Of Paths Not Taken

Breath in. Breath out.

Irelia slowly moved one foot forward, watching as the blades around her spun and danced. The rhythm was unknown to all but herself, the melody in her head playing on. Her morning meditation was uninterrupted as she surveyed over the small hamlet of Shikama. It was one of many villages her army had visited. The thought gave Irelia pause: Her army. She was the leader of this band of Ionian defenders. That said, she did not lead alone.

 “Lady Irelia,” called a gruff voice. Turning her head, Irelia saw the approaching form. Towering over most Ionians, the man was clad head-to-toe in ceremonial armor. A mane of red hair flowed from the back of his helmet like a waterfall, a kanabō resting on his shoulder. “Was looking for you. My apologies for disturbing your meditation.”

 The blades that rotated around Irelia flowed to her back, forming a triangular shape that hovered just above her spine. “Lord Ryota…or should I say Shogun?” She responded with a devious smirk.

 Ryota grunted, placing his kanabō’s head flat to the earth. “I will never be used to such a title. Lord Diago should have been shogun, not I.”

 “You took the sword, did you not?” Irelia turned back to the valley as she spoke. Ryota’s free hand wandered to the large, sheathed sword against his waist. He was still hesitant to draw the weapon, even though he had inherited the title. “I’m sorry if I worried you. I was just…thinking.”

 Joining her on the overlooking mountain, Ryota nodded. He was quite a bit taller than Irelia, even though he had appointed himself her subordinate. “Thinking?”

 Irelia turned back to him, the sun resting just above the valley as the day was set to begin. “Do you ever wonder what would have happened? If life had taken a different path? I always seem to fall back to that day…”

 Several years ago.

 Blood stained stone as the blades that Irelia controlled swung through the air. The Placidium was a warzone, the band of Ionian warriors that made up the resistance fighting tooth and nail to reclaim the area. The sight of the young girl weaving and cutting through the crowd kept the morale of her people from shattering, albeit it was a fragile hold.

 “Hold the line!” she called, looking left and right. Her track of the battlefield wavered, the Noxians hesitant to approach her. She needed to find the leader. More importantly, she needed to find her own leader.

 In the chaos, Ryota had vanished. Irelia might have been great at holding morale together but she was not the strategist and leader that he was. Turning to one of her men, Irelia nodded. “Secure the courtyard. I’m heading inside to find the commander. Ionia stands!”

 The soldier slammed his fist to his chest, shouting “IONIA STANDS!” in response. With her command given, Irelia dashed past the crowd, cutting through any who moved to intercept her. Noxians fell before her, none able to stop the sprinting woman as she danced across the bloodsoaked stone.

 Through hallways she moved, the way to the council chamber unguarded and barren. It was suspicious to say the least. It became downright insidious when one considered that the council chamber was the center of the area and the point one needed to lay claim to for a successful siege.

 The door to the chamber was blasted open, Irelia having no time for locks. It was fortunate that she did, as she arrived in time. Among the numerous elite Noxians was Ryota, kneeling in a pool of his own blood. The enemy’s commander, an aging man with a black coat, brandished a sword. “It’s impressive that you’ve lasted this long…Shogun? Hm. I swore the Shogun of Ionia died in the first few bouts.” Swain removed a piece of cloth from his jacket, wiping the blood of his blade.

 In reckless anger, Ryota swung his weapon. “DON’T YOU DARE SPEAK HIS NAME!” The weakened state of the warrior was too great for a clean hit, Swain taking a single step back. In response to the aggression, one soldier placed a boot to Ryota’s back, sending him to the floor. The shogun lay on the ground, struggling to push himself up.

 “I admire your tenacity and your sheer resilience. I understand now why rumors of you have been spreading.” Swain lifted his eyes from the floor, spying Irelia in the doorway. “And it appears we have an audience. Speak up, girl. I’m curious what you think of your hero.”

 Irelia grit her teeth, clenching her fists. “Irelia…leave…” Ryota mumbled.

 Swain rolled his eyes, stepping forward. With a swift kick, the shogun’s helmet went sailing across the room to rest at Irelia’s feet. “Go on. Take it. Leave if you wish, in fact.” It was a display of power, to be sure. “Share this helmet with as many heads as you wish. Noxus will take each one.”


 All the soldiers turned to the girl in the doorway, bemused now that she had spoken. “I’m sorry?” Swain asked. “I don’t exactly understand your tongue so by all means, explain.”

 “Xan Irelia. That is my name. The name of a house you animals butchered. The name of my family that I’ll never see grow old…” Irelia’s eyes contained a fire hotter than any ember, the girl’s rage pouring out like a volcanic torrent in her words. “KNOW THAT XAN IRELIA IS THE ONE WHO WILL END YOU!”

 “Then try.” Swain asked.

 All at once the blades around Irelia reeled backwards. In traditional Ionian dance, it was one of the hardest movements to perform. Kicking off the ground, Irelia flipped backwards, the blades trailing behind her in perfect sync. As she landed, the hurricane of blades shot outward, spreading around the kneeling Ryota. The Noxians who had the misfortune of being right on the wall were skewered by the multiple blades stabbing into them. Those who were trapped inside the cage with Swain and Ryota stumbled back, suffering gashes as the wall cut into them. Those on the outside backed away, shocked by the sudden appearance.

