Joel Borelli

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Chapter One

On a diffuse level, today changed little from yesterday, as will tomorrow from today. Like last month to this, on to next; all the same. Next year from this year from last another eerie echo. And on it goes this life of mine.

Oh, my life is not so mundane, so redundant, so boring. The particular does change, quite drastically sometimes, from moment to moment even. The people I have met—simply innumerable. The places I have been—I could map the world in unerring accuracy. This world’s mysteries I have discovered—stories fantastic enough to enrapture the most discriminating ear. Yet these are not the point.

My name is Varek Hai and I am the last Defender. That is the point.

And after years upon countless years of duty, I now endeavor to record for history’s sake my recent adventures, the culmination of my long years of service. Like the game of Glory; by a higher hand I am strategically moved across this board called life, to play my role in the ultimate contest between good and evil.

I watched the sun stretching its last rays across the world, like the amber fingers of a giant clinging desperately to the horizon, yet inevitably losing its grip to slide off the edge of the world in its daily fall into the blackness of beyond. I kissed Volare into a trot, down the hill toward the giant’s outstretched palm and into Riverside.

I am where I am supposed to be. That is to say I have arrived at my latest destination. Tomorrow? Only the Mother knows. I wear the ring and wield the sword. The former takes me, the latter protects me, and the Mother delivers me. It is in these three that a Defender trusts. Indeed it is in these three that I am.

I am a tall man and broad. I prefer knee-high lambskin riding boots, soft, snug hunting trousers and simple, loose fitting airy shirts of green or brown or black underneath my traveling cloak of dark green. My long, sandy brown hair done up in the warrior braid fashion still commands respect in most kingdoms. I flip my braid over my shoulder as I enter Riverside.

Riverside is a bustling city, cradled in the arms of the Baug River from the south and the Wight River from the north where they fold into the mighty Marathe on its westward march to the sea.

Entering from the north I rode through an outer wall of granite, two spans high and so well constructed as to appear seamless. Stonework is the hallmark of Minao, of which Riverside is an integral part. In fact, Riverside serves as a crossover, bringing the famed red Minao marble quarried from the Crags to the east, floated down the Baug River on barges and then transferred to wagon trains and hauled south along the King’s Highway to the master masons of Minao.

The gates were flung wide, though well guarded by a dozen soldiers in the full red and yellow panoply of the King’s Guard. Through them I rode, against the flow of farmers and tradesmen leaving the city, their business ended for the day, their anxious faces turned toward the comfortably rustic homes I passed in the countryside. The stone-paved road angling southeast carved its way through shops and storefronts, inns and public houses, and the lesser-to-do residences of Riverside, modest dwellings, structures of stone and timber, both of which were in plentiful supply, and nearly all adorned with a slate roof. Riverside was prosperous and proud. If the buildings themselves failed to convey this truth, certainly its people did. Straight backed and well dressed, its inhabitants carried themselves with an air of dignity bordering on superiority. Opulence left its trace of vanity throughout. A jeweler’s sign with gold leaf lettering hung in a window, enough gold in those letters to feed a country village for a year. Elaborate stained glass portraits filled windows of even the smallest dwellings. Not a dress could be seen without at least a touch of lace, and nary a hand waved that was not bejeweled with at least one small stone flashing brilliantly in the last rays of the sun. Even the beggars wore clean clothing, if worn.

This place was in for a hard fall. Else I would not be here.

I turned east with the main road along the Marathe’s northern bank looking for the Jolly Jointer, a comfortable inn I remembered from some years past. My shadow stretched long before me as the sun made a last but futile attempt to remain above the horizon. Lamps were being lit and people bustled about, hurrying to complete their final errands and make their way to a comfortable supper with family and friends.

As I spied my destination, a four story stone building with a blue slate roof and windows stained to match, my nosed twitched with the acrid, pungent odor of burning sulfur. The smell was my first warning. I watched my shadow on the ground before me expand. That was the next warning. A demon of Hera Hona was upon me.

Making myself small, I ducked forward and dug my heels into Volare’s flanks, grabbing a fistful of mane with my left hand as he sprang instantly to a gallop. My shadow continued its unnatural growth even as I sought to outpace it. I felt a soft tug on my shirt back. With a squeeze of my legs Volare darted to the left, up under the wooden canopy fronting a public house, hooves scrabbling to a halt. Screaming people dove from our path, over the railing into the street or inside through windows, shutters thrown wide to let the evening breeze freshen the place.

I could feel that breeze upon my back, through the tear in my shirt, but could see nothing of its maker. People displaced by my mad dash through the street and up onto the boardwalk cursed me. Ignoring them, I slid off my horse and unbuckled from my saddle the round wooden shield with its smooth, yet tough leather hide stretched across the front. Experience told me this would be a close battle and quickness, not brute strength would define success. Yet a shield was always handy. I drew my sword from its scabbard.

