Devon was tense. And when Devon was tense he was unhappy.
Two thirds of a day. That was all it would take to reach Iselia. He had thought he was prepared, but he wasn’t. Devon had never considered himself a very... sensitive man. He was a soldier first and foremost – personal feelings meant nothing, the mission was everything. When Melody had told him that his one hope lay in Iselia he had been displeased, but he had convinced himself that he could handle it, that it didn’t matter. Now he found himself completely unprepared emotionally. He was angry, seething below the surface, and it was taking all he had to behave normally. He wasn’t entirely certain he was pulling it off either because Melody kept glancing at him with the oddest expression.
It was irrational to be so angry. After all, Iselia was too far from Palmacosta for the people there to have had any involvement in the capturing of his militia. But in spirit every person among them was a traitor. How dare they ignore the cruelty of the Desians? Yes, they had to protect the Chosen as she currently dwelt among them, but it was the complacent attitude of them and people like them that allowed the Desians to continue their oppression of Sylvarant.
And in the end it really didn’t matter... he needed Dirk’s assistance. And it wasn’t as if the dwarf actually lived in Iselia. But he knew they would have to pass through Iselia to reach the dwarf’s home.
“Devon?” a hand on his arm startled him and he cursed himself for letting his guard down. If that had been an enemy he would have been dead – or at least seriously injured. He forcibly relaxed his shoulders and gave Melody a tight smile. She just looked at him, not removing her hand, her expression neutral.
“What is it Melody?”
She seemed to consider for a moment before hooking her arm through his, “Can I walk with you?”
After a moment’s hesitation Devon nodded. He could use the distraction from his thoughts. He focused his attention on the girl beside him. She seemed to be doing much better today, already becoming more accustomed to life on the road. He wasn’t really surprised: she was slight, but she had been taking care of herself for a long time. It still amazed him that she had come with him. Six days seemed such a short time, even in as close of quarters as they had shared in her small hut, but they had formed such a tight bond in. She cared what happened to him, and he appreciated that; he hadn’t had a real friend in a very long time. Still, there were some things he wouldn’t share with her. She was too innocent, too young. He was too angry, too cynical. He hadn’t believed in the goddess Martel since his best friend had been murdered by Desians when he was fourteen. Even though the militia hadn’t been formed until many years later, it was that day he had joined it in his heart. He took a breath, preparing to ask her a question, when he was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Aura beside them - startling as she had been several yards ahead of them only moments before.
“Something is coming.” She warned quietly.
Devon frowned. It was possible that the elf’s keen sight and hearing had allowed her to detect an enemy before he had. In fact, it had already happened many times on this journey. But her attitude was all wrong. This was no ordinary foe, of that he was certain. He slipped his arm from Melody’s, clasping her hand briefly before pulling her behind himself protectively. Clearly they were dealing with something of supernatural origin. It was written in Aura’s stance even as her face remained calm. He noticed that her bow was out and, despite the serious nature of the situation, found the warrior in him somewhat intrigued. Perhaps he would finally get to see what she did with a bow but no arrows.
“Stay near me.” She ordered, stepping forward slowly.
The undead were tricky. Often it was impossible to know where they were until they attacked. Ghosts were even more difficult as they could render themselves entirely invisible to the human eye. Only those with magic could detect even their presence - let alone their location. Devon felt Melody stiffen behind him. She was pressed against his back, but at the moment he didn’t care. At least he knew where she was; if anything happened to her he would be alerted immediately. He fingered the hilt of his sword, not certain whether to draw it. After all, physical weapons did almost nothing against enemies from the underworld.
“You might as well.” Aura told him, her gaze flickering to his hand briefly. “You may do some damage to the zombies.”
Devon nodded mutely and drew his weapon, not for the first time wishing he had his own long sword rather than the stolen Desian short sword.
