There are ants in my Lucky Green Boots Circulation: 194,173,266 Issue: 744 | 12th day of Hiding, Y18
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Clouds Over Cogham: Part Twelve


by theschizophrenicpunk

--------

The Ixi Chieftain fights on and on, through his obvious pain and his gnashing teeth; through his buckling knees and his trembling arms; through his calloused fingers and his hisses of pain. He wars with the knight, fighting steel against steel. He wars with the sorceress, clashing violets and blues. He wars with himself — with the faerie that’s claimed his mind. He wars with them all... and all three wars, he loses.

Twelve sword swings, five flashes of blue, a wall of fiery energy, and a darkness quenched. There’s a scream, and a whisper, and a cry for help, then the fire consumes the darkness. All of the darkness. The faerie loses her grip on the Ixi’s mind in the same second that he loses his grip on his axe. Both tools drop to the ground, inanimate. Both crumple, useless. Both grow still without a master.

There’s a shrill cry of something as the ashen Ixi collapses to the floor. It’s not him, but it’s something. Something within him. Something about him. It’s something that once lived inside of him, but now it has escaped. Something horrid. Something dark. Something evil. Something... malicious.

The violet that strangled his vision begins to escape through his pores. It leaks from his gaze, and it drips from his jaws, and it evanesces into the burning air, and then it is gone.

From somewhere across the ocean of lava, a voice cries out a pained, "No!"

And the rocks keep falling, falling, falling...

~

    XII: Burn

Tor and Roberta carefully hop their way across the fallen slabs of stone that polkadot the surface of the sea of lava below them, their footing steady, but worried. They’re trying to make it to the pedestal where the imprisoned mayor of Cogham waits as quickly as possible; half because they’re beyond eager to leave this Moltara-looking wasteland and see to whatever force is tainting Meridell castle, and half because the obnoxious yellow Kacheek just won’t stop yelling...

But they still need to be careful as they make their way over the magma. After all, if they made it this far in their journey only to meet a fiery demise caused by their own clumsiness, well, that wouldn’t be very good, now, would it?

So they tread cautiously, and they help each other across the tides of magma with outstretched arms and words of encouragement, and the rewards of their teamwork are all the more fruitful when married to the relaxation following the triumph they’ve just shared. Already, even through the countless layers of rock and metal that separate them from the outside world, now that the cruel Ixi Chieftain has been defeated once and for all, the two heroes can feel that the clouds’ pressure has been lifted. They can feel the darkness leaving the mountains, and smell the air clear of its poison. Even from underground, they can feel the sun already shining down on their backs once more.

But first thing’s first...

Three, four, five more careful hops across the jagged ledges of the fallen stalactites, and the two make it to where the mayor waits to be freed impatiently. More than a little passive-aggressively, Roberta gives the rope that holds the Kacheek’s prison suspended to the roof of the cavern one quick zap of bright blue magic, then he is sent plummeting to the ground with a loud crash! Thankfully, despite the steel bars contorting around him, and the cloud of volcanic dust that the drop had sent into the air, the Kacheek is completely unscathed — and, thankfully, also finally hushing up from the shock of the impact. Trying to stifle their laughter in their hands, the two heroes quickly make their way over to the mayor and throw the barred door of his cage open with a few powerful tugs, thrilled that this leg of their mission to save the world has finally been completed. It’s all almost over now. They only have the castle to deal with. Soon, this whole mess will be in the past.

The mayor escapes his cell with panicked eyes and frantic steps, running as fast as his stubby legs will allow, as if worrying that the prison bars will close shut and trap him again if he waits too long. He’s out of breath from the exhaustion of his own terror, and his voice is hoarse from his useless pleading over the roar of the lava cascades, but he still throws himself at Tormund in a powerful and incredibly awkward embrace. "Oh, thank you, brave heroes!" the Kacheek cries out melodramatically as Tor takes a few uncomfortable steps back to try to step out of the unwanted hug. "Thank you for saving me! I thought I was doomed! I thought we all were!"

Tormund places one polite but firm hand against the Kacheek’s shoulder, then pushes him away with a cringe, forcing him to release his embrace. "It was... no problem, sir," Tor says with a forced smile as he steps away, giving Roberta a nervous glance.

She’s still just trying to restrain her giggle fit.

The mayor clasps his hands in front of him as if begging for mercy. "Oh, brave heroes," he cries, his tone still hyper-dramatized, "how could we ever repay you?"

The two heroes meet eyes, pursing their lips in an awkward state of understanding, then Roberta answers to the mayor with some semblance of an excuse. "We’re just glad to help, sir," she says with a small but still somehow genuine bow. "Seeing you safe is reward enough."

Tor nods in agreeance, thankful for Roberta’s quick thinking, giving the Kacheek a hesitant smile.

