Battle Quills... ready! Circulation: 194,089,139 Issue: 738 | 24th day of Relaxing, Y18
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Clouds Over Cogham: Part Six


by theschizophrenicpunk

--------

      The sound of long nails drumming angrily against a faerie globe.

      The sound of frustrated exhaling and short grunts of irritation.

      The sound of a heavy boot’s toe rapping angrily against marble floors.

      Then, finally, the sound of cruel laughter. “Well, it’s no matter, my sister. That was only plan A. There’s always more to be done. And, if I remember correctly, you’ve already thought up a rather fun backup plan, haven’t you?”

      The sound of excited bouncing — stiletto heels clacking against the ground. Clapping hands. Girlish giggling. “Oh boy, does this mean I get to have some fun now? Pretty pretty please?”

      Another low chuckle. The drumming stops. The giggling continues. “Well... Hold on, now...”

      The excitement ceases with one final clack of heels against stone. Silence. Then, a huff. “Oh, come on. Must I really wait longer?” A scoff. “I’m so bored...

      “Oh, don’t worry, my dear, you won’t have to wait much longer. Just...” Pause. “Well, actually... perhaps this is the sign that I’ve been waiting for. In fact... Yes, yes, I think now is the perfect time.”

      A little gasp. “Do you mean...?”

      The laughter returns — evil, horrid, and malicious. “Yes, I do. The pawn is all yours. Now go and have some fun.

     

~

     

      VI: Rebuilding the Fire

      The only thing the Ixi Chieftain hears when he begins to regain consciousness is several muffled voices standing above him, though they all sound submerged — as if he’s been buried beneath the waves of the Neopian sea. His body feels rigid with aches and chills. He can’t for the life of him open his eye. It’s as if he’s been comatose for years and years, and is only just beginning to awaken from its nightmarish hold.

      But he has always been stubborn, and he refuses to allow this pressure to keep him prisoner. He tries to force himself to stir and awaken, but seemingly can’t, despite his internal struggling. Everything is too static. Everything is too paralysed. Everything is too cold. Honestly, he isn’t even completely sure he is alive in this moment. All he is definitely aware of is that he is lying on his side, and the room he is in feels warmer than the rest of him does, and he feels nauseous as all Darigan’s wrath.

      But, finally, his hearing clears — somewhat. The voices become recognisable, at least — his royal council surrounding him from all sides, examining him like a work of art, muttering about him as if he were an object rather than a person.

      His frustration at that notion helps him to regain his strength. He hears Meretseger squeak out a loud, excited, “He’s awake!” as the chief flexes his legs, manages to open his eye to look around — albeit the world looks incredibly blurry — and then lifts himself up onto his arms before he can second-guess the action, shifting his legs to tuck them slightly beneath him, quaking and shaking like he’s never moved before in his life. As his vision starts to clear, and his mind starts to work, he finds himself in his quarters back at camp, a stinging wound in his flank bandaged cleanly, all of his councilmembers — except for Ashanti — encircling him protectively.

      Onika breathes in sharply from across the room they’re in as he hears the chieftain stir and whine. The healer’s clopping hoofsteps approach the chief’s daybed quickly, then the chief is suddenly aware of strong but delicate hands helping to hold him upright. “Boss, hold on, you’re still weak, don’t move too much,” Onika mumbles worriedly.

      “What... happened...?”

      Those are the only words the chief can muster.

      And, much to the relief of the others in the room, his voice is finally singular — a shy-seeming tenor that trembles and aches along with the rest of him.

      Onika begins to channel his strong healing magic to further tend to the chief’s injuries while Ajani answers the question — still sounding hesitant, not wanting to enrage the possibly still-demented chieftain by acknowledging his defeat. “You, uh...” He’s not sure how to word it nicely. He just has to be blunt. “The squire... bested you, Boss,” he says, hoping that the words don’t cause the chief to snap again. “You’ve been out cold for a day now.”

      Thankfully, the chief doesn’t seem angered by hearing Ajani tell him that he’d been defeated; but unthankfully, he looks nothing short of completely bewildered. “Squire? What squire?”

      Calling the silence that follows the question “awkward” would be a disgustingly gross understatement.

