VII - The Plan
Looking over the shelves of the underground room, Liana found many things she did not expect to see. Several photo frames, both on the shelves and hanging on the rock wall, contained the image of a woman. In some of them she held a small child, and one with an older child that could have been the same person. Liana guessed it was a wife or girlfriend of Elias, perhaps an older sister, and then wondered if Elias had any children. Not that he would have told them if he did, or any personal details. All the pictures together made her think of a shrine, and she thought it strange for someone like Elias to have such a thing.
Although she realised that they had only just met the real Elias. The war hero, Auren Ellaison. She still couldn’t believe it. The hero of the Shadow Wars. The old stories said that he had died shortly after the wars, or that he had ascended to the godly realms. No one had heard from him in decades.
And they had stumbled upon him in the Jungle of Ari. It was a story straight out of the old tales.
She flexed her feet, feeling the soothing balm squash between her toes. Elias–Auren–whoever he was–had tended to their damaged feet, and after applying a cool salve, he had given them leather moccasins which stretched and tightened to their foot size.
Liana never thought she’d be so happy for such simple footwear.
She picked up a photo frame that caught her eye. The woman was smiling, though her large eyes were sorrowful. Her brown hair hung loose and fell over her slender shoulders. Behind her appeared to be a cave, and the red rocks reminded Liana of something–of pictures of the underground caves that the Umbrai Incola live in.
“My mother,” Elias said from behind, his deep voice startling her. “She died when I was young.”
Liana was afraid to meet his eyes, and so kept her gaze on the photo. “She’s beautiful,” she told him, and replaced the photo frame.
“She was an Umbrai Incola,” Elias admitted.
A shuffling from behind told her that Jerrim was nearby.
“I am half Halitae-Magus, and half Umbrai Incola,” Elias went on, his voice becoming sorrowful. “When I fought in the Shadow Wars, I fought against some of my kin.”
She finally turned to him, finding his face closer to hers than she thought.
“I always thought the Umbrai were a peaceful race,” she told him.
“They are,” he said. “Although the Army of Nox had different ideals. They were cast out by the rest of their kind once they declared war on Eclauria.” He paused a moment before adding, “It is easy for the past to consume you. While we cannot forget what has been, we must not let it affect our present. Or future.”
Liana searched for the words to give. She had never known their protector to be so open.
Elias kept his keen eyes on her before turning away, and addressed Jerrim. “And how are you, young man?”
Jerrim laid a hand to his bandaged side. “Better. But... still a long way to recovery. I can still fight though.” He added this last part quickly.
“It would not do well to be so hasty to fight,” Elias told him. Auren. Liana had to remember to use his real name. But she was so used to calling him Elias.
“But I need to fight. To...” Jerrim’s eyes darted to Liana before sheepishly looking away. “To help,” he added sullenly. His voice rose when he said, “I say we go out there and rush them, take them by surprise. I see some weapons in here, and what can be used as weapons. If we all go out there at the same time–”
“We will all die at the same time,” Elias said sternly. “No one ever won a battle by rushing blindly into it. It is not courageous to let your enemies kill you so easily. We don’t know how many men are out there. What their strategies are. What their intentions are.”
Jerrim wanted to argue more, Liana could tell, but instead he huffed and dropped onto the sofa, taking a sip of the dark drink.
Liana looked to her empty glass on the table. The creamy drink was cold yet it had warmed her insides, and somehow helped her wake up and focus. The pain from her injuries had lessened also, likely temporarily.
“So what do we do?” Jerrim asked, finishing his own glass.
Elias sat on a chair next to him, nodding his head to Liana for her to sit with them.
“We won’t be safe in here for too long,” he told them. “We go out, but we go prepared. I know this jungle better than anyone, and can get us to the western shores where I have a boat.”
“How many of them do you think there are?” Liana asked.
“Two dozen at the least.”
“And they can’t be fought?” Jerrim asked. “You took care of three of them in a confined space easy enough.”
“We take on one or two, soon more will come, and we will be overwhelmed. We were lucky to escape the hut without more finding us.”
Jerrim looked around the room. “Where’s Hooky?”
Elias shrugged. “He comes and goes as he pleases. And can take care of himself when he needs. He may even still be asleep somewhere.”
“How do we get to the boat?” Liana asked, leaning forward and clasping her hands together.
“I know a few routes and shortcuts that should get us there safe. Although we must prepare for confrontation. I have a few tricks here.” With that Elias stood and went to a cluster of boxes under a large shelf.
Liana expected nothing less from a Halitae-Magus. A part of her was even excited to see what kind of tech he would have hiding around. As a Halitae, she couldn’t resist a good bit of tech.
When she saw the handle of an overly large spanner sticking out of one of the boxes, she decided to rummage through them with Elias.
She removed the open-end spanner and saw it was almost the length of her arm. The larger end’s curved points were corroded and blunted, but the smaller end was in perfect condition. It looked like it would prove an adequate weapon.
She turned to see Elias hand Jerrim a long wooden stick, with metal components around the mid-section and a rounded metal top. Jerrim leaned on the stick to stand, before moving it around and assessing the weight in his hands.
Elias removed something from the box nearest him and held it out to Liana. She saw a broken sword tip in his hand, the length of a forearm and width of a thigh. It still looked very sharp. “Would make a good addition to your weapon,” he told her.
Liana spent the next few minutes strapping the sword point to the larger end of the spanner, although she would have preferred to have fused the metals together if she could.
When she saw Elias sling a satchel over his shoulder, she noticed he wore a heavier, darker coat. Jerrim wore a lightly spun shirt over his usually bare chest, buttoned up to cover his bandages, and also held a satchel slung across his body.
