Breaking through the edge of the forest line, Auriel made it to the thick outer walls of Genesis village, high timber fortification with several watchtowers. She stopped at the wooden gates, waving down the watchman who then signaled below, allowing the gates to slowly open and reveal a bustling settlement full of people.
The separate areas were highly active: market streets packed with all manner of traders and animal-drawn carriages, young children playing on the grasslands, and several construction sites for new buildings in an industrial sector.
On the east was a structure of rudimentary buildings adjacent to the harbor for the fishing boats that dotted the water off the coast. With feet striking the gravel pavement, Auriel ran until she arrived at the impressive security compound near the center of the village: GSO headquarters.
After a quick shower and bandaging of her wounds, she emerged cleansed and refreshed. She stepped out in low gladiator sandals, wearing a casual floral print summer dress with short sleeves, and snapped her black fingerless gloves to fit. Adjusting her hair in a bun in the passing breeze as she walked, she made it to her next destination, arriving at the steps of a dilapidated building. Pausing on the last step, she rechecked the bandages on her arms before entering.
Later that morning, while three children played together in a park by the southern gates, just a short distance away, Auriel sat fast asleep under a mighty oak tree. Deep in the embrace of slumber, her eyes darted back and forth beneath her lids, and her eyebrows furrowed as if to reflect an encounter with danger.
She was roused from her sleep when one of the children, a young boy with curly brown hair that bounced as he ran, tugged on her sleeves.
“Hmm…?” she replied with eyes partly open.
“Ellie! Can you help?”
Auriel yawned while stretching, wiping her eyes to clear the haze, though she still seemed half asleep.
“I dunno, I was having such a decent nap, I’m still a bit sleepy.”
Pouting, he quipped back “But Ellie, you sleep all day anyway.”
“You wanna try that again, mister?” she responded as she picked him up and held him high as he laughed.
The boy hid his face gleefully as she placed him down and ruffled his hair.
“JJ won’t let me n’ Orla play with the ball.”
In the grass ahead, the taller of two kids was controlling a small partially deflated ball with his feet, while the other, a little girl, clapped her hands in delight.
“JJ, what did I tell you last time?”
“To share, but I don’t wanna. I told Adam it’s still my turn.”
Auriel stole the ball with tricky footwork, kicked it up to her hands, and gently placed it on his head. Though surprised, he smiled.
“How about now?”
She handed the ball to Orla, and the trio continued playing until a swift kick knocked it in the direction of a group of adventurers arriving through the gates with a cart. Having returned from a lengthy mission outside the walls, the weariness on their faces was palpable.
The youngest of the trio, an athletic youth named Gareth, was the most spirited among them, with a half-smile despite what misadventure they encountered. The barrel-chested lead adventurer Roland appeared lost in thought as he pulled the cart while walking at his side was Lucan, a greying adventurer much taller than his fellows. Auriel heard him first.
“I believe I told you it was bound to end in failure.”
“Not entirely. We have something to show for our troubles, no matter how small,” asserted the Roland, running his hand through his long reddish silver locks.
“But the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze,” added Gareth, walking briskly to keep pace with the others. “I don’t know how we are supposed to survive on slim pickings.”
“We’ll make do,” decided Roland.
The trio came within sight of Auriel and the kids. Adam ran quickly towards the lead adventurer, jumping at him.
“Oh no!” he wailed feigning injury.
Auriel quickly walked up to greet the weary travelers. “You’re back, Sir Roland.”
Putting an arm around Lucan’s shoulder and also pointing to himself, Gareth interjected, “Don’t forget his underlings, the Great Gareth and Mighty Lucan!"
“Underling? Speak for yourself.”
As Lucan removed Gareth’s arm, Roland laughed at the spectacle. His attention soon turned to Auriel’s appearance, as she still had the subtle appearance of battle clear upon her.
"Are you okay?"
“I'm fine, will explain later. How goes the hunting?”
“Rather decent,” he said, motioning to the cart.
“A decent waste of time, you mean,” added Lucan. “When we weren’t tripping over ourselves in random encounters with the Fractured, we were hunting for leftovers. Basically scavengers.”
“Perhaps, yet we earned our own, despite some measure of difficulty.”
“That’s what happens when you’ve got an amateur and a literal walking skeleton with you,” Auriel joked.
“Take it easy on them,” chuckled Roland as he saw the look on their faces. “They’ve worked as hard as any other. Unlike you, apparently relaxing in the sun. Is that what counts for work these days?”
“I’ll have you know, I just got back from a mission this morning, and resting here is my therapy.”
Orla and JJ ran to her side, and she put her hands on their heads, ruffling their hair and smiling.
“Anyway, we are actually supposed to be heading to the market, I have a list of a few things I need to pick up.”
“We’re going in the same general direction; perhaps you wouldn’t mind if we were to accompany you on the way?” said Roland as he handed the ball to Adam.
Looking at the kids who seemed excited about the extra company, she turned and replied, “Let’s get going then.”
The group laughed and joked on the way, as the adventurers recounted their exploits and misadventures. Adam and JJ skipped alongside Gareth, while Orla sat on Roland’s shoulders, holding his locks and smiling, taking in the wide view she was afforded from her perch.
“So, I take it the absence of the usual *Egerian Guard means they have left you to your own devices?” asked Roland, walking in step with Auriel. “When did that happen?”
"Hmm... They left three weeks ago, mumbling something about an Egerian statute. I think they had better things to do than babysitting a ‘less than reputable character’ in a place like this,” said Auriel in a scorning manner, as she pressed her nose upward with a finger. “They practically ran out of here with their noses in the air.”
