III - The Old Hermit
The jungle proved far cooler than the hot sands of the beach.
When the stranger asked them what they were doing on the beach, Liana and Jerrim had explained that they had become shipwrecked. After some hesitation, the stranger had offered to tend to Jerrim’s wounds, and led them to his hut further in the jungle.
They both knew that staying with the stranger was their best bet for survival, for now.
The dense jungle was alive with the chirps and calls of countless birds and bugs, not to mention the odd creature they spotted scuttling through the underbrush. What was most strange to Liana were the impossibly tall trees, and the overly large leaves that made up the thick ceiling of the jungle–a far cry from the sparse saplings in the northern Central Plains.
They stopped when the pain became too much for Jerrim. Liana supported him as best she could, though fatigue soon took her and she stumbled more than once. When the old man eventually offered to take Jerrim, she reluctantly refused, not trusting her friend with the stranger just yet.
Liana had never seen magic like the old man had conjured on the beach–or any magic that was as powerful as he wielded. She wondered what source his power came from, unsure if she wanted to know the answer. The device he had used made her think he was a Halitae-Magus, and this thought caused her to eye the stranger wearily. If he was the race that was considered rivals to Liana’s own people, the Halitae, she would have to be extra careful.
The old man, who spoke little beyond what was necessary, appeared to know the jungle very well. While Jerrim lay exhausted during one rest, the stranger told them he would find them something to eat, and disappeared into the jungle.
Alone with Jerrim once again, Liana studied her injured friend, frowning at his wound.
“Li,” Jerrim said, stifling a grimace, “how did everything go so wrong? We were so close to the Mare...”
“Forget about that for now,” Liana said. “We need to get away from this guy as soon as we can.”
Jerrim studied her, searching for an answer.
“You saw his tech,” Liana said. “And you saw what he could do. Jerri, he’s a Magus!”
Jerrim shook his head. “We don’t know that. Not for sure.”
“Come on, you know he is. I’m not putting our lives in the hands of a Magus. What if he finds out who I am?” Liana shook her head. A Halitae trapped on an island, at the mercy of a Magus – she wouldn’t last a minute.
The foliage shifted near them. The stranger appeared with a bundle of leaf-wrapped fruit, and handed them one each.
Though she was cautious of the strange furry fruit at first, Liana could not deny how hungry she was, and knew that Jerrim needed to eat too. She quickly took a bite, before it was obvious that she was testing the fruit before Jerrim could, hoping they were as safe as they appeared.
She was surprised how juicy and tasty the yellow fruit was, and felt greatly relieved by its refreshing pulp. She was happy to see the colour that returned to Jerrim’s cheeks after just a few bites. They drank the sweet juices, not caring where it spilt over them. While Jerrim still only wore his shorts–the rich blue faded to a dull navy–Liana’s top and shorts were muddied and dirtied beyond any washing.
She gave the stranger their names, hoping to build some trust between them, and asked his.
“Elias,” his harsh voice grumbled, his startling deep, grey eyes studying her closely. Though he said no more.
Liana’s entire body ached by the time they reached Elias’s home, but she was determined to support Jerrim until she found a safe place to lay him.
Mostly hidden beneath thick undergrowth, the wooden hut had a look of an ancient forgotten structure. The front side was tilted back, giving it a skewed impression, although the ground was flat here.
Warm musky smells enveloped them within the tight confines of the hut. A mess of collected trinkets and boxes of mechanical devices filled the sides of the front room. What looked like a small kitchen area lay further on under an archway, mostly comprised of a wash basin and shelves lined with jars and sundries. Liana was surprised to see so much tech scattered around the meagre living quarters, and now was sure the stranger was a Halitae-Magus. She shuddered at the thought of her parents knowing she was seeking sanctuary with a Magus–they would drag her back home in an instant.
They lay Jerrim on an animal-hide rug next to a crooked wooden cabinet on the right wall.
Liana checked her friend, seeing he was mostly unconscious now that he was finally able to lay down in peace. She cursed herself–they should never have left Gerrun Edun. She missed their hometown dearly. What were they thinking, running off with dreams of treasure and fresh starts? She told herself that there was more to their trip than just seeking treasure, but resisted thinking about them.
Something clanked in the corner, and she saw the old man had thrown a device on a pile of tools scattered on a long bench. It was the same circular contraption he had used against the giant beast; the one that released such a powerful energy. The disjointed parts of rusted metals were crudely fused and the wiring, from what she could see, was a mess. Liana eyed the device, becoming lost in thought.
“Come,” Elias said, startling her. Perhaps it came across harsher than he meant, for she saw him frown with thought, before adding, “I have ointments for your leg.”
Liana wondered what he meant, and then saw the scratches that ran down the length of her right thigh. She hadn’t even noticed them.
Elias approached her. “Your friend will be fine here. It is best he rests for now.”
She nodded numbly, the weariness of the day getting to her.
