Stand behind yer sheriff Circulation: 177,714,884 Issue: 360 | 19th day of Gathering, Y10
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Falling Rain: Part One


by mutedsanity

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The new moon had risen. It hung like a fresh-minted coin in a still, cloudless sky of royal blue. Glowing overhead like a spotlight, it bathed the sleeping town in blurry silver dust.

     The only notable light on the entire floating island came from the highest window of the stone castle, flickering a ghostly pale orange through the night. Below, propaganda posters lined broken cobblestone streets and were nailed to locked wooden doors, banners of purple and black unfurled on wrought iron lamp posts and whispered in the cold night breeze, and a pair of filthy Darigan toys lay forgotten on the roadside.

     Just where they belonged.

     But high above this Citadel— his Citadel— General Kass was watching.

     The new moon had risen. And with it, a new dawn must always follow.

     The huge Darigan Eyrie smoothed out a crease in his elaborate black uniform, the coat riddled with golden braids and various military patches to broadcast his power. Deep purple feathers ruffling with self-satisfaction, he unrolled an intricate map that nearly claimed all the room on his desk. With a sleek silver dagger in hand, he slowly traced the tip of the blade over the surface of the Meridell likeness. Over those filthy fields, through those huts hardly fit for beggars, right up to that gaudy castle.

     Kass made tick-marks in various places as the blade traced a path along the map of Meridell that only he seemed able to discern. A perfect birds-eye view, as he could see for himself now if he were to lean out his window. Which was not an action worth recommending. Floating high above it all, each modest dwelling and green patchwork of field looked as though he could crush them all under his thumb like insects.

     Precisely his intent.

     Where Darigan had lost, Kass would not. Could not. He was strong. He was power. And he would not fail.

     “Brigadier General Aradour,” he called.

     “Yes, my Lord.”

     Kass straightened, holding the dagger loosely in his hand with the blade pointed down his wrist, turning mildly to look over his shoulder at the figure silhouetted in the doorway. She was a tall, willowy Darigan Kougra, her short purple fur slicked back, framing eyes like pools of black ink. She, too, wore a uniform displaying her high rank, albeit with slightly less grandeur than her leader. Her tail flicked slowly.

     “Is everything in order?”

     “Yes. All taps on the media have been successful. I have run background checks on nearly every feasible member of the late Darigan’s army, and have gathered a handful to accompany us, at your will.”

     “Well done,” Kass drawled. “That will be all.”

     She bowed low, her nose nearly touching her front paws. “Sir.”

     Kass turned back toward the window, his eyes glinting malevolently in the washed-out moonlight.

     “Oh, and Aradour?” He smiled with contempt.

     As she paused mid-exit, the Eyrie flicked his wrist, moonlight glinting off of his blade. “New moon tonight.” Pang. He turned fully towards her, the knife still quivering from where it had been driven into the table, piercing through map and wood alike directly over the heart of Meridell Castle. He offered a haunting smirk. “Enjoy it.”

     “Indeed, Sir.” Her eyes smoldered like vanishing stars. “Indeed.”

     | | | | | |

      The previous evening, Brigadier General Aradour had lingered outside an unremarkable stone cottage. After having made a double-take on the papers of information in hand, she had signaled for her guard to follow and approached the door. It was difficult to believe that the previous Major Arrihaz resided here. What with his reputation, she would have expected something a little more... conspicuous?

     After two curt raps on the door, it swayed open to reveal a frowning Darigan Eyrie. He was quite the picture, although not quite as large or burly as General Kass, he could still tower over most and was finely toned in his own subtle way. But there was something striking about him. Perhaps it was in the way he carried himself, with enough distinction and poise to make himself look bigger and more certain than he really was, or in his deep crimson eyes, entirely clear and mysteriously impassive. He was lean, sleek, perfectly manicured. His expansive wings folded loosely at his back, a much lighter shade of lavender against his otherwise plum feathers, and he carried what few unnoticeable scars he had with an air of acceptance. He seemed the sort to remain perfectly composed in any ill manner of situation.

     Whatever it was, Aradour was not disappointed. Which was honestly saying something in her case. Her gaze roamed over him for a moment, and she noticed his right foreleg was wrapped tightly in white rags. No doubt a battle wound.

