“How long were you at the Ranch?” Melody and Devon were sitting at her table, eating the small meal she had prepared.  He was wearing loose pants – her father’s as they were the only ones in town long enough to fit him – a tight white shirt, and a vest.  A large belt held the pants to his frame.  He was sitting in a chair that had not been there the week before.  As it turned out Marthis had indeed owed Melody a favor, as had several other people in the village.  As a result he had decent fitting clothes, new boots, and a chair to sit in.  The Desians had passed through several days before with no problems, but Devon had decided to wait for things to settle down a bit before returning to his home.  Melody wasn’t complaining; she enjoyed the company, and had to confess to herself that she had likely formed a small crush on her companion, though – as she had learned that he was seven years her senior – it was unlikely he would ever return her affection.

          Devon fingered his left hand, something he did quite often now whenever he thought of the Desians.  Melody had provided him with swordsmen’s gloves that first day, to cover the hand, but he had removed the one on his left after the Desians had gone.  He had, however, kept the fingerless glove on his right hand.  He was a right-handed swordsman after all, and the Desians had taken his own glove from him the day they had captured him.

          “Only a few days I think.  Although I don’t know exactly how long.  After the first day the kept me in solitary.  I think I made them nervous.” He smiled slightly as though he took comfort in that thought.

          “Why?” she put down her fork so that she could focus on him.

          “Why was I there? Or, why did I make them nervous?  Though I suppose it doesn’t really matter,” he continued before she could answer, “The reasons are one and the same.”  He sighed, staring out the window, as though preparing himself for something that would be long and difficult.  Melody didn’t press him.  “I was an officer in the Palmacosta militia.” He said after a moment, “we were ambushed during training exercises and taken to the human ranch.  After that first day I didn’t see any of my men, or my fellow officers.”

          “You were a part of the resistance?” she seemed impressed.

          “Am.” He said solidly.

          They sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment.

          Melody shifted in her seat, “What will you do now?”

          “I have to return to Palmacosta; inform Governor-General Dorr what happened.  But I’m certain it won’t be safe.  The Desians have likely established some sort of force there.  A city of instigators is not long left alone after their sole defense is wiped out.”  He fingered his hand once more, “but first...”

          For the first time since he had been there she allowed herself to openly look at his hand.  On the backside of his left hand was a small, green, gem.  An exsphere.

          “I,” she paused uncertainly, “I heard the Desians use humans to cultivate exspheres.” She whispered.  Devon’s head shot up sharply.

          “Where did you hear that?” he managed to keep his voice level, almost nonchalant.

          “I’ve lived near the human ranch all my life.  Sometimes... sometimes people come.  They’re sick, very sick.  And they had exspheres.  They said the Desians let them go because they had failed.”  Her voice was low, pained, and it stirred an uncomfortable curiosity in him.

          “What happened to them?”

          She paused, her eyes filled with pain.  “They died.”  He had to strain to hear her, and his chest tightened at that.  He had known exspheres were dangerous, but this...

          “All of them?” his voice was hoarse with raw emotion.  She couldn’t even speak, so she nodded slowly, as though the small movement hurt her.

          His fist hit the table gently causing her to look up.  It was clenched so tightly that his knuckles were white.

          “It isn’t right.” He grit out.  “Why can’t everyone just see?  The Desians can’t be reasoned with – they are murderers.”

          Hesitantly she reached out and placed her hand over his exsphere.  He shook his head, and, when he looked up slightly, she was shocked by the ravaged look in his eyes.

          “They use us for their own advancement and still... still, we can hardly muster a defense.” His voice was so low with anguish that she ached for him, nearly cried for him.  But something he had said reminded her of the matter at hand.

          “The exspheres... whatever they do to humans, they don’t seem to affect the Desians.” She forced her voice to remain level, hoping to draw him out of his torturous reverie – she succeeded.

          “No.  They don’t.  The Desians use the exspheres to enhance their natural abilities.  I’ve never seen it affect them negatively.” He paused thoughtfully, “Is it the maturity of the exsphere, or their elvish blood that saves them?” he wondered aloud.

          Melody shook her head, drawing his attention.  “No.  It’s the keycrests.”

          “Keycrests?” he echoed, curious.

          “They are settings created from a special ore and engraved with runes.  I’ve heard that even humans can safely use exspheres if they use a keycrest.” She explained, “It keeps the spheres from harming or controlling the host.”

          Devon’s eyes lit with determination, “So where do I get one?” he asked, “From a Desian?” she couldn’t tell if the glint in his eyes was anger, determination, or pleasure at the thought of killing a Desian.  It worried her that he seemed so angry, but was so cold about it – so quiet.

          “Ideally crests are worn between the skin and the exsphere, as a sort of setting.  It is impossible to remove the sphere from its setting.  The Desians always wear their crests in such a manner,” she watched him, hoping to judge his reaction, “removing one would do little good, as your exsphere is already on your skin.”

          He nodded, “I’ve seen what attempting to remove them can do.”  He sighed despondently.  “So then, what do I do?  Does anyone here know how to make one?”

          “Only dwarves can work the ore.  And few have been taught the runes.  At least... that’s what I’ve heard.” She said, not unkindly.  Devon’s heart sank.  There were very few dwarves left, and he certainly didn’t know where to find them. She must have seen it in his eyes, for the hand that had recently returned to her lap once again slipped across the table toward him.

          “I – I know of a dwarf.” She began hesitantly, “They say he’s very skilled.”

          Devon’s head came up, “Where?”

          “On the western continent.” She didn’t miss the way his eyes lit with hope, “Somewhere near Iselia, I think.”

          Whatever warmth his eyes had held vanished as he stiffened.

          Melody was understandably confused, “Is something wrong?”

          He shook his head.  “Iselia has a non-aggression treaty with the Desians.” He said tightly.

          “Oh...” her face clouded briefly as she searched for something that would make this easier on him, “Dirk doesn’t live in Iselia.  He lives at the other side of the forest.  I’m sure he’d help you.” she reassured.

          “Perhaps.” His face did not clear however, and she sensed this had less to do with fear that he would be discovered than it did with his disgust that any human would cooperate with Desians.

          She withdrew, “if you don’t want to go-”

          “I’m going.” His voice was too quiet, too firm.  “If I’m going to save them I have to know how...”

          She didn’t press.  He had already told her far more today than she had expected.  And she already knew who he meant.  His companions – the rest of the militia.  Of course he would try to find them, and likely they would each have become host to an exsphere.  In the miserable condition they would be in, they would be little use in a fight.  So, despite his personal distaste, Devon would go to Iselia. Silently she stood and began to clear the remnants of their forgotten meal.