Adrenaline pumped through Reedfur's veins as he paced across the Hall, his pawsteps resonating in the thickly-walled cavern. His hears were pricked for any sound of a returning patrol, and tension held his muscles tight like a spring.
From where she was stretched out lazily on the floor, Fernheart mewed, "You're going to dig yourself a hole if you don't keep still."
He paused, whiskers twitching. "I can't help it. It's so weird, being back in the Tunnels. I get jumpy whenever someone leaves."
"Jumpier," muttered Violentclaw. "We're safe here. We don't all have to stick together anymore all the time. This is a home."
Reedfur rolled his eyes. "I know that. I'm just saying..."
At that moment, he picked up the sound of approaching pawsteps and voices. "They're back!"
Strongheart emerged into the Hall first. Birdsong and Wetstream flanked him, each with a plump rabbit in their jaws. Behind the three cats were all those who had joined the Hidden after they had left the Tunnels; they had been given a tour of the entire territory just now, and a few hunting lessons as well, by the looks of it.
"See Reedfur? They're fine," Fernheart said, getting to her paws.
He shot her a glare. "I knew they would be. I was just stressing."
"Like usual," Strongheart teased, bumping shoulders with him. Reedfur grinned at his friend, relieved that the tom hadn't picked up on his slight jealousy. He didn't resent Strongheart for being the perfect lady's tom, but he couldn't help a twinge of anger whenever he saw Silverbreeze notice. Like I could compete for her anyway.
Still, maybe Strongheart didn't feel anything for Silverbreeze. How that could be possible, Reedfur had no idea, but if they only thought of each other as friends, maybe he stood a chance. Maybe.
Hiding his thoughts, Reedfur said, "Wanna go into the Chamber? Bramblepath is already ready to plan our next move."
Birdsong snorted. "That's Bramblepath all right."
He shrugged. "It's not a bad idea. Our wounds are healed, and we can't stay quiet too long. After that defeat, you can bet Viperstar will send patrols here. We have to strike first."
Strongheart frowned. "Wouldn't we want to stay here then, to defend the Tunnels?"
Reedfur nodded in answer. "That's why we need to discuss everything. Come on." Turning to the other cats, he said, "Can you drop off some prey by the Observation Post? Jaywalker was keeping guard last night, and he fell asleep there. He'll probably be hungry."
"I'll go!" Fernheart instantly offered. She blushed when all eyes turned to her. "I mean..."
A sympathetic look appeared on Ivyfleet's face. "I'll come with you."
"Right," said a flustered Fernheart. She picked up a shrew, and the two she-cats turned and trotted away. Puzzled, Reedfur jerked his head at Strongheart and Birdsong. The two cats followed him towards the Chamber.
"That's okay! Don't bother waiting for me! I alway wanted to be a loner!" an indignant Wetstream mewed, catching up with them.
Hiding a smile, Strongheart said, "Well, we'll just leave you to it then-"
Wetstream's hiss cut him off. "You will not. I am the brains of this team."
Reedfur pretended to be hurt, touching one paw to his heart. "I thought that was me. Have I been replaced?"
Despite herself, the she-cat's whiskers twitched. "Yep. Get used to it."
Upon reaching the thick wall of lichen and moss that covered the Chamber, he ducked his head and plowed through it. As the greenery brushed his fur, he breathed in the familiar smell. It was completely different from the rich scents of trees and sap he had gotten when he was in the GreenClan woods. Personally, Reedfur preferred the Tunnels and the plains, but that was probably just him.
And Silverbreeze. Remembering how she had asked him to hunt with her when they'd first seen the plains, he felt a pleasant tingle to through him. It was only magnified when he spotted her sitting next to Bramblepath, bent over plans in the dirt.
"What's up?" Strongheart asked, walking over.
Wasting no time, Bramblepath tapped a paw on a complex series of scratches that crisscrossed the ground. "Secret mission. We're selecting cats for the patrol."
His eyes widened. "Boy, you guys don't waste any time."
More then a little confused, Reedfur mewed, "Secret mission? For what?"
Like green lasers, Bramblepath's eyes fixed on him and glued him to his spot. "Because, Reedfur, we can't sit around twiddling our thumbs. We have to get out there. Find out which areas of cats are suffering the most because of Viperstar, and put an end to it. Do you understand?"
"I- I guess..." It was actually a really good idea, though he was a little miffed at being talked to like a kit.
A thoughtful look was on Wetstream's face. "A secret mission, huh? How many cats are going to be on the patrol?"
"We're thinking five," Silverbreeze said. "Cats with the ability to move fast and elusively through the territory, gathering information and helping out when they can."
"I'll go," Reedfur said instantly.
From where she had been listening and sorting out her herbs nearby, Finchnose looked up. "You will? Won't we need you here?"
