The air is thick with the scent of the seas; salt and sand and the mold growing beneath the barnacles suckled to the wood ships at dock. The cries of gulls resonate in the ears of any passerby who happened to be up at this hour, mixing with the smell of the Guardian’s Sea to create the most authentic taste of Bilgewater a stranger could possibly find.
Illaoi, of course, is no stranger. The docks are now her home, where she sits between the ocean lapping at the wood beneath her and the temple, faintly reflecting the moonlight. Not too long ago had she decided she wanted to set up residency here, ready to preach to the cove of criminals the way of Nagakabouros. Though none had specifically come to seek her aid, she was not deterred; after all, sometimes one just needed to find people to teach rather than wait for people to come to her.
A whispering fills her ears, a language few know and even fewer understand. The voice of Nagakabouros is with her again — destiny awaits. Illaoi stands, and follows her instincts down the walk and onto the thick sand of the dirty beach. She continues to trudge forward, eyes and ears piqued to keep a watch out for whatever Nagakabouros had directed her to find. The landscape is dark and the night is quiet, save for the distant chortling of pirates in the nearest pub. This is not what She is calling Illaoi to. So she continues on this path, like a freight train with no brakes, as the whispering gets louder in her head. Her grip on the Eye of God tightens as the hissing of the Kraken grows, until finally it stops. Illaoi halts, as though snared, and peers around the dark setting. She can’t see anything — nothing is visible in the dim of twilight. Desperate to find her God’s word, she lifts the Eye of God to illuminate her surroundings.
A flinch catches out of her periphery, and she whirls around.
A boy — dark, lanky, hair done in thick braids — sits against the wall of a dilapidated brick house (an old style for Bilgewater, Illaoi ponders quickly. Most have not been built this way in many decades) with what looks to be a small purse in his arms. His eyes are wild, bright, and an alien shade of blue. Illaoi does not hesitate as she walks over to him. He tenses in response. She stops, if only to keep from scaring him, and chuckles at his defense.
“What have you got there?” She asks, her voice booming and echoing off the old surroundings.
He glances between her and the bag, and then back to her. His eyes are like that of a cornered viper’s, cold and ready to strike if he has to run.
The fool, Illaoi can clearly overpower him in any fight.
“What’s it to you, lady?” He spits, clutching the bag closer to his body.
“You stole that, did you not?”
Those viper eyes widen and give Illaoi the only answer she needs. She laughs again, shouldering the Eye of God.
“My child, do not hide your desires. I am not going to turn you in, rather I will congratulate you on your pursuits.”
Those snakelike irises stare at the priestess with a bright confusion. It’s a very stark change to how he appeared before, and Illaoi only continues to chortle. He’s like a small animal to her, despite being only about a decade or so younger.
“Boy,” She starts, and takes a knee to put herself at the frightened one’s eye line. At this level, she can smell the faded scent of fresh water. “The Deity of Bilgewater is one of wide acceptance. As long as one is following his desires, he is following the way of Nagakabouros.”
The boy blinks owlishly.
“Who?” He asks.
“You have never heard of Nagakabouros?” She isn’t taken aback, and rather her tone is like she’s tutoring a student. “The Bearded Lady? The Mother Below?”
With each prompting, he only shakes his head.
“We don’t really believe in the gods where I come from.” He admits, almost shamefully. It makes Illaoi raise an eyebrow. There were so few places in Runeterra that didn’t believe in a deity, those being Zaun and Piltover with their focuses on science rather than divinity. But looking at this boy — dark-skinned, hair braided, with a clothing style of dark greens, reds, and golds — she knows there is no possibility he is from there.
“Where are you from, then?”
“The Serpentine River.” The name is toxic on the boy’s tongue.
“Why do you say it so viciously?”
“...You wouldn’t want to hear it. It’s a really long story.”
“Life is short, stories are long, what difference does it make?”
Her immediate response makes the boy tilt his head, and Illaoi is reminded once again of how intelligent and sharp his eyes look.
“I mean… if you’re sure…”
“Child, I am never not sure. Go on.”