      Surprised by his words, the three others begin to exchange confused glances with one another, pausing in all of their motions, half-considering that maybe he’s just being darkly sarcastic, or something.

      The chief only looks more baffled now. The sudden hush is honestly quite worrying — and more than a bit annoying to boot. He makes a puzzled, half-frustrated face at nobody in particular as he looks around at all the others in the room. “Why aren’t any of you speaking?” he asks gruffly.

      “Uh...” Mer, ever-blabbermouthy, is the first to break the silence, though his words are graceless at best, and do absolutely nothing to lessen the chief’s confusion. “You don’t... remember...?” he asks slowly.

      Now the chief looks genuinely frustrated. “Remember wha— ack.” He tries to turn to face Mer more, but the lingering paralysis from the air curse that knocked him out causes his muscles to spasm, and he recoils from the twinge of pain.

      Onika gasps lightly as he watches the chief flinch and wince, then runs around him to apply more curse-removing healing magic to the spot where the knight’s spell had hit. “Stop moving around so much, you nut,” Onika mumbles in a scolding tone, defaulting to his old, rather-unprofessional speaking habits without fully realising it.

      And, thank goodness, the chief doesn’t respond to the cheeky insult with any sort of unusual aggression. He simply turns away to allow Onika to tend to his flank. “Don’t call me a nut,” the chief mutters under his breath, sounding playfully irritated.

      Ajani breathes a sigh of relief at the words. Looks like he’s finally back to normal... thank Fyora...

      But the familiar sound of his perpetually irritated tenor still isn’t enough to lighten everyone’s hearts. Now there’s this new question of what his strange amnesia is all about.

      The fact that the chief is sounding relatively normal now helps Mer to feel less hesitant about allowing his mouth to run as he normally does. He continues to ramble while Ajani and Onika remain silent. Mer walks around to face the chief so the injured Ixi doesn’t need to turn to look at him. “There was, like... a big fight after the last raid,” Mer says, frowning a bit. “A fight with a squire of Meridell. He chased us all out of town.”

      The chief snorts out something akin to a pompous laugh. “You got chased off by a squire?” he asks, sounding haughty, giving them all a mocking glance.

      And, again, there’s a shocked silence as everyone realises that he really doesn’t remember a thing.

      Ignoring the worrisome memory loss for a split second, Onika decides to test the chief’s seemingly better mood with another playful snipe. “Well, that squire is the one who did this” — he lightly runs his fingers over the spot on the chief’s flank where his fur has turned white from curse magic — “to you, so...”

      The chief turns to glare at him with his eye narrowed. “Excuse me?” His typical temper seems to be returning to his voice’s colour, but it’s not that strange, dual-layered aggression anymore. That just makes the annoyed-sounding cadence of his sentence more soothing than threatening.

      Ajani finally manages to speak through the headache that’s still wreaking havoc within him. “Boss, what’s the last thing you remember?” he asks.

      Silence.

      Then, “The last thing I remember is... the storm,” the chief finally says after racking his brain for a peculiarly long amount of time. “I was, uh... I was trying to figure out the most efficient way to clean up the mess that was left.”

      The silence turns shocked. It hangs in the air like a stench.

      The chief continues speaking as the ghost of a memory flits through his mind. “There was... someone who came to see me, I think,” he says, sounding incredibly confused and strained — like it’s physically hurting him to try so hard to remember what had happened that night. “Someone I didn’t recognise, but...” He hums in contemplation as Onika finishes up a few spells, and the pain in his side finally quells a bit more. “I, uh... I can’t remember who it was, though,” he finally concludes.

      Onika and Mer both look to Ajani, wordlessly begging him to tell the chief the bad news. The warrior sighs. “That was... three days ago, Boss,” Ajani says, sounding hesitant to admit it.

      “And a lot happened between then and now,” Mer adds softly, nervously pawing at the ground.

      The chieftain doesn’t look angry at the notion this time. His own worry about why he can’t remember who had talked to him has him accepting of the fact that maybe something’s been messing with his mind.