Still, unfortunately for the two heroes, the mayor continues his awkward gushing. "Oh, but you are deserving of something!" he says. "I, uh... Oh, I know! I have just the treasure for you two! A treasure worthy of heroes! In fact, it is called the Cloak of Heroes for just that reason!" He casually leaves out the detail that it’s a stolen artefact... and that the Ixis have been raiding the village for days now in an attempt to find it, despite it being hidden away at his mum’s place in Meri Acres this whole time... "Just you follow me back to our town, and then..."

His voice suddenly trails off as his eyes wander back to the platform where the children had duelled with the Ixi Chieftain only minutes ago. At first, the silence seems to be a blessing; but then, the mayor gasps in panic. "Oh no!" he frantically whines, his pitch jumping up an octave and a half as he points frantically towards the rocky arena. "You missed one! It’s still alive! Get it!"

Without second thoughts, Tor and Roberta immediately draw their weapons at the sound of the mayor’s panicked pleading, Roberta charging a strong stunning spell, and Tor preparing to strike in case something comes close. They follow the mayor’s terrified eyes down to the battlestained arena below, watching worriedly — and somewhat angrily — as another one of the Ixi Raiders hops nimbly and desperately across the crumbling rocks and broken bridges that lead to its fallen master. It’s a terrifying-looking creature; illuminated by the scarlet falls of endless lava, it looks almost like a living skeleton...

Tor gives the mayor a stern pat on his shoulder, then pushes him softly in the direction of the exit to the freed world outside. "Run," he mumbles, and the Kacheek doesn’t object. With another wail of terror, he scrambles clumsily up the rocky ledge behind him and disappears down into the mine shafts, his screams fading away along with his gawky footsteps.

Roberta grinds her teeth as the skeletal Ixi approaches its fallen master in a frenetic gallop, then skids to a messy halt beside his limp body. Her irritation with this whole ordeal returns tenfold as she realises that they’re apparently still not done here... but it shouldn’t take much longer. "I’ll get it..."

But she is stopped suddenly when Tor grabs her wrist, his motions quick and dedicated, forcing her to lower her wand with the motion. He doesn’t speak. He just... does it.

Roberta looks up to him with a confused sort of frustration — though it’s mostly frustration. She tries to meet his eyes, leaning forward a bit to face him more, but he refuses to turn his gaze away from the arena. She huffs at him. "What?"

As Tor looks down through the plumes of smoke and the waves of heat, he meets the skeletal Ixi’s teary eyes for a few painful seconds, and all else surrounding him silences. All he is aware of is the Ixi’s obvious misery as it collapses beside its chieftain. Its arms are limp. Its entire being is shaking. It looks pained and saddened and hopeless and lost...

It’s heartbreaking...

When Tor finally returns his attention to the world around him, able to tear his focus away from what he once thought was the enemy, he releases Roberta’s arm with a sigh. "It’s not harming anything, Roberta," he says sombrely, his tone impossible for her to understand. "It’s just... mourning."

Confused, Roberta looks down to the Ixi, unable to see very well through the distorted veil that the magma paints into the air, then looks back to Tor, her expression suddenly softened. She knows Tor has a good heart. She knows he just wants to help. "Well, I’ll just zap it like I did the others, then," she says.

Tor shakes his head frantically, seeming distressed, then sheathes his sword — a wordless request for her to do the same with her wand. "No," he says again, more sternly this time. "Just... just leave it be."

Now Roberta is annoyed again, though it’s only because she’s already spent a decent amount of her magical energy charging the spell needed to knock the Ixi unconscious. She grunts. "Tor..."

"Just..." Tor looks over to her with authoritative eyes, taking a light hold of her arm — pleading, but still caring and respectful of her wishes. He understands her feelings, too. He truly does. And she knows that. But still...

Tor turns towards the exit, giving the skeletal Ixi one last hesitant glance over his shoulder. He then sighs again, heavy and solemn, and begins to gently pull Roberta away. "Please, let’s just leave," he says, more of a request than a command.

And Roberta doesn’t really know what to think.

But still, she listens.

She has no reason not to.

Tor’s never wrong in his judgment of peoples’ character. Never.

She has nothing to fear in this creature.

...Right?

~

"Please wake up, please wake up, please wake up..."

Mer’s frantic pleading is swallowed by the lava along with the rocks that still fall from the ceiling. The heat from the volcano dries his tears to his cheeks, yet still isn’t warm enough to soothe the tenseness in his aching arms. His eyes are sore from the saltstains and heatwaves. His breathing is shallow and plagued with ash. Still, he can’t stop moving. He can’t, or everything else might perish alongside his second family. "Please wake up..."

Hesitantly, fearfully, worrying about what violence he may be met with as a result of the action, Mer looks up towards the knight and sorceress who now stand high above him on the volcano’s rocky ledge, like pitiless adjudicators weighing his worth. His fears are all realised as he sees the two heroes quickly preparing another attack, taking their battle stances, drawing their weapons, their decision to strike him down seemingly set in stone. Through the fire and smoke, Mer sees the bright blue glow of the sorceress’ wand and the magma’s golden light glinting off of the knight’s blade. He feels his heartbeat climb into his throat as he realises that this may truly be the end.

