Howdy folks. So, over the last couple of weeks, my day job has been keeping me incredibly busy. I’m routinely working until the end of the day without being able to find any downtime to write, and by the time I get home, I pretty much just pass out. So this month things are going to be a smidge different. One of the folks on my newsletter has been incredibly kind over the last several months, and has made me a hobby of hers, spot checking my work for little grammatical errors that I’ve missed. For most of the books, this means I tweak things immediately and make a change to the file. For something like The Whispers, a very iterative storytelling experience, once it’s out in the world, I usually just leave things be (although the plan was to incorporate her edit suggestions, as well as those of my other two editors into a finalized book when the story was wrapped up). Now, with a break in the story, I thought this would be a good idea to give people the chance to catch up on the story so far, and for people who’ve been reading to see a more refined version of The Whispers.
I’ll be back and ready to go in November, assuming I can quickly put together this year’s Halloween story. For now, enjoy the first four chapters of The Whispers:
The temple’s largest bell sent a resounding note pulsing through the building. The six smaller ones that surrounded the immense bronze bell would soon play their own tunes against the stone chambers they sat within; the melody was known to all the temple’s clergy.
His eyes fluttering open, Declan stared at the ceiling of his bedchamber. Recent nights had been more restful, he knew, and he breathed out a little sigh of relief.
He could still hear the whispers, in the back of his mind, like little scratches on the other side of the stone wall beside his bed. Compared to the times in his youth when he heard them with greater clarity, they might as well have been miles away. He heard them still, but they were like grains of sand in a distant hourglass. He couldn’t identify what they were saying.
Declan was sure that in time they would be gone completely.
Any other day, he would have been ecstatic at the prospect. For far too long they had dictated every facet of his life. While the hushed tones and distant voices offered up cryptic remarks and the odd pertinent suggestions, it was the way the other members of the clergy interpreted them that kept him in place at the temple.
In time, the whispers grew distant, and in their distance, their instructions grew unclear. Without their direction, there was no sense in relying on the lad as though he heard the commands of the gods.
With a sigh pushing past his lips, Declan sat upright and swung his legs off the bed. He struck the thin mattress with the heel of his hand.
There were some things he wouldn’t miss, he mused.
The young man rose then, shaking the weariness from his body. There wasn’t much to do to prepare himself for the road ahead. His bag was packed already, for there was no more need for him to live there within the protection of the temple’s stone walls.
Declan made his way to the crude table in the opposite corner of the room, and plucked up his satchel, slinging it over his shoulder. There was no sense delaying his departure. The clerics had grown tired of him, and rumors—whispers from real people he spent time within the temple—spoke of turning his small chamber into a spare vestry once he was gone.
With a huff, he took a step back and opened the door to his room. One of the newer clerics, clad in a simple brown robe, sped by, not bothering to give the man a glance. Declan wondered if the neophyte had been listening at the door to see if the room was vacant.
Making his way into the adjoining hallway, he could hear the bustle in the nave as parishioners made their way into the building. Somewhere amidst the cacophony of voices, he identified one that he was most familiar with.
As he rounded the corner, the young fellow saw the elder leaning on the pulpit, speaking to the worshippers that crowded him. The morning service had yet to begin, but Benedictus always welcomed his congregation for guidance or prayer.
Declan hesitated there for a moment, wondering if it would be a good time to take his leave from the temple. If his old friend couldn’t see him leave, there wouldn’t be a need to have a sad farewell, after all.
His footsteps brought him down the aisle, the open doors sending a breeze into the building that was at once liberating and frightening as it danced across the lad’s skin. The sunlight shone onto the stone and as he walked out into it, it felt warmer than ever.
“Declan?” he heard the man far behind him call out. “Declan!”
While he waited there at the exit to the temple, he saw the priest push his way through the crowd, acting as though they were an afterthought. The old fellow panted as he reached the end of the path and came to stand beside the departing young man.
“You meant to simply leave without saying anything?” Benedictus asked.
Declan sighed before he built up the energy to speak. “What is there to say?” he asked. “My time here is done, and I’m being cast out into the wind. The other members of the clergy can’t even be bothered to keep me around to clean the floors or tidy up books in the library.”
The elder priest nodded, knowing how hurt the lad was by his dismissal. “You know why the other brothers of the order have been so…”
“…Insistent?” Declan interjected.
“When you were first adopted by the temple, they thought your gift was a conduit to the gods. But as the messages have grown quiet, their interpretations have become vague. More than once it seems the clergy have made ill-advised decisions based on what they thought your distant voices seem to be saying.”
“I told them that I could barely make out what the whispers say anymore,” Declan countered. “I’m not certain as to why, but the longer I stayed here at the temple, the quieter they grew.”
“Perhaps that’s a good thing,” Benedictus mused. “I remember when you first arrived here, and you would clasp your hands over your ears as though that would help. Since then, I’ve seen you grow into a fine young man who follows his own heart rather than the interpretations and suggestions of some old men with their noses buried in some dusty ancient tomes.”
“Those dusty old tomes are half the reason I’m able to understand half of the expressions you and the other brothers use from time to time,” Declan teased. He thought then of how that friendship had run its course though, and the momentary flash of amusement was stricken from his face.
“Come,” the cleric gestured. “I’ll walk you to the crossroads. There is no sense in you waiting there alone.”
The man nodded as he followed Benedictus down the path. “To be honest, I’m surprised I wasn’t already cast into the wagon. I thought he would be here already.”
“It’s not a long trip from the guild hall, certainly,” his old friend replied. “But I’m sure that there were other things that the Adventurers needed to do this morning besides prepare the wagon to come gather a poor acolyte from the temple.” He paused for a moment and turned to see that his words were not taken in jest as he had hoped. He stood straighter then and cleared his throat. “Who knows though? Perhaps as you grow accustomed to your new home, you’ll go on adventures of your own.”
Declan scoffed. “I don’t think they want the person who sweeps their pantry to go on any noble quests with them.”
“Perhaps not at first,” Benedictus conceded.
As his words were swept away by the gentle summer breeze, he passed a glance down the dirt road that passed before the temple. When the cleric narrowed his eyes, Declan knew that someone approached from further beyond.
“I think this is your ride, child.”
The departing man let his gaze fall upon the road and breathed out a subtle sigh. Before long he could hear the clopping hoofbeats of the ox that drew the wagon, and when he looked up, he could see the cart upon the horizon. A lone traveler sat in the driver’s seat; his cloak drawn up over his head.
“It’s a bit hot for a hood, isn’t it?” Declan wondered.
“The Adventurers of Eladia are known to try and keep their identity secret. Perhaps it is worth the slight discomfort.”
After several more moments, the cart pulled up to the crossroads and made a slight turn toward the temple. The driver tugged on the reins, urging the ox to stop. Though the man’s hood was drawn far over his face, both Declan and Benedictus could see the bushy auburn mustache that stretched over his upper lip and came down either side.
“This the one?” the man said.
Benedictus, caught off guard by the nonchalant conversation, looked to his departing ward with concern. “That depends on who you’re looking for.”
The driver took in a deep breath and sent a sharp sigh up between his lips, sending a few of the hairs in his mustache bristling. He tugged his hood back then, revealing his face and the bright red coif that seemed to shine like fire in the late-morning sunlight.
“I’m from the guild in Eladia,” he grumbled. “We sent word that someone was going to be picking up your lad and that someone named Erik was going to be bringing him back. Well that’s me. I’m Erik.”
The cleric looked to the young man behind him, but Declan already started forward.
“It’s okay,” the lad said.
“You’ve said your goodbyes, right?” Erik asked. Though the two men on the ground thought they detected a hint of compassion, the fellow from the Adventurers’ guild knocked his fist against the wagon behind him then. “Come on then. I don’t have all day.”
“You know you can always visit,” Benedictus said as his young ward moved along. “We’re only half a day’s ride up the road, and you are welcome any time.”
“I appreciate the offer,” Declan said.
Erik grumbled and slapped the reins to the seat and hopped from the cart then. He made his way around to the back of the wagon and pulled down the gate there. “Are you coming or not? The sooner I get you back to Eladia, the sooner I can give you the grand tour of the guild hall and be on my way to the Grey Arches to meet up with the other members of the guild.”
“I guess this is goodbye,” Declan conceded. He reached the back of the carriage then as well, and he hopped into place among the other goods that Erik had with him.
Benedictus helped him lift the gate back into place then. “It’s only goodbye for now,” he offered. “I’ll make sure to make some time to visit you in the upcoming weeks and see that you’re settling in well.”
Erik climbed back into the driver’s seat then, and snapped the reins, urging his ox forward. “Best steer clear of the road, priest,” he called out. “I don’t want to run over a man of the cloth.”
Benedictus shook his head and hurried from the road then, forced to watch it pass. He couldn’t dismiss the dejected look on his friend’s face.
As Declan drew further from the temple, he bowed his head, wondering what the future would have in store for him.
