Clouds Over Cogham: Part Three
Now that the storm has passed, the golden sun seems warmer and more radiant than the shifting tides of the sands of the Lost Desert.
The air feels fresh and pure, cleansed of the darkness of the thunder, cool against the cheeks of the villagers of Cogham, the breezes playing in the children’s hair as they laugh and skip and sing around the trees and homes of their families. No fears or worries taint the town on this sunny afternoon. There’s enough food to feast for weeks. There’s enough laughter to rival the force of an orchestra. There’s enough smiles to chase away any negativity’s haze.
But the loud click! of an obsidian arrowhead striking the ground then sounds from the middle of the square, and all the joy stagnates.
Nobody wants to look towards the sound, but everyone feels drawn to it. Nobody wants to see what they fear is there, but they need to know for certain — know whether or not they need to hide. They whip their heads around desperately, praying that the sound isn’t the sonic manifestation of their worst fears being realised, but their hopes are not heard above the din of retribution. As they turn to stare, they see that an Ixi’s arrow has pierced the rock, cold like a cruel harbinger of war, strong and dedicated as the warriors themselves are — fierce and terrifying, thirsting for vengeance for the intrusion on their land.
With their minds full of terror, and their hearts full of fear, one by one the villagers of Cogham look up towards the cliffs that they once thought so sheltering; up towards the arching firmament above; up to where the Vullards circle in dark eagerness; up to where the breezes cast dust storms into the sky.
It is there, haloed in white by the autumn sun, their silhouettes wraithlike and shadowed, that the Ixis now stand with spears and bows held strong, a skeletal archer at the front of the line, and the terrifying chieftain atop the highest peak. They stand there waiting. Watching. Looming. Threatening.
And there’s nothing for the villagers to do but run.~
III: Dance with the Animal
Every hoofstep turns hushed as the small troupe of Raiders sneak their way down to the plateau that encircles Cogham. They silence their steps, and they cease their speaking, and they walk with their heads held low to remain hidden behind the rocks and barren trees. There’s really no fun in a raid if the villagers know it’s coming, after all. Everyone loves a good surprise, right?
Once the happy commotion of the villagers comes into earshot, and the town rests directly below their hooves, the band of eight Ixis all peek over the cliffside to see what is happening in the quaint little village down below. It all seems pleasantly peaceful — a few farmers are out tending to their flocks, the food shop owner is selling some fruits and veggies outside of her home, a few people stand around chitchatting with their neighbours, a few children run and play in the trickling streams and up in the branches of the trees...
Mer’s excitement couldn’t possibly get any higher.
The sunny sorcerer just can’t stop tapping his front hooves on the rock in eager anticipation of the coming invasion, rapping away at the ground like a Puppyblew begging for treats. The only reason the overexcited fidgeting isn’t getting on the chieftain’s nerves is because it’s too silent to give their position away. He’s able to ignore it. Thankfully.
After surveying the square below, and with a small nod of his head, the chief turns to address his troupe in a whisper. “Everything looks good to strike. Any last questions?”
Mer frantically raises his hand like a little kid in Neoschool, batting his fingers in the air, his eyes wide and lighting up excitedly.
The chief rolls his eye. He probably shouldn’t humour the sorcerer, but... “Yes, Meretseger?”
Mer lightly claps his hands together, holding his fingertips to his lips. “Can we be all spooky and melodramatic and theatrical and make them all scared and scream and run around in circles and such?” he asks in one long, half-winded breath, needing to inhale deeply after finishing his run-on sentence.
From beside the chief, Onika giggles lightly into his palm at Mer’s request, but otherwise all among the group stays silent. The chief takes a deep, somewhat-frustrated breath, but eventually decides no harm done. Mer never gets to come out on raids, anyway. He might as well allow the sorcerer a little extra leeway. “What did you have in mind?” the chief asks with a sigh.
