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Arcane

By Miststream

Book 2 of Hosted 

~Prologue


"FINCHKIT, STEP forward."

I took a leap forward, breathless with excitement, my heart beating rapidly. I'm becoming an apprentice! I shivered and tried not to mess up the fur Dawnwhisker had so carefully made.

"Mouseclaw," Moonstar continued. "In all your seasons of committment to ThunderClan, you have shown great courage and honor, in camp as well as in battle. I trust you will pass this knowledge on to Finchpaw as well."

"I shall," Mouseclaw promised.

I scurried from my spot next to Dawnwhisker, and scrambled up to touch noses with my new mentor, just as she had instructed me, aware that my eyes were shining brightly. Mouseclaw bent down to do the same, not aware I was reaching up, and our heads collided. I bounced away, then sat up, rubbing my nose.

The Clan purred in amusement, and Mouseclaw helped me up. Moonclaw concealed a smile herself and the Clan chanted my name into the sky.

"Finchpaw! Finchpaw!" My mother's face glowed with pride, and she smiled encouragingly as I glanced at her from across the clearing.

~

"Oh no. What are we going to do?" the blue-gray she-cat murmured from her position near a misty-gray pool lined with gentle, sloping rocks.

"You said that destinies cannot be defied!" a sour yellow she-cat spat from beside her. "You will pay for this, Bluestar."

"And how will I pay for it, Yellowfang?" she retorted. "Will you hurt me?" She knew her companion would never hurt her, and her sharp words only went for how much she cared about loved ones.

"I will not hurt you." Yellowfang's eyes narrowed. "You know what happened to the destinies gone wrong. Nothing, nothing but trouble will ever come from it."

"This young cat was meant to die at her mother's belly," Bluestar breathed. "How is it possible? The sky has written her destiny out already, and it is not possible to change it!"

"We are the stars," Yellowfang replied somberly. "It is up to us to protect the ones in the mainland, even if that means not allowing one to live."

"So what are you saying?" Bluestar breathed. "Are you saying you wish young Finchpaw had died? How would we ever explain to her when she reached StarClan?"

"We would need to explain," Yellowfang replied tartly. "And there are no secrets to be kept in StarClan, Bluestar. If one knows, all know."

"Yellowfang." Bluestar shot rapid glances around, and then leaned in, her face now deadly grim. "You know who our real enemy is. Maybe the young cat had a chance to turn out before, but if he"—she spat the word he like scum on the ground—"corrupts her heart like he has in the past, she will have no chance."

"StarClan went wrong with Brokenstar," Yellowfang growled, "and you and I went wrong on Tigerstar. But that was because we were fighting the wrong enemy. We know our oppressor now, and we have a chance to change, turn everything around."

"I can only hope you are right, Yellowfang," Bluestar murmured. She gazed into the pool, filled with endless dimensions until it reached the mainworld, where Finchkit became Finchpaw, where laws stood for nothing, where friends and enemies were equal, and where neither hope nor despair overpowered the one fate that stood for it all—destiny.


~One

"WHERE ARE we going today?" I asked Mouseclaw. "Hunting?" My paws prickled with excitement. I'd never gone hunting before!

"No," Mouseclaw replied, purring with amusement. "You haven't even learned the hunter's crouch yet! We'll just tour the territory today and head back home."

Touring the territory didn't sound as fun, but it was still my first day out as an apprentice. I put on a grin and followed my mentor through a copse of trees. We were traveling on a small gravel path stuffed in between two lines of birches, and I had to weave aroud overhanging bushes to keep up with Mouseclaw.

Finally we broke into a large clearing, sided with trees, and a huge rock rose from the ground in the middle. Ferns climbed up around the base of the gray mass of stone, and the smooth surface itself was coated in a layer of green, thick-growing ivy.

"Do you know what we call this place?" Mouseclaw asked.

"Um..." I thought hard from everything Dawnwhisker had taught me about the Clan, when I lived in the nursery. "The...Gathering place?"

"Correct," Mouseclaw agreed. "We call this Stonetrees, where all three Clans meet. Can you recite the names of the Clans?"

"Well, ThunderClan, which is us," I replied, trying to remember. "And ShadowClan, who live in the pines. But I don't know the last one."

"RiverClan," Mouseclaw finished for me. "And do you know who the two other Clans are, who used to live alongside us?"

I stood straight confidently. I knew this -- Dawnwhisker had told me all about it. "WindClan, who wore away with disease while we made the second journey, and SkyClan, who lived a long, long time ago, and left the forest before the first journey."

Mouseclaw looked pleased. "My mother, Fernpelt, taught me all of my knowledge I have today. Has she told you any good stories in the elders' den?"

I nodded eagerly. "She told me how the second journey was, and how painful and hard it was to make it."

Mouseclaw laughed. "Fernpelt didn't even make the journey! But yes, it was very hard. Fernpelt's mother did, however, though she is with the stars right now."

"Will we have to travel through a third journey?" I asked.

