Return of Faith
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
“Every single time,” the young lady bemoaned. “No matter how many times I try to bring my forces against you, or what strategies I employ, I never win!”
The woman across the table flashed a wry grin as she twisted the quartz crystal that hung from the leather cord against her bosom. “Strategy and numbers mean nothing against such a dependable force. My team has been traveling together for some time, and as important as victory is for me, their true strength lies in the bonds they’ve made over the years.”
“You’re a strange one, Shazra,” the young lady teased. “You act as though the faces on those medallions are living a life of their own. They’re just toys.”
“Miss Kradun, toys do not earn someone a living,” Shazra said with a smile. The well-dressed woman extended her hand, displaying her palm as those delicate fingers uncurled.
Her opponent shook her head and blew out an annoyed sigh. As her hand slipped off the table, she furrowed her brow. “You know, a lot of people play this game simply for the fun of it.”
“Oh, spare me your good manners. You just trounced me like you’ve known me for years.”
“Fine,” Shazra smiled. “Diane…What part of my victory don’t you think I found fun?”
A sneer was cast her way, but the small leather pouch landed in her waiting hand, regardless. “What do you plan on doing with that?”
“Perhaps a few more medallions are in order. My champions could use some new equipment—and maybe even a new friend or two.”
Diane rose from her seat in the tavern’s veranda. “You could do to get another one for yourself,” the younger competitor teased again. She tapped her companion on the shoulder and swept her medallions – the ones that had been flipped over in defeat – into her bag.
Shazra stood and offered a polite bow. “If you want to make another attempt at my crown, I’ll be back in Sungarden in a few months. That should give you plenty of time to upgrade your collection.”
“Oh, no,” Diane scoffed. “Half my money goes to purchasing these medallions. But a fat lot of good that does me when I lose the other half to you, anyway! No, next time we meet here, I’ll be using that money to buy myself a good meal, and that’ll be the end of it.”
“That would be more than acceptable,” Shazra replied. She reached forward and pulled her frequent opponent into a warm embrace. “Until next time.”
“Until next time,” Diane said. She kissed her companion on the cheek and then cinched her bag shut. Without any further delay, she sped toward the door.
Alone, Shazra took a moment to bask in the glow of victory. The smell of the tavern’s brunch meals overtook her then – eggs and sausage, biscuits and gravy, all mixing to form a delicious aroma she had somehow ignored until that moment. Her eyes navigated to that newly acquired pouch of coins, but she shook her head after considering opening it.
One by one, the woman stacked the medallions with one gentle motion after another. The pictures of the kaja thief, the kobold hunter, the dedicated orc, and human warriors were pulled together before she tied a length of purple thread up and around the pile.
“Leaving so soon, dear?” came a voice from behind her.
Shazra turned to see the kind old face of the establishment’s owner. “Hello, Jerome. I didn’t expect to finish in such a hurry either, but we surprised ourselves today.”
“And I can’t convince you to stay for a bite or two?”
“You know I’d love to. But there are more funds to add to the old war chest,” she joked.
“Yes, of course. Where to next? Viscosa? Atalatha?”
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. I hear there’s a new town coming together not far from here. Just a few days north on foot—far less if I can hitch a ride on a carriage.”
“If it’s where I think it is, I don’t think they’d have what you were looking for. Nobody plays your little game there.”
“Not yet,” Shazra said. “But with a little convincing, some may start.”
“Breeding your own challengers now, eh?”
“It’s the only way to grow stronger.”
Jerome nodded. “Well, if you ever need a place to stay, the Silver Lily will always accommodate you.”
Shazra bowed again. “Your generosity is always astounding. That’s why I always choose this establishment to mount my victories.”
“To the many more you are bound to have,” the owner said. He pulled her into a tight embrace and kissed her on the cheek. Jerome parted from her and continued along his path, cleaning the tables that had been occupied that morning.
Alone with her thoughts and her medallions, Shazra nodded. Gathering all of her belongings, the woman turned to the entrance of the tavern. She clutched the quartz amulet that hung above her breasts and smiled. “You have done well, my champions. Help is on the way.”
* * * * *
In that field, covered in the blood of their enemies, Pomir heard the familiar whisper on the wind. The kobold worked at making a poultice while Fe’Pavi and Ste’Narl nursed their wounds.
His friend, the knight of Gardone, plucked the few items of value off of his felled foes and turned about to his friends. “We were lucky Shazra sent us that ankh a few weeks back,” Benton said. “You wouldn’t be standing here, my friend.”
“He’s a smart one,” the kaja cooed. “He knew what he was doing. And because of bravery like that – standing in the face of danger! – we’ve found victory once again for our lady.”
Ste’Narl offered a weary nod. “She somehow knew where to send us, and we found the forces that threatened this land. By the gods, our lady is good.”
“Aye, the lady is good,” Benton agreed. “But let us hope Pomir’s poultice is better. You’ve got a nasty injury there, and I’d like to see us get back to the keep before it gets infected.”
The revived kobold stood and reached the wounded orc, slathering the fresh poultice on the puncture.
“Gah, that smells like troll dung,” Ste’Narl protested.
“You don’t look much better than it, Sten,” Fe’Pavi teased.
Pomir grabbed the orc’s hand and placed it against the dressing. “Don’t take it off. This thing might be all that keeps you alive until we get to the keep.” He slapped it for good measure, inciting a growl from the stern orc. Pomir rose and turned to the lone human among their group. “Benton, walk with me.”
The knight tried his best to hide his concern, but he did as instructed and followed the kobold into the tall grass where Kradun lay amongst the fallen. “Is everything all right, my friend?”
“As fine as can be expected, considering the opposition we fought against.” Pomir shook his head before looking at the tips of his boots. “You need to know something, lad. I didn’t have the ankh with me. That is to say…I don’t remember having it on my body – the only way it would have worked.”
“So what are you saying, Pomir? It just ended up in your tunic without you realizing it?”
The kobold shook his head, his floppy, furry ears waving in the breeze. “I think it was Shazra.”
“Shazra?” Benton echoed. “She’s a hundred miles away. There’s at least three days between us.”
“I know, I know,” Pomir said. “We’ve always questioned the faith Fee and Sten put in her. But…Something is different now. I died, Benton. I didn’t just fall down and pass out. I was on the edge of something final.”
“So what…You think Shazra is some kind of goddess now?”
“I don’t know what to think, my friend,” the kobold admitted. “But the world is not as simple as I believed it was yesterday.” He blew out a sigh, as though he knew what he spoke of would be received with incredulity. “And our friends here will not walk from here to the keep. We need to find some other manner of transportation for them.”
“We’ll get a wagon from a nearby village,” Benton said.
“Agreed. Why don’t you stay here with them? With all that armor, you won’t make it very far in any short amount of time. And Sten needs all the time he can get.”
The knight nodded and clapped his friend on the shoulder. “I’ll keep them safe. You watch your back in the meantime.”
Pomir swung his bow over his shoulder and burst into a sprint, back toward the forest they emerged from. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he had something real to believe in.