Mer lets out a soft squeak of excitement, tapping his hooves against the ground at twice the speed now, kicking up a small cloud of dust. “Ohgosh, like, uh... Oh! One of us can fire an arrow into the middle of the town square, and then they’ll all hear it and get nervous, and then they’ll all look up towards the cliffs, and we’ll all be up here” — he strikes a pose with one hand on his waist and the other outstretched towards the sun, hushing his voice to a thespian’s tone — “looking all dramatic in the sunlight with the wind in our hair and all that,” — he readjusts his position — “and then they’ll all, like, scream a lot!”
And, again, Onika giggles.
And, again, the chief looks half-disappointed.
More than half, honestly.
But... why not?
The chief shakes his head lightly, half-scowling still, but then turns to Ashanti with a short, light huff. “Would you like to assign the duty to one of the archers?”
She just looks over to Mer and gives him a mischievous grin.
Apparently Mer still had some excitement to gain. “Ohmygosh, can I?!”
He says it just a little too loud, and Ajani shushes him with a quick bat of his hand and a fierce glare.
Ashanti just gives a small nod of her head, still smiling.
Pursing his lips to try to silence his excited squealing, Mer stands and draws his bow as the chief gives the rest of the Raiders a command to approach the edge of the cliff with a quick wave of his hand. “Ajani, position yourself above the mayor’s home so you can enter swiftly. Mer, position yourself above the food shop owner’s home before you do your little... stunt...” — Mer giggles as he says this — “Ashanti, archers, cover those two while they do what they need to do. And as for you...” The chief turns to Onika and gives him a stern look. “Just follow me.”
Onika gives a firm but still seemingly worried nod of his head.
And they all do as they’re told, swiftly, silently, and eager.
Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen seconds more, then everyone is in their places. As they straighten their stances and draw their weapons, they all meet eyes with the chieftain. The ashy black Ixi gives Mer a quick nod of his head and a gesture of his arm, signalling him to strike, and it’s go time.
Mer forces himself to steady his breathing and gather his thoughts before firing. He needs to make sure that the shot is perfectly executed, or the whole show will fall flat. Slowly, mathematically, he takes aim at the empty ring in centre of the square, right in the middle of where the most people are gathered, hoping that the sound of the obsidian arrowhead striking the rocky valley floor will be loud enough to grab everyone’s attention. He takes a deep breath, pulls back the bowstring, then lets the arrow fly.
His plan couldn’t have started any better.
The strong, expertly crafted arrow strikes the rock below with incredible force and a frightening sound, sticking into the ground a few inches for added dramatic effect. The villagers within earshot all look towards the source of the sound with panicked faces, then hesitantly look up towards the cliffs.
The sight of the warriors who loom above them is overwhelming. There’s a row of archers already prepared to strike, and one of which — Mer — seems to be nothing but a living skeleton — the sun shines clear through his transparent skin, haloing only his bones and organs in an ominous red. Worst of all, the villagers can all make out the all-too-feared silhouette of the Ixi Chieftain himself.
All it takes is one panicked scream — “Ixis! Take cover!” — and everything is a go.
As the villagers of Cogham all make a mad dash to take shelter in their homes, the chief looks towards Mer and Ajani each in turn, saying a loud, stern, “Go.”
Without a single second of hesitation, Ajani strengthens his grip on his spear, rears up to gain momentum, then takes a mighty leap over the edge of the cliff, landing with all the force of an earthquake onto the roof of the mayor’s fancy hut, his hooves crashing down like thunder and shaking the entire building. He jumps off of the roof with another powerful stomp of his hooves, landing outside the doorway, then violently rams his shoulder into the door with a loud grunt of aggression, sending it crashing open. He charges inside while the mayor within lets out a terrified, rather embarrassing-sounding scream.
It’s all just so darn cool-looking.
Totally in awe of the spearman’s amazing display of strength and force, Mer tries to copy Ajani’s actions... but ends up being far less elegant. He takes a strong leap onto the food shop owner’s home, but ends up just crashing clumsily through the roof with an awkwardly squeaked-out half-shout.