An eerie hum filled the air around them, very low, causing the ground to vibrate. For a moment Devon believed he had imagined it, but the swift movement of Aura’s head confirmed that something was very near. Aura’s eyes focused on a spot several yards away that appeared to be empty. Slowly she raised her bow, aiming at the invisible enemy. Devon, watching her, noticed that her eyes were closed, and it took him a moment to realize that she was finding the ghost – for that was the only thing it could be – through its mana (or, rather, absence of mana) alone. She stood a moment, bow raised, string taut, focused on the area ahead. Drawing a breath she released the string with a short exhalation. Devon’s frown deepened. What was that supposed to accomplish? But then he noticed something strange. The air along the flight path of her “arrow” was sparkling. As he watched an arrow seemed to take shape midair. It was faintly glowing and moving at rapid speed. Several yards out it seemed to impact on something and exploded in a shower of sparkling dust. Briefly Devon noticed the outline of a ghost before it disappeared with a loud shriek.
Aura didn’t even look pleased, only determined. Quickly she brought her bow back up, turning to her left sharply. She raised the bow and let fly once more. This time Devon was watching closely and he noticed the arrow form in her hand an instant before she released the bowstring.
So this was how she used the weapon. He realized then that she must be a summoner of sorts and he was suitably impressed. He had heard the art had passed out of existence with the Kharlan war. It was a difficult art requiring a great amount of discipline and also a special natural talent. One couldn’t learn to be a summoner, one had to be born with the gift. And many of those with the gift failed to master their potential. Even at the pinnacle of their age there had been very few summoners.
“Devon!” Melody’s cry alerted him to the danger coming from behind. He ducked, taking Melody with him, dropping to the ground and rolling away. Jumping to his feet he turned to face the zombies who had snuck up on him while he had been watching Aura fight the ghosts.
“There’re too many of them!” Melody cried, holding her staff like a shield.
Devon was inclined to agree, although he wasn’t about to let her know that. There were four zombies, and only Aura knew how many ghosts, and they had a grand total of one fighter who had any hope against them.
“Don’t think about it.” Aura commanded, still concentrating on her otherworldly foes. The ghosts, having realized they were found out, had abandoned their efforts to remain hidden and now floated about in translucent white hazes that Devon still found difficult to follow. “Just fight! You have to keep them busy.”
Without responding Devon complied. There wasn’t much else he could do. Unfortunately what he could do wasn’t very useful at all. The zombies barely even retreated when he struck at them, and, with the short sword, he had to get so close to do so that he was in constant danger. He was nearly growling in frustration by his second thrust.
“Devon!” this time it was Aura who called his name. Apparently she had managed to catch a moment of breathing time, for she had stopped shooting and was reaching into a small pouch at her side. “Use these!” She tossed two small objects at him, which he deftly caught in his left hand. He looked at her curiously. “One for you, and one for Melody – embed them in your weapons!” the elf explained.
Devon nodded, not quite understanding, but did as she instructed. He backed up toward Melody and told her to do the same. She was obviously as confused as he, but she complied. A moment later a zombie lunged at them. Melody shrieked and thrust her staff in front of her to keep it at a distance. Devon knew it wouldn’t stop the creature for long, but to his surprise the moment the zombie touched the staff it jerked back, howling in pain, and holding its offended limb as though it had been burned. Devon jerked his gaze to Melody’s staff and saw that the stone she had embedded in it was glowing. It was then that he realized the significance of the stones, and he almost grinned. Turning his sword deftly in his hand he lunged at the nearest zombie. Before his blade hadn’t made a scratch, but now it sliced through the ghoul effortlessly. Melody was just staring in shock at the felled zombie at her feet. It looked as though it was slowly being eaten away, but – as it was already dead – it simply disintegrated into dust. This was rather fortunate for Melody, as the sight of oozing innards would more than likely have made her decidedly ill.
“Melody,” Devon urged her quietly, “you may want to help a bit.”
Sufficiently revived by his words Melody rejoined the fight. At least they had a fair chance now.
Looking down at the dust that had once been an enemy Devon considered that they had more than a fair chance – one might even have considered it an unfair advantage, had their enemies not been the undead...
“What were those?” Melody asked, tucking the stone away in her pocket for safe keeping. Aura had told them to keep them as she had little use for them.
Devon grinned, “mana gems.” He told her. “They were used in the Kharlan war by human armies forced to fight half-elves.”
“Mana gems lend magical properties to weapons they come in contact with.” Aura replied. “It was necessary for the humans when fighting those with natural magic ability, or resistance to traditional attacks.”
