Chapter One (Halt) Lion's POV

Seven symbols. Seven walls. Seven groups. You would think that that would equal one escape route. Sadly, it only equals dullness and inequality. All that it equals is a life of oppression that is stretching out in front of me...

I sigh, and dismiss the thought. There is no need to think like that. No need at all. And anyway, there is an Owl watching me as I lie in the sun, his amber eyes fixated on mine. I get to my paws, and pad away, heart heavy. Not even my own mind is safe, not as long as the Owl is stationed here, our camp. I hear he is reasonably nice, for an Owl, but privately, I cannot get past the eyes, the staring amber eyes that greet me every time I glance at him. They seem to stare into my soul, into my mind, flipping through my thoughts and secrets. The funny thing is, that is exactly what he does, what all Owls do.


I turn at the sound of my name, and stare, shocked, at the Owl. I have never actually heard him speak before. His accent is rough, like it is not his first tongue, and judging from the way he pronounced my name, I guess he was originally a 'Tribe' cat, or of Tribe descent at least.

"Yes?" There is a challenging note to my voice which I am rather proud of. The Owl just continues to stare. "Lioness. That is your name."

"Yeah, I know it is, thanks," I spit.

One of his ears twitches, a sign of annoyance, and inwardly I purr. Ha. He is annoyed. My day is not a complete waste after all.

"Why do you seek to annoy me?" His voice is calm, but I can sense anger hidden beneath the nonchalant exterior.

"Why would I wish to annoy you?" I dip my head in a 'respectful' gesture, faking innocence, faking docility. He doesn't buy it, but I never expected him too. How can you pretend you be something you aren't when someone is examining your thoughts as you think them?

He cocks his head, and whispers, "That is what I am trying to figure out." His amber eyes seem so earnest, so sincere and truthful, but I know I will never be able to trust him, even though every particle of me seems to want to. How could I possibly trust someone who can read my mind?

"You can trust me," he mews, and I wince. "Please don't invade my mind like that. It's my mind." He purrs softly, and approaches me. "Lioness. Your thoughts are very dark for one so young."

I lash my tail angrily, understanding that this is a threat. "You were just telling me to trust you, and now you're threatening to report me!"

"Did I ever actually threaten you?" His tone is soft, but I recoil. I have never realized how similar a cat can be to a snake. "You disgusting-" I end my sentence there, and simply stalk away, hissing at anyone who dares to look at me. Before I retire to the Rat's den, I glance at the small rat shaped patch on my flank. That one scrap of colour is the reason I am living like this, the reason the Owl is interrogating me, the reason my life is hell.

Chapter Two (Alec) Bramble's POV

Discomfort is pricking my pelt as I settle into my nest. My nest is comfortable, and I'm well fed. That should mean I'm content. But no, there's a stirring inside of me that wants something else. Not just the first pick of fresh-kill, or the best nest. I just don't know what it is yet. I curl myself tighter into a ball. I shiver, even though I'm not cold. A tug in my stomach makes me stand. It's a strange feeling, and doubt begins to gnaw at my mind. What if I'm going crazy? I couldn't be. I glance around at the other Snakes in the den. I know all of them by name, but the other groups only by sight if that. Thorn and Slither are deep in conversation, voices hushed and urgent. Red is asleep, I think, but she might just be faking it so she could hear the two tom's conversation.

"I'm going hunting," I meow loudly, for no reason. It wasn't like they'd care. I stretched my legs and padded outside. The evening light cast long shadows onto the ground, making me look bigger than I really was. I felt a twist in my belly. The feeling seems to draw my gaze to the meager fresh-kill pile that was strewn on the ground by the Rat's den. I curled my lip. I turned my mind against hunting, and padded over to the pile. Instinct takes over, and I hook a claw into a small mouse. I drag it over to my spot and sit down, sinking my teeth into the fresh-kill. Blood fills my mouth and it's cold. This was pretty old. But for some reason, it tasted better than a freshly killed rabbit.

A golden-furred she-cat comes out of the Rat's den and glares at me.

"That's Rat fresh-kill!" She hissed at me.

"I know," I meow simply, taking another slow bite. The she-cat is annoyed, I can tell by the way her muzzle wrinkles. I'm enjoying this.

"Leave it alone," She retorted, "Look at your pile, it's got warm, fresh prey on it."

"Yes," I nod, "I can see that."

She snarls, throwing a furious glare my way.

"What are you going to do about it?" I taunt, but I've already lost interest in her. I fling my half eaten mouse onto the ground and pad away, nose tilted to show authority. As a Snake, I am the highest rank. I can order that pathetic she-cat around all I want. She wouldn't dare retaliate, even though she's a bit more feisty than the average Rat. Something about that beckons me to her, but I ignore it and walk back to my place. I can feel the she-cats gaze burning into my back.

I look down at my flank, my black tortoiseshell fur. A ginger patch there was the most important thing about me, the snake shape that coiled from my hind leg to my flank. It was the reason I had access to everything I could possibly want. No, everything any other Snake could want. I had no idea what I wanted, but I knew it couldn't be good.

Then and there, I made the decision to bury it down deep, until I was ready to find out about that missing part of me. The part that longer for something else, a different way of life. One that I could never have.

Chapter Three (Halt) Lion's POV

I watch the Snake retreat, anger simmering in the pit of my stomach. What an arrogant furball. I walk forwards, and examine the half-eaten mouse. I glance back into the Rat's sleeping den, where hungry kit's wail, and I nod decisively. I carefully strip the meat from the mouse, and carry it into the den, wrinkling my muzzle as the scent of hunger and sickness rises up to meet me.

"Lion?" A small, hopeful voice greets me, and I purr weakly at my younger sister, but inside me, something breaks. She shouldn't look like this... kits shouldn't look like skeletons. "Did you bwing fwood?" The thing inside me shatters completely, and the tortoiseshell Snake comes to my mind. How dare she steal from us?! Didn't she realize what it was like being a Rat, hunting all day then coming home to starving kits who were ripped from their mother's the moment the animal shaped patch was identified as an Owl, Snake, Raven, Horse, Dog, Rabbit, Squirrel... or Rat.