He can’t see or hear him, but Mer just knows that the chief is above him sighing and shaking his head embarrassedly.
Mer crashes loudly to the floor of the home, landing on his side in a painful pile of straw and wood. He’s a complete mess of giggles and snorts, unable to do anything but laugh at his own clumsiness. He can feel himself blushing terribly, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s not really a big deal. It’s just embarrassing. He clumsily rolls over onto his belly to try to stand, looking up and around the house, eventually meeting eyes with a terrified-looking red Acara — Elspeth, the shop owner.
When Mer realises that she was right there watching the whole scene unfold before her, he can feel himself blush harder; but, luckily for him, she seems just as terrified as she would be if he had managed to bust his way through the door dramatically like Ajani. He giggles some more as he stands and shakes some of the rubble off of his back and shoulders. “Oh gosh, I’m sorry,” he says through snorts of laughter, “I’m super new at this.”
Now the Acara just looks confused.
Mer quickly slings his bow over his shoulder and summons a wave of powerful magic to lift the broken beams from the floor and affix them back in their proper places on the roof. He barely even realises he’s doing it. His instinct to help is still stronger than his instinct to be intimidating, apparently. “Uh, you’re Elspeth, right?” he asks casually as he uses some strong earth magic to bind and fasten all the rubble back together in an at least half-sturdy fashion, still focusing on nothing but the ceiling and his spellcasting.
When he doesn’t get a response, he looks back towards the Acara curiously, only to be met with overwhelmingly confused and now only half-terrified eyes. He finishes repairing the roof, then releases his magic from his hands, filling the room with the sweet smell of lavender and freshly cut grass. He then turns all of his focus to the Acara, filled with his typical enthusiasm, his eyes bright and sparkling, simply waiting for a response.
She doesn’t seem to know what to say. “Um... yes, I am...” she eventually mumbles.
Mer gives a little bounce, clopping his front hooves on the ground like a little dance. “Okay, good,” he says, giggling some more, still a bit embarrassed. He picks a few pieces of straw out of his long hair as he keeps talking. “Do you have unguberries?”
Her face is only continuing to contort in bewilderment. “Aren’t you, uh...” She takes a few steps back, pressing herself against the wall. “Aren’t you going to... threaten me...?” she asks.
Mer’s eyes turn quizzical. He frowns a bit. “Um... am I supposed to?”
At this point, the Acara has completely given up on trying to figure this terrifying-looking Ixi out. What a strange creature... “Well... that’s what the others usually do...” she says, cringing.
Then, Mer draws his bow again, nocking an arrow and pointing it lazily towards her. “Arrr, give me all yer unguberries,” he says, trying to force an overly confident and stereotypically gruff tone, but his bassy giggles ruin the illusion... as well as the fact that he really just sounded like a little kid playing pirate...
The Acara sighs. She thinks to herself, Well, at least this one isn’t aggressive, as she turns around and begins to gather handfuls of this-and-that from the various chests and shelves scattered about the room. “One second...”
From atop the mountains, the Ixi Chieftain watches everything unfolding below and beside him silently, making sure that everything looks like it’s going according to plan. He can hear Ajani loudly tearing through the mayor’s home — the explosive sound of shattering glass and the loud thumping of furniture being toppled over — while one of the grunt archers chases the mayor around the square with some expertly aimed arrows at his heels. The rest of the archers simply keep the other villagers from leaving or trying to stop what’s happening around them. They all cower in a little group at the base of the cliffs, though, unknown to them, the Ixis have no actual intent to harm them.
Once the chief sees Mer dart quickly out of the food shop and run his way towards the apothecary’s hut, he nods to himself, pleased to see that everything is unfolding smoothly. He then turns and begins to walk further up the cliff to a precariously jutting ledge where the entire village can be seen without any obstruction or shadows. “Come,” he says to Onika as he passes the blue Ixi by, and Onika follows without question.
