Set Two

26. Forever and a Day

I wake up to the sound of birds. It’s another great day in the messenger’s den, and I can’t wait to see what Hazard has for me to do today.

“Shadow!” someone calls, and my ears prick at the sound of my name. I turn to see Blue, my long-time denmate, running towards me. Her legs have grown so long since we were just kits in a den, and her thick blue fur has grown sleek. I like her. I really do.

“Blue!” I greet her warmly, waiting for her to catch up and press her side into mine. She’s really warm… Even in the cold moons, she’s warm.

“You don’t still want to leave camp and explore, do you?” she teases playfully. “Be careful; the ghost of Lash might get you!”

“I’m not scared of that old legend,” I scoff. “Lash was just a cat who died in an unfortunate hunting accident four moons ago. I’m not scared of any ghost.”

“Well, you should be,” Blue meows, dropping her voice to a low whisper. “If you even dream of trying to escape, Hazard will send the ghost of Lash after you!” She lunges for me, and I screech, having been caught off guard. Purring, she straightens up and presses up against my side again. “C’mon, slowpoke. Let’s go find out what Hazard wants us to do today!”

I nod and trot along behind her, but really I’m thinking about what kind of future we could possibly have together. We’re both about eight moons old now; four more and we’ll be discharged back into the real world.

I know that a lot of the other low-workers think that it’s funny how we murder all of the high-workers instead of releasing them into the world, but then again, they, like Lash did, have such an unrealistic expectation of reality that they don’t realize just how kind the gift of death really is. We, the messengers, understand this; Hazard has shown us the truth. But we are still resigned to our fates. We know what’s coming. But if too many cats just mysteriously died at their twelfth moon, the instigators would –

“Shadow, hurry up!” Blue calls.

I jump. I hadn’t noticed that I had stopped walking just now. “Sorry!” I call back, breaking into a run to catch up with her.

“You’re so distracted anymore,” Blue complains. “I can’t believe that you would allow yourself to lose focus and risk getting demoted!” But then her voice softens. “Is it because the storms are coming again?”

I inhale quietly. “Yeah,” I admit. “I mean, I know what they really are, but they still terrify me. The storms are just so… loud, you know?”

Blue nods sympathetically. “Come on.” She brushes her tail along my back; it’s a soothing feeling, especially because my short fur doesn’t block out the cold like hers does. “Let’s just get back to work. Even though there will be a storm later today, until then, we just have to work like it’s any other day.”

I nod once more, and together we push our way into the circle of bushes that makes up Hazard’s den.

27. Lost and Found

Blue and I vanish into the darkness that is Hazard’s den; unlike the other cats in this camp, though, the messengers know the den's secret. We exit the den between the two bushes whose branches still hold dimly lit leaves and emerge behind the den into a big, open area. It’s intentionally really hard to spot, but if you know where to look, it’s really easy to find.

It’s beautiful back here; the clearing, full of short, soft grass, is actually located just outside of camp. Hazard had his den built into the camp wall on purpose, just so that he could claim this clearing for his own. Somehow, the hunters have never found it; ours are the only scents here.

However, today Blue and I are not alone. There are two other cats here: our high-worker, the gray and white she-cat known as Pinto – even the working group that’s closest to Hazard has to have a high-worker, after all – and a small tortoiseshell she-cat I don’t recognize. I stiffen a little, thinking that someone else has found the way into our secret den, but then I realize that this kit can’t be more than two moons old.

In other words, she’s a new recruit.

“Blue, Shadow,” Pinto says in greeting as we enter the hidden den. “They sent a new cat in here. She’s not a stormborn, but she might be close enough to be killed someday. Her name is Lily, and she’s scared stiff. Be good to her, okay? I want the two of you to train her to be a messenger.”

“But, Pinto,” Blue protests. “She’s the closest thing to a stormborn we have, so when you –”

“She’ll take my place, yes,” Pinto interrupts. “Yes, I know. Though after Hazard allowed that unstorm, Gingersnap, to join the high-workers’ ranks, I wouldn’t put it past him to make another exception, especially since Lily is so young.” She frowns. “Bear, too, could barely qualify as a stormborn; it’s hard to believe that Hazard is straying away from the stormborn system. I guess we should come to expect things like that from an unstorm leader.”

“Careful what you say, Pinto,” a voice grunts from the clearing entrance. “You never know what ears might be listening to what you say.”

I freeze, thinking that it must be Hazard. But then Pinto starts to purr. “Ambrosia, you dolt!” she cries, delighted. “You’ve gotten so good at imitating Hazard!”

“Haven’t I?” Ambrosia brags, striding over to where we’re standing. The seven-moons tom, like Hazard’s favorite, Gingersnap, could almost pass for an exact copy of Hazard. Since the overseer is so small and thin, he looks a lot younger than he is, and so Ambrosia is actually pretty close to Hazard’s height and build.

It’ll be a problem if Ambrosia keeps growing as fast as he has been, but for now, he can act like Hazard in different places across the camp. This way, Hazard can watch everywhere in camp at once without having to be everywhere at once. It’s the fate of every ginger tom with amber eyes to follow in Gingersnap’s and Ambrosia’s pawsteps, no matter how much they may resist. That’s why Ambrosia is lucky; as a messenger, he’s known his lot in life for a long time. Others don’t really have that privilege.

While Pinto and Ambrosia greet each other for the morning, Blue beckons to the little kit – Lily – to come over to where we’re waiting. Lily obeys, but timidly. This could quickly become a problem; if she’s going to be a messenger, she’s going to have to get used to talking to other cats.

“I’m Shadow,” I meow, trying to get Lily to relax. Poor little kit; every cat is scared when they first arrive in camp. “This is my friend, Blue. “We’re going to show you how to be a messenger, okay?”

Lily nods, almost imperceptibly.

“Your name is Lily, right?” Blue tries.

Another tiny, tiny nod.

I open my mouth to ask Lily if she knows anything about this camp yet, but before I can, the five members of the elevated pack walk in. This time, we all know that the ginger cat in the front is Hazard; first off all, neither Gingersnap nor Ambrosia is allowed to walk in front of the elevated pack, and second, Hazard is the only one who has faint tabby markings and no scars. Besides, Ambrosia's already here, and I can see Gingersnap walking behind the elevated pack, the white tip of his tail swinging slowly back and forth.

