Clouds Over Cogham: Part Nine
The assassin's glare is pure acid as he looks up once more towards the knight with which he duels. Desperate now, he stands straight and opens his arms, then his entire being begins to glow with intense nova magic. Tor takes a few worried steps back at the sight. Roberta watches in awe from a distance. "This ends now!" the Gelert cries, then he charges towards the sorceress — she, the knight’s greatest weakness.
Roberta gasps, unable to comprehend the speed with which she's being attacked, but her terror only adrenalises her enough to dodge just in time. The assassin's blade narrowly misses her as he thrusts downwards, then he is forced to come to a clumsy, skidding halt as he fails once again to snuff his target. He didn't expect that attack to fail. It’s never failed him before. That was his last hope. He's left completely vulnerable as his magic is drained and his knees grow feeble. The children see this. This is their chance.
The assassin whips around as the heroes both fire off a barrage of attacks, both physical and magical. The assassin deflects, and deflects, and deflects, and deflects, but luck is not on his side. All hope drains from the assassin’s amber eyes as the heroes overwhelm him.
Using his last bit of strength, the grey Gelert teleports his way out of the frontline, reappearing across the arena in a cloud of now incredibly weary smoke. Tor and Roberta don't bother to charge after him this time. It's obvious that there's nothing more he can do. The assassin is doubled over, channelling some strong healing magic to calm himself as he desperately pants for breath. "I..." He can barely speak — can barely move at all — but he forces himself to for the sake of whatever honour he has left. "I rarely underestimate my prey..." The words are said mostly to himself — for some sense of closure, or something. He raises his eyes up towards the heroes again. All pride has left his golden glower. All that is left is a hopeless, hollow apathy. "It won't happen again." Then he disappears.
IX: The Innocence Slain
If Simeon’s footsteps were to fall any heavier, the cliffs themselves might collapse from beneath him.
He’s not sure why he’s so angry; and, even more so, he’s not sure if he’s more angry at those stupid heroes for being so annoying or at himself for failing to kill them so spectacularly. Either way, he’s fuming, and he’s taking his frustration out on the mountainous scenery.
He was bested, true, but so what? It’s not like this one loss revokes his title of the most skilled death artist in the land. It doesn’t void all of his successful hunts from the past. It doesn’t render him useless in the eyes of those who would employ him. If anything, he should be ashamed rather than furious — or, at least, just a little bit humbled.
But, no. “Humble” isn’t a word in Simeon’s vocabulary. He’s just mad that he couldn’t fight off a couple of children.
But, at the same time, though he remembers the way he fell, and though he remembers how he was forced to surrender, and though he remembers the searing pain from the knight’s sword across his ribs, he also remembers the way that the skies cleared overhead. He remembers watching from a distance as Illusen was freed, and the clouds dispersed, and the air itself turned pure. He remembers how wonderful the sunlight felt as it fell upon his cheeks for the first time in what felt like ages. He remembers feeling content — albeit reluctantly so — in the knowing that the crushing weight from the evil that was looming above had finally been snuffed. He loathes to admit it, but, though he felt hopeless as he stared into the eyes of his defeat, a very loud part of him also felt... content.
And now, as he slowly but furiously makes his way up the Cogham Steppes towards the Raiders’ camp, the reality begins to set in that, honestly... maybe this is a good thing. Maybe it’s a good thing that he lost. Maybe it’s a good thing the contract’s been voided. Those children clearly have the key to freeing the realm — it’s plain for anyone to see. Maybe he should be happy...
No, no, “happy” is another word that doesn’t exist for Simeon.
He doesn’t want to think about it anymore.
So up the mountains he ascends, tossing aside anything and everything that has the misfortune of being in his way, his spells hasty and furious, his steps heavy and aggressive. Right now, he’s just trying to focus on completing his secondary mission: seeing to whatever strange evil has supposedly possessed the Chief of the Ixi Raiders.
