Chapter Forty – The Cost of Justice

With a collective shove, the door gave way and the three agents stumbled over each other into what seemed like an empty room. Maya kept her guard up. She knew the target more than anyone. Officer Relyntha was a clever type. She perhaps had five different contingency plans in place, and had managed to slip through Maya’s fingers every time she tried to shut down the operation. But this time was different. Maya knew in her gut Relyntha would finally taste defeat, even if it wasn’t at her daughter’s own hands.

The team of agents searched the room, finding nothing.

“Rah!” Maya fell to her knees, gripping the sides of her head. Too many times her mother had eluded justice. Too many. “What am I doing wrong!? She was supposed to be here!”

She felt Elias patting down her shoulders. “Don’t lose your head, Maya, we’ll find her.”

In the corner, Tak was tracing a trail of items scattered along the floor. “She must have been in a hurry,” he said, using his finger to outline the trail he saw. He was right. Relyntha was not a pack rat, she preferred organization and this room was the opposite of that.

Jars rolled about on the floor, clothing items laid as though they had been tossed around. Maya followed the line of clothes to Relyntha’s wooden dresser, drawers still sprawled open.

“Ohh…” Maya let out a winded sigh before getting back to her feet. She turned toward the door, feeling every ounce of anger bubbling through her veins. “She escaped with them.”

Damien laid on the ground, clutching the bloody wound in his gut. So this is what if felt like to be stabbed. The pain of stinging poison, the puncturing, the burning. It felt like acid eating away at the edges of his skin. His breath wheezed and his head fell back onto the dirt.

Relyntha stood over him, twirling the poisoned dagger through her fingers. “One down… Tell me, did you honestly think you and your pathetic team could take me out?” She gestured over to where Naelen was standing at the far end of the hilltop. He was surrounded by a crowd of Relyntha’s slaves, and he had no idea of her presence. She had come in a disguise, and even now she remained hidden from Naelen’s vision. “You two are obviously amateurs. Untrained.”

Relyntha stepped toward Naelen, about to weave her way through the crowd of slaves. “No!” Damien shouted, struggling to sit up. He gripped his sword handle and drew. “You’re not going to touch him!” Relyntha silenced Damien with a kick to his jaw. “Owww.” He rolled over, letting his saliva drip onto the ground.

Without speaking, Relyntha moved through the crowd, sending a wave of panic rippling through it. Undisguised, several of the victims recognized her. Some even tried to rush her, only to be skewered by her poisoned blade.

As bodies fell to the ground and chaos broke out upon the hilltop, Naelen looked to see a rogue mountain elf fighting her way through the throng of innocents. She wielded a thin, intricate dagger and did not hesitate to slice through her anyone who confronted her. Was this really happening? There weren’t supposed to be enemies up here. Perhaps some of the Katol clan had followed them?

Naelen pulled out his runed sword, ready to deal with this threat by any means necessary. He could disarm a dagger in his sleep. Perhaps it was slightly fortunate that the threat seemed to be targeting him, not anyone else.

Naelen rushed the mountain elf, aiming to knock the blade out of her hands. It was almost unreal how quick she was to toss her blade in the air, miss Naelen’s swipe, and catch it with her other hand.

“Whoa.” Naelen staggered back, shaken by what he had just witnessed. No one he had ever faced before was that quick. No one. He had to doge Relyntha’s next attack, and parry swift, powerful jabs with his sword. His feet kept moving backward as he defended. It wasn’t until he was angled downward on the hill that he realized the enemy’s strategy: she wanted the vantage, the upper hand.

“Nope!” Naelen spun to the side, whipping himself around to the higher step. Then he felt the sting of a blade slicing across his back. “Ah!” Naelen cursed at himself for leaving his backside so vulnerable, even for a moment. He cursed even more when he felt poison making a mundane wound that much worse. He would not be making that mistake again, he would not let the enemy stab him. Lifting his sword, he came crashing down on Relyntha with all the force he could muster. She blocked him with her dagger, holding him off.

Then she let out a tantalizing cackle. “Where did my daughter find you? I deal with rotting vermin like you every day.”

Naelen grunted when Relyntha pushed him off and went on the offensive, lunging at him. Naelen parried and gained a few inches of higher ground in the process. “Vermin?” he lifted his brows. “That’s a new one.”