“I’ve asked the other messengers to join us here,” Hazard tells the five of us who are already here. “I have an announcement to make, and then I’ll release you to do your normal jobs.” His head swings threateningly in Lily’s direction, and she flinches, but Hazard doesn’t say anything more as he crosses the clearing and climbs up on the rock propped up against the trees on the far side, lying down to wait, his tail flicking quietly from side to side behind him.

“Shadow, how are you today?” It’s Sedge, one of the two elevated pack members who isn’t allowed to touch Hazard, because she isn’t his littermate. The gray she-cat is really kind to me, though, because she saw Hazard abuse me when I was a kit. I like her. She observes the world in her own quiet way, and I often wonder what, exactly, it is that she thinks about.

“I’m doing great. Thank you for asking.” She presses up against my side in the same friendly gesture that Blue uses before following the other members of the elevated pack over to the bottom of the rock where Hazard is. Sedge can’t talk to me very much or for very long, but I’m really happy every time she does. She and Blue are two of my best friends in the world.

Slowly, the other messengers start to trickle in; I recognize a few of the cats I’ve worked with in the past. Eva is here; she’s really nice, and even though she’s a bit shy, she’s gotten used to running messages around to the other cats, and now she actually enjoys doing it. Xanadu is here, as well, and so is his sister, Levi; though they look nothing alike – Xanadu has blue fur and brown eyes; Levi is a small gray tabby with blue eyes – their personalities are very much the same. Eventually there’s a flood of messengers coming in, and I can’t pick out any individual cats anymore.

There are about a hundred messengers total, or so I’ve heard; we’re one of the smallest working groups in camp, only bigger than the group that Hazard selected for his so-called personal guard – what a joke – but we have a very important job that no other cats can do. It’s much easier to train a hundred cats to do a job like this than it would to teach a group as big as, say, the rebuilders. There are at least five hundred of them; training each and every one to be a proper messenger would take ages. It just wouldn’t make sense.

Finally, once everyone begins to settle down, Hazard rises from where he’s been lying on the rock. Immediately, all talking ceases; he’s trained us well. He glances around at everyone who’s gathered below him, and then he starts to speak.

“I won’t take up too much of your time,” he begins. “I just have one simple announcement, and then you all can go about your normal tasks.” Inexplicably, his gaze seems to linger on Lily for a long moment, but then he moves on, and I’m not sure if I saw that or not. “Tomorrow, the high-worker known as Vivian will reach her twelfth moon. She has served the sweepers long and well, but it is time for her to die. Just be prepared.” He jumps down from the rock, a clear dismissal. Every paw turns back towards the overseer’s den. We all have things to do today.

“Shadow?” Someone whispers my name, and I look down to find that it’s Lily. She doesn’t even reach the top of my legs when she’s standing straight, but she’s trembling so much that she’s crouching, which makes her look even smaller and more vulnerable. “Why do they keep talking about death? Why do you have to kill cats?” Tears flood out of her bright green eyes.

I don’t know what to say, and I blink, a little startled, a little confused. Killing the high-workers is normal; I don’t even think about it all that much anymore. It’s normal, so why is she getting so upset about it?

“You don’t have to kill anyone,” I tell her eventually. “Come on. Let’s go find Blue, and we’ll show you how to be a messenger.”

28. Light

“The job of a messenger is fairly simple,” I begin, leading Lily gently back into the overseer’s den. “We do deliver messages when we need to, yes, but that’s not all we do. We worm our way into small places near where the other working groups are stationed and listen to everything we say, and then we report to Hazard what we hear.”

“But why would you do that?” Lily’s voice is so, so small; I have to strain to hear her over the chatter of all of the other cats around us. “Why would you betray them like that?”

“It’s not betrayal!” Blue exclaims. “It’s just another way for Hazard to monitor the goings-on in his camp. We’re his eyes and ears all over the place!”

“But it seems so wrong,” Lily whispers. “We should leave them alone.”

I blink, appalled. How is she only two moons old…? She speaks more eloquently than I do. “Hey, lighten up,” I say, nudging her gently with a friendly expression. “It’s really beautiful today; you’ll love it.” I glance over her head at Blue. “How about we show her the dens and find her a place to sleep, and then we can figure out where to watch after that?”

She nods at me. “Sounds good.” So we lead Lily out of the overseer’s den and towards our own.

Blue and I quickly find a place for Lily among the moss, right between our own nests. We allow her to nestle down in it a little bit, to make it comfortable and to get her scent on it, and then we silently lead her back out of the den and into the main camp area.

We stare around the camp for a little while; it’s pretty peaceful out here, since most of the other cats won’t have woken up yet. We messengers wake up the earliest, after all, because it’s easier for us to pick a listening position without a lot of other cats around. Plus, it gives us time to hear any news Hazard might have for us. As a bonus for the work we do, we get to go to sleep immediately after eating every other day. Half of us stay awake to listen in around camp until everyone else goes to sleep, while the other half gets to go to sleep themselves; then, the next day, it switches around, and so on.

The camp is actually kinda pretty when it isn’t filled with a bunch of ignorant cats. Because of the sweepers’ hard work last night, there aren’t any sticks or twigs or weeds or other obstructions anywhere in camp, and the ground is as flat as it’s ever going to be. I’ve heard the hunters say that there are hills outside of camp, but the camp itself as flat as the placid surfaces of the ponds throughout it. There are still grasses everywhere, flower gardens every so often; it’s just a lot cleaner than anywhere on the outside. It’s safe in here.

“So,” Blue finally says, breaking the silence. “Shadow, where do you think would be the easiest place to show Lily the ropes?” She blinks at me expectantly, and I realize that she noticed me gazing absently around the camp.

“Oh, uh…” I frown, trying to think. “Well, the easiest place to find cover would probably be along the camp wall where the trees dip inside the camp. Remember that place?”

“Boy, do I ever!” Blue crows, sounding delighted. “That was where we had been hiding when we heard Cambridge teaching Harvey a complex set of motion signals. Do you remember that, Shadow? I think we were only four moons old at the time, but I remember it like it was yesterday!”

