Chapter 18: Sunstorm
The journey up the remaining part of the mountain wasn't any different from when Sunstorm traveled with Feathertail to the Tribe. There was a lot of gray rock, a lot of walking, and not much hunting. When they started out that morning, they managed to catch some prey, but as the day went on, it got harder on the verticle slopes. She felt hunger gnaw at her once more.
The five of them (Cloud where the Starlings Fly, Star in the Red Dawn, Moss on a Gray Stone, Flower Clinging to a Rocky Slope, and Sunstorm) journeyed up the mountain peak to find Star's missing mate. She had been stolen by a giant hawk which had been terrorizing the Clan for moons. The Tribe believed the hawk lived on the highest peak on their mountain since they'd seen it fly there many times after preying on them.
The cats climbed the mountainside, jumping across boulders and ledges, clawing their way up cliffs, all in an effort to reach the peak. Sunstorm stayed near the back of the line with Moss. The two toms scouted the way, looking for firm ground to land on while Flower trailed behind them, keeping up with a steady stream of complaints or criticisms. Sunstorm didn't know why the light brown tabby cat (when she wasn't covered in mud) had even insisted on coming along; no one had invited her.
Sunstorm stayed in the back so Moss could keep an eye on her and help her if she started to slip. The ginger-brown she-cat was grateful for the help. She wasn't quite an expert on mountain life just yet. They also got more time to talk, which Moss excelled at doing.
"So how can Water and Star be mates?" Sunstorm asked as she watched one of the mud covered toms leap onto a wide ledge. She strained her head but couldn't see the rest of the mountainside. It curved too much inward, hiding on the other side of that ledge.
"Well, normally some cats meet up after death. They might have formerly been mates when alive, or else they're cats who had no one or prefer someone new pair up," Moss answered. She stood behind Sunstorm on one of the lower ledges, waiting for the cats ahead to call them. "However, Water and Star died at the same time."
Sunstorm twisted her head glancing behind at Moss.
"There was an earthquake," Moss explained quietly. "They were out on the mountain when it hit. Water was going to kit in a quarter moon or so and Star wanted to watch out for her. So they went hunting together. The ledge they were standing on crumbled with all the shaking and they fell to their deaths."
Sunstorm continued to stare at her companion. "Just like that?" she meowed, not quite stopping a squeak.
The she-cat nodded her head. "We all heard the story growing up. It was a lesson not to all stand on the same ledge or boulder. You never know what could happen."
Sunstorm glanced downward. Far below she could make out the wide plateau the Tribe of Endless hunting called home. She thought she could make out a dark shadow, the valley they camped in. She swallowed, pulling back so her mud covered fur touched the mountainside. She'd never been scared of heights before this. She'd been nervous, but she'd never actually been so scared. After all she and Moss were sharing the same ledge.
"Don't worry," came Moss's cheerful voice behind her, "This ledge is strong. And if it did break, we'd be fine. We're dead already."
Somehow that didn't help.
"Come on!" came the faint call above.
Sunstorm looked up and could see one of the gray cats leaning down, motioning them forward. She gathered her legs under her and pushed as hard as she could, claws reaching out as she aimed for the next jut. Above her the gray clouds hung heavy and low, hiding the sky from view.
As darkness descended, they entered the cloud covering. The mist hang in the air around them, clinging to the cats. The mud started to get wet again and then started to run, dripping off, dotting the trail behind them. Sunstorm wondered when they'd start looking for a place to rest. She felt sticky and wet to the bone. She wondered if she could breathe in the water and if the lack of air would make her pass out.
The toms had disappeared down a trail. It was on the other side of a large boulder blocking the path on the long ledge. Flower stood on the rock now, sitting, the mud leaking from her fur onto the rock.
"How much higher do you think it is?" Flower asked. "My paws are even starting to ache and this mist is giving me a headache."
"You mean to the top?" Moss asked, looking up at the she-cat. Then the gray she-cat shrugged. "No clue."
"I found a cave!" Cloud's voice rang, echoing down to them.
