Chapter 4: Lakefrost
Three gray and jagged boulders encircled a black hole in the ground. The tunnel sloped into the ground and a few tail lengths inside, deep shadow hid the rest from view. It was small, only a tail length a cross, perfect for two young kits to disappear into. More difficult for warriors to enter. The top looked low. Anycat would have to crawl inside the tight space.
Three cats stood before the open pit, peering between the gaps in the boulders. One was a gray tabby, the other a ginger she-cat, and the last their sister, a golden she-cat. Since that sunhigh the three and their Clan had been searching for the missing kits. Pinekit and Chestnutkit had taken it into their heads to go on an adventure while their mother slept. When she awoke, she was terrified and worried. Fallingstar sent everyone out to find the kits and stop them from crossing the borders or getting caught by a fox or badger. This perhaps was one thing she didn't believe would occur. That they might find some sort of tunnel in the earth.
Lakefrost shook his head. It was probably just a fox burrow. In fact he could smell some faint fox, but not too much as if the creature hadn't been back for a time. The kits weren't in danger from that. It would be a simple job. Just get the kits out from beneath and bring them home before the rain fell.
"Pinekit! Chestnutkit!" he yowled. He peered inside as much as he could, but it wasn't far. He noticed that his voice didn't echo back to him. His ears twitched and his eyes narrowed. He couldn't even hear movement. That meant the kits weren't just hiding from him and playing a game. This 'burrow' was deeper than he thought.
"We need to go in there," Lakefrost meowed. "They couldn't have gotten far now. We can't waste anymore time."
"Right," Honeybee nodded from behind her siblings. She shook and fluffed up her thick golden pelt as a quick wind blew the cold into her. A few drops of rain darkened her fur. Above, the clouds continued to sink, barely holding back a torrent.
"No," Mallowstalk moaned. The ginger's eyes were wide, gazing at the hole. Her fur was on end, but not to protect herself against the wind. A sickly smell of terror started to coat the air. Lakefrost's own body started to respond and he brought his claws out.
"What?" he meowed, looking at her.
"I can't," Mallowstalk whispered. "I can't go in there." She turned to him. "I won't! It's dark, too close." She started to pant, her eyes staring through him.
Her fear was making him anxious as if she knew something he didn't. He swallowed and told himself it was silly. There was nothing wrong down there. It was just a tunnel, no fox, no badger. He sniffed. No snake either. Just the smell of the two kits.
"Then you find Fallingstar and the others," he meowed. "Tell them where we are."
Her tense body relaxed and an easier look crossed her face. She nodded. He had no doubt she'd find the rest of the Clan and warn them. Help would be nice. He nodded to her and jumped through the gap. It was a bit darker on that side of the boulders and he stood still while his eyes adjusted.
The dirt crumbled underfoot.
He quickly tried to back up, but the ground kept slipping for the hole. With a yowl and a backwards hop, he tried to get away, but he only crashed into Honeybee. Mallowstalk had given room so their sister could get through. Honeybee jumped in without waiting or seeing if it was safe. The ground collapsed beneath them, enlarging the tunnel entrance.
Lakefrost peered under golden fur. His chin was buried in the loose soil, a thin blade of grass tickling his nose. His legs were folded beneath him and his hind end elevated by the uneven ground. It felt cold and loose. He pushed upward and Honeybee got off. She stood above him now. Her front legs on the upper ground and her lower legs still in the dip with him. She stared down at him in surprise.Mallowstalk even peered at the gap through them but he waved her away with his tail. She had to find the others.
"Let's go," he grunted.
He rose off of the ground, but not to far. He still had to fit inside the tunnel after all. He stepped underneath the dirt. Pieces dripped down on him, sliding off his back as he went farther in. Immediately the air stilled around him, but gusts pushed from behind until Honeybee entered. The ground smelled of old things. Damp, forgotten. Little roots poked out around him and to one side was the gray base of one of the boulders. He couldn't quite see. It was all dark. But the lighter forms stood out for a few steps and then he knew what was there by touch. Roots snagged at his sides, streaking down his fur. His whiskers brushed the tunnel rim. At the tip of his tail the warm breath of his sister and the tickling of her whiskers reminded him that he was followed.
The tunnel continued downward, like any burrow, but instead of getting wider, the sides got smaller. His steps became closer and slower. His legs ached. As the tunnel curved, he went with it, careful not to bump his head. Now there was only blackness. The dirt got harder, compact, pieces of chipped gravel bit into his pads. And there was moss. Imagine, moss under the ground! It became thicker where the tunnel evened out and there was hardly any slope.
He could hear his sister's breath. It grew rapid and even once she stopped. She squeaked and pulled back. He could hear her head thump against the tunnel ceiling. Dirt fell around them.
"What is it?" His voice echoed back to him, sounding thick.
"Can't you hear it?"
His stilled his own jagged breath and opened his ears wider. They flicked slowly. There was nothing. Just a hollow sound everywhere. Maybe there was a pattering noise. It was dull and didn't sound near. Rain? That wasn't anything to get her attention.