I nod, dropping the mouse meat at her paws. "Yes, Mouse, I have food." Mouse gazes up at me, yellow eyes so similar to my own. "It'th old though!" I crouch down beside her, staring into her eyes. "Yes Mouse, it is old. But it is all we have to eat."

She wrinkles her nose, but takes a small bite of the mouse meat, scrunching her face up. "You finish," she mews, pushing the rest of the mouse towards me, but I shake my head. "I've already eaten," I lie. Green, the pale tabby she-cat beside me, turns, disapproving eyes aimed at me. "Is that true?"

I nod. "Yes, Green. I'm all full." My eyes flicker back to Mouse's. "Come on, please eat Mouse. Big strong warriors like you need strength."

She purrs, and takes another bite. "Okay Lion."

I purr encouragingly. "That’s it."

Suddenly, a prickling sensation on the back of my neck causes me to turn. The Owl is watching me, amber eyes narrowed. Although he is far away, I can make out the words he mouths. "I see you, Lioness. I see the spark that burns within you. I know you. Come."

I shudder, and turn back to Mouse, who has finished the meat. "I did it!" She crows, gesturing at the noticably absent mouse. "I was a good warrior!"

"Yeah, yeah," I mew, distracted my the Owl.

"Are you quite alright dear?" asks Tawny, the rather old tabby in front of me. "Mmmm..." I agree, still rather shaken. She shakes her head, and peers into my eyes. "You look confused. Maybe you should pop out and get some fresh air."

Yes you should, Lioness. Come get some fresh air. Come talk to me. I am waiting.

I jump, startling Tawny, who let out a small mew of alarm. "Are you alright?" She yelps again, and I shake my head, breathing heavily. I didn't know that Owl's could... project their thoughts.

Not many of us can. But come, Lioness. Enough dawdling. Come to me.

I shake my head. "No!" Tawny gives me an alarmed look, but I ignore her. "I am not going!"

"Alright, alright, there was no need to yell," answers Tawny, and I glare at her. "I'm not talking to you."

She thinks you are mad, Lioness. They all will soon. Come to me.... come....

I glance outside, and the Owl's amber eyes greet me.

Come, Lioness, come....

Not fully aware of what I am doing, I sprint out of the den, and pant in front of the Owl. "What do you want?"

"To talk," he mews simply, and everything goes black.

Chapter Four (Alec) Bramble's POV

I walk back to the den, a slight prick of guilt worming it's way under my skin. I push it away, angry.

I am a Snake, I repeat the mantra that my mother drilled into me when I was very young, I am powerful. I am better than the rest. I deserve everything my heart desires.

I shiver, thinking about the harsh night when Lash and Wasp shoved me aside and picked up my little brother. Thistle. They grabbed his neck and, snap, his life was gone. All because he didn't have a mark.

Yes, I knew there were hungry kits in that Rat Den, but they didn't deserve to live if Thistle didn't. Why should they? It would be better if our whole way of life died. That she-cat, the golden one, had acted so protective. Why should she care? It was every cat for themselves out here. I give a low growl.

Red looks up at me, sniffing contemptuously. Her ginger fur ripples as she rolls over, exposing the black snake coiled around her flank. I glance at mine, hating it with every fiber of my being.

"Who put ants in your nest?" Red asks, yawning.

"Only you," I snap back. Red gives me a bored look.

I suddenly feel trapped in here, so I creep back outside, turning myself away from the Rat's den. It is dark outside, mostly, so with my black pelt I can easily slip into the shadows. There is a reasonably large oak tree just by the Snake's den, so I quickly scale that and perch precariously on on of the topmost branches. I can see everything from here, including the golden she-cat I had quarreled with before. Actually, quarreled is not the right word. But I don't know what is, either.

The golden she-cat is nose-to-nose with an Owl, one that I've seen before but don't know the name of. He feels vaguely familiar, and when I think about it, I an imagine a piercing amber gaze. I blink. It looks like the two are having an argument, and the Owl is winning. I sigh, turning my head. Pathetic cat. The Owl says something to her, a sly grin flickering over his face before turning to anger. I lean forward, eyes wide, trying to figure out what they are. saying.

But I lean too far, claws slipping and tumbling off the branch. I don't make a sound, pain flashing in my paws as I jolt downwards. I feel my hind legs slipping too, and I desperately cling on. But I can't. I slam down onto a branch below, and it hits me in the stomach. I let out a tiny whimper, not letting myself become loud enough for the Owl and the Rat to spot me. I dig my claws into the soft wood, hauling myself upwards. Dizziness crowds my gaze as the world spins and I fall towards the ground. Still nothing escapes my mouth. I hit the ground with a thump, and lie there as blackness claims me as it's own.

Chapter Five (Halt) Lion's POV

When I was younger, the dark scared me. Well, it wasn't the dark itself, just... what it was. An eerie blackness that descends each night, cloaking those blessed with dark fur in the shadows, granting them invisibility. I was always scared of those black cats, as I knew that they could kill at night, when they were hidden from others. I have long since beaten that fear, but it briefly surges to my mind when I hear the scraping of claws, and a thud on the ground under the oak.

My eyes flicker towards the noise, as do the Owl's. "There is someone here, Lioness." Although he says my name often, it still disturbs me.

"I realized."

Silence. Sweet, sweet silence. Then, the sound of a cat in pain. Despite myself, I dart forwards. Great, I'm busy trying to help a random stranger. GREAT. The smell of Snake fills my nostrils, and I gag slightly. "Snake," I hiss back at the Owl, who simply nods.

"I know."

I frown, then stop. Are you reading my mind?

"Yes," he mews softly. "Yes I am, Lioness."

I grind my teeth. Does that mean you're reading the injured cat's mind?

"It does." He answers. "Of course it does, Lioness."