The she-cats turned. Flower even got off of the rock and finally let Sunstorm and Moss get up. Sunstorm almost slipped on all the mud Flower had left. Her claws, almost nubs by now, managed to stabilize her so she could continue. On the trail, she could see Cloud sticking his whitish-muddy head into the rock. When she got closer, she saw the blackness yawn in front of her, leaning to the side. She didn't think it would be very warm inside.
"We should keep going," Star insisted. He stood farther on the trail where it started curling upward, disappearing fully into the cloudy mist.
"It's getting dark," Moss meowed, staring at him. "we can hardly see more than a cat length in front of us anyway. It will be harder when the sun leaves."
"It will be too dangerous," Flower meowed.
"We need to rest," Cloud agreed.
The four of them looked up at Star, waiting for him. Anger flashed in his eyes, but then his ears lowered in acceptance, his eyes half closed. He nodded and then walked down to them.
Flower turned to the cave and started to walk inside. Sunstorm watched her ears lower, avoiding the pointed stones hanging down from above. It was hardly enough room for her to stand straight.
"We need something soft in here," Flower meowed, her voice muffled.
"I agree," Sunstorm meowed. She'd heard how cold stone ground could be and how hard. She'd even felt it on her paw pad in the Cave of Pointed Stones where Stoneteller lived. She didn't look forward to sleeping on it and freezing all night. Even with the covering of mud on her fur, which actually block most of the cold or wind from cutting through her fur. Besides, it had mostly dripped off. It coated her underbelly, leaving her back patchy with fur.
"I thought I saw some moss farther down the cliffside," Cloud meowed.
"Then get some," Star meowed.
"Come with me?" Cloud turned to Moss.
She nodded, blinking at him and then turned around to lead the way back over the boulder.
Meanwhile the other three ducked inside the cave. It was dark, but her eyes adjusted with the small amount of light getting inside around their bodies. It wasn't very big and got lower the farther they walked. Sunstorm crawled in anyway, her leg aching and not willing to help her friend go back down and bring moss up. She could already feel the air drying. The mist hadn't entered into the dark. It just clung around the edges of the entrance.
She settled down, trying to stop herself from licking off all the mud coating her legs. It seemed so strange trying to sleep in it. But sleep she did. she wasn't certain when Moss or Cloud got back or how they got her onto a nest of moss.
The next morning she awoke to Star nosing her. The tom looked anxious to start and when he saw her open her eyes, he turned to Flower. Sunstorm looked underneath her and saw green. Of course the plant had been covered with the mud dripping from her body, but it was sill soft and protected her from the cold floor.
She yawned, slowly stretching while laying down. She felt her back ripple under her and then the mud, which had dried, cracked. She wrinkled her nose. Mud wasn't pleasant at all. She stood up.
"Leave me alone," Flower growled. The she-cat kept her eyes closed, hiding her face under her paws.
Star nudged her.
"I'm trying to sleep," she hissed back.
"There isn't time to sleep," Star muttered. "Now get up!"
Flower yowled as if bitten and Sunstorm's ears went back at the noise. The light brown she-cat sprang to her feet, ducking her head in time so she wouldn't bash it on the cave ceiling, and took a swipe at Star. The dark ginger tom backed up and avoided her sharp claws. By now Flower cooled down and didn't charge after him, but she did send him a few glares as she rubbed a paw over one ear.
Moss and Cloud woke up with the argument and blinked between the two. No one moved. Star kept his eyes on Flower for a short while and then looked around the cave.
"You're all up. Good. Let's move."
He left the cave first. Sunstorm tried to meet the eyes of the other cats but they seemed just as surprised and amused as they looked at each other. It didn't take long for them to leave the cave.Bright light shone down at them, gleaming through the thick droplets hanging in the air. The clouds hadn't left in the night. Sunstorm didn't think they'd ever leave. She snorted at the mist, blowing the water away from her face, but more just held onto her body, starting to make the mud loosen and drip once more.
She sighed and gave up. It would just be another day in the mountains.
Star was the first to disappear. He was walking through the mist ahead on the trail one moment and then was gone the next. The grayness seemed to swallow him, making him into a wraith of shadows and then completely gone. Then Cloud was the next. Sunstorm blinked when she realized she didn't see any of the toms.