Of course, Relyntha did not know what was going through Naelen’s head at that moment. The first time someone insulted him, Naelen had lashed out with violence. Vermin was hardly an insult, but this woman had no idea who he was, or what he was capable of. Maya’s words echoed in his head as he pressed one of his runes to his palm and made it glow white. Stop worrying about what you might not be able to achieve and rise to the occasion.

“Watch me,” he muttered to himself and went in, swiping at Relyntha left and right. With her uncanny speed, Relyntha blocked the elf’s first few attacks, but Naelen splurged on his mana supply to be faster. And faster. And yet even faster. He moved with such speed that his foe was now a slow-moving point on the ground. He could see her blade moving outside of flowing time, inching through the air. From such a still vantage, Naelen could see the blade readying to pierce him in the gut. A bright smile flickered across his face as he stepped to the side and ran the tip of his blade through Relyntha’s unarmored chest. It would have been entertaining to see her go down in slow-motion, but Naelen’s mana would not last and the speed rune would have to be lifted.

Naelen let go, allowing the world around him return to a normal pace. Relyntha’s dagger dropped to the angled ground, and Relyntha herself went falling backward.

“What!” A piercing cry rang from her throat as she tumbled downhill and landed on her side. Naelen went down to her, noticing scrapes along her face and arms. The goriest sight of it was the blood dripping from her mouth and torso. She seemed bewildered and confused as Naelen bent to pull out his sword.

“I thrive on insults,” he said, using the ground to wipe Relyntha’s blood off his weapon. He let her lie there, expecting she would expire soon from her wounds.

Back at the top of the hill, he found Maya coming into view as she sprinted toward him. She could have easily slammed into Naelen if she hadn’t stopped just inches in front.

“Where is she?” Maya glanced around the hilltop. Her guard was up, her senses were obviously alert. Naelen understood what Maya wanted; that rogue mountain elf who had injured several of the victims.

Naelen backed a thumb over his shoulder. “Down there,” he said. His gaze followed Maya as she sprinted down the path he had just come. Maya stopped at Relyntha and lowered herself.

Words were exchanged between them, though they were faint from where Naelen stood. He saw Maya holding Relyntha’s face as she died. This confused Naelen to some degree. Maya’s emotions were very apparent, very…torn. For several moments she stood over the enemy’s body, staring off into the distance.

Perhaps the young woman just needed a moment, so Naelen turned to give her more privacy. He would have to treat his wound before it would fester and in all likeliness kill him. He found his way to the other side of the hilltop where Elias and Tak were crouching over a body. Another victim who appeared to have been stabbed in the stomach.

But Naelen’s own stomach dropped when he recognized Damien lying on the ground. The boy was in terrible shape, a hand pressed firmly to his bleeding gut. A shadowy ring formed around his eyes. Naelen’s anger flooded to his fists, and his feet pressed him into a run. How could he have let this happen? Damien was supposed to be safe and protected on Naelen’s watch. It was the very reason Naelen had accompanied these agents on their violent mission to begin with.

He crouched down, examining the wound for himself. “Damien?” He met the human’s eyes, hoping there was still life in them. Naelen splayed his hands along Damien’s torso, feeling for a heartbeat. Drops of sweat broke along Naelen’s brow, heat dominated his wetting cheeks. “I can fix this. Pl-please. Don’t die.”

A soft groan rippled from Damien’s chest.

Tak, the bowman, reached for a medicinal herb on his belt and sprinkled it on Damien’s wound. “I know this poison,” the man said softly, “There is an antidote made from these herbs.”

Naelen breathed in relief, but he sensed there was a line of bad news coming.

“This wound on the other hand…” Tak shook his head. He brushed the puncture lightly, much like a physician would with a patient. “Bleeding in the intestines, punctured organs. He wouldn’t make it to a healer. Not in time.”

Naelen had never rocked on his knees over anyone before, but he did it now because it was better than running up to Damien’s killer and stabbing her all over again. There were times when Naelen and his brother certainly hadn’t gotten along, but he liked to think they had moved past their differences, formed some sort of friendship in spite of insults and rude jokes.

“Shards!” Naelen would never be able to take it all back now. His brother would die thinking him a cruel idiot. “By the Fates, this isn’t fair.” His own words were choked by his tears. “You’re not– you’re not a freak, Damien…I hope you know that.”