     He stared blankly outside, greeted by the two figures clad in military attire, one clearly a superior officer and the heavy brown Grarrl beside her serving as security. The Kougra was the first to speak.

     “Are you the previous Major Arrihaz of Darigan’s army?”

     He hesitated a moment. Then, protocol setting in, he lifted a paw in a lazy salute. “I am.”

     “Excellent.” A chilling smirk touched her lips. Upon this confirmation, she shoved the door fully open with her shoulder and walked casually into his house. Arrihaz backed off to let the two of them pass, but his eyes slipped warily over them, a faint frown passing over his beak.

     Aradour turned in a half-circle to observe the modestly-furnished dwelling fit for only one person, wrinkling her nose at the lack of prestige. Shaking her head to herself, she looked back at Arrihaz and arched her eyebrows. “How untrusting. You’re looking us over for weapons.”

     She was right, of course. Arrihaz said nothing.

     “Allow me.” The Kougra smirked. “I have a sword at my side, as you can plainly see. A tangle net gun tucked into my coat, a dagger hidden in my pocket, and a handful of poison darts in my pouch.” She turned mildly toward the Grarrl. “Did I miss anything, Kitz?”

     “The bombs, ma’am.”

     “Oh yes. And two smoke bombs hidden in my coat. Rest easy, Major.” She smiled wickedly.

     Needless to say, Arrihaz felt anything but reassured.

     “Now, if I may,” Aradour continued. “I am Brigadier General Aradour, second-in-command under our Lord Kass. As you are well aware of, the General has taken command of the Citadel after Darigan’s fall. Few of the original militia remains after the war. Some were lost in battle, others cleansed from our systems. Traitors, like our former leader. You, however, are one of the few that has proven himself. Your reputation precedes you. Leader in various battles, responsible for a multitude of Meridellian casualties, and a loyal follower. Thus far, you have not once lost.”

     The Eyrie willed himself to remain silent.

     “Quite the expectations to live up to.” She held out her paw to the Grarrl, who handed her what appeared to be a badge of sorts. “Your leadership has, as of now, shifted. You are to report in two mornings to Lord Kass in the fortress. This is not a request. It is an order.”

     She presented the badge to him, which bore the shimmering crest of Kass, black and white squares united in the center by a violet bird. “Upon your compliance to serve your Lord, you in addition will be promoted a rank,” she added, smiling blandly in a way that blatantly stated there was no other option to consider.

     Although it sounded perfectly optional, that clearly wasn’t the case. Arrihaz was no fool. He knew just as well as the next that if he didn’t show his face that morning, nobody would ever see that face again. By ‘cleansing’, after all, she meant deserters or so-called traitors taken out by their own comrades. If he didn’t show, he might as well paraphrase his entire contract and jump out the window to spare himself the trouble. He accepted the badge, finally murmuring, “And just why is this necessary?”

     “Patience, Arrihaz,” Aradour hissed, her voice dangerously gentle. “I trust you’ll make the right decision.”

     With that, she turned and strode to the entrance, pausing in the doorway to glance back at him. “Lieutenant Colonel Arrihaz.” She smirked and nodded her goodbye, lifting a first to her chest. “Hail Lord Kass.”

     Slowly, Arrihaz matched the gesture. “Hail Lord Kass,” he echoed.

     The door clicked shut behind the two soldiers. Corrupt. Scum of the military.

      Just like him.

     Arrihaz threw down his badge, which landed with a clank on the floor. He stared down at it as though it were something entirely foreign to him. He knew what this meant. Another war.

     His regret. His losses. All those people. His own. His duty.

     He had just started to come to terms with it all, and now...

     Sighing, he wandered toward the window, staring out at the endless swirl of midnight blue sky. His breath steadily fogged the glass until the stars were blurry and dull. He felt a sense of vertigo, as if he might become unstuck and fall helpless into those thorns of light.

     | | | | | |

     Two days later, the handful assembled in one of the stone spires of the castle which many of them had honestly believed they would never have need to enter again. There was a strange feeling in the air, hushed and subdued. It seemed almost as though they were treading on forbidden ground, what few of them remaining after the fall of their former leader, all having been excused from their services only to find themselves once more in this familiar place under new command.

