The hollow clopping sound of Soraka’s hooves was the only sound to be heard in this grand hallway within the Institute of War. There wasn’t another soul to be seen. The floor tiles were arranged in the shapes of familiar magical runes, but they were symbolic – they held no actual power. The walls were smooth and simple in decoration. There were pillars every few lengths, but that was it. They obviously wanted the traveler to be taken in by the pure size and length of the hallway.
She stopped for a moment on her way to a set of double-doors at the end and spared a look around. She expected a lot more people. She actually expected to be stopped. She was here uninvited. But she was greeting with a kind smile by the porters and assistants who served the powerful summoners. She told them why she was here and High Councilor Reginald Ashram’s personal majordomo swept in from seemingly nowhere and directed her down this hall. But he didn’t follow her. She was alone.
“I think they want you to feel intimidated,” Soraka said out loud as she looked up at the hall ceiling. There were no ornate chandeliers, just simple globes glowing with yellow magical energy. No distractions to interfere with what may occupy the mind along the trip.
It was working. Ionia had some impressive architecture, but nothing as daunting as the Institute of War. Ionia loved the balance between simplicity and extreme detail, not such a massive, almost sterile environment.
It had been two years since she stepped out of the grove, her home for more time than most humans could fathom. But then, her blue skin, hooves and the lengthy horn growing from her forehead marked her as something else entirely.
This trip to central Valoran was her first journey from the islands of Ionia. She was, however, no wide-eyed tourist. Up until recently she was a creature of the cosmos. She saw much, though she never left the grove. She saw rune wars. She saw the destruction to Runeterra. She saw the human struggle for domination. She saw the development of the Institute of War and their efforts to create a way to contain the conflict. And she saw Noxus coming to claim Ionia for itself.
She turned back toward the double doors and approached. A plaque over the door read “The truest opponent lies within.” She frowned for a moment. It seemed a bit … trite … to say to the people they were asking to sacrifice much in order to try to bring peace to Valoran. But then, more power didn’t necessarily bring more understanding into human nature. Often it was the exact opposite. She wondered if the summoners even realized they were being condescending.
She pushed the doors and wondered if they would even open for her. Were they laughing at her in the vestibule for coming all this way, uninvited, thinking she could be a champion? After centuries of watching Runeterra nearly tear itself apart?
But the doors opened, smoothly, quietly. Beyond was a vibrant forest. The trees and plants were not the same as her beloved grove in Ionia, but it felt familiar. It also felt completely fake. Nevertheless, she walked down the forest trail as the doors swung shut behind her. When she turned to look back they were no longer visible.
She peered up at the trees and down at the shrubs and grass. The path approached a river crossing. At the edge of a river was a modest round table like she would find in an Ionian gazebo, and a couple of chairs. In one of the chairs sat a dark-haired, middle-aged man in violet robes. He stood up as she approached, smiled briefly and bowed to her.
“Soraka,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I have made Ionian tea. The recipe is from Galrin, I believe.”
“Were you expecting me?” she asked.
“I apologize. Where are my manners? I am High Councilor Reginald Ashram. Yes, we were expecting you.”
“But I was not invited. You had invited several Ionians, but not me.”
“And they have all ignored the invitation until now,” he said as he gestured to the table. “We had determined Ionia was simply not interested and moved on. But somebody with your unique history on Valoran cannot expect to travel without us catching word of it.”
“How much do you know of me?”
“We have records that go back centuries. Several summoners have met you long before now, though you may not have known it. You’ve even saved a few of their lives, some of these journals show.”
She nodded as she sipped her tea. It was very sweet, typical of what was preferred on Galrin. Very accurate, though it would have been considered extremely rude to mention if he had served it incorrectly anyway.
“So what do you think of this forest?” He asked her, gesturing to the trees.
“It’s very beautiful,” Soraka said. “This is where the battles will take place?”
“Once enough champions and city-states have agreed to our terms, yes. You can tell that it’s not real, can’t you?”
She nodded. At one time she could have banished the illusions with a gesture, but those days of power were long gone, likely never to return.
“It’s too … perfect,” she explained. “Everything fits just so. Real forests have all sorts of flaws or quirks. A burned tree trunk from a lightning strike. A bush covered with spider webs. And it’s too still, too quiet. Are there any insects at all?”
