Clouds Over Cogham: Part Five
Maybe if there weren’t so many Ixis, he wouldn’t be so terrified.
Maybe if he was more familiar with this foreign terrain, or the weight of his sword, or this strange new armour, he would be braver.
Maybe if the village wasn’t so consumed in smoke, and he wasn’t choking on the taste of cruel fire magic, and the screaming wasn’t so loud that he can barely hear his own thoughts, he could charge in valiantly like a storybook hero.
But... he’s just a squire. What is he supposed to do?
Squire Tormund is beyond shocked by what he sees when he enters the tiny village of Cogham. The chaos is overwhelming. He didn’t expect there to be so much violence. He didn’t expect it to be so cruel. He curses Sir Harlag once more as he sees the destruction, furious that someone who calls themselves a knight would even think about turning away from these poor villagers. How could anybody do such a thing? Wouldn’t that make them just as horrible as these Ixis?
But, at the same time, now that Tor is seeing the destruction first-hand, a loud part of him wants to turn and run as well...
But then the old Lupe knight’s voice rings clear through his head:
“I’d wager you’d make a fine knight someday. In fact... I know you will.”
And Tormund doesn’t want to let him down.
He can be better than Sir Harlag.
Honestly? He already is.
And so, with determination now filling his strides, and heroic desire now filling his heart, the young squire Tor draws his sword, takes a deep breath, exhales all of his fears, then enters the village.
V: Consumed by Fire
None of the Ixi archers who now stand as sentinels on the cliffs above Cogham are sure what to think when this strange, unaccompanied squire enters the destroyed village, looking nervous as all Moltara, but still somehow carrying himself with pride and bravery befitting of a king. Honestly, though, despite his proud posture and his confident strides, the squire doesn’t seem to know what to think about his entering either. This whole messy situation is apparently so overwhelmingly confusing that everyone within the chaos’ radius is rendered deaf and dumb.
Mer’s first thought as he sees the yellow Lupe dashing through the smoke to aid and rescue the villagers is one of relief, assuming that the implied threat of the knights that are sure to follow will force the Raiders to cease their attack and retreat back to camp. He lowers his bow, sighs out his stagnating breath — his fear and his heartache — and crosses his fingers, hoping that that’s the case...
But when Ajani catches a glimpse of the squire approaching in a sprint from the village’s entrance, quite the opposite begins to unfold, and even more chaos breaks loose.
Mer hears Ajani shout something sternly to the spearmen closest to him, then watches as he gives an aggressive hand motion towards the squire, rearing up on his hind legs to add a sense of urgency to the command. As Ajani’s front hooves come crashing down on the rocky ground beneath him, three of the nearby spearmen turn and charge the Lupe... but are all outsmarted and knocked down with barely any effort exerted on the squire’s part.
It’s almost comical how effortless the squire makes his retaliation seem. It’s as if it was his destiny to defeat the Raiders on this day. He somehow manages to predict every move the spearmen make, deflecting their weapons casually, fighting with the force of an entire army, his sword never faltering and his eyes full of heroic passion. One by one, the spearmen are tossed aside like ragdolls, unable to continue the fight, immobilised by their exhaustion and paralysed by magical curses that the Lupe casts upon them through the magical motes he seems to keep constantly equipped to his weapon.
From Mer’s right, Sisay mumbles a nervous, quiet, “Fyora, he’s strong...” then quickly reaches for an arrow, taking aim and drawing his bowstring back, intent on helping his fellow warriors by striking the Lupe down. The squire doesn’t seem to realise at all that Sisay and the other two select archers are still atop the mountains. He’s a sitting Mallard. Mer can’t watch. He closes his eyes and turns away.
But nothing from beside him sounds. No snapping of bowstrings, no whirring of loosed arrows, no noises of anything at all. Nothing happens.
Hesitantly, worriedly, the sorcerer turns to look towards Sisay, blindingly curious about what has stopped him from firing, only to see Ashanti firmly holding Sisay’s wrist, shaking her head solemnly — a stern but silent command for him to stand down. She raises her pained brown eyes up to Mer, then gives a mournful sigh — her way of saying, “Perhaps this is a good thing.”