The chief’s silence bothers the soft-hearted healer a bit, though. “Boss, what exactly am I supposed to be watching for again?” he asks nervously, somewhat afraid of the answer.
The chief doesn’t hesitate in his response. “Numbers,” he says firmly.
And that’s the only response Onika gets for a while.
He’s afraid to ask for more clarification.
Eventually, the two of them make it to the tip of the ledge, and the chief once again turns his disdainful glare down into the village below, his fingers laced calmly behind his back. Onika takes his place beside his liege, then follows his gaze to peer into the square below, trying to figure out what the chief is scowling so fiercely at. He can’t seem to figure anything out. Nothing looks particularly special or interesting. He turns back towards his chieftain. “Numbers, Boss?” he finally asks.
“How many villagers are down there, Onika?” the chief suddenly asks, his volume intensifying, tilting his head slightly though his expression remains just as cold.
Onika looks down into the village, then back towards the chief. “Boss?”
“You’re the best with numbers, Onika,” the chief says, his tone like acid ice. “How many villagers are down there?”
Onika purses his lips, then lowers his gaze once more. He counts quickly. “Umm...” He takes a few more seconds to double-check. Then, “If I’m correct in my assumption that there are seven people hiding in their homes, then... sixteen people total, including the mayor and his niece,” he says.
The chief still remains impassive. Then, he snickers to himself as he sees Mer leaving the apothecary’s hut, his arms and saddlebags now completely brimming with goods. “How many houses, Onika?” the chief then asks.
Onika’s confusion is growing violent, but still, he turns and counts quickly. “Twelve.”
“How many children?”
Another flash of worry. “I, uh... I think I saw three.”
Thundering hoofsteps begin to approach quickly from down the trail to the village — Mer’s hoofsteps as he rushes back towards his chieftain, pleased with his haul. “Remember the numbers, but speak not of this,” the chief says to Onika, quickly and fiercely, giving him a stern glare.
Onika is positively terrified of his boss’ strange and foreign demeanour.
After only a few more seconds of discomfort, Mer, still giggling blissfully, comes galloping towards them, then skids to a clumsy stop, kicking up a trail of dust and sending a scattering of dead grass and pebbles at the chief and Onika’s heels. “I’m finished!” he says cheerily, swaying back and forth, his smile as radiant as the sun that shines above.
But his cheer seems to fade almost instantly when Onika looks over at him, and he sees the healer looking absolutely horrified.
Mer immediately ceases his excited fidgeting at the sight, and his eyes widen in a sort of fearful shock. “Uh, Oni, are you okay?” he asks. “What’s wro—?”
“Nothing is wrong, Meretseger,” the chief says sternly, cutting the sorcerer off, taking a few steps between him and Onika to try to divert his attention away from the healer. “Good job down there.”
Mer gives a sort of half-smile and a small giggle, but nothing more. Normally, hearing such a compliment — especially from the grumpy chieftain — would make Mer’s whole week; but something about the way Onika looks is making the compliment seem... unnerving...
Without giving the two the chance to ask more questions, the chief calls down into the village — “Ajani, that’s enough!” — his royal tenor filling the valley with all the force of a symphony. His words echo through the cliffs. A few Crokabeks fly out of the branches of the trees beside him.
Two, three, four more seconds of chaotic clatter coming from the mayor’s home, then Ajani comes galloping out, carrying some rather expensive-looking relics — relics that had definitely belonged to the Raiders at one point — but seemingly without the “Cloak of Heroes” that the chief was talking about. At least, he doesn’t seem to be carrying any type of garment.
The chief turns his attention to Ashanti — who stands on the ledge far off to his left — as Ajani runs up the path to meet the rest of them. “Call the archers off,” the chief commands, and Ashanti lowers her bow and lifts her hand authoritatively, motioning for a ceasefire. All arrows stop flying. The grunts all sling their weapons over their shoulders and flex their tired fingers, then begin to gather around their leader.