I nod, and frown, squinting into the night. "Where is she? Is she badly injured?" For some reason, I know that the cat is female. I also know who she is, who she must be. The tortoiseshell who stole from us this morning. Even though I know who she is, what she has done, I still feel a burning need to assist her. She has live! Please let her live!

The Owl blinks at me. “Why can’t you tell me that?”

I sigh in exasperation, and glare at him. “Because I’m a Rat, just a worthless dumb Rat, and you're an Owl. There's no need to rub it in.”

He stalks closer to me, and I feel his rancid breath on my face. What has he been eating? Crowfood? “You are far, far much more then a Rat, Lioness.”

I roll my eyes and turn, searching for signs of movement in the night. “Are you saying that my mark is really a Snake then?”

I can tell he is watching me, and when he next speaks, his voice is deathly quiet. “No, Lioness. You are not a Snake. You are an Owl.”

Chapter Six (Alec) Bramble’s POV

An ache begins in my hind leg. An ache. I must be awake. If I can feel pain, then I'm awake. But why can't I see? It's all darkness.

Panic swells in my throat, choking and smothering. If I'm blind, then what will they do to me?

I'm not blind, I tell myself fiercely, Cats don't go blind from a fall.

I swallow the lump in my throat and part my jaws. I can smell that she-cat. The Rat. Despite my condition, I snort. What if she finds me? She'll take me to the Ruler. Of course she will, after what I did.

I'm so stupid! I almost laugh at my own stupidity. My life as a Snake is over. I will be taken to the Ruler, and they will demote me. Lash and Wasp will burn off my snake, and carve a rat into my flank. So stupid.

I can feel my paws, so I test them out. Still being blind, I can not see anything in the slightest. My legs shake and I fall. My hind leg screams in pain, and I collapse on my side. Agony. I might as well let myself be found. But I should try to see, first. Maybe I can find a way out of this. It was a slim hope, but I try. And colour floods my gaze. Dull colours, so I assume it is still night. At least there is that. As my vision sharpens, I recognize my surroundings. I blink, seeing the tree which I had fallen from. I am only a tail-length or so from it's base.

The golden she-cat's scent again enters my nostrils. I can hear talking. It is the she-cat's voice, and it abruptly stops as if she has given up in anger. I hear pawsteps against the scrubby grass, and the golden she-cat comes into view. I struggle to my paws, keeping the injured one off the ground. I lift my chin in defiance. I won't go with her without a fight.

"Are you okay?" The she-cat asks, genuine concern mixed with anger stirring in her words. I blink in surprise. I had expected something like, 'Snake. You're coming with me.'

But no. Maybe, this Rat was not as bad as I had originally thought.

No! She's weak. Soft. I growl at myself. Why did I keep thinking these treacherous thoughts?

"I'm fine," I snarl, projecting anger and authority into my voice. The she-cat doesn't flinch.

"No," She tells me, "You're not."

Frustration balloons in me. What I hate the most is that she is right. I am not okay. I just fell out of a tree, possibly breaking my leg. And I might soon be demoted to a Rat, and have to sleep in the same den as this ignorant golden-furred cat. Or, they might put me in prison. I shudder. No-one came back from there the same as they entered. If they came back at all, that is.

I say nothing, but continue my challenging stare. A light in her eyes seems troubled, as if wondering about something. For the first time, I ask myself where the Owl was.

Probably off skulking in the darkness. But what did he say to this Rat to make her this rattled? Nothing good, I bet.

Chapter Seven (Halt) Lion's POV

I stare into the tortoiseshell's leaf green eyes, somehow knowing that she is scared, even though she does not appear so. Am I really an Owl? I break the connection between the Snake, glancing at the patch on my side. A Rat. I cannot possibly be an Owl. I turn, and stare back into her eyes.

"Your leg is broken."

She snarls in response, yet I can hear a tremor of fear in her voice. "Yeah, I realized."

I feel like purring, but of course I do not. Although I feel rather sorry for the arrogant furball standing in front of me, one leg twisted in at an unnatural angle, I know that I still despise her. She stole from us. She took some of the only food we have.

I shake my head slowly. "Name."

She holds her head high, eyes gleaming with defiance, and I remember that she has spent most of her life getting whatever she wants. I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't even know what humility is.

Bow down to her, Lioness. She is stronger then you. See those muscles rippling under her pelt? She could kill you, regardless of that broken leg. She's healthy, fit and strong. You, on the other paw, are weak and hungry. You haven't eaten today.

The voice. It hasn't spoken to me for a while, and I had almost forgotten about it's existence. Almost. The memory of it still lingered within me. Although I had originally thought it was the Owl, something now tells me that it is not. The Owl isn't like that.

Or is he? The voice in my head taunts. How could you trust someone who can read your mind. How can you truly believe he is trustworthy?

The voice rings in my ears, making me sway slightly, making me almost deaf to everything else. Somewhere out of this, somewhere far, far away, the Snake speaks. I can make out the words, but they mean nothing to me. The voice is everything. "You don't need my name."

Do you want her name, Lioness? I could tell you it. I could tell you anything you want about her. But first- a deal. My assistance comes with a price. Come to me, Lioness. Find me. Help me. Although the Owl, the one you think you know has detected something special about you, he is truly blind to your specialness. You are not an Owl, like he thinks you are, but you are not a Rat either. How I let you slip through my claws, I do not know. I should have taken you, refused to let you join the ranks of the Rats. But perhaps it was good that this happened. You got to learn humility.

"Shut up!" I yowl, and in a distant land, the Snake flinches, surprised by my tone.

You can't simply tell me to leave you, to be quiet, Lioness. You can't control me.

"Yes I can," I pant, and a dull pain runs through me. My claws have raked themselves down my leg. I blink, confused.

"Y-you're insane!" The Snake hisses, fur on her back raising. The blood simply trickles down my leg, and I shake slightly. My legs buckle. "N-no," I stutter.

Yes. The voice hisses savagely, triumphantly. You are mine. I can help you, Lioness, but I can also destroy you.

And everything goes dark. I am not my own creature anymore.

