Return of Faith
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
It was like the sound of a whip snapping right beside his head. His ears flinched, even though it wasn’t the first time the crack resounded. Pomir looked down, past his elongated snout, and saw the second feathered shaft sticking out of his chest. He whimpered, tears streaming down his furry face as he fell to a knee.
That was not the weeping of a person enraptured by pain, but of confusion and doubt. The kobold considered the emptiness he felt inside in that moment. What was waiting for him beyond the darkness? Was there anything at all?
He dropped his long wooden bow at his side and grasped both bolts firmly in his padded hands. Pomir panted then, three subtle gasps escaping on his breaths, and wobbled forward. Then, without resistance, the kobold fell forward, his body landing upon the ground with a thud.
Fe’Pavi rounded the dense copse of trees as quickly as her lithe form would allow her. The kaja’s eyes instantly settled on the fallen kobold.
“No,” she whined.
Moisture dampened the short hairs that grew on the kaja’s face as she sped toward Pomir’s body. As she neared the edge of the forest, she dropped to all fours, skidding to a halt. Hesitantly, she reached out to the kobold and turned him over.
The bolts had snapped, but the blood still pooled from the wounds in Pomir’s chest. Fe’Pavi moved to sit beside her friend’s upper body and lifted his head, cradling it in her arms. She moaned, looking up at the canopy of the forest, as if something above her could rid her of the torment she felt.
The others arrived not far from where she had first seen the kobold lying lifeless. She turned toward them; her ears pressed back, her pupils growing large as she realized her friend was dead.
The human and the orc looked past the kaja, past the edge of the forest, their visions settling on the lone gnoll who armed his crossbow again. Fe’Pavi noticed her companions’ reactions and turned slowly to see what had drawn their attention. Even as the gnoll took aim, however, she was stunned.
The human, dressed in full armor, was not.
He sprang out, running straight at the kaja girl, determination etched upon his face. It was as if his armor was paper-thin, the man not allowing the weight of his gear to burden him.
“Benton, don’t,” the orc yelled.
“I’ve got to save her, Sten!” Benton replied.
Ste’Narl growled and quickly fell in behind Benton, resting his golden axe upon his shoulder as he ran.
The gnoll loosed his crossbow bolt, and it flew straight at the mesmerized kaja, her feline features causing her to look oblivious, though she knew well the fate she would soon embrace. The bolt would end her life, as surely as it had ended Pomir’s, and she would gladly share the afterlife with him.
It was not meant to be. A shield suddenly filled Fe’Pavi’s vision, catching the bolt across its broad side, resulting in a loud clang humming in her ears. The strong arm of her human ally wrapped around her chest, beneath her shoulders, and pulled her up. She let her grip on Pomir slip, and Benton dragged her away from the corpse of the kobold.
Benton held her tight against his own body as he braced himself against a tree on the outset of the forest. He turned to watch Ste’Narl running down the opposite side of the fallen kobold, who cursed as another bolt sped by.
“You really are a stupid human,” Ste’Narl said when he finally arrived at a tree about ten feet away from Benton and Fe’Pavi.
Benton laughed, showing his radiant white teeth – the color his armor had been before the soils of battle. “You know me well, friend.”
Ste’Narl shook his head, a low growl filling the quiet woods. He leaned against the tree that defended him from the gnoll and peered out of the forest. Another bolt went flying past him, and he withdrew to his previous position behind the massive oak.
“Pomir,” Fe’Pavi suddenly cooed, the single word whispered, but with such massive implications, it sounded like a shout.
Benton squeezed tighter, understanding what was about to happen. “He died in the name of Shazra, Fee.”
“We’ve got to get around that archer, boy,” Ste’Narl said.
“Pomir!” Fe’Pavi yelled.
The orc scoffed and looked to his side. “Blasted gods,” he said. “He’s not alone.”
