She wavered between the light and the darkness.
She wandered aimlessly, not really looking for anything... not even a way out. All she wanted to do was to see as much as possible, and to remember it all.
She wanted all of it. Forever. And she would remember.
She made it back to where the others were waiting before she collapsed into her makeshift nest. "I'm back," she panted, voice hoarse.
"Nothing?" The large brown tom who had been talking to three other cats turned to her. "But you stayed out so long; I thought..." He glanced guiltily at the three cats.
The smallest cat, a lithe white she-cat, meowed, "Prey is scarce. You know that." She looked at the gray she-cat, the one who had been out searching. "You tried hard, right?"
The gray she-cat could only nod.
"So we're all going to starve." A strikingly thin ginger tom spoke for the first time.
"That's how it was always meant to end. I mean, we all knew that." The brown tom shook his head regretfully. "I had hoped for something more, but..." He sighed, bowing his broad head.
"It can't be true," a silver-and-black she-cat protested. "They promised us... I mean, they..." She broke off, tears filling her eyes. "Is this really the end?"
The gray she-cat's tailtip flicked. "I'll only believe it when I live it," she rasped. "I don't want this to be the end."
"No one does," the ginger tom said grimly.
Far away, someone was listening in.
So they have given up, the someone mused. After all this time, all these promises, they give up so easily? She shook her head. They are even more hopeless than I had originally thought. I must watch closer; otherwise, they might all die, and then where would this world be?
She shimmered out of existence and vanished without a trace.
Night fell slowly, being drawn out even more by the terrifying thought that it could be someone's last night. As the moon overtook the sun once again, drawing its long black pelt along with it, all five cats stared dimly at the sky.
Finally, unnerved by the silence, the gray she-cat spoke. "Please, don't die tonight."
She heard a snort, followed by the sardonic, straightforward meow of the ginger tom. "We wouldn't be able to control that, now, would we? It's the end; you need to face that. Go to sleep." She heard him roll over, followed by his gentle snoring.
No one else had woken up, and the gray she-cat felt alone, trapped by the darkness pressing closer around her. She didn't want to believe that this was how their lives would end, separated from the rest of the world and starving.
Resolutely, she stood on shaking paws and made her way through the nests, careful not to step on any stray tails. The stars, peering out of their home cloaked in darkness, were hardly reassuring. They were so far away... so cold.
She jumped up the rock ledges to stand at the top. She had no idea what it was the top of, for every time she stood there, a fog seemed to roll in by chance, obscuring her vision. It was puzzling and aggravating. If she only knew where they were hiding, she could help the others escape!
An idea struck her, and she climbed down carefully, pawstep by pawstep, into the fog, away from where the others were sleeping. It was freezing, and not being able to see where she was putting her paws became disorienting very quickly. Her head spinning, she made her way back up to the top, relieved to at least see the ground again.
It was time. She had to face the truth, the truth that the others had already come to terms with. She had just wanted to be certain... and now she could be.
There was no way out.
She woke up the next morning, cold and hungry, but alive. The gray she-cat shook the sleep from her mind, gazing at the others bleary-eyed. The ginger tom was the only other one awake.
"You have to stop," he commanded as soon as he met her gaze.
She was taken aback. "Wh-what?" she stammered. "What am I doing wrong?" Her tail drooped. "If it's about yesterday's hunting, I'm sorry, but I-"
The ginger tom shook his head irritably. "No," he snapped. "I'm talking about the way you act about our... predicament. The others..." He dropped his voice. "You're worrying them."
"What are you talking about?" The gray she-cat wrinkled her nose at him. "Someone's been dreaming too much for his own good."
The ginger tom's eyes narrowed. "Just - be careful, will you," he spat. "I - we don't want to lose you." Pushing his way past her, he vanished into the misty morning.
She stared after him. Was that...? She shook away the thought; there was no way he meant it that way. She purred at herself, amused by the idea that she would ever have such a thought.
There was no way he could love her.
