleeding and half-dead.”
“Where’s my blade?” demanded the woman.
Taliyah pointed to the wall behind her, where the woman’s strange weapon was wrapped in its boiled leather sling and hidden under a woven blanket of interleaved bird motifs.
“Over there,” said Taliyah, “Its blades are very sharp and I didn’t want it anywhere I might trip over it and slice my foot.”
“Who are you?” said the woman, her tone laden with suspicion.
“Do I know you? Does your tribe want me dead?”
Taliyah frowned. “No. I don’t think so. We’re herders. Weavers and travelers. We don’t really want anyone dead.”
“Then you’re one of the few who don’t,” said the woman. She exhaled slowly, and Taliyah could only imagine how badly her side must hurt. She sat up and grimaced as her stitches pulled taut.
“Why would anyone want you dead?” asked Taliyah.
“Because I’ve killed a lot of people,” replied Sivir, struggling to sit up. “Sometimes because I was paid to. Sometimes because they were in my way. But these days, it’s usually because they get very angry when I tell them I’m not going back.”
The woman turned her piercing blue eyes on Taliyah, and she saw a deep well of pain and turmoil within.
“The city,” she said. “The one that rose from the sands.”
“So it’s true?” asked Taliyah. “Ancient Shurima really is reborn? You’ve seen it?”
“With my very own eyes,” said the woman. “There’s a lot of people going there now. I saw tribes of the east and south mostly, but others will come soon enough.”
“People are going there?”
“More every day.”
“So why don’t you want to go back?”
“You’re tiring me out with all these questions.”
Taliyah shrugged. “Asking questions is the first step on the journey to understanding.”
The woman smiled and nodded. “Good point, but be careful who you ask. Some people answer questions with a blade.”
“Sometimes, but since you saved my life, I’ll let it go.”
“Then tell me one more thing.”
“Sivir,” said the woman through her pain.
Taliyah knew the name; there were few in Shurima who did not, and she’d already had a good idea of who this woman was from the style of her cross-bladed weapon. Before she could reply, a new sound overtook the rumble of falling stones. She’d seldom heard anything like it in her homeland, but had heard plenty on the shores of Ionia, in the warrens of Noxus and on the icy wastes of the Freljord.
Taliyah eyed her pack, working out how long it would take her to escape Vekaura. Sivir heard the sound too, and swung her legs out as she tried to stand. The effort was almost too much for her and she grunted. Sweat beaded her brow with the effort.
“You’re in no state to go anywhere,” said Taliyah.
“Can you hear that?” said Sivir.
“Of course,” said Taliyah. “It sounds a lot like people screaming.”
Sivir nodded. “That’s exactly what it is.”
Fire was raining from the sky.
Comets of white blue flame leapt from Xerath’s outstretched arms, arcing like boulders from a war-machine. The first fell to earth in the market, exploding like a falling star. Searing fire detonated from the impact. Burning bodies were hurled into the air like blackened kindling. Fiery winds carried Xerath’s spiteful laughter, an ageless insanity that reveled in the pain of others.
How could I not see the evil in him before?
Nasus heard screams rising from the city and all his earlier anger at these people vanished like morning mist over an oasis. The city walls were smashed aside by the pain-maddened war-beasts that reared and stamped with ground shaking force. Lightly armored warriors streamed into the city over the rubble. They howled a dozen different war-cries, eager to begin the slaughter.
Nasus spun his axe and descended the temple steps, taking them four at a time until he was back on the ground. Hundreds of people streamed into the main plaza from the western edges of the city, fear pumping in their veins. Bloodthirsty yells and the clash of weapons followed them. Panicked citizens sought refuge in the buildings around the edges of the plaza, bolting doors and shuttering windows in the hope it would keep them safe. Nasus had walked the bloody streets of enough captured cities to know how brutal warriors could be after such battles. Xerath would see every man, woman and child in Vekaura put to the sword.
More fireballs slammed down like thunderbolts and the air filled with screams and the smell of burned flesh. Stone split and tumbled in cascades of molten rock from the impacts of the magical assault. The market was burning and pillars of black smoke smudged the sky.