"No," Mouseclaw replied, though something dark shaded his gaze. "The Great Journies are easier said than done. And it takes seasons and seasons of settlement before we even consider moving. This land is sustainable for us now, there's no reason to move."

I nodded, but I was still confused. Who was to say something wouldn't come that would make this land dangerous like it had before the other journies?

"We'd better head on home now, Finchpaw," my mentor mewed. The sun was setting down quickly over the horizon, sending bloodred rays over the sky, devouring the pleasant blue that had once been. He turned and went back the way we had come from. My paws were aching; I would have liked no better than to sink into a soft nest and drift off.

After reaching camp, I plopped down in the center of the clearing with a plump vole, while pouring out the day's activities to Dawnfeather. She purred and licked my forehead, occasionally shooting a glance at my food and reminding me to finish it before the flies came and settled down on it.

"I remember when I was an apprentice," Dawnfeather laughed to me. "I was just as perk and eager as you are. I wish I could train with you, but I'm far from that!"

"Oh come on, you're not that much older than me," I retorted. "You only had your warriors' ceremony a season or two ago. Anyways, I'm planning on becoming the best warrior in ThunderClan, so you'd better not mess with me!"

"Of course not, of course not," Dawnfeather agreed, purring with fondness for me. "You're my little warrior already."

~

The sun shone brightly through the clearing when I awoke. I sat up and stretched luxuriously in the empty apprentice's den, my sleepiness wearing off as my eyes adjusted to the sudden flood of brightness. I wondered where the other apprentice was -- he was many moons older than me, about the become a warrior, but I was surprised that I still had not seen him.

"Well, well, the sleepyhead awakes," snorted a voice beside me.

"Augh!" I squelched, and whipped around, my eyes pointing daggers. It was Rainpaw, a lithe black tom with agile green eyes, which seemed capable of spotting things from distances away.

"Smooth. Now, can you get a move on? I need to train. And I don't want newbies like you to be in my way."

Heat flooded my ears. "Yeah? Then why are you waiting for me if it seems I'm a newbie?" I demanded.

Rainpaw rolled his eyes. "Yeah. Whatever. Your mentor asked me to wait, 'cause he's going to do the session today." He glanced at me. "And groom yourself a little bit, you look like you've been dragged through a patch of brambles, backwards."

I glared at him.

He glared back.

Finally, I hissed, "Fine," and set about the grooming the spiky fur on my head while he ventured out to get Mouseclaw for the training.

Finally, when my fur was shining impeccably and my claws were cleaned inside and out, I walked out to meet Mouseclaw and Rainpaw and we headed out the camp entrance and into the forest.

"Today we'll be working on learning our hunters crouch" -- Mouseclaw shot a glance at Rainpaw when he opened his mouth to protest -- "or perfecting it. I expect you to help each other out, even though it seems you two are off to a bad start."

I looked away and I heard Rainpaw let out a humph. Mouseclaw was right about one thing -- we were definitely not off to a good start.


~Two

MOUSECLAW HELD his paw just below my chin, forcing me to look down on it and thus making my tail stick up higher. Every time I wobbled or stuck my paw out a little too much, Rainpaw let out an exaggerated snort -- once he even collapsed on the ground, hunching in a spasm of laughs.

Mouseclaw turned to him, irritated. "Rainpaw, if there is something so truly funny about the hunter's crouch, please do share, I'm sure Finchpaw and I would love to hear it."

I gave Rainpaw a triumphant glance but said nothing. "Um, n-no, there's nothing funny about it," Rainpaw stuttered.

"Then pray, tell me, why you were rolling all over the training clearing laughing your tail off?" Mouseclaw continued irritably.

"Nothing, Mouseclaw," Rainpaw mumbled, and bowed his head a little, curling his tail neatly over his front paws. Mouseclaw snorted and turned back to me. We continued like that until the sun rose higher over the treetops, warming the frozen ground a little.

"Alright, I should get back to camp. I've got a meeting with Moonstar at sunhigh," Mouseclaw broke off. "You two go hunting, and bring back at least two pieces of prey. And please, get along. Rainpaw, don't leave Finchpaw in a tree." Then he turned and left.

We sat next to each other in the clearing for a while, setting each other with our burning gazes. Finally, when Rainpaw opened his mouth to speak, I interrupted with, "And no, you can't leave me in a tree. Mouseclaw said so, and plus, I know how to get down."

So we traipsed through the forest aimlessly, though with Rainpaw somewhat moping and me keeping my distance in case he did decide to force me up the tree. I'd lied to him about it to sound brave, but even if I'd tried I wouldn't have to guts to get back down.

In a big oak, casting shadow on the ground, twittered a small flock of starlings, crashing around in the tree. I paused and glanced at Rainpaw; he didn't look at me. Hopefully he knows what he's doing; if not, he'll mess this up for both of us.