Chapter Eight (Alec) Bramble's POV

I stare in shock at the crumbled body at my paws. She had been talking to me... and then, collapsed. Right there, with no warning. I open my mouth and close it. All my instincts tell me to leave her here and run. I could save myself. But a tiny voice in my head whispers...

You can't let her go, It whispers, You can't let her go into the darkness.

Assuming it was the little piece of goodness in me, I pick her up by the scruff. I felt an unreasonable anger at whatever did this to her. Now I have to drag her all the way... where?

I realize I had now I had no idea what to do. A tingle inside me awakens and an image blooms in my mind. The Shadow-Hole. It was a place only a pawful of cats knew of. This she-cat would be safe there.

It was hard going, and my jaws were aching by the time I managed to limp all the way there. I glance at the shadows in front of me, and pad into them. It's a dark, earthy smell that first greets me. That was normal. The tangy smell of blood was not. I ignored it, shuddering. I lay the Rat down, at sit myself beside her, about half a tail-length away. Too close. I allow myself to quieten my breath, checking for the she-cats while I was at it. Hers was shallow but steady, so I didn't worry. Not that I would have anyway. I don't know how long passed, but the sky began to lighten and there had been no change.

I'm so heavy with exhaustion. What if I took a quick nap...? I couldn't resist. I curl into a ball and drape my tail over my nose, drifting into the darkness. And so I dream.

Pressing darkness. It was all around me, thick in the air. It wasn't just the lack of light; it was a living thing. I whirled around, desperate to escape. I could hear faint murmurings beyond my reach. I hear a loud, sharp yelp. It sounded vaguely like a fox, but not. I inch away from the sound.

Something inside me broke, a twist of pain tearing into my chest. I looked down, panicking. Dark blood was dribbling down my chest fur, and a lot of it. Slowly the pain erupts into agony, and I threw myself down. A voice sounds in my ear, cruel and soft.

"You can't escape..." It hisses, voice low and menacing, "You can't escape the jaws of blood."

I twisted, scrambling upwards. Claws pierced my back, and my legs buckled. My injured leg crumples beneath me. I screech, lashing out and catching empty air. Pain explodes in my flank and something rakes it's claws down my legs. Agony overwhelms me. This enemy was much crueler than any cat I'd ever faced, any punishment that Ruler could inflict on me. I pant, soaked in huge amounts of blood. Jaws grip my neck. I lunge away, teeth tearing across my skin. I can feel the life leaking from me.

It's just a dream, I tell myself desperately. But what if it isn't? What if I'm actually dying?

For some reason, in the moments before I disappeared into darkness, my thoughts focused on the Rat.

What about her?

Chapter Nine (Halt) Lion's POV

Suddenly I am awake. Light streams in through the brambles at the entrance to... wherever I am, informing me that it is dawn. I have slept through the night, perhaps longer. It is possible I slept multiple days. I cannot be sure. Time passes quickly when you are enveloped in the elusive blanket of sleep.

Beside me, the tortoiseshell sleeps. The angry expression that usually occupies her face is absent, a factor that improves her looks considerably, not that I notice it. Of course I ignore the gentle rise and fall of her chest, of course I don't feel a thrill run through me each time she snores softly. That would be silly.

I feel a need to wake her, a need to see her bright, intelligent eyes, so I get to my paws, poking her with one gently. She wakes suddenly, her eyelids fluttering open dramatically, and inwardly I purr. "Name."

Taken by surprise, she naturally answers, "Bramble." She then seems to realize that she has shared her identity with me, and a shadow falls over her eyes. I assume she is mentally scolding herself for making the mortal mistake of revealing who you are.

"I am Lioness." For some reason, I feel the urge to reveal my name. When I do, the Snake, Bramble, seems surprised. I can hardly blame her, but it had felt right. She had given me hers, and so, by an unspoken agreement, I had to give mine. It was only fair.

A purr rumbles from her chest, and I jump slightly, startled. Snakes could create the rumbling sound of content more commonly known as a purr? I thought the pleasure of creating a purr was only for mortal's to endure, and surely Snakes were above us puny mortals.

I roll my eyes. I am ridiculous, and I know it. "Well, Lioness." I had lowered my head, but I raise it again, staring into her eyes. They are a rather nice colour, but of course I don't notice that. All I see in them is aggression. Aggression... and perhaps curiosity. It occurs to me that she must feel the same towards me as I feel towards her. Curious... I am, after all, a Rat, an unknown she-cat. Although I suppose I am known now. She knows my name, and I know hers.

"Yes Bramble?"

Her eyes narrow by a fraction, and satisfaction spreads through me. I can see that that second word I spoke had bothered her, irritated her. Of course it had. I am a mere Rat, it doesn't make sense that I know the identity of a Snake.

Instead of waiting for her to answer, I blurt out, "Where are we?" I do not recognize my surroundings, but I can tell it is a den of some sort.

"The Shadow-Hole," Bramble answers, and I can hear a faint note of pride in her voice. It does not surprise me, pride and arrogance are typical Snake traits. "Only a select group of cats know where it is, and I'm one of them."

I roll my eyes again. Sure. I do not believe she was trusted with the location of this place. More likely she eavesdropped upon a group when they were gifted with the location of this 'Shadow-Hole.' I told her this, and her eyes narrowed even more.

"I was told." The lie was easy to detect in her voice, and I purr ever so slightly. Snakes are proving more mortal then I had ever suspected they were. Why, Mouse could lie better then Bramble, and Mouse is barely weaned.

Her ears twitch, and she glances around, suddenly weary. I follow suite. I think her ears are sharper then mine, but I hear the noise first.


Bramble snorts. "Yes, of course they're cats. What else could they be, badgers?" I felt like batting her over the head, but this was not a time for play fighting. I inhale, then frown. "I cannot smell them, only the overpowering scent of herbs..."

"That would be me," Bramble admits. "I took you through a patch of wild garlic to hide our scents on the way here."

