Desert Journey: Part Eight
Noel and Aria dived towards the exit. They landed in the doorway and scrambled up the stairs as the Skeiths attempted to follow. Light blinded the Skeiths and they cowered back towards the darkness in disappointment.
Once at the surface, the exhausted Neopets collapsed to the ground. Noel waited to catch his breath. Finally he said, "What part of the city do you think we arrived in?"
But Aria didn't answer. Her eyes were fixated on the pair of desert Xweetok guards approaching them. They were trapped and she knew there was no escaping this situation.
Without a word, she forcefully grabbed Noel just as the guards arrived.
Noel looked at Aria for answers but she held on and turned away. Confused and hurt, he began to question their friendship.
Was Aria trying to betray me?
The first guard spoke, "Outsider you have no business in entering this forbidden city! You will be imprisoned for your crimes!" He turned to the second guard, "Blindfold him and bind his hands!"
Unable to resist, Noel gave into his captors. He glanced one last time at the mountain before being dragged away by the guard.
I was so close...
Aria watched as her friend was dragged away for imprisonment. Then she turned back towards the first guard.
"Your father wants a word. We have been watching you for some time and question your loyalty with the tribe, " he demanded.
Aria retorted, "I did my duties. I had to do whatever it took to stop this outsider. He just proved much more difficult than the rest but as you can see, I was able to bring him to you!"
"Well then, we shall see what you father has to say."
She followed the guard as they left the city, turning towards a small makeshift camp among the sand dunes. There were five tan tents that contained golden symbols lining the tent entrances. It was tradition for the tribe to utilize tan and gold colors on their possessions. The guard led her to the largest tent in the center.
"Sir, I have brought your daughter."
"Very well. Leave us so that we may have a chat in private," said her father.
The guard nodded and left. Her father beckoned for Aria to sit, then he proceeded to question her.
"Aria, where does your loyalty stand?"
Her father continued, "You are our best protector Aria. You were the top of your class in training and have never failed us. That is until today. For years, we have relied on you to prevent outsiders from intruding upon our desert. But now you have forsaken your tribe and threaten our very existence!"
Aria said nothing. She could feel her father's disappointment fuming from his voice.
"I don't understand. You know the rules of our tribe! Always set traps to stop outsiders. Follow at a distant so that you my never be seen. Absolutely do not come into contact with any outsiders. Finally, do what ever it takes to prevent outsiders from reaching the ancient city. That is what you have been taught since the very beginning. Yet over these past few days, you choose to break them!" he yelled.
Her father turned away. Aria could sense the building anger within him.
"When you first discovered this outsider, you were arrogant enough in your confidence and watched your trap from too close. You broke a rule even before the outside managed to see you!"
Aria was stunned. How could he have possibly known?
Sensing her bewilderment, her father replied. "You were not the only Xweetok to roam the desert that day. After witnessing your lack of judgment, your kin decided to follow you. While in the desert valley, you proceeded to disobey our rules when you engaged in a battle with the outsider! You know very well never to come into contact with one. Even worse, you let him get away once the battle ended!"
Her father sighed, "Then when you surfed the lost desert sands by the shrine of ancient pillars, you proceeded surf the forbidden sand dunes. You were very fortunate to have not suffered any greater injures. But I am most disappointed in your decision to personally lead the outsider to Qasala. Why? Why did you do it? You know what happened to your grandfather when he failed. He was banished!"
Finally able to speak, Aria looked into her father's eyes.
"I wanted to honor my duties. At the time, I truly wanted to stop the outsider. But this one was different. He is smart, able to take on any challenge. I continued to set traps in which he would easily evade. I tried my best but he was well prepared. Then when I confronted him, he was humble and kind. Even when I became injured, he chose to help me instead of finishing his journey."
A fiery passion began to build in her voice.
"He wanted to be my friend. I have never really had a chance to gain any friendships through my forced responsibilities! He even asked if I wanted to join him on his journey. Do you want to know why I decided to go with him?" Aria yelled.
"BECAUSE HE GAVE ME A CHOICE! Not once in my life was I ever given a choice within the tribe. You never asked if I wanted to be a protector or not. Instead, you forced me into a life of training and seclusion in order to ward off outsiders who have done no harm to our tribe!" she cried, "And why are we trying to protect an ancient city that we no longer reside in? Why can't we rebuild instead? I want to honor our ancestors but not like this! We need to move on from the pains of the past and forge a new future."
Her father remained silent for some time. The anger in his eyes had changed into that of acceptance as he struggled to find words.
"Perhaps you are right," he finally responded.
My father is agreeing with me?
He continued, "Indeed our way of life is no reflection on the former grandeur of our ancestors. I have decided to talk to the tribe. In the mean time, go to the guards and order them to release the outsider to you. Tell them on my command that you intend to send him to exile. Only then will you two be able to walk freely from our watch."
I'm not banished? Noel can be set free?
Aria smiled, "Thank you, Father! ...Before I go, I just wanted to know... is there really a lost treasure hidden with the mountain?"
Her father responded, "I'm sorry but I do not know. Knowledge of such treasure must have been lost over time. Now go and finish your journey!"
Not wanting to delay, Aria hugged her father and set off to find Noel.
The Xweetok guard placed Noel in a small tent. He bound his arms to a pole and removed the blindfold.
"You will remain here until we decide on further action. Think of this as punishment for intruding upon our lands, outsider!" said the guard.
He then exited the tent, leaving Noel alone to contemplate this most unfortunate turn of events.
Why did Aria betray me? I thought we were friends!
Anger pulsated through Noel's body. He didn't understand how Aria could turn against him after all they have been through. Closing his eyes, Noel imagined the mountain in front of him. The destination he had tried to hard to reach was now unattainable. He had gotten so close to fulfilling his grandfather's legacy. Tears began to form in his eyes.
I have failed.
Noel sighed. Unable to free his hands, he had no choice but to wait for an inevitable punishment. As two guards stood watch outside his tent, he could overhear their conversation.
"This outsider will most likely get exiled. No one has ever been able to return from exile heh!" jeered one guard.
Exile? Now I'll never be able to reach the mountain to find the lost treasure.
His spirit and dreams were now crushed. Exile seemed like being trapped in those tunnels beneath Qasala with no way out. Regardless of what exile meant, Noel was not eager to find out.
Suddenly he heard another voice join the guards.
"I have come to take the prisoner to exile. Orders from my father."
A guard replied, "What now? It is nearly dark and why would he send you?"
"Don't question me! Take it up with my father if you disagree."
Not wanting to cause conflict, the guard gave in. "Very well then. You may enter."
Great. Now she is going to personally send me to exile. Some friend she is.
Aria entered the tent with the same expressionless demeanor as before. She went over to Noel and carefully untied him from the pole without freeing his hands. It was clear to Noel that she had no intentions of talking to him. Aria motioned for him to get up as she steered him out of the tent and back towards the desert.
Once they had put some distance between them and the camp, Aria untied Noel's hands and hugged him.
"We did it!" she exclaimed.
"I... I don't understand. Why did you betray me?" Noel asked.
Aria replied, "I'm really sorry I wasn't honest with you. I had to let you get captured if I was to ever have a chance in rescuing you later on. After speaking with my father, I managed to convince him to free you without angering the tribe and so that's why I continued to ignore you."
Relieved, Noel thanked Aria as they made their way back towards Qasala. The mountain was once again in sight. They were finally getting closer to finding the lost treasure.
To be continued...