The morning was young and the sun gently stretched pink and blue rays across the ragged edges of the Argent Mountains. The sky was dotted with just the right amount of fluffy, glowing clouds, not enough to obstruct the light, but not too few to leave the horizon feeling barren.
Ezreal would have appreciated the beauty of the scene, had he been a completely different person. The person he was, a very grumpy and tired young explorer that had only barely scraped together the motivation to get out of bed at assfuck o'clock and begin the considerable hike to the peak, had little regard for the way the morning dew shimmered like diamonds, or how the fog pooled like a milky lake in the valley below.
At first he'd used his gauntlet to leap as far as he could every few minutes, a futile attempt to save himself some soreness the next day. But as the terrain became more and more treacherous the higher he climbed, he had to conserve his energy, use his magic to avoid boulders blocking his path and cross deep gashes in the face of the mountain.
He was still sluggish, despite the brisk morning air.
Only when he didn't quite mind his step and suddenly found himself in a certainly fatal free fall down one such crack, from which he only barely saved himself with the half-diminished charge of his gauntlet, did the adrenaline fully shake him awake.
The breathless string of profanities he uttered, after the first paralyzing shock of near-death had passed, were a jarring echo over the serene scenery.
Having gotten that out of his system, Ezreal slapped his face with both hands (the gloved left stung a lot more) and tried to shake his head free of the remaining panic.
"Too close, that was way too close", he murmured to himself, as he tended to do. He'd picked up the habit as a child and no real desire to shake it even now. Exploring felt a lot less boring and lonely when you were the narrator in your own adventure, though an unwanted side effect was that he didn't really have a filter when he was in company. It didn't bother him most of the time, as all his thoughts tended to be amazingly intelligent and charming, but his uncle was ever too eager to point it out to him when he did say something that might not exactly have been the textbook definition of appropriate in casual conversation.
His heartbeat slowly steadied and he risked one last sour glance down the narrow canyon that had almost served as his final resting place. What a very unfitting end it would have been. If, and that was a big IF, he ever died, it would be appropriately heroic, not smashed to a pancake down there with the rocks and bugs and ... shiny silvery lines on the ground?
With a squint, Ezreal squatted down to get a better look. The floor, he internally corrected himself with a small gasp. Under a layer of pebbles and dust, symmetrical groves separated perfect stone tiles, barely visible under sand and pebbles. The silver seemed to be some kind of decorative inlay framing the path. Excitement pounded in his ears, as he got back up to his feet, scanning the walls of the ragged notch for a good climbing spot.
A rope was attached at the top in a hurry (probably pretty reckless) and he lowered himself down so fast his palms were hot and tender from the friction. The sound of his boots landing on marble echoed in the absolutely gigantic hall that stretched before him. Plain white columns loomed over him with royal dignity; suits of armor, unfamiliar in style, flanked them dutifully. Though the tapestries on the walls hadn't stood up as well to the gnawing teeth of time and were pale and patchy, vague shapes and symbols of worship were still recognizable. At the very back of the room he could make out a small set of stairs leading up to some sort of bare table, behind it, a huge, decorated portal. His instincts told him to go investigate, so he followed their call, mouth still agape as he walked.
He felt like he was seven years old on the morning of his birthday again. It was absolutely insane how ... intact this whole place was. He'd seen some ancient Demacian "artifacts" and dig sites and frankly, he couldn't have told them apart from common rubble. All half-decomposed wooden bowls and foundations of modest barns that disintegrated within years of being unearthed. Definitely nothing to sing home about or to put on his mantle. But this, this was like it'd been completely untouched, all of it's former glory dimly glowing through a thin layer of dust. A huge, awestruck grin was plastered on his face the whole long walk through the room. The ceiling was high, higher than in the modern Demacian throne or court rooms, so high, that the mountain seemed almost hollow inside. Particles that had been in their place for millennia were disturbed by his footsteps and reflected in the narrow slit of light coming through the crack from above.
"This must have only opened recently ...", he mused as he eyed the split in the mountain, through which the rising sun was now clearly visible. These parts were sure as hell no tourist hotspot, but some lone sheep herders or hermits surely passed it from time to time. Someone would've seen it, discovered it and told the whole world about it.
