It was quiet. Not deathly quiet, or suddenly quiet, but quiet like everything's on mute. You can sense sound, but it's like you're not allowing yourself to fully realize it, or let it invade your brain. I wanted to remain like that forever, but slowly, the sensation faded, replaced by a gentle roar, the sound water makes as it crashes against something, and the call of seabirds up ahead.
Groggily, I raised my head and blinked sand out of my eyes. Where am I?
I didn't remember much. Water. Swimming. Screaming. My brother yelling at me not to go out too far. A fin, not pointed enough to be a shark's, but scary just the same, coming towards me. The impact of hard rubbery skin on mine. Then, blackness.
"Hello?" I croaked. My voice came out sounding like someone coated the inside of my mouth with sand, which, come to think of it, is what it felt like too. I tried out my feet, and found that they'd been replaced by sticks of rubber. Still, I managed to stand, and look around myself. As soon as I took in my surroundings, I knew I wasn't home, or anywhere near it. This... This was completely exotic. And unknown.
A sandy stretch of beach extended further on either side of me, vanishing around a bend. In front of me, azule water lapped at the shore tamely, as if it could never whip up a storm big enough to swallow up a poor, defenseless apprentice and deposit her here. Well, now I knew better. Dumb sea.
Turning, I found on my other side a large, imposing forest, composed of tall trees with long, dark green leaves. A splash of colorful fruit dotted the canopy here and there, but it was all unfamiliar to me.
"Okay," I said aloud, to convince myself that I wasn't hallucinating out of dehydration. "My name is Rainpaw. I am an apprentice of ShoreClan. I stupidly refused to listen to my brother Tideclaw's warning - because he's such a know-it-all now that he's deputy, but still - and now I'm stranded on what appears to be some deserted island." According to most people's standards, this wasn't good. Especially since I had no idea where to find good drinking water, and I was about to die of thirst.
Frantically, I racked my brains for every tidbit of information I had ever been taught about strange places, which wasn't much. We covered a lot of things in apprentice training, but survival was the smallest portion, since most of us figured we'd always have the Clan to take care of us. I don't think anyone could've dreamed this up.
The constant sound of water in the background reminded me again how thirsty I was. Yes, I was hungry too, but my belly could wait. Right now, my main goal was to find water.
Common sense told me that I would most likely find a pond or stream further inland, hidden in a shady grove of trees or the like. So I began walking, fighting back dizziness and waves of seasickness. White spots danced in front of my vision as a result of the sun's glare, and I was relieved to step into the cooling darkness of the jungle.
Keeping my distance from strange-looking plants that had the potential to be toxic, I sniffed the air, desperately waiting for any trace of life-giving liquid. Nothing. Swallowing hard, I licked my lips with what little saliva I had left and prayed desperately to StarClan, begging that I would find water soon. There was no response, save the rustle of the branches, and strange hoots and tweets in the distance.
As I looked about, I noticed the incredibly strange flora and fauna here. A spotted green-and-gold lizard lay on a broad leaf that was rimmed with purple, and a ginormous butterfly extended pale rose-colored wings over an even bigger neon yellow hibiscus. To say it was odd would be the biggest understatement of the year. This was extraordinary. And yet, despite all the seemingly beautiful nature, a dark aura hung in the air. I shuddered as the full impact of my situation suddenly hit me. I was trapped, thirsty, and stranded on this strange island. I could very well die a horrible death, and never see my friends or family again. Never become a warrior of ShoreClan. All because I had been too stupid to listen to my older brother's advice.
Suddenly, a cooling breeze wafted over my nose, renewing my hope. There was no mistaking the moisture in the air. With a shout of happiness, I bounded forward. The next thing I knew, I felt something hard coil around my legs, and I was being yanked into the air.
And there I was, dangling upside down. Yay!
"What in StarClan-" I choked out in a breathy voice. Craning my neck up, I saw that my paws were bound by vines, thick and green- Why were they moving? Are those beady black dots eyes?
I couldn't help it; I screamed.
Snakes have never been my favorite creatures(I doubt they're anyone's), and seeing two coiled around me, suspending me in midair from a tree nearly gave me a heart attack.
"Help!" I screamed, thrashing my paws. The snakes' hold tightened, and I bit my tongue hard to keep from crying out in fear and panic again. Like there was anyone to hear me anyway.
So I'm not going to die of thirst after all. I'm going to slowly suffocate to death.
As I dangled there, I wondered how they would eat me. Swallow me whole? Slowly ingest me? Tear me to bits? Inject me with venom that would paralyze me? The options were gruesomely endless.
Overhead, I heard a raucous cry, and managed to lift my head enough to glimpse two dark black shapes swooping in the skies. I gulped. Vultures were never a good sign.
Just when I had decided that I was going to die within at least fifteen minutes, and I might as well think of happy thoughts, I hear a rustling in the undergrowth. Seconds later, a fluffy reddish creature resembling a squirrel, but with twice the body-fat, came racing out from behind a tree, emitting panicked squeaking noises. I quickly saw the reason why, as a cat came tearing after it, claws outstretched. Since I had nothing better to do till I died, I watched as the tom chased the squirrel-creature around the trunk of a tree, intercepted it, and hooked it into his claws before snapping its neck.
Unable to resist, I called, "Nice catch!"
The tom's head shot up, and he glanced wildly about for several seconds before spotting me. His eyes widened in shock, and partly amusement, which angered me, as he padded over. Didn't he see the state I was in? How dare he laugh!
"Thanks," he said casually, as if talking to a she-cat hanging upside down from a tree was perfectly normal. There was something scrutinizing in his gaze that made me uncomfortable.
"Think you could get me down?" I hissed.
He dropped the piece of prey, whatever it was, and frowned. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"It's an island," I snapped, feeling the blood rushing to my head slowly. "You'd know if I was, I'm guessing. It didn't look that big."
"Right," he said. "And any native would know better then to walk into a nest of tribos."
I blinked at him. "What are those?"
His jaw dropped open, and he shook his head. "Uh.. Never mind. Let's get you down, and I can explain later."
"About time," I muttered resentfully. Looking at his sneering face upside down was starting to give me a headache. "I'm Rainpaw, by the way."
"Nice to meet you," he said dryly, fastening his claws to the trunk and making his way up with the skilled grace of someone who's done it many times before. I try not to admire the way he climbed; the few times I'd tried tree-climbing back at ShoreClan territory, I'd spent a whole week in the medicine cat's den.
He paused as he neared the so-called tribos, studying the way they were wrapped around me. I expected another sarcastic comment, but he only pursed his lips, gripped a large limb in his teeth, and stuck it between one of the giant snakes and my body, slowly prying it off me. The snake flicked its red tongue back and forth, almost lazily, as if it wasn't aware it was being pushed and prodded away from its prey with a stick. Except, I knew with a dreadful certainty, that it did know. And that it wouldn't give up without a fight.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" I said through gritted teeth.
Annoyingly nonchalant, he shrugged. "You got any better ones?"
I opened my mouth, then closed it with a snap. Because I didn't.
He was my only chance, as much as I hated to admit it.
"You better not let me down."
"You want to stay up there? I thought the whole point of this was to get you down," he said, pushing and shoving at the other snake using the stick.
I was too furious to reply, and besides, the constricting coils were coming up to my chest now, cutting off a part of my air supply. The tom seemed to sense it too, because he doubled his efforts, and then redoubled them. So maybe he does care after all.
Finally, one of the snakes was completely off of me. He blinked his beady eyes, then slithered away, as if deciding we weren't worth the trouble. Before the tom could do any more, the other tribo slunk away too, and I went hurtling towards the earth. I had only time to give a quick gasp before I hit the ground with a bone-breaking thud.
"Uh..." I groaned, wondering why the stupid world was spinning. I was surprised to find that I hadn't been knocked unconscious, and even more surprised to find that my body wasn't splattered over a hundred square miles(not that this island seemed that big).
As I blinked to clear my vision, I became aware of a face above me. The face of a cat.
"Are you okay? That was quite a fall you took," he said, helping me to my paws.
I shook my head to clear it. "Far from it, but I guess for your purposes, I'm okay. Thanks for your help."
"I don't make it a habit of letting she-cats die on my watch," he commented, studying me again with that intense way of his. I felt my pelt prickle.
"Where am I?" I whispered, confusion suddenly rushing in as I swayed on my paws. Oh, how I wished that I would wake up in the apprentice's den any moment now, to Russetpaw and Larkpaw's teasing remarks about how I kicked all night. I wished this could all just be a dream. But it wasn't. And I was just going to have to face that.
Sympathy flickered in his eyes for a second. "You're... It'll take a while to explain. Come on. You might as well meet the others. You're going to be here for a while."
"What do you mean by that?" I froze.
He sat down and stared at me, his ginger pelt rippling over impressive muscles(not that I noticed or anything). "Like I said, it'll take a while to explain."
I sighed, knowing I had no choice but to follow him. "Okay. What's your name?"
"Aden," he replied coolly.
I started in surprise. "That's a funny name. Are you a loner?"
"A what?" he blinked. "Never mind. Let's get going." He began to lead me through the forest, stepping over the strange plants like it was no big deal. I tried to follow in his pawsteps and not get tangled up in anything, which was hard, since there were thick blue vines as thick as ropes laying across the floor.
As I walked, once again I felt the dark, oppressing cloud come over me, and I hurried to catch up with Aden, feeling safer around someone who knew their way around.
He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. "You okay?"
