"A young stone mage from Shurima encounters an unlikely mentor in the mountains of Ionia."Continue reading for the full story.
The Bird and The Branch -
"“That power of yours was meant to destroy. You don’t want to use it? Fine. Let it sink you like a stone.”
Those were the last words Taliyah heard from the Noxian captain before she slipped beneath the salty water, words that haunted her still. Four days had passed since that landing on the beach where she had made her escape. At first she ran, and then, when she could no longer hear the breaking bones of the Ionian farmers and Noxian soldiers, she walked. She followed the high skirts of the mountains, not daring to look back at the carnage she’d left behind. The snow had started to fall two days ago. Or maybe it was three; she couldn’t remember. This morning, as she passed an empty shrine, a cheerless air had begun to move through the valley. Now the wind grew stronger and broke through the clouds to reveal a sky clear and blue, a color so pure it felt like she was drowning again. She knew that sky. As a young child, she saw it blanket the sands. But this wasn’t Shurima. The wind here was not welcoming.
Taliyah hugged herself, trying to remember the warmth of home. Her coat kept out the snow, but still the cold air crept in. The invisible loneliness snaked around her, sinking deep in her bones. The memory of being so far from those she loved now dropped her to her knees.
She shoved her hands deep in her pockets, her shaking fingertips tumbling a few well-worn stones for warmth.
“I am hungry. That is all this is,” Taliyah said to no one and everyone. “A hare. A little bird. Great Weaver, I would even take a mouse if it showed itself.”
As if on command, a small crunching of powdered snow sounded several strides away from her. The culprit, a gray handful of fur no bigger than her two fists, popped its head from a burrow.
“Thank you,” she whispered through chattering teeth. “Thank you. Thank you.”
The animal looked at Taliyah inquisitively as she took one of the smooth stones from her pocket and slipped it into the leather pouch of her sling. She wasn’t used to throwing from a kneeling position, but if the Great Weaver had given her this offering, she wasn’t going to waste it.
The little animal continued to watch as she wound the sling once, seating the small rock. The cold gripped Taliyah’s body and gave her arm a jerky feel. When she had enough speed, she unleashed the stone and, unfortunately, a harsh sneeze.
The stone skipped along the snow, narrowly missing her would-be meal. Taliyah rocked back, the heavy weight of frustration erupting in a guttural growl that echoed in the silence around her. She took a few deep, clearing breaths, the cold burning her throat.
“Assuming you are anything like sand rabbits, if there’s one of you, there are a dozen more close by,” she said to the patch where the animal had been, her defiant optimism returning.
Her gaze lifted from the burrow to more movement farther down in the valley. She followed her winding tracks through the snow. Beyond them, through the sparse pines, she saw a man in the shrine, and her breath caught. His wild, dark hair tangled in the wind as he sat, head bowed to his chest. He was either sleeping or meditating. She breathed a sigh of relief. No Noxian she knew would be caught doing either. She remembered the shrine’s rough surface from earlier, as her hands had run along its carved edges.
Taliyah was shaken from her reverie by a sharp crack. Then a rumble started to build.
She steadied herself for the rolling earthquake that didn’t arrive. The rumbling grew into a steady, terrible grinding of compacted snow on stone. Taliyah turned to face the mountain and saw a wall of white coming for her.
She scrambled to her feet, but there was nowhere to go. She looked down at the rock peeking through the dirty ice and thought of the little animal safe in its burrow. She desperately focused, pulling on the rough edges of the visible rock. A row of thick columns sprang from the ground. The stone blockade reached far over her head just as the crushing white avalanche slammed into it with a heavy whumpf.
The snow rushed up the newly made slope and spilled like a glittering wave into the valley below. Taliyah watched as the deadly blanket filled the little glen, covering the temple.
As quickly as it had begun, the avalanche was over. Even the lonely wind stilled. The new, muffled silence weighed heavily on her. The man with the wild, dark hair was gone, entombed somewhere beneath all that ice and rock. She was safe from the snowslide, but her stomach lurched with a sickening realization: She hadn’t just brought harm to an unsuspecting innocent; she had buried him alive.
“Great Weaver,” Taliyah said to no one and everyone, “what have I done?”
