“Niko?” Qiyana snapped her fingers angrily. “Niko, are you listening?”
“Hm?” Niko jolted out of his reverie. He and his sister were standing in the open, sunny air, high atop a barren stone platform. All around them, the vast wilderness of Ixtal surrounded them, filled with lush forests and latent magic. The steps leading to this flat slab of rock were innumerable, but the Ixtali people were used to climbing such feats in their day-to-day lives.
“What were you saying, sister?” Niko half-mumbled, rubbing his eyes sleepily and pretending to take notes on a series of multi-folded parchments. “Something about water?”
Qiyana frowned, her royal blood unused to being ignored, even by her own relatives. “I was saying, brother,” She laced the title with venom, “I want a traditional water-circle here. Something simple, yet elegant.” She turned away from him to examine the flat rock. “Gilded with gold, I think. Have the metal-mages over in Quecal do it, I know they extracted some last week.”
Niko nodded, not really listening again, and jotted down a scribbled note about a water circle and gilded edges. “What else?” He asked, his tone flat.
Qiyana whirled around, anger at the surface yet again. “If you will not take this seriously, then I will find someone who will!” She hissed, jabbing a finger at her brother. “There are dozens of elemental scholars dying to build me a new spire, you know.”
Niko cocked an eyebrow, unfazed by his sister’s outburst as his eyes locked onto the accusing finger. “My apologies, sister.” He said dryly. “I was up late studying the Ixtali ley lines.” He pretended to write down her demands again. “Quecal’s experiencing a bit of a drought, as I’m sure you know.”
Qiyana waved her hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, that city is always ‘experiencing’ something. Last month a fire, before that a flood.” She started counting on her fingers. “And now, this drought. It’s not my fault their Shalahei can’t manage their elemental connections.
Niko’s mouth quirked into the slightest of smiles. “You know, I could lend my assistance. Re-balance some of the lines, maybe introduce new connections-”
He was cut off by Qiyana’s raucous laughter, making the slight smile melt into a deep frown.
“What is so funny, sister?”
Qiyana wiped a tear from her cheek. “It’s just, Niko… how do I put this lightly?” She rested her head on her hand in a mocking fashion. “Your magic is… what is the word? Volatile.”
Niko bristled at the comment. “It’s not volatile.” He countered, even as Qiyana turned away from him to continue examining the slab they were standing on. “I just… haven’t figured it out yet.”
“Really?” Qiyana mused, still not facing him. “Is that why you have that thing on your wrist?”
Niko quickly covered up the golden bracelet on his wrist with the long sleeves of his robes, embarrassed.
“There’s no shame in it.” He said, a little too quickly. “I’m just taking precautions, that’s all.”
“Oretas are for babies and criminals, Niko.” Qiyana looked back, her poisonous smile taking up most of her face. “Maybe once our parents remove it, we can consider giving you an official position.”
Niko sighed, knowing he was defeated. “Yes, sister.”
“Now, where was I? Oh yes, the walls.” She spread her hands out wide into the air. “I want marble. The Yulei kind. You know, the shiny-”
“Princess Qiyana!” A voice interrupted her, making her spin around again and slam her heel, a small crate forming under the impact.
A royal messenger, bedecked in the red robes of Quecal, was heaving for breath at the top of the steps. “Princess Qiyana-”
The man noticed Niko and did a quick, semi-formal bow. “Prince Niko-”
“Yes, yes, what is it?” Qiyana demanded. “We are in the middle of a very important project!”
“An intruder has been captured on the Quecali border.” He said, clearly panicked. “We don’t know how he got through the barriers.”
“Okay?” Qiyana asked. “Just kill him, it is not worth our time.”
“The scholars have asked for your presence.” The messenger looked uneasy. “He’s… different.”
Qiyana quirked an eyebrow. “Different… how?”
“I cannot believe we had to stop for this.” Qiyana growled, sinking deeper into the cushions of the palanquin she and her brother were riding in.
“I’ve been planning that spire for days.”
Niko rolled his eyes, thumbing through his parchment notes of the day, most of them being various demands and asides from his sister.