      The pain in his side finally subsiding, he manages to roll himself over onto his stomach, sitting up on his haunches despite the mumbled protests of Onika. He seems alright. He feels alright. He’s just... perplexed. “Mer, did someone come to visit you that night?” he asks, turning to face the sorcerer. “One of your customers, maybe? Perhaps that’s who came to speak to me...”

      Mer shakes his head, no. “If they did, they took super extra care not to wake me up,” he says. “And I would’ve known if any of my stuff was missing.”

      The chief is still trying desperately to figure out what’s going on when Ajani speaks up again. “Boss, do you really not remember anything that happened between then and now?”

      The chief snorts angrily, frustrated with all this cryptic skirting. “You speak about it as if I’d committed a murder...”

      And everyone looks around seeming stressed.

      And the chief suddenly looks overwhelmed with panic. “Wait... did I...?”

      “No, no, no!” the three others all start frantically saying over each other.

      Then, Onika. “But...”

      Silence.

      “But what...?” the chief asks.

      Ajani decides to finish off the thought. The other two are too kind to bring up the still-haunting memories of that awful afternoon. “You, uh... you told us to raid Cogham two days in a row, and then...” He sighs. “And then you told us to burn the place down,” he explains in a mumble.

      The chief whips around to look at Ajani with blatant shock. “That’s... No, no, that’s not possible...”

      “And you kept muttering about a cloak of something,” Mer adds.

      Now the chief looks honestly scared. It’s an incredibly foreign expression to be seen on his face. “I would...” The chief’s thoughts seem to all be colliding painfully with each other within the prison of his skull. He can’t think of anything to say. He can’t think of any explanation “No, no, that’s not...”

      “Boss, we were all there,” Mer says, looking to the floor sheepishly. “It was, um... really scary...”

      There’s so much more that the chief wants to say, but he just can’t find the words anymore. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want to believe it...

      But as time ticks on, and the silence persists, the strangest thing happens...

      He catches himself thinking, That’s not a bad idea...

      “Boss?”

      Mer’s bass snaps the chief out of a violent daydream.

      The chieftain’s voice suddenly turns grave as he responds, making the others nervous once more. “Please, just... I need time to think,” he says darkly, forcing himself to stand despite the aching in his still-weak muscles.

      Again, Onika protests, “Boss, you shouldn’t be movi—”

      “Stop.”

      The command is unusually stern.

      And everyone’s thoughts are in sync once more: Oh no... it’s coming back...

      The chief gives Onika a menacing glare. “I’m fine,” he says as he begins to walk slowly towards the exit of the room. “I’ll be in my study. Don’t bother me.” And he leaves without the slightest explanation of his sudden change of heart.

      The hush that follows his departure is absolutely soul-crushing. Nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows what to say. They all refuse to look to each other, afraid of what emotions may be visible on each other’s faces; but they need to say something...

      Ajani decides to break the silence off-topic, hoping that changing subject will lift some of the nervous haze. “My head is killing me,” he says, rubbing his temples.

      Onika gladly uses Ajani’s words as an opportunity to try to shift his focus away from whatever is happening to their leader. “It’s still not better?” he asks.

      Ajani shakes his head slowly. “It’s getting worse...”

      “Uh... well, here,” Onika mumbles as he channels some quick healing magic and makes his way to Ajani’s side, slowly feeling across his forehead to try to get a sense of what could be wrong, picking through the physical chambers of his mind in search of the source of the throbbing.

      But it’s the oddest thing, really...

      No matter how hard he searches, he can’t feel anything wrong.

      Mer can’t stand that the two of them are avoiding the real issue at hand. His concern for the chief’s wellbeing is too overwhelming for him to just casually ignore. “What do you think is wrong with him?” Mer asks, his tone seeming strict.

      Onika hums in contemplation as he continues to feel across Ajani’s face. “I mean, I can’t really feel anything abnormal, but a headache lasting so darn long is—”

      “I wasn’t talking about Ajani.”

      The two look over to Mer, and Mer looks away quickly, embarrassed by the curtness in his tone.

      Again, silence.

      Then, Ajani sighs. “I don’t know, Mer,” he mumbles as Onika gives up on searching for the source of his migraine and instead focuses on trying to channel some warm, soothing magic to ease some of the spearman’s pain. “But... something is not right,” Ajani then adds in a whisper.