I dropped into my newly aquired hunter's crouch and set my path to the tree. Rainpaw glanced over, his eyes narrowing, and he quickened his pace to get to the oak before me, stirring up leaves in the process. Oh no, Rainpaw, don't try to compete with me now! We've got to work together!

I tried to make my paws move faster without making any noise. Silently I reached the tree, Rainpaw moments behind me. He glared at me from the other side of the trunk, then started to rapidly scale the trunk of the tree.

I hate you. With a soaring leap I latched onto the tree with my claws, a tail-length above Rainpaw, and scampered up. I was so high up I'd lost sight of him; I hoped he was still below me.

There! A black bird stood alone in one of the central branches. Readying my pounce, I bunched the muscles in my haunches for the leap and jumped --

-- only to collide with something, or someone, in the head, moving at full speed. Something like fury raced down my skull and into my spine, and I crashed back down through the branches, none of the boughs bothering to break my fall.

I landed on the crackly bed of leaves on the bottom of the forest floor, my back screeching with pain. For a moment it hurt to open my eyes; slowly I forced them to blink open and light flooded into my vision.

Groaning, I sat up and glanced over the litter-strewn ground. Around me was a dent, a crater with a fox-length radius around me.

I saw Rainpaw get up from the ground a few tail-lengths, shaking his muzzle and blinking his eyes, then get to his feet. I did the same and then stalked up to him.

"Great job you've done there!" I hissed, pointing with my tail to the tree from which we'd fallen off of. "Why don't you just let me work with you for once?"

Rainpaw tried to defend himself, though his expression looked sheepishly guilty. "It's not my fault," he countered. "You put too much strength into readying the leap and went too fast for your own good, doing me in the process!"

"Don't try to act smart with me," I hissed back. "Just 'cause you're almost a warrior doesn't make me dumb. Now, let's try to find some other piece of prey, together this time."

Though Rainpaw looked a bit stubborn at the start, he gradually let loose and helped me with the hunt, and soon we were carrying a large rabbit between the two of us.

"One down," I mewed, "and one to go."

Some bushes began to rustle behind us, as if something were hiding within. Rainpaw nodded to me, then to the far end of the clearing; I obliged and stalked to my position.

Rainpaw went directly for the kill -- though I thought it was unfair, I realized he would have a better chance at this than me. He crept up on the bush until it seemed he could go no farther, and then he put on a massive leap and landed squarely on the bush.

What came next was not expected -- instead of a mouse or vole running out of the bush, something much larger, with a long tail and pointed ears...at second glance, I realized it was a cat.

Rainpaw shot an alarmed glance at me; I didn't understand why he was questioning anything. It was time to act! "Come on!" I yelled, and started in a hasty pursuit of the tom. After a moment's hesitation, Rainpaw decided to follow me as well.

He was quick; I'd give him that. But I'd gotten a good look at him before he'd made the run for it: he was sleek and black, with sharp, intelligent green eyes and a pointed nose.

After minutes of running, I halted, my breath coming out in gasps, and sent Rainpaw, who was trying to keep up behind me, crashing into me and sprawling onto the ground.

"Are you okay?" I asked, helping him up.

He glared at me, though he looked worried. "Yes," he muttered. "Who was he?"

"If I knew, why would I be chasing him?" I countered. "Then I would know exactly who to look for. But I need to find out more about him right now."

"Why...?" Rainpaw asked nervously. "Moonstar wouldn't mind. Just a harmless rogue; he'll pass by in a day or two."

"A day or two more to steal our prey!" I hissed angrily.

"Hey, you're the one who's been an apprentice for one day," Rainpaw retorted.

"Fine," I said. "Fine. I won't follow him. But I will tell Moonstar about his trespassing and what he looks like. She'll catch him, and you can't do anything about it."


~

When we returned back to camp, Rainpaw went back to his apprentice duties and Dawnwhisker was out on patrols. I went straight to the leaders' den; as an apprentice of ThunderClan, it was now my duty to report anything strange I had seen.

I parted to ivy tendrils covering the den entrance tenderly and peeked inside. Moonstar and Mouseclaw were inside, sharing tongues and murmuring grave-sounding words to each other.

"Um...Moonstar?" I prompted. The white-furred she-cat glanced up.

"Oh, hello! What can I do for you, Finchpaw?" she asked, cheeriness returning to her voice.

"I saw someone by the border," I replied.

They waited.

I said nothing.

They waited some more.

"And?" Mouseclaw prompted. "Was it from another Clan? ShadowClan, perhaps, since it seems you were quite close to their border?"

"No, I'm sure it wasn't," I replied, thinking hard. He had looked a little scraggly on his frame, despite his sleek fur, and his eyes had a wild look to them, as if he thought he was going to die. "He looked completely uncivilized and I doubt he was."

Mouseclaw glanced at Moonstar, his gaze full of meaning. Moonstar sighed and mewed, "We would be alarmed, Finchpaw, if you were not only a day into apprenticeship and there weren't two other Clans. Leaf-bare is almost upon us and if we do take action on another Clan we will be too weak."

