Clouds Over Cogham: Part Eleven
The plumes of smoke that billow up into the skies are as black and ominous as the clouds themselves.
If the heartache of loss could be summarised in sound, it would be the din that fills Cogham as the villagers are dragged to the site of their inevitable demise. The fires burn bright, and the hatred burns brighter, and the world is aglow in a sickly gold, blanketed by a warmth that feels strangely like frostbite.
Ashanti watches on from a distance, her throat tight and her arms trembling. She watches as her friends and pupils reluctantly follow destructive commands, though their eyes read mourning, and their lips mouth silent prayers for an end to this violence. She watches as, slowly but surely, one by one, each body and being is ushered out of the valley, up the mountain to who-knows-where, captor and captive alike feeling shame and misery and fear.
It takes no time before the town becomes all but empty, and everything but the crackling of dying embers silences. Ashanti is the only life left. She is all that remains. She is alone.
She’s been given her orders, and she knows she must obey.
But... maybe not.
She turns her gaze up to the mountains, and the tears she’s been fighting back for so many days finally spill down her freckled cheeks. She shakes her head sombrely. There’s nothing to do anymore.
So she unfastens her bow and quiver from her back, then tosses them into the flames. She unties the feathers that mark her royalty from her hair, then lets them fly away with the wind and the ash and the silt. She takes a deep breath, and she meets eyes with the mountain one last time, then she’s finally made up her mind.
Her voice is the tone of the purest surrender:
“I will come back someday — I promise.
“But for now...
Then she leaves the village.
XI: Thy Will Be Done
Onika doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore.
He’s just... doing.
All time seems false, and all walls seem non-existent. There’s a gurgling of lava boiling from somewhere down the mines’ corridors, and the heat is scorching even from this great distance, and the rocks are crumbling, and everything is loud... yet still, sound seems to be void in this state of mind. Sight, smell, touch, taste, everything is just...
Nothing exists for the healer anymore except for this empty space in which he now stands, with a dagger held in his shaking hands, and his eyes brimming with unspilled tears, and his throat tight with immeasurable overwhelm, and a terrified Scorchio cowering behind him.
All is silent, except for the Scorchio’s pleas. “Please, sir, please... please let me go.”
Onika just tries his best to ignore him.
But it’s nearly impossible.
“Please, sir, I’ll do anything if you just spare me; please.”
“I promise I will. I’ll... I’ll talk to the mayor! I’ll try to get him to stop ascending the mountains.”
“I’ll mine elsewhere. I’ll offer your people my services as a blacksmith — free of charge! I’ll... I’ll do anything...”
“Please, sir... I’m begging you...”
Onika feels a sob rise up in his throat, and he coughs to try to choke it down. He can’t handle this. He just wishes this would stop... He lifts his hand to cover his mouth, trying to steady his breathing, trying to keep everything buried within him. He can’t break down. If he does, he might suffer the same fate as Mer. He might not make it out. He can’t succumb to these feelings...
But he can’t stand staying silent any longer.
Hesitantly, and despite knowing full well that he shouldn’t, Onika turns around slightly to face the villager whose life he holds in his hands.
The Scorchio, like the others, has been tainted by the clouds’ darkness, yet he still seems as terrified as he would be if he were not. Even through the purple veil that covers his irises, it’s clear how deep his terror runs. He begins to cower as Onika turns his golden gaze towards him. He takes a fearful step back, hunching his shoulders, lifting his hands to block his view...
But Onika has no ill intent. He’s never wished harm upon anybody before, and he still doesn’t, especially in this moment. “I’m so sorry,” the Ixi says in almost a whisper. “I... I don’t want to be doing this.”
He shouldn’t be telling the Scorchio this... but he is.
The Scorchio hears the genuine candour within the Ixi’s tone, and he trusts him immediately. The blacksmith has honestly never heard any of the Ixis speak so weakly. He can’t tell if it’s more unsettling or calming... but he lowers his arms, and he listens close.