“Of course I remember,” I reply, thinking back to that incident with a purr. “Little did they realize that we heard everything about all of their so-called secret signals, or that we memorized as many as we could and brought that information back to the other messengers!”

“And then the very next day, after Cambridge had been released back into the real world, Harvey taught Lash the exact same set of signals – and right where we could hear them!” Blue and I purr for a long moment together, reliving our memories as one.

“Um,” Lily finally whispers. “Cats are starting to come out of their dens.”

I blink, startled to realize that she’s right: cats are indeed starting to flood into the main area of camp, escaping their sleeping dens to begin another normal day. “We’d better get moving, then!” I exclaim, taking off running towards the other side of camp, where that grove in the wall sat waiting for us. It really is one of the best places in camp to listen in; a lot of cats go there, thinking that they’re alone. Little do they know that some of the sounds in the branches are actually messengers, listening to everything they say!

Then, both suddenly and right on time, our peaceful world is shattered.

29. Dark

“Get down!” some cat yowls. Some of the younger kits bounce around, ignoring all of the warnings, excited to see their first real storm. Blue and I know better, though, and we scoop Lily up as quickly as we can, charging even faster towards the grove of trees. Most of the time it’s our shadowy hideout; on days like this, though – storm days – it’s our blatant protection.

The winds are picking up now, and the very air is screaming along with so many cats. There’s panic ensuing all over camp – even those of us who are used to it still have a hard time dealing with this. My ears, flattened against my head, are ringing painfully, but I know that getting Lily to safety should be my first priority, and so I put up with it for her sake.

After what seems like entirely too long, Blue and I make it to the grove of trees, burying Lily in somewhere deep so that she’s safe, while we guard the “entrance” of the grove, both watching for any stray cats who need a safe place to stay for the duration of the storms and to guard off any potential threats that might come into camp as a result of the storms. I’ve never known a storm that brought any significant danger straight into the camp, but you never really know, and as messengers, we’re trained to act on any uncertainties we may face. So we watch.

It doesn’t take long before the sky-monsters roar at us from overhead, their long, flat, rigid ears whirling around at high speeds, creating the most awful sound and a terrible wind that whips around the camp like a monster all its own. Today is a clear day, but with all of the beasts in the sky, it’s hard to see the sun.

“How long do you think they’ll stay this time around?” Blue screeches, trying to be heard above the racket.

“I don’t know,” I shout back, my ears flattened against my head. And I really don’t. We can predict when the “storms” of beasts will come – about once every moon or so – but we can’t tell how long it’s going to take until they finally, finally stop circling above us and leave.

Lily comes up closer to us, and I beckon furiously for her to get back. “What’s going on?” she calls above the storm, but there’s only curiosity in her eyes, not fear. “Why is it so loud?”

“They’re the monster storms,” Blue yowls in reply. “They’ll go away soon, so just go back where it’s safe and stay there!”

“I’m not scared!” Lily insists.

I gape at the little kit. She really is worthy of being called a stormborn. Most unstorm cats get really scared the first time they witness a storm; only the cats who were born in the midst of one seem to be mostly okay with it. And even though Lily is two moons old already, this is her first storm, and she’s acting just like all of the other stormborn cats I’ve seen.

We wait it out for a while; this storm is one of the longest ones I’ve seen in my lifetime. It seems to last forever as the sky-monsters circle overhead, and great moon, it’s loud! There must be at least twelve sky-monsters up there; normally there are only about six or eight, and they’ve never been this big, this loud, or this persistent. We don’t even know what they want with us, much less why they come at such regular intervals to watch us. The messengers and the elevated pack know the most about the storms of any cat in this camp, and all we know is that the sky-monsters have something to do with how the twelve-moons cats get back out into the real world.

I let out a sigh. Once this is over, we’ll have to go out and look for new stormborn cats.

Lily’s eyes stay bright as the storm rages on, and Blue and I are the ones who act like scaredy-mice in the face of this thing that we’ve seen three other times in our eight-moons lives. How is this kit so resilient, I wonder…? How can she stand it without a wince?

Then, suddenly, some kind of movement catches my eye.

30. Faith

It’s a cat, ginger and white, screaming in the painful noise, pushing her way across the camp like she’s trying to reach someone. She looks desperate, struggling against the wind to move anywhere at all. Narrowing my usually sharp blue eyes against the blistering gusts of wind, I finally manage to make out what it is she’s going for so frantically: there’s a kit, small and gray, desperately looking for shelter somewhere in the midst of this storm.

I gasp. There is no way that the ginger and white cat can get to the kit in time! The kit is so, so small – I can’t even imagine how old it is. It can’t be more than three moons old – so, so small… My heart hurts just thinking about it, but I know that we have to leave this kit to die. It won’t survive long against the pull of the winds of the sky-monsters.

“Leave it alone!” I scream, trying in vain to make my voice reach the older she-cat. “You’ll never make it! Get back where it’s safe!”

Blue stares at me, confused. “Who are you talking to?”

“That ginger and white cat,” I yell. “She’s trying to rescue that little gray kit, but… there’s no way that she’s going to make it! She’s going to die!”

“What cat?” Blue protests. “Shadow, there’s no one out there! No one would be stupid enough to go out in this!”

“But she’s right there!”

As though hearing my words, the ginger and white cat halts abruptly, swinging her head in some kind of wide, deliberate motion towards me. Even from here, I can make out the intensity of her amber eyes, the pride and independence with which she holds her head – this is not a cat who acts like any other cat in this camp. She flicks her ears and circles one forepaw around in a very, very deliberate – and familiar – gesture.

Someday, I will win. That’s what she said. In that series of signs that Blue and I first learned when Cambridge taught them to Harvey.

For a fleeting moment, I have a crazy, impossible thought. Maybe this cat is the ghost of Lash.

A ghost. Impossible.

As I watch her, this strange cat – not Lash, not Lash – stares me down, her amber gaze burning, all thoughts of the kit apparently erased form her mind. She lunges forward suddenly, but then a huge gust of wind sweeps a large branch between us, and when I next look, she’s gone.

