Sunset - A young kit destined to be the next leader of the tribe. An outsider among them and a rebel at heart.
Birdwing - The leader of the tribe. Seclusive and reserved. Is rumored to have lynx genes in her blood.
Shine - The mother of Sunset, taken in by the tribe as prisoner. More than she appears.
Bluebird - Healer of the tribe, and overall the voice of reason. Is second in command and receives great respect.
Rustle - The jokester of the tribe. Loves to play pranks and goof around. Doesn't act his age.
Check out artwork of them here.
They called themselves the Tribe of Bird's Wings.
Not so long ago they had been a part of another tribe, a large and far reaching group who resided in a high moor. The exposed and dangerous terrain had convinced a small group to split off from the large tribe and find their footing elsewhere. Like birds they had flown from the nest towards new and uncharted territory, and in honor of their new name their leader had taken on the title Birdwing. And so their legacy began, and generations passed. Always the mantle of Birdwing stayed with the leader, commanding respect and authority.
There came a time though, when things began to change.
A blue-gray molly, the current holder of the title Birdwing, sat in a cave filled with small pools of water. A single shaft of light created a dim, ethereal glow. A boom of thunder roared in her ears. As she looked in one pool, she saw her reflection, but then it disappeared and the reflection of a small, orange kitten with a dark ginger stripe across his forehead appeared.
She heard footsteps running up to her cave, the squeak of kits, and the hunters and scouts running after them. She got up quickly. A pale gold queen burst into the light, with a two kits behind her. One kit was pale gold like her mother, and then she saw the other one. It was orange with a ginger stripe on it's forehead. She stared at it, horrified.
The hunters and scouts circled the pale gold queen and the two kits. The pale gold queen looked around in panic. "Why have you come?" Birdwing demanded.
"I need shelter, and it's storming outside." the pale gold queen said in a shaky voice. "I am Shine, and these are my kits, Gold and Sunset. Please, Gold is very sick." The pale gold kitten looked around with crusted eyes and trembling limbs.
"We will help your kit and let you stay, on one condition," Birdwing said.
"Anything," Shine agreed desperately.
"The ginger kit, Sunset, must stay with our tribe. You may stay or go as you please with your other kit, but the ginger one must stay," Birdwing declared. "He will become one of us. If you can prove your loyalty, you may stay as well."
"I accept." she conceded. The group of tribe members shared shocked glances at their leader's generous and almost careless offer.
"How old are your kits?" Birdwing asked.
"They are only half a moon old," Shine babbled.
"Now, follow me to your new den. Birdwing flicked her tail at a brown molly and a blueish-gray molly. "Heather, Puddle, come with me." she said. The two shared dubious glanced, but followed nevertheless. The group padded up to a small crevice in the cave's wall that led to a cozy alcove.
"You will stay in this den at all times. Guards will be posted at the entrance," Birdwing meowed impassively, her tail flicking.
"Guards?" Shine squeaked, her eyes wide.
"You are a prisoner until you prove your loyalty," Birdwing said. She then turned to a blue molly who was padding near. "Bluebird, take this kit and see if you can do anything for her."
"No wait! What are you going to do to my kit?" Shine wailed. "Please, let me stay with her!"
"You will stay in this den unless otherwise instructed," Birdwing snapped. "That is our deal." Birdwing handed off the sick kit to Bluebird. Bluebird padded away soundlessly with the pale gold kit in her jaws, disappearing into the tunnels.
"Don't hurt her!" Shine began to plead in a frenzy. "Please don't hurt her!"
"Get in your den!" Birdwing screeched, looming over Shine. Shine's ears flattened and she scrambled into the darkness of the den, her other kit close behind her. Puddle and Heather flinched and cast their eyes downward.
"Guard them until I send relief," Birdwing growled. Heather and Puddle quickly stationed themselves in front of the den with wide eyes. Birdwing turned around and stalked away, her tail thrashing. Retreating back to the Cave of Reflections, she looked back down at the pool. The ginger kit's reflection still shimmered on its surface.
With a broken yowl, Birdwing smashed her paws into the pool and broke the reflection into a thousand shards.
It had been two moons since they were taken as prisoners. In that time, Shine had tried as best she could to make the den feel like home. Her and her other kit, Sunset, were seldom let out to converse with the other tribe members, and even during those times they could see the hostility burning behind every tribe members facade of friendliness. They were a group not fond of outsiders, much less those let into the tribe without proper trials.
Every once and a while, the tribe's healer, Bluebird, would come in and let them know how the sick kit, Gold, was doing. She assured them the kit was making a strong recovery.
On their first day, Sunset noticed something small. Something so small that the bigger cats would have overlooked it, would have dismissed it.
"Mom, see that crack? Maybe I could fit through it out during the night. I'd go back to the waterfall, and meet up with Fallen." Sunset had suggested quietly. "Then he could come to save us."
"Yes, but do you know the way?" Shine asked.
"Show me," Sunset replied eagerly.
Shine explained the entire route to him fervently. Sunset nodded. He would remember. Every day he spent drawing the route in his mind's eye, reciting the landmarks he had to look for. And tonight the plan would be put in action.
Sunset looked out through the crack. Cats were sleeping. "Goodbye mom." Sunset said. Tears came to his eyes.
"I love you!" she whispered. "Find Gold and keep each other safe. You'll need her on the journey to protect each other. I'll be waiting."
Sunset squeezed through the crack and tiptoed through the cave, not making a sound. Following his sisters scent, he slipped into a den filled with strange plants and smells. Gold was curled up on a small nest of moss and feathers.
"Gold, wake up!" Sunset hissed in her ear. Gold's ear twitched and her eyes cracked open.
"Sunset?" she yawned.
"Come'on, we're getting out!" Sunset prodded. Gold blinked in surprise.
"What?" she squeaked.
"Sssh," Sunset hushed her. "We're going back to the waterfall to get Fallen for help." Gold's eyes lit up and she got out of her nest. They shared a nod and then crept out towards the entrance.
When they came to the entrance, they saw a guard posted there. But then when they heard his loud snoring, they realized he was asleep! They giggled. Some guard he is! Sunset thought in amusement. They slipped out into the silent night.
Sunset looked around the forest. It sure was spooky at night. He noticed a twisted tree and an owl hooted in the distance. Sunset and Gold quickly hid in the swamp. They knew that if the owl saw them, they would become dinner.
"Um..why don't we just walk far enough that the tribe won't find us, and then settle in for the night?" Sunset said. Gold nodded, her eyes wide. As they walked through the forest, they heard a rustle in the leaves, a hoot, and a squeak. A owl was near and had a mouse! Sunset and Gold bolted away from the noise in terror.
Finally, they came to a safe place where they could hide for the night. It was a small log. Sunset laid down beside Gold. Sunset tossed and turned, and shut his eyes, but it was no use. He wasn't going to get any sleep tonight.
"Can you sleep?"
"Why don't we keep going?"
Sunset and Gold got up and stretched. Then they began to walk into the forest. It was pretty amazing at night, if you thought about it. Sunset listened to the crickets, and watched the trees sway in the breeze. There was a strange noise from above - a flapping?
Sunset looked up. A shadow flitted across the moon and his heart stopped.
"GOLD!' Sunset screamed. Gold looked up, and started to run but it was too late. Sunset watched in horror as the owl's long talons glinted, then picked up Gold. Gold howled in terror.
Sunset frantically jumped up on the owl and began to scratch it. The owl showed little pain, and dumped Sunset off its back. Sunset fell down. down, down, till he hit the ground. He felt dizzy and lightheaded, and watched helplessly as Gold was carried away.
Sunset woke up on the ground, the same place that he had fallen last night. Why did he run away? Now his mother was probably dead because of those mean tribe cats, his sister was dead, and he was lost! If he had only stayed home...
Sunset picked himself up, but fell down again. His back leg felt...like nothing! What if it was broken and would never heal?! He began to cry. He would never see his mother or sister again, and wouldn't survive out here. He was going to die. He just knew it. But still, a spark of hope lit up inside him, and he began to drag himself towards the cave where the tribe lived. They were his only hope.
He stopped at a twisted tree. He had seen this on his way out! He was getting closer! He thought about how mad he was at those..those mean, sinister tribe cats! They locked him up, and he would never see his mother again, and...and...
Sunset tripped, crying out when a sharp flash of pain ran up his spine. His face skidded along the ground, dirt getting in his nose and mouth. For a long moment, Sunset laid there, his leg held awkwardly underneath him as he sobbed into the dust.