"But there was!" I protested. "Rainpaw and I chased him!"

Mouseclaw gasped. "You chased him? Do you not know the dangers of chasing someone with unknwn intentions!" He glared out the entrance. "I'll teach that Rainpaw; I thought he knew better than to let you go off."

"He came too!" I protested, trying in vain to defend Rainpaw. "We just wanted to -- "

"Never mind what you wanted to do," Moonstar murmured gently. "That was very dangerous and we don't need to you to get yourself in danger when we aren't there." Moonstar nodded to Mouseclaw and he gestured for me to leave the den, and he followed.

"You are grounded within camp until you learn to be sensible," Mouseclaw growled.

I gasped. "But what about training?" I protested.

"I'll take you out when you're ready, as I said," Mouseclaw retorted. "You're clearly not to be trusted out by yourself, and as punishment you won't train until you show it."

He turned around and left for the warriors' den. I glared at him, my eyes shooted daggers at his retreating tail. I was sure I'd seen a tom, and he wasn't from a Clan. I was positive. And I was going to do something about it, whether Mouseclaw allowed me to or not.



~Three

I woke up, the sun shining brightly into the apprentices' den. I sat up, giving myself a luxurious stretch, and then groomed my sleep-spiky fur back down. My mind went thinking a mile a minute.

Step one - find an excuse to go out.

I found Mouseclaw waiting as usual outside my den. He nodded at me in greeting. "Hunting at near sunhigh," he reminded me.

"Actually, Mouseclaw, I was wondering if I could hunt alone today," I cut in smoothly. "I think I can really hone on my skills that way."

He looked doubtful for a minute. "Are you sure?" he conceded at last. "You've only just began training, so you might need a bit of a hand while hunting."

"I think I've got it," I pressed. "Can I? Please?"

"Okay...okay, fine," Mouseclaw grumbled. "Just make sure you're not out for too long. And you've got to actually catch something - don't dabble around!"

By the time I had grabbed something from the fresh-kill pile, devoured it down, and gotten ready to go, the sun had nearly burned off all the mist clouding the sky. I hopped up, drawing my tongue over my whiskers, and headed out into the forest.

My gut told me to obey my mentor and hunt, but my mind told me to veer off track and into the denser woods. I cringed as I guiltily stepped off the well-worn path - what would Mouseclaw say if he were here right now? Put that all aside. Concentrate.

I finally reached the copse of trees Rainpaw and I had been hunting in the day before. Everything was untouched - I quickly found the scent I'd been tracking yesterday. It was stale; but that didn't stop me from continuing on the trail. What if it leads me to the rogue's den? My tail shivered with fear of a - albeit seemingly impossible - completely possible possibility.

My nose twitched as I hit a strikingly fresh scent of the same wrong - the rogue had been here recently: at sunhigh, not long ago, to be sure. My fur bristled in anger. How dare he return? This was ThunderClan land! I was ever more determined to find this elusive cat and teach him a lesson. I narrowed my eyes defiantly and continued on my trail.

Suddenly, the scent trail ceased. I sat back up, confused. Where did it go? How could it stop right there? The rogue couldn't have vanished; there were no trees in range for him to jump into either. He evidently didn't hide his scent, and there was clearly nothing here to do it for him. Unless...

...the rogue had doubled back.

"Boo."

"Augh!" I shrieked, and leaped a tail-length into the air as I heard the voice come from behind me. I turned back on him, hackles raised, and unsheathed my claws threateningly. "Who are you?" I hissed, my voice coming out as more of a weak gasp.

It was clearly the rogue - the black fur, the scent, and the lithe legs that hinted his fast sprinting from yesterday noted that for sure. I looked up into his eyes and found them strikingly deep, the color of an emerald glade, though below the layer of setup hid numb, cold emotion.

"I think you'd know me," the tom retorted coolly. "Wasn't it you and that foolish tomcat who chased me out of my wits the other day? I was just trying to find food, you know."

My fur started to bristle guility, but I regained my senses and bared my teeth. "This is ThunderClan land," I mewed firmly, glaring straight into his depthless green eyes. My paws started to feel warm and wobbly, and I commended them sternly to stay still. "You'd better get off before I warn Moonstar."

"Your petty leader can't do anything about me," he snorted. "Haven't you seen me before? You act as if you haven't."

I shook my head, creeped out a little. "How could I have seen you?" I hissed. "You'ren new here. And not welcome."

"Think back hard, Finchpaw," he mewed, his deep, warbling voice seeming to echo through my bones. "Delve into the memories. Remember Night?"

My mind was urging me to do as he said, but I shut out the oncoming memories and hissed, "If you want a fight, you're gonna get one, Night," I mewed defiantly at him.

He slid out his claws - the thorn-sharp edges, about a whisker length longer than mine, spoke for themselves.

I backed away a little, my fur on end. I shouldn't have come here. "Stay away from me," I hissed. "I'll run to camp and get Mouseclaw. Then you'll be ThunderClan's prisoner, so you'd better run."

