The Koa was the defacto leader of each village in Koren. The council would advise and suggest, but ultimately power rested with that single person. If Ariel could convince him then no one would question her authenticity. The problem was: everyone knew everyone in Varejo. If someone saw her out this late, which she rarely was, they would probably question her or mention it to Gerrard. All the villagers knew the only reason to be outdoors at this hour was to collect water or to visit the pubs. Only those who had the mark from completing their Summons could be admitted into the boisterous dens. Obviously, that ruled Ariel out so she took a small vase with her as an alibi.
She set off at a brisk pace, trying her best to stay on the soft dirt and away from dried twigs. The temple was a little more than a mile away. If she could get in and out in under an hour then she would make it back home before Gerrard noticed anything. Even if he did, what could he do?
She stuck to the outer paths to avoid any curious glances. Only hunting parties coming home late would be on those trails and even then, they made so much noise on their return trip that she would have plenty of time to find cover.The luminescent leaves were just beginning to glow when she reached the halfway point. One of the Koas from long ago figured out how to alter the leaves to make them absorb light during the day and release it at night, they didn’t give off as much brightness as the solar lights dotting the main road, but they released just enough so that you could see where you were walking. On several nights she would stay up late just to play under the lime glow. It was one of her mother’s favorite things to do.
She came across one of the main community wells; no one was there--good. As she walked into the open to cross the area she heard him.
“Psssst! Ariel,” came a voice from the foliage above.
She only knew one person strange enough to be hiding in the trees at this time of night.
“Pik, what are you doing?”
“Quiet, lower your voice. Tracking the Night Sparrow,” he replied.
“Pik, you know that they haven’t been seen for over a hundred years.”
“Shhhhh. It’s because of loud people like you. What are you doing out here?”
For an instant, she almost forgot her elaborate water excuse.
“Oh, I was just fetching a little bit of water for the morning.”
“Aren’t there like, three wells closer to your house?”
She hadn’t considered that anyone would actually think about the logistics of her excuse. Then again, she was talking to Pik, a boy up in a tree watching for extinct birds at night. She searched for a reasonable answer while walking closer to the tall Hodar tree.
“I dunno, I think this water has more nutrients. And since this water is for my little herb collection, it makes sense.”“Whatever you say, Ariel. You are about to own the mark afterall.” Pik replied with heavy sarcasm.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on one of the hunting parties tonight?” She retorted. The branches rustled above her and leaves like tiny daggers, began to fall.
“I swear on my Kai, If you tell them anything about me being here. I’ll spread rumors that you and I were hooking up and that you made up a story to rat me out just to cover your own skin,” he shouted in a whispered tone.
“Oh don’t even, Pik. No one would believe your story anyway. Everyone knows the last time a girl kissed you it was during third year.”
“Yea, it was Kela Brambles too. She was hot.”
“Maybe before that thing grew on her neck.”
More rustling from above followed by a loud snap and Pik fell to the ground. Ariel couldn’t hold back her laughter.
Pik was a stocky boy. He’d been overweight for as long as Ariel had known him. It was a wonder that the branch had supported his weight as long as it had. Now Pik lay in a crumpled mass with his shaggy brown hair covering his face. He didn’t move.
“Pik, get up. Stop joking. I know you’re fine.”
No response from the boy.
Ariel nudged him with her toe. He rolled slightly and the hair covering his face fell away revealing a trickle of blood on his forehead.
She knelt down beside him and wiped the rest of his hair away. The fall wasn’t that great, but maybe it was just enough to knock him out.
She tried to examine the wound, but it was difficult in the dim green light. She moved in closer and that’s when he kissed her--square on the lips.
“PIK!” She pulled away.
He rolled with laughter, “I got you. You totally fell for it. Haha, get it? Fell for it?”
“Uck. I can’t believe you. You’re disgusting. Go back up in your tree and stay there.”
Ariel landed a solid kick to his thigh and wiped vigorously at her mouth.
“Ouch. It wasn’t that bad come on.”
“Stay away from me, Pik. I never wanna see you again until after my Summons,” she said stomping away.
“You forgot your vase, your highness.”
Ariel kept walking down the path toward the temple. She was fuming. The audacity of that nerdy, fat boy. What made him think he could just steal kisses like that? No, it wasn’t even a kiss. It was him trying to kiss her. Yet, he wasn’t as chunky as he usually was, but that was beside the point. He was still vulgar and gross. She spit until her mouth was dry for good measure.
Ariel continued slightly off the path and let her mind wonder. At first she thought of what she was going to say to the Kao then, gradually her thoughts ventured off in different directions.She wondered if Pik would survive if Reapers attacked tomorrow. The unsettling thoughts reaffirmed her commitment to warn the Koa.
After a few more minutes of speed-walking, she reached the top of a hill and paused. The ancient tree that housed the temple was a short distance away. It was a very rare tree and the oldest in the valley. Legends say it was the first tree planted on Koren, which would make sense because it was unmistakeably the tallest tree she, or anyone for that matter, had every seen. Its branches seemed to disappear into the sky, like a pillar holding up the atmosphere. Purple lights lit up the walls of the temple. It was nestled in the center of the tree, right where the major branches diverted from the trunk. The temple itself was tiny in comparison to the tree. Ariel knew, somewhere in that building, the Koa was getting ready for sleep.
Already, her steps each became more feeble than the last. What if he doesn’t admit her? What if he is already asleep? The Koa was the last person she would want to startle; he could end her life before she could finish blinking. That was one of the reasons why the temple was unguarded. Yet, it was always full of emissaries, students, assistants, and other sorts of busy people working all hours of the day. It was these people that Ariel wanted to avoid. They ask too many questions.
As she reached the beginning of the spiralling staircase, Ariel undid her NAV suit, rolled it up, and stuffed it in the side of her boot. She adjusted her white garments one final time before she scaled the stairwell.