The sun held high at its apex as noon tucked away the blue shadows of morning. Slivers of daylight traced the contours of Aria’s outstretched arms as they reached with bequeathing palms, the ancient Goddess Aria, bringer of Spring and Life. Her warm visage exuded a feeling of welcome beyond words as her fluttering robe flowed like rapids around her bent knees. Her stillness had endured for centuries or more, an ethereal statue much too elegant for a sculptor’s chisel.
Without prejudice, the appearance of the goddess reflected the broad spectrum of races that her worshipers represented. The orcosas, a benign faction of the orcs, insisted upon her leathered skin, broad shoulders and toothy smile. The various elven tribes marveled at the elegance of her teardrop ears. The tall, snake-skinned albinos known as the pontocks witnessed their own red-eyed miracle. Her physical appearance was truly in the eye of the beholder, but the essence of what she represented remained the same across all the beings of the great Gaia.
The timeless magic of the Western Temple floated the large statue of Aria above a wide, round dais encircled by a flight of three shallow steps. Her stone-quiet gaze peered across the grassy hills as they stretched outward towards the distant woodland, with beaten roads occasionally weaving between and around patches of trees. Stone medians flanked the temple’s manicured fields and rounded towards a series of ribbed columns serving as the only barricade within a temple otherwise free of walls, accessible to all who found themselves moved to pay their respects.
Pilgrims from distant lands prayed, danced and left offerings as the goddess cast airy shadows like blots of watercolor upon her worshipers. The noble families of all races brought attendants with them, often with roaming, curious eyes. What appeared to be a young servant woman happened to pass a glance towards the silent figure near the rear of the temple, standing as still as the rising columns around him. Their eyes tangled, and the caretaker was quick to rip his gaze away before the exchange escalated further.
Charles’ auburn gaze glowed with satisfaction upon the marble goddess, now scrubbed clean of moss and stains, with one hand on his hip and the other leaning against his upright rake. He had been up before dawn in anticipation of the approaching holy holiday, tending to his day’s tasks before the visitors arrived en masse. Absent from the stone skin of the Goddess were the colorful, wispy weeds that grew like vines and resembled small peacock feathers. Vibrant little treasures, they were, with a pulse of magic’s essence, perhaps bestowed upon them by Aria herself. Charles tucked one of the feathers away into his pant pocket, a trivial gesture to unwitting eyes…
He had lived upon the temple’s premises for years, tasked and trusted with maintaining the holy site but mostly invisible to those who would visit it. Powerful sorcerers came to offer their tributes and subsequently departed without so much a word to the quiet observer with short jet black hair and beige-colored overalls. He was, after all, a mute without the blessing of magic in any of its countless forms. Arrogant eyes might have viewed his life as a waste, but menial labor was plentiful and often reserved for mutes in search of their life’s purpose. All in all, he was dismissed by most pairs of eyes that settled upon him, and he liked it that way.
The children from various races frequently played together as their parents payed their devout respects. They practiced basic elemental spells with sporadic shrieks of delight, and occasionally interacted with Charles as they scuttled throughout the holy ground. Some stared silently, others asked silly questions. He mostly entertained their interactions with polite solemnity at the cost of distracting him from the inevitable troublemakers.
Indeed, with his attention diverted, he yelped in pain as his rake’s handle scorched his palm while distant pranksters pointed, laughed and fled. Charles allowed himself a moment to narrow his eyes and shake his head… it wasn’t the first incident, and it wouldn’t be the last. With a sigh, the groundsman shook the sharp sting of heat from his hand and claimed his rake once more from the grass where it was dropped.
Charles retired to his modest cabin shortly after dusk, which resided about a half-mile from the temple he maintained, near the woodland’s edge. He had access to a short list of luxuries, including a bed, stove and washtub, and a few dips into his well prepared his bath and supplied water for cooking. A traveling ice mage has blessed his freezer for a substantial price, but now he could keep stores of meat through the long summer months. After a meal of baked venison strips and rice, he lit the evening candles before donning his robe, and from afar his cabin windows would glow like a firedrake’s eyes.
He knelt upon his haunches and began to lift the thatched rug in the small living area of his cabin, leaning it against a wall once it had been rolled tight. A basement door could now be seen, no longer hidden away from prying eyes. Once opened, a short staircase was discernible through a blanket of shadow, and Charles descended into what might have originally been intended to serve as a small wine cellar… though its purpose now certainly did not involve anything recreational.