She looked upward once as if to see through the gray covering, but she still couldn't see the sky. When she looked back down, Flower was gone. Sunstorm stopped, not willing to go any farther.
"Moss," Sunstorm warily called behind her.
"The others are gone."
There was silence behind her.
"What d'you mean?"
"They aren't there anymore."
Moss squeezed next to her on the ledge trail, peering around. "They have to be ahead," the gray she-cat insisted. "They might have went around a boulder or up the cliff. Keep walking."
Sunstorm swallowed but obeyed. She stepped warily forward, paw after paw. Suddenly there was light everywhere, reflecting into her eyes blinding her. She squinted and paused.
When her eyes adjusted she realized her head was surrounded by pale, white clouds, leveling off right at neck level. They moved away from her, their wetness clinging to her fur. She looked up into a sky of blue. A large yellow sun hung over her. It's light reflected off of the white surface of the clouds.
"You're here, good."
She looked over. Flower sat on top of a small ledge above her.
"We thought we'd lost you," the light brown tabby meowed. "Now hurry up. It's strange up here."
The she-cat bounded upward to another ledge. Sunstorm tilted her head and looked up. Squinting against the light from the sun above and the light beneath, she could just make out two mud covered cats pulling their way up the narrowing cliff side. The toms had continued on.
Sunstorm quickly jumped up, leaping onto the ledge Flower had abandoned and started following after the she-cat. She heard Moss huff behind her and then gasp. Sunstorm turned back to look. When she did, she realized she couldn't see the ground at all. There was only white beneath her and blue above. Everything was hidden. Only the distant peaks of other mountains rose through the mist, scattering around her position.
"I've never been this high in my life," Moss meowed. "Or death," she continued after a pause.
"I'd hate to fall through that," Sunstorm commented. "You wouldn't know how close the ground was."
Moss nodded. "No wonder that bird always disappears. We can't see it up here. So where are the others?"
Sunstorm nodded above her.
"I think the peak must be near," Moss meowed, looking passed the ginger-brown she-cat. "No wonder Star wants to hurry. Let's go."
Sunstorm quickly turned around and started up, following in the path of dripped mud Flower had left behind her.
The sun started to sink under the cloud covering when Sunstorm thought she could hear a distant roaring. It was constant and loud, getting louder the higher they climbed. She mentioned it to Moss.The she-cat paused. Her ears twitched, a frown on her face. The mud had mostly left the gray she-cat's fur now, just runnels of it continued to cling to the top half of her body, dangling from her belly fur. Sunstorm probably didn't look much better.
"A waterfall," Moss suddenly meowed, an awed look on her face.
"You sure?" Sunstorm asked.
"I grew up with one right outside the cavern," Moss replied. "I'd never forget that powerful sound." She suddenly smiled. "Hurry, I want to see it."
Sunstorm did, quickly jumping her way up the rest of the slope. The ground leveled out and for the second time on the mountain, Sunstorm was on truly flat ground. It wasn't very far, just a few fox lengths in either direction.
Cloud, Star, and Flower stood in front of her, so she couldn't see much. She joined them and saw what they were staring at. Growing at the very edge of the peak, a tall tree thrust itself into the sky. The bare branches twisted and and pointed like large bones. Sunstorm thought she could make out a round nest resting inside. The tall, bare trunk shot down, splitting into thick roots. They tangled as they pushed inside the ground, most rising above the thickly cracked stone, like some sort of maze.
"What is it?" Star meowed, his eyes wide.
She gave him a double glance. Then she saw the other three didn't know what it was either. The only tall things they must have saw were bushes. Even the things they called trees were bushes to Sunstorm. Tall bushes, yes, but they still had so many low branches and leaves that it hid the trunk from view.
"It's a tree," she meowed to them. "We have them in the forests, but usually they have leaves."
They looked at her then back at the tree without words.
"So the hawk lives here," Star growled. He examined the white tree and then looked around as if searching for the giant bird.
