This is a story written by Rainy. All credit for the Warriors & The Mortal Instrument ideas presented in it go to their individual authors. Thank you.
A Warriors/The Mortal Instruments crossover.
The wind whipped around Gingerpaw, whirling faster and faster as if it could swallow her whole. She didn't move though, didn't even consider returning to RedClan. Today was not a day she was going to spend listening to the other apprentices jabber and chat about things that she didn't give a mouse-tail for. She'd rather be out here at the border, alone with nature.
It was better this way.
Besides, everyone had been acting so weird lately. It was like the apocalypse was coming up or something. When she had approached her mother that morning, Crimsonfall had leaped about five feet into the air and squalled like a banshee.
It had something to do with the strange prophecy their medicine cat, Willowwood, had recieved two days ago, when he went to the MoonRock. He had told no one but Leafstar what it was about, and since then, the whole Clan had been shaken to its roots.
It confused and scared Gingerpaw, but she wasn't sure what she could do about it. Surely things like that didn't concern an apprentice like her?
The reason RedClan was so upset and suspicious about the prophecy was rooted in the fact that RedClan prophecies never worked out well. Somehow, they always led to disappearances and mysterious happenings that could never be explained. The last prophecy had been when Gingerpaw was a kit. She barely remembered it, and all her mother had told her was that her father had been killed because of it.
That was enough to make her loathe prophecies, silly as it sounded. After all, she needed something or someone to blame for the fact that she had grown up without a father. Some nights, when she walked past the warriors' den, she would see Crimsonfall quietly sobbing to herself, and it tore her heart in two.
That was why Gingerpaw liked it better out here. It was better this way.
At the familiar voice, she spun around and broke out into a smile. "Hey Darkpaw," she mewed to the black tom that had emerged from the ruddy-barked trees of RedClan territory.
"What are you doing out here?" asked the tom - her best and only friend - as he trotted over.
She gestured vaguely at nothing and everything with her tail. "Thinking. Getting away from it all."
Understanding mingled with sympathy in his gaze. Darkpaw was the one cat who always understood her, no matter what kinds of crazy things she said. She knew she could always turn to him for help. "It's quieter out here, isn't it?" he said softly.
"Yes. I like the quiet sometimes."
Gradually, Gingerpaw let her eyes travel towards the horizon. The pure, untamed beauty of the neverending gray sky sent a chill down her spine. Her mind longed to capture the way the branches overhead stood out in stark contrast against the stormy underbellies of the clouds. Every part of her wished the other RedClan cats could see the world like this, could see it in all its angles and colors and beauty, instead of just a drab landscape to their drabber lives.
But few cats saw the world like she did. It was a fact she accepted, even though she wasn't completely happy with it.
Finally, Darkpaw broke the silence. "Aren't you cold?" He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, concern - and something else, possibly - showing in his liquid brown eyes, as soft and thick as melted cocoa.
"No, I'm fine," she reassured him, though she was shivering slightly. That was one of the downsides of being so short and lightly-built; people always felt like they had to take care of you, like you were a little kit. Knowing Darkpaw though, he would try to take care of her anyway. That was just the kind of friend he was.
"Okay. I'm just saying, I bet you wouldn't want to spend a few days in the medicine cat's den, especially with Willowwood so off his rocker."
"Off his rocker?" she said, a light frown creasing her brow. "You don't think he has reason to be worried?"
Darkpaw shook his head, the white star-shaped mark on his forehead standing out against his night-colored fur. "Nope. I mean, we don't even know what the prophecy is. It could be, 'You will be constipated next week. Avoid the mouse that that idiot Lancepaw brought in.'"
Gingerpaw burst out laughing. "Darkpaw, be serious."
"I am. It would suck for our medicine cat to be constipated, don't you think? Kinda ironic."
Shaking her head, she bumped her shoulder against his. "You're ridiculous."
He grinned back at her, a friendly twinkle in his eyes. "In a good way, right?"
"I'll take that as a yes."
Unable to help herself, she smiled. Darkpaw had that way with her; he could cheer her up no matter how bent she was on being miserable and grumpy. It wasn't just her; almost everyone she knew liked Darkpaw. A combination of his gentle sweetness and witty humor made him impossible to dislike. Still, she knew she was one of the only cats he really trusted, besides his mother. They had grown up together, and the bond they shared could never be broken.
"Gingerpaw..." Darkpaw said softly, breaking her daydream, which involved images of a tiny Gingerkit and Darkkit dancing about the nursery together.
She glanced up, wondering if he had been reveling in their long, glorious friendship together. Probably not. The last time she had asked him "Do you remember when?" it had ended in a long, painfully awkward explanation of how they had not met as apprentices, and yes, she had been in the nursery. It was really quite sad, but she overlooked it. Darkpaw's friendship was worth it(even if he only remembered half of it).
"Yes?" she asked expectantly.
He glanced away uncomfortably. "This is going to be hard to say..."
Instantly, her guard went up. "Then you should probably not say it. You know how easily I get mad, and there are plenty of things around here that could become flying projectiles. Including you."
Darkpaw swallowed hard. "No, it's not like that. Nothing bad. At least, I don't think it is. Maybe it is-"
"Oh, stop talking in riddles," she said, hoping to lighten the mood - and prevent him from throwing up; he looked like he was about to be sick. "What is it?"
"Uh... Well, I know we've been friends for a long time, but-"
Just then, their conversation was interrupted by a crashing noise in the woods in front of them. Seconds later, an explosion of dust, wind, and grit hit them. Over the roar of flying objects, Gingerpaw could hear Darkpaw coughing. Her pelt stung where bits of debri caught in it, and her eyelids and forehead were scorched with a peculiar kind of burn, almost acid-like in its fierceness. The rancid scent drifting off of the wound made her dizzy and light-headed; as the smoke cleared, she had to fight to stay conscious.
"Are you okay?" Darkpaw was at her side. A few cuts and bruises showed through his fur, but he didn't seem to have been affected by the poisonous acid liquid like she had. As his eyes reached her forehead, they grew as huge as suns. "Gingerpaw! What happened?"
"Ravener demon. You might want to get someone to look at that."
Both Darkpaw and Gingerpaw turned as one. Gingerpaw's jaw dropped when she saw the cat who had addressed them. He was a ginger tom - actually, ginger wasn't exactly the right word to describe him; his coat was that sunset hue that was sometimes a pale gold and other times a fiery orange - with piercing golden eyes. The corners of his mouth crooked up as if he was laughing secretly at the world. Flanking him on either side were a raven-black tom with electrifying blue eyes and a pearly-white she-cat with eyes precisely the same hue of cobalt. All of them were too good-looking and put-together to be true, and Gingerpaw, with a giant bump on her head oozing blood, felt like an idiot.
Luckily, Darkpaw recovered enough to stammer, "W-What now?"
The handsome tom took a step forward. His gaze was cool, collected, and analyzing as it slid over them. "Ravener demon," he repeated. "Poison." He flicked his tail towards Gingerpaw. "She won't live if you don't get it out of her, idiot."
Bristling, Darkpaw laid his tail across Gingerpaw's back. She almost buckled under the weight... why was his tail so heavy? Her eyelids were drooping, and she was tired. Oh, how tired she was. Her vision swam runnily. The last thing she saw were the tom's golden eyes before she slipped into the blackness.
☀ ☀ ☀
☁ ☁ ☁
"... Will she be okay?"
