Silverbreeze stopped with a start, her eyes widening in shock. "That's the canyon?"
"Yes," Cinderdapple said, pausing beside her to follow her gaze. The rest of the rebellion fanned out along the edge.
"How on earth will we find Viperstar in that?" Reedfur mewed; she was relieved to see he sounded much better now. Fallensky seemed okay too, and neither cat was coughing anymore from their ordeal in the river. Pushing away the memory with a shudder, Silverbreeze glanced about. He did have a point. Orange-gold sandstone reared up smoothly on either side of the canyon, which was a jagged claw-scratch through the earth. Down below though, deadly fangs of rock stuck out from the ground, just waiting to impale any unlucky cat who lost their footing on the steep slope. The walls of the cliffs were also dotted with caves, which meant Viperstar and his troops could be almost anywhere.
Violentclaw gulped. "That does not look fun."
"No," agreed Bramblepath. "But we have to do this, for Snowdrift."
Cloverice's eyes widened. "You really do love your friend," she remarked, her dark green eyes betraying nothing but curiousity and perhaps- a tinge of longing? Silverbreeze couldn't be sure, and it vanished almost instantly, but she had a feeling this she-cat was more lonely then she let on.
"We would do anything for any of us," was all Strongheart said. The large orange tom was scanning the canyon with an urgency to his gaze. "Where can we go down into the ravine?"
"How about over there," Finchnose said, pointing with her tail. Silverbreeze spotted what she was talking about: a rocky, narrow stair-case like formation of rocks winding down the side of the cliff.
She nodded. "That looks like our best chance. What will we do once we get down?"
"Look, I guess," Jaywalker said. "There's not much else we can do."
"We'll decide once we get to that part," Strongheart said confidently. He began leading the way down the path, and Silverbreeze marveled at how quickly everyone followed. But then again, she had always noticed that about Strongheart. He could convince a cat of anything with his boldness and charm. Such a skill would be brutal if it went to GreenClan's side. Shaking off the thought, she scampered down after him, then gave a little shriek as one of her paws skidded on the loose grit. Instantly, the ginger tom was by her side, his teeth loosely gripping her scruff, amber eyes sparkling in the sun.
"Careful," he said gruffly. She nodded, breathless with fear, and something else.
Finally, they reached the bottom, and stopped to wait for everyone else to catch up. Fallensky padded doggedly on by herself, bristling whenever another cat got close enough to help her; she was obviously trying to make up for the river incident, and Silverbreeze felt sympathy in her heart, though she would never dare say it out loud. Angelcloud didnt seem affected by her splayed paw at all, if anything it seemed to give her better balance as she landed on the cliff-bottom with a giant leap, shaking out her fluffy fur.
"Is everyone here?" Reedfur asked. Strongheart snorted.
"That's an effective way of putting it. I've got a better one: If you're not here, say so." The tom rolled his eyes. Reedfur's green gaze darkened like an approaching storm, but he said nothing, only tightened his jaw and turned away. Finchnose's worried hazel eyes met Silverbreeze's own. She knew they were both thinking the same thing: We can't split up. We're best friends, and without all four of us, this rebellion will crumble.
"Relax guys," she meowed out loud. "Let's just go."
Aquatail was searching around them, a delicate frown on her face. Then a peculiar expression came over her face; Silverbreeze turned to see what caused it. A cave. "Was that there a minute ago?" she asked.
"I don't know..." Aquatail said haltingly. "I just blinked and, poof, there it was."
"Then that's where we're going." Ivyfleet's jaw was set in a grim line; Silverbreeze knew she was remembering Tornadoheart, and the possibility that they might have to fight him today.
Shadows accented the doubt on Finchnose's face. "What if it's a trap?"
"We'll have to risk it," Angelcloud said defiantly. "Nothing is more important then getting Snowdrift back."
"Agreed," Silverbreeze said. "We're going in."
Reedfur felt a cold chill run down his spine as soon as he touched his paw inside the tunnel. This was nothing like the Tunnels back "home", which were high-ceilinged and sided with cozy earth. They were dark, dank, and narrow, with little light. Ahead of him, Strongheart's pelt lit up the darkness like a flickering torch; he forced himself to resist the urge to bite off the tom's tail. There's no room for petty arguments.