But he meets eyes with the knight. From across the great distance, he does.

And something about the Lupe’s gaze gives him hope.

And so, with his entire being shaking in an overwhelming desperation, Mer gives the knight a silent plea:

Please help us, heroes, his black gaze cries out.

Please...

Help us, too.

The knight doesn’t move in response... but he stops his companion. He heard the wordless prayer. He must have. His entire body has softened — his battle stance, now casual. The halo of his hero’s radiance shines brighter than the red ocean below. Mer watches with a strange mix of thankfulness and terror as the knight turns to his companion, speaks to her softly, takes her by the arm, then leads her away.

But nothing is fixed just yet.

In fact, things have never been worse, because now Mer is all alone.

Unsure of what else there is to do, the still-trembling sorcerer leans over the unconscious chief, desperately searching for signs of life — a pulse, a breath, a twitching of muscles, a fluttering of eyelids...

But he can’t see through his misery. The wall of his panic is too thick, rendering him blind and dumb. He can’t see, and even if he could, what is he supposed to do? He has no knowledge of healing magic. He has no knowledge of the mystery of existence or how to save a life. He doesn’t know anything. He’s useless on his own...

So he hopelessly cries for help once more. "Onika!"

But, of course, no response comes.

"Ajani! Ashanti! Anyone, please!"

Still, nothing but a cruel, fiery echo comes to rescue him.

And he sobs into his hands, and his entire body trembles, and his cries are consumed by the lava, but... he has to do something.

He has to.

There must be something he can do...

But his thoughts are still strained, and his mind is still absolute chaos. He can’t see through its shroud just yet. So for now, he just stands up clumsily, trying to strengthen his legs by trotting in a few slow circles around the ledge of the arena. He anxiously searches the nothingness that surrounds him for some sort of hope, or a solution, or someone to help, or some answer to all the questions that are racing through his mind; but all of his ideas are useless. There’s no time to search for Onika. There’s no time to brew some sort of healing or revival potion. There’s no time to call Simeon or Raptura or anyone else for help. He’s so scared...

But then, suddenly... he is calm.

Only because he has to be...

But it’s still calm.

He’s made a plan.

Honestly, it’s a stupid, awful plan, and it might just get him killed...

But he doesn’t have a choice.

So, without allowing himself to sow any seeds of doubt, he takes the deepest breath he can, balling his hands into tight fists in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure that’s building up within him, then he gallops at full speed across the fallen rocks and up the wall of the volcano, desperately dashing towards the exit of the mines, chasing after the heroes who have just so nobly spared his life. Please let this work...

~

"So now what do we do?"

The yellow Lupe knight doesn’t say anything.

The typically energised Sir Tormund has been walking in a worried hush beside Roberta ever since they’d turned to leave the volcanic arena, watching his footsteps and nothing more. His sudden silence is a bit unnerving, honestly — Tor is usually the one making snarky jokes about whatever they’re doing, or trying to lighten Roberta’s mood with a few playful jabs, or letting his mouth run about whatever-the-heck it is that he’s always talking about...

But now, he’s silent.

And it’s making the walls of the mines seem all the more dark.

"Tor?"

Thankfully, the sound of his name seems to jolt the young knight out of his strange, trancelike state of mind. His eyes snap open as he looks down to Roberta with a flash of panic in his yellow eyes. He stutters, looking somewhat embarrassed. "Oh, uh... sorry. I, uh..." He turns away from her, facing back down the corridor, and scratches the back of his neck anxiously. "I must’ve zoned out a bit."

Roberta pouts at him. "What’s wrong, Tor?"

The problem is, he doesn’t quite know exactly what’s wrong. All he knows is that something about that mournful Ixi threw his whole mindset off — made him question what they were doing in that moment, and what they had been doing for the past few hours, and especially whether or not they should have taken down the chieftain. The strange skeletal Ixi warrior who ran to its master’s side might have been a terrifying-looking creature on the outside, but it was still grieving. It had tears in its eyes, and it was shaking like a child, and that gaze... its hollow gaze was a cry for help...

Tor can’t think about it any longer. It’s making him feel a bit ill. He forces himself to push the images to the back of his mind. "I just... am getting really exhausted, I think," he says, trying to come up with a decent response to Roberta’s question. It isn’t necessarily a lie, but it’s definitely not the whole truth.

Roberta’s pout turns frustrated. "Come on, Tor, I can tell there’s more to it than that..." she says.

Tor purses his lips. He should have known better than to leave it at something so vague. Roberta’s too smart to fall for such a poorly veiled excuse. "I’m, uh... just worried about all of this, you know," he says, looking down towards his feet again, counting his footsteps in a mock meditation, trying to calm his thoughts — or, at least, replace them with something less hurtful. "I’m worried about us, and the world, and these monsters, and, just..." He doesn’t know where to go from there, but he can tell — even without looking — that Roberta still isn’t falling for it. He decides he might as well just say what’s most present on his mind: "I’m just... beginning to question what’s right and wrong," he says.