"Oh, so you'll outrun me, then?" Night laughed at me. "I remember differently from yesterday. Weren't you the slower one?"

My pelt burned, and I decided not to give this Night any more chances - to make fun of me, or to hurt me. I abruptly turned and ran, intentionally kicking up stray foliage and debris. Night hissed as the dusty substance worked into his eyes.

Run. As fast as you can.

Panting hard, and my heart beating twice as fast, I raced across the clearing and into the woods, hoping I was going to right way. Was this the right way? If I was heading toward the main path leading to camp, the trees were supposed to be thinning, right?

I turned around and saw Night hard on my heels. Terror lighting up like a spark inside of me, I hurried on and sped along the invisble path I was cutting for myself, thorns dragging at my pelt. I winced as one tore through my flesh.

A booming laughter shook the air. "You can't get away from me, Finchpaw," rumbled the rogue's voice, though now apparently coming from everywhere around me. I gasped and tried to quicken my pace, if that was remotely possible.

The air suddenly became eerily quiet. The atmosphere became so dark and charge with tension that I had to freeze on my tracks, my paws digging into the slimy, moist ground, stopping myself just in time.

Something was very wrong.

Was it supposed to be this dark? Shouldn't I have reached the main path by now?

Yes, I should have.

Behind me stretched a long, long path, bordered with trees. It seemed to be the main path, until I realized the trees bordering the edges of the narrow road were melting into each other, morphing into one huge, unbreakable wall, towering tree-lengths above my head. I watched in horror as, in front of me, formed a one-way path with no escape.

A fierce pain burned in my forehead, and I was forced to snap my eyes shut to attempt to block it out. A vision unfolded in my mind, and Night's face appeared in view.

"Hello, Finchpaw," Night laughed, his voice echoing through my senses. I stiffened, but was unable to speak.

Why did you bring me here? I pleaded, trying to relay my thoughts to Night. Let me out! What did I do?

"You are a destiny gone wrong, and only destiny will mark your future," Night hissed quietly. Blackness started creeping up my vision; I fought to keep it clear in order to maintain view of the treacherous rogue. "The stars have made up quite a destiny for you to work yourself out of, hmm?" He leaned closer. "You have one moon to get yourself out of this one. And remember: what seems impossible may just be a trick of the mind - use your common sense, and you will work your way out of anything."

The mist cleared, revealing nothing but darkness. My conscienceness was sucked away from me, and my senses dissolved into nothingness. Despair enfolded me in its dreaded embrace; I felt myself sink into a deep, deep pit of blackness, of which I never knew when I would escape.

Only time would tell.



~Four

I woke up with the blistering sun scalding my face.

My eyes snapped open, and I hissed in pain and scrambled up, clawing at my face. It feels like its melting off! My fur felt eerily warm, and my eyes were so dry they were beginning to sting. My whole body felt perspirated and weary, as if the heat from the sun were sinking into my bones.

How did it happen? My mind whirled back and the missing pieces from before my blackout began to click into place - the rogue Night, the trap, the forest. Except... Before passing out, hadn't the trees been dark and heavily wooded? Now they were melted together yet spindly and instead of dark oak, consisted of peeling birch.

And the sun - before it had been darker than nighttime. Now it was as if nighttime ceased to exist. The sun was pouring all its wrath into my face, and I had to screw my eyes up tight to even attempt to glance anywhere around me. The world was bright - too bright - and very, very hot. It was a desert.

I scanned my surroundings carefully. It seemed like I was still on the main path I'd passed out on, though now its features were different, small pebbles littering the expanse and yellow sand and sun-baked dirt instead of moist black soil. I shivered despite the heat. What's happened? Everything changed. In the sand underneath my paws were littered very small pieces of clear shards. Glass. I remembered the substance as the dangerous pieces of metal that sometimes appeared in the soil near Twolegplace.

I turned around and glanced ahead of me. Still a very long expanse of path, with unbreakable walls flanking it on either side and scalding hot sand padding my paws while I walked. Was that the only way to go? There was no difference in any part of the trail: it seemed like it.

Now there was only one choice: left or right. I closed my eyes and let my paws choose for me, and felt myself being urged left, so I followed my instinct and hurried up the sun-baked trail.

~

The sun was ever hotter, I was panting, and my fur was drenched with sweat by the time I stopped to rest. I had been walking on the path for what seemed like hours, and I wasn't getting anywhere. I looked behind me. The completely flat path showed no landmarks that would help me judge the distance I had walked so far - for all I knew, I hadn't walked anywhere at all.

My tongue was parched and my mouth was burning like fury. I need water. I knew that eventually, somehow, somewhere, I was going to die in this desert without water. But either way, Night was going to kill me or I was going to walk into my own trap?

Water. Focus on water. Would this strange habitat have any water? It didn't seem likely as to the relentless sun and parched, cracked dirt ground. A single drop of water on this ground would have to be gone within heartbeats, let alone a water source with enough for me to drink.

