Finchnose's blood seemed to freeze in her veins. As if in slow motion, she turned to see Birdsong standing there, amber eyes wide with fright in the darkness of the Tunnels.
Though she was in a hazy stupor, the others thankfully weren't. "I'll go assemble the cats!" yelled Strongheart, streaking towards the Hall.
"I'll go scout their position and see how we should defend!" Reedfur.
"I'll go wake up anyone who's already asleep!" Silverbreeze.
And then all her friends had rushed off to do their duty, and Finchnose was left standing alone. She felt incredibly useless, because her healing skills were of no use; no one was hurt, and they couldn't stop Aquatail's advance by throwing measly herbs at her. Might as well see what's going on, she decided, bounding towards the exit of the Tunnels. As she trotted towards the boulder-flanked opening, a cat slammed into her.
"Sorry!" Angelcloud exclaimed. The white she-cat looked flustered, her fluffy fur sticking up all around and held in place by static. Without another word, she pushed past Finchnose, a determined glint in her eyes; she looked dangerously battle-ready.
Meekly, Finchnose joined the back of the group of bristling cats, hackles raised and claws unsheathed. Heading the group were her best friends; Strongheart was glaring out at the darkened plains with enough fire in his eyes to ignite the place, Silverbreeze was comforting and encouraging the Hidden cats with her melodious voice, and Reedfur was busily making battle plans, intelligence and readiness radiating from his green eyes.
And what can I do?
Telling herself not to sulk, Finchnose raised her head and turned to Firesoul, who was standing nearby, her pale eyes reflecting the filtered moonlight that streamed into the tunnel. "What's the plan? Where is Aquatail's group?"
As if in answer, a yowl split the air. Freezing as she recognized the voice, Finchnose turned slowly. She had a feeling she was about to find out the answer to her second question.
A black cat stepped out of the shadows. Her eyes gleamed with a feral hatred as she took in the rebellion cats. Though she wasn't alone - a giant patrol of GreenClan cats were behind her - Finchnose would have been equally afraid even if she was. There was something about the way Aquatail was glaring at them... Nearby, Brightsong bristled. Finchnose knew she was remembering how she had almost killed her sister; she would have too, if she hadn't chosen to come help Finchnose free the Hidden from the poison chambers they were locked in.
"Well, well, well. Looks like the whole crew - plus a few - has turned out for my homecoming," smirked Aquatail. Her tone was filled with malice.
Strongheart trembled with rage, but Silverbreeze rested the tip of her tail on his shoulder delicately, and he kept his mouth shut. Finchnose moved through the crowd till she was standing beside her best friends, at the head of the Hidden group. Maybe she couldn't do anything right away. But such a battle would undoubtedly leave many wounded cats. She would be needed, and she'd need to be right there when called upon.
Lifting her chin, Finchnose prepared herself for the battle of her life.
"You ready for this?" Reedfur asked, hoping his friends couldn't hear the quiver in his voice.
Without response, his friends signaled that they were- scared, but ready. Reedfur blinked slowly and took a deep, long breath. His claws unsheathed and dug their way into the ground. "Let's do this."
He had divided the Hidden into four groups, each with smaller subdivisions of two or three cats. The patrols had been told how and when to fight, and prepared for routines. There were wrestlers, stealth-attackers, ambushers, and guards. With the help of Bramblepath, Reedfur had formed platoons and battle squads that played to various cats' talents.
Now, all he could do was hope that it was enough.
Because there was no more time for strategizing. It was time to lay it all down, give it everything he had, and trust in StarClan and his teammates.
Just as he had decided this, Aquatail attacked.
She made a beeline for her sister, Brightsong, but Ducksplash cut her off, fastening his teeth about her throat. It was like a bomb had gone off. The place eruped into fighting.
Feeling his warrior blood rise up hot and ready, Reedfur raced forward and sunk his claws deep into the first GreenClan warrior he came across. Thick, sticky blood filled his claws, and clumps of fur flew from underneath his deadly grip. He shut off the part of his brain that felt emotions and pity, using only a primitive instinct to kill and shed blood. It was the best way to shut everything out and do your job effectively in a fight- and in life. Pay no attention to the hurt. Push on through like a machine.
There was only one cat who could break him out of his fighting trance: Silverbreeze. He desperately hoped she wouldn't get hurt today, nor any of his other friends.
And yet Reedfur wasn't so sure. Because hope couldn't do anything against GreenClan.
His friends were in danger, and if they got hurt or worse, he knew he would blame himself forever.
Rip. Twist. Bite. Scratch.
Strongheart was a wrecker in the battle, swinging his massive form back and forth, using his shoulders to shove enemies to the ground and tearing life away beneath his long claws. A red-hot haze enveloped his senses, cushioning reality. I'm a freedom fighter. This is what I do.
That was it. A battle. A battle that would lead to war. He needed to numb himself. He couldn't care about the life ending beneath his paws. If he did that, he would break under the cruelty of war. He was the only cat in the Hidden who knew what true agony and war was like. He had lost a true love... suffered utter heartbreak. And somehow, it was his job to bear the burden for his friends. Not let them go through what he had gone through. Somehow...
But first, I need to get through this battle.
Panting, Silverbreeze paused to survey the carnage. Aquatail was nowhere to be seen, probably off hiding somewhere while letting others do her dirty work. Electricswirl, Shellbeam, and Cloverice were nearby, fighting back-to-back and surrounded by enemy cats. Lending a helping paw, Silverbreeze tore one off of Shellbeam and together they scratched and pummeled it into retreat.
"Thanks," Shellbeam panted. The pink scar on her face stood out like a silver sliver of moonlight.
"Silverbreeze!" Finchnose called from nearby. "Make sure any wounded cats come to me! I know some of these guys, and they'll keep on fighting with four broken legs."
She nodded, her mind instantly going to Strongheart. That tom would fight his way through LionClan for something he believed in.
Nearby, Birdsong and Snowdrift were helping a limping Fernheart back to the Tunnels. Silverbreeze could see that though her teammates were wounded, they were still going strong. Reedfur's system was amazing. Cats were constantly being replaced when they grew tired or injured, and there was always an even spread of strength and cunning on the battlefield. That tom is a genius, Silverbreeze realized.
A yowl split the air, its suddenness freezing everyone in their tracks.
Turning slowly - she had a feeling she wouldn't like what she was about to see - Silverbreeze let her eyes fall on Aquatail, who was standing in front of the entrance to the Tunnels. She had her paw on Strongheart's throat.
Immediately, Silverbreeze realized she'd been right. Strongheart ought to have gone to the medicine cat's den a long time ago. One of his eyes was swollen shut, his leg was twisted at a crooked angle, and his body was scissored with cuts. In his weak state, he couldn't even fight Aquatail.
The black she-cat's message was clear. Let me into the Tunnels, or your friend dies.
Not knowing what she was doing, Silverbreeze bounded to Reedfur's side, seeking his reassuring calm. But her friend appeared to be locked in a frigid panic. Finchnose joined them, eyes wide with fear.
None of them knew what to do. Faced with such complete darkness, they were lost. Totally in the dark.
Silverbreeze knew she had to defend the rebellion. Countless lives were resting on her shoulders.
But when she tried to imagine life without Strongheart... she didn't know if it would be worth it.