“We leave soon,” Elias told them.
Liana stood, lowering her weapon. “Elias. A-Auren,” she stammered.
The old man smiled under his beard. “Please. Call me Elias. I have not gone by Auren for a long time.” His face became grave as he considered something, his eyes shivering back and forth in thought. He stepped to the corner near his mother’s shrine, and knelt by the rocky ground. His broad back hid was he was doing, but Liana saw a hole in the ground when she shifted her position. Elias pulled on a pair of padded leather gloves.
A buzzing sensation overcame Liana, and she had to steady herself. Her head became numb and dizzy, and she felt fatigue weaken her. Looking at Jerrim’s pale face, she saw that he also felt something.
When Elias stood, he held a bundle in his gloved hands. Within the folded cloth came a fierce red light, as if it were on fire. He carefully unwrapped the bundle and the glow within bathed the room in a rich blood-red light.
Liana faltered and caught herself against the wall, seeing the glistening gem within the cloth. A powerful, aggressive force emanated from the fist-sized gem, but it was also soothing, like the warm rays of the sun.
Elias quickly re-wrapped the gem in the layers of cloths, which cleared Liana’s head somewhat.
“I apologise,” he said soothingly. “I forget how powerful it can be for people who are not used to it.”
“What is it?” Liana managed to say, though her throat was pained and her eyes stung.
“This is a Nuneus Chaeolite,” he told them.
“A Chaeolite?” she asked. She had heard of such things before, but did not know much about them. It was one of the things they taught at school and spoke of in stories, but Liana had never been much interested in them. She knew that a Chaeolite could not be touched my mortal hands, which was why Elias wore the thick gloves.
“This is a special Chaeolite. An old possession of Nuneus himself.”
Nuneus. The God of War. The words ran through Liana’s mind, sounding foreign and unreal. How the old man could be in possession of such a thing was beyond her. She must have just experienced what it was like to be in the presence of the fire god, and the thought made her stomach lurch.
“How did you get it?” Jerrim asked. “What will you do with it?”
“It is very important that it remain with me. It is too dangerous in anyone else’s hands. I kept it here to hide it away from the rest of the world. Away from Nuneus. Now I must take it with me, to where fate will take me.”
He removed a glove and wrapped it around the cloths, and then did the same with the other glove, before putting the large bundle in an inner compartment of his satchel.
“Let us be gone,” Elias said, stepping to the entrance hole first.
Liana shared a look with Jerrim, both assessing the other. She thought his expression was fearful, his eyes wide. Then his brows lowered, like they did when he looked at her for too long and didn’t receive the return look he hoped for. Liana was all too familiar with the expressions. Their eyes still on each other, a smile slowly crept on both their faces, and they ended with a small laugh. An awkward barrier had been broken down by the strength of familiarity.
She stepped to Jerrim with a hand out, but he dismissed her, his face hardening. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “I can move on my own. Thanks.”
Liana assessed him to see if he was in pain. Even through the dim candle light she could see his pupils dilate when he looked at her. Something she had learned to look out for a long time ago.
“After you,” she said to him, trying to sound casual.
She followed Jerrim through the short tunnel and they emerged into the cold night air. The jungle continued to croak and buzz with life, dozens of spark bugs lighting the area as best they could.
With a wave of a hand from Elias they turned into a narrow pathway between the trees, keeping away from the wide muddy pathway they had arrived on.
Liana constantly moved her head, darting left and right, behind and ahead, up in the trees, watching and waiting for anyone to jump out of the darkness at them.
When they arrived at an intersection of narrow pathways between the larger bushes, Elias knelt down and retrieved something from his satchel.
Liana saw it was tech from the way it caught the light, but she did not know what it was.
A switch clicked and a motor softly spun, before it diminished and became inaudible.
When Elias stood and left the object among the leaves and mud, she realised it was a trap of some kind. Perhaps a mine.
She spared a look to Jerrim, whose attention was on the darkness around them. He appeared to be coping well, not showing any signs of heavy breathing.
They continued to follow Elias through a cluster of trees and tall grass. Liana was greatly relieved that her damaged feet were protected in the moccasins now. She tightened her grip on her spanner-blade, reminding herself to be ready for anything at any time, and to be strong when the situation called for it.
Elias stopped suddenly and froze, as they did also. Liana could do nothing but listen, only hearing her short, shallow breaths. She hoped they weren’t in the sights of one of the invaders. A part of her expected gunfire to rip through the air any second.
A rustle came from a large bush to their right. At least that’s what she thought. She stared at it without moving her head, waiting for any signs of unnatural movement to confirm her suspicions.
Another rustle. This time she definitely saw the leaves move. She readied her weapon.
A cry burst in the air as large glistening eyes flew out of the bush in a frenzy of movement. A furry shape dashed towards Elias, screaming, “Lias! Lias!”
Hooky wrapped his arms around Elias’s neck and licked his face vigorously. The old man reeled back and pushed him away, holding him at arm’s length. Hooky continued to push forward but remained held back in Elias’s hand.
“No,” Elias hissed, keeping his voice low. “Hooky, quiet. Quiet now.”
The winged monkey-creature stopped struggling and looked at his master with wide, confused eyes. “Quiet time?”
“Yes, yes,” Elias said, relieved that Hooky would understand without further protests.
A laugh left Liana, and she quickly brought a hand to her mouth.
They all looked at her.
She stifled another laugh, but couldn’t help the large smile that spread across her face. She had never felt so relieved before in her life.
Jerrim also smiled, and they enjoyed the moment of watching Hooky’s confused expressions.