But they didn't. Ezreal had been here first.
An immense sense of self satisfaction spread through his whole body and put a noticeable spring in his step.
In fact, he felt so full of himself for being the first to make this history-altering discovery, that he didn't even notice, that this wasn't the case at all, until the evidence literally tapped him on the shoulder. His first instinct upon being unexpectedly touched in a place he was certain was devoid of any other human life, was, of course, to let out a very manly (!) scream and blindly shoot a magical projectile behind himself.
Looking back, this hadn't been one of his brightest moments, with all of the magic-being-banned- and potentially-killing-some-innocent-person-business, but he was in questionable luck. In a flash of deep blue, the intruder effortlessly blocked the bullet and took a polite step back, as if Ezreal was some kind of animal he hadn't meant to frighten. As if he hadn't almost blown his brains out ...
The stranger was tall, he had maybe five or six inches on him, and was cloaked in an array of sapphire blue sparkles and glows, emitted by huge, beautiful gems floating around him. Unusual, to see a magic-user so open with his gift in Demacia, though he might have thought he'd be alone out here, like Ezreal had himself. His face was ... conventionally handsome, with a strong jaw and kind, knowing eyes, framed by an insane amount of dark hair that swayed gently, even in the absence of a breeze. He sure had ... a presence. And by presence, he definitely meant pecs. This guy was positively ripped. A bit too ripped actually. What girl liked these gigantic hulking types anyways? Ezreal much preferred his slender, but also definitely super toned and perfectly muscular sexy body.
And though this man emitted a strange kind of calm, his silhouette subconsciously reminded the Piltovan of Jayce, which added to the sour taste building up in his mouth.
"Greetings, friend." The stranger was the first to break the silence between them. His voice had an ethereal echo to it, that didn't originate from the marble walls.
"I'm not your friend", he shot back in an instant. His gauntlet was half-raised at his side already and he tensed up more and more, as the initial shock blew over. No way, no way in HELL was this guy seriously here before him.
"Who are you and what do you want from me?"
The man hesitated for a second, as if he was actually thinking about it. Which well-intended person had to think about their own damn name?
"Some call me The Protector. And what I want depends entirely on what you want", he finally said. Totally not suspicious.
"The Protector? Did your mom give you that name or are you some kind of complicated, magical ancient-temple-protection-mechanism?" The latter would certainly explain a lot and more importantly, would mean that this find was still his to claim. He reached out a hand to his shoulder, genuinely expecting (and hoping) for it to glide right through him like a ghost, but alas, it did not. Now he'd just touched this random dude's arm. Great.
He felt even more idiotic as he remembered, that said stranger had actually touched him just seconds earlier and was really fighting the urge to slap a hand over his own face in frustration and embarrassment.
The Protector smirked. "My mother called me Taric, actually, and I protect this place like I protect any other thing or soul that needs it. Might I ask the name your mother gave you, friend?"
Ezreal tensed up even more at the mention of his mother and replied without thinking: "J-jarro Lightfeather." Maybe using his well known Demacian alias had been a bad idea, seeing as this chap had clearly witnessed his magic, but something something hindsight. Also, again, he really didn't think that one mage would betray another in this land, though he wasn't even sure if this Taric wasn't something different entirely. Something was just so ... off about him, in a way that he couldn't place. Not the suspicious demon-in-disguise-kind, but something new and strange that he'd never seen before.
In any case, he wasn't gonna let this incident drive him off the very promising course he'd set for himself. "I'm kind of suuuper famous around here, so if you'd be so kind as to take your shiny stones elsewhere and let me do my business, that'd be fantastic."
Taric's mouth barely tightened at that and he gracefully corrected him: "Gems. Though I'm afraid I can't leave you to your own devices down here, Jarro. As I said, it is my duty to protect this place."
Ezreal's head went hot with affront, as if what Taric was very un-subtly accusing him of were anything but correct. "What do you mean, protect? I am a perfectly respectable guy with only the best of intentions, who just discovered this huge, unprecedented ruin of an ancient civilization! I have a college degree in archaeology, I'm the last person you need to protect this from!"
The ever present smile on Taric's face turned more and more glassen as he spoke. It was evident, he saw through him like one of his polished crystals. Ezreal swallowed audibly, holding his piercing gaze.