Nasus pushed through the terrified crowds, moving steadily eastward, following the spoor of potent blood he now scented. The hierophant had been a fraud, his blood weak and diluted after thousands of years, but the one he now sensed...? They were strong. He could hear the thunder of a heart beating within a mortal breast. This person came from a line of emperors and warrior queens; men and women of towering ambition and strength. It was the blood of a hero.
People shouted his name, begging for help. He ignored them, knowing he served a higher calling. The sun had wrought him anew to serve Shurima beyond death, to fight for its people and defend them against their enemies. He served that purpose now, but leaving the inhabitants of Vekaura to their doom twisted a familiar barb of guilt in his soul.
How many more will you leave to die?
He pushed the thought aside, weaving a path through broken streets piled high with drifts of sand. Most of the buildings here had been claimed by the desert, little more than broken foundations and sheared stumps of square-cut columns. Desert scavengers fled at the sight of him as he drew ever closer to the thudding heartbeat. The city began to thin out, its ruins ever more buried in the encroaching sand.
Eventually he came to a crumbling structure that might once have served as a bathhouse, its walls thicker and stronger than those around it. He ducked as he entered, smelling the sweat and blood of two souls within. One young, and one with a soul so old it was like coming face to face with a friend who had walked beneath the same sun as he.
A young girl emerged from a doorway, clad in a free-flowing coat from a land across the eastern ocean – the same girl he’d spoken to in the souk. He felt her fear, but also her determination as her hands moved in curving, looping patterns as though weaving some naturalistic magic. The ground trembled, the stones danced at her feet and threw off their coating of sand. Behind her, Nasus saw a woman struggling to stand, using the peeling walls for support. Her tunic was soaked red. A grievous wound, but not yet a mortal one.
“I am Nasus, Curator of the Sands,” he said, but from the look in her eyes, she already knew who he was. Her mouth fell open in astonishment, but she didn’t move.
“Stand aside, girl,” said Nasus.
“No, I won’t let you hurt her. I made a promise.”
Nasus spun his axe, slinging it across his back as he took a step forward. The girl backed into the ruin, the ground rippling in radial patterns at her feet. Rock lifted from the ground as flakes of plaster peeled from the walls. Cracks split the stonework, racing upward to what remained of the roof. The last time he had faced someone with similar abilities he had been mortal and it almost killed him. The injured woman stared at the girl in shock. Clearly she was entirely ignorant of her companion’s abilities.
“You have the power to break the rock of Shurima,” said Nasus.
She cocked an eyebrow. “Yes. So you’d better back off before I break you.”
Nasus grinned at her bravado. “You possess a hero’s heart, girl, but you are not the one I seek. Your magic is strong, so if I were you, I would leave this city before Xerath rips it from you.”
Her skin paled. “I’m not going anywhere. I promised I’d protect Sivir, and the Great Weaver hates a broken promise.”
“If you are her protector, then know I am not here to hurt her.”
“So what do you want?”
“I am here to save her.”
The bandaged woman limped to stand at the young girl’s side. Though she was in obvious pain, Nasus was impressed at her resolve. But then, he should expect no less from one whose blood flowed directly from Ancient Shurima.
“Who’s this Xerath?” she asked.
“A dark magus who already knows too much of your existence.”
The woman nodded and turned to Taliyah, placing a callused hand on the young girl’s shoulder.
“I owe you my life, but I won’t be in anyone’s debt,” she said, “so consider your promise fulfilled. I can take it from here.”
The relief on the girl’s face was plain, but still she hesitated.
“I appreciate that, but you can barely walk,” said Taliyah. “At least let me help you out of the city.”
“Deal,” said Sivir gratefully, before turning back to Nasus. She swung her hand around to reveal a glittering cross-blade of gold, with an emerald gemstone at its center. She held it at the ready, a weapon no ordinary mortal could wield with such ease.
“I’ve had enough of people saving me lately,” she said. “They always want something in return. So tell me, big man, what do you really want?”
“To keep you alive,” said Nasus.
“I can do that without your help.”
“That wound in your side tells me otherwise. You are-”
“This?” said Sivir before he could finish. “Just a disagreement with some fools who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Trust me, I’ve had worse and walked away. And I don’t need protecting. Fate seems to be looking out for me these days, no matter what I do.”
