"So are you in? Or do you know anyone who is?" asked Reedfur. He was trying his best to be patient, but that was hard when every second could cost him his friends' lives.
The two toms who had taken him in when he'd escaped GreenClan, Harley and Jake, exchanged glances. Behind them, Spidertalon and Flowerburst, two cats he had helped before on a mission patrol, stood by anxiously. "Harley, Jake, I'll go. I owe the rebellion my family's lives," Spidertalon said.
With a whimper, Flowerburst clung to her mate. "You can't go! What about Merlekit and Ribbonkit?"
A look of pain crossed the tom's face, but he didn't waver. "It's the right thing to do."
"Thank you," Silverbreeze said gratefully from beside Reedfur.
As Spidertalon walked over to him - having said good bye to his kits - Reedfur turned to his old pals. "What do you say? I don't want to force you into this."
Harley thumped him on the shoulder with a paw. "You're not. If you're in trouble, we're there. Especially if it means a chance to kick GreenClan butt."
Jake, always the quieter one, gave Reedfur a nod and a smile. "Are we heading back now?"
Glancing at Reedfur, Silverbreeze mewed, "Should we recruit more cats, or just head back home?"
"There's no time to waste," he decided hastily. "Let's get back to the Tunnels."
Pausing to let Spidertalon touch noses with Flowerburst one last time, Reedfur spun on his heel and led the way towards the Tunnels.
"Fernheart, take your patrol and head out the back exit. Make a wide circle and try to come up behind Viperstar," Bramblepath commanded.
Nodding at her approvingly, Strongheart added, "Make sure to not get caught."
The hazel-eyed she-cat nodded and flicked her tail at the other cats in her patrol, leading them away.
Once they were gone, Strongheart bit his lip, thinking things over. "Bramblepath, Wetstream, each of you take a patrol and switch out holding the main entrance. And I mean switch, okay? No trying to play hero and fight longer than you need to."
Both she-cats gave him nods as they began assigning cats to patrols.
Turning to Finchnose, Strongheart asked, "Do you need any help?"
Busily sorting out herbs and weaving slings from leaves, she didn't look up as she answered, "I'll manage."
"Okay." He stood there awkwardly for a second, then muttered, "Good luck."
She looked up with a rueful smile. "You too. I wish Silverbreeze and Reedfur were here."
Me too. "We'll be okay. Besides, they'll bring help. All is not lost."
"All is never lost," she reminded him. "Now, don't you have some GreenClan cats to beat up?" Her smile was mischevious, but somehow that spirit didn't make it to the worry in her eyes.
Pretending to smack himself in the forehead, he laughed. "I almost forgot! Thanks for reminding me. They'd be so disappointed if I didn't give them a proper butt-kicking."
Once he had reached the forefront of the Tunnels, he switched himself into a more combat-ready mindset. There would be absolutely no margin for error in this battle. And another thing. He highly doubted they would be able to completely obliterate GreenClan beyond hope of return. It was impossible. No, this would be the first battle of many. He was going to have to put the Hidden through what he had been trying to protect them from.
He had no choice.
"Where is Viperstar?" he asked Birdsong, who was standing nearby.
The black she-cat cringed. "We're not even sure. He has two squadrons out there, but Bramblepath thinks there could be more, hiding. I don't know what they're waiting for, though. They have no choice but to storm the Tunnels."
It was strange, admittedly. "Maybe they're trying to find another entrance in here?"
"All secret entrances are really well hidden- and besides, we've posted guards at each one," Firesoul reported.
"Good thinking." So what is Viperstar planning?
"He could just be trying to tire us out, you know," Bramblepath called from where she was fronting her patrol at the main entrance. "Make us lower our guard."
He scowled. "That's almost insulting, that he thinks we'd be that stupid."
With a shrug, Firesoul mewed, "A Viperstar can hope, can't he?"
And that was when Bramblepath yelled, "They're here!"
For a second, Strongheart froze. He really wanted to fight, to shred GreenClan pelt and defend freedom himself, but... he also had a duty. He was a commander of sorts here, and he needed to stay back and direct operations. Much as he hated to admit it, he would actually be much more helpful back here then fighting out there and leaving his soldiers to figure things out for themselves.
Sighing, he prepared himself for the worst. There was no telling what could happen when Viperstar was out there. He'd need to be on his tip-toes.
"Strongheart!" A voice yelled, echoing through the Tunnels.
Whirling, he saw five cats barreling towards him full-speed. Reedfur, Silverbreeze, and three other toms he didn't recognize. "You're back," he said, relieved beyond what he could put into words. "But how did you get in? Bramblepath's holding the entrance."
"One of the secret tunnels," Reedfur panted. "But we had to duck around a GreenClan patrol to get in here."
Strongheart raised his eyebrows. A patrol out there? But... I thought the two patrols were out front. His belly clenched as he realized Birdsong had been right. There were far more GreenClan cats then they had bargained for. "Are Amberflower and Stormflower back with reinforcements yet?"
Both his friends shook their heads. "This is Harley, Jake, and Spidertalon," Silverbreeze rattled off. All of the cats, Strongheart realized, looked exhausted. There was no telling how much they had pushed themselves in order to get back so quickly.
"You guys wait over there and rest for a bit. There's prey- Silverbreeze and Reedfur can show you where it is."
A defiant glaze covered one of the tom's eyes - Strongheart believed his name was Spidertalon. "No way. I came to help and fight, not to rest and eat your food."
"None of you are in any shape to fight. Trust me, you'll be glad enough of the rest soon," Strongheart said grimly.
