V - The Price of Peace
The darkness of the jungle spun by in a blur. Branches whipped and scratched at Liana’s legs and arms, but she ignored them all.
Heaving through shallow breaths, she desperately ran as fast as she could, knowing the enormous spider was closing in. Its powerful legs hammered the ground, each one searching for her as it knocked over trees and threw out mud and rocks in its wake.
Her legs burned, though she would not slow down. She jumped over logs and ducked under branches, not knowing where the next obstacle would be until it was before her.
A thick leg skewed the ground beside her, throwing her to the side. Crying out, she pushed off against a tree and kept moving.
The rattling hisses of the giant spider followed her, seeming to penetrate her mind.
Another leg stabbed the ground in front of her rising foot, and she fell forward, rolling and scrambling in the mud. She turned on her back, utterly exhausted, to see the great orbs of the spider close in on her. From its small mouth came a green glow, matching its eyes. Its shuddering hisses echoed through the jungle–or through her mind. She could see the ridges within the mouth as it opened wider, luminous bile dripping from it.
Suddenly something disturbed the air above them.
“No! No!” came a familiar screech.
Hooky spun and darted back and forth through the air, his bat-like wings flapping furiously.
“No!” he barked, growling and hissing.
The great eyes of the spider rose and blinked.
Liana lay there, waiting for the spider to strike and end the courageous Hooky, who was darting around like an incessant fly.
The spider hissed. It considered the squealing Hooky, and then, to Liana’s great surprise, it backed away into the night. Its glowing eyes rose up into the trees and disappeared in the darkness above.
Hooky lowered to her, moving slower now. His small shoulders also heaved, and his eyes were wide.
“O-kay,” he said softly. It sounded the most human Liana had heard him yet. His tongue whipped out and ran along his fat lips, and he smiled at her, blinking.
Liana would have laughed, were it not for the sheer terror she had just experienced.
As Hooky led her back to the hut, she hugged herself, soaked from sweat and shivering in the cold night.
Not even attempting to go back to sleep, she lay awake for the rest of the night, unable to stop the traumatic images in her mind.
Hooky lay down in the front room, between her and Jerrim; she could see his furry tail from behind a box. Even though she could hear his soft snores, she felt that the creature remained there to look out for them.
It was around the time of the early morning birds’ songs that she eventually drifted to sleep.
When she groggily awoke the next morning, she was surprised–and elated–to see Jerrim on his feet.
He pretended not to see her at first, which gave her the impression that he had just been watching her. He always pretended to ignore her when he had been caught staring at her.
She rose to her feet and went to him, fighting the throbbing in her head.
When she hugged him, he let out a suppressed groan, and she realised she had squeezed him too tight.
Stepping back, Jerrim moved his hands to her waist and looked at her, that sorrowful look in his eyes. She offered him a weak smile and turned away, not wanting to hold his gaze for too long. She let the rest go unsaid.
“What happened?” he asked suddenly, his eyes widening.
She followed his gaze to the scratches on her muddy arms, and noticed the bandages on her thigh had been torn some.
“You know how clumsy I am,” she said lightly. “Just fell over yesterday in the jungle with Elias.”
He eyed her suspiciously.
“Is Elias around?” she asked, changing the subject. She looked around for Hooky but saw no sign of the creature.
Jerrim shook his head. “Haven’t seen him yet. Looks like the day is getting on already though.”
The heat in the hut told her it was well into mid-day.
Looking around briefly, she voiced the feelings that had been building up. “Look, Jerrim. Let’s forget about the treasure and just go home.”
Jerrim’s brows furrowed, signalling he was about to put up a fight. “What are you talking about? We left home for the treasure. We’re not going back without it. We can’t.”
She sighed and turned away, searching for a way to reason with him.
“If I don’t come back with the treasure, then my family is ruined,” Jerrim continued, his voice rising. “We need the money, Li. And what about you? What happened to you wanting to start your own life? To forget about Doran. Or... do you want to go back to him? Do you... still love him?”
“I... I don’t know. I just don’t like it here.” She sighed again and started pacing. A part of her felt that she was lying when she said that she didn’t like it there, but she pushed that feeling aside.
“I’m not going back without that gold,” Jerrim repeated sternly.
She hated his stubbornness.
The front door creaked opened, and Elias walked in. A mess of tech parts and wires hung from his hands, and he laid them into a box by the door with a few other parts. He nodded to the box and looked to Liana. “Some chores for you.”
She tried to keep her face neutral, unsure of how to respond.
Elias softened his voice, perhaps sensing her apprehension. “I thought you could make yourself useful while you’re here. It’s mostly junk, but some have their uses.” He picked out a long object with a wooden handle. “You can keep what you fix, if you wish.”
He threw the long device, and she caught it awkwardly with both hands against her chest.
“A cross-bow,” he told her.
She looked up at him, this time emphasising her raised brows.
His grey eyes pierced her, though he said no more.
Liana shivered, and she wondered if Elias knew of her ordeal with the spider last night. Or knew they were planning on leaving soon.
“To keep you busy, anyway,” he said, turning from them. “I have errands, and will be away for most of the day. There is fruit and bread in the kitchen. And fresh water. Help yourselves to anything you find.”
After he left them, Liana and Jerrim silently agreed not to continue their previous conversation. While she attempted to keep their talk light and friendly, Jerrim mostly sulked and made little conversation.
