A Yurble stole my cinnamon roll! Circulation: 194,034,734 Issue: 734 | 26th day of Hunting, Y18
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Clouds Over Cogham: Part Two


by theschizophrenicpunk

--------

      “You look deep in thought, dear sister. Is something the matter?”

      A hum of contemplation. A foot tapping anxiously on cold marble floors. “Mm... No, no, but...” The humming continues. “Well, do you know of a town called... Cogham?”

      A short pause. “Isn’t that the dusty little place by where all those filthy Drackonacks gather?”

      “Is it?”

      “Yeah, I think so...”

      “That’s what I thought.”

      The sound of shuffling wings. The sound of a long gown rustling against the floor. “Why do you ask, dear sister?”

      Another hum. “Well, there’s something I need from there. I can feel it. It’s... a threat to my plans.” Pause. “You don’t suppose there are any... let’s say malleable people over in that flyspeck of a town that I can ‘borrow’ to fetch me this item, would you?”

      More shuffling wings. In the distance, a monster gives a howl. “Well... there’s that annoying yellow Kacheek who runs the village. He seems plenty dumb, and would probably know where to find whatever you’re looking for.”

      A silence of contemplation. “Mm, no, that would be too suspicious to the neighbouring realms. I don’t want my presence to be known just yet, especially not over something so trifling.

      “Umm...” The sound of slow pacing. “Well... there’s that tribe atop the mountains that everyone fears. The one with those filthy old Ixis who like to take people’s money and always wear those tacky feathers in their hair — ugh.”

      A long pause. “That place is still there, is it?”

      “Mm-hm.”

      The sound of long nails drumming against a faerie globe. Then, a low, malicious chuckle. “That could work. I’ll, uh... I’ll have to pay them a visit.”

      A scoff. “Oh, that sounds like such filthy work, dear sister. Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer one of us to, you know... influence one of the beasts directly from a distance?” A prissy huff. “There’s just so much dirt on those mountains...”

      Another hum. “Let’s try to do it the easy way first. I can get my hands a bit dirty for the sake of punctuality. But, if that doesn’t work... then you can have your fun.”

      An excited, girlish giggle. “Oh boy, I love getting new toys...”

~

     II: The Flint and the Kindler

      Several hours ago...

      Who could have guessed that being the chieftain of the Ixi Raiders would require so much boring writing?

      It’s nearing hour six of the Ixi Chieftain’s seemingly endless night of stocktaking, mapmaking, and invasion planning, but somehow he’s only kinda sick of it. He’s been doing this for so many years now that he’s almost completely forgotten what it’s like to have a minute of truly free time, or an actually decent meal, or a good night’s sleep, or any sort of routine that could be considered healthy, honestly. All he does is work, and try to keep all of his warriors in check, and try to keep all of his villagers in good health, and try to keep from tearing all of his fur out over the daily frustrations that come with being “the boss.”

      But right now, he’s not complaining too much. Everything’s quiet, and the mountains are calm, and he’s getting his work done at a surprisingly decent pace. The sudden and violent storm that had been raging all evening has finally quelled, everyone in his village has stopped their fretting, and the camp is only somewhat in ruins. Luckily, the storm’s aftermath is nothing they can’t fix — nothing they haven’t seen worse of before over their many, many years of making enemies and dealing with the rough, mountainous terrain they call home. Still, though now the rest of the villagers and warriors are sound asleep, relieved that the winds have ceased their howling and the lightning has stopped threatening wildfire, the chieftain has more work to do than ever. He needs to take account of the damages and make a game plan for the following day to ensure that everything that needs to be cleaned gets cleaned, and that everything that needs to be repaired gets repaired.

      Honestly, though, his only real complaint is that he’s very, very tired.

      And, unfortunately, that level of tiredness can leave room open for temptation...

      A completely foreign woman’s voice suddenly comes from the doorway to his right, and he’s honestly not sure how to react. This sort of unexpected, unfamiliar disturbance has only happened once or twice before, and on all of those past occasions, the whoever-it-is was just an overly confident mercenary-type who was looking for Mer for potions — speaking in a cocky tone, a proud chest puffed to the heavens, dressed in cliché black garments or long, overdramatic cloaks that billow in winds that aren’t even there...