Suddenly something glimmered at the edge of my vision. I turned around and saw something shining, right there on the horizon, so far away yet still reachable and on the path. And the substance seemed familiar to...water. My heart raced into an excited flurry at the prospect of water, and saliva flooded my tongue. My pace quickened with new purpose as I traveled toward the water.

My pads were beginning to flake off in layers each time I hit the hot sand ground with a paw. I flinched as the heat touched raw flesh and started hopping on two paws at a time, trying to keep my balance yet at the same time trying to keep the same pace. I shot a glance to the water and groaned.

What is it with this place? I still hadn't gotten anywhere. The pool of water seemed the same distance away from me, if not farther. My panting started to increase, and I felt as if a fire were burning within me. The pain was so intense, and suddenly it seemed to be the most hopeless but the best thing in the world to have a drop of water on my tongue.


I walked for hours and hours, until the sun began to set. In its wake it left a rush of warm air that preserved the uncomfortably hot, dry temperature, even without a burning sun to enhance it. The pool of water was still there, so close but yet so far away I could almost touch it. I can't do this anymore.

I collapsed on the hot desert sand, my back slouched against the path wall, and curled up into a miserable ball and cried. I can't do this. I'm going to die. This is hopeless. Through the layers of blurred tears I blinked at the water on the horizon: the sight of it teared me up even more. It was so close. What was I doing wrong? What had I done wrong? How could I get to the water?

I slouched back down to the ground and felt sorry for myself, my thoughts directed inwards. I thought back to a few days ago, when I was sharing tongues with Dawnwhisker and complaining to her about my stressful apprenticeship jobs. What would she think; where would she think I had gone? And what about Mouseclaw? I should have taken his warning, and not have gone after Night.

I blinked my eyes closed and rested my chin on my paw. I can give up now. There was no hope in any way. What was the point to keep on struggling if I could just let go... free of all the pain...

Oh.

I was being stupid.

...what seems impossible may just be a trick of the mind.

The water had been a mirage, and I had been correct - I had fallen into my own trap. I was killing myself for Night. I got up and dusted myself off.

...use your common sense, and you will work your way out of anything.

The water had been an illusion, and I was a fool not to have realized it earlier. But what else could contain water in such a hot enviroment? Night certainly made sure there had been some form of water somewhere - he had purposefully told me to use my common sense. He'd hid the water someplace ingenious, and I would have to find it myself in order to prevent myself from dying of thirst.

I glanced around at my surroundings. I realized the birch trees weren't birches anymore - they were a type of green, spindly, two-limbed trees covered in spikes, reminding me of a rosebush without the roses. The thick arms protruding from the bases stuck out at the sky.

Around the base of the odd-looking tree grew thick shrubbery and weeds. Weeds! The predominant pests only grew where water was most abundant, and there it could thrive. Which meant that somewhere around the weeds was a source of water.

There seemed no possible solution, however, other than cutting open the odd tree or digging underground, which I certainly couldn't do provided to scalding hot sand. I padded over the the tree and tested a pad on it.

Ouch! The needles were sharp! How was I supposed to cut through it?

I glanced around wildly for any sharp objects I could use to penetrate through the rough green surface. I dug through the sand with my paws, returning only with the very burning material - until my paw struck something sharp. I recoiled instantly, feeling blood welling up, and dug out the object that had pierced me.

Glass.

~Five

I gingerly held the shard of glass between my teeth, careful not to let it touch the roof of my mouth. It was sharp. I let the pointed edge of the glass stick out of my mouth and turned back to the tree.

Leaving a forepaw anchored on the ground for support so I wouldn't topple into the spiky, spindly thing, I reached over and tried to cut into the thick green skin with my glass. At first it didn't budge, but it gradually began to cut through. Yes!

The sharp of glass was about halfway stuck into the tree by the time I felt it slide all the way in, as if the tree were hollow. I jerked it away and spat the glass out onto the sand as water spurted out of the green tree, cool and crystal-clear, catching the sunshine and sparkling. I almost laughed out loud with joy and ran to catch drops of it on my tongue, relishing the feel of the liquid in my parched mouth.

I stood there catching drops for minutes on end, until the fierce, burning pain residing in my belly subsided and I was hydrated again. There was still a little bit of water at the bottom of the tree: I tried to close it up the best I could with clumps of dirt from the ground, so the water would not evaporate and the tree wouldn't die.

Fully revigorated, I glanced up at the sky: night was falling. I needed to find shelter for the night so I could sleep in safety. Though it seemed deserted, I wouldn't put it past Night to put me in danger while I was sleeping.

I kept at the path until I could barely see my paws in front of me. I detoured to the path's wall and felt the unbreakable, twisted surface for a crack.

The night air was becoming unreasonably and ironically chilly compared to the scalding desert sun from the afternoon. I shivered a little, and still could not find any place along the walls to shelter.

The sand under me which had been baked by the sun for so long was still warm under my pads.