* * *
Erik pushed open the door and gave it a light tap when its momentum had it swinging back toward the jamb. “Right this way,” he said.
Declan hurried past the closing door and into the guild hall. The Adventurers of Eladia lived in quite a bit more luxury than the clergy at the temple it seemed.
Perhaps his station was improving, the lad mused.
Affording him as little time as he had thus far, Erik moved along through the building, never stopping to speak to any of the other guild members who drifted through the hall’s many rooms. The red-haired fellow pushed straight through until they reached the rear of the building, where grand windows overlooked a vast meadow.
“It’s this way to the larder,” Erik said. He moved off to a side hall, where a broad door faced them from one direction, and a set of stone steps descended into the ground below the hall.
“Shouldn’t I be stopping at my quarters first?” Declan asked. “I have my belongings to drop off.”
For the first time since the lad met the guild member, Erik halted, no longer concerned with a hasty pace. He spun about and folded his arms over his chest. “And who is to say that you’ll be worthy of your own room? Here at the guild, you earn your keep, and we need to see that you’re capable of that before we set you up with a comfortable cot and a place to rest your bones.”
“You don’t think I’m worthy of sweeping the larder?”
“The brothers at the temple didn’t think you were worth keeping for theirs,” Erik stated matter-of-factly. He proceeded down the stone steps, waving on the newest representative of the guild. Once they arrived in the cellar, Declan realized even the hidden sublevel was quite expansive. Most of it was covered in fine planks of wood, though there were rooms here and there that remained fashioned in stone (yet some of those had been carved with beautiful etchings and stylings). Erik turned to his side and pointed toward an adjacent chamber. “That’s the larder. You can drop off your things there while I give you the rest of the tour.”
The lad breathed out a sigh of relief when it seemed the man would finally offer him some compassion. He opened the sturdy door to the larder and placed his pack on the ground there. He could smell the foodstuffs that the Adventures of Eladia had amassed and considered that he would never have to worry about going hungry while he lived at the guild.
“It will take a lot of work for you to find your place here,” Erik said as the young man shut the door behind him. “But if you labor well, and you do so without much complaint, you’ll find there are a fair amount of benefits. No one comes here for the sake of a bed or a fine meal to eat though, lad. People join up with us because these lands still hold a promise of untold lore—of worlds of history that still need to be discovered. You can be an attendant to this building if that is all you seek to be in this life. But the guild leaders thought that with your own odd history, you might amount to something more.”
Declan said nothing further, but squared his jaw, nodding in the hopes that the move to this new location wouldn’t break him.
Erik proceeded on, deeper into the bowels of that place. An acrid scent took to the air, like too much history in one place that hadn’t been overturned in some time. The wooden floorboards gave way to the elaborate carved stones that went underscored by delicate lantern light. As Declan followed the man into the further chambers, he wondered if perhaps the guild hall had been built around older ruins.
“There are a great many things for you to do here,” Erik said, “and more than likely less time for you to do them all. There’s the larder, which I’d personally like you to start with. There’s the stable out beside the meadow. You’ll cook and clean and launder the garments for the other guild members. And back this way, there’s—”
He was interrupted by the slamming of a door, and the sudden appearance of one of the other members of the guild. The fair-skinned maiden spun about; a wine-colored cloak was pulled up tight over her head. Even in the soft light of the cellar, Declan could see Erik’s cheeks turning as flush red as his mustache.
“Lady Ilayeth,” the guild member said before taking a deep bow.
“Now Erik, I’ve told you many times. I’m no more a lady than you are a king. You needn’t place me on such a pedestal. I’m simply a curious archivist, scouring through ancient tomes.” She paused then, and looked over the man’s shoulder, spotting the second man in the cellar with them. “And who is this handsome young stranger?” she teased.
The stockier fellow turned about, arching his eyebrow. He pointed with his thumb. “Him? This is our newest guild member, Declan. I’m setting him up with a broom and a mop so that he can prove himself to us before he officially joins up with us.”
“Is that so?” Ilayeth asked. She stepped forward then, narrowing her eyes as she took account of the lad. “Ah yes,” she said, holding up her hand as though she were pressing it up against some unseen wall. “You may begin as an attendant here, but I sense great things in your future. In time, perhaps it will be you who is written about in ancient tomes for future generations to learn from.”
She smiled as she sensed a warm glow upon Declan’s own cheeks then. “If you’ll both excuse me, I have to take my research up into some brighter light. There is some information in this volume that may be of some assistance to Mason and the others if they’re having difficulty proceeding into the ruins.”
“Best of luck finding something of use,” Erik said. “They’re likely waiting for one of your ‘miracles’ to find them.”
“And I shall work as best I can to deliver one,” Ilayeth said. “It was nice meeting you Declan.”
Both men watched the archivist leave the hall, and they could hear her make her way up the stone steps to the rest of the building. When the newest arrival turned back to his guide, he was faced with the unhappy visage of the mustached fellow.
Erik knew that he had been noted, and he folded his arms over his chest. “Remember this one thing lad: she’s more than what she seems on the surface. Ilayeth has been here longer than most of the other adventurers, and even after all the time I’ve been here, I still haven’t uncovered all her mysteries.” He grumbled and waved his hand. “Bah. That’s neither here nor there. We must make sure you’re sticking around first before we worry about such things.
“As I was saying before we were visited by Ilayeth, the room that she came out of needs a bit of care as well. The dust and grime that can build up in there is not good for the old books, so you’ll clean that room as well.”
Declan nodded, but Erik was already on his way further into the cellar. A chill permeated the air then, as they proceeded on, and the lad paused when he saw a faint, pale blue light emanating from the next chamber. While most of the rooms were rectangular, that one, seeming to sit at the center of the guild hall, had a circular curve about it.
Though Erik moved on without hesitation, Declan couldn’t help but slow his pace. There, hanging above two pedestals as if held up by hidden strings, were two artifacts that looked impressive and storied. A longsword floated above one, while on the opposite side a staff hovered in the air. The pedestals themselves were awash in the light, and he wondered if it was the plinths or the weapons that held onto that magic.
His guide turned about, realizing that his ward did not follow him. “I see you distract easily.”
Declan refused to allow that comment to goad him into moving again. He felt drawn to both of those relics and took time to observe them in the strange light.
“These are some of the oldest items we have in the guild hall,” Erik said when he realized his words were not met with immediate action. “They predate any of us that live here—even Ilayeth. Some say they belonged to the first heroes who founded the Adventurers of Eladia, but none can say for certain. But some of the people in the guild will swear they can feel the arcane weaving through this room when they venture through it. Maybe you’re one of them.” He snorted then. “Still, you’ve got to earn your way up to a fully-fledged member. In the meantime, we have some more recent artifacts that I want to show you.”
Erik waved the young man on, and they proceeded on through the round chamber, until they reached one last large room that Declan was certain sat beneath the entrance to the guild.
“This is the Hall of Heroes,” Erik claimed. He swept out his arm, bringing his new ward’s attention to the various armor stands in the room. The room was awash with somber lantern light, but many of the hauberks and breastplates still sparkled in the darkness. “This is a place of remembrance, and it might be the best place for you to start doing work. There’s perhaps no better place for you to know what you’re going to be a part of. After all, this is the history of the guild.”
No stranger to the concept of the hereafter, Declan took time to observe those stands a little closer. In some places, a helmet sat above the armor, or a weapon rested against it. Each of them had a marble slab situated on the floor, atop the hardwood boards. Upon the closest ones, he saw the etchings of a name carved into gold plates fixed to the stone.
“The fallen, yes,” Erik said. “These are the heroes who helped Novistrus through its darkest hours. This country was a dismal place before the Adventurers of Eladia were brought together. But such a place couldn’t be without its hazards, and not everyone makes it out alive.”
They stood there in solemn silence, reflecting on the sacrifices that had been made in the name of progress and justice.
A nearby snore broke them of that deliberation, and Erik passed before Declan, peering into the far corner on the right side of the room. His heavy footfalls roused the other guild member in the room, who woke with a gasp.
“I’m up, I’m up!” the fellow said. It took him a moment to settle back into place, but by then, he was already shaken.
Declan took a few steps to the side as well, watching the stout fellow rise from the ground. Though the few strands of grey in his long brown beard proved he was a great deal older than the newest member of the guild, his head didn’t quite reach up to the young man’s collarbone.
“What’s the matter lad?” the stranger said. “Ye ain’t never seen a dwarf before?”
Hoping against hope that there wasn’t another like Erik in the guild, Declan stood straighter upon hearing that snippy comment. “There weren’t a lot of dwarves that came to our temple.”
“Ah,” the dwarf said with a nod. “You’re the new recruit then. Dirkland, was it?”
“Declan,” the lad clarified.
“Bah,” he replied, eliciting a chortle from Erik. “I liked my name for ye better.” He took a step forward then, clapping the man he knew on the arm before extending his hand to the stranger. “Me name’s Tornig. Sorry if I gave ye a fright. I come here sometimes to clear me mind.”
