Chapter 27 || Sinkholes
“I didn’t expect the trek to be this long.”
⠀⠀“This wasn’t even a quarter of what we had to go through,” Batchaser mumbled, tail lashing back and forth like an angry adder. He already regretted letting the three stooges come along. This whole journey was turning even more sour than before, and Batchaser didn’t particularly want to keep that bitter taste in his mouth.
⠀⠀Jackalstar huffed, splotch-ridden pelt ruffling through the wind. “Well, whatever. My legs hurt and I’m bored with you idiots.”
⠀⠀“Are you talking about yourself?” the black tom snapped, sniffing around a particularly deep trench they stumbled across. Hmm. Shallower than the one Rushingpaw nearly fell into earlier. Idiotic little weasel.
⠀⠀Jackalstar stopped, thinking about his words for a moment until they finally hit. “Hey! Wait!”
⠀⠀The ShadowClanner ignored her petty insults, sighing and craning his head up to the looming mountain. They didn’t seem to have too long to go, and Batchaser was seriously ready for all of this to be over. The silent treatment from Cypressfall had been enough—listening to Rushingpaw’s and Jackalstar’s constant blabbering made him want to drive a pinecone into his head, and walking near the cat that had killed him a second time was igniting the anger stored deep within his broken soul. At least Galewhisker wasn’t annoying, because that would be an extra cat to look forward to scratching.
⠀⠀“Over the hill and we should be close,” Cypressfall murmured, speaking for what seemed like the first time in hours. “Wait... how many of these wolf claw’s thingies have we finished again?”
⠀⠀Batchaser paused, counting on his claws. “Wolves... or that forest or whatever... that stupid maze, weird zombie cats, uhh...whatever is next? I really hope it’s nothing insane. And I’m guessing the mountain is the last mark of the dragon’s claw. Because if not, I’m throwing myself off that cliff. No regrets.”
⠀⠀“No regrets from me either. Actually, I’d love it if you threw yourself off a cliff.” Batchaser sent a glare in Jackalstar’s direction but stopped in his tracks. He’d been in the middle of walking over another one of the deep trenches, but plumes of smoke began spilling into the air from below him. Heat billowed at his belly and he craned his head down.
⠀⠀“What in StarClan’s name..?”
⠀⠀A deep, dark red flame was spiraling towards him. Batchaser screeched and threw himself out of the way, paws shaking as he scrabbled in the dirt. His blue eyes widened, watching the lava erupt from deep within the earth and breathing life into the sky. The six cats stopped, watching with awe before the ground rumbled below.
⠀⠀“Oh.... so that’s what the rumbling was,” Cypressfall thought.
⠀⠀”RUUUUUUN!!!” Shellstar screeched, speeding towards the mountain without a second thought to help the others. Fire began erupting from the trenches behind them as well, sending shivers through the rock below. Galewhisker and Jackalstar, confused as ever, trampled after Shellstar with Batchaser hot on their tail. The black ShadowClanner whipped his head around to make sure his other two companions were okay—he was surprised when Cypressfall ran past him with Rushingpaw firmly grasped in her jaws.
⠀⠀“Come on, you stupid lump of fur!” Jackalstar screeched, stopping and turning to glare at him. “Are you just going to stand there like an idiot and get burned to death?!”
⠀⠀Batchaser felt fire lapping at his paws. He let out a cry of fear and ran as fast as his body would carry him. Jackalstar waited, perhaps the only selfless thing she’d ever done in her life, and ran for the mountain side-by-side with what could almost be considered her enemy.
⠀⠀All Batchaser knew was that clusters of fire were leaking into the sky and that the ground was rumbling dangerously. He stopped, eyes widening as he noticed a pale flame flicker in a trench in front of them. Jackalstar tried to jump over, but the black tom grabbed her scruff and roughly jerked her back.
⠀⠀She whipped to him, eyes wide with anger. “Why in StarClan’s name would you do that?!”
⠀⠀Batchaser watched a beam of bright, melting light spill out in front of them and looked over at the ThunderClan leader. “That’s why. Now let’s get a move on.”
⠀⠀The two continued sprinting, avoiding the deep pits that even seemed to be spreading out farther in front of them. But all Batchaser was thinking about was controlling his breathing and not collapsing out of pure exhaustion. His wounds from the wolves, despite him pushing the pain down, hurt. And he hated that this still plagued his mind and rattled his pride because ShadowClan cats didn’t show weakness. They never did! And this would be... no.... no exception....
