Gentle shaking accompanied the voice that had disturbed her sleep. She gave a half moan, but didn’t stir. For a moment she wondered groggily why the voice seemed to come from nowhere at all, but an instant later she realized that she must still have her eyes closed. Reluctantly she forced them open, bewildered to still see no source for the voice.
“Melody, I’m sorry, but we have to go.” More shaking accompanied the words. It was then that Melody realized that the voice belonged to Devon, and the reason she couldn’t see him was that he was behind her.
“Mmup.” She mumbled, rubbing at her eyes. She didn’t usually have so much trouble getting up in the morning – but then, she didn’t usually spend days walking through deserts and monster infested wilds.
“Are not.” Devon smiled at her as she attempted to smooth her hair into place.
She blinked, confused, then remembered her ‘comment’ a moment before and was amazed that he had somehow understood the muffled ‘I’m up’ when she was fairly certain she wouldn’t have understood it had she not been the one who said it. She stretched, blinking several more times and then sitting up in the bed. She was still dressed, as she had no other clothing with her, so it didn’t much bother her that Devon was watching her.
Running a hand through her hair she sighed.
“Well, good morning to you too.” Devon teased.
Her only reply was a disgruntled groan. She wasn’t feeling particularly articulate this morning apparently.
He only smiled again, “Here.” He handed her some sort of sandwich, “You’ll have to eat on the way.”
Nodding mutely, she took the offered food and pushed off the remaining bed covers, rising somewhat unsteadily to her feet. Glancing back at the bed from the doorway she wondered when she would see one again. Not soon seemed most likely...
Shaking herself out of her reverie she hurried after Devon’s departing form. She darted a glance at the sky as she shuffled after him and realized it was well past sunrise. A few yards ahead of her, next to the main gate of the city, stood the elegant elvish adventurer. Seeing Aura standing serenely beside the gate, perfectly collected, and tidily clad and groomed, Melody fought back an embarrassed blush. A blush that threatened to overwhelm her when she remembered Devon’s words the night before. Aura was doing them a favor, and now Melody had inconvenienced her. She quickened her steps, head ducked in apology as she stopped before the elf.
“I’m so sorry – I shouldn’t have slept so long.” Her voice was low with shame.
“It isn’t a problem.” Aura’s voice was level, like a calm sea – indifferent, yet somehow comforting.
Melody looked up in question, “I thought you had somewhere to be?”
“My appointment is not urgent. And your friend will be alright for now.” Aura assured her. With a slight smile she nodded to Devon, “Shall we then?”
“Lead on.” He indicated the gate in a sweeping motion.
Aura set a slow, steady pace – no doubt for Melody’s benefit - but they still made relatively good time. Once their direction had been set they established no set walking order. Usually Aura led them, with Seth in the rear, and Melody in between them. She was never behind them, but there were moments they allowed her to wander ahead of them. In these moments, when she could not hear them, the two would discuss the greater implications of Devon’s journey. In one such moment Aura surprised Devon by speaking of their younger companion.
“She isn’t accustomed to this life style.” She remarked casually, with no introduction.
Devon’s gaze darted up toward the subject of their conversation, who was walking rather distractedly several yards ahead, and then toward Aura.
“She’s having some trouble adjusting.” He admitted quietly.
Aura’s face remained composed, but her eyes seemed to light as if with a smile, “she must care about you very much.”
Devon shook his head, “She’s a kid. I shouldn’t have let her get involved with this.”
“She’s a grown woman.” Aura corrected, “You couldn’t have stopped her.”
Devon averted his gaze, “Maybe.”
Aura, being an elf, and therefore possessing the wisdom of her people, did not press the matter further. She quickened her pace slightly, leaving Devon to trail behind lost in thought.
Melody couldn’t have sensed Aura’s approach, but it almost seemed as though she did at first, because she began to turn when Aura was only a yard or so away, a question already on her lips.
“What direction ar- oh!” the last exclamation gave away her surprise, “I thought you were still back there.” She explained weakly.