      Onika nods slowly. “There wasn’t anything, like... physically happening inside of him,” he says. “He hasn’t been zombified or mutated or anything. I, uh... I might have checked for that just in case...”

      He sounds ashamed to acknowledge his paranoid actions, but Ajani then mumbles a quiet, “I’m glad that that’s been ruled out,” and his words help Onika to feel less awkward.

      “Do you think it could be a magic-related thing?” Mer asks, his voice returning to its normal shyness as he finally looks back to the others.

      Ajani and Onika don’t respond, but they don’t look like they disagree.

      Mer continues speaking when the silence persists. “He had those... weird magical powers, you know,” he says. “I’ve never seen him use magic like that before. Actually, I’ve never seen him use magic at all before.” He pauses briefly. Then, “Has he always had those abilities, but just never used them, or something?”

      Ajani had completely forgotten about that. He supposes he must have tried to erase the awful memory from his mind. “No, not that I can remember,” he says, his voice gaining strength, though his headache still isn’t getting better. “It just... came up during the battle...”

      “Along with the rest of his weird symptoms,” Onika finishes for him.

      Mer sighs loudly. “I just...” He’s not sure how to word his thought in a way that won’t make him sound like he’s insane. But then he thinks, whatever. Everyone else seems to be going crazy. He might as well join the party. “It felt like... there was a really intense magical energy radiating from him during the fight,” he says. “Dark magic, I think. But, like... not friendly dark magic. Like... like dark dark magic. Evil dark magic. Was, uh...” He looks to the others each in turn, trying to meet their eyes, but they still don’t look to him. “Was that just me, or...?”

      “I felt it, too,” Onika mumbles timidly as he begins to channel a slightly different spell to try and help Ajani further.

      “I have no ability to detect magic,” Ajani says as Onika presses his cool hands to his temples once more. “But, at the same time, I do remember thinking that I was feeling something... foreboding...”

      Mer nods. “Do, uh... Onika, do you know much about dark magic?”

      The healer shakes his head, no. “Water magic is all I know.”

      Silence.

      Then, Mer suddenly gets an idea. “Wait,” he says, his voice gaining strength and his eyes reclaiming a bit of their typical sparkle. The others then finally look towards him, seeming optimistic at the sound of the hopeful undertones in Mer’s rich bass. “I know who I can ask,” and he dashes out of the room at a full gallop without so much as a second thought — or an explanation as to where he is going.

      Ajani and Onika are taken aback by Mer’s sudden energy, but, at the same time, they can feel small fragments of their lost faith fighting to return to their hearts.

      They stand still, then both sigh in unison. “Goodluck, Mer,” Onika whispers, then silently continues tending to Ajani’s headache.

     

~

      “Okay... now I just need to, uh... Um... Ugh, Emmy, help me out...”

      The Maraquan Carma doesn’t say anything.

      Mer is desperately flipping through the stained and torn pages of an ancient spellbook with his tongue clenched between his teeth and his eyes narrowed in puzzlement. The book is written in some dead, foreign language that he doesn’t fully understand, and, to say the least, that little detail isn’t helping him to figure out the complicated spell that he’s trying to perform.

      It’s early morning, the mountains are pleasantly cool, and the sun shines bright as it crests over the Brightvale ocean. The beautiful scenery is awfully contrasted by the stress that hangs over the Ixis’ camp like fog. Mer has his door cracked open slightly, allowing the gentle breezes to wander in, shaking the soft-sounding windchimes that hang from the ceiling along with his drying magical ingredients. Still, the pleasant feel of autumn air through his fur doesn’t help calm his panicked thoughts

      But, those worries can all wait, Mer tells himself. Right now, he just needs to finish teaching himself this stupidly complicated spell.

      “Aha!” Mer finally finds the page he was looking for, reading the text slowly and carefully, trying to remember the meaning of each foreign word and the sound of each complex syllable. It’s much harder than he thought it would be. His brow continues to furrow under his frustration’s weight.

