Clouds Over Cogham: Part Ten
The faerie’s clouds cling to the land like fog. They weave through the trees, and they caress the grass. They swirl like smoke around peoples’ eyes, and their presence hangs low like a canopy of death. The pressure of the evil feels so intense because it rests right on the backs of those who must fight it. The clouds are a weight — physical and heavy. A living ghost of retribution.
Yet still, despite the fear and the pain, Tor and Roberta quest tirelessly through the realm; fighting beasts, and slaying monsters; freeing homes, and saving lives. With each new foe that the heroes fell, the skies above grow clear once more. Slowly but surely, one by one, the towns and villages are freed, and the darkness retreats to where it once came, and the burden of evil lifts its claws off the land.
The clouds hang low over their targets like a blanket.
But Cogham is so high above all else...
The clouds swirl about the Steppe Plateau, trapping it within its own purgatory — a petpet cage, and nothing more. True, the clouds are tied solely to the land they encompass, but the mountains loom so high above the rest of the realm that their darkness casts shadows upon even the towns that are freed. It’s a haunting memory of what once has passed, and the looming threat that it may return.
But, most of all, it’s Tor and Roberta’s next destination.
They begin their mission to free the mountains.
X: The Horizon
The grey Gelert who stands beside Mer looks completely taken aback by the attack, though he somehow manages to escape in time, sinking into the ground in a quick flash of black smoke, disappearing momentarily — just long enough to keep his life. The arrow strikes the wall and pierces it a good few inches — a testament to just how terrified Mer was at the sound. The young sorcerer never thought he'd see the day where he had such a cruel instinct... but here he is.
Another soft whooshing noise then comes from the opposite side of the room, behind Mer’s back, and the sorcerer breathes a heaving sigh of relief at the sound. Good. He’s alive. Mer’s bow clatters noisily to the ground as he lowers his head in shame, covering his eyes with his hands.
Simeon’s sickeningly snide voice then comes from behind him, tinged with a furious scornfulness. "Bit skittish today, are we?"
Mer lowers his hands to cover his mouth, then groans loudly into his palms. He isn't sure if he's more terrified of or infuriated with himself at this point. He doesn't know if all these strange instincts and reactions are being caused by his fear of the clouds or by the clouds themselves — and that only terrifies and infuriates him more. He doesn't know what's wrong with him... "I-I'm sorry," he manages to stutter out, his typically proud bass now shaky and cracking slightly with the emotions that are trapped in his throat. He turns around slowly, his head still lowered and his ears drooping in shame. "It's... it's been really difficult these past few days. I'm... I'm just..."
Mer doesn't actually have a conclusion for the sentence. He doesn't know what he's "just," except that that he's just going crazy. Hesitantly, sheepishly, he raises his eyes.
The Gelert Assassin had drawn his blade as he was teleporting away from the attack. Mer honestly can't tell if he drew it because he intends to use it or if it was just out of habit — the Gelert’s expression is absolutely impossible to read. "What's the matter with you?" Simeon asks, sounding scornful, keeping his sword held out in front of him as if he were preparing to block an attack.
Mer decides to answer honestly. There's no use in hiding anything anymore — especially not from Simeon. "I... don't know," he admits, then folds his arms behind him and presses his front legs together, trying to draw some sort of courage from the proud posture — and to be more respectful in front of this master sorcerer. "I've just been... really scared..." he then says, looking down and away.
Simeon narrows his eyes for a quick second, trying to see if maybe the Ixi sorcerer is lying, but... he's never known Mer to be deceptive. He's one of the most trustworthy, affectionate people he's ever met, and the least aggressive of the Ixi Raiders by miles. He always thought that the sorcerer's immovable cheeriness and optimism was obnoxious at best, but seeing him now, with the light completely drained from his eyes, and his shoulders hunched in fear, and his knees trembling slightly in terror... he actually kind of misses it.
But he knows that Mer isn't going to try anything else. He wouldn't. He was just scared. Unless he has been possessed, too... No, no, he can’t be... Simeon forces the thought aside, then slowly — still somewhat cautiously — sheathes his blade. He crosses his arms with a frustrated snort as he stares the Ixi down, hoping to get some semblance of an explanation.
But one doesn't come.
For once in his life, the Ixi isn't letting his mouth run.
