The dragonfly darted into the gazebo, hovering over the table where Soraka consulted with Lanti, her attendant, each morning. Soraka gently shooed it away, and it darted upward to join what appeared to be dozens of its kind near the ceiling of the gazebo.
If he had any amorous attentions, though, he would soon be disappointed. These dragonflies were not real. They were beautifully crafted decorations made of a number of different materials – glass, porcelain, wicker, not to mention several origami dragonflies – suspended by strings from the ceiling. Eventually realizing his companions were merely illusionary, he darted back out of the gazebo in the direction of Soraka’s grove.
“Another reminder that the Dragonfly Festival is approaching,” Lanti said. “We will need to make sure you keep your schedule clear, dear.”
Soraka sighed and stared up at the ceiling, regarding all the decorations.
“Oh, you’re not going to be morose about it again, are you?” Lanti said. “Every year. I’ve never met somebody so averse to being honored.”
“I will have people fawning over me for three days just for being clever,” she said. “I gave a speech. That’s all.”
“It was a very important speech at an important time.”
“Duchess Karma’s were better.”
“That’s why she has her own festivals.” The elderly woman poured Soraka more tea. An onlooker might picture that Lanti was Soraka’s mentor as well as attendant. It was a common dynamic in Ionia. Many leaders in both civic management as well as education (martial or philosophical) were “attended to” by men and women long past retirement. They were typically Ionians who had actually once served powerful positions themselves and offered their guidance. They may look like servants, but that was usually far from the case.
But Lanti, Soraka had actually known since she was a child and Soraka was still the immortal star creature who never left the grove. Lanti was a sickly child, and her mother brought her to Soraka for her assistance frequently. The girl suffered from a number of unfortunate illnesses and probably would not have survived to adulthood without Soraka’s intervention. They remained in contact for decades, and after Soraka lost her immortal nature, she asked Lanti to stay by her side. Lanti agreed.
Soraka looked out into the small pasture in front of the gazebo. A little further to the south was her famous grove. She would spend some time at the grove a little later and receive visitors. Then she would head to the Placidium for a few weeks. She was to represent Ionia in discussions among several city-states attempting to measure the level of threat the Shadow Isles may present to Valoran. As a country that prided itself on neutrality (past conflict with Noxus notwithstanding), Ionia would be hosting the discussion.
A few more dragonflies darted through the field. Soraka’s three goats – Merry, Canter, and Bounder – ignored them, choosing to nibble on grass. Decades ago, a small child visiting the grove pointed out Soraka’s legs and asked, “Are you part goat?” Her mother quickly shushed her, horrified that they might have offended the star child. Soraka laughed and told them all she loved goats and that goats were always welcome at the grove. For years that followed people seeking her healing help would bring gifts of goat milk or goat figurines. If a village was in dire need, they would actually gift her a goat for the grove. The gifts were never necessary, but she had learned that Ionians insisted on repaying kindness in some fashion, however small. It was considered a duty.
But then she gave the “dragonfly speech” during the dark days of the Ionia-Noxus War and the gifts changed. It was an accident, but it stuck. She had been traveling with a pack of Ionians to the scene of a recent battle. They were coming to provide aid. When they arrived, they discovered Noxus had routed and butchered their countrymen. Their bodies littered the countryside. The Ionian team was devastated.
Soraka could feel their despair filling their thoughts. She could feel them beginning to fear they would never be free of Noxus. She looked over the battlefield and saw the dragonflies darting about. She knew why they were there. The bodies had attracted flies, and the dragonflies fed on the insects. But they seemed so peaceful and serene. They darted with purpose when they needed to, but otherwise they calmly hovered.
“Look to the dragonflies,” Soraka turned and said to the Ionians. “They are not bowed by war. They are buoyant and serene. They move with purpose. They wait with patience. They prey upon scavengers. We must strive to be like the dragonfly.” She went on to the rapt crowd, talking about how they must act with focus and never lose balance, just like the dragonfly. After a few minutes, the team spread out from the battlefield. They managed to find seven Ionian warriors who were clinging to life, and Soraka saved them. It was a small victory amid a great loss, but the inspiration stuck. In Ionia, the dragonfly came to symbolize serenity and purpose. As the Noxian occupation ended, mayors of several villages near the battle site announced the Dragonfly Festival to honor Soraka for her role in the war.
Soraka was embarrassed by the honor. She did not emerge from her grove to help fight off Noxus, but many Ionians assumed she did. Every year when the Dragonfly Festival came around, it was an awkward reminder that she might not have even assisted with the war had she not been manipulated and betrayed by Warwick.
