Chapter VI

Locus Amoenus

“The Reaper, a quarter-ton predator equipped with a thousand ways to tear a human apart. It is, in a word, death. It prefers humans over any other prey. It can run, jump, and disappear faster than your eye can follow. Dark as the FS, with claws sharper than any blade the Harlins ever forged, it is the perfect killing machine ladies and gentlemen. I’m not telling you this to scare you: I’m educating you. Knowing this gives you an additional second to react on the battlefield. Doesn’t sound like much, right? A second? Well, that little fragment of time could easily be the difference between getting scratched or getting disemboweled.”
-Proctor Hart

Gerrard was a big man, muscled, rugged, and towering in stature. He was so big that Ariel often likened him to the sturdy Brok tree that grew all over Varejo and the rest of Koren. And, like the gigantic trees, he was obstinate, abrasive, and silent. Getting through his bark was challenging and often impossible; he kept everything close to the chest.

“I know what I saw, Gerrad,” Ariel whined. She had explained the encounter as soon as she walked into their small home built into a hill overlooking the forest village.
“Don’t call me that. I’m still your father you know. Last I checked you hadn’t completed your Summons,” Gerrard responded.
“Will you please just trust me for once. I have evidence.”
“Do you really want me to bring this up to the council? They will ask you so many questions your head will spin. Starting with, have you been shooting fizz.”
“I have a scanned image of its track. It proves it is out there.”
“Ariel, that track could be from seven years ago. There are thousands of old prints in the FS. You’re letting your imagination get to you.”
“I KNOW what I saw,” she screamed storming off to her room.

She was shaking with frustration as she climbed the stairwell and collapsed onto her bed. Feelings of anxiety and fear surfaced as thoughts of the creature returned. She could still hear the loud pounding of the gate.

It was moments like this she wished Gerrard wasn’t so overbearing and cautious. Ever since her mother passed, he had taken it upon himself to oversee every aspect of her life. He had an awkward way of treating her like she was a wild animal in captivity; always under close scrutiny but never close enough for contact.  She knew he cared about her, but he still didn’t trust her. That distrust widened the rift between them everyday.

Ariel’s comm blinked. Gerrard. He always did that when things got heated. Instead of talking to her directly he would leave her a voice-mail, probably an apology coupled with an excuse about her best interests being his priority. She had heard it all before. Grabbing the earphone device, she plugged it into her right ear and pressed play.

He wanted her to send him the image of the track. She wondered if he was merely trying to placate her or if he actually intended to bring it up to the council.

She looked out her circular window and down into the lush forest valley of Varejo. It was getting dark and the dense foliage was soaking up the setting sun’s artificial light, reflecting twilight tenses of burgundy and gold. She had lived in this valley her entire life: climbed every tree, tasted every river, walked barefoot on the crunchy leaves every Autumn. She listened as purplebirds sang from the branches nearby, lamenting the loss of the light.

Ariel released the compression seal on her NAV suit by twisting the band on her left wrist. The tight suit instantly became baggy. She undid the strap on the back of her neck and pulled the zipper down the length of her spine. Slipping out of the black fabric, she went to her small closet to put on her nightgown. She pauses just as her hand touches the hanger.  

She was, like nearly all of the Koren people, slender with lean muscles developed from years of outdoor living. Their society was simple and tribal, but physically demanding. The elders usually harvested food in large community gardens while the young and able hunted daily to supply meat for their villages, Ariel had proven to be an excellent hunter. Other important duties were often divided among those who had completed their Summons. Councils oversaw the other more boring matters of the villages, dealing with other nations and such. She couldn’t stand hearing Gerrard ramble about trade deals on his comm. Varejo, in particular, was self-sufficient and even slightly prosperous; they would export rare berries every season to the desert nation of Rocix. Other than seasonal caravans and roving explorers, Varejo was isolated; nestled in the far northern corner of Koren and bordered on three sides by the FS. Perhaps it was this natural isolation and closeness to the FS that anchored Varejo in Ariel’s heart. She loved this place; it suited her and it would always be her home.

In one month she would be on her Summons and separated from Varejo, Koren, and the rest of the world. Cut off from the nourishment and the familiarity of her childhood. The feeling struck her hard in the gut and nausea set in. What if it was all destroyed? The last time Reapers were seen hundreds of Korens were brutally killed. What if they were gathering for another attack?

It was time for her to take responsibility for what she cared about and become her own person. She couldn’t wait a month. She had to do this herself: for her. Damn the footprint. She would make the Proctor believe, better yet, she’d convince the Koa himself. Instead of putting on her nightgown, Ariel shifted it aside and put on her white temple garb.

It would be suspicious to walk around outside the temple in the white clothes during nighttime so she slipped the NAV suit back on, twisting the left wristband the opposite direction this time. It made a quick loud, sucking sound as the fabric shrunk, pushing out the air. She studied her reflection in the glass of the window. The outline of the cloth underneath could be seen in some areas, but it would be too dark for anyone to notice anything odd.

She walked over to the wooden nightstand by her bed and opened the top drawer. The red earring that was once her mother’s was there, resting on a scrap of cloth. It looked simple, a small loop of polished metal. However, to Ariel, it was the only thing she had to remind her about her mother-- it was invaluable. She clipped it on through the hole in her right ear and removed the comm, dropping the blinking device in the drawer.

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