a choice to live
to be of hope
a story by firey
I can't wait any longer. My stomach growls and I sigh in defeat. It's time to move again, and if I can't find anything in these barren lands I'll need to steal again. Just the thought of it makes me cringe. But venturing out so early in the day is too risky. But I haven't had a decent meals in what seems like forever. I can't wait until night or else I might just keel over.
Peeking out from my shelter, I spot a few cats carrying prey, laughing and enjoying the day like normal cats. I hope I'm not too familiar around here or else this is going to fail.
I pop out of my makeshift nest and hurry over to the cats. "Hey! Did you hear about the cats living near the Twin Rocks?" I shout.
They turn simultaneously, "Pine and Frost?" They clarify.
I don't know any of the cats by name around here so I nod. "Yeah I heard," the brown tabby interjects before I can make something up, "They're having kits I hear."
"Oh did you?" I purr, trying to keep up my peppy attitude, "Don't you think that's nice?"
"It's their second litter," the other cat mutters, "I don't see what's the big deal. More mouths to feed for them. It'll just produce more thieves and bandits."
"True, but kits are cute," I bribe, inching closer, "Don't you dream of having kits on day?"
I've reached their side now. They've both put down their stash of prey and there's enough that I can grab a few without them noticing. "Kits are cute I suppose," the brown tabby agrees, "though I agree with Leaf here that it would be hard to raise kits around here."
With a swift paw, I've snatched a mouse and dragged it behind me. Leaf, the more sarcastic and seemingly sharp she-cat shrugs, "It's hard enough as it is to get prey. There's no reason to raise kits around here if you're not going to risk the Fire Range to get out of these lands."
"I guess," I nod along.
"Now we have to go," the brown tom interrupts, "We don't have all day to stand around and chat. We must get home by nightfall before the bandits come out."
I dip my head to them as I watch them leave. I turn around, pick up my mouse and hurry back to my own tunnel for the day. Tonight I could scavenge some more. For now, I'm safe where I am. I devour the mouse quickly and I scan the horizon.
If this "Pine" and "Frost" are really having kits, perhaps it's best I give them a visit first. I decide that I'll have to head out after night settles because that's when nobody can see my face.
I turn sharply.
"Oh, hey Leo," I purr slightly, feeling guilty now that I've eaten the only mouse I've managed to snag today. Leo lives with his family, and sometimes I would give him my raid prey just so his family can survive. "Sorry I don't have any prey right now."
"It's fine," he sits, "I just wanted to stop by to make sure you were okay."
"Why?" I tilt my head.
Leo shifts, "It's just that there's been enforcements. The Enforcement have been doing sweeps, trying to find the bandits and thieves around here. I wanted to make sure you were alright."
"I'm fine," I wave my tail, "By tomorrow, I'll have more prey for your family."
"Actually, that's also what I wanted to talk about," Leo lowers his gaze, "I don't need your help anymore. The Enforcement is supplying prey for all the families. In fact it's too risky for you to do raids anymore because you'll probably get caught."
"How are they going to supply prey for the families?" I ask irritably, "There's not even enough prey for us to go around, so how can they get prey for you guys?"
"They have Runners from the Outside. Apparently outside of the Fire Range, there's an abundant supply or prey. Plus, you've heard of the rumors about the secret tunnel right? I'm guessing that's how they'll transport the prey in." Leo sighs.
"So you're just warning me? I'll be careful, don't you worry." I reassure the golden tom.
"No, that's not it," Leo murmurs. He looks guilty and he still won't meet my gaze. "All families have to contribute one cat to be part of the Enforcement in order to get the free prey. And the recruits who catch a thief have the best chance of getting more prey."
At first, I don't get what he means. But as I realize the situation, "You're joining up with the Enforcement," I mew slowly, "and using me to get prey."
Leo has a drawn out look on his face as he turns and walks away. "I'll give you a day's head start, Lux. I'm sorry things had to turn out like this."
"After all I've done for you," I call after him, "This is how you're going to repay me?"
But the golden tom doesn't respond as he disappears into the night. I slam my paw down angrily. If what Leo says is true, there's now way I can evade the Enforcement for so long. There's a registered place for each family. Except my family's place is part of the Fire Range now, burned and gone forever, and my family has been proclaimed dead. In other words, any other cat not in their family space is probably going to be arrested.
That doesn't reassure me at all.
I slip out into the night and head for the Fire Range. If their Runners can do it, then so can I. But staring out at the burnt ground where the fire rages on and on, I don't even begin to understand how the Enforcement can figure a way through these infernos.
As I stare out into the night, I can only pray that tonight's raid will go fine, and that somehow, I can get out of this nightmarish world and save myself.
Before the Enforcement tries to do it for me.
Before Leo tries to do it for me.
They came like birds diving for prey. I didn't have to walk far before they attacked me. I knew I wasn't going to get far with cats like them chasing after me. With so many Enforcement running around, I would never be able to last out here, especially with my final ally turning against me. "You're under arrest for-"
"Yeah, yeah," I snap, "I get it."
The lead she-cat frowns at my interruption and she continues. "-being a thief, stealing from others-"
"I get it," I snarl, "I did bad things, you guys don't like me, so you're going to throw me into your prisons and let everyone forget me forever. Just get it over with, okay?"
The she-cat's temper flares. "Watch your tongue," she mews coldly, "you're in no position to try to act sassy. If you don't like this treatment, maybe you should have acted differently rather than steal from others who have properly hunted for their prey."
"Except for the fact that even if I did live fairly, and if I was still alive at this point, you would still have arrested me for no reason because I have no home, no marked area for my family. It's in the Fire Range mind you." I mew bitterly.
This time she manages to ignore me and she waves her tail at her companions. "Bind her legs and bring her along."
"Should we cover her eyes too?" One of the cats asks politely, "After all, we did it with the other refugees we found before we found her."
"No," the she-cat narrows her eyes, "Let her see the last of the Aboveground. Because it'll be the last time she'll ever see the sun."
I shiver at her words but I try to straighten my shoulders and glare at her. The Enforcement is just a lie, and I know it. "Ricky, will you hurry up?" The she-cat snaps when the black tom at my side hasn't finished binding my paws, "We have a schedule to keep up with mind you."
The black tom grimaces. "Sorry, Lina."
