Clouds Over Cogham: Part One
“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.
Help us, too.
I: A Perfect Day
Three days prior...
There's nothing more fitting than the music of a hand-carved flute dancing through the air above the camp of the Ixi Raiders of Cogham.
Maybe that's why Mer kept all of his wind instruments when he joined the tribe several years ago. The transparent Ixi had grown up in the Haunted Woods with a family of musicians — his mother being a composer and two of his siblings landing prestigious spots in the Neopian Philharmonic — so the art of sound has always been ingrained in his core being. He’s always had a particular knack for wind and reed instruments, and could have definitely joined the Philharmonic alongside his brother Sky and sister Sonikki if he’d chosen to do so, but he turned down that opportunity in favour of pursuing an apothecary’s life. Still, though he’s now living his dream of making potions for a living — and with a rather shining reputation among the surrounding realms’ shadier characters, no less — casually playing the soothing instruments he grew up with is still a passion of his in a way — something he does to relax whenever he gets the free time. Not like any of the other tribesmen or tribeswomen mind. They love it, in fact. In a part of Meridell that’s so often plagued with violence, the sweet sounds of a gentle flute can oftentimes be the only source of calm and reprieve.
And Mer knows this well, so he plays on.
Especially in this moment, since the Raiders’ camp is currently looking rather... dishevelled...
The young sorcerer hardly ever gets a day off from work to rest, considering how much his tribe and the surrounding realms' more notorious baddies rely on his potions and poisons — he, the only one who will readily brew for and sell to well-known assassins and high-bountied thieves with a smile on his face and a willingness to accept simple thank yous as payment — but today is one of those rare occasions. All of the tribe’s warriors are busy cleaning up the Raiders' village of the mess that was caused by the strange, violent storm that had hit the realm the previous night, and Mer’s notorious clumsiness keeps him free from being called in to help with handiwork. Also, the storm’s looming threat of an aftershock has seemingly convinced the rest of his customers to lay low for a while, possibly to clean up their own messes. Not that Mer’s complaining about the lack of visitors. This just gives him more time to relax.
So here he sits, on the floor of his messy apothecary's hut, his four legs tucked comfortably underneath him as he plays a soothing lullaby to his lazy Maraquan Carma, the sounds of the music drifting outside to accompany the rest of the warriors' work.
But relaxation never really lasts around the Steppe Plateau...
A man's rich, somewhat-gravelly baritone suddenly cuts over the music, jarring the sorcerer partway out of his musical trance: "Mer, we've been called out on a raid."
The sound of Mer's flute silences after one awkwardly squeaked-out B flat as he spins around to look at whoever has just spoken, trying to untangle his front legs from underneath him to sit upright, but only managing to lose his balance for a few seconds and fall to the side with a surge of panic flashing through his eyes. He quickly steadies himself and looks up to see the Raiders' most elite spearman and general of the warriors — an intimidatingly strong (albeit quite handsome) nut-brown Ixi by the name of Ajani — standing in the doorway, looking rather antsy and with his spear holstered to his back.
Mer isn't quite sure why he spun around to look so desperately. Nobody who could be considered a threat ever bothers the Ixis in their village, and the only outsiders who are brave enough to traverse the Steppe Plateau and enter the Raiders’ camp to visit Mer for his potions he knows well enough to trust that they won't harm him. Plus, Mer would recognise Ajani's forever-calm baritone anywhere. Despite being Mer’s superior, Ajani is definitely his best friend in the camp, though their drastically contrasting personalities and speaking habits often make the friendship appear rather forced from an outside perspective.
But the sorcerer’s random pang of shock had deafened him, and he didn’t quite catch the warrior’s words. He was completely consumed with his playing and the calm of the afternoon air, after all. "Uh... what?" he asks, his words short and his tone gawky.