 Breath in. Breath out.

 Irelia moved like a divine wind, aiming for the first soldier on the outer rim of the wall. He was slow and sluggish, unable to stop Irelia as her blades cut through his chest. She didn’t pause, moving from this guard to the next in an instant. And the next. And yet another.

 Breath in. Breath out.

 She crossed the wall of blades, gathering more of the telekinetic shards as she struck the few who still stood. Time seemed to slow around her, giving Irelia more than enough chances to see the smug visage of Swain devolve into disgruntled surprise. From disgruntled surprise Swain’s expression turned into something he had never expressed before: Fear.

 Breath in. Breath out.

 Swain realized he would be at a disadvantage with most of his elite guard dead. He would have to retreat, as much as he hated the prospect. Despite this, greed overtook his strategic sensibility for the briefest of moments: Killing Ryota would be a blow that was worth the risk. Left hand raised, his sword aimed to pierce through the skull of the Ionian shogun.

 Breath in. Breath out.

 Swain and Ryota were gone. In their place was her father and the Duqal. Just like before, her father was going to die to Noxians for little reason other than proving a point. Unlike before, Irelia was here. Unlike before, she could fight back. This time would be different.

 Breath in. Breath out.

 Swain’s arm moved downward, aiming to strike. Irelia let her telekinesis break for a singular moment. Her hand wrapped around one of the kinetic blades, cutting into her palm. The pain was irrelevant, the young girl too focused on her goal. Swinging her arm, the blade met flesh. It sailed through bone and muscle alike, Irelia cutting through Swain’s arm with personal flair. The general’s expression turned to shock, his limb amputated before his own eyes.

 Swain’s hand fell to the floor, still clutching his personal weapon as he stumbled back. His free hand clutched the bloody stump, eyes wide in panic. “This…this isn’t over!” he cried. Swain turned to run, Irelia ready to chase him. Instead she winced, her hand releasing the blade she held. Blood was on her hands, this time her own, as she came back to the reality of her situation.

 Bodies were strewn around the room, her blades clattering to the floor as her concentration broke. “Lord Ryota?” She asked, turning to spy the man kneeling. “Are you going to be well?”

 The older man spat, stumbling upward. His face was mostly pristine, despite the body wounds he sported. “Aye. Noxian tactics. Shallow cuts all over my body. They wanted to make me suffer and prove a point. Instead they didn’t finish their goal.” He looked around the room, wiping his brow. “You defeated an elite Noxian troop, not to mention saved me, and mortally wounded their commander.”

 Irelia composed herself, blades converging around her body. “I acted as any soldier would to save our leader.”

 “No…no. I am no leader. Strategist, maybe, but I’m no leader.” Ryota moved to lift the helmet off the ground, staring at the curved horns adoring it. “They respect me, yes, but they fear me more than they believe in me. Not like you.” Ryota placed the helmet back atop his head, turning to Irelia. “You’re what Ionia needs, not I.”

 She blinked in surprise, the young girl surprised at how blunt Ryota was with his own status. “Shogun, I could never-“

 “You won’t replace me,” he said, shaking his head. “But you will lead them. I’m nothing but a soldier who guides the battle. You? You’ll be the light that guides Ionia to victory.” He looked to the ground. “Take the arm if you agree. Show it to our warriors, show everyone that you took the Placidium back. Leave it on the ground if you don’t. Not even the great spirits can force you to be a symbol. The choice is yours.”

 Irelia looked down at the severed arm. Conflicting emotions ran through her, the blades spinning in slow fashion as she considered her choices. She was a mere dancer with a decent weapon, not a leader. She was a warrior who saved the commander and brought victory when there would be defeat. She was a hero. She was just a girl. She was…

 The arm was lifted off the floor, still clutching the sword as the two fighters walked out the door to the waiting army.

 “And what about that day?” Ryota questioned.

 Irelia pressed her hands together, eyes shut. “Had I been a second late, you would be dead and I would be leading the army. Had I not attempted the Xianfeng zhi ren, I would have been unable to face all those soldiers.” Her eyes opened, a somber look on her face. “Had Noxus not invaded, we may have never met.”

 Arms crossed, Ryota hummed to himself. “I suppose it is in the nature of Ionians to consider what our lives would be…” He sighed, shaking his head. “Is the burden too great? Do you think you have the spirit and the body to carry on? Do you wish for an easier life?”

 At this, she pondered. Had none of this happened, she would not exist. The Xan Irelia of today would be nothing like the Xan Irelia of the alternate world. If she had a choice, would she go with what she had become or what she could have been? The sun crested over the mountains fully, the warmth of the morning washing over Irelia. In her heart, despite all the pain, she knew the answer.

 “I am grateful for everything that has led me to this point. Nothing more.” Clasping her hands together, Irelia looked over the village, prepared to move on to the next so that Ionia’s defending army could grow ever stronger. Her meditation, for today, would come to a close.

 Breath in. Breath out.