Taliyah picked her way quickly down the snow-covered hillside, skidding in places and plunging thigh-deep in others. She hadn’t run from a Noxian invasion fleet to then accidentally kill the first Ionian she saw.
“And knowing my luck, he was probably a holy man,” she said.
The pines in the valley had been reduced to spindly bushes half their original size. Only the tip of the shrine broke the snow’s surface. A string of tattered prayer flags had twisted themselves into knots, marking what used to be the far end of the glen. Taliyah scanned the area, looking for any trace of the man she had committed to the ice. When she’d last seen him, he had been under the temple’s eave. Perhaps it had sheltered him.
As she made her way to the temple, closer to the trees and away from the sweep of the avalanche, she saw two fingers that had broken through the surface.
She half trudged, half ran to the pale fingertips. “Please don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead. Please…”
Taliyah dropped carefully to her knees and started to scoop away the icy powder. She uncovered fingers as strong as steel. She reached in and gripped the man’s wrist, her own clenching hands barely obeying. Her teeth chattered, shaking her body and drowning out any pulse of life she might have felt in the man.
“If you’re not dead already,” she said to the man beneath the snow, “then you’ve got to help me.”
She looked around. There was no one else. She was all he had.
Taliyah let go of his fingers and backed away a few paces. She laid her numb palms to the surface of the snow and tried to remember what the floor of the little valley had looked like before the avalanche. Loose stones, gravel. The memory swam, then coalesced in her mind. It was dark, a coarse charcoal gray with flecks of white, like Uncle Adnan’s beard.
Taliyah held tightly to the vision and pulled up from deep below the snowpack. The crust of ice erupted in front of her, quickly followed by a towering ribbon of granite balancing a lone figure. The suddenly flexible stone wavered at its peak, as if looking to her for guidance. Unsure of any safe landing, Taliyah pushed them both toward the spindly pines, hoping their boughs might break his fall.
The granite ribbon fell short, collapsing into the snow with a heavy puff, but the evergreen arms caught the man before casually dropping him to the surface.
“If you were alive, please don’t be dead now,” Taliyah said as she hurried toward him. The sunlight faltered above her. Dark clouds were moving into the valley. More snow would soon be upon them. Beyond the trees, she saw an opening to a small cave.
Taliyah blew warm breath into her hands and willed them to stop shaking. She bent close to the man, reaching out to touch his shoulder. He let out a pained grunt. Before Taliyah could pull back, there was a quick breeze and a metallic flash. The sharp, cold edge of the man’s blade pressed at her throat.
“Not yet time to die,” he said in a broken whisper. He coughed, and his eyes rolled back in his head. The sword dipped to the snow, but the man did not release the weapon.
The first snowflake flitted past Taliyah’s chapped face. “From the look of it, you’re pretty hard to kill,” she said. “But if we’re caught in this storm, we just might find out if that’s true.”
The man’s breathing was shallow, but at least he was still alive. Taliyah reached under the man’s arm and dragged him toward the small cave.
The lonely wind had returned.
Taliyah bent to pick up a rounded stone the size and color of a small hank of raw wool. She shivered and looked back into the cave; the ragged man was still propped against the wall, his eyes closed. She pushed the bit of dried meat she had found in the man’s pack around in her mouth, hoping he wouldn’t begrudge sharing if he lived.
She stepped back into the warmth of the cave. The slabs of rock she had stacked still glowed with a wavering heat. She knelt. Taliyah hadn’t been sure her trick of warming the stones in her pocket would work with something larger. The young Shuriman closed her eyes and focused on the stack of rocks. She remembered the blistering sun on the sands. The way the heat sank deep in the earth long into the night. She relaxed and loosened her coat as the dry warmth settled around her, then set to work on the stone in her hands. She turned it, wrapping and pushing it with her thoughts until it was hollowed like a bowl. Satisfied, she returned to the cave opening with her newly formed dish.
A male voice groaned behind her, “Like a sparrow gathering crumbs.”
“Even sparrows get thirsty,” she replied, scooping up a bowlful of clean snow. The cold wind whispered around her. Taliyah set the round stone onto the stack of hot rocks in front of her.
“You gather stones by hand? That seems tedious for someone who can weave rock.”