A bird nearby took off in flight, the sharp flutter of its wingbeats breaking against the air. Sunset involuntarily tensed up, eyes widening and his sob catching in his throat. He felt the panic of last night curling deep in the pit of his stomach, he could hear the flapping of owl wings and the screams of his sister. Somewhere behind his eyes the image of long talons and Gold's wide eyes seared in his memory.
Sunset inhaled sharply through his mouth, breathing in dirt. His legs shook and he tried to scramble back to his feet. Adrenaline from the terror-filled memory made his muscles clench up. He took stiff steps forwards, keeping his bad leg off the ground.
He needed to get back to the tribe, or he'd end up just like his sister. Some predators next meal, dragged away into darkness by a gaping mouth filled to the brim with sharp teeth. Then he'd be torn apart, picked at until his kicking and screaming ended in resignation and last moment of clarity where he'd feel the animal eating him-
Sunset hobbled forwards with tears streaming down his face. He couldn't die out here. He didn't want to be a carcass rotting in the forest, forgotten. He could smell the tribe's scent on the air and followed it as best he could. His bad leg dragged behind him, considerably slowing his pace.
It was just turning to nightfall and the terror was setting in. Sunset's eyes glanced wildly up at the sky as pure fear overwhelmed him. His shaky pawsteps caused him to stumble every few paces.
Finally, the cave came into view. Sunset cried out in relief, still sobbing.
"Please! Help!" he yowled, voice cracking. "Don't let me die! Stars, please don't let me die! I can't die, not like Gold-"
Two of the tribe cats came rushing out. When they saw him, they froze in amazement. Bluebird came rushing out. Sunset tripped and landed face down in the dirt. A cold feeling crept up his body. All the noise faded away, and Sunset was left in darkness and alone.
Birdwing sat in the Cave of Reflections, staring down at something in one of the pools. From the tunnels, Shine cautiously entered the cave, glancing around with awe and reverence.
"Shine," Birdwing meowed without looking up. "Come here."
Shine nervously padded forwards, her pawsteps echoing against the walls. Birdwing finally looked up at her approach, her tufted ears flicking.
"I know it's been hard for you here. Being locked up, losing one of your kits, and the other one injured. I think you should know why I needed your kits to stay. Look in this pool," Birdwing prodded.
Shine leaned over and looked down into the water, letting out a cry of surprise. Staring back at her, Sunset's reflection shimmered. Sunset's eyes blinked lazily and his tail flicked in the puddle's image. Shine took a few paces backwards.
"But-how?" Shine babbled. "How is my son in that, that...in there? And why?"
"These are the pools of prophecy," Birdwing said. "They show images of the future. This one, when the time is right, shows who the next leader of our tribe will be." Shine blinked in surprise.
"But why?" she stammered. "Why my son?"
"I don't know. It is Tribe of Stars' decision. They are our ancestors," Birdwing whispered. "But..." she shook her head and cleared her throat. "Now I realize how hard this is on you. And for that reason I permit you to leave."
"What?" Shine's voice began to tremble. "...but without my son?"
"It is better for you both this way. You could never be happy in this tribe, not after what we've taken from you," Birdwing explained. "This is my suggestion. You may stay if you like, but I doubt you will find that this tribe has anything to offer you."
Shine cast her eyes downwards in thought. "I'll consider it," she finally conceded, padding out of the den. Birdwing watched her leave, then looked back in the pool. Sunset's face stared back at her and reflected in her hollow, haunted eyes.
It was dark and he was in pain.
Sunset mumbled a few in-comprehensive words. He opened his eyes to find himself in the healing den. Bluebird gracefully stepped towards him.
"Sunset?" she whispered. "Are you there?"
"Where's...my mom?" Sunset muttered.
"Sssh," Bluebird placed her paw on his side gently. "She's fine. Go back to sleep."
"My leg?" Sunset asked in dread.
"Will be fine. It was mostly shock. I've bandaged it and it's already healing," Bluebird assured him.
Sunset quieted down and let out a long sigh, letting his head loll to the side. Bluebird silently left the den. From outside, Sunset heard a hushed conversation. This went on for a few minutes, until his mother slipped into the den with a strained smile.
"Mom!" Sunset exclaimed, swaying as he sat up.
"Sssh, don't over-strain yourself," Shine soothed, padding over to sit beside him. Her tail curled around his small form and Sunset wiggled in closer to her fur with a sigh of relief. It was quiet for a peaceful moment, though Shine's eyes were troubled.
"Sunset?" she asked quietly.
"Yeah?" Sunset purred.
"I have to leave," Shine meowed brokenly.
Sunset sat up in shock. "What?" he cried out in distress.
Shine's eyes were pained but resolute. "I know you want to go back home, and you will. In your dreams you can go to the peaceful waterfall and play with me. I will leave with the next full moon rises, but you have to stay."
"Why? I don't want you to go!" Sunset cried.
"Please try to understand," Shine pleaded. "You have to stay here." She pulled him close and gained a faraway look in her eyes.
"These cats need you."
Sunset opened his mouth to protest again, but two mollies came into the cave. Shine immediately perked up, straightening her posture at their entrance. Birdwing was the first into the room, barely squeezing her large form through the small entrance. Behind her, Bluebird followed.
"Sunset, Shine," Bluebird nodded, addressing the two. Notably, she recognized Sunset first, her eyes watching him with respect. "There's been a few changes in circumstance."
"What is it?" Shine asked quickly.
"I have seen a omen. Danger is coming. And fast." Bluebird said shakily. "Sunset might not survive."
"I have double the guards posted. Neither of you are to leave the cave," Birdwing said sternly. "I will not have the life of the future Birdwing jeopardized, is that clear? You cannot leave this cave or our protection for any reason whatsoever."
"Yes, I understand," Shine trembled.
"Why is she making me stay in the cave mom?" Sunset asked indignantly.
"Because she had a dream that told her danger is coming," Shine tried to soothe Sunset.
"Why would she do that? It's just a stupid dream!" Sunset whined.
"Do you want to die?" Birdwing snapped at him. "Because I assure you, this is premonition. You are in danger if Bluebird says so."
"What's premonition?" Sunset scoffed.
"Don't ask stupid questions," Birdwind snapped.
Sunset had a horrible feeling he wasn't going to like this place at all.
Evening turned to night, and the tribe settled down, though still on edge. Slowly, the chatter of other cats died down until all that was left was the distant roar of the waterfall and a few particularly loud snorers making noise.
Sunset peeked over her mother's paw. He looked around. Everyone was asleep. He stifled a laugh. This was gonna be so much fun! He crept down the long hallway to Birdwing's den and peeked in. Birdwing was fast asleep. Sunset tiptoed over to Birdwing. Then he poked her ear. Nothing happened. He splashed in a puddle. Still, Birdwing stayed asleep. Sunset beamed. He began splashing from puddle to puddle, softly singing.
"I crept down the halls,
Into Birdwing's den
There she lay fast asleep
She probably won't wake up till sun's up again
I'll splash in the puddles,
And play in the halls,
Till morning comes,
When I will not stall
To run back to my mother,
And snuggle in her fur,
Pretend I was asleep
so not to worry her."
Sunset laughed a soft laugh, and cannonballed into a deep puddle. He shook out his fur and blinked the water out of his eyes.
Birdwing stood in front of him.
Birdwing's eyes were glazed with fear, and seemed to look straight through him. "No...this can't be happening..." she gasped. Birdwing seized violently, seeming to be in another world for a moment. "She's going to run away with you tonight, isn't she?"
"What?" Sunset's ears flattened. "I-I'm sorry for coming in here-"
"Your mother is going to take you from us!" Birdwing growled. "I will never let that happen! She lied! All lies!" Birdwing took a few paces backwards on unsteady feet. "She can't - I'll kill her before I let her take away our leader-" Birdwing choked on the air. "The visions-" she croaked, her body convulsing as if possessed.
Sunset screeched in horror. He turned and ran down the long passageway, not caring about the sharp stones that pricked his pads. His tail streamed behind him until he reached the medicine den.
"Birdwing's gone crazy! She's going kill you!" Sunset screamed. Shine awoke with a jolt. She stood up in one smooth movement, her eyes purposeful, and bolted out of the entrance without a word or goodbye. The guards let out yowls of alarm. Birdwing suddenly appeared from the passageway.
"Don't just sit there, get her!" Birdwing screamed. The two cats looked confused, but dashed out after the golden queen. Sunset scrambled after them, but Birdwing pounced at him, pinning him to the ground before he could leave the cave. Her eyes blazed on him, scorching his pelt.