Vainly, Gingerpaw struggled to make her brain focus, to pry open her eyelids. It didn't work. Her body, especially her forehead, was on fire. Then she felt a light prick on her forehead. What felt like a burning - but in a pleasant way - claw traced across her wound. She could feel the "Ravener" poison ebb away. New strength flowed gradually into her body.
When she opened her eyes, there was a ring of faces looking back at her. The three strange cats were standing over her, the scrutiny in their gazes making her giddy. Spotting Darkpaw, she locked onto his familiar features and reached out a paw, which he grabbed gently and pulled her up with.
"Thanks," she mumbled in a slurred voice, leaning against him.
The beautiful white cat she had noticed earlier watched with a skeptical look on her face. "You okay?" she smirked, in a way that made Gingerpaw think she didn't really care one way or another.
Beside her, the black tom gave a chuckle. "Of course she is. No one's better with a stele then me."
"Don't get too full of yourself, Ravenpaw," the golden tom replied, eyeing Gingerpaw warily. "She might die yet."
At that, Gingerpaw narrowed her eyes. "Excuse me? Exactly what just happened? Why did I get hurt? What was that explosion? What is Ravener poison?"
All three cats looked taken aback. The snowy cat flicked her tail. "She's all yours, Chasepaw."
"Leave me with the nutjobs, huh?" the tom - Chasepaw - shot back.
"Watch your mouth." Darkpaw curled his tail protectively around Gingerpaw; she shrugged it off impatiently and took a step forward. She felt much better now, more healthy and ready to face these crazies.
"Exactly who do you think you are? And why do you have Clan names? You aren't RedClan cats."
Chasepaw raised his eyebrows, as if marveling at her unintelligence. "There are more Clans then just yours, hon."
Spitting in fury, she mewed, "Don't call me hon!"
Almost lazily, he purred, "And what should I call you, hon?"
"Gingerpaw," she snapped.
Before he had a chance to continue arguing - which would be rather pointless - her eyes fell on an object he had in his claws; it was small, and gleamed like a shard of crystal. Squinting, she bent down to peer at it more closely. "What is that?"
Instantly, Chasepaw was all wariness and caution. The white she-cat brushed past him impatiently. "None of your business," she snapped. Then, in a lower tone(though Gingerpaw could still hear her) she said, "Way to go, Chasepaw."
The tom flicked his ears irritably. Meanwhile, Ravenpaw, who seemed the most peaceable of the three, watched her with an interested expression. "Should we tell her?"
"Her? What about me?" Darkpaw exclaimed haughtily.
Ignoring him entirely, Chasepaw turned on Ravenpaw. "Are you nuts? She's a regular cat. She won't understand."
Ravenpaw arched his eyebrows. "Really? Because it doesn't look like she's dying or turning into a Forsaken to me. Does it to you?" This exchange made no sense to Gingerpaw, but Chasepaw shut his mouth with a snap, a startled look on his face. The white she-cat looked puzzled as well. Ravenpaw seemed to take this as a cue to continue. "She's fine. Completely fine. Which means..."
"That something's up with the universe," Chasepaw interrupted. He took a step towards Gingerpaw, staring at her - no, her forehead - intently. "The rune's fading... Weird."
Gingerpaw had had enough. "What. Are. You. Talking. About."
"Starpaw, Chasepaw, they deserve to know," Ravenpaw said quietly. "We just scalded her with Ravener poison. And she," - here he flicked his tail towards Gingerpaw - "can withstand a stele. They're different, definitely. We've got to give them some explanation. If word gets out to their Clan..."
"We're finished," Starpaw mewed. "Redwood and Maplefern will kill us."
A grumpy Chasepaw muttered, "Fine. What are we supposed to do? Take them back to the Institute?"
Starpaw looked uncomfortable. "No..."
"You're not taking us anywhere!" yelled Gingerpaw. "Not till you explain what a Ravener is, why it's dangerous, and how you magically made me feel better."
"They drew on you," Darkpaw said faintly. "With that." He pointed to the crystal shard by Chasepaw's feet. "And the burn just disappeared."
Impossible. And yet she knew Darkpaw well enough to know when he was kidding; he wasn't kidding now. His eyes were huge, and he looked like he had just seen a ghost. Suddenly, the whole encounter was too much for Gingerpaw. She felt as dizzy as she had when the Ravener poison had been in her. Sensing her faltering strength, Darkpaw was instantly by her side. Chasepaw raised his eyebrows slightly, and she leveled a steady glare at him.
Her decision was final. They would forget this would ever happen. Her life in RedClan was crazy enough, with strange prophecies and a preoccupied mother. She didn't need this, couldn't handle it. There was no other choice.
"Come on, Darkpaw. We're going home."
Now Ravenpaw looked surprised. "What? Don't you want to find out what just happened?"
"No. I'm done here."
With a flounce of confidence that she didn't feel, Gingerpaw whirled, turned her back on those cats - freaks, whatever they were - and marched away. She'd would forget this ever happened. And yet, on her forehead, the rune remained, a blazing black against her ginger coat.
"Gingerpaw? Gingerpaw! Get your butt out of bed!"
With a groan, Gingerpaw kicked Darkpaw clean in the jaw, knocking him backwards. "Go 'way, Mom. Don't wanna go... snork..."
Quiet for a blissful moment. Then, "GINGERPAW! WILL YOU GET OUT OF BED?"
"Gah!" She tumbled out of her nest, stood, crashed into Darkpaw, staggered three steps away, and said indignantly to the wall, "Get the hooble, you flurp."
Obviously fighting back a laugh - unsuccessfully - Darkpaw said, "It's late. You should've been up hours ago. Crimsonfall sent me in here to wake you up."
Blinking to get the sleep out of her eyes, Gingerpaw sighed. "She sent you in here to wake me up? And I suppose she's been up since the crack of dawn." No matter how much she tried, she couldn't keep a hint of bitterness from leaking into her voice. Darkpaw's eyebrows went up in gentle concern.
"Are you still mad at her for missing your hunting session yesterday?"
Deflated, she let her shoulders sag. "Yeah. I know it's silly to get so upset, but I can't help it. I hardly get to see her anyway, with her warrior duties and my apprentice training. And lately, she's been missing all our appointments. I miss spending time with her. I mean, how do you just forget your daughter like that?" She forced herself to take a deep breath. "Anyway, sorry to burden you with it. It's not your problem; you shouldn't have to be worried about it."
"Hey, as your best friend, I'm entitled to poke and pry into all aspects of your private life," Darkpaw announced. "Forget Crimsonfall. Let's go do something together, just you and me."
Gingerpaw gave a weak smile. "Snail-eating contest?"
"You know it."
☀ ☀ ☀
☁ ☁ ☁
Contentedly, Gingerpaw let her gaze wander up to the dark treetops of the coniferous woods. The spicy-sweet smell of pine sap was pungent on the breeze, and the sleepy trills of birds echoed through the quiet evening. Above their heads, the sky was a panorama of sunset colors, ranging from scarlet bloods to peach 'n apricot creams to hazy violets. Her paws tingled as she thought of the beauty of those colors, so natural and yet so wonderful. A longing to create things equally as beautiful surged through her.
Gently, Darkpaw brushed his pelt against hers. "What are you thinking about?"
"Hm?" she murmured. "Nothing much. Just... thinking."