      But this voice seems different.

      This one sounds like it might actually belong to a threat.

      And the strangest part is, she addresses him directly. “Well now, this tribe has come quite a long ways in the past thousand years, hasn’t it, Chief... Nova, was it?”

      The chief spins around after only a split second spent trying to grasp what is happening. He instinctively reaches for the axe that he always keeps holstered to his back in case of things like this happening, assuming — rightfully so — that the person who has appeared beside him is an enemy. He draws his weapon in one swift motion, crouching low as if preparing to pounce. His words are unnaturally a mix of furious and frightened. “How in Darigan’s name do you know my...?”

      But his voice trails off at the sight of the faerie who now stands before him.

      The edges of her silhouette are jagged, as if carved from the coldest stone, though he can’t see her features very well from under the haze of shadows that seems to perpetually encircle her. Her wings are curled and horned like a monster’s, and she carries a staff in her hand with a glowing orb at its tip that swirls with an intense dark magic. Even through the blackness that obscures her, the chief can see that she looks positively smug, almost frighteningly confident, and definitely has a specific reason for being here. Her eyes are aglow with pure evil. She seeps revenge from every pore.

      No matter how strong the chief is, and no matter how confident he is in that strength, he knows that he could never best a faerie in battle, let alone one so draped in aggression. He forces himself to push his pride aside and straightens his posture in an attempt to appear more noble, then clacks one end of his axe on the ground, holding it like a king’s sceptre, but still keeping it in a good enough position that he could use it in case of an attack. Still, his stance is no longer offensive, and he hopes that that keeps her from trying anything funny. He snorts lightly before speaking, pawing the ground with one of his front hooves to try to relieve some of his tension. “And who might you be?” he asks, his cadence a little too insolent.

      But the faerie doesn’t seem to mind his tone. She’s just frustrated by the implications within his words. She gives a long, sarcastic sigh, humming with the breath. “So your people don’t remember me either...” she muses in a grossly singsong tone, crossing her arms and exaggerating her disappointment with a pout. “How frustrating.”

      The chief simply meets her eyes and waits for her to continue speaking, ignoring all of the questions in his mind about what she meant by “don’t remember.” He’s sure she’ll explain herself eventually.

      Her silence seems everlasting, but the chief is patient. He can hold a hush for hours without a second thought, so he’s fully confident in his ability to smoke out her thoughts through stillness alone. Still, something about her...

      He eventually proves himself right, though. His lack of response eventually forces her to continue speaking, though she seems frustrated by the fact that he didn’t take the bait of her cryptic words. “Well, right now, who I am doesn’t matter,” she says, answering a question that nobody had asked, shifting her weight to one hip. “You’ll all find that out soon enough.”

      Her cockiness is disgusting at best, but, unfortunately, it seems like she might just be right in it... Still, the Ixi refuses to bite. He refuses to acknowledge the hidden threats in her words. He speaks again with an unmoving curtness. “What do you want?”

      She still doesn’t seem too offended by his attitude, which is definitely a good thing, considering she very obviously has enough power to annihilate him on the spot if she wanted to. She gives a cruel little chuckle, amused by his tenacity, then begins a slow approach, the heels of her shoes clacking ominously against the stony ground. “I have an offer for you that I think you might be interested in,” she says with a sly grin.

      The chief begins to take a nervous step back, but forces himself to stop, not wanting to appear weak in the face of this probably-an-enemy. Instead of following through with the cowardly motion, he drags the tip of his hoof across the floor, leaving faint scratches in the ground. He strengthens his grip on his weapon. “I rarely take bribes,” he says, trying to mirror her overconfidence, though the attempt is only half-successful, “so don’t get your hopes up.”

      And she laughs again as she continues her menacing approach. “You’re a gutsy one, I’ll give you that,” she says, sounding oddly genuine. “I can appreciate that in a villain.”

