The Echo of Loss
"Chapter Fourteen: Empty Eyes"
"Uh-oh… Puddlepelts headed this way…" Heavystep said, bounding down into the hollow with Adderfang. Meekheart looked back to see the dark shape coming through the reeds, and jumped down to join her.
Puddlepelt had gained something of a… new reputation. He was the first to take action against any cat who would defy Coldstar. Since becoming a warrior, hed gotten cold and demanding. When they had gone to the thin ice on the river to try to fish, hed refused to go with them; and when they were praised by the others, he scolded them.
He was a powerful cat now. His apprentice days seemed far away, and his well-muscled body showed no hint of the time he was just an apprentice like the rest of them. Looking at him, you would think he had face a great many leaf bares, and they didnt know how he could have seemed to have aged so quickly.
"Oh!" Adderfang blanched, "H-hi, Heavystep… Meekheart… Wheres Puddlep-"
"Right here," the brown tabby rumbled, "I was talking with Coldstar, so youll have to excuse my being late."
"Of course… no big deal," Adderfang conceded.
"No, Adderfang, what kind of trout brain are you?!" Adderfang looked at his brother, completely confused, and knowing there was a scolding coming for whatever fault the other cat had found. "Coldstar wanted us all here on time. Right now there are no cats patrolling our borders; do you know how serious that is? It could compromise the safety of the entire camp! You should have at LEAST scolded me."
Heavystep mumbled something under her breath and it made the tabby round on her. "What was that?!" he spat.
The sleek black warriors ears went back in an expression of deep annoyance, and she repeated herself loudly; "I said, that if you are so direly worried about the safety of the camp, then you should have been on-time or at least have had the decency not to lecture Adderfang over having enough understanding to not lecturing you. Now lets go, frogface." She sauntered past the tabby, flicking his nose with her tail.
Meekheart snickered, following after her.
Puddlepelt growled low and harsh, but said nothing as he fell into his place in the patrol party.
Each member of the patrol added their scents to each scent post.
Lips curled into looks of irritation as they passed by the Sunning Rocks. The rocks were in the possession of Thunder Clan, and they could see two cats splayed out on the warm stones.
Thunder clan apprentices; shirking their hunting duties no doubt.
Puddlepelt dropped out of his place in the patrol and slunk towards the rivers edge, peering through the brush.
"What are you doing?" Heavystep hissed, her voice hidden from the apprentices by the sound of the river.
"Just watching…" the tabby hissed back.
"Whats to watch?" she asked, "Its just some apprentices."
He sighed in exasperation, as if the answer were obvious. "Exactly… where are their mentors? Theyre too young to be all alone."
The patrol took a harder look at the apprentices; he was right. "Hes right… they look really young," Meekheart agreed, looking to Adderfang, then to Puddlepelt, "But what does that matter? Theyre young, its not as if theyre up to evil... Theyre just goofing off. Are you going to run to Hazelstar and tell on them at the next gathering?"
"Just… dont you think its odd?"
"Why are you so worried about it?
"What if theyre up to something?"
Even Adderfang had to chime in at that one, "What? Apprentices?" he scoffed, "Are you serious?" The tabby shot him a look and he backed down. He was not the rambunctious cat he had once been and he had become quite subservient to his brother.
"We should suspect everyone outside of our clan of trechery."
Heavystep shouldered him towards the path, "Thats the thinking that brings about war."
"No, thats the thinking that prevents us from losing wars," he argued, "War is inevitable. It will break out at one time or another."
Heavysteps tail twitched; a sign of her deep irritation. "I cant argue that war is not in our future… the clans come to war every once in a while, its true; but suspecting apprentices of treachery is just on the border of trout brained thinking. Now are we going to finish this patrol before mid day or arent we? Standing around and being late later is going to make Adderfang look bad."
The tabby glanced over Heavysteps shoulder to where Adderfang stood with a somewhat timid expression. His eyes shining with happiness until he caught his brother looking at him and his eyes turned dark. "Ah yes, wouldnt want your dewy-eyed admirer looking bad, would we? Especially with Coldstar looking to us to see if were ready for our own apprentices."
"Just shut your mouth and leave them both alone, Puddlepelt, youre nothing but a bully," Meekheart hissed.
Puddlepelt scoffed, "Ah yes, the little cat making a stand for his buddy and his bodyguard. You wouldnt be as bold if she werent here, would you?"
Heavystep let out a yowl and slammed the tabby warrior with her shoulder, sending him toppling off the rise and down the embankment. The Thunderclan apprentices didnt even stop to see what it was that came flying off the bank before theyd bolted out of sight. Puddlepaw growled, steadying himself on the muddy bank. The other warriors just turned and headed back to their patrol route.
"Whats that scent?" Meekheart lifted his nose to the wind, opening his mouth to get a better sense of the odd smell.
Adderfang and Heavystep did the same, trying to discern the scent he spoke of. "Its just the treecut place, Meekheart," Adderfang told him, "you should know that."
The scent of the acrid smoke of the treecut place was heavy in the air, but Meekheart did know the scent and that wasnt what he was smelling. He smelled something long-dead… so long dead that the scent of death on it was thin. "No… its not that…" he bound off the path, entering the very small strip of dead-space between Riverclan and Thunderclan territory borders that neither clan owned.*
"Meekheart, stay on our side of the border!" Heavypaw hissed.
He paid her no heed, nosing around in the long grass until he found it; the grotesquely mutilated corpse of a cat. Had it not been for the mostly intact face, he would not have recognized it to be a cat. He was so caught on the sheer horror of his discovery that the oddities of the corpses mutilation didnt immediately dawn on him.
He had caught his own fresh-kill many a time, came upon many a mangle creature by the tree-cut place, fought in more than one territory scuffle in which a cat had been wounded, he had sat vigil for Stonefur the day hed passed on to star clan… but never had he seen a body so defiled. He chocked back his horror for his curiosity.
How had this poor creature died? Who were they? Were they a clan cat?
He leaned in slightly, but could scent only death and fear… and a strange scent he had never encountered before, though the whiff of it was faint. He took a closer look at the corpse and took note of something important: this cat was not so long dead as he thought. It had looked, at first, that the flesh had rotted from bone, but it had been scraped away; like a well picked fish. The face remained intact, save for the eyes which were either gone by decay or eaten by insects.
Had this cat been eaten by something?
Heavystep and Adderfang came plodding after him, Heavystep still scolding him, "Meekheart, we cant just leave the territory, we could get in serious-UGH!" She gasped, gagged, and stumbled back. Adderfang stepped closer to inspect the corpse.
"Is this a clan cat?"
He seemed completely non-pulsed by the scene.
"I… I dont know. I dont think so, but its almost impossible to tell," Meekheart muttered.
Adderfang took a long look at their surroundings, "We need to tell Coldstar right now. Come on." He said it with authority that surprised the littermates and left no room to do anything but follow him.
*Wolves and many other creatures that have established territories often have strips of space between their borders. These areas are generally home to loners and the like.