Her reply made no sense, but Darkpaw seemed to accept it. They padded along in companiable silence. Peace washed over Gingerpaw, erasing her nausea from having a mouth full of snails. Darkpaw's black fur was warm against her fiery ginger pelt, the air smelled like honey, and the plox and primroses were in bloom. What else could you ask for?
A second later, a piercing scream split the air. All the hackles on Gingerpaw's back went up, and she froze, her eyes growing huge in disbelief. "Crimsonfall!"
"Are you sure?" asked an astonished Darkpaw.
"I'm sure! Come on!" She grabbed his tail with hers. "We have to find her! Something's wrong!"
In a mad dash, the two apprentices tore through the woods. The scream came again, sounding from somewhere along the RedClan border, away from the camp. Vaguely, Gingerpaw wondered what her mother was doing there; the evening patrols had all come back in. But that thought was swallowed up in the face of her fear, which was a tidal wave threatening to choke her.
Side by side, she and Darkpaw burst in upon the location of the scream. The dirt was churned up and mixed with blood, and the ferns and azaleas were trampled; there had obviously been a struggle.
There was no sign of Crimsonfall.
"No... No, no, no!"
Frantically, Gingerpaw raced into the brush surrounding the place she'd heard the scream. "She must still be here! She can't have disappeared!"
After several minutes, she collapsed in the middle of a blood-stained patch of grass. Darkpaw sat beside her, stroking her back soothingly. "It's okay, Gingerpaw. She's probably just back at camp."
Raising a tearstained face, Gingerpaw shrieked, "How can you say that? Look at the blood!" Still shaking with sobs, she buried her face in his fur, not knowing who she was angry at, nor what to do. Panic and despair coalesced in her veins, making her tears run harder. What had happened to her mother? The air lacked the musky scent of badger, or the woodsy smell of fox. But what else was strong enough to attack a full-grown cat with Crimsonfall's fighting skills?
Hopelessly, she got to her paws. Common sense told her she should go back to camp, and that she'd find Crimsonfall there; this would be all a big misunderstanding that Darkpaw would tease her about for moons. But the clenching feeling in her heart told her differently.
"Need a little help there?"
Shocked, Gingerpaw looked up. "H- How do you always show up out of nowhere?" she spluttered.
Standing there, framed in the fiery glow of the dying sun, were Starpaw, Ravenpaw, and Chasepaw.
With their fur turned to flames and their eyes like sparks, they looked like mythological warriors, or members of ancient LionClan. In spite of herself, Gingerpaw felt a tremor of fear. Who were these phantom cats?
When she spoke, her voice came out surprisingly steady; she'd expected it to squeak like a kit's. "You again." Then, as things began to fall into place, she said with more force, "What have you done with my mother?"
"Your mother?" Starpaw said with a dainty sniff. "What would we want with your mother?"
Rage flared inside Gingerpaw. "What would you- You took her! Look at what you've done!" Flinging her tail in a wide arc to indicate the blood and mess, she gulped in a deep breath of air. It stung her lungs and cleared her head a little. The blots of red on her vision disappeared. "Okay. Okay. If you haven't done it, then have you seen her? She looks kinda like me, only taller and prettier."
Darkpaw raised his eyebrows at this last part. So did Chasepaw, but neither tom spoke.
"No, we haven't seen her..." Ravenpaw said quietly. "But we might know what happened to her."
"You do?" she screamed, nearly hysterically. Lunging forward, she proceeded to yell at him with the force of a hurricane. "What? Where is she? Who took her?"
The black tom looked taken aback. "I'm not sure of all those details..." He shot the smirking Chasepaw a glare. "But I'll bet we might be able to help, if..."
Gingerpaw was in no mood for riddles. "If what?" she demanded.
Just then, Darkpaw nudged her. "Uh, Gingerpaw?"
"Not now, Darkpaw."
"Gingerpaw! Guys! That thing that took Crimsonfall? Yeah, it's standing right behind you."
"What?" Starpaw and Ravenpaw exclaimed simuntaneously. With speed like nothing Gingerpaw had ever seen before, all three cats whirled to face the... monster that was rearing up behind them. She screamed as her eyes took in the full extent of what it was.
"Behemoth!" Chasepaw yelled.
Blinking, Gingerpaw wondered why he was yelling insults at the monster - or whatever it was. It looked like a giant slug. Green ooze dripped off its jellyish sides, and rows of serrated teeth flashed as it opened its mouth in a roar. A scream caught in Gingerpaw's throat. "What is that?"
Without replying, Starpaw, Ravenpaw, and Chasepaw sprang into action. Ravenpaw dropped to the ground, rolled a couple feet, and sliced at the giant slug with his claws - which suddenly seemed to be... glowing? That wasn't possible, and yet Gingerpaw was sure her eyes weren't decieving her. A look at the shocked expression on Darkpaw's face confirmed it. Ravenpaw's claws were glowing.
And he wasn't the only one. As Chasepaw dived straight toward the monster's belly, his claws unsheathed; they shone with a fierce light. With a crackling noice, Starpaw reached for something wrapped around her leg. She whipped it out; it looked like a long whip made of thickly intertwined grasses and tipped with brambles and thorns. As she swung it above her head, it lit up like a flare. Giving a gasp, Gingerpaw ducked out of the way as Starpaw sent the whip lashing against the monster. The slug reared back its ugly head and dived towards the white she-cat.
"Look out!" Darkpaw yelled, but his warning wasn't needed. Executing a neat somersault, Starpaw landed a good tail-length away from the slug and swung her whip again, catching it full on the face. Meanwhile, Chasepaw and Ravenpaw were taking turns dueling the monster. At least, Ravenpaw seemed to be trying to take turns. Chasepaw was hurling himself into the fight with a sort of wild abandon that both awed and terrified Gingerpaw. It was like he honestly didn't care if he died as long as he died fighting.
"You two, get out of here!" hollered Starpaw. At that instant, the slug reached her legs. An acidic sizzle filled the air. She screamed and yanked back, her whip cracking like newleaf lighting.
"Starpaw!" yelled Ravenpaw, racing towards her. He slashed at the monster with his claws and continued ripping and tearing. "Faster, Chasepaw! We're wearing it down. It can't keep healing itself at this rate."
Healing itself? Peering more closely at the creature, Gingerpaw saw that many of its wounds which had seemed huge at the time they were inflicted were now closing up. What in StarClan is going on?!
Paralyzed by fear - though any normal cat would've been running at fifty miles per hour away - Gingerpaw watched with a horrific sort of fascination as Ravenpaw and Chasepaw proceeded to launch a series of daring attacks at the monster. All while Starpaw's whip cracked cruelly over their heads, the two toms twirled, leaped, and spun in the air, kicking and tearing with their oddly glowing talons. Gingerpaw had never seen such fierce fighting or quick reflexes in her entire life.
"How are they doing that?" Darkpaw said in disbelief, as Chasepaw did a double flip, landed on the slug's head, and dug his claws into its eyes.
She shook her head. "No idea."
They were startled by a groaning noise. Gingerpaw turned in time to see the slug give a depleted moan and vanish in a cloud of ash. All that was left of it the next instant was a pool of green slime. Ever so slowly, she turned towards the three "apprentices", who were standing, panting. "What just happened?"
Chasepaw looked smug. "We just defeated a Behemoth," he explained.
"Well that explains a lot!" Darkpaw threw up his paws; he tended to be sarcastic when he was frightened to death.