"Just thirsty," I managed to rasp. That wasn't all; I also felt incredibly weak and light-headed, but I wasn't about to say so.
Nodding, he replied, "Don't worry, our camp is by the lake. You can drink there."
I gave him a weary dip of my head, too numb to do anything else.
Finally, the water I had scented before came into view. A vast expanse of green-blue, surrounded by tall flowers in a rainbow of colors, and reeds that whistled and whispered. Finding a sudden desperate burst of energy, I rushed forward and submerged my entire muzzle into the lake, lapping for dear life. Only when my stomach was so full I knew I couldn't drink any more did I lift my head, droplets still running down my chin. Aden watched me curiously, as if I were a rare specimen in a lab.
Bristling with embarrassment, I said, "So where are those 'others' you spoke of?"
"And by that, I presume you mean us," said a cold voice from behind me. I whirled around to find myself facing a group of five cats, all with hostility in their eyes.
"I guess so," I gulped.
A bold-looking, gorgeous chestnut she-cat stepped out of the group. "Aden, who is she?"
"Yeah," remarked a pudgy black tom. "We don't get newcomers-"
The she-cat elbowed him hard in the gut to cut him off. His eyes grew large. "Hey! What was that for?" Then his eyes fixed on me. "Oh. Do you think it's her?"
"Shut up!" hissed Aden, glancing back and forth from me to the tom, and back again.
"What's going on?" I asked suspiciously.
The glossy chestnut cat didn't bother answer the question. "Sorry about that. I'm Willa, and this is Turby, Sagewhisker, Dragonpaw, and Togat."
I stared at the motley assortment of cats, wondering why some had Clan names and some didn't. Before I could ask though, Aden broke in. "This is Rainpaw."
"I could've introduced my self," I shot back. Turning back to them, I mewed, "I know this is a huge favor to ask of any cat, but is there any chance that you guys could help me get off this island and get back home?"
Willa shook her head slowly, her dusky violet-gray eyes solemn. "Oh, honey, did no one tell you?" she asked, shooting a glare at Aden. "Once you get on this island, there's no getting out. No escape."
"Yes. You're stuck here forever."
For an inexplicable reason, my knees started to shake. I stared at her in disbelief. "What do you mean, forever?"
Willa rolled her eyes like I was the simplest cat she'd ever met. "What I said. For-ever. As in, to the end of time itself. Till the world ceases to exist-"
"We get it," Aden cut in, a warning in his green eyes.
I stepped in front of him. I didn't want him buttering up the truth. I wanted facts. "What is this place?" I said.
It was the dark gray tom, Dragonpaw, who replied. "I don't know. I haven't been here as long as the others. Only a couple years."
I blinked in shock. He looked no more then a moon older then me. "Impossible," I breathed. Turby and Sagewhisker exchange knowing looks that contained sympathy, which only irritated me further. I felt like the entire universe was in on a massive cosmic joke against me. Hmph.
"Am I missing something? You look no older then me," I said.
He shifted his paws uncomfortably, as if unsure of how much to say. "Technically, to you, I guess I'd be seven moons."
"To me?" My voice rose an octave.
Willa sighed dramatically. "You guys are horrible at explanations, for crying out loud. Rainpaw, I don't know exactly how to explain this, but-"
"Stop!" Aden said, loudly. "We need to talk," he hissed to the others, beckoning them away. I watched sullenly as they whispered and nodded. Willa's eyes widened, and she glanced at me. I heard a few lines.
Puzzled, confused, and more then a little frustrated, I spoke out boldly. "No secret side conversations. Lay it out to me flat."
"Here's all we can tell you for now," Turby said, his plump black sides shaking as he sat down. When I looked at him, I couldn't help thinking, kittypet. So what was he doing here, in this exotic place, and surviving? "Time sort of stops here. Once you get here, you don't age, or anything. You don't leave. We're all prisoners."
"What is this, some kind of slave camp?" I asked, not a little nervously.
Aden forced what he must've intended as a lighthearted chuckle. Instead, it sounded more like he was coming down with something. "Not exactly. We... We have run of the island."
I frowned skeptically. "An island full of poisonous plants and animals... But you seem to know how to navigate those, and hunt too. So, what's the problem?"
"You think we want to be here?" asked Togat incredulously, speaking up for the first time.
Nothing was making sense. "You don't? I thought this was, well, your home."
"Living somewhere doesn't make it home," Willa meowed coolly. I had nothing to say in reply, so I just gawked.
Turby lashed his tail in frustration. "Aden, we need to tell her at least some things. This is useless otherwise."
The ginger tom nodded suavely, never missing a beat. "Okay then." He sat. "Tell her what she needs to know." The look in his eyes implied, No more. I bristled, but remained silent. Might as well listen to what they had to say, and ask questions later.
"Look, once you reach the island, there's no turning back. Whatever life you had before this, consider it gone. Finished. Over. Your friends, your family, you'll never see them again. You never get out of here."
"You're crazy. I know it'll be hard, but-"
Willa moaned. "They never listen. Don't you think in all the time we've been here, we would've figured out how to get loose? You can't. That's the whole point. I've been here for longer then I can count." Her dusk-colored eyes shone with sadness. "I've almost forgotten my old life. Except some things. Some things you never forget." A tear slipped silently down her cheek. Aden blinked and turned away, as if this sudden display of emotion scared him. Sagewhisker leaned forward and licked Willa gently on the cheek.
"They're dead now," Willa said softly. "All gone."
A sickening feeling appeared in the pit of my stomach. She wasn't kidding. No one could fake that kind of agony. She really had been stranded here, while her generation passed on. While everyone she had known and loved lived their lives and died. Without her. What was left for her? And how long had the others been here? What point in their lives had been cut short?
"You're serious," I said.
The gorgeous she-cat blinked long-lashed eyes at me, nodding.
Aden got up. "We were all doomed forever. Until..." He paused, obviously making a major decision. "Until you got here."
"Me?" I started, surprised by the unexpected comment. "What do I have to do with anything?"
Sagewhisker shot Aden a glare. "Nothing to worry about now. First of all, you must be hungry."
I was too distracted to focus on food, though my stomach was growling up a storm.
"So, you guys never die?" I wondered if that would be such a bad thing. In a way, I guessed it might. To never leave the earth and take your place in the stars? To be stuck here forever, especially without your family and true home?
"Nope," Dragonpaw said. "It's weird. We don't age, but we get hungry and thirsty and all that."
"What would happen if you starved?" I asked, more intrigued then I should have been given the fact that I too, would be subjected to this fate.
He blinked, giving me a look that clearly spelled: What freak would do that to themselves just to prove a point?
"You'd be restored, I guess," Togat said. "None of us have discovered the full meaning of the island yet, and we've had ample time. Trust me."
"Enough small talk," Aden said. He nudged the squirrel-creature towards me. "Here. Have a tampa. They're really good."
I eyed the prey suspiciously, though I knew I was much too hungry to resist anyway. It smelled okay. Good, even. Without further ado, I plunged my muzzle in inch-deep and took a huge bite. Warm meat flooded my mouth with salivary juices, spurring me on. Forgetting my audience, and everything but food, I proceeded to nearly inhale the entire piece of prey, not stopping till not a shred of flesh remained, and my belly was comfortably full.
Sheepishly, I realized everyone was staring at me. "Sorry," I muttered. "I'll try to catch one to pay you back."
Aden cracked a smile. "I'd like to see you try. It took me months to perfect the skill."
Feeling slightly defensive, I said, "Well, I was a pretty good hunter back in ShoreClan."
Sagewhisker's head flew up. "ShoreClan?" she gasped. "That's my Clan!"
"Really?" I said in disbelief. "You- You lived there?"
Her olive eyes grew far away. "Yeah. Once upon a time. Let me think. What kits were there back then? They might still be alive. Grizzlekit, Shinekit, and Bellkit."
"Bellflower is an elder," I said, still unable to grasp that this cat had lived in ShoreClan, all those moons ago, and still stood in front of me now. "Grizzlestar passed away in new-leaf."
Her eyes sparkled faintly. "He was my littermate's kit. I always knew he was destined for greatness. How is ShoreClan?"
"Fine," I said, smiling at her. Then clouds covered my heart. How come I had never heard of Sagewhisker before? Had my Clan truly forgotten her? A chill shot through me. Would I be forgotten, just like that? A memory, a shadow that faded into their history? Tears tugged at the back of my eyes; I had to force them back using every bit of self-reserve I possessed.
Aden glanced at me, his eyes unreadable. "Are you okay?"
I didn't reply. I didn't trust myself to speak.
Sagewhisker was quiet now, staring at her paws. Dragonpaw sighed mournfully. "I miss my Clan too. I lived in a Clan called PalmClan. It was wonderful. Paradise."
Turby cleared his throat. "I'm going hunting."
Looking up, I gazed right through him, without even bothering to marvel that such a round tom could hunt in this wild expanse.
"I'll come with," Togat offered, standing up instantly. I had a feeling the two of them were eager to escape the blanket of sadness that hung over us now.
As they hurried away, Willa turned towards me, an admiring respect on her face. "You're taking this better then I expected."
"What do you mean?" I said miserably, wondering how they couldn't see the pain and despair I was feeling inside.
"It's true," Aden said curtly. "You haven't fallen to pieces yet, or screamed and tried to get off the island frantically, telling us we're lying."
"I believe you."
If only they knew that I was thisclose to doing exactly what Aden had mentioned.
I forced myself to take a deep breath, biting my lip to stop from screaming. No sense in proving them right; they were already right about everything else.