Ajani meets up with the group only a few seconds later, seeming rather breathless after the aggressive searching. He canters over to the chief’s side, coming to a graceful stop with a few bounding strides. He clops his hooves together respectfully, then gives a slight bow of his head. “My apologies, Boss, but I couldn’t find anything,” he says, looking uncharacteristically embarrassed. “I tore the entire place up; even checked under furniture and behind artwork. Nothing. Not even any trap doors where something could be hidden.”
The chief’s expression turns macabre.
And everyone hushes at the sight.
He’s never looked this furious before...
But his words don’t mirror his expression. “My intel must have been... incorrect, then,” he says, his tone much lighter than the darkness painted across his snarling lips. “I trust that you are not lying to me, correct, Ajani?”
Even Ajani looks a bit terrified at the sight and sound of the chief’s strange changing of heart. He’s never questioned Ajani before. The spearman is by far one of the most honourable people in all of the tribe — maybe even in all of Meridell. This isn’t like him... “Of course not, Boss,” Ajani says, his voice suddenly hushed in confusion.
The chieftain takes a few seconds more to search the ground below, watching as the villagers begin to take hesitant steps back towards the shelter of their homes, then turns to leave slowly. “Good work out there,” he says over his shoulder as he begins to head back down the path to their camp, his steps full of ease and his voice’s colour suddenly returned to normal. “Let’s just get home.”
Everyone meets eyes with everyone else before moving. Everyone looks confused. Everyone looks worried. But, at the same time, everyone looks... tired. Still, despite being given commands, none of them seem to want to move. Even the newbies can see that the chief is acting a bit peculiar — almost like a different person entirely. They worry that, perhaps, they shouldn’t listen to this strange replica...
But then, Ajani, being second-in-command, motions for the others to follow with a short sigh. “Let’s go, everyone.”
At least he still seems to have his head on straight.
More confident in listening to the spearman’s command than their chieftain’s, the rest of the warriors follow with quick salutes, heading back towards their camp in an awkward silence while the villagers of Cogham begin a slow rebuilding of their town, thankful that nobody was harmed.
It’s still half-light, but already the full moon shines bright throughout the eventide skies, adding a shimmering silver sheen to the cliffs of the Steppe Plateau. All of the Ixi warriors’ worries over the afternoon’s strange events had left their thoughts by the time the sun began to set, and now seem forgotten entirely. With the haze of discomfort gone from above, all the warriors sit around the campfire with their friends and family, laughing lightly and eating a delicious meal. Everyone seems to have forgotten their troubles, simply sharing stories and loving life.
Everyone except for Onika, that is.
Mer’s meddlesome instincts are impossible for him to ignore as he sees the healer sitting quietly beside those he usually chats enthusiastically with, staring absentmindedly into his food and holding his cheek in one hand. It’s not like him to be so quiet and distant. He’s usually so positive, and always makes rounds to ask people if they need anything before the night is over.
But now, here he sits, underneath his own personal shadow, speaking to no one, completely engulfed by his own seemingly strenuous thoughts.
It takes Mer roughly ten seconds of silent glances before he finds that he can’t fight his curiosity any longer. The sorcerer stands quickly, excusing himself from the group he had been chatting with, then trots around the campfire and over to Onika’s side. His steps have a little less bounce than usual, his energy being leeched by his incredible worry, though he tries to force his optimism to return — at least to his voice — for the sake of his friend. “Hey, you doing alright?” Mer asks lightly as he plops down beside Onika, giving the healer a concerned but considerate look.
Onika seems to be shocked out of a daydream by the sound of Mer’s voice. His ears twitch aggressively as he looks up from his food and towards Mer with a start. “Oh, uh...” He looks quickly around the ring of people who sit eating happily, then around at the buildings beside and behind him, as if searching for someone. He then gives a short sigh, turning back to Mer with his eyes seeming crestfallen once again. “I’m... fine, Mer,” he says, his tone only half-sincere.
