Nova had been correct; they had easily spotted Triet from the camp that morning,  and they arrived in town just before noon.  Personally, Melody was looking forward to a real bed – until she remembered that they had almost no gald to pay for a room.  That sent her spirits sinking once more.  She had so wanted a real night’s sleep.  Not that she wasn’t grateful for Nova’s hospitality, but bedrolls and beds were two very different things.

          “I need to find a blacksmith.” Devon told her.

          Melody nodded, but she couldn’t do much else.  She was in awe of this place.  Having lived her entire life in the little village at Thoda Dock, Melody was not prepared for the sight of a large town.  She moved as if through water, staring wide-eyed all around her.  As a result she was nearly trampled by a pink cat-like creature.

          “I’m so sorry!” she bowed in apology to the creature and it smiled.

          “First time in the city?” it asked kindly, and from its voice she decided that it must be a girl.

          “Yes,” she nodded, “I’m a little overwhelmed.”

          The creature laughed, “Yes, I suppose.  We Katz are generally rather fond of smaller, quieter places ourselves.  Our village is quite remote.  But I enjoy adventure.  That’s why I joined the Katz’s exploration team!”

          Melody’s confusion must have shown on her face for the creature laughed once more before going into an explanation, “We hire out to look for treasure and lead explorations.  If you ever need to find something, let us know!  Only 200 gald for a basic search.”

          “Which means you’ll tell us that what we are looking for does indeed exist, correct?” Melody started at Devon’s voice at her elbow.

          Fortunately the kat was not offended, it laughed once more, “Yes, yes, indeed.  The prices are a little steep.  But it takes much to convince a Kat to leave the sanctity of our home village.  Good day sir.” And the kat went on her way.

          “I found a shop,” Devon told her, leading her through the crowded streets, easily avoiding the crush of people.  He was from a much larger town after all, so he was used to such commotion.  They were soon at a small stall, much like many others they had passed.

          “Excuse me!” Devon had to raise his voice to be heard over the hum of the crowd.

          “Eh?” the smith turned and smiled; he was a large man, the stereotypical smith, but he had a welcoming smile, “Oh! Welcome to the Heat Storm!  What can I do for you?”

          “Heat Storm?” Melody echoed, rubbing her hand across her brow, “appropriate.” Devon shot her a wry look before turning back to the shop keep.

          “I’m in need of a new sword.” Devon said, leaning casually against the counter.

          The smith’s brow raised with interest, “New or upgrade?”

          “New if you have it, I’d rather trade than upgrade.”

          The smith rubbed his chin, “What exactly are you looking for?”

          “Long blade.  Three feet or thereabouts.”

          The man thought for a moment and then shook his head, “Sold my last one a few days ago, and I won’t have new materials for a week, but if you have a short sword and some iron I might be able to help you.”

          Devon tried not to let his disappointment show, he had a sword, but no iron, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be flashing a Desian sword around.  He didn’t know where the smith’s loyalties lay.  “Anyone else carry long swords?”

          The smith shook his head, “There’s one other shop, but he deals in armor.  He doesn’t have any iron until the next shipment either.  Sorry.”

          Devon waved a hand, “It’s alright, I’ll just have to keep looking.”

          The man gave a hearty laugh, “Where are you from boy?  There isn’t another weapons shop on the continent!”

          Devon, who had just turned away, looked back with a frown.  “None?”

          The man shook his head, his eyes softening with sympathy.  “No sir.”

          Devon fought a grimace, “Then I’ll just have to make due. I really can’t stay in Triet long. Thank you for your time.”

          “Don’t mention it.  Hope you and your girl have a nice trip.”

          Devon considered pointing out that Melody wasn’t ‘his girl’ in any way, but he decided to let it slide as long as she didn’t seem bothered.  It was probably safer for her that way.  He nodded and turned away once more, taking Melody’s arm.  She hadn’t said anything in a while, and he was a little concerned that she was overwhelmed.  Especially when she didn’t react to the smith’s comment about them.  But then he noticed that her attention was fixed on something else.  Following her line of sight he noticed a small crowd was gathering in the center of town.  It didn’t appear dangerous, so he moved that way, curious to see what was attracting so much attention.  What he saw nearly made him laugh, though he was certain the parties involved didn’t find the situation very amusing.