“Oh.” Melody nodded thoughtfully. “I’m glad you had some...”
Devon agreed, “though,” he said with a sideways glance at their companion, “one wonders why you waited until the middle of the battle to offer them to us.”
Aura did not appear phased, “it was my intention to offer them before we entered the territory of the creatures.” Here she frowned, “But we came upon them much more suddenly than I expected.”
Melody shifted uneasily, glancing behind her shoulder as though expecting to see a ghost there.
Devon stepped closer to her, suppressing a frown of his own. “They don’t usually come out this far then?” he asked casually.
Aura shook her head, “Not in such great numbers. Something must have occurred to disturb them.”
“Hmmm...” Devon studied Melody from the corner of his eye, careful not to let her notice his perusal. “Well,” he shrugged easily, “no sense worrying about it.”
Melody turned her face to study him, as though trying to decipher if his easy manner was assumed or sincere. He flashed her a small smile before his face resumed its general expression. She managed to smile back, but she did not appear entirely convinced.
“At least we have a way to stop them now.” He reminded her. “That was our only real worry. They weren’t much trouble after we employed the gems.”
Melody couldn’t argue with that; she had hardly had to graze an opponent with her staff and it would begin to fade. Those gems really were handy. Melody nodded in agreement, but she still felt uneasy. It was... creepy... to know she was surrounded by unseen foes. Of course, the rational part of her mind told her that they couldn’t really be surrounded. Aura would never let that happen. Still... She cast a surreptitious glance at Devon. He seemed unworried. And Devon was nothing if not cautious...
As if seeking to dispel the last of Melody’s fears Aura fell back beside her and began to speak.
“My people tell few stories of the Kharlan war.” She said amiably, “But there are those who still keep tales. The legend of the crystals is fairly interesting in and of itself actually.”
Devon knew what Aura was doing, even if Melody did not, and he joined in the game. “I’ve heard the elves brought the gems with them from Derris Kharlan, but I always wondered about it. After all, the gems are practically useless to them.”
Aura nodded, “Indeed. But that is essentially correct.”
Melody’s mouth contorted a bit as she considered this. “Why would they bring something they didn’t need with them?”
“The gems were not used by the elves for their magic properties. Actually, they were generally used for decorative purposes.”
“Jewelry?” Melody’s eyebrows shot up.
“It makes sense.” Devon commented. “If these gems are like our precious stones...” he shrugged, “keep in mind, they likely aren’t anything special on Derris Kharlan.”
“Precisely.” Aura punctuated her concurrence with a firm nod. “You see, everything in Derris Kharlan is so saturated in mana that mana gems are of no special significance. In fact, it wasn’t until their arrival in this place that their unusual properties were even discovered.”
“Mana gems weren’t the only thing elves introduced into the conflict of the Kharlan war.” Devon continued, “Many weapons we still use today were introduced by elvish smiths.”
Melody almost rolled her eyes. Devon would get back to the fighting... But she had to admit, it was nice to hear him conversing so comfortably. She knew it was rare for Devon to be so at ease. Of course, it didn’t strike Melody until much later that in their many days of travel she had never heard Aura speak so openly and freely. She had known that the elf must know many things. But her knowledge of history and lore was amazing.
With a companion on either side of her, each seemingly engrossed in the telling of the legends, it was easy for Melody to forget the danger, forget her weariness, even forget the sad circumstances that had led them to be in this place. For several miles they continued, lost in conversation. It was not until Devon reached for something on his belt that she was brought back to their less than ideal reality.
“They say the hero Mithos possessed a special sword that he never used in battle. They say it shone like sunlight on water and was made of a material unlike any other found on this world.” As he spoke he unfolded the object and Melody recognized it as the other half of his pair of gloves. He pulled it on as he continued. “I’d like to see that sword – if it existed. But I imagine time and telling has embellished on it a great deal.”
If either Devon or Melody had been paying attention they might have noticed Aura stiffen slightly at this, and her eyes cloud, but Devon was lost in his thoughts, and Melody was lost in staring at Devon’s now gloved left hand.
“Why did you do that?” she asked quietly.
