Panting, Strongheart surveyed the blood-streaked ground. The battle had been hard but swift. Within a few minutes, the GreenClan cats were sent packing. Now, the Hidden cats looked at each other over the messy battleground. With a cry of joy, Silverbreeze hurled herself at Reedfur. A smile spread across Strongheart's face as he bounded over to his friend and licked him on the ear. "You're okay."
"Yep, looks like it," Reedfur said with surprising cheeriness.
Relief flowed through Strongheart as he took in each member of the mission patrol: Wetstream, Brightsong, Cinderdapple, and Ivyfleet. The latter looked incredibly tired and sad; her normally bright sea-blue eyes were dulled and grayed with exhaustion. And not just physical exhaustion, he knew. "What happened to Ivyfleet?" he whispered to Reedfur.
The black tom grimaced. "It's a long story. I'll tell you on the way back."
Silverbreeze nudged him gently. "We should make sure everyone's ready to go."
With a nod, Strongheart turned to face the others. He took them in quickly. There were several cuts and bruises to be seen, and Cinderdapple was limping slightly; he wasn't sure if they could make the journey back right away. Before he could ask them though, Brightsong cut in. "What are we waiting for? Let's get back home."
A cheer that left no doubt about the verdict raised up. Strongheart grinned at his friends. "Well, I guess that settles it. We're going back to the Tunnels right away."
Side by side, the three best friends took lead of the group. Silverbreeze and Strongheart listened intently as Reedfur poured out all the events the secret patrol had faced: meeting Flowerburst and Spidertalon, crossing the river, and finally, Tornadoheart's sacrifice and death.
When he was done, Strongheart remained silent for a minute. "I can't believe he did that..." he trailed off helplessly.
"We certainly misjudged him," Jaywalker mewed quietly.
After a few moments of silence, filled with tangible sorrow, Reedfur said, "So, how have things been in the Tunnels?"
"Well, we had a few arguments over things," Strongheart said helplessly, not wanting his friend to know what kind of chaos had enused following his departure. "It's hard to get along with so many cats all packed in the same place." Reedfur nodded understandingly, green eyes attentive. "But we kind of sorted out," he explained. "I mean, when we heard you guys were in trouble, you wouldn't believe how worried everyone was. It was hard picking just a few cats to come. Finchnose wanted to come, but she had to stay back because she's medicine cat, and we needed her there."
Reedfur's expression was warm. "That's okay. I can't wait to see her though."
For a little while, they all stared at each other. Each of them knew what was coming, but none of them wanted to be the first to bring it up. Finally, Strongheart said, "We need to talk."
"Yes, we do."
Oh no. Not another dream. I can't handle this.
Nevertheless, she couldn't stop the tide of darkness that washed over her sleeping mind. When it cleared, she was standing in a large canyon. She recognized it; the last time she'd been here, her friends were locked away in a poisoning chamber, and she had been desperate to save them. It had been when they had discovered Aquatail's treachery.
As if on cue, a familiar voice came from behind her. "Well, well, well. Looks like an old friend has stopped by."
Finchnose closed her eyes. "Aquatail."
The ebony she-cat slunk down a small rocky rise and sat down in front of her. She stank of Dark Fire, blood, and evil. Finchnose's nose smarted at the terrible combination of smells; the made her want to throw up. Instead, she said, "What are you doing? What do you want?"
"I've risen in GreenClan ranks while you've been off playing," Aquatail said. Her hiss was as low and dangerous as a snake's, and it sent shudders down Finchnose's spine. "Viperstar admired me for my work. And now that Tornadoheart has foolishly turned tail, he realizes the true worth of a spy."
"Tornadoheart turned tail?" Finchnose repeated in disbelief.
The she-cat waved her tail impatiently. "He's dead because of it, the fool. And you will be soon too. Beware, Finchnose. You and your friends' days are numbered."
Breathing hard, Finchnose clambered out of her nest. In the inky blackness, she could make out the sleeping shapes of the rest of her friends. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she wished desperately that Strongheart, Silverbreeze, and Reedfur were here. Their presence made everything so much easier.
Suddenly, the enclosed darkness of the Chamber was too much for her to bear. She ran headlong out the moss curtain, down a hall, and slammed into a very surprised Bramblepath.
"Finchnose! What are you doing up so late?"
"I couldn't sleep," she admitted, still panting, half from her run and half from fear.
The tabby cat smiled understandingly, her green eyes soft with sympathy. "I get it. Sometimes it's just too much, isn't it? I had guard duty; Angelcloud relieved me, but I couldn't go back to sleep, so I was just walking."
Realizing that she had no one else to turn to now, Finchnose said quietly, "I had a bad dream. A warning from StarClan. In it, I saw Aquatail, and she said that our days were numbered. That she had risen in GreenClan ranks. Bramblepath, she holds a solid grudge towards us. She'd have the motives and means to exact some real damage. And..." Suddenly, Finchnose paled. The ground swung out from under her. Of course! How stupid could she be? "She knows where the Tunnels are." Panic tinged her voice. "Oh Bramblepath, what shall we do?" She was in near hysterics by now.