He spun about and returned to the corner where Erik had found him and bent down to pluck up a helmet from the ground. He returned to an upright position, an uncomfortable grunt announcing his arrival there.
When he turned back toward the other guild members, Declan noticed the similarities of the helmet the dwarf had, and the one on the nearest armor stand. Both were fashioned of heavy plate and had downturned horns fixed to their tops.
Tornig caught the observation and tapped his knuckles against the brow of the helmet. “This is me older brother,” he said. “He was an Adventurer of Eladia afore I ever had the inkling of being one. Sometimes I come down here to talk to him.”
“And he talks himself into a deep sleep,” Erik grumbled.
“Well it’s boring being the only one with anything ta say!” Tornig retorted. He shook his head before he placed the helm upon his head then. After looking at his friend and passing him a teasing scoff, he turned back to the newest recruit. “Listen lad: I’d appreciate it very much if ye took great care of this chamber. It’s been a long while since it’s seen some proper attention, and I can’t be the only one ta make sure Gulspire’s mail shines.”
Declan returned the dwarf an emphatic nod. “I’ll do my best,” he said.
“Then ye’ll do just fine.” He turned back to Erik then, and stuck out his chin at him. “Would ye walk with me for a bit? A falcon came to Yaro early this morning. Seems there’s a new task that might fall to Eladia.”
“I’m meant to bring supplies to Mason,” Erik said. “But no harm came from talking.”
“At least ye’ll respond to me,” Tornig said.
As the dwarf made his way out of the room, Erik fell into step behind him. He turned to Declan then and gave him a nod.
“Like I said, this is as good a place to start as anywhere. When I return, I expect I’ll be able to see my face in the reflection of those plaques.”
He didn’t wait to see a reaction upon the lad’s face, but left alone in the dimly lit room, all Declan could do was nod.
* * *
A glistening sheen of perspiration sat upon Declan’s brow then. He had swept the chamber until he was certain the bristles on the broom were going to fall off, and then moved his attention to more attentive matters. Starting in the corner where Tornig once rested, he set a rag to the golden plaques on the marble markers. His attempts to impress Erik seemed to be going well, because on more than one of those old nameplates, Declan could see his weary face looking back at him.
More than once, he could hear some of the other members of the guild moving around on the floor above him. The impressive door slammed into the jamb as excited adventurers moved about, hungry for their next quest. Muted voices carried enough for him to hear them, but not enough to distinguish what was being said. He wondered if anyone in the hall even knew he was there below him. How would they react if they saw him—a stranger—in that hallowed place?
He shook his head of those thoughts, putting some force into his task. The plate he worked at cleaning then, one that belonged to a fellow named Wengert Daggard, was covered in age-old filth, and it didn’t seem to be willing to catch a shine.
Pressing as hard as he could, Declan suddenly lurched forward, and had to catch himself with the heel of his hand, lest he smash his nose against the floorboards. He looked back to see why he had lost his balance, and his jaw dropped at the sight of the plaque and the stone marker. The rivet that kept the golden plate locked in place had snapped, and the tile had half fallen to the floor.
Declan sat up, horrified at his blunder. How was he meant to explain that on his first day, he had besmirched the memory of one of the heroes of the guild? He leaned forward then, hoping that he could lay the golden plate back upon the portion of the rivet that remained embedded in the marble, but it fell once more.
As he fiddled with the nameplate, loud voices rang out above him. So consumed with his mistake, Declan didn’t notice the angry, worrisome cries.
But he noticed the explosion that rocked the foundation of the building. Dust and streams of dirt fell from the ceiling when it was knocked away from the place it sat for generations. The lanterns shuddered and waved under the odd percussion, and even the armor on the stands surrounding Declan gave off a quiet rattle that sent chills running up his spine.
The lad stood up then, looking at the woodwork above him. The loud voices—screams and cries and angry shouts—were not lost to him then.
“Everyone!” he heard then. “To arms!”
Though Declan had never been in an engagement with an enemy that wanted him dead before, he felt heat coursing through him. He knew that even though he had no formal training, he could be of some use to the other adventurers, and he raced out of the chamber, hoping he could remember the way out of that labyrinthine cellar.
As he reached the strange circular room in the center of the basement, though, something strange happened. The lights emanating from the pedestals seemed to pulse, and glow brighter. The weapons hovering there seemed to spin in place, reacting to the dangers in the guild hall—though Declan considered that perhaps the blast from the ground floor had sent them rotating.
But he couldn’t blame the explosion on the sudden return of the sounds he thought he had long since heard gone quiet.
The whispers had returned.
“Take the sword. You’re stronger than you know.”
“No, Declan. The staff, and untold magic is within your grasp.”
“Why depend on the unknown and the unreliable? Cold steel will never disappoint you.”
“You have the power of the arcane flowing through you. All that’s left is to learn to channel it.”
The young man, who thought he’d dismissed the whispers forever, couldn’t ignore their advice. If danger had come to the Adventures of Eladia, he knew that it was his duty to make a stand beside them.
All that was required of him was to reach out and grab one of the ancient relics.
Chapter Two: Obeying the Call
The whispers that rattled about in the back of Declan’s head were no match for the next explosion that seemed to rock the building to its core. He lunged forward, catching his balance upon the nearest of the two pedestals. When he shook his head of the confusion, and he managed to look up, it was the spinning sword that was before him.
Sure enough, whispers urged him to take that long, deadly blade, eager as he set his sights upon the sword’s hilt.
Then, like a cascading wave, the other voices overpowered the few murmurs that urged him toward the melee weapon.
“The staff, Declan!” an urgent whisper called.
“Whatever is happening above, a single sword will not be enough.”
“But the aether flows through you,” another voice clarified.
“You hold the key,” the loudest voice among them said then. “And with that staff, you can find the door and open it.”
Declan squared his jaw then, righting himself before turning about to stare at the spinning arcane weapon. He could sense the power emanating from it, as though the voices may have been calling from within the staff. As he drew closer to it, a faint hum seemed to fill the room, drowning out the whispers—or adding to them, he thought.
It felt as though he were looking at it for the first time. Comprised of some ancient metal, the staff looked sturdy despite its antiquity. A pair of lifted ridges sat close to its center, indicating the proper handhold. Further up the length of it, a decorated circle sat fixed at its head.
Reaching out toward it, Declan felt an even stronger pull, as though the staff reached out to him in turn. Before he could even wrap his fingers around the speckled metal, the faint blue light erupted into a burst of cobalt and cerulean, overwhelming his senses and momentarily blinding him.
When his vision returned, Declan was outside of that round chamber, with the staff held high and in his hand. He looked to his side, recognizing the larder that Erik had shown him to.
Without understanding how, he had passed beyond several other rooms that separated the basement foyer from the relic chamber. He couldn’t discern whether some magic had taken hold of him, or if, in his disorientation, he had stumbled through the labyrinthine cellar. It he had stumbled about, how much time had passed, he wondered.
As his vision settled upon the stairs to the rest of the guild hall, he knew that the question could be considered later.
“Go forth, Declan,” the whispers said, almost in unison.
It was the first time that he had ever heard those voices in absolute agreement, rather than chattering over one another. With that powerful utterance, it sounded more like an order than a suggestion, and Declan thought better than to hesitate.
Gripping the staff, feeling its energy, he strode forth toward the stairs.
It had gone quiet on the floor above, the terse voices fading. Declan wondered if he would ascend to witness a horrible sight and nothing more.
He shook his head, knowing that his focus had to be on what was before him, rather than what the future might hold. Declan looked at the stone steps, thankful that they weren’t made from the same creaky wood as the basement at the temple. If there were any villains roaming about the guild hall, stealth, along with his new staff, would be the only advantages he had.
Taking in a deep breath, Declan climbed the stairs until he was just below the landing, out of sight of the side hall and the room that overlooked the meadow. The pair of broad doors across from him almost seemed to call to him, offering him some semblance of safety. If he could just push past them, he could race off into the meadow, away from whatever dangers had fallen upon the Adventurers’ guild.
He forced out the breath he’d taken earlier, hearing the fretful undulation as it left through his parted lips.
After another step, he turned on his heel and thrust out the staff, attempting to prove he was ready for anything. Looking into the room, its grand windows filling the chamber with sunlight, he knew he had proven himself wrong. The radiance fell upon the injured and the dead in an odd spectacle, illuminated dust particles dancing in the air, lingering from the earlier explosions.
Declan’s legs buckled, but he leaned against the dividing wall for balance. The near silence was somehow deafening, and the lack of any further guidance from the whispers left him feeling more alone than ever.
Despite his trepidation, he crept forward, until he could gaze down the long hall that Erik once led him down.
The front door of the guild hall was ajar, swaying in the soft breeze. Declan couldn’t see any sign of the aggressors there and wondered whether that was a good thing or not.
