Though the disembodied voices invaded his mind like nothing before, he felt his own conviction with more clarity than ever. He looked at those he began to trust—even though he had known them each less than a day.
As he looked at Ilayeth, he heard the whispers almost chant her name. She had her own powers that could help to bolster his own, and with the long way back to Fespar Temple, he could use any tutelage he could find.
Declan looked to Tornig next, and just as before, the whispers spoke his name, the word echoing in his mind. The dwarf had strength and conviction unlike any that Declan had ever seen, and he had to admit, he felt safer in his presence.
He shifted his gaze again, but that time, Declan’s focus didn’t land on one of his new guildmates. Instead, he looked to the goblin he had nearly killed and then brought back from the brink of death. Gorik’s name reverberated in the silence of the room then, though it was somewhat quieter than the other two.
For once, he felt as though he was in charge, and the voices were merely confirming what he already knew: He had found those he needed to travel with.
“Well?” Tornig asked, folding his arms over his chest. “Ye do know that we don’t hear them voices the same as ye, right?”
Declan shook his heads, dismissing the incoherent, quietest voices that lingered in the farthest reaches of his mind. In his heart, he had already gathered his party and knew that the rest was needed to keep the guildhall safe.
“The whispers agree with me,” Declan suggested. “I can’t do this on my own—I’ll need someone to go to Fespar temple with me.”
“So, we are to go there directly?” Ilayeth asked, almost with a hint of excitement.
“Yes,” Declan replied. “And I’ll need you there with me. I don’t understand my magic at all yet, and though the staff helps me focus—I feel like it is controlling me more than the other way around—you’re the only one who can help me understand what it’s like to do what you do.”
“You would not have been able to stop me, Declan,” Ilayeth said. “This is what the Adventurers of Eladia stand for. There are clearly some dark intentions at work here. You and I will do our best to understand it, and to prevent them from taking hold.”
He turned to the dwarf then, nodding toward him. “I also know that magic isn’t always the answer,” Declan said. “There’s something primal and instinctive that you can tap into, Tornig. “If Ilayeth and I were in any trouble that magic couldn’t solve—or if we lost control of it altogether, I know you’d be there in an instant.”
“Aye lad, I would,” Tornig said. “And if that means ye want me to be coming along, ye can count me in.”
Declan heaved out a deep sigh, one mixed with relief and anxiety. “I heard another name clearly as well,” he said. “Though perhaps with softer voices than the rest. Still, I don’t think we can do it any other way.” Declan offered up a weary grin and looked to the goblin cleric at the table.
Gorik nodded even before Declan spoke again.
“You’ll know who we’re facing,” Declan said. “You’ll know if there’s any hope to stop them from hurting the people at the temple, and if we can’t stop anyone, perhaps you can use your magic to prevent any great tragedies.
“And Ignark,” he went on. “I know that there’s someone that you care about among the group, but I… The whispers didn’t…” He paused, thinking of what to say that would offer up some hope for the gnoll. “They want you here. I’m not sure why, but this is where you need to be for now.”
Ignark squared his jaw, and he curled his fingers into fists. He presented a conciliatory nod, but everyone there could see the internal struggles the gnoll failed to hide.
“Are you sure this is the way?” Tornig asked, sending a quick, sideways glance toward Gorik. When he realized everyone had seen what he intended to be a clandestine glimpse, he shrugged. “The fella said it hisself: him showing up there could cause more problems than we intend.”
“If any did arise, I promise you, they wouldn’t be initiated by me,” Gorik assured.
“And what about the rest of us?” Jace, the young warrior, asked. “Are any of us still to join you?”
Declan sent a solemn gaze his way and then shook his head. “I thought it, and the whispers confirmed it. It would just be the four of us.”
“There’s plenty to do here, though,” Ilayeth insisted. “The guild hall must be protected from further attacks. The raiding party weren’t the only ones who may have seen us as a target, and if anyone gets a hint of weakness out of us, the Adventurers of Eladia could be battered even further.”