“Insects?” He laughed.
“Yes, I’ve noticed humans tend to look down on them,” she said. “Some are even afraid of them. But I see them on Runeterra as the foundation of life. Without them, other creatures cannot thrive. In areas of high damage due to the rune wars you will see this. No insects. And therefore nothing else.”
“Yes, the magic influence of the twin nexuses on the real Summoner’s Rift has driven away the insects. There are very few birds. But that makes it all the more important that we prevent future rune wars, yes?”
“Yes. That is why I have come,” she said.
“Is it really?” Reginald asked.
“Of course,” she said, cocking her head at him in confusion.
“I should explain something to you before you consider becoming a champion,” Reginald said. “There’s more than one reason we didn’t invite you.”
“What do you mean?”
“The champions will be controlled by the summoners on the field of battle. The champions make no decisions themselves. They are essentially game pieces in this fight.”
“Yes, I understand that. I’ve already accepted that.”
“But the power of a champion is directly related to bond he or she develops with the summoner. As they fight together the champion will grow stronger. But it’s very dependent on what mental connection they can establish.” Soraka nodded at him.
“You are not a creature of this world,” he continued. “I am very curious to find out how and why you came to Valoran, but that’s for another day. What I mean is that because your mind is so different from ours, there’s a likely chance the bond you develop with the summoner is not as strong.”
“Does that mean I may not serve?”
“It means your magic, your power, whatever you’re drawing from the cosmos, it won’t be as strong,” he said. “You will be much weaker on the Fields of Justice than you would be in your grove on Ionia.”
“I see.” Soraka was already significantly weaker than she once was. When she made the fateful decision to use her power to harm others, even though the men were violent and threatening, her connections to the cosmos faded, leaving her alone and weaker. She still drew power from the stars above and the cosmos, but she was now one of the “stars below” here on Runeterra. Her magic had limits.
“I still wish to fight,” she said.
“Why?” Reginald asked. “The Ionians have rejected us and insist on being neutral even as Noxus invades.”
“I am not an Ionian,” Soraka said. “No, that’s not true. I am. But I already chose assistance over isolation once. I chose to help rather than remain silent. There was a price, and I paid it. But I’ve come to realize that sometimes doing nothing carries a high price as well.”
Reginald nodded. He sipped for a moment, saying nothing. Then as he put the teacup down, a deep howl echoed through the woods. Soraka looked around, startled. She knew immediately.
“Warwick!” she yelled as she stood up, grasping at her moonstaff. “Another trap? Another betrayal?”
“It’s a test,” Reginald said as he backed away. “All champions face a test.”
Soraka could hear Warwick’s approach, bounding through the forest, rustling the bushes and grasses to the east. He wasn’t even trying to disguise his approach. He was out for blood, for her heart. She was the man she surrendered the cosmos for and he betrayed her. For the stupidest and most selfish of reasons.
He burst out of the woods just yards away from him, a seven-foot tall blue-furred wolfman with snarling fangs and glowing eyes. He was once a human. But he tricked Soraka into abandoning her life as a child of the cosmos and then stole some of her blood to arrange this transformation. All to be better at hunting down other humans for whomever would provide him the gold. It was disgusting. And he needed Soraka’s heart to stabilize the transformation or else he would eventually lose his human thoughts and become nothing more than a beast. Soraka considered this to be an appropriate punishment, but it marked her forever as Warwick’s prey.
He leaped in her direction and she gestured, drawing on her magic to summon a rain of glittering, burning stars. They weren’t real, of course – just symbols. But they burned ferociously. Warwick howled as he was struck but continued his approach.
“The stars won’t save you here, Little Goat,” Warwick snarled at her. “I will feast.”
Soraka gestured and more stars rained down. But she understood quickly Reginald’s warning. She was barely harming him. She backed away, but he was faster. She prepared a more powerful magic to burn him severely but there was no time. He howled and hurled himself at her, knocking her to the earthen path.
“No!” She screamed in terror as he aimed his muzzle at her shoulder. She felt the sharp pain as his teeth ripped into her. She immediately called upon her healing magic, but it was too weak. She tried to struggle as his teeth and claws tore into him. The pain overwhelmed. She was going to die. She couldn’t focus to heal herself. She was once immortal. Now she was going to die because a man wanted to harness the power of the beast. The world turned fuzzy. She felt the darkness coming. That place beyond the cosmos. The one mystery she never knew. The place she could never go before. She faded into darkness and total silence.