Staring into the sunlight, he could barely make out the figure sprawled across the floor into the hallway. As his eyes adjusted, Declan could see the horned helmet that lay on its side beside the fallen dwarf. Though he was far from the smallfolk, he could see that Tornig lay unmoving.
“If you move again, I’ll rip out your entrails,” Declan heard, then.
He went rigid, and hid beside the hallway, further weighing his options. As he hid there, he noticed that even without the sunlight glaring through the open door, the room seemed to grow brighter.
He looked up at the staff and noticed that the circle fixed atop it glowed with the faint blue light he recalled from the relic chamber in the basement. Declan’s eyes grew wide as he reached for the headpiece, and he offered up his own whisper then, pleading for the light to be extinguished.
As he lowered the staff, peering through the circular fixture, his focus shifted to the far side of the building. He made eye contact with the strange being there, a hulking brute in crude armor that was covered from head to toe in matted fur. A canine snout let Declan know that it was not human—nor elf, or dwarf, or any other kind of being he’d seen or heard of. He remembered back to stories Benedictus told him when he was younger. Could it have been a gnoll, he wondered?
He was not left to consider that for long, for his unexpected foe stomped toward him, grunting in anger.
Declan held out his hand to placate the gnoll, a plea upon his lips. It was too late though. With rage in its eyes and frothy spit dripping from its snout, the warrior did not seem to care for Declan’s appeal.
“Wait, don’t!” Declan blurted out then.
Before the gnoll could take another step, a thundering gale of wind whipped through the building, knocking hanging tools and pictures off the wall. When it reached the gnoll, it threw him back across the building, slamming him into the wall with such force that his unsophisticated breastplate came undone. As the wind dissipated, the monstrous warrior fell from the wall in a heap, unconscious before he hit the floor.
Declan couldn’t celebrate his good fortune or stare in bewilderment at the relic he held in his hand. Another unfamiliar, harsh voice rang out in the building.
“Ignark, what was that?” he heard.
As footsteps reported in an adjacent room, Declan clenched his jaw and sealed his lips, creeping down the long hallway toward the open door. He kept the staff lifted off the ground, hopeful to keep as quiet as possible as he made his way.
“Ignark?” the voice repeated; disdain was audible in the question.
Declan slowed his pace as he drew closer to the fallen dwarf who was sprawled out upon the floor. He couldn’t see any injuries on Tornig; there was no pool of blood or markings on the poor fellow. It was as though he simply dropped dead where he stood.
As the gnoll’s comrade investigated further, the newest member of the guild crouched down, observing the area outside the building. It seemed quiet there, and Declan inched toward it, unable to resist the pull of a quick escape. When he lingered by the door, he ventured a glance over his shoulder.
Wide eyes stared back at him, eager and earnest. Ilayeth sat upon the floor beside a damaged low table, her hands bound at the wrists and tied to her legs. She attempted to speak, but was unable to produce a single word, and Declan understood why a moment later. It was as though her lips were gone, covered instead with a thick layer of skin and nothing more.
Once Declan overcame his horror, he focused more intently on the maiden. She struggled against her bindings, her arms shaking and lean muscles bulging against the stress.
A nervous breath passed between his lips, and he forewent all thoughts of a hasty retreat.
Declan stayed low to the ground then and drew closer to Ilayeth, letting the ancient staff fall to the floor. As worry set in, it was as though time slowed down. It was in that brief yet stretched period that he took notice of several of Ilayeth’s other features that he had missed in the guild hall’s basement. With her cloak pulled down behind her neck, he could see dark tresses that fell in a wave upon her shoulders. Disheveled as they were though, they didn’t hide the shallow point upon her ear.
Ilayeth stamped her feet then, reining in his attention. Declan shook his head, and reached for her bindings, thick lashings of what looked like sturdy vines.
“Ignark!” they heard then.
Startled, Declan sprang back. Even without a visible mouth, he could see the frown upon the half-elf’s face. A quiet grumble croaked from within her throat as she strained forward, urging the guild’s recruit to work at her bindings.
Despite her insistence, Declan drew further away from Ilayeth, looking about the room for something to aid him in the desperate situation. While the maiden worked herself into a tizzy, Declan stepped away, and looked to the fallen dwarf. An axe hung upon Tornig’s belt, a gleam from the opened door landing upon its crescent head. Declan reached for the weapon at once, and returned to the frantic half-elf, steadying her as he arrived there.
“Hold still,” he whispered.
When Ilayeth realized the young man held a blade at the ready, she grew calm, offering an anticipative nod while she closed her eyes.
Declan worked on the vine-like strands with the axe as though it was a dull sawblade, until he could see a tear in the fibers. The bindings around Ilayeth’s arms snapped with a loud report then.
The half-elf smiled with her eyes and tried to offer her thanks before she realized once more that she had been silenced. She gave a quick shake of her head and then pointed toward her legs, where another wrapping of the vines kept her trapped.
Before Declan could move the axe to the lower set of bindings, a strange figure filled the doorway to the next room. Delcan rose to his feet in panic as Ilayeth slid around to look upon the intruder.
“What have we here?” the stranger wondered. He had olive-colored skin, and long strands of greasy, seaweed-colored hair. An opened tome rested in his hand, but he was sturdier looking despite that, as though he had been a hardened warrior earlier in his life. “I knew that there were others within this building,” the goblin said. “I told Ignark as much. But he always was a fool—always looking for treasures more than dangers.
“No matter,” he went on. “You’ll fall just like all the rest.” He lifted his book before him but needed not look at the words in the tome.
The half-elf maiden, already familiar with the intruder’s methods, drew lower to the ground, as if to hide from him.
“Skalagos, dahartha gäs trendahar,” the goblin intoned.
Before he could finish his chant, Ilayeth lunged forth, scooping the discarded staff off the ground. She brought it to bear in front of Declan, and the young man reached out and grasped it on instinct and reflex.
By the time the last syllable rolled from the goblin’s mouth, the circular head of the staff pulsed with a bright light, and Declan felt the power of the arcane implement shaking in his hand.
After some time passed, it appeared that the goblin’s incantation failed to have an effect, and he tilted his head in confusion. He narrowed his eyes then and turned the pages of the book in his hand until he arrived at a dog-eared entry.
“Very well. I’ll steal the words from your lips as I have hers,” the goblin said, pointing at Ilayeth with his chin.
The half-elf looked up at her savior, grasping his arm and pleading with her eyes for him to act.
“Redahin, gorion ath dolwin!”
Declan felt a prickle in the air, like static electricity meant to move throughout the room. But as with the goblin’s prior attempt at a spell, that one fell short. That time, however, the enchantment was not thwarted by the staff. The glow within the circular headpiece had faded since the first invocation.
Once more, Declan heard the rise of the whispers. Like the hissing of dozens of vipers, the whispers layered over one another, all incensed and angered in their tone, though their onset was so quick that Declan couldn’t determine what they were saying. He thought to bring his hands to his ears to dull their strange roar, but he thought better of it when he remembered the axe and staff he held in his hands. Beyond that, he knew that there was no way to quiet the sound so deep within his mind.
Patience was all he required, it seemed, for a moment later, several of the whispers synchronized, all speaking the same sentiment.
“He is trying to silence us. He is trying to silence you.”
Declan stood straighter as he realized that in his attempt to silence him, the goblin only managed to quiet one of the whispers.
“Stop him,” another whisper commanded.
While the goblin looked on in confusion once more, Declan heaved Tornig’s hand axe, end over end. All three of the occupants of the room failed to hide their surprise when the weapon plunged into the flesh beneath the goblin’s shoulder.
As the injured intruder fell against the wall and slid down toward his backside, Ilayeth set into motion, crawling across the room to reach him.
“Help me,” the half-elf spoke then. Another bout of surprise reached them when they realized that the spell that had stolen away Ilayeth’s mouth had expired.
Declan stepped forward but furrowed his brow at her request. “Help you with what?” he wondered.
“We need to keep him alive,” she said. “He might have information about why he and his friends attacked.”
As Declan drew closer, he heard the familiar sounds of the whispers in the back of his mind.
“She’s right. You know she is.”
“He is dangerous—too dangerous to let live.”
“The goblin and his ilk attacked this place for some reason. You need to know why.”
“Knowledge is only valuable to those that live long enough to use it. If he survives, he will not offer you the same chance.”
Once again, Declan felt the weight of the options upon him. A trembling shook his hand, and when he looked at the ancient staff, it’s circular headpiece glowed once more, as though it too felt the need for some action.
As more voices lent their advice to the whispers, Declan knew that he had a choice to make.
Chapter Three: Stable Condition
Ilayeth turned to her side, letting the goblin fall from her shoulder. He landed with a thud upon the table, and she worked at lifting his legs upon the furniture as well. The injured intruder was not much bigger than her, and his lean build made it easy for her to transport him to a better lit area.