Pursing her lips, Starpaw gave her silky white fur a dainty lick. Looking closer, Gingerpaw saw that the she-cat's gorgeous ivory complexion was marred - nay, Marked - with scrawling shapes. Some were faded and old, like long-forgotten scars, but others stood out against the pale fur starkly. A chill ran down her spine as she looked at each spiraling rune. Some were small and wiry, others large and flowing. All seemed to hold a different message.
As she looked closer at Chasepaw, she saw he was Marked too. Ravenpaw was too. The black didn't show up against his dark fur, but ridges and swirls in his pelt showed where the runes were imprinted. Gingerpaw recalled the crystal-tipped "stele". Had it been used to draw these Marks? And why?
Trying to stop her voice from trembling, she meowed, "What was that... thing? That snail, or slug, or whatever..."
"A Behemoth demon," Ravenpaw said, watching her closely, as if to gauge her reaction.
Adopting Darkpaw's method of sarcasm, she said, "Oh yes, of course. Silly me!"
"It's not funny, Gingerpaw," snapped Starpaw brusquely. She was done with her grooming session, and now took a pace towards them. "You don't understand what you've just witnessed. You and Darkpaw aren't a part of our world."
Ravenpaw's words were so quiet that Gingerpaw wasn't sure anyone else could hear them. But she did.
"Maybe she is."
To Preserve and Protect
"Are you sure we're doing the right thing?" Chasepaw said loudly to his friends, as if Gingerpaw and Darkpaw were invisible. "I mean, they don't look like-" he seemed to catch himself from saying something, "us. Especially not the tom."
Darkpaw bristled at that, but Gingerpaw signaled him to let it go with a tiny flick of her head.
Casting a wary look over her shoulder at the receding RedClan border, Gingerpaw said, "Are you sure you know where we're going? I mean, we have a Clan to get back to."
With an exasperated sigh, Starpaw said, "Look, you want to know where your mother is, and we're the only ones who can help you with that. We're doing you a favor. So stop your whining."
"What she means by that," interjected Ravenpaw more amiably, "is that you just need to trust us."
Obviously still shaken by the encounter with the Behemoth demon, Darkpaw babbled, "Right. Trust the crazy tattoo-covered cats who just killed a massive gastropod with candle-claws and are like totally insane and will probably kill us too-" Here he had to stop for breath; Chasepaw took this chance to butt into the conversation and contribute what he apparently considered to be an encouraging, reassuring piece of information.
In short, just the opposite.
"Get over it, dude. We only kill demons, which are quite common around our domain."
Clearly appalled, Darkpaw halted so suddenly that Gingerpaw rammed her nose into his leg(he was taller then her). "And are you talking us to this... domain?"
A greenish pallor appeared under Darkpaw's fur. "I see," he quavered.
Sympathy for her friend flowed over Gingerpaw, but she was too concerned about Crimsonfall to be worried about herself. "And you think my mother'll be there?"
Ravenpaw's brow creased in a frown. "No, but if anyone can find her, it's Redwood and Maplefern. They have connections all over the place."
She felt her shoulders slump. "How long is this going to take?"
"Relax," Starpaw said with an annoying casualty. "We'll figure out all those details when we get there."
And that was that.
☀ ☀ ☀
☁ ☁ ☁
Crunch. Crackle. Crunch. Crackle.
The rhythm of leaves crunching under her paws served to soothe Gingerpaw's frazzled nerves and give her something to focus on. She was so immersed in its steady beat that she hardly noticed when the others stopped. Only when Darkpaw breathed, "Whoa," did she look up.
And she was rewarded to quite a sight.
Right in front of them, a giant, polished cave rose out of the ground. The rock shone with marble in places and was formed of clear-cut alabaster in others. Most fascinating were the Marks scrawled in some sort of black ink across the main entrance to the cave. She recognized some of them from the others' pelts.
Starpaw glanced at Gingerpaw and must have seen the awe etched plainly on her face. She gave a thin smile.
"Welcome to the Institute."
Sucking her breath in with a whoosh, Gingerpaw took a pawstep forward. "Wait, don't!" yelled Chasepaw.
As she stepped onto the Institute's gleaming rock threshold, she frowned and glanced over her shoulder. "Something wrong?"
Chasepaw, Ravenpaw, and Starpaw were all staring at her with eyes as large as moons - Darkpaw just looked confused. "Impossible," Chasepaw breathed, his golden eyes keen as he studied her, as if she were an interesting specimen of moss or fungi.
Trying not to lose her patience, she said, "I stepped forward. Is there something awe-inspiring in that?"
With a sigh, Starpaw padded over to her. "No. It's just... a non-Shadowhunter shouldn't be able to enter the Institute unless another Shadowhunter says so. By the way, Darkpaw, you can enter." The black tom seemed to have run into an invisible wall at the Institute border; at Starpaw's words, he seemingly stepped through and joined them, his expression dazed and bewildered.
"A Shadowhunter?" Gingerpaw crinkled her nose confusedly.
At the same time, Darkpaw blurted, "What the heck was that? Did I just run into an invisible wall or something?"
"I don't believe this," Chasepaw said, his eyes wide.
Starpaw nodded, her paw pushing against the heavy slab of rock that served as a door to the Institute. "I know."
"We'll have to check her bloodline, guys, but I think we just discovered a Shadowhunter," Ravenpaw confirmed.
On that note, the door swung open, and Gingerpaw stepped into the Institute.
☀ ☀ ☀
☁ ☁ ☁
"Redwood? Maplefern? We have visitors for you," Starpaw called softly. When there was no reply from the dimly lit cave they stood outside, she hollered, "Mom! Dad! You in there?"
A voice called, "Just a minute, honey!"
Two cats emerged from the den, both serious-faced and mature-looking. One was a petitely built she-cat with reddish fur and the same startling blue eyes as Starpaw and Ravenpaw - though hers were more steady, wearied by age. The second was a broad-shouldered tabby tom whose bulk filled the narrow hallway. Both looked stern and not to be messed with, though they didn't appear hostile.
The she-cat - Maplefern, Gingerpaw assumed - spoke first. "Yes Starpaw?"
"And who are these two?" rumbled Redwood, studying Darkpaw and Gingerpaw critically.
"Uh... We ran into them. Gingerpaw here can survive being Marked and come into the Institute on her own," Ravenpaw said.
Redwood's eyebrows shot up, and Maplefern looked at Gingerpaw with new interest, her face losing some of its loftiness - before she'd looked at her like she was made of dirt. "Is that so? Shadowhunter blood? Gingerpaw... what bloodline are you from?"
Traces of impatience hardened the corners of Maplefern's mouth. "What bloodline are you?"
What is she talking about? Gingerpaw shot a desperate glance at Darkpaw, who shook his head helplessly. "I... RedClan? My mother was Crimsonfall."
Instantly, the she-cat stiffened. Redwood's eyes widened as he glanced at his mate, then back at her. Finally, Maplefern said, "Crimsonfall. Of course; you look just like her."
Gingerpaw gasped. "You knew my mother?"
Relief poured through her. "She's been kidnapped! Disappeared! She-"
Maplefern held up her tail. "Whoa, whoa. Slow down. First we must have a little talk. About who you really are." She turned and nodded at all of them - save Redwood, who had disappeared back into their office-cave. "Come on. Follow me."
She had no choice but to obey.
☀ ☀ ☀
☁ ☁ ☁
"Excuse me? Maplefern? Not to be rude, but I really need to find my mother and-"
"She's not listening," Darkpaw hissed in her ear. "And neither are you. What part of, 'we need to get back to our Clan before they launch a search party' do you not understand?"