Nasus shook his head. How little mortals understood of destiny.
“The future is not set in stone,” he said. “It is a branching river whose course can change at any moment. Even those whose fate is written in the stars can find the water of their lives run to barren ground if they are not careful.”
He gestured to Sivir’s weapon and said, “Do you know to whom that blade once belonged?”
“What does it matter?” said Sivir. “It’s mine now.”
“It is the Chalicar, the blade once borne by Setaka, foremost Warrior Queen of the Ascended Host; when enough of us remained for that name to mean something. I was honored to fight at Setaka’s side for three centuries. Her deeds were legendary, but I can see you do not know her name.”
“The fallen are forgotten,” said Sivir with a shrug.
Nasus ignored Sivir’s cold dismissal of his quiescent war-sister and said, “A desert stylite once told her she would see the sun rise on the day a Shuriman emperor ruled the entire world. It made her think she was invincible, for we were yet to conquer the world, but she was brought down by monsters on the eve of Icathia’s doom. I held her as her light dimmed and I sent her to her slumber far below the sands with her weapon upon her breast.”
“If you’re here to take it back, then you and I might have a problem.”
Nasus dropped to one knee and crossed his hands over his chest.
“You are of the Ascended Bloodline. The weapon is yours to bear, for the blood of emperors runs in your veins. It resurrected Azir and Shurima, so that has to mean something.”
“No, it doesn’t,” snapped Sivir. “I never asked Azir to bring me back. I don’t owe him anything. I don’t want anything to do with you or this Xerath.”
“Your wants are irrelevant,” said Nasus. “Xerath will kill you whether you embrace your destiny or not. He has come here to end the bloodline of Azir once and for all.”
“What does Azir want with her?” asked Taliyah. “And what is he going to do now that he’s back? Does he want to make us slaves?”
“She asks a lot of questions,” said Sivir.
Nasus hesitated before answering.
“In truth, I do not know what Azir plans. That he will stand against Xerath is enough for me. Now you can both meekly bare your necks, or you can live to fight another day.”
Sivir lifted her tunic to show her blood-wet bandage and gave a wry grin. “I’ve never done anything meekly in all my days, but I don’t plan to be fighting anything more threatening than sleep for a while.”
“You must live,” said Nasus, rising to his full height. “And you need to be ready.”
“Ready for what?” asked Sivir, as she and Taliyah began gathering up their few possessions.
“The battle for Shurima,” said Nasus. “So for now we must run. Xerath’s warriors are killing everyone in Vekaura.”
“What’s so special about this place?” asked Taliyah, shrugging on her pack.
“They are looking for her,” said Nasus.
Sivir’s face hardened and she let out a long breath before saying, “Nasus, eh? I’ve heard stories about you since I was a child. Stories of war and heroic battles. All the legends say that you and your brother were Shurima’s protectors, yes?”
“That is true,” said Nasus. “Renekton and I fought for Shurima over many centuries.”
Sivir took a halting step toward him, her face as set with imperious determination as Azir’s had been on the day he ordered the priesthood to prepare the sun disc for his Ascension, in defiance of centuries of tradition.
“Then fight for Shurima now,” said Sivir, as imperious as any emperor. “Sons and daughters of the desert are dying out there as we speak. If you’re the hero I’ve heard about all my life, then it’s your duty to get out there and save as many people as possible.”
This was not how Nasus had imagined this meeting to go, but Sivir’s talk of duty fanned an ember that had slumbered too long within his breast. He felt its flame spread through him, only now understanding how truly lost he had been all the long, lonely years since Shurima’s fall and subsequent rebirth.
“You have my oath it will be so,” said Nasus, reaching up to unhook a pendant hung on a leather thong around his neck. “If you both go now, I shall do all I can to protect Vekaura’s people.”
The stone of his pendant was jade, ocean green with veins of pale gold threading its surface. A faint light emanated from within, pulsing like a slowly beating heart.
He offered it to Sivir and said, “Wear this and it will keep you from Xerath’s sight. It will not last forever, but maybe long enough.”
“Long enough for what?” asked Sivir.
“For me to find you again,” said Nasus, turning away.