And Mer, more than a bit relieved, though still struggling to fight back his terrified tears, nods in agreeance, overwhelmingly glad that Ashanti isn’t allowing the beast of this violence to be fed.
Yet still, the chaos down below rages on. The fighting doesn’t cease. The din stays ever thunderous.
And Mer’s heart plummets again when he finally turns his focus back down to the valley and sees the Lupe squire battling fiercely with Ajani... and winning.
Ashanti seems to see what is happening below in the same second that Mer does. She lets out a panicked gasp, then leaps nimbly from the rocky mountain’s ledge, firing off one expertly aimed arrow at the squire’s shield to distract him from attacking her comrade. When the squire hears the obsidian arrowhead loudly striking the steel shield’s surface, he leaps back out of Ajani’s reach, then spins around to face the source of the sound.
Mer’s panic takes him over before he has the time to comprehend his actions. From beside him, Mer hears Sisay’s panicked voice — “No, Ashanti...” — and then the sorcerer’s mind goes completely blank. He leaps from the cliffs without another second of hesitation, worrying only for the sake of his friends — his family. Orders or none, danger or not, he refuses to watch either of the warriors fall.
But... he doesn’t know what he could possible do to help. He didn’t think his motions through — didn’t think at all, honestly. The faster he approaches, and the closer he gets to the fray, the more overwhelmingly apparent the squire’s radiant hero’s aura becomes. It’s almost blinding in its intensity — almost like a physical entity surrounding the squire, strengthening his every motion, quickening his every move. Mer suddenly grows sick at the idea of trying to fight him off. There’s no way he could ever defeat him. There’s no way he could ever even touch him. I can’t do this... I’m not strong enough...
But he doesn’t actually need to fight, he realises — and not a moment too soon.
He just needs to help the others escape.
Once Ashanti is within striking distance of the squire, she firmly plants her front hooves into the ground, pivots around in a complete circle, then deflects the squire’s sword with a blindingly quick kick, knocking it away with every ounce of strength her powerful hind legs are capable of. Unfortunately, she is too unfamiliar with the skills of hand-to-hand combat, and she slightly misaims her counterstrike. She clumsily topples over with a little gasp as she tries — and fails — to steady her footing once more. Luckily, none of them are otherwise harmed — just a bit dizzy and shaken. Still, despite the fact that the squire’s attack had been cut short this one time, now she and Ajani both have been compromised by the squire’s impressive fighting, and the squire has yet to have any of his energy drained, it seems. He’s already preparing to strike once more. His enemies have both been temporarily downed. It’s about to be over.
But unfortunately for the squire, Mer has finally made a plan. Or, at least, some semblance of one.
The sound of Mer’s hooves pounding against the ground is loud enough to delay the squire’s blade midair. The Lupe turns to look towards Mer, but it’s too late by the time he has the chance to reposition himself. With his strong sorcerer’s power being intensified by his consuming panic, Mer summons a violent storm of hurricane-seeming earth magic into his palms, then flings it at the squire with all of his might. He isn’t trying to poison the squire, nor burn him, nor really harm him at all — just send him skidding backwards several feet across the ground, forcing him to lower his sword and shield to steady his footing with his fingertips.
Though Ashanti — the only smart one, apparently — is now just focusing on regaining her balance and footing after her clumsy fall, Mer sees that Ajani is about to grab at the opportunity in the squire’s being thrown to the side to attack him once more — the stubborn idiot that he is. Ajani strengthens his grip on his spear, groans loudly in fury, then begins to rear up in a charge... but Mer refuses to let him follow through with the motion. The sorcerer doesn’t care if he gets in trouble for being defiant at this point. He doesn’t care if Ajani hates him for a while. He’ll thank me later... Mer grabs the warrior by the arm, saying one loud, authoritative, “No,” then yanks him away from the squire with more force than he really knew he was capable of, half-tossing the spearman to the ground in the process.