Finally the others woke up, weak and exhausted. The gray she-cat knew that unless they found good food soon, they would all starve quickly. She made up her mind to go hunting, to see if she could find something... anything. Besides, the ginger tom hadn't come back yet; someone had to make sure he was alright.
She set off across the land, avoiding rocky clefts that could twist a paw and the places with loose stones that could collapse underpaw. All five of them had learned where it was safe to walk and where they should avoid; with time comes knowledge.
And they'd been stuck there for at least seven years.
The prey had never run out before; somehow there had always been a steady supply, despite the desolate location of their so-called "home." It had never snowed, either, until the day before yesterday. Everything was changing, and they didn't know why. It was like someone was toying with them, messing with their senses, their emotions, and even their lives.
But that was ridiculous. She kept walking over the cold stone.
After a long, grueling search for something - anything - to eat, the gray she-cat returned to the others, feeling defeated. The three cats there had finally dragged themselves awake, although with a glance she knew that they wouldn't last much longer.
It was a horrible thought, and she shook it away as quickly as she could. "Nothing," she murmured apologetically. "There's no prey left out there."
The brown tom uttered a harsh curse, digging his claws into the ground. "So that's it, then?" he spat. "This is how we die - weak, hungry, and alone?" He let out a long, angry yowl. "I didn't survive this long to end like this!" His fury seemed to shake the very roots of their existence.
No one had a calming reply for him. Trembling, the gray she-cat turned tail on the angry cat and fled.
The someone was watching again.
Another failure. She shook her head regretfully, closing her mismatched eyes. When will they learn that the fate of the world lies in their paws? She made a decision that shocked even her. I will go into their midst, and tell the First Subject what needs to happen for the group to survive. Otherwise, they will never make it out of their prison alive.
She winked out of existence.
The gray she-cat found herself in the most troubled part of her home. It was an old, gnarled forest which had grown crooked hundreds of years ago and had never quite straightened out. Some of the trees' trunks were blackened and brittle, suggesting some fire from which the area had never fully recovered. It chilled her to think that she was standing in a place so old and full of secrets. Fur bushed out and paws trembling, she walked further into the forest, for reasons she would never comprehend.
A sudden thought struck her. Do I have a family? It was an unusual thought, and certainly one she had never had before. It unnerved her more than any forest could, and the more she thought about it, the more confused she became.
Surely no family would dump her there as a kit, right? That would just be cruel. But then, what about the others? Either there were a lot of cruel families out there, or someone had stolen them as kits, or...
...Or they all came from the same family. But then they would all be related, so...
She shook her head. That was too confusing. Besides, what about the ginger tom? Thinking back to that awkward exchange, she wondered again what the tom could have meant. Sure, she liked him, but not like that. And whatever would become of the others if they were really brothers and sisters? There would be no future for them.
It was too much to think about all at once. She kept walking.
Suddenly she ran into someone. "Oh, I'm sorry," she stammered, taking a step back. Expecting to see one of the other cats who lived there, she was shocked that she didn't recognize the cat standing in front of her. "I, er," she stammered. "Who are you?"
The cat, who was much smaller than her, tilted her head with an odd expression centered around mismatched eyes. One of this strange cat's eyes was blue, and the other amber; her fur was whiter than starlight and almost seemed to glow. "I do not have a name."
"But everyone has a name of some kind," the gray she-cat insisted. "Like my name; it's Sedge. So, what's your name?"
The strange little cat took a small step backwards so she wouldn't have to crane her neck to see Sedge. When she moved, she seemed to... shimmer somehow, as if she wasn't really there. "I think I had a name once," she said softly. "But I lost it."
"Lost it," the gray she-cat echoed. "How do you lose your name?"
"It is not mine anymore," the little cat said, her voice suddenly choked with a burst of desperation. "It does not match me anymore. But - but I..." She took a deep breath. "That is not why I am here. You have to find the way out of here."
The bigger cat blinked. "But I've been trying," she choked out. "I've tried so hard, and... hey!" Realization dawned over her like the warm light of the rising sun. "How did you get here? How did you get in? Show me the way out of here, please, I'm begging you!" Yearning flooded through her bones, through her very being, filling her with something she had never felt before.
