I mentioned in my last post that I was participating in a short story writing challenge, where we were supposed to write, edit, and publish a story in 24 hours or less. So, with two minutes to spare before my 24 hours are up, here’s my short story, Deserter. (Helpful critique is appreciated, if you’d like to give it.)
Zavat’s sword was knocked out of his hand, just before one of the razor-sharp spikes on the duvolon’s tail slashed across his leg. He dropped to the ground as the tail writhed above him, trying to find where his sword had landed among the corpses that littered the ground.
There. His eyes focused in on his weapon, and he dragged himself toward it, trying to stay low, out of sight of the duvolon. It was hard to move himself forward, the ground slick with blood, but he forced himself to keep going. He had to find the sword, had to keep fighting.
Zavat’s fingers slipped around the hilt of the sword. For a moment, he just clung to it, feeling the cold metal beneath his fingertips, remembering the first time he’d seen it, so long ago.
The other soldier—Zavat thought they’d said his name was Tiren—grinned, unsheathing his blade. “You’ve never seen one of these before, kid?”
Zavat shook his head, staring in awe at the sword. “Will I get to use one of those?”
“Not until you’ve trained with this,” he said, tossing him a wooden practice sword.
The younger boy caught it, feeling the rough ridges of the wood beneath his fingertips. Swinging it through the air once, experimentally, he smiled, then looked up at the older soldier. One day, he’d be like him. One day, he’d get to fight.
The gash in Zavat’s leg didn’t look too deep, and he pushed himself upward, moving back toward the duvolon. His eyes caught sight of the battlefield, scattered with bodies. So few men remained, slowly being overpowered by the huge duvolon—the beasts of blood.
A shout of fear and pain reached Zavat’s ears, and his blood ran cold as he recognized the voice. His captain stood a few hundred feet away, fighting one of the duvolon, alone and unaided, looking tiny compared to the ten-foot-tall beast. He wouldn’t be able to survive this, not without help.
He looked up in surprise to find Captain Lucann entering his barracks. Zavat jumped to his feet to salute, but then saw what he was carrying. Fear jolted through him, and he stumbled backward, bumping into his cot. “W-what are you doing with Tiren’s sword?”
“I’m sorry, son. He asked me to give it to you.”
Zavat couldn’t breathe. No. No! “Where is he?”
The captain seemed to be having trouble finding the right words to say. “Tiren died in the battle. He fought bravely, and was killed while defending those he loved. He died well, Zavat.”
“No! You’re lying… He can’t be dead!” The tears were starting to fall from Zavat’s eyes, and he frantically wiped them away.
Captain Lucann didn’t say anything, his face weary, and for a moment, Zavat wondered if he was going to punish him for calling him a liar. He took a step forward, and Zavat pulled away. “I didn’t mean it, Captain,” he said, though his words were marred tears.
“I know, son,” the captain whispered, and then his arms were around Zavat, holding him still and quiet while the boy sobbed. “I know.”
He trembled in the captain’s arms, tears streaming down his face, nose running. “He died. He left me. He left me!”
“No…his death was a brave one. Just because he has died does not mean his life has ended. He will continue to fight in the afterlife, and he will always be with you.”
Zavat couldn’t speak. His world was crashing down around him, crumbling into pieces. His friend was dead, and now he was all alone.
Captain Lucann held him while he wept.
He was almost to the captain when one of the duvolon spotted him, turning its huge head toward him, white tusks and fiery scales glinting in the sunlight as his orange eyes narrowed in on him. Two men were already fighting it, but it ignored them, taking lumbering steps toward him.
The line of men in front of them charged, coming directly toward them. Zavat couldn’t breathe. There were so many of them…they would be slaughtered…he would die…
Unless he ran.
Zavat looked at his captain. The duvolon was too close now. He could not go to him now, unless he wanted it to kill him. He’d have to kill the huge beast first, but would no one help their captain? He was still alone.
The duvolon coming toward him raised its spiked tail, and he ducked under it, aiming for the chink in its scales between its leg and its body. His sword bounced off the scales, and Zavat frantically tried again. He couldn’t hit the tiny open area between the two plates of scales, but Captain Lucann would be dead soon if he didn’t help.
The other two men were stabbing at the creature too, but it would take to long for even the three of them to finally hit it. He needed to be faster, to take it down in time for him to help the captain.
A plan formed in his mind, as he continued dodging out of the way of the tail. The biggest opening between the armor of the scales was on the duvolon’s neck, too high in the air to normally attack. But if he could…
Zavat slid his sword into its scabbard, and waited for the perfect moment, as the tail whipped above him, and the duvolon roared its battle cry. Finally, it moved its head toward him, and he lunged forward, grabbing to one of its huge tusks and clambering onto his face.
