The last few days had been the most intense experience of the young tom's entire life. In fact, they had probably contained ten lifetimes' worth of terror, pain, and the unknown. Far too much had happened for him to even process it all, let alone accept it.
Whatever those humans had done to him, it had left him feeling... weird. As though his body didn't belong to him, somehow. He felt like he was only half of himself, if that made sense. He felt lightheaded. He felt two sharp, stabbing pains: one on the tip of his left ear, and the other near the lower area of his gut. He also felt sick out of his mind. He couldn't walk straight. He couldn't think straight. But he kept trying to walk and think.
Great Star, WHY? he wanted to scream at the top of his lungs. Why had this happened to him? Why had they taken him? What had he done to deserve this?
But he couldn't scream. There was a dead, smothering weight on his mind, and it somehow kept him from wanting to scream, or run, or think, or do anything. If the word "zombie" had been in his vocabulary, it would have seemed perfect for the way he felt right now.
Where was he? He didn't recognize any of his surroundings, but then again, the blinding haze of sickness and pain made it difficult to see anything at all. How far was he from the High Stone? Part of him just wanted to lie down and sob like a kit. But he couldn't even bring himself to do that.
After some time (the exact length of time was impossible for him to estimate, though it was probably between half an hour and two hours), something finally interrupted this endless sea of trees and deadness: a scent. Of cats. A fresh one.
"Hello!" he called out, almost automatically. It wasn't a very loud cry, but it was enough to upset the delicate situation that his stomach was in at the moment, and he promptly bent down and was sick, coughing and groaning a little to see the remnants of the disgusting twoleg pellets that had been in his belly. Hastily, he scraped a few leaves over the mess, then raised his head and called out again, "Is anyone there?" Although his voice hadn't dropped with age yet, it was still low with weary desperation.
For once in his life Blackpaw was truly happy about something. From very early on the white tom had established that he was beyond or ordinary and useless to boot. Even his mother hadn't wanted his scrawny bag of bones, dumping him on the nearest queen after she gave birth. It had been devastating to Blackpaw to find out that his mother had been and that he was a bastard, the by product of an unplanned union. He could understand why his mother didn't want to have anything to do with him but that didn't make him feel any better about the situation. The kit's that he'd thought had been his siblings turned out not to be and the family that had once supported him had crumbled into dust. And so Blackpaw had, had to learn to stick up for himself. He'd become dependent on only one cat and that cat was himself. Any friends that he gained had little or no connections to Thunderclan in case he accidently fell in love with his mother. A shudder ran down his spine and Blackpaw's lip curled in disgust.
Trying to push those disturbing thoughts to one side Blackpaw concentrated on scenting the air for prey. He didn't hold any hopes in being able to actually catch anything; Blackpaw was useless at hunting and fighting in total. But it was nice that he'd been chosen for patrol for once. He, Blackpaw out of all the other possible apprentice's had been chosen. It sent brief shiver of happiness cascading down his spine. Maybe he wasn't so invisible after all. Don't get your hopes up loser, you're still a hopeless nobody. One selection doesn't change that fact. The white toms' ears drooped briefly in silent agreement, his inner most thoughts were always helping him to be realistic even if it hurt.
Pushing through the undergrowth Blackpaw cleared his thoughts until they were little more than a blank slate. The echoing whiteness was peaceful and the young tom used it to concentrate on his surroundings. It was a nice day, not too hot and not too cold, and what little sun light there was, was streaming down through the tree cover and gracing the ground in shades of green. The dappled light was reflecting through the ferns and brambles and if Blackpaw was completely honest with himself it was a very pleasant atmosphere.