      Again, he refuses to respond to her taunting comments, even though she now stands right in front of him. The fact that she still seems so obscured behind a veil of darkness despite being directly in the candlelight honestly terrifies the Ixi, but he still forces himself to remain stoic. He simply straightens his posture again, this time just to match her height, since matching her arrogance seems out of the question. He stays silent.

      She still doesn’t seem to care. “Well, I’m not going to bore you with all the little nuances of my plan, but... let’s just say I have some ideas for that flyspeck of a kingdom Meridell, and I think you and your little army might just be able to help me out with them.”

      His glare is beginning to grow more and more corrosive by the second, but still, he holds his tongue.

      She continues. “So, what do I need from you, you might ask? Well,” — she flippantly begins to examine her staff, brushing her fingers over the orb at its tip — “if my memory serves me correctly — and it always does — your people have a certain item in their possession that I would hate to see fall into the wrong hands.” She turns her acid attention back towards him, the mischievous smile returning across her red lips. “It’s a trite little garment called the Cloak of Heroes.”

      The chief narrows his eye at her, his ears beginning to press back against his head frustratedly. “That artefact was lost several dozen years ago when those disgusting Cogham villagers first attempted to destroy our camp,” he says, unable to fight his reacting to her words this time.

      Her smile turns smug when she finally gets him to speak. “Oh, dearie, I know that’s what you still believe,” she says, still remaining calm, and he is forced to listen up out of sheer curiosity. She lets out the faintest ghost of a wicked laugh when she sees his ears perk back up at the implication of her words. Her tone is only growing more confident now. “But I think you’ll be pleased to know that it still very much exists, and that the mayor of Cogham has been keeping it hidden from you for all these years,” she says.

      Now the chief’s begun to snarl at the notion. His anger only fuels her arrogance more. Her smile grows more wicked as he responds. “How could you possibly know this?”

      She shrugs, then impassively turns to examine her nails. “I have my ways.”

      He’s begun to agitatedly drag one of his back hooves across the ground now, leaving more deep grooves in the rock. He pauses awhile before speaking again, trying to think of something to say, though he honestly can’t come up with anything that would voice all of his worries and thoughts. He just settles for asking the most present question on his mind: “What do you want with the cloak?”

      She shrugs again. “Like I said, I just don’t want it falling into the wrong hands.” She then turns to look at him with a glare cold enough to make the fur on the nape of his neck stand on edge. “It would ruin my plans,” she adds in an icy hiss.

      Now her aggressiveness is beginning to get on his nerves. If there’s one thing he can’t stand, it’s being spoken down to, especially in the form of cheap intimidation tricks. It’s getting harder and harder for him to stay composed before her, though he knows he must, for his own sake — and also, perhaps, for the sake of his people. “So you want me to get it for you, is that it?” he asks.

      Her gaze softens again as he begins to sound compliant. “That would be lovely,” she says, singsong once more.

      He snorts. “Why don’t you get it yourself?”

      He immediately regrets letting the words slip when the kindler of her glare’s pyre becomes he himself. Still, he tries to stay confident — at least visibly — as she responds with rushed aggression. “I have more important things to occupy my time with,” she says, shifting her position to appear more authoritative — almost threatening. “And announcing my return through something as miniscule as breaking into some pathetic Kacheek’s ramshackle hut is not one of those things,” she adds.

      Return...? The chief is sure his confusion is visible on his face, though he still tries to hide it behind a wall of forced confidence. He snorts again. “If I were to retrieve it, it would be to return it to its rightful place here with our other sacred relics,” he says. “What makes you think I’d give it to you?

      Luckily, her mood seems to shift back at the sound of his words, and she becomes amused by his impudence rather than frustrated once more. “Because I can make you some wonderful offers which I think you might like to accept,” she says.

      He ponders the thought for a few seconds, his curiosity finally beginning to overwhelm his desire to remain impassive. It’s true, he doesn’t tend to take bribes — he likes things done his way and his way only — but... she’s so powerful... “Fine, I’m listening.”

      Her smile couldn’t get any more sickeningly sinister. “What if I could make it so those Cogham villagers leave you and your people alone forever?” she asks.

      He pauses in thought again. “Go on.”

