"Are you sure?" Strongheart said, breaking the silence that had befallen the group. Reedfur nodded hopelessly.
"Yeah. This is how they're going to kill us. Slowly and painfully."
Snowdrift let out a moan and slumped further against Angelcloud. Her eyes looked huge and scared in her gaunt face. "It's my fault. All my fault."
"No, it's not," Jaywalker said fiercely. He shot a murderous glare at the stone walls, as if he could laser them to bits with his anger. Strongheart, though, came completely unhinged.
"Curse you, Viperstar!" he screamed, throwing himself against the side of their prison with wild abandon. His body gave a sickening thud as it hit the wall, once, twice, and thrice. Reedfur felt bile rising in his throat as he watched his friend take out the despair they were all feeling inside.
Silverbreeze finally threw herself between Strongheart and the wall. "Stop it," she said firmly, locking her blue eyes, the eyes Reedfur had dreamed of so many times, with his. "You're not helping. Listen. The four of us need to talk. Follow me."
Panting, sweat staining his ginger coat, Strongheart padded after her. Reedfur's mouth went dry as he looked around. The four of us... "Where's Finchnose?"
Up ahead, Silverbreeze froze, and turned around slowly, as if her body was slowly turning to ice. "What?"
He gulped. "She's not here."
"She has to be!" Strongheart yelled. "Bramblepath," he called to the tabby she-cat. "Have you seen Finchnose?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. Her bright green eyes filled with concen. "Isn't she with you guys?"
Silverbreeze collapsed against Reedfur; he couldn't bother to enjoy the sensation of her body against his, because worry was choking him up, as he thought of their small friend being captured by the GreenClan army that had been pursuing them through the tunnels. What cruel fate awaited her? And how could they ever stop it, when they were dying themselves?
Breathing hard, Finchnose emerged out into the canyon, her short legs skittering on the rocky ledge. "I have to find someone to help," she gasped aloud, staring wildly across the stony cavern. "Someone who knows the place. Aquatail."
Sniffing the ground, her herb-sack bumping against her shoulder, Finchnose picked up the traitor's trail. To her surprise, the tang of blood carried on the air as she drew closer. Heart quickening, she brought up the pace till she was flying along the ridge of rock, not paying any attention to high and precarious her position was.
She made out the shape of two cats up ahead. Aquatail, the darker shape, was on the bottom. Pinning her to the ground stood a long-furred ginger she-cat, the moonlight lighting up the patches of white on her coat like clumps of fallen snow. She was saying something, and Finchnose strained to make out the words. "... enough Aquatail. Tonight, you die. You've betrayed and lied to enough cats. Joining GreenClan's ranks? Have you no pride?"
"I was always better than you Brightsong," Aquatail rasped. Her eyes flashed with defiance despite her position. "I know how to survive, how to get ahead in life."
"And yet it's done you no good has it?" The cat, Brightsong, leaned in closer, her claws digging in deeper. Aquatail let out a gurgled cry, her head falling to the side, her breathing slowly. Finchnose chose that moment to step out from the shadows. Brightsong looked up, her dark amber eyes gleaming almost dangerously. Yet, she could see something beyond the anger in them, something hurting and abused, yet strong.
"Aquatail," Finchnose said, shocked to find her voice steady, when her legs were trembling. "What is Viperstar doing to the others?"
"What others? What have you done now?" Brightsong said, not even seeming to register Finchnose.
"I... can't... talk... with... claws... throat... oaf!" her sister spluttered. Obligingly, the ginger-and-white she-cat relaxed her grip slightly. Bad idea. Letting out a bloodcurdling yowl, Aquatail flung her off and shot off down the side of the canyon. Brightsong made to follow her, but Finchnose threw herself into her path.
"Wait! I need your help," she panted. "Look, I know we don't know each other, but I'm desperate. I need someone who's lived in GreenClan territory, who knows Viperstar's ways." As quickly as possible, she spilled out their story. Brightsong stared at her in disbelief for a few seconds, but then she gave a nod.
"Crazy as it sounds, and as much as I'm probably going to regret it, I'll help," she said.
