IX - The End of Innocence
“Over here. Up here,” Elias called over his shoulder.
He stopped by a large tree trunk. Weeds and tall grass surrounded the ancient structure.
Jerrim struggled for breath when he reached the trunk and held a hand to his bloodied side. He could feel blood seeping from the bandage, though he dared not say anything to slow them down.
“Up here,” Elias repeated, before ascending the dry bark, jumping more than climbing. Hooky swooped up after him.
Meeting Liana’s questioning look, Jerrim thought to ask her to go first, but couldn’t find the words. He found himself lost in her expectant eyes.
Liana eventually stammered, “I–ah... I’ll go.”
Jerrim sighed and shook his head when she was on her way up the tree. Their moment earlier flashed through his mind. Her green eyes continued to stare at him, so close to his face, her hair clinging to her sweaty forehead. The image had burned into his mind and now was the only thing he could see. He couldn’t help but wonder what the look had meant.
A low rumble came from overhead, followed by a patter in the leaves far above. Drops of rain found their way to the jungle floor, accompanied by a whispering wind that swept through the area.
Jerrim managed to climb the ancient tree with little issue, after learning not to overstretch his left arm or twist his body too much.
Within a cluster of thick branches, surrounded by leaves, Liana helped him up to sit on a thick tree branch next to her. Jerrim kept his grip on her hand, waiting to see when she would release her own hold, and was disappointed when she let go almost immediately.
Elias sat on a branch that extended almost ninety degrees from theirs, with Hooky sitting next to him, watching the surrounding leaves with wide eyes. They sat in silence, with the sound of the rain all around them.
Another rumble above them reminded Jerrim of the last storm he had been in. One that had swept through his hometown. He shivered at the memory.
“Hooky, up,” Elias told the creature, nodding upwards. “Tell us what you see.”
Hooky appeared to consider his words, quiet with thought, before a wide grin spread across his furry face, followed by a large, determined nod. Hooky dashed into the foliage above, rustling leaves before his excited movements faded.
“So tell us,” Liana said to Elias. “Who are you really? We’ve heard of the war hero Auren Ellaison. But... who is he?
Elias regarded her a moment, before shifting his position to face them. “He was... someone I’ve been trying to forget. I was a priest of Waton, once. When I was younger. Too young to really know what it meant to worship. I left home shortly after my mother passed from an illness.” Gulping a breath, he continued. His sombre voice captivated them. “Somehow, I found myself joining a military. It seemed to be the thing to do at the time. For a long while, it was all I knew. When the Shadow Wars came, I, the General Commander of the Homefront and Renegade Rangers forces, did my part. We all did what we could.”
He looked away, falling into a silence before continuing. “Among the invading armies of Nox, I was forced to battle my uncle, Banaethos, and his son, Trillas. I tried not to do what I knew I had to. But there was no other way. I killed my mother’s brother. I killed her nephew, my cousin.”
Through the darkness, glistening tears streamed down his lined, haggard face. “I told myself I would have no part in any affairs of the world after that. Restoring order to the world was little comfort after the ordeals I was forced to go through. And so I left. Everything. And this became my home.”
Jerrim studied the man’s troubled face, trying to imagine what it felt like to go through the things he spoke of.
Elias looked up at them. “As it appears... as I always feared... the past will always find you. These men... they must be remnants of the Army of Nox. Their war is not over.”
“They’re after you?” Liana asked.
“I believe so,” Elias responded with a deep frown.
Jerrim looked between them, coming to his own conclusion. “But you’re a super war hero,” he told the old man. “From what we’ve seen you could easily take on a whole army on your own, let alone a small group of leftover soldiers.”
“And what makes you believe they are a small group?” Elias shot back. “We could be witnessing the rise of an even larger Army of Nox, and we’ve just encountered their scout party. We can’t presume to know anything about them.”
“But the things you can do...” Jerrim began, at a loss for words.
Elias gave him a severe look. “I do what I can to protect the people I care for. The people that can’t fight for themselves.”