He shook his head. "This is an important mission. At least one of us should go." He held his breath, hoping one of his friends- preferably Silverbreeze- would offer to go with him. But none did. Strongheart gave him a short, appreciative nod.
"That's one. Who else?"
"I'll go," Wetstream said determinedly. "I think we should also have a couple of cats who know GreenClan territory."
"Cinderdapple," Finchnose said. "And Brightsong."
Tapping his tail against the ground, Reedfur nodded in agreement. "That leaves one more. How about Ivyfleet? It'll help get her mind off Tornadoheart."
Silverbreeze frowned. "What if you guys meet GreenClan patrols?"
"I think she can handle it," vouched Finchnose. Her hazel eyes were filled with wisdom, as if she knew something they didn't. "She's stronger then she looks."
"Then it's settled." Strongheart turned to Reedfur. "You leave tomorrow morning."
Though she was tired from a day of planning, hunting, and giving tours, Silverbreeze couldn't get to sleep. Her eyes kept wandering around the Chamber, staring affectionately at each of her friends. But somehow they kept returning to Reedfur, his black pelt blending into the shadows so that only its outline was visible in his nest. Tomorrow, he would be gone, away on a mission that could get him killed. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. Yes, it was an important part of their work. She should be glad of the opportunity to help more cats and work against Viperstar. Right now though, she didn't care about any other cats. She only had thoughts for Reedfur's safety. After all, he had saved her life in the battle outside the Tunnels. So why did it feel like much more then a simple debt?
"What is it that's so special?" she whispered softly to herself. "I've seen other cats get hurt..."
Shaking her head, she lay back in her nest and tried to force her eyelids closed. Before she succeeded, however, she thought of Strongheart. Snoring lightly, lying on his back with his mouth open, he looked like Reedfur's polar opposite. He was muscular and buff, while the other tom was slighter and lither. His fur was the color of the sun's bright rays, while Reedfur's was the embodiment of the inkiness night brought. Strongheart's eyes were deep amber while Reedfur had cool green emeralds for eyes. And yet they were both so sweet and caring, just in their own way.
Why should I care particularly? This is silly. I am not going to be the kind of she-cat who lies awake at night thinking about toms. Not when there are so many more important things to think about.
A soft sigh escaped her lips as she thought about how much easier and simpler her life had been in BreezeClan. But that was over now. The Hidden was all she had left.
It seemed like very little time till she was being shook awake. Blinking blearily, she stared into Wetstream's face. The dark gray cat looked nervous and excited. "Up and at 'em Silverbreeze. It's time to go."
Quickly, she scrambled to her feet. "I'm up, I'm up." She smiled at her friend. "Good luck."
Wetstream gave her a nod. "Come on."
They padded out of the empty cave and down the maze of tunnels. All the cats of the Hidden were clustered by the main entrance. Strongheart waved his tail at her. "I've already told them all the plan," he explained. "They agree."
She met his eyes, trying to prevent a blush from coming to her cheeks; her thoughts from the previous night were still fresh in her mind. "And what about Cinderdapple, Brightsong and Ivyfleet? Are they willing to come?"
"We are." Ivyfleet stood behind her, a determined set to her small face. Silverbreeze smiled, relieved, and touched her tail to her friend's shoulder. She hoped Ivyfleet knew how proud they were of her.
She seemed to know, because she gave Silverbreeze a lick on the cheek before padding over to join the other four cats who would be going.
The smaller patrol faced them for a few seconds. Reedfur locked eyes with her, and she gazed longingly back, trying to memorize every detail of his face. There were so many things she wanted to say, but there was no time. The sun would be fully risen in a little bit, and they needed to leave before that.
Clearing his throat, Strongheart said, "Well... Good luck guys. My StarClan light your path."
"And yours," Reedfur said. He gave a brave smile. The rising sunlight illuminated him in a natural spotlight, making his profile stand out and turning his eyes to green fire. Silverbreeze captured him like that forever in her mind, strong and brave, blazing with the spirit of the rebellion. Then he turned and was gone.
For some uncanny reason, tears pricked the back of Finchnose's eyes as she watched her friends disappear through the exit of the Tunnels. It felt so strange to be separated after all the adventures they had been through as a group. Glancing at the others out of the corner of her eye, she saw they felt the same way. Strongheart stared at his paws. Silverbreeze turned away hastily when she saw Finchnose looking at her, but not before the medicine cat saw a glistening tear roll down her cheek. It just made her want to cry more.
But they didn't have time for that. Squaring her shoulders, Finchnose said, "Shall we arrange the hunting patrols?"
Fallensky blinked at her incredulously, as if to say, You bounce back fast. Then she seemed to recognize Finchnose's barely concealed emotions, and gave her a smile. "Sure. I'll go. Angelcloud, Shellbeam, Cloverice, will you come with me?"
