Chapter 21 || Drifting Souls
The three had been walking silently for a long while.
⠀⠀The maze had been left far behind, a moor stretching out in front of the cats, clumps of heather scattered in dips and a few trees sprouting out of the ground here and there. Straining his eyes, Batchaser was able to make out a forest farther away, the oak trees wavering under the crimson sky.
⠀⠀“I’m guessing that’s whatever is next, since nothing has come up since the maze...” the black tom muttered, blue eyes flickering to the other two.
⠀⠀Cypressfall shrugged. “Maybe.” Her eyes looked troubled and far-off, Batchaser noticed, but he didn’t press.
⠀⠀Rushingpaw’s head hung a little lower than usual, too. “I just want to get out of here..”
⠀⠀“We’ve probably gotten farther than any other cat,” Batchaser mused, trying to lighten the mood in any way possible. He was about to rip his fur out from the deafening, awkward silence.
⠀⠀Cypressfall tipped her head. “Maybe.”
⠀⠀“Is that all you say?” The ShadowClanner scowled.
⠀⠀“I just... I don’t know..” Her voice trailed off and Batchaser fixed her with a pointed stare. She continued a few moments later, standing still. Rushingpaw hardly seemed to notice. “I saw so much in the maze. It makes me wonder if... if going on is worth it. Or if I even deserve it.”
⠀⠀“You’re doing this for yourself and no one else,” Batchaser pointed out, swishing his tail. “Why does it matter if it doesnt affect anyone else?”
⠀⠀“But it does!” Her voice rose into a slight wail. This time the apprentice stopped, looking back with worry and confusion. “I took my sister’s mate... he wasn’t even part of ThunderClan..”
⠀⠀Batchaser grunted. “Forbidden love is overrated.”
⠀⠀“I stole him from her,” she choked. “And then Icestar... we fought...”
⠀⠀“You didn’t steal anyone. If this forbidden love chose you over your sister then it’s their fault, not your’s.” Batchaser shrugged. “And if Icestar couldn’t forgive you for that, then what kind of sister is she?”
⠀⠀“I had the kits she was meant to have...” the calico whispered.
⠀⠀“Did they do good in their lives?” Rushingpaw suddenly asked, his voice soft and gruff with internal pain. Batchaser turned his muzzle toward the gray apprentice.
⠀⠀“Yes.” Cypressfall smiled softly.
⠀⠀“Then it was destined to happen,” Rushingpaw murmured, smiling at the she-cat. He rested his tail on her shoulder and the two went on. Frowning, forcing his face into a scowl to hide his slight worry, Batchaser quickly caught up.
⠀⠀“So, are we going there next?” he asked, pointing with his tail toward the towering trees farther off. Cypressfall twitched her ear in recognition to hearing his voice.
⠀⠀“I’m guessing, I haven’t seen anything else since the maze collapsed. I figured the forest would be the next step to the journey.” She eyed Batchaser. “What do you think?”
⠀⠀The ShadowClanner shrugged. “I guess. Let’s just hope there aren’t any wolves. I really would rather not have my fur torn out this time...”
⠀⠀“You can say that again,” Rushingpaw muttered under his breath. The young cat’s ears suddenly pricked and he pointed excitedly toward the treeline, oaks shadowing whatever was inside. Batchaser was sure this was just a trick on sore eyes. “Look! Lights! Do you see that?”
⠀⠀Batchaser did see the faint glow of a yellow orb, drifting out of the woods before slipping back inside and disappearing into the shadows, a flicker of light in the darkness. It reminded Batchaser of himself. Always mean and irritable, swallowed by darkness, only a sliver of light forcing its way out from time to time... He shook his head and twitched his tail, now was the time to think about the quest, not himself.
⠀⠀Before Batchaser could say anything else, Cypressfall and Rushingpaw were already running toward the towering oaks. The ShadowClanner’s eyes narrowed and he pounded after them, his paws kicking up tufts of grass that swept into the air behind him. The two disappeared into the foliage and Batchaser hesitated before diving forward, bramble clawing at his face. He hissed and flicked the swaths away, feeling thorns prickle his skin and dribble blood down his cheeks. He wiped the crimson liquid away and muttered angrily as he came crashing out of the clearing. Brows furrowed, Batchaser was about to scold the two until there was a sight before him he’d never seen before.
⠀⠀Orbs. Orbs of all shapes and colored drifted around the clearing, swooping high and low to the ground, curving around each other and some circling the group. They emitted a light glow, different colors burning from the inside and lighting up the place. Batchaser, intrigued, stepped forward toward a red one. It stopped and his heart lurched as he saw what was inside.
⠀⠀A white tom, fangs drawn into a snarl as he leaped at a tabby she-cat. Blood, darkness, anger... Batchaser could almost feel it pulsing through his claws. He turned away and noticed a green one floating forward. Looking into the depths of this orb, he saw a sleek silver she-cat surrounded by pine trees, eyes wide with fear and her fur on end. Shadows leapt out of the undergrowth and tackled her to the ground, slitting open her throat as her petrified screams filled the air. Blood, darkness, fear.
⠀⠀Batchaser knew what this was. “Souls,” he whispered.
⠀⠀“Hm?” Rushingpaw tipped his head toward the black tom. “Souls?”
⠀⠀“Yes... my mate always loved talking about souls.. how the different colors showed who cats are. She said my soul was orange. Fiery and full of spirit.” His heart wrenched in his chest as grief nearly toppled him to the ground. “I think that’s what these are. They’re the souls of cats, stuck in this forest clearing, only the memory letting them live on as orbs. They’re drifting souls.”
⠀⠀Rushingpaw’s eyes grew soft. “I... didn’t know you had a mate... what.. what happened to her?”
⠀⠀Batchaser let the sadness die away and set his jaw in a straight line, narrowing his eyes. “Don’t bother asking.”
⠀⠀“I see it now!” Cypressfall jerked her head back, eyes sparkling with excitement. “They’re the color of souls!”
⠀⠀“A little late..” Batchaser muttered.
⠀⠀“Don’t you get it?!” She looked around wildly. “We have to take them! We need to get them back to their bodies! This is the next task!”
⠀⠀In a matter of seconds, Rushingpaw and Cypressfall had begun gathering the orbs in their paws. Batchaser’s eyes widened and he waved his paws in front of him. “Woah woah woah! We can’t get sidetracked now, we’re supposed to be leaving as soon as possible, not staying for longer!”
⠀⠀Cypressfall shook her head. “No! I know this is right! I can feel it.”
⠀⠀“I think I can too!” Rushingpaw exclaimed.
⠀⠀Batchaser growled. Was he the only sane one here? This had to stop! It would only take longer for them to escape. So, bushing out his fur to appear larger and scarier, the ShadowClanner said, “How about-”
⠀⠀Then, out of the corner of Batchaser’s eye, before he could do anything to control the situation, leapt a shadowy creature. And it was aiming straight for Rushingpaw.