Pausing briefly he gave the air another sniff. What hit the back of his nose was so unexpected that he almost sat down in surprise. It was not the familiar smell of the patrol he'd recently split off from, it was something unfamiliar and unrecognisable. The distinct sound of another being filtered through the silence and Blackpaw's ears picked out the accented words with curiosity. Crouching, Blackpaw awkwardly slithered across the ground on his belly before peeking out between the leaves of a fern. He watched silently as the younger feline scraped dirt of the sick that he'd made, it was a sight that made him recoil slightly if only because he hated the feeling of being unclean. The poor sod looked like he'd been to war and back and Blackpaw felt a spark of sympathy for him, scenting the air again to make sure he wasn't infected with the terrible disease that was hanging around. Something was definitely off about his scent but luckily it didn't have the coiling disease filled one that was partial to those with the infection. It also didn't have any of the traits that distinguished it as another clan cat. This fact at least gave Blackpaw a small measure of reassurance. Just then the black and white feline spoke up, obviously aware that someone else was in the area despite his utterly wretched state,
"Is anyone there?"
It was a direct question and unfortunately for Blackpaw he wasn't one to keep people in the dark. 'Do not what you wouldn't want done to yourself and whatnot.' The voice had been harsh with ill use and low with weariness, Pausing for a few seconds Blackpaw tried to review the situation with a critical mind; he was a strong and fit apprentice who wasn't very good a fighting but excellent at communication, if it came down to it he was bigger and he could always call the patrol for help. With a nod to himself for reassurance Blackpaw pushed his way out of the ferns and into the open. Summer light hit his glossy pelt, warming the snow white fur that cover his frame and making him stick out like a rabbit pretending to fly. Padding forward Blackpaw levelled his dark eyes on the younger feline and felt a brief flash of satisfaction that his judgement had been correct; he was indeed bigger. Uncertain for a moment, Blackpaw tried to decide whether to move over and help the other feline. He was obviously having trouble focusing and – Oh stuff it! Quickening his steps Blackpaw bounded the rest of the way forwards before coming to a stop beside the other feline. He (somewhat uncomfortably as his introverted nature came back to bite his irrationality) pressed his body to the other toms' to support his weight. Steadying his slighter frame with his own, much larger one. For a brief second Blackpaw wondered when he'd gotten so tall before shoving it aside as a detail to examine later.
"Are you alright?" he asked, half convinced that it was a stupid question. But it was a paramount of minimal first aid to try and work out whether your 'patient' was okay. If they snapped at you they were definitely conscious of their surroundings, "my name is Blackpaw. I'm a Thunderclan apprentice and I'll try to help, okay? How far do you think you can walk before you need to rest?"
Brief flashes of the infection ran through his head and Blackpaw tried not the let it show on his face. They had to get out of the open quickly just in case those things came running at the sound of the other felines' distress. Maybe he shouldn't have split off from that patrol after all.
Just enough time had passed for the young tom to start doubting whether he'd actually smelled anything at all. Had he been so sure there's been a scent of cats? Because right now, he couldn't taste a thing in the air. His mind and body were so out of whack right now, what with the unsteady walk, lightheadedness, nausea, slight trembling of the legs, and blurred vision, that he figured that hallucinations might have been possible too. After all, if there were ever any time in his life when he would have wanted to invent an imaginary cat to come to his rescue, it was now. Circumstances had never been quite so bleak as they were today.
Then again, if there were a cat there, then he might not have known it now. That foul, rancid taste of sickness in his mouth was enough to render his nose basically useless for the next few minutes. If there were a scent in the air, he would have had real trouble tasting it.
That doubt hadn't been in his mind for long before it was wiped away by the sight of a cat. Brilliantly white, without a speck on him from nose to tail, this cat's pelt seemed to glow of its own accord in the bright sunlight. Fourth blinked and flinched a little at the sudden sight, and his mind made a sudden connection: was this an Ascended cat in front of him? Was he dead?
He certainly felt dead.
But that was the problem, and that was what convinced him he wasn't. If he himself had Ascended, then he wouldn't be in pain right now. And if he had Fallen, then why would there be an Ascended standing in front of him? So he couldn't be dead.
So who was that cat?
There was no time to think about the answer: the stranger was suddenly heading toward him.