It's incredibly disconcerting.
After a few painfully long seconds of silent stares and worried thoughts, Simeon sighs out the rest of his frustration, then takes a few steps closer to the Ixi, hushing his voice, trying to get a closer look into the sorcerer’s eyes to read whatever may be there — and also, somewhat, to see if there's any hints of dark faerie magic swirling in his hazel irises. "Are, uh... are you alright?" Simeon asks, half out of legitimate concern, half in an attempt to pry out any sort of violent reaction in case Mer, too, is being controlled by one of the dark faerie sisters... But mostly out of concern.
The assassin's genuinely warm tone only makes Mer feel more horrible about trying to strike him. He feels his eyes welling up with tears — something that's only started happening since the clouds came — but he tries his best to hold them back. He's lucky his sclera is transparent — the tears aren't very noticeable — but his trembling definitely is. He sniffles. "I'm... not sure," he says with a nervous laugh. "I'm really not sure if any of us are alright anymore."
The assassin shifts his weight to one hip, softening his rigid stance in an attempt to make the sorcerer feel at least a little bit more comfortable. It doesn't seem to work. Simeon hates how worried he's feeling — he hates acknowledging compassion — but he prods anyway, still desperate to make sure that Mer is free from the clouds’ corruption. "Not to question your judgment, Meretseger,” he begins in a haughty tone, trying to provoke him, “but the rest of the tribe is definitely not okay.” He sees Mer's face fall flatter with the words, but the Ixi still doesn’t react with any strange aggression. That’s a good sign. If he was under magical possession, he probably would have gotten uncharacteristically angry at the implication that he was failing at his job. Probably. Simeon now tries to amend the harshness in his sentence — just a tad. "I apologise for the bluntness," he says, "but... if you really can't see, then I think it's important that you, as this tribe's apothecary, are told. Everyone is sick and cowering." When the sorcerer continues to keep his saddened silence, the Gelert takes a few more steps forward, lowering his hands to lace his fingers in front of him — still softening his body language. His curiosity then gets the best of him, though the question that is drawn from it is far from polite. "How in the world can you not see the tribe's sickness?" he questions, his tone a little too snide for comfort. "It's been getting worse and worse by the minu—"
"Because I've been locked in here for hours," Mer says loudly, jolting his head up, his tears finally beginning to escape.
Simeon takes a shocked step back. He’s not usually this aggressive... Eyes narrowing, he slowly reaches for his sword’s hilt.
The second the Ixi sorcerer sees Simeon’s eyes flash with panic, he throws his hands over his mouth, feeling absolutely horrible that he raised his voice. What is happening to me? Why am I turning so aggressive? Are the clouds taking control of me, too? Could... could I be the next to become like Chief...? "I'm... I'm so sorry..."
And then he can't hold it in any longer.
His words devolve into messy sobs, and he falls to the floor, his knees buckling awkwardly beneath him.
Simeon is far beyond used to seeing people collapse into tears before him — being in the profession that he is — but... this is different. Mer never cries. Ever. His joy has always shone bright through every situation — every fear faced with optimism, every worry cured by reassurance, every evil met with hopeful kindness, every wrong righted by a loving forgiveness... This is wrong. This is very, very wrong.
But at least he’s now been completely swayed. The dark faeries who have begun to take over the land would never do something as messy as cry, even just through a puppet. This is Mer, and Mer is sick, and Simeon is furious about it. “Yes, and that reminds me: why in Darigan's name have you been deadlocked by dark magic?" he questions aggressively, referring to the surrounding smothering enchantments that keep all non-dark magic from being used within the building. "Who even has this sort of dark power in this tribe? Was this your chieftain’s doing?”
Mer holds his head in his hands, trying as hard as he can to stifle his sobs. He hates that he's crying in front of someone like the Gelert Assassin — someone whom he respects and admires so much. Mer answers Simeon’s question through a bit of a detour. "I w-was..." — he sniffles — "I was questioning Chief’s... his intentions," Mer says, stuttering over the tightness in his throat. "He just, like, went into this rage because... I mean..." He groans into his hands. "It's my fault..." he mumbles, his voice muted by his palms. "I shouldn't have questioned him. I shouldn't have been defiant. It's my fault..."