"Good work, Leo," Lina, the leader of this patrol I suppose, adds, "It was helpful information to know where this she-cat was. She's been a hard thief to catch I've heard."
I glance up sharply. Leo won't meet my gaze. I didn't even notice that the golden tom was here. That worm couldn't even bother to give up some small meager amount of prey to care about the she-cat who kept his family alive for so many moons.
"Let's move out." Lina orders, "Ricky, Morgan, you transport the prisoner to Headquarters. Put her in the Stonewall section with the other newly caught prey. I'll deal with them after we finish up here."
The black tom plus a sharp and lean looking gray she-cat nods. They haul me along, pushing me through the dry, cracked lands and shoves me down a tunnel. It's heavily guarded and I almost didn't see the tunnel entrance before I tumbled down.
Inside the tunnel there are about five guards roaming around. They obviously didn't want any cats coming through here.
Except it's pointless. Nobody has ever found the tunnel despite knowing it existed, and everyone who tried to Fire Range had died trying. Everyone was trapped.
Or perhaps that's what they want the cats to think.
For a few horrible minutes, I'm engulfed in darkness. Finally, we emerge and I squint in the sunlight, trying to figure out just where I am. The heat is gone and I realize there are flowers and trees blooming in the area. There seems to be sounds of prey everywhere. My belly grumbles and I wince sheepishly. The tom, Ricky, glances at me sympathetically while the she-cat just urges me to keep moving.
"So," I rasp, "what's your whole deal? Did you family think you should join the Enforcement for food too? That's what getting rid of these 'bandits' are about right? Getting more food?" Neither of them responds. They aren't harsh or quick to react like Lina. They must be new recruits or something.
"Fine," I huff, "Don't talk." They still don't respond and soon I plunge into darkness again. As my vision slowly adjusts, I realize that the two young cats are tying me to what seems like a stone post. Other cats are in the same position as me and as soon as they are done, the two cats disappear.
There are three guards in here but that doesn't stop my from looking around and talking. "What did you guys do?" I snort, "Lost your home and come here because they believed you were a bandit?" The guards shoot me a dirty look but the prisoners look up. The dejected looks on their face causes my face to flush. This isn't right.
Me? Well I'm supposed to be here for stealing all that prey to feed myself and to feed Leo's family.
Them? I can assure you I was the only thief in the Inside. They were just homeless, desperate cats who tried to survive by hunting fairly. But that didn't stop the Enforcement. Whatever they have planned for the cats on the Inside and of course the prisoners here, it can't be good.
I have to stop it.
I have to get them all out.
"This," Lina waves her tail at the rather spacious enclosed space, "is your workplace. You couldn't hunt fairly in the Cage, so I'm allowing you to learn how to hunt fairly here. Anyone who steals or slacks off will...get a harsher punishment."
It could be worse...
"Every day," Lina continues, "you must bring back ten pieces of prey. No eating it during your hunt. You will get your food when you're done with your hunt."
She smiles in a sick, twisted sort of way. "And don't think you can do anything behind our backs. We will always know."
I'm almost tempted to try to steal, but I know if I want to get out of here and help all the trapped cats in what Lina just called "the Cage", I have to be obedient. For now at least, until I figure out a different plan to rebel and get out. "Ricky, Morgan, Shell, Shrub, Tito, Brenda, Lassy, Patina, Vern, Metler, watch them." Ten for the ten of us.
We fan out in the space and almost immediately, I stumble across a colony of mice. They squeak and run in all directions, but I snap them up and manage to catch four of them. Ricky is at my side instantly. You can deposit your prey with your assigned guard." He mews curtly, "which is me."
I just toss him the four mice and stalk away. I kind of expect him to come after me for being so rude, but I only feel his eyes trail after me as I keep going.
The hunt isn't that hard, considering the fact that the prey here is so abundant. There's an overwhelming supply of prey. By the time I get back with Ricky trailing after me to deposit the rest of my prey, I begin to notice that the other cats are only at three or four.
"The other guards are messing with them," Ricky mumbles, "Plus, when they were in the Cage, they never did much except managing to catch maybe one piece of prey a day. Other times they got 'donations' from families who could afford to give them prey."
I'm a bit startled that the black tom is talking to me. "We're not all monsters," he mews simply as he guides me to my prison.
As I'm left alone again, I reflect on just what can do to help all the cats out there, struggling right now just to retrieve ten pieces of prey for these (mostly) rotten cats.
And soon, a plan formulates in my head.
It was working out pretty well by the fourth day. I managed to avoid all the guards while there and pass prey to others while they were struggling. I made sure to only do it when Ricky was my guard, because he seemed more lenient and I was trusting him not to get me killed while I was doing this.
I'm not sure if Ricky has other shifts or not because sometimes the guards would change for the other cats. But the black tom never left. I'm guessing he doesn't have many important jobs and now that he's been assigned a cat, that's his cat for now.
The black tom doesn't seem to notice me sneaking the prey around either. Pros of being a thief: you know how to get things done without others noticing.
It's pretty boring, just hunting all day for the sake of the cats in the Cage. I don't know what the Enforcement have planned for the cats, but I know it can't be good. Obviously we didn't trap ourselves in the Cage for now good reason, but the fact that there are cats living in the Outside and have access to the Cage means that the Enforcement is up to no good.
It's their own rotten fault that the Cage produced thieves.
Maybe something is going on. Maybe I'm missing something about why there are cats in the Cage anyways. Why is the Enforcement taking the effort to go in and catch all the thieves and bandits, as well as helping the families? How long is this fantasy going to last for the cats in there?
Something is amiss and I will figure it out.
I stretch and start out. I still have to keep up with my "speedy hunting" act, or else Ricky will get suspicious. And I don't want to lose my chance of keeping him, since he's been pretty nice to me.
As I hunt, I drop off prey to him, and sometimes I would dash off before he can follow and drop one off near another cat.
I snatch up the mouse that I had left behind and trot towards one of the cats I saw near me. Slipping in front of me, I toss the mouse to the cat next to me. "Take it and fast," I mumble before darting away.
I don't bother to see the cat's expression. They must be used to it by now since I've been doing this since day two of our imprisonment.
Sudden movement catches my eye. Ricky is staring at me from behind a bush. I can tell from his expression and he has seen what I've done.
