They made it back to the rendezvous point without any incident. Even with Maya sharing the burden of the battering club, Damien was exhausted by the time they reached the destroyed bridge. He let the troll’s tool roll off his shoulders and hit the ground with a quaking thud. Muscles aching, Damien took some respite on the ground, curled his legs into his chest. Elias and Naelen were nowhere in sight, though Damien expected they would turn up soon. It had been an hour since they parted.
He gave Maya no grief as she rolled the battering club toward the river. They would need extra help to lay it across, however, so it was best to wait on their companions. Several boring moments later, he finally made out Captain Elias’ figure on the horizon, and trailing behind him was a young, blond elf. They both carried something in their arms but Damien couldn’t make it out from that distance. Once they got closer, he realized they both had a pile of long, blood-stained bones. They placed them on the ground near where Damien sat.
“This is all we found,” Elias reported. “Perhaps we could rope them together.”
Damien rolled his eyes. Great, he thought, another problem to solve. Where were they supposed to get rope?
“Maya,” Elias gestured her over to him, “you still have that trader’s string, yes?”
“I do,” Maya said, and pulled out a long, clumped string from her pocket. “It’s right here.”
“Good.” Elias took the string and went to work, binding the two longest bones together.
“Hold on,” Damien stopped him and pointed to the battering club they had carried. “Perhaps you could tie them to that? Make it longer?”
It was then Elias noticed the huge object that sat parallel to the river, and he squinted in confusion. “You…found that?”
“Yes, Maya and I carried it here. It was in an empty troll’s cave.”
“Ah, then let’s hope its owner doesn’t miss it. At least, not before we cross.”
As Elias and Maya worked to extend the battering club, Naelen paced over to Damien and looked down at him. “That’s certainly a big object,” he said, his pale eyebrows skewing. “And you carried it all the way here?”
“Well, Maya helped.” Damien shrugged.
“It was incredible,” Maya said from a few paces away. “You should have seen him lift it.”
Then Naelen’s face lit up, as if he had won a bet for lots of gold. “I knew it! I knew you had enhanced strength this whole time. I’m not crazy!”
Damien laughed, his face spreading into a wide grin. “No, you’re not crazy, Naelen.”
“Why have you never mentioned it? If I was that strong I would certainly let people know.”
“It’s not a big deal where I come from,” Damien said. “It took me a long time to understand that most people were weaker than me. As as a child, I had no idea because everyone around had the same ability. Powerful strength and what-not.”
Naelen dipped his voice. “But, you’re not a dark elf, Damien. How would you have their abilities?”
“I think it has to do with my Ithunil ancestors.” But this made Naelen even more puzzled, so Damien brushed it off. “I’ll explain later.”
The bridge was ready, and the time came for them to lay it across the narrow river. The task proved to be more difficult than Damien anticipated, lifting their makeshift object and having it catch on the other side. They had to try a few times before it finally set securely as a walkway. Naelen went across first, because he was the lightest and the most sure-footed amongst the four. Then Maya took her turn, and Damien was relieved that the bridge supported her weight without bending or sliding about. She reached the other side safely, gripping Naelen as he helped her.
From the corner of his eye, Damien saw Elias hold out his palm in a permissive gesture. “Go on, boy,” the captain said, volunteering to cross last. Damien stepped onto the bridge and shifted a bit as he found his balance. With care, his feet shimmied across the river, and his eyes stared at the murky water below. Maya and Naelen both held onto him as he made the last few paces and hopped onto the other side.
The three of them all watched as Captain Elias stepped onto the strip and inched over the water. Then, a heavy boulder crashed into the river and cracked the battering club beneath his feet. Elias screamed as he lost his balance and fell into the water.
It was unbelievable. One moment, Elias was there and the next, he was washing away downstream. Coughing on acidic liquid. Damien reacted, sprinting to chase the captain. His friend. Behind him, a loud, angry roar shattered the air, and when he turned to it, he made out the shape of a troll standing on a high ledge some fifty paces away.
Immediately, Damien realized why anyone failed to notice the troll to begin with: it blended into the rocks too well. It was huge, yet rather hidden in plain sight. Its frame was bulky and thick, its chest was plated with gray stone– or perhaps a similar material. Its head was bald and round. Patches of grayish rock covered its arms and legs, even its tusks were made of the same material that protected its body.
Damien was torn. Did he stand and fight, or did he run to save Elias? Damien chose the latter, and let his friends face the troll. His feet carried him swiftly downstream, and he kept his eyes steadied on Elias as he drifted. Damien was so thankful for the boulder that sat ahead toward the edge of the river. Once he reached it, he jumped on, barely missing the water as he pulled himself up.
“Elias!” Damien shouted, hoping the captain could see him standing on the boulder. “Swim over here!”
