Chapter Two: the Institute
The truest opponent lies within.
Thus reads the plaque above the high, gracefully arching doorway leading to my destination. There are no stairs, but I dismount my faithful steed and begin to lead him in through the marble door. I push it open tentatively, as if it may bite me, and Char follows me with equal trepidation and his ears pricked, his hoof beats marking the echoing tiles definitively with every step he makes. I'm almost positive the horse can hear something inside, but I'm not entirely certain what that inside may contain.
Three weeks after my first conversation with Ivan, I finally caved to the idea of money, so I made the trek on horseback to the Institute of War, where they say the Fields of Justice are. It seems just as grand as everyone makes them out to be, but from what little of the League they offer glimpses of in the Journals, I was unsure of the amounts of these rumors were true until now. I've seen in the photos of the Fields, but nothing like this.
The main thing that surprises me is that no one else is there.
Ivan warned me that the queue would take weeks to get through, but absolutely no one is standing in the grand atrium. A young man, though, well-worn by his line of work, frowns up at me from his desk up over his spectacles. Silence, save for Char blowing hot breaths in my ear as he nibbles my hair, befalls the atrium for the moment my beating heart takes to settle a tad more in my chest cavity from fluttering up into my throat. Magic hums lowly like the resonance of music in an open auditorium after a performance.
I wanted to mount up and turn around right that second. Second thoughts raged through my being. What if I died? What if I was never able to return to my mother? What if I was too scarred to never take another job again? What if children ran in fear from my terrifying form after the League? My hands tremble, and adrenaline keeps me from forming words.
"Hello; welcome to the Institute of War."
His words are quiet and gruff, returning me to the reality of Runeterra, bringing my eyes fall on the man. He's fairly scrawny, but has noticeable muscle and a scruffy square jawline. He must be what they call a summoner, one of the men in charge of keeping the Fields in top condition, and keeping the wily Champions at bay.
"Sadia," comes my half-choked response. "Sadia Bladon."
"Specialties? Native country? I've never heard the name before."
His tone is clipped and annoyed at the appearance of yet another champion with no national recognition, no doubt, and justifiably so. Not just anyone has what it takes to be a champion, just as not just anyone knows this.
"Everyone says I don't feel pain like anyone else. My brother taught me how to fight and defend myself... He was in the Demacian Army... one of the ones that got strung up in Noxus City."
"Magic?" A crease furrows deeply into his brow.
"I've got a little..."
Mom, before she got sick, taught me a little bit of magic - a simple but strong caustic spell that burned the eyes and made even the strongest-willed to beg for the counter spell, but wore off quickly. I had only used it once; arcana was never my favorite thing to be toying with. Though, Erick taught me how to get people off of me physically, which I thought to be a better response to being cornered, shove off, dodge the flailing retaliation, and run.
He shrugs slightly, staring down at the half-blank paper in front of him. "Okay. You have to pass a written exam, and participate in an interview with a summoner, and if you pass those, you will engage in a reflection."
He rises to his feet, and leads me to a side room. On the table, there's a packet of papers and a charcoal pencil, which I frown down at. At the top of the page, there printed, are the words, "Institute Exam."
"You may take as long as you like. Go ahead and begin."
Another summoner takes his place, and I sit down to take the test.
I expected a more difficult exam. It mostly focused on Runeterran history and applications of practical things like morality. My mother's asked me harder questions. When I rest my pencil on the table, satisfied by my work, the summoner that had taken the first's position smiles warmly and takes my exam in hand. "Well done, Sadia. Are you ready for the interview? It's very simple – it helps us get to know who you are and what you've done so far."
"What are you?"
I immediately am reduced to having to think about it. No matter how well I did on the exam, I probably in the past two seconds have made myself seem more like an idiot than any human being can be.
"Demacian, a farm girl. Look, I want to make money for my mother to be able to live a comfortable life." My answer comes a bit too hastily out of my mouth, the rushed words slurred together into a defensive fluster.
Still, the summoner smiles. "I understand. Rural Demacia, as our own Quinn knows, can be rough living. What do you think makes you eligible for the League?"
Ivan's words echo in my head about my skin being more like an armored lizard's hide. "I'm tough. I haven't trained much with a blade but I know my way around both edges, and my brother taught me some self-defense. My mom taught me some magic – are you familiar with caustic spells?"
He nods. "We'll have to see if all you say is true. Have you worn armor?"
I think back. I do think I have some hunting armor back home, and I have trained for heavy armor, but never really worn it.
He jots some things down, and sizes me up. "If you do well in the Reflection Chambers, you may be eligible to join the League. The Reflection should tell us the rest of what we need to know about you. This way, miss."
He takes me down another corridor to a large set of doors, more intricately carved than the entrance. They're made of a shined, dark material, like obsidian, so clear that I can see my reflection in them. I put my hand on the gilded handle, and it opens like I'm moving air. I slip in, and make my way into the fog. The world turns black as the obsidian door swings shut, as if nothing was there, and never had been, as dark as the Void or the sky on a cloudy, moonless night.