The path to Dirk’s home was not an easy one, nor was it a pleasant one. For a normal traveler it was an arduous and laborsome journey through insect infested forest where the undergrowth was so thick it alone was a peril. For Devon it was doubly dangerous, for on the outskirts of the Iselia forest there was a human ranch. Devon had already known this - why else would Iselia need a non-aggression treaty - and had prepared himself for the physical dangers it represented. What he had not prepared for was the mental duress it would cause. In short, he had not stopped to consider that it might affect him emotionally. And yet, as dark memories of his captivity surfaced it was that forgotten element that proved to be most dangerous to his well being. Melody watched with increasing sorrow as he further reverted into the somber man she had found sitting in her hut so many weeks before. It was... unsettling, to see him so unsettled. Only Aura seemed herself, constantly alert and watching for any signs of danger. It was fortunate their guide was of elvish lineage for, lost in his tortured thoughts, Devon’s own skills were proving rather dull. The closer they came to the human ranch the worse it became.
There was something dark about the human ranches; as if one could feel the suffering of those who had been forced to endure them. Melody thought that it almost seemed wrong that the sun could shine over such a place. She had half expected the skies above that section of the forest to be filled with threatening gray clouds. She knew better, of course, having grown up so near a human ranch herself, but still the thought refused to pass. It was a great relief when they finally passed the ranch, though they were far from clear of danger. Still, they had yet to see any sentient creature in the forest, and they were very near its edge now. Unfortunately Devon didn’t seem to be recovering. He looked graver than before, far graver than one so young should have to look. But Sylvarant was Sylvarant. And despair was the way of the declining world. Melody was struck with the sudden fear that Devon would never recover, that he would forever be lost in a melancholy world all his own. He hadn’t spoken since they left Iselia, and, after a few attempts, Melody had given up on trying to draw him out.
Devon found himself both relieved and regretful at that. He wanted to speak to her, for he knew it would put her at ease. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t shake the dark thoughts. He was drowning - and he had no desire to pull her down with him.
Devon had lived his life a soldier. It was a life of discipline, of severity, of hardships and hard work. That had never bothered him. In fact, he welcomed such a life. It pushed away the dark thoughts, the remembrances of his past, the tragedy that surrounded him every day. It made him feel as though he had purpose. As long as he was working against the darkness he need not fear it. To this point he had been relying on that same training to keep at bay the shadow of his time in the Palmacosta Human Ranch. But now even his mental discipline failed him and he found himself searching for the anger among the despair. Despair paralyzed him, it left him helpless – anger spurred him on, gave him clarity. He tried to remember his rage at realizing they had been trapped, his determination to get free and rescue his comrades – or avenge them. But his mind kept wandering to the dark, lonely hours within those walls. To the moments where he was so tired, and hungry, and torn, that it hurt to think, to breath, and he had longed to curl up and forget. He had never done it, of course, and the moments had been few and far between, but the desire was there, inside of him. The memory was there. And he wondered how many others were in ranches right now, weaker people, with no training to fall back on. How many had been forced to endure such suffering? Were currently suffering? Would be suffering in the future if the Desians were not stopped?
And were those outside really much better off? Sylvarant was a dying world, filled with poverty and toil and pain. He knew it also held laughter and camaraderie and hope, but at the moment they were hard to find. He knew that the Chosen was seen as the hope of the people, but he had long ago decided it was a false hope. There was no goddess, there was no salvation but the salvation people brought to themselves. That was why he must fight. And, at the moment, it was also why he felt it all so worthless. Even if they drove back the Desians the mana would not return, the world would not flourish, someone else would merely take the Desians’ place. And as much as he despised his wayward mind for thinking the thoughts, he could not un-think them. And so he walked, stony-faced and locked in his own private hell.