“It’s the outcome that matters, not the intent,” Lanti said. She was referring to Soraka’s speech, but Lanti was also one of the few who understood Soraka’s secret shame.
“Yes, I suppose,” Soraka said. She might not have been part of the war at the start, but she was certainly vital to bringing about its end.
“What other notes do you have today?” Lanti asked.
“I believe the Kinkou are considering acting against somebody, but I don’t know whom,” Soraka said. “I would like to know if at all possible.”
The Kinkou was a secretive martial order devoted to maintaining balance within Ionia and across Valoran. They were not afraid to use force against any agent who might disrupt the harmony of the world. Soraka knew and was friends with their three assassins – Shen, Akali, and Kennen. They had eventually followed her to the League of Legends for their own reasons. She suspected it was to keep an eye on both the summoners (who were powerful enough to completely upend any sort of balance on Valoran should they choose to do so) and some of the more powerful or unusual champions.
While Soraka supported balance and harmony, she had philosophical objections to their use of assassination to enforce it. She had in the past named herself as an advocate for their target and attempted to sway them from their decision. She was usually unsuccessful, but it wouldn’t stop her from trying.
“I will see what I can find out, but you know you would be more likely to find out from eavesdropping on the Fields of Justice,” Lanti said.
“I know,” she said.
They began arranging Soraka’s calendar for the next month. After a few moments Soraka held up her hand and tilted her head.
“What’s wrong?” Lanti asked. “Did you just get a summons by the League?”
“No,” Soraka said. “Men on horseback have arrived at the grove.”
One of Soraka’s abilities that didn’t translate onto the fields of justice was the ability to sense what was going on for quite a distance from her. The skill was most powerful in her grove. But elsewhere in Ionia, she could see with her mind anywhere in a village where she was visiting or anywhere in the Placidium. The power was a reflection of her bond with Ionia and did not work off the islands.
“That’s unusual,” Lanti said. Horses weren’t forbidden, but they tended to disrupt the calmness of the grove. Visitors tended to stable them in the nearby village of Len and walk to the grove.
“The riders are upset, I can feel it,” Soraka said. She stood up and strode out of the gazebo, Lanti trailing behind. The two of them made their way through the northern edge of the grove to find a gathering of six men bearing a banner of the southern Novari province. They bowed as she approached.
“Something’s wrong,” Soraka said. “What is happening?”
“There may be a plague, Mistress Soraka,” one man said. “An entire village has been found dead. Another may be sick now. We have been ordered to come beseech you for aid. We beg you for your wisdom and guidance.”
“Yes, of course,” Soraka said immediately, not even thinking about it. The news that an entire village was dead – nothing like that had happened since the war.
“We must prepare,” she continued.
“Allow me to gather your tools,” Lanti said, “while you get more information from these men.” Lanti scurried back north out of the grove. Just beyond the gazebo was a small pagoda where Soraka and Lanti lived when they were staying at the grove. Soraka wasn’t normally bothered by the elements, but she was vulnerable now that she was mortal.
“Please tell me what you know,” Soraka said. “If an entire village is dead, there is no time to waste.”
Li Pan and Hanto had spent three days in the stables. They dare not stay in the houses, though there was no reason to think they were any safer from the plague here. Indeed, on the first night, while Hanto slept fitfully, Li Pan grabbed a lantern and searched around the stable for signs of the horses. He found some telltale hoofprints leading north into the hills. He followed them over a hill to find two horses collapsed on the grass. He could make out lumplike shapes in their skin. Their hair and the darkness concealed whether the lumps were lesions similar to what he had seen in Phanh, but it was obviously likely.
He told Hanto about the find the next morning. He thought about concealing the information, but decided not to. The boy wanted man’s work. Li Pan would treat him like a man, at least until they returned home and Hanto rushed back into his mother’s arms.
Assuming they returned home.
Hanto was doing very well, though. It took him the rest of the first day to cry out his fears. Now he was insistent on trying to be useful, patrolling the edge of the village in the event other travelers approached to find out what happened to Phanh. Fortunately the isolated village had only one land approach. And any arrival from sea would be visible for quite some time before landing. They would be able to shout them away.
No more pigeons had arrived. Li Pan hoped this meant Myun, the village they had sent the message to, realized they may have received a disease bomb and isolated themselves and warned other villages away. He hoped. He would feel responsible should that messenger bird get anybody else sick.
But they had problems of their own. They were running out of food and water. They had brought enough water and some carrots and dried fish strips to keep the two of them comfortable for a day. They had found Phanh’s well, but after Li Pan’s mistake with the pigeon, he realized immediately the well could also have been a way to transmit the plague. So they were trying to avoid drinking any water or eating any of the food in Phanh.
