II - The Jungle of Ari
The soft roar of crashing waves was the first sound that came to Jerrim.
When he finally managed to open his eyes, he saw nothing but white light. Rough shapes began to form through his blurred vision–wispy clouds in a bright sky.
Birds cawed nearby, joining the sounds of the ebbing waves crashing on the beach.
Coarse sand shifted beneath him.
The cool water–refreshing on his legs and bare torso–pushed its way up to Jerrim’s chin, forcing him to lift his head. He could taste the salty sand that stuck to most of his face. While his head throbbed and his eyes stung, when Jerrim thought of Liana, all other thoughts went away.
His head darted up with a vitality that shocked even him, but a sharp pain immediately shot through his abdomen and he keeled over. Clutching his side, he felt the fleshy wound there. He carefully removed his hand and saw the pulpy gash that spread along the side of his body. Slowly seeping blood had begun to flow from his movements. He struggled to breathe as the shock reached him, although his mind was soon elsewhere.
Frantically scanning the beach, he saw her.
Liana lay on a wooden board further up the beach, her face hidden within her messy hair. She was not moving.
Mastering his breath and fighting through the pain, Jerrim cursed his inability to run to her.
“Liana!” he called. His hoarse voice caught, so he called out again, stronger this time.
When there was no response, he began to panic. He tried to rise onto a knee but the pain was unbearable, and he keeled over. He called out again; a desperate cry.
He cursed himself again. Going on this crazy adventure was his idea, sort of. If anything were to happen to Liana, it would all be his fault. Why did he have to let her come along on his stupid treasure hunt, sweeping her up in his dreams of unimaginable wealth?
He thought he saw slow movements at first, and then it was clear that Liana was waking.
Jerrim dropped his head with a great sigh of relief, and coughed when the pain hit him again.
Liana rose onto her hands with groggy, careful movements, and settled into a seated position. Jerrim watched her survey the area, waiting for her eyes to fall on him, too exhausted to call out again.
She darted up when she saw him, almost falling onto the white sand as she scrambled to her feet.
“Jerri!” she called, reaching him. She brought his head onto her knee, startled by his cries of pain. Her trembling eyes studied him, a hand hovering helplessly over his injuries.
“Wha–what... are you okay?” Her voice shook with fear and adrenaline.
Jerrim grimaced. “I’m fine. I think so. I just...” He attempted to sit up, but was forced back down by another bout of stabbing pain that took his breath.
“Here,” Liana offered, bringing an arm under him and lifting. With a great effort and several groans from him, she managed to bring Jerrim shakily to his feet.
Breathing heavily and sweating profusely, Jerrim’s chest stung where she placed a hand, and he knew he had been burnt by the sun.
He looked along the beach, seeing the vast ocean beyond the foamy waves of the shore. Further down, the remains of their boat lay scattered across the beach, some pieces floating back and forth in the shallow tide.
Behind them they saw a thick collection of leafy trees, that seemed to spread as deep as they could see, and across the length of the entire island.
Jerrim recognised the sight straight away, but he couldn’t understand how they were here.
His eyes roamed the great ondr trees and the green and purple plants of the Jungle of Ari. Though he had never been here before, he’d seen enough images and heard stories of the place to understand where they were.
“Is... is this...?” Liana said, seeming to follow his thoughts. Her warm arm was wrapped around his bare back, a hand in his armpit. He wasn’t sure if it was the heat of the strong sun, but his head grew hot and he began to feel dizzy. Even after all they had been through, he could smell her sweet perfumed hair, which brought about a familiar yearning within him.
“Yeah,” he told her, rubbing his wet eyes while trying not to also brush sand in them.
“But... how?” Liana breathed, her voice rising in disbelief. “I mean... how did we get all the way here?”
“I guess we were thrown off course,” Jerrim said.
Liana waved an arm towards their broken boat and groaned. “How are we going to get back now?”
“I... I don’t know, Li, but we’ll figure it out. We’ll find that treasure, I promise.”
She huffed and shook her head, lost for words as she looked around. Jerrim wished he could just give her everything she wanted. All the treasure in the world. Whatever life she wanted. It was crazy to think that he had only known Liana for two years–neighbours who hardly spoke for most of that time–but he felt like he’d known her his whole life. He wished that he could start a new life with her, but he had to go back to Gerrun Edun, to bring his family the money they so desperately needed.