"What? I don't hear anything."
"There is something in the tunnel!" Her voice was a quiet hiss. "I can hear pawsteps. Another cat breathing. And I can catch a glimpse of lighter fur just ahead, or just behind. And they're speaking. I can hardly hear them. Their whispers fade."
Lakefrost swallowed. The fur on his spine rose and his heartbeat picked up. "You probably just hear the kits. And you can't be seeing another cat. It's too dark here. It's just a, ah, hallucination, um you just wish you could see. Don't worry."
He tried to sound relaxed and unconcerned but his voice trailed off. He could hear his sister, her breathing loud and steady.
"But it's not," she said.
"Let's keep going." He spoke over her and started walking ahead. He heard her rapid pawsteps come after him and then she was on his tail. She walked so close next to him, huddling by his side, still hearing and seeing what he could not.
"What do you think would happen to a cat that died away from the stars?" she whispered.
"Not possible," he told her. The tunnel widened and he stood up straighter. He flexed his legs and sighed.
"Well, we're here aren't we?" she meowed, standing beside him.
He noticed that it was no longer a tunnel they were in, but something like a chamber. The ceiling was still low, but the walls not so close. He couldn't quiet see it, but he could hear it. The far away sides not bouncing his words back at him, more air that was colder.
"What if cats' spirits are trapped down below?"
She closed her mouth and lowered her head. Now that he noticed, he realized he could see her, but she was little more than a dark form in a dark place. He blinked and looked around. "Can you see the light?"
"Yes," her quavering mew replied. "There's more over there."
Her tail flicked, a quick slash. He looked around and realized there was more light from one direction. He hurried over. As he walked, he felt the ground rise and he soon had to duck again. But as his ears came down, little droplets of water trickled down through his tabby fur. The ground felt more than damp now.
He reached the light. A small opening in the wall. He peered through, his eyes taking in something different from before. Above, higher than his head, a crack let in the sky. There was gray everywhere above in that jagged line. Thick roots pierced through, lining the cavern's ceiling and holding it up. Thin streams of water came down through, dripping down the roots and the walls.
"The kits," Honeybee meowed.
Lakefrost looked down. Far below, hardly visible, two shapes jumped around, tackling each other and then racing away. They played on a small raised ledge. Below them, a river ran as a black streak with ribbons of silver slashing through just to disappear again. One large tunnel spat out the rushing water, while another, no less wide and just as smooth, accepted the gift. The kits played above both, perhaps not aware it was there.
"How do we get down?" Lakefrost meowed. He stared at the wall and ground below them. The side was too steep, too slick and not a big enough root or ledge anywhere near for them to rest on. It would be impossible just to jump down and rescue the two.
"We have to go back." Honeybee jerked her head to the tunnel behind them. "The kits made it that far the same way."
He nodded, knowing she was right. The tunnel went on, perhaps to an easier access into the cavern, but it was hard to turn away from the kits now and head back into the dark. He wasn't sure if he called down they would hear him. Or if they'd respond. Perhaps they'd even run away, scared about being caught and punished. Before he turned away, he glanced once more at the wide chamber with the crack to the sky.
He saw sudden movement below. He froze, eyes locked. He spat a quiet hiss, drawing Honeybee back. She peered through the opening and gasped. On the same side of the gap as them there was a ledge. Two cats stood on it and a third's body disappeared into a tunnel Lakefrost hadn't seen before. He stared down, wondering who it was. He didn't recognize them as he stared at their backs. He could hardly make out their colors and just a faint hint of smell rose up to him.
"Timberleaf," one meowed. "What do we do? Whose are they?"
"Not our own," Timberleaf replied. "They aren't apprentices either."
The voices weren't so easy to hear, but it was enough. Certainly the kits didn't hear as they kept tumbling. Their echoed cries of a battle or directions came faintly to him. Lakefrost looked back down.
"Do we get them?" meowed the third cat, a tom.
For a time the patrol leader was still. Timberleaf's tail flicked, yellow eyes shifting. "No," was the meow.
Honeybee gasped. Lakefrost backed away, pushing his sister with him. He stared at her and she shut her mouth, sitting down. Her eyes blinked apologetically. He slowly leaned back over. The other cats, WindClan ( he could now tell by the scent of heather and rabbit), didn't look up. They must not have heard her. The patrol leader was still talking.
"-raising the water. If they can make it out before, then so be it. If not, we don't need our rivals knowing about these caves."
The WindClan patrol nodded. The tom was the first to turn away and then the she-cat, and finally Timberleaf. Lakefrost glared down at the gray's head. They were just letting the kits die! He stared at Honeybee, his eyes glaring. She sat half within the dark, just gazing back at him with wide eyes, her ears half down.
"That's what they said," she whispered. "That's what the voices were saying!"
"What are you talking about?" he demanded.
"The voice in the tunnel said the water would rise! The rain is doing it. The tunnels will flood and if we don't get out we're going to die!"