Still, when she was free of her burden, her breaths came ragged and fast, when it was a deep sigh of relief that she would have truly hoped for.
She looked over her shoulder then, toward the opened partition in the room. The newest recruit to the guild bowed his head, looking at the puddle of blood that pooled on the ground where the goblin had fallen. His mop of brown hair covered his eyes as he bent his head lower and lower. She saw him raise his free hand, as though he was ready to chant some unknown spell into existence.
“Declan,” the half-elven maiden pressed again. “Declan, I need you over here.”
If he had heard her at all, it wasn’t apparent. Ilayeth growled and looked back to the goblin cleric who had attacked her guild along with his allies.
“You’ll not die here,” she promised. “If you die, it will be by my hand.”
On the other side of the wall, Declan paced as the whispers in his head argued their points over one another.
“He tried to kill you. Why would you allow him another chance by saving his life?”
“He could have valuable information. You’ve already proven you can defeat him if you need to. You’ve disarmed him, so he’ll be even less willing to contest you.”
“He doesn’t need the book in order to enact his magic. There is another way. You know now that magic is unpredictable, dangerous, but…”
Then, like a clarion call, as clear as the ringing of any bell, one of the whispers broke through, and sounded as though whoever was speaking was right beside him.
“Declan, find the goblin’s purpose.” All at once, it seemed as though all the other voices had grown silent. As if it knew it had reached him, the whisper continued. “Lend Ilayeth your hand and do what you can to keep him alive.”
He took in a deep breath as the sound of the serene, feminine voice dissipated, leaving him to hear only the maiden’s frantic struggles and the goblin’s ragged, panicked breaths. Declan nodded and looked to his new staff, intent on doing what he could to aid the situation.
As he entered the side chamber, Ilayeth looked up at him. “I know you now,” she said. “You’re the one that hears voices. The others who knew about you said that the temple was releasing you of your duties there because you were no longer a conduit to the voices.”
“That’s right,” Declan replied. “They did.”
“But it doesn’t look like the voices are quiet anymore. What are they saying now?”
Declan took another step forward and sent a confident gaze toward the maiden. “Sometimes the whispers want different things. But I am the one who decides. When I hear one that rings truest to me, that is the one I listen to.”
“Let’s make sure this goblin lives long enough to regret attacking the guild.”
The long gestating sigh of relief finally left Ilayeth’s lips as Declan drew nearer. She moved aside so her new companion could examine the injured goblin.
“Do you know what to do here?” she asked.
“Well, luckily when I was at the temple, I didn’t sit idly pretending to be some prophet who only spoke in riddles. While the clergy there always kept an eye on me to see when I would next give them a message from the gods, I kept an eye on them, studying their activities. More than once I saw several of the clerics heal those who were injured. But I’ve never seen an injury this bad—and I don’t have the magic they had.”
“We’ll have to make do with my magic then,” Ilayeth said. “Tell me what to do.”
Declan glanced down at the intruder and back to his guildmate then. “There’s not much to tell. He’s got an axe in his shoulder and he’s bleeding to death. We take the axe out and seal the wound as best we can.”
Ilayeth nodded. “When he recovers, we’ll find out the reason for all this carnage.” She swallowed away her apprehension and wrapped her fingers around the handle of Tornig’s axe. With a fierce tug, she pulled the crescent blade from the goblin’s shoulder.
At once, blood started pouring from the wound. The goblin screamed in agony at the greater sense of pain before his eyes fluttered and he fell back upon the table, a reprieve finally found in oblivion.
“There’s too much blood,” Ilayeth said. “I can’t see where I need to use my magic.”
“We shouldn’t worry about being precise here,” Declan protested. “Who cares if we leave a scar?”
Ilayeth grumbled and swept her hand over the wound, trying to clear off the distracting blood. She cringed as she felt his wound. “This won’t just be a minor fire I have to summon, Declan. The flames need to be intense and accurate. They’ll drain me beyond my measure.” She looked to him for aid once more.
“Alright. I’ll see what I can do.”
Declan blew out an unsteady breath and looked to his staff, attempting to bring forth its power once more. He remembered the first time he felt its magic flowing through him, and he tried to recreate that sensation. When the circular headpiece began to glow, he knew that he could channel the magic of his own accord after all.
Still, when he began directing mystically-summoned wind, he could feel it wearing him thin. It was as Ilayeth suggested: the magic was draining him—and without any prior studies, Declan felt like a candle whose flame was close to being extinguished in the wind.
He gnashed his teeth together and reached out, extending his fingers as he focused on the goblin’s wound. At once, the magic cast the intruder’s blood away from the injury, and Ilayeth set to work.
Declan couldn’t ignore the warmth on his brow. Though he considered that it could have been due to the intense heat that his guildmate spoke of, the thought was dismissed at once, for he could feel his own magic siphoning his energy from him. It was almost, he thought, as though the staff was growing hungrier with every passing moment.
When Ilayeth completed the cauterization of the goblin’s wound, Declan ceased his channeling of magic as well. Without his energy siphoning out of him, it was as though a new weight was added to him, and he teetered backward.
“Declan,” the half-elf maiden gasped as she reached out to him.
He couldn’t fight back against his lightheadedness. Declan thudded to the wall and saw sparks within his vision. As he struggled with his lack of focus, a dark spot appeared before him. Shaking his head, he blinked away his stupor in time to understand he and Ilayeth were no longer alone.
The gnoll, Ignark, who he had incapacitated earlier was awake once more, just as Declan could feel his own awareness beginning to slip. With Ilayeth likewise fatigued, he knew they were in trouble.
With a growl slipping from the gnoll’s snout, he stomped forward. Despite his fading vision, Declan saw his half-elf friend extend her hand toward Ignark, but it was too late. He swatted her away and reached toward her small frame.
Another growl resonated nearby, and Declan wondered if it was perhaps a trick of his fading mind. But when that growl turned into a gruff roar, he knew that there was something else to the noise. A diminutive figure rushed in beside him, and slammed into the gnoll, eliciting a loud, sudden cry.
Declan couldn’t see anything beyond a series of blurs by then.
As strange as it was, the sounds of the contest of strength slowly lulled him to slumber.
* * *
Silence prevailed once more. With eyes closed, Declan wondered if everything he had experienced was a dream. Life had never been that chaotic or strange.
Perhaps, he thought, he was still in the temple.
In the back of his mind, he knew that was not the case. The bed beneath him was far more comfortable, for one. He opened his eyes and took a moment to absorb his surroundings. There wasn’t a stone ceiling over his head, but fine oaken slats.
He was still in the guild lodge, he assumed.
“Ye’ve got the most adorable little snores,” he heard then.
Though he was wearier than he ever remembered, he labored to sit up. There, near the door to the room, sat a likewise weary dwarf who wore a wide smile despite it all.
“Tornig?” Declan asked.
“Who else do ye think it is?” he asked. “I thought ye said ye didn’t know many other dwarves.”
“But you…you were…” his voice trailed off.
“Dead?” Tornig finished for him. “Bah, ye seen me taking a little nap is all. That goblin came in here casting spell after spell and before I knowed it, my eyes were drooping. Down I went,” he said, mimicking his fall with his hand.
Declan sat a little taller after hearing that explanation. “And the rest of the guild?”
The grin left the dwarf’s face then. “There are a few of our mates who are gonna have a hard time for a long while. Someone else was slinging bottles or canteens that were filled with nasty stuff. But one by one a handful of us rose from our sleep and started to put things back together. My guess is when ye stole me axe and popped the goblin with it, he couldn’t concentrate on keeping us asleep.”
Declan scrunched his eyes, trying to make sense of everything that happened. “The last thing I remembered, we’d saved the goblin. Ilayeth and I singed his wound shut, and that’s when—” His eyes grew wide when he remembered the gnoll’s sudden appearance. “The goblin’s ally attacked us. Is Ilayeth alright?”
“Ye don’t remember me coming to save the day?” Tornig scoffed.
Still fighting back his fatigue, Declan dug the heels of his hands into his eyebrows. “That was you that tackled the gnoll?”
“Aye, it was!” Tornig assured. “Got him good with the horn on me helmet too.”
“You killed him?” Declan wondered.
Tornig folded his arms over his chest and arched his eyebrow. “Ye did see how big that fella was, didn’t ye? I had him yowling like a wolf in a trap, but that little stab wasn’t gonna put him down so easy. That’s what these were for.” The dwarf stuck out his fists and nodded.
“So where are he and the goblin now? Where is the rest of the guild?”
Rising off the chair, Tornig unclenched his fists, holding out his hands to calm the newest guild member. “Settle down there, lad. We have everything under control now. Ye’re just flustered because this happened the day ye got here, but the Adventurers of Eladia have to deal with this kind of thing all the time.”
“These kinds of attacks happen often?” Declan asked in a disbelief.