A heat rose to Taliyah’s cheeks that had nothing to do with the little stone hearth.
“You’re not angry, are you? I mean about the snow and the—”
The man laughed and then clutched his side with a groan. “Your actions tell me all I need to know.” His gritted teeth still held the edge of a smile. “You could have left me to die.”
“It was my mistake that put you in danger. I wasn’t going to leave you buried in the snow.”
“My thanks. Although I could have done without the tumble through the trees.”
Taliyah grimaced and then opened her mouth. The man held out a hand to stop her. “Do not apologize.”
He strained and pulled himself upright, taking a closer look at Taliyah and the ornament in her hair.
“A Shuriman sparrow.” He closed his eyes and relaxed into the heat of the stone hearth. “You are a long way from home, little bird. What brings you to a remote cave in Ionia?”
The man raised a dark eyebrow but kept his eyes closed.
“They said I would bring people together in Noxus. That my power would strengthen her walls. But they only wanted me to destroy.” Her voice grew thick with disgust. “They told me they would teach me—”
“They have, but only half the lesson,” he said without emotion.
“They wanted me to bury a village. To murder people in their homes.” Taliyah let out an impatient snort. “And I escaped only to bring a mountain down on you.”
The man lifted his sword and looked down the length of the blade. A small breeze wiped it clean of dust. “Destruction. Creation. Neither is wholly good or bad. You cannot have one without the other. What matters is intent, the ‘why’ of choosing your path. That is the only real choice we have.”
Taliyah stood up, irritated at the lecture. “My path is away from this place. Away from everyone, until I learn to control what’s inside of me. I don’t trust myself not to hurt my people.”
“A bird’s trust is not in the branch beneath her.”
Taliyah had stopped listening. She was already at the mouth of the cave, wrapping her coat tightly around her. The wind whistled in her ears.
“I’m going to try and find us something to eat. Hopefully, I won’t bring the rest of the mountain down on you.”
The man settled against the warm stone at his back, speaking softly to no one and everyone. “Are you sure it is the mountain you seek to conquer, Little Sparrow?”
A bird pecked at a thin pine nearby. Taliyah kicked at the snow, accidentally shoving a clump of it into the top of her boot. She pulled at the cuff roughly, annoyed at the man’s words and at the melting ice slipping past her ankle.
“The why of the path? I left my people, my family, to protect them from me.”
She stopped. An unnatural hush had settled. Any small game that had been nearby had long since disappeared at the sound of her stomping feet. Not sensing any danger from the girl, the little bird had kept to its branch and twittered at her angry rants. Now even the birdsong was silenced.
Taliyah stood cautiously. In her anger, she had wandered farther than she had intended from the cave. She was drawn more to the stone than the wood, and had absently followed an exposed ridge until she found herself looking down from a rocky cliff. She didn’t think the man would follow her, yet she sensed something watching her.
“More lectures?” she asked indignantly.
There was a bone-vibrating exhalation in response.
She slipped one hand into her coat, and the other reached for her sling. Three stones tumbled in her pocket. She clutched at one just as loose gravel betrayed the movement of her stalker behind her.
Taliyah turned to face the presence at her back. There, padding carefully around sharp crags, was a great Ionian snow lion.
Even standing on four stout legs, it towered over her. The beast was easily twice as long as she was tall, its thick neck covered in a short mane of tawny white. The lion watched the girl. It dropped two freshly slain hares from its jaws and licked a drizzle of red from a canine bigger than her forearm.
Just a moment ago the high view from the cliff where she stood had been thrilling. Now it left her trapped. If she ran, she would be chased down in an instant. Taliyah swallowed, trying to push down the panic that was rising in her throat. She fit a stone into her sling and began to spin it.
“Get out of here,” she said. Her words came out with none of the terror she felt inside.
The lion took a step closer. The girl released the stone from her sling. It hit the great beast near the mane, the fur taking the brunt of the impact. The animal growled its displeasure, and Taliyah could not separate the heavy resonance from her own heart as it tried to beat its way out of her chest.
She fit another stone to the sling.
“Go on!” she shouted, feigning more courage. “I said get out of here!”
Taliyah let the next stone fly.