It was with a measure of surprise that Devon found his party had stopped in a small clearing, for he did not remember passing through the forest at all. Before them was a house. It was of rough timber, but neat and rather large. A stream ran before them with a simple log board bridge, and there were flowers about the dwelling. An odd choice for a single male dwarf. Dwarves were the friends of the earth and rock, with metal and crafts. They had little use for growing things. But then, this dwarf had raised a human boy. Perhaps then he was not as dark as most. Really, there wasn’t anyone to compare him against except legend and myth, shadow tales of old, for no other dwarf but Dirk had been seen by the people of Sylvarant in long years.
No true elf had been seen in long years either – to the best of Devon’s knowledge. Ironic that he, who had little use for legends, except those dealing with soldiering and weaponry, should find himself in the company of two living legends.
After a brief pause Aura led them across the make-shift bridge and to the door of the house. She knocked, but received no answer, and so she entered uninvited, and the others followed.
Dirk, as luck would have it, was out. But Aura assured them that he was used to strange visitors and would have no objection to their waiting at his table. However, just before she closed the door Devon noticed her place a charm on the outside of it.
Melody looked around uneasily for a moment and then sat at a small table beneath the stairs. Devon chose to stand, trying to focus on his surroundings rather than his thoughts. But his hand kept creeping to the glove which covered his exsphere and he wondered if the pain he felt there was real or a figment of his own mind. Aura stood opposite him and watched him closely, but she did not pry.
It was a less than comfortable time - the interim in which they waited for Dirk to return to his home. Melody heard her stomach grumble and flushed slightly, embarrassed for breaking the silence – even though it was through no will of her own. Aura’s eyes moved to hers and the elf gave her a reassuring look before stepping away from the wall toward the door.
Devon’s gaze darted to her as she opened it.
“We need to eat.” She stated, and then she was outside the door and it was silent again.
Melody wished she could get up the nerve to speak to Devon, but something in his eyes told her that he would not welcome the intrusion. He sank suddenly down the wall, so that he was squatting, leaning back against it, his hands dangling limply between his upraised knees. A moment later the door pushed open and Aura returned accompanied by a gruff, but kind, looking dwarf.
Melody had never seen a dwarf, but Dirk was far kinder looking than she had imagined. He was also very short. That had been expected, but was somehow a shock all the same. A grown man, with the face of a man, no taller than her shoulder! And she was rather short herself. She imagined he would go just past Devon’s waist...
The dwarf took in the two travelers in his home and then smiled, approaching Melody.
“Hello lass, welcome to my humble home.”
“He-hello.” She stammered, glancing at Aura for reassurance. Aura nodded.
“I’m about to put some supper on, if you’d care to join me.” He said casually as he stepped past her toward his bit of a kitchen. He looked at Devon out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t say anything. Reaching the stove he turned to some shelves and took down some vegetables.
“How would you like a nice vegetable stew?” he asked.
“That would be wonderful.” Melody agreed softly. His thick accent made was strange, but it suited him.
“Good then!” Dirk busily began preparing the stew, whistling softly as he did.
“Aura, my dear, would you set the table? I’ve only a few dishes, and they be a mite mismatched, but they’ll do us fine I suspect.”
Aura moved easily about the house, as though she knew where everything was. It was as though it were her own home. Of course, elves had remarkable memories – or, at least, Aura did – and Melody realized it was entirely possible she had only been there once or twice before. Aura set the table and Dirk brought the stew over, motioning them to sit. Devon moved slowly, but Melody was grateful that he came at all, and they ate it silence for several minutes.
“So,” Dirk pushed back his empty plate and looked pointedly at Aura, “What brings you here?”
Aura stood and began clearing the table. Dirk’s eyes sparkled at this and Melody thought he looked both amused and a bit irritated. “I was coming to see if you had information on a certain man we both knew once. I had heard he had returned to these parts.” Dirk raised an eyebrow in interest.
“Has he? Which man? I’ve known so many.” He grinned at her as she returned to her seat.
“You would know if you had seen him.”
