Falling Rain: Part Four
Something had changed.
The lead Kass’s soldiers had was slipping. Somehow, Meridell was retaliating, but those on the battlefield had no idea how. On this night, everything would turn around. Those fighting below in the fields couldn’t possibly know what would fly right above them toward their Citadel and leader.
That night, nobody would see it coming. Not Jeran, not the outcome of that final battle, and certainly not the return of Darigan, their former leader.
That evening, Firieq and Arrihaz led their units in a joint ambush on Meridell troops. Among a routine attack, a typical raid of nearby huts, and an average twilight, there was something different, somehow. An electric charge in the air, threatening that after tonight, nothing would be the same.
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“Get down!” Arrihaz shouted.
He shoved two of his shoulders onto the ground with a powerful sweep of his wings, then crouched down after them just as a blast of fire shot past inches above their heads. It singed the tips of a Gelert soldier’s ears.
Arrihaz lurched forward, taking down the attacker by sheer force. He knocked the weapon out of the Blumaroo’s paw and held him down with one huge front paw.
All around him was chaos. A cacophony of noise, a blur of colors, everywhere fighting. With his and Firieq’s troops combined, they outnumbered the unprepared Meridell soldiers that had been camped here.
He looked around. It was as though all the shouting voices blurred into one. Something within him churned at the sight.
What was he doing?
His soldiers didn’t even know these “enemy” soldiers. For all they knew they could be exactly the same-- painted the same color, with a similar family to protect, enjoying similar games or foods. Whose place was it to separate them, draw a line in between, and then tell them only one of them could be “right”? In a different situation, all of these people could very well have been friends. So what gave him the right to fuel their mindless hatred now?
Just change the uniform, and this Blumaroo could be him. Arrihaz looked down at him with wide eyes. The Meridell soldier was shaking under his paw. In his eyes there was... fear.
Arrihaz had never looked into their eyes before.
He jarred back as though he had been electrocuted. Eyes widening, he backed away from the Blumaroo and cast a disarmed look around the battle field. What was the reason for all of this?
Desperately, he intercepted one of his soldiers before she could reach a target. “Where’s Corporal Brai?” he demanded.
“Um... I think she’s part of one of the groups on a raid, Sir. With Captain Firieq,” she answered, lowering her sword in confusion.
Arrihaz swore under his breath and took off running. He dodged battling pairs, ducked under the swing of blades, shoved over anyone who stumbled into his path. Each of his four paws pounded the ground as he sprinted toward the Meridell cottages perched at the base of the hill. In his rush, he left his sword abandoned on the ground.
Her voice rang in his ears. He understood... he always had.
It’s compassion that’s worth fighting for.
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The first cottage he burst into was in shambles. The inhabitants must have fled when they heard the fight, and Firieq’s soldiers had stolen anything valuable. Now it was abandoned.
A guilty expression passed across Arrihaz’s face, and then came back and camped there.
He sprinted to the next house to the sounds of shattering glass and metal protesting as it was abused. A handful of soldiers were tearing it apart top to bottom-- overturning furniture, taking money and jewelry out of drawers, and completely destroying anything pro-Skarl. The door was hanging off its hinges and several windows were broken.
Arrihaz stopped in the battered doorway. They were all wearing the same crest as he was. These life-destroying tools of war... and he was one of them.
“Stop,” he growled.
An Acara who was closest paused and looked up at him. “Is something wrong, Lieutenant Colonel?”
“I said stop!” he repeated, louder this time.
A few more soldiers hesitated and gave him their attention, halting mid-break with bags of Neopoints and items dangling from their paws.
“STOP!” Arrihaz yelled, a snarl ripping out of his throat. “THAT’S AN ORDER.”
Everyone froze. The house grew silent.
“Put everything down,” he commanded, his mane bristling, “and go back to your stations. Do not return here or to the battle field. Is that clear?”
They shot baffled looks across the room.