If there’s one thing that Simeon is — other than a hopelessly lovesick assassin, of course — it’s loyal. All the murderous tendencies aside, he’s still a Gelert inside and out, and he undoubtedly has the loving, stalwart heart that his species is known for. Bloodshed or not, he still keeps all his promises, and he still worries about those he cares for — though he may try his best to pretend that he doesn’t — and, in this very moment, as he takes his anger out on another one of the Darkest Faerie’s minion archers while he stomps his way up the mountains of Cogham, he’s still unable to shake the image of Mer’s worried eyes and the desperation in his cry for help, and it bothers him. His fury can’t completely consume him — yet — because he has other things to thinks about. Other people to think about. Right now, he just hopes that he isn’t too late...
And that hope seems incredibly useless as he finally enters the Ixi Raiders’ camp, and sees that it’s practically a ghost town.
On any other day, the Raiders’ campsite would be full of vibrant life — lilting music, happy families, the smell of fresh fruits and cooked meats, young fawns playing and laughing around bonfires... But, no. Right now, everything looks abandoned. Every home is locked shut. Everyone is closed in; hiding; cowering. As he makes his way past the once-happy homes, he can hear worried muttering and soft crying from within the building walls. It’s so heartbreaking that he feels almost physically ill. What are these clouds doing to them?
Still, Simeon only has one destination in mind. None of these nobodies matter. He just needs to see if Mer was right.
Still, something about the way that the air tastes and the way that the sounds of the Ixis’ despair reverberates through his chest hurts Simeon to his very core. It’s the oddest thing, really. His ability to ignore peoples’ cries for help is typically infallible. That sort of detachment is a vitally important part of his job, honestly. Yet still, something about this village...
Unnaturally unnerved, Simeon speeds his steps, crossing his arms to try to quell some of the nausea that’s begun brewing, forcing himself to look straight ahead and nowhere else. The chief’s quarters are close. He’s almost there. He just needs to ignore the cruel embrace of the weeping that surrounds him.
Simeon doesn’t hesitate with his entrance into the Ixi Chieftain’s home once he arrives at the door. After all, if the chief has been possessed, Simeon figures that it’s probably safe to assume that the Ixi will be alone. If he hasn’t been possessed, well, it wouldn’t be the first time the arrogant assassin has barged in on the chieftain unannounced and interrupted his work or meetings with his councilmembers. It wouldn’t be the tenth time either, honestly. Or the twentieth. Maybe the thirtieth. Fortieth?
Simeon casts a quick teleportation spell to land himself inside the chieftain’s home, disappearing and then reappearing again in gentle clouds of black smoke. Once inside, he gets right to work.
The first thing that Simeon notices once he’s inside the building is that it’s dark. Ridiculously dark. There’s a firepit to his left that burns slowly and weakly, eating away at charred wood, but its light seems to be being suffocated by the foreboding pressure of the dark magic within these walls. The room is painted an eerie orange by the soldiering firelight, but even the smiling motes that once danced freely about the floor seem to have fled in terror. It’s completely lonely. It’s completely dead.
The second thing that Simeon notices is that the entire place reeks of poison. One of the things he both loves and hates about being such a powerful dark sorcerer is the fact that he can detect dark magic from miles away. Its energy will always mingle with his own, and he can dwell in it, and he can draw from it, and he can use it to his advantage when he needs to; but, at the same time, in moments like this when he is swallowed into the magic’s nexus and it drowns him, he feels blinded. This isn’t ordinary darkness. This is pure hatred. This is pure evil. This is disgusting. But, more importantly, it’s not the chief’s.
The last thing that Simeon notices is the Ixi Chieftain standing seemingly zombified to his right, his back turned away from him as he looks over some sort of map, though he seems like he isn’t actually reading anything. He’s just... feeling it. Running his fingers over the paper’s surface, his breathing seeming somehow both heavy and shallow at the same time. His knees are shaking in what seems like terror. His shoulders droop as if his ribcage has collapsed. He looks petrified.
But he is the source of this darkness now. It radiates from him.
This is very wrong.
But at least Simeon can tell almost immediately that Mer was right. He can feel it. There’s absolutely no doubt in his mind that the chief is being controlled by something.
He just hopes that it’s something he can stop...
Simeon’s typical smugness manages to fight its way through the darkness’ haze. He doesn’t quite know where to begin in his questing for answers, so he just tries to get the Ixi’s attention — clears his throat loudly and sarcastically from behind him.
Which is his first mistake.
