10. Battle for Bridge Town

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As the days went on, Regina and Dwain struggled to rediscover what it meant to live in normalcy. Though their bodies took the time to mend and heal from the atrocities they'd experienced – it was internal anguish that proved to be the most devastating wound to mend. Astral knew that without careful attention, any provocation could bring infection – deep-rooted infection, that if left unchecked, would lead to the destruction of all innocence.

Astral peered out into the Hollow through the window over the sink, taking a deep drink of orange pekoe from his favourite tin cup. Across the way, he found the children working away together in the vegetable garden, cutting free and bundling together whatever crops they could muster. They had been at it all morning.

With new mouths to feed, Astral was sure to run low on supplies. The day to travel for KeetoTown had come. He prayed the pests and blight had left enough produce to barter with. He prayed to have made the right choice.

Canines devastated AltusVillage.

Astral shook the thought away. That's what the children had told him, and that's what he had seen through their memories. But it was impossible. The writing was in the dirt! Galheist, in its unification since the Falling, didn't offer refuge to anyone who once associated under the Empire, let alone dared to figuratively consume their neighbours. Canines simply did not exist here.

But what of this "Alexia the Sage" legend? An idea so well-concocted that wheda who once unified against all canines now swore to kill each other because of the canines.

Incarnate of Mother Azna or not, the Zuut had seemed to naively unwind careful centuries of hard work and stringent border regulation. It seemed as though civil war between the alliance who worshipped the Zuut, and the retainers of tradition who worshipped Alexia the Sage, was tearing everything back apart. By the claws of canine bandits or not, AltusVillage was but a casualty in the name of unnecessary war and bloodshed.

Both sides were at fault. Good intentions the Alliance or the Retainers may have – both were at grave fault, rife with corruption and power lust. The mere idea of a mammal like Alexia the Sage, the complete antithesis to the peaceful gospel of the Zuut, proved this.

But the Zuut also had an army of trained weaponslords.

Mammals were dying on both sides, and in between. Innocent mammals. Destruction. The loss of purity. The loss of all that is worth living for. No amount of hope for a perfect future could blossom from anything like that.

Astral felt ill to his stomach. He took another sip of tea to wash away the nausea that tried to bubble up his throat, and watched the children work away in the garden as children do best.

They're mine now.

So young. Helpless.

No. They are the kin of terrorists, birthed and raised within a bubble of radical indoctrination. They're fugitives. And by harbouring them, you have become a traitor to the Alliance.

They are criminals by rite of birth. You cannot salvage them.

The only cure to their suffering is eradication.

"They're children," Astral chided himself. "And in any case – I have no true proof they are children of Retainers."

Do not dare to delude yourself, Astral Ages.

Death will come for them both at a moment's notice. They're not safe out there in the world. Not in KeetoTown, not anywhere in Galheist. Not even here, under your protection. Not anywhere in the world. So long as their history marks them, danger will rear its maddened eyes upon their broken little souls.

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