"Well, Jarro, if you say you are not here to take something not rightfully yours, you surely won't mind my company. You have nothing to fear, after all."
Of course, this ruined his whole day. Because he didn't have it in him to incriminate himself by telling the muscular guardian that Yes, He Did In Fact Mind being babysat while making one of his greatest archaeological discoveries to date. It was just his luck, that the big hall led into a smaller chamber, completely flush with offerings stacked on a gigantic altar. Already burning candlelight illuminated treasures of immeasurable worth and rarity and all Ezreal could do was examine them with shaky hands and put them back in their place under the Protector's watchful eye; practically fuming while taking notes in his logbook, when all he wanted to do was bring these tokens home and study them for long hours, feeling the engravings and pearls inside precious metals. And use them to brag to everyone who could bear to listen. A lot.
In all his rage it didn't even occur to him that either Taric had lit those candles before they'd met, or they'd never gone out at all.
He did consider fighting for his right to keep what he'd found, but a nervous glance at the gigantic mace-y hammer-y thing in Taric's hand and he decided, that physical escalation was a brutish thing and far beneath the honor of Jarro Lightfeather. He was a master of the mind and psychological warfare, and so a plan was concocted: He would annoy the crap out of this self-righteous bastard until he'd leave him alone and/or come back tomorrow to loot the comically convenient gigantic treasure.
Only problem: the self-righteous bastard turned out to be extremely patient.
First came an old classic. Namely, badly singing the most annoying song he knew, pretending it was just part of his workflow while he was flipping through his notes. This went on for some time, so long, in fact, that the obnoxious melody was starting to annoy himself. A glance at the other mage's face from his peripheral vision revealed nothing but mild amusement.
Alright, a small setback, but he wouldn't be here, were he easily discouraged.
Plan B was what he termed the "Chewing with an open mouth"-strategy, which involved constantly doing a ton of tiny, barely noticeable things, like loudly licking his fingers each time before he turned a page, erratically flicking his pencil against the pages, audibly grinding his teeth, chewing on his nails, so on and so forth. Most people completely lost their cool after maybe ten minutes of this treatment, but of course, Taric only inquired about his well being when he kept fake-coughing in three second intervals. Not a damn trace of aggression in his voice, only friendly concern.
His last resort were an onslaught of wildly invasive personal questions, but at this point his energy was drained and he wasn't even surprised when he received genuine replies to some of them (He'd been to Mount Targon apparently, which was the only fact that really stuck with Ezreal after the exchange), and polite and patient rejection for the most part.
So, he had no choice to concede for now. Stiff vertebrae cracked defiantly after he'd spent so much time bent over the altar, half-examining the array of objects and his unwanted companion was really quick to get the hint. Maybe his strategies had worked better than assumed after all.
"Shall we take our leave?", he asked, pushing himself off the wall he'd been resting against.
"Yepp, I'm aaaaall done here. With the archaeology and ... stuff." He bent his neck for a bit until it he was rewarded with a deeply satisfying crack. "Nothing more for me to see."
He let Taric take the lead back into the great hall and surrendered a long groan, as he saw his rope dangling from the sky. He could not put in words how much he was dreading the climb back up after this fantastical disaster.
Despite his immense subtlety, Taric noticed his dismay and smirked. "If you want to, we could just take the main exit."
Ezreal watched on with great interest, as Taric led him to a rather innocuous door at the far side of the hall. It didn't look much like a door at all, in fact, without a handle or keyhole or visible hinges. Only the faint lines separating it from the surrounding stone and a marked silver plate at it's center spoke of it's significance. He held his weapon up to the plate and the young explorer was blinded by a dazzling light. Before he could even comprehend what had happened, the door was opened and he begrudgingly stepped through. Would have been nice to see how Taric opened the passage and save himself the descent into the mountain's gap tomorrow, but it was only a small price to pay.
The pair walked in silence through a much more modest tunnel, which might even be mistaken for a mine shaft and, if his impeccable sense of direction didn't betray him, led south to the opposite face of the mountain through which he entered. It was a long trek and Taric's heavy bejeweled armor clanked softly as he walked; a mix of dull, deep metallic sounds and the high pitched melodic jangle of his gems. It started to grind on his already frayed nerves and he kept shooting him extremely nasty looks every few minutes. Eventually, he couldn't help himself and snapped: "Do you have to carry around all that ... junk?", sharply gesticulating to the offending minerals.