"You're not going anywhere!" Birdwing hissed. Sunset thrashed underneath her tight grip, screaming when her claws brushed against his skin.
"I want to go home with mom!" Sunset screamed. Cats came out of their dens, awoken by the noise, and watched the ensuing drama with palpable fear.
"Birdwing, what are you doing?!" Bluebird screamed, rushing towards them.
"I'm protecting our tribe!" Birdwing snapped, her fur bristling twice it's size.
"No! You're out of your mind!" Bluebird said. She cuffed Birdwing over the head with one paw, and forced some black seeds down Birdwings throat with the other. Birdwing released her grip on Sunset and coughed, trying to spit up the seeds.
"How dare you!" Birdwing screamed. "Traitor-! Conspiracy, treason-" Suddenly Birdwing began to stumble. "I cannot let the tribe die...I cannot let the tribe..." Birdwing melted down onto the floor. Bluebird lowered her head and the tribe watched on in shock. Sunset stood up on shaking limbs. Small specks of blood dotted his fur from their leader's claws.
"I hate you," Sunset meowed in a trembling tone, holding Bluebird's eyes steadily. "And I will never be this tribe's leader."
Bluebird closed her eyes. "Everybody return to your dens," she instructed. Cats reluctantly began to disappear back into the cracks of the caves.
"Come now," she gestured to Sunset with tired eyes. "Let's return to your nest."
A rushing waterfall crashed down into a bubbling river below. The moonbeams struck it so the cascades shimmered in the low light, looking like something from a dream. On the shoreline of the river, a small pack of cats huddled in a tight circle.
"This is the third night," a black tomcat growled in irritation. "Where is she?"
"Be patient," a tabby molly assured. "She'll be here."
"You don't suppose they realized, do you?" a twitchy white molly asked. "There's no way. We strengthened her presence further than we've ever done before."
"Patience," the tabby molly stressed again.
From the underbrush, a pale golden queen emerged, startling the group. "Miss me?" she meowed playfully.
"Shine! You made it!" the white molly exclaimed in relief.
"Of course I did," Shine scoffed. "I've been doing this longer than any of you, trust me."
"Shine of Moon on Stone," the tabby molly purred. "You did well."
"Thank you," Shine replied, tail flicking back and forth in pleasure.
"You became very fond of that kit. I was worried for a while," the black tomcat admitted.
"It was hard, but I made it through," Shine said. "Much has changed since the days when I walked the forest."
"And much has stayed the same. You played your part," the tabby molly reassured. Shine smiled, but the joy faded and she glanced backwards.
"Now the kit is on his own," Shine sighed.
"Prophecy and spirits can only interfere so much," tabby molly replied. "We've done all we can. He has everything on his side. Now he just needs to act accordingly and fulfill the role we've written for him. " Shine sighed in defeat.
"I suppose so," she conceded. "I hope it was enough."
Sunset huddled deep into the corner of Birdwing's den. He had been given a nest here and for three days had protested by refusing to leave it, for neither food nor water. Both were brought to him by Bluebird, who pleaded with him to come out and meet the other tribe members.
Stupid tribe. Stupid Birdwing. Stupid cave. I wish I were home, at the waterfall. Then I would be happy and safe, not trapped in this dark, stupid hole.
Bluebird cautiously entered the cave. "Sunset, are you here?" her voice echoed around the cave. Sunset burrowed deeper into his nest. "Sunset?" Bluebird called out again.
"Go away!" Sunset growled.
"Please don't be angry," Bluebird mewed softly.
"I hate you!" Sunset's voice sounded like he was about to cry. "I hate your stinking cave! I hate your stinking prophecies! And most of all, I hate your stinking leader!" Sunset growled, turning over to face away from Bluebird. Bluebird sighed.
"Sunset, please. Come out and eat, groom your fur a bit," Bluebird sighed. "Don't you want to look decent for your ceremony?"
"I don't care," Sunset grumbled.
"Sunset, have I ever told you about the first Birdwing?" Bluebird smiled. Sunset didn't reply, determined to not give in to the prospect of an interesting story.
"Well, the first Birdwing was a beautiful queen. She had white fur that rippled with strength, and green eyes that glowed. She was called Eagle that Flies Over Valley, and she brought her tribe to our valley home," Bluebird explained. "And she became Eagle the Birdwing, leader of the tribe."
"Eagle was in love as the Birdwing. She loved a gray tom named Mist that Rolls Over Hills. Mist was very mysterious, always disappearing, then reappearing. Eagle was deeply in love. But one day, Mist disappeared, and he never came back. Eagle was crushed, but she became one of the best leaders in history," Bluebird said. Sunset smiled. I wish Eagle was leader of the tribe still. Then maybe I'd be treated better! he thought.
"Sunset, I know you don't like living here," Bluebird sighed.
"No kidding," Sunset grumbled.
"But if you were free, where would you go? Your mother is gone: you don't know which direction your home lies: and you are only a small kit. You would never survive out there, especially when leaf-bare arrives. Whether you like it or not, the only way to survive is to remain with us." Bluebird said. Sunset responded with a cold silence.
Bluebird sighed. What she needed was a way to enter this kit's heart and show him kindness....keeping him in this cave would not help matters. He already knew that leaving would be his death sentence. What he needed was a friend....one to guide him and help him through hard times. Bluebird's eyes lit up. She knew just the cat.
Birdwing entered the cave, her eyes glowing in the darkness. "Sunset." she said. Sunset shifted but didn't respond. "Sunset, you do not have to stay in the Cave of Reflections. There are a few tribe members in the rest of the camp that are more than eager to meet you. I suggest you end this rebellious fit of isolation." Birdwing slunk into another cave, leaving the kit alone.
Sunset growled under his breath. "I suggest you end this rebellious fit of isolation," he mocked back.
The voice of a tom laughing came from the tunnel. Sunset's ears perked up. The tom sounded friendly, and he had been dying for some company. His paws itched to follow to sound, but he hesitated. The tom let out another good-natured laugh, and that did it. Sunset crept down the tunnel towards the sound.
A ginger and white tom appeared from the gloom. His laugh was cut short when he saw the kit. "So, anyways, you wouldn't believe what-" a blue-gray tom began, appearing next to him and stopping midsentence at the sight of the kit. Sunset flattened his ears and prepared to run, suddenly feeling threatened by the older cats.
"Hey, wait kit! Don't run!" the ginger and white tom said.
"Well Rustle, with your face you can hardly blame him. I'd run too!" the blue gray tom joked, and they both burst into laughter again.
"Who are you?" Sunset growled suspiciously.
"You don't know?" the ginger and white tom said. "Well, you are only talking to the most popular tom in the tribe!" The ginger and white tom puffed out his chest and shared a glance with the blue-gray tom. Their faces contorted and then they both exploded into more laughter.
"The most popular tom!" the gray-blue tom laughed hysterically. "As if!"
"What's wrong with you two?" Sunset said. "Why do you...laugh so much?"
The blue-gray tom leaned in close to Sunset. "Does it...bother you?"
"No." Sunset said, growing nervous. "It's just....what's so funny?"
"Everything! Why not see the bright side of life?" the ginger and white tom smiled. "Laughing can fix any situation - trust me on this. And besides, it prevents you from spiraling into a circle of existential questions you can't answer."
"Weirdos," Sunset grumbled.
"Why thank you," the blue-gray tom said sarcastically.
"Water, I believe we forgot to introduce ourselves," the orange and white tom pointed out.
"You are totally right!" the blue-gray tom exclaimed. He turned to the kit. "My name is Water Flowing in Stream, just Water for short."
"And I'm Rustle of Falling Leaf, just Rustle for short," the orange and white tom said. "What's your name?"
"I'm Sunset," Sunset said.
"You're that kit that came here in that horrible storm with the golden queen, right?" Water asked eagerly.
"Yeah, so?" Sunset said.
"You're going to be the next Birdwing!" Rustle exclaimed.
Sunset snorted. "Don't count on it."
Water bowed down. "Your Majesty," he joked. "We are at your service."
Sunset smiled broadly, glad to have someone to play with. He puffed out his chest, and in a strong, fake-sounding voice, said, "As your first command, I order you to fetch His Majesty a royal ball of moss, for which to play with."
Water smiled and said, "Your wish is my command." He darted back into the hall to find some moss.
Rustle playfully nudged Sunset. "So, when are you going to be an apprentice?"