Inwardly groaning, knowing he was right, Gingerpaw whispered, 'I'm really sorry Darkpaw. You can go back now; it's not fair to drag you into this. But I have to find my mother."
His jaw set. "You know I'd never leave you alone."
"You're the best."
"I'll remember that the next time we're arguing over the last mouse."
Just then, Maplefern stopped walking ahead of them. Starpaw, Ravenpaw, and a bored-looking Chasepaw filed in behind her as she turned into a large cave opening. As Gingerpaw followed them, she was hit with a wall of musty air. Her eyebrows went way up as she looked around the cavernous room she was in. "Whoa." Again.
Smooth, earthen walls rose up all around her, sloping up to a dome-shaped ceiling. On one side, the walls were pockmarked with niches and crevices, each stuffed chock-full of herbs and plants. On another side, flat leaves were piled on top of each other in neat stacks. Each of the scrolls were covered in the runes, some familiar as the ones Chasepaw and the others wore, others strange and dangerous-looking.
"What is this place?" Gingerpaw asked, temporarily forgetting her urgency about finding her mother.
Maplefern sat down and beckoned for them to do the same. "We call it the Council Room, but it has many purposes." She reached for a leaflet and spread it out on the floor. Dust rose in little puffs from the worn fibers as she wiped it off with her paw. Inked in black across the faded surface were several symbols. Not exactly runes, more like crests or badges. There was one with a roaring lion, and another one with a beautiful crescent moon. Gingerpaw bent down closer for a better look.
"That's our crest," Maplefern said, gesturing to a symbol at the very top; it was of a large, sturdy oak with a sunrise in the background. "You can tell from me and Redwood's name that ours' has something to do with trees."
Frowning, Darkpaw said, "Then why aren't Chasepaw, Starpaw, and Ravenpaw named after trees too?"
The she-cat's eyes twinkled. "Clever question. Well, Redwood and I aren't Chasepaw's real parents; he was adopted." Gingerpaw wasn't sure, but she thought she saw the ginger tom's jaw stiffen at this sentence. Perhaps it was a touchy subject with him. "And a family doesn't always have to name their kits after their crest, as long as they know who their bloodline is. Let me find Crimsonfall's."
All the apprentices waited as she bent her head over the scrolls, muttering to herself and shaking her head occasionally. Finally, she pointed with her paw. Eager to catch a glimpse of the emblem of her family's "bloodline", whatever that was, Gingerpaw stuck her head in front of the leaflet.
Crimsonfall's symbol was just as she would imagine it to be. A blazing fire, untamed and unhampered, with a single autumn leaf dangling in midair above it. Daring, bold, and bright.
"It's perfect. That's my mother, all right." But what is her symbol doing in a Shadowhunter leaflet, miles from RedClan? "Why does this symbol matter?"
"Why, it's your family's crest. It signifies who you belong to."
"We still don't know for sure that she's a Shadowhunter," said Chasepaw.
Maplefern looked up at him. "I knew Crimsonfall. This is definitely her daughter." She set her jaw and gave Gingerpaw a hard look. "Well. We have a lot to explaining to do. Let's get started."
☀ ☀ ☀
☁ ☁ ☁
Chasepaw sat quietly, watching the expression on Gingerpaw's face as Maplefern told her everything there was about a Shadowhunter. She seemed especially interested in the runes.
"So these marks give you abilities?" she asked, eyes round. For some reason, he found her naive fascination with everything charming, instead of annoying. Everything about her was charming, from her delicately pointed face to the satin sheen on her carrot-cream-colored coat. There was something enchanting about the way her long lashes fluttered above her luminous green eyes when she talked. Snap out of it, Chasepaw berated himself. She was small and slightly-built, no type of she-cat for being a Shadowhunter. And there was nothing special about her. Nothing at all.
With that firm conviction, he went back to staring at her, moony-eyed.
Her idiot friend - Snarkpaw? Blackpaw? - said, "So you fight demons? To keep them from invading our earth?"
"Was that not clear?" Chasepaw cut in, glaring at him. What a dunce.
"No, but I was just making sure. This isn't something you hear every day," he replied defensively.
Ignoring the both of them, Gingerpaw said shakily, "And my mother was part of this world? She put on runes and slew demons?"
A shadow passed across Maplefern's face for a second, but then she seemed to decide against saying something. "Yes. She was one of the best."
The young she-cat seemed to sway on her paws. Her friend - Darkpaw, that was it - stood and wrapped his tail around her protectively. It was an easy, natural movement, but it irritated Chasepaw to no end. Pale-faced, Gingerpaw said in a soft tone, "And she kept this from me? This other side of my life?"
Uncomfortably, Maplefern said, "I'm sure it was for your own good."
Starpaw snorted, but her mother gave her a severe look to silence her. Gingerpaw narrowed her eyes. "I highly doubt that. What protection would it provide, keeping me away? I'd find out eventually. She must've known that."
A sudden anger, the likes of which Chasepaw had never seen in his normally calm mother, showed on Maplefern's face. "I'm sure she had her reasons. A mother always does. You have no idea what the world you have entered is like. She was trying to preserve you. To protect you. But you've broken those lines, that shield. And now there's no turning back."
☀ ☀ ☀
☁ ☁ ☁
As soon as the door to the spare cave she was being put in shut, Gingerpaw moaned and sunk slowly to the floor. The stone was cold against her forehead, and repelled some of the dull fog that had wrapped itself around her mind. This couldn't be true. She couldn't be a Shadowhunter. She was a normal - okay, semi-normal - young apprentice with a regular life ahead of her. This just couldn't be happening.
But it was.
Her body ached for the soft grass of her RedClan nest, her mind ached for sleep, and most of all, her heart ached for her mother's soothing touch. Everything would be better then.
And yet, you can't have Crimsonfall back yet. Her fate depends on you staying with these strange cats and figuring out what happened to her.
With that thought, all weariness vanished, and she leaped to her paws. On Maplefern's insistence that they needed rest, Starpaw had shown Darkpaw and her to spare rooms. It was hospitable of her, but Gingerpaw couldn't sleep now. There was work to do.
"Darkpaw," she hissed, peeking her head into the cave next to hers. "Come on."
Her friend poked his head out, bleary-eyed; obviously he had had no qualms about falling asleep. "Yeah?" His eyeballs came out of their crossed position. "Where are we going?"
"To find out more about what happened to my mother. I'm sure these cats know something they're not telling us. And we're going to find out."
Heaving a sigh, he mumbled, "Are you sure about this?"
"Positive," she said. "Now come on."
The neverending maze of corridors was lit by thin streams of light filtering in from cracks overhead. Still, it was eerie to pad down the with only Darkpaw by her side. Instinctively, Gingerpaw huddled closer to the tom. His breath was warm at her ear as he said, "What exactly are we looking for?"
"I'm not sure," she admitted. "Anything really. I don't know much about this place."
He muttered under his breath, but continued walking along silently. Up ahead, they both heard voices. Signaling for Darkpaw to hide behind an outcrop of rock in the middle of the hall, Gingerpaw crept forward quietly and pressed her ear to the wall. The rock was solid, and she could only hear what snippets of conversation drifted out through cracks in the doorway.
"... Crimsonfall was part of his ring..."
"If she's her daughter, we need to be careful..."
"... could come after her."
Though she couldn't really gather much from these, Gingerpaw wondered if they were talking about her. Was she dangerous? Who could come after her?