Surprisingly, I don't feel panic rising in my chest. Do I trust this tom? No, I don't, but I don't feel as though he's an enemy either. Just to be sure, I stalk right past him, dropping off my other squirrel (which I intended to give to another cat) and begin to walk away.
"I saw what you did there," Ricky mews quietly.
I stop and peer at him over my shoulder. His yellow eyes are unfathomable as he stares right back at me. "Why would you do that? I always thought cats from the Cage were selfish," he admits, "You never struck me as the protective or giving type. Since you were a thief and yeah. I don't know, that just surprised me I guess."
He lowers his eyes.
"Are you going to tell?" I find myself asking instead.
"No," I blink in surprise and so does he, "I mean, I should, but for some reason, I respect you for doing something risky like this. You guys are actually living a better life than the cats in the Cage, minus all the blood and punishments for doing one little thing wrong."
I know what he means. All the prisoners have scars from these few days of hunting. The guards are absolutely brutal and don't care about us at all.
Except Ricky. Though, to fit in, he's beaten me a few times just to cover up his nice act.
"Thanks," I say, and I mean it. "for everything I suppose."
He just shakes his head.
In the den, it's easy to learn gossip and just learn about the other cats who had lost their home like I had. The guards are stationed outside to ensure that we don't run away, but when we're in our prison, we're allowed to talk all we want.
Though they hear what we say.
Today the guard is Ricky. This reassures me a bit, and actually allows me to talk dung about all the guards and the Enforcement. I don't care anyways.
"So what happened to you?" I ask them, "Why are you here?"
At first, they are reluctant to speak. "A family supported me," a small ginger tom confesses, "I had now here to go and they decided to help feed me. I'm not assigned to that plot of land though, so the family couldn't protect me when the Enforcement came."
"Same," an elderly tom nods, "I think most of us are like that."
"I lived off my own hunting," a dark brown tabby tom mews, "Though I often went hungry and I never really got enough prey to eat. I think I'm getting more prey here than I was back Inside."
Others chime in their stories. Most are the same. They either lived on their own or a family supported them. "What about you?" one of them asks me, "What did you do?"
I blink in surprise. "I...was the thief."
I expected more from them than just blank stares. "That was you?" The ginger tom gasps. He's staring wide-eyed at me. "You were the thief?"
I should have anticipated their anger. In moments, the cats are calmbering up from their spot and glaring at me. "You caused this!" one of them exclaims. "If there wasn't an actual thief there, they never would have swept us out of there."
I cower away from them.
One even takes it a step further and lashes out. Ricky is at the entrance immediately. "What are you doing?" he asks coldly to the tom who had clawed me, "You don't attack each other."
"Oh really?" The tom lunges for Ricky instead. The black tom stepsides him and pins him down, effectively choking him.
"You're coming with me," he snaps. He turns his eyes on me. "You, you come too."
I blink in surprise. But I'm relieved that the black tom had stepped in. I didn't know telling these cats that I was the thief would set them off so badly. Was I in trouble now? Anger rushes through me. I shouldn't be the one who gets punished. I didn't do anything.
Ricky doesn't say a word to me as he hauls the spitting prisoner into a small stone cell that is enclosed. He shuts the stone door as the cat howls inside to let him go. "It's depressing in there," Ricky mews quietly, "I don't want to shut him in there, but he was causing too much trouble."
I stare horrified at the cell. "Do you just leave the tom there?"
Ricky nods. "He'll probably go insane before starving to death."
I nearly retch in disgust. I back away from him. "I can't believe you'd do that," I whisper. "Where are you taking me?" I ask as Ricky wraps brambles around my paws.
"Please don't ask," he doesn't meet my gaze, "I've been ordered to do this."
Suddenly Lina appears. Ricky flinches slightly and I hear him curse under his breath. He drags me along until he opens another stone slab door. I try to fight him. "You can't leave me in here," I shriek, "No, stop!"
He pushes me inside and shut the door behind me.
I don't know when, but the tears come quickly. I'm left here to die. To drive my insane by staying in this tiny space of a cell and then starving to death.
I curl up and cry myself to sleep.
The days pass and I realize that I really am going insane. Hunger eats my belly from inside out. Nobody opens the door and I know they won't anyways.
I'm stuck here forever.
Who knew it would turn out like this?
I realize that without my guard ally, I can't do anything. I can't save any of the Cage cats. I can't even save myself. What kind of savior am I?
Except I'm not a savior.
I'm a thief.
A thief who has ruined the lives of everyone here. Leo was right to turn me in. I'm worthless and a troublemaker. Nobody needs me around.
But even with all these negative thoughts echoing in my head, I vow to protect these cats remain. I must find a way out.
I have to free them all.
I'm fairly surprised when Ricky opens the door again. "Hurry," he whispers, "Let's go."
I stare at him. Ricky sighs, exasperated. "Please trust me, Lux." I'm surprised he even knows me name, "I had to do that because Lina wanted to make sure you actually was put into this den. But we can go right now. She's out and nobody checks on these prisoners. You can escape, Lux."
"Have you helped others do this?"
"No," he confesses, "and I don't know why I'm doing this with you. Most of the other cats actually are vicious and try to kill us so releasing them wouldn't be the best of my interest."
"But I'm different," I meet his gaze as I pad out and he pulls off my cuffs.
"Yes," he breathes out, "and I know you'll save the others."
We run along the edge of the prison cells until Ricky shows me the exit of the headquarters. "This is the Outside," he murmurs, "as you cats call it. You can technically just run off into the outside world and live a wonderful life. The rest of the world isn't as devastating as the Cage."
"What's the point of the Cage?" I ask quietly he shows me the exit. "Why are the cats in there in the first place?"
"It's an experiment," Ricky shakes his head, "the Leadership decided we needed to perfect cats. The cats in the Cage are their enemies. So they found a way to control that area. The Fire Range was created to trap the cats inside and then soon, the cats forgot about the huge war that happened and slowly their land began to die out. The cats who remain obedient and rely on the Enforcement are the 'perfect' cats.
"But rebels like you..." he meets my gaze, "you're dangerous so they force you to do labor."
When I don't reply, he adds. "It wasn't ever your fault that they got captured. Even if there was a thief, the Enforcement would have done the sweep anyways. But the sweep only came earlier because there was a rebel amongst the midst. You."
I blink as he reveals all this to me. "So I have to free them."