"Oh, in a few days," Sunsets ears drooped. "But I'm not looking forward to it much."
"Not looking forward to being an apprentice? Well, you must not know what life is like here in the Tribe if you aren't excited about that! Why don't a give you a little sneak-peek of what you'll be learning. It can be our little secret," Rustle said. Sunset jumped up.
"Really?" he grinned.
Rustle smiled. "Let's get started little guy."
"Today we gather for a special ceremony. Sunset has reached the age of six moons. It is time for him to become an apprentice. Sunset, step forward."
Sunset stepped forwards, uncomfortably aware of the stares being directed at him. He had cleaned up as per Rustle's direction, and this was the first time most of the tribe was seeing him. Hushed whispers filled the air around him.
"From this day on you will be an apprentice. You will learn the ways of our ancestors. Do you accept this path?" Birdwing asked, her voice booming against the walls of the cave. Sunset nodded.
"Then your Basics Mentor will be Rustle of Falling Leaf, and your Class Mentor will be me. As you are now a member of our tribe, you shall take on the name Sunset over Shimmering Lake."
There were scattered congratulations and smiles from around the camp. Sunset smiled with relief when Rustle padded over towards him.
"I'm glad you're my mentor," Sunset admitted quietly. "I think you're the only cat I can stand to be around in this tribe."
"Don't say that," Rustle chastised. "You haven't even met the other apprentices yet." As if on cue, a pack of younger cats crowded over towards Sunset.
"You're so lucky! You get to be trained to be a leader!" a white molly sighed.
"I'm not sure if I'm going to be very good at it...." Sunset mumbled.
"Nonsense! I'm sure you'll be great! The Tribe of Stars chose you!" a blue-gray molly protested.
"Yeah, I guess so," Sunset muttered, resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
The white molly purred. "I'm Reflection in Clear Waters. I only now realized that we didn't introduce ourselves!"
The blue-gray molly jumped up. "Oh yeah! I'm Splash in Clear Stream, her sister." she said.
The gray and white molly who had been standing off to the side came forward. "I'm Quarry in Silent Forest," she purred. "It's nice to meet you Sunset." Quarry bumped a sulky looking gray tom on the shoulder. "Introduce yourself," she muttered to him.
"Dip in Grass Field," the tom meowed curtly, sending him a disinterested glance.
"Dip, can't you be a little more polite?" Quarry hissed.
Reflection smirked. "Oh, Dip's just jealous at all the attention Sunset is getting because Dip likes you Quarry!" she stated proudly.
Quarry and Dip both blushed. It was known throughout the tribe that Quarry and Dip went on walks some nights and that they were in a romantic relationship, but Quarry and Dip were oblivious to this fact. Quarry stuttered, "W-w-well I g-guess he's nice..."
Splash giggled, "You two are so in love!"
Sunset purred with amusement as the two lovers both blushed a deep red. It was funny, but he hoped that nobody ever did anything like that to him when he had a crush.
"Can we show him around the territory?" Reflection asked eagerly, turning to Rustle.
"Sure, just go grab another one of the scouts," Rustle conceded.
"Sweet! Go grab Heather!" Reflection meowed to her sister. Splash dashed off in excitement. Turning back to Sunset, Reflection gave him a broad smile. "Welcome to the Tribe of Bird's Wings! You're going to love it here, I can already tell."
"Sunset Over Shimmering Lake! Get up!"
Sunset blinked open his eyes to see Reflection in Still Waters staring at him. "What?" he grumbled.
"Sunset, Birdwing wants to see you!" Reflection said.
Sunset yawned and stretched, bumping his paws against Quarry in Silent Forest. "Again?" Sunset sighed. He was only a moon into his training, and Birdwing had been waking him up at the crack of dawn every morning.
"What? Dip in Grass Field? Is that you?" Quarry mumbled.
Splash in Clear Stream whimpered in her sleep and gave Dip a hard kick. Dip shot up and yowled, "Ok, who kicked me?"
Sunset slipped out of the den before a heated argument began. Surveying the camp, he saw Birdwing standing at the entrance to the cave. Sunset trotted over, sat next to her, then let out a huge yawn. "Hey," he meowed a bit coldly.
"Ah, Sunset Over Shimmering Lake," Birdwing said. "You are awake."
"Yep.." Sunset said, still sleepy.
"There is something I would like you to do. There have been strange scents located along the border. Can you go check the scent and try to trace it? Bring a few friends with you as well," Birdwing said. "Rustle and Water will accompany you."
"Sure!" Sunset said, perking up a bit. Investigating strange scents sounded like fun, and he was up for a little excitement. Not to mention it would mean getting away from Birdwing for a while. He turned around and poked his head into the den.
"Reflection and Dip, meet me outside," he said. Then he turned around and went out through the cave entrance. After shaking a few cats awake - much to their annoyance - the group headed out. The morning was fresh with the smell of dew on the grass, and the entire way there Reflection and Sunset played a game of seeing who could be the first to catch a fly in their mouth.
Finally reaching the border, the patrol fanned out and began to investigate. Sunset sniffed the ground. There was definitely a strange scent around here.
"You guys smell that too, right?" Sunset asked.
"What is that repulsive stench?" Reflection reeled back in disgust. "It smells like....our own cats except it's...different."
Rustle hissed in surprise. "That's the other tribe!" he hissed.
"The Tribe of Endless Moors? I thought that we left their ranks long ago!" Dip gawked.
Rustle scrunched up his nose in disgust. "It must be though. Can't you smell it in the air? There are distant connections that still linger between us," he growled.
"But why are they on our land?" Reflection tilted her head. "They live days away from us. They have no need to travel so far."
"I'm not sure." Rustle said. "But we're going to find out."
"I suppose you are wondering why I called you here. The reason is that we have scented the Tribe of Endless Moors at our borders."
Birdwing sat in the Cave of Reflections, her council in a tight circle around the center pool. On the council were several faces that Sunset only recently had put names to. The black and white tom, Breeze, was the lead hunter and had markedly ignored Sunset's presence in the tribe. Heather, the head territory scout, was a brown molly with soft eyes and a welcoming disposition. The third cat in the group was Puddle, the head combatant. Her brown tabby fur was sleek and she gave the impression that she was not one to meddle with. The final two of the council were Bluebird and Sunset himself.
Breeze hissed. "The Tribe of Endless Moors? Our great grandparents left them because they didn't want us. They were all outcasts in that tribe. Not to mention the poor choice of territory. Kits were being eaten like snacks by those predatory birds!"
"I'm not sure why they would be interested in us. After all, they thought our bloodlines were unfit to become tribe members," Heather said.
"Clearly, they have renewed interested in our tribe," Birdwing stated.
"I think we should go over there and give them a piece of our minds!" Breeze hissed.
Heather shook her head. "No, fighting them would only make things worse. We should find out why they are over here in the first place before we jump to war," Heather said. Breeze grumbled something about soft mollies, but Heather gave him a glare so hard that he immediately was quiet.
Puddle was about to speak when a chorus of angry howls filled the cave and echoed against the cold stone walls. Everyone stared at the entrance as Reflection burst into the room. She was panting and her eyes were wild.
"What has happened?" Birdwing demanded, standing up.
"It's Dip." Reflection gasped. "He's-he's-he's-
"Spit it out she-cat!" Breeze spat at her.
"Dip, he's been kidnapped!" Reflection said.
"By who?" Sunset demanded. "Who would kidnap Dip?"
"The Tribe of Endless Moors!"
. . . . .
Somewhere on the edge of the territory, Dip struggled as strange cats dragged him along. "What do you want with me?" he spat, trying to claw at them but utterly failing. They remained silent and kept on walking. Dip could see the cave growing farther and farther away as they climbed out of the valley.
Finally Dip gave up and started to walk with them. Struggling was no use; these cats were much stronger than him.
"Another clan-killed," one of the cats said, halting by a mound of fur. Dip looked closer and realized that it was the carcass of....a cat! Dip shuddered. What a horrible way to die. Whatever had killed this cat was powerful and bloodthirsty.
By nightfall they reached a small clearing. The cats led Dip through a tight entrance that wound through a thicket of brambles. After the underbrush had raked through his pelt and nicked him in several places, they emerged into what appeared to be an impromptu campsite.
"Bracken, Feather, I see that you have found the cat I requested," a large dark gray tom said. "You are dismissed." The two cats scurried off, leaving Dip standing alone, the focus of this tom's attention.
"Tell me, what is your name?" the dark gray tom asked.
"Dip. Dip in Grass Field," Dip said nervously.