Impossible…

I realize that Blue is staring at me, and then I realize that my mouth is hanging open. I shut it abruptly, refusing to meet Blue’s eyes. I mean, we both know that I’m a little bit awkward in general, but this has to be tops. I get the feeling that she wants to say something, but it’s too hard to talk right now, and there’s not a whole lot that we could really say in front of Lily, anyways.

The storm lasts for a while longer before the sky-monsters finally give up on whatever their task is and go away. The winds gradually die down, allowing all of the dust that they stirred up to settle back down. I can see again, and I can hear… and so can Blue.

“What was that?” she demands quietly as we shift around, getting comfortable, waiting to see how the other cats will react. We still have a job as messengers, after all.

“Nothing,” I mumble. She lets out a grunt and lets it go, but I know that that answer won’t satisfy her for long. As soon as we don’t have Lily with us anymore, she’ll probably confront me about it again. I sigh, dreading the prospect.

“Look,” Lily whispers after a moment, and Blue and I both start and look in the same direction that she is. There’s a cat out there already – a gray-and-white tom, and quite windblown, by the looks of him – staggering towards our grove of trees. I naturally try to squirm farther back into the undergrowth around the trees, but Blue shakes her head, gesturing silently to Lily, who hasn’t moved. I don’t know how this little kit can stand all of this, but if she can, I can, so I settle down and wait to see what will happen.

“We’re doomed – we’re all doomed,” the strange tom drawls, his voice a strangely high-pitched wail. “Those storms were a message – did you hear, did you notice how much lo-onger they were than the o-others we’ve had?” He keeps stumbling on, undeterred by the instability of his paws and legs.

I’m honestly surprised he’s still standing. But even though all of my instincts are screaming at me to hide better, Blue doesn’t move, and after a long heartbeat, Lily even steps out, still watching this bizarre, unfamiliar cat.

And she walks right towards him.

“Lily, no!” I hiss from the shadows, desperate to keep this little kit away from a cat who’s been so rattled by the storms. I’m sure he’d be a nice cat at any other time, but anyone whose hearing has been temporarily ruined by the storms becomes pretty unstable in every other possible way as well. It’s a little terrible, but for the moment, he’s definitely a threat.

She doesn’t even glance back my way.

“What’s your name?” she asks quietly, standing right in front of the gray-and-white tom.

He looks confused for a long moment, but then he finally looks down at her, his whiskers bent and his sky-blue eyes still muddled.

“River,” he finally replies, hesitantly at best. “I’m a gatherer, and I’ll never-never-never be able to gather all of this up, so do-on’t ask me to!”

“I won’t,” Lily promises quietly. “River, are you okay? Did the storms scare you?”

Beside me, Blue purrs at the sight of an older cat like River being comforted by such a little kit, but I can’t bring myself to feel the same way. In fact, I find it awfully strange. Why is Lily so good at this…?

River’s head twists in some motion that is neither a shake nor a nod. “I can barely hear a thing,” he moans. “It’s so, so loud in here, th’birds, they’re… th’birds’re ringin’ their chirpy, chirpin’ songs straight inside my skull.” His words are getting more and more slurred by the second, and he looks like he could fall down at any time.

Lily comes back towards me and Blue, her muzzle wrinkled up like she’s thinking hard about something. “They shouldn’t have sent him here,” she whispers.

I’m caught off guard. “Wait, what? What do you mean? Are you talking about the-?”

“Instigators.”

There’s no way that she could ever know that word!

I’m just about to ask if Lily is really only two moons old – if she’s really new here, or if the overseer’s been hiding her somehow – when Blue clears her throat. “We have a job to do here,” she reminds me sternly, though I can see my own confusion reflected in her eyes. “Come on, Shadow, Lily. Let’s find a new spot to watch from.”

So we switch positions.

31. Colors

I sigh, hunkering down under the bushes next to Blue. It’s been such a long day; I can’t wait until the hunters come back so we can start eating already. Now that it’s started raining, we messengers are allowed to stay inside until it ends. Everyone knows that no evil plotting happens in the rain.

“Nico and Sarah – those stupid sweepers – want to change up their work regimen because they want it to be easier on them, the lazy brats,” Blue mutters under her breath, reciting the information we learned today so that she doesn’t forget it all before we present it all to Hazard and the elevated pack later today. “And that river – what’s his face, Bleaksky? – was slacking off, too. We’ll need to send him a warning, huh?”

She’s not really talking to me, but I start reciting my observations too anyways. “Don’t forget that watcher, Oblique, who was sleeping on the job,” I add. “Or that other river, Nanami, who decided to play around the waterbank and ended up falling into it!” I purr, my whiskers twitching.

“Riiight.”

“What about that little black kit who was playing around the edges of camp instead of working?” Lily asks quietly.

Blue pauses. “What black kit?”

“The one who was playing near the edge of the camp,” Lily repeats, a bit more insistently this time. “Didn’t you see him?”

“I didn’t.” Blue sends a curious look at me, but I just shrug, wide-eyed. I didn’t see him either, and I know that Blue and I both are wondering how we could have possibly missed it.

“Is he still out there?” I stick my head out of the bushes, narrowing my eyes against the rain and peering out into the gloom. But I can’t see anything, so I pull my head back in and shake it out, trying to get rid of every drop of water on my fur. “No good; I can’t tell.”

Blue takes one look at me and snorts. “Surely no one would be fool enough to stay out here in this weather!” she purrs, shaking her head mockingly at me. “Not like some furball we know.”

“Hey!” I protest, knowing that she’s referring to the time when we were two moons old and stayed outside when it was raining hard. “You stayed out with me!”

“Yeah, but I had the common sense to go into a den first.”

“Only because some cat scooped you up and carried you off!”

We lean up against each other and purr, recalling all of the good times we had back when we were kits. I kinda miss those days; it was nice feeling so carefree, so at ease with my good friend Blue.

Out of the corner of my eye I’m keeping a watch on Lily, who’s since wandered over to the edge of the undergrowthand is now looking out at the rain with a quiet sort of detached interest. “It’s so odd,” she whispers. “Water pouring from the sky.” Suddenly, she turns her head to look at us. “Why can’t we just drink the rain? Why do the rivers have to dig rivers for us?”