The Ixi spins around with Meerca speed, then casts a devastatingly strong spell, sending a surge of black magic flying towards the Gelert — a solid entity, almost, in its intensity. Still, Simeon is professional enough to not let the move startle him. He was honestly expecting something like this to happen, considering how powerful a presence this darkness has. He casts a quick teleportation spell to disappear out of the line of fire, then reappears to the chieftain’s right, drawing his sword with the motion of reappearance out of habit — and, also, just a bit out of precaution. He speaks immediately upon reappearing. “Woah there, friend, calm down. It’s not like you to be so paranoid.” Still, despite the smugness in his voice, he begins to channel the energy for another teleportation spell with his left hand in case the attack continues, and keeps his sword strong in his right.
Luckily, the chief doesn’t attack any further. He whips around to face Simeon, looking incredibly furious, but also just as confused.
It’s here, looking the Ixi in the face for the first time, that Simeon sees the unmistakable darkness swirling in his gaze, and its overwhelming intensity sends a shiver down his spine.
The chief’s confusion seems to be not his own, though. The real chief knows Simeon well. The grey Gelert has been one of the Raiders’ few allies for many, many years now, and the chieftain is far used to the cocky assassin casually strutting his way into their camp like he owns the place to pick up poisons from Mer. The fact that the Ixi seemingly can’t remember who Simeon is only furthers the implication that it’s someone controlling him rather than just a curse of corruption. That’s a good thing, though, honestly. “Oh, it’s you,” the chief finally hisses out in a layered voice, standing straight and crossing his arms. “The failed mercenary.”
Simeon is too confused to be upset by the insult — confused as to how the person controlling the chief could have known that he’d failed... but then he realises it. It must be her... but why? “What do you want?” the chief’s voices ask in a gruff, spiteful tone.
Simeon forces himself to maintain his snarky façade. It isn’t too hard. “Bit grumpy today, are we?” he says, cocking an eyebrow, hesitantly sheathing his sword and shifting his weight to a more casual position.
The chief makes a frustrated face, but does nothing more than reiterate his question. “What do you want?” This time, each word sounds almost like its own sentence — each syllable’s cadence a vicious threat.
Simeon has to think up a quick lie. The pause between the question and his response is, luckily, too short to seem suspicious. “I need to see Meretseger, but I figured I’d stop by for a little chat first,” he says. “We haven’t spoken in a while, and we are allies, after all.” His gaze then narrows. “But it seems like you’re in a bit of a bad mood. What’s the matter?”
The chief snickers as he moves to mirror the assassin’s casual stance. “Nothing is the matter,” he says with an oddly pleasant grin. “Everything is wonderful.”
Simeon doesn’t move a muscle. “Is it now.”
Again — as usual — asking for explanation through a statement.
But the chief doesn’t seem bothered by the Gelert’s voice’s undertones of disrespect. His sarcastic smile widens. “Just peachy,” he says.
“Hmm...” Simeon just needs to figure out a way to make sure that the faerie he’d been hired by is the one controlling the Ixi Chieftain. He needs to confirm this before he can do anything to stop her. He doesn’t have the time to think up any convincing interrogatory questions, so he just continues to pry at the same notion — lets his mouth run and hopes that something useful comes out. “You don’t sound too sure about that, my friend,” he says derisively.
The chief tilts his head like a confused pup. “Funny, considering I am.”
“So these clouds” — Simeon twirls his hand quickly, gesturing in the sky’s general direction — “don’t bother you at all? The lack of sunlight? All your withering crops?”
Now the chief is beginning to look a tad irritated, but he still maintains the smirk. “Not at all,” he says. “I quite like the darkness.”
The real chief would never say such a thing. The real chief has said plenty of times that one of the biggest reasons he loves the mountaintops so much is being so close to the bright blue skies, high enough to soar above the Meridellian fog and revel in the warmth of the sun.
Whoever is controlling him didn’t do their research.
That just makes Simeon’s job a bit easier, though. “Really now.” The curt response is only meant to buy him more time to think of other questions.
But he’s only met with a series of slow nods.
Simeon pauses to think. Then, “And what of your people? Where are they?”
“Why do you care, mercenary?” The words are spat out.