"Can I- What exactly happens if you reach the edge of the island?"
Aden flicked his tail. "We get a few tail-lengths of water, where we fish and swim, on cheerful days. Then, it's like an invisible wall appears. It's hard to explain." He took in my determined look. "I'm guessing you want to experiment for yourself?"
"Yes," I said, standing up. "You don't have to come with me."
"Got nothing better to do. Tell Togat and Turby where I went."
Willa nodded in reply, her eyes sympathetic as she watched me, as if she knew what I would find. I shook off that thought. There had to be some way out of here. I would find it, if it was the last thing I did. Which, um, might have defeated the purpose of it, but whatever.
We padded off. I was actually relieved Aden was with me, because alone I would most likely end up as lunch for a my old tribos pals.
"You know you're going to be disappointed," Aden said, breaking the silence.
I stiffened. "We'll see about that."
He shook his head and said no more.
I chose my next words carefully. "Let's just say I end up having to stay here longer then intended. What can you tell me about the place?"
Aden arched his eyebrows at my wording, then relaxed. "It takes a really long time to come close to being comfortable here. However," he added, seeing my face fall, "You can never start too soon."
I grinned. "I'm your ever-eager pupil. Teach me, oh kind sir."
The look on his face was one part bemusement, one part annoyance. "Okay. See those blue flowers?"
I followed his gaze to a small bush littered with clumps of azule bell-shaped buds, and nodded.
"They're really sweet," he smiled. "Good for pain too." Reaching forward, he picked a small bouquet and handed me one. For some strange reason, a blush shot through me as our noses brushed.
"Thanks," I murmured, pushing away my doubts about eating flowers. Lipping a petal up, I chewed and swallowed carefully. Instantly, a sugary sweet taste melted over my tongue, like fresh dew and honey. Aden arched his brows at me. "It's good!" I exclaimed, finishing off the rest of the flowers.
"I thought you'd think so," he said with a trace of smugness. "By the way, they're poisonous."
My jaw dropped.
He burst out laughing. "Gotcha!"
Trying to hide my relief, I yelled, "Not funny!" I threw the remaining petals at him; he caught one on his tongue and licked his lips.
"Gosh, that one really hurt. Got any more hideous insults?"
I batted my eyelashes, "Of course-"
"Don't care. See those?" In an instant, he was all business, gesturing to one of those violet-rimmed leaves I had seen before. "Those may look pretty, but the purple stuff is a dangerous poison. It smells really good, so any animal trying to eat at the plant will go through it or lick it up. And then-" He made a strangling noise and whipped his paw across his throat. I shuddered. Who knew a plant could be that evil? The more I learned about this island, the more desperate I was to get off.
And I would make that happen.
As we continued towards the beach, Aden pointed out all kinds of flora and fauna, even catching another tampa. I saw what he had meant by it taking him months to learn to catch one; those little things were lightning fast. Okay, maybe I tried to catch one. And ran into a tree. Told you the plants were evil.
"Here," Aden said as we passed a grove filled with bittersweet-smelling purple berries. He picked up some and crushed out the deep violet juice, then smeared it gently on my throbbing, cut nose with his paw. I was surprised at the cooling relief that soothed my wound, but even more surprised at the tenderness in his touch. "That help?"
"I-" I flushed bright red. "Yeah. Thanks."
Aden said nothing, just raised his head and pricked his ears. I followed suit and made out the roar of waves in the distance. "Finally! The beach!" Without another thought, I bolted for the stretch of sand, and freedom beyond.
I heard Aden call out from behind me, but paid no heed. I just needed to prove them wrong. I could figure out the rest - how to actually get home - later.
My strides ate up the length of beach and carried me straight into the water, which splashed cool and wet around my legs. I kept running, eyes narrowed, till- BLAM!
It was like running into the side of a mountain. I toppled over backwards, gasping for breath, water running down my throat and making me gurgle incoherently. Aden appeared by my side, pelt drenched by my writhing, and locked his jaws around my scruff, hauling me out. "You okay?"
I didn't reply. I pounded my paws against the wall, but it was impossible to describe what that felt like. It wasn't like hitting a surface. It was more like being ready to do something, and then time suddenly freezing right around your paws, immobilizing them unless you pulled them back. After what felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, I gave up running back and forth along the transparent barrier, collapsing into the water. Sand shifted underneath me, and a few waves ricocheted over my head. Still I didn't move.
Finally, Aden said, "Let's get back to the others."
Numb from cold as well as sadness, I got to my feet and shook out my dripping pelt. "Okay." I gave up. What use was there in resisting?
"Lead the way."
For once Aden seemed to feel sorry for me. Maybe he was remembering his own similar experience, finding out there was no escape. Anyway, as we reentered the woods, he said softly, "You'll get used to it. Besides, all's not over."
"What do you mean by that?"
His green eyes twinkled, but there was a veil about them, as if there was something sinister buried in their emerald depths. "You'll see. Come on."
Cautiously, I followed him back, aware that I was turning my back on ShoreClan Rainpaw, and morphing into a new Rainpaw. Rainpaw of the island. But I wouldn't forget ShoreClan. I would find my way back.
"I promise," I whispered to the evening sky. And I intended to keep my promise.
When I awoke, at first I couldn't tell where I was. Instead of the cozy, familiar scents of the ShoreClan apprentice den, I was surrounded by strange pelts, and a canopy of minty-smelling leaves hung over my head, replacing the thickly-woven reeds I was used to. Then, I raised my head and looked around, letting everything come rushing back.
I was no longer home.
Yawning, I got to my paws and shook out my fur. The dawn brought a cooling breeze with it, ruffling my fur and sending a shiver rippling down my spine. Vaguely, I wondered if they had winter here, and what it was like.
"Morning Rainpaw," said a voice from behind me. I turned to see Willa, her slender shape enveloped in a thick clump of tall grass, her dusk-colored eyes observant and clear in the light of the rising sun. I wish I were that pretty.
"Good morning," I greeted her, though I wasn't sure that another day on the island was a good thing. In fact, it was very possibly the worst thing in the world. What were my Clanmates thinking now? What had Tideclaw told them? I desperately hoped they hadn't blamed my brother. It had all been my fault.
Willa glanced about at the others, still on their backs and snoring. "You're up early."
I shrugged. "I slept restlessly."
Her gaze was sympathetic. "The first night is always the hardest. You dream of home all the time, don't you?"
I was silent for a second. Then, "Yeah. But someday, if I don't get out of here, I'm scared I'll forget about them. My family, my Clan."
"Oh Rainpaw." Willa turned away, but her voice sounded choked up. "You never forget. Trust me."
Just then, there was a rustling sound behind us, and Aden emerged, scraps of moss clinging to his ginger fur. His eyes widened slightly when he saw me, like he expected me to snore halfway to noon. I smirked to show him I knew exactly what he was thinking, and that he was completely wrong.
Mostly wrong. I do like my sleep sometimes.
"Since you guys are up, how about a hunt?" Aden asked, giving his pelt a ruffle, then licking it down.
Willa stretched, all trace of sadness gone, save the haunted look in her gray-violet eyes. "Sure."
I sighed dramatically. "I just hope I don't ruin the hunt too badly."
Aden gave me a serious glance. "I hope so too, or we'll have to eat your head instead."
Despite the tension of my situation, I laughed. "Lead the way."
"I'm fine with that." Aden trotted off through the woods. Willa smiled warmly at me.
"Nice. I've never met a she-cat who could put Aden at ease so quickly."
I blinked. "What are you talking about?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. If you knew Aden as long as I have, you'd understand what a miracle it is that he's so nice to you. Teasing, bantering. It usually takes him forever to even speak to a newcomer." Her expression darkened. "Not that we've had one of those in a while."
"Oh," I said, though I didn't really see how Aden could get more distant then he was already. He reminded me of a cougar, wary and alone, powerful and independent, needing no one and nothing. Yet, I was sure he did have a deeper affection for his band of friends then he let on, and that he would never abandon them. A strange feeling of warmth shot through me as I imagined him caring about me that much. Knock it off. If he's as hostile as Willa says, you certainly won't be here long enough for him to actually like you. As a friend.
"Hey, cut the chatter back there," Aden called. "You'll scare off all the prey." Padding back towards us, he said, "Okay Rainpaw. Time for your first hunting lesson on the island. You ready?"
I squared my shoulders. "Bring it on."
Aden glanced at Willa. "We should start easy," he remarked, as if I wasn't there. I bristled at his condescending tone.
Willa shot me an apologetical glance. "I'm sure she can handle it just fine. How about a rook or two? The colony's just thataway."
"A rook? Like a bird?" I said, relieved that there were no exotic names to memorize.
Aden nodded, a gleam in his eyes. "A very petty, dangerous bird."
"What?" I squeaked.
Willa rolled her eyes. "He's just being an idiot. They're not dangerous, though they will divebomb you if you go for their eggs. Follow our lead." She led the way to a massive tree, its branches giving off the raucous cries of awakening seabirds.
"Whoa," I breathed. The trunk alone of the tree was about five times my size, and it extended endlessly towards the sky. "Do we have to climb that?"
"There are easier ways." Aden picked up a large rock. "You ever hear the saying, 'kill two birds with one stone'?"