"Where are we going?" Silverbreeze asked, her voice sounding small in the blackness, despite the echo effect.
"If we knew that, we would tell you," snapped Strongheart. Her blue eyes clouded, and he looked immediately sorry, but the silver she-cat didn't glimpse it. She dropped back to pad beside Reedfur. A bitter taste rose in his mouth. So I'm your last resort, huh?
"Are you feeling okay?" she mewed softly.
"Fine." His reply came out shorter and stormier than even he'd intended. Luckily, he was saved by Fernheart's call from up ahead.
"There's an opening in front of us," she reported, padding back towards them.
"Everyone group together," Strongheart commanded. "We'll go in together."
"Yeah. As a group. Which reminds me, we still need a name," Silverbreeze said, seemingly having recovered from being snubbed. Reedfur felt a flush of warmth at the brightness in her voice.
"Not right now," the ginger tom responded, but there was affection beneath his denial. "Besides, we don't want to end up with a name like 'Sparklies', do we?"
"I second that," Reedfur put in, grinning at his friend. Strongheart returned it, and he breathed a sigh of relief. They were still friends, no matter what.
"Let's go then," Aquatail said. "This place gives me the creeps."
"Which is a perfect explanation as to why you want to go deeper into it," commented Wetstream. The black she-cat stuck out her tongue.
"So glad we have mature comrades," Reedfur said. Giving the others a nod, the four of them led the group out into the vast opening in the tunnel. A poignant scent assaulted his nose at the same time as a cold voice sounded eerily in the darkness.
"So you've finally come. I've been waiting."
Blinding light flooded Finchnose's vision, forcing her to look away. Glancing up, she saw that it was moonlight- was it really that late already?- pouring in from an opening above their heads. The night sky was like a stretch of inky velvet beyond, so close, yet so far away.
But the real startler was the cat in the middle of the clearing. She had seen him before, when he had ordered her father to be killed. She had hoped to never see him again; a foolish fantasy, but a real, desperate one.
"Viperstar," Strongheart hissed softly. Finchnose thought he sounded as if he couldn't quite believe it. Neither could she. None of them could have dreamed it would be this easy. Which it couldn't. There had to be a catch.
"You." Ivyfleet's voice shook with rage. "You took Tornadoheart from me."
The black tom was nearly invisible in the darkness, save his pale, almost silver eyes. "No. He chose me of his own accord. A little threatening was thrown in, yes, but ultimately, we make our own choices. You are strong Ivyfleet, but perhaps he was weaker than you thought. I always say, give your warriors what you want and they'll do anything for you. Even if that means betrayal. So don't go blaming me for your ruined love life." There was an elusiveness to his voice, as if he were stalling for time. An evil presence seemed to lurk around him, preventing them from springing out and killing him just then: It was as if their subconciouses knew something that their minds didn't. But that wasn't what was bothering Finchnose. Something he had said tugged at the back of her mind, but she couldn't remember what.
Apparently, Strongheart didn't feel the same evil influence as she did, or just didn't care. He let out a yowl, unsheathing his claws and aiming for the tom's throat. He never got there.
Two shadows moved like lightning, one a white streak, the other a darker blur. Aristo and... Finchnose's heart sank as she laid eyes on the other cat. Tornadoheart. His dark blue eyes ran over their group, and he stiffened almost imperceptibly as he saw the anguish on Ivyfleet's face, but other than that, there was no sign that he had ever been one of them.
Just then, Strongheart let out a strangled sound, and she gasped. "Let him go!"
Viperstar continued as if nothing had happened. "I'm surprised you made it this far. No other 'rebellion' ever had the guts to."
Finchnose couldn't choke out anymore words; her gaze was riveted to her friend, blood pooling from deep marks in his throat. Aristo and Tornadoheart had grim expressions on her face, and would clearly not let him go upon pain of death. Beside her, Silverbreeze was shaking, her slim body trembling, and not from cold, she knew. Viperstar didn't have an army waiting. He didn't need to. He knew their biggest weakness, the reason they were here in this place. Their friends. He had Snowdrift, and now he had Strongheart. That rendered them helpless in every sense of the word as they knew it.
"Well," Bramblepath said, an icy sheen covering her fear-laced voice. "This has been extremely fun. If you'll just inform us why you've thrown this party."