I blink slowly, slightly appalled. This kit thinks deeply. “I… don’t know,” I finally reply, glancing at Blue. “I’ve never thought about it, really. Maybe it’s because the rainwater soaks into the ground before we can get it?”

“It hasn’t soaked up yet,” Lily points out.

I grunt, a little frustrated. “Well, whatever. Hopefully it’ll let up soon.”

“Yeah,” Lily says in her quiet, quiet voice, turning away from us again.

Finally the rain starts to let up a little, and Blue and I get ready to move, knowing that it’ll be best if we can go back into hiding before the other cats start to come out of their dens. We beckon for Lily to follow us as we make our way out of the bushes, our ears flattening against our heads by instinct as the water hits our fur. Lily, however, just trots forward undeterred.

“Look,” Lily whispers, pausing mid-step and gazing, wide-eyed, up at the sky. “What is it?”

Blue and I follow her gaze. Sure enough, up in the still-clouded sky, there’s a rainbow, hanging low and bright over our world. “It’s a rainbow!” I exclaim eagerly, not caring if I sound like an excitable little kit. “Ohhh, Blue, how long has it been since we last saw one? Oh, it’s beautiful!”

“It sure is!” Blue replies, bouncing slightly on her paws. “It has been a long time, hasn’t it? And it’s so big, so bright, too! It’s absolutely beautiful!” She turns to me, her blue eyes bright and delighted as she meets my gaze. I can’t help but return her happy glance, and we stand watching the sky for a long minute as the band of colors begins to fade.

“We should go, I guess,” Blue sighs, finally pulling us out of our awe-induced stupor. “We still have work to do, no matter how magnificent the sky may be.”

“Yeah,” I sigh back. “Yeah, we do. But it was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?” I grin widely at her, and her eyes widen slightly before she smiles back at me with a definitive nod of agreement. “Beautiful,” I continue, my voice softening as I stare into Blue’s pretty eyes. “Absolutely beautiful.”

She turns away, her ears tilting back slightly as she picks up on the double meaning of my words. “Well,” she finally meows, looking slightly flustered. “Where should we go next?”

“Somewhere we haven’t gone before,” I reply, feeling suddenly adventurous. “Let’s go to the sunset corner of camp – we’re almost never over there, right? Because it’s so far away and all. Let’s do this, Blue!” She nods again, and the two of us race away with all the speed I’ve heard that hares have, completely abandoning all of our cares for the time.

32. Exploration

When messengers are young kits, first being introduced to the position, they’re assigned to “mentors” of a sort to help guide them and show them what all they’re supposed to do. That’s what Blue and I are doing for Lily, and it’s also what some of our predecessors did for us. However, because of the familiarity that grows with that mentor, messengers often end up staying in or around the areas that their mentors originally showed them when they watch.

Blue and I, as it happens, both ended up learning how to be messengers in the same approximate area – that is, the side of camp where that grove is. We both spend most of our watching time somewhere in that vicinity. We’ve heard all sorts of stories there, seen all sorts of things, watched all sorts of scenes unfold. And there’s always new material for us to report to Hazard as the various workers rotate areas.

However, sometimes it’s kind of fun to mix it up a bit, to go and watch from someplace we haven’t used as a hiding spot before. Obviously we’ve been all over the camp at some point or another – our surface task, running messages, means that we could be sent anywhere at any given time – but we don’t spend much time in those areas, really. So any time we decide to go to another place, it’s a bit of an adventure in a lot of ways.

The sunset corner of camp – that is, the side of camp that’s closest to where the sun sets at night – also happens to be where the other workers’ dens are. Most of the cats are probably out working somewhere, but there’s a chance that the hunters may be back already – it is midday, after all, and we’ve found that they like to hang out for a while before they go and work again in another group.

It’s not very productive of them, but it works. Gives us something to listen in on while they dawdle about, at least.

Blue and I reach the denning area, weaving around the worn paths like we belong here. If we can’t really hide, the best way to blend in is to act like we belong here. No cat can recognize every cat in camp and what position they work in, after all. That’d be ridiculous; even a messenger can’t identify every single cat around here, though we do know more cats than most because of the nature of our work.

Sure enough, near one of the dens closest to the camp wall, there are two cats: a black tom and a reddish-brown she-cat. They seem to be deep in conversation as we approach them, and they don’t even notice us until we’re standing next to them.

“I was cycled through her squad once,” the she-cat murmurs, her green eyes filled with sorrow. “She was always so kind to me, even when I messed up, you know?”

“I know. I still can’t believe that she’s actually –” The black tom breaks off as he notices me and Blue. “Well,” he murmurs to his companion. “We can keep talking about this later.” He straightens up and turns to face me squarely. “Sorry, but who are you?”

Dodging the question, I flick my ears in a lazy sort of detached interest. “What’re you talking about?” I ask, keeping my voice mildly innocent. “Shouldn’t you be working or something?”

“Shouldn’t you?” the she-cat fires back. I blink at her, surprised by her attitude, but not enough to reveal my identity.

“Obviously we’re taking a break,” Blue offers, coming to stand by my side. “I assume you’re doing the same, aren’t you…?”

“We’re hunters,” the she-cat snaps, tossing her head proudly. “We’re allowed to take breaks like this because we spend our time feeding all of you silly camp workers. Show a little respect.”

I can’t help it. My whiskers twitch in amusement. “So that’s what the hunters think of the rest of the cats in this camp?” I purr, my tone light and teasing but my eyes serious. “What about the overseer, hmmm? What do you think of him?”

The black tom looks uneasy. “We’ve never met him personally, so we couldn’t say,” he replies, his expression guarded. “Why? Do you think we’re secretly harboring thoughts of rebellion or something?”

“Oh, well, you know what they say,” I return, keeping my voice nonchalant. “There are still those rumors going around about the ghost of that cat who haunts this camp searching for vengeance. What was her name again?” I pretend to forget, turning to Blue as though for help in remembering.

“What, you mean Lash?” she replies, playing along.