Ashanti leaps to the side as Ajani stumbles over his own back legs, nearly falling flat on his back as he is forcibly spun around. Furious, he tries to shake Mer off, but the sorcerer’s panicked grip is just too strong. The warrior cries out one loud, menacing, “Meretseger Anubia, what in Darigan’s name are you doing?!” but Mer refuses to allow the threatening words to stop him — just grabs Ajani with both hands now and desperately tries to pull the powerful — and, apparently, also incredibly heavy — spearman out of the line of fire.
Eventually, Ajani hears the squire stirring from behind him, and turns to see that the Lupe has already prepared another attack. The opportunity to strike the squire without hindrance has been lost; yet still, Ajani’s stubborn warrior’s instincts are all that live in his still-aching mind. The spearman struggles to fight Mer off, just wanting to get back to the battle before the squire has the chance to swing, but he is forced to stop his writhing when he feels Ashanti place a firm hand on his shoulder. He turns to look at her for only a split second, but that second is all the time she needs to convey her silent message: We must leave.
Mer might not know what he’s doing when it comes to battle, but Ashanti definitely does. That’s why she’s one of the warleaders, and third-in-command in the royal court. If there’s anybody else in the tribe that Ajani would ever listen to, it’s her. The spearman groans loudly in frustration, giving a furious stomp of one of his front hooves that seems to make the entire ground shake. He calls out to the rest of the troops, “Fall back!” then, finally, allows himself to be tugged up the cliffside back towards camp, quickly followed by all the other exhausted but incredibly relieved warriors.
Then all grows silent in Cogham once more.
If the chief wasn’t mad enough when his warriors had questioned his commands, he’s absolutely livid when they return to camp and tell him that the mission was a resounding failure.
For what feels like the hundredth time in the past fifteen minutes, the chief slams one end of his axe against the ground, making a loud, terrifying clang! ring shrill and clear through the council arena, echoing off the jagged rock walls until the sound’s lingering overtones haze the sky. Everyone cringes at the sound. Everyone recoils at the motion. Everyone except for Ashanti and Ajani, since they are the ones who are currently the targets of the chief’s blinding rage. They are forced to stand strong in the face of his fury, unmoving and silent as he berates them with screams. “How did you manage to fail at such a simple task?!” the chief shouts at them, grinding his teeth audibly.
Ashanti simply continues to stand proud while Ajani answers for the both of them. “Meridell sent someone to rescue the villagers, Boss,” the spearman says, his words’ strength unfaltering, though he still looks strangely pained. “We were... overpowered.”
The chief’s glare is only growing more corrosive — somehow. He takes a few menacing steps forward, his hooves clapping like thunder upon the ground, and the other warriors continue to back away slowly. “You were overpowered...?” The question is an obvious threat. “Who could have possibly overpowered all of you? You had better not be lying to me...”
Ajani takes a deep breath, worried about what the chief may say if — and when — he answers honestly. “It was...” He sounds embarrassed to admit it — as he probably rightly should be. He further straightens his posture. “It was a young squire, sir,” he says. “He was... stronger than anticipated.”
Ashanti gives a few short nods, backing Ajani up in the claim, but the chief only looks more upset by her agreeance. “You let one little squire with a sword run you out of town...?” he asks.
It seems that every time the warriors catch themselves thinking, He couldn’t possibly get any angrier, they are immediately proven wrong.
Ajani still tries his best remain steadfast and strong as he stares into the maw of the chieftain’s rage, but his perpetual headache — which was worsened thousandfold by the exhausting melee — isn’t helping at all. “He’s... stronger than he looks,” Ajani says, though he sounds positively sheepish in admitting it. It’s odd hearing such a typically stoic person sounding so downright worried.
But Ashanti continues to back him up. She takes a light hold of Ajani’s arm, then nods firmly again, staring straight into the chief’s red eye, her gaze unfaltering and poised.