      In front of the sorcerer sits a fading earth faerie globe that, luckily, still swirls with intense magic, though its dull and dusty exterior makes it look useless to anyone not perceptive to magical auras. Honestly, it’s nowhere near as powerful as it used to be when he first acquired it, but its power is still potent enough for what he’s trying to do. After carefully reading a few more words in his spellbook, Mer nods to himself, mutters a soft, “Okay,” then closes his eyes to focus his energy.

      The spell that Mer is trying to perform honestly isn’t the most difficult to execute, but it’s an incredibly foreign style of earth magic that he’s almost completely unfamiliar with — a darker side of earth magic that comes unnaturally and feels wrong everywhere. He has faith that he can pull it off, though. He has confidence in his skill as a sorcerer. He just needs to focus... focus... focus...

      Eventually, Mer’s palms alight in a bright green, and he breathes a loud sigh of relief as he opens his eyes to see the magical energy dancing around his fingertips. “Oh, thank goodness, Emmy,” he mutters to his Carma, then flexes his wrists, making sure to keep the magic bright.

      One, two, three more seconds spent concentrating the strong magic, then Mer grasps the faerie globe tight, channelling the spell’s energy into it. He closes his eyes once more, muttering a silent incantation, praying that it works...

      And it does.

      Thank Fyora.

      A cloud of seemingly solidified smoke plumes upwards from the globe with a faint hissing sound, illuminating the walls and furniture in a bright lime green, casting dancing shadows across everything in the room, making all of the smiling earth motes that dance about the floor grow visible in the magic’s light. “Perfect,” Mer mumbles excitedly, then quickly — though still clumsily — jumps to his feet and darts across the room to shut the door.

      Already from behind him, a voice has started calling through the smoke. “Brother, is that you?”

      Mer heaves another sigh of relief at the sound. “Yes, yes, okay...”

      When he spins around, a spectral image has appeared within the magical window of earth energy, like an alternate dimension taking form within his home. The eerie green smoke paints an image of a quaint little home in the darkness of the swamps of Bogshot, decorated with dark and foreboding trinkets, the ethereal portrait fuzzy around the edges where the light of the magic fades into the crisp morning air of the Steppe Plateau. In the centre of this all sits the shadowy figure of a baby Draik — albeit an incredibly intimidating-looking baby Draik — sitting cross-legged on the floor with a starberry in her hands.

      Mer trots over to the ghostly green phantom he’s summoned with a happy bounce in his steps. “Raptura! How are you?”

      The baby Draik just shrugs in response, then takes a bite out of her starberry.

      Raptura is one of Mer’s two older sisters, and the most secular one in their large family. She lives alone in the swamps of Bogshot, mostly keeping to herself and her dark magic studies. Even with her small size, she has the overwhelmingly intimidating aura of Luperus, and enough skill with sorcery and weaponry to back that ferocity up if anyone were to ever question her strength.

      Her voice completely monotone, and her eyes completely impassive, the Draik finally speaks again after swallowing her big bite of fruit. “ ‘Grats on pulling off the communication spell,” she says. “It’s not easy.”

      Mer nods proudly, his smile brightening at the sound of the compliment. “I didn’t think I would be able to do it for a while, but... well, here we are!”

      Raptura nods again, her expression never changing, still seeming bored and nonchalant, though Mer knows that that’s only because of her odd demeanour rather than her actual feelings. He can see in her eyes that she’s proud of him, and that makes his smile turn sunnier. “What do you need?” she asks after taking another bite of fruit. “Must be important if you felt the need to speak to me via conjuration.”

      And Mer’s face suddenly falls.

      And Raptura cocks an eyebrow at the sight.

      “Um...” Mer looks around the room, as if searching for eavesdroppers, despite knowing that the lazy Miss Emmy is the only other one there, then turns back to the ghost of his sister. He hushes his voice and leans in towards the spectre. “I, uh... I think there are some dark magic shenanigans going down over here,” he says.

      Raptura takes another bite of her starberry. Her tone is as blank as her expression. “Shenanigans?”

      Mer sighs, making a face. “It’s, like... well...”

      He stutters, twirling his hands in the air as he tries to think of how to phrase his thoughts, but no answer seems to come. Raptura is patient, though. She waits calmly for him to continue.