“He has magic we can’t identify.” Niko mumbled, engrossed in the pages. Despite his sister’s annoying nature, he had to admit he was looking forward to building the spire as well. “That alone is worth our attention.”
“Maybe your attention.” His sister sneered. “The Quecali scholars can’t tell air magic apart from a strong breeze.”
“We can finish this, execute him, then get back to the spire.” He maintained. “You and I are the most knowledgeable on this sort of thing.”
“Whatever.” Qiyana crossed her arms.
Just as Niko was about to say something else, the palanquin halted with a jerky stopping motion.
“Your highnesses, we have arrived.” Their guard captain announced, pulling the silken curtain back. “At your leisure.” He gestured to the steps that led to the ground.
“Thank you.” Niko nodded, exiting the palanquin and extending a hand to his sister. She took it, descending downwards with elegance and self-importance before waving the captain away.
“Good-bye.” She said simply. The captain bowed deeply, followed by the palanquin bearers, who then hoisted it back up as the whole group walked away.
They both turned to look at the Quecal Arcology, a massive building-city built of marble and wood, fusing man-made architecture with the environment itself. Ixtali cities each had a principal Arcology at their center, a sort of capital where most of the populace lived and worked. Within these Arcologies, again in the center, a magical nexus stood. Within, hundreds of elementalists studied and honed their craft, or worked to maintain the fragile balance that kept the city functioning. More unique, minor Arcologies, ones that mixed magical disciplines or studied a niche form, were located far away from these cities, some in the high Bretan mountains or deep in the wilderness separating the cities.
Niko and Qiyana began walking, and Qiyana began complaining almost immediately.
“We have been here for five minutes already and nobody has offered to take us to the nexus.” She grumbled. “If we were Mara, we’d be there already.”
After climbing the steps to the entrance of Quecal, they entered the Arcology. On the outskirts, a large ring-shaped river ran the circumference, and a bustling merchant district had grown around it. The market was in peak operation, hundreds of civilians bustling about to purchase wares or sell their own.
Qiyana cocked a look at the guard by the river, who immediately snapped to attention and shouted over the din;
“Princess Qiyana and Prince Niko, arriving!”
Instantly, as if by magic, the throng of shoppers parted and a hushed silence fell over the marketplace.
Smiling smugly, Qiyana strode past them, waving and nodding to an adoring populace. Niko, however, did not look up from his notes, embarrassed at the public attention and wanting them to stop staring at him.
“Yes, thank you!” Qiyana declared, taking her time even as Niko caught up then overtook her. “My brother and I will be visiting your city for today! Oh, for me?” A fawning woman handed her a small brooch of gold and sapphire, a year’s worth of income for her, no doubt.
“Hm, a little small.” She said, examining the brooch. “But I accept.” She took the brooch and pinned it to her tunic as the woman began hyper-ventilating from excitement. “My blessings to you.” She touched her forward with her index and middle finger, then touched the woman’s, who fainted immediately into her husband’s arms.
“Thank you, your highness.” He gasped in his wife’s stead, just as overwhelmed. “Thank you, thank you-”
“Yes, yes.” Qiyana interrupted, moving on. “You are welcome.”
Her brother gestured impatiently to the next set of steps, this one leading to the residential area of the city. This was going to be a long walk.
Finally, after numerous blessings and offerings, they had arrived at the Quecali nexus. A twisting, interlocking series of spires rose into the air, filled with rooms upon rooms of magical knowledge and artifacts. Niko began salivating at the thought of it all.
“Your highnesses, you’ve arrived.” An aging man in multi-colored robes declared, opening his arms wide. “Welcome to Quecal.”
“Yes, we’ve arrived.” Qiyana affirmed, her body bedecked in various multi-colored pendants and offerings from the Quecali people.
“I see our people have treated you well.”
Niko nodded. “That is why we are late.”
“Seratsa seratsa.” The man replied. “It is not an issue. Royalty arrives when it chooses too.”
“We are very busy.” Qiayan interrupted. “We were rudely disturbed by your messenger and would like to resolve this problem quickly.”