Ajani rolls his bright green eyes, though the action's irate implications aren’t mirrored on the rest of his face. He's hard to get to emote. "I said that we've been called out on a ra—"
"Ughhhhh..." Mer interrupts with an overly dramatic groan, throwing his head back to complain at the ceiling before Ajani can finish the last word of his sentence. He doesn't want to hear it. He doesn’t want to work. "Today is supposed to be my day off-fuh," Mer wails loudly, the childish whininess in his words contrasted awkwardly by the richness in his deep bass voice.
Ajani looks unimpressed with the sorcerer’s theatrical display — as always. "I would have thought you'd be excited, Meretseger," he says calmly, though he’s begun to tap the tip of one of his front hooves on the ground anxiously.
Mer groans loudly again, throwing himself to the side and rolling onto his back so all four of his legs stick up in the air at all sorts of odd angles, like a Doglefox begging for belly rubs... except less cute... and more obnoxious... "Nooo," Mer whines, still acting like a toddler, "I wanted to be lazy today and not do potions and not deal with cookbooks and not have to do the dishes ughhh..."
Ajani shakes his head. He should be far used to Mer's silliness by now — and, honestly, most of the time he is — but, on occasion, the sorcerer’s odd antics catch the warrior off-guard. Ajani supposes that Mer’s rather intimidating appearance still sometimes manages to fool him into thinking that he would behave like one of the other stern-faced, often-aggressive Ixis, despite knowing Mer — in all of his dorkiness — for several years now. He still just never expects such a terrifying-looking Neopet to be throwing a tantrum on the floor like a prissy teenage girl. "I don't see why you would need to do the dishes when we are on a raid," Ajani says, now tapping the tip of one of his back hooves on the ground.
Mer rolls over onto his side, facing away from the doorway, arching his back awkwardly to look at Ajani with his neck craned. "Because you guys always need the most complicated potions when you go out on raids," he complains, his sentences still coming out as one endless cry. "Like, all of my dishes get messed-up, and, like... do you have any idea how long it takes to scrub ectoplasm off of a cauldron?"
Ajani rolls his eyes again. "We don't need any potions, Meretseger," he says with a sigh. "We have plenty from the last time. We just need to get going."
Mer's obnoxious carping comes to an immediate halt at the sound of Ajani's words. He clumsily rolls over onto his stomach again, readjusting his legs so he sits comfortably. All whininess leaves his tone as his bass deepens to its normal speaking colour. "Oh."
That's the only response Ajani gets for a while.
But the spearman is patient. He crosses his arms and simply waits for Mer to continue. After all, he knows for a fact that Mer can’t keep his mouth shut for very long.
The Maraquan Carma who swims about in her tank above Mer's workstation suddenly splashes loudly, and Mer gives her a quick glare and an aggressive bat of his hand in her general direction. "Shut up, Emmy," Mer mumbles, narrowing his eyes at the Carma, "I know I jumped to conclusions..."
That's the other thing Ajani still isn't quite used to about Mer:
His talking to his petpet...
But Mer soon returns to conversation with Ajani — the only person in the room who can respond to him in actual words. "Uh, so... Did you just come to tell me you guys were leaving?" Mer asks, sitting up on his haunches, lacing his fingers calmly in front of him. "That was sweet of yo—"
"Save it," Ajani says, lifting one hand in a stern motion for silence. The last thing he wants to hear is someone calling him sweet... He's supposed to be fierce and intimidating, or something... "No, I was not. I was..." Rather than finish his explanation, Ajani sighs loudly, then pinches the bridge of his nose. For once in his life, his saintly patience is wearing thin. "No offense intended, Meretseger, but what is so difficult to understand about the sentence 'we’ve been called out on a raid?' "
Mer gives him a forced pout, crossing his arms in an exaggerated huff. "Well, you usually only tell me that when you guys need stuff for the mission," he says, "not just when you want to say goodbye."
"I didn't come to say goodbye," Ajani replies, mocking Mer's sarcastic tone and prissy hand motions, "I came to fetch you."