Liana passed the time by repairing the tech Elias had left for her, finding that she enjoyed the task once settling into it. She thought of the times she had helped her father with some run-down tech around the house. She had loved spending time with him when she was younger, the tech bringing them closer together. She wished things were still like that.
Jerrim announced he would prepare them lunch in the kitchen.
After some time a strange sensation passed over Liana, like a cold shiver. Her skin tingled and her hairs stood up. Rubbing her arms, she went to the door. She left the hut and studied the surrounding jungle, searching for the source of the familiar sensation.
Hugging herself, she stepped between the trees and through the incessant bugs, careful not to wander too far from the hut.
A wave of sensation washed over her, taking her breath away. Her pacing quickened now as she felt the source of the energy.
Further on, she could see Elias now. His heavy coat was off, revealing a thin dark vest. His powerful arms glistened as he moved them slowly over his head. She watched him turn and take a controlled step, his hands moving in wide arcs.
She gasped when she realised she had seen the specific movements before. The vivid memories came of her mother praying to Iselda, back in the Crown before they moved to the Central Plains. Though it was so long ago, Liana remembered the same sensations coming over her when she would watch her mother meditate.
Approaching the old man, she saw his eyes were closed with an expression of deep concentration.
She suspected that he was praying to Waton, the Magus’s god. But she wondered why his movements were so similar to her mothers, and why the fuzzy sensation felt so familiar.
Caught up in the moment, she found herself lifting an arm and widening her stance. Rotating her wrist and bringing her arm down across her chest, twisting her body, she attempted to mimic Elias.
She moved opposite him, as if a reflection of his movements, stepping and turning, their hands curling through the air.
Time seemed to still. At some point Elias acknowledged her. His sweat-covered face turned to her with a hard look.
Blinking back the sweat in her eyes, her breath was heavy as she said, “That was an Iselda prayer.”
He nodded grimly. “Aye.”
“But... how did you...?”
“I have little experience of the Ice Maiden, though I was able to channel a part of her through Waton.”
Liana swallowed through a dry throat. She wondered just how powerful this man was to draw upon another god from channelling his own. She didn’t even know that was possible.
Her wide eyes remained fixed on him. “But... why?”
At this, Elias looked away. “To wish you both well on your travels. The Jungle of Ari can be a dangerous place without a god’s blessing.”
She was lost for words, still unable to comprehend how he channelled Iselda, and why he would want to bless their travels.
“Would you like to join me?” he asked after a while, surprising her.
She shook her head. “I... I would know how...” she lied. “I couldn’t...” The thought of touching Iselda after so long caused her to sweat more.
Elias nodded with understanding. He turned and brought out a towel from a sack, and patted his face and arms with it.
“I... I’ll leave you to it. Sorry to disturb you,” she said with a shaky voice. Flustered, she turned away.
“Liana,” he said. It was the first time he had used her name, and it sent a chill through her.
After some time, she faced him.
“Iselda does not easily forget.”
The words, and his steel gaze, froze her. What did he mean? What did he know?
Her lower lip quivered as she held his stare, before finding the strength to turn away. She left him and made her way back to the hut, thankful that he did not say any more.
His words rang in her ears as she walked. Did he mean that Iselda had not forgotten her, and her younger self’s prayers? Or did he mean that Iselda was unhappy that she had stopped worshipping her, and would not forget about her?
With these thoughts, memories of her mother came back to her in floods. Her crooked smile, her annoyingly loud laugh, the way she said her name... By the time Liana reached the hut, she was wiping away the tears.
Inside the hut, Jerrim was on the floor with Hook. A beeping device lay in between them. Jerrim tapped a series of buttons, causing a succession of beeps, with Hooky then bashing buttons on his side of the device.
She watched them play with a smile on her face, until Hooky saw her. His large eyes narrowed and he turned his back to her. Her breath caught, and wondered what to make of the reaction. She thought Hooky saving her from the spider may have brought her closer to the strange creature.
“Hey,” Jerrim said. “What happened? Hooky told me you went to see Elias. I went out to find you but couldn’t see you.”
“It was nothing,” she told him, trying to keep her voice steady. “He just needed a hand with something.” She knew being vague with Jerrim wasn’t a good idea. He was far too sensitive and curious to just let things go.
But now he just nodded, and returned to his game with Hooky.
Sometime later, Jerrim felt the urge to go for a walk, while the sun was still up. Liana went with him, and they had a relatively pleasant walk, keeping their talk light, reminiscing about home. Jerrim was soon fatigued, however, and they ventured back to the hut, with Liana supporting him near the end.
Hooky helped Elias fix them a dinner of vegetables and potatoes in a creamy sauce, and crusty bread. While Jerrim passed the time with the harder version of the toy that Elias had given him, Liana continued to tinker with the run-down tech. She found the cross-bow was not so damaged, and managed to repair it easy enough. Some ornate items had an antique look about them, something that could perhaps have once been worth a lot, but were now little more than garbage.
Iselda and her mother continued to find their way into Liana’s thoughts, and she spent most of the evening in a numb haze.
When darkness fully came, Elias left them. Liana felt the urge to ask him where he went each night, feeling somewhat more comfortable around him now, but she resisted the question. She remembered that they really didn’t know anything about this man still.
The drowsiness of sleep eventually took her, and she retreated to her bedroom crevice. Jerrim and Hooky finished up their last game together, and she fell asleep with the sounds of the beeping game.
A few hours later, heavy boots crunched through the jungle. Several armoured men approached the hut, their dark forms moving like ghosts in the darkness. They prepared their weapons as they surrounded the hut.