The Guardians of Rhea

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Chapter One

In the hands of expert warriors, two wooden staffs cracked properly can make a sound like distant thunder. When Sara and Arthur fought, it sounded like a bad storm. Each circled the other in a grassy arena surrounded by pillars, throwing torrents of strikes that would have stung if they had found their mark.

Arthur feinted, catching Sara off-guard and making her pay with a whack to the back of her leg.

Grunting in pain, Sara dropped to one knee, but quickly regained her composure.

Arthur held his staff in front of him, “This isn’t a game, Sara.” His gray hair and short, white beard told his age, but he was no slouch. He stood ready to attack or defend.

Sweat glistened on Sara’s peach skin as she circled around. Her raven hair didn’t get in the way much as it was straight and only went down to her neck.

“How do you expect to defeat the Rheans when you fight like that?” Arthur asked.

Both were in athletic condition and wore a similar form-fitting uniform, basically a gray shirt, pants, and a sash. Their boots, as well as some small, lightweight padding on their arms and legs, were a darker shade. From the amount of dirt on them, they obviously had been dueling for quite a while.

“I thought this was practice. I don’t want to hit you too hard,” Sara said.

“What’s the matter? Afraid you’ll anger me?” Arthur asked.

“No, it’s your old bones I’m worried about.” Sara replied.

Arthur chuckled, twirling his staff in circles around his body, “If you think you can handle this, then come get it.”

Sara lunged forward and swung.

Arthur ducked just in time to hear and feel the whoosh sound over his head, and barely had enough time to counter the next attack that smashed against his staff. He scrambled for some distance, but even in his great condition, he couldn’t dodge like Sara. The only things he could count on were experience and muscle memory.

Sara knew that and it made her press on with everything she had, forcing Arthur back, deflecting anything he could throw at her.

Defending as best he could, Arthur slowly retreated from the arena and around several pillars.

Sara could tell he was getting desperate. With a quick strafing maneuver, she swung low and swept him off his feet.

Landing hard on his back, Arthur looked up in astonishment and let out a long groan, “I’m either getting too old or I’ve taught you too well.”

Sara held out her hand to help her teacher up, “Maybe it’s both?”

Arthur painfully straightened his back out and dusted himself off, “You’re a better fighter than most, Sara. I’ve often worried about letting you go too early, but I think you might be ready for your first assignment.”

“When, today?” Sara asked.

“Right after you’re knighted by the Consular,” Arthur responded, “Let’s get cleaned up.”

Sara and Arthur stepped out of the garden and onto the streets of the city. It was crowded, but not to the point where they had to shove their way through. Several people greeted Sara as she passed by, especially the men.

“Where are we going?” Sara asked.

“I have to pick up Old Trusty,” Arthur said.

As they waited for several horse-drawn carriages to pass, Arthur asked, “What did you have in mind for your first assignment?”

“What do you mean?” Sara responded curiously.

“I know there is an assignment you want more than the others. Every Guardian has one. Which one do you want?” Arthur asked, continuing down the street.

“I thought that was up to the Marshal.” Sara said.

Arthur shook his head, “Don’t make me spell it out. The last thing I or any Marshal wants is to give you a first assignment you’re not comfortable with. So, speak up.”

The thought of being able to pick her first assignment got Sara so excited that she accidentally bumped into someone, “Oh, sorry,” she said, then looking to Arthur, “Um, actually I had been hoping to be assigned here in New Haven, just to start out…”

“Don’t get carried away,” Arthur explained, “It’s a courtesy – not a promise. Your assignment can be changed at any time and for any reason. Understand?”

“Yeah,” Sara said, worried that she may have asked for too much.

“Don’t worry, though,” Arthur said, “Hardly anyone is moved these days, but if for some reason a situation arises you can expect to be reassigned every few days.”

“Arthur!” A blacksmith called, “It’s done!”

Arthur walked over and shook hands.

“Here you go,” the blacksmith said, handing over the equinox, “All done!”

Arthur took the elaborately etched two-foot long wooden staff and pressed a hidden button to extend its two-foot-long, razor sharp, doubled edged blades from both sides.

“Nice!” Sara said, “Can I get a custom equinox?”

“If you can afford it,” Arthur grinned.

They walked for a few moments, heading back to the Guardians’ headquarters, the Citadel, minding the people and the animals until Sara spoke, “Arthur, I know you’re only allowed one student your first year as a Preceptor, but I know I’m not the only Guardian-in-training. So, am I going to graduate by myself?”

“It looks that way. There are others, but they’re not ready yet,” Arthur answered, “I think you learned fast because you’ve been my only student. Next year I get a full class.”

“Still, I feel a little weird being by myself,” Sara said, “Can’t I just wait and graduate with the others?”

“Normally, you would, but because we’re a little short on recruits we have to put you in the field as soon as you’re ready,” Arthur said, “Be thankful for that! When I joined, they threw us into the field because of all the fighting and my assignment was once changed twice in one day.”

As they continued Sara tried to keep quiet until her curiosity began to stir, “I’ve always wanted to ask you something.”

“Go ahead.” Arthur said.

“I heard you once encountered a Vesuvian,” Sara continued, “What was it like?”

Arthur’s pace slowed, “When I joined the Guardians, I was about your age. At that time, the fighting was winding down. Like most new Guardians, I thought the inhabitants of this land were evil incarnate and it was my duty to stand against them. On my first day, I was assigned to a wealthy nobleman and his family needing an escort along the road between here and Genoa. Halfway through our journey, a Vesuvian came from out of nowhere…” Arthur stopped as he was suddenly hit with bad feelings and memories of that day.

“What happened?” Sara anxiously asked.

Arthur explained, “He did exactly the things you’ve read about, heard about. You think you’re prepared but when you’re face-to-face with it…It’s completely different. After knocking us around, slicing the nobleman’s head off and tearing my partner’s heart out, he came right at me. I was already on the ground with my equinox inches from my hand.”

Arthur rubbed his hand against his forehead in wonder, “I just grabbed Old Trusty and swung it around into his heart, and right before my eyes, he burst into embers. Hell of a sight I tell you. Never forget your training, what you’ve learned. That’s the best advice I can give you.”

“It’s hard to imagine you scared,” Sara said, “What about a Fenrir? Seen any of those?”

Arthur shook his head, “No, but I hear they’re worse than Vesuvians.”

“How?” Sara asked “From what I’ve learned, it seems like they’re a lot easier to kill. With a Vesuvian, you never really know what you’re up against until the last second. You’re not being very encouraging.”

“Which is easier to kill is a matter of opinion,” Arthur said, “As for not being encouraging, I won’t make it sound as if you can fight these creatures with both hands tied behind your back, or even one. But, just to give you some assurance, they’re not impossible to beat, either. As long as you keep your wits about, you shouldn’t have much difficulty dealing with the Rheans.”

“I guess I have to wait till I run into one,” Sara said, “Arthur, a minute ago you said you thought the Rheans were evil. Do you really think that?”

Arthur thought for a moment, “If you ask me now, I think I would have to say they were here first.”

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