The predator’s hungry snarl grew louder. The bird in the thin pine, sensing no good could come from this encounter, leapt from the branch and took off on a current of air.
Alone, Taliyah reached into her pocket for her last stone. Her hands shook from the cold and the fear coursing through her. The rock slipped from her fingers and hit the ground, rolling away. She looked up. The lion’s head bobbed between muscled shoulders as it took another step toward her. The throwing stone was just out of reach.
You gather stones by hand? The man’s words echoed in her mind. Maybe there was another way. Taliyah reached out to the stone with her will. The small rock shuddered, but there was also a quiver in the ground beneath her.
The bough beside her still trembled from where the bird had taken flight. A bird’s trust is not in the branch. The choice was clear: She could either stand frozen in her doubt, letting the beast come for her, or lean into her power and take the leap.
Taliyah, a girl born in a desert land far beyond the shores of snow-capped Ionia, held on to the image of the bird and the empty branch that bounced. In that moment, she forgot the imminent death before her. The loneliness that haunted her fell away and was replaced by her last dance on the sands. She felt her mother, her father, Babajan—the whole tribe encircling her. Her whispered promise to return to them when she finally gained mastery over her gifts
She met the gaze of the beast. “I’ve given up too much to let you stop me.”
The stone began to warp beneath her in a graceful crescent. She held on to the warmth of that last embrace and leapt.
A rumbling built beneath her, louder than the growl of the beast. The lion tried to back away, but it was already too late. The ground split beneath its thick paws into a sluice of swirling gravel, the weight of the creature pulling it farther down the crumbling cliff.
For a brief moment, Taliyah floated above the flurry of dissolving earth. The rock beneath her continued to splinter into a thousand tiny pieces, no longer solid enough to control. She knew she couldn’t hold on to the destruction forever. The girl started to fall.
Before she could say goodbye to the coarse world fracturing around her, a strong wind lifted her up. Fingers like steel grasped the collar of her coat.
“I didn’t realize you were serious about bringing down the mountain, Little Sparrow.”
With a grunt, the man pulled Taliyah up onto the newly created ledge. “I now understand why much of your desert is flat.”
A laugh bubbled up from within her. She was actually relieved to hear his patronizing voice. Taliyah looked over the side of the cliff and stood up. She dusted herself off, picked up the lion’s discarded hares, and walked back toward the little cave with a new skip in her step.
Taliyah bit her bottom lip. She looked around the inn, excitedly bouncing in her seat. The evening was late and the wooden tables sparsely populated. It had been so long since she had been around people. She looked to her grim companion, who had insisted on the darkened corner booth. The man who now served as her teacher didn’t count. The scowl he had worn since agreeing to a meal at the remote inn offered little in the way of camaraderie.
When it was clear that he was as much a stranger here as anyone else, he relaxed a bit and settled into the shadows, his back firmly to the wall and a drink in hand. Now that he was no longer distracted, his concentration and watchful eye returned to her.
“You must focus,” he said. “You cannot hesitate.”
Taliyah studied the leaves swirling at the bottom of her cup. The lesson today had been a difficult one. It had not gone well. In the end, they had both been covered in dust and shattered rock.
“Danger comes when your attention is divided,” he said.
“I could hurt someone,” she said, eyeing the new rip in the mantle wound around the man’s neck. Her own clothes had not fared well either. She looked down at her new overcoat and traveling skirt. The innkeeper’s wife had taken pity on her and offered what she had on hand, castoffs left by some previous patron. The long sleeves in the Ionian style would take some getting used to, but the rich fabric was sturdy and well woven.
She had kept her simple tunic, faded from so much wear, determined not to give up what last bit of home she still had left.
“Nothing was broken that cannot be mended. Control comes through practice. You are capable of much more. Remember, you have improved.”
“But… what if I fail?” she asked.
The man’s gaze drifted as he watched the far door to the inn push open. A pair of merchants came in, stamping off the dusty road. The innkeeper motioned to the open tables near Taliyah and the man. The first moved toward them while the second waited for his drink.
“Everyone fails,” Taliyah’s companion said. A small edge of frustration passed over the man’s face, marring his otherwise restrained demeanor. “Failure is just a moment in time. You must keep moving, and it too will pass.”