Jerrim nodded. He realised that he understood what Elias was saying, even before the old man clarified. Jerrim had always felt that being the strongest and the smartest also meant being the best. A week ago he wouldn’t have seen the point at being the best at something if it meant hiding that fact away. He would have prided himself and boasted for all those to hear that he was the best. But Elias’ views had contradicted all of that. Someone so strong, but so humble...
“You are a Xylophite, is that correct?” Elias asked him.
“I... well, my grandparents worshipped Xylophia, sure. But I never–”
“Then we are at an advantage. Xylophia is strongest in nature, particularly in the company of her followers.”
Jerrim frowned. The old man sounded like his grandpa.
“Her blessings will give us strength, I am sure of this,” Elias added. He looked around them and then to the leaves above. “Hooky has taken too long. I will check on him. Think on what I have said.” With that he planted his feet on the branch and shot up, disappearing in the roof of leaves.
In the silence that followed, the rain strengthened and the wind howled around the two teenagers.
Jerrim sensed Liana shiver beside him. A raindrop splashed on her shoulder and she shook with more movement.
Though he kept his eyes away from her, Jerrim felt her shift closer.
“It’s so cold,” she said. Her throaty voice sounded different. Forced, or unsure.
Her bare thigh touched his hand resting on the branch. He froze, keeping their skin touching. Did she know he could feel her leg?
Liana leaned in and rested her head on his shoulder. Jerrim’s heart raced and his stomach twisted into knots. He didn’t know what to do, or what to say. Her stringy hair smelt like damp, although there was a sweetness to it.
Slowly, Liana raised her head, and Jerrim found the courage to meet her eyes. Her dazzling emeralds took hold of him. Before he knew what was happening, her face moved closer, as did his, and their lips touched.
Slowly at first, with apprehension, and then more forceful as their emotions took over.
Liana pulled back, gaging his response. Heavy breath left her parted lips. Jerrim was at a loss to convey any emotion other than stunned excitement.
In an instant, they were kissing again, more passionately and without holding back. Jerrim gripped her waist and pulled their bodies closer.
A rustle from above signalled the return of Elias, and they released each other with such force that they almost fell off the branch.
“We head north,” he told them, seemingly unaware of what he had interrupted.
A second later, Hooky appeared, humming and yapping as he hopped on the branch energetically.
Reaching into his satchel, Elias brought out two square blocks of metal, and handed them one each.
“If anyone gets too close, throw them at the enemy,” he told them.
The grey and black cube felt heavy in Jerrim’s hand. He couldn’t see any openings or buttons on the device and wondered what throwing it would cause. Liana frowned thoughtfully at the silver and black cube in her hand, likely wondering the same thing.
They descended the tree, carefully moving from branch to branch, while Elias jumped the distance and Hooky flew down.
Jerrim was last to reach the ground and was the last to realise they were not alone.
He wondered why his companions weren’t moving, especially with the rain hitting them, and then noticed the unusual shadows within the darkness of the jungle.
Soldiers slowly closed in, rifles and staffs raised. Jerrim counted eight of them, though there could have been more. Some held staffs with balls of orange light glowing from the tops, casting the area in a murky light. They must have been waiting for them all along.
Two of the Umbrai soldiers parted to reveal a stout figure, spiked shoulder guards over his powerful frame, and two wide swords crossed over his broad back. His horned helmet and spiked gauntlets added to his monstrous silhouette in the dim light.
Elias took a measured step forward, putting himself between them and the newcomer. Hooky looked out from behind Elias’s leg with hooded eyes, a low growl rumbling through him.
The stout figure raised his helmets face guard to reveal a sallow face with blistered skin that stretched over a skeletal frame, lines of scars running along his left side and nose.
“At last, we meet again, Auren Elliason.” His grating voice was raspy and pained.
“Tokks,” Elias murmured, his own voice strained. “How is this possible?”
Jerrim could feel the old man tense beside him. He thought of holding Liana’s hand for comfort but decided that would not be received well.