      Mer eventually decides to preface. “Well, you’re really good with dark magic, and know a lot about wraiths, and ghosts, and conjuration, and all of that. And I’m not. And, well...” He looks around the room again. “Basically, I think... I think that something might be possessing Chief.”

      Raptura doesn’t move a muscle aside from her slow chewing, but Mer knows her well enough to see in her eyes that she’s a bit concerned by the thought. “What makes you think this?” she asks, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

      “Well...” Mer hates thinking about all that’s transpired — he just wants to pretend like nothing has happened and that he didn’t just see all of the destruction that he had — but he forces himself to for the sake of his tribe. “Chief’s been, just... acting funny,” he says. “Like, more aggressive than usual, and he’s been giving us really strange orders, and... and he said earlier that he didn’t, like, remember anything about stuff, and, like...”

      Raptura cuts him off with a few quick waves of her hand. “You need to be more specific, brother,” she says, sounding irritated. “I can’t help you if you are only telling me bits and pieces of the problem.”

      Mer throws his head back and groans at the ceiling. “Okay...” He huffs. “First, he sent us on two raids in a row, which is weird.”

      “Okay.”

      “Then he told us to, like... burn Cogham down.”

      Raptura makes a face. “Okay...”

      “And then this really tough squire from Meridell came and fought him, right?”

      “Sure.”

      “And then, during the fight, he, like...” Mer struggles again to find the words to describe what he’d felt that afternoon in the arena. “He got this... aura about him. Like pure darkness. It was almost painful to be around. A-and his eye was, like... glowing, almost. But purple. Like a dark faerie’s, but scarier. And his voice sounded layered, too. Like... like there were two people talking in unison.”

      Raptura pauses in all her motions — even her slow eating — lowering her eyes to consider all that Mer is telling her. Eventually, she gives two short nods. “Alright.”

      “And then he suddenly gained these weird magical abilities,” Mer continues. “He was summoning fire. He’s never done that before.”

      Pause. Then, two more short nods. “Okay.”

      “And then he got knocked out by the squire, and then when he woke up this morning... he said he didn’t remember any of it.”

      Raptura holds her silence.

      Mer waits impatiently while Raptura ponders what seems like absolute nothingness, though Mer knows that she’s probably just very, very deep in thought. It’s ridiculously difficult to read her face, but he’s pretty good at it, having grown up with her for so many years. Her expression eventually falls into a dead sort of confusion; then, “Yeah, sounds like some sort of magical possession,” she finally says before taking another bite of her starberry.

      Mer is somehow both satisfied and unsatisfied with her response. He’s glad to hear that she’s agreeing with his guess, but also frustrated that she isn’t giving him any more information or ideas as to what could be happening — or, more importantly, what can be done. “So you agree then?” he asks.

      Nod-nod. “Dunno by what, though,” she says. “I don’t know too much about those types of, uh... what was the word you used? Shenanigans?”

      Mer rolls his eyes, though he’s smiling a bit. “Yeah, well, you still know more about those types of shenanigans than I d—”

      His words are cut off as Raptura begins to cough lightly into the crook of her arm.

      He gives her a worried glance, but then cocks an eyebrow sarcastically. “Don’t choke on your breakfast,” he says cheekily.

      She bats a frustrated hand at him. “I’m not choking,” she says, sounding cross, “I’ve just had a tickle in my throat for the past few days.”

      “Hmm.”

      This time, Mer is the one to grow silent.

      And it actually bothers Raptura. Her brother isn’t known for being quiet. She clears her throat of the rest of her cough, then looks up to him, her big red eyes growing slightly wider. “Mer?”

      “Sorry, I, uh... hmph...” Mer crosses his arms in a forced, over-exaggerated huff. “I’m just... trying to figure this all out,” he mumbles, looking out the window above him.

      Raptura clears her throat again, then shrugs. “Well, I apologise for not being more help, but I really only know conjuration and basic hexes,” she says. “I’d be able to tell you if it was a curse or actual possession if your chief was in front of me, but it sounds like that’s not going to happen.”

      Mer snorts out a laugh. “Yeah, no, he’s not going anywhere.”