Roberta is about to scold him for thinking such a silly thing, but... she supposes there’s some truth in his words. A lot of truth, actually. They’ve been slaying monsters and destroying minions all day without so much as a second thought, focusing on the fate of the whole but, in a way, ignoring the bits and pieces. She saw the Ixi’s eyes, too. They didn’t meet hers, and she didn’t feel the burning of its prayers, but she still saw the pain that had made home there. A bit of it, at least. She understands. She, too, now looks to her feet, turning her pout to her toes. "You’ve done nothing wrong, Tor," she says softly, her fair tone now lacking its typical sass. "We’re just doing what we need to do. And, I mean... If you can spare that horrid Werelupe, and that obnoxious assassin, and that terrifying Ixi, then, well..." She gives a little shrug, then leans over to nudge him gently with her elbow. "I think that’s pretty righteous."

Tor slows his steps for a few seconds as he ponders her words, still not raising his eyes, still warring with his own thoughts, still trying to erase the images... then speeds pace again as her truth takes root. He takes a deep breath. "I guess," he says, lifting his gaze. He then looks down to her with that handsome smile of his. "Thanks, Roberta."

And she smiles back, glad she could help. "Don’t mention it..."

But both of their smiles quickly fade away as what sounds like a vicious roll of thunder suddenly begins to come up behind them, approaching at a terrifying speed, growing louder, and louder, and louder, and louder...

The two spin around in the same second that they are struck with an overwhelming gale of bright earth magic. They’re sent tumbling to the ground with yelps of panicked surprise, but they’re completely unscathed. It was just a spell to trip them up, not to harm them... but it’s still incredibly frustrating. They quickly but clumsily scramble to sit up straight, desperately reaching for their weapons, trying to figure out what in Neopia has just begun to happen.

When Tor finally manages to see through the wall of his surprise, giving his head a few quick shakes to chase some of the confusion away, he looks up towards the source of the spell, only to see a pair of skeletal hooves about to crush him. He screams again and throws himself backwards, out of harm’s way, but also, unfortunately, out of any position where he could draw his sword and fight.

The next thing Tor knows, the same Ixi whom he’d spared just minutes ago grabs aggressively for the satchel that he keeps slung over his shoulder — the satchel that he and Roberta use to carry all of their fruits and potions. He’s yanked forward, falling on his face as the Ixi mumbles out a bassy, "Whoops, sorry!" then begins a panicked gallop back down the mineshaft, heading once more towards the heart of the volcano. Despite his best efforts, as well as a decent amount of useless flailing, Tor can’t get a good enough grip on the sack of goods. He’s dragged forward a few feet, then his hold comes loose, and all of their stuff is gone.

Thankfully for the heroes, Roberta had managed to get to her feet in the time that it took for the Ixi thief to begin its frantic escape. She groans angrily as she runs to Tor’s side, grabbing his arm and pulling him onto his feet. "Ugh, I told you you should have let me zap it!"

Tormund scowls angrily as he stares after the thief’s disappearing shadow. Maybe... "Let’s go!"

~

"Come on, come on, come on, there’s gotta be something..."

Mer hears the all-too-familiar sound of a bolt of magic being shot from a wand chase him through the mineshaft, illuminating the walls in a terrifying white, and he frantically ducks to his left, praying that he manages to dodge the Acara sorceress’ attack.

He somehow does — just barely. Her furious shot strikes the ground in the exact spot where he would have stood had he not moved. A cloud of dust rises into the air, blinding him temporarily, but he refuses to let it throw him. He holds his breath, and he squints his eyes, then continues galloping away.

Mer can hear the echo of the Acara’s frustrated groaning behind him as she tries to charge another spell. Beside that, he can hear the knight’s armour clacking loudly on the stones and long-abandoned cart tracks as he continues running at an athlete’s pace, but neither of the heroes are a match for Mer’s swift galloping, thank Fyora. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen seconds more of the strongest strides his aching muscles will allow, then the Ixi sorcerer rounds a sharp corner, and the clatter and shouting of his pursuers fades out of earshot. Relieved — slightly — Mer skids to a halt, pulls his tangled hair out of his eyes, then begins to frantically search the stolen satchel, hoping for a miracle. He doesn’t have much time...

There’s just so much useless stuff in this stupid bag, he quickly discovers. It seems like none of this junk should actually be able to fit — there’s enough food to feed the entirety of King Skarl’s court, and enough potions to run Kauvara out of business — but it somehow all does. Still, Mer doesn’t let this discourage him. He can’t let it. He rifles through everything as fast as he can, searching for something — anything — that could help him. Restorative foods won’t help — an unconscious man can’t eat, obviously. Dispelling potions won’t help — as far as he knows, the curse has been lifted, and the only remaining wounds are physical. He could steal a Meerca speed potion to help him search the catacombs for Onika or someone else who actually knows what they’re doing when it comes to saving lives, but if he relies on something as risky as that, it might be too late by the time they’d return...