Simeon smirks, chuckling softly at the sudden aggression, then raises his hands in a mock surrender. “No need to get so defensive, my friend,” he mumbles sarcastically, lowering his arms to cross them again. “It just seems odd that someone who prides himself on his flourishing community wouldn’t be a bit unnerved by the fact that his people are locked in their homes weeping.”
The chief pauses, unsure of how to react. It’s obvious to Simeon that whoever is controlling him seems to be debating whether or not the assassin is trying to mislead them, or if he’s telling the truth. Foolishly, the foreign entity decides it’s a lie. “You must not know me very well then, mercenary,” the chief’s voices say in a snooty tone. “Lamentation is a beautiful sound.”
Who is this monster...? “Sounds like quite the change of heart you’ve had.”
“Not at all. I revel in fearful respect.”
This isn’t working. I’ll need to be more... aggressive... Simeon lets out a short, scoff-like laugh. “Respect? That’s not respect,” he says, lowering his head to glare at the chief more aggressively, “that’s them dwelling in your sudden weakness. They respected you when you cared for them. Now they mutter restlessly about how useless you are.”
It still doesn’t seem to be working. “Let them mutter themselves to death,” the chief says with a sick smile. “They’ll all learn of my strength soon enough.”
“Pfft, strength? What strength?”
“The strength I will use to crush these mountains if I must.” Finally, there’s a hint of something else there — the beginnings of fraying resolve.
Closer... Simeon scoffs. “You truly think that wise? Destroying your own home?” He laughs disdainfully. “What an idiot...”
The chief begins to take a few furious steps forward. “You dare question me...?”
Closer still... “I needn’t question you when you’re wearing your weakness on your sleeve.”
A few more furious steps. “How dare you mock me...”
Simeon shrugs impassively. “It only stings because you know it’s true.”
The chieftain gives one loud stomp of one of his front hooves. It rattles everything on the tables and shelves. Thunder rolls overhead. “You’d best learn how to hold your tongue, mercenary,” the chief threatens, curling his fingers like claws at his sides.
Another scoffed-out laugh. “Or what?”
“Or I will strike you down within these very walls!”
“You sound awfully certain of that...”
“Because I am.”
“And how can you be?”
“You still underestimate my power.”
“Power? What power?”
“A power darker than your pathetic excuse for sorcery.”
“The power to make cheap threats?”
“You will learn soon enough.”
“The power to throw a temper tantrum?”
“You’re getting on my nerves...”
“The power to whine like a little child?”
“Watch your tongue!”
“The power to lose control over Illusen?”
“That was your fault, not ours!”
And there it is.
The force within the Ixi Chieftain immediately recognises its mistake. Simeon would smile smugly at his managing to trick the whoever-it-is into falling into such a simple trap, but... he’s still too unnerved by the whole ordeal to dwell in his success. His gaze remains dark and corrosive.
Then, the soprano within the chieftain laughs. Cruelly, but still earnestly. “Well, aren’t you tricksy?” it says, the tenor voice seeming completely dead now. The foreign entity is now using the ashy Ixi’s body as solely a means for communication — a simple tool. It’s sickening.
Simeon still doesn’t move. “What did you do to him.” The question is stated so bluntly it’s almost a pure threat.
The force controlling the Ixi doesn’t fear him, though. Why should they? “What did I do to him? I didn’t do anything...”
Simeon exhales loudly — a furious huff. He can’t stand marionette magic. The very thought of it disgusts him. “You’re that faerie from Meridell, aren’t you?” he asks. “The one who hired me to do her chores.”
The soprano snickers. “I’m flattered you think I’m as powerful as my dear sister, but no. Good guess, though.”
Simeon narrows his eyes further. “Who are you?”
There’s a brief pause, then the soprano seems to find no reason why they shouldn’t answer him. The puppet Ixi shrugs casually, making a painfully passive expression. “Why not?” the voice muses to itself. The Ixi then looks back towards Simeon with a glare that’s almost physically painful to meet. More thunder rolls. “Pleasure to meet you, failure. My name is Malice.”
Simeon can feel his breath catch in his lungs, though he tries desperately to not let his fearful shock show on his face. He shifts uncomfortably. “One of the dark faerie sisters...” he mutters under his breath.
The puppet Ixi gives a sarcastic gasp. “Oh, we’re famous? My sister Vanity would love to hear that...”