One of the merchants took a seat at a nearby table and watched Taliyah, his eyes drifting from the pale lavender of her tunic to the glimmer of gold and stone in her hair.
“Is that Shuriman, girl?”
Taliyah did her best to ignore the merchant. He caught the protective glare of her companion and laughed it off.
“Would have been rare once,” the merchant said.
The girl stared at her hands.
“It’s a bit more common now that your people’s lost city has risen.”
Taliyah looked up. “What?”
“Word has it the rivers flow backward too.” The merchant waved a hand in the air, poking fun at the mysteries of a far-off people he considered simple. “All because your bird-god has returned from the grave.”
“Whatever he is don’t make any difference. It all threatens trade.” The second merchant joined the first. “They say he aims to collect his people. Misses his slaves and all that.”
“Good thing you’re here and not there, girl,” the first merchant added.
The second merchant looked up from his ale, suddenly noticing Taliyah’s companion. “You look familiar,” he said. “I’ve seen your face before.”
The door to the inn opened again. A group of guards entered, eyeing the room carefully.
The one in the middle, clearly a captain of some sort, noticed the girl and her companion.
Taliyah could feel a quiet panic rise in the room as the few guests stood and made their way quickly to the exits. Even the merchants got up and left.
The captain waded through the empty stools toward them. He stopped a blade’s length from the table where they sat.
“Murderer,” he said.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding,” the captain said. “Savor that drink. It’ll be your last.”
Taliyah was on her feet just as she heard the whisper of steel drawn next to her. She looked over to see her teacher staring down the roomful of guards.
“This man, Yasuo”—the captain spat the word—“is guilty of assassinating a village Elder. His crime warrants the punishment of death. To be carried out on sight.”
One of the guards leveled a loaded crossbow. Another nocked an arrow to a longbow nearly as tall as the girl.
“Kill me?” Yasuo said. “You can try.”
“Wait,” Taliyah cried out. But before the word had finished on her lips, she heard the trigger snap and the reverberating hum of the longbow’s release. In the heartbeats that followed, a whirling gust picked up inside the inn. It spiraled out from the man beside her, blowing abandoned glasses and wooden dinner trenches off of tables. It reached the arrows, breaking them midflight. The pieces fell to the ground with a hollow clatter.
More guards swarmed in, their swords already pulled from their sheaths. Taliyah laid down a field of sharp stone, pulling up each rock through the floor in a violent explosion to keep the men at bay.
Yasuo slipped through the crowd of soldiers trapped in the room. They brandished their weapons, foolishly trying to parry the sword that stormed around them, its metal arcing like lightning. It was too late. Yasuo’s blade flashed in and out of the men, trailing lethal ribbons of red in a whirlwind behind him. When all those who had come for the man had finally fallen, Yasuo paused, his breathing heavy and fierce. His gaze locked with the girl’s, and he prepared to speak.
Taliyah held out her hand in warning. There, at his back, rose the captain with crazed eyes and a broken smile. He wielded his sword with both hands to keep a grip on the blood-slick pommel.
“Get away from him!” Taliyah pulled at the cobbled floor of the inn, the flat stones erupting, lifting the captain off his feet.
As the captain’s body was knocked up, Yasuo was there to meet it, the cold blade cutting through the captain’s chest in three quick strikes. The body fell to the floor and was still.
More shouting was coming from outside. “We must leave. Now,” Yasuo said. He looked at the girl. “You can do this. Do not hesitate.”
Taliyah nodded. The ground rumbled, shaking the walls until the thatched roof began to vibrate. The girl tried to contain the power she felt growing from beneath the floor of the inn. A vision passed in her mind. Her mother, hemming a raw edge of cloth, singing to herself, her even stitches running away from her hand, her fingers a blur of motion.
The rock beneath the inn burst in great, rounded arcs. Stone columns threaded themselves in and out of the ground like a wave. Taliyah felt the earth rise, carrying her out into the dark night, the wild wind that was Yasuo following close behind.
Yasuo looked back at the distant inn. The round stitches of stone had sewn the path shut and blocked off any oncoming approach. It had bought them time, but dawn would be coming soon. And with it, more men for them. For him.
“They knew you.” Taliyah’s voice was quiet. “Yasuo.” She held on to the last word.