Onika sniffles. “I’m... I’m a healer, for Fyora’s sake,” he says with a nervous laugh, looking towards the nothingness against the wall of volcanic rock across from where he now stands. “This goes against everything I believe in. This goes against every piece of who I am. But...”
He doesn’t really know the answer to his own implied question.
All he knows is that there is a “but,” and whatever that may be is what’s keeping him tied to this moment and these crimes.
The Scorchio prods, hoping that he may be able to use this Ixi’s weakness as a means to escape. “Why don’t you stop then?” he asks, his voice genuinely sympathetic.
Onika has to stifle his whimpering in his hand again. “I’m just... following orders,” he says sheepishly.
The Scorchio takes a hesitant step closer to the Ixi, unsure exactly of what is happening. He’s feared the Ixis for dozens of years now, and never in his life would he have thought that he’d see one of them in such a vulnerable state... but here they are. “You... you could leave, you know,” the Scorchio says, still trying to convince Onika to let him go. “We both could. We could get out of this place and leave this whole mess behind us. I’ll... I’ll stay with you.”
Onika shakes his head. “It’s too late for that,” he says. “The boss has made up his mind, and...”
“You don’t have to listen to him...”
Another sniffle. Another nervous laugh. “I mean, on any other day, I might, you know, suggest that he change his mind, but...” He looks down the corridors to his right. “He has these... powers now. Dark powers like I’ve never seen before. He’s gone mad. The clouds have driven him mad. He’s turning against all of us. We’re all enemies now. I can’t object, or else...” He doesn’t want to say it.
The Scorchio keeps his silence.
Onika lowers his head. “I’m just scared...”
And the lava churns and churns.
The Scorchio takes a few more steps closer to his Ixi guard, suddenly feeling completely comfortable in his presence, though still desperate to escape whatever fate the Ixi’s master has in store for him. “I, uh... I understand,” he says softly. “I understand fear, and I understand dedication. But... this is...”
Then, a foreign voice from down the corridors. “I hear voices — over here!”
And Onika gasps loudly, strengthening his grip on his dagger, preparing for the worst. His emotions claw at his throat. His knees feel weak. He feels immediately sick.
“You don’t have to do this,” the Scorchio begs from behind him.
But it’s too late.
“That’s one of the Ixis! Get him!”
Why, for the love of Fyora, do these mines have to be so stupidly huge?
As if Tor and Roberta’s feet weren’t aching enough from climbing the mountains, and travelling the hills and valleys, and venturing through the Shadowglen Woods, and chasing down dozens of packs of Werelupes, now they’re stuck in this Fyora-forsaken labyrinth of mine carts and Merilode.
But alas, it’s their duty to keep trudging.
They don’t necessarily have to be enthusiastic about it, though...
Roberta whines under her breath — sarcastically, but still honestly. “Ugh, how many people did you say live in this village?” she asks her companion.
Tor laughs lightly at her complaining. Growing up doing exhausting farm chores every day has made this tiring endeavour much easier on him than a studious life in Brightvale Castle has for Roberta. The yellow Lupe just can’t help but find some amusement in the Acara’s frustration. “I think sixteen,” he says.
Roberta groans at his response, throwing her head back. “We’ve only found three of them so far!” she cries melodramatically.
Tormund turns his head and gives her a snarky grin. “I know. I was there.”
Roberta elbows him hard in the ribs, though it ends up hurting her much more than it hurts him. Armour, of course; and heavy armour at that. Still, Tor just snickers as she continues complaining. “How are we supposed to find all these people in this place?” she carps. “It’s huge! They could be anywhere!”
Tor gives a little shrug as the path which they follow forks into two different mineshafts. He looks up and down each corridor, then eventually decides on the left. “Uh. Somehow,” he responds.
Roberta elbows him hard again. “Thanks, Mister Smarty-pants.”