"Dip in Grass Field. You are the chosen one," the dark gray tom meowed.
"Chosen one? Chosen for what?" Dip scoffed.
"The omen told us that a young apprentice would save us," the dark gray tom explained. "You are going to defeat Sandclan." The other cats in the clearing watched with excited eyes and spoke in hushed whispers. Dip froze in fear as he remembered the torn-up carcass he had seen earlier. Sandclan was the thing that had done that.
"I'm sorry, but you have the wrong cat." Dip stuttered. "I can't defeat this clan you speak of!"
"The Tribe of Stars has foretold this. We cannot wait any longer, so we have found you! You shall defeat Sandclan and bring peace to our tribe!" the dark gray tom yowled.
Dip swallowed nervously as the cats around him cheered. He started to back out of the clearing, but two cats blocked his way. They forced him down into a burrow.
"Hey wait! You can't do this to me!" Dip cried. "Please, I can't save you from Sandclan!" His cries fell on deaf ears.
"We need to launch an attack. They can't kidnap our warriors!"
Six tribe cats sat in a circle, a heated argument building between them. Sunset sighed and scuffled his paws. He wasn't sure why he had been invited to this meeting; he wasn't one of the senior warriors and was only a apprentice; they could hardly trust his opinion. After the initial panic of Dip's kidnapping had died down, the meeting had resumed, more frantic than ever.
"We don't know what we're up against," Heather meowed pointedly. "We can't just charge in there like barbarians."
"If we had all learned to fight this wouldn't be a problem," Puddle growled. "I told you these specific roles in the clan wouldn't work. We all need to know how to fight, need to know how to patrol, and we all need to know how to hunt!"
"You're just jealous because you got stuck as a territory scout!" Breeze sneered.
"Shut up Breeze!" Puddle hissed. "You wish you had gotten to be a combatant, but you ended up being a hunter, correct? You have no reason to defend this stupid system!"
"I think that Birdwing should have the final word on how well our system is working," Bluebird meowed calmly, her voice becoming lost in the louder voices of the others.
"Does anyone care that Dip is in danger? Anyone?" Sunset meowed half-heartedly. Not a single cat twitched a whisker at his words. Birdwing's eyes were closed and her head bowed. Sunset glanced at her. Isn't she going to voice her opinion?
"Puddle!" Breeze snarled tauntingly. "Even your name is stupid. Why should we listen to you?"
"Hey now-" Heather jumped to her feet. "That's no way to treat a fellow tribemate."
"Like yours is any better, Breeze on Leaf-Bare Day," Puddle snapped her teeth at him. "It sounds like your mother saw you and thought that you were going to be cold and bitter when you grew older! I think she was right."
"Are you insulting my mother?!" Breeze roared, standing on his feet.
"You two are always fighting about something!" Heather groaned, burying her face in her paws. Sunset's eyes flickered over to Birdwing again. Surely she wouldn't allow her warriors to get into such a heated debate about trivial matters like this?
"Breeze, Puddle, that's quite enough don't you think?" Bluebird meowed, trying to make her voice loud. None of the cats paid any mind to her.
"You wanna go? Let's go!" Breeze snarled, his ears flattening against his head. "I'll take you on with one paw broken!"
"Hah! As if you could beat me! Remember that I'm the one with battle training here," Puddle scoffed, showing her teeth off and sliding out her claws.
"Say that again and I'll take that smirk off your face!" Breeze screeched.
"ENOUGH!" Birdwing suddenly stood up, her blue eyes filled with fury. Breeze and Puddle immediately shrunk down, taking their places in the circle once again and shamefully staring at their paws. Birdwing's gaze flickered from cat to cat.
"Is everyone done acting like kits now?" she growled, her gaze resting accusingly on Breeze. Breeze's ears laid flat against his head as he nodded quickly. Birdwing looked over at Puddle and her eyes dropped down as she grudgingly shook her head yes. Sunset felt a flash of admiration for Birdwing. She had power over these cats, a respect that didn't falter or fade. Will I have that respect if I'm made leader?
"Good. Then we can actually discuss getting our tribemate back," Birdwing sighed, sitting back down and folding her paws underneath her. "As Breeze said, we need to get him back as soon as we can, but Heather made a good point in saying we can't just charge in. We don't know what we'll be facing."
"Then we need a plan," Sunset meowed, but quickly ducked his head. He hadn't meant to say that out loud. All eyes turned to him.
"Why is he here anyways?" Breeze asked disapprovingly. "He's only an apprentice, and hardly old enough to be at this meeting." Sunset shrunk down, wanting to melt into the floor.
"He's the future Birdwing," Birdwing meowed. "It's good experience for him to see how these meetings work. And putting in a bit of input isn't hurting any cat."
"So we need a plan," Breeze snorted. "Got any other bright ideas oh wise one?" Sunset swallowed back an angry retort. Who did this cat think he was?
"Well, the first thing we should do is find out how far they took him, and where," Sunset said, glancing at Birdwing for approval. She nodded, encouraging him to continue. "Then we should try to get in and find out everything we can before we attack. We need to know where Dip is being held prisoner, patrol schedules, anything that can help us in battle."
"That's a good start," Puddle meowed kindly. "You'll make a good leader someday Sunset." Sunset puffed out his chest slightly, a warm feeling filling him up. Breeze just snorted, muttering something about becoming cocky.
"I think it's enough of a start for now," Birdwing said. "Heather, you know how this works. You and Puddle organize a patrol of cats to follow Dip's scent and find where it led to." Heather and Puddle nodded, and the group stood up. exchanging glances.
"Until the patrol returns, I want everyone on high alert. Two guards at camp entrance at all times. Be diligent and no apprentices go out alone. Am I understood?" Birdwing meowed in a commanding tone. There was a chorus of 'yes' and then the tribe cats trotted out of the cave, heading back to the main camp. Birdwing and Sunset watched them leave.
"Why was Breeze so snappy?" Sunset asked, tilting his head. Birdwing sighed.
"I'm afraid that Puddle was right. Breeze was a born combatant, but his father pressured him into becoming a hunter. I'm worried that our system isn't working, but I don't know how I can change it without having to put every cat through training again," Birdwing meowed, and Sunset was taken back by her openness. She wasn't usually this vocal about her concerns. But now, when it was just him and her, she suddenly seemed more tired and frail.
"I'm sure it'll work out," Sunset meowed, feeling a rare flash of sympathy for the leader he had come to despise.
"I hope you're right Sunset," Birdwing meowed. "I really do."
The camp remained on high alert for the next week, but little progress was made in the search. The other tribe cats had gotten too much of a head start and were making quick progress back towards their homeland.
"This search is going nowhere," Reflection growled. "It's been a week since Dip went missing and what have we accomplished? Nothing!"
"Birdwing has to know they're bringing him back to their tribe. We need to send out a patrol to journey to their lands and confront them," Splash agreed.
"Has Birdwing said anything to you yet?" Reflection asked, turning to Sunset. Sunset coughed uncomfortably, poking at the hare they had been sharing.
"Well, not really," he admitted sheepishly. "She's just been sort of...out of it. She keeps staring at those weird puddles in her den."
"The pools of reflection?" Splash meowed. "She must be looking for advice from our ancestors." Reflection snorted in contempt.
"What's the need? We know what we have to do. Go demand our friend back or rip off their hides!" Reflection snapped. She took a fierce bite out of the hare and chewed on it sulkily. "I can't wait until we have a leader who actually takes action," she added in icily.
"Don't talk about her like that!" Splash hissed under her breath.
"Why not?" Sunset jutted in, eager to put down Birdwing. "She can't banish us for not liking her. And if you ask me, she's a total nutcase." Splash bit back a retort and just let out a disappointed sigh.
"Hey, have you seen Quarry lately?" Reflection changed the subject and her voice dropped lower. Immediately Reflection and Sunset turned to look where the gray molly was. Quarry stood by a few of the younger tribe members, smiling and chatting pleasantly.
"She's hardly even batted an eye at Dip's disappearance. So much for them being in love," Reflection whispered scathingly. "Heart of ice, that one."
That night, when she thought no one could hear her, Quarry would hiccup with tears until she made herself sick. Sunset heard and his gut dropped, but he pretended to be asleep. He told himself he was letting her keep her dignity. But when she finally stopped, he wondered who exactly he was protecting; her, or himself.
"Cats of the tribe! I have an announcement to make!"
