Verida - Avinas

55th day of Banem, year 146, Era of Ke'larri

Ariele lounged with his back against a mossy tree stump, eyelids half-closed towards the sunlight as it filtered through the forest canopy. His long, blonde hair shimmered in the dappled light and glistening strands fanned around his honey-hued shoulders and face. His golden tan was the result of a long autumn spent on the sunny Ithellan isles, from which he had recently returned.

Now home, he often thought longingly after the sound of the sea, the stirring of oars alongside small boats, and the delicate water songs of the river elves. Though Banem was proving unseasonably warm this year, he still bristled at the slight chill in the air after the warmth of Ithella. Yet, while there, he had longed for the lush, vibrant woods of Verida just as much. He sighed and opened his eyes to the trees above.

The air stirred occasionally, rustling leaves and grasses around him. A wisp of light the size of an apple floated by his head, followed by a trail of smaller wisps. Similar lights, known collectively as ina, flew quietly through the trees as far as one could see. Tiny balls of energetic dust left in the wake of powerful magic events - they traveled in groups silently and slowly, from branch to bush to ground and then far away, like ducklings following their mother.

Ariele closed his eyes again and took a deep breath, savoring the rich forest air as it filled his lungs. He could smell hints of lavender and the nutty, wet oak trees whose trunks creaked with every brush of wind against them.

In the distance, he heard the faint tones of the noon bells ringing out over the city and reluctantly dragged himself up from the soft grass. He made his way purposefully down the small dirt path, arriving at the city gates in a matter of minutes. Two guards leaned lazily against the mossy wall at the gate and shuffled slightly to attention at the sight of him.

“Master Ariele, your father has requested your presence in the Small Court chambers immediately,” said one of the guards, opening the way for him.

Ariele gave a quick nod before setting off.

In the city, the streets were filling quickly with shop carts and sellers preparing for the afternoon market. The smell of freshly baked bread and fragrant potions wafted through the air and shop owners energetically waved at Ariele as he walked by, a few calling out free goods which he politely declined.

As he rounded the corner near the Avinas Inn, a small toad of a woman, whom he knew to be the owner, Tarina, called out to him from the doorway.

"Prince Ariele! Grace us with a song, won't you?" she croaked, smiling a toothy grin and raising a pint towards him. Several tavern patrons clapped drunkenly in agreement.

"I'm afraid I don’t have the time tonight," he called back.

“Ahh, but business is better with you around,” she continued, cheeks and nose flushed red. She started towards him with open arms and he quickly ducked around her.

“I’ll have to come back later,” he chuckled, “once I’ve seen to my obligations for the day.”

He gave a small wink and a bow before continuing on his way.

Eventually, Ariele reached the great marble staircase to the castle and ascended quickly past the patrols and posted guards. At the top, he waited patiently as the ornate silver doors creaked open, revealing the great throne room within. The hall was remarkably empty, save a few chatting council members.

As he approached the Small Court chamber, Ariele heard voices coming from the room and entered to find his father and the others already assembled. His two siblings, Aeliana and Erenil, stood nearest the doorway, and the two Althaen princes, Varydris and Syphaetus, sat on opposite sides of the central table, chatting across the room to each other. Ariele also recognized Tara, High Captain of the Greenwardens, and her trainee Pena, gathered closest to Aelathari. Pena’s face was dark and she stood quietly in the corner, away from the others. She glared at Ariele as he stepped into the chamber.

“Ariele, we were just about to start without you,” Aeliana teased.

“Apologies, dear sister,” he said, “I lost track of time.”

"You knew we were to meet at midday," Erenil added, "Father told you yesterday evening."

Erenil crossed his arms and looked down at Ariele with disgust. Aeliana rolled her eyes from behind him and Ariele gave a sigh.

“It is still midday. I haven’t kept you waiting very long” he replied, turning away from his brother and finding his seat next to Syphaetus.

“You disrespect father with your tardiness-” Erenil began, puffing his chest out.

“Enough from you both. The Hnegeerans have crossed the border into the Farwood,” Aelathari interrupted, slamming his hands on the table.

The room fell silent and Aelathari looked around at all of them sternly.

“We haven’t heard from the Farwood guard in two days,” Tara said. Pena balled her fists at her sides.

“Two days? Why are we just finding out about this? Did you send scouts to assess the situation?” Erenil asked.

“Of course we did!” Pena snapped, barely containing herself. Tara nodded in support.

“They have not returned or sent word,” she added grimly.

“And the village? Surely, someone would have seen something?” Ariele asked.

Tara looked to Aelathari cautiously. He nodded to her.

“We haven’t received any communication from the Farwood, but my runners have seen billowing smoke above the village.”

Silence fell around the room again as Tara’s words sank in. Ariele felt his anxiety rising as Aelathari began slowly.