“It’s not just our home,” Tornig agreed. “There’s history here—some of its ours, and some of it tells tales of all of Astranus.”
“And we’ll need those of you who are healthy to tend to the wounded,” Ilayeth went on. “And to all this damage. Jace, why don’t you go and tell Orn and Bearbane to come in and stop guarding the empty stables. You’re in charge of the cleanup while we’re gone. I’ll head upstairs and let Emilie know that we need Yaro to send a falcon to Grey Arches. We might be heading there alone, Declan, but I’ll take any help we can get, especially if we run into more trouble than we expect.”
Jace was already heading toward the rear exit of the building when Ilayeth excused herself from the table. It grew silent there, and the four that remained could feel the tension and worry as though it hovered in the air around them.
Gulping down the rest of his ale, Tornig slammed his mug to the table. “Declan would ye speak to me?” he asked as he pushed out his chair.
Declan rose up as well and followed the dwarf into the adjoining room, but he passed a glance behind him as he went. Gorik and Ignark wore apprehensive looks, knowing that they’d be separated once more in due time.
Arriving in the room where they’d saved the goblin’s life, Declan understood in how much disarray the guildhall remained. He shook his head when he saw the bloodstains upon the furniture and the floor. Even Ignark’s hefty poleax remained in the room, though it had been propped up in a corner—nobody truly knew what to do with the intruder’s weapon.
“Listen ta me, lad,” Tornig said in a soft voice. “I know ye’re eager ta get back to the temple, and that ye’ll be pushing us to move faster and faster as we get closer to it. But ye’ll be needing ta take a breath.”
“Tornig, I can’t wait any longer than I have to,” Declan insisted.
The dwarf pointed at his new guildmate. “This is what yer whispers chose me for—I’m sure of it. Remember when I telled ye that I hadn’t yet been an Adventurer of Eladia when Gulspire, me brother, died? Well, he certainly dinna die of old age, and when news of it reached me at Coalheart Hall in the Tiverhale Mountains, I was ready to take up everything and go after the durned monsters that killed him.
“Back then, I thinked meself a would-be weaponsmith, Declan,” he went on. “I was apprenticed to one of the Coalheart’s finest, though I was more than a bit rough ‘round the edges. I took up a shoddy axe I had been working on, put on someone else’s discarded armor, and readied myself for the long road ahead. Me ma and da though, they did everything they could to stop me. It just—they couldn’t take away that need in me heart to do what I could for Gulspire.
“I was days away from home, already down to my last few scraps of food when a stranger approached me on the road while I set down for a rest—more because exhaustion took me than anything else. He let his horse graze in the field nearby, and he grabbed some earth nearby me and shared some of his own food. And then we got to talking.
“He was calculated. He took his time to think. When he spoke, I found myself listening more to him than I did to anyone back home. I’m not sure what it was, but he seemed like a fellow—a man, mind you—who lived the life I was sure I was set to. He had a broad sword on his back, a traveler’s cloak that saw its share of tatters along its ends, and wisdom in his eyes that I don’t think I had seen before, except in Gulspire’s eyes whenever he came back to Coalheart Hall. When he asked what set me on my road alone, I dinna have any reservations tellin’ him where my heart lied. And that was when he told me how bloody stupid I was bein’.
“You’d have thought he knew me his entire life,” Tornig went on. “He spoke as though he knew secrets about me that only family knew. He understood that vengeance was a worthy cause, but he knew how foolish it was to venture after it blindly.
“That man,” he said, “was Mason Gwynne—one of the better-known Adventurers of Eladia. My folks had tracked him down and sent him after to me to talk me out of my poorly planned journey. He missed Gulspire just as much as I did too because they had become brothers in a way as well. Without him there to temper my anger, I would have gone on to join Gulspire, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to avenge him. But that we did, and as members of the same brotherhood—since it didn’t take long for me to join—and now I have no doubt that he rests in peace, content that I still have some time before I meet him in the great beyond.”