On any other day, simply hearing the two of them agreeing with each other on any fact or question would be enough to convince the chief of the legitimacy of their story; but... things have been different since that strange storm had hit.
And the chief has been different, too
He looks nothing short of murderous.
“I can’t believe you two would even think of turning your backs to someone as pathetic as a squire,” he hisses, taking a few more threatening steps towards his generals. “You are pathetic! What purpose do you serve if you can’t even scare a squire off?! What do I keep you useless idiots around fo—?!”
“Boss, he’s coming!”
Sisay’s voice cuts over the shouting, and everyone looks over towards the entrance to the arena, each pair of panicked eyes looking absolutely consumed with terror.
Everyone except for the chief, that is. His rage is somehow continuing to grow, but now the target of his ire is Sisay and Sisay alone. “You dare interrupt me?!” the ashy black Ixi shouts as he moves his way over to the young archer, shoving his way past Ajani and Ashanti.
Ashanti panics at the sight of the chief threatening one of her pupils. She doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, but this isn’t right. At all. She makes a mad dash past the chieftain, grabbing Sisay by the arm with motherly concern, giving him a stern command with a point of her fingers to ascend the wall in a parapet formation.
Now the chief is at his wit’s end.
But he is forced to redirect his wrath’s focus when he hears the rest of the warriors begin to talk loudly amongst themselves, then, frightened for their lives, start quickly and fearfully backing away towards the path that leads to the sanctuary of their village.
The chief spins around to face the arena entrance, then watches as the same Lupe squire who’d fought off his army begins a confident approach, seeming nothing but proud and powerful, his sword drawn at the ready and his eyes full of knightly fervour.
First thing’s first, the chief’s tainted mind tells him, and he whips around to face his warriors. “Nobody leaves!” he roars, and everyone is forced to cease in their retreat — forced by his commanding words, and the acid authority within them.
The squire doesn’t care about the other Ixis, though. He has his eyes fixed on his target. He calls out to the chief in a strong tenor, “You and your warriors need to leave Cogham alone!”
His words are as powerful as the sun that shines above. There’s absolutely no fear within him.
Terrifying to all but the furious chieftain. He can’t seem to see the Lupe’s radiant aura through the veil of his corrupted thoughts’ darkness. He begins to slowly and menacingly approach the squire, his weapon still drawn and hoofsteps heavier than ever. “I’ll teach you Meridell scum not to interfere in our business,” he threatens as he quickens pace.
Now that the chief is being distracted, Ashanti grabs Sisay by the arm and pulls him away from the frontline of the fight that has begun to unfold, though she still directs him up onto the rocky ledge encircling the arena. From across the ring, Mer is suddenly aware of Ajani draping one strong arm over his shoulders, his hand turning the sorcerer’s face and gaze away from the impending battle as he ushers him into the safety of the shadows at the back of the arena. “Stay safe,” Ajani half-whispers in Mer’s ear, then draws his own weapon and prepares to attack alongside his chieftain.
But the chief stops Ajani’s approach with one quick lift of his hand. “I’m going to enjoy this... alone,” he hisses.
And then everything blurs into battle.
The chief charges at the squire with his axe lifted high like a reaper’s scythe. Strangely — and obviously — enough, though, the motions are incredibly inelegant, clearly lacking the technical skill and experience that everyone in the tribe knows that the chief, as an almost-flawless warrior, definitely has. The Ixis watch with bated breath as the squire dodges nimbly to his right, tumbling out of the blades’ periphery with amazing skill and accuracy, somehow managing to keep his sword strong in his hand during the manoeuvre. He bashes the chieftain with his shield, sending the Ixi stumbling to the side.
The chief doesn’t break motion despite the tempered steel colliding hard with his joints. He whips around with Meerca speed, swinging his axe with the motion, but, again, the Lupe dodges — effortlessly.
As the chief swerves to avoid another swing of the Lupe’s sword, he finds himself being slammed with his shield once more. He stumbles back, tripping over his own hind legs — as if he were unfamiliar within his own body — hissing in pain and gnashing his teeth.
Then everything starts to get strange...