And then it all starts to click in Mer's head.
"Wait..." Mer’s black and hazel eyes light up with a fiery intensity as he finally understands what Ajani’s been meaning this whole time. "Ohmygosh, wait... I got called to go with you?!"
Ajani heaves a huge sigh of relief, closing his eyes and looking towards the ceiling, as if to thank Fyora herself for the blessing of Mer’s sudden epiphany. "Was that really so hard to understa—?"
"Ohmygosh!" Mer scrambles to stand as his excitement takes him over. "Ohmygosh, I never get to go on raids! I'm always cooped up in here!" He lets out a high-pitched squeal of excitement, smiling brightly, clenching his tongue between his teeth — still acting like a child, honestly, but at least it’s now in a more endearing way.
Ajani gets the faintest ghost of a smile as he sees Mer's excitement. That sort of genuine happiness is rare around the camp. It’s a pleasant sight. "Now do you understand why I was confused about your initial reaction?" he teases, placing his hands on his waist like a disappointed parent.
"Ohmygosh." It's the only thing Mer can really remember how to say in this moment. "Ohmygosh, like... ohmygosh."
Ajani rolls his eyes for a third time, though he’s still smiling... but then, a sudden wave of pain through his head forces him to pause to rub his temples. It feels like a headache’s begun brewing. Honestly, he’s been feeling its pressure building for the past few hours, but he’s been trying to ignore it. Apparently he can’t anymore. It's odd, though; the headache doesn't seem to be caused by his frustration, or Mer's boisterousness. It feels like, just... a random migraine... which never happens to him... He decides to continue ignoring it for now. "Just get your bow, Meretseger," he says, "and get appropriately dressed for the descent and looting. The trail to Cogham is not an easy one to traverse."
Mer has already half-finished gathering his things by the time Ajani finishes his sentence. He's already slung his quiver over his shoulder, bound his hands for proper archery and plunder, and is now beginning to fasten his saddlebags to his belt, excitedly imagining all of the nifty things he’ll be able to alleviate all of those annoying Cogham villagers of. "Ohmygosh."
"We leave in about fifteen minutes."
The tone of Ajani's command is too light for him to sound threatening, but Mer still slams his jaw shut and purses his lips, turning to look at the warrior with Puppyblew eyes.
Ajani sighs loudly again as Mer turns back around to finish whatever-the-heck it is that he’s doing. "Just... just come to the arena when you are don—"
And he is. Somehow. In only a matter of seconds. Ajani didn't even realise how fast Mer had been galloping around his room until he looks up and sees the sorcerer already dressed and with plenty of pouches for goods, his weapons holstered to his back and his apothecary's satchel of healing ointments, weak poisons, and ingredients slung from his hip. "I'm so ready, ohmyg—"
"You really need to find something else to say when you're excited, Meretseger," Ajani mumbles, cutting Mer off, lifting his hand again while shaking his head.
Mer giggles his bassy giggle in response. Then, "Sorry," he mutters.
Another sigh. "It's... fine."
"I'm just super excited."
"I haven't had the chance to do real archery in a super long time."
"And I haven't been to Cogham in, like, ever!"
"And it's such a nice day out today."
“The weather is, like, so perfect fo—”
"Mer, I know. I know, I know, I know — to whatever you're about to keep saying. I know."
Mer purses his lips again, though he’s obviously only doing it to stifle another smile rather than out of any sort of humility. Ajani gives the sorcerer a half-impatient glare, though it’s still too loving to be firmly authoritative. "I am happy to see that you are happy," he says calmly, "but... tone it down a bit. For your own sake. I can handle your energy most of the time, but you know the boss can't, and h—"
"Ohmygosh, Chief is going too?!"
Ajani recoils at the sudden volume of Mer's shouting, cringing while his ears press back.