I watched carefully as he reeled back his paw and let loose, sending the pebble flying into the branches. Seconds later, a nest of straw and grass cascaded to the ground; I heard the crack of the eggs inside. Almost instantaneously, a pair of enraged black-feathered birds shot out of the tree and flew straight towards us. I shrieked, seeing the glint of their black eyes, and the way their long beaks hung open. Aden was reared up to get the first one, but Willa had ducked in to retrieve the eggs. That left only me to grab the second one, or risk having my brains drilled out by an angry father rook.
Here goes nothing.
Forcing myself to keep my eyes open, I waited till Aden had tackled his rook, the smaller female, and the male rook was nearly on top of me. It was much bigger in person, but I didn't give myself time to think it over. I dived forward, ducking under the jabbing beak and clamping my jaws around its middle. It thrashed in my grasp, but I refused to let go. Feeling delicate bird-bones break, I dropped it to the ground and clawed its throat once to make sure it was really dead. Then I grinned foolishly with pride. My first catch out here!
Aden regarded me with something akin to respect in his eyes. "Wow. Didn't know you had it in you."
"Of course I did." I did my best to hide how much his praise pleased me.
Willa came trotting up with the nest in her jaws, three eggs rolling around in a muck of goo which must have been the fourth egg. "Let's get back before the whole colony attacks us."
"Do they all live in that giant tree?" I said as we walked back.
Aden nodded. "Yeah. We call it the Rook Tree. It's pretty useful, though birds aren't nearly as good as tampa or tulin."
"What's a tulin?"
"It's like a rabbit," Willa explained, jumping into the conversation. "But a whole lot tastier, and very fast. They're even harder to catch then tampa."
"Great," I muttered.
As we reentered the clearing where we had slept, Togat raised his head and grinned. "Breakfast! How kind of you guys do do the work for us."
Turby looked up from where he was grooming his black pelt and waddled over. As if he needed anymore prey, I thought rather meanly.
"Eggs," the tom said, rooting about in the nest. He cracked one open and came up with a gooey string of yolk dangling from his mouth. "Yum."
Trying not to be grossed out, I picked up the larger rook and lay it out. Sagewhisker whistled at the size of it. "Nice. Aden, did you catch it? Why aren't you bragging?" Her eyes twinkled. "Or was it Willa?"
I glared at her, trying not to be miffed, since she was technically my Clanmate. "Actually, I caught it."
Turby licked some egg off his paw. "You? No way."
"It's true," Aden vouched for me. "Here Rainpaw. You can take the first bite."
"Wow, good job," Dragonpaw said, tearing open the female rook. I nodded my thanks around a mouthful of bird meat. It felt good to help out. Like I was less of a burden. But I still doubted I was a part of their group. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? To get off the island, I would certainly need their help. I might as well get close, but not too close. It would hurt too much to leave then. I had to remain practical.
"Okay," I said, standing up. "Tell me everything you know about getting off the island."
Dragonpaw blinked at me. "It's impossible Rainpaw. I'm sorry to crush your hopes, but-"
"Nothing is impossible," I said fiercely. "We just have to find a way to do it."
The dark gray tom fell silent, admiration in his eyes. "Okay, okay. How?"
"Who's been here the longest?" I asked.
"Out of us?" Willa asked. "That would be Togat."
I glanced at the tabby tom. "Really?" He nodded wordlessly; I guessed this wasn't a subject he liked to discuss. "So... Were you all alone when you got here?"
Aden's head shot up, and he gave Togat what appeared to be a warning glance. Whatever it was, his friend ignored him. "No. There was another cat here. Even older then me."
I gasped. Aden groaned and shook his head. "Really? What was his name? Where is he now?"
"Her," Togat corrected. "Her name was Rosemary. She... She sort of went crazy after a while. She was half-gone when I got here. I kept her sane for a little more time, but then she was attacked." He shuddered. "By horrible things. Near the volcano. I ran for my life, leaving her for dead. No one ever goes to that side of the island."
"Volcano?" I repeated in disbelief.
Togat nodded. "I'm a hundred percent sure that those creatures were guarding it. It holds secrets, secrets that should never get out."
"That's fox-dung," Aden snapped quickly. "Lies. We can't risk our lives for this."
My mind was racing too fast to register his words. "Left her for dead? But... You don't die on this island. That means she's still alive! She's still out there! And she could have answers to a lot of our questions." I was on a roll now. "The volcano. Why do I feel like that's so important?"
"Stop!" exclaimed Willa. "It's too dangerous, Rainpaw. We can't do it."
I faced her down. "I'm not asking you to come with me. I'll find it myself."
Togat took a step forward to stand beside me. "I'm coming. It's time I righted old wrongs. I shouldn't have left Rosemary there."
Dragonpaw and Sagewhisker exchanged glances. "We're coming too. It'll be better then staying here."
"Okay," Willa sighed.
"Might as well." Turby.
Aden remained impassive, his eyes distant. He appeared to be calculating something. "I wish... I wish you didn't have to go so soon," he whispered. I blinked at him.
"So you're not coming?"
He gave himself a shake hastily. "That's not what I meant. I meant- Never mind. Okay. We're going to the volcano."
"To find Rosemary," I put in.
Determination filled the others' gazes. We could do this.
Branches rustled overhead as we padded through the forest. I could sense that the others were uncomfortable with this, but I shook the feeling off. Maybe the other side of the island was dangerous, but it was my only lead to ever getting out of here. And I had no time to waste. I didn't want to waste my life here. I wanted to go back to ShoreClan and live.
"Thanks for coming," I said awkwardly. The toms said nothing. Sagewhisker smiled, and Willa gave me a sad look, as if she knew we were making a big mistake, but she'd go along with it anyway, just to protect us. I marveled at how serious she looked compared to her young, beautiful features. She should be twirling in the midst of a flock of young toms, not stuck here.
I wondered what cruel cat had set the enchantment on the island to ruin young lives, and my claws dug into the earth. Whoever it was, if I ever encountered them, it would certainly go badly for them. They'd regret ever making the island.
I was sure of that.
Aden glanced at me. He looked like he wanted to say something, but then closed his mouth, gave a tiny shake of his head, and continued walking. I frowned, but brushed off his behavior. He was impossible to read, and I wasn't going to devote all of my time to trying to figure him out. I had other things to worry about.
The sun was high overhead by now, though the canopy of trees overhead blocked most of its glare. We were heading further away from the lake, a fact no one was pleased about. I reminded myself why I was doing this. I couldn't let life slip away like grains of sand in the wind. I had dreams and hopes for the future, and I wanted the chance to make them come true.
Dropping back so I could pad next to Togat, I said, "You're sure of this direction, right?"
He nodded. "You think I could miss a volcano? Trust me. You'll see it soon enough too."
Not sure how good that was, I dipped my head at him. "Thanks for mentioning it. I don't think I'd ever have figured out where to start otherwise."
His smile was small, but genuine. "No problem. I should be thanking you, actually. I was a coward to leave Rosemary there. It's haunted me since then, and believe me, the term 'since then' refers to a long period of time." He gave a rueful smile. "I doubt she'll forgive me, and I can't blame her, but it's worth a try."
"A try," I echoed, staring up at the foliage above. "It's always worth a try."
This time Togat's smile was bigger, and he quickened his pace, like my hope was contagious. I was glad someone was feeling cheerful, because the others all looked like they were attending a funeral. Willa caught my eye and gave me a grin too, which I returned gratefully.
Sagewhisker paused, her gray-flecked pelt brushing against a few fronds of orange-yellow reeds. I noticed that a few of them were tipped with sharp silver needles, and shuddered to think of what might happen if you touched one of those. Seeming to read my thoughts, the she-cat stepped away from the vicious-looking plant. "I think we should stop to hunt now."
Letting out what was quite possibly a sigh of relief, Dragonpaw said, "I agree. How about you and Aden go, and take Rainpaw with you?"
"Why Rainpaw? She doesn't even know how to hunt here," scoffed Aden. I stared at him, but he wouldn't meet his gaze. What was up with him? He had been helping me learn about the flora and fauna of this strange island just a little while ago, and now, suddenly, he was as distant and cold as the moon. But I had bigger things to worry about then Aden's mood swings.
Luckily, Sagewhisker cut in before I could let loose a stream of curses at the ginger tom. "Then this will be the perfect opportunity to teach her some more about hunting. It will only be useful on our journey." Her words were polite, but her eyes were icy.
He shuffled his paws, but said no more; obviously Sagewhisker was well-respected in the group. I couldn't help feeling a little glimmer of pride for the cat I supposed was my Clanmate, in a strange way.
"Okay. You guys do that. We'll wait here." Turby plopped down in the shade of a mint-green plant, nibbling on a blue aili absently.
Determined to prove Aden wrong about me, I sprang after Sagewhisker. The tom padded behind us sullenly, his green eyes seeing right through me. That stung a little- I had considered the option that we could be friends somehow- but I pushed through it.
Hoping to sound professional, I said, "What are we hunting? Rooks? Tampa?"
Aden's look was so scornful it could have curdled milk. "You have to hunt rooks in the morning, when they're just awakening. Right now, they're all out to sea. And tampa are sleeping, hidden away in plants and caches you wouldn't dream of."
Stunned to find myself blinking back tears at his tone, I stared at the ground, reminding myself that I was stronger then this, that I didn't care what that know-it-all said. And then, I got angry. Forget him! I didn't need him.
But I didn't need to start fights either. So I kept my mouth shut, for the greater good.
Sagewhisker spoke then, her tone gentle and sympathetic, soothing to my raw ego. "Don't worry about it Rainpaw. You've only been here a day, and already you're doing better then any other cat when they first came here. How about we catch some drenken instead?"