Taric's expression morphed again, though this time his smile was exasperated, but patient, almost like Ezreal was some dumb kid that said inconsiderate things because it didn't grasp the intricacies of the word yet. The nerve of this guy ... This was definitely not the reaction he'd been shooting for.
"I have to carry them like I have to carry my limbs and soul: I could function without them if I needed to, but I am incomplete in their absence." He glanced over just in time to see Ezreal theatrically roll his eyes without shame and chuckled softly. "Also, I find gems to be simply, truly outrageous", he added with a wink that was gently mocking at best and something entirely different at worst. Not that Ezreal saw it, with his eyes now sternly fixed on the path ahead and outright refusing to take part in this interaction any longer. His attempt to get a rise out of the man had failed miserably and he was very obviously pissed at his resilience. Judging from his smooth skin he seemed barely older than him (If he was human at all, on which the jury was still out), yet the way he reflected his verbal jabs was almost condescending in a way that made his skin crawl with anger.
It probably wouldn't seem so offensive to a neutral observer, the small voice of reason nagged from the back of his head, but that's where his mind hit a blockage, namely, that to continue this train of thought, he'd have to admit a fault of his own, which went against every single one of his basic principles. And so they went on, until they emerged from the bowels of the earth and Ezreal said his brief and very final farewell, making his intention to never cross Taric's path again blatantly obvious.
Maybe that was what jinxed it in the end, maybe he'd been to obvious and had tipped the Protector off, maybe he'd been doomed to meet him again from the very start. In any case, as he heaped his aching body out of the tavern room and up the same path he took the day before, then down into the cold hall, Taric was already waiting for him.
It was so ... so infuriating how he just stood there with unshakable, knowing patience, not lounging, not tense, simply waiting.
Ezreal felt the weight of the huge leather bag he'd strapped to his shoulders for maximum loot-transportation-efficiency and decided, he might as well drop the act. Not that it'd been a very convincing one in the first place, the act had probably been in the process of falling ever since they'd first laid eyes on each other the day before.
"You've got to be kidding me, man", Ezreal said, too exhausted to even sound angry. "Don't you have some ... I dunno, trapped baby deer or damsels in distress to protect? You know, living things that actually benefit from all this super tacky gem magic stuff? You should really tone it down on that front by the way, friendly advice."
And because it was literally impossible to get a rise out of this guy, all he did was smile and lean idly on his weapon. "It seems this site is in more immediate need of my aid than any hypothetical damsels, my friend."
"Oh my god, will you stop calling me that?!", he barked, already moving past his obstructor towards the adjacent chamber. Taric let him, but followed in suit.
"What do you intend to do with these offerings, once you've stolen them, Jarro?", he asked. His tone was innocently inquisitive.
"It's not technically stealing once it's a ruin. Trust me, I know my way around the law on this stuff." The explorer's hands danced nervously over the treasure. He wasn't under any illusion that Taric would just let him fill up his bag and waltz out of here, so he'd have to choose wisely, grab something and make a run for it. That, he was an expert at. Until he'd made his choice, conversation seemed to stall things well enough.
"And what I'm gonna do with them is frankly none of your business, Protector. They're mine, fair and square."
Taric quirked his eyebrow at that. "Are they now? As I see it, they are a gift from the people of this temple to the deities they worshiped. The law tends to overlook that not all possession is of a tangible nature."
Ezreal snorted at that and swiftly grabbed an excessively decorated chalice, sparkling from all angles with diamonds and platinum. "Oh yeaahhhh, you're right, whatever would the ancient gods do without their bedazzled cup?"
And with a golden, blinding spark of magic to Taric's face, he bolted. It wasn't a lethal attack or anything, but hopefully uncomfortable enough to buy himself some time and get the hell out of here.
In practice, the attack apparently hadn't come all that surprising to the taller man, who shielded himself with ease and grabbed the back of Ezreal's collar like he was holding some feral kitten. The sudden impact on his windpipe provoked a choked yelp from Ezreal, who ran on pure instinct and extended his gauntlet for a quick dash out of the constricting grip. In a flash, he was on his feet and running like hell again, headed for the rope he'd used for his descent.