He gives her a half-bow. “My pleasure.”
This time, they both laugh.
At least they’re able to face all of this hardship together. From what they’ve seen in their journey through the realm so far, it seems that the worst thing that could happen to anybody during these dark times would be to be left alone. That’s when the panic sets in, and that’s when the hopelessness takes root, and that’s when everything starts to look like it’ll never turn good again. In the darkness, people find comfort in numbers, and those who have been isolated eventually devolve into despair.
All the more reason why they need to hurry up and find the rest of the Cogham folks.
After their laughing settles, Tormund decides to answer to Roberta with a bit more seriousness. “Well, it seems like this place is set up so that all of the paths lead to and from one destination,” he says. “If we just keep following corridors, we should stay on the same path, right?”
Roberta nods — she’s made the same observation — but then makes a frustrated face. “The problem is that we keep getting lost and then backtracking down the main path,” she says.
Tor hums. “Well, do you have any fancy spells that can mark where we’ve been?”
Roberta pauses to search her memory. “Oh, I could...” She realises her idea is stupid before she even says it. Still, she continues, now laughing at her own foolishness. “Oh Fyora, I was going to say that I could light flames for indication, but seeing as we’re inside of a volcano...”
Tor snorts out a giggle. “Fighting fire with fire, or something, right?”
Roberta matches the awkward laugh. “More like combining fire with fire.”
Another fork in the road. This time, they turn right. “Well, you’re smart,” Tor says, nudging Roberta with his elbow, “I’m sure you’ll think of somethi—”
“Shh! Hold on...”
Tor immediately snaps his jaws shut at the sound of Roberta’s stern command, his ears perked up in alertness.
Further down the corridor, he hears some muffled noises — rustling, sniffling, and speaking.
“Do you hear that?” Roberta asks in a whisper. “Does that sound like...?”
“Voices,” Tor says firmly, his knight’s heart taking over his thoughts. He unsheathes his sword quickly and begins a sprint towards the sounds. “I hear voices — over here!”
Roberta draws her wand and takes off after her companion at just as frantic a pace. All complaints about this maze and these quests immediately leave her mind as her hero’s heart takes over. She prepares herself for a battle...
And it looks like there’s going to be one.
“That’s one of the Ixis!” Roberta shouts as she and Tor both round a sharp bend in the mineshaft and begin to enter a dark room. “Get him!”
Before them, surrounded by the reddish-blackness of volcanic rocks and the faint glow of ancient, untouched Merilode, one of the villagers — whom Tor recognises as the Scorchio blacksmith, Brennan — is being held prisoner by a dark blue Ixi Raider. The knight doesn’t hesitate at all in his attack. There’s no need to. He just needs to free the Scorchio. He grits his teeth as he prepares to strike his enemy down with full force.
But as Tor comes within striking distance, and gets his first good look at the Raider, he finds that the Ixi actually looks... scared, almost, which makes Tor hesitate halfway through his swing. Part of his knight’s oath was to protect the weak, and fight against evil, and something tells him that this Ixi is one of the former rather than the latter...
Tor’s sword comes crashing down against nothing but rock as the Ixi leaps out of the way with a little gasp of terror. The blacksmith Brennan leaps back with a few flaps of his wings, pressing himself against the wall and out of the line of fire, his swirling violet eyes alight with intense panic and fear.
Tormund still doesn’t break motion, though he’s now more focused on trying to read the Ixi’s expression than he is on landing any hits. He lunges once more, misaiming purposefully, and his sword comes crashing down against the rock again. He looks up into the Ixi’s eyes as he solidifies his stance and strengthens his grip, and is immediately overwhelmed with worry when all he sees there is a wash of tears and a desperate cry for help. There’s no aggression. There’s no malice. There’s just... pain.
But Roberta doesn’t know any of this. She’s a ranged fighter. She’s kept her distance. While the Ixi was being distracted by Tor’s hands-on battling, she’s been charging the most powerful spell she can muster. After only a few seconds more spent aiming her spell, she lets the magic fly with one powerful swing of her arms.