Aura smiled, “That is understandable.” When Melody nodded, wide-eyed, but didn’t continue with her earlier question, Aura turned her attention back to it. “Was there something you wished to know?” she asked, taking a position beside Melody and resuming an unhurried walk, arms loosely clasped behind her back.
“Oh, um,” Melody’s face colored slightly, “yes... I just wanted to know what direction we were heading.”
“Oh...” Melody observed the woman beside her for a moment before turning to look at the surrounding countryside. “It’s so... barren.” She remarked, drawing Aura’s attention once more. “Just grass and dirt. The Ossa Trail had so many colorful flowers and trees.”
“And monsters.” Aura pointed out.
Melody nodded, “Yeah, I guess so. But... that wasn’t too bad after the first couple times.”
“It would have been another story had you been alone.”
“Yes...” Melody looked back at Devon, and Aura watched with a knowing look. The young woman’s attachment to the soldier was as evident as her admiration for him.
“It isn’t going to get any easier you know.” Aura remarked kindly, “You could still turn back.” She suggested, knowing already what the girl would say. She was not disappointed.
Melody shook her head vigorously. “He needs me. He doesn’t think so, but he does. He needs... someone to be there.” She shivered slightly as the memory of his hard eyes in the dark hut came back to her, “to remind him of the good that life holds.”
Aura saw the flicker in her eyes that revealed she was remembering something, but she didn’t press - it wasn’t her way. “It’s good that he has you then.” she agreed.
Melody’s face brightened, “You think so?”
Aura nodded, “And he does as well. If he did not, you would not still be traveling with him.”
Melody had known that already, but it made her feel better to have someone else say it- deep inside of her had lurked the fear that she was merely a burden. But elves didn’t lie. Did they?
Aura wouldn’t lie to her - that she was sure of.
“What are you ladies murmuring about?” Devon’s voice close to them startled Melody, though Aura had already known he was there.
“You.” Melody said candidly.
Devon raised a brow, “Me? Can’t imagine what would be interesting about that.”
“It wasn’t interesting, really.” Melody said slyly and Devon smiled widely at her.
“Indeed not.” Aura concurred calmly. “And what has summoned you from your reverie to join us?”
Devon nodded upward. “It’s getting late, we should probably stop for the night – unless there’s some reason we shouldn’t?” the last was directed solely at Aura. She was their guide after all.
“No.” she assured him. “It is as safe here as we can hope to find these days, and we won’t reach the House of Salvation until tomorrow evening. We may as well make camp.”
“Really?” Melody tried not to sound too enthusiastic, but her feet were sore, and she was more tired than she had ever imagined she could be.
Aura gave a short nod that would have left Melody feeling rather foolish – she had just implied that the elf had lied to her – had it not been for the warm light in the woman’s eyes. It gave her a moment’s pause. Melody had never met anyone who was both cool and warm. The elf had a serenely collected composure that was rarely displaced, yet her eyes were alight with amusement, understanding, and compassion. It must have taken many, many years, for her to reach such a balance. Perhaps that was why humans never seemed to find it.
“Well,” Devon brushed past Melody, heading toward a nearby tree, “In that case, I suppose I’ll find us some water.” He glanced back over his shoulder at Melody, “You up to gathering some dry wood?”
Melody nodded enthusiastically. This, at last, was something she could do. She quickly set about the task, forgetting her sore muscles – if only for a moment. Devon flashed her a grin before heading off to find water.
“I shall return shortly,” Aura told Melody before heading off in the opposite direction. Melody didn’t bother to ask where she was going. It really wasn’t any of her business. But she silently prayed to Martel that no monsters would attack while she was alone.
It seemed as though Martel had heard her prayer. For, not only did Melody escape attack in those moments she was left alone, the three travelers did not come across any monsters in their next day of travel. The House of Salvation was not terribly far – less than a day from where they had made camp - but Iselia was a day and a half’s journey. And Aura had already stated her intention to rest at the House of Salvation that night, which meant that they did not have to push extremely hard in their travels. In fact, their pace was almost leisurely at times. Melody was intensely grateful for this brief reprieve, and this did not go unnoticed by her companions. It wasn’t that she had complained before, or that she commented on the change, but both Devon and Aura were intensely attuned to the reactions of others. And, as Devon seemed more comfortable the last half day with her decision to accompany him, Melody no longer fought to control her body’s reactions to her sudden change in lifestyle. Not that it had done her much good in the first place...