The black tom flinches, and I know we’ve hit a nerve, but I pretend not to notice. “Yeah, that’s right. Lash.” I turn back towards the two hunters and shrug, acting friendlier now. “But of course no one believes the legends about the rebellion she wanted to lead, right? She was just an unfortunate cat who died in an accident. It’s a shame, really; from what I heard, she was a pretty good cat.”

“She was.” The intensity of the black tom’s voice surprises me a little. “She was the best high-worker I’ve ever known. I miss her so much.”

I furrow my forehead, trying to remember who this cat is. I’m fairly certain I’ve met him before, and obviously he has some sort of connection with Lash, so…

“Oh!” My ears perk up as I remember something. “You’re that cat who spoke out against the overseer two moons ago! What was it – something about those three kits he supposedly killed? Your name, what was it again… Embers?”

He looks alarmed, and I almost feel guilty for doing this to him – almost, but not really. He was a supporter of Lash, after all; who knows what kind of feelings he might still harbor for her. “That’s right,” he meows cautiously. “And you are?”

“Aww, you don’t remember me?” I let my face fall as though disappointed. “I’m a messenger, silly. I relayed that message to you about the eating time that one day when it changed, remember?”

He stiffens, and I can see the hesitant recognition in his eyes. I can tell that he’s fighting with himself about something, and before he replies, Blue presses up against my side and puts her muzzle up by my ear.

“Shadow, we forgot Lily!” she whispers.

I start, shocked to realize that she’s right. In our kittish excitement, we left Lily behind. There’s no telling what kind of trouble a kit like her could get into around this camp! She still doesn’t know not to tell anyone about being a messenger; what if she spills all our secrets?

“Go,” I hiss back, eying Embers and the she-cat cautiously. “Find her and take her back to our den, or to somewhere else that you can watch in secret. Make sure that she knows not to tell anyone anything about us or our work!” Blue nods in agreement and speeds off.

“Where’s she going?” the reddish she-cat inquires, watching Blue leave with suspicion lighting her gaze.

“Something came up,” I reply, keeping my gaze even and my voice steady. “There’s something that the overseer wanted her to do, and she just remembered about it. That’s all.”

The she-cat sneers. “Oh, so even you messengers are fallible?” She snorts. “Never thought I’d see the day one of the overseer’s precious, prized little pets admitted to having forgotten something he asked you to do. Aren’t you all supposed to be his perfect little slaves, the pristine example of what a cat’s supposed to be or something? Ha!”

“What, so you’re admitting that you’re not perfect?” The tip of my tail flicks lazily like I still don’t really care, but on the inside I’m burning. I want to go with Blue to find Lily, and I really want to get out of here. Maybe coming to the dens was a mistake; I really do hate interacting with non-messengers. I’m always afraid that I’m going to slip up in front of them or something. “If you think we’re supposed to be the perfect cats here, then doesn’t that mean that you must think you’re fallible?”

She sneers, stepping up closer to me to stare me in the eye. She must be about two moons older than me, but I’ve grown a lot in the past moons, and I’m taller than she is, though not by much. I square my shoulders and stare right back at her. “Give me your name,” she demands. “You know his,” she meows, with a gesture towards her companion. “And mine’s Fire. So who’re you?”

“Shadow,” I reply tartly, refusing to back down from her challenging glare. “I’m a senior messenger named Shadow.”

“Senior messenger? What’s that?” Fire snorts but carries on without waiting for a reply. “Embers and I are hunters, just poor little under-privileged low-workers, but oh, you bet your whiskers we work hard. Harder than you ever do, I bet. I mean, how many messages do you even deliver in a day? One? Two?”

“Important messages are rare,” I concede curtly. I can’t say anything more to counter her, though, because that would mean exposing all of the messengers’ secrets. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to catch up with my companion now.”

“Oh, sure, sure,” she purrs smoothly, stepping back from me. “We wouldn’t want to distract you from your very important work, now, would we, Embers?” I just push past her without saying a word.

As I walk away, I can hear the tom, Embers, speaking lowly to that rude little insect. “Fire, wasn’t that a little harsh?” he whispers worriedly. “What if he reports you to the overseer?”

“Let him,” Fire dismisses brightly, not even bothering to keep her voice down. “I have a few words for that hideous cat, should I ever meet him one-on one, so I don’t especially care what that little flea tells the overseer. Let him whine about the little low-worker who met who didn’t pay him all the respect he’s due.” Her voice is bitingly sarcastic, and I can still hear it even from some distance away.

In that case, I think, I might just report her to Hazard, after all. I wasn’t going to, but if it means she’ll get a good hearing from him, then…

Once I can’t see those two insufferable cats anymore, I hasten my pace, eager to return to Blue’s side and find Lily.

33. Seeing Red

I take the path I saw Blue use as she left, following it as far as I can before needing to rely on scent to track her down. It seems that she made a beeline for where we were before, back at the grove, which makes enough sense, I suppose.

I’m passing through the camp’s common area, not even following the scent anymore, just heading straight for the grove, when I hear something that makes my blood freeze.

“Ohhh, look at the little kitty-cat. Low-workers are just the absolute best cats in the camp, wouldn’t you say, Fish?”

“At least we don’t corner innocent cats at random to terrorize them! Let me go!”

That second voice was Blue’s.

Not wanting to believe it, I turn slowly. Exactly as I heard, a group of cats has Blue surrounded. She looks like she’s both itching to fight her way out and trying her hardest to maintain her composure. And Lily’s with her.

“Aww, we just want to play a little.” This comes from a gray-and-white tom who takes a menacing step closer to Blue as he speaks. “Aren’t you having fun yet?”

Blue stiffens and scoops Lily up close to her, trying to back away, but there are other cats behind her, and she can’t get very far. The gray-and-white tom laughs, a deep, throaty, horrible sound, while the other cats surrounding Blue shift their stances impatiently.

I’m about to run over to them and yell at them at the top of my lungs when I hear an odd comment. “Whiskers, are you sure this is okay?” This comment comes from a ginger she-cat with amber eyes. She looks a little younger than all the others but just as strong. I can’t help but thinking that, had she been a tom, she would have been a perfect copy of Hazard.

But that’s a useless thought right now. I can’t believe my ears. Was that sympathy?