Inwardly, I curse this stupidity, but never mind. What is done is done. Perhaps it was an idiotic move, but, idiocy is another common Snake trait.

While I think, the cats arrive, although not from the area I had suspected. The Owl. How could I have forgotten about him?

Because I wished for you to forget him, the voice whispers, reminding me of its existence. I mentally sigh. Great. It's back.

"Surrender," the Owl hisses, amber eyes wide. Multiple cat's fan out around Bramble and I, each bearing the sign of the Owl's upon their flanks. I hear that Owl's are selected from each group, and have their sign altered to the eye symbol that all Owl's posses, then gifted with the power of all-seeing. Of mind-reading.

I hiss, baring my teeth, glaring at the Owl. "Where are you taking us?"

Arrogance is plainly audible in his voice when he crows, "Why, the Lord Ruler of course." Those words are practically a death sentence. I am going to die.

Chapter Ten (Alec) Bramble's POV


I growl deep in my throat, angrily lashing my tail. I feel my lips peel back in a snarl.

"No," I snarl, "You can take me, but not Lioness."

Lioness glances at me, surprised, "Why would you say that?"

I shift my paws. Because there's something special about you, My mind whispers, and I shake off the thought. I bare my teeth, my gaze fixed on the Owl and his cronies. Lioness stands beside me, her flank dangerously close to mine. I don't flinch away.

Against them, we are nothing.

The Owl lets out a short purr of laughter, amusement dancing in his eyes, "You think," He chuckles, "That you can stop us?"

Lioness looks at me, eyes narrowed, "No," She decides, "But I think we are going to go down fighting."

The Owl doesn't seem surprised. And why should he? I'm an impulsive Snake, and she's a dirty Rat. Of course we'll fight.

But something inside me wants none of that. For some reason, all my heart is telling me to save her. To save Lioness. Certainly, if we do fight, she will die. Rats are not trained to fight. While I don't doubt that she can inflict damage, it would not be enough to save us. All my instincts tell me to run, and leave the lowly creature here. But I can't. And that scares me.

I lunge forward, raking my claws down the lead Owl's side and fastening my teeth in his tail. He shrieks with anger and pain, fighting to get free.

"Go!" I scream to Lioness, landing with a thump on the ground. My leg is killing me. It hurts so much I'm gasping in between words. The golden she-cat ignores me, and springs forward with surprising agility. She twists, clawing her way through the masses.

"You can't win this!" The Owl screeches, launching himself on top of me. The rest of the Owl's advance on me, hardly affected by Lioness's frenzied attacks. They looked vicious, by the enemies were ignoring them. Ignoring her.

I kick at the hefty cat on top of me, scraping at his belly-fur until he fell back. "You need to run!" I yell to Lioness. She shakes her head violently. I can't help feeling surprised. This is a Rat. One trained to obey higher cat's orders.

Pain grips me as an Owl fastens his teeth in my scruff and shaking me. Hard. Lioness throws him off, eyes lit in rage. I meet her gaze for a spilt-second.


And we do, pelting for the exit to the Shadow-Hole. I burst into bright sunlight, sucking the clean air into my lungs. Lioness is by my side as we race into the forest, blindly heading away from the place we call home. The agony in my leg is unbearable, but I ignore it. There's no telling how long we run. The screeches of fury eventually fade away. I slow down, panting hard. Lioness stops, glancing down at me as I slump on the leaf-strewn ground.

"So, Lioness," I gasp, "What're we doing now?"

"You know," She meets my eyes," Some cats call me Lion."

Chapter Eleven (Halt) Lion's POV

Bramble frowns, then nods. "Alright, Lion."

I flick my tail against her side playfully. "There's no need to say my name like that. You could just, you know, say 'Lion,' not 'Lion.'"

She purrs, and replies, "But that would take all the fun out of it."

I roll my eyes, snorting, and my eyes find her leg. Although she hides it well, I can tell that she is in a reasonable amount of pain. The severe limp she now walks with doesn't help her disguise it, but for now I decide to ignore this, let her keep her pride. As a Snake, she won't want me to rub the fact that she is injured in her face. She will be able to keep up with me. She was trained for this, unlike me.

"Where are we going?" I ask, breaking the silence that had fallen between us. She glares at me, leaping to her paws. I realize she must have thought my mere question to be a challenge, a jibe at the fact that she was tired enough to lie down.

"Home," she snaps.

I blink. For some reason, I had been under the impression that we were going to run away together, perhaps create a new land, where it didn't matter what mark was upon your flank, where you could be happy.

"Sorry," I murmur, inclining my head towards her, displaying Rat docility for the first time since she came into my life. For some reason, the thought of this created a sour taste in my mouth, and she gives me an odd look, strengthening the sour flavour.

"You don't need to be sorry," she whispers, and for some reason, my heart begins to beat unusually hard. I told it to slow down, but of course, my heart ignored my desperate pleas. Great. This moment would be ruined because I had an overly enthusiastic heart. Wonderful.

She leans closer, and I feel her breath on my cheek. It smells like garlic, but I do not mind. "Lion, we can't stay here."

I nod, and she seems slightly surprised to see me agree with her. I would have disagreed, just for old times sake, but I have wished to leave the Lord Ruler's realm for a long time. Probably because I am a Rat. For some reason, I am not surprised that she wishes to leave as well, even though she is a Snake, treated with the best of everything. She shouldn't want to leave, but she does.

"I know," I respond, and my heart beats stronger then ever. Will she suggest it? Will she say what I long for her to say?

"We should run away together," her voice is soft, and I can sense fear in it. Does she think that I will refuse her? She almost instantly adds, "I mean, not as, you know, mates, but... well, you want to leave, right?"

I nod.

"No offense Lion, but you couldn't survive out there on your own. I wouldn't want you to die, so we could journey out together then... well, go our separate ways, I guess."

I nod once again. "Sounds cool, Bramble."

She purrs slightly, and draws back. "You can call me Brams."