          In the center of the circle of townsfolk were two people, a man and a woman.  They were dressed very similarly in adventurer’s garb and thigh high boots.  The woman was obviously of elvish lineage, with long white hair, violet eyes, and gracefully pointed ears.  Her hair was pulled back in a thick braid and one long lock fell to her shoulder over her right eye, framing that side of her face.  She wore archer's gloves that went to her upper arms and had no finger coverings, and she carried a bow, but he could see no arrows. She also carried two long knives. Her tunic ended just above her boots - which was rather short, but she wore some form of shorts under them.  Her left shoulder was protected from slashing attacks by a piece of armor, and her right was covered by a short cape.  The entire ensemble was a deep forest green, and was very well kept.  The man was no less well kept.  He wore a similar ensemble, with a short vest over a fitted shirt and pants, and his boots ended a few inches above his knees.  He wore short swordsman’s gloves much like Devon’s, but he wore them on both hands, indicating that he preferred a double sword style, though he appeared to have only one sword, sheathed and slung on his back.  His belt was the most noticeable thing about him, it was wider on his left than his right and angled in the back, and it had strange runes etched into it.  His auburn hair was long and neatly kept in a low tail and the bangs nearly covered his left eye.  Melody caught her breath when she saw him, a reaction similar to Devon’s own reaction to the elf.  Obviously they were both very attractive.  They were also quite obviously capable fighters.  But they weren’t fighting – not physically.

          “Aura, love, I don’t understand why you seem so offended.  It’s a perfectly acceptable proposition.” His voice was even timbered, playful, seductive, clearly intended to persuade.  The woman seemed unaffected, arching a perfect brow without marring her forehead.

          “Indeed.” Despite what the man had said, she did not strike Devon as being offended at all, simply disinterested.  “Perfectly acceptable to travel alone into the wilderness with a known philanderer.”

          The man put a hand to his heart in mock pain, “You wound me fair lady.  To suggest that I would even consider tarnishing your honor-”

          She laughed, a pleasant, melodic sound.  “Give it a rest Seth.”

          He shook his head, “I would, but, alas, I cannot chase you from my thoughts.  I must be near you!”  He was playing to the crowd as much as he was teasing her.

          “Have you considered a dog?” she inquired, her expression perfectly serious, though the crowd around her laughed.

          “Aura,” he stepped closer to her and she gracefully side-stepped.

          “Now really, Seth.  I have better things to do.  Go bother one of your other interests.  I’m busy.”

          He shook his head, “You’re the only woman for me, Aura.” He announced grandly, spreading his arms for dramatic effect.

          She eyed him emotionlessly, “Really?  I’ll be certain to mention that to your lady friend at the tavern.”

          He gave a mock stagger, “How can you be so cruel?”

          “I’m certain you’ll get over it.” She stated with assurance, then her eyes shifted slightly, taking on an almost mischievous glint, “And, if you don’t, you can take solace in the fact that there will, no doubt, be dozens of eligible women mourning at your funeral.”

          He came close to her before she could react, taking her hand in his, “Will you be among them?” his voice was low, giving the impression of intimacy, though he spoke loudly enough to be heard by all.

          “No.” coldly she withdrew her hand, all mirth leaving her expression.

          He persisted, “I cannot die until I know you will mourn me, dearest.”

          Her eyes widened and she brought her hand to hover near her heart, “Why Seth – I didn’t know you had discovered the secret of eternal life!” He grinned at her, obviously amused by their banter.  She ignored him, turning away.  “And now, I really must be going.” It appeared she was in earnest, for she made her way through the crowd, which parted before her.  Seth did not bother to follow her, but merely sighed.

          “You win today, but I’ll be back.” He said softly.  Devon wondered why he bothered.  He doubted anyone else had even heard the man, let alone the person he seemed to be speaking too.  It indicated an actual affection men like him never seemed to be capable of. Seth left in the opposite direction of the woman, but Devon was soon distracted by the conversation around him and failed to see where he had gone – not that it mattered much to him.

          “You would think the man would learn.” A woman said sorrowfully.

          “Aye,” a man agreed, “but then it’d be so boring around here.” The rest laughingly agreed and they headed back to their daily activities, chattering as they went.

          “What – was that?” Melody asked curiously.

