Damien breathed the dusty air. It was hot, but the wind made it so all he could feel prickling his skin was the dry dirt. He was quite used to an uncomfortable environment, namely the forge he had spent so many days in. But this was a new kind of uncomfortable. His legs were tired from the rocky climb, his lungs burned.
Elias insisted on staying off the road. Too many bystanders apparently. Elias preferred to move in secret, as undetectable as possible, and perhaps rightly so.
Around them was what seemed like a rocky wasteland, with nothing but dry underbrush and a few discolored boulders that stuck out from the hills. And yet…Damien was stirred with excitement as he followed the three agents on their trek.
Naelen stepped a few paces behind them all– not that he was slow but because he insisted on being the tail, watching for unwanted followers.
At one point, Damien heard Naelen mumbling to himself just below the wind.
“Everything alright?” Damien turned to look back at him.
“Oh, yes,” Naelen said, speaking louder, “I’m just going over what to say when Lila asks why we failed to meet her.”
“Might as well tell her the truth: we ran out of resources.”
“And why is that again? Oh, right…because you ran away from home.”
Having overheard them, Maya slowed her pace until she was walking beside Naelen. “You have a lady, Lor elf?”
“No, she’s just my sister,” Naelen replied. “We were supposed to be meeting her right about now.”
“At the Carethian mountain pass.”
“Hm…where along the mountain pass?”
“A bit further up north.”
“Hehe.” Maya’s giggle echoed. “Perhaps it’s a useless notion now, we are a few miles from the pass.”
“You’re telling me? I may not know exactly where we are, but we’re not anywhere near Careth.”
“You might be surprised, Lor elf,” Maya said. “There is an eastern way toward the city as well, perhaps we might end up closer to that.”
“I thought we were in troll country.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Not many people use the old trail of course, but once we complete our task I would personally see you to your final destination.”
“You would do that?” Naelen lifted his brow. “Why?”
“For one, the area is crawling with the Katol Clan and their…loyalists.”
“The Katol Clan? I’ve never heard of this.”
“Oh, you poor sheltered sap!” Maya cackled. “If anyone has a rightful claim to these parts, it would be them. I remember peace before the Katol Clan became an organized crime syndicate…how simple those times were. Not anymore.”
Maya looked off into the distance, her blue eyes washed with sadness. A truth became apparent to Damien in that moment. If only he had known it sooner.
“You’re a mountain elf,” he said, causing Maya to grin.
“Oh, so you’re not a total dimwit. What a relief.”
Damien’s brow scrunched into several folds. “How does a mountain elf come to be an agent of the crown, exactly?”
His tone might have sounded offensive, though Maya did not seem to mind. “The same way all agents do,” she answered, “but that’s not your real concern. You want to know why I work against my own people, yes?”
All Damien could do was nod.
“When your kingdom forced us from these lands, it gave rise to the Katol Clan. They attracted so many blind followers under the empty promise of winning our home back. I was never under such a delusion. What happened to us might never be changed by force, but I…I knew I was never going to stop trying to change it. Thankfully, your kingdom doesn’t care where its agents come from, and there is no way I would ever serve the Katol Clan.”
“But…why an agent?” Damien asked again. “I’m sure you had other options.”
“I did, but as an agent, I can do more than your standard soldier or mercenary. Agents can intervene without direct written orders, and can form local contracts within given limits. It allows us to find work all over, keeping some sort of peace. Even if that peace was disrupted by the very people who now broker it.”
Her words made Damien squint as he thought. It did make some sense after hearing Maya’s story. She cared about her people, though she was no doubt a traitor in their eyes.
“What is this contract of yours anyway?” Naelen asked, breaking the silence. “You said something about nomads, perhaps more details would be nice.”
Maya turned to him. “Perhaps, Lor elf, it would be better if your eyes took in all the details once we get there.”
The afternoon inched toward evening by the time they arrived at their destination. Elias had his little group crouching behind a barricaded fence, facing a simple settlement in the middle of a valley. The valley was arid and rocky, not to mention a bit too dry for Damien’s taste.
Upon scrutinizing the town and its inhabitants, Damien realized it was guarded by more than just mountain elves. There were humans too, each one armed as needed. Scattered about the area were workers hacking at the soil with crude tools. In the epicenter of it all was a large metal structure, a bulbous tower that Damien could only assume contained something in liquid form. The tower blundered and hissed out steam, blanketing the area with smoke for small increments of time. The workers suffered under the steam, coughing for several spurts before returning to their work.