Ricky nods, "I'll free the prisoners here who don't deserve to be trapped. You have to take care of the Cage. Be careful though."
Without thinking, he wraps his tail quickly around mine. Ricky jumps back. "Sorry," he whispers, breathlessly, "Go save them."
"I will," I murmur, "I promise."
I don't consider any feelings I might have for Ricky. The black tom had cared for me, helped me, and most of all, he had given me hope.
But no matter now, I had no time. I had to finish my mission.
Even if I did have feelings for the black tom, it would all go to waste anyways. The two of us could never be together, and that was final.
I just wished things were different, that's all.
Then, I race off into the darkness with Ricky's gaze trailing after me.
I am standing before the Fire Range again. The heat washes over me and I flinch. The constant fire that engulfs the area bothers me. How does the Enforcement manage to control this? Or do they not care if it one day closes in on the Cage and burns everyone alive?
No, they had to care. Those were their "perfected cats".
I squint at the raging inferno in front of me. What was on the ground? It seemed like black, charred, burning rocks. They seemed to continue to burn until they were just dust on the ground. I never noticed before but there is solid stone surrouning the Fire Range. Those rocks weren't burning at all. Did the Enforcement have a way to control the Fire Range, conveniently trapping their enemies?
Stars, I didn't have time to figure this out.
As I try to study the Fire Range, I realize that the so called Runners didn't do anything. None of them could possibly run across this fiery land and survive it.
How did I never figure this out while being Inside?
I take a deep breath and reconsider this. Perhaps I could go find Ricky and plead him to help me get across or something. Surely he would be able to convince the guards to let her through, right?
Who am I kidding?
Nobody is going to help me now.
Before I can change my mind, I lunge forward and race through the flames, trying to avoid the areas at all costs. I grit my teeth as my side flares with pain as one of the flames lick at my pelt. Pain sears my flank but I keep going, careening through the Fire Range.
Finally, on some miracle, I make it to the other side. I collapse, panting, and then realize that the place is swarming with Enforcement cats.
I spot a black tom among them but I doubt it's Ricky. He should be back at the headquarters guarding the prisoners. I grit my teeth again and I hobble through the crowd of cats, heading towards the far side. I better hope someone takes me before the Enforcement does.
I rack my memory for any of the cats that I had met. Pine and Frost. They were caring for kits and would need help. Even if they got a meager amount of prey, they would need a hunter to help them.
Swerving, I point my paws towards their den. Hopefully I can get there before any of the Enforcement notice I'm back in here with a mysterious burn on my left flank.
When I reach the den I poke my head inside hesitantly. Worst idea ever. Enforcement cats stare coldly at me and I'm glad I'm covered in the soot that seemed to cover everyone now. I don't look exactly like the cat they grabbed a few days ago, although I'm not that famous.
"Sorry," I stammer, "I was-"
"What are you doing?" One of the Enforcement cats snaps, "You're supposed to stay in your den unless you are excused to go hunting."
"I was excused to come check on the kits," I mew meekly, giving a tiny shake of my head to Pine. "I was worried about the kits since there's so little food."
"The kits are fine," Pine cuts in politely.
"They're none of your business," the Enforcement cat adds, "Go return to your nest."
I tip my head outside to Pine and dip my head instead to the Enforcement cats. "Of course," I mutter, "sorry to disturb."
I duck back outside and hurry to a hidden area where I can hopefully wait for Pine. Sure enough, the brown tom emerges and his eyes search for me. "Here," I hiss when he draws closer.
He crouches down next to me and we melt into the shadows. "What are you doing here?" He frowns, "I don't even know who you are."
He recoils, his eyes widening. Shock wars with horror as he digests what I've just revealed. "Lux...as in the thief?" he clarifies.
I nod and he narrows his eyes. "What are you here for then? There's no way you could have been hiding for this long. The Enforcement should have swept you out awhile ago." He looks as if ready to turn me in.
"Look," I stop him, "They did catch me. But one of the guards let me go and told me somethig valuable." I explain the situation and how we are just the Enforcement's enemies and we're in an experiment. "They're using us and we have to get out. If we can rally all the cats by tomorrow night, we can storm the tunnel and escape."
He blinks. "You're saying this is all a lie? We're being held prisoner technically, in our old territory. Or our ancestors' territory."
I nod again.
Pine digs his claws into the dirt. "Alright, what do you need from me though?"
"A place to stay," I admit, "is there anywhere I can hide when I'm not out recruiting cats?" He spots the burns along my pelt and motions for me to sit down.
"I'll treat your wounds. This place is very sheltered and if you hide well enough the Enforcement cats won't notice you here. Wait here." He turns and darts away. I close my eyes and breathe in shallowly, hoping Pine isn't going to get Enforcement cats.
He returns moments later with herbs clamped in his jaws. I don't even know what herbs he's using because I've always just wrapped my wounds in cobweb and hoped they healed. He mixes a few herbs together and rubs them over the burns. At first it stings and I grit my teeth to stop myself from screaming in pain. Pine then wipes the rest on and it becomes a soothing feeling.
I let out a relieved gasp. "That should heal soon," he murmurs, "Do you want me to go around telling the other cats?"
I shake my head, "You shouldn't risk it, Pine. We need to be prepared to take Frost and the kits out too. I'm not sure how you're going to rally up tomorrow night, but you must find some way. Meet everyone at Five Rocks." Everyone knew where that was. It was a marked area at the center of the Cage where five jutted rocks emerged from the ground.
"I'll be there with Frost and the kits," Pine mews determinedly.
I nod to him and he leaves me alone in the darkness. I can't wait any longer. Except it's day time right now. The Enforcement are swarming the area, and at night, hopefully they'll be gone at night.
Finally, after a few close calls, night fell. I stand quietly, cursing myself for my bright pelt and slip into the shadows and hurry to each den. I always find the space I usually burrow through to steal prey and whisper the message to each of the cats.
It's rather easy. The Enforcement are always at the entrance. They don't notice a ghost of a cat slipping through the back entrance to tell each cat the truth.
If only everything would work fine though.
The last den is Leo's. I'm reluctant to head for his den since he did betray me to the Enforcement. But he was just desperate. He needs to the truth for once.
I make my way to back entrance and just as I find it, someone rasps.
"Stop right there."
I freeze. I turn slowly and find a circle of Enforcement guarding the entrance. I'm in no state to try to fight my way through and I don't even know how to fight.