As much as they rationed their meager supplies, they would be gone by tomorrow. They may need to take the risk of drinking from Phanh’s well. Dying of thirst certainly wouldn’t be any better than dying of the plague. Probably.
Li Pan insisted the two of them retire to the shade of the stables in the afternoons. Ionia had reached late summer and it could get fairly hot in the afternoons. Marching around the city and hills would just make them thirsty. The stables offered a fairly clear view of the road.
The two of them napped, gently. Li Pan dreamed of Jandra’s face again. He knew why it was happening. His wife suffered terrible burns from a biological attack from Noxus when they initially invaded southern Ionia. She fought for three days, trying to keep the wounds from consuming her, but she failed. Li Pan dreamed of her beautiful, simple face – no powder on her cheeks, no wig to hide her graying hair – almost every night of the occupation. It had only been the last few years that he didn’t dream of her. There was no message or story of the dream. Just her sitting there in the light, watching Li Pan fish in the Qon, the small river running through Kien-Su. Obviously seeing this carnage and thinking about the war, brought memories of her back.
He had resisted the urge to try to talk to her in these dreams. Somehow trying to speak with her disrupted the dream and woke him up. Instead he simply fished, listening to the sound of the crickets, watching the dragonflies hunt mosquitoes and water skaters. He would turn to look at her now and then, and she would smile at him but say nothing. He wondered if maybe dreams were glimpses of the afterlife, as more than one Ionian philosopher had theorized.
He heard a different sound now while fishing, off in the distance. A light rumbling sound. He could feel the vibration under his feet. Were they – hooves?
He brushed off sleep to find Hanto shaking him by the shoulder. He quickly sat up.
“People are here,” Hanto said. “We have to warn them away!” Li Pan nodded and the two of them rushed out of the stables to see a team of horses and riders off in the distance.
“DON’T COME ANY CLOSER!” Li Pan yelled to them, waving his hands over his head in warning. “THERE IS DANGER HERE!”
“Look!” Hanto shouted. “She’s with them!”
The blue skin was hard to miss, but Li Pan was so intent on keeping them back he didn’t notice her. Soraka rode bareback in the side-saddle position on a small horse. She had no stirrups, due to having hooves of her own, but she didn’t seem to need them.
The horses stopped a good distance from them, but close enough so that they could talk. The riders began to dismount.
“Mom!” Hanto yelled. She had ridden with one of the Ionian guards. Li Pan could make out the fear in her face. Hanto made to run to her but Li Pan put a firm hand on his shoulder. Hanto looked up at him, but nodded in understanding.
“So you got our message,” Li Pan called to them.
“You must be Li Pan?” Soraka asked, bowing briefly. He bowed in return. “Yes, I got your message and we came as fast as we can.”
“The bird,” he said. “Was the bird we sent diseased? We weren’t thinking. We just wanted to get a message out to warn others. We didn’t realize it could be infected, too, until after we sent it.”
“Yes,” Soraka said as she began to walk toward them. “The mayor of Myun realized the possibility and isolated the bird and merchant. We stopped there first or we would have been here yesterday. Everybody is Myun is fine. The bird is not infected.”
“Thank the stars,” Li Pan said.
“Mistress, are you sure it’s safe to approach us?” Li Pan asked as Soraka grew closer.
“I am immune to all illnesses and disease,” Soraka said. “It’s a gift that I wish I could share, but sadly I can only heal, not prevent.”
She stood in front of them now, smiling gently. She looked down at Hanto.
“Your mother is very worried about you,” Soraka said.
“I had to make sure nobody else came and put themselves in danger,” Hanto said. “It was my duty.” Soraka beamed at him.
“You have done an amazing job,” Soraka said.
“Yes, he has,” Li Pan agreed. Hanto would be changed forever by this experience. He could only hope Hanto would grow stronger from the scars, not weaker, as some did.
“I’m going to cast a spell on you now,” Soraka said. “It’s to determine whether there’s any illness or disease in you.” She closed her eyes, chanted and gestured. Li Pan and Hanto began to emit a bright green light.
“Wow,” Hanto said and stared at his hand. After about ten seconds, she ended the spell. The light faded.
“Neither of you show any signs of any plague,” she said.
“We’re clean?” Hanto asked.
“Yes,” Soraka said. She took a step to the left and gestured to Hanto’s mother, still standing by the horses, clutching at her neck in worry.
