I wanna hide the truth, I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside, there's nowhere we can hide
— Imagine Dragons, Demons
A frazzled looking she-cat rushed to answer the cries of two kits bundled under a holly bush. Upon first glance, the she-cat appeared to be like any mother trying to balance hunting and watching her kits. However, at closer inspection, one would note her smallness and realize that she was barely older than a kit herself. Her hunt, backed by only her clumsy, untrained, and inexperienced skills, had been unfruitful, so she curled around her sisters under the holly bush and settled for giving them warmth and not food.
"I'm hungry, Vi," said the louder of the two kits, a most peculiar beauty, even at that age, with a chestnut-and-white pelt and hemochromatic eyes: one gold, one blue.
Her littermate was more understated, her pelt pale gray like Violet's, her eyes both wholly baby blue, and looking less likely to change colors with each passing day.
"I know you're hungry, Aurora. I'm sorry. I don't have any food for you."
For a second, the grumpy look on Aurora's face foreshadowed a tantrum. Then the kit's face mellowed with uncharacteristic patience. "Okay. I understand," she mumbled.
Violet saw her exchange a look with her twin sister, and couldn't help a smile. "Willow, I will forever be grateful for the influence you have on your sister."
"Hey!" Aurora batted Violet's chin. "I'm not always the naughty one! And I'm your sister too."
"You are always the naughty one. Definitely," said a considerably more masculine mew.
"Blackpaw! Riverpaw!" shrieked Aurora in excitement. She and Willow scrambled out from under Violet, tottering on stubby legs towards the group of toms that had emerged from the bracken border that lay just beyond their holly bush.
Violet was slower to approach, but her face was alight with happiness. "Hey guys," she purred at the older toms, who couldn't have been more than a moon or two older than her. There were four toms in total, all brothers. Blackpaw and Riverpaw were Violet's age, but different as night and day. Blackpaw had spent most of his life being groomed by his father to succeed his father's position as leader of NightClan; he was more reserved than his brother, with serious gray eyes. In spite of the thousand and one reasons not to have anything to do with Violet and her sisters, though, he had always been more than family to them. Violet loved all four brothers dearly, but she'd always considered Blackpaw her very best friend.
Riverpaw, though he shared his brother's midnight pelt, had deep green eyes that were constantly filled with laughter. He was more prone to showing off and making rash decisions, and had a knack for mischief almost as strong as Willow's.
Then there were the youngest two: Treekit and Stonekit. They were even younger than Aurora and Willow, which meant the two she-kits liked to take care of them and play family together. Violet liked that; if her sisters were taking care of the little ones, it meant they had to act grown up.
"How are you guys?" Blackpaw asked warmly.
"We brought a gift!" Riverpaw deposited a small pile of prey at Violet's paws. "The mice are for the kits, because they're easier for you to chew up and give them," he explained. "The rabbit is for you."
Violet let out a little sigh, wondering how they always managed to figure out when her hunts were unsuccessful. Had they seen her bumbling efforts from afar? "Guys, I can't thank you enough."
Shrugging it off, Riverpaw says, "The cats of our Clan are plenty chubby enough. Besides, we caught these ourselves."
"You too?" Violet asked Blackpaw.
He shrugged and grinned. "I may be a rule follower--"
"Try total stickler," muttered Riverpaw.
"--but I'm not above using my training sessions to hunt for a friend," he finished, rolling his eyes at his brother.
Violet called her sisters for mealtime, but Aurora and Willow had forgotten their hunger; they were hosting a training session. As Violet, Riverpaw, and Blackpaw watched, Willow executed a simply terrible flip off a tree stump while Aurora praised her technique and the little tom-kits ooh'd in wonder.
"Hmph. Aurora was all for complaining about having no food a minute ago," Violet sniffed.
"Let them enjoy themselves," said Riverpaw. "You can feed them soon."
"Why don't you eat now?" offered Blackpaw.
She raised her eyebrows and shook her head, putting both the rabbit and the mice aside. "Eat before the kits?" she repeated in a tone that left the answer to that in no doubt.
Blackpaw gave her half a smile. "It was worth a try."
"So what's new in NightClan? Catch me up. It's so boring out here by ourselves."
Shooting his brother a sly smile, Riverpaw said, "Why don't you ask Blackpaw?"
Looking supremely annoyed, Blackpaw said in answer to Violet's curious look, "My father is, uh, trying to set me up."
"Really?" Violet looked slightly amused. "Already? Why?"
Now Riverpaw looked irritated. "Because," he said, "he's a manipulative snake who only cares about power."
"How is setting you up supposed to get him power?"
The brothers exchanged hesitant looks. "Tell her, Blackpaw. It's Vi, it's not like she's going to go blab to someone."
"Got no one to blab to, anyway -- except Aurora and Willow," said Violet.
"There are other reasons why we should keep you well away from all of this," said Blackpaw.
"You don't need to protect me." I've got a few secrets of my own. Violet glanced away from him.