"Sure," the cats mewed in unison. They slipped out of the Tunnels as well.
Clearing her throat, Finchnose said, "I'd better go check on my herb stores."
The others gave her understanding looks, seeing that she wanted some time alone. Before her feelings could choke and immobilize her, Finchnose turned and trotted back towards the Chamber. She slipped into the cave and stared down at her herb store for a long time. Upon coming back home, she had replenished her supplies well, collecting many different herbs she had been lacking in the woods. However, it did feel a little strange having so much. During their travels, she had relied on whatever she could stuff into her little herb-pouch. Now all the leaves and flower-tops seemed almost intimidating.
"Chervil," she murmured. "Burdock root, winterberries, horsetail, catmint..." She tapped each herb with her paw as she named it.
Relieved that her memory hadn't deserted her, she leaned back against the wall. That was when it happened.
An icy feeling wrapped around her. She recognized the smell that came with it, like cold fire and burning wind. StarClan.
She hadn't met with them since they had saved her life and told the rebellion to go to the River of Stars and find Cloverice. Now, a shiver racked her body as ghostly cats materialized before her. They seemed stronger then before, as if StarClan was slowly returning from the exile it had suffered because of Viperstar's disbelief, and his crushing of other cats' belief in them.
"Finchnose." A shimmering white she-cat took a step forward. "I am Featherstar."
The name rung a bell faintly. "You... You used to lead BreezeClan, before GreenClan invaded."
"Yes," she said ruefully. "I never stood a chance, even with my nine lives. But that's not why we are here. We are here to give you a new prophecy."
Finchnose blinked. "A prophecy?" She hadn't gotten one ever since the original Clans had been disbanded. "A real prophecy?"
Something akin to pride appeared in Featherstar's eyes. "Yes. The times of the true Clans are returning," she said. "It is time."
Hiding her nervousness, she waited patiently. "I am ready."
The leader suddenly looked troubled. "For your sakes, I hope so. Here it is: Four paths unite, yet one unwinds. The Hidden hide secrets that sever binds. Kin shall kill kin, and blood shall spill. What was taken from Death will be restored. Before the winds of peace come, the storm must cease, the bird must fall, and the final battle be waged." The eerie glow left her eyes, and her voice returned to normal. "Good luck, Finchnose. You'll need it."
The medicine cat could only stand there, frozen, as the StarClan cats vanished.
Had Featherstar just predicted her death?
The sunset was beautiful this evening. The sky was a fiery orange, mirroring the color of Strongheart's coat. Bathed in the sun's glow, the prairie seemed to be on fire.
He looked to his side and found Silverbreeze standing there. He hadn't even heard her approach the small hill he was sitting on.
A warm feeling spread through him as he inhaled her scent along with the fresh air. "It does look like it," he admitted. "I like to come outside more often now. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I got a taste of what the outdoors is like again. Maybe I just want to escape the Tunnels."
"I understand. I feel the same way sometimes." Her voice told him she knew it wasn't just the Tunnels he wanted to escape. And she was right. It was so much more.
Overhead, a pair of birds flew through the sky, their wings outstretched to catch the rise of thermals. Strongheart followed their progress till they were merely tiny specks in the distance. He had an irrational urge to leap into the sky after them.
Instead of doing something that foolhardy, he scooted a little closer to Silverbreeze. If she noticed, she didn't seem to mind. Her body was completely relaxed, though a glimmer of concern was visible in her blue eyes as she stared off towards the horizon. Worrying about Reedfur, he guessed. He wasn't sure why that caused a spark of irratation; he was worried about his friend too.
"Do you get the feeling," he said softly, not wanting to break the magic of the evening air, "that this is the beginning of a whole new era for the Hidden?"
She leaned her head against his shoulder. It fit perfectly, and his heart started to pound a little faster. He longed to give her a lick, but restrained himself. "Yes. I think it is."
Without warning, Silverbreeze tensed. She turned around, and he followed her gaze. Finchnose was standing between the boulders that flanked the entrance to the Tunnels. Her hazel eyes were worried, but when she saw them looking at her, she turned.
"Wait!" Strongheart called. He could tell when something was troubling his best friend. He and Silverbreeze loped towards her. "What is it?"
Her eyes traveled between them. "Nothing," she said confidently.
"If you insist..." Silverbreeze didn't look convinced.
Fear entered Finchnose's face, and Strongheart could tell she was struggling to hold it together. Before he could try to comfort her, she turned and raced away, back into the darkness of the Tunnels.
Reedfur's gone. Finchnose is like this. The Hidden is falling apart.
Then he thought, No! I won't let that happen. We'll stick together through this new era, no matter what.
And with Silverbreeze's tail linked through his, he believed it.