Birdwing stood on the highledge, her tail raised proudly and her stature that of a graceful and commanding leader. Cats looked up from their meals and began to come out of the dens, congregating beneath the highledge. Sunset's ears perked up. It had been two weeks since Dip was taken, and this was the first time Birdwing had called them together for a meeting. Maybe they were finally going to take some action!
"First and foremost, there is an apprentice among us who has reached a suitable age to become a full member of the tribe," Birdwing meowed. Sunset's eyes roamed around until he caught sight of Quarry sitting proudly at the front of the crowd next to her mentor, Heather.
"This ceremony holds special significance for our tribe. Quarry will be the first among us to join a new class of warriors," Birdwing announced. "After hearing the opinions of our senior warriors in each class, I have come to the realization that our system is not performing the way it should. Therefore, Quarry is to be a guardian. Guardians will perform all basic duties for the clan, including hunting, fighting and patrolling."
Murmurs of surprise began to spread across the crowd. Birdwing thrashed her tail. "Silence," she commanded with a snap. The whispers died down, although many cats were sharing curious looks.
"Eventually, the old system will phase out and most of our warriors will be guardians," Birdwing explained. "We will only have one combatant, one hunter, and one scout. They will each be the masters of their chosen skill." She turned back to Quarry. "Quarry, step forwards."
As the young molly came forwards, the mutters sparked again like wildfire. The change was clearly being met with mixed reactions. Breeze in particular was looking intensely pleased, his tail snaking back and forth in excitement.
"Quarry, you may recite the warriors oath," Birdwing nodded.
"I promise to uphold the values and laws of our sacred tribe. I will share in my tribe's prosper, and I will lend all my skills to them in their time of need. I will protect and defend this tribe until I am no longer able, by death, sickness, or age. This I solemnly do swear," Quarry meowed with a slight squeak to her tone.
"We accept your allegiance, and welcome you as a guardian of our tribe," Birdwing replied. Cheers erupted from the crowd.
"There is one more announcement I wish to make!" Birdwing shouted. Immediately a quiet hush fell over the room. "As you know, one of our apprentices has been taken by the Tribe of Endless Moors. I will be leading a patrol of cats to their territory to demand his return."
"Finally!" Reflection's eyes were alight with excitement. "Please let me be on the patrol, please let me be on the patrol..."
"When you hear your name, step forwards. Puddle. Cave. Squirrel."
"Please, please, please," Reflection closed her eyes and continued to mutter.
"Rustle. Heather. Shadow."
Sunset watched the cats stepping forward with increasing anticipation. Would he be chosen to come with? It was unlikely, being as he was young, but there might be a chance...
"Petal. Reflection." Reflection bounced to her feet and dashed up to the front, sending an excited glance back at Sunset.
Sunset trotted to the front to join Reflection with a wide grin. The two bumped shoulders and shared excited whispers before Birdwing cut them off.
"In my absence, Bluebird will be in charge," Birdwing announced. Sunset's eyes searched the crowd of those staying behind, and his eyes drifted towards Quarry. The newly-made warrior's eyes were crushed as she looked back at him. Sunset's eyes flitted away in guilt.
She should have been on this patrol.
"We will return with Dip," Birdwing growled fiercely. There were caterwauls of agreement as the patrol waited with hardly held anticipation. "Bluebird will give you a bundle of supplies on your way out. This meeting is dismissed."
The tribe scattered as cats said their farewells to each other. The queens had emerged from the nursery and were sending well wishes to their families, a few of them bemoaning the fact that they had been unable to join the patrol.
"Good luck you two," Splash purred as she trotted up to Sunset and Reflection. "Bring back lots of good stories!"
"We'll kick their tails!" Reflection exclaimed, kneading the ground in hardly contained excitement.
"Here come our parents," Splash groaned. Sunset slipped away while one of the queens and a black and white tom rushed up to Reflection and began showering her in affection. He glanced around. Rustle was giving Water assurances that he would return safely, and Birdwing was speaking quietly with an old blind tom. Something in him twisted bitterly.
In the midst of the crowd, he felt utterly alone.
He padded up to Bluebird and accepted the bundle of herbs she offered. "Good luck Sunset," she meowed quietly. She suddenly leaned in a little closer. "Would you do something for me?"
"What?" Sunset asked, blinking in surprise.
"Keep an eye on Birdwing for me," Bluebird whispered. "Please."
Sunset nodded and turned back to glance at Birdwing. She had separated herself from the crowd and was watching them all with a distant look in her eyes. Her eyes met with Sunset's and he held onto her gaze. Something in her eyes became haunted when she glanced at him. Uncomfortable, Sunset turned away.
"It's time to leave," Birdwing told the tribe. They separated from their families and congregated at the entrance. After they had taken their bundle of supplies, Birdwing counted them off.
"All here," she nodded. "Let's go."
They were several days into their journey when they came across it.
From the crest of the hill, Heather and Rustle came charging back towards the group. "Birdwing!" Heather called out, her voice laced with panic. Birdwing's ears twitched and she signaled for the party to come to a halt. Sunset, who had been trailing back a ways with Reflection, craned his neck to try and see over the crowd.
"Birdwing, you need to see this," Heather said. She leaned in and her voice dropped so that Sunset could no longer hear the exchange.
"What do you suppose she found?" Reflection asked curiously.
"I don't know, but Birdwing looks shook," Sunset frowned. The two mollies exchanged whispers for a few moments longer, then Birdwing faced the crowd.
"Heather, Puddle, you come with me," Birdwing commanded. "The rest of you, stay here until we return."
There were mutters of discontent as the three cats disembarked, and Rustle melted back into the crowd. Sunset's eyes narrowed and he pushed through the crowd until he had reached Rustle. Reflection trailed close behind him.
"Rustle, what did you find?" Sunset asked.
Rustle shook his head. "Nothing for apprentices to see," he told them firmly. His eyes had an empty look to them. "Trust me." He drifted away, his eyes for the first time lacking the twinkle of humor that defined him.
"Sunset!" Both the apprentices jumped at the commanding voice. Immediately the group hushed and turned to see Birdwing, who had returned. Her blue eyes locked onto Sunset. "Come with me."
"Birdwing, you can't be serious. He's only an apprentice-" Rustle pleaded.
"-and the future Birdwing," Birdwing snapped. "He should see it."
Sunset timidly came forwards. Birdwing's long fur was fluffed out and looked like a lion's mane around her neck, making her more imposing than ever. She turned around and motioned for him to follow with a flick of her tail. Sunset scurried behind her, his heart beating wildly. They went over the hill in silence. At the bottom, Heather and Puddle were huddled in front of a strange shape on the ground. They turned to look at her as she came back down the hill.
"Why is he here?" Puddle asked, her eyes wide.
"He's the future Birdwing and he needs to see this," Birdwing growled.
"Birdwing-" Heather began, but Birdwing turned her icy glare onto the brown molly and Heather immediately cast her eyes downwards. Birdwing turned to Sunset.
"This is why being a leader is not something to be taken lightly," Birdwing said coldly. "Because you will be responsible for protecting the tribe from things like this. Look at it."
Sunset's legs were trembling with fear, and he glanced at Heather and Puddle, who were watching with shocked expressions. Heather's eyes were darting back and forth as if conflicted.
"Look at it!" Birdwing commanded. Sunset blinked rapidly and took a few steps forwards. Heather and Puddle parted to give him a view of the twisted figure on the ground. For a moment he didn't even know what he was looking at. It was mangled and torn and bloodied near beyond recognition.
But he caught sight of the eyes, still open, and realized.
"It's a cat!" Sunset cried out, scrambling backwards. His stomach turned. The two green eyes were wide with fear and it's jaw was parted in a silent howl. The rest of the body was too grotesque for him to make much out.
"This is what being a leader means!" Birdwing pointed one shaking claw at the figure. "It means knowing that you are responsible when this happens to one of your tribemates!"
The mangled cat was staring at him from the ground.
Sunset felt like he was spinning, out of control, and he could hardly keep his balance.
He needed to get out of here.
Sunset turned around and bolted back for the group, leaving behind the three mollies. He crested over the hill, his feet pounding to the same rhythm as his heart. The tribe stared at him as he raced back towards them. Rustle pushed his way to the front of the crowd to meet Sunset. Sunset's panicked eyes flashed around as he came to a halt.
"You shouldn't have had to see that," Rustle meowed, taking in a shaky breath. "Birdwing was wrong. You're too young."
"Rustle-" Sunset choked out, but the rest of the words wouldn't come out.