Declan locked his jaw and shook his head then. “The people of Fespar Temple aren’t gone. But if we don’t do anything to keep them safe, they may fall to the bandits. Not even Gorik or Ignark know what they want, and that scares me most of all. There’s no telling what will happen if we don’t move quickly.”
“We can be as swift as ye like in getting there,” Tornig said. “But I need ye to remember that we have ta be cautious yet. Learn what I did. There’s no sense in joining the priests and paladins there and getting captured or injured or worse.”
As anxious as he was, Declan heard those words roll over to him. Tornig wasn’t just offering him good advice. He was pleading with him. Recklessness couldn’t save Benedictus and the other clergy of Fespar Temple, they both knew. But it took hearing it from the brash dwarf to understand how hardheaded he was being. Declan nodded, and let go of a deep breath.
Tornig clapped him on the shoulder, and headed out of the room, away from the dining area. Declan knew he was likely gathering up his axe and other equipment for the road, but he didn’t need to make the same preparations. All he had was the staff that the whispers had directed him to, and it was waiting for him in the room they had just left.
When he returned to the doorway there, he hesitated just out of sight, for he heard another of his would-be traveling companions participating in their own conversation.
“I’ll do whatever I can to see that Melara is safe,” Gorik promised. “You have my word.”
Ignark nodded, but the weight of his worry had him bowing his head. “Just make sure that you don’t close your eyes to any potential danger. She knew I was in here when she threw her explosives. I’d like to think she cared more for my well-being than yours. Er…not to offend you, of course.”
As Declan took a step closer, he could see Gorik flash a sheepish grin.
“Melara and Jarayas have been swayed in odd ways since that witch arrived,” the goblin said. “Perhaps the blame is not to be cast on your…” His words trailed off as he realized Ignark lifted his gaze upon the arrival of the guild member.
“I’m sorry,” Declan said. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. But as we’re making promises, I’d like to make one too. I have no desire to see anyone hurt any further. While my focus will be on protecting the people I grew up with, if I can stop the attack on the temple without any bloodshed, I’ll do whatever is in my power to do so.”
Ignark blinked and bobbed his head. “Thank you, Declan. I believe you.” He lay his hands out on the table, as though he were waiting for someone to bind him in chains once more. “I know I’m not going with you, but I’ll be with you still.”
Gorik nodded as well then. “If it is meant to be, you’ll see one another again.”
“Make sure you stay safe,” the gnoll said to his friend. “Don’t be caught off guard—by anyone.”
Though his words seemed to imply that he still couldn’t trust Declan and the Adventurers of Eladia, no one dared to challenge them. The creaking of the stairs in the hallway announced the descent of the other guild members, and Ilayeth arrived at the bottom of the steps with Emilie in tow.
“Yaro is going to dictate the letter to another of the guild so that we can be on our way. Emilie, would you mind sitting with our guest until he feels ready to get some sleep?”
“If he’s been as helpful as our other attacker, we should have no problems,” the girl replied.
Declan half expected her to glow fiery red as she spoke that, but it seemed her words were more a warning than a threat. Ilayeth waved off the statement as well, joining the companions she would be traveling with along the side of the table.
“I’m sure your legs are aching to be on the way,” Ilayeth said. “Tornig was already on his way down the front steps when I last saw him. If you’re ready, so am I.”
Declan nodded, eager to start what he hoped to be a hasty journey. “Let’s be on our way.”
* * *
Despite the urgency that sped their steps, it felt as though night fell upon them far quicker than they’d expected. The quartet stuck to the road, knowing that venturing even a short while from the path could be devastating in the dim light. Any trouble that they could encounter was worth the risk to Declan, and with the whispers finding their way to his mind, there was little the others could do to convince him to slow down. Though that certainly didn’t preclude them from trying.
“Alright lad,” Tornig said. “Ye remember what I told ye back in the guildhall, right?”
“We’ll slow down when we get there,” Declan insisted. “Once we know they’re safe.”