He rolled his eyes. "Isn't it obvious? You consider yourselves too much of value. You think you actually hold some power in this war, or that this is a game? No. My desires for you are black-and-white. I want you all dead. Now, you will hold completely still, and do everything I say, or I will kill Strongheart."
Reedfur's voice whispered softly into Finchnose's ear, tickling her fur. "When Silverbreeze flicks her tail, attack."
She nodded imperceptibly, her muscles tensing. If Viperstar suspected anything, he didn't show it, just drawled on and on. Every cat in the rebellion had a corner of their eye fixed on Silverbreeze, who seemed to have collected herself more by now. Her tail went up, the signal to ready themselves, and then it flicked. Chaos enused.
Strongheart felt Aristo and Tornadoheart fly off him, and scrambled to his paws to help Fernheart and Birdsong pummel the two toms quickly, before turning back into the heat of the battle. Blood drenched his neck like scarlet paint, but he ignored it; the sting of pain was numbed by the cold fire of battle-lust.
Searching the crowd for Viperstar, he spotted the black tom vanishing into a tunnel. How did he get out when he was outnumbered so badly?
Lunging towards him, Strongheart felt a touch on his shoulder. He looked down into a pair of wide hazel eyes. "Strongheart, no, we can't. We have to run. Can't you hear?" They both paused, and he realized Finchnose was right. The sound of pounding pawsteps echoed through the cavern, getting louder and louder.
"Okay. Retreat!" he yowled. Aquatail raced towards him, her pelt matted, but relatively unscathed.
"Follow me!" she said. "I know where to go!"
There was no time to question it. He nodded, held his bright fiery tail up like a banner, and followed her down a tunnel, hearing his friend's frantic pawsteps behind them. It was too late to salvage a victory. They had to find Snowdrift and get out of here.
"No!" Over and over again, Finchnose cursed herself for being short. For being unathletic. For falling over that dumb rock. Up ahead, she could hear the echoing footsteps of the rebellion, overshadowed by the roar behind her of Viperstar's army. She would never get there in time; her friends were so much faster. But she had to try.
Why? Why couldn't I remember before now? Oh, they're all going to die, and it's my fault.
Reedfur was the first into the large cavern, save Aquatail. He glanced about wildly, and then breathed out a gusty sigh of relief. The gray-flecked she-cat looked bedraggled and hopeless, but her gray eyes lit up like fire when she saw them. Then defeat seemed to wash over her again. She staggered over and collapsed against Angelcloud.
"You should never have come," Snowdrift murmured.
"Why?" asked the bigger she-cat, distraught. Reedfur felt a coldness in his belly, like a stone. Slowly, he scanned the place. Something was desperately wrong.
"Very good," came a familiar voice. Viperstar came out of the shadows. At first Reedfur couldn't tell who he was talking to. Then he followed the tom's icy blue gaze to... Aquatail.
She stepped forward, dipping her head. Her black pelt glistened like a snake, and her white fangs gleamed as she spoke. "I live only to serve you, Viperstar."
Suddenly, memories came rushing over Reedfur. Aquatail's eagerness to come here. Her leading them here, knowing exactly where she was going. And one thing in particular: "I always say, give your warriors what you want and they'll do anything for you." Aquatail had used that same quote a while ago, way back in the Tunnels. It felt like a lifetime ago. A lifetime of trust, broken like fragments of glass.
The GreenClan leader's eyebrow's went up as he read the shock on their faces. "You really had no idea, did you? Excellent job, Aquatail. You may deserve a promotion. To replace a certain infantile, useless beast."
Firesoul's ears flattened, and her voice was dripping with hatred. "You are a snake Viperstar, and someday, you will die as you deserve to."
"That's not a very nice thing to say," he pointed out. "Come on Aquatail." The two cats padded out. Seconds later, Reedfur heard an ominous click, as if every entrance or exit to the cavern had been sealed. Then, a thick green fog began to drift over them. He recognized it with a sickening certainty. This was it then.
Aquatail flicked her tail lazily, waiting. Would they scream? Cry out?
"You silly cats," she said. "You should've guessed you were treading on dark waters when you first met me. Fools."
A low hiss met her words, and she looked up in shock. "You-"
The cat gave her no reply, just attacked, sinking her teeth into her neck.