     It was a cold morning, and the air tasted crisp and fresh. The sky had painted itself liquid grey with gathering storm clouds, and murky fog blotted out the shapes of Meridell far beneath them, as though the Citadel’s shadow was so vast on this day that it cast the rest of the land in darkness. Usually apple-green mountains below stood grey in the dawn, as pale and insubstantial as breath blown on glass.

     Arrihaz didn’t recognize many of the others. A few he had seen in passing, in one battle or another, but he certainly wouldn’t bet anything on his remembrance of their names or ranks.

     Apparently everyone in the room had the same insight to come at least partially presentable. Arrihaz donned his navy blue cap, and although he imagined he’d look like a ridiculous ninny if he showed up in full uniform, he at least had come with his various patches and medals to prove he was really the Major at one point in his immediate past.

     One thing each of them had in common was that they all had matching badges like the one Aradour had given him. Arrihaz’s crest hung around his neck, the symbol of Kass allegiance mingling with his dark ruff of a mane.

     It made him feel strange. He had sworn his loyalty to Darigan, not Kass. As though he were an object carelessly passed from hand to hand. All out of duty, he supposed.

     He lingered around the window, the soft murmur of his comrades conversing gingerly around him fading into a dull background humming. The town on the Citadel looked even more adverse when one was staring down on it. Meager colorless cottages speckled rocky streets, which were often clogged with a motley variety of residents. Arrihaz had not failed to notice the posters and pictures of Lord Kass situated everywhere. And people were beginning to talk.

     “Dreary,” he muttered to himself.

     “You can say that again,” a voice beside him said grimly.

     Arrihaz looked down. A Fire Zafara stood to his side, noticeably small in comparison to the various undesirable characters littering the room, and clad in no more than a simple brown cloak. She had liquid blue eyes that stood out vividly against her otherwise black, red, and yellow color scheme. While many of the other hulking soldiers had permanent scowls etched down to their chins, she had a terribly friendly smile that instantly told Arrihaz she hadn’t seen the first thing about battles.

     “Hello,” she piped up, smiling brightly. “Corporal Brai. How do you do, Sir?”

     She thrust out a paw, and Arrihaz stared at it blankly for several seconds before shaking. Corporal. He was right, as usual. “Major Arrihaz.”

     “Oh! Please excuse me if I have spoken out of line, Sir,” Brai corrected herself dutifully.

     “Not at all.” He shook his head. Now knowing that she was speaking to a superior (and by quite a few ranks, at that), for a moment he thought she might stop talking altogether.

     Nope.

     “Hey, I think I was in your division before!” she blurted out. “We won that battle. You were amazing! Lord Darigan quite fancied us then--”

     “Show some respect when addressing a superior!” a grizzled Wocky snapped. He had been watching them down his nose, and scoffed at Brai now. “And don’t speak of that traitor,” he huffed haughtily. “You know who you serve now, Corporal.”

     “Of course, Sir,” the Zafara replied wincingly. “Forgive my incompetence.”

     Arrihaz cleared his throat. He said nothing, but when the Silver Wocky shifted his attention to him, the Eyrie only had to stare at him for several seconds before the old soldier snorted and turned away.

     Brai glanced between the two of them, and breathed a sigh of relief as the Wocky left her be. “Thanks,” she muttered softly, looking up at Arrihaz. “I’m always slipping up like that. I’m surprised I got called back at all,” she admitted sheepishly, “after all the times I’ve messed up.”

     “Maybe we’ll be placed in the same division again.”

     “You mean you’d keep an eye on me?” she half-exclaimed. She grinned. “Thanks, you’re the tops— but I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble or anything because of something I did.”

     Arrihaz’s reply was cut off by the sudden silence that filled the room. He looked over in time to see General Kass himself sweeping through the doorway, flanked by Aradour. Everyone stood up straight in rapt attention, stringing together to form a sloppy line facing their leader.

     Arrihaz hardly knew what to do with himself. No previous form of etiquette seemed to apply, other than to take off his hat. Brai stood at attention to his side, looking uncharacteristically nervous.

     The intimidating form of the Eyrie stopped in front of them, his second-in-command hovering behind him. “Good morning,” Kass greeted them smoothly, a deceptive smile crossing his face. “And congratulations. You have all made it here for a reason.”