“Welcome to the House of Salvation, travelers." the woman looked up from her gardening to smile at them, "May Martel bless you and keep you on your journey.”
Aura nodded politely to the woman who had spoken. “Thank you.” Melody thought she saw the corner of Devon’s lips curve in a suppressed smirk. She too had not failed to notice the hint of exasperation in the elf’s reply. It was difficult to pinpoint it actually – it wasn’t really in her tone, or even in her stance. It was almost as if it was projected in some intangible way. Melody had already noticed that Aura did not seem to have much faith in the goddess Martel. It struck her as odd. She would have thought elves would be highly religious. She would have to remember to ask Aura about that sometime.
For now she contented herself in studying her surroundings. The House of Salvation was simple in design – a rounded building with two floors, the second story being considerably smaller than the first. In was surrounded by fields in which worked simple people – probably from nearby villages. Devon had told her that all Houses of Salvation were nearly identical in design – even in more affluent areas of Sylvarant. The modest lifestyle of the priests was dictated by tradition. It was said that the design was approved by Spiritua herself. The only deviations from this humility of surroundings lay in the garb of the priests and the statue of Spiritua.
They entered the House of Salvation and were greeted by a lesser priest who informed them that the head Priest was away and so they were currently performing no services. This didn’t bother any of the travelers as Aura and Devon hadn’t much use for services, and Melody had never been to one before anyway. They were told that accommodations, humble though they were, could be found in the upper story. Melody was a bit shocked to find that the ‘humble accommodations’ consisted of a single room with many beds. Men and women shared the room – although she was told very few women ever traveled in this area – under the watchful eye of a rather elderly woman who served at the House. After claiming three beds the travelers headed downstairs to see when the evening meal would be served. By tradition travelers paid for their beds in the House of Salvation, but could work in return for a share of the workers’ dinner. Melody boiled water as Devon chopped wood and Aura peeled some sort of vegetable. After about half an hour workers began to set aside their hoes and scythes to help with the final preparations for dinner.
There was one other traveler staying at the House of Salvation that night. He was approaching middle age, but still in rather good shape, and he had an easy smile. He was headed toward Izoold with the month’s mail. During dinner he sat with Devon and the others, telling them of his recent journeys, and Devon took the opportunity to question him a bit about the various Human Ranches and the area ahead. He had no information on the Desians – as he preferred to stay as far from them as possible – but Devon’s mention of Iselia prompted a flood of responses from many of their comrades – not all of them welcome.
“Iselia...” he said it rather loudly, drawing out the word and attracting the attention of the diners nearest to them. “Not much but trouble out there recently.”
Melody set down her fork, looking up in confusion. She cast an uncertain glance at Devon, “But I thought Iselia had a non-aggression treaty with the Desians...”
“Aye... so they do little lady,” Melody resisted the urge to bristle at that statement, focusing instead on his words, “but there are other worries so near the dark forest.”
A man across the table nodded vigorously, “I have a cousin who lives between here and there, he says the forest is teeming with monsters.”
“Tis true!” the mail carrier nodded sagely, “I’ve seen them myself. And not just regular monsters – the forest of Iselia has monsters of a different kind.”
“What kind?” Visions of giants and dragons floated through Melody’s mind, but his answer was far worse than she had imagined.
“The undead kind.”
“Zombies?” someone at the far end of the room scoffed.
“Zombies.” The man repeated solemnly. “Nigh on impossible to kill those things. And they travel in groups. Two or three at least – sometimes more. And they bring ghosts with ‘em.”