“The Farwood is less than two days' travel on foot. While the Hnegeerans are not foolish enough to walk boldly into this city, they could very well slip through the cracks, send word back to reinforcements, find their way to Loethre… anything is possible.”

“Loethre?” Varydris asked incredulously.

“All of the scouts we’ve executed said they were on their way to Loethre” Tara started, “It’s unclear if it’s some kind of joke - a tactic to hide their true intentions - or a shared delusion that they can somehow cross all of Verida to reclaim the land.”

Aelathari nodded and began hesitantly.

“You’ve been called here as our last resort. Chosen because you are capable” he began.

“To go to the Farwood?” Varydris interrupted, rising from his seat.

Ariele also found himself on his feet, stunned.

“Farwood is… not our current concern. The raiders are believed to be somewhere nearby. Again, it's unclear…”Tara began, “but the force is undeniable and burning Farwood is a bold signal. A small, weak group would not act so violently. We have to assume they want us to know they are here - to empty our forces to protect the border while they sneak past…or worse.”

“And we will do no such thing,” Aelathari added.

“Do we really believe they have such large numbers? Hnegeeran raiders can occupy the Farwood without us defending it?” Ariele questioned.

“Not even occupied,” Aeliana started, her voice trembling, “simply burned to the ground. And what support have we given to the survivors?”

Aelathari remained silent. Ariele watched his face closely, saw the grief in Tara’s eyes as she shuffled uncomfortably next to him.

“You don’t believe there are survivors?” he asked quietly.

At this, Pena kicked off the wall and stormed from the room.

“There are no signs of life that we can tell,” Aelathari responded, clearly offended at Pena’s display.

The group sat quietly for a moment.

“This makes no sense,” Varydris said, “what good can we do that your scouts and Greenwardens couldn’t? Why are we risking our lives for such guaranteed danger when this clearly requires a larger military force?”

“We are to scout and return. No engagement,” Tara replied defensively, “the Greenwardens are not trained for this sort of thing, but we are-”

“You are strong and capable fighters. Far above that of any Veridan. You have the best chances of coming home with information. If you can quell the raider threat, then do so. If not, we can move forward with soldiers. I do not need our people frightened by sudden military movements against an unknown monster,” Aelathari stated plainly, looking intensely at each of them.

“Shouldn’t we even try to find survivors-” Ariele began.

“You are released to prepare for your leave. I expect you to be off at sunset. Darksight is our ally. The patrol will be on alert here for infiltrators.”

Ariele stared at his father in shock, but Aelathari would not meet his gaze. Aeliana tugged at his arm as they all began to exit the chamber. Varydris shoved past them and threw the door open, quickly heading out of sight.

Aeliana pulled Ariele out into the throne room where he spotted Pena in an alcove near the stairwell to the upper floors, eyeing them angrily. Aeliana elbowed him hard in the ribs and kept him moving along.

“Pena and Thanlir were stationed in the Farwood this month” she whispered, “Both were to come back to Avinas ahead of the next rotation, but Thanlir was held up an extra night. Something about his transfer papers.”

Ariele’s heart sank for Pena.

So Thanlir had not returned or sent word. He was in the Farwood when it was attacked and she probably expected to have the opportunity to search for him. Ariele thought to talk to her, but what could he possibly say? Instead, he made for the exit and could feel her eyes piercing through him as he left the throne room with his head down.

On the castle steps once again, his eyes strained under the brilliant afternoon sunlight. He parted ways with Aeliana and walked around to the left wing of the grounds. There, he entered the large residential quarters, known as the Dawn Tower, and took the spiraling stairs up and past numerous rooms until he was near his and Cynea’s chambers. He passed his own room in a hurry and knocked lightly at Cynea’s door.

“It’s unlocked,” they called gently from within.

Upon opening the door, he saw them seated on the open balcony, surrounded by swirling incense smoke and holding a steaming cup of tea. Their deep blue-gray skin appeared to glow mysteriously in the bright sunlight.

Ariele closed the door and crossed the room quickly, taking a seat across from them. Engulfed in the cloud of vapor, he gave a heavy sigh. He always loved the smell of Cynea’s herbs and resins, especially the way they perfumed their hair and clothes long after they burned out. Cynea had recently connected with a half-Vioran herbalist who prescribed a variety of remedies such as teas, tinctures, oils, and incense to calm their nerves and keep the headaches away.

Their pale, gray eyes looked over him curiously from under their thick, black curls and he felt a familiar tugging in the bottom of his stomach.

He was afraid to share news of the Farwood with them, but was sure they could sense it. In fact, Cynea could sense the simple thoughts and feelings of most everything around them. A rare gift, even for a Viora.

“You’re more intense than usual,” they noted quietly, “How was the meeting with your Father?”

Ariele sighed again, anxiety gnawing at the pit of his stomach.