The scales were sharp and slippery, slicing his hands and the fabric of his uniform as he tried to move his way upward. It shook its head wildly, trying to fling him off, but he held steady.
He would not run.
Zavat scrambled down the other side of the duvolon’s head, pulling out his sword while trying to keep his balance.
“Watch out!” someone yelled from below him.
He would not run.
With all his strength, Zavat slammed the sword down into the duvolon’s flesh down to its hilt, then ripped it free.
Its tail smashed into him from behind. Spikes pierced him through, then were torn out as the duvolon threw him to the ground among the rest of the bodies.
The corpses covered the ground, pale and blood-spattered, piling on top of each other in some places. So many of them…Zavat felt sick to his stomach.
Pain spread throughout his entire body. He couldn’t open his eyes.
He should have been there. He should have died. He should have been one of those corpses on the ground.
Zavat thought he could hear his captain’s voice, from far, far away.
Captain Lucann stood among the bodies, weeping. From behind the trees, Zavat could see the pain on his face. He shouldn’t be crying, shouldn’t look like that. The guilt rose up in him again, and he stumbled out of the trees to kneel at the feet of his captain.
“Zavat? You survived? Oh, thank the gods, you survived.”
He looked into the captain’s eyes, red-rimmed, filled with pain, and yet smiling to see him. Him.
The tears started to trickle down his face as well, and he lowered his head to the ground. “Captain…”
Could he say it? Could he admit it? “I d-didn’t survive, Captain. I…I… I ran.” The tears came faster now, and he choked up. “I…deserted.”
The captain didn’t say anything for a long, long time, and finally Zavat could bear it no longer. He raised his eyes, and this time, all he saw was disappointment. He had disappointed him. He had left the other men to die alone, had let his fears consume him.
He had failed his captain.
“I will forgive you of this,” said Captain Lucann. “You will be allowed to come back, and will not be punished for your desertion.”
Maybe he knew that the disappointment in his eyes was punishment enough. Maybe he knew that it would haunt him forever. Maybe he knew that execution would be less painful than living on with this guilt.
Zavat fixed his eyes to the ground, unable to speak, and the captain left the same way he’d come.
Zavat forced himself to his hands and knees crawling across the bloody ground. “I’m coming, Captain.” His voice was weak, but he kept moving. “I won’t run anymore. I’m coming…”
Blood spilled from the wounds the duvolon’s spikes had given him. Feebly, Zavat crawled along the ground toward the sound of his captain’s voice, too dizzy to open his eyes. He could feel the life fading from him with every second that passed.
He would not run.
The sunlight hurt his eyes, so bright. Everything was blurred, like an abstract painting, with huge splotches of red-orange paint for the duvolon, and smaller blue swipes for the soldiers, on a background of blue sky and plains dotted with bodies.
Zavat’s eyes finally found the captain, battling with one of the duvolon. He was still alive… He had to help him.
Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth as Zavat rose to his feet, swaying.
He would not run.
Zavat managed a few stumbling steps before his legs collapsed under him and he fell to the ground. One of the other soldiers ran past him, going toward his captain, to help him. Zavat reached after him, but he could barely move.
No… He would not run.
He barely moved a few inches toward the captain, the soldier, and the duvolon. His strength was fading, and now all he could do was lie there, breathing in agony.
He had failed him. He was supposed to have helped him, was supposed to be there for his captain. But now he was dying, deserting his captain again. His captain would find him lying there when his last breath had disappeared, and would wonder why he hadn’t helped him.
Zavat had failed his captain.
The sounds of battle slowly faded around him. The colors slowed and blurred. With each inhale and exhale, Zavat’s life disappeared into the darkness.
A hand touched his shoulder, and the pain rushed back as Zavat struggled to open his eyes, to find out who was there, next to him. He slowly blinked them open.
“C-Captain?” The tears tumbled from his eyes. “I’ve…failed you. I said…I would not run. I…deserted you. I…I’m…sorry.”
He didn’t want to see the disappointment in his captain’s eyes, but Zavat couldn’t help but look, one last time.
The captain’s eyes were filled with tears. “No. I watched you try to come to me when all other men would have let themselves die. You have shown me more loyalty than any other.”
“But…I’m…a deserter.” Zavat coughed a few times, the blood choking in his throat.
He could feel his captain’s hands lifting him up, helping him breathe. “No, Zavat. Not anymore.”
“I…ran. I’m…running…now.” He was dying, leaving his captain behind.
“You must go now…to your new life. You must go bravely, Zavat. You have helped me more than you know, but you cannot stay in this world any longer.”
“Captain…” The darkness was about to consume him. He would be brave, as his captain had commanded. Brave into this new life.
He knew what he must do.