I cast my gaze up and down the street. Before me citizens were recovering their composure, dusting themselves off, and resuming their evening. What a resilient creature man is, blessed with the capacity to remember or forget, all in an instant.

The next instant would challenge this maxim for everyone present. Screams erupted and people scattered from the center of the street whereupon a monstrous beast alit from above.

Over three spans tall with a wingspan twice as wide, the huge beast landed with a sharp clack of its claws scraping on the smooth cobblestones as its double-kneed legs compressed to absorb the impact. One long, muscled arm stretched forward to the pavement, the other arched back beneath one wing, its entire form the embodiment of deadly precision. The creature turned its wicked head. Two serpentine eyes perched above an elongated snout swept their menacing gaze about. Its skin was brownish gray with a scaly appearance and a tail the length of its height with mean looking spikes at its tip lashed behind it, scoring the pavement in its fury. Those elliptical pupils found mine, narrowing malevolently. Rising to its full height, arching its back and craning its neck, it unleashed a bloodthirsty howl.

From the east, four of the King’s Guard appeared unexpectedly and attacked, leveling spears and screaming with wild abandon as they recklessly charged this otherworldly creature.

“Stop you fools!” I screamed, but to no avail.

The beast turned lightning quick and with one arm backhanded two of them clear across the road to bounce off the wall of a potter’s shop. They crumpled motionless to the ground. It snatched a third guard by the throat, wrapping its long talon-tipped fingers easily around his neck, and whipped him around like he was nothing more than a rag doll. Even as I leapt over the railing into the street it tightened its grip with a sickening crunch and proceeded to use the lifeless soldier to bludgeon the fourth guard to a bloody pulp. Two definitely dead, and two at the very least unconscious, all in a matter of seconds and the beast had not unleashed its venom, its most deadly weapon.

In a half crouch I shouted, “Here demon spawn!” and had to dive to my right to avoid being struck by one of the dead soldiers being hurled at me like a stone. Blood splattered everywhere, and people were fleeing for their lives in such panic, tripping and trampling over one another. Coming out of my dive in a somersaulting roll I resumed my crouch. The beast lunged forward, spreading it wings in a sort of half-hop glide. One long arm lashed out to snatch for my throat, but I was ready. I slid to my right and pivoted left to bring all my strength down behind my sword, just above the creature’s wrist.

My blade bit into its tough hide, but the one-handed blow did not sever. Instead it lodged in scale and bone. In a bold display of the creature’s strength of both body and mind, it did not snatch its arm away, but calmly lifted it up, hauling me off my feet as I held to my sword. Dangling, I was brought face to brutish face, its slavering fangs glistened with a chalky yellow and the fetid stench of its breath enveloped me, making me gag. It was like being locked in a privy with the only fresh air coming from the chute, except the air was not fresh at all, but borne from some giant midden heap on a hot summer’s day. At least its breath would not kill me.

Its chest expanded and its jaws opened wide in precursor to its deadly venom. Its brownish gray scales indicated to me an oily fluid would come gushing forth; so acidic it could eat through the finest steel. That spew would kill me.

Dangling as I was, it thought it had me, but I twisted and pulled upward with all my strength. With my left I brought my shield up and over the perch of its scaly limb and slammed it into the side of its hideous face. Not a moment too soon. Its poisonous spew merely splattered the side of my shield as I drove its fiendish maw back and away from me. At that instant, my sword came loose, and I hit the ground, rolled, and with two quick flicks of my blade I hamstrung the creature and nearly severed one wing before leaping away from a spinning fist aimed clumsily at my head.

The creature howled in agony and rage, but no longer did it press the attack. I am sure it would have flown away or ran if I had not so crippled it. Now it crouched warily and I knew it was death for one of us. Of course, that was my plan.

I threw my useless shield aside where it lay smoldering from the corrosive fluid eating its surface. The creature could not use that weapon again so soon, of that I was certain, though a nick from those fangs would be just as deadly right now. I switched to a two-handed grasp of my blade and edged forward cautiously. Those eyes followed me full of venomous hate, but I could see the fear there as well. Nothing is quite as ferocious as a wounded and cornered beast. This one was no different. In a flash it leaped, attacking in a violent flurry of blows from all its appendages. My sword danced in its own deadly counter flurry. When it was through, it lay in a heap before me, its head nearly severed, the one wrist now completely severed, its tail cut and bleeding and one foot flopping about nearby, unaware the fight was through. Dumping a nearby sack of potatoes I scooped up the clawed appendage. Then I grabbed an unlit oil lantern hanging in the now empty public house. Dousing the rest of the carcass I set it alight.

I wiped my blade on a dead soldier’s tunic and carefully inspected it before sliding it home in its scabbard, then reached across my shoulder and fingered the tear in my shirt. Another few inches, another few seconds, and things might have gone very differently. “It is going to be a bad one,” I muttered to myself through the acrid haze.

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