“So you’re working for her, then, is that it?” Simeon asks. “The darkest one?”
“With, my dear,” the soprano responds. “Working with.”
Simeon shakes his head angrily. Seeing this twisted faerie using his ally’s body like nothing but a toy... he can’t stand it. He’s practically snarling in rage. “What do you want with him?” Simeon asks through clenched teeth, trying to steady his furious trembling. “Why have you taken over this realm?”
The Ixi laughs. “Please, do you really think I’m going to monologue out all of our plans like some super villain cliché?”
“It’s the cloak, isn’t it?” Simeon asks, still unmoving. “Your sister fears its power. That’s why she sent you here. She wants to make sure that it doesn’t fall into any heroes’ hands.”
The Ixi’s smile turns moot. Malice hums in contemplation through the chief’s vocal chords. “Hmm, you’re smarter than you look,” Malice muses through her puppet. “See? You didn’t even need to ask...”
“Why the rest of the tribe?” Simeon’s fists couldn’t get any tighter. “Why torture them? They are innocent in this.”
The puppet Ixi laughs again. “Well, my dear, they call me Malice for a reason.”
Simeon’s snarl turns feral. “You’re sick.”
Another giggle. “Thank you.”
“You won’t get away with this. None of you will. Those heroes will defeat you.”
“The way they defeated you, you pathetic excuse of a mercenary?”
Simeon takes a deep breath to silence his fury. He knows full well that this faerie will gladly use his pride as a weapon against him if he allows her to. He changes subject. “Let him go.”
Another giggle. “Or what?”
“Or I will personally come find you and I will make you let him go.”
His words have never been more resolute. The weight of his fury rivals the clouds overhead. It’s honestly terrifying.
Terrifying, except to her. “How cute.”
“Let him go.”
“Do you really think you could best me in a fight?”
“Let him go.”
“Best all of us? You, who couldn’t even take out children?”
“Let. Him. Go.”
Then, a prissy sigh. The Ixi gives an annoyed flip of his hand. “Fine, whatever,” the soprano says, forcing her puppet to pout in irritation. “This was getting boring anyway. They’ll all die whether I’m in this ugly body or not. The gears are in motion. You’re too late.”
There’s a sudden crash of thunder, then all sources of light in the room dim as something in the aether snaps. The poisonous aura that surrounds the chieftain suddenly dissipates as the light in his eye grows blinding, then fades away like a ghost. His entire body goes limp as the air is sucked painfully from his lungs. The darkness is leeched. Everything turns still. He is released.
Simeon’s devoted instincts take over before his better judgement. “Oh no...” With a gasp of shock, he rushes to the chief’s side, trying to catch him as his knees buckle and he falls forward, unconscious. The brutish six-limbed Ixi is too heavy to be caught, but Simeon manages to lay him on the floor gently. He leans over the chieftain and begins to channel some simple spells in an attempt to detect life energy. He hopes she didn’t kill him... “Fyora curse her... My friend, are you alright? Can you hear me?”
For a long, long time — silence.
But soon the air turns thick with darkness once more.
Then, “You’re gullible...”
And Simeon is suckerpunched hard by the Ixi’s powerful fist and sent tumbling to the ground with a loud, shocked gasp. His vision cuts out. His spine goes rigid. For a split second, all he is aware of is the blackness of unconsciousness. The impact was too powerful...
When he opens his eyes again, he finds himself being pinned to the ground, crushed under the Ixi’s weight, completely immobilised. The violet glow has returned tenfold. Thunder continues to roar overhead. The Ixi has drawn his axe and is holding it over his head like an executioner. “Who could have guessed that sympathy would be your downfall?” he says with a cruel laugh, then swings his arms downward.
Simeon’s magic is faster than the Ixi’s movements, though — thank Fyora. He casts the quickest, strongest teleportation spell he can muster, sinking into the ground in a cloud of smoke, then reappearing to the Ixi’s right, standing weakly with his sword drawn, panting from the pressure of his thundering heart crushing his lungs. “You’re a monster!”
The Ixi’s axe strikes the ground with enough force to split the rock like a magical lightning strike. It’s a blow that is far more powerful than the chieftain would have ever been able to execute without aid — more powerful than any mortal creature. The faerie’s manic laughter then breaks free through the chief’s throat as he lifts himself onto his hooves, his weapon still drawn, his entire being radiating hatred and evil. Then he turns, and lunges.