      “Hmm...” Raptura stares down at the core of the fruit in her hands; then, “let me see something quickly.” She stands up with a few flaps of her tiny wings, then walks across the ghost of the room she’s in towards something that Mer can’t see. She disappears outside of the spellwindow’s periphery, but Mer can still hear her rummaging about her room in search of something. It takes barely any time before she comes back into view carrying a dusty old tome and a new starberry. She sits back down on the floor, wraps her tail around her toes, flips through a couple pages of the book, then begins to read aloud: “Something something, blah blah, ‘... the type of magic possessing the target can be identified by examining the colour of the aura that emanates from him-slash-her during points of the possession’s climax.’ Uh, you said his eyes were purple, right?”

      Mer nods. “Yeah.”

      “So... definitely dark magic.” Nod-nod. She bites into her new starberry. “Do you know anyone who is a dark sorcerer, or have any enemies who are dark sorcerers?” Raptura asks through a mouthful of fruit, covering her mouth with her hand.

      Mer shakes his head, no. “Just you and one of my regular customers, but he would never hurt an ally.”

      Nod-nod. She clears her throat for a third time, flips to the next page, then reads some more. “Blah blah, something-or-other, ‘... extreme cases of hex-based and direct possession may result in the victim becoming trapped within their own body. This can be life-threatening...’ blah blah blah, ‘... Common symptoms of these extreme cases are: inability to control the limbs or body, heart palpitations, lack of reaction to pain... layered voicing,’ there it is.” Nod-nod. “You said he had layered voicing, right?”

      Mer nods again. “Yeah, like... two in unison.”

      Nod-nod. Raptura reads some more silently — checks an index page, then flips to something new. “Blah blah, ‘... This sort of continuous control over a person’s body, mind, and voice, also known as "puppeteering” or “marionetting,” is only possible through direct possession. The dark entity who puppeteers the target must focus on the verbal channelling completely in order to force the victim to speak. This can result in the target’s voice sounding layered, vocal chords being strained or torn, and, in extreme cases, eventual loss of all speaking abilit—’ ”

      Raptura’s words are suddenly cut short as an overwhelming crash of thunder fills the sky, seeming to shake the planet itself, and the entire realm instantly darkens. Mer lets out a frightened scream and covers his ears with his hands, ducking down low as if to hide from an attack. Even ever-stoic Raptura finds herself cringing and shrinking back from the intensity of the clash, curling her wings over her head to try and block out some of the violently echoing sound.

      The thunder roars for a few agonising seconds, and then there is silence.

      But the silence is black.

      Everything is black.

      The clouds have settled over Cogham.

      When Mer’s ears finally stop ringing and he looks back up and around him, his entire room is dark as night, save for the supernatural jade glow of the conjuration spell. The warm, buttery sunlight that had just been spilling through the windows has been completely snuffed — as if it had never existed at all. Panicked and frightened, Mer gives a few quick waves of his hands through the air, summoning several dancing magical flames to illuminate the walls. As he looks back to his sister’s apparition, the entire image of her and her home has also turned shadowed. It seems like the thunder and haze had hit them both all at once. “Woah, you heard that too?” Mer asks, his voice trembling slightly.

      Nod-nod. Raptura, too, now summons several bright flames to light her home, but even though her natural Draik affinity for fire helps to intensify the spell, the fire’s light still isn’t strong enough to chase away the darkness’ pressure. Puzzled, and a bit concerned, Raptura turns to look out the window behind her. “Yeah, that... sounded like it was right above me,” she mumbles.

      Mer agrees, “Same here.” He then follows her example and looks out of his own window, swallowing hard when he sees the thick clouds that now loom above — the force that has blocked out the sun. “What... what kind of darkness does this see—?”

      He can’t finish his question before a horrifying screech comes from somewhere behind Raptura.

      Mer cringes at the intensity of the horrific sound, his ears pressing back in pain. Even just through this weak communication channel, the sound sends painful chills up his spine. Raptura, being right beside the sound’s source, throws her hands over her head and lets out a very pained whimper, her voice trembling slightly as she cowers under her arms and wings. The series of motions is incredibly not like her...