Melody had entirely forgotten her food. She consciously released the edge of the table – which she had grasped in a white-knuckle hold at some point. Her face was white as well, but she forced a laugh. “That’s not true – you’re just trying to scare me.” The man’s face remained serious and she looked to Aura for help. “It isn’t true – is it?” the last was somewhat uncertain as the elf looked up from her meal with a serious expression.
“I assure you it is quite true.” The elf stated quietly.
“And there’s worse.” It was the mail carrier again. “There’s rumors of a demon of the underworld lurking near Iselia. He challenges the strong and sends the weak to their graves.” He patted Melody’s shoulder and smiled “of course, he hasn’t been seen in some time. I hear he’s over to the Ossa Trail now – but he could come back...” with that the man turned back to his dinner as though he had never left it, and he didn’t speak again. But by now the entire group was murmuring about ghosts – telling each other stories their grandfather’s best friend’s old aunt who had died forty years ago had sworn was true! Melody stared at them, her eyes wide. They were going to die! There was no way she could kill a zombie with her stupid stick!
“Hey.” the sound of Devon calling to her softly caused her to jump. He placed his hand over hers, speaking low so that the others around the table couldn’t overhear, “don’t worry so much. We’ll be fine.” He squeezed her hand and dipped his head in the direction of Aura. “Do you really think she knows about them and doesn’t have a plan?” Melody cast a surreptitious glance at Aura, who was eating calmly, and felt herself relax just a bit. She shook her head.
Devon smiled. “Don’t worry.” He repeated, as casually as he could. In actuality he was a bit uneasy. Traditional methods of attack were not very successful against such adversaries. That meant they would be placing their fates in the hands of Aura – the only fighter among them who could utilize magic. At least, he assumed she used magic. He had never actually seen her use any. Instead she fought with the twin long knives on her back. She carried a bow, but he hadn’t seen any arrows – which made him curious, but he wasn’t going to pry. In any case he had never been very good at leaving his fate in the hands of others, especially when it came to fighting. In the end he clung firmly to what he had told Melody: Aura knew the zombies were out there from the start – she had to have a plan.
It was still early when dinner was cleaned up and Devon excused himself to go upstairs. Most of the workers had retired to their own homes for the night, but a few (mostly those without families, or those who lived too far to travel from day to day) were staying at the House of Salvation until their duty rotation ended. With most of the workers gone and the rest retiring early the lower level of the House of Salvation was rather quiet. Melody took a brief walk outside before returning to the House. She had needed to clear her mind and pray. As she entered the building she saw Aura sitting alone against the portion of the wall farthest from Spiritua’s statue. Her eyes were closed in apparent meditation, and Melody intended to head upstairs without disturbing her. But, as she walked by, Aura called out to her.
“Did it ever strike you as odd that we pray to the Goddess Martel, but we place statues of Spiritua in our houses of worship?” she inquired – her soft voice carrying in the silence.
Melody stopped and turned to find the elf staring at her intently. She shrugged, “I guess – I never really thought about it.”
Melody moved over to sit beside Aura.
“Are you praying to Martel?” she asked somewhat hesitantly.
“Don’t you believe in the goddess who created the world?”
“I believe in a supreme being –a deity who rules over all – but the goddess Martel... that is something altogether different.”
“Why would a goddess need the sacrifices of lesser beings to bring about prosperity? Why would she allow the progress of her ‘Chosen’ to be hindered by the likes of Desians?”
“I don’t know. But – there must be some reason. The goddess does not allow needless suffering.”
Melody was desperate to know what the elf meant. In the short time she had known the woman she had come to respect her opinions. Aura was good and wise and capable. If she didn’t believe in Martel, there was a reason. Melody needed to know what that was. “What deity do you believe in then?”
For the first time since they had met, Aura averted her gaze. It was not out of shame or embarrassment - or even thought. Instead, it was a clear dismissal of the current subject. “Another time, perhaps.”
“Good night, Melody.” The elf stood with easy grace and moved to the stairs that would lead to the single, loft-like, upper room all travelers staying at the House of Salvation shared.
Melody did not follow. Instead she sat staring at the statue of Spiritua wondering why they did place it in their houses of worship rather than a likeness of Martel...