Devon blinked and brought his attention to her face. “What?” he inquired absently.
She nodded toward his hand. “Why did you put on the glove?”
Devon frowned, his eyes becoming shadowed, and Melody immediately wished she hadn’t asked. Unintentionally his right hand came up to his left, rubbing lightly over the skin around his exsphere. “We’re almost to Iselia.” He said darkly, so low Melody had to strain to hear him.
She didn’t want to press him, didn’t want to ask the next question, but she was confused, so she did.
“What does that have to do with it?”
His eyes narrowed, and she saw a glint of hard anger in them before he shifted his gaze to the side. “Non-aggression treaty.” He ground out.
Melody’s eyes widened with surprise. She had nearly forgotten about that. Still... “I don’t understand – what-”
He lifted his head to reveal eyes of steel; his voice lacked all emotion, it was as though he had sealed the anger deep within himself and was trying to hold it there by force of will alone. “I’m a wanted man. The people of Iselia believe cooperation" he nearly spat the word, “is the key to dealing with the Desian oppression. If they realize that I’m the one the Desians are after, they will hand me over to them.” his voice was so cold it frightened her, and she was glad when he turned away. He suddenly sighed, his shoulders drooping. “Sorry.” He murmured, “I’m... I’m not sure how to deal with this. I shouldn’t take it out on you.”
Melody moved closer and placed a hand lightly on his arm. He looked up at her and she nodded, willing him to see that she understood, because she knew words would do nothing. Gratefully he nodded and moved forward out of her light grasp.
“Isn’t the Temple of Martel near Iselia?” Melody’s question broke a silence that had lasted for nearly an hour.
Aura nodded, “We passed it several minutes ago.”
Melody tilted her head before glancing behind them. “Really? I didn’t see it.”
“It is a bit off the beaten path, surrounded by hills.” Aura informed her.
Melody nodded, kicking at a stone, “that makes sense. Wouldn’t want the whole world tramping through a sacred temple.” She cast a glance at Devon hoping to see if he would react. She was disappointed. He hadn’t spoken a word since his apology. His face had such a closed look she didn’t dare attempt to engage him in conversation.
Aura hadn’t responded either. Most likely she hadn’t seen any need to. It wasn’t as though Melody had asked a question.
They continued on in silence once again. Melody found this quite a bit unsettling. It was as though the carefree hours of conversation a short time ago had not even occurred. She frowned up at the sun. It was nearly overhead. Shouldn’t they be at Iselia by now? She opened her mouth to ask that very question when Devon stopped. He frowned deeply, looking around warily.
“Something isn’t right.”
Aura dropped back beside him. “So you’ve noticed as well. I had thought perhaps the mana-less beings were the cause behind my unrest.” She locked gazes with him. “The closer we get to Iselia, the stronger it grows.”
Melody was confused, but one look at their tense faces told her that this was not the time. Something was very wrong. And it wasn’t just zombies and ghosts. It struck her as vaguely funny that evil, undead, monsters bent on their destruction were now the least of their worries – and she didn’t know whether to be worried or glad that she could see the humor in this situation.
“How far?” Devon’s tight question drew Melody from her contemplation.
“Less than a mile.” The elf replied.
Hearing that Devon quickened his pace. Something was off. It wasn’t danger he sensed, but something else. It was suddenly imperative that they reach Iselia now. He only wished he knew why.
They pushed hard, and covered the near mile in only eight minutes – a feat Melody would never have accomplished a few days before.
But their haste was nothing more than wasted effort. When they arrived at Iselia it was obvious that they were far too late.
"I... I think we know what disturbed the undead." Melody whispered.
“Hmm..." Aura agreed, "and I do not believe we have to worry about them handing anyone over to the Desians.” she observed stoically.
The village was filled with smoldering ruins. There was no smoke in the air, which led Devon to believe that it had been several days since the village had been razed. A cold fury filled him. Days... and yet the ashes still smoldered.
“Desians.” He ground out through clenched teeth.