Damien lowered himself to the ground, pressing his back against the fence. “A slave camp?” he whispered, turning to Elias.
“Mm,” the captain nodded.
“So the plan is to…shut it down?”
“We have a contract to rescue the victims here,” Elias began. “Slavery is illegal in Lorianthil. The Katol Clan has managed to conduct their crimes outside of kingdom borders for years, but this? This was too lucrative for them to ignore.”
“So these are the Katol Clan that Maya mentioned?”
“A fraction of them, yes. Our intelligence says there is a prominent Katol officer here. The crown would have us turn her over for more ‘authentic processing’ –which is a fancy term for questioning. But Maya has convinced me that taking the target out would suit the grand scheme far better.”
“I see,” Damien nodded, heaving in short breaths. It was official: he had stepped into almost certain death. And for what, a few coins? He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t… “I–I think I need to vomit.”
“We cannot afford anyone with a weak conscience,” Maya glared over at him. “And we won’t be able to clean up any bodily fluids you leave behind.”
Elias chuckled, signaling with his hand. “I predict we’ll track our target toward the center of town. Take out the guards before we breech. Move in.”
Damien watched as Naelen followed on the heels of the agents. Naelen’s movements were so natural, as if he had always been meant for the life of a fighter. Damien was not so natural, nor comfortable. In the back of his mind he knew the truth: that he was dead weight to an elite team like this. Even so, the thought of not helping in any way he could was unacceptable.
Damien was the last to make it to the next crouching point, where Tak poked out his head to shoot an arrow at the first guard. A quick groan, a soft thud, and the guard was down. Elias went to the right, drawing his sword as he crashed into the next guard and gutted him. Maya went left, sleuthing behind her target and snapping his neck.
“Come on.” Naelen gestured with his head, practically grinning at Damien. “You stick with me, you’ll be alright.”
“Okay.” Damien forced himself to move forward, pulling out his sword. Naelen sprang into action, heading for the next guard standing around the perimeter. It was flawless how he dodged the guard’s attack and managed to put him in a lock, but even with his capable blade at the guard’s throat, Naelen hesitated to take him out.
“What are you doing?” Damien asked hastily. “Just…do it.”
Naelen’s aquamarine eyes went wide, and his face was flushing. Over the next several seconds, Damien watched him struggle to make the kill. The guard threshed against Naelen and managed to break himself free.
“Oh, damn it!” Damien cursed, dodging the guard’s attack by shifting his weight backward. Naelen came wrangling the guard from behind again, but the guard was ready for it. He turned, giving a lunge that Naelen barely managed to dodge.
With the guard’s back turned, Damien seized the opening and stuck his blade through the guard. His eyes squinted shut as he did, until he felt the guard collapsing to the ground. A few pants left the enemy’s throat as he passed from life into death. Wordless.
A corpse now bled at Damien’s feet, and it didn’t make him squirm. In fact, he felt nothing. No blood rushing to his head, no quickened heartbeat.
Naelen wiped the sweat along his brow, panting loud enough for all to hear.
“Hey,” Damien came up to him, placing a hand on the elf’s shoulder. “You alright?”
“It occurs to me I’ve never killed before,” Naelen said through his shaky breath. “I thought it would be different, more…noble.”
“I think it’s too late to start questioning your values.”
“Right. I just…this isn’t what I pictured.”
Damien understood what Naelen was thinking, perhaps even feeling. What boy didn’t dream of being a hero at a younger age? Damien remembered what Lila had said to him once, moments after he had made his first kill.
“They are the villains,” Damien pointed at the corpse, “not you.”
It was a weak line, but it seemed to get Naelen’s head in the right place, causing him to nod. “Right.”
The next guard was running toward them now, ready for a fight. “Oh no,” Naelen regrouped, holding up his sword. “Get behind me.”
“You sure you can handle it?” Damien smirked.
But Naelen was in no mood to joke. He ran at the guard, and Damien saw a white light flashing off Naelen’s blade as he activated one of his runes. The elf’s body was like a blur, moving faster than anything Damien had ever seen. His mouth stood agape once the tip of Naelen’s blade shot through the guard’s throat and came piercing out the other side. Ripping out his sword, Naelen kicked the guard down and let him bleed out on the ground.