"Meretseger, that is absolutely foolish of you to say, and you know it," the assassin snaps, his tone threatening, though Mer can tell that the aggression isn't aimed at him, but rather at the notion within the words. Mer doesn't raise his eyes, but he hears the Gelert approaching once more, his footsteps now heavy with crossness. "I'd like to think I know you pretty well, Mer, and I know for a fact that you avoid confrontation as if it were a disease. You would never question someone's intentions unless their actions were truly cruel, isn’t that correct?"
Mer still refuses to look up, though he feels the assassin looming over him now. "I mean..." He doesn't want to say anything. He’s too embarrassed.
"Don't be coy, Meretseger," the assassin scolds.
Mer sniffles loudly once more. "I... I don't like to argue..." he says, figuring that's a good enough answer.
The assassin sighs loudly — frustratedly — then begins to tap his foot on the ground like a frustrated parent. Mer hates hearing the sound of it. He hates that he's ticking off one of his best friends... "What was he doing?" the assassin finally asks, his concern finally seeping its way back into his tone. Honestly, though, considering how tight Malice’s hold on the Ixi Chieftain was just a few minutes ago, Simeon isn’t sure if he really wants to know the answer to that question or not...
Mer is relieved to hear the Gelert’s cold tenor warming once more. The familiar sound of his dark timbre helps calm him enough to find the courage to lift his face. He's managed to rein in his crying. Somewhat. "He was..." Still, he doesn't want to speak bad of Chief. He doesn't want to call him out on anything. "I-I'm sure he had a good reason, so I don't wa—"
"Don't skirt the question, boy." The interjection is a stern command. “You have no reason to be timid. I’m not going to tattle on you. What was he doing?"
The problem isn’t at all that Mer doesn’t trust Simeon. He does trust him. He always has, since Simeon wears his loyalty like a badge of honour. Mer eventually decides to tell the truth, though it's not the part of the truth that the assassin wants to hear. "I don't want to talk bad about Chief," he says, wiping his eyes again. "I don't want you to be mad with him, or something."
There’s a short pause, then assassin lets out a short, breathy snicker. "I'm always mad with everyone, Mer," he jokes, trying to help Mer feel a bit better through some semblance playfulness.
It kinda works. Mer rolls his eyes, catching himself smiling. "Still..."
"Still nothing," and Simeon’s tone has darkened once more. Mer recoils at the sound, but also finally looks all the way up. The assassin actually looks somewhat... scared...? No, no, he can't be... "If your chieftain is doing something unwise,” Simeon says, “then he needs to be stopped. Now, I'm only going to ask you one more time, Meretseger: what did he do?" Each word of his concluding question is its own sentence. Mer can't help but wonder why he cares so much... he gets the feeling Simeon is hiding something...
Which, honestly, he is.
But Mer doesn’t need to know that just yet.
Mer sighs, wiping his eyes one last time. At least the bout of crying has stopped. He sniffles loudly. "Why is it so important to you?"
He actually didn't mean for that thought to come out. He feels bad immediately again.
Simeon snarls a bit at Mer’s brashness, but he knows it’s not the sorcerer’s fault that he’s letting his thoughts slip and his cadences turn minor. The darkness around here is too overwhelming. The assassin crosses his arms, then begins to fiddle with a locket around his neck anxiously. "Well now, that’s not fair, Meretseger,” he says cheekily, though still in a sinister tone. “I asked first.”
Mer rolls his eyes again, crosses his arms as well, holds his breath for a few seconds... then huffs loudly. "He, um... He sent us all down into Cogham again, and... it was worse than usual," he says.
Simeon snorts out a derisive laugh. "Mer, don't be coy, I know there's more to it than that."
Mer rolls his eyes for a third time. "I mean, he actually tried to burn their village this time." He sees Simeon cease his fidgeting with his locket and look over, his glare somehow both cold and scared. Mer purses his lips and looks to the side, afraid of whatever the assassin may say next.
"Hmph." That's the only response Mer gets for a while. He isn't looking anymore, but he can just feel the assassin's honeycomb eyes boring into him. Studying him. Contemplating the statement. Then, calmly, "There's more to it." It’s a statement, but Simeon is clearly asking for further information.