“No, that’s—” Tornig grumbled at the confusion brewing between him and the young man. “Listen: there’s always something incredible happening in this guild. Whether its adventures to far-off places, or a plea for help from some unfortunate soul out in the countryside. This is the first time we’ve ever been attacked like this though. We’ve made sure the fools ‘at tried to bump us off won’t be able to do anything again, and we’ve posted up a guard at each entryway to make sure we’re not caught unawares anymore.
“As for the goblin and his friend…” the dwarf went on. He moved toward the window, sweeping aside the curtain there. “No doubt Erik pointed out the stable to you when you first arrived. He probably told you the next few months of your life were going to be jumping between cleaning the larder and shoveling after the horses.”
“He didn’t,” Declan replied. “But I could see him doing so.”
“Since a handful of our leading members are off scouring the ruins of the Grey Arches, it left some room in the stable. We’ve got the bastard intruders tied up in there—on opposite sides of the building of course. We wouldn’t want them working together on a scheme or something.”
“That goblin had command over magic, Tornig,” Declan protested. “If he gets a chance to speak even a few words—”
The dwarf waved his hand at the notion. “Ilayeth is already five steps ahead of ye, lad. She’s got something stuck in place over his face, and he hasn’t been able to utter a damned word since.” He set his gaze upon the recruit then. “What I’m more interested in is the magic that came out of you.”
His deliberate, cleaner accent caught Declan off guard then. He looked at his hands as though there could be some answer there, but a moment later he merely shook his head. “That wasn’t me,” he assured. “That was the magic from the staff.”
“Ah, but there’s been plenty of people who’ve investigated that staff over the last several years, and nobody’s ever come close to making it sing the way ye did.” Tornig glanced at the furthest corner of the room. When Declan followed his eyes there, he saw the staff with the ringed headpiece there. “Even our artificer, Ezra, couldn’t get that thing to speak to him, and he feels the pull of the aether more than anyone else in this place.”
Declan hummed to himself. “Well, hearing things speak to me is kind of what I’m known for.”
“That’s right. Ilayeth told me that she saw ye chattering to yerself or the like when she was trying to keep the goblin from bleeding out. I remember Mason telling us about ye a few weeks ago. So, how’s it happen? What’s your story, lad?”
Pushing out an unsettled breath, Declan ignored the question and glanced out the window until Tornig stepped in the way.
“I’m making sure yer head is on straight,” the dwarf said. “Humor me, will ye? Once yer done, I’ll take ye out to the stable and you, me and Ilayeth can find out what’s going on with our new friends.”
“I don’t know how it all started,” Declan revealed. “All I know is that for the earlier parts of my life, I moved around more than a child should. I ended up alone at an orphanage, and it didn’t take long for them to figure out why. I would talk to people who weren’t there.”
Tornig shrugged. “Lots of wee ones do that.”
“Yes, but the imaginary people who I talked to really did talk back,” Declan pressed. “And more importantly, they convinced me to do things—things that I shouldn’t have been doing.”
“What kind of trouble did ye get into, lad?”
“I was lucky that I was always found out before I could get too deep into anything. But I remember I tried to break into the headmaster’s office. I tried to break out of the orphanage. One time I brandished a knife and refused to go back to my room. All because the whispers in the back of my mind suggested I do so. Eventually, all the other children knew better than to associate with me.”
Declan sighed. “When everyone thought I was too dangerous to remain at the orphanage, they were trying to determine where to send me. For a while, I thought they were going to send me off to a prison or to work in some far off mine where no one would ever see me again. But before any decisions could be made, someone from the temple sent word of wanting to see me. Apparently one of the parents who visited the orphanage had heard of me in passing. When they adopted another boy, he told them all he knew about me, and word traveled, until it reached the temple.
“They thought there was more to the whispers than what I could sense on the surface,” Declan went on. “They thought it was proof that the gods spoke to men, and they were convinced that I was meant to come live with them, to tell them the things the gods wanted them to do.”
“But ye aren’t at the temple anymore,” Tornig said. “Isn’t that where we just picked ye up from?”
Staring out the window again, Declan considered the comment. “The whispers were gone—nearly anyway. The brothers at the temple would come to me day after day and ask me to tell them what the voices were saying, and time and again, they would try to determine what those statements meant. They treated me like some kind of soothsayer, even though I’ve never been told anything other than commands or riddles. And I suspect that when I stopped listening—really listening—to the whispers, they stopped trying to tell me whatever it was they wanted me to know.”
“But here ye are in our guild, and the voices come right back,” the dwarf said. “From what I heared, we were just happy ta get another pair of helping hands in the building, but it seems like ye came with a little bit more than what we bargained for. Only time will tell if the voices are good or bad, I suppose.” He tilted his head and hummed at that thought. “What do the voices want ye ta do now?”
Declan didn’t realize it, but he was trying his best to keep them silent during his conversation with Tornig. As soon as his question was asked though, it was as though he had opened a sluice in his mind, letting a flood of whispers through.
“They’re still a danger, no matter what he says.”
“Hurry to the stable.”
“You didn’t save his life for nothing.”
He swallowed away the tension building in his throat and rose from the bed. Shuffling off his fatigue, Declan made his way to the corner of the room, grabbing hold of the staff as though it had always belonged to him. He turned to his guildmate and nodded.
“Even if the voices didn’t tell me so, I would want to do this.” He looked out of the window, to the stables, where a handful of other Adventures of Eladia stood watch. “It’s time to see those who attacked the guild.”
* * *
Tornig walked ahead of Declan, into the open meadow behind the guild hall. If the dwarf had sustained any injuries in the attack, none of them showed. He almost looked eager to get to the building beside the forest, and when he looked over his shoulder and confirmed that the recruit was still behind him, his gait looked even more determined.
A tall, broad fellow at the entrance to the stable pointed his chin at the approaching smallfolk and stood up straighter when he drew near. “You’re bringing the new arrival.” He laid his hands upon the handle of a huge greataxe that rested upon its head on the ground.
“Aye, I am,” Tornig said. “If it wasn’t for Declan, ye probably wouldn’t be standing here now—struggling though ye are. And don’t go on pretending that ye weren’t the ‘new arrival’ not long ago.”
Declan held fast behind the dwarf, standing in the dirt that cast out from the entrance to the building. The horses had trodden over the ground so that no grass would grow there for some time without extra care.
Turning his attention from the grass and dirt then, Declan took a better account of the man guarding the stable. Tornig’s words lingered in the air, louder than the whispers scratching at the back of his mind. The man was an imposing figure at first look, but Declan found softer, younger features there as well. Long, thick hair hung down over his face, and a scruffy beard hid his cheeks, chin and mouth. He wore a cloak clasped at his shoulder, but it left his bare upper torso exposed to the elements. That naked chest was perhaps Declan’s best understanding of the fellow’s age. Only a tuft of curly chest hairs sat there, the rest of him clean and smooth. The barbarian couldn’t have been much older than he was, he reckoned.
The man jerked his head to the side, sweeping the hair out of his face. All at once then, he seemed imposing once again. For without the locks to shield his features, Declan could see the terrible scar carved out down his brow and across one of his eyes.
Doing his best not to recoil, Declan remained there, staring at the bridge of the man’s nose.
“This is Orn,” Tornig said to the recruit. “What ye see here is his attempts to rattle ye with his purdy eye. It’s also the reason they call him Orn One-Eye.”
Declan squared his jaw and nodded, not sure what to say to such a thing. When Orn chose not to react further either, the three of them stood in silence for a time.
“It’s a shame,” Declan finally said. He swept his free hand behind his back, if only to hide his shaking. “If you had two working eyes, maybe you would have seen me saving the guild hall.”
Though nothing further was said, and it grew silent once more, all three men felt as though another explosion had just gone off. Tornig’s eyes widened as he alternated glances between the two men. Declan waited there in silence, but the dwarf noticed he began leaning back, as if expecting a tremendous incoming blow.
Orn, meanwhile, narrowed his eyes—both the good one and the scarred one—as his lips scrunched into a pursed frown. Within seconds though, he couldn’t keep it from stretching into a reluctant grin, even his eyes beginning to show signs of uncontrolled satisfaction at the quick jab.
He gave a subtle bow of his head, and stepped aside, clearing the way for the Tornig and Declan.
The dwarf tapped his newest companion on the leg and urged him on. Together, the two of them disappeared into the darkened stable.
Inside, only a few lanterns spread any light. Two more members of the guild, both sturdy looking fellows, stood guard, one at either end of the building, before opened stalls there.
As Tornig and Declan looked down one long stretch of the stable, they saw Ilayeth step out of the furthest stall on one end, her hand splayed across her forehead. She didn’t acknowledge the guard who waited there, but she stopped in her tracks once she realized others had entered the building beyond the sentinels she had placed.
“Tornig,” she muttered.
“Ye aren’t looking so happy, lass,” the dwarf returned. “Everything alright?”
“Everything is fine,” Ilayeth assured, but as she proceeded onward, she waved for the two recent arrivals to follow her.