The small cat flickered again, and for a second the she-cat had a twisted feeling that she was looking at the past, or maybe the future. Here, in this strange version of reality, the small cat had dark brown and black fur, and the amber eye was shut tightly and scarred over. It was... chilling, and haunting somehow, and yet the gray she-cat knew that she was seeing the truth.
"You're not here," she whispered. "You're... not really here. I..." Suddenly unable to comprehend what was happening anymore, she turned tail on this mysterious, frightening creature and ran as hard and as fast as she could.
She still wasn't free, though; as she ran, the small voice of the small cat echoed in her head. Sedges can have thorns, the voice cried. Wink at the sun and run like the wind; burn through the fire and crush the binds! Save the lives from the hazardous crown... otherwise, this last shard of the world will fall down.
The gray she-cat ran as fast as she could, panting as she skidded to a halt next to the nests the cats slept in. The ginger tom was there, as well as the silver-and-black she-cat. Both of them looked up with identical amber eyes, and she was reminded of her encounter with the strange cat and her musings about possible relations.
"I... I just saw something weird," she meowed through gasping breaths. "There was a cat... a message..." Her mind clouded over, and her legs collapsed under her. What had happened? It was something important...
The ginger tom blinked. "You must have been out in the sun too long." He moved to support the gray she-cat, and the other she-cat did the same. "Come on; let's get you into your nest. You need to get sleep."
"But what about you?" she rasped. "Food... this prison..."
The silver-and-black cat wrinkled her muzzle. "What are you talking about? We're no worse off than you are. Just rest, and maybe we can find some food."
She exchanged a glance with the tom, but the exhausted gray she-cat didn't notice. She was sinking fast into the gray fog of sleep, and her muddled thoughts vanished into a dream.
In her dream, the world was dark and twisted. There was a forest, not unlike the one where she had met the odd-eyed cat, but this forest was different, somehow. Eyes seemed to watch her from every shadow, and the wind, which did nothing to cool the strange humidity, howled a broken and desperate song. It chilled her to the bone.
Then the dream shifted, and she was standing on the top of the rocky ridge, looking over the world. This time there was no fog, and she could see clearly what lay beyond the steep mountainside. The entire world, for as far as she could see, was covered in that kind of ruined forest. Caterwauls echoed off the rocks, and the moon overhead was dark and dim.
This is the world I wanted to reach? She was horrified. Even our prison home here is better, even if it is dying...
Her mind cleared for a moment, and she remembered the small cat's words: Otherwise, this last shard of the world will fall down. Something - someone - was keeping them here, trapped and mistaken about the outside world. Their home - which, she suddenly realized, had been their home before it became their prison - must be the last safe place out there. But what was the "hazardous crown"?
She dug her claws into the earth. Of course! The last time she had heard or spoken the names of the other cats had been years ago, so she had nearly forgotten them. But as she started to remember, everything fell into place.
The "hazardous crown" had to be the ginger tom, Hazard. But why was he a threat to the world? Aside from being short-tempered, the gray she-cat couldn't remember a time when he had seemed evil. And the others...
Solar, Breeze, and Ashes had to be the sun, wind, and fire. The brown tom, the white she-cat, and the black-and-silver she-cat must all be her allies in the fight for the world.
Except... the odd-eyed cat had told her to "burn through the fire". So was Ashes an... obstacle as well? Just as she was trying to find a way to reason everything out, the scene around her changed again.
It was Sedge, or at least a ghost of her. She followed her ghost-self as it fled a hidden enemy, running straight towards... the river. Her other self looked around cautiously before diving into the current. The fog around the waters lifted as the cat swam away, and the gray she-cat could see that it ran straight down the edge of the mountain.
Another memory from the time "before" suddenly struck her.
The river is the way out!
She woke up with an unusual feeling of certainty. The river was the way for them to escape; then they could worry about living out in the world. "Solar," she called to the brown tom, who was scenting the air for any traces of prey. He looked over his shoulder, eyes wide with surprise.