I blinked. "What are those?"
She broke into a smile. "You'll see. And you'll love them." She took off through the undergrowth.
Feeling a bit better, I tore off after her, careful not to touch any plants that looked suspicious, and not looking to see if Aden was behind me. Seconds later, he overtook me, tumbling me over into a large vine. I let out a small, instinctive shriek, imagining the feel of the tribos around me. Aden turned and raised his eyebrows mockingly at me as I scrambled out. Feeling miserable, and with a yucky green ooze stuck to my fur, I stumbled after the two cats. This sucked.
Resolving not to let my tormentor get away scott-free, I marched up to Aden and hissed, "Watch where you're going, clumsy furball! Knocking over she-cats isn't nice, in case you hadn't noticed."
Meanness glittered in his eyes. "Maybe it wasn't that I didn't notice. Maybe I didn't notice you were a she-cat."
I recoiled in shock, glaring up at him, and hoping desperately he couldn't see the tears pooling in my eyes. As I turned away, I thought I saw a his face twist painfully into regret, but I was sure I imagined it. He didn't care what he did to hurt other cats, and he certainly didn't care what he did to me. He was just a horrid tom, and I didn't know why I had ever thought of him as anything else.
Not that I had thought of him as anything else, but...
Sagewhisker was waiting for us, standing beside a large, fallen log. The dead wood was covered in frescoes of colorful fungi and mosses. Bright purple-and-orange mushrooms flashed their spots like alarm bells, and multi-legged, creepy-looking centipedes crawled across carpets of green. "Don't touch them," Sagewhisker advised. "Your skin will bubble up and scab over."
I shuddered. "Thanks for the advice."
"Though that would be amusing to see," Aden put in. I turned on him, but the look on his face was mild. When he saw my anger though, he gave me a sheepish grin, but didn't bother apologizing.
Still seething, and unwilling to forgive him even if he had apologized, I returned my attention to Sagewhisker. "Where is the drenken?"
Flicking her tail to signal we should stay put, she crouched by the end of the log. "Go to the other end, Aden," she hissed quietly. "Rainpaw, you stay here with me."
I nodded and squatted beside her as Aden slipped away. Once we were sure he had had time to get into position, Sagewhisker outlined her plan. "Any moment, Aden is going to go charging into the log from his side. Our prey is inside; can you smell it?"
As I sniffed the air, I realized I did smell something living under the reek of toadstools and rotting wood. It was vaguely grassy, like the plains wind, and it had a hint of tantalizing warmth that made my mouth water, though it wasn't as enticing as the smell of tampa. "Yeah, I smell it. So he chases it out to us?"
"Something like that. But it's not as easy as it sounds. Even if we appear to have it trapped, the drenken could easily slip our holds. They're fast, long-legged, and not scared to kick or bite." She tilted her head. "Kind of like rabbits, but on a larger scale."
I dipped my tail to show I understood, though my heart was pounding inside my chest. Did I stand a chance against such a hard-to-catch prey? I had to. If I failed, Aden would torture me for the rest of my life, or at least, the remainder of the time I had here. Because I was not staying here forever.
At that moment, I heard the drenken, and I focused on the hunt.
All I had time to make out of the creature were a pair of large, frightened eyes and long outstretched legs. Then it was barreling onto me and past me- No! I had to get it.
Lunging forward with such speed that my hind legs skidded across the ground, I fastened my teeth into the drenken's scruff. The animal was midturn; it broke it's own neck against my jaws as it thrashed violently. Blood filled my mouth, and I spat it out, depositing the fresh-kill on the floor.
Aden came racing through the log, only to stop short when he saw the kill. A hint of amazement- and perhaps admiration?- crossed his gaze. Then he gestured to my bloody muzzle. "Gross."
"Nice kill!" exclaimed Turby as we approached the others.
"Rainpaw caught it," said Sagewhisker.
I blushed. "We all worked together."
Aden rolled his eyes. "Whatever. It isn't enough for all of us, so we brought some aili and waterpods to accompany it."
"Waterpods!" Turby rushed forward and fell on the round green sacks Aden dropped onto the ground. He tore them open along the edges, exposing a translucent gel underneath. I watched as he scooped the mush out and licked his paws.
"Are those good?"
He looked up, whiskers coated with the substance. "Good? They're amazing! I'd live here forever if it meant waterpods everyday."
"You are going to live here forever, mouse-brain," said Dragonpaw.
I glared at him. "No, he isn't. None of us will."
"In that case," Turby mewed around his full cheeks. "I'll have to pack a lifetime supply of waterpods when we leave."
Experimentally, while the others dug into the drenken, I ran my claw around the edge of a waterpod and broke it open. The cool goo spilled out, and I took some on my paw and licked it off carefully. It was wonderful; I could see why Turby liked them. The refreshing taste flooded my mouth, making my tastebuds tingle. "That's delicious!"
"Isn't it?" he agreed.
"Give me meat any day," Togat rumbled, but he was smiling at us. The others were too, particularly at me. Feeling suddenly self-conscious, I raised a paw to my face, wondering if I had waterpod gel all over me.
Willa spoke up. "You fascinate us, Rainpaw. It's been so long since we've had a newcomer, we've almost forgotten the innocence that youth brings. You're a blessing to us."
"Or a curse," Aden said darkly. Then he looked up, as if realizing he'd said it out loud. I expected another mean comment, but he just mumbled, "Sorry," and returned to his drenken.
Feeling slightly confused, I sat down and began to groom my fur, hoping to hide my worry. Why did Aden keep switching personalities? He acted like he wanted to get to know me, but something was preventing him. Would not knowing this detail affect our quest? Did he not want us to succeed? And why?
Suddenly, all the others froze. I pricked my ears, straining to find out what had perturbed them. Then I heard it. A crashing sound, like undergrowth being snapped. Seconds later, the most enormous dog I'd ever seen came bursting in on us. Except it wasn't a dog. "Wolf!" cried Dragonpaw, scrambling to his feet.
Saliva dripped from its mouth, and jagged fangs gleamed yellow. Its green eyes were bloodthirsty and dangerous. Slowly, it advanced on us.
This is it, I thought. I'm going to die.
I stood, frozen in fear, as the wolf scanned us, as if deciding which of us would be the tastiest. I pressed my shaking legs together and tried to appear as untasty as possible, but all that meant was that one of the others would be attacked. What would happen when you were wounded fatally but couldn't die? I shuddered to think about it, feeling sick.
"What do we do?" whispered Sagewhisker, her eyes round.
All of them looked like they regretted coming here, and I realized it was my fault they were in this mess. I had to find a way to fix this.
Pushing away all my fears and doubts, I took a step forward. "Guys, I'll distract it. You all run."
"Works for me," Turby panted; sweat was staining his dark fur.
"No!" Aden said, a little too forcibly. "There has to be another way."
While we were arguing, the wolf had come even closer. It let loose with another growl, blasting us with the rancid smell of rotting meat and death. Just then, my eyes fell on the silver-tipped plant nearby. The needles gleamed like sinister claws. I knew what I had to do.
"Cover me," I hissed to Aden and Dragonpaw. Both toms nodded, moving to block me from the wolf. I darted towards the plant in a sprint. Behind me, I heard a bloodcurdling howl as the wolf gave chase. I chanced a glance over my shoulder, and was shocked to see my friends clinging to the wolf. They were tiny in comparison with the beast, but they were keeping him busy... for now. It was all resting on my shoulders to save them.
Upon reaching the plant, I tore savagely at the sunset-colored reeds, picking the ones with the most dangerous-looking needles at the tips. When I turned around to face the wolf, I almost swooned. It had Aden pinned down on the floor. The ginger tom's shoulder was bleeding profusely, but he didn't even seem to notice; he was slashing out at the wolf with the ferocity of LionClan.
Suddenly, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. I saw the murder in the beast's face as it opened its gaping jaws and dived for Aden's throat. I heard a scream the seemed to come from incredibly far away- later I realized that it was me who screamed-, and the next thing I knew, I had hurled the dart-tipped reed straight towards the wolf's head.
The trance was broken. Letting out an earsplitting scream of pain, the wolf stumbled backwards. The silver needle had lodged directly in its forehead. Already a swollen red boil had bubbled up, spraying blood everywhere. Aden wriggled out from under its grasp, stumbling back against Willa, who steadied him. The wolf stared at me, its eyes blazing with pure fury; I took a step backwards. Its message was clear: We will meet again, and you won't be so lucky that time.
But for now, the wolf could only paw at its nose helplessly, turn, and crash headlong into the underbrush.
Turning to the others, I said hopefully, "I don't suppose that could've killed him?"
Togat shook his head in amazement. "No, but he'll be in a lot of pain for the next few days."
The others were all staring at me in wonder, like I was some kind of hero or something. I wasn't comfortable with that at all; it was my fault they had gotten into this mess at all.
I cleared my throat, preparing to apologize, when Turby spoke.
"That was pretty epic, yo. Thanks."
I blinked. "Excuse me?"
The others crowded around me, all jostling to congratulate, thank, or laugh with me. I felt overwhelmed. "Guys, you shouldn't- I mean, it was my problem. I just solved it. I would never have forgotten if you guys had gotten hurt."
Aden didn't join the others, and I saw the gash in his shoulder; guilt squeezed at my heart. As the others settled down to rest,- the battle had worn them out- I walked over to him.