Mer lowers his head and gives him a look that reads, Come on, I know you’re not...
Onika takes a long pause before speaking again, looking back down into his stew. “But... um...” He pauses again as he debates whether or not to say what he’s thinking. He knows he shouldn’t, but the weight of his thoughts is crushing him. Sharing would probably help lessen the burden. Probably. He just doesn’t know...
But when he looks up once more and sees the curiosity in Mer’s eyes — a curiosity that is known to never die unless satiated — he knows that there’s no way out of giving an explanation, unless he wants to be pestered about it for the next few hours... or weeks...
Onika sighs again. Then, “Well... does the boss seem to be acting strange to you?” he finally asks in a whisper.
Mer immediately purses his lips. Oh. Now he understands why Onika was so hesitant to say anything. Questioning the chief’s intentions on a good day is bad enough, but now that he’s in such a strange state of mind... Mer, too, now looks around to make sure nobody is eavesdropping on their conversation. When the coast seems clear, he turns back to Onika. “I mean...” He had started talking before he really thought about an answer. He ends up just shrugging when a good one doesn’t come to him within reasonable time. “He seems super grumpier than usual, but that’s all I’ve noticed,” Mer says, which is really only half-true, but he’s trying to help Onika feel better, after all, not add to his fears.
Onika looks a bit disappointed by the answer. He was actually hoping Mer would agree. Maybe I’m just imagining things...
Mer’s voice kicks the healer out of another thought, thankfully before it swallows him. “Why? Is he doing something weird?”
And Onika knows he can’t answer this question. He holds his tongue, turning his eyes away.
Onika’s sudden silence and obvious discomfort only worries Mer more. He starts talking just to fill the empty space that’s settled between them. “You’ve been, uh... seeming really concerned whenever Chief pulls you aside,” the sorcerer says, once again looking around to make sure nobody is listening. “Has he been... saying concerning things?”
Onika breathes deep, then shakes his head, somehow losing more energy with the motion — as if he weren’t seeming dead enough already. “Just...” He can’t say it. He can’t. He shakes his head again. “I’ve, uh... I’ve been instructed not to talk about what he’s told me,” he says, solemnly but sternly — obviously not wanting to follow the order, but adamant in doing so anyway.
Even if Onika’s tone wasn’t so certain, Mer knows well enough that he could never convince the healer to break that sort of command. None of the Raiders would ever dare cross the chief, after all, especially on such a direct order. The sorcerer’s expression turns from curiously worried to purely worried. He doesn’t know what to do. “I mean...” He pauses long as he reconsiders his words. He was going to say, “I won’t tell him if you tell me,” but he realises almost immediately that that’s just a useless statement. There’s no point. Onika isn’t going to break the command, and Mer doesn’t want to cause him any more discomfort by prying. He shakes his head at himself. “Well, no, nevermind, you don’t have to tell me anything,” Mer says quickly, trying to amend the situation he hadn’t even broken.
Onika picks through his food a bit, but says nothing more.
Mer sighs as he realises that he’s probably not going to get Onika to speak anymore. He leans forward a bit to meet Onika’s eyes. “Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” he says quietly, his bass deepening to match the intensity of his words’ sincerity.
And Onika just nods his head in agreeance. “Thanks, Mer,” but his voice sounds distant.
Mer just tries to ignore it and simply finishes his food beside his silent friend.
And Onika stays silent. The entire evening, he does. He just stares into nothingness, unblinking and distant, hypnotised by the campfire that’s set before him. Something bad is about to happen, he thinks to himself as the flames’ warmth dances across his face. Something is happening, and I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know what will come of us...
And, as dark and terrifying thoughts begin to settle within Onika’s mind, somewhere down south of the mountains, dark and terrifying clouds begin to settle within Illusen’s Glade...
To be continued…