      She gives a brief chuckle, then raises one hand and clenches her fingers into a tight fist. “I can give you the power to crush their town completely,” she says.

      Another pause. Then, he snorts for a third time. “We could easily do that ourselves,” he says, again strengthening his grip on his weapon, not sure how she’ll react to having her offer shot down, “but we don’t for the sake of the innocent lives that would be lost. We aren’t savages.

      She looks frustrated by his refusal — her grin fades ever so slightly — but also still seems confident that she will be able to convince him otherwise. She makes a disgusted face as she looks him up and down. “Hmph. Pity,” she says, “that you are so weak.

      He knows what she’s trying to do, and he hates that it’s almost working. Still, he once again pushes his pride aside for the sake of the greater good. “Insult me all you want, but I refuse to commit a mass murder,” he says. “We’re doing just fine with occasional raids to retrieve whatever they steal and nothing more. We are stronger than they are, and they know that, and that’s all that matters.”

      Now she just looks upset. Not necessarily angry, nor really disappointed. Just... upset... “Hmm, what a shame,” and she begins to take a few steps closer to him again, this time at a quickened pace. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do this, but...”

      And he doesn’t have any time to react.

      Her palm alights with a blinding, burning dark magic, and she grips his head tightly, digging her nails deep into his fur to hold him still. She sends a violently powerful surge of dark power and cruel influence directly into his brain, filling his mind with glamorous images of power, and destruction, and supremacy, and conquest.

      For a few more agonising seconds, everything for the chief goes black.

      Then, when his sight adjusts to the light once more, and he feels the cruel coldness of her spell cease chilling his veins, the idea of having so much power suddenly seems overwhelming appetizing.

      She smiles smugly again as he stumbles to regain his composure, then answers his inevitable question before he even asks it — puts the idea into his head before he has the time to think of it. “That was just a taste of the power I could offer you,” she says, stepping back into the shadows of the dreary candlelight. She then casually shifts her weight to her hip once more. “Delicious, isn’t it?”

      There’s a nauseatingly long moment of silence as the two simply attempt to glare each other into submission, their red eyes meeting across the room with all the force of a singularity, casting a curse into the air that turns it to poison. Then, finally, his tone full of a harshness that’s never once been there before, the chief speaks to her in a cold murmur. “Go on.”

      And her smile grows sinister once more.

      Though the desire seems completely his own in this moment, the grim truth is that she’s just planted a seed of corruption within him — a seed that will slowly mill his morals to dust, turning him into nothing but a pawn in her game of violent retribution.

      Now all she must do is wait for the seed to take root, and bloom.

     

~

      By the time Mer and Ajani make it to the council arena, all of the others on the mission have already arrived.

      The council arena is nothing special, really — just a level, almost perfectly circular ring of rock atop one of the tallest mountains in Cogham, worn flat over many years of tribe gatherings, encircled by an outcropping of stones that form a jagged ledge. Typically, during routine tribe meetings, the spearmen, archers, and other warriors will gather in the centre of the arena, and the five members of the royal council — currently Mer, Ajani, Ashanti the archer, Onika the healer, and, of course, the chieftain himself — will sit upon the ledge encircling them, addressing them from above as their commanders.

      But today, the arena is used simply as a place of congregation before the afternoon’s raid. Mer has only seen the arena so lacking in life once or twice before. He rarely gets called for these sorts of gatherings, after all.

      But he doesn’t really care about that right now.

      The first thing Mer does when he enters the ring is catch a glimpse of the archer Ashanti across the way, scream her name louder than he really intended, then gallop over to her at full speed, throwing his arms around her in the tightest hug he can muster. She stumbles back from the impact, but otherwise doesn’t flinch from to the embrace.

      Ashanti is a lean, lithe, but ridiculously intimidating Raider who has been captain of the archers for as long as anyone can remember. Her fur is a golden tan that is flecked with white spots, she has piercing coffee-coloured eyes, and her horns are decorated with intricately carved patterns of twisted leaves and climbing vines. She’s by far the most reserved and secular member of the tribe, and spends almost all of her free time meditating in her home on the outskirts of camp. It’s rumoured that she’s never shown an actual emotion before in her life.