A wall torch was lit, revealing a dummy mannequin in a nearby corner not unlike a scarecrow’s torso. Shelves of jars and other containers were also seen jutting from each wall, offering a selection of translucent liquids, dried herbs and granulated powders. Situated in the middle of the cellar was a wooden table with vials and beakers, a small burner plate, and instruments for grinding and mixing. A copy of the forbidden text The Obsolescence of Magic was opened to an anatomical illustration of a robed sorceress and her various magical chakras.
On the far end of the table could have been the most damning article. A pamphlet with the insignia of the eastern mute resistance was peeking from its rectangular envelope, handed to him by a blind mute on a street corner begging for money. His rare business excursion to the city of Balthas had supplied him with sobering insight, and new heights of determination.
After a sweeping glance of his handiwork, Charles seemed to immediately pick up where he left off in his laboratory. He pulled the feathery weed plucked earlier in the day from his pocket and placed it upon his table. A powdery concoction from his prior night’s experimentations had proved itself a promising lead.
Placing the weed upon a thin bed of the powder, its vibrant hues immediately dulled alongside withering tendrils, before pulsing back to its original state. Charles could sense as well as see the magic being neutralized, if only temporarily, but its essence remained resolute and overcame its aggressor.
There’s something here… Charles thought with conviction. Something potent.
Several hours passed with mixing and stirring, testing and observing. It seemed his progress had plateaued, frustrating him to the point of a punch upon his watchful mannequin, until he was reminded of a rare find he purchased from an herbal shop in Balthas, the secreted oil of the eschew plant. He added a few drops to his original formula, spread it thin with a knife and settled the weed upon it once more.
This time the weed’s reaction was alarmingly conclusive. It actually shriveled to a crisp, graying to the point of visual finality. Charles locked his eyes upon it, expecting an eventual rebound, but none would come.
Gods… Charles swallowed hard upon the sight after several minutes has passed, his thoughts heavy and swirling.
A large batch was made with his remaining ingredients and hidden away in a glass container. He would set aside a small amount to place within a leather pouch, which he pocketed for later use.
“Tomorrow,” Charles said aloud to himself before climbing the wooden planks back to his cabin to retire for the evening.
The sun eventually rose, as it always did. Charles was already awake and finishing his rounds across the temple as visitors assembled themselves once more. Eventually and discreetly, he lost himself from the pack of eyes behind the trunk of a large yarka tree, seemingly forgotten by Aria’s flock.
The children from the prior day eventually began to roam and play, eyed carefully by Charles with brief glimpses from his hiding place. He waited until a nearby elven child experimented with a flame spell between the cup of her hands, looking upon her success with awe and satisfaction. The small leather bag was fetched from his pocket, and a small mound of his concoction was placed onto the palm of his hand. A measured breath then preceded a deep exhale of the spore-like powder towards the unsuspecting girl. The substance seemed to dissolve into a barely discernible cloud, carried by faint winds towards its target.
The child’s flame began to flicker and wane with an obvious struggle until it finally extinguished, with only a thin trail of smoke honoring its prior existence. A look of horror lifted to the child’s face before her spell was once again attempted, chanting the sacred words carefully, but only earned a small puff of combustion upon her palms. A panicked roam of the child’s eyes yanked the caretaker back into hiding, and he would only hear the child screaming and running to find her parents.
Charles witnessed his experiment with fascination that bordered on outright horror. After the elven girl fled, there was a heavy moment of realization before his breaths began to quicken, and his sense of balance began to tilt…
A panic attack… this must be a panic attack, he repeated in his mind, and tempered his breaths with deep exhales to curb the tide of spasms that shuddered across his limbs. He then found his way back to his cabin, taking care not to be noticed, though in the corner of his eye the noble family with the curious servant woman lingered…
Charles would not be seen outside for the remainder of the day. He sat silently for hours on his bed with the pamphlet in his hand, dwelling on the ramifications of his discovery, until a knock on his cabin door accompanied the arrival of dusk.
A frenzied look rose to Charles’ face as he hurriedly tucked away the pamphlet into the pocket of his overalls. He then reached for a small dagger hidden underneath his mattress before tending to his late visitor.
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