"NightClan is undergoing a bit of a power struggle right now," confessed Riverpaw. "Birdclaw, my father's sister, is very angry with him. She says he's ruining our family's legacy. She wants our bloodline to stay in power in NightClan."
Confused, Violet said, "But NightClan's leadership has nothing to do with blood -- other than having NightClan blood, right?"
"Right. According to the warrior code. But warriors don't always uphold that code -- or they add in rules to suit their own needs," said Blackpaw grimly.
"I always thought your father was training you up so that you'd be a suitable candidate for deputy, not guaranteeing you the spot."
"He's trying to cut a deal with his council of elders and all the senior warriors. Basically, I'm one of his playing pieces. He's promising them that my leadership will always cater to their wants if they allow him to make certain appointments and changes in the Clan."
"What?" exclaimed Violet. Sure, Blackpaw and Riverpaw had always complained about their father; she knew Thunderstar could be tempermental, demanding, and unaccepting, but she'd never truly thought of him as corrupt, just an ambitious father.
"If I'm leader, it's best to at least have a mate. And if the position is truly to become hereditary, I need to have . . . you know, descendants," Blackpaw said uncomfortably.
"Kits," translated Riverpaw, and Blackpaw shrugged.
"But our current deputy, Mothfly, won't even consider stepping down unless her daughter, Rosepaw, is taken care of."
Understanding dawned on Violet. "They want you and Rosepaw to be bethrothed."
"I don't get it," said Violet. "It still seems like a lot of trouble to go through just to please Mothfly. Why was she appointed deputy in the first place, then?"
"We don't fully get it either. And Father definitely isn't going to tell us the full story. We thought maybe if I played along, we could learn more," said Blackpaw very quickly, not looking at anyone in particular.
Though she felt a pang in her heart, Violet didn't express any sympathy. Duty. Blackpaw lived for it. Saying she was sorry he was doing what he felt he had to do would be like apologizing for the fact that he had to breathe oxygen to live.
Trying for some lightness, she said, "Is she pretty, at least? Rosepaw?"
Blackpaw did not answer. He frowned and looked at her like she was speaking in another language.
Sighing, she said, "Never mind. I forgot: Riverpaw is the player."
"Don't hate me because I'm beautiful. The she-cats can't keep their paws off of me."
"Riverpaw!" yelled Willow. "Want to play moss-ball with us?"
Riverpaw's face broke into a grin. "Sure! Anything but discussing conspiracies for the thousandth time with this paranoid freak." He butted Blackpaw's shoulder exasperatedly before running towards Willow and Aurora.
Shifting his paws, Blackpaw said, "Ugh. I can't help it. It really does feel like someone is out to get us -- Father, Mother, Birdclaw, Riverpaw and me."
"Did you tell Thunderstar?"
For a split second, the light caught in Blackpaw's calm eyes fissioned into a million pieces. In that instant, Violet thought she saw something else trapped in there -- something wild and terrified and haunted. Then it was gone, receded, concealed behind the gray clouds of his gaze. His smile was humorless. "I think he already knows. I think this is what it's all about."
"Who? Who could be out to get you?" Violet asked. Riverpaw's greatest strength -- the same quality that was his greatest weakness -- was not hers. She could not shrug away Blackpaw's worries, or turn them into a word of encouragement. She felt his fear close in her own heart.
Violet had lied, earlier. When she said it was boring out here, when she said her sisters and her were by themselves. That was not true. There were other cats. She saw them all the time, because she went to them. When she wasn't waiting by her little holly bush for the brothers to visit, she was crawling on her belly through the hedges and holes that led her to the iron prison -- Twolegplace. The place where heaven shone through the eyes of the homeless cats wandering the streets of a particular sort of hell.
She cared too much. Stars, how she cared. She wanted to hold them all. She would wake up in the middle of the night, screaming for the cats -- the ones hit by monsters, the ones killed by dogs, the ones taken by Twolegs, the ones starving or sick or broken -- and she would wake up in the morning and go to Twolegplace and try to help.
She hated herself for that, now. If she wasn't always in Twolegplace, she wouldn't have so many secrets to keep. She would be able to laugh and smile and not worry about the secrets.
Him. Him. The one with her nightmares in his eyes -- or were his eyes her nightmares? She knew the price of spilling the secret of him. Not only would he stop letting her try to heal those he had broken -- he would break her. Break her by taking the two cats she loved more than anything in the world.
She could not let him. She'd kept the secret. And now, looking at Blackpaw, she wished she could tell him that she understood. What it was like to know in your heart that all was not right, but to stop yourself from going after the truth, almost without realizing you were doing it . . . because was the truth really worth the pain?
"There's a storm coming," she observed absent-mindedly.
A feather-light touch. On her ear. Blackpaw pulled back, studying his paw. Dusted with grayish powder. "Gravel. Off the Thunderpath?" he guessed.
It was her turn to not answer him.
"I don't know why you go there," he said.
"I don't know why you know that I go there at all," she said shortly. "Do you watch me?" It was so quick she almost missed it -- the subtle flinch at her words, the double beat-beat blink of his eyelids that must have mirrored the jump in the pulse she saw beating at his throat.