     He began to pace slowly up and down the line, observing each of their stoic faces. “There are few of you, but you are what remain of a top-class army.” He would sometimes pause in front of a soldier, hold them captive in his chilling eyes, and then continue down the line. “You are the ones who have proven yourselves in combat, strategy, and loyalty. You are the ones who will continue to serve and protect this Citadel. I trust you are all honored and deserving. I’ve heard my fair share about all of you; in fact have fought with some of you in the Meridell War. Some of you are leaders that helped pilot us to victory.”

     “But alas,” his voice dripped with malice, “your former leader betrayed us. That coward is long gone now, and I have dutifully taken my post. I live for the people, and therefore it is my sworn duty to protect them. And you will all help me with this responsibility. I trust you all will accept my leadership without question, as you did with your last. You are all mine now.”

     Brai glanced tensely at Arrihaz, who couldn’t help but frown, himself. Someone down the line spoke up, “Sir, if I may: why have you summoned us? We are at peace with Meridell, so this hardly seems necessary--”

     Aradour was upon the unlucky Kacheek in the blink of an eye. He muffled a gasp as he found himself staring in shock up at the Darigan Kougra, who pressed her blade to his throat. “You will refrain from speaking out of line to your leader,” she hissed viciously. “Is that clear?”

     The Kacheek swallowed hard. Smirking coolly, Kass wandered down the line-up toward him. “Have patience.” Aradour lowered her dagger and backed off as Kass stepped in. He stooped down to the Kacheek’s level to stare him squarely in the eyes. “I’m afraid there’s been a change in plan.” He grinned wickedly. The Kacheek shrunk under his gaze, trembling visibly. “Peace doesn’t last forever. You all may be needed yet.”

     Again, Brai glanced at Arrihaz, biting her lip. He furrowed his brow, but remained silently watchful.

     “And, if need be, you will all be honored to serve your new leader!” Kass burst out, standing straight and whipping out a dagger from his belt. He brandished it above his head, his wild eyes searing over the lot of them. “Is that clear?”

     Many of them glanced apprehensively at one another. There was a subdued murmur of agreement.

     Kass dropped the knife with a startling clatter and abruptly drew his sword. “I said, is that clear?” he repeated, his voice rising. There was an enthusiastic chorus of affirmatives this time.

     “I have taken the liberty of promoting several of you up a rank. There will soon be others to take your former place, as I want my army to be lead by only the most trustworthy. Soon, my warriors-- soon my land will see a new day!”

     Mixed emotions churned through the gathering. Some bared their teeth in grins and clapped one another heartily on the shoulder, others glanced about with unease or surprise, while others simply stood with a neutral acceptance chiseled into their posture.

     Brai had gone a little pale.

     Kass ran his gaze over them all once more, and, to Arrihaz’s displeasure, it caught on him. The General smirked in the face of Arrihaz’s sober indifference. But the Eyrie could feel his heart skip a beat as his towering similar drew near.

     “Arrihaz, am I correct?” Kass drawled mildly, stopping a matter of paces in front of Arrihaz and sizing him up with scrutinizing eyes. “I’ve heard a fair amount about you. You fought valiantly in the Meridell War, and led the late Darigan to many victories. Your unconditional loyalty is valuable.”

     With a roll of his wrist, the tip of his sword swooped in a circle near Arrihaz’s head. The Eyrie didn’t budge. “Rumor has it you’ve suffered your fair share of personal losses. Your reputation is notable. You could be of great use to me, and yet... why such confrontation in your eyes, friend?” He spat the word like acid. Without warning, he tipped his sword down, so that he held the tip hovering a breath away from Arrihaz’s throat.

     Arrihaz’s eyes never left the General’s. Brai opened her mouth as though she were about to interject, but the Eyrie held up one paw to silence her.

     Kass smirked. “Bold. I like it. Now... are you against me... or with me?” He moved back two paces and turned his sword so that the blade was facing his own body, offering the hilt to Arrihaz. His eyes twinkled maliciously.

     After a beat, Arrihaz lifted his paw. Aradour moved forward, but was quickly stopped by a wave of her leader’s hand. His defiant gaze never left Arrihaz. The Eyrie wrapped his paw around the handle, slowly taking it from Kass.

     “Well?”