Mer knows that he can't hide anything from this guy, though he hates that fact. "He told us to light everything on fire, and we did, and then... we were chased away and attacked by some really, really tough squire, and then..." He sighs. "Now he wants to raid the village again." If he hasn’t already... But he casually leaves out that detail.
Simeon still isn't satisfied with the answer. "And?"
"And... I think he wants to destroy it completely this time."
A long pause. "And?"
"And he's telling us to kidnap all of the villagers and throw them into the lava beneath the Merilode mines."
He honestly didn't want to say it so bluntly — or even at all — but it just... comes out.
Mer hears Simeon’s breath catch audibly. That's a bad sign. He clenches his eyes shut and cringes as the Gelert's silence continues. When he finally looks back up, the assassin's expression reads pure murder. "She has taken this too far!" he snaps, balling his hands into fists, now yelling mostly at himself. "Causing a bit of chaos is one thing, but mass extermination is jus—”
“Wait, wait...” Mer’s eyes widen as he realises what Simeon’s just said, then scrambles clumsily to his feet, slipping and sliding, waving his hands frantically to cut Simeon’s sentence short. The assassin glares at him — he hates being interrupted, even if it’s just from his own ranting to himself — but Mer doesn’t care right now. “ ‘She?’ ”
Oh, did I say that out loud? Well, Mer needed to know eventually. Simeon takes a few more seconds to glare into Mer’s now radiantly curious eyes, then takes a deep breath, huffing with the exhale.
His silence lasts too long for Mer. The Ixi prods. “Did you find out who was controlling Chief?” he asks. “Is it the faerie who hired you? The one controlling the clouds?”
Another huff. Simeon shakes his head angrily, looking off to the side. “It’s... yes, I did find out,” he says, suddenly sick in his stomach with the memories of the fight and the conversation. “It isn’t the darkest one, but... it’s a faerie. One of the three Dark Faerie Sisters, Malice.”
Mer purses his lips, sniffles, then gives a little shrug. “I’ve never heard of them, but anyone named Malice can’t be nice...”
Simeon snorts angrily. “Not in the slightest.”
“So then... she’s the one making Chief act all crazy?” Mer asks. “It’s her ideas, not his?”
Simeon gives a few short nods. “It’s... an incredibly strong hold she has over him. She was... using him to communicate with me. Like... a tool. It was... terrible...” As he hears the words echo back to him, he realises that he really shouldn’t be describing this to Mer in such detail. The poor apothecary is far too faint of heart to hear something so terrible without growing sick with worry. Simeon tries to amend his statement. “But... there may be hope,” he says, turning to look Mer in the face again.
Mer doesn’t trust that last bit. “What could we do, though?”
Simeon sighs. “We can’t do anything, but... those, uh... children... that the darkest one had sent me after...” He hates that he has to admit defeat in order to calm the sorcerer, but, well... “I think they’re the key to solving this mess,” he says.
Mer looks suddenly ten times as panicked. “You’re not going to keep going after them then, are you?” he asks worriedly, his words rushed, taking a few loudly clopping steps closer.
Simeon rolls his eyes. “Of course not, Mer,” he says, growing irritated once more. “They, uh...” He doesn’t want to admit it. He doesn’t even want to acknowledge it. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “They, um... they bested me in battle, so the contract is voided.”
The second the words leave his mouth, Simeon can almost feel Mer’s mood lighten. The hopefulness radiates from the sorcerer like moonbeams. The room itself seems to brighten. Honestly, Simeon already knew that Mer wouldn’t think any less of him if he told him that he’d lost the fight, but the words still left a bad taste in his mouth.
Mer gives an excited little bounce, clopping his front hooves against the ground loudly. “So there really is hope, then,” he says happily. “They can save him. They can save all of us!”
“Mer, it’s not that... simple...” Simeon doesn’t want to leave Mer with only half the truth, though he knows that hearing the catch to this deal will probably render him more crushed than he was before. He doesn’t want to look down to see the sorcerer’s face. He doesn’t want to see his almost certainly crestfallen eyes. He forces himself to just finish explaining the grim truth to it all. “They’re, uh... The heroes have been travelling across the realm and freeing the towns and villages one by one. The problem is that these clouds are... tied to sources. Physical sources. Living sources. And those sources need to be defeated in order for the hold to be lifted. So—”
“So Chief is one of those sources...” Mer concludes for Simeon, his voice barely a whisper.