Benton opened his mouth to question Ste’Narl, but a burning pain erupted within his hand. He looked down to see the kaja’s sharp incisors sinking deep into his skin. Reflexively, he pulled his arm away, tearing flesh in two straight lines. Fe’Pavi instantly escaped his grasp, tumbling out into the opening between the trees. Her eyes focused on the gnoll, and she broke into a sprint.
The human, too, stepped to the side, watching as the kaja bounded out toward the gnoll, who stood almost twice as tall as she.
“Benton, don’t!” Ste’Narl said. “There’s a lagano coming!”
If the human showed any sign of hearing the orc’s warning, he didn’t make it known. Benton was already in motion, following the kaja’s movements.
“Stupid human!” Ste’Narl roared.
Fe’Pavi moved with purpose. The gnoll raised his crossbow again, and she pressed forward, unafraid. A bolt launched out at her, but she reacted deftly, pivoting her trailing foot and turning to the side, pressing a step away from the projectile. She was back in her original position a moment later, before the bolt had even struck Benton’s shield.
After the shield swayed from his face, Benton noticed the fast-approaching figure on his right. The lagano was running at full speed, his long silver spear catching a glimmer of the setting sun as it bounced in the creature’s scaly grip. Benton turned and angled toward that enemy instead, knowing he would never catch up to the dexterous kaja.
“I’ve got him, boy!” Ste’Narl yelled. “Save the girl!”
The human frowned, knowing how difficult his given task would be. He turned again, watching as Fe’Pavi placed more and more distance between the two of them.
Another bolt flew past her, that time so far off that the kaja didn’t even have to move. But as she closed the gap to less than twenty feet, the gnoll carefully loaded and aimed his crossbow one more time. Fe’Pavi lowered her head and kept up her sprint, even as she heard the twang of the bolt leaving the launcher. She only saw the missile for a moment before she felt its agonizing sting. In that next instant, she tumbled over her own weight, landing upon her back among the tall grass.
The gnoll moved in, a towering figure about the plains, and dropped his crossbow. Fe’Pavi yowled in pain, gripping the shuddering shaft that had entered her thigh, but as she saw the gnoll retrieve a large halberd from behind his back, she replaced the noise with a defiant hiss. He stepped forward, though, and cleaved down with the polearm, a war cry upon the lips of his elongated muzzle.
But Benton was there. The crescent blade scratched against the steel shield, and the human had to fight against the numbness building in his arm after taking that tremendous blow. He lunged forward, pressing the gnoll away from both he and Fe’Pavi.
Ste’Narl had begun his own encounter. The lagano had meant to pursue the human, but the orc had made his appearance known, sending two throwing daggers out at the reptilian humanoid. They were both promptly deflected by the shaft of the lagano’s lance.
Both olive-skinned warriors focused on each other then, meeting some ten yards southeast of Benton and Fe’Pavi. Ste’Narl made the first move, launching himself forward with his oversized axe, though the lagano threw his body to the side with plenty of time, prodding forth with the tip of the silver spear. Ste’Narl was quick on his feet, though, and dodged out of the way as well.
The lagano moved with uncanny speed, setting a series of attacks upon the orc, the spear stabbing forward half a dozen times in just as many seconds. Ste’Narl met each thrust tirelessly, deflecting the first and last attacks with his axe and all those in-between with his free left hand. He hopped back and spun the large golden axe in a wide vertical circle, a half-smile showing on his face. The lagano dipped his spear and nodded to his opponent.
A chorus of steel on steel rang out as Benton showered sword strikes against the gnoll’s halberd. Both fighters pressed farther away from the fallen kaja. As they moved, Benton pushed closer toward the huge gnoll, coming far too close for the creature to use the halberd effectively. Not content to just inconvenience his enemy, Benton threw his momentum forward, smashing the gnoll with his shield. The opponent stumbled backward, and the human pressed forward again, thrusting his sword deep into the creature’s knee.
A loud howl permeated the air, which Benton immediately silenced with a slash to the throat. The gnoll fell to the ground, and as his body slumped away from eye level, Benton saw in the distance the leader of the enemy army.