"I didn't think anyone remembered my name," he said, padding over to where she lay in her nest. "What is it?"
She searched his gaze, looking for any sense of betrayal. No, she told herself, standing and shaking out her fur. No, he's one of my allies. "I had a dream," she began uncertainly, not quite sure how she was going to explain everything.
"So?" The tom's ear twitched. "I dreamed that I found a den of mice."
"No, not like that." She shook her head, furious with herself for not being able to explain things more clearly. "I think I have an idea on how to get out of here."
He looked attentive now. "Really? Anything's worth a try, I suppose."
She nodded. "I'm willing to do anything to get out of here."
Sedge led Solar and Breeze to the place where she had seen her ghost-self jump into the river. Looking around cautiously, ears flattened against her head, she whispered, "I think we're good to go."
"Come on, then," Solar said, standing straight and walking through the undergrowth towards the river.
Breeze followed him, and Sedge took up the back. Maybe we'll make it out without Hazard and Ashes noticing! But just then, she heard Breeze screech. Running ahead, fur bushed out, she burst out of a thicket to see Ashes standing over Breeze, claws pressed against the white she-cat's neck. Hazard was facing Solar threateningly.
We were so close...
"Thought you could leave, huh?" Hazard spat. "We're not letting you go. You're not allowed to leave!" He lunged at Solar, claws outstretched.
"No!" Sedge yowled, her voice a piercing shriek. She charged towards the two toms, throwing herself in front of Solar.
Hazard's eyes widened with horror, but it was too late: momentum carried his claws right through gray fur and into skin. He took a step backwards as Sedge collapsed to the ground.
"No, no," he whispered. "It wasn't supposed to end like this!"
Solar narrowed his eyes. "You seemed so ready to kill me."
Ashes stepped off of Breeze, pushing her muzzle comfortingly into Hazard's fur. "Tell them," she breathed. "They should know."
"The world is dying," he blurted out. His expression was coated with a deep sorrow. "It's become a horrible place, and even starving here would be better than getting murdered and eaten down there. I wanted to keep us all here so that, maybe, we would have a chance at a merciful death." He bowed his head.
"How did you know that?" Breeze demanded, rising to her paws. "We can't see anything through the fog."
"I think... I know," Sedge rasped, moving just slightly to look up at Hazard. "Isn't her name... Wink?"
Hazard's eyes widened again. "You know her?"
"She told me... that you were my enemy." Sedge coughed up a mouthful of blood, then choked out, "Was she wrong?"
"But... I don't understand," he breathed, his amber gaze swimming with confusion. "She was the one who told me to - to do this."
"Traitors," Solar spat. "That's what that cat is, is a traitor. Trying to rip us apart." He hissed softly. "What else do you know?"
"We're special to Wink somehow," Hazard replied. "All of us. We were all supposed to die here, but somehow I...." His voice trailed off as he looked helplessly at Sedge.
"Fell in love?" she guessed in a croaking voice.
He nodded silently.
"Let me tell you something," Sedge murmured, shifting into a different position, gritting her teeth against the pain. More blood spilled out of her wound, staining the grass and reeds red. "You can love... anyone you want. But... I beg you... get out of here, and save... everyone else." Her voice, which had dropped to a faint whisper, was nearly impossible to hear. "Do it... for me."
Her head lay down, her eyes glazed over, and she didn't breathe again.
"No!" Hazard cried, kneeling down beside her in the grass. "Sedge, this is all my fault," he choked out. "I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
Breeze put a paw on Hazard's shoulder. "Listen," she said quietly. "You have to leave her here. We have to follow her last wish." As the tom looked up at her disbelievingly, about to protest, she shushed him. "No, don't speak. If you love her that much, you should respect her wish."
He started to say something, then stopped and bowed his head. "You're right," he murmured. Standing, he beckoned with his tail for the others to follow. "Come with me."
The other three cats followed the heartbroken, grief-stricken tom as he led them into the river, following the current to their freedom... and to the last wish that would emerge from a broken and dying land.