"Twolegplace . . . There's a reason we call it the Badlands."
"You have names for everything. The Shadowlands. The Ghostlands. The Starlands."
"Yeah. We like naming things. I think that's why we go from -kit to -paw to our warrior names. We just like having a lot of names," Blackpaw said, and she cracked a smile, because she knew he needed her to. "But seriously, Vi. The Badlands . . . I don't want you being around those kinds of cats."
"They're feline too."
"They could hurt you."
"So could anything else in this whole wide world," she said simply.
"Stubborn," he mumbled.
"Blackpaw!" called Riverpaw. "We should probably get home. Storm's rolling in."
Blackpaw glanced at Violet. "Don't let Willow stand outside."
"Aw!" Willow and Aurora had bounded over. Aurora was beaming up at the darkening sky. "I love thunderstorms!"
"Go home. We'll be fine -- I'll get these two inside and tell them a story," said Violet. "Go be with Rosepaw," she said to Blackpaw, and for a heartbeat, the haunted look was back. Blackpaw, what are you running from? A manipulative crimelord who will kill your family if you tell anyone about his operations?
Then the rain began to fall, and she blinked, and everything was back to normal. The nightmares were pushed back: she was awake, the raindrops refreshingly cold on her face. Around her, the wind rattled through pine needles, not Twoleg crow-food, and it carried air that smelled of living things, not dying things.
The storm was gathering in intensity quickly. Water soaked Violet's thick fur, gathering it into clumps. Blackpaw shook droplets off his whiskers, shivering, and told her to stay warm. He and Riverpaw said their farewells before disappearing into the brush.
Violet rounded up Willow and captured Aurora, who attempted to climb a tree so she could see the lightning better -- "Are you crazy? Do you want to be electrocuted?" They bundled under the holly bush, snuggling together for warmth.
The storm that heralded the storm. Violet drifted off to sleep, but the storm kept coming.
Violet awoke with a start.
She didn't know where she was at first. Then a sudden flash of lightning sent her vision up in thick, white-hot flames.
The flames framed the silhouette of a cat.
It was a she-cat, a pale one with crazed amber eyes. Violet recognized her -- though not the look in her eyes. It was Mothfly, the NightClan deputy.
Before she had time to comprehend this unlikely turn of events, waking up and finding the NightClan deputy in her den, Mothfly had hit her round the head so hard that the world went straight from white to black for a few seconds.
There were things fitted around her claws. Bits of scrap metal, bones, thorns, stuck deep into leafy pads that were then wrapped around her forepaws.
Gauntlets. Those were not Clan weapons.
"You're working for him," Violet whispered. Treacherous cuts now slashed her face, the edges ragged with torn skin. Blood dribbled down her chin. Her eyes cut to Aurora and Willow, who were beginning to wake, and raw terror seized her. "How -- You're not -- You're a Clan cat."
"Clans have borders," laughed Mothfly, rather insanely. "This does not. He does not have limits. We do not have endings."
"What are you talking about?" Willow and Aurora were on their paws now, their eyes huge with shock. Violet knew she had seconds before Aurora did something stupid: her only option was to do something even stupider, and to do it first.
With that decision in mind, she leaped directly at Mothfly.
"Violet!" bellowed Willow.
Changing the tack of her jump at the last possible second, Violet managed to avoid being impaled on Mothfly's gauntlets. She also missed her target of the she-cat's throat, however, and barely grazed her shoulder instead.
Sometimes a heartbeat can last forever. This was one of those times. Mothfly had gauntlets. She was working for him. Willow and Aurora were there, backed against the wall, cornered. And Violet was their only hope.
Their only hope plunged her claws deep into Mothfly's side.
The deputy jerked as if she'd been struck by lightning, but it was thunder that split the skies, shaking Violet to her very core.
She drew back, and Mothfly spilled onto the floor as her life-blood spilled out around her.
The storm kept going, but inside the holly bush, the world had stopped. Willow and Aurora stared at her, speechless, numb with shock and horror.
Violet didn't understand herself. He had let her live till now. Why had he sent Mothfly -- she hadn't known he had operatives in NightClan -- to kill her today? She hadn't told anyone.
She was only sure of one thing. She had to get out. What had she been thinking, walking into Twolegplace and thinking she could try to wrap up the wounds of those hurting, and expecting to walk out unscathed? Of course not. He would not thank her for helping the cats on his streets. He would expect her to pay: the debt of life.
If he came after Aurora and Willow . . .
These thoughts raced around the bottom of Violet's mind like small silver catfish at the bed of a river, but the real effects of the boulder that had fallen into her were felt at the surface, where one thought coalesced like a whirlpool.
I am a murderer.
"What do we do?" asked Willow. She could have been talking about anything to anyone. What do we do with the body, Violet? What do we do, Aurora, with our sister the murderer? What do we do with the eight tons of guilt and darkness that have moved in, not into the holly bush, but into our hearts?
Violet lifted her chin. "We run."