Leo stands in the middle. He stares at me calmly. Anger sparks in me as I stare at him. "Did you tip them off?" I hiss softly.
He only nods as the Enforcement cats usher me into the den where I am held prisoner.
I should never have come. That's exactly what I tell Leo when he finds the time to visit me in my new prison. He only gives me a degrading look and tells me that he would have found me anyways.
"I saw what you were doing," he says slowly and deliberately, "I overheard you suggesting it to the other cats. I saw you tell Pine and Frost. You don't fool me, Lux, I knew you would return and you would somehow get out of that hellish place of a headquarter prison. Yeah," he smirks, "I know how it is there. Except I knew how to work my way up. I knew you'd never be smart enough to figure it out and you would somehow escape yourself as a fugitive. I was ready for that."
"Sounds like you weren't so much of a 'good cat' yourself," I spit out, glaring at him, "What'd you do? Steal a few morsels from some poor cat and let them starve like I did?" I ask sarcastically.
"Murder," Leo says simply, "They tried to kill me."
I reel back in surprise. I've known Leo since I lost my home to the Fire Range. He's been warm and kind to me, and even though he betrayed me to the Enforcement, I never knew he was that cold-hearted.
Leo's eyes betray no emotion.
"Self-defense," Leo supplies, "When you need to do something to survival, you'll do it. You know so yourself. I mean, how many times have you stolen prey from others because you needed it?"
I bare my teeth. "This is different!" I snap, "You murdered this cat. I left the cats alone! I only needed a few pieces of prey a day."
"Is it different?" Leo mews softly, "Do you know what happened to those cats? What if you took their last piece of prey that would stop them from starving? What if they died because you took their prey?"
"I did it for you too." I spit out, "After my raids I'd give you the leftover prey."
"That's not my point right now," Leo sighs, as if he's exasperated. Some sort of emotion flits over his eyes but he erases it from his eyes. "Look, what I'm saying is that we're the same. Yes, my actions were a bit more drastic-"
"A bit?" I roll my eyes, "Is your scale the size of your brain?"
Anger flashes in his eyes and he hisses. "You don't understand, Lux. You're only alive right now because of two cats."
"You and your 'other personality'?" I ask sarcastically.
Leo frowns and he shakes his head. "No, me and the black tom that was your guard. He was too nice. He let you have your freedom even as a prisoner. Although I had him as my guard too, I can understand how you managed to weave your way out. Did you use him to your advantage like you used me?" he asks bitterly.
"I never used you!"
Leo doesn't explain any further. "Ricky is being dealt with right now. After his sentence it'll be your turn."
"Leave him alone!" I shout, "It wasn't even his fault!"
Leo is starting to stand. When he's at the entrance, he turns back around. "Oh how funny, it almost slipped my mind. I didn't come in here to confess to you that I was once in your position because I killed a cat. Or that it may be possible that Ricky has quite a crush on you. Or that you're leaving a tom in the dust because you couldn't understand why he did something he did."
I don't get what he means, but he turns away. "What I'm trying to say that is that I didn't take the coward's way out like you did. I proved to them that I could be a loyal worker if they put me in the right area. I was released and allowed to return to my family and try to befriend the thieves and help the Enforcement get rid of them."
"You didn't-?" I gasp.
"Yes," Leo shakes his head, "I'm a spy for the Enforcement. I befriended you because I realized that you were the phantom thief they were talking about and that if you remained in here, you would ruin their experiment."
"How could you?" Was all I could manage.
Leo only starts walking away.
"Like I said, you'll do things when your paw is forced. I have no other choice."
It was almost as if I was waiting in my cell again. But this time I focus on each second, savoring each moment because I knew it might be my last. I'm not here to rot or starve or to go insane. I'm here to realize that soon, in the near future, the Enforcement would do something to me.
After they did something to Ricky of course.
My heart winced for the black tom. It was obvious he disagreed with the plans the Enforcement had for the cats in the Cage, or else he wouldn't have helped me.
I wonder what's happening to him. Is he going to try to take the blame for himself or will he actually try to avoid admitting his crimes?
It's almost comforting to think about the black tom since I have nothing else better to do. I mean, what else can a she-cat do alone in a dank hole?
I think over Leo's decisions.
Was he wrong to do the things he did? Was he right about my own choices? Had I ever unintentionally killed a poor cat because I took their last piece of prey?
I shake my head and try to erase these thoughts from my mind. No. Leo was wrong. He may be doing it because he wanted to protect himself, but sometimes we had to be more selfish. We can't just want to live and ignore the lives of others.
Others are suffering because Leo won't let me come through with my plan.
A bolt of terror shoots through me as I realize that tonight is the night we're supposed to attack. Leo knows what I'm doing, which means the Enforcement knows about the attack.
They'll know about all the cats.
Then the terror dies. Even if they do find them and imprison them, their experiment will fail. It will consist of only the cats who are loyal to them, which is one. Leo. Yes, in a way, their experiment worked, but they failed to make more perfect soldiers out of their old enemies.
Unless they restart the experiment. I realize that it's possible. They could take the imprisoned cats and force them to produce offspring for them to corrupt. They wouldn't even need the Fire Range. They could train those cats into Runners like Ricky.
I can't let this happen.
But I'm stuck here.
I'm not really that surprised when a cat purrs. "That was pretty amusing. You looked as though you discovered the secrets to walk through fire."
I whip around and stare into Ricky's fiery yellow eyes. "Ricky!" I whisper, "What are you doing here? Aren't they sentencing you?"
"They tried," he corrects, "I worked there remember? I know my way around. Anyways, you don't have much time. I'll show you the way out."
"What are you going to do?"
Ricky looks hesitant, "I have to free the other prisoners," he admits, "I need to finish my promise to you. Those imprisoned back at the headquarters are still there. I got caught before I could do anything."
I push him towards the Fire Range. "Go," I nod to him, "They need you."
He nods and his eyes linger on me for a moment longer before he dashes away. It's not until the night swallows him that I realize I don't know how he got inside the Cage when he's obviously not allowed through the tunnel anymore.
I let out a deep breath before plunging into the darkness myself.
The Cage is crawling with cats. I can barely walk two steps without nearly bumping into someone. It's hard for me to try to find my way to Five Rocks. It should be at the center of the Cage, but with so many Enforcement cats prowling around (possibly for escapees like me), I've been sidetracked.