     Arrihaz lifted the heavy sword and swung it at empty air. The blade swooped and rang quietly. Unexpectedly, he swung and spun it again and again, picking up speed until the air sang. The blade came within a hair of those standing around him, and Brai took a step back, staring on in awe, her expression mirroring those around her. He handled the blade with an unbelievable mastery, moving with the weapon as though it were a dance, stepping and swaying in perfect unison with his deadly partner. Finally, he gave the sword a powerful twist into the warrior’s salute, bringing the blade to rest with its point quivering on the floor.

     He nodded to Kass.

     There was a moment of utter silence.

     The still was brushed aside like heavy drapery with a short, dry laugh. Kass was clapping his hands together, slowly, deliberately. “Bravo.”

     Arrihaz dipped his head curtly and handed the hilt back to the General. Kass took it with calculated leisure, sliding it back into its sheath with a click. “Thank you, Lieutenant Colonel.” With a brief smirk, he backed up to address the rest of the line-up. “You are all to wait here until you are dismissed. I have a little.... business to attend to.”

     As he and Aradour swept back out they way they had come in, it was as though everyone in the room had been holding their breaths, as there was a collective exhale. Postures slumped in unison and looks of every nature were cast from one face to the next.

     “That was amazing!” Brai blurted out, staring at Arrihaz in marvel.

     His eyes lingered on the door after Kass for several seconds before he tore them away to look down at the Zafara.

     “I wonder what he wants us to stay here for,” she mused, without waiting for his response. “This doesn’t look too good.”

     “He wants us to stay so we can hear every word he says,” someone muttered bitterly. “That cheeky little... Look down there.”

     Brai followed the pointing finger to the window, where various other soldiers had gathered to watch a preceding in the village below. The Fire Zafara wormed her way through and peeked out the window, her eyes widening.

     | | | | | |

     A crowd of citizens had gathered in the center of town. They clogged the cobblestone streets and stood intently in unnaturally still air. All was silent, but for the resounding voice of their leader, who stood on a podium above his mesmerized people.

     “...a time of peace... a time of prosperity... a time of understanding!” Arrihaz could hear Kass booming. He leaned across some smaller soldiers as he listened to the proceedings below them.

     “But there are those who would take our newfound freedom, my friends. Those who would rob it from us...”

     Brai and Arrihaz exchanged uncertain looks. “What is he doing?” someone beside them murmured restlessly.

     “...Those who would lead us to another war! In the name of selfishness! In the name of greed!” General Kass’s voice was beginning to gain volume and emotion, and with a mighty sweep of his hand, a large red poster unfurled behind him, bearing the hateful face of their enemy. “In the name of King Skarl!”

     The crowd erupted into jeering and hissing, shaking fists at the likeness of the hated king. “Are we going to let him wage war against us AGAIN?” Kass bellowed, soaking up the energy of his crowd. “Are we going to let him attack us?”

     The mass roared their heated response. “NO!”

     “Are we going to let him ruin everything we’ve built?”

     “NO!”

     “Then, I ask you my people... I ask you...”

     Brai clapped a shaking paw to her mouth. All the soldiers watched in utter silence.

     “...What should I do?”

     The crowd surged. “WAR!”

     “Attack him first!” someone in the crowd yelled.

     “WAR!”

     “Show him who’s boss!”

     “The people have spoken!” cried Kass. He seized the glimmering golden hilt of his sword and drew it with an impressive flash of light, holding it high above his head. “And the will of the people must be obeyed!”

     The mob cheered at full volume and threw their firsts into the air.

     “Death to Skarl!”

     “War it is!”

     Above, the soldiers stared on in a breaking silence. “War,” someone repeated in a whisper.

     “About time,” someone else said gruffly. Several people grinned.

     “WAR!” the crowd below them continued to chant.

     “So soon,” a Uni soldier mumbled, glancing hesitantly at those wide-eyed and stunned around her. “What is Kass up to...?”

     “WAR!”

     “As you wish, my lord.” A Wocky nodded dutifully toward the window. Many others watched with a sullen acceptance.

     “WAR!”

     A Lupe laughed humorlessly. “Brilliant.” Someone else groaned.

     “WAR!”

     With wide, frightened eyes, Brai staggered back. She could only shake her head in stunned disbelief.

     Arrihaz stared blankly out at the surging masses. He could see the most emotionless of smirks on Kass’s face. He turned his head to stare at the wall, his eyes clear and empty, his jaw clenched tightly.

     War.

To be continued...

 
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