She opened her eyes to find herself still on the ground in the forest. Warwick was nowhere to be seen. Reginald stood over here. He bent and reached an arm out to help her to her feet. The pain was gone. The wounds were gone.
“An illusion,” Soraka said as she stood up. “I should have seen through it.”
“I suspect, like many mortal mages, your focus and emotions influence your sight in a way it didn’t used to.”
“Why did you do that?” Soraka demanded. She was not prone to anger, but she loathed manipulation.
“Two reasons,” Reginald said. “One, I wanted to make sure you understood how much more restricted your magics would be on the fields of justice. Two, I need you to understand that joining the League of Legends will prompt Warwick to come looking for you.”
“I know,” she said.
“And that,” Reginald said, “Is the real reason you wish to join, is it not?”
“I want to bring peace to Ionia.”
“That’s true, but that doesn’t contradict what I just said, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“And what will you do about Warwick once he comes?”
“That part, I have not figured out,” she said.
Thanks! Funny, I wasn't really fond of Soraka's lore transforming her into essentially a space alien at first, but looking at Ionia's lore, it actually works better for me. I had always visualized Soraka as one of the earlier champions, but Ionia initially resisted getting involved with the League. The new lore gives the freedom to have her act a little differently from the rest of the Ionians.
The small fishing village of Phanh, on the rocky southern coast of Ionia, was one of the first casualties of Noxus’s invasion years ago. The residents were all slaughtered and dumped in a mass grave. The town was turned into an early logistics and strategic base for the Noxian navy. It remained under Noxian control for the entire duration of their occupation. As one last insult, when Noxus withdrew following their defeat in a pivotal League of Legends match between their city-state’s champions and Ionia’s, they burned every building in the village to the ground.
Ionia rebuilt it. The surrounding province was rocky and a bit barren, not as hospitable to livestock as the central and northern parts of the island. The fish supply was needed for food. The village would never grow beyond its small borders, though. People lived there because they were skilled at fishing, not because they truly wanted to. Nobody wants to live in a graveyard.
Every couple of days the fishing cart would carry its catch to the town of Kien-Su, a good half-day’s travel north. Merchants would buy the fish there and then transport it to other villages scattered within two days’ travel (before the fish rotted).
A week ago the cart stopped coming. There were occasional unexpected delays in deliveries. Sometimes storms made fishing too dangerous. So it was a few days before people grew concerned. Then they noticed no carrier pigeon had come with a note explaining the delay or letting them know when deliveries would resume. That was very rare. Garton, the dockmaster, was always vigilant about sending along a note to let them know of troubles.
On the seventh day, the mayor of Kien-Su decided that somebody should head to Phanh to find out what was going on. Li Pan volunteered. He was a retired cook who spent the war trying to keep the Ionian forces fed. He still occasionally prepared his famous fish stew at a local rest hall. Not having any fish, he had little to do in any event. His grandson, Hanto, also insisted on coming. He was 13 and reaching that age where he wanted to do things than men did. His mother was concerned at first – memories of the Noxus occupation would not fade here anytime soon. What if they had returned? Hanto whined and made his case – the Institute of War would not see Noxus invade Ionia again. There were rules now. Eventually she relented as long as Li Pan promised to keep Hanto safe. He agreed. It was only a half-day’s travel after all. They would spend the night in Phanh, and return the next day with news.
So on the morning of the eighth day, Li Pan and Hanto began their trip. Hanto was overly enthusiastic and vigilant. He had brought his training staff “in case there’s trouble,” he said. Li Pan humored his grandson with a gentle smile. But Li Pan had seen a lot in his life, and to ease his daughter’s worries, he packed a butcher’s hatchet and wore a scaling knife on his belt as well.
Hanto took the time away from his family to ask Li Pan an endless stream of questions about the Noxian occupation. Hanto’s mother expressly forbid discussing it in front of him in Kien-Su. He was very young when the occupation was ending and she was glad that he had no memories of the brutal way the Noxian forces treated Ionians.