Damien was unable to talk besides a few slurred syllables. He reached for his sword and pressed it into Naelen’s forearm.

There was one word Naelen recognized from Damien’s lips. “Rune.”

“Which rune?” Naelen shrugged. “It’s not like any of mine will help you.”

Damien’s fingers scratched along the blade. “Rune…the blade.”

It took a moment for Naelen to solve what his brother was trying to communicate. “Ohh,” the elf realized. Damien wanted him to create a rune. The intricate engraving for destruction stared back at Naelen as he picked up Damien’s weapon. He had never engraved his own rune before, and admittedly the thought of doing it now jarred him. But what else was to be done? Damien was slipping away into the Fates’ hands, soon to be a soul free of its body.

Naelen closed his eyes, bracing the sword between his palms. In every sense, he was out of mana. He had spent the last of it trying to outplay Relyntha. But still, he tried. He concentrated.

Damien gurgled on the ground. His mouth exerted some sort of white substance, mixed with small amounts of red blood. Naelen tried to stay focused on his task, tried to imagine himself as a more powerful Lor elf. What would a mature Lor elf do?

With no mana to draw on, an elf would likely use some sort of blood sacrifice. Blood magic, though forbidden in modern days, was once attributed to the elves and their primitive ancestors. It was claimed that they had no magic except blood magic before the first Child of the Sepheras came and changed all of that. Even so, there were some Lor elves who still practiced it. Just some.

Resolved, Naelen cut open his left wrist and let it drip onto the blade. The rune glowed amber, giving him a sense of hope.

Both Tak and Elias perked their heads up as they watched Naelen dripping blood all over the blade. “What are you doing?” Tak asked, confused.

“Quiet,” Naelen barked, “I need to concentrate.” The two agents gave him what he needed: silence and space.

It was ill-timed that Maya came back from her moment down at the bottom of the hill and paced up to Naelen from behind. She must have taken in the sight for herself and shuddered at it: the boy dying on the ground, the elf’s left arm soaked in fresh blood.

“What is going on?” she asked slowly, grimly.

“Shh,” Naelen hushed, “Damien needs a healing rune, I’m trying to create one.”

“With blood? I am no Lor elf, but I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“I’m out of mana,” Naelen explained. “And I’m desperate.”

Saying nothing, Maya knelt next to him, placing her hand on the poor wounded human. Bowing her head, she began whispering in a dialect of elvish that Naelen was not accustomed to. Sure, there were plosives and stems that remained true to common elvish, but it was not his elvish. It was Maya’s.

As she spoke, the winds picked up and swirled around them all. Though it was unseen, Naelen could feel the steady pulse of mana cycling like a vortex. It was a technique he had seen his father do many times, especially when creating a rune.

“What?” Naelen puzzled at Maya’s ability, “I thought mountain elves couldn’t do runes.”

“We don’t have runes, no,” Maya said. “That doesn’t mean we cannot draw mana from the rocks, the sky…the sea. We are elves too, you know. Some powers are available to all of us.”

“Right.” Naelen breathed in, allowing himself to soak in the mana that Maya provided. It made a difference. Sure, it was not the striking whirlwind that Naelen’s father could whip up, but it was usable. And…hopefully the blood would count for something, too.

Maya kept whispering, kept making swirls in the air as Naelen carved the rune into the metal. It glowed a warm yellow, a dash of sunlight against a dry, beige ground. The rune sealed itself in the sword, making the metal glow hot.

With his left hand, Naelen formed a ball of that warm sunshine and pressed it to Damien’s wound.

Damien cried out as magic poured into his open skin. Though it seared with pain, he was grateful for it. It took a few moments for Naelen to close the skin together and purge the infection, but soon enough, Damien was whole. He felt life returning to his lungs, to his heart.

“Ah…” He breathed air that did not choke him, felt the course dirt beneath his fingers. But his eyes shot open when another cry came ringing from beside him.

“Agh!” Naelen shook in agony as he held the healing rune in place. Damien moved his head forward to see. The elf’s left arm was drained– literally. Ugly, pale skin ran along Naelen’s forearm, deep blue veins jutted out from beneath.

Damien rested his head back, unable to stare at the grotesque arm. He didn’t think a healing rune would cost Naelen so much. But there was always a physical price to pay for blood-based magic, wasn’t there?