⠀⠀Batchaser slowed down, chest feeling like it was falling apart. His legs, so sore and tired from this whole expedition, gave out and he let out a soft moan as he smacked face-down into the dirt. Jackalstar didn’t notice for a moment, but only realized her black counterpart wasn’t there when his hoarse gasps had ceased. She turned to look at him, and for once, Batchaser saw raw emotion in her eyes. Fear. She’s scared for me. Maybe I should be scared, too.
⠀⠀But he wasn’t. He couldn’t find it deep within his soul to be scared, because such a large part of him didn’t even care if he died. He’d caused enough trouble his entire life, from letting his own family die to watching desperately as his mate writhed for a breath of life. He was a disappointment. His own father hadn’t even wanted him. What did that make Batchaser? It made him nothing.
⠀⠀”Batchaser!” Jackalstar’s strangled sob broke through the air. He looked down, noticing burning lava seeping in through the cracks in the earth. He did the one thing he’d sworn in his mind not to do and turned around.
⠀⠀Everything was red. The ground was covered with liquid fire, smoke clouding around his face that he’d only just noticed. He couldn’t see the specks of grass anymore, instead blobs of orange and crimson pooling below his feet. Batchaser closed his eyes, shaking from nose to tail-tip. This is fine. Death is fine. The others will have escaped, that’s all that matters... And even if I die? At least I did something before I’m gone. And if everything is a black void of nothingness after this... His chest constricted. It’s worth it.
⠀⠀He was ready for the numb, emotionless feelings of loneliness that was soon to follow his death. But everything seemed like it was going to be swiped away suddenly, because someone grabbed his scruff, yanked him out of his place on the ground, and held him close.
⠀⠀A comforting paw wrapped around his neck and he pushed himself into the cat’s chest fur, tears leaking out of his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, voice breaking. “I didn’t... didn’t mean to—”
⠀⠀“Hush,” the voice replied, but was softer than when he’d ever heard it before. Jackalstar. This was Jackalstar speaking and Jackalstar holding him and Jackalstar nuzzling him into her chest and— he couldn’t comprehend what was going on. Where was he? Was he even here? He didn’t taste the vapor on his tongue and he didn’t feel the liquid burning at his heels. Everything was safe here. He was safe here. And he was with Jackalstar. Nothing could be more comforting.
⠀⠀“Come on,” she murmured, tugging at his paws and turning. “Can you follow me?” Batchaser nodded weakly, shakily thrumming after her. She led him through the waves of flames rolling around them, the wind tugging at their whiskers, eyes wide and star-speckled and gleaming. They stepped past a rocky boulder and the stone ground underpaw faded away. The familiar feeling of soft, green grass returned to Batchaser and he was finally grounded. The ShadowClanner gasped, sinking into the dirt and breathing heavily, roughly. He was alive. He was alive. He was alive and Jackalstar has saved him.
⠀⠀“Thank you,” he coughed, the world beating into darkness around him. Jackalstar seemed worried, nosing his flank and not stopping until he softly groaned. But Batchaser could feel his life slipping away into the abyss, and he almost wanted it to take him. Perhaps he could. Perhaps he could leave all of this behind with no regrets and no worries and just... be alone. As he’d always wanted.
⠀⠀But another part said no. Another part of him said to stay, to fight for his friends and clean up the mess he’d created what felt like decades ago. I sent a false prophecy to the four Clans and now I must deal with the fate. If I die— StarClan. What will I be remembered as? The weakling that couldn’t even get through The Forgotten Eternity?
⠀⠀That sent him spiraling into anxiety. He couldn’t die, he couldn’t. Batchaser had suddenly too much to live for and, even if he didn’t like it, it was the hard truth. So it was to deal with it or let himself fall into the black without even going in an actual worthy way.
⠀⠀That can’t happen...
⠀⠀But despite everything his mind was telling him, the tom’s lungs felt like they were filled with smoke and he wondered if his organs had been filled with ash. The red flames still flickered in his vision and he tensed up, claws sinking into the ground.
⠀⠀I can’t leave... I can’t... can’t..
⠀⠀He couldn’t fight it. The numbness crept over like a constricting snake sneaking toward its prey. Batchaser grumbled something under his breath, eyes fluttering shut, all feelings and emotions dwindling into what seemed like nothing, nothing, nothing.
⠀⠀Batchaser was no more.