“Wisdom is frequently a kick in the head.”
Illaoi’s powerful physique is dwarfed only by her indomitable faith. As the prophet of the Great Kraken, she uses a huge, golden idol to rip her foes’ spirits from their bodies and shatter their perception of reality. All who challenge the “Truth Bearer of Nagakabouros” soon discover Illaoi never battles alone – the god of the Serpent Isles fights by her side.
All who encounter Illaoi are struck by her presence. An intense woman, the priestess is fully committed to the experience of living. She takes what she wants, destroys what she hates, and revels in everything she loves.
However, to truly know Illaoi you must understand the religion she has devoted her life to. Nagakabouros, the deity of her faith, is usually depicted as an enormous serpent head with tentacles spiraling around it in endless motion, with no beginning and no end. Also called The Mother Serpent, The Great Kraken, or even The Bearded Lady, Nagakabouros is the Serpent Isles’ god of life, ocean storms, and motion. (The literal translation of its name is “the unending monster that drives the sea and sky.”) Central to the religion’s theology are three tenets: every spirit was born to serve the universe; desire was built into every living being by the universe; the universe only moves toward its destiny when living creatures chase their desires.
Lesser priestesses are tasked with maintaining temples, calling holy serpents, and teaching people the ways of Nagakabouros. As the religion’s Truth Bearer, Illaoi’s role is to serve the god directly by unblocking the flow of the universe. To this end, she has two sacred responsibilities.
The first duty of a Truth Bearer is to be the spearhead in the war against undeath. Having fallen outside of the normal flow of the universe, the undead are considered an abomination against Nagakabouros. While it is the responsibility of every priestess of the Kraken to protect the indigenous population from the Harrowing, a Truth Bearer directly engages its most powerful spirits and drives the Black Mist back.
Second, Illaoi is tasked with seeking out individuals of great potential and challenging them with the Test of Nagakabouros. This task is the burden Illaoi’s title reflects. With her massive, holy relic, The Eye of God, the Truth Bearer strips the subject’s spirit from their body then forces them to stand against her to prove their worth. She does this knowing those who fail will be completely annihilated, for the great Kraken has no tolerance for cowardice, doubt, or restraint. But destruction is never the goal. Survivors of the ordeal are forever changed and often find the will to pursue their true destiny.
Though Illaoi is the most powerful and respected Truth Bearer in a hundred generations, it is where she has broken the traditions of her faith that speaks the most about her. Having completed her training as a Truth Bearer, and at the height of her power, Illaoi left the golden temples of Buhru for the squalor of nearby Bilgewater.
The pirate city is the only place foreigners are permitted on the Serpent Isles, viewed as a fetid gutter by Illaoi’s people. Previous Truth Bearers ignored the city and viewed the arriving foreigners as little better than untouchables. Illaoi broke with tradition when she chose to protect residents of Bilgewater from the Harrowing, or even more controversially when she decided that some of its residents had souls worthy of the great test. Despite this, only a handful of temples have been opened in the city, and very few paylangi (islander slang for residents of mainlander descent) have ever been permitted inside. Regardless, it is Illaoi who has brought the widespread awareness of the Mother Serpent to Bilgewater, and it is her indomitable spirit that has brought her religion into favor there.
Rumors persist that Bilgewater’s most bloodthirsty and infamous pirate had his heart broken by the towering priestess. To anyone who has ever met her, this is no surprise. Illaoi’s rough manner belies subtle intelligence, strength, and a magnetic confidence.
Many seek Illaoi’s favor and welcome her to Bilgewater… yet everyone fears being tested by the Kraken’s Prophet.
“There can be no rest. We are the motion.”
—From The Twenty Wisdoms of Nagakabouros
“Truth Bearer, this is why we must retreat to Buhru. We cannot save the paylangi,” the Hierophant said. The heavy-set woman grinned, obviously pleased by the prospect of leaving Bilgewater.
“You’ve mentioned that before,” Illaoi said, walking around the stone table in the center of the room. She rolled her shoulders, loosening the muscles to fight off a yawn.
Beside the Hierophant, an elderly serpent caller stood. He wore a vestment made from ropes. Each indigo-dyed cord had been woven to curl; their varying thicknesses and faded kraken ink gave him the illusion of being draped in rough-hewn tentacles. His face was completely covered by a black tattoo depicting the endless teeth of a leviathan’s maw. Monks and serpent callers were always trying to look scary. It was an annoying habit of most men.
“The greatest beasts won’t approach Bilgewater,” the serpent caller said with a wheeze. “They stay out in the deep water, away from the stench of the Slaughter Docks. At best, a few half-starved younglings will heed our summons.”
Only the greatest children of Nagakabouros were strong enough to consume the mists and defend the city from the Harrowing. The rest of the Serpent Isles didn’t have this problem.