The sound of the heroes’ shouting and sprinting then begins to approach again, knocking Mer out of his thoughts. He feels his breath catch in his throat. His heartbeat feels like it’s going to collapse his ribcage.

But then, tucked in one of the bottom corners of the stolen sack, there’s a glimmer of hope.

Mer gasps. "Dewberry revivers..."

"There he is!"

Mer hears the sorceress’ furious voice cut over his thoughts, and he scrambles to keep running again as the hallway alights in her furious blue magic. He grabs one of the syrupy purple potions that he’s found, then quickly ties off the satchel once more. He only needs one of the two potions to save the chief. It should be enough to bring him back. At least, he hopes it’s enough...

With a rather acrobatic leap off of one of the stalagmites of merilode that jut like monsters’ fangs from the ground, Mer somehow manages to dodge the Acara’s second shot and escape, taking only the slightest second longer to furiously toss the satchel back at the knight as the Lupe rounds the same sharp bend. The Acara’s magic strikes the merilode, causing it to shatter into a cloud of glass dust, painting the rocks a bright rainbow, masking Mer’s shadow as he disappears back into the mines. Then he is gone.

~

Tor is miles beyond surprised when, through the cloud of glittering dust, he sees the Ixi’s disfigured silhouette throwing the satchel back at him with a force to match its thundering hooves. With an awkwardly small gasp of shock, Tor plants his feet firmly into the ground in an attempt to stop his running, his armour’s steel heels leaving deep grooves in the rock, but he can’t react in time. The bag of potions and fruits smacks him hard in the face, and he falls flat on his back with a grunt of pain. He lets out a horribly misplaced laugh at his own clumsiness as the sound of the thief’s hoofsteps disappears once more, then he sits up straight, shaking his head in bewilderment.

Roberta doesn’t know how to react. Her first instinct, of course, is to continue chasing the Ixi, but when she realises that it’s seemingly given up on stealing their goods, and that Tor now holds all of their items safely in his lap, she simply lets out a loud grunt, throwing her head back melodramatically, then sheathes her wand as she jogs to Tor’s side. "Are you alright?"

Tor rubs some of the ache from his muzzle with the back of his hand, then crosses his legs comfortably, leaning forward to look through their bag, just to make sure that all of their stuff is still there. "Yeah, I’m fine," he mumbles as he unties the satchel and begins to poke through it. "Just bumped my nose... and the entire back half of me..."

Roberta huffs, placing her hands on her hips and tapping her foot against the ground condescendingly. "Well, next time I say I wanna zap something, you should let me zap it," she scolds him.

Tor rolls his eyes quickly, then continues to look through their stuff.

When Roberta doesn’t get a verbal response to her quip, she huffs again, then decides she might as well follow Tor’s lead and try to make the best of this. She kneels down beside the knight, watching him as he rifles through all of their goods. "Did it take anything?"

"Umm..." Well, it’s not like Tor was keeping a solid count on all of their juppies, but it looks like they’re all still there. No clovers have been taken, no neggs are missing, no motes, no novas, no maps, no potions...

Wait...

Actually...

Tor pauses in his motions, and his eyes widen in a bit of pained shock as he realises that there is one item missing. The pieces of what was happening all fall into place as the young knight realises why the Ixi had attacked them.

He took one of the revivers...

He’s trying to save the chieftain...

Roberta notices Tormund’s sudden silence and hesitancy, and it worries her. She raises her eyes to look him in the face, leaning forward slightly, but she finds that she can’t read his expression, and he refuses to look away from the contents of the bag. "Tor?"

At the sound of his name, Tor looks up to Roberta with an incredibly noticeable flash of panic racing through his eyes. He isn’t sure what to do with this knowledge. As if he wasn’t questioning this whole saving-the-world-and-slaying-monsters ordeal enough already, now he’s at a crossroads where he holds a single person’s life in the palms of his hands, and he must decide what to do with it. He definitely understands why they were attacked by that Ixi now — desperation to save a friend, it seems — but... should he let the Ixi get away with it, or should he stop it? Would he be saving an innocent life, or just dooming Cogham to face more violence? Was the Ixi Raiders’ chieftain truly evil, or just another innocent person plagued by the faerie’s curse? Was the chieftain really the monster... or were they?

All Tor knows for sure is that Roberta tends to be too feisty for her own good — she, who was once quoted saying, "Who needs to negotiate when you can just zap them with your wand?" — and that her answer to the question of "should we just let it go?" would definitely be "no."

But what is his answer?

"Uhm... looks like everything is still here," Tor lies, his words rushed.

Luckily, by some miracle, the visible worry in his eyes is neutral enough to be easily mistaken for confusion, and Roberta, for once, falls for the feint. She assumes that he’s only looking panicked because he’s confused as to why nothing was taken. She cocks an eyebrow. "Seriously? All of it’s there?"

Tor quickly rifles through their stuff again, pretending to double-check, though he already knows the truth, and has made up his mind. "Yeah," he says sternly, trying a little too hard to sound convincing, "everything’s still here. That Ixi must’ve... just... wanted to antagonise us, or something..."

