"Okay. What's this meeting about?" Silverbreeze asked, glancing around expectantly.
With a shrug, her best friend Finchnose blew a scrap of dried marigold leaf off her pelt. "Beats me. The chief strategist - now that Reedfur's gone - and fighter planned it." She gestured to Bramblepath and Strongheart.
Just the words Reedfur's gone sent a shiver down Silverbreeze's spine, though she concealed it with a tight smile. He's fine. He has to be. Without him, I don't know what I'd do...
"We called this meeting to discuss how we're going to divide up our cats now," Strongheart cut into her thoughts.
Looking as puzzled as Silverbreeze felt, Finchnose mewed, "Divide our cats? Why would we need to do that?"
As if it should be obvious, Bramblepath said, "To see which cats are going to go on our next secret patrol."
"Our next secret patrol? Reedfur and the others aren't even back yet!" exclaimed Silverbreeze.
Strongheart seemed to consider this for a moment, but then he shrugged. "I know, but we can't sit around waiting for them to come back. GreenClan has a lot of cats; we need to have more than one patrol out there if we want to have any impact on Viperstar before-" He shut his mouth with a snap, as if realizing he'd gone too far; Bramblepath shot him a glare with her green eyes. Silverbreeze and Finchnose exchanged a glance with arched eyebrows. First the two had called a meeting without Birdsong - Wetstream and Reedfur were out on the secret patrol - and now they seemed to be holding back secrets. What was next?
Anger and irritation mingled in Silverbreeze's veins. "Before what? And what's the big deal anyway? A few days ago you were all afraid that someone was going to discover the Tunnels. What happened to that, huh? How are we going to have enough cats to guard this place doubly, and go on a mission patrol? If GreenClan finds us here, we're doomed! We need to concentrate all our forces on-"
"We need to get out there!" interrupted Strongheart, lashing his tail.
Just then, they both paused as they heard raised voices outside the Chamber. Finchnose's eyebrows went up, and she trotted out the mossy curtain. Silverbreeze followed her, and she heard Bramblepath and Strongheart pad after her.
"And I'm saying we need to focus on hunting!"
"Who cares about hunting? You need to stay by your post! GreenClan could invade the Tunnels while you chase squirrels and rainbows!"
To her surprise, the two cats arguing were good-natured Violentclaw and calm Birdsong. Birdsong, who had a squirrel at her paws, looked about ready to rip off Violentclaw's head, and he looked just as enraged. Stifling a sigh, Silverbreeze said, "What's going on here?"
Both cats turned as one, as if they hadn't noticed the others approaching them. "Birdsong was supposed to be at the Observation Post, but she decided to go for a little hunt instead," Violentclaw snarled.
"It was dawn! It wasn't dark outside anymore; the guards by the front exit could've handled the watch duties till I got back. Besides, we need all the prey we can get, living underground with so many cats."
Before Silverbreeze could soothe tempers and pat down ruffled fur, Strongheart butted in hot-headedly - and ruined everything. "I'm with Violentclaw. We need to keep a good, strong lookout up. Wetstream, you should've stuck to your post."
"That's not true," protested Bramblepath. "We need to eat too, or hadn't you noticed?" She stabbed Strongheart's belly with a claw. He narrowed his eyes at her and opened his mouth to retort.
Obviously sensing a huge argument brewing, Finchnose said, "Relax, guys. Birdsong, next time just get someone to fill in for you." She turned to the still sulking Violentclaw. "And Violentclaw, Strongheart, observation is no use if we're all dead of starvation. To fight GreenClan in case of attack, we need to be strong and well-fed as well. Does that make sense?"
Muttering under their breaths, the cats dispersed, leaving Finchnose and Silverbreeze standing alone. Silverbreeze could tell their medicine cat was just as distressed as she was. Her brow was creased in a frown, and her hazel eyes were clouded with worry. "What are we going to do? We need to stick together more then ever now; instead, we're falling apart."
"Oh Finchnose. I wish you weren't right all the time."
Ordinarily, Finchnose realized that it was honor to be a medicine cat and convey StarClan's messages to the rest of her fellow cats. But since the forming of GreenClan, StarClan's link with her had been nearly cut off, and only sometimes did she get glimpses of blood-soaked fields and rivers of dead cats. Warnings.
This one was different though. In this one, she was invisible - somehow she knew that no one else could see her, though she could see them - and standing nearby several cats she recognized. It was the secret patrol, and with them were two grown cats and two kits who she didn't know, but who she sensed were rescuees that Reedfur and her friends had helped.
They looked like the ones in trouble now though. They were running, bellies close to the ground, fur whistling in the wind, eyes terrified and haunted. Behind them, Finchnose could hear the howls of wolves.
Then their pursuers burst into view, and she realized with horror that they weren't wolves. They were cats, horrible, awful GreenClan murderers with flaming red eyes and crimson-stained ivory fangs. Reedfur screamed a warning that sounded like, "Run!" Just as the word left his mouth, a GreenClan cat tackled him. Blood flew into Finchnose's eyes as she looked on in horror. Before she could even move to help her friend - though she couldn't have done anything anyway, this being a dream - Reedfur lay stunningly still, green eyes listless and blank.
Almost worse still were the kits, fur torn to ribbons, kit-fluff floating in the puddles of blood that surrounded them. Bile rose up Finchnose's throat as the GreenClan cats, still panting and heaving from the fight, slowly turned to face her.
"No!" she screamed. Ignoring them, she sank to her knees beside Reedfur, but she could tell all her herbs wouldn't save him. "Why?"
And then she was waking up in the Chamber, safe and sound.
But her friends weren't. And she couldn't do a thing about it.
Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. If the GreenClan patrol gets backup before we make it to safety, we're dead.