On the opposite wall Liana saw a doorless threshold, which led to a small room that looked nothing more than a large cupboard. It reminded her of the space under the stairs in her home. A mattress and mess of cloths and sheets were laid out in the cluttered space, the slanted ceiling coming up to her shoulders. She guessed the place was Elias’s sleeping room.
On the wall next to the doorway was a large wooden board, which Elias lifted to reveal a square compartment. A strong smell of spices came with the sight of jars and pouches clustered within the hole in the wall. Elias reached into the mess, knocking a few bottles over, and brought out a thin vial of a purple liquid.
“What is it?” Liana asked, trying to hide the mistrust in her voice.
Before Elias could answer, a loud commotion came from the kitchen. Pots and pans were knocked around and clattered on the ground.
Liana startled at the small creature that flew towards them.
Long furry limbs flailed as its short, bat-like wings carried it across the confined space. Large golden eyes glared at them both, a squeal passing its thick lips.
“My mouth!” it screeched, twisting its long furry body as it bobbed in the air.
“No,” grumbled Elias. “Not food.”
The creature frowned spectacularly and scrambled forward, small paws reaching towards the compartment. Elias held it back with a hand, ignoring the clawing hands and heavy whimpers.
“Hooky?” The energetic creature pleaded, raising its glistening eyes to Elias.
“No, not for Hooky,” he said sternly. “Now, go and clean up that mess,” he added, tilting his head towards the kitchen.
The creature named Hooky stopped struggling and dropped its arms, its entire body becoming limp. When Elias released his hold, it fell to the ground in a heap. Hooky groaned and stomped towards the kitchen with great exaggeration.
While the clangs of pots and utensils rang from the kitchen, Liana gave Elias a blank look.
The old man sighed, shaking his head. “Hooky,” was all he said, in way of explanation.
He sat her down on a dusty cushion and removed the stopper on the vial.
The cool liquid stung Liana’s scratches and she winced, although she noted how careful and gentle Elias was throughout the process. He wouldn’t be this way if he knew of her heritage, she was certain.
Elias went back to the wall compartment, rummaged within the mess and then returned with a woollen bundle.
“Let the ointment cool first, and then I will apply the bandage,” he said to her, and stepped to Jerrim.
Elias wrapped the cloth around the boy’s midsection, careful not to aggravate his wounds–and, as Liana saw it, careful not to wake him. When Elias was done, he rose and returned to her. Eyeing the scratches on her leg, reddened from the rubbed ointment, he made sure the liquid had dried before wrapping the cloth around her thigh. Liana shuddered at his touch, and she held still, helpless. Though she wasn’t in danger–she could tell that much at least. Someone else might have seen Elias as a saviour to them, but she knew better than to feel safe around him.
“I will see to your bed sheets.” This was how the old man told her they could stay the night. “And some supper, hm?” he added, before he entered his sleeping room and searched through it.
Alone in the main room, Liana hugged herself as she looked to Jerrim. Her friend remained still, his partially-wrapped chest rising and lowering slowly. His floppy brown hair hung over his dirty face, which held a peaceful expression.
Liana shivered. The more she studied the cluttered confines of the hut, the more tech she recognised. A modified grissum-boar trap, motorised fishing poles, worn out transmitters, and a very old-looking frequencer were among the devices she knew. She startled when she saw the crudely put together spear rifles in the corner, and wondered what other weapons were among the harmless clutter. She made a note of all the things she could use as a weapon, if it came to it.
The racket from the kitchen grew louder, forcing any thought from her, and she saw the furry creature scatter back and forth from the doorway, pans and pots flying in its wake.
Despite the troublesome Hooky, Elias managed to make a simple stew of vegetables for them that night. Liana was offered the only chair in the hut, while Elias cleared some booklets off a crate and sat on that. She watched Jerrim’s sleeping face while she ate and made some conversation with their host, who spoke little. Patters of rain became audible in the silence of the room. From the half-opened window in the kitchen, Liana could see the heavy rain fall on the leaves and trees, glistening in the darkness. A loud drip signalled a leak in the hut, though she couldn’t see where.
Soon after finishing his meal, Hooky darted off through the kitchen window, and Liana was thankful for the peace the creature’s absence brought.
When Jerrim eventually stirred awake, she offered to feed him stew, although he was adamant he could feed himself. Jerrim responded with minimal words, and seemed a far cry from the usually high-spirited boy she knew. His eyes were heavy, as if the dim light hurt him, and looked like he wanted nothing more than to sleep.
Their host offered Liana his bedding in the small cupboard, and when she asked where he would sleep, he simply told her he would make do outside. Though the rain had stopped, Liana wasn’t sure where he would go, and found it surprising that he would leave them alone in his home.
Jerrim was asleep soon after Elias left them. Liana was relieved, as she was too tired for any more talk, wanting nothing more than to lay down and close her eyes.
She thought she would not be able to sleep, being in a stranger’s home in the middle of a jungle. Possible dangers all around them. But soon after closing her eyes, the weariness of the day finally overwhelmed her.
She did not hear the return of the rain and the thunderstorm that followed, or the comings and goings of Hooky throughout the night.