“All things are possible with Nox,” the skeletal man said. After a pause, he added, “We have unfinished business, Ellaison.”
They stood in silence, the rain strengthening around them.
“Aye,” Elias grumbled, a great sadness in his voice. “I imagine we do.”
“Just us two,” the man named Tokks declared, taking a step forward.
Elias nodded. With a flash of light, he shot towards the Umbrai leader. When they collided, an aftershock of energy lit the area briefly.
From what Jerrim could determine, Tokks had drawn his two giant swords before Elias met him, and the two clashed with great sparks and bursts of light in a blur of movement. Waves of energy surged from them, shaking the trees.
Soldiers closed in on the two fighters, firing shots that glanced off the bursts of energy.
Movement came from their side, and Jerrim turned to see a soldier almost upon them.
Liana spun and her hand jerked upwards, throwing out her metal cube.
An electrical blue light sprayed out and encompassed the soldier. The tendrils of light buzzed and rotated, growing to hide him from view. Seconds later, the energy dissipated and the ball of light withdrew. When their vision readjusted to the darkness, they saw that the soldier had disappeared.
Liana looked to Jerrim, but he had no answers for her.
Flashes of light and sparks of energy continued to fluctuate from Elias and his foe.
Another soldier dropped from a nearby tree and raised his staff at Liana. She countered the blow with her spanner-blade, almost losing her footing, before stepping aside for an attack of her own.
Jerrim’s cube was in his hand, but he dared not throw the object so close to Liana. He tightened his grip on the baton in his other hand, and waited for an opportunity to help her.
Hooky’s cries echoed through the forest as he flew around in agitation.
Liana ducked under the swinging staff, and shot up with a vertical strike, connecting the blade with the soldier’s chin, almost knocking his helmet off. He staggered back a few steps, before preparing another attack.
Jerrim moved on the spot, trying to join in but not finding an opening. He raised his baton in anticipation.
With a desperate swing that carried all her weight behind it, Liana managed to knock the staff out of the soldier’s hands. Thick gloves grabbed her before she could move away. The soldier brought her up higher before throwing her to the ground. Liana’s scream was cut short when the impact took her breath away.
Ignoring the girl, the soldier stepped to Jerrim. Calling out, Jerrim charged forward. He knew he wouldn’t stand a chance against the soldier with his baton, and threw the cube Elias had given him.
The block hit the soldier’s chest, and a thick gummy substance burst out. The paste spread out and covered the soldier, growing and overflowing.
Liana kicked back and managed to clear the growing paste that dripped to the ground.
Soon the soldier was covered in the thick glue, becoming still as a statue.
Sparing a look at Elias, Jerrim saw that he still battled the Umbrai leader, along with five other soldiers. Bodies spread out around the remaining fighters. He marvelled at the agility and power radiating from their saviour; a stark contrast from the calm old man he had been with them.
Hooky’s cries were louder than ever and carried a pained moan, but he could not be seen now.
Liana brought herself up onto an elbow, panting heavily. Jerrim bent and helped her up, curling an arm around her waist. His other hand took hers, and they stood a moment, holding each other, before a ball of red energy shot past their heads.
Another guard ran to them, firing his rifle. Jerrim and Lianna dove away to clear the barrage of red energy that burned the undergrowth behind them.
Gathering her feet, Liana lunged at the approaching soldier and struck the rifle with her spanner-blade. The soldier reeled back but managed to keep his hold on the weapon.
The rifle swung back and knocked her across the shoulder, sending her to the ground. The spanner-blade came free and flew into a thick bush.
A rage pushed Jerrim forward as the soldier lowered the rifle to Liana. He ran full-bodied into the armoured man, knocking them both to the ground in a rolling heap.
A shock of pain exploded from Jerrim’s damaged side, though he endured and hammered the soldier’s chest and helmet with his baton as hard as he could. Flashes of Liana’s bloodied cheek and her being struck and thrown around came across Jerrim’s view, giving his blows strength. He cried out now as he rained down blow after blow.
