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.