“I wonder what kind of statute that was.”
“I’m guessing it has something to do with their rules on punishments for minors vs adults. I just turned 17, after all.”
A shocked Roland facepalmed in embarrassment. “I forgot! I’m so sorry Ellie.”
“I suppose I can forgive the utter disappointment with a drink if you catch my drift. After all, I’m technically an adult, as far as the capital city is concerned. You got the first round, right? Is that how it goes?”
“Last I checked, you’re in Genesis,” he responded with a grin. “Besides, while they might have gone, for now, but be wary that they can just as easily return. Perhaps with a much harsher punishment if they felt so compelled.”
Auriel’s smile faded with those words, and her eyes lowered. “Harsher than what they’ve already done?”
She looked solemnly at her wrists as black lines with strange symbols seemed to snake down her forearms, coming from within her gloves, with streaks that could be seen on her fingertips. She closed her hands into tightly squeezed fists, and the symbols slowly retreated, disappearing.
“Might as well have cut my hands off. That’s what they do for criminals anyway.”
“Well I'm glad they didn't, otherwise the village would have lost half the workforce.”
“I guess so.”
Seeing her smile return, Roland lightly punched her in the arm. “Besides, powers or not, you’re not the type to go down easily apparently. I can only guess that your "explain later" was about you taking on the Wetland Kings?”
“So you heard,” she confirmed, as a light breeze passed by, whipping about strands of hair in her face. She caught them and placed them behind her ears. “It was just one of them. I joined the GCU on a mission I thought was easy enough and things escalated at the end...”
“That’s quite dangerous you know.”
“I know I know, but it’s over with now.”
“Well, good job I suppose. So, to switch the focus for a bit, have you thought about my offer?”
Her brief smile shrank once more, this time into a neutral expression. “I have. For a bit.”
“And your decision?”
“I’m grateful you think I can do it, really, but I don’t think the public office is meant for me.”
“You sure? If you’re so keen about being an adult, I don’t see a better way than some increased responsibility.”
“Meanwhile you get more time in with *The Hunting Party,” she muttered in response.
“Perhaps. I’ve been in that dual seat for a while; it’s time for some younger faces to take charge of the village.”
“I get it, but I’m not sure it’s the best area for me. I’d rather stick with the GSO, for now at least. More my speed, y’know? Sorry.”
“No worries,” he replied, though disappointment was apparent on his face. “I suppose you already have your hands full with other things.”
“Tell me about it. Between the GSO and all the other taskers, I’ve been working round the clock. I’ll have to take a vacation one of these days, and let Miss Maia tag in for me.”
“You know, she actually might, for an encounter like this morning. I’m sure it will come as a surprise to you, but she has taken on her fair share of brigands back in the day.”
“Really? She’s such a sweetheart!” she expressed, with legitimate wonder. “I’m not sure I can imagine her knocking around a few heads.”
“That’s a story for another time,” he said as he stopped walking. “Seems we part here.”
He turned to Gareth and handed him Orla. “Mind you and Lucan take the kids for a sec?” he requested. “I’d like a quick private word with Auriel.”
“Uh, sure boss. Come on, guys.”
While Gareth took them further down the road, Roland turned to Auriel once more, putting a hand on her shoulder and nodding.
“A wise man I came across in my travels once told me, a blacksmith needs not to stifle one fire to stoke another, but must instead be wary to not be scalded by his own forge.”
“And that means…what now?”
“You can hold both your current and new role with the GSO, but in doing so you must be careful as you might encounter dangerous situations with either post, in a manner of speaking. Now I respect your decision, but I can’t ignore that you weren’t exactly unscathed from that encounter. I know you’re a warrior through and through, but for someone like you-”
“Someone like me? What are you getting at?” she queried.
“You know what I mean. You can’t exactly take the same risk as these wielders.”
Feeling slighted, she pushed off his hand from her shoulder. “I make regular patrols with the GSO, and manage just fine.”
With his voice rising, he responded back, “It’s not the same! Guarding the village's interior is fine and all, but you make one slip up out there and it’ll be all over in a moment!”
“What happened to you being happy for me a second ago?! You should be proud I got through okay!”
“Today maybe, but what’ll happen the next time you go out? What if you end up in Fractured territory? Do you even think about that?”
Auriel’s turquoise eyes gleamed brightly in the sunlight as she gazed at him with a mixture of anger and disappointment. She lingered momentarily, before turning away. Realizing she had unconsciously gritted her teeth, she unclenched, taking a deep, relaxing breath.
“Of course I do. I think about it almost every day, but I also think about how staying cooped up here isn’t going to help me get better.”
She took a brief pause and made tight fists to calm her trembling hands before continuing. “I’m not a little girl you have to look after anymore. I need you to trust that I can do this. That I can take care of myself.”
Roland sighed, “I know that, but I-”
“Don’t,” she interjected sternly. “Maybe next time just say ‘Happy Belated Birthday’ and leave it at that.”
“Right then. Ahem. See you around.”
Roland signaled to Gareth to bring the kids over, and the three adventurers continued on their path, while Auriel and the kids finally saw the market in the distance.
~End of Chapter~
*Egerian Guard: Elite peacekeeping force operating out of Egeria (capital region of Avernus) often deployed to other parts of the realm relative to mission requirements.
*Hunting Party: Genesis’ guild of combatants formed to counter the Fractured.