I inwardly groaned as I realized there was a way to shelter for the night, and a warm one too. But it would be uncomfortable. I dug a little dip into the sand, about as big as a small boulder, and stepped inside it. The sand stuck to my skin and prickled my fur, but I had no other choice, so I lay down in my makeshift den, the sand warm around me, and drifted off into sleep.


I blinked my eyes open and I was back on the main path. This time it looked unfamiliar, until I realized it was familiar - it was the same path, except back to normal, like the one I had raced across in pursuit of Night. It was the original.

I dared not think it, but the thought seeped into my mind anyways - was I free? Overwhelming hope surged into my heart, and I took a step forward, praying that this was my escape.

"Wishful thinking, Finchpaw."

My heart sank as I heard the crackly voice of Night. I turned around, my fur bristling, and snarled fiercely. "What do you want?" I hissed.

"You've amazed me, you know," Night laughed coldly, his ugly face twisted into an amused smile. "I didn't think a skinny, patchy apprentice like you--"

"I'm not patchy or skinny!" I defended myself, though I knew I most certainly was.

Night dismissed my protesting. "Your journey is far from over, Finchpaw," he warned darkly. "I thought you wouldn't pass in this challenge, but you succeeded. I have yet another challenge in store for you, so rest up, little cat." His gaze flashed. "The maze begins at dawn. And remember: what seems impossible may just be a trick of the mind - use your common sense, and you will work your way out of anything."

And with his eerie statement, he disappeared from view and the world began to go black.

I relaxed myself and prepared to wake up, my eyes closing exhaustedly. But suddenly the world froze and the persisting blackness began to reverse and bring me into view of something again - only this time it wasn't the path.

I dared not believe it. Was Night playing with my dreams again? Was this another trick of the mind?

I found myself back at camp. Mouseclaw and Moonstar were consulting each other worriedly. Rainpaw and his mentor were busy beside the large oak with battle training. Treelark and Mintnose were sharing tongues beside the fresh-kill pile while telling each other their stories for the day. It all looked so surreal and unnatural, the vision all watery. I rocked on my paws and almost fell.backwards, but something - or someone - broke my fall before I hit the ground.

"Watch yourself," purred a voice from behind me, sounding all too familiar. I turned and saw the elder Fernpelt who had told me stories when I was a kit. Tears sprang into my eyes and almost without warning I ran into Fernpelt and collapsed on her.

I then realized I needed to explain where I was, and ask how Fernpelt was seeing me in my dreams. "Fernpelt, I--"

"I know, poor kitten," she murmured, giving me a comforting lick on my head. "I know about everything. The rogue, the maze, the desert...poor thing."

"But h-how?" I whimpered.

She shook her head. "That is not important, little one. Night has set your next challenge as the Maze."

I nodded fearfully. "He told me. What is 'the Maze'? What am I to do in it?"

"The Maze is an arena of winding corridors and paths that will even confuse you," Fernpelt mewed gravely. "If you get lost, there is no way you can get out again." She shook her head. "There will be traps in there, too, traps that require your common sense more than your brawn - you have been through that yesterday."

I nodded. "I barely survived this desert," I whispered. "How am I to survive that?"

"Just remember," Fernpelt told me, her gaze clouding, "you may think Night is a lying, thieving rogue, which he is. But all of the clues he grants you are accurate, though it will require more thinking to complete understand what they mean."

"His last clue only told me to 'use my common sense'!" I wailed. "How could that be accurate?"

"Yet in the end, you did use your senses," Fernpelt soothed me. "Be careful, Finchpaw. This journey will be a hard one, but I have faith in you. And so does Dawnwhisker."

"Dawnwhisker..." I choked. "Is she okay?" Dread hollowed out my belly. "Have you told her?"

"No, I haven't," Fernpelt told me. "She would die of worry if I did. But in the meantime, do your best, work your hardest, and you will succeed.

"To ensure your luck I have hidden a gift in the Maze," Fernpelt continued. "If you are ever surely stuck, call out my name and I will send my help to you."

Fear gripped my heart. "T-thank you, Fernpelt," I murmured.

She nodded. "Good luck in the Maze."

~Six

When I woke up, I was in the Maze.

At first, I was stunned. I didn't realize Fernpelt's words would come true until it did just that. Tall, majestic trees towered above my head, and beautiful dappled sunlight filtered through the twisted branches. The air was calm, but I could feel something vibrating, a deep humming so low in my ears I couldn't tell if it was really there or not. If not under these circumstances, I would have believed it was just my imagination. But it wasn't my imagination.

This place was magic.

I slowly got up and stretched. I was feeling a little more confident about entering the Maze: I would follow the tips that Fernpelt gave me. My heart ached at the thought of the kind elder and home, and suddenly I longed to be there more than anywhere else.

If you get lost, there is no way you can get out again.

Fernpelt's words rang in my ears. Right. I would need to be careful this time around, and not push myself too hard or give up hope before using what mattered most -- my common sense.

