The Tarnished should have felt used to being alone. He’d only been with Ranni a scant few weeks, and compared to the many months he had been campaigning it was but a blip on a long, lonely journey.
He felt her absence, though, felt the lack of a second set of eyes at his side, the pleasant chill of her company. He didn’t fight his was back towards her rise, instead electing to ride around whatever marionettes and great crayfish were in his way. Even the dragon, ever guarding Ranni’s rise, was none the wiser to him slipping in behind it, finally safe from the threats of the world.
More than safe, in fact. The Tarnished recognized the great warrior before him. One of his few friends in this cursed land, and a great warrior to boot.
“Blaidd,” he called, though his happy trot towards him slowed as he saw what was beneath him. The great wolf man stood over the broken form of a soldier or some other sort, clawing at his own eyes, snarling and growling.
“I am part of her,” he growled, eyes Turning towards the Tarnished, “she… she needs me.”
And then something in the Wolf man snapped, and he was lunging to the Tarnished, blade outstretched.
“Blaidd?!” Was all he managed to get out before the blade took him through the throat.
The darkness of death, and the slow drowse of rebirth.
The first thing the Tarnished realized was that he did not know where he was. This site was… different, somehow. Colder, for certain. He knew where it was though- he recognized Ranni’s chamber, from the chair and stack of books she had sat on to the strange arcane instruments scattered around.
It was strange, to be reborn in a place he had never been. It had happened to him only once, when a trapped chest had locked him in a mine full of centipede-like rot worshipers.
This wasn’t that strange, oppressive magic though. This Grace was comforting. Akin to Ranni’s presence in life, and for that he was thankful.
“Blaidd,” the Tarnished reached for his throat, eyes going wide. “Fuck, Blaidd what happened?”
An empty room would give him no answers, so he began descending down. He paused only briefly, in the Rise’s original site of Grace. It had become something like a home to him, one of the few places that was both safe and insulated from the outside, without eyes on what he did or what trophies he collected. In one corner was an old project of his, a half dozen mushrooms growing in pots, each picked from a different region of the Lands Between. In another was a great collection of bows, crossbows, bolts, and arrows, some placed with the reverence they deserved, others scattered around them with no order nor reason.
He paid them little mind, though he did stop to grab some reagents for potion mixing. Perhaps he could craft some sleeping dust, to calm the Wolf down? There were a dozen desperate ideas in his head, but he latched onto that one as the only he could imagine working.
The wolf was still where he’d been left, still muttering and clawing at himself. The Tarnished was silent this time, as he approached. In one hand he held Ranni’s gift, the Dark Moon Greatsword, in the other a pot filled with sleeping powder. With any luck, he would not have to use the first.
“Blaidd, back off,” he had no luck, it seemed. The pot shattered on the wolves head, but the powder did nothing but anger him, and the pair were soon locked in a duel.
“Come on man,” the Tarnished shouted, blowing aside one of the wolves strikes with one of his own, “get it together, Blaidd.”
But there was nothing in the warriors eyes but pain and wild fear, no recognition or even regret. It was as if he had been reduced to his bestial base. “Blaidd-” the Tarnished cursed and rolled back. He could disengage and flee, call Torrent to him. Whatever happened to Blaidd must have a way to undo it, after all.
The wolf was not willing to allow that, though, and he leapt into the air, plunging his sword down. A fatal blow, if the Tarnished did not react. It was a simple thing, a move the Tarnished had learned to punish those who overcommitted like Blaidd had. Stepping forwards, beyond the blade’s deadly arc, lifting his own so that any attempt to recover would mean plunging oneself onto fatal steel.
Blaidd had taught him that move. They’d practiced it together to the point that it was ingrained into his instincts. The Tarnished could feel Blaidd make the choice, even if he could not begin to imagine why. He twisted, snarling, scratching, skewering himself on Ranni’s last gift.
The Tarnished’s next steps were unthinking, stepping forwards and pivoting around, allowing the blade to be jerked out of his hands by Blaidd’s weight.
“No sane man will take the blade to the chest,” Blaidd had told him once, “so you’ll have an opening to strike from behind. Take it, move quickly.”
The sword had pierced through Blaidd, and even as he coughed and died, he clawed towards his own, one last desperate attempt to strike down the Tarnished.
“Blaidd,” and then he was gone, body reduced to runes, armor clattering off of the air that replaced his body.
The Tarnished stood alone at the base of his lady’s rise, staring into now empty armor, as if waiting for Blaidd to return. It took him a long few minutes to come back to himself, to examine the body he stood over. A black Knife assassin. He had seen them before, here and there. This one had been mauled beyond recognition, Blaidd’s final act. And it had been to protect the rise from some paid assassin.
It took the Tarnished a long hour to get to Iji, full of panic (what if they had struck the smith first) and anger at the great hands that dropped to attack him. He need not have worried, though, Iji was still hunched over his anvil, reading yet another book.