      Still, Mer knows Ashanti well, and knows that she is the only one who he could get away with hugging so aggressively without getting scalped. She doesn’t by any means return Mer’s overwhelming embrace, but she still lifts one arm to pat the sorcerer’s back gently.

      Saying that Ashanti isn’t one for words is a gross overstatement. Only a small handful of people have ever heard her voice, and some even believe that she doesn’t have one at all. If someone needs to talk to Ashanti, they need to speak in only yes-or-no questions, or be fluent in her incredibly complex language of nods and shrugs. Mer, luckily, is one of the latter. Ashanti had taught him all he knows about archery, after all, so he knows how to understand her pretty well. “I haven’t seen you in forever,” Mer says, pulling away from his ecstatic embrace to take a few steps back. He then laces his fingers and holds his knuckles to his cheek, making himself look like a little girl fawning over a pretty Usuki. “How was the mission to Southern Brightvale?”

      Ashanti gives a gentle half-shrug of her right shoulder as response. It’s her way of saying, “It wasn’t anything special, but it went alright.”

      Mer gives her another sunny smile. “Did you guys get back all the equipment you’d lost?”

      She gives a quick nod, closing her eyes lightly with the motion. Ashanti talk for, “Yes, and then some.”

      On the easternmost side of the council arena, three grunt archers stand talking in a hushed circle, looking rather excited to be called out on a mission with the entire royal circle — definitely the highest honour among warriors. Across the ring from them, the Ixi Chieftain is talking stern-faced and serious to the royal healer Onika — a dark blue Ixi with a mop of grey hair flopping over the right side of his face, who is the only one with a personality and temperament pleasant enough to rival Mer’s. Still, oddly enough, Onika doesn’t have his perpetual smile in his gaze in this moment. In fact, he seems a bit worried — if not actually frightened — by whatever the chief is saying to him. It’s incredibly peculiar to see his golden eyes so full of concern, and Mer desperately wants to know what it’s all about, but he knows full well that he would almost definitely get kicked off of the mission if he asked the chief what he’d been saying to someone else in private. Mer decides to distract himself from his thoughts by grabbing Ashanti’s arm and dragging her to the centre of the arena where Ajani now stands patiently, his hands laced calmly behind his back, simply waiting to be addressed by his liege.

      Ajani doesn’t have to wait much longer. Once Mer and Ashanti meet the spearman in the centre of the ring, the chief turns around and begins to walk towards them with heavy, determined hoofsteps, his expression still stoic and firm. Onika follows closely behind him, trying to hide his odd wave of concern behind a few deep breaths and some quick stretches of his arms.

      Luckily, Mer helps Onika feel a bit better. He gives him and the chief a bright smile and a frantic wave of his hand — a silly, useless habit he’d picked up from his mother — and Onika smiles and waves back, a bit of his typical, genuine cheer returning to his face with the motion. The chief just exhales frustratedly at the sight of both of their actions. The ashy black Ixi is easily irritated by the optimism of those two weirdos...

      Seeing that the council has begun to assemble, the three grunt archers quickly approach where the others now stand, joining the semicircle they’ve all formed around the chief; then, they all give their superiors a quick salute.

      There’s a brief moment of silence as the chief surveys his small troupe, then clears his throat before addressing them. “Alright,” he says in his gruff but high-timbred tenor, “now that we are all here, let’s get started immediately so we can get this over with as soon as possible.”

      Everyone stands tall and listens respectfully as he speaks.

      He surveys the group once more. “This is just a routine raid, however I’ve called you three” — he addresses Mer, Ajani, and Onika with a quick glance around at them all — “for special purposes. Nothing fancy, but still important.” The three all nod in response as he continues. “I’m only going to say my directions once, so listen up.” Another round of nods. “Ashanti, you are to take these new archers” — he nods his head quickly in the three newbies’ direction — “and keep watch of them to make sure they don’t do anything foolish during the raid. Understood?”

      Ashanti bows her head for a quick second to acknowledge her acceptance of the duty, then gives the archers an authoritative glance. The archers don’t react to her staring, but Mer knows that it’s Ashanti talk for, “And I’m not going to be lenient with you.”