He left Sivir and Taliyah before he could change his mind, knowing their best chance of survival was to draw Xerath’s warriors to him. They watched him go, but he did not turn back. Flames burned at the center of the city, and Nasus followed the screams of Vekaura’s inhabitants.
His anger built as he passed the bodies of men and women cut down by the rampaging warriors – more deaths to add to the tally still to be settled between him and Xerath. Nasus rolled his shoulders to loosen his muscles. The last time he had faced the magus, his brother had been beside him, and a tremor of fear touched him.
We could not defeat him together. How can I defeat him alone?
Nasus saw a group of five warriors blocking the exit from the plaza. They had their backs to him, but turned at the sound of him unsheathing his axe. He should have felt their terror at the prospect of fighting an Ascended warrior, but the blue fire of Xerath’s will burned in their eyes and they feared nothing.
They rushed him with bloodied swords and spears. Nasus met their charge head on, swinging low and splitting three of them in half with a single sweep of the blade. He put his fist through the chest of another and fastened his jaws on the bare head of the last man. Nasus bit down and the warrior’s skull burst open.
He entered the plaza, seeing what remained of the city’s inhabitants kneeling at swordpoint before the sun temple, heads bowed like cowed worshippers. Groups of bloodied warriors thrust their spears aloft toward the bright and terrible god burning at its summit.
The burning body of the traitorous magus hung suspended in the air, the edges of the sun disc molten beneath the furnace heat of his Ascended body. The screaming figure of the hierophant writhed in the air before him.
“You mortals are fools,” said Xerath as he unraveled flesh from the bones of the hierophant’s body. “Why would you claim lineage to an emperor as worthless as Azir?”
“XERATH!” shouted Nasus, his voice echoing around the plaza.
The mortal warriors turned, but made no move to attack. Silence fell and Nasus felt the hatred radiating from Xerath wash over him like a surge tide. What was left of the hierophant’s body burned to cinders in a heartbeat, drifting away in the hot winds swirling around the magus. Nasus marched into the plaza with his axe held tight to his side as every pair of eyes turned his way.
“Of course it would be you,” said Xerath, his voice as honeyed as it had been when he walked as a mortal. “Who else but the coward who sealed me beneath the world for millennia?”
“I will put you back there,” promised Nasus.
Xerath’s form burned brighter. “You had your beloved brother to help you then. Tell me, have you seen Renekton since our shared prison was broken open?”
“Do not speak his name,” snarled Nasus.
“Have you seen what he has become?”
Nasus said nothing, and Xerath laughed, the sound like warring fire spirits.
“Of course you haven’t,” continued Xerath, the trapped flame of his being pulsing with dark amusement. “He would have killed you on sight.”
Xerath drifted down the crumbling walls of the temple, flames licking along his limbs and drifting away like fireflies. The dominated soldiers stood as still as statues. This confrontation was not for mortals.
“The power within you was meant for Azir,” said Nasus, taking slow steps toward Xerath. “You were not chosen by the sun.”
“Neither was Renekton, and he was raised up.”
“Do not say his name,” said Nasus through gritted fangs.
“Your brother was weak, but you knew that already, didn’t you?” said Xerath, drifting closer. “He broke more easily than I could have imagined. All it took was telling him how you abandoned him to the darkness. How you trapped him with his enemy and left him to die.”
Nasus knew the magus was goading him, but his hate blinded him to all else but sundering the chains that kept the unimaginable power of Xerath’s body contained. They faced each other in the center of the city, two Ascended beings out of time; a warrior king and magus of living magic.
Nasus attacked first, his body going from motionless to blinding speed in the space between heartbeats. His legs pistoned him into the air, his axe swinging overhead in a downward arc. The blade smashed into Xerath’s chest. Chain links exploded from the impact.
Xerath was hurled back into the walls of the temple. The stonework split apart and dust from the tomb far below billowed from zigzagging cracks. Vast panels of stone fell from the building. The magus hurled himself forward, searing beams of energy blazing from his crackling limbs. Nasus howled as Xerath’s fire burned him, and they slammed together with ferocious power.