It was yet another reminder of the ignorance of Bilgewater’s population. The mainlanders and their descendants didn’t give time for fresh water to flow through and clean their docks. Instead, the paylangi settled permanent anchorages around every shore in the bay. It was so foolish. Many of the priesthood asserted it was proof the paylangi actually wanted to be consumed by the Black Mists.
“Crap,” Illaoi said. If she was going to stay, she would have to find a way to defend the city without serpents. She picked at the food from one of the offering bowls around her, before selecting a mango. She needed a plan, and these two fools were useless.
A loud crack interrupted her musing. A heavy, wooden door had slammed open downstairs.
Gangplank’s voice howled, the words were unintelligible, echoing around the stone walls.
“We pulled him from the water, as you commanded,” the Hierophant smiled, adjusting the jade collar of her office. “Perhaps it would have been better to let his energy return to Nagakabouros?”
“You do not judge souls.”
“Of course Truth Bearer, it is for Nagakabouros to judge,” he said, implying that Illaoi’s opinion was biased.
Illaoi walked between the two clerics, dwarfing the pair of them. Even for an islander, the Truth Bearer was tall. It had always been so. She was taller even than the largest Northman. As a girl, she had been self-conscious about it, always feeling like she was stumbling into people, but she had learned. When I move, they should know enough to get out of my way.
She lifted the Eye of God from its stand. The golden idol was larger than a wine barrel and many times the weight. Her fingers tingled against its cold metal. It had been placed next to the giant roaring fire, which illuminated the room, but the Eye of God stayed forever cool and damp to the touch. Illaoi deftly shouldered its massive weight. In a dozen years, the Truth Bearer had never been more than two strides from it.
“Hierophant, I remember my duties,” Illaoi said as she headed down the stairs. “We will not be retreating to Buhru. I will stop the Harrowing here.”
The high priestess had done little but complain since arriving from Buhru, but there was some truth in her words.
When Gangplank’s ship had exploded, Illaoi’s heart had jumped. It had been many years since they had laid together, many years since she had ended the relationship… but some feelings still lingered. She had loved him once… stupid, old bastard.
Surrounded by tall walls of interlocking stones, the courtyard to the temple was shaped like the fanged mouth of a leviathan. The entrance looked over the blue waters of the bay far below. Illaoi stomped down the stairway toward the front gate. She assumed she would have to smack Gangplank in the mouth; he was prone to arrogance and rum. But still, it would be nice to see him.
She was unprepared for the snarling creature in her temple’s entrance. She knew he had been injured, but not like this. He was limping badly and bent over from shattered ribs. He cradled what was left of his arm.
He swung a pistol around the room with his other arm, in a half-mad attempt to force the monks and priestesses to back away from him; oblivious to the fact that these were the very people who had pulled his drowned body from the bay only a few hours ago. Worse, his pistol was clearly empty and completely useless.
“Where is Illaoi?” he bellowed.
“I’m here, Gangplank,” she answered. “You look like crap.”
He fell to his knees.
“It was Miss Fortune. Had to be. Working with those two alley whores. They sank it.”
“I do not care about your warship,” she said.
“You were always telling me to move on, to head back out to sea. I needed a boat.”
“You need only a canoe for the sea.”
“This is my town!” he screamed.
The monks and priestesses surrounding Gangplank tensed at this outburst. That Gangplank was foolish enough to make such a claim while standing in a structure thousands of years older than his city, was dangerous in itself. But a paylangi shouting at the thrice-blessed Truth Bearer in her own temple? Any other man would’ve been dumped into the sea with broken knees.
“It’s my town!” he roared again. Spittle flew from his mouth in rage.
“So what are you gonna do about it?” Illaoi said.
“I, I need Okao and the other chiefs’ support. They’ll listen to you… if you ask them. If you ask them, they’ll help me.” He lowered his head in front of her.
“What are you going to do about it?” Illaoi said, raising her voice this time.
“What can I do?” he said hopelessly. “She took my ship, she took my men, she took my arm. Anything I had left… I used to get here.”
“Leave us,” Illaoi told the other priests as she walked toward the gate. She looked down on Gangplank. It had been ten years since she’d last seen him; drink and worry had taken his dashing looks.
“There is nothing for me but this town, and without your help…” his voice trailed off when he met her gaze. Illaoi kept her eyes as hard and unforgiving as the Kraken. She gave Gangplank nothing. The priestess of Nagakabouros could show no pity or sympathy, even if it tore at her chest. In despair, the old captain’s eyes darted away from hers.
“I could do that,” Illaoi said, “and with a word, the tribes and Okao’s gang would join you. But why should I?”
“Help me, damn it! You owe me,” he snapped like a child.
“I owe you?” Illaoi rolled the words in her mouth.
“I keep up the rituals. I offer the sacrifices,” Gangplank snarled.
“But clearly you did not learn the lesson. Rituals? Sacrifices? You speak of things for weak men and their weak gods. My god demands action,” Illaoi said.
“I suffered for this town! Bled for it. It is mine by right!”