The faintest violet glow suddenly appears in the chief’s eye, radiant even through the shower of sunlight. The colour — and the pressure of darkness that appears in the air alongside it — is foreign and slight, but still incredibly noticeable. The Ixis who first catch the shift in aura turn to those beside and behind them, and a quiet chattering stirs up as they all try to figure out what is happening — asking if the others see what they are, or if they’re just imagining things. The chief dodges another strong swing of the squire’s sword, then, furious by the sudden noise, shouts one loud, commanding, “Shut up!”
The warriors all take a few shocked steps back, their motions and thoughts all in sync. The chief’s voice sounds... layered? Why does it sound layered?
And the worried curiosity only continues to flourish as the chief fights on, and his every motion begins to seem forced. His lips are curled back in heated fury, baring his sharp canines, but the way it shapes his expression makes him look more scared than angry. His eye has turned from its normal reddened shade to an odd, smoky purple — a violent storm of darkness brewing, yet still overwhelmingly hopeless. His ears are pressed back against his head as if stressed. His breathing seems shallow and strained. And that voice... it sounds as if there are two forces warring within him — one with a low but submissive tone, being forced to speak, the other high-timbred, aggressive, and holding the first prisoner.
What in Neopia is happening?
But the squire doesn’t seem to notice the changes. Or, at least, if he does, he doesn’t care. He fights on with all the bravery of the Champions of Meridell before him, the love of his kingdom and his longing to help manifesting as a strong but invisible glow that seems to halo his entire being.
Two, three, four more minutes of miserable battle, then the squire finally manages to completely trip the chief up, forcing the Ixi to lower his weapon. Stumbling, the chief comes to a gawky stop on the calves of his front legs; but still, even with his body now weakened by exhaustion, and even through the tangled locks of black hair that fall like willow’s branches across his face, the strange purple glow in his eye is overwhelmingly bright. Nobody knows what it means. Nobody knows what to do. All they know is that something is very, very wrong.
The worst part is that the chief clearly wants to stop fighting — it’s clear in his face, and in his motions, and in his body language entirely — but it’s as if something within him is forcing him to continue. Something physical. Something evil. He stands straight, trembling and whining in pain, then gives a loud, stern command to the warriors behind him — “Archers! Cover me!”
All the archers look over to Ashanti.
She looks hesitant.
Ashanti grits her teeth in a loath submissiveness, then forces herself to draw her bow. She begins to fire intentionally misaimed arrows towards the squire, just to give the illusion of aid, and all of the other archers follow suit, immediately recognising what she is doing.
All of them except for Mer.
Ajani still stands in front of the terrified sorcerer protectively, trying to shield him from the sounds and sights of the battle. He knows that Mer is far too faint of heart to handle the stress of such a duel. He whispers to Mer over his shoulder, “Don’t involve yourself. If you get in trouble, I will take the fall for you. You need to stay safe. Understand?”
Mer cowers behind Ajani unabashedly, trying to turn away from the fight, though his morbid curiosity keeps his eyes glued to the fray. In all his years with the Raiders, he’s never seen such violence. He’s never been so confused. He’s never been so scared...
And all of that is heightened tenfold when the chief suddenly summons bright, magical flames with which to enchant his weapon.
Each and every one of the Raiders gasp at the sight, their thoughts all in unison: Where did he get those powers? He’s never had those powers before...
But their curiosity doesn’t have time to roost before the chief charges at the squire again, this time seemingly about to overwhelm him. There’s absolutely no way that the squire could deflect such a powerful attack... right?
The hero refuses to cower, and his aura alone seems to be enough to snuff the flames’ intensity. He stands his ground, focusing on deflecting the archers’ weakly fired arrows.
It doesn’t take much longer before the squire once again outwits the chief’s two warring souls. Waiting until the very last second to move, the Lupe ducks with almost unfathomable speed to his left, and the axe’s fiery blade crashes loudly into the rock with all the force of the chieftain’s fury, shattering the ground it falls upon into a million tiny pieces. As the chief’s blow is colliding with nothing but stone, the squire quickly enchants his sword with a strong fog mote, charges a powerful magical spell, then lets the wave of magic fly towards disoriented chieftain with a powerful swing of his sword through the air. The magic slowly begins to freeze the Ixi in place — as is the nature of air curses.