With weary limbs, Elias pedaled over to Damien and clasped a side of the rock with his hands. Damien got on his knees and hunched forward to pull the captain out. Elias panted once his body laid face down on the rock. He was alive, but the sight and smell was awful. His suit was worn to a thin, flimsy layer that seemed to tear off in pieces. His skin was red and covered in sore welts that gave off a scorching scent. It was like looking upon a husk.
Damien felt the captain gripping his hand, saw the fading look in his friend’s eye. “Thank you,” Elias rasped before passing out.
“Damn it.” Damien glanced around. It was one thing to get onto the boulder by himself, it was another to carry an unconscious human while getting off. He gripped the sides of his head, cursing. “Oh, damn it!” He didn’t know what to do next: would he stay here with Elias, or leave to aid his friends?
Damien chose the latter. He jumped off the boulder and left Elias there, certain the captain was out of harm’s way. Damien crashed onto the ground and tumbled forward, rolling in dirt and other debris before picking himself up. Then he sprinted, albeit slowly now that he had spent so much of his stamina. He reached his friends in due time, saw how close they had gotten to the troll.
The creature remained on its high vantage, chucking rocks and boulders at them as it pleased. Maya and Naelen weren’t fighting the troll so much as dodging and defending. Naelen had his sword drawn and used his speed rune as needed to miss the troll’s projectiles. And Maya… She still had no physical weapon with which to defend.
“Where’s your weapon, Maya!” Damien yelled at her, not realizing he was so emotional, angry. Why did he feel such anger toward her? She hadn’t done anything wrong.
Maya was too focused to spare him a glance, but she answered his question. “I lost my whip a few months ago. Haven’t been able to replace it.”
A whip? That was her weapon of choice? Like it would do any good against a troll anyway.
“Damien!” Naelen shouted at him, “I need your sword!”
“No,” Damien refused. “You need to save your mana!”
Naelen gestured to the troll, growing frustrated. “I could take this thing down in one blow! I just need the rune for it.”
“No!” What a ridiculous notion that was. The troll was armored, a destruction rune would barely leave a gash, not to mention it would deplete Naelen’s reserve for nothing. “No…” Damien’s mind sparked an idea. In order to damage the troll, they would have to wear down its armor first. All he could picture was Elias and how the river had turned his clothes into mush. Damien looked up at the troll and traced a line from its position to the river almost directly below it. Then he pulled out his sword and offered it to Naelen. “If you’re going to use it, aim for the troll’s feet.”
“Huh?” Naelen seemed thrown-off by the suggestion. “Why?”
Damien let his hands trace the line he saw to help explain. “If we can get it to land in the river, its armor will become useless, then we can slash at it all we want and bring it down.”
“Ah.” The elf lifted his chin. “Brilliant idea, Damien. I’ll do my best.” Naelen gripped the sword and held it up like an assassin about to strike. As his fingers brushed over the destruction rune, it glowed a dark orange and coated the blade with power. Then he lunged forward, pointing his fingers outward. Even from a distance, Damien saw the bones in the troll’s left shin break open from the inside. The heavy rock it had been holding rolled to the ground and into Maya’s path. The woman yelled out a curse while dodging the boulder that would crush her. Damien immediately regretted handing over his sword, but his actions and Naelen’s careful aim rewarded them when the troll went tumbling forward from the ledge and splashed into the acidic water below. A suffering scream emanated from the creature’s throat. Its arms beat the water and kicked up droplets that got on Damien’s skin and clothes. It burned even more than he had expected, left red welts where it stung.
The troll did not seem to burn in the water, but it was certainly uncomfortable as it struggled to balance on one leg. Damien held out his arm and took hold of his sword once again. Yelling, he went forward and stuck his blade in the troll’s neck. The creature bled this icky green ooze, then Damien felt a crushing fist beat against his ribs. “Oof!” He fell backward, winded. He didn’t have the strength to pull himself up after that hit. He was done.
“Ah!” Naelen slashed at the troll. His sword scraped against its chest and caused sparks to fly out. Damien said its armor would be useless, but that clearly wasn’t the case. At least, not yet. All their actions had done so far was maim the troll and make it even more enraged. Naelen was fairly certain that soon it would also make them dead. The only thing he could think to do was stall the troll while waiting for the acid to take effect. As far as Naelen was concerned, his tactic was working. The troll stayed focused on him as Maya moved in the background. He glanced at her every few seconds to gauge what she was doing. She moved toward Damien where he laid on the ground and reached out her hand.
“I need your help,” she said, pulling him to his feet. She gestured to the high ledge the troll had been standing on a few moments ago. It was still laden with loose boulders, the least of which were quite heavy. She had Damien follow her as she climbed up to the ledge, and Naelen pieced together what they were aiming to do.
“Naelen!” Maya called down to him. “Keep it busy, you hear me?”
“What do you think I’ve been doing?” he called back, dishing out another slash. “Just…hurry.”