"I'm sorry," I said softly. When he didn't respond, I added awkwardly, "I didn't mean for you to get hurt. Maybe if I had been a little quicker, I-"
He looked up, his green eyes full of bewilderment and a more pained emotion. "How can you do that?"
Taken aback, I mewed, "Do what?"
He gestured wildly with his tail, staring at me as if taking me in for the first time. I felt suddenly self-conscious of my rumpled fur and torn claws. "Act like that. So sweet and innocent, after I was so mean to you. Don't you know it's killing me? I don't want to like you. I can't like you." He hung his head, panting, sweat glistening on his coat and turning it to flame.
"I- I don't understand. What are you talking about?" I stammered, completely confused.
"Rainpaw..." he groaned, closing his eyes as if to shut out my face.
I was beginning to feel angry. "If you want me to leave, just say so! You don't have to be so incredibly rude!" Tears stung the back of my eyes, and this time I couldn't hold them back, not after the trauma of facing the wolf.
As the first waterfall of tears spilled down my cheeks, all of the ice left Aden's expression, as if torn from him by an invisible force. "I'm so sorry," he said softly.
Flinching back from him, I said, "For what? You don't care if you hurt me. You said all those things deliberately."
"Yes," he said in exasperation. "So you would become hateful towards me. So I couldn't like you, no matter how much I tried."
This was making absolutely no sense to me. "Why don't you want to like me?"
Instantly, his expression became closed and guarded. "Never mind," he said, lashing his tail. "You can't understand. You haven't been here long enough. You don't understand how it feels..."
I took a step closer. "I could try."
His lashes lowered- I had never noticed how surprisingly long they were for a tom's- and brushed his cheek in the most innocent, kit-like way. I motioned to his shoulder brusquely to rid myself of the warm feeling that was spreading through my chest. "You should get a salve on that."
He raised his eyebrows. "Playing doctor, huh? I probably know more about herbs then you."
"On this island," I said haughtily. "I haven't been here as long as you."
I half-expected him to be offended by this, but he just laughed and turned towards a nearby berry-laden bush. He picked up several of the crimson berries, crushed them, and applied the juice to his shoulder. The scarlet juice mingled with his blood, looking frightening in the light. I picked up a leaf and pressed it against his wound, both trying to stop the bleeding and protect the torn flesh.
"You don't have to do that," he whispered, his eyes drifting shut at my touch.
Hoping I hadn't hurt him, I dropped my paw. "I'd do it for anyone."
His eyes flew open, and he fixed me with that stunning emerald gaze of his. I felt the irrepressible need to say something; as a result, I decided to start babbling. "It's okay if you don't want to like me, but... I think we could be friends. You know, if you wanted. It's not like we can escape each other."
Aden continued looking at me, and the expression on his face was tortured. He shook his head at me. "You can't stop, can you? You have to be like this, all the time. It's who you are."
"Okay." He took a deep breath, giving me a brave smile. "Let's try it. Let's be friends."
I smiled and turned to join the others, but not before I caught the rest of his words. A shiver ran through me, despite myself.
"Even if it kills you."
"You okay, Rainpaw?" Willa asked as I flopped down a foot away from her.
Managing to squeeze up a smile, I gave her a nod. "Just kinda tired." I didn't want to burden her by whining about tom problems to her; after all the years she'd been stranded that would probably seem ridiculously shallow to her.
Her smile was sympathetic. "I think we all are. We're planning to rest for about an hour before continuing onward."
Togat raised his head. "I'm warning you guys, it's probably going to get worse from here on out. It's like some invisible force is trying to protect that volcano, and Rosemary was pretty close to it when I left. She might not be there, but..."
"She will be there. We can't have come all this way for nothing," I insisted. "And we can handle it. Together. We'll work as a team."
Willa smiled. "Sounds like a plan to me."
Unfortunately, my proclamations about being a team were defeated the instant Dragonpaw tried to wake me up. I hit him in the face and yelled, "Leave me alone you fire-breathing wolf!"
As you can imagine, this amused Aden to no end. I thought he would explode, he was laughing so hard.
"Sorry," I muttered sheepishly to Dragonpaw, who nodded but stayed out of range of my paws.
Shaking out his fur so that his plump sides jiggled, Turby stretched and said, "Right. Everyone ready to go then?"
"It appears so," Sagewhisker affirmed, getting to her paws and shaking grass off her pelt.
Having gotten control of his childish spasm of laughter, Aden motioned towards our destination. "Come on then. What are we waiting for?"
"You know," Togat mewed as we started walking, "Once these trees clear a bit, we'll be able to see the volcano. In fact, I seem to remember there being a clearing just up ahead. You guys can see where we're going then."
Sagewhisker raised one eyebrow. "And is that a good thing?"
The tom's jaw set. "You'll have to decide that for yourselves."
A flutter of nervousness appeared in my belly as I tried to steel myself for what was to come. Surely it couldn't be that bad? I mean, anything to get off this place was worth it, wasn't it?
As if on cue, the trees did start clearing away, becoming more sparse. All of a sudden, I wasn't so sure about seeing the volcano. But it was too late.
Just ahead of me, Dragonpaw stopped so suddenly that I ran into him. "Whoa." The tom's eyes were huge.
Gulping, I followed his gaze... and nearly fainted.
Though we were still a good distance from the volcano, it was still gargantuan. Its peak scraped the belly of the heavens, and clouds covered its summit like a fluffy white garland. "Whoa is right," I agreed.
"We have to go there?" breathed Willa.
"We just have to find Rosemary," I corrected.
Togat suddenly didn't look too thrilled about meeting his old friend- which I kind of got given that he abandoned her, but still. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" he said.
I felt the need to point out, "It's the only one we have, you know."
He gave himself a shake. "Right. Sorry. It's just..."
"Hard," Sagewhisker supplied. "We know. But if we want to ever get out of here, we'll have to do it." She glanced at Aden with a sharpness in her gaze that made me wonder...
Ridiculous. They wouldn't keep secrets from me. And even if Aden would, surely Sagewhisker wouldn't? We're practically Clanmates!
Reassuring myself with this thought, I said, "How are we going to find Rosemary anyway? Do we just walk around the volcano, calling her name?"
Bushes rustled behind us, and we all whirled as one. Togat's eyes widened. Willa gasped. I just stared.
"Hello. I think you're looking for me. I'm Rosemary."
She wasn't old.
Pathetically, that was the first thing I noticed about Rosemary. I had imagined some sort of hideous, shriveled up beast with yellow eyes and gnarled claws. Instead, I was faced with a gorgeous creature. Dewy green eyes peered out from under gold-tipped lashes, and a coat as rich and glossy as caramel sparkled in the light. This was not what I had been expecting at all.
Since none of my friends were talking, apparently still too shellshocked to do so, I said, "Yes, um, I guess we are looking for you..." before trailing off helplessly.
Raising her eyelids delicately, she pursed her lips. "Togat." Though her face was as serene as ever, I detected a trace of bitterness in her voice, and noticed the muscles in her jaw bulged as she clenched it firmly, as if biting back some harsher words.
The tom was unable to meet her eyes, shuffling his paws and clearing his throat. "Rosemary. It's so good to see you again."
"I'm sure it is," she said quietly.
After a few awkward moments, I realized everyone was waiting for me to speak; it had been my idea to come here in the first place, and that made me responsible for everything. "I'm Rainpaw," I blurted out unceremoniously. "And this is Turby, Aden, Dragonpaw, Sagewhisker, and Willa. I take it you already know Togat."
Rosemary glanced at each of us. "I see he has been growing his collection of cats."
Instantly, my ears pricked. "He? Who are you talking about?"
The she-cat clammed up immediately, nervousness gleaming in the glistening emerald depths of her eyes. "The one who keeps us here," she whispered quietly.
So that was it. There was someone behind this cursed island. The dark presence I had felt in the woods was real. A chill shot through me as I thought this. "And... what does he want from us? Why is he keeping us here?"
"There wasn't supposed to be another cat..." She studied me keenly, eyebrows raised. "It couldn't be, could it?"
"That's quite enough," Aden interrupted quickly. "Let's move to another subject."
I whirled on him. "No! Let me hear what she has to say." I was determined to understand why the others were acting so strange about my arrival. No more secrets. One way or another, the truth was coming out.
Looking a bit taken aback, Rosemary sat down and studied us coolly. Despite her original friendliness, there was a strange quality about her, one which showed me she really had been alone all this time. It would be enough to drive anyone mad, wouldn't it? It seemed to me that the reason my friends had survived sanely for so long was because they had each other. Being alone forever... it was too horrid to contemplate.
"Why should I tell you what you want to know? What will it accomplish? What tells me you won't run off once you have the information, and leave me all alone again?" Here her gaze locked with Togat's. The tom's shoulders slumped and he shook his head, despair written all over his face.
Gently, I mewed, "I can't make you trust me. But I can promise you I won't leave you alone, ever. It goes against the warrior code."
When she gave me a bewildered look, I realized she had probably never met a Clan cat in her life, having already separated from Togat when Sagewhisker and Dragonpaw arrived. "Look, never mind that. We came here because you've been on the island the longest, and we thought you could help us. Give us much needed information about this place, why it's here, and how to get out. We came all this way..."
"You shouldn't have." There was no sympathy in her tone. "This is a dangerous place. I'm not giving you answers. You'll have to hurry back home, that is, unless you get killed first. You have no idea the kinds of horrors that lurk here."
A crease formed on Willa's pretty brow. "I don't get it... Togat said you were attacked, and you say this place is flooded with monsters. How are you still alive then?"