Roberta crosses her arms, then turns to look back down the mineshaft where the shimmering cloud of merilode dust has finally ceased its dancing. "Well that’s annoying," she mumbles angrily. "Trying to distract us from getting to the castle..."

Tor nods his head, glad that she believed him, though more than a bit guilty about the fact that he’s just lied right to Roberta’s face. Still, he knows that this was the right thing to do — or, at least, that’s what he tells himself. "Yeah," he says with a soft sigh. "Really, really annoying."

There’s an awkward silence.

Then, Roberta huffs for a third time, standing up quickly and brushing some of the dirt and dust from her tunic. "Well, whatever," she says, flipping her hair over her shoulder and beginning to walk back towards the exit. "It doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t care. I just want to get out of this Fyora-forsaken volcano and enjoy whatever sunlight I can before we head on over to the castle. Wouldn’t you agree?"

Finally able to push past the biggest part of his wall of worry, Tor looks up to her with that radiant smile of his, then ties off the satchel and slings it back into its proper place over his shoulder. "Yeah," he says as he stands up to follow her. "Some sunlight sounds nice."

Still, as Roberta passes him on her way back down the corridor, Tormund can’t help but turn to look back to where the Ixi had just disappeared, taking in a deep breath to try to quell the rest of his still-racing thoughts. He’s made peace with his decision, but he’s still not quite sure how to feel about the situation as a whole. He’s not sure if he’s made a mistake. He’s not sure if allowing the Ixi to resurrect its possibly evil master is the right thing to do. He’s not sure, but...

"Good luck," Tor mutters under his breath, staring into the blackness of the mineshaft.

Roberta hears his muttered words and pauses in her steps, turning around to look at him. "Did you say something?" she asks.

But with those last two words, Tor’s conscience has been cleared. For now, at least; and that’s good enough for him. He turns around and begins to jog after her. "I said let’s get going."

Roberta cocks an eyebrow at him, still wondering why he’s acting so strange... but she supposes he’s always been a bit peculiar. He’s just being Tor. She gives a small shrug as he makes it to her side and gently takes her by the arm. "Alrighty then," she says as he begins to escort her towards the exit. "Just lead the way."

~

Three days later...

Mer’s starting to worry that he’ll never stop aching everywhere.

As if frantically running down the mountain to Cogham and back, then charging uselessly through empty mineshafts for an hour, then chasing down and being chased down by those heroes all wasn’t bad enough, following his miraculous escape, he had then spent hours on end searching the seemingly infinite corridors of the merilode mines for Onika, another half an hour trying to wake him up, then an absolutely unfathomable amount of time helping the healer to awaken and rescue all of the unconscious warriors that were scattered about the volcano and cure them of the clouds’ sickness. Mer’s not sure how much time he’s spent on his feet running around the past few days, but if someone were to tell him that it’d been a year, he wouldn’t doubt it.

But, thank goodness, it all seems to be over now.

His heart still aches, though, along with the rest of him. His every emotion was tested and strained during the past few days, and he wonders if his heartstrings will ever return to normal. He’s never been so scared, or alone, or worried, or hopeless; but, worst of all, he doesn’t know if those feelings’ slimy residue will ever leave his lungs. He can still feel their pressure, even though the sun is now shining and the air tastes clean. A loud part of him is still afraid it’ll all come back...

But he really can’t be bothered to care about that — or anything at all, really — right now.

It’s over.

Hopefully.

So here he lies, on the floor of his only half-repaired home, curled lazily onto his side under a warm blanket with his flute and a cup of cold tea sitting in front of his nose, untouched. Emmy periodically splashes him with chilly saltwater from above — petpet talk for, Get up already! Stop being so dramatic! — but Mer ignores her sass. Everything’s starting to smell like Old Maraqua, and he’s pretty sure that his tea is now at least ten percent ocean, but he doesn’t care. Emmy can complain all she wants, but Mer’s everything hurts too much for him to move. He sighs long as more cold rain splashes across his nose, but otherwise doesn’t move a muscle.

Emmy is about to give up on trying to get her owner’s attention when Onika’s voice breaks over the silence. "Mer, you have a visitor."

On any other day, Mer’s jittery nerves and tendency to fall for spooks would force him to leap up in surprise — make his fur stand on edge, or make his heart race a bit, or cause his voice to crack awkwardly — but today, his ears twitch at the sound, and that’s it. He honestly can’t be bothered. Inside and out, he’s just too, too tired. He sighs. "If they didn’t bring me ice cream, then send them away," he says.

Onika snickers lightly as Emmy splashes Mer again. The sorcerer doesn’t respond to either of them. "Uh, I don’t think you really have a choice in the matter," Onika says, taking a casual stance against the broken doorframe and crossing his arms.

Mer thinks he understands what the healer means, but he still doesn’t say anything.

Heavy, half-limping hoofsteps then come trotting into the room at a slow, steady pace until a shadow looms above Mer, blocking out some of the sunlight. Even lying on the ground, Mer can see the figure’s silhouette crossing its arms, and he just knows that its owner is frowning...