"Come'on," Rustle said gently. He fell in beside Sunset and guided him away from the front of the tribe, who were all trying to get a better look at him. They settled in towards the back of the group.
"Rustle..." Sunset stuttered. "Why did she make me see that?"
"I don't know," Rustle shook his head. "But I won't let her do anything like that again. I promise."
"Tribemates!" Birdwing yowled. Sunset turned to see the blue-gray she-cat standing in front of the group. Her eyes flashed around. "We are now treading in dangerous territory. There is some sort of killer on the loose in this area who is targeting cats. From now on we all travel together. No groups will depart from the large group for any reason. Am I understood?"
Fear scent began to rise from the party as cats nodded their heads and huddled closer. The open moor around them made Sunset feel particularly vulnerable and his claws kneaded the ground.
"We're doing a recount to make sure we are all accounted for," Birdwing meowed. "Please hold still." Her eyes darted around and her mouth moved as she silently counted them off. She paused and her brows furrowed, then she began to recount.
"Who is missing?" she yowled in a panic. Cats began to look around, their ears folded back in fear.
"Where's Shadow?" a gray tabby molly suddenly meowed. "Shadow. Shadow!" Cats were whipping their heads around and cries of fear began to rise out of the group.
The tribe froze as a distant cry came from up ahead. Sunset's gut plummeted. "That's my brother!" the gray tabby howled in anguish. "Shadow!"
"Move!" Birdwing yowled. The tribe charged as one, whipping through the long grasses. Sunset's tail streamed behind him as he raced along next to Rustle. They were getting closer when Sunset noticed movement in the corner of his eye. He slowed down to glance over. The rest of the clan continued forwards, intent on reaching Shadow.
Sunset saw a shadow at the crest of the hill and his eyes narrowed.
"Rustle-" he started to cry out, but then something knocked him over. He tumbled along the ground, earth flying into his nose and eyes. Another cat tumbled along with him until they came to a halt, the cat pinning him to the ground. Sunset heard a unfamiliar voice yowl, and his blood ran cold.
"Tribe of Endless Moors, attack!"
Chaos erupted from all sides. Sunset scrabbled underneath the paws of a much larger cat, still spitting dirt out of his mouth from their tumble. The cat snarled and lunged for his face, revealing massive rows of teeth. Sunset choked on his own breath and frantically slammed his paws against his attackers muzzle, holding him away. The two struggled, and the attacker was winning. His jaws inched closer to Sunset's vulnerable face.
Rustle's cry of panic echoed over the yowls and screeches to ring clear in Sunset's ears. Sunset replied with a wordless caterwaul of fear. He could feel his blood thrumming in his ears as he wrestled with the older cat.
Remembering a technique he had seen Quarry practicing, Sunset thrashed his back claws upward, toward the cat's belly. The cat was practically all fur though; his claws ripped out huge chunks of fuzz and barely skimmed any actual skin.
"Oh, come on!" Sunset hissed in frustration. A sudden streak of ginger flew past, knocking the huge cat off of him. Sunset rolled over and bounced to his feet. Rustle was now busy battling his attacker. The cat had long, spindly legs and a thick ruff of fur - it was not at all like the compact and lithe forms of his tribemates. Rustle was holding out, but his lack of combat training was putting him at a disadvantage.
Sunset rushed in to help him, latching onto the massive cats haunch and tearing his teeth into their back. Rustle came at the tom from the front, lashing out his claws to rake them down the other cats chest.
"Go for his legs!" Rustle shouted.
Sunset released his grip and rolled off, then dove for the cat's long legs. The tom tried to sidestep out of the way, but Sunset flashed out his paw to trip him. Putting everything he had into it, Sunset tore at the cats hind leg, flashing his claws and teeth in blind fury.
The tom yowled in pain and stumbled, then Rustle grabbed his chance. He barreled into the cat full force, sending him flying. Sunset stood up, panting, as they watched the cat weakly try to get back on his feet.
"Nice job," Rustle purred. "Gimme some." Sunset puffed out his chest with pride and the two bumped shoulders in companionship. Sunset looked around and saw that the battle had come to a cease. Their attackers were backing down, clearly having lost. Birdwing came through the crowd, her blue eyes flashing with accusation.
"I demand to see the leader of your battle party!" Birdwing snarled.
A brown tabby tom stepped forwards, lifting his chin. He was nearly as large as Birdwing herself, with a large bushy tail flicking behind him.
"I am Root of Twisted Pine, and you have trespassed on our tribe's territory," he claimed boldly. "You may make no demands here."
"I will make any demand I wish. Your tribemates are cowardly and weak," Birdwing sniffed in distaste. More than a few pelts bristled at her words. "They came into our territory and kidnapped a mere apprentice, then had the audacity to attack one of our warriors while he was alone!"
"Your warrior was on our territory, and therefore we had the right to defend it. But as for your ridiculous claim of us taking an apprentice, we have done no such thing," Root defended. "Your bold accusations are wasted on innocent ears." There were murmurs of concern from the other moor tribe cats.
"I know filth when I smell it!" Birdwing snarled, snapping her teeth at Root. Immediately a few of the moor cats jumped to stand beside Root in defense. Birdwing bristled.
"Back down," she warned them. "We have already shown you that you are outmatched." The moor cats exchanged uneasy glances, but took a few paces backward. Root stayed nose to nose with her, foolishly unafraid.
"We demand to be taken to your camp, and for your leader to return the kidnapped apprentice, Dip in Grass Field," Birdwing growled.
"We have no apprentice to return," Root replied boldly. "So your demands are impossible."
Sunset hardly saw what happened next, it was so fast. Birdwing slammed into Root. Sunset blinked and then Birdwing had Root pinned to the ground, her claws over his throat. The moor cats let out cries of distress and fury. A few approached, but came to a quick halt when Birdwing pressed her claws down into his sensitive skin. Root let out a cry of pain and thrashed, but couldn't escape the she-cat's grip. Sunset flinched at his outburst.
"I know you have taken Dip and you will return him to us," Birdwing asserted. "Root was trying to protect his tribe's honor, and there is some merit in that. But unless one of you confesses to having kidnapped our apprentice, Root's honor will be his death." The moor cats looked at each other with wide, scared eyes, but none spoke up. The tension was thick.
"Nobody wants cooperate?" Birdwing cocked her head and gave them an icy stare. She pressed her claws further into Root's throat and he let out a screech that echoed against the hills. Sunset cringed and pressed against Rustle, a sickening feeling boiling in his stomach. Blood was starting to run through Root's thick tabby fur and pool underneath him.
"Root, please, just tell her!" a white molly cried out. Sunset's eyes darted over to the speaker and his heartrate quickened.
"No," Root spat out furiously.
Birdwing's eyes latched onto the white molly. She was glancing around in a panic. "Tell me?" Birdwing asked, narrowing her eyes. "So you admit Root was not telling the truth?"
"I-" the white molly glanced around and saw her tribemates staring at her, some shaking their heads and urging her to continue denying the claim.
"Was Root not telling the truth?" Birdwing asked again.
"He was only trying to protect his tribe!" the molly pleaded. Birdwing stood silent and still for a few moments, her eyes locked onto the molly's. Then it seemed she had come to a decision.
"These wounds will not kill him," Birdwing meowed. Her voice was eerily calm. "But this one will." Birdwing raised one paw, extended her claws, and aimed to strike across his throat. Even a few of her own tribemates started as she prepared the deathblow. Sunset gasped.
"She can't kill him in cold blood like that!" Rustle whispered. "That'd be against the laws!"
"She won't. She's bluffing," another cat meowed, but their voice was unsure. Suddenly a cat let out a screech and all attention was directed towards her.
"He was lying!" the white molly screamed, racing forwards. "He was lying, we have your apprentice! We took him four days ago, his name is Dip in Grass Field, just like you said!" There were mutters of fear and anger from the moor cats as the white molly stood in front of them.
Birdwing lowered her paw and sheathed her claws. "Thank you," she meowed. She stepped off of Root and the brown tabby wheezed as his throat was released from her grip. The white molly helped him stumble to his feet, his fur still stained around the claw marks on his ruff.
"You all heard her. Now there will be no denying that you are holding our apprentice hostage," Birdwing announced. "Petal. Heather. Cave. Go find Shadow and return him safely." Three cats split from the group and headed forwards.
"As for you," Birdwing turned back to the huddled mass of moor cats. "You will take us to your leader and we will retrieve our apprentice. Tribe of Bird's Wings, let's move."