“Shut up, Mothy!” snaps a huge, silvery-gray tomcat. “We’re far superior to these little low-worker mice. They just take up room in camp and eat all of the food!”

I’ve had enough. I sprint over towards that evil circle of cats, screeching, “Doesn’t that fit your job description better, you stupid little excuses for guards?”

Yeah. I recognize them. These little fools are the older, dumber versions of the cats who were once that unfortunate cat’s squad leaders. These are the cats who betrayed her and stepped into the ranks of the overseer’s personal idiots.

Just as I had intended, my sudden appearance and loud cry catches these cats off guard, and I’m able to force myself into their circle to stand next to Blue and Lily. “The low-workers may take up space and require a lot of food,” I spit, breathing heavily, “but at least they do work around the camp, unlike you good-for-nothing fools! What do you even do, anyways? Oh, wait, no, I can tell you that. Nothing!”

The venom in my voice is enough to make their ears flatten. “How dare you,” the cat in front – the insufferable one, Whiskers – hisses at me, his hackles rising, his fur standing on end. “How dare you say that to us, you insolent little flea? We're members of the overseer’s personal guard!”

“You were assaulting two messengers!” I yell back. “Of course I have the right to confront you! Not only are they my friends, they’re some of the overseer’s most trusted cats! How dare you!”

“Oh, fleas and ticks,” a dark gray and white tom, who I recognize as Lakerfly, whispers. “I had no idea; otherwise, I’d…” He trails off uncertainly, exchanging a glance with Mist, the pale gray she-cat, who also looks uneasy. Across the circle from them, Brightsky and Nightmoon are also starting to look uncomfortable with this whole stupid set-up. Good! Let them turn on their so-called friends. See if I care.

“Fish, Whiskers, let’s stop this,” the last cat, the pale golden tom known as Sand, whispers to his companions. “Cut it out already; you’ll get us all demoted!” Finally, some logical thinking from these idiots.

“Never,” Whiskers hisses back, unsheathing his claws. They’re long and sharp, probably because there’s no need for these lazy guards to do any work with them except for clawing up their food. However, mine are sharper than theirs; my claws are every bit as sharp as my tongue, because even though I also don’t use them for much, I do take the time and care to sharpen them on my own.

I unsheathe my claws as well, adopting a low fighting stance. We messengers may not do much physical work except for running the occasional message here and there, but unlike the cats in any other work position, we were trained from a young age to fight other cats. These cats may have been hunters once, but I’m counting on the fact that they’re out of practice in addition to their inexperience in fighting anything but prey to give me an advantage.

Beside me, Blue drops into a similar position, but I shake my head sharply at her. “Take Lily and run,” I hiss under my breath to her. “I can handle these fools.”

“No way,” Blue snaps back, flexing her back in anticipation of the coming fight. “Don’t be a hero, Shadow. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Yeah. No. You’re leaving.”

Perhaps a bit too roughly, I shove Lily towards Blue, and the little kit staggers back until she falls against Blue’s leg. Blue stiffens at my thinly veiled temper, but she obediently scoops up the kit and forces her way out of this circle of violence before our antagonists can react.

“Now I don’t have to worry about hurting the cat I love by mistake,” I mutter to these fools. “I can go all out now and rip you all to shreds.”

“Bring it on,” Whiskers sneers, dropping into a crouch with Fish by his side. Much to my satisfaction, none of the other guards make any move to help them. I won’t hurt them if they don’t interfere, I vow. They deserve that much, at least, for not helping their comrades in this fight, even if they don’t actively help me out, either.

I turn my gaze back to the two toms in front of me and poorly stifle a laugh, resulting in a noise that sounds something like a choked cough. “Is that your hunting crouch?” I exclaim incredulously. “Hate to break it to you, but I’m not a piece of prey!” I lunge forwards, reaching out with my front paws and slashing Fish across the chest.

He staggers backwards, blood welling up from the wound, staggeringly bright and red against his short, sleek silver fur. “You little–!” he exclaims, clearly unsure of how to deal with such an injury.

Whiskers tries to attack me, but his forward lunge is clumsy and slow, and I’m easily able to knock him on his side and press a claw to his throat. “Don’t you dare cross me,” I hiss into his ear. “Don’t you dare cross me.”

“Who do you think you are?” Fish’s voice steadily grows higher until it’s almost a wail. He’s scared… this cat is scared of me. “We’re members of the overseer’s personal guard; why would you attack us like that?”

“Am I supposed to stand back and let two innocent cats get hurt by your claws?” I yell, pressing hard enough on Whiskers’s skin that my claws draw little beads of blood. “Tell me, am I? Forgive me for having a little bit of loyalty towards my friends!” I know my voice is mounting in volume, and that cats are beginning to stare, but I don’t care. I can’t care. I can’t stop myself now.

“We weren’t going to hurt them!” Whiskers yowls desperately. “Please, just – please don’t hurt us! We’ll never do it again, I swear?”

“You promise?” I growl, staring him straight in his cursed green eyes.

“Yes – I promise! Just please, let me up–!”

I do as he asks, gradually removing the pressure from his throat so that he can stand. However, I don’t sheathe my claws, and I definitely don’t let my guard down. They could still be dangerous, no matter what they say. A scene where these cats murder Blue and Lily in their sleep plays out in my mind over and over again inside my head.

Apologies or not, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive them for what they’ve done.

While my attention is still focused in on Whiskers, I sense movement from my left side, and I whirl out of Fish’s way just in time. “What’s your problem?” I snap, bracing myself for any more attacks he might try.

“Whiskers swore that to you,” he sneers, seeming unsteady on his paws. “It has nothing to do with me.”

“He said we!”

“I don’t believe in teamwork.” He crouches low, like he’s about to lash out for me again, but before he can –

“What’s all this about?”

My entire body goes cold in an instant.

No matter how many cats have been trained to imitate him – no matter how good a job they may do – there’s only one cat who could issue such a harmless statement in such a threatening tone of voice.

It’s Hazard.

34. Shades of Gray

Fish and Whiskers are staring past me with wide, terrified eyes, and I’m sure my frozen expression matches theirs completely.