One narrowed his eyes. “But sir--”
“NOW!” Arrihaz snapped, stepping forward with a hiss. His long black claws flexed against the carpet.
Someone yelped and moved for the door. Arrihaz stepped aside and watched them all hurry out, uncertainty and confusion etched on their faces. His eyes narrowed.
“Do NOT come back.” He crouched threateningly as though he were going to pounce, every lean muscle on his body tight.
There was collective gulping and a murmured “yes Sir” as they all scrambled to get away. Arrihaz watched until they had cleared the hill, and just as he was turning to chase out the soldiers in the next house, a dry cackle interrupted him.
“Very entertaining, Arrihaz,” Firieq said.
The Shadow Lupe was sitting in front of the next house, in Arrihaz’s path. He was smirking, but his ears flicked back and his eyes tightened.
“Stand down, Firieq,” Arrihaz advanced.
The Shadow Lupe snorted and stood up, meeting Arrihaz's gaze with sooty eyes.
"I'm not sure what you think you're doing, Captain," Arrihaz said dryly, stressing the lower ranking position. "But I advise you to get out of my way."
"Me?" he scoffed. "I'm following General Kass's orders to raid these houses. What are you doing?"
The Darigan Eyrie tensed. A few soldiers had stopped what they were doing to come closer and see what was going on. Arrihaz noticed that Brai was one of them. She clutched her cloak anxiously and watched with worry set in her brow.
"Why ruin our fun, Arrihaz?" Firieq challenged.
Brai's eyes widened.
Arrihaz looked back just in time to see Firieq charging at him, his teeth bared in a snarl. Arrihaz crouched and then lurched up just as Firieq's fangs met the back of his neck, bucking the Lupe off and sending him skidding out to regain his balance.
He sprang again, and this time Arrihaz deflected the blow with one of his own. His massive paw smashed across the side of Firieq's face, and in the Captain's stunned pause, Arrihaz rammed into him like a brick wall. Firieq, being smaller, was knocked flat on his side.
Arrihaz took a few steps back. Firieq stumbled shakily back onto his feet, panting. There were four parallel cuts across his cheek from Arrihaz's claws.
Arrihaz braced for another attack, but instead Firieq shot a glare at the crowd that had formed around them. His eyes caught on a Shoyru and Scorchio to his side. "You two," he spat, "fly back to the Citadel and tell Aradour we have a situation. It seems we have a traitor on our paws." His granite cold stare flicked back to Arrihaz.
The two he signaled out hesitated, their loyalties divided between the two commanders in front of them— one a more superior position in their army, but the other in the right, as far as they were concerned.
The Eyrie bristled. "I'm not on their side, you idiot! I just don't want to be a part of any of this anymore!" He stopped, snapping his beak shut in surprise at his own words. His jaw tightened.
"Then you're a deserter," Firieq sneered.
A murmur rippled through the crowd. Brai's expression hardened, but not at Arrihaz. She was watching Firieq. He looked back at the Scorchio and Shoyru and barked, "GO!"
They took off, wheeling up and out toward the dark shadow of their Citadel that stained the dusk sky. Arrihaz watched them leave, internally cursing his luck. If Aradour came down here and found him, it would be a death sentence.
"LOOK OUT!" Brai shouted.
Firieq had pounced again while Arrihaz's attention was diverted. Arrihaz saw him coming at the last moment, but before he could react, something else hurtled into Firieq's side and knocked him off course.
It was Brai. The Fire Zafara staggered back a few paces, facing Firieq with her fists raised to her chest. "Cheap shot," she muttered.
"Corporal!" Firieq had been thrown a few feet off his mark, and now crouched to face both Arrihaz and Brai. "How dare you!"
She shrugged loosely. "You don't deserve to lead anyone, you lunatic."
He scoffed. "Then just get rid of me!" he challenged.
"Don't think there's no charm in that offer," Arrihaz hissed.