I'm lost in my own home.
It's sounds so silly that I want to laugh right there. But I know I can't. I stay hidden in the shadows as I try to navigate my way around the wall of Enforcement cats.
If only Ricky was here with me. He obviously was used to sneaking around, or else he would have never gotten himself out of those tight positions.But he had a duty to fulfill.
And so did I.
This time I don't hesitate as I weave my way through the crowd of cats, staying low and hidden in the shadows. They're too focused on the scene in the center of the Cage.
I finally figure out where the center is and head for the Five Rocks. It's too dark for me to see the jutted rocks but I know I'm there when I hear the commotion.
Cats are gathered around the Five Rocks, and the Enforcement surround them. All of them look nervous or outraged. I tense as Lina climbs onto the top of the jutted Rocks to make an announcement. I can see some of the Cage cats trying to lash out at her, but was held back and possibly subdued by an Enforcement officer.
"Cats of the Cage," she calls out, "You are gathered here tonight because the notorious thief and criminal, Lux, has encouraged you to. Well I am here to tell you that the stories she has told you are lies. We are here to serve you personally, and the stories of us running through fire is true. We are true Runners, and there is no such tunnel that will allow you to escape to the Outside.
"We have been trying to investigate the patterns of the fire. If we can figure out a safe way, we could evacuate all of you to the Outside where our headquarters are set up. I can assure you that Lux has only spread mere lies and she is the true enemy you should despise and fear."
There is murmuring and I could see a few cats in the crowd glancing at each other in confusion. Pine has a bemused expression and he holds Frost close. I grit my teeth as Lina continues.
"Don't tell me you are believing her words?" Lina shouts, "Who do you trust more, the cats who have been serving and protecting you, or a thief who has only done harm to you?"
I can see that these words have thoroughly convinced a majority of the crowd.
"She may be your 'leader' right now, but we have caught her as she tried to finish spreading her lies. She is being brought over now for an execution." Lina stops abruptly when one of the cats scrambles up and whispers in her ear. Lina's eyes widen and she glares at the crowd.
"You can prove your loyalty right now. It seems that Lux has escaped from her prison. If you find her, we will give you a majority of the prey we find and you will be the first to escape from this Cage."
I had to act.
I leapt out from behind my cover. "Stop!" My voice rings out, causing everyone to stop and stare at me.
Lina sneers at me, "Trying to prevent one of them from gaining what they need? As selfish as always, Lux."
I ignore her. The cats that I have rallied are torn between anger and confusion. "It's true, I've been stealing prey from you all since I lost my home to the Fire Range. Except that I have gotten information from a trusted ally that the Enforcement controls the Fire Range. They can't predict how the fire moves and how to run through the Range, but they can use the burning rocks to control where it spreads. That's how some of you lost your homes. That's how you lost your friends to the sweeps that the Enforcement did."
I am quiet for a second.
"That's how I became a thief."
The cats are staring at me with growing interest. They must understand. "You can't trust those cats! They do have a secret tunnel and if you follow me and fight for me, I will show you the way. We can fight our way to freedom rather succumb here."
Lina and the Enforcement cats are advancing towards me. I take in a deep breath. I don't have any more time to enforce my words. I can only trust them.
"Attack!" I scream as I lunge for Lina.
To my surprise, all of the Cage cats rush at the Enforcement. There's actually more of us then there is them, but they have more training.
"You traitor," Lina hisses, "you're ruining a prized experiment! If all of you remained obedient for such a few more moons, we would have a perfect army. None of you would have to suffer any more."
"Sorry to burst your bubble but we don't want to suffer at all."
The she-cat snarls and claws my flank with sharp, vicious claws. I hiss in pain and dig my claws into her stomach and shove her away.
She clutches her stomach and I know that she won't make it. I don't feel guilty though.
I hear screeches of horror from all around me and I shout "Follow me!" as I rush for the tunnel entrance. Cats stream behind me and we push our way through the throng of Enforcement soldiers.
This has to work.
And sure enough, we slowly push our way forward. I slash and whirl, my claws singing in the air. Cats fall around us screaming in pain. Everything is either pitch black or red. Adrenaline pushes me onwards and then I see the light of the tunnel up ahead.
Cheers rise from my cats and we practically march forward. The Enforcement cats may be well trained but they're no match for the desperate cats. They want to get out. There's nothing stopping them but the cats who had held them in. Now that they can see the tunnel for themselves, there's nothing stopping them from doubting me.
The cats whoop and cheer as they rush for the tunnel. Freedom is just around the corner. I pound alongside them, joy and longing flowing through me. Maybe when I get to the other side I'll find Ricky waiting with the other prisoners and we could live happily ever-
There's so much of it.
I don't know what's happening. Suddenly darkness ebbs at my vision and the tunnel flips upside down. Everything is swirling and I let out a hoarse shrill of pain.
Someone is screaming. Maybe it's me.
There's so much pain. I let out a sob as I try to hold it in. Where's the tunnel? Why aren't I getting any closer to it like I'm supposed to be?
Someone's talking, but I can't make out the words.
Pain, pain, pain.
Then I see the blood. It flows all around me, and it takes me a moment to realize it's coming from me. A cat's face leers at me and then he disappears, howling.
I can't take it anymore. Sobs burble from my throat and then the darkness takes me.
I think I see my mother. She's right there, in front of me. I want to reach out and grab her. "Lux, come over here," she calls out to me. I bound eagerly to her side, "Look what your father brought home." She purrs as she prods a hawk.
I stare down at it. "What is that, mommy?" I ask, in a high-pitched voice that isn't mine, "How come I've never seen it before?"
"You don't see a lot of birds," she explains, "because they don't like flying over the fire and stopping here. This one must have gotten hurt from the fire and your father caught it."
He pads out from our den and glances nervously at the fire behind it. "The Fire Range is getting closer and closer, Honey, we need to ask for a new home."
"We've done that so many times though," she frets, "the Enforcement won't give it to us."
My father bares his teeth and I squeal in fright. "Daddy," I ask hesitantly, "What's wrong?"
He seems to realize that I'm still here. "Eat up, my beautiful Lux, you don't have to worry about anything. Nothing's wrong."