"Having fun there?"
Whirling, she found herself face-to-face with a smirking Chasepaw. He sauntered around her. "Eavesdropping, huh? Maybe you're a Shadowhunter already."
She bristled. "It's none of your business. I have a right to know what's going on." Then, in a softer tone, "I have to find my mother."
"We have more then one issue." Chasepaw's tone was cold, but his eyes betrayed a flicker of sympathy. "We can't focus on your mother all the time. The Clave - they're the main cats that Redwood and Maplefern report to - wouldn't be happy if we did. There are other stirrings we must worry about." Seeing her face crumple, he added, "But we'll try. Trust me on that."
Not meeting his eyes, she said, "I'm not sure if I can."
When she looked back up, she found to her surprise that he had stepped closer. She could feel the heat coming off of his body, and look straight into his handsome, sharply-featured face. All of him seemed to radiate a pure gold light, an Angel's light. "Gingerpaw," he said gently. "Trust me. We'll-"
A loud cough interrupted him. Both cats turned to see an irritated-looking Darkpaw standing there. "Gingerpaw," he said icily. "What are you doing?"
Shocked to find a hot blush covering her fur, she mewed, "I- Nothing."
Less politely, Chasepaw said, "What's it to you, scrawny?"
Before the two toms could get into a real argument, the door behind them flew open, and out stormed Starpaw. "They kicked me out!" she announced carelessly. "Because I'm not old enough to be there! But Ravenpaw gets to stay. It's perfectly absurd."
"Well, he's older than you," pointed out Chasepaw mildly.
His sister paid no attention. "I'm ten times as sensible and responsible as Ravenpaw! I deserve to be in there."
"You're not acting like it," Darkpaw butted in.
Falling silent, she swung her piercing blue gaze over him like he were a piece of crow-food. Gingerpaw felt her hackles raise; she didn't like the superiority with which these cats treated others. What exactly made them so much better then everyone else? "Well," she continued, as if Darkpaw had never spoken. "If they think they can do so good without me, let them! I'm off."
All three of them watched as the prissy she-cat stomped off. Chasepaw looked amused, as if he were used to this sort of behavior. "There she goes again. She'll get over it soon."
Gingerpaw gave a tiny grin. Before any of them could say anymore, the door opened and out stepped Maplefern and Redwood. Anxiously, she turned to face the two cats. "What have you decided?"
"Gingerpaw," said Maplefern. "I'm afraid you and Darkpaw will be staying here longer then you intended."
Uncomprehendingly, Darkpaw blinked. "What?"
She flicked her tail. "It's not all bad." Her eyes locked with Gingerpaw's. "How would you like to become a Shadowhunter?"
Shocked, Gingerpaw could only stare at Maplefern for a while. When she could speak, she stammered out, "W-What? Become a Shadowhunter? Like them?" The last word was meant to indicate Chasepaw, Ravenpaw, and Starpaw, but it came out more disdainful then she'd intended.
The only indication that Maplefern had detected her disgust in reference to her children was a tightening of her lips. "Yes. I understand that the Shadowhunter life isn't for everyone, but you have Crimsonfall's blood. Your mother was an excellent Shadowhunter; one of the best. I would expect it's your destiny. Also, Shadowhunter skills will be vital if you want to help find your mother."
That was it. Her last sentence sealed Gingerpaw's decision. "I'm in."
"What? Are you nuts?" Darkpaw's voice jolted her out of her determination. The black tom was staring at her as if beholding something he'd never seen before. "You could get killed! This is no life for a Clan cat!"
"That's what you think," Chasepaw said with fierce defensiveness. His eyes were a fiery, burning gold as he snarled, "We're more important to your dumb Clan then you'll ever know. We protect the world so you'll have somewhere to live. We protect you guys from demons and other dangers, while you putter around, battling puny badgers and putting on airs. Without us, you'd be dead. Gone. Ruined."
Dazed, - and very much not in the mood for a male sparring fight - Gingerpaw said, "Do you really not belong to a Clan? Do you not follow the warrior code?" How could she become a Shadowhunter if it meant abandoning all her beliefs?
With a shake of her head, Maplefern explained, "We're part of a bigger Clan. To us, a Clan doesn't mean a group of cats that live together. It's a society, scattered all over the world, but unified in goals, purpose, and intentions. We are a proud part of RuneClan."
"RuneClan," Gingerpaw repeated. Vaguely, she realized how odd it would look, she just disappearing from RedClan. But somehow, this outweighed her loyalty to her old Clan. She knew she belonged here. Like Maplefern said, it was in her blood. "I... I think I'd like to be a Shadowhunter."
Turning to Darkpaw, she looked up at him, trying to hide her emotions but knowing he could read them anyway. "Darkpaw, you don't have to stay. I bet RedClan's already frantic about you already. Go back..."
"And what?" he said. "Explain your mysterious disappearance?" At first, she thought he was being seriously bitter, but then she saw the glint of amusement in his brown eyes. He bent his head down and licked her on the ear. "As if. I'm staying right here. I may not be a Shadowhunter, but I'm sure I can help."
Chasepaw snorted loudly. "I highly doubt that."
Interrupting firmly, Maplefern said, "Good. Chasepaw, show Gingerpaw and Darkpaw the training room. Gingerpaw'll be spending a lot of time in there; she might as well get to know it now."
The young tom gave his adopted mother a short nod, then beckoned them with his tail. "This way."
As she followed him, her paws tingled. So this was it. Not only was she going to find her mother, she was going to become a Shadowhunter.
Ahead of them, a wide, arched opening showed at the end of the hallway. From inside, sounds of claws shearing through some sort of rope and paws pummeling came to their ears. Gingerpaw picked up her pace eagerly as they entered the training room. And she wasn't disappointed.
One side of the training room was thickly padded with carpets of moss that were evidently there to be used from everything to climbing walls to cushions to rib-jarring collisions. The floor was covered with moss as well. From the ceiling hung several thickly braided, sturdy-looking vines. As she craned her neck upwards to look at the high ceiling above, she gasped. Clinging to one of the vines was Starpaw. The she-cat's legs straddled her precarious perch delicately while she used her swinging momentum to launch herself to the next vine. When she spotted them down below, she let go of her vine, flipped once in midair, landed with a somersault, and turned to face them.
"Wow." Darkpaw seemed incapable of saying anything else.
For her part, Gingerpaw was sure her eyes were about to bug out of her head. "H- How did you do that?"
"It's just training," Starpaw said casually, winking at Chasepaw in a can-you-believe-they-had-to-ask way.
Too impressed to snap back at the she-cat's haughty tone, Gingerpaw quavered, "Is that what I'll have to do? Because there's no way I can do that without dying."
"That's a risk we'll have to take," Chasepaw said smugly.
Childishly, she stuck her tongue out at him. His eyebrows went up at the silly gesture, but he seemed oddly subdued by it as well. "It makes me tired just thinking about doing all that." She paused, then said, "When do we start?"
Starpaw laughed. "We can go far with this one, Chasepaw. Let me guess; Maplefern's made you her personal trainer."
"Not yet," he said in a grumbling tone that implied he'd rather she never did so.
"Well," his adopted sister quipped, "She's going to eventually, so you two might as well get to know each other now."
"Wait a second-"
But Starpaw was already padding out of the training room. "Show her some moves. Show her the ropes- literally. You know the drill. Have fun, you two!"
And then she was gone, leaving Gingerpaw and Chasepaw alone.