Chapter Twelve (Alec) Bramble's POV

What is happening to me? I wonder as we settle down to sleep. We had journeyed some more after that awkward conversation, and I had spent most of it thinking about that one dumb sentence that my stupid brain forced me to add.

I mean, not as, you know, mates, but... well you want to leave, right?

What had possessed me to say that? Now Lion knows I was thinking about it.

Lion tucks her paws underneath her in our makeshift nests, her tail resting over her nose. I purr inwardly- it's such a kit-like gesture. I shift slightly, uncomfortable.

I thought Rat's were supposed to be good at making nests, my mind grumbles. I can feel twigs poking into me at every angle.

Lion lifts her tail slightly and peers at me from under it, "Night, Brams."

I'm surprised at first. Whenever she usually said my name, it was in a sarcastic tone. Not now it wasn't. For some reason, this makes me ridiculously happy. And I don't resent myself for that, for once. I'm allowed to feel joy, aren't I?

"Night, Lion," I murmur sleepily. I yawn, curling into a ball and closing my eyes to the world.

I knew I was dreaming, but it seemed so real. The clearing was bright and dappled with sunshine around me. I let out a sigh of contentment. Lion was washing her paws some way away from me, her eyes bright and wounds from the fight gone. She turned to me, a purr rising in her throat.

"You're awake," She stated happily.

"Yes," I nodded, "But this is a dream."

"I know," Lion's voice softened, "But let's enjoy it while we can."

"We should," I lifted my face to the sun, "It's an amazing day."

Lion said nothing, only watched as I laid down and basked in the sun. I knew I shouldn't be this content, I knew I wouldn't be in the waking world, but what was the harm of it now? Lion padded over to me and sat down. Only a tail length from me, but for some reason, I didn't mind. I enjoyed it.

A savage snarl ripped the air. I glanced up, not concerned. Even though I knew I should be, my contented mind and dreamy state couldn't bring itself to be. Lion pricked her ears but seemed merely curious. Nothing to be worried about, surely. I sighed.

If only I had paid attention.

A beast burst free from the bushes, dog-like in figure but towering far above us. I gasped as it ripped its claws down Lion's flank and snared its teeth in her neck. She gave a broken scream as it began to drag her away. I cried out and jumped, ready to fight, but my paws wouldn't move. 

Lion gasped for air as I forced my paws to move. The dog-creature growled and its eyes glinted murderous rage. I gave a strangled cry. 

"" She gurgled. 

"I'm trying!" I yowled.

The Wolf bit down harder and they vanished into the shadows.

Chapter Thirteen (Halt) Lion's POV

The hard jab of paws in my side wakes me, and my eye's flutter open. It takes a moment for me to register the sight that unfolds before me. First, I notice the face pressed against mine. Amber eyes, pale tabby markings... I instantly recognize the Owl that had been posted by the Rat Den.

I pull away, a hiss already at my lips. "You traitor." He seems rather amused by this, and glances at the two other Owls which flank him, standing on either side of him as if they are guards.

I quickly run my eyes over them. A dark furred female stands on his left, eyes as cold as ice. I shiver slightly. Amber eyes should appear warm, not cold. A male is on the Owl's opposite side, and is rather broad-shouldered and bulky. For some reason, I feel less threatened by him then I do the she-cat. Although he is stronger, she is more intellectually gifted, and therefore poses a greater threat.

"I am not the traitor," the Owl responded rather smugly. "You and the Snake are."

I suddenly realize that I have not thought of Bramble since waking, and guiltily scanned the surrounding area, which yielded results almost instantly. Bramble is across the clearing from me, surrounded by not three guards, like myself, but six. This bothers me; is she really that much more of a six then I am?

My eyes dart around the clearing. I can take the Owl down, possibly the night furred Owl as well, but not the broad-shouldered one. Not by myself. Bramble and I could defeat him, but she if we attempted escape, she would have six Owl's to take on by herself. But, I reason with myself. I'm going to die anyway. I might as well take down some of them with me.

The dark-furred Owl surveys me coldly. "Be mindful of your thoughts, Rat. They betray you."

I glare at her, and once more, her eyes unsettle me. No, I correct myself. I could not possibly kill her. Perhaps not even with Bramble's help.

The she-cat nods slowly, a satisfied expression on her narrow face, then turns to the tabby Owl. "Eagle, please take the Snake to the PCATTTT."

For some reason, knowing Eagle's name brought me great pleasure. The Owl nodded, and turned briskly, harshly barking a few words at the six Owls surrounding Bramble. They nodded, and began to lead the tortoiseshell away. I watch them, apprehension building in the pit of my stomach. I catch Bramble's eye before she disappears around a large oak, and find my own panic mirrored in her leaf green eyes.

The night-furred Owl watches her comrades leave, then dismisses the broad-shouldered Owl with a flick of her tail. He seems to melt into the surrounding forest.

Alone with the narrow muzzled she-cat, the Owl with the amber eyes colder then ice, I feel afraid. She has power, and she knows it, stalking towards me, contempt in her very bearing. "I can see inside your head, Rat. I know everything about you, even more then you know yourself."

I shiver, and back away. "Escape is futile," she whispers. "For now that I have touched your mind, I could find you anywhere, even if you ran to the ends of the earth."

I know that she speaks the truth, and her words chill me to the bone, for I know that she speaks the truth. "N-no!" I hiss, although it sounds weak to my own ears, and I wince at the very sound of it. She lets out a false purr of amusement. "Ha. Search your feelings. You know it to be true."

And I do. I know she speaks no lies.

"Now, Lioness, listen very closely to my next words," she murmurs. "Listen, for what I am about to say could change the course of your very life."

Despite myself, I find myself hanging on her every word.

"Lioness... I can help you. I can free you and that Snake, but only on one condition. You take me with you."

Chapter Fourteen (Alec) Bramble's POV

I wish I was somewhere else, somewhere where some cat called Eagle was not dragging me towards the PCATTTT.

Whatever that was.