          Devon smiled, “That was called foreplay, Melody.” He told her, “But she didn’t seem interested.”

          “But what did he want?”

          Devon eyed her in disbelief.  He had known she was innocent, but he had assumed that at nineteen she knew something of the ways of the world.  “You’re serious?”

          She nodded, “How could he ‘tarnish’ her reputation by traveling with her?”

          Devon was starting to suspect that even if she had heard the shop keeper’s earlier comment regarding their relationship she wouldn’t have known what he meant – and that she would be very embarrassed once she understood.  But he wasn’t certain he was the one to explain it to her.  He shifted uncertainly; he hadn’t had any younger siblings... “Well... a man and a woman, traveling alone, just the two of them... they are assumed to be... that is, there’s no one to make sure that they... there’s no way to know whether they are more than just companions...” he trailed off, not quite sure if he should continue.  “People will assume that they are... intimate.” He finished, voice low with discomfort, “And, to be honest.  That is likely what he was after.”

          Melody’s face blanched white and then went scarlet, “I-I g-get the picture.” She stammered, pressing her hands to her cheeks in a vain, attempt to stop the rush of heat.  She had just succeeded when she glanced at him and went scarlet again. “People don’t think... I mean... you and I are, are traveling and, and...”

          “Relax Melody, most people probably think you’re my sister.  You do look very young.  And besides,” he brushed her hair away from her face, suppressing a smile as she almost shied away, “Does it matter what they think?  We know the truth, and we’ll never see them again.”

          She shifted and then forced a small smile, taking his hand.  “Yeah, I guess so...”

          He grinned, “Good.  Now, let’s see about finding us a guide to Iselia.”


          That, as it turned out, was much easier said than done.  And by dinner time they had nearly given up hope.  No one in Triet seemed to know the way to Iselia, and no caravans were due to pass that way for a month at least.  Most people were too afraid of the growing monster population to leave their home towns. Devon was beginning to lose hope, though he tried hard not to let Melody see that, and he wished he had thought to stop one of those adventurers before they had left. The only good news was that Devon had managed to make a few hundred gald at odd jobs which was enough for them to acquire two rooms, some provisions, and a decent meal.   He considered going to the Katz, but their information was costly and not always the most accurate.  Not that they didn’t try... they just gave odd, cat-like, directions.  They tended to base directions on scents, and the human nose wasn’t sensitive enough to follow them.  And he already knew no Katz team would lead them all the way to Iselia.

          “This is going to be harder than we thought, isn’t it?” Melody asked quietly.

          Devon shook his thoughts off and looked at her, “What?”

          She smiled, “No one seems to know where Iselia is, let alone Dirk.”

          “I know.” He fingered his exsphere with a frown.  He was starting to feel its effects.  He was nauseous every morning.  It gave him an empathy for pregnant women.  “I’m not sure what else to do.” He confessed, careful not to sound as desperate as he felt.

          “Perhaps I can be of assistance.”

          The calm, firm voice behind him nearly caused him to jump. He should have heard any approach, was he slipping that much?  The person moved out from behind him and indicated the seat beside him at the table.

          “May I?”

          He visibly relaxed.  It was the woman from that afternoon – Aura.  That was reassuring because she was an elf.  He would have had to be psychic to notice her approach.  He had heard once that even dogs could not sense the approach of a full elf.  He nodded and she took a seat.  He noted, with amusement, that she had not appeared at the inn until Seth had finished his meal.  He suspected that had been intentional.  It was probably just as well, Seth had spent the better part of an hour there, hitting on the waitress, the owner’s daughter, and any other woman who happened to look his way.  They all seemed flattered by his attentions and Devon had to admit that he was very good at what he did.  Melody had been pink the whole time; probably trying to keep from imagining what Seth would do if he convinced one of the women to leave with him.  Fortunately that didn’t seem to be his intent and he left alone – though a few of the women seemed a little disappointed. 

          “I have heard that you are seeking a guide to the town of Iselia.” Aura said, situating herself with easy grace.  “I offer you my services.”

          Melody perked up immediately, “Really?” the woman nodded, “Are you an elf?” Melody asked.

          The woman’s expression did not change, but her eyes seemed to light with suppressed amusement, and a hint of sorrow as well.  “I am.  One of the few true elves who remain in this place.” Something about the way she said it struck Devon as odd, but he didn’t comment.