Adrenaline made his heart pound thrice as fast and his face split into an ecstatic grin as he got closer, closer, it was in an arm's reach now ...
And just as his hand closed around the rope, he froze. Not out of his own volition of course. In panic, he tried to do anything: climb, move, cast a spell, but his body would not abide. Bitter resignation staled his anger, as Taric stepped into view, the symmetrical markings on his forearm glowing eerily. He put as much venom into his gaze as he could muster.
His body internally revolted as Taric's fingers gently pried the cup from his iron grip. He tested his magic again, but the spell came out as nothing but a faint spark.
"Easy now. I would never harm you, friend. You should be able to move freely again in just a few moments."
He didn't wait for a reaction, because Ezreal was physically unable to, and examined the chalice with a deep appreciation in his eyes.
"I suppose I cannot blame you entirely. It is ... exceptionally beautiful."
Of course this gigantic walking crystal wind chime would think that something more gem than metal was anything but tasteless and over the top. He had only selected it because it looked like the most valuable thing of the bunch.
He was still cradling the cup, now eyeing Ezreal again and opened his mouth as if to say something, but closed it after a second, a sad twinge tugging at his smile. "Those markings on your face, Jarro, they are expressions of arcane magic coursing through you, am I correct? You seem exceptionally receptive to it. They're almost faded completely right now, but when you cast, they respond. A truly beautiful affliction."
Ezreal's muscles were relaxing, slowly, one by one as the stun faded and so he could actually crease his brows in irritation at those words. Of course he was right, they looked extremely cool and epic and he'd spent a considerable amount of time in front of the mirror, posing, casting aimlessly to see the bright cerulean illuminate his features. But no other person had said they looked beautiful before. Most didn't even mention them. It seemed that among all the hextech body modifications in Piltover and non-human creatures with who-knows-how-many weird physical quirks all over Runeterra, they were almost too normal to notice.
He flinched ever so slightly as the hard, cold surface of the diamonds was pressed to his outstretched fingertips again. "When you touch these relics, you glow all the same. I am certain, if you focus, you can feel it too. It is not destructive, quite the contrary, actually, but it is so mighty I am surprised you did not notice it yet."
He wanted to refuse, of course. He had no intention of playing along in this stupid act and finding some deeper insight into the meaning of the sacrifice, but it was kind of like being told not to think about a pink elephant: You could try not to as hard as you wanted, but that only seemed to encourage the defiant mind. And so he felt.
Once he did, he was honestly baffled and could only agree with Taric: How the hell hadn't he noticed that before? It was like a warm syrup oozing into him, soothing and familiar. His heart clenched at the sensation, overcome by the gentle power ebbing and flowing through his veins, making him feel so ... safe. He exhaled a shaky breath and tried to grab the object again, get a better feel for it, but Taric didn't really seem to trust him with that and pulled it out of his still weak fingers. As soon as the contact was broken, the magic fell out of him like someone dumped a bucket of ice cold water over his head. Anger, frustration and anxiety climbed back into his chest, but they were dulled, somehow.
Adjusting his limbs, flexing them experimentally, he slowly moved out of the uncomfortable position he was frozen in, though one hand remained clenched around the rope, anchoring him.
"Do you understand now?"
Ezreal didn't say a word and looked at some spot over the other man's shoulder, jaw vaguely tense. Taric knew he did, but he explained anyways.
"This shrine is a bastion of protection, blessed by the gods. The people in this valley rarely fall ill; their crops are never rotten and the war barely scrapes past their homes. It's a thing of true beauty. I fear that, if someone were to disturb it, suffering would be the inevitable consequence", he spoke, with a soft fondness, as if the magic were an old friend and not some abstract concept beyond anybody's comprehension.
"You say that a lot", Ezreal finally grumbled, without really thinking about it, possibly just to change the topic.
"Say what a lot?"
"Beauty. Kind of takes away from the impact when you call everything beautiful, don't cha think?"
The Protector grinned widely and flipped some loose strands of hair over his shoulder. "There is beauty in all things, dear friend. I simply choose to point it out."