The man nodded, not at all put off by the princess’s attitude. “Of course, of course. My apologies.” He turned and threw open one of the large doors. “This way, your highnesses.”
From the first step inside, Niko could feel the latent magic of this place. It practically vibrated with raw elemental energy, and many scholars and students were scrambling within, ascending and descending the huge curving staircase that rose into the air. The floor was highly polished, and Niko noticed faint lines carved into it, no doubt to facilitate the channeling of magical energies when a ritual or spell needed to be performed.
“We have the, uh...” The man paused for a moment. “Anomaly contained down below. Our prison could not hope to contain the intruder, so we decided to keep him here.”
Niko and Qiyana followed the man down a set of steps that spun deep into the earth, the light and sound of the Arcology fading as they descended.
“So what he makes him so unique?” Niko asked, knowing his sister would not even pretend to be interested.
“The fact he was able to breach our barrier is special in and of itself.” The man replied. “But beyond that, his magic is unknown to us.” The man shook his head. “Even I was unable to discern its nature, and he is resistant to any attempts at divination.”
As they reached the landing, Niko finally saw the anomaly everyone was so concerned about. A blonde boy, his age, was pacing in a translucent blue cube in the corner of the basement, various magical artifacts and instruments strewn around his prison.
“I apologize for the mess.” The man murmured. “We usually only use this space for storage.”
The boy was wearing a brown leather jacket with an interesting blue fur trim, and his right arm was home to a large, ornate brass gauntlet. A teal triangle dotted each cheek, and his expression could accurately be described as ‘annoyed’.
He began speaking, gesturing angrily at the old man, but no sound penetrated the cube.
“He is quite vocal.” The man explained. “Very loud, very distracting.”
“Good.” Qiyana narrowed her eyes. “It will be that more satisfying to execute him.”
Niko, however, was entranced. The boy was so pale. Most outsiders were, but this one was especially light. And blonde hair was something Niko had only heard of from stories of trespassers and thieves. And his choice of clothing was so strange. Animal hide, in this heat? And that gauntlet had to be some sort of magical device.
“So far, we’ve got a name. Ezreal.” The man’s voice broke Niko out of his reverie. “From Piltover.”
Qiyana bristled. “Pilt-over?” She fumed, having difficulty pronouncing the name. “Those… those thieves? If I had my Omhlatl, I would slay him right-”
Niko placed a hand on her shoulder, feeling her calm down. “We will get to that, sister. First, we need answers.” He nodded to the man. “Let him speak.”
With a snap of the man’s fingers, the cube faded to a lighter blue, and the sounds of Ezreal’s protests filled the basement.
“-is inhumane, and I’ll have you know-”
“Silence, trespasser!” Qiyana shouted, making him clamp his mouth shut. “You are lucky to be alive!” She pointed at him. “You will tell us of your magic, then you will be executed.”
Niko sighed, nudging his sister in annoyance.
“What?” She asked, suddenly put-out.
“That’s not going to make him talk.”
“Then you speak to him, he is already on my nerves.”
Niko stepped forward, clearing his throat.
“Ez… reel.” He said, struggling with the foreign name. “Why are you in Ixtal?”
“This is Ixtal?” Ezreal exclaimed, pressing his hands on the surface of the cube. “That old fart over there wouldn’t tell me anything! I thought this place was a myth!” He pulled back, jabbering to himself about scientific journals and various publishers as Niko and Qiyana eyed each other.
“What is he talking about?” Niko asked.
“I do not know what he is saying.” She replied.
“Is he crazy?”
“I am not crazy!” Ezreal interjected, before sending a wink at Niko. “It’s Ezreal, by the way.”
Niko flushed at the action, his sister stepping in front of him.
“Do not speak to him as if you are an equal, filth!” She demanded. “Your name is whatever we say it is!”
“Jeez, okay.” Ezreal held his hands up in defeat. “Touchy.”
“Explain why you are here before I kill you where you stand!” Qiyana’s patience had clearly run dry.