“He is right, you know,” Ilayeth said. “You had a nice rest, but he and I are beginning to flag somewhat.”
“Now then, girlie,” the dwarf chided. “I got me a nice little power nap thanks to our friend over here. But I’d also call meself a liar if I tried to say I couldn’t do with another one.”
“And that says nothing for Gorik,” Ilayeth reminded.
Sure enough, the goblin trailed them by nearly twenty feet, his head bowed as fatigue wracked his body. Still, when he heard his name, he perked up, furrowing his brow as he picked up his pace.
“I’ll be fine,” Gorik promised. “I may be of no use if we are forced to fight, but I’ll use every ounce of my strength to heal those who may need my help at the temple.”
“We wouldn’t ask you to fight against your friends,” Ilayeth assured. “But I think it’s fair to say your magic would be much more beneficial to us if you were well-rested. I know mine would. And Declan, I could teach you how to better harness your own innate magic if we stopped for the night. Perhaps I could even demonstrate a few new spells.”
He drew to a stop in the middle of the road, knowing that each of his companions were struggling, even though they each leveled their complaints in different measures. With every step, even the whispers became muddled in his mind, a score of different raspy voices talking over each other so that he couldn’t begin to sort them all out.
“Let me just try to make sense of…” he paused then, when he saw Ilayeth wince as he spoke. She peered off into the distance, further up the road, and turned her head slightly.
“We’re not alone,” the half-elf assured. “There’s some kind of beast up ahead…and I’m nearly certain I’m hearing whispers now as well.”
Before anyone else added anything to the conversation, Tornig pulled his pack from his back and dropped it on the ground. After rummaging through it for a moment, he pulled out a cloak and tossed it to the goblin among them.
“I canna be the only one who thought it might be dangerous traveling with him, right?” Tornig asked.
Declan drew closer to Gorik, even as he frantically wrapped the cloak around him and tugged the hood up over his angular features.
“Could that be your people?” Declan asked. “Did they travel with some kind of pack animals or something?”
Gorik shook his head. “No—and not a wagon either. But maybe you’re hearing Melara’s cackle?” he suggested to Ilayeth. “That was always something I felt was…distinct.”
Locking her jaw, the half-elf took a few steps further down the road, tilting her head to hear the strange and distant noise. “It’s not a gnoll,” she claimed. “I’m sure of that. It sounds like…a mule, perhaps.”
“Maybe a merchant?” Tornig suggested. “Having a wagon to rest in could solve all our problems.”
“If it’s even going the same way we are,” Ilayeth said. “But you’re right. We could rest and offer our services as bodyguards to the caravan as compensation.”
They both saw the look of hope and relief appear on Declan’s face, and together, the veteran Adventurers of Eladia hurried along the road, passing beyond the winding trail and the trees that blocked their further view.
In the dim light, they could barely see it, but they were sure it wasn’t a caravan waiting for them there. A single-stranded wagon leaned away on the side of the road, a distant, obscured torch illuminating a silhouette of the vehicle before them.
Though they exercised caution, Ilayeth and Tornig were also swift in their approach. Declan lagged with Gorik, offering him assuring glances, but remaining quiet as they went.
As the forward pair reached the wagon, the mule brayed, warning its driver that strangers were close by. The torch moved out from the front of the vehicle, setting the stocky fellow who wielded it aglow in the darkness. Once he realized his mule wasn’t just anxious in the quiet of the night, he panicked, and hopped up to the driver’s seat, leaning over into the bed to gather up something as quick as he could.
“Easy,” Ilayeth said. “We’re not here to cause trouble.” She scrutinized the wagon then, noticing what left it hunched to one side. A wheel had fallen off and lay in the grass beside the vehicle, leaving the wagon unable to proceed with any real ease. “It looks like you’re in need of help, in fact.”
The driver plucked up the item he scrounged for then. Catching the glimmer of his torch, the bolt that sat in his crossbow was clear, though he tottered the weapon in juggling the very item that let him see those who approached.