Sunset took his place at the back of the group beside Rustle and Reflection as they began to move again, the moor cats leading them. There was an uneasy feeling in the air, and the previous chatter had all but disappeared.
"She didn't have to threaten them like that," Sunset frowned and shook his head. "If we had gotten them to bring us to their camp I'm sure we would have been able to talk to their leader and come to an agreement."
"It was the fastest way though," Reflection rebuked. "You have to admit that. And now they won't dare to try and attack us again."
"I don't know if it was the best way," Rustle meowed, his voice troubled. "But one thing is for certain. We have a new enemy." As they continued on, Sunset couldn't help but wonder; was it a necessary enemy?
Coming into the other tribes camp, the scuffing of the patrol's pawsteps disrupted the otherwise silent air. Sunset couldn't catch any sort of chatter he expected to come from a camp filled with cats. The entire prairie remained silent as a corpse, the midday sun causing his tribemates to squirm and shift uncomfortably. From the long grasses and foliage in the cove, wide eyes peered, and a few hushed whispers reached Sunset's ears.
"Do you think...?"
"...a few apprentices. Maybe..."
Sunset bristled, noting that a large portion of the stares directed themselves at him. He shuffled closer to the rest of his patrol, fur brushing against Rustle's side.
"Is it just me, or are all of these cats staring at me?" Sunset whispered.
Rustle glanced around with troubled eyes. "It's strange," he replied. "But I think you're right."
"It's not just you," Reflection hissed under her breath, trotting up to stand close to Sunset. "They're looking all buggy-eyed at me too. It's giving me the creeps."
"Sunset!" Birdwing barked from the head of the patrol.
Sunset's ears perked up immediately. "Sorry, Birdbrain's calling me again," he snorted under his breath. He shared a snicker with Reflection. Rustle shifted uncomfortably but didn't chastise Sunset for the remark, much to Sunset's surprise and delight. Sunset waved his tail briefly, then weaved his way to the front of the crowd. Birdwing stood, proud and haughty, her eyes darting around the camp to send glances hot with fury at the staring crowd.
"Just observe. Don't speak up unless asked," Birdwing said. "We'll need to navigate this carefully. Something is very wrong in this camp, wrong to the core. Can you see the desperation in their eyes? There's a distinct glimmer, a craze lying just underneath the surface. Desperation will drive cats to places they dare not speak of." Her tail flicked back and forth irritably. Beside her, Heather cast Birdwing a nervous look.
At that moment, a dark figure melted out from the shadow underneath an overhang. The tomcat had a stocky build and two pale amber eyes like full moons. Judging by his well groomed gray fur, he made appearances a particular point of pride. He stalked toward them with long strides and narrowed eyes. Root of Twisted Pine immediately parted from the group and went to whisper something in the tom's ear. Birdwing watched their exchange with noticeable tension.
The dark tomcat turned towards them. "So, the Tribe of Bird's Wings returns," he stated. "And in a battle party of considerable force."
"We are not a battle party," Birdwing retorted. "Not unless the need arises. We've come looking for a missing tribemate. A member of your tribe was considerate enough to confirm that he is being held hostage in your camp."
"You're lucky," the dark gray tom said in a low tone. "We typically kill trespassers."
There were mutters of shock and disgust from the Tribe of Bird's Wings and Sunset's fur bristled. The dark tom carefully measured their reactions. Birdwing met his gaze evenly, unphased by the remark.
"I take it you're the leader of this tribe?" Birdwing asked coolly.
"Yes. My name is Silence on Leaf-Fall Night," the dark tom introduced.
"I am Storm the Birdwing," Birdwing nodded. "Excuse me for being so forward, but I'd prefer to skip the formalities. If you could show us where Dip in Grass Field is, we will take him and gladly leave your territory."
The clearing suddenly erupted with whispers. Nervous glances passed between the fear-ridden eyes of the other tribe cats. Sunset already came to the realization, but his mind stubbornly refused to actualize the thought that made his stomach sink lower and lower. Silence on Leaf-Fall Night's tail flicked back and forth, revealing his nervous energy.
"Where is Dip in Grass Field?" Birdwing asked again, her shoulders tensing and her voice rising.
"We know where he is-" Silence said hesitantly. "-but we cannot show you."
"What does that mean?" Birdwing's calm demeanor was falling apart. "What have you done to him?"
"We sent him towards the coastline to fulfill the prophecy," Silence stated, averting his eyes.
"What?" Birdwing hissed, puffing up her mane of fur to loom over the black tom. Every moment, she was looking more and more like a wild beast. "What prophecy?"
"The Tribe of Stars promised they would save us!" a cat in the crowd suddenly cried out in anger. "They said an apprentice would defeat Sandclan!" As if lighting a fuse, suddenly cats from all around began to yowl in fury.
"We've suffered for moons!"
"Sandclan will destroy us if we don't act!"
"The prophecy must be fulfilled!"
Sunset looked at the desperate tribecats around him in horror and the pieces clicked into place. In some attempt to fulfill a prophecy, they had sent Dip in Grass Field out into enemy territory, and they likely would do the same to him or Reflection if given the chance.
Looking around, Sunset noticed the lack of apprentices - elders, warriors, queens, and kits filled the clearing, but he could not catch sight of a single apprentice. The implication was entirely clear - in their desperation the clan sent every apprentice to enemy territory. And none had come back.
"When?" Birdwing roared above the noise. "When did you send our apprentice to his death?"
"He left at sunhigh-" Silence began, but then something in the air physically changed. Birdwing let out a furious howl, jumping at the black tom with her claws unsheathed. She tackled him to the ground, and the entire clearing burst into a frenzy of fur and claws.
Sunset dived away from a gray and white molly that sprang towards him, skidding in the dirt and sliding into a thicket of brambles. He thrashed around as the thorns scratched at his skin, crying at the sharp pains all across his body.
"Stop!" Sunset heard Heather cry from somewhere to his left. "This battle will gain us nothing!"
Sunset struggled to break free of the brambles, hearing the fight escalating around him. It took him another few moments, but finally he dragged his fur out of the thicket, leaving behind huge clumps of it caught on the branches.
Perhaps Sunset meant to jump back into the fight, defend his tribe. More likely, he planned to bolt from the battle altogether. Either way, he instead ended up underneath the paws of a large tabby molly. She pinned him by the throat, cutting off his airway. Sunset choked, trying to force oxygen into his crushed airway.
"Stop-" Sunset coughed hoarsely. "-I surrender! Can't-breathe-"
The tabby molly's grip loosened slightly. "What?" she yowled over the noise, still keeping him pinned while Sunset's body went limp. Sunset wheezed, white creeping at the edges of his vision. But with her slightly loosened grasp, the apprentice was able to take in a shallow breath. Relief washed over him.
From the corner of his eye, Sunset caught sight of a huge, blue-gray figure bolting across the battlefield. Before he had time to realize what was happening, the tabby molly was seized by the back of the neck and thrown off him. Sunset took in a long gasp, his throat catching at the suddenness of the breath, and stumbled to his feet.
His rescuer, he realized, was Birdwing. The leader, now more than ever, resembled the lynx cat that many compared her to. Birdwing reared up on her hind paws and knocked down the tabby molly with a strike across the face.
The tabby molly lay face down in the dirt. She looked up, blinking the dust out of her eyes. Birdwing raised her paw in the air, extending her claws fully. The tabby molly's eyes widened and for a split second her paws scrabbled for a grip on the ground, in a instinctual effort to run. Sunset's heart leapt into his throat. He opened his mouth to scream, or yell, or something to stop what he was about to bear witness to.
For a split second, Sunset was a kit again. He was trying to follow his mother in an escape from the cave, and Birdwing had him pinned to the ground, her claws in his fur.
The tabby molly let out a cry of fear - at the same moment Sunset did.
Birdwing struck the molly across the throat. Scarlet stains spattered the ground. Sunset watched the molly twitch and writhe, her eyes glassy and bulging. She shuddered for a long time. Birdwing stood blank-faced over the dying molly, her eyes watching but not seeing.
The battle around Sunset sounded as if it were faraway, someplace distant from the last strangled breaths of the nameless molly. Sunset stood, he watched, and he didn't blink. Not even once.
Sunset's battle party roamed the coasts for several days after their battle with the Tribe of Endless Moors, searching for any trace of Dip in Grass Field. The mysterious Sandclan the other tribe had spoken of made no appearance, though occasionally Sunset could catch a strange scent in the air. The Tribe of Endless Moors did not pursue them, preferring to lick their wounds and avoid another confrontation.
More Coming Soon!