For once, Simeon doesn’t mind that he was interrupted. He just hates hearing the sudden, crushing hollowness in Mer’s fragile bass. Still, Simeon nods slowly in response, though he isn’t quite sure if Mer is looking at all.
Mer sniffles again. The tears are coming back along with the hopelessness. “What... what do we do?”
Simeon shakes his head angrily, snarling a bit. “I can’t do anything,” he says sternly. “They’ve bested me once, and it would be dishonourable for me to attempt another battle after accepting defeat. They’re out of my reach.”
Mer is incredibly frustrated that Simeon is letting his weird honour system get in the way of saving the chief. “Isn’t this, like... an exception, or something?” he asks, his tone probably just a little too derisive.
Simeon snorts. “No.”
Mer narrows his eyes. “So you’re just... going to let them kill him?”
“He doesn’t have to be killed, Meretseger,” Simeon says, finally looking back to the sorcerer, though he’s met with a gaze just as stern as his own. “In the context of battle, there are many definitions of the word ‘defeat.’ He just needs to... fall.” Simeon begins to fidget with his locket again, turning away from the sorcerer’s piercing gaze. “These children have been decent about not ending lives when they don’t need to. They spared the Werelupe King, and they spared me, and... and I’m sure that they can spare your chieftain, too.”
Pause. “ ‘Can.’ ”
Simeon sighs. “I... don’t know for certain if they will, if that’s what you mean by that.”
Mer sniffles again. “So what if they don’t?”
“Something can always be done before it’s too late,” Simeon eventually says after a long period of thought. “You and Onika are both incredibly skilled sorcerers. You’ll be able to help him, especially if the two of you work together. I know for a fact that you can.”
Mer doesn’t know how to respond. He doesn’t want to rely on such a thin hope... but it seems like he has no other choice. He purses his lips; then, “Okay,” he says softly.
“But you will need to tell Onika — and maybe some of the others, too — what I have just told you,” Simeon then says, his voice finally deepening to its normal speaking colour. “Again, these children are out of my reach. I cannot follow or speak to them anymore without shaming my own name. That, as well as...” Again, he doesn’t want to admit it, but... “I’m... exhausted. I’m just...” He sighs. “That battle drained me. I... I don’t think I could do anything more even if I wanted to. It was hard enough coming here to speak with you...”
Mer would object — try to convince the assassin to at least deliver some sort of message — but... Simeon admitting weakness is never a good thing. He wouldn’t say such things unless he was desperate. There’s no way he’s just being lazy. The clouds’ sickness affects whatever their targets rely on most, after all. For Simeon, it is his power, and his pride.
Still, the words just cause Mer’s hopelessness to take root once more. “I... I can’t do it,” he says, looking down to his hooves and kicking the floor softly. “They’re just... following orders. And so am I.”
Simeon snorts again, though he doesn’t move an inch. “That’s foolish,” is all he says.
“But... it’s part of our job.”
“No, it’s not.”
Mer whips his head around to glare at him. “Yes, it is,” he says sternly, suddenly incredibly irritated. “The only reason I’m trapped in here is because I disobeyed my orders. Ajani and the others know well enough not to do it. The only foolish one was me for not listening.”
Simeon’s tone remains dismissive. “That is just ridiculous, Mer, and you know it.”
“How is it ridiculous? Coming from you, who always talks about honour...”
Now Simeon begins to raise his voice. “It is ridiculous because you are following blindly,” he says.
“I’m just following the rules.”
“Being a blinded Babaa is not a rule.”
Mer scoffs. “Not when you put it that way...”
“That is the only way to put it, because that is exactly what you are doing, Mer.”
“No, I’m not. I’m just putting faith in my liege.”
“Well, your liege is currently being possessed by the physical embodiment of malice, so...”
Mer pauses; snarls, then continues. “Ajani isn’t being possessed. I’m listening to him, too.”
Simeon rolls his eyes. “Just another blinded Babaa”
“Ajani is not a Babaa; and, regardless, he is my superior.”
“Well, then you need to step back.”
“No, I need to listen to my superiors.”
“No, you need to do what is right.”
“But what is right is what my leaders tell me.”
Simeon snorts again. “That is ridiculous, and you know it.”
Mer stomps his hoof. “Stop saying that!”