“There was an attack on the Farwood by a small group of Hnegeerans. We are leaving at sunset,” he started.

“I’m coming?” Cynea asked simply.

“Absolutely not. This is too dangerous,” Ariele replied.

“So I should let you go on your own?” they asked tersely, their eyes seeming to bore through him.

“I’m not on my own,” Ariele insisted, “There will be others”.

“Who?” they asked.

“Aeliana, Varydris, Sy, Pena,” he paused. There was nothing he could hide from them, he knew they could sense if he was lying.

“And Tara,” he finished, reluctantly.

Cynea looked out over the balcony for a long time before responding.

“Must be dangerous if you’re traveling with a Greenwarden captain,” they said quietly. When they looked back, Ariele could see tears in their eyes.

“We are simply gathering information and will return as quickly as possible. We’re the only ones who can do this.”

“When do you leave?”

Ariele paused.

“Sunset,” he replied.

Cynea looked out over the balcony once again, the teacup trembling slightly in their hands. Ariele placed his hands around their own and moved closer.

“I will be back before you know it, so don’t get into any trouble, okay?”

He tried his best to believe his own words as he said them. Cynea set the teacup down and allowed him to hold their hands once again.

“I can feel your worry. I know how unsure you are, so stop trying to hide it,” Cynea tried to laugh through sudden tears, “if you don’t come back, I’m going to kill you.”

Ariele pulled them into a tight embrace. The incense smoke clung to their curls and the smell flooded his nose all at once. His stomach twisted with sadness and fear.

“I know,” he said, hugging them closer.


As the afternoon light slowly dimmed, the party huddled together at the eastern gate of the city. Ariele watched on quietly as everyone chatted aimlessly. Anxiety washed over him in unrelenting waves as he looked around from face to face. When he glanced at Pena, their eyes locked and he noticed she was standing away from the group, silently watching him. He shuffled to her side where they stood awkwardly for a moment, looking over the others.

“I have nothing to say to you,” she spat.

“Why am I to blame? What power do I have?” Ariele asked flatly.

He knew she was angry with him and he understood her frustration, but he had no say over his father's decisions. In fact, speaking out against Aelathari often meant he doubled down on anything that brought up disagreements.

Pena remained silent. Eventually, Ariele looked back at her, ready with an explanation, but saw that her face had fallen. Her mouth was twisted up tightly and tears welled in the corners of her eyes.

“I can’t imagine - “

“No. You can’t” she hissed, barely audible.

“I can’t say that he is safe. We both understand how this works,” he began, “but I know Thanlir and he would do anything to get back to you.”

Pena’s face crumpled and she pressed her palms over her eyes.

“I know,” she whispered, beginning to sob.

Ariele wrapped his arms around her and squeezed tightly. They stood like that for some time, until her crying ceased.

“How’s Cynea?” she asked, her voice muffled by his shoulder.

“I can’t think about them right now,” he said, “I need to focus. We all do.”

As they remained in their embrace, Ariele caught the end of a sentence.

“Two children of another king, I understand. But his own?” Varydris ranted, “everyone is expendable.”

“He sent us because we are the most capable -” Aeliana started.

“Where’s Erenil?” Varydris laughed, “Seems your father at least thought to protect the bloodline.”

“Enough,” Sy snapped, “I’m sure he’s on his way.”

“What are those wardens doing here?” Tara asked nervously.

Ariele looked up to see two Greenwardens approaching hastily. They came to a halt before the party and the one closest to Ariele spoke up.

“Master Erenil has been delayed. The King requests that you carry on as planned, without the Prince” the man said. Before any of them could respond, they both turned and left as quickly as they came.

Varydris looked around at everyone with a smirk.

“Ahh, delayed,” he mocked.

“Shove it, Althaes,” Pena growled, “If you’re scared, you can go home.”

“Oh, I can? Is that why you left the Farwood early?” he turned on Pena, “Too bad they didn’t let Thanlir run, too.”

Pena slipped through Ariele’s arms and lunged at Varydris, kicking her boot into his chest and knocking him backward. He scrambled back up with his sword drawn and she grabbed for her dagger.

Enough!” Tara shouted, “Save it for the Hnegeerans!”

She turned to Pena and then to Varydris.

“You’re all under my command until we return to Avinas. Act like it or I’ll report you both to Aelathari for disciplinary action.”

Varydris opened his mouth to retort.

“Fucking try me, Althaes,” she said, moving towards him until they were practically nose to nose.

Close up, Ariele knew Tara was intimidating. She had a broad chest and rippling arm muscles covered in scars like tiger stripes. She nearly swallowed Varydris as she stood over him. He clenched his jaw and reluctantly sheathed his sword. At this, Tara backed down, looking around the group with a scowl.

“Get your shit. All of you,” she commanded, “Let’s go.”

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