Then, the chief’s voice: "Are you ever going to sit up again?"

Hearing that the chief’s throat is finally clear of the sickness’ hold — his tenor once again back to its constantly irritated but familiar tone, free from the foreign tinge of the dark faerie’s timbre — helps to ease a decent amount of Mer’s residual stress, but he still doesn’t respond to the comment with any of his typical energy. Having his nerves calmed doesn’t help his sore muscles. Still, he rolls awkwardly onto his back with his legs sticking up in the air at all sorts of odd angles. "No."

Onika giggles from the doorway again as the chief gives a frustrated huff, though he honestly expected no less. He gently kneels beside his drama queen sorcerer, though he does so incredibly slowly, being careful to not injure himself further — that last battle nearly killed him... "Mer, be serious," he says as he folds his legs underneath him only half-comfortably.

"I totally am."

He’s totally not.

The chief shakes his head, uncrossing and then crossing his arms again. His instinct, of course, is to scold Mer for his attitude... but these are special circumstances. Unfortunately. He huffs again. "Well, Ashanti has finally finished her cleansing meditation, so I’ve just come to ask you personally if you need anything before she and Ajani lead the others off to assist in the rebuilding of Cogham," he says, very obviously trying — and half-failing — to hiding his frustration.

Mer doesn’t say anything for a while, making a face at nobody in particular. But then, "Yeah, actually," he says, his tone lightening, though he never looks away from the ingredients hanging from the ceiling. He then quickly lifts a hand and gives the chief a hard flick in the forehead before he has time to react to the motion. "I need you to not go crazy again," Mer says.

The chief leans away with a frustrated snarl, batting Mer’s hand away aggressively. He hates how cocky the sorcerer is getting... "Don’t push your luck," he growls.

Mer still doesn’t look over to him. "Hey man, I saved your life big time," he says, finally increasing his volume a bit, though his energy level stays the same — his cadence is still painfully atonal. "I totally chased down those heroes and got you that potion, and then I totally outran them and all their fancy spells, and then I totally almost fell in the lava, like, twelve times trying to get back to you, and then I totally had to, like, force-feed your unconscious face said potion until you came back from the grave or whatever, so, like..." He can hear the chief’s snarl intensifying as he goes on his patronising rant, but it doesn’t stop him. "I think you owe me, like, five free passes," Mer concludes, giving a flippant wave of his hand.

The chief has spent most of this morning trying to get used to the idea that Mer will almost certainly never let him live the whole "I saved your life" thing down, and he mostly has... but it’s still incredibly irritating to hear the whole embarrassing situation laid out before him so nonchalantly. His scowl intensifies, but it remains unreciprocated. He uncrosses then crosses his arms again, but Mer doesn’t react. He snorts at the sorcerer, but gets silence in response. "Fine," the chief finally says when he sees that Mer’s attitude is immovable, "you have four left."

Mer quickly flicks the chief’s face again. "Three."

Onika is desperately trying to stifle his giggling in his hands, knowing full well how frustrated the chief is getting with Mer and his insults, but it isn’t working. He’s just snorting awkwardly into his palms now. The chief turns and gives Onika a vicious glance, but it doesn’t really stop anything. Onika helped save his life, too. Not quite to the same extent, but he should get about three free passes as well. Still, Onika is less defiant than Mer, and listens a lot better. He purses his lips and laces his fingers behind his back, but doesn’t try to hide his dorky smile.

I’m so sick of these idiots... the chief thinks, almost aloud; but, unfortunately, he does owe them his life. He pinches the bridge of his nose tightly, then gives a long sigh, trying to exhale his frustration with the breath. "Mer, honestly, do you need anything before the others head out?" he asks again.

The genuine earnestness in the chief’s tone makes the rest of Mer’s worries seemingly disappear. It’s a sound he honestly thought he’d never hear from him — true gratitude, and respect, and — just maybe — the tiniest hint admiration. It honestly warms his heart.

It doesn’t soothe his aching muscles, though...

Still, he finds himself able to turn to look at the chieftain with a bit of a halfhearted smile across his transparent lips. He giggles his light, bassy giggle. "I could use a day off."

    

~*~

    Epilogue: Come in Peace

"I can’t believe I’m doing this..."

Simeon stands outside the knights’ barracks in Meridell castle with a scowl on his face and a burning frustration in his amber eyes. The moon rains silver across his back, and the courtyard grasses below his feet are soft, and everything in the realm is beautiful and calm as ever before. Still, he hasn’t stopped shaking his head in frustration for what feels like hours. He presses a hand against the door of the barracks, then casts a spell to feel at the interior, checking for any signs of movement.

Everything is still within the halls.

But that just frustrates him even more. Now he doesn’t have an excuse to leave.

"I can’t believe I’m doing this..." He’s been repeating the same sentence for the past half hour or so the entire walk to Meridell city, his words and tone growing more and more murderous the closer he got to the castle.