After a few moments of awkward silence, Gingerpaw said, "Well, aren't you going to do as she said?"
"She's not the boss of me," he said impishly.
"Well, I'd like to get to know some battle moves so that a Behemoth doesn't eat me while I'm looking for my mother," she said pointedly. "So I'm cordially requesting your services as a private trainer."
His eyebrows shot up, and his golden eyes twinkled with mirth. "Requesting my services, huh?" When she continued glaring him down, he relented. "Okay, okay. How much do you know from your ordinary Clan training?" He said the last three words like they were something smelly and disgusting that had crawled out of a mud-pit.
"I know a lot," she said casually, sauntering around him in a circle. "For instance- this!"
Sliding her foreleg out, she attempted to yank his legs out from under him. It was a move she had perfected over the course of her training, and had used countless times. It always worked. But not this time.
Moving at a speed she hadn't known was possible, Chasepaw leaped into the air, came down hard on her leg and pinned it down, then twisted her over till she was lying on her back with him standing over her. Her breath caught in her throat, and not just out of shock. The heat radiating off his body was tangible. His skin burned against hers, and his eyes smoldered as he looked down into her face. A strange feeling washed over Gingerpaw. Her lips parted slightly.
"Huh?" Chasepaw blinked, then flushed. "Right! Sorry!" He scrambled back off her and gave his thick fur a quick licking-down.
Light-headed, Gingerpaw staggered to her paws and tried not to stare. What had just happened?
A glance at Chasepaw told her the tom was wondering the same thing. He blinked a couple of times, then, without meeting her eyes, he said, "And that's why you never try to one-up a Shadowhunter. Especially an extremely skilled one like me."
"You wish," she snorted. "But," she admitted sullenly, "that was pretty impressive."
Without replying, he beckoned to her. "You're not bad for a cat with no proper training. I can work with you. Come on."
Before she could walk over, a sudden thought hit her. Darkpaw! Where was he? Glancing around, she couldn't see the tom anywhere. Had he been there when she and Chasepaw... had fought? What had he thought of it? Desperately, she turned, prepared to go and find her friend.
"If you're wondering where Scrawny went, he was stalking my sister," Chasepaw called to her.
"Oh." She stopped as suddenly as if she had run into a wall. Something told her Starpaw wouldn't take well to Darkpaw's romantic advances. The she-cat seemed cool and cruel, not the kind of warm-hearted gentleness Darkpaw always exuded. But before she could make a move to go help him, Chasepaw was beside her, his hot breath by her ear, his intoxicating scent filling her nose.
"Come on," he said. "We have work to do."
Darkpaw could wait, she decided. Turning, she followed Chasepaw back into the training room. This was it. She was really going to become a Shadowhunter, one training session at a time.
And she was going to find her mother.
☀ ☀ ☀
☁ ☁ ☁
"Maplefern says it's time for supper!" Ravenpaw's head poked into the training room.
At his words, Gingerpaw collapsed onto the floor. Sweat ran down her forehead and landed onto the moss below her. "Thank... StarClan," she choked melodramatically. "Your brother is a... slavedriver."
"Rubbish," Chasepaw said guiltlessly, stepping over her prostrate body and giving his golden fur a shake. "Learn to suck it up, will you?"
Wheezing, she scrambled to her paws, took another step, and nearly screamed at the ache in her muscles. As sore as she was, though, she had to admit it felt great to work out like this. For the first time, she was seeing what it was like to be a Shadowhunter. And she liked it.
"So... it's official. Darkpaw and I are staying here," she said as she followed the two toms out of the training room.
"Looks like it," Ravenpaw said. Chasepaw said nothing, but as she glanced at him, she thought she saw him smile at his brother's words. Although, she couldn't be sure; the light was pretty dim in the hallway. Still, the thought that he cared whether she stayed or not gave her a happy feeling inside.
It made her feel like she truly belonged in this strange place, so full of athletic, intelligent cats beyond her wildest dreams. And maybe someday she would.
☀ ☀ ☀
☁ ☁ ☁
The soft murmur of voices just outside her cave woke Gingerpaw the next morning.
"... Isn't your lazy friend awake yet, Darkpaw?"
Sounding defensive, she heard her friend reply, "She's not lazy, and her name is Gingerpaw. And no, she likes to sleep late," he added sheepishly.
Gingerpaw rolled out of her nest, blinked blearily, and tottered out of her room. Darkpaw and Starpaw stood outside; both of them glanced up as she came out. Instantly, Gingerpaw felt like a mess. Starpaw's sleek white coat was immaculate, her Marks inky and prominent against the unruffled surface. Her own fur was spiked from sleep, sticking up all over the place, and she imagined her breath still stank of last night's meal of mice and voles. "You were saying," she said icily to both of them, trying to muster as much dignity as she could with a bedhead and a fuzzy, half-functioning mind.
"Sorry, Gingerpaw," Darkpaw said, having the decency to look abashed. "We just wanted to come wake you, because Chasepaw, Ravenpaw and Starpaw are going to take us to try to find your mother, and I knew you wouldn't want to-"
"What are we waiting for?" she exclaimed. Brushing past him, she gave her fur a quick patdown and grooming as she went. "Let's go."
The other two followed her down the hall. Eventually, she dropped back, realizing she had no idea where to go, and let Starpaw lead the way to the main cavern, where she had first entered the Institute. Maplefern was standing there, looking overworked already, despite the fact that it was just morning. Nearby, Ravenpaw was holding a stele and inking Marks onto Chasepaw's fur.
Fascinated, Gingerpaw watched as a winding shape began to appear on Chasepaw's golden pelt. Ravenpaw's eyes were narrowed in concentration, and there was a fluid grace to the way he moved. When he stepped back, there was a complex rune on his brother's shoulder. Without having to think about it, Gingerpaw knew what the rune was for. Speed.
She was surprised. Did all Shadowhunters recognize runes naturally? Maybe I really am part of their world.
Everyone looked up as they entered. "Finally, you're up," Chasepaw muttered, though there was a good-natured teasing in his tone.
"Sorry," she sighed. "I have a tendency to oversleep."
"It's all right," Maplefern said briskly. "Now, you'll be wanting your breakfast first, I presume?"
Insistently, she shook her head. "No! I have to get started on searching for Crimsonfall as soon as possible. I can eat later." At this point, her stomach grumbled, but she ignored it. Darkpaw, obviously hearing it, nudged her, but she shook her head at him. There really wasn't time to waste.
The she-cat nodded; for a mother, she seemed oddly okay with skipping breakfast. Gingerpaw guessed that it seemed a minor thing compared to the danger her children faced everyday, what with them fighting demons and all that. "Okay. Now, you're going to go back to the scene where you last heard Crimsonfall. Ravenpaw and the others will take it from there."
Usually Gingerpaw would have objected to letting others take the lead, but in this case she figured it was a good idea. Taking a deep breath, she turned towards the exit of the Institute, preparing herself for the day.
Today's the day I'm going to find my mother.
The Writing on the Wall
On the edge of RedClan territory, the wind playing with her short fur and causing her eyes to tear up, Gingerpaw felt more alone then she ever had. Here she was, next to the Clan she had grown up in, and yet she felt like a total stranger. Maybe it was the healing Mark the Shadowhunters had given her when she'd gotten poisoned. Maybe it was the fact that she now knew what she was, who she was, and where she belonged. Or maybe it was just... RedClan had never been her home at all. Life sure got confusing.