Slowly, a gruesome smile spread across Rosemary's face, the likes of which I had never seen before. It scared me out of my wits. Even Aden took a step back. The she-cat stood, and, her movements slow and thick as molasses, turned around.
Black spots danced across my vision. Bile rose in my throat. I couldn't bear to look, but I couldn't look away. Watching with a horrified fascination, my eyes traced the long, deep grooves in her back. Some were faded and discolored, clumped with dried blood. Others were new and fresh, with pus oozing from them. She must be in so much pain...
It was the last straw. The thought that this could happen to another cat drove me crazy. I toppled backwards in a dead faint.
"Rainpaw? Wake up."
Through a haze such as one on a summer day, I peered up at the cat standing over me. "Aden?" My voice came out as a croak. My head hurt, and most of all, my heart hurt. As I slowly stood, the memories came rushing back, just as I found myself face-to-face with Rosemary.
Her tone was hard, but I thought I saw real concern reflected in her face. In some part, where the loneliness and the pain had not driven out every ounce of spirit, she was still a kind cat. The rest of her was... lost. "Well, lucky you, fainting. Meanwhile, I'm the one who's actually suffering, you know."
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
Dragonpaw looped his tail protectively over mine. "It's not her fault."
I thought I saw Aden bristle slightly as the apprentice defended me; I was sure I imagined it.
"Yes, it is." Taking a deep breath, I faced Rosemary. "Whether you'll tell us what we want to know or not, we have to get you out of here. No cat can stay here. It isn't right."
A sadistic sneer showed on her face. "Listen, Miss Hero. You can't save everyone. I can't leave here. I know too much. He's put a shield around this place. You're lucky you got here without being ripped to shreds by a wolf or a cougar."
"We met a wolf," mewed Willa.
At the same time, Turby squeaked, bug-eyed, "Cougar?"
My mind was racing a mile a minute. "So thanks to this mysterious captor, you can't leave the area surrounding the volcano?" Rosemary nodded. "That's insane!"
Sagewhisker's shoulders slumped. "Then I guess we came all this way for nothing. We'll have to go back and-"
"Nonsense." Already a new plan was formulating in my mind. This time, I knew it would work. Because we would be going into the belly of the beast. "You know what this means, right guys? It means we can free all of us from everything, the island and the volcano area. We can save Rosemary from... pain." I squared my jaw. The thought of what had been done to Rosemary sealed my decision. "We have to go into the volcano."
To say that my suggestion was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response would have been the biggest understatement of the year. The chorus of "NO!" nearly knocked me off my paws. When I regained my bearings, I stared at the group wide-eyed. "Why? We've got a lead, guys! And we can take Rosemary with us. Surely you can't believe we could leave her here?"
At this, Rosemary bristled. "I don't need your sympathy.
"But you need our help." Aden's voice was surprisingly gentle for such a rough-'n-tumble tom. "And we can help you. I think Rainpaw's right."
I smiled at him thankfully, but there was something off about his reaction. Instead of looking happy to help, he looked like he was sickened with himself, and wouldn't meet my eyes. Once again, I realized how little I knew about Aden, about how he had been before he had come here, and about his life here so far. All I knew was that his masculine exterior hid a hurting inside, and okay, that he was incredibly handsome. Not enough to define him as a good guy. Still, he had stuck with me so far, and there was no need to pick a fight with him. Especially not with the way he looked right now, pitiful and adorable, with a shock of ginger fur pressed down in a cowlick over his startling green eyes.
"I think she's out of her mind," Turby huffed. "Going into a volcano? That has never been a good idea. I don't want to die!" The last line was said with a note of hysteria.
The realization that he was right swamped over me. "Okay. No one has to come. It's not an obligation. I'll go myself if I have to."
"I'm coming." I'm shocked to hear the words come from Rosemary. Her eyes glimmered with tears, but I realized they weren't from the pain, they were from the heartbreaking weight of hope. Hope that her ordeal could finally end. "It's my only chance."
Clearly moved, Willa mewed, "I'm coming too."
Aden let out a gusty sigh. "Well, I'm obviously coming." He gave me a shoulder-bump that I guessed was supposed to be friendly, but nearly made me swoon. Both out of him being a heartthrob and out of him being stronger then I was, and nearly shoving me to the ground. I grinned up at him affectionately, surprised at how relieved I was to hear it. Despite all my misgivings, I really had come to care for him. All of them. I wanted them all to come.
"Is that it?" I asked nonchalantly, hoping desperately that it wasn't.
With an overly-dramatic sigh, Turby said, "I guess I don't want to be left behind."
"Me too," Dragonpaw chimed in.
Sagewhisker smile benignly. "I'm definitely in the plan. We need to get out of here."
All eyes turned to Togat. He glanced uncomfortably at Rosemary. For a moment, the she-cat glared back at him. Then her posture relaxed, and she padded over and licked him on the cheek. She murmured something I couldn't hear, but whatever it was, it took instant effect. Togat raised his head, his normally calm face alight with spirit.
My smile was wide enough to swallow the sea. "Great. Let's get started."
Giving a gusty sigh, I turned to the others. "Do you think it's about time for a rest?"
We had been walking all day, and by now we were in the cooling - and extremely frightening - shadow of the volcano. At my words, Turby gave an exultant shout and dropped like a log. Taking that for a yes, I sunk down into the soft, lush grass, so that the tips tickled my nose and flower petals rubbed against my ears. It felt good to just rest, letting the tension and tiredness ebb out of my taut muscles. I could stay like this forever, though I knew that wasn't right.
"I'm going to go hunting," Willa announced.
Togat got to his paws and trotted over to her. "I'll come with you," he offered. She dimpled daintily, and I recognized a special quality to her smile, one that I'd seen on my mother's face when she was around my father. An odd thought struck me. Did Willa like Togat? As the two cats disappeared into the undergrowth, I mulled over this possibility. She was kind to him, but then again, Willa was kind to everyone, as long as you didn't get on her bad side. And yet, I couldn't shake that thought that she really did like Togat.
If she did, did he like her back? Willa was gorgeous; any tom would be lucky to have her, but Togat was so quiet, it was hard to tell what he thought. And after being trapped here for years, wouldn't you lose the part of you that called for a mate? I mean, exactly how long was "eternity together" supposed to last? I was sure most mates who thought it was possible had never been faced by a curse that actually made it a reality.
The prospect of romance had never been prevalent in my own life; I was too much of a tomboy, and I think most ShoreClan toms were actually scared of me. However, in the silky dusk of this exotic island, I found myself ensnared by the fantasies that every she-cat dreams: a knight in shining armor, come to save her from the evil one. In my case, I had no idea who the evil one was, but I'd seen enough of his work to know that he deserved a punishment worse then death. Every time I thought of Rosemary, always suffering and in pain, I felt my heart clench painfully.
"Hey. You okay? You look kinda sick."
I glanced up into Aden's handsomely featured face, blushed, and looked away. "Yeah." I thought it was odd; for someone who wanted themselves to hate me, Aden seemed to ask me if I was okay a lot, like he couldn't help himself.
When he remained silent, obviously either waiting for an elaboration or not believing me, I said, "It's just... What happened to Rosemary really threw me through a loop, you know? It's awful. I want to help her so much. It's redoubled my determination. We have to get out of this place."
Once again, that queer expression came onto Aden's face, the guilty one that made him look like he was hiding something. It gave me the chills. But then he said, "Yeah. I'll help you with that."
"You're the best," I said, then halted, startled. Where had that come from? And yet those words came naturally.
For perhaps the first time, Aden was blushing. "I... Do you want to go for a walk? I mean, a hunt. Or whatever," he said abruptly.
"Um, sure," I said, not able to hide my surprise. Getting up, I followed him into the forest.
The aromas of the island woods wrapped around us like a curtain. I imagined it must smell like home to Aden, after all those years, but to me it was still strange and nerve-racking. Instinctively, I huddled closer to Aden, then blushed and pulled away when our flanks touched. He didn't seem to mind though; he glanced at me out of the corner of his eye and gave me a shy smile. I returned it.
After a bit, I mewed, "Are we hunting?"
He nodded, seemingly jolted out of his thoughts. "I'm not sure what the wildlife and prey is like around here. It might be different; you just never know here."
I nodded as if disappointed; like I actually cared. The less time we hunted, the more time we'd have to talk and get to know each other. "So Aden, what was your life like before you came here?"
Giving me a surprised look, he said, "Well, I was a loner. I kept to myself and learned to survive that way. It was a pretty harsh way to grow up, but it taught me some good life lessons. They've helped me a lot during my time here."
"And..." I paused, not sure exactly how to phrase my next question. "You miss everyone you left behind, right? Your family, friends... mate."
"I- My family and I never got along." His jaw tightened visibly; I could tell this was a sore subject with him, and regretted bringing it up. But my curiosity was appeased with his next answer: "And I've never had a mate. Never wanted one." I must've recoiled, because he glanced up with a sheepish smile on his face. "That is... I thought I was too young. I never thought any she-cat could really capture my heart." He cleared his throat gruffly. "I'll kill you if you tell anyone I said this, but I've always thought the heart was rather delicate. Precious. You shouldn't give it away easily."
Hanging onto his every word, I murmured, "So true..."
As if by an invisible instinct, we both stopped, turning to face each other. I guess a shock of fur must have been sticking up on my forehead - how embarrassing! - because he leaned over and licked it down. A hot sensation tingled through me at his touch. When he drew back, he didn't go all the way, so our faces were only inches apart. "Rainpaw," he whispered my name into the fragrant air, like a beautiful song.
