From within the stone fortress, Azir taps his golden claws on the mahogany table, ever so slightly displacing the counters on the Go mat with each motion of his talons. On the opposite side, Garen fiddles absentmindedly with the fur around his neck, as he contemplates how he could position his pieces to create Two Eyes, a strategy which could finally win him a match. After a few minutes, he sighs, and drops a black counter defeatedly onto the top right of the board. Immediately, Azir picks up a white counter and slides it to the centre, claiming 3 of the horrified soldier’s pieces. The board lights up and displays the score as a hologram above the board. The digits flicker slightly. 40 to 5.
Garen leans back against the cold cobblestone wall and groans. In the battlefield, he had the strength and stamina of a wild boar. They had called him the jade guardian of the West-North-West, due to his ability to duel even the fiercest of warriors. But in strategy, the emperor’s cunning was unrivaled. Legend had it that he could anticipate the result of a war before it even started. From throughout the land, he was revered as Runeterra’s revenant and the keeper of the jade eye, which he sustained at the crown of his staff.
A steely voice interrupted Garen’s thoughts.
“Commander, they’ve retreated.”
He lifts his eyes from the Go board and towards the fortress entrance, meeting Vi’s mischievous gaze as she leans casually against the heavy oak door. The demon on her gauntlet grins as she knocks rhythmically on the sturdy wood. Azir stands, the feathers from his cloak unfurling slowly as he proceeds to walk out of the castle.
He watches from the crest of his fortress’ foundation - above the endless expanse of farming pasture and wild forestland, his eyes piercing through the clouds cushioning the summit. Below, the battle continues relentlessly. Each shockwave from the onslaught of clashing blades further tears Runeterra into its shattered factions. He shifts his staff from one hand to the other, his practiced movements echoing the rhythm of battle.
Left, then back. Left, then back.
Pierce, then shift. Pierce, then shift.
Movements as fluid as the liquid sands of ancient Shurima...
As he channels his energy into the jade eye, the vision grows clear. The forces were moving away, past Azir’s border. Content with knowing that the war had begun shifting away from the epicentre of his kingdom, he closes his third eye. His temporary allegiance with Jarvan IV was complete. He had only promised to send out his troops to defend against Tryndamere’s army if the battle strayed too close to Azir’s territory. Granting Jarvan extra soldiers and tactical advice guaranteed that in exchange, the nearby village would not be disturbed during its lunar festivities.
“Come.” His earthen voice resonates clearly through the thin air.
Garen peers over his shoulder and waves away a long feather from Azir’s headpiece as it tickles his cheek.
“Thankfully, this gives us time to travel the two day journey towards the nearby village. I had been looking forward to celebrating the new year, and I would have been quite… disappointed if I had been inconvenienced by the battle.”
He clicks his tongue.
“Since it would be wise to bring a guardian with me in case of the event that something troublesome were to occur, I would like to invite you to accompany me.”
Vi huffs audibly from beside the fortress door.
“Silence. I took you last year. Don’t think I forgot what you tried to do to the game vendor.”
Garen clears his throat.
“It would be an honour, my emperor.”
“Then I leave the fortress to you, jade gauntlet.”
Lifting his staff in the direction of Shurima’s ruins, he conjures a revenant of sand, and places his staff’s jade eye within its centre.
“To keep you out of trouble.”
She sighs and punches the floor defeatedly, causing the ground to ripple.
Garen could smell the festival before he first saw the crimson lanterns scattered around the forest trees, their everburning flame a symbol of vitality and good luck. The scents of roasted pork were strong, clinging to the air of the dusty road on which they were travelling on.
The food and game stalls slowly became clear as they made their way towards the cosy village, their vibrant displays complementing the energetic calls of the vendors as they showed off their wares. Shifting past the tangles of origami pigs which adorned the village gate, Azir chuckled as Garen gasped at the sight which manifested before them. The tables were full of a variety of different foods - salty, sweet, sour, their colours contrasting each other under the dim moonlight. As he wanders off to try the assortment of savoury dishes, Azir decides to search for the yearly lunar ritual.
Holding his staff close to his body so as to not bump into anyone, he briskly walks along the broad alleyway and towards the source of the music. He could hear the bells’ chimes clearly in the crisp night air as he began passing through the crowd of people lining up eagerly at the shrines. Raising his beak to peer past the large hustle of people, he could also distinguish a familiar face, caught up in entertaining a customer. The figure takes a deep bow, showing off the golden patterns at the back of his robes as he gestures to a hefty pile of gold.
“Would you like to participate in my humble game, good Sir?”
The catfish smiled, revealing a set of sinister teeth. He points once more to the mound of gold coins behind him.
The man appears to hesitate briefly, before opening his purse and offering three gold coins. Tahm then places three cups on the table, their rims lined a vibrant green. He gestures at the man to place the coins under at any cup of his choosing, before shuffling them quickly. On the fourth shuffle, Azir sees that Tahm moves the edge of the cup off the table, and pours the coins subtly into his hand. He remains silent as Tahm glances at him and gives a wink. The man however, is too rapt in watching the rapid motions of the cups to catch the practiced sleight of hand. After shuffling them a few more times, Tahm bows once more and motions for the man to choose any cup he desires. The man confidently points at the one in the middle - correct, if not for Tahm’s tricks - which the catfish then lifts to reveal nothing.
“Better luck next time, my friend.”
The man, exasperated, storms away. Tahm laughs heartily as he chucks the coins in his palm onto the pile behind him, and chucks a dumpling into his mouth with the other hand. Grinning, he tosses a dumpling to Azir, who catches it between his thumb and forefinger.
“My thanks for keeping quiet.”
Azir nods, and pops the dumpling in his mouth. The flavours of pork, ginger, and rich stock fill his palate as he savours the silky texture of the dumpling skin. As he makes his way once more to the moonlit ritual, he bumps into Garen, his hunched figure bent over a plate of his findings - pork crackling, dumplings, Cha Siu, Dim Sum, sticky rice pudding, and a variety of different coloured jellies in the shape of a lotus. Azir taps him on the shoulder, signalling that they move to get good seats for the ceremony. Garen spins around, his mouth stuffed full of pork dumplings as Azir motions impatiently to an empty space on his right.
As the chimes sing in the gentle breeze, a figure steps out from behind the crimson curtain, her pale robes contrasting the grey of the stone floor. Her garments drift as she moves smoothly from one side of the stage to the other, twirling and dancing in time with the beat of the drums. The wisps of her sky blue cloak wrap around the beams of moonlight as she lifts her crescent shaped scythe - its side embellished with the blessings of the lunar goddess. The audience cheers as she begins dancing faster, conjuring pink balls of energy which she maneuvers around her arms as she spins and leaps on the stage. Her black hair whips around her, contrasting against her golden brooches and pale moon-kissed skin. As the ritual ends, the tempo slows and she begins to move slower until she brings herself to a stop at the centre of the stage, lifting the blade and releasing a loud cry, signalling the start of the new year as the audience cheers and applauds.
“Are we coming next year too?”
Garen’s puppy dog eyes meet Azir’s as he eats his last meat bun. Azir chuckles, imagining the thought of the grime-loving Twitch in a shiny lunar costume.