Mer slams his hands over his mouth as he hears his voice echo shrilly back to him and sees Ajani’s reaction. He honestly didn’t mean to say anything. The excitement just burst out of him.
Ajani can't help but laugh this time at Mer’s awkward exclamation — and his own rather embarrassing reaction to it. It's a ridiculously foreign sound — he almost never laughs — but Mer's dorky giddiness tends to do that to the warriors of the tribe. "Yes, Mer..." he says with another long, partially frustrated exhale, “the boss is coming, too.”
"Sorry, sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to yell," Mer mumbles through his fingers, actually sounding somewhat ashamed this time. "I'm just... ohm—"
"You're 'ohmygosh excited,' right?" Ajani teases, cutting him off, placing his hands on his waist again.
Mer giggles at the playful snipe. "How did you know?"
Ajani rolls his eyes for a fourth time. "Just an educated guess, I suppose," he says, glad that Mer’s finally showing some sort of restraint in his words’ volume and intensity.
But, unfortunately for Ajani, Mer’s mouth just starts running again. "Chief never goes out on raids with you guys!"
"And neither do I, so it's, like, double exciting!"
"And the sun's still kinda rising, so we should be home by dinner."
"Is this a special occasion? Is that why we're all going?"
"I kno—... Wait, uh..." Ajani pauses in his words as he realises that Mer had just asked him a question. He wasn't expecting the overexcited sorcerer to break his speech pattern. He hears Mer giggle again at his being tripped up, then looks over to him with a snarky sort of half-frown. Mer looks positively smug, but Ajani is too entertained by all that’s happening to be bothered by Mer’s sarcastic expression. "It's, uh...” His voice trails off for a while. “I, uh... I don't think so..." And then his face suddenly falls. "I, uh... Hmph."
Mer waits for the warrior to continue speaking, but he doesn't. He tilts his head like a confused pup. "You what, sir?"
Ajani hums in thought for a few seconds. "I just... didn't ask the boss why he was accompanying us," he says. "Nor you. And Ashanti has been summoned as we—"
"Ohmygosh, Ashanti is comi—?!"
Mer slams his hands over his mouth again.
Ajani runs a hand down his face, now beginning to actually grow a tad irritated, though it’s mostly because of his headache that still hasn’t quelled. He usually finds Mer’s enthusiasm over seemingly trivial things to be nothing but charming, but the throbbing in his temples is making everything seem offensive. He lifts his hands in a mock sort of surrender, then exhales long and loud — not quite a sigh, not quite a groan. "Alright... here's what I'm going to do," he says, his words all deliberate and over-enunciated, though still fused awkwardly within a sigh. "I'm going to tell you all of the things that I can think of about today and its mission that will excite you so that you can get all of your ohmygoshing out of the way before you drive the boss mad. Does that sound good?"
Mer just can't stop giggling at Ajani's words. He's lucky Ajani has such a kind heart. He's one of only a small handful of warriors who would ever subject themselves to the torture of glee. "Oh gosh. Okay."
"But you need to promise not to say anything until I'm finished speaking, alright?" Ajani’s tone is still that of a parent scolding a child.
He’s met with even more giggling. "Oh gosh. Yes. Okay. Shoot."
Ajani breathes in deep, then exhales long, gathering his thoughts and preparing himself for another loud squeal... or several... "Okay...” He counts off everything on his fingers. “You've been called out on a raid, along with myself, several of the grunt archers, the boss, Ashanti, and Onika." He can see Mer already covering his mouth to keep from bursting from excitement. Ashanti and Onika are Mer’s other best friends in the tribe, being the last of the five members of the royal circle alongside him, the chief, and Ajani. Ajani speeds up his words so Mer doesn’t have to hold his breath much longer. "The mayor of Cogham's niece is in town, so we will probably get to spook her, which will be fun. There's several nests of baby Crokabeks out on the plateau that are quite adorable, the weather is supposed to stay this pleasant for the rest of the afternoon, there's a full moon tonight, which I know you love a lot, and, if all goes well, and we manage to, er... acquire enough ingredients from the villagers, Sahil should be making that stew you love so much with the unguberries in it for supper." He takes another deep breath, then closes his eyes and prepares himself for the inevitable screeching. "Alright, I think that's i—"
"Eeeee ohmygosh this is the best day of my life!"