I blink up at him, positive that something was amiss but I just nod and bite into the "hawk". My mother watches me fondly as I eat my share and then she nudges me away.
"That's enough for now, Lux, you know you father needs his strength."
I whimper slightly but I duck into the den again to get some sleep. One day my father would teach me how to hunt and I would help him get enough prey to feed all of us.
The scene switches before I realize it. My mother is sobbing as she stares at the charred corpse of her mate. I stare in shock.
Horror makes me dumbfounded and my mother whispers. "Lux, dear, come here."
I totter over to her. My legs shake and I realize I'm crying too. "Mother," I whisper, "Why is...why is Father like that? What happened to him?"
It's been two moons since my father had caught that huge hawk that had filled us up more than it usually did. The fire got closer and closer every day.
It takes me awhile to realize that my father isn't actually dead.
"He got too close to the fire," my mother sniffles, "and it burned him badly. I think he's still alive, but I'm not sure."
"I'll find someone," I turn and dash off.
The first Enforcement cat blinks up at me with startled eyes. For some reason, he looks just like Ricky. "Are you alright?" he asks gruffly, "Why are you racing around when you should be either hunting or staying at your assigned den?"
"My father has a bad burn. Do you have herbs to treat him?"
"Like I know anything about herbs," he rolls his eyes, "You won't find any herbs around here except wintergreen. I don't know where you'll find it but ask some other family."
So I do. I ask around but nobody would offer me any or tell me where they get their supplies. At the end of the day, I'm depressed and not sure what to do.
But I had to get herbs to help my father.
I realize I can smell the rather strong scent of wintergreen. After hunting it down, I realize I'm at the back entrance of a den. It's a small hole but I've noticed it's there for every den. It seems that none of the other families realize it's there.
I sneak in and find the wintergreen without much problem. The cats are outside eating and I grab a few stalks and dash away.
I feel guilty but I push onwards. My father needs the wintergreen.
The scene flashes forward and my father is laying in his nest, gasping for breath. The fire had singed most of his fur and he was still badly burned. The wintergreen only soothed his burns but it didn't heal it. He couldn't walk very easily and the responsibility of supporting our family fell on my shoulders.
My mother is expecting again.
I'm excited to have siblings but I can't catch this much prey for us. My father hasn't even taught me how to hunt yet. And now he never can.
I've resorted to stealing a bit of wintergreen whenever we run low. And sometimes if I can, I snag a few pieces of prey to add to my meager stack of prey.
We're living and that's what matters the most.
I shake out my pelt and touch noses with my mother. "We'll need more wintergreen," she murmurs worriedly, "and if you can, find someone to treat his cough. I'm afraid it'll become greencough if we can't cure it."
I feel panic shoot through me. I don't know any herbs for whitecough or greencough. I only nod to my mother though and whisper "I'll try" before rushing away.
As I set out, I head towards a different den. I can't rely on the same family to supply me with the wintergreen. They've probably already called the Enforcement to help fortify their den or guard them. Again, the scent is overwhelming and I find another den holding wintergreen immediately. For some reason, this part of the scene is blotched out with sudden pain, which clouds my vision.
When I can see the den again, I'm inside. I frown at the scene but I edge my way forward and snatch up the wintergreen stalks on the floor as well as two mice. I back out and race away, hearing a yowl of fury behind me. I raid a few more homes before finding strange herbs and bringing it home. When I walk into my den, my mother looks up in relief.
"Did you get herbs, Lux?"
I drop the bundle at her paws. "This is all I could find," I lie.
But she looks relieved as she sorts through the herbs. "We'll have to work with these," she murmurs as she picks up a strange, huge leafy sort of plant.
Even though I feel guilty for stealing again, I convince myself that it's for the better good. I have to feed my family in some way. And I need to help my father get herbs to cure his cold.
"I'm so sorry, Lux."
The scene changes again and I find myself staring blankly at my mother, and then down at my father's still body.
This time the pain wipes away the scene completely and I realize that I can suddenly see the tunnel again. Then it's whisked away again and my father's body lays before me again. I'm confused for a second why the tunnel had appeared, but the thought is erased when I realize that my father isn't moving.
"Is he-" I gasp.
My mother nods in anguish as she chokes out a sob. I crouch next to my father, realizing I had no idea what to do. Realization hits me when I realize there was no point in stealing all that wintergreen. My father died from a simple cough because he couldn't move around to clear his chest.
The Enforcement are now looking for a thief. Several families have already reported their prey or their stock of herbs missing. I've stayed low and attempted to hunt (thankfully I've been getting enough or else my mother would get suspicious.) The Enforcement cats think that the thief has no home and no way to supply him or herself, so I've managed to get away for now.
Hunting isn't that hard, but it's easier because I have a set plot to hunt in. Cats without a home don't have any land to hunt in, and that often results in stealing.
The pain is building up within me. There's sudden blood filling my vision and it's night again. But it was just morning and-
The sun comes in full view again and my mother's sobs sound in my ear once more. I can't tell why I'm feeling so much pain.
Was I this mortified when my father died?
It didn't hurt so much did it...?
This time the pain is what switches the scene.
The fire is advancing towards us. My mother is frantically trying to save our things and she tries to gather our meager supply of water to put out the fire.
It's no use though.
I scream as my mother turns to race back to our den, only to stumble over a few pieces of rocks. I realize there are shadows moving away and it's the shape of a cat.
I have no time to think about that now.
My mother's eyes find me and she mouths Run before the fire swallows her completely. Kits and all.
I turn numbly and my legs keep moving until I'm far, far away from the inferno that had destroyed my home.
The plot of land that used to keep us alive is gone too. Burned down into crisps and had left my homeless.
From that day on, with no family, no support, and no hope, I became the feared thief of the lands. I had to survive after all...
I find myself blinking at Leo's sharp gaze. My anger fuels when I realize that this is the moment in which I had met him. He had caught me trying to steal his small stack of prey. I was hungry and this was the closest home I had found.
"What are you doing?" he asks, glaring at me.
"I need prey," I whisper brokenly, not sure what to say.
His gaze softens. "You wanted to steal it?"
I don't know what overcomes me as I nod. I needed the prey. Perhaps if he realized how unfortunate I was, he would give me the prey.
"I don't have much," he admits, "and I have to feed a large family. But I don't really want you to go and steal other cats' prey. So let's make a deal."