"Cloud, you'll be the decoy," he started giving orders. "Flower, you'll go with me to the roots. When the hawk comes for Cloud, we'll pounce. Moss, you take Sunstorm and hide in the lower part of the roots. When it looks like we're losing, that the hawks is getting away, or that it's geting lower, you two rush in and pin the wings."
"Shouldn't we be looking for Water?" Moss asked, turning to the dark ginger tom.
He turned to look at her. Mud ran down his face and through it Sunstorm thought she saw rage deep in his eyes.
"Look around you," he meowed quietly. "If she were here, she would have met us the moment she heard our voices."
"You can't hear much," Flower tried to help.
Sunstorm realized she'd gotten used to the constant drone. She looked around searching for the source of the roar. She spotted a thick, deep pool of water in the center of the plateau. Clear blue gushed from a low rock, forming the pool. The water had carved a crevasse away from the pool, flowing to the edge that jutted farther out from the rest of the peak. She walked over, wanting to see this great waterfall.
Moss followed her and together they peered down. To the left, the water poured downward in thick sheets. The peak was far out from the mountain side, but Susntorm could still spot some boulders just before the clouds. It was beautiful to look at and almost mesmerizing. The water curled in the air, entering the clouds, blowing them away in some kind of dent.
"What if there's more than one?" she could hear Flower meowing somewhere behind her.
"Moss, what are you two doing?" Star snapped. "Get over here into your positions. We have to surprise the bird, not give it a welcoming committee."
Moss turned away, and started to walk over. Sunstorm realized her friend had left and turned around to join the others. Just then, Sunstorm thought she heard a shriek over the sound of the water. She looked up. From the other side of the peak a shadow, outlined by golden light from the sinking sun shot toward her. She froze and the bird flew over her. The wind from the wings pushed her back. Eyes closed against the dust, Sunstorm ducked her head and tried to regain her balance. Her back feet slipped over the edge. It crumbled under her, her shortened claws unable to catch the stone. She fell.
Her front claws caught the very edge. She hung there, her back feet scraping against the cliff side. Her legs shook and her body lowered as she couldn't keep her head above the ledge. As her eyes passed the side, she could see the giant golden hawk swooped down at Cloud. Flower and Star crouched in the roots of the great tree, ready to pounce, as was the plan. She could also see Moss running for her, ignoring the fight behind her.
The edge crumbled even more just as Moss reached her. Sunstorm felt the ledge turn to dust in her paws and she slipped farther down. Her claws dug into the side of the mountain. She stared up as Moss crouched down. Sunstorm's golden eyes met the green of her friend's.
"Hold on," Moss meowed. She put her paw down, reaching as far as she could, her claws extended.
Sunstorm felt lightheaded and she found it hard to breath. She could only think about the nothing underneath her. Then her eyesight seemed to go and a power filled her. It sparked in her head. The familiar power she'd once felt while alive rushed through her, shocking her. Pictures filled her mind so quick she could hardly process it. As she stared upward into the hazy sky, her mouth worked on its own, declaring the words in her head.
"Thunder will be silenced in the forest of darkness. Only the fawn in the shadows and a warrior who crosses unknown skies can stop the evening tiger from tearing down the trees."
Sunstorm snapped out of the trance long enough to realize her hold on the rock had weakened. Moss stared down at her, yowling, trying to reach for her paws. Sunstorm thought she could hear the others fighting the hawk, their growls and scratching, the shriek of the bird. Sunstorm stared up at Moss, back legs pummeled the stone, searching for a hold. But her claws shook, slowly weakening, slipping down, scratches in the rocks. The hold broke. Down she fell, the mountain peak narrowing in her vision as an open-mouthed Moss faded away.
She fell into white, cold mist all around her, the roar of the waterfall next to her, a flash of silver ribbon. Suddenly she was out of the clouds, falling into the air. She flipped, trying to get her feet down. She managed, just to see the mountainside reach up for her, the waterfall landing in a pool. She didn't have much time to see anything else, as for the second time in her life (living and dead) she fell into water and went under. The rushing, white water covered her head and she blacked out.
See Book 2: Wandering Through for the next part of the story.
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