And she hardly ever misaims.
The blinding flash of light blue magic strikes the Ixi hard in the chest, sending him skidding backwards into the wall of the cave. He lets out a loud, pained whimper with the force of the impact, then his legs completely collapse beneath him from her spell’s force. He tumbles to the ground in a mess of tears and trembling, cowering under the light that glints off of the knight’s sword.
The heroes approach...
But then Brennan stops them. “Wait! Let him go!”
Tor and Roberta both stop dead in their tracks and lower their weapons, more than a bit confused, but also — at least for Tor — a bit relieved.
The Scorchio jumps down from the ledge where he’d stood watching, then lands in front of the Ixi with a few strong flaps of his wings. “He’s... he did nothing wrong,” Brennan desperately begins to explain, looking over his shoulder at the cowering blue Raider. “He was just following his orders,” the Scorchio continues. “They’re all just following orders. He did nothing but listen to his liege.”
Roberta narrows her eyes slightly. “They still attacked you... and us...” She isn’t trying to be aggressive, but her words come out that way.
Brennan seems resolute. “He’s... he’s just scared. I... I think they all are.”
And the heroes look to the Ixi cowering on the ground once more.
And they both can immediately tell that that’s true. The poor thing is absolutely petrified. It’s plain as day to see.
But then, another flash of powder blue as Roberta strikes the Ixi with another burst of magic.
Brennan leaps out of the way with a squeak of surprise in the same second that Tor gasps loudly, then spins around to grab the sorceress’ wrist with a scolding, “Roberta!”
“What!” Roberta cries, angrily prying her arm away from Tor’s firm grasp. “I didn’t hurt him! I just put him to sleep! See for yourself!”
The three of them all look back to the Ixi, Roberta extending a frustrated arm in its direction.
He’s definitely still alive — thank Fyora. His shallow breathing is finally somewhat steadied, and his once-tense muscles are all relaxed. He lies on his side now, eyes closed lazily, trembling slightly from his terror’s residue taking hold of his dreams... but he’s still just asleep. And, honestly, asleep is probably better than awake in this horrible time and place.
Tor breathes a sigh of relief at the ceiling, clenching his eyes shut and throwing his head back. “You worry me sometimes...”
“That spell should make sure that nothing can awaken him for a while,” Roberta says. “We should have several hours to finish all this before he wakes up.” She then turns to look up at Tor, and her eyes soften. “Him and the others, I mean. We, uh... Well, I’m assuming this is our new plan, yeah?”
Tor turns to look at the blacksmith, as if asking for his permission.
The Scorchio nods confidently. “They’re just following their evil chieftain’s orders,” he says. “As far as I can tell, their hands are all clean of this mess. This is all the chief’s doing. He’s...” Brennan turns to look at the sleeping Ixi beside him once more, remembering the way that his voice trembled with regret, and the way that his eyes sparkled with fear. The Scorchio never thought that there’d come a day when he’d start feeling sympathy towards the Raiders, but now he’s starting to realise... maybe they aren’t as horrible as he’d thought.
Brennan sighs, then turns his gaze back to the heroes. His eyes read pure revenge. “The chief is the only one who deserves no mercy,” he says sternly.
There’s a pause while the heroes contemplate his words and collect their thoughts. Then, Tor straightens his posture, sheathing his sword. “Yeah,” he says calmly, turning to Roberta. “New plan.”
She gives him a firm nod of her head, the beginnings of a sassy smile spreading across her lips. “Then let’s get going,” she says. “You,” — she turns to the Scorchio, pointing a finger — “go get out of here and find someplace safe. We’ll take care of everything. Alright?”
“Bless you, young heroes,” Brennan says with a swift bow, then immediately takes to the air with a few strong flaps of his wings, gliding nimbly down the corridors, out into the sheltering darkness of the outside world.