A shockwave of magical energy exploded outward, spinning people away like leaves in a hurricane. The nearest buildings collapsed as the seismic force shattered their walls. Vekaura’s people fled, trying to find safety in the midst of these brawling gods of ancient days. His hold upon them broken, Xerath’s warriors scattered and ran for the edges of the city. Flames erupted as Xerath called arcane fire from the heart of his being and unleashed it indiscriminately.
Nasus rolled aside as a series of glittering comets slammed down. Their fire was cold, but burned just the same. He rose to his feet in time to use his spinning axe blade to deflect a series of screeching orbs of white light. Xerath floated in the air above him, laughing as forking lightning blazed around him. Nasus thrust his blade at the magus to unleash a burst of withering power. Xerath roared in pain and anger, the fire at his heart flickering, but undimmed.
Nasus leapt toward Xerath. They grappled in mid-air to smash into the sun temple once again. The impact shattered the outer wall and huge blocks of stone toppled from the summit. They slammed down like the fists of ancient tomb guardians, cracking the earth and exposing the temple’s shadowed crypts. The remains of the sun disc fell from the roof, tumbling downward like the flipped coin of a giant. It shattered as it hit the ground, sending gleaming metal scything in all directions. A shard buried itself in the meat of Nasus’s thigh. He wrenched it clear, and shimmering blood ran down his leg.
Xerath rose from the wreckage of shattered stone and a searing bolt of pale fire struck Nasus in the chest. He grunted and staggered backward. Xerath unleashed another torrent of glittering magical energy and this time it hammered Nasus’s heart. The pain was all-consuming and he fell to his knees, his skin scorched and raw. Nasus could fight a mortal army single-handed, but Xerath was no ordinary foe. He was an Ascended being who wielded the stolen strength of the sun and the power of dark magic.
He lifted his head as the city burned around them. “The one you seek is not here and is now hidden beyond your sight.”
“The last of Azir’s brood cannot hide from me forever,” said Xerath. “I will find them and end that worthless bloodline.”
Nasus held his axe out, the gemstone upon its blade throwing off crackling lines of force.
“I will die before I allow that to happen.”
“As you wish,” said Xerath, his arms pulling back again and again to hurl arcing traceries of light. Nasus did what he could, but couldn’t stop them all.
Xerath drifted toward him, and said, “I told your brother over and over again of your betrayal and the jealousy you kept hidden from him. He cursed your name and wept as he told me how he would rend you limb from limb.”
Nasus roared and surged to his feet. A volcanic pillar of fire erupted beneath Xerath, and the magus bellowed as the shimmering fire of the Many Suns engulfed him.
But it wasn’t enough. It could never be enough. The last time they had fought, Nasus and Renekton had been at the height of their powers. Now Nasus was a shadow of his former glory, and Xerath’s power had been growing for centuries.
The magus shrugged off this last, desperate attack, and Nasus had nothing left to give. Xerath’s magic lifted him and swung him around, hurling him into the crumbling ruins of the temple. Stonework shattered around him and he felt his sun-fused bones snap like tinderwood.
Nasus came to a halt in the midst of the rubble, his legs broken and twisted beneath him. His left arm hung uselessly at his side, shattered from shoulder to wrist. He tried to push himself upright with his good arm, but white hot pain surged up his spine where his back had broken. His body could heal these wounds in time, but he had no time left.
“How far you have fallen, Nasus,” said Xerath drifting toward him with gobbets of liquid fire dripping from his fingertips like cinders. “I would pity you if I didn’t hate you for what you did to me. Your spirit has broken in the long years you wandered alone and burdened.”
“Better to be broken and burdened than an oathbreaker,” coughed Nasus through a mouthful of blood. “Even with all your newfound power, you are still a betrayer and a slave.”
He felt Xerath’s fury and reveled in it. It was all he had left.
“I am no slave,” said Xerath. “Azir’s last act was to free me.”
Nasus was stunned. Xerath a free man? It made no sense…
“Then why all this? Why betray Azir?”
“Azir was a fool and his gift was offered too late,” said Xerath.
Nasus grunted in pain. The splintered bones in his shoulder ground together as they began reknitting. He felt strength returning to his arm, but kept it limp and useless looking.
“What will you do when I am dead?” said Nasus, remembering how much Xerath had loved the sound of his own voice. “What will become of Shurima with you as its emperor?”