Of course, hurrying was easier said then done when you were carting along two bedraggled kits and a badly wounded tom. Though Spidertalon insisted he was fine, and that the GreenClan patrol hadn't gotten to do much damage, Reedfur could tell that he was in pain.
And he would be dead by now, if it hadn't been for Tornadoheart.
Glancing at Ivyfleet, who was leaning against her friend Cinderdapple gently, Reedfur felt a pang of sympathy. The she-cat had gone through so much, and now this... It was more then any cat deserved.
"Where exactly are we going?" asked Flowerburst, Spidertalon's mate.
"Huh? Oh! Uh, we're going to a place I know about... because of the Network."
Wetstream gave him a sharp glance, obviously reading that as a lie. The others, however, seemed okay with it, probably because they knew GreenClan territory just as well as he once had. Well, let's hope I remember this correctly. It's time to call in an old favor.
"A place you know about?" Spidertalon said skeptically. Reedfur didn't blame him for being wary; he was in no position to defend his family if they led him into a trap.
Nodding in what he hoped was a reassuring manner, and not a spasm of the head, he said, "Yeah. It's with a couple of old friends; haters of Viperstar. They'll help you for sure, and they can shelter you till your family is back on its paws."
As his gaze traveled over the tiny and hapless forms of Merlekit and Ribbonkit, he hoped desperately that he was making the right choice.
He did not want any lives being ended because of him.
Strongheart paced the length of the the tunnel outside the Chamber again and again, agitation driving him nearly up the walls.
Yet, it was better and more quiet in here then the main Hall. He could hear the bickering and shouting from where he was standing, and it made his heart ache. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. They were supposed to be a team. A family.
This was wrong.
But what could he do about it? He'd spent the entire afternoon arguing with Silverbreeze about whether they should send out another patrol or not, and they still hadn't come to a conclusion; the vote was a dead tie every time they took it, with Finchnose and Silverbreeze on one side, Bramblepath and him on the other. Telling it to Birdsong might have been a good idea, since she might've been able to break the tie, but Bramblepath and him had agreed to keep the final fighting plan as secret as possible for now. There was no reason to worry the others; they weren't ready for what true war with Viperstar meant.
He was. He knew what it was like. He had seen the SunClan camp before GreenClan took over. The blood, the chaos, the broken bodies and broken lives. It had almost crushed him as an apprentice, but now he was older. Wiser. And he couldn't let the same thing happen to the others.
Somehow, he would have to protect them while asking them to do the very thing that had killed so many of his old Clanmates.
It was the only chance they had.
"Strongheart? Are you okay?"
With a start, he looked up into a pair of warm toffee-colored eyes. "Finchnose. Are you okay?"
His friend's normally smooth fur was rumpled, and there was a haunted look on her face. She shook her head as she came to sit beside him. "Nightmares. About Reedfur and the others."
On instinct, his muscles tensed. "What happened to them?"
Finchnose looked like she was holding back tears. "I don't know, but whatever it is, we can't stop it."
"What are you doing here?"
Giving the two toms in front of him a tentative smile, Reedfur said, "Harley! Jake! Remember me?"
Jake, the shorter, stockier of the two brothers, scrunched up his face into a mask of concentration. When he spoke again, his voice was incredulous. "Reedfur? Is it really you?" He took in the other cats. "Can we help you? I never thought we'd see you again."
A weak smile touched Reedfur's lips. "I didn't think I'd meet you again either. But I need help. We're being pursued by GreenClan warriors, and we need to protect these cats." He jerked his head to Spidertalon, Flowerburst, and the kits. "Can you spare a little room inside that den?"
Harley responded with a smile Reedfur well remembered from when he had stayed with the two toms. "Of course. And you and your friends - obviously part of some rebellion, but I won't ask - will be staying too, right? Just for a little bit? We'd love to have you."
Exchanging a glance with Wetstream, he made a split-second decision. "No. We have to get back home."
Disappointment showed on Harley's face, but he nodded understandingly. "Okay; Jake, can you show the family in?"
"Certainly," mewed his brother, ushering their new guests inside the den.
Reedfur purred and rubbed his cheek against Harley's. "Sorry we couldn't stay; I promise I'll visit you some other time."
"I'll hold you to that promise," the ginger tabby vowed.
Hoping he looked more put together then he felt, Reedfur turned to Cinderdapple, Wetstream, Ivyfleet, and Brightsong. "Come on guys. It's time to go home."
He turned towards the horizon, the wind moving through his fur and tousling it, and desperately hoped against all odds that they wouldn't run into the GreenClan patrol on their way back.
Except he already knew they would.
Lying with her back to the wall in the Hall, Finchnose let out her breath exhaustedly. She had just been around, tending to arguments and breaking up fights, and it hadn't ceased to amaze her how easily cats got angry with one another. It was like they didn't understand that their very lives were riding on the Hidden sticking together and working as a team.
But then again, no one was perfect. They were all learning as they went along.
If someone fell, Finchnose would be ready to pick them up, just like all the others would do for her. That was just how it worked.
Closing her eyes, she imagined all her friends' faces. Some came up bloodstained and wide-eyed, claws outstretched as they raced into battle. Others were peaceful and dreamy, the picture of how the world should be without Viperstar. All of them pointed towards the same thing.
Without the rebellion, all hope was lost.
Her nightmare about Reedfur's patrol came back to her, and she wondered if they had run into the GreenClan patrol yet. Were they dead or dying as she sat here, whole and healthy? The thought caused her so much pain, she decided to send her friends a little message in the hopes that somehow they would find new courage and make it back to the Tunnels.
"When all else fails," she murmured quietly to herself, "remember your friends. And they will guide you home."