“Did you kill anybody?” He asked Li Pan when they were only an hour away from Kien-Su.
“You know your mother will be upset if I tell you about the war.”
“I want to know!” he whined. “I must learn about war to be a man.”
“I cooked, Hanto. I saw very little of the war.”
“Did you ever see anybody get killed?”
“Yes,” Li Pan said after some silence.
“Wow,” Hanto said, impressed. If Li Pan were younger, he would have chided Hanto for his cavalier attitude toward murder. But Li Pan had lived enough to see this attitude from many boys his age. Ionia saw itself as a nation of civility, peace and contemplation. The many martial arts studied on the island were tools for meditation, discipline and self-defense. War is to be avoided in all cases but for Ionia’s survival. But it took time, training and experience for such an attitude to take hold. Just as Noxus had to beat its brutally competitive attitude into its children, so did Ionia have to teach theirs to seek higher goals than just mindless fighting.
“How are your studies?” Li Pan asked.
“I’ve reached the fourth pillar in Kutan Style,” Hanto said, spinning his staff around. “I bet even Wukong would be impressed!”
“How about history and philosophy?”
Hanto sighed and kicked a rock.
“Not as well. Mother is saving money to get me a tutor.”
“Ah, you must learn your history if you want to understand the war, you see? It’s a lot more complicated than flashy battles.”
“Yes, I know, Papa.”
They continued their journey, Hanto bouncing around asking more questions, though Li Pan gently steered him away from the war. He understood his daughter’s desire to protect Hanto and honored it. As the sun passed overhead and the afternoon brought some heat to bear, they reached a part of road that ran along a bluff on the coast. From there Phanh could be seen off in the distance, still about an hour’s travel away.
“Stop and look,” Li Pan said. “We can see here if there’s any danger.” Hanto scrambled over to the edge of the bluff and looked over the bay to the town.
“I don’t see anybody,” Hanto said, disappointed. “Look, all the boats are tied up. Is anybody even out fishing?”
Li Pan watched quietly and said nothing for a time. Hanto fidgeted and crawled around the rocks for a better view.
“I don’t see anybody, either,” Li Pan said eventually. He was not disappointed. He was concerned. There were no men on the docks. There were no women doing laundry. He could see the resting hall and no smoke rose from its chimney. Nobody was cooking? Something was wrong.
He dropped his pack to the ground and sorted through it. He carefully pulled out his hatchet and unwrapped it.
“Is something wrong?” Hanto asked.
“I’m hoping not,” Li Pan, trying to sound cheerful. “But it’s best to be prepared.” He thought about ordering Hanto to stay here. But they were out in the open and within view of Phanh already. If there were danger about, they may already be fully exposed to it. Better to keep Hanto with him to protect him.
“We’re going to walk carefully and quietly,” Li Pan said. “No more questions and no twirling your staff.” Hanto nodded, wide-eyed. Li Pan’s serious tone startled him. He had never seen Li Pan as anything other than the friendly grandfather who brought him molasses sweets and taught him how to clean fish.
“If I tell you to run, you run back down this road and get back to Kien-Su as quick as you can. Don’t stop, no matter how tired, okay?” He stared at Hanto until he nodded quietly. “Good. Let’s go.”
The two of them walked quietly toward the village, Hanto a few steps behind him, clutching his staff to his chest like it was a doll rather than a weapon.
Time felt like it was crawling by as they approached. Phanh had no gates or walls. The first structure a traveler on the road would see was the communal stables. When they reached it, Li Pan gestured to Hanto to stop. They stood in silence and just listened. They could hear nothing but the waves of the ocean and the hot afternoon winds rustling the trees. No chickens clucking. No gulls crying. No people talking.
Li Pan walked over to the stables, Hanto again following behind. The fish cart was sitting in the stables, empty, but the horses that drew it were gone. There were no horses in the stables at all.
An outbuilding was attached to the stables. That’s where Kienna usually spent her day. She was a kindly, though not particularly adept, groomer. The modesty of her skills didn’t really matter; it wasn’t though she had much to care for other than the hrose who drew the fish cart.
Li Pan walked over to the building. He stopped again for a moment to listen. Silence spun out. Li Pan could hear Hanto’s heavy breathing. The boy was getting nervous. Li Pan reached out and knocked on the door. The sound startled Hanto and he dropped his staff to the ground with a clatter. He picked it up quickly and stared around nervously.