And now, here he stands, and he’s almost speaking at full volume.

Probably not a good idea...

But at least this idiotic mission is almost over. Everything is still within the halls, and within the courtyard, and within the skies, and within his heart. He just wants to get this over with so he can go home and relax. Quickly now, he takes a step back, flexes his wrists, then casts a hasty spell to teleport himself into the building, eager for this mess to be over.

His motions are as silent as death as he scours the room for any signs of danger. He’s found himself surrounded by four or five sleeping knights, all curled lazily on their sides, some snoring loudly, their armour and weapons propped lazily against their beds for the next morning’s practicing. He finds himself cringing at the sight — he absolutely loathes heroes... — but he still has to search for his target and finish this contract.

He finds the yellow Lupe slumbering silently across the room.

Simeon rolls his eyes at the sight, but manages to not speak the thought that’s caused the reaction out loud: Of course... he’s all the way across the room...

But Simeon is a professional. He’s made these sorts of routes before. He knows that he can get this over with without waking anyone else. He’s only frustrated that he has to waste the magical energy to do it.

Another quick spell lands Simeon directly beside the Lupe’s bed. He pauses to look about the room to make sure that nobody awoke at the sound of his spellcasting, then mumbles one last, "I can’t believe I’m doing this..." as he reaches under his cloak, pulling out a mysterious, unlabelled package that he was very firmly told not to peek into. Relieved, but still frustrated, Simeon tosses the package to the foot of the knight’s bed, letting it fall on top of his ankles with decent momentum.

The knight awakens with a start at the feeling, spinning around with a little gasp, but it’s too late. The knight catches a millisecond-long glance of the Gelert’s shadowy figure, but then he is gone. All that is left as sign that he was ever there is an already nearly invisible cloud of smoke and the lingering overtones of his last muttered, "There, contract completed."

One of the other knights — a red Techo named Sir Lawrence — hears Tor awaken and sits up worriedly — albeit still more than half-asleep — to look over at his colleague with tired, bloodshot eyes. "Mmm... Tor? Is that you?" he asks in a drowsy whisper.

Tor is immediately aware of the package that now rests by his feet — he’s staring right at it — but... he can’t really comprehend its existence. He swears that he must be hallucinating. Who could have put this here? And... did he really just see the Gelert Assassin just now...? I must still be dreaming... or finally going crazy...

"Tor, what’s the matter?"

Tor quickly crosses his legs, then leans forward to examine the package closer, half-expecting it to disappear like a mirage. He’s honestly surprised when it doesn’t. "I’m, uh... not sure yet," he replies to Sir Lawrence as he reaches for the parcel, only realising that he probably shouldn’t be touching it when it’s already in his hands. He’s too tired for his better judgement to take root. He pulls the package into his lap, then hesitantly begins to unwrap it, carefully and quietly.

There’s a cardboard box underneath the brown tissue paper, which he opens with a worried cringe... but everything’s completely safe. Inside, packed tightly within a bed of soft straw and dead but sweet-smelling grass, he finds a large bottle of dewberry reviver, corked tightly shut and with a brown Crokabek feather tied around its neck. Beneath it rests a folded piece of parchment, glowing a gentle emerald.

Tor is too tired to really understand it all, but he’s sure that the note will explain everything — answer the questions he hasn’t even asked yet. He pulls the paper out from the box, unfolds it gently, then rotates it until the messy cursive handwriting becomes semi-legible.

It’s a short message, written in green ink, the letters glowing faintly with strong earth magic:

"Dear Mister Hero,

Thank you for not chasing me even though I took your stuff. I’m replacing the potion now!!! And I made this one myself, so it’s super extra potent. You could revive like seven people. Seriously.

You can come back any time you need potions or medicine. I give discounts to friends :)

And don’t worry, nobody’s crazy anymore. Chief is all free from dark faerie evilness thanks to you and your friend ^^ He’s still an old grumpyface, but, well, what can you do.

Anyway, thanks again,

-Mer (the Ixi apothecary) :3"

Tor just can’t stop smiling. I knew I made the right decision.

"Everything alright, Tor?"

With a pleased chuckle to himself, the young hero folds back up the note, then turns to Sir Lawrence with a sparkle in his eyes. "Yeah, everything’s fine, Lawrence," he says softly, then yawns into the palm of his hand. "Just a friend trying to play a prank on me."

Sir Lawrence cocks an eyebrow, but finds himself yawning, too. It’s too late for him to be trying to understand Tor’s weirdness... "Well, alright," he says as he lies back down and rolls onto his side. "Goodnight."

" ‘Night."

And Tor unfolds and reads over the message again.

He shakes his head with another snicker, then turns his gaze towards the open window across from him, looking out towards the Steppe Plateau curiously.

He smiles brighter.

What a strange little Ixi.

THE END

 
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Other Episodes


» Clouds Over Cogham: Part One
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Two
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Three
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Four
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Five
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Six
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Seven
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Eight
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Nine
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Ten
» Clouds Over Cogham: Part Eleven



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