He nods confidently. I realize that he has nothing to fear. My anger rises again when I realize this was all a sick joke. Leo was playing me back then. But I can't do anything more than listen to his deal and agree, just like I did back then.
"You can eat with us from our stack tonight, but you'll help me get prey. I really don't care how you do it, but if you must steal, you'll have to. Just promise me you'll give me whatever is left over so I can feed my family." His gaze is sincere and pleading.
I eye the prey and nod eagerly. I had gotten pretty good at this whole stealing business, and getting a few more morsels wouldn't be difficult.
He smiles and I smile back shyly.
This time the pain is so blinding that everything turns black and I'm lost in the midst of cloud and smoke.
Ricky is telling me the history of the Cage again. His soothing voice calms down the fire inside of me. I glance around me but I can't see him at all. For some reaosn, I miss gazing into those glowing balls of fire that are his eyes.
"There was at first, two groups of cats." His voice is soft and mesmerizing, as if he is trying to lull me to sleep.
Images of the two groups pop into my mind and I can see how evenly spread out they are. They are spread out amongst the territory, though you could tell where each group's territory ended.
"They lived in peace at first, but soon, they found that there wasn't enough prey for both of them. Fights and skirmishes broke out and soon, it became a bloody war."
Images of the screeching cats fills my vision and I see them tussling over a few morsels of prey. The battles seem to last forever and I could tell it was tearing the two groups apart.
Ricky pauses here and lets the images play on. "The war destroyed the two groups and left them broken and in need for repair."
The battling cats are replaced with the images of the carnage of the war. So many cats are dead and lost. So few of them are still standing and alive. You could tell which group won though, as they were standing triumphantly over the cowering cats.
"The group of cats who had won wanted to restrict their enemies' movement. During the war, they had discovered a type of rock that would continue to burn, and a type of rock that could not be burned. They had planned on using it during the war but the first results turned out to be disasterous.
The war images flash back for a second to show an inferno that seemed to swallow up the entire land.
"Of course, they managed to quench the flames but that was enough to convince them not to use their most prized and valuable weapon unless necessary. The leader of the group decided that the rocks, if they could control it properly, could prove to be very useful in this situation. He planted the rocks around the other group's territory and set it on fire, using the other type of rock to control the flames."
I can now see the clear and familar images of the Cage and the Fire Range. I shudder as I remember the terrible smell of burning fur and the roaring flames that had taken everything from me.
Cats milling inside the territory seemed bewildered and confused. But they couldn't fight the fire.
"At first they resisted, trying to escape by running through the fire. But none of them managed to succeed. The ones in control dug out a tunnel but did not reveal this location to the Cage cats. They wanted to let the cats forget the war and then they will emerge and be their 'saviors'."
Life in the Cage went on and I could tell that the cats were more focused on surviving rather than figuring out what had happened.
"And so the Leadership appeared. The Enforcement was also created and soon, the Cage cats forgot what had happened. Generations went on and nobody in there knew of the war and how they got stuck in there. Cats were just born, knowing that they had to somehow survive in a hellish place like this."
The images continued to show cats trying to survive.
"As life went on, the Enforcement managed to gather up cats who had come to rely on their help. The Cage had helped subdued their enemies and now there were cats that were in their debt. The system went on and on until they realized the Cage was producing disobedient cats."
I can clearly tell the thieves and bandits that roam the area and terrorize the others.
"So the Leadership devised a way to get rid of these impure cats and to produce more obedient cats. They knew they could control the Fire Range, so why not choose a few unlucky cats and burn away their homes? If they can survive, that's one thing, if they turn into impure cats, that's another thing. As they tried this out, they realized that some of them tried to remain civilized and needy to the Enforcement cats, while others decided stealing was the best way for them to live."
As he said this, the vivid images of the flames licking greedily at the cats' homes show up. I watch, horrified, realizing that the Enforcement did this on purpose. They just wanted to create cats that could not stand up for themselves, and to get rid of those with rebellious spirits within them.
"It worked out, and they conducted sweeps to rid of the cats with no homes. If they were obedient enough, they would undergo some training and be able to achieve the status of an Enforcement cat. Others, became the prisoners."
For some reason, I saw Ricky in these images. Had he been one of those weaker cats? No...two cats who had achieved the status had then given birth to young Ricky.
Ricky appears to me and I stare into his warm gaze.
"...you came along."
And that's when the images disappeared and I realize that everyone is screaming.
The pain is the first thing I register. There's so much of it. It's too painful to bear. I let out a feeble cry and someone else shrieks next to me.
It takes me a moment to make out Ricky's blurry form. His golden eyes are the only thing I can see clearly, and I gaze into them.
"Lux," he rasps hoarsely, "I couldn't make it in time. I freed them and I told them to escape to the Outside. I came back as fast as I could through the Fire Range but I couldn't reach you in time. I'm too late." Tears well in his eyes and I shake my head.
"No, it's not your fault," I whisper, "I couldn't complete my promise to you."
Ricky looks so shattered. "Lux..." he looks on the verge of saying something, "I know this isn't the best time to say this but..."
I know what he's going to say. "Don't waste your breath," I murmur, cutting him off, "I think we both know how we feel for each other."
He falters but he nods firmly. "You're right. There's no need for us to restate what we already know."
We're silent for a moment and I realize that the my allies are protecting us.
Giving us time.
"I'm sorry," I close my eyes.
"For not being able to keep my promise to you. I wanted to free them all. You believed in me and sacrificed so much for me. But I couldn't do it. I'm too weak."
Ricky sounds strained. "No, Lux, you're not weak. You're the strongest she-cat I know. So strong that you'll give up everything you have for others."
I don't reply. I can't.
"I'll do it for you."
I open my eyes bleakly to stare at him. "What?"
He looks so determined and in that moment, I love him more than ever.
"I'll do it for you," he repeats, "Even if you didn't succeed, you tried and that's enough. You were their hero, their flicker of light, and now it's my turn."
I smile and I wish I could tell him everything.
I can't say anything now. The pain is choking me. But I still manage to gasp out.
"A choice...Ricky. A choice to live, to die..."
Black spots dance at the edge of my vision and I can't say what I want to say. But Ricky knows what I mean and he leans down and touches his nose to mine.
Just as I start to fade away, he whispers and completes the sentence.
"...to be of hope."
sequel: to be of hope
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