Roberta watches the Scorchio disappear down the mineshaft, then grabs Tor’s hand. “Come on,” she says as she begins to drag him back into the labyrinth of the mines, “we don’t have much time.”
Tor hesitates only a second longer to look down at the Ixi by his feet, then follows close behind, eager to finally get this all over with.
Mer has never run so fast in his life.
He should have assumed that the others would have already begun to execute the possessed chieftain’s horrible plans, but his panic had overwhelmed his better judgement before he could think it all through. He made the mistake of travelling all the way down the mountain to Cogham to check for the other warriors, only to find everything half-destroyed and everyone completely gone. It took far too long to get back up the mountain, and far too long for him to find an entrance to the mines, and far too long for his eyes to adjust to the blackness, and now...
Now he worries he might be too late.
Where is everyone? They’ve got to still be here. Cogham was empty, his village was empty, the cliffsides were empty... He couldn’t have taken that long to escape and start running. He would have known if the rest of the warriors had already completed their assigned tasks. They would have returned to the village, or would be gathered together outside the mines’ entrance, or would be down in Cogham searching the wreckage, or something along those lines. He would have known. They must be here...
Still, all he finds while searching the caves are broken mine carts and scraps of old metal.
Maybe he entered the mines from the wrong direction. It would make sense, he realises, considering how deserted this place is, and how hidden away the entrance he found was. The only other time he’d been to the mines, he remembers there being a lift, and he remembers it looking decently kempt, and he remembers the walls being alight with bright torches; but the way he entered today was through a crumbling, dark tunnel, seemingly abandoned for countless years. Maybe he’s in the wrong area. Maybe he’s in the wrong mines entirely. Maybe they’ve all been burned...
No, no, it can’t be that. He refuses to believe that it’s that. He’s just... lost. That’s all it is. He’s lost, and once he finds his way, everything will be fine.
Or so he tells himself.
So he keeps on searching through each hall and grotto, running at a loud, frantic gallop, crashing through boarded-up mine shafts and kicking aside piles of rubble and broken pieces of equipment with his powerful hind legs. He kicks up clouds of worn dust with each frantic pace, and his breathing is heavier than it’s ever been before, and his every motion is intensified by his panic as he hurries along.
But all he finds are dead ends, pools of lava, and piles upon piles of ash.
Still, he refuses to give up. He can’t give up.
So he calls out for help. “Ajani! Onika!”
He gallops on, and on, and on, and on.
Then... a blinding gold light.
And the heat of magmatic fire.
And the sounds of churning lava.
And a familiar voice in the distance: “Not so fast!”
It’s the chief. It’s gotta be. Mer has finally found him.
The sorcerer’s hopeful sickness makes his heart feel like a writhing monster within his chest. He quickly redirects himself towards the light and the sound — the sound of what now, much to his dismay, seems to be fighting; steel against steel; the whirring of fight magic; screams and roars of pain and fury.
Mer charges at full speed down the hallway in which he’s found himself. The walls grow warmer as he quickly approaches what seems to be the heart of the mountain — an ocean of fiery red, as deadly as it is beautiful. The light grows brighter, and brighter, and brighter...
When he finally reaches the end of the tunnel, the wave of heat from the magma below him strikes his face with all the fury of a storm. He is forced to turn away, coughing into the crook of his arm to cool some of the sting. He’s blinded by the intensity and sudden light. He’s deafened by the roar of the molten cascades. He’s paralysed by the energy that shoots through his legs... but he forces himself to look.
But when he finally sees through the waves of heat that radiate all around him, he wishes that he’d kept his eyes down.
On an isolated island of rock down below him, he sees the chief in the heart of a fierce battle with a Lupe knight and an Acara sorceress.
And he’s losing the fight.
There’s no way at all that he could possibly win.
And Mer feels in his heart that all hope is lost.
To Be Continued…