“Impressive!” Damien applauded. “I knew you had it in you.”
“Shut up.” Naelen shook his head and moved onward. With no other enemies in sight, they rejoined the three agents at the closed entrance to the town. Elias greeted them with a nod.
“Still have that destruction rune?” he asked, glancing at Naelen.
“Uh, yes,” Damien answered, handing over his sword. He watched as the Lor elf gripped it with both hands.
“You might want to stand back,” Naelen warned. He concentrated on his breath, pressing one hand to the blade. The lone destruction rune glowed with an amber color. Smoothly, like a river, Naelen moved his hand from the blade and manipulated the mana swirling around him toward a single point. His finger stopped in front of the closing before it burst with a sudden impact. Shards of wood and other materials went flying backward, blowing a large hole in the fence.
Effective as it was, it wore Naelen out. He handed the sword back to Damien, trying to cover up his exhaustion.
Elias signaled his team forward. “Alright, Maya, go find her. We’ll clean up behind you.” Without a word, Maya sprang into action, tearing through the defenses of the town. She punched an enemy in the gut and tossed him straight onto Elias’ sword. Behind them, Tak shot his arrows at a few oncoming targets before they could taste Maya’s fists.
Inevitably, the sounds of violence caused the unarmed workers to run about in chaos. Some were screaming, some shouting, others not making a cry at all.
Elias glanced at Damien and Naelen. “You two,” he pointed into the distance, “lead them up the hill and wait for us.”
“Got it,” Damien nodded, dashing into a run. Naelen went in the opposite direction until they stopped at both sides of the town. “Hey!” Damien shouted while lifting his arms. “See that hole, go through there! Go, go, go!” As the victims started clambering in a more organized pattern, Damien herded them toward the breech. He trusted Naelen was doing the same.
It wasn’t until a majority of the workers had gone through the fence that Naelen came back into view. He darted ahead of the crowd, fast and limber as he was, and started leading them up a dry and brushy hill to the east. Damien took the tail end, glancing back for any stragglers he had missed.
There was one straggler: a tattered, old woman who was slow in her jog. Her face was wrapped in a salmon-colored shawl, protecting her from the dust. Damien guided her through the shattered fence and kept in step with her as she followed behind the rest of the crowd.
At the top of the hill, Damien took a nice respite to catch his breath. There was no water among the group of people, not even dry rations. There was little to do but sit on a rock and wait per Elias’ orders.
Damien could see the town still erupting with violence. The three agents were now little dots on a point, but he could see their progress as they moved toward the larger building in the center.
Harsh words and complaints kept spattering about the hilltop. It was to be expected. The victims had very little hope. To them it must have seemed they had been brought up here to await some form of death. It was Naelen who had the sense to try and calm the situation.
“I know…I know.” Naelen began an impromptu speech. “You’re all scared, and you have every right to be. I barely understand what’s going on myself, but the Katol Clan will soon be routed and you all will be escorted to a safer place. You have my word.”
As he spoke, the older woman with the salmon shawl settled onto a rock behind the crowd. Unlike most of the victims, she seemed perfectly content, no hint of worry or fear in her eyes. When Naelen finished speaking, Damien went over to the woman.
“Are you comfortable?” he asked, projecting above the wind. “We don’t have any food or drink, but let us know what you need.”
“I need my daughter,” the woman replied slowly.
“W-where is your daughter?” Damien started looking around, expecting to find some lone girl standing amongst the crowd. He sensed the woman rising to her feet behind him as he scanned the hilltop. When he turned, the salmon shawl was splayed over the rock, revealing the woman’s face. Damien detected the likeness: short, dark hair and sharp features. The old woman was not old at all, it was merely a deception to make her seem weak and frail. She was a spitting image of Maya. The only thing missing was the scar.
“Your daughter as in…Maya?” Damien peered down again from his high vantage point, scanning the layout of the town. He could no longer spot the agents outside, fighting their way through. “They must have made it to their target,” he muttered, turning to face the woman again. “You’ll be seeing your daughter–” but he cut off at the stabbing pain in his gut.
The woman cackled as Damien sank to the ground. Even the timbre of her voice was familiar to him.
Damien cursed at himself. He should have seen it coming.