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THE WAY FORWARD
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.
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