Soothingly, Bramblepath laid her tail across Finchnose's back. The medicine cat relaxed under her touch. "It's okay. There's not much we can do except hope that the patrols get back before Aquatail can plot an attack. If she attacks while Strongheart and the others are out, I don't know how we'll hold our ground."
Knowing she was right, Finchnose sent up a silent prayer.
Please StarClan. Bring my friends back.
As the sun rose over the horizon, Silverbreeze yawned and stretched, feeling her cramped muscles pop and her claws sink into the warm earth. Around her, her friends were breaking camp as well. "Who's going to hunt?" she asked.
Frowning, Strongheart glanced out over the plains. They had camped out at the border between woods and grasslands, the same as they had last time, when they were heading back to the Tunnels after the incident in the canyon. Now Silverbreeze's paws ached just as much to be back in the Tunnels. She was shocked at how much the Tunnels had come to mean to her. Before, she had just regarded them as the only place where they could have their headquarters, but now she had come to think of them of as much of a home as BreezeClan had been. It was strange how things worked out like that.
"Can we just try to get back to the Tunnels as quickly as possible, and then eat there?" Wetstream asked. "I can't wait to get back there."
Silverbreeze grinned. "I'm fine with that if the others are. What do you think guys? Was last night's dinner enough?"
"I think so," Cinderdapple said. "Besides, I really need to have this paw looked at by Finchnose, so the quicker we get home the better."
The others murmured agreement, so they struck off at a quick pace without bothering with eating.
Padding along next to Reedfur, his fur brushing her shoulder, Silverbreeze felt much better. All of the worry and exasperation of the last few days faded away. And yet they still had things to discuss.
The main subject at the table was what they wanted for the Hidden group now. Silverbreeze had told Reedfur - without mentioning Strongheart or Bramblepath's names, but the ginger tom had owed up that it was him anyway - that some cats wanted to take the offensive in the battle, while others thought it was more important to protect the Tunnels. Reedfur had listened to all this with his normal level-headedness, and said he needed time to think about it. Now, they awaited his opinion.
"Well..." he said softly, as if not wanting to break the precious silence of the dawn. "I think we should wait till we get back, and involve everyone in our vote. I mean, everyone will be affected, so..."
"Good idea," she said. "Now I hope we can get there soon."
Strongheart nodded in agreement. "I'm going to see how Cinderdapple is doing," he said, dropping back. That left Silverbreeze alone with Reedfur, a thought that both thrilled and terrified her.
Not knowing what else to do to phrase her joy at having him back, she buried her face in his shoulder and murmured into his familiar-scented black fur, "I missed you."
His chin rested gently on her head for a minute. "I missed you too."
Their gazes locked for a moment, and then Strongheart was back, channeling a void between them with his bulk. For some reason, Silverbreeze felt guilty whenever Strongheart caught her and Reedfur together, as if she was doing something wrong. It made no sense, she knew, but she couldn't help it. Now, the tom's amber eyes flicked over her briefly, unreadable. He didn't say anything though.
Forget about that. We have bigger things to think about.
With that, Silverbreeze pointed her toes towards the seemingly endless plains, watching for the spires of rock that hid the Tunnels. Watching for her home.
"There!" The word sent a blast of relief through Reedfur. He broke into a swift run, legs eating up the ground. His friends did the same.
"Just warning you, we have a new addition. His name is Ducksplash. He's a bit cranky, but his heart is in a good place." Cinderdapple managed to pant all this as she limped alongside him.
He nodded to show he'd heard her, then skidded to a stop in front of the boulders. As one, he and the others stepped into the Tunnels. Cries echoed through the darkness, and seconds later the hall was filled with rejoicing cats, and calls of, "You're back! You're safe!"
Finchnose leaped at him, and he wrapped his tail around her tightly. Then, she was off again in a flit, hurrying towards Cinderdapple and clucking her tongue like a mother hen. Hiding a smile, Reedfur turned to Bramblepath and Birdsong. Both she-cats were smiling broadly. "It's good to see you guys again."
"Same," Birdsong said. She was never one to give into too much emotion, but there was geniuine happiness in her sharp amber eyes.
"Reedfur?" Turning, he found Finchnose next to him, the look in her hazel eyes plaintive. "I need to talk to you guys."
He, Strongheart, and Silverbreeze followed her to a secluded part of the tunnel and waited expectantly as she sat down in front of them. "Aquatail is back."
"What?" This was the last thing Reedfur had been expecting. Even his normally calm interior couldn't stop from a little jolt of shock.
Finchnose nodded. "She's risen in GreenClan ranks, and she wants revenge on us. I found out in a dream."
Plainly, he could see the others were on the verge of pure panic, so he cut in, reminding himself that he was the sensible one. They needed him to calm them down. "Well, this settles it then." They looked at him as if he were crazy. "We're taking the defensive. We need to stay here and protect ourselves from Aquatail. She knows where the Tunnels are, which means we need to guard them night and day. Everyone stays here."
"Agreed. But for now... We're together. And that's all that matters." Silverbreeze placed a paw on Silverbreeze's, the other on Strongheart's, and linked her tail with Reedfur's.
Purring, he leaned into the circle, breathing in the scent that was his friends. It was the best reunion he'd ever had. With his friends by his side, he knew he could face whatever disasters came.
And he knew they would come. But he'd be ready.