He didn’t need to watch as Maya and Damien struggled to move one of the boulders. Naelen could hear it, feel the rumbles shaking from the top of the rocky slopes. The two of them grunted as the boulder inched from its place and over the edge. With careful timing, Naelen moved out of the way as the heavy rock tumbled down the slope and crashed onto the troll’s head. Both the creature and the boulder made a wide, concussive splash that drenched him in water. Naelen cried as the acid stung his eyes, hands, chest, and feet. His skin felt hot beneath his clothes, and looking upon the world was now difficult. His vision was blurred, could barely make out the troll and its movements. He did his best to wipe the water out of his face, but it didn’t do much to clear his eyes.
Based on the vibrations he felt beneath him, the troll attempted to climb out of the riverbed. Naelen couldn’t let that happen, so he ran toward the creature and jumped. His feet slipped along the troll’s thick arm and shoulder before he found his balance and planted himself behind its head. Pressing a palm to his sword, Naelen activated his strength rune and sank the tip of his blade down, piercing the troll’s neck. He did this several times, until his rune ran out and disgusting green blood dipped all over him. He felt the troll’s body sinking down into the water and swiftly made a jump for dry land. His footing broke at the last moment when the troll’s figure hit the sheer slope above them and sent Naelen falling in the wrong direction. He was about to hit the water himself before an arm reached down and grabbed him from midair.
It was hard for Naelen to make out the shapes above him, but he was certain Maya was now dangling from the ledge as she held onto Damien with her other arm. She was the middle link in this chain the three of them now formed, and Naelen heard Damien grunting as he pulled them both up.
“Holy shards,” Naelen said as he watched the ground shrinking below him. The troll lied still and bleeding in the water, and somehow they were all alive. They had just defeated a troll. Not something Naelen would ever venture to do again. Ever.
He let himself breath once he felt sturdy ground beneath him again. He felt Maya’s hands bracing both sides of his face.
“Are you alright?” she asked, as though she were a healer or a doctor. “Your eyes are very red.”
“I know.” Naelen blinked several times. “I can’t really see.”
“That’s not good,” she said, getting to her feet. “We’ll be sure to get you both taken care of, but we shouldn’t stay here.”
“Agreed,” Damien said behind them. Naelen turned and got a look at his brother. If he were being honest, Damien seemed worse. His ribs appeared to be dented inward, barely supporting his stance. Maya walked with them both as they made their way down the rocky slopes and onto the flat, level ground.
Damien pointed into the distance, downstream. “I left Elias over there,” he said, breathing tightly. He showed them to the boulder where Elias laid damaged by acid.
“I can heal him,” Naelen said, reaching out his arm.
“You mean, you’re not out of mana?” Damien asked.
“No, you told me to save it, remember? Good call, I see.”
Damien handed his sword over, then Naelen climbed on top of the boulder and knelt down beside Elias. He tore away the vest and shirt that covered Elias’ chest, activated the healing rune. Once the glowing yellow orb was formed in his hand, Naelen pressed it to the captain’s skin and let the warm magic wash over him. When the rune faded, Naelen activated it again and ran his hands over Elias’ swollen torso. The healing rune touched his arms, chest, shoulders, and belly before it ran out. They waited for the man to open his eyes, show some sort of response, but nothing happened.
Something was wrong. No breath streamed through the captain’s lungs, his heart gave off no pulse. Just to be sure, though, Naelen pressed his ear to Elias’ chest and listened. “It’s not good,” he said quietly, his eyes darting to Maya. “He’s not responding.”
Maya was there in an instant, crouching over Elias, taking his face in her palms as well. “Ecoa,” she said, shaking him. “Ecoa iata Elias!”
Naelen could only assume she was trying to say ‘awaken’ in her dialect, but not even her words could reach the man now. His soul had passed on. “There’s no heartbeat,” Naelen shook his head. “It must have been too much.”
“Damn it!” Damien cursed, his fists going stiff. “He was alive when I left him, I was certain he would make a recovery. I’m sorry, Maya, I didn’t mean to…”
Maya craned her head to him, tears now ran down her cheeks. “This isn’t your doing,” she said, then surrendered herself to weeping. Her forehead brushed against Elias’, her nose traced down his face and chin before her lips settled over his mouth. She bid the man farewell with a broken kiss before ripping herself away from him. She took the sword from his waist, all the solid objects in his pockets and on his person. “Be at peace, friend.”
Naelen watched as Maya rolled the captain’s corpse into the river and let it float downstream. “Why?” Naelen voiced his curiosity. “He’s your friend, why not bury him?”
“Because we can’t carry him with us,” she began, her eyes turning into pools of anger. “And I would rather let his body disintegrate than leave it here for trolls to devour! I make this choice for myself, Lor elf. Not for you, not for anyone.” She stormed down from the boulder and back onto the level dirt where Damien stood. “Come on, it’s not safe here.”
Damien and Naelen refrained from speaking as they both followed.