Sighing with relief, Finchnose smiled. "Thank you. Come on." She led the way back along the ledge, towards the entrance to the Tunnels. They padded in, footsteps echoing in the darkness. A shudder rippled through Finchnose's fur once more as she reentered the vile place, but she steeled her backbone, reminding herself that there was precious little time to save her friends. And she would never be able to forgive herself if she didn't.
They walked into the large cave where Viperstar had orignally been waiting for them. "Which way?" Brightsong asked. Finchnose paused, knowing she had to make the right decision. Looking around, she realized a foul odor was drifting from one of the tunnel entrances. Where there was something sinister, there was Viperstar's influence.
"This way," she said, flicking her tail. They practically bounded down the tunnel, when Brightsong suddenly stopped.
"We can't go in there!" she hissed urgently, her eyes wide. "I recognize that smell. It's poison."
"Poison?" she asked, stomach balling up. "What?"
Brightsong gave the air another sniff, then shuddered as if she had confirmed it. "Dark Fire, that's what we call it. It slowly kills cats, with horrible side-effects along the way. It's a terrible thing. Only the most evil of creatures would use it."
"That's what we're dealing with. How can we stop it?"
She hesitated. "It's going to be hard. We'll need water, because the way to get it to give off its fumes is to burn the leaves. And we'll need masks."
Finchnose remembered with a flash of relief that she had glimpsed a small stream trickling down the cliffside. "Let's go," she said.
"We should never have started this rebellion," Strongheart said with conviction. "All it's done is bring about the death of us all. And what have we accomplished? Nothing."
"That's not true," Silverbreeze said gently. "We destroyed Viperstar's headquarters and killed and disheartened several members of his army."
He turned away, not wanting to hear her soothing words. Not wanting to believe them.
"So? He just came here, and we walked into his trap like a bunch of idiots."
Cloverice sighed from nearby. "You did it all for one cat."
That was the only part Strongheart didn't regret. They had Snowdrift. She wasn't alone, and if they had to die, they would die together. Almost. His heart wrenched with agony as he gazed blankly at the wall, imagining a sweet face dominated by large hazel eyes. Finchnose. Where was she? What had happened to her?
"We'd do it again in a heartbeat," Reedfur affirmed. Snowdrift said nothing, but he could make out tears glistening in her eyes.
"Wow," Cloverice sighed. She wrapped her tail around her paws. Strongheart opened his mouth to say something to comfort her, when he heard the sound of something hitting the floor. A body.
Whirling, he saw Violentclaw and Wetstream staring in dismay at Fernheart, who had collapsed. "The poison," Violentclaw rasped, his voice sounding unsteady. "It's getting to all of us."
"Is she dead?" Wetstream whimpered, curling up beside her best friend.
"Not yet." Bramblepath's jaw was a grim line. Birdsong shook her head helplessly. And our medicine cat is gone, Strongheart thought. "But she will be soon."
She didn't say what they were thinking. All of them would be dead soon. Feeling weaker then he had ever before, Strongheart leaned heavily on the wall. They would die, every one of them, and he would be powerless to stop it. Just like Frostpaw.
"On the count of three, we barge in, okay?" Finchnose said. She didn't know how Brightsong could hear her past the leaf-masks they had around their faces, but the she-cat nodded. "One, two... three!"
They raced in side by side, and began peeling wet moss off of their pelts and flinging it onto burning fires that littered the ground. A lone tom stood in the middle, kindling in his paws, wearing a heavy leaf-mask, with a soot-stained coat. His eyes widened in fright when he saw them, but Brightsong gave him no time to think. With ferocity Finchnose knew she herself would never be able to muster, she pinned him to the ground and cut a long gash down his throat. Leaving him to bleed his life away, she turned and squeezed out a torrent of stream-water onto the largest pyre in the middle of the cave.
Determined to make herself useful, Finchnose kicked ashes across the cave. Acrid smoke stung her eyes, and her pads stung where they skidded on hot embers, but she ignored the pain, knowing it was a million times worse for the rest of the rebellion. She worked as fast as possible, expecting the shouts and thud of pawsteps as a GreenClan patrol came to investigate any second.
Finally, they stood together in the center, only thin wisps of smoke and lumps of charred black leaves serving as areminder of the poisonous Dark Fire. Still, neither one removed their masks. "Where are your friends?" Brightsong said, her voice muffled.
