I travelled a great distance to reach the temple of Ilmater, that great, alabaster citadel amongst the lushly green pastures, wooded knolls, and tilled farmland that surrounded the forgotten town of Lichen. It was a veritable paradise should you be an artist, poet, druid, romantic, or devout of Chauntea. I was the foremost of these, but, in all honesty, I did not come to this swelling heartland of beauty for its splendor, but rather for the people who dwelled within.
My name is Pintok Gibsgobble, an adept and, if I might say, quite prestigious bard: connoisseur of tales, artist of languages, and narrator of lives. I have travelled to villages and cities beyond count, to lands long-forgotten, and across terrain nary a foot has travelled. After three ten-days' rough hike over poorly-maintained roads and winding woodland paths, I had at last arrived at this fascinating place. After such anticipation, I was quite excited to begin my task of documenting one particular historical debacle I had heard rumor of.
I had gotten the lead from a boisterously inebriated man who told me of Lichen between heavy swigs from his stein. Apparently, there had been a plague some thirty years prior, and he claimed to be one of the few survivors. Of course, plagues happen all too frequently, but what particularly interested me is a certain scandal he claimed surrounded the plague itself. As he was a mere child at the time, being one of those short-lived humans, he could not give many concrete details. He did, however, manage to refer me to the high priest of the Ilmatari temple, which still stood like a pale headstone over the town's carcass.
As I neared the great temple to my left, alongside the old, overgrown road, I could see the shell of the town of Lichen off to the right. A few buildings still stood, but most had collapsed from decades of neglect. Only a handful of people still lived near Lichen, and they were limited to farmers who mostly kept to themselves. There, amongst those simple people with their simple lifestyles, was the high priest of Ilmater, Ronald Stalls.
I had done some digging and found that he kept well-nigh to himself these days, assisting the farmers in every way he could, but primarily choosing exile from company. Occasionally an Ilmatari acolyte would be sent to partake of his great wisdom, but he was largely left on his own. I was anxious to find out why he would go to such extreme ends; what scandal could possibly have warranted punishment this severe, especially self-inflicted punishment? Another, smaller thought nagged in my mind like a pesky insect trailing a weary adventurer throughout his travels. Would he tell me?
At last, I was on a by-road, nearing the temple itself. Lichen slowly vanished into the green behind me as the stone structure became ever more ominously looming. I noted with a keen eye that vines and ivy had begun to climb up the structure as though it were some mountain to be reclaimed in the name of nature. Most of the windows were missing their glass, and the sigh of the wind through the tall notches made an eerie, whistling groan, like a mad musician blowing vainly into a malformed instrument. The ornately-carved wooden doors hung loosely on their hinges, but yielded easily enough as I cautiously peeped inside.
In direct contrast with the outside, the interior of the temple looked quite ready to host a sermon to an audience of a quarter thousand. The pews, though somewhat rotted, were standing in neat rows, the floors and walls were as clean as a fresh snowfall, and a lectern stood before the absent congregation with a heavy tome open upon it. Candelabrums stood proudly along the temple's supporting pillars, with cold candles looking onto the room like a choir waiting to sing. The howling wind through the empty windows gave the room a ghastly tone, as though all life had been plucked from the room, except, of course, for my own nervously trembling form.
I slowly plodded past the empty rows and up towards the podium. A door on either side led off into separate wings, one for housing the nonexistent clergy and one for healing and bedding the ill and injured. I tried the one to my right on a whim and found it to be locked. Stooping, I could just peer through the rusty keyhole and into the darkness beyond. I could make out some abandoned mats and several curtained doorways by the light that seeped into the room from under the door. The door to the left yielded easily to my hand, and its hinges groaned tiredly as it swung open.
Either side of the hallway was lined with empty doorways, some still bearing evidence that heavy doors had once stood within them. A chilly wind sighed along the corridor, causing each doorway to give a long, aggravated moan. Some faint light streamed in through the windows of the leftmost rooms, but the right ones were filled with an eerie, inky darkness; all except for the last room to the right at the end of the hall. The warm light of a candle danced there, enticing me to move closer. I slowly approached, avoiding the various rubbish that filled the walkway, my breath catching nervously in my throat.
After an immeasurable number of still, tense seconds had past, I finally found myself looking into a small room filled with lit candles, stacks of old tomes, a half-eaten meal of bread, cheese, and fruits, and a recently occupied bedroll, but no priest. A moment after the room's emptiness dawned upon me, I heard the abrasive rustle of heavy cloth behind me and a cold, bony hand wrapped over my dry lips. A deep, rough voice hissed near my ear in an intense tone.
"Speak swiftly and speak true, gnome, why have you invaded my abode?" His hand loosened just enough to allow me to speak, though it took me a few moments to compose myself enough to actually do so.