They followed along, entering the stall that stood just beyond the entrance. She waited a moment, and then she drew in closer toward Tornig and Declan.
“I can’t seem to wrench any information out of either of them,” she whispered.
“The gnoll and the goblin?” Declan wondered.
Ilayeth nodded. “I want to know why they attacked the guild. But every time it seems like I’m getting somewhere from them, they hush up and lock it up tighter than a treasury vault.”
“Bah,” Tornig said. “Ye’re just being too soft on them. If I had to guess, ye’ve never tortured someone in yer life. Ye don’t have the stomach for it, lass.”
“And you do?”
The dwarf folded his arms over his chest. “If it’s needed, I know what needs doin’. And trust me, if I had yer magic flowing through me, I would have already learned what they had for supper a year ago today!”
“Keep your voice down,” Ilayeth chastised. She let a quiet grumble pass through her lips before she looked at Declan. In the soft light of the stable, she almost missed the sight of his staff. “If you want magic, look no further than to our new friend,” she said. “Declan was the one who stopped both of the intruders, did he not? Albeit, the gnoll was not halted for good. Thank you for protecting us in those last moments, Tornig.” She waved her hands then, returning to the point she was trying to make. “Perhaps just the sight of Declan will loosen their lips somewhat.”
Tornig shrugged at the thought. “Ye could be right. But there’s still two prisoners to question. And they each have means of holding onto their secrets, I’m sure. The gnoll is going to be tough as nails, and the goblin knows how to hold onto pain, I’d reckon. He knows there’s a potential to heal himself if he ever gets out of this predicament.”
“Well, I could interrogate one of them while you both question the other,” the half-elf said. “Any thoughts?”
“Why don’t we let the fella with all the answers decide?” Tornig posed. “What do you say, lad? What do your voices tell ye now?”
Declan could hear the whispers begin to chatter and rattle like messenger birds fighting to escape their cages. Knowing that one of those messages would soon break free, he waited to hear it with new clarity.
He didn’t expect to hear their commands offer up different instructions than what the dwarf and the half-elf suggested.
“It isn’t who you interrogate that’s important,” one of the whispers said.
“It’s how you do it that matters.”
“Threatening words and actions don’t often yield believable results. But if you give even one of them something that they want…”
“They’ve proven they can’t be trusted, Declan. Be firm with your interrogation. Fear of repercussions will urge them to speak truths.”
Declan passed alternating glances between the two ends of the stable, as though he could see the prisoners they had bound there. He knew that a choice was to be made, and that the result could give them the clue they had been searching for. One wrong move, though, could topple the foundation of the guild.
Chapter Four: One More Voice to Hear
The next whispers came on like the faint sound of a distant wind. As though the building offered some respite from a gale outside, he could hear them, but they were ethereal, out of place.
Declan looked at his companions then. Ilayeth and Tornig stared wide-eyed, as though the instructions the whispers gave him were gospel. They soon realized, though, that the recruit withdrew into himself, his eyes losing focus on them.
As though the wind had found its way into the stable then, he could hear the strongest whispers swirling around his ears.
“You’ve already been harsh,” the powerful undertone spoke into his mind. “They will expect as much when you meet with them again. Throw them off their guard—show a mercy they might not anticipate. Even an undeserved kindness can be a weapon of its own, and one not easily countered. But neither can you be weak. Prepare to make an example if you must.”
Almost as soon as the breeze had entered the building, it left. Declan looked over his shoulder, shaking his head when he dismissed the thought of seeing one of the stall doors swaying in the wind.
“Ye heard them again, didn’t ye?” Tornig asked then.
“What did the whispers say?” Ilayeth pressed as well.
Declan let a calm wash over him and nodded as he considered what the whispers conveyed to him. “Perhaps we’ve been thinking about this the wrong way.” When they sent quizzical looks his way, he waved them off. “You both talked about wrenching the truth from the goblin or the gnoll. You spoke about torturing them,” he said, pointing toward Tornig. “But that’s what they came here for—they were prepared for whatever nasty end would befall them if things went wrong. And of course, we’ve already played our hand. We didn’t have to save the goblin when he was bleeding out. Now he knows we put a value on life.”
Tornig crossed his arms over his chest. “So, what are ye getting at, lad? Ye plan on waltzing up ta one of them and asking them pretty please until they feel sorry for us?”
“Not exactly. But maybe it’ll be easier to pry their lips open if there isn’t a piece of metal fusing it shut. Perhaps we can make a trade and make their arrangement a little less awful.”
“Declan…” Ilayeth began.
“Ye mean to make nice with the bastards, and we’ve got a few of our own in the guild house that may never wake again,” Tornig growled, every word rising in volume.
“Settle yourself,” the half-elf maiden warned. “You’ll give away our plan.” She sighed and leaned against the wooden barrier separating the next stall. “I can’t say I like this either, but we’re putting our faith in the voices he hears. Perhaps it is time to let them help us decide on our next course of action. After all, I’ve not earned so much as a complete sentence from either of our two…guests.”
“Bah,” Tornig said after alternating glances between his two companions. “Lad, ye told me that the little birdies chirping in yer ear didn’t always give you the best advice. Are ye sure it’s the best time to be listening to them? It doesn’t get more dangerous than this.”
Declan shrugged. “I feel them. They are what has kept me alive. The whispers were the ones who told me to pick up the staff,” he said, raising the magical weapon into the air. “If I didn’t have this, I don’t know that I would have been able to fend off the goblin while he was putting the rest of the guild house to sleep.”
Tornig grumbled but bowed his head before finally shifting into a nod. “Alright. If it wasn’t for the birdies, maybe I wouldn’ta woked up from me little surprise rest in there. We’re lettin’ ye take the lead here, boy. What’s the plan?”
Taking a deep breath, Declan turned about, looking past the raised walls of the pens along the southern side of the stable. “Ilayeth and I will head down and meet with the goblin. We spent a considerable amount of time with him compared to the gnoll. And in a lot of ways, we’ve already negotiated with him. He still has his life, thanks to us. Perhaps that gives us a way in to begin our discussions.”
Ilayeth snickered then, despite her fatigue and the dire straits that the guild was in. “While I have the utmost respect for you and your whispers, it seems they don’t always know everything. The goblin is down this way,” she gestured toward the other side of the building.
Staring at her as though a great secret had just been discovered, Declan waved his hands then. “What they offer is more like advice anyway,” he said.
“And what will I be doing while the two of ye are off making friends?” Tornig wanted to know.
“You came here looking to flex your muscles or show off your axe a little bit,” Declan said. “Perhaps you can go and visit the gnoll and see if he responds to someone with a little more grit—and what he might assume is the willingness to use it. You could also let him know that whichever one of the two of them gives us information first might still be of use to us. The other would just prove there’s no hope for cooperation in the future.”
Tornig tilted his head to the side, observing the lad a little closer. “He’s a smart one. Ye sure he isn’t an old half-elf like you?” he asked Ilayeth. “Maybe they just rounded his ears down a little bit to hide the truth about him.”
Declan smiled, taking the strange statement as a compliment, as Declan intended. Before he could bask in the praise of his new friends, though, Ilayeth nudged him toward the gate of the pen.
All their merriment seemed to wash away as they stepped into the long corridor before the stalls. The guards on either end of the building nodded their acknowledgements as a more seasoned member of the guild neared their side of the stable.
When Ilayeth and Declan arrived there, the guard, a man taller than either of them with striking blond hair that fell past his shoulders, leaned over and opened the way for the maiden.
She stopped short of entering the pen, or the visible part of the corridor before the swinging gate. “Perhaps I should have a moment with him to let him know what’s to come,” Ilayeth whispered as she turned toward Declan. “If we’re trying to ease his anxiety, surprising him with you may not be in our best intentions.”
“Agreed,” the recruit said. “I’ll wait to hear my name.”
Ilayeth, blowing out a silent sigh, proceeded onward, tapping the guard on the shoulder as an expression of her gratitude.
The tall, blond guard shifted and stepped away from his post until he sat halfway out of the prisoner’s line of sight.
“You’re Declan, right?” he asked. He had a softer voice than Declan expected. Likewise, he didn’t expect the man to lean over and extend his hand. “I’m Jace. As I understand it, thanks to you all I had was a quick nap instead of something far worse.”
“I’m glad that I could do all I did,” Declan replied, returning the courtesy and shaking the fellow’s hand. “Truth be told, it was all practically by reflex. If it wasn’t for the staff I picked up in the basement, I don’t know that we’d all be standing here.”
Jace shrugged. “All I know is that when I went down, I thought it was for good. My brother is at the Grey Arches with the guild leader, and without him here…”
“Your brother is another member of the guild?” Declan asked.
“That he is. He’s one of the more popular clerics, and he paved the way for my arriving here several years ago. When my eyes fluttered open, I thought he had returned, but I was told that it was our newest recruit that saved my life, and for that, you have my gratitude.