Without thinking about it, Fourth found himself automatically giving him the Tribe's casual greeting: a flick of the ear and a nod of the head. But in a second, he was thinking about it. Flicking that ear, which had happened to be the left one, had resulted in a spasm of sudden pain, which in turn sent a sudden fresh wave of nausea surging through his throat. He doubled over and shut his eyes, managed to hold it back this time, but swayed dangerously on his paws...
...and suddenly found himself leaning against the soft white fur of the tall stranger. His eyes snapped open in sudden surprise. "Wh-" he began, but the stranger's words cut him off. "Are you alright?"
It took Fourth a second to process the question, but he managed to faintly shake his head 'no.' What kind of a question was that? Hadn't this stranger just seen him be sick? Didn't he see him stumbling around? Fourth couldn't even keep his balance on level ground without some help, and yet he was still being asked if he was alright?
The stranger went on. "My name is Blackpaw. I'm a Thunderclan apprentice and I'll try to help, okay?" Confusion was the main look on the black-and-white tom's face right now; even if they had caught him at his best, those sentences would have been tricky to process. Even those first four words, "My name is Blackpaw," were surprisingly troublesome.
First of all, name. That made absolutely no sense. How could someone as young as this tom looked have a name? He may have been ten, or twelve, or maybe even fifteen moons, but there was no way he was twenty-four. There was no way he'd reached his first double yet. And the name. Blackpaw. Fourth's eyes darted down to Blackpaw's forepaws, and confirmed that they were in fact as white as the rest of him, so what was the explanation there?
And then there was the bit about "thunder clan" (had he heard that right?) and being an apprentice. No connection there. But he did understand the bit about wanting to help, and it gave him a spot of hope.
That sudden flood of confusion made for a rather delayed response to Blackpaw's last question. "How far do you think you can walk before you need to rest?"
That was actually a good question, and Fourth had no idea what the answer was. He didn't even have any idea about how far he'd come already. "I don't... know," he admitted, glancing briefly and automatically up at the sun. It seemed a lot lower than he'd remembered it being a few minutes ago. "A half-hour, maybe."
It was a conservative guess, actually. He may have felt sick half to death and dizzy to the point of nausea, but as long as he had someone to steady his steps, he felt he could probably keep going for quite some time. After all, he was young, and endurance was one of his strong areas, and of all the horrible things he felt right now, fatigue was not one of them. It was funny, how anesthesia could leave every single nasty secondary side effect imaginable except fatigue.
But not all of that was the anesthesia working. No, some of it was going to be permanent, and he wouldn't know exactly what until much later.
Well, he did know one of the things that had happened to him: his ear. Something awful had been done to it, and he didn't know what. It had hurt to flick it, but aside from the pain, the motion had felt different in some subtle way. As though there was a piece of it missing.
However, that was the least of his concerns right now. For the moment, the priority was just getting back to the Tribe, where he could rest.
Thornfur breathed deeply. The air was muggy and hot, stiff with the humidity of the early morning rain paired with the sun-high heat. The brown tabby didn't like this kind of weather. He despised it, actually. He was considered a great warrior amoung his clanmates. There was no shortage of energy running through his veins; his frame was becoming more muscular and sinewy as he filled out to his full size. The young tom was already taller and thicker than most cats he knew, despite being a mere 17 moons. Not yet in his prime. Multiple battle moves floated at the edges of his thoughts at any given time, though often he got too caught up in the moment to implement them. Improvisation was a key strength in his fighting style.
ThunderClan had fared better than most during the leaf-bares Thornfur was on hunting duties. When he was completely focused, no prey in the entire forest was safe from his claws. On the contrary: on one of his final assessments as an apprentice, he had been scolded for bringing back more prey than the clan could eat before it turned to crow-food. To avert wastefulness, and as a way of encouraging an alliance, ThunderClan had generously shared they fresh-kill with WindClan. The rebuke had been lost on Thornfur however, and served no purpose but the exact opposite, inflating the young apprentice's pride in his skill.