He looked around at the crashing waves on the beach and at the tall inland trees. Would it be so bad to spend some time together here? Alone with Liana?
“Maybe there’s another boat on the shoreline,” Liana suggested. “Come on. Come here,” she added, readjusting her hold of Jerrim and pointing her head down the beach.
The trees near them suddenly shook, the tops of them rustling and swaying back and forth.
For a moment all that could be heard where the creaking trees and the lapping of the waves behind them.
Jerrim felt Liana’s hold tighten. He wanted to offer her reassuring words of safety and a plan of action, but didn’t know-how. And he didn’t want to tell her she was squeezing too hard for fear that she would let go.
A fierce roar shook the forest, sending a hot air blasting out to them.
For an instant, Jerrim feared the Kraken had caught up with them, but realised that didn’t make sense at all.
Trees broke and flew away, shattering under the huge paws of the beast that stomped onto the beach.
It leaned on powerful front legs, its small eyes falling on them. Its thick-lipped mouth huffed and spat, sending out a mist of heavy breath. Long scaled horns curled out from its wide furry head. It reached about three men high, though could have been more than triple that if it stood on its hind legs.
Jerrim froze, knowing he was unable to do anything to protect them in his state.
The beast rose and stomped, kicking out sand and rocks in its wild rage. Rearing back, it shot forward and charged at them, unleashing a trembling growl.
A stream of bright energy landed between them and the beast, exploding in a powerful collision. Wisps of white vapour dissipated among the flying chips of stones and sand.
The energy cleared to reveal a figure shrouded in dark clothing, a heavy cloak billowing in the charged air.
Jerrim and Liana exchanged surprised looks, though had no words for the sight.
The beast reeled back, studying this new addition. It huffed and growled, shivering with pent up aggression. Lowering its head, it prepared to attack.
The cloaked figure held a hand up towards them, the hood still facing the beast.
“Run,” a gruff male voice called out.
Jerrim turned to Liana, nodding sharply towards the beach. Even if he couldn’t run, he would make sure that she got to safety. Liana glowered at him, shaking her head with a dramatic frown that could have been comical in other circumstances. He wasn’t surprised that she’d be too stubborn to leave him, but the gesture did little to comfort him.
The beast charged at the figure. In an instant, his cloaked form erupted in a blaze of rippling white energy. He jumped to the side, dodging the rising horns of the beast, and then appeared to freeze in the air. The ball of white flames flickered for a moment, before rocketing down to the beast. It struck the creature on its head, sending it stumbling into the trees and falling on its back.
The hood spun towards them. He appeared to look them over–perhaps wondering why they were still there–though his face was hidden beneath the heavy cowl.
A smoking burn mark lay between the horns on the beast’s head, but the injury did not appear to bother it much.
It charged again, grunting and growling with streams of stringy saliva. The hooded man jumped back, his hand flicking. A metallic device landed in the beast’s path. A mechanism flicked open and from it burst a cloud of inky purple energy. Running into the mist, the creature became lost within its darkness. Several seconds passed. Letting out a screech, the beast came out and collapsed in a heap, appearing completely beaten and exhausted as the energy dissipated.
The stranger stood for a moment, his shoulders heaving, before he turned to them once again.
As he stepped, motion was heard behind him. The great beast was somehow on its feet again. It rose on its back legs, roaring and shaking with rage, before stomping towards them.
Spinning, the hooded man once again burst into white flames, and this time he darted head-on.
An explosion of energy erupted on their contact. Bouncing back, the white blaze shot forward again and knocked into the beast like a flung arrow. Launching into the air, the figure held his position momentarily, pulses of power growing as he gathered energy, before shooting back down and splashing white flames over the beast.
The subsiding energy revealed the downed beast, covered in oily dark blood, its huge belly heaving as it panted.
Bright flames lapped at the nearby trees, burning them to a crisp.
Turning to them, the figure threw back his heavy hood, revealing the sharp-lined features of a bearded old man. His hair was more grey than black, both on his head and scruffy beard. He huffed and wheezed, stifling a bout of coughs as he said, “Well that was exciting.”