      Mer’s worry is immediate. He leans in towards her spectral image, as if to comfort her ghost with some sort of embrace. “Ohmygosh, Raptura, are you okay? What was that?”

      When the last of the screeching’s echoes finally stop shaking the Draik’s home, she shakes her head aggressively, then coughs hard into the crook of her arm. “That sounded like... the serpent Kastraliss...” she says. “But he’s never that paine—”

      And her words, too, are severed as, from somewhere far behind Mer, the Ixi Chieftain screams in agony.

      Mer’s heart plummets immediately at the sound. His stomach sinks as panicked nausea rises. Without a single second of hesitation, Mer spins around with an audible gasp as Raptura worriedly asks, “Was that your chieftain?”

      “No, no, no,” Mer starts repeating over and over as he scrambles to his feet, slipping and skidding in the process, his panicked hoofsteps leaving deep grooves in the rocky floor.

      For once in her life, Raptura’s concern is visible on her face. “Mer, what’s going on?”

      And another crash of deafening thunder roars overhead. The skies alight with violent, violet lightning. Then everything grows blacker, and blacker, and blacker.

      “Mer?!”

      But Mer doesn’t respond to her pleas. He simply can’t. His terror has taken his entire being prisoner. In his panicked rushing, he knocks over the faerie globe, causing the channel to be broken and the magical smoke to evanesce with a blinding green flash and a misplaced scent of wheatgrass. Still, Mer pays no mind to any of that. He charges outside at full speed, galloping towards the chieftain’s home.

      Outside, everything is buried beneath a cruel shadow, the homes and the mountains being illuminated only by the sickly purple glow of the swirling magic overhead — the churning clouds of pure evil. Their pressure is overwhelming. The air tastes stale. Everything feels rancid. Everything sounds muffled.

      But Mer forces himself to ignore it all as he continues darting through the camp.

      Ajani and Ashanti heard the scream too, it seems, as the three of them all arrive outside the chief’s home at the same time. Ajani bangs one loud fist on the locked door and calls out desperately — “Boss?! Are you okay?!” — but there’s no answer.

      Mer’s entire body feels like it’s trembling. “Should we break the door down? What was that? Is he okay?”

      Onika, too, now comes galloping up to stand beside the others, seeming just as panicked as everyone else. “What on Neopia was that?”

      Ajani pounds his fist on the door again. “Boss? Boss?!”

      There’s a terrified silence.

      Then the door finally opens, slowly and casually.

      The chief stands there in the threshold, looking absolutely unfazed. “What are you all yelling about?” he asks, calmly but darkly.

      Everyone is beyond baffled.

      And he sees this.

      And it frustrates him. “What?”

      “Are, uh...” Ajani looks to the others each in turn, then back to the chief. He doesn’t know what to say. His words elude him.

      “We heard a scream,” Onika says shyly.

      “Are you... alright?” Ajani finally manages to ask.

      Silence.

      Then, the chief gets an unsettlingly pleasant grin, though it still feels completely corrupted. “I’m fine, Ajani,” he says, his voice sounding higher-pitched than usual. “In fact, I’m feeling better than ever.”

      Mer has to fight back the urge to step away and cover his quivering lips with his hands.

      The violet glow is back.

      Tenfold.

      “Oh, and, by the way,” the chief continues, crossing his arms and shifting his weight casually, his timbre lightening to an almost completely foreign colour, “I have some... plans... for this evening. So you all should rest up while you can.” His violet gaze turns freezing. “It’ll be a lot of work, but I think it’ll be worthwhile. So prepare yourselves.”

      The chief begins to turn to leave, but Ajani forces him to stop with a loudly stated question. The spearman sees the evil glow, too. He hears the foreign tone. He’s concerned. “Plans regarding what, Boss?” he asks hesitantly.

      The chief turns around once more, his wicked grin never falling.

      He radiates pure malice.

      “Regarding our little... pest problem in the valley,” he responds with a low chuckle. “I think I have a way to make sure that they never bother us again. Ever.

      Then the door slams shut.

      To be continued…

 
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Other Episodes


» Clouds Over Cogham: Part One
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Two
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Three
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Four
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Five



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