"I—I am here t-t-t—" The strong old man gave me a brisk shake, which assisted quite nicely in dislodging my tongue from the roof of my mouth. "Ahem, I am Pintok Gibsgobble, and I am here to inquire concerning the events surrounding the Lichen scandal." I could feel his grip tighten for a moment, and I feared that he would throttle me, but he at last stepped back and removed his hands from my person. I spun quickly and took a step back, expecting to see the most horrid of figures with the most bloodthirsty of eyes.
Instead, my gaze landed upon an old and broken man with soft, sorrowful blue eyes, the tattoo of a bloody teardrop hanging directly below the many wrinkles. His back was bent as under years of weighs on his body, and greater weights on his mind. He wore simple, gray robes and a skullcap of the same shade, both crisscrossed with crimson designs. The holy symbol of Ilmater, a silver disk with the image of two pale hands bound by a red cord, dangled from his scrawny neck. He folded his hands before his breast, and I was drawn to how wrinkled and bony they were, like the flesh was loosely draped over a skeleton.
"That 'scandal' is a tale which has replayed itself in my mind every day for decades. I do not wish to bring it to mind more than I must," he muttered. With that finality, he brushed by me, into the room. He folded his thin legs beneath himself and sat on the sleeping mat, facing the wall. Feeling I had been dismissed, I felt an urge to argue, but his sloping, pitiful posture encouraged me to fulfill his wish. I turned with a heavy heart to journey the long distance back, some anger welling in my breast at the vain trip I had endured. However, just as I took my first step, I heard him speak.
"My precious Lucy arrived in Lichen many years ago. Her smooth, lovely face shone like a sunbeam in a darkened valley, her glittering almond eyes a chocolate brown that reflected the sweetness of her soul. She had shoulder-length raven-black hair that always glistened in the light, and carried the scent of cinnamon as though she had been baking. Her voice was gentle, like the soft caress of her long fingers, and in every way, she was cloaked with beauty and innocence.
"She had come from lands far to the east, claiming to be a travelling Ilmatari priestess, or 'blessed of Ilmater,' as she fondly referred to it. At the time, Lichen was a bustling town due to a silver vein that had been discovered in a nearby mine. More residents meant more injuries, and I gratefully accepted a gifted priestess to bolster my insufficient clergy ranks. Many members of the clergy, mostly women stricken with jealousy, would complain about her provocative dress, or how she never wore a skullcap, or how her holy symbol would draw eyes to the voluptuous curves of her youthful bosom, but I brushed them all aside with disdain. Who were we to judge one who was so clearly blessed by Ilmater? Her skill to heal was unsurpassed, and what she could not mend with poultice and bandages, she would mend with soft words and gentle caresses.
"She was irresistible, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Her tone was always bright, kind, and optimistic, her faith was always strong, and her beauty was a delight to behold. How could I not become hopelessly infatuated with her? Mere weeks after her arrival, the two of us were happily wed, and I was, to my guilt, given the greatest delights I had ever experienced. From what I could surmise, she had grown up in an abusive family, and this caused her to be ever submissive, confident though she was. Like a child, she would blush at the smallest provocation, lower her eyes at the slightest reprimand, and always devoted herself fully to my pleasure, in all ways. It was wonderful, and the wholeheartedness by which she took to her devotions as a wife inspired me to be a better husband and a better servant of Ilmater."
The man fell finally silent, and spoke no more. After some minutes of anxious waiting, I inquired why he had paused. His only response was that he would not bring the tale to mind more than he must. I began following him around, listening closely as he would occasionally utter more of his tale in the middle of a prayer, while reading a book, or during his various daily activities. I assisted him in his various duties as best I could to earn my upkeep and my chance to hear and record the tale I had come to learn. It was after a ten-day or so that his stories died off, and I began to wonder why he did not speak more. Having learned not to inquire into his mysterious ways, I remained silent and continued to trail him throughout that day, and the next, and the next. Finally, on the morning of the fourth day, he unexpectedly greeted me by his presence at the side of my bedroll. His eyes were sorrowful but determined, and his tone was firm.
"You came here seeking a certain tale, and so far I have been reluctant to recall it. Now is the time to relate it, one final time." I quickly scrambled upright and anxiously, with a quill in one hand and my note book the other, waited for the words he would speak. "Please," he implored, "do not write it down in my presence. Once I have spoken it, I do not wish for it to be recorded until I have passed." I was disappointed, but I have a keen memory, so I didn't doubt my ability to recall his words in the future. I nodded in agreement and lowered my quill. No sooner had it touched the ground than the old high priest of Ilmater spoke.