He shook his head, “Then I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
“I also came to see if you could have a look at these for me.” She continued, pulling her twin knives from her back. His face took on a look a subdued excitement that only true artists get, and only when they see something they feel is the epitome of their craft.
“Aye, Aura, ya know how I love to be lookin’ after yer knives.”
“Yes, I do.” She replied, amused.
He immediately took the knives over to his work bench and began cleaning and sharpening, commenting quietly on the fine form of elvish weaponry, and the fine condition Aura kept hers in. After a moment he looked up thoughtfully.
“And your friends?”
“This is a more urgent matter I’m afraid you must attend to.” Aura replied.
The dwarven smith lay the knives down and looked at her curiously. She motioned toward Devon and Dirk approached the young man.
“And what need has such a fine young man of a dwarven smith?” he asked quietly.
Devon didn’t answer, so Melody did.
“He needs a keycrest.” She whispered.
Dirk’s gaze shot to hers. “A keycrest?” he asked, his voice a bit tight. “And why would he be needin’ one of those, might I ask?”
Melody was going to answer, but a steely voice spoke first, “Because of this.” Devon removed his left glove as he spoke, revealing the parasitic crystal nested against the back of his hand.
Dirk let out a low hiss of breath. “You’ve been in a human ranch.” He observed.
Devon’s eyes narrowed in mistrust, “I have.”
Dirk lifted a hand to trace it over the exsphere lightly. “This crystal...” his voice trailed off, and when he spoke again it was too low for Melody to make out, “I’ve only seen one other like this...” He looked up, determination filling his eyes, “I’ll be needing a special ore for this task.” He told them briskly. “Won’t take me but a few hours to find it, but it’ll have to be done tonight. This has been left crestless far too long already.” Grabbing up a small bag he made his way to the door. “Stay here, sleep while you can – I’ll return before dawn.” And then he was gone.
It was late when the dwarven smith returned to his home. Or, rather, it was very early, for the moon was past its height and on its way to setting. The Dwarf took no rest but immediately began forging the metal. The sound of the door had woken Melody and the sound of the hammer kept her awake. From the looks of her companions she doubted they had slept at all. After several long hours the dwarf lay down his tools, and studied the golden ore with a critical eye. He grunted in satisfaction and approached Devon. The metal, now hammered into a thin sheet, less than half a centimeter thick, had been shaped into a narrow diamond that would span the width of Devon’s hand. The far points had been flattened and set in just a bit on each side were two narrow slits. Dirk asked for Devon’s hand and began to take measurements to see where the hole for the exsphere should be placed. Once he had finished with that he set to the task of curving the plate so that it would rest comfortably on Devon’s skin. When he had completed all that he turned back to his bench and pulled out finer tools, made for delicate carvings and etchings, and set to work carving the runes of the crest.
This was tedious work, and it was nearly sunrise when the dwarf at last lay down his tools. Devon had watched him all night through shadowed eyes, his head bent so that only a faint glimmer of firelight reflected through his bangs revealed that his eyes were even open. He was sitting against the far wall, back against it, legs out in front of him, bent at the knees, very similar to the way Melody had first seen him, and had stirred only twice: the first time when the dwarf had sized the crest, and the second to scoot closer to Melody when she had shivered. Now the dwarf came nearer and Devon made no response, he only stared down at his hand as the dwarf took it in his own.
“To set a keycrest after a sphere has been attached is a difficult thing. Keep it tied tight, and don’t let it be taken off. A crestless exsphere is a dangerous thing, even more so when it has once been tamed. Give it its freedom and you will lose yours.” Dirk warned as he set the plate into place and tied it securely. It was a delicate and ornate thing. And, though Melody knew the runes were purposeful, possessing the power to hold the parasite at bay, it still reminded her of a piece of jewelry such as a fine Lord or Lady might wear – not that she had ever seen such a person, but she had heard stories... before her parents had died. Her mother had loved stories.