A few people in the crowd ruffled. Firieq smirked triumphantly as he assumed some of his soldiers would step in and pull him out of this mess. Apparently his tactics involved pushing people's buttons. But instead, Brai faced the restless onlookers and lifted her paws in peace.
"Look at you all," she said, a small, sad frown touching her lips. "What have we resorted to? Stealing what little these people have when their land is already at war? Come on, we have got to be better than that. What kind of a victory is it when there's nobody here to fight back? These aren't Skarl's soldiers, they just happen to live in Meridell! Are you proud of overpowering people who aren't even here?" She looked disappointed in them. "Imagine if this was YOUR house!"
Brai spun around at the sound of Firieq's voice. Suddenly he crashed into her, knocking her flat on her back and chasing all of the wind from her lungs. They rolled and thrashed around on the ground, kicking up dust as he snapped his fangs blindly in her face and she tried to shove him off.
She heard Arrihaz's snarl. It was the sort of growl that starts in the back of one throat and ends in someone else's.
Firieq was abruptly torn away from her and thrown like a rag doll. He spiraled across the ground and hit a wall of one of the houses with a loud yelp, slumping to the ground after impact. Arrihaz stood with his back toward her, defensively facing Firieq, his tail twitching angrily behind him and his wings slightly opened, making him seem even bigger than he already was. As Brai got up off the ground, she could see his shoulder blades tense as his front legs lowered him into a crouch.
This time, Arrihaz was the one to attack. Just as Firieq had made it back onto his feet, Arrihaz plowed into him headfirst. In a flurry of growls, scratching, biting, and pounding, the two finally shoved apart for a moment and circled each other. Scratched up and panting, each pair of narrowed eyes blazed past ruffled fur and feathers.
"Oh wait, I forgot," Brai said sarcastically, "you'd need compassion to understand, Captain!"
She had snuck up behind him in the scuffle with a small branch in her paw. Just as Firieq was wheeling to face her, Arrihaz spun around onto his front legs and with one strong back leg delivered a powerful kick. The blow sent Firieq crashing onto the ground.
Brai broke the stick over his head. The Lupe went rigid for a moment, and then slumped over, unconscious.
Her eyes widened in shock at herself. As if she hadn't realized until just now that she had assaulted her Captain.
Arrihaz yelled at the crowd before they could turn on him, "As many of you saw, Captain Firieq was the one who initiated this attack on me, his superior." He had never played the rank card so many times in one day. It had finally come in handy. The small crowd didn't like it, but they had to back off and let him pass out of their sworn duty to obey, unsure of what they had even witnessed.
Brai was at his side in a moment. "We have to get out of here fast," she whispered anxiously. "The second Aradour finds out about this, we're done for."
"We?" Arrihaz repeated, looking at her skeptically. "You're coming with me?"
She smirked. "Of course."
"Brai," he growled, "you can't take a fall for me. I'm too dangerous. I--"
"I trust you," she interrupted.
He paused. He didn't know why he said it, but he whispered the truth: "But I don't."
She opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again. There was something sad behind her eyes. "Come on, we don't have much time."
He sighed and trotted forward, shouldering his way past confused soldiers until he was away from the cottages. He eased into a run. Brai was right behind him.
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Leaving the small cluster of cottages behind them, Arrihaz and Brai sprinted for a patch of trees far across the clearing. If they could make it into the shelter of the forest, they'd have a better chance of losing Aradour or whoever else would be on their trail very soon. They were just begging to be jumped out in this cleaning. They were in a grass bowl surrounded by hills, the distant ring of a battle just on the other side.
"See," Brai huffed softly, "I told you you'd do the right thing."
Arrihaz scowled at her. "I'm deserting my troops. That's cowardice."
"Having a heart isn't something you need forgiveness for. That doesn't make you weak."
Before he could respond, a shrill shriek cut Arrihaz off. He slowed down and scanned his sharp eyes across the field, catching sight of colors that shouldn't have been there. "There are people over there," he said, and without further direction, he and Brai peeled off their course to the trees and headed for the trio of Neopets.