I somehow manage to make my paws move so that I can turn and look at the overseer as he approaches us. That’s what he becomes in these moments – the overseer. I can’t call his name with any familiarity when he speaks to me like that. And sure enough, it’s actually him – those faint tabby stripes are glaring at me with all the brightness of the daylight, such a blatantly obvious difference between him and the others for anyone who knows what to look for.

“Overseer,” I reply hoarsely, bowing my head in a gesture of utmost respect. “You honor us with your presence.” But my trembling legs and fearful eyes surely contradict my words. He almost never comes out of his den. What’s he doing out now, of all times…?

“Sha… dow.” The overseer rolls my name around like a piece of prey in his mouth. “A messenger for five moons, and a senior messenger for two.” He looks past me at the other two cats who are standing there. “Fish… and Whiskers. Former hunters for that unfortunate cat Lash; guards for four moons.” His amber eyes are cold and calculating, which is something that neither Gingersnap nor Ambrosia has ever been able to imitate.

He’s observing us like one set to kill.

His gaze settles back on me; it’s both unnerving and impossibly cold. I try not to let my fear show too much, but I know that no matter how calm I may look on the outside, I can’t stop my terror from radiating out of me like the sun.

“Shadow,” he repeats, and for a long moment my name almost feels foreign to me, like it’s just some random word annexed to a string of other words. “Tell me, Shadow. What happened here?”

His words are so simple, so unassuming on the surface, and yet they cut me to the bone. “Um,” I mumble. “There was just a little conflict. Nothing serious.”

“Tell me, Shadow,” the overseer says, stepping closer to me. “Do all of your little conflicts end in bloodshed?”

I bow my head even lower. “No, overseer. I apologize.”

I hear a scraping sound, and then the overseer hits me over the head in a single blunt strike. “You have drawn the blood of one of my guards,” he hisses, leaning forwards to speak directly into my ear. “I should hope you had a good reason to do so, Shadow.” His voice is chilling, and I hate the way he keeps repeating my name. It’s almost eerie, the way he says it, like my name is just like any other word, just something to be tossed about at the speaker’s every whim.

“I apologize, overseer,” I repeat in a whisper, all thoughts of violence and blood and Blue having been utterly banished from my mind.

“Good… good. This is a good start, Shadow.” To my great relief, he moves away from me, and I have to keep myself from collapsing with distress.

“Fish.” So this is his next victim. “What have you to say for yourself? Did you deserve this injury?”

“I don’t know, overseer,” Fish replies, trying and failing to sound respectful. Sure enough, as I sneak a glance over my shoulder, he also receives a clout to the head.

“Answer me definitively next time” is the overseer’s only spoken reprimand as he moves over towards Whiskers. I look ahead again, not wanting to get caught watching. Who knows what would happen to me then…? But I can’t help myself; I turn my head ever so slightly so that I can just see Whiskers out of the corner of my eye.

“And you… Whiskers. You don’t seem to be injured quite so badly as your companion.” He leans in close to examine the marks my claws left in the tom’s throat, and Whiskers shifts his paws uncomfortably as the long moment drags on. “Who gave you those wounds, Whiskers?”

Whiskers swallows nervously. “Shadow did… overseer.”

“And you?” Another question for Fish. “Who gave you your injury?”

Fish meets my gaze for a second, and he almost looks apologetic, but he still turns to the overseer and utters that cursed word. “Shadow did, overseer.”

“I see.” The overseer turns away from them and starts walking back towards me; I do my best to look like I haven’t been watching. “Shadow, these two cats say that you were the one who wounded them. Do you deny this?”

I can’t breathe. “No, overseer,” I reply, my voice barely audible. “I can’t deny what they said. It was me.”

“I see.”

He’s silent for what seems like a long, long time.

Then suddenly, he speaks again.

“You two” – speaking to Fish and Whiskers – “should go find one of the sweepers’ patrols. They will have the most knowledge of how to dress your wounds.” They don’t move until the overseer meows, “Now,” his voice strengthening with cold authority just ever so slightly. They chorus a “Yes, overseer” and scramble away together, completely abandoning me with this… cat.

“Now, then.” He’s standing right next to me. I can feel his breath on my fur, and it sends chills running down my spine. He knows I’m afraid. “Shadow. What have you to say for yourself, hmm…?”

I swallow nervously. “I did it, overseer. There is no denying that.”

“Hmm.” He circles me slowly, like a predator. I’m the prey now. “Tell me, Shadow, why did you do it?” He stops right in front of me, staring straight into my eyes. He may be small, but he’s still at eye level with me, and that’s just as terrifying as confronting a cat larger than oneself.

“I don’t know,” I whisper, then brace myself, knowing what’s coming. Sure enough, he strikes me across the head once more. My legs give way beneath me, and I crouch down painfully, my ears ringing from the blow.

“Give me a definitive answer,” he breathes, crouching low to stay at my level. He cranes his neck so that he’s looking up at me; I realize how vulnerable he’s letting himself be in this moment – I could easily crush his head into the ground here and now – and yet how confident he is that I can’t strike back against him. “Or I’ll kill you here and now, Shadow.”

“They were going to hurt my friends,” I respond, gritting my teeth against the pain reverberating around my head. That was hard… that was a really hard blow. It hurts. It really hurts. “I wanted to save my friends.”

“So, you’d argue self-defense, then, Shadow?” The overseer straightens up now, looking down at me with mild disdain. “I see. Tell me, Shadow. If they were the aggressors, then why do you have no wounds?”

I’m trapped. There’s nothing I can say at this point that will get me out of this situation. He could really kill me. I can tell that our… situation… here is still drawing the attention of curious workers who happen to be in the common area with us, but I can’t see any of them – my world right now is the bright orange fur of the overseer; everything else is just a blur of meaningless gray smudges around him – and I know that none of them would dare interfere. No one’s brave enough to stand up to the overseer.

“Now, Shadow,” he purrs. He would almost sound endearing if it weren’t for his hard, unfeeling amber gaze. “Why don’t you come with me so we can straighten this out in private? There are too many cats around here; this is a private affair, wouldn’t you say, Shadow?”

I can only nod mutely. He heaves me to my paws and drags me across the camp towards his den, looking for all the world as though he were merely helping an injured cat stand and walk.

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