      The chief continues. “Meretseger, I have further plans for us all in the near future, and we are going to be needing lots of ingredients.” Mer hasn’t even been given orders yet, but his eyes are already alight with reverence. He nods his head frantically, holding his laced fingers to his lips to hide his excited smile. “You are to storm the homes of the village apothecary and that Acara gardener who is always stealing our fruits. Grab whatever you think we could use for food, but first and foremost, make sure you gather enough ingredients for a large batch of paralysis poison, as well as conflagration powder. Understood?”

      Mer nods enthusiastically, finally lowering his hands to reveal his radiant, snaggletoothed smile. “Any particular reason, Boss?” he asks.

      If it were anyone else asking the question, the chief would be incredibly irritated by having his speech interrupted. But this is Mer, so he honestly expected no less. It’s impossible to get the sorcerer to shut up. “Just... preparation,” he mumbles in response, his eye narrowed. “You’ll see.” He then turns his attention to Ajani before Mer can ask any more questions — and Fyora knows he wants to. “Ajani, you are the strongest, so I’m sending you on probably the most important mission.” Ajani takes a small step forward as he is addressed. “You are to storm the mayor’s home and search for a very important item that he keeps treasured, but was stolen from us. It is the Cloak of Heroes.”

      Onika makes an incredibly surprised face, his eyes widening, leaning back slightly as if pushed. Mer has never heard of the item before, but Onika’s reaction makes it seem incredibly important. He tries to meet eyes with the healer to ask for clarification, but Onika’s focus is completely on the chief. Mer is forced to wait in silence.

      Ajani tilts his head slightly, just as shocked as Onika seems to be, though he’s better at hiding emotions on his face. He remains incredibly calm and professional in his response. “Boss, I thought the story went that the cloak had been lost forever during Cogham’s first attempt to break down our camp a few dozen years ago.” His tone then turns oddly, genuinely surprised. “Do you mean to say they’ve had it this whole time? It hasn’t been destroyed?”

      The chief gives a frustrated snort — not at Ajani, but rather at the thought of what he’s about to say. “I have reason to believe so, yes,” he says scornfully, frustrated by the notion that the Cogham villagers had been hiding such a sacred relic for so long. “After all these years thinking that we’d lost it, I’ve received word from an... outside source... that suggests the mayor keeps it somewhere in his home.” The chief’s voice then turns grave as he takes a few strong, heavy steps towards Ajani, and the others move away, half to give the two of them space, half out of fear of the chief’s dark expression. “Listen Ajani, I don’t care what it takes, but I want that cloak back,” the chief says darkly, and Ajani straightens his posture to be addressed more formally. “Turn the entire place upside down if you must,” the chief continues. “I just want it back. No matter what. Understood?”

      Mer glances over at Onika again. The healer looks almost... scared. Mer isn’t sure why — the chief’s temper is nothing new, honestly — but the frightened look on Onika’s face makes Mer think that there might be something else in play here. Something more worrisome. The sorcerer lightly taps the tip of one hoof against the ground to get Onika’s attention; then, when the healer looks over, Mer mouths the words, “What’s going on?”

      Onika just purses his lips and shrugs, shaking his head. It’s clear, though, that there’s something more to this that he isn’t saying.

      It’s all a bit unsettling...

      But Mer ignores it. It’s probably nothing. Besides, he’s still just excited to have been given an official job by the chief, and to be accompanied by all of his friends.

      Ajani responds to the chief’s command by placing his fist over his heart and giving a small bow. “As you wish, Boss,” he says, his voice again returned to its typical stern but monotone cadence.

      Finally, the chief turns to address Onika, simply angling his head over his shoulder. He’d given the healer his instructions beforehand, so all he says is, “And you, don’t leave my side.”

      Onika nods with a flash of distress in his still-wide eyes.

      The chief takes one last second to survey the crowd of eager faces, then gives a gruff sigh. “Right, now let’s hurry and get this over with,” he says, sounding far more frustrated than it seems he should. “Let’s move out.”

      And everyone obliges without so much as a second thought.

      To be continued…

 
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