Simeon barely has any time to react — the movement is almost invisible with speed. He tries to charge his spells again, but finds that his body’s core magicka has been too totally drained by the first overly desperate teleportation move. He needs to conserve magical energy if he wants any hope of escaping. He takes a strong step back, strengthening his stance, then lifts his blade to catch the Ixi’s swing, just trying to interrupt its trajectory enough to save himself.
And it works. Somehow. The axe blade is caught, and the attack is deflected. Funny, though, considering the power that the Ixi had just displayed mere seconds ago. He clearly has enough supernatural strength to slice clean through Simeon’s sword if he wanted to. That must mean...
She’s just toying with me...
“Come on, mercenary!” the puppet Ixi taunts as he prepares another strike. “Fight back! Just fight your friend! It’ll be funny!”
“You’re disgusting!” Simeon cries as he dodges another swing with one frantic leap to the left. The axe comes crashing down where he just was. He groans loudly in anger, but — thank Fyora — he has finally charged enough power to escape. He can’t stand to be in here a second longer. “You won’t get away with this!” he threatens as he quickly and clumsily sheathes his blade. Then, without a single second of hesitation more, he casts his teleportation spell and disappears out of the building in a flash of black smoke.
Simeon lands himself outside of the building, several hundred feet away, shadowed by the mountainside, wheezing in pain from the overexertion caused by his panicked spellcasting. Thunder and lightning crash overhead as he hears the soprano call out one last loud, shrill, “Coward!” Then the clouds fill with the faerie’s deranged laughter.
Even the windows have been sealed shut with darkness.
The smothering enchantments that have been placed around Mer’s home have not only rendered him incapable of using his earth magic, but have also sealed him away from the outside world entirely. It’s as if he doesn’t exist at all. A ghost. Forgotten. Alone — forever. On any other day, he would try his best to keep a positive attitude. That’s always been one of his greatest strengths as an individual, and as a friend as well. He’s always been the bubbly one, putting smiles on faces and being silly to pass the time. He’s never had a hard time making light of a situation. He’s always been able to see the silver lining. He’s always been able to keep hope alive.
But now he’s completely in the dark — figuratively and literally.
There’s nothing for him to do. Music seems useless, conversation seems dull, work seems exhausting; he’s just... tired. He doesn’t want to do this anymore. He doesn’t want to deal with whatever is happening in the world. He just wants this all to go away...
Maybe being sealed away is a good thing, then. So long as he’s here, he won’t have to see everything around him collapse. He won’t have to watch as the world burns to ash. He won’t have to hear his loved ones crying. He can sit here and sleep for years and years while the clouds swallow the planet and the silt consumes the sun. He could get used to this, maybe. Him and Emmy both.
But he doesn’t even have the energy to do nothing.
So here he stands, completely hollow — hopeless and lost and tired and awful. He stands before his Carma’s tank, though he tries his best to avoid looking at her. She’s been just as exhausted as he has — if not more. Her scales have begun to turn purple and black. Her typical sass has been completely drained. She just... lies there — lies there like Mer wishes he could. Unmoving. Seemingly lifeless. Mer drums his fingers lightly on the table of his workstation, focusing on the dim light from the furnace and the candles he’s lit that paint the room in ghostly oranges and yellows.
It’s silent, save for the sound of his claws tapping against the worn wood.
Silent, save for the occasional screech of a monster from outside.
But then, something stirs to his left. Someone, maybe. Something.
Mer's gasp is loud and violent enough to sound like its own expletive as he spins around, startled by the sudden whooshing of what sounds like fluttering wings. He completely panics. Nobody should be in here. Nothing should be in here. The dark enchantments are far too powerful for anyone to break through, and he knows this full well, so there’s no doubt in his mind that whatever is now beside him is capable of intense magic, and is an enemy — maybe even that cruel faerie herself...
So he spins around violently, drawing the bow that he’s kept holstered to his back in case of something like this happening, his reflexes faster and more desperate than even he thought he was capable of.
He fires off one dedicated arrow, hoping for the best.
But he made a mistake.
It’s not an enemy.
His heart plummets.
To be continued…