"There has to be a way for the smoke to be entering the room they're in," Finchnose said. "There!" She spotted a hole in the wall, partially blocked by a boulder. For a second it reminded her of the entrance to the Tunnels back home, and tears pricked the back of her eyes. Pushing them away, she threw her shoulder against the rock, ignoring the pain that vibrated up and down her body. "Help... me," she hissed through gritted teeth. Brightsong obeyed, and they soon managed to move it aside, and make an opening large enough to squeeze through. Finchnose stuck her head through the gap, and what she saw chilled her heart.
"Silverbreeze! Reedfur! Strongheart!"
The voice jolted Silverbreeze out of her hazy, disoriented dreams, during which she heard her father's cry, filled with unspeakable pain, calling out for her to help her. She stumbled to her paws, which felt oddly heavy and uncoordinated. Each breath made her chest and lungs ache, and her head throbbed. "Finchnose?" she said in a slurred voice.
Tears shone in her friend's face as she hopped towards them. Behind her, another, unfamiliar face appeared, uncertainty in her gaze. "We've got to get you out of here," Finchnose said desperately.
"Can we break out?" the other she-cat asked. Silverbreeze leaned on her friend. Their voices seemed to be coming from far away, and she couldn't make sense of the words. Still, Finchnose's warm scent helped bring back a little of her strength.
"No. We can't get caught. None of them are in any position to fight," Finchnose said. "There has to be a hole somewhere..."
"I've got it! When I saw Aquatail, she was leaning into a small gap, listening in. I bet that horrid creature wanted to hear you dying, but anyway, I know where it is, if we can just get up there."
"We'll make a rock-pile," Finchnose said. "But how could there be a hole? How could Viperstar expect them to die if there was a way for the poison to go out and fresh air to come in?"
Brightsong shook her head grimly. "It wouldn't be enough. Dark Fire is too strong. Let's rouse all the cats strong enough to help and make that rock-pile right here." She drew an X shape in the dust on the ground. Finchnose nodded, and together they managed to awaken Strongheart, Reedfur, Bramblepath, Violentclaw, Birdsong, and Firesoul. All of them looked slightly rumpled, and Birdsong was shaking, but they threw themselves into the task, and soon had a rockpile large enough to reach the ceiling from the top of.
"I'll go first and help the others," Brightsong offered.
"Okay," she agreed. "I'll instruct them."
Strongheart butted in. "I'm going to help the weaker ones climb up," he said firmly.
"And Bramblepath, you wake up the ones that are half-concious. We can't drag them all up," Finchnose finished. Nodding, the she-cat trotted off to do her task. A small flare of hope gave Silverbreeze the burst of energy she needed to scramble up the pile, Reedfur by her side. Gasping for breath, she collapsed on the smooth, cool stone, sucking in the fresh, clean air.
"We're out," Cinderdapple said, relief plain in her voice. Already the effects of the poison seemed to be disappearing. Though Silverbreeze still felt weak, she nodded and managed a smile.
Once they were all out, Finchnose sealed the gap with a large rock. "To slow them down," she explained.
"You've been so brave tonight," Strongheart murmured. "You saved us all."
"Brightsong and I," she corrected. Brightsong gave a shy smile, all her efficiency vanished as several pairs of grateful eyes turned to her.
"It was nothing."
"No, it wasn't, but we'll reward you later. Right now, let's get out of here," Reedfur said. A chorus of agreement met his words, and the whole rebellion began the exit out of the canyon. There was no sound from inside Viperstar's tunnels; Silverbreeze guessed he had underestimated them a little too much, and decided they were dead by now. He wouldn't find out till at least dawn, and they would be long gone by then, plotting their next move.
"Where are we going now?" Fallensky asked.
Strongheart exchanged a look with the three of them, then nodded. "The Tunnels. Back home."
"Home sweet home," Silverbreeze sighed. She grinned at her friends. "Well guys, they tried to crush us with the weight of the world, but we can't be beat. This was always meant to be. We were meant to lead the rebellion, and we will win."
"You're wrong about one thing," Finchnose said softly. "It's not just us with the weight of the world. Each one of us is doing their part. Together."
Silverbreeze, Reedfur, and Strongheart echoed the word, which seemed to shimmer like mist in the air before vanishing into each of their hearts.