          “You know the way to Iselia?” he asked instead.

          She nodded, returning her attention to him, “I do.”

          “What is your fee?”

          “No fee.” She said quietly, “I have business that way and I would,” she paused as though considering and then added meaningfully, “prefer your company to that of others.”  He suspected she was referring to the young adventurer she had shared her verbal sparring match with earlier.

          “Alright.  We accept.  Thank you for your assistance.”

          She nodded her acceptance and then stood.  “We leave at dawn.  Good rest.” With a nod to Melody she was gone, moving out of the inn so swiftly and gracefully no one seemed to notice her.  Devon smiled and shook his head.

          “Best do as she suggests,” he told Melody, “I suspect we’ll cover a lot of ground tomorrow.” Melody tilted her head and his smile widened, “Elves are extremely light-footed and swift.  Their stamina is impressive as well.  And I get the feeling she is used to traveling.  She won’t push us, but we don’t want to slow her down.”

          Melody nodded, “All right then, goodnight.”  Devon escorted her to her room and then went to his own determined to follow his own advice.  But he found it difficult to sleep and soon found himself leaving the inn and heading to the small lake he had seen at the far end of town. 

          Triet was beautiful at night, quiet and serene.  The desert sky shone with a thousand twinkling stars, and the palm trees shifted gently in the breeze.  It appeared that Triet had no night life, but that suited him at the moment.  He wasn’t looking for entertainment, he was looking for solitude.  And so was someone else, it seemed.

          As he came to the lake he noticed a figure silhouetted against the moon. A step further and a squint of the eyes and he could see that it was Aura.  He stopped, intending to return to the inn and leave her in peace when he noticed a second figure approach. He ducked back, resting against a tree.

          The second figure appeared to be Seth, and from her reaction Devon would have thought Aura was expecting him, but she hardly seemed the type for midnight trysts.  He had learned a little about the two that day.  Aura was rumored to have been a scout in the elvish army, back when such a thing existed, which meant that she was very old, and very wise.  Currently no one was certain what she did, but she seemed to know something about everything, and she never charged for her services.  Seth was an adventurer, and he never charged for his services either - mainly because he rarely offered them. He went where he pleased and ‘rescued’ any helpless traveler he came upon, especially if they happened to include a young lady or two, but his services were not for hire because he had no wish to follow anyone else’s whims.  The two were alike, and yet, very different.  But Devon could see why Seth enjoyed sparring with Aura.  He moved closer almost involuntarily, wanting to know what was going on.

          For a moment neither party moved, but then Seth’s low voice broke the silence.

          “The desert is beautiful at night.” Devon couldn’t help but notice that he wasn’t looking at the desert when he said that.

          Aura sighed, “What do you want Seth?” she sounded almost weary, and Devon felt sorry for her.

          “Not happy to see me?” Seth’s voice was low and warm, almost teasing, as though they were old friends, and he reached out a hand to brush her cheek.  She didn’t move, and he withdrew in disappointment. Now it was Seth’s turn to sigh, “Why must you wound me so?” he asked softly.

          Had Aura been human she might have snorted or rolled her eyes, but elves held too much elegance in their souls for that.  Instead she brought her head up to meet his gaze and allowed a small smile to grace her lips.

          “I find it difficult to believe that you have any actual attachment to me, Seth.  Find another woman to ‘bless’ with your attentions.”

          He leaned closer to her, pressing his lips to her hair against her ear, “I don’t want another woman.” He breathed so quietly Devon almost missed it.

          With some effort Aura remained where she was, “Really?” she asked with forced interest, “You certainly pay enough attention to them.”  This had the desired affect, and Seth withdrew once more, putting a bit of distance between them, but he didn’t take his gaze from her.

          “I’m not going away.”

          “Then I will.” She said coolly.  He didn’t seem to know how to respond and she turned and left without interruption.  As she did Devon pressed himself further against the tree, feeling somewhat guilty for the intrusion, especially since he had a feeling she knew he was there.  But she never turned his way.  Seth remained a moment longer before turning himself and heading the opposite way.

          If Devon hadn’t seen the man attempt to seduce five other women that day – and those were just the serious seductions, the number of casual flirtations could not even be counted - he might have felt sorry for him. Maybe...