“That won’t be necessary,” Tornig assured. “We ain’t bandits.”
“Get over here Skanlon,” the driver said. “You aren’t bandits?” he asked. “What do you think bandits are going to do—admit to it straight from the introductions?”
“Listen, we can be on our way if you prefer it,” Ilayeth said. “We’re heading that way whether you are as well or not. But if you’re willing to consider some help, perhaps we could travel together, and offer you assistance against any real trouble that comes along.”
The second man that the driver called upon emerged from the darkness then as well. Skanlon was much skinnier, the scruff on his face making him look almost gaunt. Furry eyebrows fell upon sunken-in, wide eyes that only seemed to grow wider when he saw the strangers.
“We could use some help, Jordy,” he rasped. “You know I can barely pick up the wheel on my own.”
The driver, Jordy, swallowed away his apprehension. He looked back to the two strangers and gave them a subtle nod. “Which way you two headed after the crossroads?”
“There’s four of us,” Tornig offered up in the interest of honesty.
“But the crossroads are as far as we’re going for now,” Ilayeth clarified.
After a quiet pause, Jordy dropped the crossbow back into the bed of the wagon. “Alright then. If you and your group help us get this cart back on the road, we’ll give you passage to the crossroads. And if we fall upon any ne’er-do-wells on the way, you’ll give us some help then too.”
“We have an accord,” Ilayeth confirmed.
She and Tornig turned about together then, heading back to the pair who waited at the bend up the road. In the darkness, even from their proximity, the dwarf and the half-elf couldn’t see the other two. Noticing their return though, Declan and Gorik stepped forward to meet them halfway.
“They say we can travel with them,” Ilayeth said.
“If we help them fix the wagon and protect them from any dangers along the way,” Tornig explained.
“Yes, of course,” Ilayeth followed-up. “That said, something felt a bit strange about them. They were quick to incite, and they seemed an unlikely pair.”
“Well, we’re all a bit unlikely here,” Tornig said. “But we’re not in it to be friends with them. Just trying to give our legs a bit of a rest.”
“I don’t feel quite comfortable with this either, for what it’s worth,” Gorik whispered. “Though my apprehension could be for more obvious reasons.”
“Well, we don’t have to help them,” Tornig said, folding his arms over his chest. “The gods know we have a more pressing matter to attend. We don’t even have to tell them. We could just disappear inta the night and go on along our way. But you know where I stand—or rather, where I’d like to sit.”
As his trio of companions went on, Declan could hear the distant sound of words trailing together. It almost resonated in his mind like a quiet stream, the running water too incoherent to understand.
“Declan?” Ilayeth asked. “Are the whispers coming to you again?”
He nodded and closed his eyes to try and make sense of what they were saying.
“You need the wagon,” a quiet whisper seemed to rise above the others. “You’ll be too weary to lend a hand at the temple if you continue there on foot.”
“No. You cannot,” a more desperate voice cried out. “Bringing them to the temple would endanger them. It is your duty to protect the people of Novistrus.”
“There are other ways,” a mischievous third voice added.
As the words rolled over Declan, he clenched his eyes shut, as though he could hear them better if he tried. More voices chimed in, though that time it sounded as though no rhyme or reason banded them together. There was no substance or rationale. There was no understandable cadence or timely verse—only a discordant rabble as one voice tried to talk over another.
“What’s going on, lad?” Tornig wondered. “What are they saying?”
Declan gnashed his teeth together, trying to see if he could identify one voice as the strongest. “Everything. They’re saying everything, and I can’t figure out which one is right.” He pressed his hands to his ears, as though he could keep the whispers from spilling out of his head.
The inharmonious voices had yet to synchronize, and Declan’s eyes watered at the dissonant sound.
“Continue on. Don’t even say a word.”
“Find a place to camp.”
“Take the carriage.”
“Get to the temple. There’s not much time.”
They continued like that, but as they did, more of the voices seemed to overlap into a unanimous chorus. Declan knew that he only needed to focus to discover what they wanted of him.