“We need to keep moving.”
“They wanted you dead.”
Yasuo let out a breath. “There are a lot of people who want me dead,” he said. “And now some will want you dead as well. If it matters, they named a crime I did not commit.”
Yasuo was not the name he had given on their journey, but it did not matter. She had not asked about his past in the time they’d traveled together. In truth she had not asked anything of him except to be taught. She watched her mentor now, it seemed her trust was almost painful to him. Perhaps more than if she had thought him guilty. He turned and began walking away from her.
“Where are you going? Shurima is to the west.” Confusion rose in her voice.
Yasuo did not turn back to face her. “My place is not in Shurima. And neither is yours. Not yet.” His words were cool and measured, as if he were steeling himself against a coming storm.
“You heard the merchants. The lost city has risen.”
“Tales to scare the tradesmen and drive up the price of Shuriman linen,” he said.
“And if a living god walks the sands? You don’t know what that means. He will reclaim what he has lost. The people who once served him, the tribes...” Taliyah’s voice strained with the emotion of the evening, her words boiling over. She had journeyed so far to protect them and now she was a world away when they needed her. She reached out, a hand’s breadth from pulling on his arm, anything to make him listen, to make him see.
“He will enslave my family.” Her words echoed off the rock around them. “I must protect them. Don’t you understand that?”
A gust of wind picked up, stirring pebbles on the ground and whipping Yasuo’s black hair about his face.
“Protect,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “Does your Great Weaver not watch over them?” The words now came through gritted teeth. The man, her teacher, turned toward his lone student, anger flashing in his dark, haunted eyes, the raw emotion startling her.
“Your training is unfinished. You risk your life returning to them.”
She stood her ground and faced him.
“They are worth my life.”
The wind swirled around them, but the girl was immovable. Yasuo gave a long sigh and looked back to the east. A hint of light had begun to break the blue-black night. The last of the turbulent gusts calmed.
“You could come with me,” she offered.
The hard lines of the man’s jaw relaxed. “I have heard the desert mead is quite good,” he said. A soft breeze tugged at the girl’s hair. And then the moment was gone, replaced again by a memory of pain. “But I am not finished in Ionia.”
Taliyah studied him carefully and then reached inside her tunic, breaking a long loose thread. She offered the length of handspun wool to him. He looked at it suspiciously.
“It’s a tradition of thanks among my people,” Taliyah explained. “To give a piece of yourself is to be remembered.”
The man took the thread gingerly and tied back his wild hair with it. He weighed his next words carefully.
“Follow this to the next river valley and that river to the sea,” he said, gesturing toward a lightly worn deer path. “There is a lone fisherwoman there. Tell her you wish to see the Freljord. Give her this.”
The man withdrew a dried maple seed from a leather pouch at his belt and pressed it into her hand.
“In the Frozen North there are a people that resist Noxian rule. With them you might find passage back to your sands.”
“What is in this… Freljord?” she said, testing the word in her mouth.
“Ice,” he said. “And stone,” he added with a wink.
It was her turn to smile.
“You will move quickly with the mountains beneath you. Use your power. Creation. Destruction. Embrace it. All of it. Your wings have carried you far,” he said. “They may even carry you home.”
Taliyah stared at the path leading down into the river valley. She hoped her tribe was safe. Perhaps the danger she imagined was just that. If they saw her now, what would they think? Would they recognize her? Babajan said that no matter what color the thread, no matter how thick or thin the draft was as it was taken up on the spindle, a part of the wool always remained what it had been when it started. Taliyah remembered, and took comfort in that.
“I trust that you will weave the right balance. Safe journey, Little Sparrow.”
Taliyah turned to face her companion, but he was already gone. The only sign he had been there were a few blades of grass that rustled in the new morning air.
“I’m sure the Great Weaver has a plan for you, too,” she said.
Taliyah tucked the maple seed carefully into her coat and started down the path into the valley, the stone beneath her boots rising eagerly to greet her."
Here's a 1920 x 1080 image of Taliyah from the new page timeline:
"I'll only confirm that I am indeed the champion designer on Taliyah's team. For now I won't say more than that--we can talk about the story, but you're not gonna get any more deets about the champ just yet."