This impressive resume was not a fair example of the entirety of his prowess, both physically and mentally. There was much more to him than met the eye. Until, that is, the ruddy tabby exposed everything through his ill-concealed emotions. They flowed out of his mouth, eyes and body language like the water that separated Thunder from River.
Still, this meant nothing, for he was a thick-pelted cat. The humidity in correlation with heat was the one thing that upset him without fail. He cursed under his breath as another deep inhalation yielded another lungful of sticky air. It would be nearly tolerable, had the rain actually cooled anything down, like it was supposed too. But it was mid green-leaf, and today the rain had been light enough to dampen things without providing any relief from the sun's radiation.
These thoughts were wandering and pointless. When Thornfur was focused, it equated to the inevitable pain of his opponent, prey or foe. That focus rarely entered his mind.
As the forest came back into focus around him, Thornfur was peeved to encounter the rear-end of the cat preceding him. They were on a border patrol, checking and re-marking the edge of ThunderClan forest that sat next to Twolegplace. Wondering how long he had been daydreaming, the tabby tom stretched his neck in an attempt to head count. No cat was missing till he came to the position behind his. Blackpaw was not present, and there was no scent to indicate the apprentice had passed him over. He frowned. Not even the young cat's highly visible white pelt blazed through the undergrowth. Whiskers twitching, he resolved to ask Blackpaw one of these days what his mother had been thinking when she named her kit. While they shared a clan, he was not close to all the cats that resided within their borders.
Concern wafted through him after waiting a few minutes, with no sign of Blackpaw. He heaved a great sigh. Nothing for it. Glancing to make sure the rest of the patrol continued on, Thornfur padded in the opposite direction. He back-tracked till he reached the spot where his wanderings had begun in his mind. No scent of the apprentice. A tight worry spiked through the tom's pelt before dissipating through his tail. Blackpaw was young, and certainly not experienced, but he had his fair share of talent. He could take car of himself. Nevertheless, it was his duty to keep his clanmates out of trouble, and back them up when they got in.
Thornfur was quite a ways from the patrol now. The sun was well on its way down, and he wanted to get done before dusk. There was a cat he needed to see, and it would not be prudent to keep her waiting. Or worse, to stand her up. Favouring his curse in the place of another positioning scent, he quickened his pace. Paws thrumming a steady rhythm, he missed the low voices to his right, but nothing could cover the awful smell that hit the roof of his mouth with enough force to jerk his entire head back. It took an enormous will to force down his bile when the scent came in a second wave. This was an unfamiliar evil: it was unmistakably the fluids of another cat who did not possess the will he did, tinged with something foreign. Cringing as he took in the scent once more, Thornfur placed his paws in front of one another until he faced two toms, less than four fox-lengths away.
Blackpaw was standing firmly, another small tom leaning heavily on the apprentice. Two thoughts blurred in Thornfur's mind in quick succession. First: the black and white tom didn't look far from Blackpaw's age. He was certainly small, though it looked to be more from weakness rather than build. A smell of bile lingered on him, confusing Thornfur. This cat looked unhealthy, to be sure. But no scent of sickness flowed from him, save the liquids that had exited the tom. Yet as he examined the cat's scent attentively, something nagged at him. While the bicolor tom looked worn, he smelled healthy, but his scent wasn't right. Something wasn't right. Something... He put off the thought for the time being, sizing up the rest of the young tom. The tip of the ear was gone. Not torn, as a battle wound would be; simply gone. The wound looked freshly healed over. All in all, this tom was in no condition to challenge a sparrow. He was no threat to ThunderClan.
The second thought raced through the young warrior's mind only seconds later. This was not a clan cat, making him a rogue. And rogues, if there was anything Thornfur had learned in his 17 moons of life, were always a threat.
Letting loose a snarl, the ruddy tabby snapped. "Blackpaw! What in the name of StarClan do you think you're doing?!"