Ajani had no idea Mer's bass could shoot up to such high octaves.
The typically stoic Ixi warrior can't help but smile once more as he watches Mer trot in happy, dancing circles around the room, muttering to himself — and his Carma — about the joys of the coming day.
It's not often that something like this happens around the camp — people getting excited, everyone gathering together for one cause rather than doing their own work alone, especially accompanied by the ever-busy chieftain. The temperature is never this lovely, the skies are never this clear, the wind is never this cool and comforting...
It really is the perfect day.
The pleasant realisation of how truly wonderful this mission should be makes Mer's annoying noises less... well, annoying... to Ajani as he waits for the sorcerer's little happy-tantrum to wear off, tapping the tips of his hooves on the ground once again.
He still can't shake that strange headache, though...
Eventually, Emmy splashes Mer with chilly saltwater using her strong tail from within the confines of her tank. It's definitely petpet talk for, Just calm down and let the man finish talking already — sheesh!
And Mer listens to his Carma, still giggling excitedly, wiping the water off of his cheeks and shoulders. He laces his hands calmly in front of him, straightening his posture proudly and respectfully. "Okay, I'm done!" he says cheerily. "Go on."
It takes a surprising amount of time for Ajani to keep talking, especially considering they're on a bit of a time crunch... but, eventually, the warrior comes out of what seems to have been a daydream, then looks back over at Mer. He gives a short nod of his head, regretting the notion immediately when it makes his headache worsen for a few seconds. "Alright, good," he says, trying to ignore the discomfort. "Hopefully now the boss won't toss you over the mountain to get you to hush..." Mer giggles again, but doesn't say anything more. He got most of his silliness out — thank Fyora. Ajani continues where the business talk last left off. "Well... to answer your question about it being a special occasion... I'm not sure," he says, his expression darkening to his typical soldier’s façade once more. "Though... I'm sure it's safe to assume there's something important about this mission if the entire royal circle is being summoned."
Mer nods his head enthusiastically, but forces himself to not speak any more excited, blabbering nonsense. "Do you think there's, like, a surprise or something?" he asks.
Ajani cocks an eyebrow. "Since when does the boss do surprises?" he asks, crossing his arms.
Mer scoffs. "Oh, you know what I meant..."
Ajani pauses in thought, then shakes his head slowly. "Actually... no, I don't," he says.
Mer scoffs again, this time throwing his head back slightly. "Like... like, you know... a surprise."
Ajani's expression begins to turn cold.
"Like... like, you know, right?"
"Like, something important is happening. Like, ooh, maybe we're crashing a party! Or there's a harvest, and we're gonna snatch up all their food! You know, something exciting! Like... a surprise!"
Ajani snorts out some semblance of a laugh. "I'm not sure you understand the definition of the word 'surprise,' Meretseger," he says cheekily.
This time, Mer is the one who rolls his eyes. "Well... still..."
"Though... I wouldn't be surprised if the boss has a reason for accompanying us," Ajani says before Mer has the chance to babble any more.
Mer's eyes light up once more. Their sparkle couldn't get any more radiant.
"But," Ajani continues, trying to stop Mer before he speaks, once again raising a hand to silence him, "we will never know unless we get going, so..."
"I'm right behind you, sir!" Mer says excitedly, giving Ajani a quick but respectful salute, holding his fist over his heart.
Ajani, relieved that Mer's boisterousness is finally being replaced by professionalism — well... the closest thing to professionalism that Mer is capable of — reciprocates the short salute, then turns to leave. "Let's get going.”
To be continued...