Illaoi knew what she had to do. She knew it before Gangplank had spoken. She had known years before his ship had sunk.
Gangplank had strayed. For too long, he had festered in the hatred and self-pity his father had beaten into him. Illaoi had ignored her duty. She had ignored it because she had loved him, once, and because she had led him down this path when she left him. He had been content as a killer, a corsair, a true pirate, and never interested in his father’s title of Reaver King.
He had only set anchor in his bloody quest to become the lord of Bilgewater after they had parted ways.
Illaoi felt a dampness in her eyes. His time had passed. He had been unable to move forward. To advance. To evolve. And now? Now he would not survive the Test of Nagakabouros. But he needed to be tested. He was here to be tested.
Illaoi looked at the old pirate before her. Could I send him away? Trust that he still has some sliver of strength or ambition that might see him through? If I send him away, he might live, at least…
That was not the way of Nagakabouros. That was not the role of a Truth Bearer. This was not the place for doubts or second-guessing. If she trusted her god, she must trust her instincts. If she felt he had to be tested, then it was her god’s will. And what fool would choose a man over a god?
Gripping the Eye of God’s handle tightly, Illaoi lowered the heavy gold icon from her shoulder. A familiar lightness replaced it, yet somehow she could still feel its weight there.
“Please,” Gangplank begged. “Show me some kindness, at least.”
“I will show you the truth,” Illaoi said, steeling her will.
She stomp-kicked Gangplank, her heel smashing into his nose with a crunch. He flew backward like a drunkard, blood pouring down his lip. He rolled over and looked up at her with furious eyes.
“BEHOLD!” Illaoi intoned.
She reached out with her mind and called forth the energy of the Mother Serpent as she swung the giant idol forward. A glowing mist vomited from the icon’s mouth and swirls of blue-green energy formed around the Mother Serpent’s face, solidifying into ghostly tentacles. Touched by gold, these tendrils were as beautiful as the sunrise over water, and as horrifying as the darkest undersea abomination. More tentacles grew from the icon, replicating around the room as if born from some unknowable mathematics. Exponentially they grew larger, and somehow each one’s growth seemed to hold all the promise and horror of the world.
“No!” Gangplank screamed. But the whirlwind ignored his cries as the storm of tentacles took him.
“Face Nagakabouros!” she yelled. “Prove yourself!” The tentacles grasped at Gangplank, then dived into his chest. He shuddered as ghostly images of his past lives shook around him.
He screamed as his soul was ripped from his body. His doppelganger stood unmoving before Illaoi. The spirit of Gangplank smoldered an almost blinding blue, its body crackling and flickering through his previous lives.
The mass of tentacles attacked the wounded captain. Gangplank rolled and stumbled to his feet, dodging what he could. But for each one that missed, more and more appeared. Reality twisted and churned around him. The swarm of tentacles crashed against him, pushing him down, pulling him further and further from his soul—toward oblivion.
Illaoi wanted to look away. More than anything, she wanted to turn her eyes. It is my duty to witness his passing. He was a great man, but he has failed. The universe demands—
Gangplank rose. Slowly, inexorably, and unrelentingly he forced his broken body to stand. He ripped himself from the mass of tentacles and advanced step by painstaking step, roaring through the agony. Bloody and exhausted, he finally stood in front of Illaoi. His eyes bulged with hate and pain, but full of purpose. With his final ounce of strength, he walked into the glowing visage of his spirit.
“I will be king.”
The wind fell still. The tentacles ruptured in bursts of light. Nagakabouros was satisfied.
“You are in motion,” Illaoi smiled.
Gangplank stood inches from his former love—glaring at her. His back arched and his chest swelled with the sweet air of resolve—he was the proud captain once more.
Gangplank turned and walked away from her, no less injured or limping, but his stride now held its familiar boldness.
“Next time I ask for help, just say no,” Gangplank growled.
“Do something about that arm,” Illaoi said.
“Was nice to see you,” he said as he walked out of the temple and down the long steps toward the water below.
“Stupid old bastard,” she grinned.
As the monks and hierophant returned to the antechamber, Illaoi remembered there were a thousand things she needed to do. A thousand little burdens she needed to carry. The Truth Bearer would have to meet with Sarah Fortune. Illaoi suspected Nagakabouros would soon need to test the bounty hunter.
“Tell Okao and the chiefs to support Gangplank,” Illaoi said to the hierophant. “Help him retake the city.”
“The city is in chaos, many want his head. He won’t survive the night,” the hierophant grumbled, looking at the injured captain struggling down the steps.
“He is still the right man for the job,” Illaoi said as she hefted the Eye of God onto her shoulder.
We can never be certain if we’re doing the right thing, or how things will happen, or when we will die. But the universe gives us our desires, and our instincts. So we must trust them.
She began walking up the steps from the courtyard to the inner temple, the Truth Bearer’s idol on her shoulder. It was a heavy burden—but Illaoi didn’t mind it.
She didn’t mind at all.