“What’s going on?” he asked as quietly as he could. Li Pan shook his head “no” at him.
Li Pan reached out again and tried the handle to the door. It was not locked. He pushed inward and the door creaked open. The room was dimly lit in the afternoon sun. There was a window on the south side that cast a square of light on the floor. Kienna had a simple table she used to keep track of her business. There was an accounting book and some paper work. Various bridles and tacks and such were hanging from hooks on the walls.
Then as his vision adjusted to the room he saw her, next to the desk on the other side, lying on the floor on her stomach. Hanto noticed her seconds after Li Pan and gasped.
“Is she … ,” Hanto asked, pointing a quivering hand at her.
Li Pan made his way around the table to Kienna’s side and knelt down. He touched her shoulder. It was cold and stiff. He was careful not to react. He pulled upward on her shoulder to turn her over. Her hands were clutching her face. He gasped now himself. Her hands were covered with strange boils or welts. Horrified, he pulled a hand away from her face. Her eyes were glazed and dead. Her kindly face was frozen in a rictus of terror and fear, and covered with more of these purple blisters. He smelled not a corpse or rotting flesh but an odd medicinal scent.
Then, suddenly a scream. It was Hanto. He dropped his staff again and burst into tears, fantasies of war and heroism driven from his teen boy’s mind.
Li Pan leaped up from the floor and rushed over to the boy. He roughly pressed his hand over Hanto’s mouth, muffling his cries, and pushed him to the wall, away from the window and open door.
“You must be silent, Hanto,” he whispered into the boy’s ear. “You must. Do you understand?” The boy was close to panic. He nodded and slowly his sobs diminished into a heavy, ragged breathing.
“I must listen,” Li Pan said. Hanto nodded again. Li Pan closed his eyes to concentrate. No matter how hard he tried, he could hear nothing but Hanto’s breathing.
They could be at sea, Li Pan thought to himself. Hanto had no idea what sort of horrific chemicals and poisons Noxus deployed during their invasion. Li Pan had seen the survivors first-hand: Burns, rot, hair falling out. Some died days -- sometimes weeks -- after exposure to Noxus’s chemical weaponry, often in terrible pain. The cruelty was a strategy. They wanted Ionians to see the warrior suffer before they die to break their morale.
It didn’t sound as though anybody else was stirring in Phanh, or at least capable of responding to Hanto’s screams. Li Pan peered carefully through the doorway to make sure nobody was outside, then pulled Hanto out with him back into the warm sun. Hanto stumbled a few feet on his own, then dropped to his knees and vomited on the ground. Li Pan kneeled down next to him and rubbed his back while looking toward the ocean to see if there were any ships on the horizon they had failed to notice earlier. There was nothing out there.
“I want to go home,” Hanto whimpered as he brushed the back of his hand across his mouth.
“I know, Hanto, but we have a duty,” Li Pan said. “We volunteered to come see what happened here. We must complete our task. This is what adults do. We made a promise to our mayor.”
Hanto nodded as he stood up. He continued clutching his staff to his chest.
“We are going to search home to home to see if anybody stirs,” Li Pan said. “I’m going to ask you to stay outside as I search each house. Do not come in.” Hanto nodded again. “You will keep watch. If you see anybody, you yell for me. If you see anybody that looks dangerous, you yell and then you run. Do you understand?”
“Good. You can do this. We can do this together. I believe in you.”
The two of them walked carefully toward the village. Nothing broke the silence other than their breathing. They came to two houses on the edge of Phanh. Hanto waited as Li Pan searched. One was empty. The second had two bodies, a woman and young girl, about nine. They had the same lesions as Kienna. Li Pan smelled the same smell.
“Nobody is alive here,” Li Pan said to Hanto as he left. He did not tell Hanto about the young girl. Hanto was a smart boy, even if not particularly studious. If the whole village was gone, he would figure out that children had died soon enough.
They searched homes and shops in quiet horror for the rest of the afternoon. All were either empty or their inhabitants dead. They encountered no other souls. Li Pan counted 37 dead in his head as the two of them approached the town’s docks. That’s where the true horror waited. A dozen men and women lay dead on the dirt street and docks next to the ocean. This was the busiest part of the town, of course. Whatever happened, happened quickly.
