24. Purring Skies

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As the days passed since their trek to KeetoTown, the thought of the Alliance and the opportunities promised by its Civil Peace Corps pervaded Dwain at every moment. And with each thought brought blooming strength to his fragile heart.

The flyer from Keeto's post office stared up at him, torn and crumpled, creased from the many times he'd folded it away in secret from Regina and Astral. It knew him, what he needed. What he had to do in order to regain a sense of peace in his own life – a sense of peace that Regina had seemingly sequestered so easily through her alchemical studies.

Dwain imagined himself clad in the emerald armour of a Vidian Peace Officer. He saw himself riding among a fleet of proud fell ponies on their way to KeetoTown's Alliance outpost on Drury Street. He heard the cheers of the grownups, the gasps of their kits as their favourite officers rode past. Dwain felt the fire in his soul, the yearning of these mammals – the justice and protection they desired, and a justice and protection he provided them. Dwain felt for them – and the pride he felt as a peace officer was the very derivative of this. These mammals who cheered and chanted with unbridled pride and awe – they inspired Dwain. His newfound purpose was now a reality: to serve Galheist and the tribes across its very lands with honour, with compassion, with a just paw.

But as he rode through Arks Road, the skies became black with thundering rainclouds. A cloud of dense vapour billowed in from the alleyways. Black smoke appeared overhead Keeto's hay-thatched roofs. The smell of smouldering harvest filled his nose.

His fell pony became restless. Dwain cooed to it, reeled gently on its reins and realized he was alone in the street. The cheering of the crowds became stillness, a deathly silence beneath faint crackles of flame, the combustion of hay roofs that collapsed within hollow field-rock walls. All around him, the grownups who cheered and chanted, and their kin who clapped and praised, all lay in lifeless piles across blood-stained cobblestone.

Dwain gasped through a shudder of horror.

A voice from the vapour in the streets called to him.

He looked over his pony's mane. Within the smoke that billowed towards him appeared little skunk kit. She came forward on timid footpads, caressing her bushy tail between trembling paw digits. Her fur was matted to her body by soot and mud. Her eyes were wild with fear, crusted with dried tears. A filthy nightgown clung to her body, smeared with blood that didn't belong to her.

Dwain gasped. "Reggie...!"

"Don't leave me..." she said in a quiet voice. "Please ... don't ... don't go..."

Dwain's fell pony reared up on its hind legs. Lightening crackled, and the devastated Keeton skies were filled with shrill equestrian screams.

He shuddered. Reality brought him back to the loft above Phalanx's barn. Disturbed eyes fell to the Alliance flyer in his lap. The emblem of the horned stallion stared up at him from the middle of the parchment sheet. He swallowed hard, enveloped by the choking humidity of the barn loft.

Dwain suddenly rose from his spring cot, tossing the flyer onto the pillow. He fled the loft, galloping down the steps that encircled the side of the barn with thunderous footfalls. He needed to escape the Hollow – even for just an hour or so. Needed to clear his head and evaluate his heart in a space – a neutral space – that allowed for it.

Dwain claimed an errant wood-splitting axe left leaned against Phalanx's covered oats barrel on the other side of the barn and trotted along the dirt path, towards the incline down to the property's gate.

Often, over the season, Dwain would leave the Hollow to chop wood without breathing a word of his departure to Regina or Astral. He doubted they ever even noticed, as the few times he peeked in through the study's window, they were found deeply immersed in alchemical teachings, and never brought up his whereabouts when suppertime came.

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