Melody’s gaze darted to him uncertainly before returning to the scene before her. She stared, unable to look away from the haunting scene. Not all of the buildings were burned, but enough were. This had not been an accident. But why would the Desians do this? Devon strode forward purposefully, examining the ruins more closely. With each step he became more tense, like a tightening coil. He touched a board and it clattered to the ground, startling Melody’s overwrought mind into motion.
“But they had a non-aggression treaty.” She protested weakly.
Devon snorted, returning to the village gate through which they had entered.
“A lot of good it did them.” Once again his voice took on the edge of steel - hard, cold, and unrelenting.
He was doing it again. Retreating inside of himself. His anger was so... controlled... it was almost more frightening than the fiery anger Melody had seen most people display. Perhaps it was because she knew that Devon had full knowledge of his anger, and yet still allowed it to take hold. How could anyone logically examine anger, and still choose to hold on to it? But then, with all he had experienced, how could he not?
Aura was several yards away, studying the remains of a guard tower. She bent to pick up a charred fragment and study it more closely. Melody watched her curiously, wondering what insight she hoped to gain from the act.
A movement caught Devon’s attention and he turned to face the intruder. What he found was a small group of villagers emerging from an unharmed house. For a moment he felt relief that the Desians had not killed them all, but that was quickly replaced by cold fury. These villagers were alive. And yet they had still done nothing even days after the attack.
“Greetings.” Aura addressed the villagers, coming to stand with her companions.
“What do you want?” a woman demanded shakily. “We have nothing.”
Melody looked at the villagers’ hard faces in confusion. “We don’t want anything. We were just passing through. We’re... we’re looking for the dwarven smith, Dirk.”
“Dirk.” A heavyset older man pushed his way forward, glowering. “Dirk is the cause of all this. Him and that orphan of his. I knew that Irving boy was trouble from the moment he set foot inside our village.” Faint murmurs of agreement sifted through the crowd. “If you’re with the likes of them, we want no part in you.”
“What?” Melody recoiled. The man looked so angry. He didn’t even know them!
Aura stepped forward calmly, “We have no wish to trouble you. Simply point the way to Dirk’s residence, and we will be on our way.”
The man stepped forward angrily, “If you want to know the way to Dirk’s house, ask a traitor.” He spat.
Devon bristled at this. “The Desians destroy your village and still you would remain loyal to them? Clearly they have no honor. You owe them nothing.” He was still too calm, despite the fire flashing in his eyes.
“Wrong, people like you did this to us! That boy broke the terms of the agreement. It’s his fault we suffer.”
“It is your own.” Devon contradicted. “For refusing to stand against them. How can you be too blind to see that the Desians never had any intention of allowing you to escape unharmed?”
“Get out!” the man shouted. “Now! You will not bring more suffering down on our heads!”
Melody had stepped behind Devon, and her head was bowed as she studiously watched the ground. Aura gently took her arm and began to lead her away. She paused briefly to touch Devon’s arm as she passed him. For a moment he remained, staring at the villagers darkly. Then he turned and walked away.
“Fools. How can they not see?” he asked quietly, once they were well outside the village.
“Do not judge them too harshly.” Aura began to lead them into the surrounding forest, heading north once more. “They chose the path of least resistance in order to protect the Chosen.”
“And it got them nothing.”
Aura shook her head, “On the contrary. It brought them to the point they needed to reach. The Chosen has begun her journey.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in Martel and the Journey of Regeneration.”
“But they do, Melody.” The look in the elf’s eye was one of conviction, and Melody was gifted a sudden flash of insight. That was true. In the end, actions were judged by their results, but they were always ruled by what people believed. So perhaps it was their belief that truly mattered - at least in cases such as this.
“Where are we going?” Melody suddenly asked, for the first time realizing that they were still walking.
“To the home of Dirk.” Aura replied calmly as she ducked beneath a low tree limb.
Melody started, “But... you asked them...” she trailed off uncertainly.
Aura paused to look at her briefly before returning her attention to the path ahead, “The situation needed diffusing.” She stated.
Melody blinked. It had, but Aura had answered so quickly... the elf was just so collected about everything... She wanted to be like that.
She frowned in sudden confusion, “Wait! So... you know where Dirk lives?”
This time Aura didn’t even turn to look at her. “Of course, who did you think I was coming to see?”