I was in a little clearing surrounded by a thick wall of dark oak trunks blocking my view to the other side. On the opposite area to mine was a gap in the wall showing out to the Maze. The exit. I gave a nervous glance around and headed out; there was no other way, was there?

About three heartbeats in came a fork in the road. I stopped, bewildered. What should I do? What was the obvious way? Which one contained traps? My heart sank as I looked carefully at each way. They both looked impeccably the same.

I trusted my self endurance and instincts and stepped into the one leading left. I froze, all the hairs on my body sticking straight up, expecting myself to fall through a hole in the ground or get impaled by a dozen metal spikes. I couldn't put it past that defying rogue.

Nothing happened: everything was still. My heartbeat gradually began to decrease and I continued on. The path stood straight until I reached yet another fork -- this time with four ways to go.

I cringed. What if I made the wrong decision? Fernpelt had warned me about the traps. I needed to make sure I got to the other side without being crushed by an invisible boulder, but the chances of that were about ten to zero.

I knew guessing would not get me anywhere here. If I was going to end up dying on the very choice I made right now, choosing a totally random path and hoping for the best was not in my best interests. I took a deep breath and let both Night's and Fernpelt's words wash over me one more time. Use your common sense. Though the theme of this fight for freedom kept ringing in my ears, I could not figure how to put it into action. Common sense? There's nothing common about the Maze.

Then an idea flashed into my mind, brighter than the sun on a warm summer day. I chose one of the pebbles littering the ground beside my feet in the churned-up dirt and picked it up in my mouth. Judging the distance as accurately as I could with my eyes alone, I took a step forward for momentum and let go.

The pebble went flying through the air and landed on the ground -- bounce, bounce, bounce -- and came to rest in the middle of the first exit.

At first nothing happened, and I breathed a sigh of relief and started to walk across the clearing to the safer way. Hardly a mere second before I was to step foot within range of the pebble, the earth started rumbling. An unknown force writhed below the surface of the dirt itself and the ground began to swell in thunderous noise. It washed out everything in its path and then subsided slowly, taking everything with it, until everything was calm again.

The ground lay smooth, flat, and pebble-free.

I shivered and took a shaky step back. Not safe. I'd fallen for a two-second delay. What kinds of trouble would I meet later? If I could have died for this, I'd certainly die for those. My heart pounding, I stared at the ground where the pebble once lay. That could have been me. Panic began to rise up my throat, quickly followed by terror. What kind of place is this?

Calm down. I needed to calm down. I backed away nervously from the dangerous site and went back to my starting place.

Right. Time to start again. I gathered a pawful of pebbles and began to toss them into one of the three remaining possible ways to go.

I waited for the delay to end, holding my breath -- there! The dirt began to churn at one of the pebbles again, forming a thunderous change from normal to devastating -- I sighed in relief at the thought of not being the pebble.

In both the others, the ground was completely still. What? How was I to pick? Was it possible that there were two solutions to the puzzle? I glanced, confused, from one path to the other. How was I to choose, then?

I padded back to my original spot. Maybe trap was set up farther behind. I picked up two more pebbles from the dusty ground and threw them into the respective paths again, this time farther so it hit the wall at the far end of each.

Silence. Nothing. Then both are safe? I had a hard time believing this, but there was nothing I could do about it. I chose one of the paths out of random and walked onto it, feeling firm ground under my paws. My confidence grew with every step.

Wait. Something wasn't right.

The pebble seemed a little out of place: did it set off the trap yet, or was the trap still waiting for me? If the trap churned the dirt and devoured everything in its path, wouldn't the pebble have set it off by now? My paws were also echoing a lot louder than usual.... echoing...

The hints clicked together in my head a moment before I fell into the chasm before my paws.

I stared at the pit that had opened up as two sections of the floor gruelled away from each other. The bottom of the chasm was lost to the shadows. This had been a weight-activated trap. The hard-packed dirt ground was much too firm to echo -- that much I'd already discovered. The ground beneath my feet had been hollow, and I'd nearly walked into it.

I blinked and backed away a little. The traps were getting harder and harder, and I was failing. I turned tail and rushed into the last path, not caring to check. It had to be, there was no other option. I went through safely.

By now the stars were spangled with slow-glowing stars. I sighed and stopped to rest. Today had been a long day, and I'd made some important discoveries -- most importantly of all, to use my senses. This required anything but common senses: these types of obstacles required ultra-senses.

Slowly my now tired senses gave into sleep, and I welcomed it with all my heart. All I wanted to do was sleep away this living nightmare...

How had that trap been activated? It was clearly based on weight, so a pebble wouldn't set it off but a cat would. Clearly the others weren't based off of weight, or the pebbles would not have been sufficient.

Was Night watching me? I shivered and gazed up at the sky. It would certainly make sense if he was changing the obstacles based on how much I learned -- and I was a fast learner. I could almost swear I saw something shift in the clouds before I closed my eyes and drifted into sleep.



~Seven

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