One of the guards scored a long scar across my shoulder, eyes gleaming, taking advantage of my distraction. My thoughts are zooming around, scanning the surrounding area for means of escape. I found only one, and that would mean leaving Lion behind.

Not an option.

I can feel eyes boring into me from behind, and I throw a glance behind me. It's Lion and that amber-eyed she-cat. The different one. I attempt to struggle, spurred on by Lion's fierce but sad gaze. I wanted to break free. To help her. The guards around me close in, teeth glinting and claws unsheathed. I shrink back, hissing. They back away slowly, keeping formation but opening a gap in the front. Eagle pads toward me, narrowed eyes. I can see the muscles rippling under her pelt and I almost bow my head submissively.

"Do you want to live?" She hissed.

I nod mutely, refusing to tear my gaze from hers. But she holds it, and I have to look away. Eagle stalks back up the front, signaling with a flick of her dark tail for me to follow.

We walk further and further away from where they are keeping Lion, and a growing sense of panic swells in my throat. I want to leave, I need to leave, I need to get away-

"Keep. Moving." Eagle turns to glare at me, her amber eyes sharp and cold. Too knowing. I follow her.

Finally, the group stops. The grass under my paws is now sparse and scraggly, strange on my pads.

Around the glade is several trees, dark and tall. They seem to stare at me with twisted eyes. Around the base of most of them is a structure of twisted branches and tough vines. I can hear faint scuffling. Like the paws of cats against dirt.

And suddenly I know what this is.

A prison.

Eagle motions to one of the guards, a pale-furred tom with ice-blue eyes. He looks far from welcoming.

"Minnow," she barks, "Put her in."

I nearly burst out laughing. Minnow? That's his name? He seems to realize what occupies my thoughts.

"Get over there," He snarls, voice rough with anger. I shrug away, ducking and darting across the clearing. Too late. His teeth meet my scruff and drag me back.

Minnow leans in, breath hot and disgusting in my face.

"You can't escape us," He growls, "Never. We know who you are."

"Who am I?" I pant, struggling to get away. My claws snag his pelt a rip, but he barely flinches. My leg is throbbing and pulsing but I have to stay upright.

"You," He mumbles in my ear, "Are a traitor!" His voice rises in pitch, and he shoves me toward a tree. I can't resist him, my leg crumpling beneath me as he claws a hole in the prison and kicks me inside. I fall, whimpering with anguish.

"See you soon..." He hisses, and two guards swarm forward with vines in their jaws, weaving them in.

A voice speaks from behind me, "What're you in here for?"

There's pale ginger and white tom behind me, slender in shape and tough in demeanor. He gives me a crooked smile, but I don't trust it.

"Nothing," I growl. unsheathing my claws. I glanced at the squirrel shape on his flank.

"Yeah, right," He snorts, "You're in no condition to fight me."

What hurts the most is that he's right.

Chapter Fifteen (Halt) Lion's POV

I pause. What? She'd actually help free me and Bramble? "I- but-" I stammer.

"But what?" she seems amused. "I'm too evil? Pathetic. I'm not doing this for you. No. It's for me, I assure you.My brother escaped... and I told him I would one day join him. That's what I plan to do. But I need you. You're special, Lioness." She leans closer towards me.

I jerk away. "Don't touch me!"

A frown disfigures her face. "Why not, Lioness? Do you think I am infected with something?" She let out a little purr. "Oh, I see. I'm infected with evilness. Ha."

I hiss slightly, and she gives me a flat, disappointed look. "I see. Nice selection of swear words. You seem quite good at uttering, or thinking, profanities. If only you had as much intelligence as you did swear words."

She turns. "Follow me."

"And what if I don't?" I challenge her.

The Owl turns slowly, fixing me with her cold eyes. "Why," she whispers. "If you don't, your life is forfeit."


The word sends ice down my spine.

Beware, Lioness. You are treading on dangerous grounds.

The voice. It is back. Not for the first time, I question my sanity.

I know, I whisper back. I realized. Now, would you please let me enjoy my imprisonment in peace and quiet. There are enough voices in this...cell, and I would rather I didn't have a pestering voice in my head uttering words of doom.

The voice seems amused when it answers. Very well. And something lifts from my mind, leaving me feeling light. Had the voice really had that much of an impact on me? Even my weariness is gone.

"Who are you?"

A voice of another cat, another inmate, speaks up. I glance up at them, frowning. The speaker is a black furred she-cat with only a half a tail. A white patch in the shape of a rabbit shines on her flank, and a long scar runs along her spine.

I hold my head high. "I could ask the same of you."

She snorts. "I'm nobody. Just a rabbit..." her eyes stray to the rat on my pelt, and she adopts an expression of surprise. "Ah. I suppose you're even more of a nobody then I am."

"I refuse to be defined by the patch on my side," I hiss, and the she-cat lets out a raspy purr. "You're a feisty one aren't you?"

I shrug in response, which makes her shake her head. "Shrugging is a very non-committal gesture. Whenever you speak or make a gesture, make it a statement. Make others believe that it is the right thing to believe. Shrugging.... no. That won't do at all."

I blink. "What?" This causes her to shake her head once more.

"No, no. You sound far too confused."

"Probably because I am," I answer. "What's wrong with shrugging?"

She lashes her tail. "Haven't you been listening? Stop being such a mouse-brain!"

"Oi!" The sound of Bramble's voice makes my heart jump. She'll deal with this odd she-cat. "Do not call Lion that."

She comes into view, sleek tortoiseshell fur shining in the faint light. Beside her strides a ginger and white tom, who I instantly notice has a squirrel shaped patch upon his side. What is Bramble doing with a Squirrel?

The black she-cat surveys Bramble, and I spot approval in her gaze. "See?" She turns back to me. "Your friend speaks like a leader, like someone who will be listened to. You must adopt her mannerisms. Give the facts, give the orders, and don't make them sound like questions."

"I don't!" I spit.

She shakes her head once again. "That's not it either. Anger? No. Anger is the tool of lesser cats. Try it again, although calmly. That will have far more impact."