“I’ll stop when you acknowledge the ridiculousness.”
Mer snarls. He returns to the original topic. “Following my orders is the honourable thing to do.”
“No, it is not.”
This time, Mer can’t bring himself respond. Simeon’s words were too threatening. He sees the Gelert curling his fingers like talons, and that combined with the sudden acid in his tone forces the sorcerer to recoil. When Simeon turns to glare at him, then takes a few furious steps forward, Mer cowers before him almost immediately.
Simeon uses the sorcerer’s sudden sheepishness to explain what he’s been digging at this whole time. "Meretseger, you have more liberty than you think you do," he says, his frigid tone contrasted awkwardly by his caring words. "Listen," he continues, looking off to the side pensively, "you need to learn that autonomy does not equate to treachery. It’s obvious to me that you’ve sworn yourself so wholly to this tribe that you’ve become a slave to it. You’ve become a fixed part of the living entity that is the kingdom you’ve aligned yourself with, for better or for worse. But now, even though the idol that lies at the heart of this dedication has become deranged, you still feel bound to it. But that is not what dedication is, or should be. In fact, this is where the necessary seeds of individuality plant themselves." He takes a brief pause to catch his breath, and Mer looks up to meet his golden eyes, though the Gelert is still looking off and away. Simeon continues. "Something difficult but important to learn is that you simply can't be sworn to any single entity mindlessly, or you will wreck yourself, as well as those you serve. For you, this means that, though you are without a doubt sworn to your chieftain and superiors, you needn't believe in everything they do. Your purpose as a member of the Raiders' royal court is not to blindly follow their orders, but to search for what you believe is true. Without people like you, who question the morals of your liege and attempt to sway them when they turn for the worst, this kingdom would stagnate and fall. Therefore, by separating yourself from those who rank above you, you not only serve your tribe more wholly than those who simply follow, but you add to it, keep it sane, and uphold its honour. Do you understand?"
Mer has looked away in shame. Simeon is probably right.
“Do you understand?”
Mer takes a deep breath, then sighs long. “But... how am I supposed to just... stop living for one person when I’ve been doing it for so long?”
For a while, the only response he gets is silence.
A long, long silence.
When Mer’s curiosity finally gets the best of him, and he looks over to Simeon once more, he sees the Gelert toying nervously with his wedding ring, his ears drooping sombrely, his eyes hollow and lost. It’s an incredibly foreign expression...
But when Simeon finally looks back up to meet Mer’s gaze, he’s got a bit of a snarky smile. “Well, that I can’t help you with,” he says, somewhat self-deprecatingly, stopping his fidgeting to lace his fingers in front of him. “That’s, ah... that’s something I’m still struggling to figure out myself.”
Mer catches one last glance of the dull silver band around his ring finger, and he thinks he understands.
The two meet eyes across the room for a few seconds longer, then Mer finally gives the Gelert a small smile and a gentle nod of his head. “Alright,” he says softly. “I’ll try.”
Simeon matches the smile, then sighs loudly. It’s been a long day... “I, uh... I really need to be off, then,” he says, stretching his arms lazily, then immediately turning to leave. “I’m... very tired.”
But then, Mer makes a sudden realisation. “W-wait!” he calls out, lifting a hand to try to grab the Gelert’s attention. “I can’t do anything yet! I still can’t use any magic! I’m still locked in he—!”
One powerful spell sends the door — and a decent portion of the frame and wall — exploding outwards into the darkness of the outside world. Everything on the shelves and tables rattles loudly. A few things tumble to the ground and shatter. But then, a light to the destruction: the entire building is lifted of its smothering enchantments. Mer can feel soothing earth magic surrounding him again. He feels his blood run warmer as magicka fills his veins. He can see the faintest glimmers of earth motes dancing in the candlelight around the room. The pressure has been lifted. He’s been freed.
Simeon turns to look at Mer over his shoulder with that obnoxiously smug smile of his. “Oops.” He chuckles a bit as he sees Mer, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, throw his hands over his mouth in shock. Then, “Ta-ta, Mer,” and Simeon disappears in a flash of black smoke.
Mer takes a full ten seconds to collect his thoughts before moving a single muscle.
Then, he sighs, shaking his head as the smoke disperses around his ankles. “He didn’t even use the door...”
To be continued…