Sensibly, Reedfur nodded. "Come on guys. We'll be out there before you know it."
"Hey. Reedfur, Silverbreeze. Glad you're back safe."
His friends nodded. "Us too."
Silverbreeze leaned her head back against the dirt walls of The Hall, praying that all the weariness would drain out of her bones. After covering two trips in one night - one to get help and the other returning - she was ready to just drop dead. But she couldn't. As soon as she was called, she'd need to fight.
Apparently, no one else had the same qualms as she did. Spidertalon was pacing the floor, muttering, "When are they going to call us? I'm ready to shred, but instead I'm stuck in here."
"Hey, relax," Reedfur said gently. "You'll get your chance soon enough, trust me. And maybe you won't be so thrilled then."
The tom sighed and flopped down. "I guess so..."
No sooner had he done so then Fernheart burst in - she had obviously entered through one of the back tunnels. Her eyes were completely wild. "Where's Strongheart?" she screamed.
"I think he's by the front-"
"I need him! Oh, what's the use?" She collapsed, sobbing.
Harley, Jake, and Spidertalone exchanged anxious glances, while Silverbreeze and Reedfur rushed forward. Feeling her heart thumping inside her chest, Silverbreeze asked, "What is it? What happened?"
Through her near-hysterical sobs, she choked out, "I was supposed to take my patrol out through a secret entrance, and try to come up behind Viperstar. But there was another patrol out there, searching for something. I think they were searching for Aquasplash, actually. And the leader of that patrol, Doveslash, spotted us before we could run."
"It's okay-" Silverbreeze began, trying to sooth her, but she was interrupted.
"It's not okay! She took them! All of them! Hostages! Captured them! I wanted to stay, but Violentclaw told me to run... to get help... but it's too late now."
Vehemently, Reedfur snarled, "It's not too late. We'll get them back before GreenClan can use them to stop the battle. I've had enough of their hostage-games."
Fernheart made no response, but her sobs quieted. "We can fix this," Silverbreeze said gently.
Then, next to her, Reedfur tensed. "Fernheart... did you enter through the secret tunnel?"
"Y-yes," the she-cat stammered.
"Reedfur, now's not the time for an interrogation," Silverbreeze said impatiently, elbowing him.
He ignored her. "When did you come in here? Did Doveslash and the GreenClan cats already take the hostages when you came here, or were they still chasing you?"
Pale with fear, Fernheart bit her lip. "I don't know... I came in here so fast."
Nearly knocking them both over, Reedfur bolted past. Exchanging a glance with Fernheart, Silverbreeze said, "Stay here," and pelted after Reedfur.
She crashed into her friend, who stood frozen, watching as a gray GreenClan she-cat stepped into the Tunnels through one of the hidden entrances. A cruel leer played across her face as more cats began entering. They've found it. Silverbreeze felt faint.
"Silverbreeze," Reedfur whispered. "Run."
"No time for that. We've been infiltrated."
For once, Finchnose didn't feel left out of a battle. The reason? She had absolutely no time to feel anything.
"Jaywalker, I don't care if the bleeding's stopped, you are not going anywhere with your leg ripped open. Now put the bandages back on right now." Sheesh. How could so many fighting soldiers act like such babies?
With a sigh, the pale tom consented. Bustling past him, Finchnose picked up three different poultices and delivered them to three respective cats. "There you go- now hold still so the plant juices can cleanse your wounds. The sooner you stop acting like kits and listen to me, the sooner you can go back to fighting like rabid chipmunks."
"Rabid chipmunks?" Strongheart asked from behind her, whiskers twitching.
She blew air out in a long, exasperated sigh. "If you're not hurt, get lost."
"Need any help?" he asked.
Giving her head a shake, she grinned up at him. "I'll be fine- Jaywalker, sit down."
Briefly, she thought she saw a flash of disappointment in his eyes, quickly replaced by amusement. "Well, looks like you've got everything under-" He froze. "Do you hear that?"
Wordlessly, she nodded. It sounded like cats fighting. From inside the Tunnels.
Without saying any more, Strongheart whirled around. "Bramblepath! Send three cats after me!"
The tabby she-cat, who was resting while Wetstream's patrol held the entrance, nodded and raced after him. "Fallensky, Ivyfleet, come with me!"
Finchnose and the rest of her patients stared after them worriedly.
If GreenClan is in the Tunnels... we're doomed.
"It's... not... your... fault, Fernheart," Reedfur panted as he fought the invading GreenClan cats.
Beside him, the little she-cat made no reply. She had appeared out of nowhere, evidently having put herself together and come to help.
"Strongheart?" Turning, he saw his friend charging towards them, followed by Fallensky, Ivyfleet, and Bramblepath.
While he was distracted, Doveslash pinned him to the ground, eyes blazing. "It's too late, Reedfur. The rest of the GreenClan patrols are coming. We're on the inside. You can never stop us now."
"No," he snarled in her face. "Someone get reinforcements!"
She smirked. "I still have three of your cats, you know. They're far away by now, far enough so you won't be able to save them even if you survive this- which you won't. You thought you'd start a war, huh? You thought you had a shot of winning. As if."
There was nothing he could do. All his friends were too busy fighting off their own attackers to help. He was on his own.
Doveslash could sense she was winning. "Give it up, Reedfur."
"Never," he choked out. "This... is only the first battle of many."
"You're wrong. This is where it ends."
"Doveslash." A cold voice that sent chills down Reedfur's spine.
His assailant froze, stumbling backwards. Reedfur didn't get up. He didn't want to. He'd rather die then face...