The soldier found an opening and pushed free from Jerrim’s attacks, rolling to his feet with the rifle still in hand. Breathless, Jerrim turned to face the rifle, freezing a second before he scrambled to his feet. Ducking from an inevitable shot, Jerrim set off into the bushes.
He saw the flash of red light an instant before hot energy tore into the back of his shoulder, burning him to the bone. Jerrim staggered and fell to a knee, fighting through the burning pain, before finding the will to rise. Turning, he faced the soldier, breathless and defeated, knowing that running would do no good, even if he still could run. He kept his eyes open and awaited his fate as the soldier raised his rifle.
Another burst of heat splashed over his chest, ripping into him. Fire burned through him, like lava seeping into his body, and his breath left him. The heavy rain battered him and stung his wounds.
Liana’s screams rang through the air, but sounds had faded for Jerrim. The world shifted and his vision blurred, his senses numbing.
On his knees, Jerrim saw the wavering form of the soldier aim his rifle at him again.
A pillar of light crashed down from the roof of leaves. The soldier dissolved instantly, crispy wisps of his remains dispersing in the wind before the pillar disappeared.
The dull sounds of Hooky’s cries gained strength and momentum. Now the monkey-creature was flying in tight circles, clawing at himself.
Jerrim realised Liana was by his side, tears streaming down her dirty and bloodied face. But he could not feel her embrace.
Over her shoulder, the forest brightened, somehow. A golden glow was spreading through the trees.
Through his blurred vision, Jerrim found the source of the golden light; the satchel slung across Elias. The old man was surrounded by soldiers at that moment, more than had been seen before. Elias threw the satchel down, the glowing light burning a hole through the fabric.
The world darkened for Jerrim, an overwhelming urge to sleep taking over him. He slumped, and Liana brought him down to lie on his back. Twinges of pain shot through his burned back, but his senses were leaving him.
A thunderous roar ripped through the air, shaking the trees with a deafening force.
The sound jerked Jerrim’s head up, his curiosity giving him new life.
Hooky flew into the air, a golden glow radiating from him. The monkey-creature held his arms out, embracing the light that came down onto him.
Liana kept her back to it all, her wide, shivering eyes focused on Jerrim’s condition. The wind whipped her hair wildly around, but she ignored it all.
Over her shoulder, Jerrim saw Hooky’s form grow with the strengthening light. Wailing wind spun around him, enveloping him in a maelstrom of golden light. The creature’s shape contorted as it grew, twisting and bulging. Within the light came the form of a dark figure, which continued to grow and fill the air above them. Trees bent away from the growing form, its presence distorting the jungle’s structure. Flowing robes wavered from the newly formed shadowy figure, and a tall crown of sharp spikes spread over the featureless head. Its lower half remained within the glowing light.
Jerrim’s weak breaths quickened as he recognised the figure, having seen him depicted in books and spoken of in the old tales. The God of War, Nuneus himself, was before them. The air burned and a throbbing vibration filled the world.
The scene faded as Jerrim’s strength waned. He closed his eyes, hearing sounds of crashing trees and rifle fire.
“No!” Liana cried out, pulling him closer. “Jerrim. Stay with me.”
Her rain-soaked hair wavered and bordered her tortured face. Jerrim tried to speak, but couldn’t. He wanted to tell her that everything would be alright. That she shouldn’t cry for him. That he loved her more than anything.
Beams of devastating dark energy shot out from the great god’s hands. Trees splintered and screams ignited the night air. Dozens of soldiers disintegrated as the black beams moved through the jungle.
Liana gulped a strained breath, fighting through the tears as Jerrim’s head slumped back. “No, no, no. Jerrim!”
A hazy fog muddled his vision, but he focused on her voice. Her emerald eyes sparkled through the growing mist, lighting the darkness with a green, holy glow.
Liana sniffed and choked back the tears. “I love you.”
The world darkened into nothing.