The pained voice within the chief finally manages to overwhelm the strong one as the Ixi is forced by magically locked joints to pause once more. His whimpers overwhelm his growling. His shaking overwhelms his tensing muscles. He takes one, two, three more steps, then collapses to his knees. Still, the strange commands break free through his slowly freezing lips. “W— what are you waiting for?” he shouts weakly at the archers through pained wheezes. “Finish him off!”
Again, the archers all look to Ashanti.
She can’t handle this anymore.
She just can’t.
She lowers her bow and steps back, turning away in shame.
And, relieved, the rest of the archers follow suit.
Seeing that the chief is no longer able to fight, and that the rest of the tribe is slowly retreating, the squire lowers his blade with a deep, heaving sigh. He would never harm those who are surrendering. His hero’s heart won’t allow it. He takes a minute more to catch his breath, then slowly begins to approach the chief, his sword now held loosely, but his posture still proud as ever.
The last thing the chief says before he falls unconscious is another furious cry at his warriors — “Cowards!”
And then all for him goes white as the air magic traps him in place.
Mer has been clenching his eyes shut for the past few minutes, clutching tightly onto Ajani’s arm for some semblance of strength, burying his face into the fur of his shoulder, just trying to hold back his terrified tears. He feels Ajani place a hand over his, and he knows that he is being addressed, but he still refuses to look up. He can’t. He won’t. “Get Onika,” Ajani whispers, and Mer nods frantically; then, still refusing to raise his eyes, the sorcerer makes a mad dash towards the village, trying to stifle his sobs in his hands.
One last time, the archers look to Ashanti for guidance.
She looks heartbroken. Absolutely heartbroken.
But there’s nothing she nor anyone else can do anymore. The battle is over. They have lost. There’s no hope left for triumph on this day. Honestly? There isn’t even any desire for triumph. They all just want to go home. Ashanti slings her bow over her shoulder, runs her hands down her face out of stress, then gives a quick hand gesture to the other archers, instructing them to move out.
Once the light clopping of the archers’ hooves disappears down the mountainside, the squire, the unconscious Ixi Chieftain, and Ajani are left alone in the ring.
The squire meets eyes with Ajani for a few painfully long seconds as he stands above the chief, though his gaze is calm and kind, as if he is telling the spearman not to worry. Despite keeping his weapon drawn and strong, Ajani, too, is clearly trying to convey to the squire through his silence and gaze that he isn’t going to attack. The truce is awkward at best, but still empathetic. They trust each other, it seems. With a delicate sigh, the knight sheathes his blade, then slowly kneels over the chief.
Ajani takes a few worried steps forward, just to get a better view of what the squire is doing, but still without any intention of harming or threatening the young Lupe. He watches carefully as the squire lifts the crown of feathers from the fallen chief’s head, then stands once more, tucking the garment into the strong satchel slung from his shoulder.
He and the spearman meet eyes once more.
The silence seems everlasting, but understanding.
Finally, Ajani gently holsters his spear to his back, then gives a quick nod towards a small, almost-invisible archway that’s hewn into the arena wall — the entrance to the shortcut back to Cogham. The young squire gives a slight but honest bow in response to Ajani’s actions, a sympathetic, almost apologetic glimmering in his yellow eyes. The young Lupe is clearly a noble and righteous opponent — and person. Ajani can’t even be mad at him. He’s just... sad...
The squire leaves in a hurry, running quickly down the mountainside back towards town, eager to show the probably still terrified villagers that the Ixi Chieftain has finally been defeated.
Ajani is left in the arena to dwell upon all that has happened.
For a few more seconds, silence.
Then, Ajani sighs long, burying his face into his hands.
He just wishes his headache would go away...
To be continued…