"What are you doing? Why are you telling me this?" The question bursts from me despite myself.

The ginger and white tom answers me. "Isn't it obvious? Turtle is trying to train you, as she does with all the newcomers. Turtle is trying to make you a rebel. A leader."

Chapter Sixteen (Alec) Bramble's POV

I yawn, curled up near Lion. I'm glad we ended up in the same cell, otherwise, I'd have gone insane. The ginger and white cat, who's name I have learned is Leaf, is an okay cat. He's not the best company though. Lion shifts and stirs in her sleep and I want to groom her ears, but clearly that's not 'Snake behavior'. I wish my mark did not define me. It's restricting, and I can never stray from 'perfect'. I was very annoyed at that Turtle cat though, because she has no right to 'make Lion a leader'. And that comment about anger being the tool of lesser cats? I use it all the time. It's my fuel. Why I live. She doesn't know anything.

I wonder,

Does my mark still count?

I am nothing but a prisoner now.

Must I still obey the Lord Ruler's words?




I give up, turning over and closing my eyes tight. I shouldn't worry. Shouldn't bother. The world is cruel, and it'll stay that way. I have nothing.

Only Lion.

I haven't slept even by dawn, when Lion is waking. She rolls over and her eyes open. For unknown reasons, her face is livid with terror.

"Bad dreams?" I murmur sympathetically. She looks surprised that I care.

"Yes," she sighs, "They keep coming back."


She doesn't answer.

My heart goes cold.

A loud thump distracts me from the conversation. It's Minnow and he's clawing at the branches blocking up the cage.

"Fish-face," I sneer.

He glances at me and digs his claws into the dirt, "You won't be laughing when you get your punishment."

"My punishment?" I ask. For some reason I had gotten the notion that the Lord Ruler would just leave us locked up forever. Stupid.

Lion steps up beside me, "We'll do this together."

"No, actually, you won't," Minnow laughs, his voice crackling like leaves underpaw, "The Lord Ruler has it all worked out. Don't bother."

"What is the punishment?" I ask boldly, confident now that Lion is at my side.

"Oh sure," Minnow rolls his eyes, "I'll definitely tell you."

Lion nudges my side, "Leave him."

Only for you, my mind whispers.

Minnow's pelt ripples as he claws open the last coverings, and drops a mouse inside.

"Why bother to feed us?" I ask, but really, I'm buying time. My gaze darts behind the guard, and I see a cluster of cats backing up Minnow. I recognize Eagle and the amber-eyed cat from before, but no-one else. Escaping now? Not an option.

"The Lord Ruler wants you fresh for punishment," Minnow responds curtly, letting a dark-furred tom and a blue-eyed she-cat take his place. They get to work on boarding up the prison.

Lion hisses, "One lousy mouse won't do."

Minnow gives her a scornful look, "Get back in your place, Rat."

I snap, launching myself at him. My claws slice down his muzzle, a deep scratch that I hope'll leave a scar. The two guards that were re-threading the entrance push me back, but I'm hissing and spitting. Lion yowls behind me, dragging me back.

"Mouse-brain," she cries, "They're too strong for you!"

"Leave me alone!" I yell, "They insulted you!"

"Why would you care?" Lion whispers.

"Because," I drop back, meeting her gaze, "I can't lose you."

Chapter Seventeen (Halt) Lion's POV

I freeze. Her words seem to replay in my mind. I can't lose you. Because I can't lose you. Can't lose you... I can't believe it. She can't possibly have said it. But she has. I know that.

"Bramble," I mumble, eyes downcast. "I'm a Rat, and you're a-"

"A cat." She interrupts. "A cat, just like you."

I shake my head, but am spared the pain of answering, of telling her that she can do better then me, by Eagle. "Hello, Bramble, Lioness."

Bramble shoots him a glare, and my whiskers twitch in unmistakable amusement. His eyes narrow. "Watch it," he spits in our direction, then advances. "It's time."

I cannot help but freeze. Already? Eagle nods. "Already."

Something in Bramble's eyes hardens. "And what is our sentence?" I cannot help but admire her tone; she's scoffing at him, insulting him, undermining his authority and also asking a question. But of course, I remind myself. All Snakes are like that.

Eagle shrugs. "I don't know. But the Lord Ruler himself is orchestrating it."

The Lord Ruler? The words bring ice to my blood. "We're going to see the Lord Ruler?" My voice is frustratingly soft, annoyingly weak.

"Yes." He answers simply.

The Lord Ruler was smaller then I had expected him to be. He was quite small, smaller then I, despite the fact that I had yet to complete the cycle of growth. His fur was a pale brown, and his eyes a piercing green. Despite myself, I shrunk away from him.

Slowly, the diminutive cat stepped forwards. "Traitor." His voice was quite high-pitched, and I had to force myself not to laugh. He sounded like a kit. "You are a traitor to the entire kingdom," he went on. For some reason, it seemed like he was addressing Bramble, not me. This was confirmed when he said, "I gave you rights, I have you power. Yet you do not care."

"I'm here to!" I find myself saying. He turned his rather amused gaze upon me. "Ah, you. Rat. I hear that Bramble here feels affectionate towards you..."

I felt my pelt go hot. "And so what if she does? We're cats, aren't we! I'm free to like whoever I choose, I'm free to bestow my heart upon anyone! Don't you understand love?"

Bramble shoots me a glare that clearly says, 'Don't push it.' I ignore it. I've been longing to say this for a long time. "You're a monster! You sit here on your throne, pretending everything's perfect. Well it's not. Kits are dying, my Lord. Dying, right under your nose. But do you care? No! Go stuff a wad of catmint up your-"

"She doesn't mean it," Bramble cuts in swiftly. "Lioness is just tired, that's all."

The Lord Ruler snorts. "No, she means it. I can see it in her mind. Well, Rat, I think you've just decided your sentence, as well as your friend's."

And he lunges at me. A split second before his fangs sink into my neck, I see Bramble's eyes. She knows what is about to happen, and so do I. And then blackness engulfs me.


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