She lowers herself to the ground with a soft thud, allowing the cool grass poking through the uneven cobblestone prickle her hands. The Eye of God rests beside her, its warm gold catching the boy’s attention before he sighs and runs a hand over the purse in his hands. Before he can start, Illaoi interrupts him.
“What is your name?” She inquires.
“Tobias.” The boy replies. “Tobias Foxtrot.”
“Illaoi. Go on, Tobias.”
And he does; Tobias begins to weave a tale before Illaoi, the pain from his story evident in those crisp eyes.
He tells Illaoi, first, about his home on the river; he gets a little distracted in his nostalgia as he describes the rich foliage of the trees, the thick grass and the eerily clear water that he used to wade into and catch crawdads in. He tells her of his mother, father, sister, and grandmother, and the food his grandmother loved to cook. He stops himself as his voice cracks at the memory of his grandmother, eliciting a pang of sympathy from Illaoi.
“But, on the River, we have this… rule.” Tobias’ hands clutch the handbag now, as though the very memory of this rule is painful. “According to the code of the river spirits, any sort of violence is unlawful and unjustified.” His voice is stiff, like he’s been told to read these off of notecards. “And in the acts of violence against a man of the River or anyone else, the persecutor is banished for his crimes.”
He pauses, and looks to Illaoi as if to ask for permission to continue. A very timid child, he is. She nods at him.
“Well… the Riverfolk are peddlers, right? We— uh… They. They go to the city-states they can reach through the River and trade goods. They also host a lot of gambling events and that’s where a lot of the main income comes from. But they cheat. A lot. ‘Cos, see, we got this magic that’s basically illusions, it’s actually really cool, but they use it to make sure they get their money. And sometimes people come back angry and try to take their gold back. And a bunch of them came back at once, y’know, in a big group. I tried to help, but I couldn’t do anything to stop ‘em, so I grabbed one of their clubs and started swingin’. Dunno what else I could’ve done, but it worked. A lot of my family could have died that day.”
Tobias was fueled with a fire when he told this story; as though he desperately wanted Illaoi to believe him. And then he deflates, that fire dying down almost immediately.
“But… I broke the code.” Those lanky legs pull up closer to his chest, and like a dejected animal he looks away. “And they banished me. I had to follow the river for weeks to get here. I only stole this so I could afford to eat something.”
Illaoi feels a sense of frustration at his sudden weak will. Why would he not look her in the eye and claim that what he did was right? Why could he not see that, unlike his cowardly people, he had followed the correct path? With a snort, Illaoi shakes her head. This catches Tobias’ attention again.
“Why do you act as though you are in the wrong?” Her voice is now stern.
“B-..Because I was?”
“Hah!” Illaoi barks a laugh. “Tell me, what is wrong about defending your home and the family you love?”
“Tell me, Tobias Foxtrot. What is so wrong with wanting to keep the people you care about safe?” Illaoi persists. She is watching him with intensity, hard eyes the color of the green seas meeting the blues of a world unknown.
“...That’s not what the problem was.” Tobias grunts. Illaoi sucks her teeth. Stubborn teenager.
“The problem was that your destiny did not lie in their constraints, Tobias. The problem was not with you, but them.” She supplies. “Nagakabouros’ law is to follow your destiny, to get what you desire at any cost. In the eyes of Her, and in the eyes of Her priestess,” Illaoi directs a hand to herself. “You did the correct thing.”
Tobias is frozen by her words, as though processing them takes all of his energy. Illaoi reaches for him, her large hand finding his shoulder, and a shudder runs through him. Those eyes glow, and then they shine. Illaoi’s heart is warmed as Tobias quickly reaches up to wipe his face before the tears of relief can fall, and he clears his throat awkwardly.
“No one’s ever told me that before.” He says, trying to hide his emotions with a thick chuckle. “I never thought anyone really would.”
“It’s my duty as the priestess to spread the word and beliefs of Nagakabouros, my child.” That strong hand squeezes Tobias’ shoulder, and she feels the boy open up like a moonflower. His eyes alight, a small smile marks his face, and Illaoi has to say this is the first time he’s appeared young to her.