Brai almost stopped dead at what they saw. A Mutant Usul and Yellow Yurble, both bearing the crest of Kass, surrounded a young Green Quiggle. The Quiggle was crying and trying to run past them, but the two soldiers kept intercepting him and cackling wickedly.
"What's the matter, kid?" the Usul sneered, crossing her arms. "You lost?"
"Must be far from home." The Yurble smirked.
Brai shrieked in horror and rage. They both jolted and looked at her and Arrihaz as they stopped a few feet away.
"Ah! Sir!" They went rigid at attention.
"Is that a little kid?!" Brai shouted, startling them all. "What the heck is wrong with you?! Overpowering a child! I'll bet you're proud of yourselves!" She fumed.
The soldiers glanced at each other in confusion. "Sir." The Yurble addressed Arrihaz instead. "He's from Meridell." He pointed an accusing paw at the Quiggle, who cowered.
"I couldn't care less if he was from the moon," Arrihaz growled. A fleeting look of panic crossed their eyes.
"Get out of here!" he shouted.
The Yurble yelped and bolted, the Usul stumbling after him. Arrihaz and Brai glowered after the two soldiers until they were out of earshot.
"See?" Brai sighed, her anger dissolving into a heavy sadness. "This is what our side has become. We were never this heartless when Darigan was around. What is Kass doing to these people?"
Arrihaz just shook his head. A whimper drew his attention back to the Quiggle, who was peeking up at them between his fingers, hiding his face.
"Oh you poor thing," Brai said softly, her eyes like liquid. "Are you alright?" Slowly, she moved closer and knelt down. When she reached out a paw, the little Quiggle squeaked and covered his face again.
Arrihaz frowned and sat back on his haunches to at least appear a little less huge and intimidating. "We're not going to hurt you."
"We're here to help," Brai agreed. "We scared away those mean soldiers, see?"
He peeked out at her again, as if taking that fact into account.
"But it's not safe to be out here. We have to get you home."
He nodded and pointed toward the forest. "Mom told me not to leave the house," he whimpered. "She'll be mad."
Brai offered a small, relieved smile at the soft sound of his voice. "I think she'll just be happy to see that you're okay." She held out her paw again and helped him onto his wobbly feet. "My name's Brai."
"I'm Toulu," he replied.
"It's nice to meet you." She smiled as he let her pick him up. She turned toward Arrihaz and started to hold Toulu out. "This is Arrihaz. You can ride on his back--"
The Quiggle shrieked and buried his head in Brai's cloak. "Kass!" he squealed.
The single word felt like he had been punched in the kidneys. Arrihaz winced and, uncharacteristically, lowered his eyes. "We're both Darigan Eyries... but we're not at all the same," he said softly.
"Please, Toulu," Brai coxed, patting his back. "Arrihaz is a lot faster than me, and he can fly in case anything bad happens. You'll be safest if he carries you." The Quiggle looked back at Arrihaz uneasily. "Please trust him. He's my friend."
Both Toulu and Arrihaz reacted to the word. Toulu nodded seriously, as if this was a good enough reason for anything, while Arrihaz raised his eyebrows in surprise. Friend? He had been called a lot of things in his life-- soldier, Sir, brother, now traitor-- but rarely friend.
Brai set Toulu on his back. Arrihaz kept his wings tucked in snugly and Toulu clung to the black fur of his mane. His fingers touched something around the Eyrie's neck. Arrihaz looked down and saw the crest of Kass still hanging like a medal around his neck.
He snorted and ripped it off, tossing it into the dirt. Where it belonged.
With a grin, Brai did the same. "Good riddance," she said cheerfully.
Despite himself, Arrihaz smirked back. It felt good, like a weight had been lifted with the discarded emblem. Something like... freedom.
"Let's go," he said, and they both took off into the forest.
To be continued...