He tried to keep the pain hidden as his transformed flesh worked wonders within his body to undo the damage Xerath had done.
The magus shook his head and lifted out of reach.
“Do you think I cannot see your body renewing itself?” he said.
“Then come down and fight me!” cried Nasus.
“I have pictured your death a thousand times,” said Xerath, rising beyond the hollowed temple. “But never by my hand.”
Nasus watched the magus rise as the unsupported walls of the temple groaned and cracked, leaning in and ready to fall.
“The Butcher of the Sands will have his due,” said Xerath, his form blazing brighter than the sun disc ever had. Rocks and dust tumbled from above. “And I will be there to watch him claw the meat from your bones.”
The magus hurled chains of white fire into the crumbling walls and said, “But until then, I entomb you beneath the sands as you once trapped me.”
Xerath blazed like a newborn star and dragged his fiery chains inward. A thunderous rain of broken stones fell in an avalanche as murderous fire poured from the sky to fill Vekaura.
The ground felt like it was breaking apart, the rock beneath Nasus spinning and rising up to meet the cascade in a deafening tsunami of fluid stone. The walls of the temple crashed down, burying Nasus beneath hundreds of tons of debris.
After the darkness, light.
A sliver of hot brightness. Sunlight?
At first, he wasn’t sure if it was real or some trick devised by the mind to ease a body into death.
Was this how an Ascended being died?
No. This was not death. The sunlight moved across his field of vision, and he felt it warm his skin. He shifted his weight, extending his legs and rotating his shoulders. His limbs were renewed, which meant he had spent a considerable time in darkness. His body healed fast, but he had no idea how long he had spent unconscious.
However long it was, it was too long.
Xerath was free and stronger than ever.
Nasus reached up, seeing the rock above him formed a perfect dome, its rippled underside glass-smooth and warm to the touch. Even in the half-light, he could make out its patterned surface swirled like paint half-mixed on an artist’s palette. He slammed his fist against the sliver of light again and again until the rock finally split apart in chunks of stone vitrified by intense heat. Light flooded in and he saw the entire temple was now little more than a jumbled heap of smashed blocks. Nasus bent to lift a shard of the broken dome that had protected him. He turned it over in his hands, seeing blended material that had no business being in one piece of rock.
He slipped the dagger-like shard into his tunic and walked from the smashed sun temple. He surveyed the ruins as a mournful wind sighed, its breath freighted with mutterings of the dead.
The city was gone, or at least what its inhabitants had built upon its ruins. Nasus saw that much of the bedrock had buckled upward and had the same rippling texture of the dome that saved his life. The leading edge of every surface undulated like a glazed tidal wave frozen in mid-surge.
And from beneath that wave, sheltered from Xerath’s killing fire, came handfuls of Vekaura’s inhabitants. They came in ones and twos at first, then in small groups, blinking in the sunlight and amazed at their miraculous survival.
Nasus gave a small nod and said, “Shurima thanks you, Taliyah,” as he turned and made his way from the city.
The rest of Vekaura had returned to the desolate shell it had been the last time Nasus had ventured this way. Broken walls, shattered foundations and stumps of columns that stood like dead trees in a petrified forest. He had seen ruins like this before; in the wake of his first battle with Xerath when Shurima fell. Guilt had caused him to turn his face from the world then, but he would not do so now.
Xerath had spoken of Renekton as a blood-maddened beast, but Nasus knew his brother better than the magus ever had. Xerath saw only the beast Renekton had become; forgetting the noble warrior that lay beneath. The man who had selflessly offered his own life for his brother. The warrior who had willingly sacrificed everything to save his homeland from a betrayer. Xerath had forgotten all of that, but Nasus never would.
If Renekton lived, then a part of him must remember the hero he once was. If Nasus could reach that part of his brother, then he might lift him from the pit of madness. Nasus had long believed he would one day face Renekton, but until now he had always imagined that encounter would end with one of them dead.
Now he knew differently. Now he had purpose. The bloodline of Azir endured, so there was yet hope.
“I need you, Renekton,” he said. “I cannot kill Xerath without you.”
Before him, the desert called his name.
Behind him, the sand reclaimed Vekaura.