But for now, Gingerpaw decided to be content with finding her mother. Once Crimsonfall was back, everything would fall into place. It always did. No matter how scatterbrained, forgetful, and unintentionally hurtful her mother could be, Gingerpaw knew she could always rely on her. Right?
Next to her, Darkpaw whispered, "Don't you want to go home so bad?"
Surprised, she shook her head. "Not really. I like being on this side of the border." A pang lodged in her heart, like a shard of ice. Was this just another fact proving Darkpaw wasn't a Shadowhunter? Wasn't part of her life? And... could she possibly bring herself to let him go home?
"The blood trail stops here," reported Ravenpaw. Gingerpaw jumped at the sound of his voice; she hadn't realized that while she and Darkpaw had been standing around, Ravenpaw, Starpaw, and Chasepaw had gotten to work.
Trotting over to the black tom, she mewed, "Is there a scent? One we can follow?"
"Not one you could follow," Chasepaw said disdainfully. "But it's no problem for us."
Gingerpaw held back a retort, knowing she needed the Shadowhunters' help to find Crimsonfall. Instead, she said, "Okay, okay. You guys handle the tracking. Which way do we go?"
"This way," Starpaw said. "We'll keep following the trail, knock out whoever's responsible for kidnapping your mom - probably a Lesser demon trying to gain some 'evil points' - and come back home in time for lunch."
Ravenpaw raised his eyebrows. "Nice plan, sis."
"Oh, I don't think so," chirped a feminine voice. Without warning, a lithe she-cat dropped down from a branch above their heads. Gingerpaw didn't recognize her as a RedClan cat, though she was on RedClan territory. Then she saw the familiar black patterns inked across her pelt. She was a Shadowhunter.
"Who are you?" snapped Chasepaw irritatedly, probably miffed he hadn't scented and warned them about the she-cat in advance.
Flicking her chiseled ears daintily, the pretty cat twirled on her tiny paws to face them. "Redpaw. And before you go charging after any Greater demons, I'd reccomend you read the writing on the wall."
"What wall?" Gingerpaw asked.
At the same time, Chasepaw mewed, "Why?"
The only one to take the advice was Darkpaw. His eyes traveled upwards, and his jaw dropped open. "What are those?"
Together, the rest of them followed his gaze. A shudder ran through Gingerpaw without her knowing entirely why. The "writing" was runes. They shouldn't seem frightful. But they were. Looping, evil, written in a sinister dark crimson ink that looked exactly like blood. Again, Gingerpaw was able to tell their meanings, like voices inside her head. These voices were low and hissing, making her hackles rise, not like the soothing call of the iratze or the loud bay of the courage rune. These voices said, Kill, destroy, disember...
Shaking her head visciously, Gingerpaw tried to shut the voices out, to focus on something else. She turned to Redpaw. "What- Who wrote that?"
"Not a demon," she promised, flicking her tail back and forth. Before Darkpaw and Gingerpaw could voice their relief, she cut them off. "But you'll wish it was a demon."
With a frown, Darkpaw mewed, "What's worse than a demon?"
Redpaw's lips curved into a pained smile. "Do you really want to know?"
Obviously fed up with her games, Chasepaw stepped forward. "Okay, look. You're obviously not a Shadowhunter. In fact, if I were to guess, I'd say you were a Downworlder," he snapped. "So just tell us what we need to know about what happened here, and we'll be on our way."
Harsh lines of anger creased Redpaw's pretty face. "Speak to me as your equal, or not at all, pretty-boy. I have information you want to know-"
"Pretty-boy?" Chasepaw looked highly offended. He turned to the others. "I think she just called me pretty-boy."
"Chasepaw. Do we have to go through this every singe time?" Starpaw asked, exasperated.
Equally annoyed, Redpaw stepped forward. "Yes, I am a Downworlder. And proud of it, okay? My strength comes from within, not from drawing circles on my fur."
Throughout this argument, Gingerpaw had remained silent, sensing her opinion was of no value compared to these cats'. But now her worry for Crimsonfall overpowered her sense of meekness. "Will all of you SHUT UP?" she yelled. "You," she said, pointing at Redpaw, "can you please tell me who wrote those runes on the tree? They're so evil; they mean horrible, horrible things. Nothing like what the Shadowhunters wear, right?"
"You know what they mean?" asked Ravenpaw, eyes widening.
She nodded. "I have that part of being a Shadowhunter down."
Exchanging glances with his siblings, the black tom mewed, "Shadowhunters don't know the exact meanings of runes automatically, Gingerpaw. We have to learn them."
Not sensing a big issue there, she shrugged. "Maybe I have a sixth sense."
"It's not that simple-"
"Anyway," she interrupted. "Redpaw. Help us, please?"
The she-cat licked her paw and gave a tiny smile. "Fine. Since you asked nicely. You obviously have a better upbringing than that one." Here she flicked her tail at Chasepaw.
Nudging the golden tom to ensure he didn't retort and mess things up again, Gingerpaw nodded at Redpaw. "I'm really just trying to find out what happened to my mother," she explained.
Shadows clouded Redpaw's face. "Your mother was taken?"
"Yes. Yesterday, right here. Darkpaw and I arrived, and there was blood everywhere... and..." She closed her eyes to block out the scene. Darkpaw pressed his shoulder against hers comfortingly.
Quietly, thoughtfully, Redpaw mewed, "Gingerpaw, what's your mother's name?"
Blanching, Redpaw stumbled a step back. "I... you might want to come talk to my leader."
"Oh for Angel's sakes!" Starpaw exclaimed. "We're not going anywhere! Can't you just tell us already? We're going to miss lunch."
Shooting his sister a partially-amused, partially-disapproving glance, Ravenpaw gave Redpaw a polite smile. "What she means is, we're kind of short on time."
Redpaw was firm. "Don't come, you don't get answers."
Starpaw, Ravenpaw, and Chasepaw turned to each other. To Gingerpaw, it appeared that they were having some sort of battle with their eyes, glaring at each other intently. Finally, Chasepaw's shoulders slumped. "Fine, I'll go with her. But only because you guys have advanced shadow training. And plus, both of you owe me."
"You don't have to act so superior," Gingerpaw said crossly. "I can take care of myself."
Disbelievingly, Chasepaw said, "In a place full of Downworlders? I doubt it."
Not knowing what Downworlders were, Gingerpaw decided to keep her mouth shut. Redpaw didn't look dangerous, but she had already learned that looks could be decieving.
"Great. So you two will be coming with me," Redpaw said to Gingerpaw and Chasepaw.
"Hey!" Darkpaw protested. "What about me? Don't you want me to come with you too, Gingerpaw?"
Before she could reply, Starpaw stepped forward. The she-cat's expression was as blank and cool as it ever was, but there was something almost friendy in her tone as she mewed, "Darkpaw, you can come back to the Institute with me and Ravenpaw." When he only glared at her, refusing to move from Gingerpaw's side, she added, "We'll let you watch our training. You're not a Shadowhunter, but maybe you could learn a few things."
He turned to Gingerpaw, his eyes asking an unspoken question. She nodded and touched her nose to his. "I'll be fine."
"Let's go," Chasepaw said impatiently, glaring at Darkpaw.
With a nod, Starpaw, Ravenpaw, and Darkpaw turned and began heading back the way they'd come.
Taking a deep breath, Gingerpaw turned to face Redpaw, Chasepaw by her side. "Okay. Come on."