The moment the crest was in place Devon seemed to relax, as though the tension were literally draining out of him. At the same time he seemed very tired, not the soul weariness he had displayed for most of the day, but the natural weariness that came with going twenty four hours without sleep. Melody moved over so that he could sleep if he so chose. Though, as he had chosen not to sleep the entire night she wasn’t certain he would do so now.
Truth be told Devon could not have slept before if he had wanted too. But now it was as though an enormous weight had been lifted, and he felt his eyes drift closed as the painful memories faded to a dull and distant shadow, and he nearly wondered how they had ever taken hold him. Now they seemed so easy to push aside. As soon as his breathing evened out and it was obvious that he was asleep, Melody allowed herself to fall asleep as well. In her sleep she moved a bit closer to him, her shoulder brushing his own. The sleeping pair missed the look that passed between their other companions, after all – they were sleeping. A moment later Aura motioned Dirk to join her outside and he followed her out into the rising sun.
Aura did not speak immediately, and Dirk, being rather tired, had little inclination to start a conversation himself. Instead he stood watching the flowers open as the first rays of morning light shone upon them. He gave a weary smile. It had been a good night’s work. And then his face fell into a deep frown as he thought of the young man. He reminded him a bit of his own son, though not much. Still, it was enough to bring back his own sorrow. As if sensing the turn of his thoughts Aura spoke.
“Where is Lloyd?”
At times Dirk was certain the elf possessed some sort of mind reading capability. He had witnessed similar powers from Aura Psyche many times. The truth was that she was simply very observant, but sometimes he wondered – and it never ceased to startle him.
“The Chosen has begun her journey. And Lloyd has gone as well.” He said calmly, the worry only evident in his eyes, and then only to an astute observer. “He’s a strong lad, he’ll be alright.”
“The people of the village weren’t very pleased with him.”
“Aye,” Dirk nodded sagely, “And the Desians aren’t either. But that’s what happens. The right path is not always easy.”
They fell into silence once more, but neither was uncomfortable.
“You seemed to recognize something in Devon’s exsphere.” She finally spoke, drawing his attention back to her.
“Aye,” he said quietly, “I’ve seen only one other like it in my time.”
“Your son’s.” she spoke quietly, but without any doubt in her voice.
He nodded, “Aye.” For a moment he stared into the rising sun, composing his thoughts and she merely waited. “They are a special breed.” He said slowly, “stronger than any other I have seen, more dangerous. Lloyd has had a keycrest from the start, so it is of little danger to him, but this boy...” Aura did not remind him that Devon was well into his twenties and far from a boy. To such as themselves most humans were indeed like children. Suddenly his eyes were boring into hers with the intensity of a falcon honing in on its prey, “this bears watching Aura. The last few days, his sorrow has accelerated the crystal’s growth.”
“Did the sphere cause his recent moodiness?” she inquired.
“The spheres grow on misery and suffering. They don’t cause such feelings, but they do intensify them to suit their own needs. You saw his relief when the crest was placed?”
Aura nodded, she had, and it had both worried and reassured her.
“He shouldn’t be left alone. If the crest were removed...”
Again the silence grew between them as they considered what must be done.
“He won’t be pleased.” Dirk observed casually, “he’s a strong one, independent.”
“He doesn’t have to know.” Aura answered.
Dirk’s brow lifted in wry amusement, “And how do you propose keeping it from him seeing as you’re going to invite yourself to travel with him?”
“Your son is heading to Palmacosta, so is Devon. Naturally you are worried about the boy and wish to be informed as to his well-being. Since we are traveling the same way it only makes sense that we travel together. There is safety in numbers.” She said sagely.
Dirk chuckled for a moment before his brow furrowed, “I am a bit concerned.” He admitted.
“Your son is well, Dirk. He passed through Triet while I was there. The Desians want him, but there is little chance they will succeed. He has friends.”
“Yes.” Dirk nodded, “good friends. And so, it seems does this boy.” He glanced over his shoulder at the door. “Perhaps they will both be alright.”