“That’s not to say that everything is fine without Nico,” Jace went on. “Some of us weren’t just faced with a forced slumber. I’m afraid if my brother doesn’t return from the expedition soon, we may lose more than we’re prepared for.” He waved his hands then. “You’ve still done us a great service, and on your first day here no less. It appears they were right to send for you, whether or not you had some help from an ancient treasure.”
“Declan,” they both heard then.
Jace moved back to his spot against the northern wall of the corridor, nodding to his new guild mate when he arrived there.
Declan hesitated for only a moment before he joined Ilayeth in the last stall of the stable, allowing his gaze to focus upon the prisoner when he passed the swinging gate. The goblin, already worn down it seemed, kept his eyes trained on the straw-covered ground.
Free from his watchful gaze, Declan spent a moment observing instead.
The goblin stood against the wall, his arms held up by a chain that wrapped over one of the building’s broad crossbeams. Not content that his bonds would restrict him from using his magic it seemed, thick, fingerless gloves were affixed to his hands as well. And as though that wasn’t enough, a band of similar material was clasped over his mouth, only a small strip of flesh separating it from his nostrils. It took some effort to remain standing, Declan surmised, for a sheen of perspiration marred the goblin’s brow then. He seemed to rely more on the chain holding him up than his feet.
Having seen enough, Declan blew out a quick sigh and tapped his new staff against the ground of the pen, casting out a burst of dry topsoil in every direction.
The action caught the goblin’s attention, and he looked up. His eyes grew wide at the sight of the staff, and wider still at the sight of the man who resisted his magic in the guild house. He stood taller then, easing up the tension of the chains. Whether it was deliberate or not, his visage of hopelessness changed to one of determination.
Or perhaps it was curiosity or respect, Declan surmised.
“You remember Declan, don’t you?” Ilayeth asked. The goblin sent a sideways glance her way for but a moment before he returned his focus to Declan. “He turned the tide inside the guild house, in more ways than one,” the maiden went on. “You were defeated because of him. But it’s also thanks to him that you’re still alive.”
“I don’t envy you for the pain or discomfort you’re in,” Declan said, “but then, we were attacked, so you can’t quite blame us. The thing is, you’re doing us little good hanging here from the ceiling.” He looked to Ilayeth then, who urged him on with a subtle nod. “There are two ways that we can fix that though. I think each one of us here in this pen would regret it if we had to end your life, but if we feel that’s the only way to protect ourselves, we will.”
The goblin shifted uneasily at that statement. The guild members studied him to see if he believed that statement.
“We also can’t just let you go,” Declan continued, “not without some token of cooperation or assistance.” He sighed then and looked to Ilayeth once more. “Remove that magic gag we’ve placed on him. This one-sided conversation is beginning to trouble me.”
“But his magic,” the maiden returned. “We know that he intones to focus his spells.”
“And he knows that we outnumber him,” Declan pressed. “We’re three to one, just here. And if he should manage to step outside the stable, another dozen of our friends would be eager to cut him down if any harm came to us.”
Ilayeth sent a fierce stare at the recruit, considering whether to invoke her rank and forbid him his plan. After a moment, she shifted her focus to the goblin, and raised her hand. The metal band across his mouth glowed red for a split second and then fell from his mouth. Freedom from that gag had him wincing from the unexpected pain.
Declan watched as the magical metal slab fell from the prisoner’s face. Before it hit the ground, however, it burned even brighter than before, until it fizzled away like parchment in a fire.
“There,” Declan said when the goblin looked up at him once more. “Now you can speak, and we can listen.”
Even being freed from the gag, the goblin sealed his lips and locked his jaw. His gaze alternated between the two casters before him, only sometimes shifting to the warrior who stood sentinel by the gate to the pen.
“Let’s start with something simple,” Declan said. “What is your name?” When he was met with only silence, he laughed and took a step back, so that he could lean against the taller back wall of the pen. “You already know my name, but I’ll give it to you again. I’m Declan. And in case you didn’t know, this is Ilayeth.
“We already know your associate’s name: Ignark. One of our other companions is talking to him now, trying to glean some idea of why we were attacked as well. He’s been a little bit more cooperative, but I suppose that’s just because he’s a fellow who doesn’t mind hearing himself speak.”
The goblin’s brow furrowed, and he looked to his side, where no one stood, as though he could try to hear what he could of his friend on the other side of the building.
Ilayeth stepped forward and caught his attention again. “We only need one of you to—”
“Gorik,” the goblin interrupted her.
In that moment, neither Ilayeth or Declan could determine whether the word was said with disdain, indifference or a touch of vulnerability.
“Gorik?” Declan wondered.
“It is my name,” the weary goblin said. “Now we all know one another.”
Declan nodded. “That’s a great start.”
“Maybe now you can give me a little more slack on these chains,” Gorik said. The statement wasn’t said with any signs of resentment, and he sighed for good measure, as though he already knew his chances were negligent. “Just enough for me to sit.”
“Depending on how our conversation goes, that might not be important,” Declan replied.
Their conversational dance had the goblin on his toes more than the chain did. Unfortunately for Gorik, he had not mastered the art of concealing his concerns.
Declan waved away any notion of harm. “It would be more comfortable inside the guild hall, I assure you. There’s no sense in you being bound out here. If you give us the information we need, you’d be in our company—not our prisoner.” When he saw Ilayeth’s heated scowl, he raised his hands to placate her. “That’s not to say that you would have full access to the building. We’d still have guards watching over you. You attacked us and we need to make sure such a thing doesn’t happen again.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be like that,” Gorik muttered.
“What was that?” Ilayeth asked. “What did you say?”
Gorik shook his head then, realizing he had already said much more than he would have wanted to. When he looked up at Declan again, he saw the face of someone who offered empathy, as though he could see him as more than just a monster or a ruthless killer.
“You say we attacked you, but it was not meant to be like this,” Gorik said, looking straight at the man before him, and not at the maiden who asked him to clarify. “It’s true, we were planning on coming here and causing problems for you, but we never sought to hurt anyone.”
“It was you that was putting people to sleep,” Declan reasoned.
“But the explosions that went off in the guild hall?” Declan wondered aloud.
“Ignark and I didn’t even know they were coming.”
“What were they?” Ilayeth asked.
With a shrug, Gorik looked at the ground. “They were some…some kind of concoction. She didn’t even tell us she’d made them. And when we neared the door to the building, she…” His words trailed off as he remembered the events that occurred earlier that day.
“Who is ‘she’?” Declan pressed.
Gorik looked up and swallowed away the tension that built in his throat. “I’ve already said far too much. It’s not my—”
“That’s fine,” Declan went on. “Let’s focus on what you do want to tell us. Are you saying it was a mistake that the guild hall was attacked?”
“In the way that it was, yes,” the goblin insisted. “It was only meant to be a distraction—something to buy us time. But now I wonder if…”
Before he could reflect further into his worries about the attack on the guild hall, everyone in the stable could hear the frantic footfalls of someone approaching the building.
“What is it?” they heard from outside.
“Ilayeth!” a frantic voice called out.
“You can’t just go in—and there you go,” Orn conceded.
Declan watched as Ilayeth hurried from her spot in the pen and stepped past the swinging gate. Even Jace wore a worried look then, wondering what foul news was brought their way.
“Emilie?” Ilayeth said. “What’s wrong?”
His curiosity wrenching him away from the high wall of the enclosure, Declan spun about and leaned over the wooden post that led to the corridor. There, just a few feet farther down, he saw the hurrying woman who rushed into the stable without any concern for tact or discretion.
The woman was only about Declan’s age—perhaps even younger. He wondered if perhaps she too could have been an elf, but with her auburn hair pulled into a long braid that fell over her shoulder, it left her ears uncovered, and he could see their rounded tops. Her cheeks were flushed, and she had tears in her eyes, and it seemed that it was all Ilayeth could do not to pull her into an embrace.
“Yaro isn’t doing well,” she whimpered. “Without any help, Robert says he won’t last into the night.”
Jace heaved a heavy sigh and leaned against the wall beside him. “If only Nico was here.”
Declan could feel the whispers then before he could hear them in the farthest parts of his mind. The hairs on his arms rose up, and he couldn’t dismiss the chill that seemed to swirl around him. He closed his eyes, hoping to hear what guidance he could muster from the disembodied voices.
“If a cleric is what you need, there is one not far from you,” a mischievous whisper crept into the pen.
“You know you cannot put your trust in hopes.”
“The guild was attacked. That cannot be forgotten.”
“Someone needs aid,” another stern whisper pressed. “You’ve begun to hold some sway here in the guild, even after so short a time. Will you dare to ask for help that you cannot give?”
Declan let the murmurs roll over each other one after another in his mind. After a moment of lingering there, he looked over his shoulder.
Just as Gorik had seen it in him, Declan wondered if he could detect a hint of empathy on the goblin’s face.
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