She was a youthful beauty, who chose not to let that attractive quality stay her ruthless aggression. She brought out two scimitars from her nearly seamless attire made of leather and lace. Though she met Benton’s determined glare with a fierce gaze of her own, her eyes darted beyond him to the rest of the battlefield.
“Skithis,” she hissed, her voice carrying farther than her voice seemed capable of. “Wherricks is dead. Come finish off this foul human.”
At the conclusion of her orders, the dark maiden pointed toward the knight with one of her blades but stood stoically, her feet never moving a single step.
Ste’Narl had heard the words as clearly as the lagano did. Her commands did nothing to distract the warrior, however. With all the ferocity he could muster, the orc raised his axe high and dropped it just as quickly. The reptilian opponent did the only thing he could to parry the furious attack, pivoting his spear into his free hand and holding the weapon out perpendicularly to the falling, cleaving blade.
Even in the light breeze of the autumn afternoon, the scimitar refused to budge, as if nature had no pull on it. Benton chose not to focus on that sharpened steel, his vision instead passing farther behind Kradun to more of her henchmen.
The armored infantry looked like orcs at first, their complexion similar to that of Benton’s ally. He knew better when he saw their sharpened, broken, twisted teeth separating into a duet of irate war cries as the goblins barreled toward him.
The knight’s stride never faltered.
The orc’s eyes nearly fell from his face when the smaller weapon did not break, did not even bend against the sheer force of his massive axe. That shock translated easily into an evil grin that separated the lips of the lagano. In only a fraction of a second, the spear turned again, inward, toward Ste’Narl’s abdomen. His weapon too hefty to bring to bear so quickly across his unguarded front, he could only swat aside with one of his hands.
The move did little to sway the incoming lance. Ste’Narl felt the stinging bite of the serrated spear as it pushed within the soft flesh just above his pelvis. That cruel and agonizing pain grew tenfold as the jagged edges were removed, tearing at his already lacerated body. With no strength left in his body, the orc relinquished his hold on the golden axe, spilling it to the ground.
He joined it there several moments later, only able to watch as the lagano broke away from him, sprinting back toward his master and the incredibly outnumbered human.
If Benton knew he was facing dire odds, it didn’t show. He met the two goblins without slowing, enraged and infuriated. Like a man possessed, he thrust out with his sword with such forcefulness that the first of his opponents couldn’t defend itself. With a goblin skewered on the end of his sword, he relied only on his shield.
Momentum still on his side, he slammed into the remaining goblin so quickly that it fell from its feet, landing hard upon the ground.
The heavy steps of the reptilian lancer rapidly approached the human’s flank. The instantaneous thwip that cut through the air was more pronounced, especially as it entered the lagano’s scaly flesh.
Fe’Pavi, still grounded from her own throbbing anguish, strained to look through the tall grass behind her. What she saw stole her breath away.
For there, at the border of the woods, was Pomir, standing as if nothing had ever happened to him. The kobold pulled back again on the string of his bow, looking down his snout at the end of his sight. He let go again in an instant, watching as the arrow soared through the air and connected once again into the back of the lizard warrior.
A smile formed on Fe’Pavi’s face, the same confident grin that had just separated Benton’s lips. The knight kicked the impaled goblin off of his sword and swung the weapon across and down, driving it into the other infantry.
Only Kradun remained.
Despite the pain, Ste’Narl let a roar slip from his mouth. “In the name of Shazra,” he cried out.
Fe’Pavi joined in, letting her voice enter the chorus. “In the name of Shazra!”
The kobold smiled but didn’t allow the sudden swing of battle to leave him overconfident. The lagano was still standing, and Pomir was out of arrows. With the little energy that had returned to him, the warrior hound unsheathed his sword and bounded forth.
Benton turned to his human foe, his brow furrowed, his eyes focused. As he charged forward, Kradun crossed her scimitars before her, willing to meet the enemy head on. The white knight leapt into the air, bringing his sword over his head.
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