And that was when we were attacked.
When the boar first burst through the bush, I did nothing, only stared like an idiot. Then someone - I later realized it was me - began screaming in pure panic.
It hurt when Aden shoved me, but it also saved my life, throwing me into a prickly patch of nettles and out of the path of the charging boar. The sting of the nettles was nothing compared to the rending pain in my heart as I watched Aden speared on the end of that boar's tusks.
Something crazy and wild and possessed came over me, and I threw myself at the beast with the sense of a goose and the fury of a lion. Thick, solid hide was shredded beneath the frenzy of my claws. My teeth closed down at anything warm and living beneath me, seeking only to kill and end the hated life that was below me. Blinded by rage, I hardly noticed when Willa raced into the clearing with a yell, and didn't realize the boar's extra squeals of pain were caused by Togat, Sagewhisker, and Dragonpaw, all darting in and tearing at the flesh of the beast. My only focus was killing the boar, and when it finally collapsed, I staggered off it, blood running down my forehead, and collapsed by Aden's side.
The event had happened so suddenly that I hardly had time to register grief. Willa's face was gaunt with terror, and her dusky eyes held volumes of despair so great the ocean couldn't hold them. At first I thought, He's going to die. But with a sickening feeling, I realized that couldn't happen, and the full weight of what Aden's life would be like struck me. Looking up into Rosemary's eyes - for she had suffered similarly - I pleaded, "What can we do?"
Sagewhisker was pressing large leaves against the gore-wounds; already the makeshift bandages were being darkened to scarlet. Turby looked as if he was about to be sick, and Dragonpaw gave the boar such a hard kick that his paw made a cracking sound(the kick had no effect on the actual boar). I could see that Aden was important to all of them, and I made up my mind to save him from Rosemary's fate, even if it meant killing him myself, to spare him the eternal pain.
And nothing was going to stop me.
Unfortunately, my resolve lasted about two seconds. When I reached Aden, and he opened his green eyes into mine, I broke down and wept like a kit. Grief poured over me like a thick, suffocating river. Over the pulse pounding in my ears, I heard Aden say something, but I couldn't make it out. It didn't sound like he was talking to me. It sounded like he was talking to himself, or something no one else could see. He was pleading... begging... and then agreeing to something in sullen submission.
Too distraught to register the meaning of his words, I buried my face in his blood-soaked fur and wept, till a gentle, disbelieving touch on my shoulder made me lift my head. At first, I didn't see what Willa and the others were gaping at. Aden's fur was still soaked with blood, and the wound was still...
The wound was gone.
At first I was unable to comprehend what that meant. Then Aden said, "Rainpaw-" and the sound of his voice dissolved me.
"You're alive!" I screamed, practically hurling myself at him, then catching myself at the last moment. "You're alive. You're gonna be okay!"
Aden didn't look ecstatic about this fact. He hung his head and whispered, "Rainpaw... I'm so sorry. I hope that someday you'll forgive me for this."
Before I could ask him what he meant, his claws were at my throat.
I didn't really react right away. My eyes sort of bugged out, and my mouth flapped like a fish's, but those were only physical reactions to the pressure on my throat. Inside, I was numb. I saw Sagewhisker scream, but I couldn't hear her over the roaring in my ears. The next thing I knew, Dragonpaw had shoved me back, and Willa had Aden pinned down. She snarled something into his face, but I still couldn't hear. Mutely, I staggered against Dragonpaw, and he curled his tail around me to hold me up.
Processing what happened next was difficult. Aden stood, still no sign of his life-injuring wound. A feral gleam had entered his green eyes, but before he turned to go, he met my eyes. And I saw pain in his gaze. More pain than I had even imagined Rosemary to be in, with her open wounds. He looked like his heart had been torn out and left in shreds.
But... so had mine.
The roaring and the numbness were gone, leaving a sickening certainty. Aden had just tried to kill me, and now he was gone. The real, ugly truth.
"Rainpaw, it's going to be okay. Everything's going to be fine." Willa's voice was gentle, and her breath was soft and warm on my face. I gazed into her dusky eyes, desperately wishing I could believe her. I guess I looked nothing like the determined, stubborn, indomitable Rainpaw they knew. I looked like a little kit that had been crushed.
Togat cleared his throat awkwardly, then shuffled his paws. Turby gazed at the floor. Sagewhisker and Rosemary looked as stunned as I had first felt. "Why would he do that?" Sagewhisker whispered. "I know Aden's always been a little... angry, but this... and to Rainpaw, of all cats."
I saw no reason why Aden wouldn't specifically attack me. He obviously hated me. He'd been playing me all this time, and I had fallen for it like the dingbat I was.
And yet in some small part of me, I wondered why he hadn't killed me immediately. On our walk together, when we were alone... why hadn't he killed me then? Why had he fought to protect me from the boar? It made no sense. It didn't add up.
But the sum was devastatingly clear. Aden was gone, and I could never trust him again.
All I was left with was a broken heart.
"So... should we rest here before going to the volcano?" Togat said. Willa shot him a glare, and he deflated instantly.
At this point, I really didn't care if we made it out of the island or not. I didn't care if I lived for eternity or died for eternity.
I was done.
In my dream, I could hear my brother, Tideclaw, calling my name. He kept calling, but every time I tried to locate the sound of his voice, he seemed to move farther away.
"Wait! Don't leave me," I screamed hoarsely. But there was no reply this time. Only the endless sound of waves hitting the shore and shattering into a million glistening droplets. The sounds of the island.
And that's when I realized I couldn't give up. I just couldn't.
When I got up, Sagewhisker smiled down at me. "Evenin' sleepyhead."
Glancing around, I said, "Where are the others?" Only Turby and Rosemary were visible; the former was asleep, the latter watching me keenly.
"Hunting. We weren't sure what was going to happen now, but Rosemary, Dragonpaw and I decided we're going to the volcano no matter what." Stopping to gauge the expression on my face, she said cautiously, "It's fine if you don't come Rainpaw. You really don't have to, after all this. We thank you for getting us motivated enough to seek justice, and-"
"I'll come. How could I not come?" I interrupted.
My "Clanmate" - nay, my family - smiled at me. "That's what I thought you'd say."
Just then, the others arrived, carrying a few tampa, drenken, and one rook. Togat also had a few waterpods, which made Turby squeal with joy. Seeing the wary glances they gave me, I stepped forward and smiled. "It's okay guys."
To explain a bit more, Sagewhisker put in, "The mission's on."
Amazingly, all of them seemed relieved. Perhaps I wasn't the only one who cared about freedom after all. After seeing me nearly killed... maybe it, combined with everything else, had brought us together even more. Or maybe this entire journey had done that. I wasn't sure, but I was glad of it, whatever had happened.
We settled down to eat. I was painfully aware of what seemed to be a big, gaping hole in our structure, the place Aden used to fill. There were no sarcastic remarks. I didn't look up to find his piercing green eyes on me. I didn't have to listen to him boast about his hunting skills or criticize mine.
And oddly, I wished I could've.
As I was blissfully enjoying a particularly delicious bite of tampa, I suddenly heard a shriek. My eyes popped open in time to see a shocked looking Willa get to her feet, waterpod gel smeared all over her face. An unashamed Turby mumbled a, "Sorry," and grinned at her.
"Why you-" she exclaimed, reaching for one of the waterpods. Deftly, she slit it open and stepped on it, causing gel to explode all over Turby- and me, as I happened to be sitting next to him.
After a brief second of silence, I hurled a waterpod back at Willa, and a full-fledged gel-fight ensued. We were slipping and sliding in the slippery substance, laughing and getting it caught in our coats and faces, and rarely in our mouths. Togat tackled Dragonpaw and smeared gel all over his face, and even Rosemary relented and picked up a few pods to chuck at us- all while criticizing our childishness.
Finally, laying on our backs and looking up at the thick tangle of foliage above, we let out a collective sigh of relaxation.
Then, grimly, Willa got to her paws. "We've got to get going."
"We're gonna travel at night?" Turby asked, clambering up and shaking pieces of dried gel off his slick black fur.
"Looks like we're going to have to. The sooner we get to the volcano, the sooner we can get answers, and help for Rosemary," I said.
Upon hearing her name, Rosemary's head shot up. She looked a bit astonished, and at first I wasn't sure why. Then her lovely green eyes filled with tears, and she whispered, "You really do care after all, then. All of you."
It took me a moment to realize what this meant to her after years of loneliness. Togat, however, was thankfully more emphatic than block-headed old me, and he wrapped his tail around Rosemary- careful not to touch any of her wounds. "Of course we care about you," he whispered into her fur.
I saw Willa's eyebrows go up at the tom's evident affection for Rosemary. She seemed about to butt in, but then her gentle spirit seemed to intervene. Selflessly, she turned away, though I didn't miss the sadness in her eyes. I knew the feeling.
Shaking away all thoughts of Aden, I raised my head. "Okay guys. Volcano or bust."
"Meep," Turby said.
I could now see why traveling at night was an unappreciated, though tolerated, endeavor. If the forest was dangerous during the day, it was dangerous and spooky at night. Long vines reached out to grab at us. The hiss of tribos echoed in the undergrowth. Poisonous lizards glowed like little neon spotlights against the silent trunks of trees. All in all, not a very pleasant experience. I was so glad I was with a group of cats; going it alone would've undoubtedly led to a panic attack. |}