“Iji,” the Tarnished was out of breath, and took a long few seconds to recover, “Iji, Blaidd, he went fucking crazy, he tried to kill me. He did kill me.”
Iji’s calm voice was welcome, though even the Tarnished could hear the edge of fear in it. He pulled the full story from the Tarnished, the fights, the final blow, the dead Black Knife, and then he began to explain, of his fear of Blaidd threatening Ranni, he believing the wolf to be a curse to his lady.
“And after all that, everything I have done to him, his final act was to save his lady.” Iji was silent for a long moment after, looking north, towards the rise. “Tarnished, the blade you carry, you understand what it means, yes?”
The Tarnished look to the Dark Moon Greatsword, hefting it before he spoke. “It is a gift Carian nobles gave to their… to their concubines.”
“And you know what you are to her?” Iji asked. His gaze was piercing, and the Tarnished, too busy stumbling over words he had not even said to himself, could not hide the truth with silence. “Go to her rise. The blade is more than an oath, it is a connection. Call to her. She will need you, in these darkest hours. I… I have apologies to make.”
“Iji-” The Tarnished started, but the smith was committed.
“Go, Tarnished,” he said, standing, “I have duties of my own, ones that must be fulfilled.”
The Tarnished could tell it was a dismissal, and there was precious little to protest. Instead he rode back north, thankful he had taken the time to clear his path on the way in, so that he could ride fast and heedless of danger. He was fast enough that even old Adula did not see him sloop into the rise.
By the time he was up and in Ranni’s chamber, barely half an hour had passed. The suns warm glow was muted there, and the Tarnished could feel the chill of night as he laid the Dark Moon Greatsword across his lap.
“Ranni…” he hesitated, unsure of what to call her. “Lady Ranni, if you’re still listening… Blaidd- he attacked me. He was in pain, and wild, and I- I killed Blaidd, my lady. He struck down a Black Knife trying to get access to the rise”
“Blaidd is dead?” The voice was barely more than a whisper, one of pain and longing. For the Tarnished to be lying, or mistaken, or for this to be another cruel trick of the Two Fingers. In a way it was.
She had coalesced before him, though instead of sat tall and proud atop her books, Ranni was standing just in front of the Tarnished, each hand clenched and trembling, her spectral face streaked with glimmering tears.
“I am so sorry,” Was the Tarnished’s answer, his head bowed in guilt and shame. “I… I did not think my blow was fatal. He taught me it, he knew how to avoid-”
“No, Tarnished,” Ranni’s voice was hard, and full of anger. The Tarnished almost flinched away from her, afraid he was about to bear the brunt of this. “There is only one person to blame. The same that created the black knives.”
“None other than Ranni the Witch, of course,” Her laugh was bitter, “who else’s plots could go so wrong, after all? Who else could cause something like this.”
“True? Fair? I have led my family to ruin, my servants to death. My plots have set in motion wars and calamities I could not even imagine.” Ranni was silent for a long moment. “You should flee my service, Tarnished, before you share the same fate.”
“I will not.” The Tarnished was almost offended by that suggestion, “Ranni- my lady, I mean you no offense, but this,” he held up the sword, “is more than an oath. You did not cause Blaidd his madness, nor did you start the wars of the Shattering.”
“Your plots did not release the rot onto Caelid,” The Tarnished interrupted, “your plots were not years of war and death. You have done dark deeds to free yourself of the Two Fingers, to free this world of the Greater Will. But it was your brothers and sisters who made war on each other, who unleashed horrors. Not you.”
“You are a fool, Tarnished, clouded by… by your affection for me.” Ranni’s voice was faltering, fearful.
“Yeah,” was the Tarnished’s answer, “maybe maybe it is. All I’ve got to guide me is what I feel and what I believe. I’ve seen what the Golden Order has done. I waded through the lakes of rot and fought a fucking alien for you. I have seen this world. I've seen what you've done, what Marika has done- all of it.”
“I- I get that I’m new here, I don’t have a history or a name or whatever but I’m gonna ask you,” The Tarnished reached an hand out, one final offering, “to trust me. Come with me, like you are now, or in your smaller form. See this world with me. We can still do good here, still fix some of the things that are broken.”
“My quest isn’t exactly on a time limit,” The Tarnished said, “and I’m still going to need every artifact and bit of strength I can drag out of the wilds to take the capital. As much as I love running from Noxians and giant metal balls with you, I figure it’ll be more fun to go see the real world.”
Ranni was silent for a long few moments. Long enough to strike the Tarnished with fear that she would leave again, or give up on their quest.
“I am undeserving of someone such as you.” She said, “if you believe, truly, then I will put my faith in you once more.”
“Then let's go,” the Tarnished stood, taking one of Ranni's hands, "let's go see this world."