“MOM!” Hanto yelled and ran down the dirt road. She caught him in a massive hug. He was too big for her to lift anymore, so she knelt down to him and squeezed as hard as she could. They were both crying.
“I can show you to some of the bodies,” Li Pan said, looking up to Soraka. She was surprisingly tall, no doubt due to her unusual legs. “I have been checking on them over the past couple of days and none of them show signs of rotting. Did you bring water? We have not touched the well here for fear it might be an infection source.”
“You’ve clearly been thinking through what might have happened here,” Soraka said as she followed Hanto into the village.
“I think whatever happened started at the docks, so we’ll go there first,” Li Pan said. “People there were caught by surprise and fell where they were. The rest we found in their homes.”
“What was your role in the war?” Soraka asked. “Did you lead warriors?”
“I was just a cook,” Li Pan said. “My son-in-law was a leader, but he was killed.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” Soraka said.
“It’s not your fault.”
Soraka slowed her walk slightly as Li Pan led the way. After Warwick betrayed her so terribly, she had focused her empathic skills on helping her grasp when she was being lied to by humans. Li Pan had just lied to her when he said his son-in-law’s death wasn’t her fault. He believed in his heart that it was. His all-business demeanor was disguising an unpleasant truth: Li Pan didn’t like Soraka very much.
Soraka shivered to herself as she approached the bodies at the docks.
“You can see why we immediately feared an attack,” Li Pan said. “Too many memories of the war. Hanto was the one who raised the idea of a sickness. It didn’t even occur to me.”
“Yes, I understand,” Soraka said as she folded her arms. It reminded her of the massacre that prompted her dragonfly speech years ago.
She approached the corpse of a young woman lying on the dirt road with her legs somehow tangled in the simple wooden stairs leading up to the docks, which were slightly elevated.
“She looks as though she fell while running away from the docks,” Soraka said.
“Yes, I noticed that. I figured this is where it started, whatever it was.”
Soraka closed her eyes and began to chant. Look, she thought to herself. A command. She could see the woman again, though her eyes stayed closed. She had no life auras, not even the trembling, weak ones of those at death’s door. She was definitely dead, not dormant or under the effects of any sort of stasis magic.
Diseases and plagues were alive. Scientists and physicians on Valoran were coming to grasp this knowledge now. Soraka had always known it. She changed her chant subtly. She could see the auras of diseases and plagues, dark and throbbing within its host. But there was nothing. She watched carefully and quietly for several minutes to make sure she was correct. She would not want to tell the others they were in no danger and be wrong. After a few minutes, she ended her chant and opened her eyes.
“If a disease or plague caused her death, it died with her,” she said. “She is not infectious. But I don’t know how she died yet or how it spread in the first place. I will want to check all the other victims before I declare it safe for the others to join our investigation.”
“But how could that be? Those wounds on them. I’ve only seen boils like that from diseases or plagues or biological assaults during the war.”
“There are a few possibilities,” she said. “Some plagues can only be transmitted by the living. Or it could have been poison, either consumed or a gas. Or it could be magic. The fact that their bodies have this strange smell and haven’t begun to rot make me wonder. It’s definitely something I haven’t experienced before. I will need to examine these poor victims a lot longer to determine what’s going on, but I want to make sure the village is safe first.”
Soraka spent the rest of the afternoon being led by Li Pan to all the bodies. Her aura analysis was the same each time. Definitely completely dead. Nothing transmittable or alive on any of the corpses. The direct danger was over, but the mystery would take time to solve.
She noted the dead birds and horses. It appeared that everything alive in the village died over one quick period. They even found a few dead insects and a dead rat in some hay.
She and Li Pan returned to the group waiting restlessly by the stables.
“You are all safe from any possible infection,” Soraka said. “Hanto, that means you can return home with your mother.”
Without thinking, Hanto rushed up to her and gave her a hug. After a moment, he remembered himself and blushed. He took two steps back quickly and apologized.
“I’m terribly sorry, Mistress,” Hanto said. “That was very rude and ungracious.” Soraka laughed.
“Do not apologize for your affections,” Soraka said. “Joy is one infection I refuse to fight.”
“I am studying carving wood and bamboo,” he said. “I will carve you a dragonfly as a gift!” He bowed deeply to her. She bowed back.
“You are kind and thoughtful,” Soraka said. “I insist that you and your family visit me in person at my grove to give it to me someday.” The boy beamed.
“Li Pan, I would ask a favor of you if you’re willing,” Soraka said.
“A favor of me?”
“I know it’s an imposition and unpleasant, but would you stay here with us to provide some assistance? You obviously knew this village and I do not. You may be able to help me understand better what might have happened here.”