Hanto started to cry again and Li Pan pulled him in for a comforting hug.
“I need to see if any of them are still alive, do you understand?” Li Pan asked. “So that we can help them if they are, right?” Not that he could possibly figure out how to treat these gory wounds.
He picked through the bodies, feeling like a vulture all the while. They were all dead. From all their facial expressions, they all died in great fear and pain. Several of the victims wore weapons, but he noticed that none were drawn. He looked at the direction of the village. None of the buildings were remotely damaged. They were not bombarded. There would have been signs.
“I don’t think this was an attack,” Li Pan said to Hanto.
“Could they have gotten sick?” Hanto asked. Li Pan looked down at the victims and then put a hand over his face.
This is what the war did to us, Li Pan thought to himself. Anywhere else on Valoran plague would have been the first thought. But because of the Noxian invasion we automatically assumed an attack.
Li Pan realized he had touched several of the possibly infected bodies. Then he remembered that he had touched Hanto back in the stables. He looked at the boy standing in the middle of the dirt road trying not to appear scared.
“Hanto, we are going to have to stay here for a little while,” Li Pan said.
“What?” Hanto nearly shrieked. He started to cry again. “Why? I want to go home!”
“Do you wish to see your mother sick like these people? Do you wish this upon her?”
“Of course not!”
“We have been here among this sickness.” Li Pan waited for Hanto to understand. It took a few seconds but the boy’s face slowly began to break.
“Are we going to get sick, too?” He cried out. “Are we … is this going to happen to us? Are we going to die?” He started bawling in huge choking sobs. Li Pan strode up to him and dropped to one knee to look the boy in the eye.
“Remember our lessons, Hanto,” Li Pan said calmly, cupping the boy’s face in his hand. “Duty is putting the needs of those you care about ahead of your own. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the embrace of duty in the harshest of situations. We accepted a duty. We cannot help Phanh any longer, but we can help Kien-Su.”
Eventually, Hanto began to calm down again. Li Pan smiled at him.
“We are going to the dockmaster’s office. He owned the carrier pigeons. We will send a message to Kien-Su telling them what happened and asking them to send help.”
“Who can help with this?” Hanto asked.
“Possibly Mistress Soraka,” Li Pan said.
“Would she come all the way out here just for us?”
“We shall see.”
The two went to the pigeon cages behind the dockmaster’s office. They were horrified to find the birds all dead. Like the people, the creatures were covered with monstrous boils.
“Can birds and people get the same sickness?” Hanto asked.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing, but I’m not a doctor,” Li Pan said. How would they get a message back home? He began to worry that they might have no choice but to return and risk infecting others.
The two of them made their way into the dockmaster’s building. It was empty. Li Pan had found Garton’s corpse on the docks with the others. Maybe they could take a boat along the shoreline? There was another village a couple of days to the east. They could possibly yell what happened to somebody without getting too close. No, that sounded like a terrible idea. Also, neither of them knew how to swim should something happen.
“Do you hear something?” Hanto asked. They both stopped and listened. They could hear soft purring sound.
“It’s a pigeon’s coo,” Li Pan said. “A bird is still alive somewhere.” The two of them made their way through the building. Inside Garton’s office, a carrier pigeon was nesting on an open windowsill, waiting.
“The temples grant us a boon,” Li Pan said. “A message must have arrived after this all happened.” He walked over the pigeon, which rustled as he removed the note from a small vial attached to its leg. It was a message from a merchant in another village wondering what happened to his fish delivery.
“We can send a message back with the bird and warn others and ask them to get help,” Li Pan said.
He grabbed a piece of paper from the nearby desk and the fountain pen. On a parchment he scrawled “Everybody in Phanh dead from unknown disease. DO NOT COME HERE. Send for Soraka. Tell other villages.” He fastened it to leg of the pigeon. He lifted the bird up from the window ledge and gently tossed it upward. It took wing immediately and fluttered away into the deepening sunset.
“Papa, I just thought of something,” Hanto said.
“What is it, Hanto?”
“What if that bird is sick, too?”
Li Pan stared in horror as the bird flew out of sight.
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