“Can you tell me more about Her?” He asks. “Your God, I mean. Like, are there any perimeters for those rules? Can you follow whatever you want?”
Illaoi laughs again, leaning closer to Tobias to share her mirth. Tobias’ own smile grows in her chuckle.
“In due time, Tobias Foxtrot. I have a proposition for you.” She says, voice full of warmth.
“What is it?” He replies, eagerly. Just one simple instance of validation, and Tobias has turned from a venomous and snakelike street rat to an excited child.
Illaoi stands, raising her mighty form over Tobias, casting a shadow over him and letting the moon’s glow reflect off of the God’s Eye. The hand on Tobias’ shoulder is turned, palm-up, offered for Tobias to take.
“Become a disciple of Nagakabouros.” She declares. “It is clear She has plans for you, if you have been brought here by your fate.”
Tobias’ eyes could not be wider as he stares, dumbfounded, at Illaoi.
“You- you’re asking me to-”
“Child, did you not hear? I asked you to be my disciple, my acolyte!” Illaoi cries. She gestures with her hand for him to take it, and he does — his hand is slender, long, a fair contrast to Illaoi’s large and strong ones. “I will do what your parents did not. I will teach you the ways of freedom and fulfillment through Nagakabouros.”
And those intelligent eyes glow — literally, they glow, and Illaoi must chalk it up to the magic he mentioned the Riverfolk possessing — at the proposition, and he simply faintly whispers a ‘yes’. Pleased by her recruitment, Illaoi hooks an arm around Tobias’ shoulders and pulls him to her side, her crooked smile focused out at the horizon over the Guardian’s Sea.
“Now, Tobias.” She says, breathing in that fresh sea-salt air. “Now, you can begin your life anew. First thing’s first, we will set you up with residency at the Temple. Then we can begin with your training in the ways of Nagakabouros, so that you may one day preach Her teachings as well.”
She begins a long stride in the direction of the Temple, which can be just barely seen over the wharf houses alongside the boardwalks. It is an eerie greenish gold in the night, but it beckons to her like home. Tobias is silent as he is half-dragged along by her, barely able to keep up with her pace and stride. But under her arm, his mind wanders; back to his first memories on the River, how they became special, intrinsic to his person and his life.
“Speak up, Tobias, what is it?”
“You said I can start a new life, right?”
Illaoi slows her roll, and turns a furrowed brow to the boy.
“I did that, yes.”
“Can I start all the way over?” He asks, sounding feeble in his question. “Like… new name, new me, new family?”
“Of course. I would like you to consider me and the rest of those working in the temple your family, but remaking yourself is your journey alone. Start with a name.”
He pauses, and Illaoi continues to walk — slower, this time. He thinks for a long time as they stroll down the beach, and Tobias reels in his mind. What could he call himself? Something new, something… symbolic of who he has become and who he will be, but also who he won’t let himself turn into. He worries his lip.
“I think I have one.” He chirps, remembering a turn of phrase Illaoi had reminded him of. “It’s a little silly, but-”
“Do not invalidate your desires, child. Tell me of this name, and I will give you my opinion, but I will not tell you not to choose it.”
“Twisted Fate.” The name feels right, even coming off of his tongue. It brings a smile to his face. And it does not go unnoticed in Illaoi’s eyes.
“It suits you, I believe. Defying your prescribed destiny to follow your own path… Poetic.” She hums, and picks up the pace once again.
Twisted Fate almost has to run to keep up with her, which is daunting. He’s not used to having to run alongside people, since the mud of the Serpentine River was so sticky it was only safer to walk. But as he’s jogging, he reminds himself to leave the River behind, as it has left him. The salty wind blows his braids back and fill his lungs with the sweet scent of the ocean. He always hated the smell of fresh water, anyway. The temple shimmers, shines in the moonlight and the very sight of it fills the boy with glee. A laugh floats out of him, though breathless from the running and his terrible lung capacity. Illaoi joins him in the laughter, and he glances up at her and then back to the temple.