There was a moment of hesitation. Probably nobody noticed it but Soraka. It was just a moment. He doesn’t want to stay, she thought. But not because he was afraid. Because of me.
“Of course, Mistress,” Li Pan said, bowing. “I knew many of these people. I will do what I can for Ionia, as always.”
Soraka smiled at him.
“Thank you so much, kind elder,” Soraka said.
“Just please don’t call me an elder, Mistress” Li Pan said. “I am merely a cook.”
Soraka nodded. “As you wish.”
Soraka felt a little guilty for lying. She probably didn’t need Li Pan’s help to figure out what happened. But she wanted to spend more time with him to find out why he was upset with her. It was a thread she needed to untangle. She couldn’t help it. She was used to the awe of Ionian citizens, the haughty distaste of the Noxians or Warwick’s rage-filled obsession. Stumbling across an unfamiliar Ionian who secretly disliked her was a mystery she intended to solve.
His laboratory was exactly what everybody said it should be. It was full of cauldrons and glass tubes and bubbling elixirs and hanging cages. It smelled of a dozen different chemicals, and spending more than five minutes inside likely reduced a visitor’s expected life span by a year.
Singed preferred his concoctions to catch people by surprise, not his personality. The twisted chemist was exactly the madman everybody thought him to be. It was easier that way. His clients knew what to expect. It cut down on pointless chatter and speculation and let him focus on his work. Everything about his burned, toxic body said, “I’m an insane genius who cares more about creating fascinating concoctions that do horrible things to people than anything else on all of Valoran. Would you like me to make something for you? Do you have a lot of money? Then tell me what you want and go away until I contact you.”
He sat at a lab table covered with equipment. Only a small amount of it was for actual use. The rest was for show. The clients sort of expected it. No chemist needed five miles of tubing. No good one anyway. He had a dropper full of a greenish liquid and carefully dripped it into a dish. He watched it for a few moments through a thick magnifying lens.
“Getting closer, I think,” he said. “We must figure out how to keep you from killing your host so quickly.”
He heard the creak of a door opening and noticed the rectangle of light and bestial silhouette cast on the far wall.
“Welcome back,” Singed said, not taking his eye off the work.
“The smell here,” Warwick growled as he lumbered in holding a large crate in one massive arm. “I can’t hunt properly for days after I visit.”
“And who asked for a predator’s sense of smell?” Singed asked. “I don’t recall it being me.”
“Yeah, well you burned out your nasal passages years ago.”
Singed simply shrugged.
“Got another set of test subjects,” Warwick said. “They’re harder to find than you’d think. People kill ‘em as soon as they see ‘em. Had to head off deep into the woods to find a good nest.”
“Any good hunting along the way?”
“Are you asking me to incriminate myself?” He then barked some laughter. He set the large crate on the floor next to the lab table. Singed could hear the buzzing inside.
“You hear anything yet from the first test?” Warwick asked.
“Not yet,” Singed said. “But I haven’t been called to the Fields of Justice since we launched our experiment. If either of us get summoned, keep an eye out for Ionian champions.”
“You know I always do.”
“Don’t assume it will be Soraka yet,” Singed said. “She’ll get involved, of course. But those senses of yours do no good if your obsession blinds you.”
“It’s not an obsession if I actually do need her,” Warwick growled.
“Fair enough,” Singed said. “We must be patient though. We must make sure we are holding all the cards by the time the figure out what game we’re playing. Otherwise you’ll never get what you want.”
“This waiting is torment,” Warwick complained. “I may lose my mind long before the beast inside takes it over.” Singed said nothing.
“And she knows it. She acts all serene and wise but you know she’s getting off on watching me devolve. And then when I get her on the Fields of Justice … she could give us all lessons in sadism.”
“What are you talking about, Warwick? Every time you find her on the fields you hunt her down and kill her?”
“Yes and that makes it worse!” He howled. “I taste her blood. I claw her apart with my bare hands. I get my hands on her heart. I howl as I swallow it … the final piece of the formula. Right there, to make me the perfect hunter. I feel it in my stomach. I feel my mind clearing. Everything coming into focus. The beast under control … and then the summoners ruin it! They turn time back and bring her back. I can actually feel her heart evaporate inside me. It’s torment!”
“I warned you of the risks,” Singed said.
“I know,” Warwick said. “It’s still worth it. But it will be better when it’s all over.”
“Give us time. We’ll see how this next test goes.”
“When do we pick the next target?” Warwick asked.
“After we hear how Ionia is responding to Phanh,” Singed said.
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