"About a year after she arrived, Lucy gave birth to my first and only son, whom we named Dwyn. He had both his mother's beauty and her uncanny ability to bring me joy. I could see a warm glow in her compassionate eyes every time they fell upon him. She would frequently bring him into Lichen, where all whom Lucy had helped would gather around and bless the child. As he grew old enough to walk and talk, he was quickly given more playmates than any other child could ever hope to have. Every family was anxious to have their children mingle with the son of the high priest and his kind and beautiful wife.
"It was not long after Dwyn's third birthday that he fell ill with a terrible illness. He was forced to remain in his bed at all hours of the day, fighting for every wheezing breath. Lucy was…" With a dry, rasping cough, the old priest cleared the words caught in his throat. "Imagine a great beacon of light that has led a weary adventurer being suddenly snuffed out. Beautiful, kind Lucy was shattered with terror for her child. She remained up throughout all hours of the night in order to be at his side at his slightest stirring. She always had a gift for empathy, feeling the pain of others by simply looking into their eyes. As she gazed at our dying son's face, I could see her tender heart cracking under the burdens of reality, its great pains and unfairness. I did all I could to heal the child, as did Lucy, but our efforts at last proved futile.
"Dwyn died soon after contracting the illness, his mother there, watching his face as his chest ceased its labored heaving. When she walked from the room in a dumbfounded state, I feared that I had lost not only my son, but my dear wife as well. To my surprise, however, after a day of fasting and meditation, Lucy emerged as warm and cheerful as she had always been, assuring me that Dwyn was now in a better place, dwelling amongst the gods. 'There is no pain there,' she said, 'and Dwyn won't have to suffer any longer.'"
"Soon after, other children in Lichen began to show the same symptoms of the illness that killed our dear son. The raspy breathing, the bloated face, the swollen hands, the fever, it all seemed as though Dwyn had passed along his illness to his many friends before he had himself shown any signs. The townsfolk were at first furious with us, insisting we had brought this certain death down upon their children, but their cries of anger soon turned to pleas for mercy.
"The right wing of the temple was quickly filled with sobbing, sickly children, all of whose needs Lucy felt compelled to tend to on her own. At the time, all but one of my clergy had been recalled to assist in the aftermath of a particularly bloody war elsewhere, and the one that remained I sent out on foot with an urgent plea for assistance from a priest of greater power than I. As for myself, I was busy blessing the townsfolk, trying to keep the disease from spreading to its adult populace.
"Every day I would return, exhausted from my prayers, to find another two or three children had died from the illness, but Lucy remained firm, continuously telling me that her duty was to relieve the suffering of others and that there was no more suffering in the divine planes. At last, a score of children had passed—every child in Lichen, save one. The parents of this last child insisted that he not die apart from them, in the temple, but rather in his own bed, with them there to support him through the passing. Lucy reluctantly complied with the request, and the child was given to his parents to die.
"Only he did not. After several days, his fever lifted and his breathing became easy once again."
I shook my head slowly, my heart heavy for the loss. "A truly tragic plague. One of twenty-two surviving? Most unfortunate."
The priest's cracked lips pursed. "Such is what I believed, until the children were being prepared for burial. I noticed some bruising on the neck of one, and then went back and checked the others. They all had the same bruising."
I tilted my head in puzzlement. "Could the disease have caused that?"
The old man was silent for a long moment, sorrow in his face. "No, it did not. They were caused by human hands."
After a moment, realization dawned on me. "You mean—"
"Yes. Lucy killed them all."
"But… but why ever would she do that? You spoke of her compassion, her kindness! How could she be so cruel?"
"Because she did not see it as cruelty. She saw it as relieving the children's suffering, sending them to a better place, to be with the gods where there is no more pain and illness."
"What of the one who survived?"
"He did not survive by any miracle. All of them showed the same signs as the affliction that killed Dwyn, but none of them had the same illness. They all would have survived, had the sickness been allowed to pass."
Amazed, I diverted my gaze from the priest's intense eyes and stared out an empty window, where I could see the ruins of Lichen off in the distance. "What of the town?"
"Once it was discovered, the entire town forgot Lucy's kindness. They wished to have her beheaded in the main square, but she was still my wife, my beloved, kind Lucy, no matter what she had done. Instead of allowing them to harm her, I secreted her away in the night, leading her to the main road and sending her on her way with enough provisions to reach the nearest city. I have heard nothing since."
He gazed numbly about himself. "That is why I remain here. I am responsible for what happened, and the deaths of those children are on my hands. I will remain here and fade away into obscurity, just as those children did, for what I allowed to transpire." He then rose from where he had been sitting and led me to one of the many graves he had tended in his duties—one task he refused to allow me to assist with. The etchings on the stone read, "Dwyn Stalls, child of light, may your burdens be forever lifted."
As I studied the headstone, Ronald turned his gaze along the overgrown main road, and I could faintly distinguish his whisper through the rustling of the trees. "Fare thee well, Lucy, Angel of Ilmater. May your burdens be lifted."