The boy, Ezreal, shrugged and gave a rogueish grin. “Call a sort of primal curiosity.” He paced around his cuboid prison. “People always said Ixtal was myth, and no one could ever find it. That is, until today!” He spread his hands wide, open to Qiyana and Niko. “And your civilization is full of advanced magic! I’ve never seen such powerful elemental spells at work-”
“Your people did not find Ixtal because we did not want them to find Ixtal.” Qiyana growled. “Outsiders bring disease. They bring war. And you are no different.”
“I take offense to that.” Ezreal was still grinning, so clearly something was off with his emoting. “I’ll have you know I’m quite clean, thank you very much.”
Qiyana turned to Niko, and began speaking in Ixtali so as to exclude Ezreal from the conversation.
“I hate him.” She said plainly. “Rare magic or not, he has to be executed. Right. Now.”
“You have to admire his bravado.” Niko replied, rolling his eyes. “Most other outsiders would’ve started begging for mercy around this time.”
“He is dumb.” Qiyana slapped a palm to her forehead to indicate this. “Dumb as the earth we stand on. Kill him, take the gauntlet. Then mother and father will not get involved.”
Niko turned to the mage behind them. “Have you tried that? Killing him, I mean.”
He nodded. “Of course. However, the latent magic within that item is tied to his lifeforce. It will cease to exist once he does.”
“Then is it even worth studying?” Qiyana groaned. “Why should we bother if it’s connected to such an idiot?”
“Pardon my speaking, your highness, but this is an undocumented form of magic. Discovering its properties could lead to a new golden age for Ixtali magic, and-”
“It’s rude to have private talks in front of a guest.” Ezreal interrupted, frowning. “Although, I am fascinated about your language. Sounds very Shuriman, with a mixture of Kumungu.”
Niko’s fascination grew stronger. He was scholar, just like him. Their language was, in fact, the basis for the very two dialects he had listed. Perhaps he was not as stupid as he appeared.
“Ezreal.” Niko switched back to Common, pronouncing the name a little more accurately. “I am Prince Niko of Ixaocan, high elemental scholar, and child of the Yun Tal.” He gestured to his sister. “This is Princess Qiyana, elementalist prime, and-”
“Do not introduce us.” Qiyana hissed in Ixtali.
“A scholar, awesome!” Ezreal exclaimed, steam-rolling right over Qiyana’s aside. “Ya know, I’m a bit of one myself. I’ve been in over a dozen Piltovan journals and was the featured explorer of the year-”
“I do not care.” Niko interrupted. “Tell me what that thing is.” He pointed at Ezreal’s gauntlet.
“This thing?” He puffed his chest out in pride. “This is just my ancient Shuriman Ascended gauntlet. One-of-a-kind, a sort of family heirloom.”
“What does it do?”
Ezreal laughed. “What doesn’t it do! This baby is a natural magical conduit, amplifies my already considerable magical talent, if I can brag for a second.”
“A mage?” Qiyana scoffed. “Well then, show me some magic.” She waved her hand at him dismissively. “Go on, perform a spell for me. Any one will do.”
“Well, you see, that’s the thing...” He murmured sheepishly. “It’s been acting up lately. I can’t, uh, quite figure out what’s wrong with it. I thought if I found Ixtal, there’d be a solution.” He looked at Niko. “But I wasn’t welcomed quite as warmly as I would’ve hoped.”
“Ha!” Qiyana’s voice pierced the rock walls. “A likely story. You’re probably not even a mage at all, just some illusionist who got a big head.”
Niko, on the contrary, could feel the magical energy emanating from the gauntlet. There was definitely something off about it’s aura though. The magic felt muted, and split, and unlike any Niko had encountered in his extensive studies.
“Qiyana, we should consult our parents.” Niko stated.
“Niko, no...” Qiyana whined. “I want to get back to our spire. We were planning it all week!”
“If you let me deal with this...” He looked at Ezreal, who’s bright blue eyes were conveying nothing but high interest. “…thing, I will make it five times as extravagant.”
Qiyana crossed his arms. “You will make it ten times as extravagant.”
“Fine.” Niko agreed, turning to the old man. “Free him and bind him in chains. I am taking him to our parents.”